The earliest tafsir literature can be found among Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, such as `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud, Mujahid, `Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl, Ibn `Abbas and `A'ishah As-Siddiqah but only a few survive.
The first and most prized tafsir is that of `Abdullah ibn Al-Abbas ibn `Abdul Muttalib. 1 Known in short as Ibn `Abbas, he was crowned the 'Commentator on the Qur'an', as he was the first cousin to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, he had first-hand experience and also exposure to the recipient of the Qur'an.
He prayed with, ate with and grew into maturity in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. At one point, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, took hold of the then boy Ibn `Abbas and made a prayer, "Allah! Give him wisdom and teach him the understanding of the Book." 2
This supplication was accepted and Ibn `Abbas lived out the fulfilment of this prayer for the rest of his life. His commentary is cited by most authorities although his own personal commentary is less known to the Anglosphere. 3
Consisting of one large but pithy volume, his tafsir has been named Tanwir ul-Maqbas min Tafsir Ibn `Abbas. The source of this text has come down to us through channels from the first centuries of the Muslims and Ahmad ibn Hanbal made quotations of it from a copy made available to him while in Egypt. 4
The quotes given by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal in his tafsir notes in lectures are identical to those seen in Tanwir. 5
Another piece of tafsir literature is that given by one of the early authorities and students of the Companions, Sufyan Ath-Thawri ibn Sa`id ibn Masruq Al-Kufi. 6
This text offers only commentary on what are called the verses of judgement, those citations from the Qur'an that govern society, establish legal precedent and regulate transactions. 7
It has been in circulation for centuries and is still extent with copies of the manuscript in libraries throughout the world.
A mammoth compendium, Abu Ja`far Muhammad ibn Jarir At-Tabari's 8 multi-volume Jami` ul-Bayan `An Ta'wil il-Qur'an is a combination of history, rulings, grammar notes, Qur'an on Qur'an comparison and also reference to other tafsirs, some of which are no longer in circulation or may be lost. 9
This text comes from what Muslims would call the "third age" of the first three generations or the third century of Islam. It has inspired or acted as the foundation for later tafsir books that would be written or compiled.
At-Tabari's method consists of quoting one ayah or verse, cataloguing the language, grammar, any variant recitations and discussions.
He then quotes texts establishing the point in time an ayah was revealed, the incident that triggered it and the people who witnessed the event. Next, come the different discussions and rulings around the ayah - both baseless and valid - followed by the end and final process. 10
This process, known as 'sifting,' involves the author meticulously going through and dismissing spurious, weak or untenable statements on the topic and then ending with the most stringent and authentic reports which he will then give a legal ruling upon.
Although a process begun by disciples of Ash-Shafi`ii 11 or his legal school (of which At-Tabari was an adherent), it has come to be the standard in all subsequent endeavours when authors seek to pen tafsir literature, albeit with some modifications based on emphasis, legal school and scope of the individual project. 12
2. Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Al-Musnad, vol.3, pp. 94-95
3. This is a direct result of the continued paucity of literature translated from Arabic into English.
4. Jalal ud-Din As-Suyuti in Al-Itqan Fi `Ulum il-Qur'an, vol. 1, pp. 120-133.
5. Muhammad ibn Muhammad As-Sa`di in Al-Jawhar ul-Muhassal, pp.
6. d. 161 AH (AD 778)
7. This is known as Tafsir Sufyan Athawri, printed by Dar ul-Kutub il-`Ilmiyyah, Beirut, 1402 AH (AD 1983)
8. d. 310 AH (AD 923)
9. This has been printed as Turath ul-Islam: Tafsir ut-Tabari: Jami` ul-Bayan `an Ta'wil il-Qur'an Li-Abi Ja`far Muhammad ibn Jarir At-Tabari, Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, Cairo, 1374 AH.
10. Please see Turath ul-Islam: Tafsir ut-Tabari: Jami` ul-Bayan `an Ta'wil il-Qur'an Li-Abi Ja`far Muhammad ibn Jarir At-Tabari, vol.1, pp.1-67, in which At-Tabari discusses much of this at length and begins the process of laying out his methodology before formally starting his commentary's first section.
11. d. 204 AH (AD 820)
12. One can notice this as Ibn Al-Jawzi discusses the preferred methods of commentary in Zad ul-Masir fi `Ilm it-Tafsir, pp. 1-29.