I recently had discussions with a group of people who don’t study the Quran. They only rely on their scholars. Their reasoning is that “the Quran admits to its own ambiguity”, and “only a chosen few can correctly understand it”.
I was in utter shock at this assertion. Where, I enquired, does the Quran “admit to its own ambiguity?”
“Why, in Surah Aal-Imran verse 7, of course” was the confident reply. “This verse further states that only Allah and those well-grounded in knowledge understand the interpretation of many verses in the Quran” was their claim.
Someone showed me the translation of this verse. Lo and behold, that’s what the translation stated!!! I quickly whipped out my phone, fired up my browser, and searched for the verse (see it here). Most English translations (I’m surprised at how many English translations now exist) use words such as allegorical, ambiguous, unspecific, unclear, and metaphorical to describe Allah’s verses. Out of the approximately 40 translations I looked at, only 4 used the word “similar”, which by the way is the correct translation, to describe the verses.
I could see why this group that I was having discussions with, after having read these translations, felt that using the Quran as evidence is problematic – because, according to them, the verses are allegorical and open to interpretation.
Please answer 3 questions
I would like to ask you, dear reader, to answer 3 questions that you’ll find addressed to you throughout this article. I’d like to understand what your thoughts are about my explanation of the meaning of this verse.
How to understand the Quran
(وَلَقَدْ جِئْنَاهُم بِكِتَابٍ فَصَّلْنَاهُ عَلَىٰ عِلْمٍ هُدًى وَرَحْمَةً لِّقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ (7:52
We have come to them with a book which We have explained with knowledge – a guidance and mercy for people who believe.
So Allah has made sure that He Himself provides explanations for the verses in the Quran. This message has been repeated elsewhere in the Quran as well, e.g. 11:1 and other places.
So the best way to understand the Quran is to compare verses with other verses. When you reconcile verses with other verses, you arrive at the truth.
Two additional principles
You also need to:
- Look at verses in full – looking at a partial verse shows that you’re not trying to really understand it but maybe trying to twist its meaning. It’s OK to quote partial verses for brevity only if you have studied the complete verse.
- Look at verses that occur before and after the verse you’re looking at – this will help set up the context of the verse you’re looking at.
So here is question #1 for you, dear reader. Do you agree that the first thing to do to understand the Quran is to reconcile verses with other verses, look at verses in full and establish context by look at verses occurring prior and after a particular verse?
I understand that ahadith need to be referred to as well but the first step is to do what I have described.
To ensure that my explanations don’t contain glaring errors, I have corroborated them with Tafseer At-Tabari, Ash-Shanqeetee’s tafseer and the author of www.iconoclast.online.
Correct translation of verse 3:7
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
He is the One that sent down upon you the book. From it are established verses – these are the foremost of the book. And others [verses] are similar to each other. So as for those in whose hearts is deviance, they follow what is similar of it – wanting to cause trials of faith and wanting the unfolding of its events. And no one knows of the unfolding except Allah. And those well-founded in knowledge say, “We believe in it [the book]. It is all from our Fosterer.” But no one reflects except the steadfast.
This is obviously very different from all the currently available English translations. The translations out there are a case of “the blind leading the blind”. They aren’t following the correct principles as I explained above.
Muhkam is not the opposite of mutashaabih (the words are in bold in the Arabic text above). Muhkam describes some verses and mutashaabih describes the rest of the verses.
Let me give you an example. I might say the following about Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
Many parts of Covey’s book are very insightful. The rest of the book is very engaging.
Insightful and engaging don’t have to be opposites of each other. They’re just different adjectives used to describe Covey’s book.
Anyway, Allah says about His book:
(ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لَا رَيْبَ فِيهِ هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِينَ(2:2
That is the book in which there is no doubt. A guide for the very vigilant.
He also says:
(الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَىٰ عَبْدِهِ الْكِتَابَ وَلَمْ يَجْعَل لَّهُ عِوَجًا(18:1
All praises are for Allah, the One Who sent down on His slave the book and did not put in it any crookedness.
I know that I won’t find any allegorical verses which are open to interpretation. On the contrary, I can use the correct principles to understand God’s explanation of His own verses.
What is Allah saying to us in verse 3:7?
Our questions are:
- Are there other verses with a similar meaning?
- What is verse 3:7 conveying to us?
We find the same concepts and themes mentioned in 2:26, 74:31, 22:52-55 & 9:124-125.
When we look at all these verses together, we see the main themes that Allah talks about are:
- Allah sends down verses.
- Some people don’t believe in these verses for various reasons and are misguided.
- These people try to create doubts in other people’s minds and try to misguide them.
- Yet other people believe – no matter what – and these are the guided.
Breaking it down
Let’s look at the meaning of the most pertinent words in verse 3:7 :
This word occurs twice more in the Quran.
وَيَقُولُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَوْلَا نُزِّلَتْ سُورَةٌ فَإِذَا أُنزِلَتْ سُورَةٌ مُّحْكَمَةٌ وَذُكِرَ فِيهَا الْقِتَالُ رَأَيْتَ الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِم مَّرَضٌ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَيْكَ نَظَرَ الْمَغْشِيِّ عَلَيْهِ مِنَ الْمَوْتِ فَأَوْلَىٰ لَهُمْ 47:20
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِن قَبْلِكَ مِن رَّسُولٍ وَلَا نَبِيٍّ إِلَّا إِذَا تَمَنَّىٰ أَلْقَى الشَّيْطَانُ فِي أُمْنِيَّتِهِ فَيَنسَخُ اللَّهُ مَا يُلْقِي الشَّيْطَانُ ثُمَّ يُحْكِمُ اللَّهُ آيَاتِهِ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ حَكِيمٌ 22:52
It is mind-boggling to see people translate muhkam as “clear” in 3:7 whereas in these other verses, it is translated as “established” (I’ll let you look up the translation yourself). In the Arabic language, muhkam doesn’t mean clear. I’m not going into linguistics here. I’m saying that it’s abominable to take a word and translate it to something not supported by the language AT ALL. Would you like it if I said that although your name is, for example, “Raheem” I’ll translate it to “clear”? I know that Raheem is derived from ra-ha-ma but I’ll still translate it to “clear”. That’s preposterous! The word مُّحْكَمَاتٌ is derived from the word ha-ka-ma. When has ha-ka-ma ever meant clear?!!
When you look at related verses, you understand the meaning of this word. The correct translation would be to use words like established, fixed, firm, permanent, commandment etc. Verses become established because Allah sends commandments down in them and once Allah sends a command, there is NO WAY of escaping the command and no changing it in any way.
This is question #2 for you, dear reader. Reading this, do you think muhkam means clear?
This word occurs in 2:25, 2:70, 2:118, 4:157, 6:141, 13:16, and 39:23 in addition to 3:7. How can it mean allegorical in any of them?
2:25 – Is fruit allegorical?
2:70 – Is a cow allegorical?
2:118 – Are hearts allegorical?
4:157 – Was Jesus’ situation allegorical?
6:141 – Is pomegranate allegorical?
13:16 – Is Allah’s creation allegorical?
This word never means allegorical. You can’t just make up translations!
In 39:23 Allah describes the majority of the Quran as mutashaabih. To understand this, you have to look at 2:25 and you’ll realize what this means. “The Quran is mutashaabih” means that when you read a passage of the Quran, you think to yourself, I’ve come across this before. Yet it’s not the same, but similar, because there’s always a different lesson and different details contained in passages that seem like they’re the same. That’s the meaning of mutashaabih.
This word occurs approximately 17 times which you can find by using the link here:
Ash-Shanqeetee says: “We have already mentioned that the meaning of this word is: The truth of a situation to which it arrives. And that is the meaning of this word as it is used in the Quran.”
Let’s look at some of these verses to see why he asserts that this is the meaning of the word:
7:52-53 are the most important verses in understanding the meaning of ta’weel because in these verses Allah explicitly talks about the ta’weel of the Quran.
‘We have come to them with a book which We have explained with knowledge – a guidance and mercy for people who believe. They don’t wait except for its [the book’s] unfolding (ta’weel). The day that its unfolding (ta’weel) arrives, the ones who ignored it before will say, “Our Fosterer’s messengers came with the truth. So do we have any intercessors so that they can intercede for us? Or can we be returned so that we can do actions other than the actions that we used to do?” They have caused a loss to themselves and what they used to fabricate went astray from them.’
Allah says that the day of the ta’weel will arrive. It does not mean “the day of the interpretation”. It means the day when its events will unfold. That’s how Allah always describes it – the day when, what people didn’t believe in, will actually happen. It does not mean – the day when it will be interpreted.
Now we understand why Ash-Shanqeetee asserted what he asserted.
Where does the full-stop/period go?
People have divided themselves into two camps with regards to whether to pause when reciting this verse. Do I pause after “And no one knows of the unfolding except for Allah”? Or do I recite it as ” And no one knows of the unfolding except for Allah and those well-founded in knowledge”?
If you understand that ta’weel means unfolding of events, you know where the period/full-stop goes – only Allah know of the unfolding.
So here goes question #3. Having read the above, would you pause after “And no one knows of the unfolding except for Allah”?
It seems like it takes a lot of effort to explain every verse and every word within a verse in the manner that Allah intended. But once you follow the correct principles, it is very easy to understand Allah’s words.
Those who take it upon themselves to teach people the Quran, or translate it for them, have an obligation to strive in a manner as is Allah’s right upon us. Due to the negligence of many translators, there are now groups of people who think the Quran is mainly allegorical and unclear. That’s blaspheming against our Creator and contradicting many verses.
I would love to hear your comments. I ask Allah to show us all the right path and bless us with the strength to follow it instead of outsourcing our religion to others.