For beginner level tafseer study, I would highly recommend Muhammad Ali Sabuni, Al-Mukhtasar fee al-Tafseer, and Tafseer Sa’di.
Muhammad Ali Sabuni
It’s too good. He has gathered and summarized the past tafseers in concise and easy language and also adds his own reflections from time to time. It’s probably one of the best beginner level tafseers written. If you read it properly, it will help you in more advanced studies in tafseer later on. It’s also excellent to use to prepare lectures, khutbas, or tafseer, halaqas for beginners and kids. He has two for beginners and both are excellent. I’m actually shocked that nobody has even bothered to translate it into English:
- Safwat al-Tafasir – This is the more popular and well-known one.
- Al-Tafseer al-Waadih al-Muyassar – This is a later one that he did and the one I use more often.
Al-Mukhtasar fee al-Tafseer
This was written by a group of scholars who specialize in tafseer. It’s good if you want to just get the intended meaning without the details. Many of the explanations are just one sentence long. It’s a good resource for a quick look up and has some sort of commentary on every verse of the Quran. You can download it here.
I read this mainly as a tazkiyyah (spiritual) supplement. He often extracts beautiful tazkiyyah benefits from verses which really melt your heart. It also helps that it is precise. You can view it here. This tafseer has been translated now into English as well.
My Own Notes on Tafseer
I am currently working on putting together a beginner level tafseer using various sources. It’s currently in the works and I’ve done over 40 chapters thus far. The objective is to have some sort of commentary on every verse of the Qur’an in plain and simple English. My original reason for doing this was so I can go to any verse of the Qur’an and find it’s meaning not just for myself but also to pass on to my kids. It’s an ongoing project and you can view them all here.
For intermediate level tafseer study, my favorite one at the moment is Ibn Jawzi’s Zaad al-Maseer. It’s the first place I go to whenever I want to find out the various opinions about a verse. He keeps it precise without the long details and evidence. So it’s an excellent resource to quickly find various opinions about the meaning behind verses. Occasionally, I’ll go to Ibn Kathir for further discussion and evidence behind the opinions. This should not be confused with Dar-us-Salam’s summarized English translation of Ibn Kathir, which is very selective and is nowhere near the actual Arabic one in detail or quality. They often skip whole paragraphs and arguments that he brings in his book. I would not even call it a summary. It should be translated as “Selections from Ibn Kathir.”
Shaykh Haitham Hamdan recommends the following three steps to learning tafseer:
- Get yourself a brief tafseer book, one or two volumes. Such as Al-Jalalayn, Zubdat Al-Tafseer, or Al-Tafseer Al-Muyassar. Spend a few years in totally absorbing/memorizing one of these books. Do not refer to any other book of tafseer. The idea is that you become familiar with an understanding of each Qur’anic verse, without paying attention to disputes over tafseer. Whenever you come across a verse you must be able to recall a full understanding of it according to this book.
- Then move on to an intermediate tafseer, such as Ibn Katheer’s. Stick to it for several years until you have absorbed it all.
- Finally, get one or more advanced tafseers, such as Al-Tabari’s. Or get a specialized tafseer such as one on Fiqh, such as Qurtubi, or linguistic tafseers, such as Abu Hayyan’s.
For an even more thorough look into this topic, I strongly suggest reading through this page.