Question # 290: The Qur’an says it is clear but there are also Mutashabihaat ayaat which none but Allah knows the meanings of. 1. So is Qur’an clear or not; how are these two facts reconciled? 2. What is the wisdom behind Mutashabihaat Ayaat?
Bismi-llahi r-raḥmani r-raḥīm,
Assalamu ‘laikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh,
All praise and thanks are due to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى), and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger (صلى الله عليه و سلم).
First of all, we implore Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) to help us serve His cause and render our work for His sake.
Shorter Answer: In order for a person to fully understand and appreciate the Qur’an, he must be knowledgeable in the Arabic language. The portion of the Qur’an that is muhkam (clear, non-ambiguous) forms the foundation of the Book, meaning it comprises all the moral and social laws that mankind needs for its guidance (such as commands, obligatory duties, prohibitions and punishments). The mutashaabih (unclear) portion of the Qur’an is clear in its meaning to ‘those well-grounded in knowledge,’ and it is necessary to understand these verses in light of the muhkam verses. The actuality of the mutashaabih verses; however, is known only to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى). The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) warns Muslims against those people who follow the mutashaabih without properly understanding them in light of the muhkam and interpreting them according to their own desires.
The word mutashaabih has other meaning as well, i.e., ‘resembling’ (in wordings), which does not contradict its first meaning ‘unclear’ (in its meaning). With respect to the second meaning, a verse or a part of it is repeated somewhere else in the Qur’an, either exactly in the same wordings, or with a slight difference wording (such as addition or deletion of a letter or word, change in the order of words, exchange of a word with its synonym, or change from singular to plural). In fact, these subtle changes bring about different meanings and suit the context within which they occur. Again, it is left to the intellectual mind to interpret as the verses resemble and complement one another in their eloquence and beauty, and in their beliefs and laws, so that there are no contradictions or differences in them.
Long Answer: The Qur’an has been revealed in the most eloquent of Arabic. Therefore, in order for a person to fully understand and appreciate the Qur’an, he must be knowledgeable of various aspects related to the Arabic language.
Among these aspects is the knowledge of the how words give particular meanings, how the word or text is used, and how the text gives the desired meaning.
Definition of Muhkam and Mutashaabih
The word muhkam comes from h-k-m, which has the following meanings:
- ‘To judge. to pass a verdict.’ One of the Allah’s Names is Al-Hakam, meaning ‘The One who Judges.’ This also has the connotation of a standard, such that one has a criterion by which to judge good or evil.
- ‘To prevent, to obstruct.’
A muhkam verse is one that it is clear in its meaning, not open to interpretation. Imam al-Qurtubee (d. 671 A.H.) said, “The muhkam is the (phrase or word) whose interpretation is known, its meaning understood and its exposition clear.” An example of a muhkam verse is, “All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds (Soorah al-Fatihah, 1:1) This verse is muhkam since there is no ambiguity in it.
The word mutashaabih comes from sh-b-h, which means ‘to resemble, to be similar to.’ ‘Mutashaabih’ has two meanings, the first one is ‘resembling’, and the second ‘unclear’. The second meaning is related to the first, since those objects which resemble one another are difficult to distinguish, hence ‘unclear’.
It is used in both of these meanings in the Qur’an and Sunnah. For example, the Jews say in the Qur’an, “….. to us, all cows look alike (Arabic: tashabaha) …” (Soorah al-Baqarah, 2 :70) In this verse, the word is used in the first meaning (‘resembling’). It is used in the second meaning (‘unclear’) in the famous hadith of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) in which he said: “The halal is clear, and the haraam is clear, but between the two are matters, which are unclear (Arabic: mutashaabihaat) ….” (al-Bukhari)
Mutashaabih does not mean ‘allegorical,’ as some translators claim.
The Qur’an as Muhkam and Mutashaabih
On occasion, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) calls the entire Qur’an muhkam. For example, He said, “Alif-Laam-Raa. These are the verses from the hakeem Book” (Soorah Yunus, 10:1), And, “Alif-Laam-Raa. (This is a) Book the verses whereof are Perfected (Arabic: uhkimat) …” (Soorah Hud, 11:1)
In these verses, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) is saying that the whole Qur’an is a clear, perfect Book which acts as a Criterion between good and evil. Imam al-Tabaree (d. 310 A.H.) said, “Allah has protected (ahkama) His verses from any evil entering it, or any flaw, or any falsehood. Then, He set it forth with commands and prohibitions. This is because to ihkaam something means to better it and protect it.” As Allah says of the Qur’an: “Falsehood cannot come to it from before it or behind it, (it is) sent down by the All Wise, Worthy of Praise” (Soorah Fussilat, 41:42)
On other occasions, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) calls the entire Qur’an mutashaabih: “Allah has sent down the best statements, that is mutashaabih, that is oft recited…” (Soorah Az-Zumar, 39:23)
The meaning of mutashaabih in this verse is that the verses of the Qur’an resemble and complement one another in their eloquence and beauty, and in their beliefs and laws, so that there are no contradictions or differences in them.
In one verse in the Qur’an, however, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) describes the Qur’an as being part muhkam and part mutashaabih. The verse in question is: “He (Allah) is the one who has sent down to you (O Muhammad) the book. In it are verses that are muhkam – they are the foundation of the Book [and those are the Verses of Al-Ahkam (commandments), Al-Fara’id (obligatory duties) and Al-Hudood (laws for the punishment of thieves, adulterers)]; and others are mutashaabih. So as for those who have a deviation in their hearts, they follow that which is mutashaabih, seeking Al-Fitnah (to cause confusion and chaos), and seeking for its ta’weel. But none knows it ta’weel expect Allah, and those well-grounded in knowledge: they say, “We believe in it, all of it (both the muhkam and mutashaabih) is from our Lord. And none receive admonition except those of understanding.” (Soorah al-Imran, 3:7)
The word ta’weel has purposely not been translated above, because its meaning depends upon how one reads the verse. Therefore, it is necessary to first explain the meaning of the word ta’weel. The word ta’weel has three meanings:
- To understand a word in light of one of its connotations, despite the fact that this connotation is not the primary intent of the word. This is done due to some external evidence from the word itself, such as the context in which it occurs. For example, the phrase, “He was a lion in the battlefield,” is not understood in its literal sense. The word ‘lion’ is primarily used to denote an animal, but in this context, it does not make sense. Therefore, it is necessary to make ta’weel and understand the word ‘lion’ in this phrase as meaning one of its connotations, namely ‘a brave person’. This meaning of ta’weel is the most common one.
- To explain a word or phrase. This is the same as tafseer, in which case something is explained so that it is understood. For example, when Moosa (عليه السلام) did not understand the action of Khidr (عليه السلام), Khidr (عليه السلام) explained to him why he had done these acts, and said, “This is the ta’weel (interpretation) of (those} things, which you were not capable of being patient over (Soorah al-Kahf, 18:82)
- The actuality of an event. In other words, when and how something occurs. It is with this meaning of ta’weel that Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) says, “… Do they (the disbelievers) await for its (the Day of Judgement’s) ta’weel (i.e., do they await for its fulfilment) …? (Soorah Al-A’raf, 7:53) Also, Yoosuf (عليه السلام) tells his family when the dream that he had finally comes true, “This is the ta’weel (fulfilment) of my dream of old … (Soorah Yoosuf, 12:100)
With these meanings of ta’weel explained, the original verse under discussion is examined. In it, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) differentiates the muhkam verses from the mutashaabih. He calls the muhkam verses, or those verses that are clear in meaning, the foundation of the Book. As the authentic tafaseer of the Qur’an show, these verses are the verses pertaining to halal and haraam and the laws of Islam. These verses are clear and explicit in their meanings, and none can distort the intent of such verses.
As for the second portion of the verse, there are two ways of reading it. Both of these originate from the Companions (and thus from the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم)). The first way is to stop after the phrase, ‘… except for Allah.’ This was the reading of lbn Mas’ood. The verse therefore reads, ‘… and none know its ta’weel except for Allah.’ When read in this context, ‘ta’weel’ signifies the actuality, such as the time and methodology of a phrase.
The second way of reading this verse is to stop after ‘… those well-grounded in knowledge,’ so that the verse reads, ‘… and none know its ta’weel except for Allah and those well-grounded in knowledge.’ This is the reading of lbn ‘Abbas. If one stops at this point, the context implies that the meaning of ta’weel is the interpretation. Therefore, ‘those well-grounded in knowledge’ are aware of the interpretation of mutashaabih. Ibn ‘Abbas stated, “l am of those well-grounded in knowledge, who know the meaning (of the mutashaabih).”
Therefore, both of these readings are correct, and each changes the meaning of the word ta’weel accordingly. The mutashaabih verses can be understood from one perspective (from the perspective of simply understanding the verse from their linguistic meanings) and cannot be understood from another perspective (from the perspective of the actuality of these verses).
The Exact Meaning of Muhkam and Mutashaabih
The scholars of Uloom al-Qur’an have differed over the exact meaning of muhkam and mutashaabih. As-Suyootee almost lists twenty opinions concerning this issue alone. However, in reality, almost all of the definitions that as-Suyootee quotes have a similar meaning. Az-Zarqaanee states, “If we look at these various opinions, we do not really find contradictions or discrepancies between them, but rather we see that they are all similar and close in meaning.”
Some of the meanings that as-Suyootee quotes are:
- The muhkam is that which is clear in and of itself, in contrast to
- The muhkam are the verses whose meaning is understood, whereas the mutashaabih are those verses whose meaning is not understood.
- The muhkam is that which can only hold one meaning, whereas the mutashaabih has many.
- The muhkam can be understood by itself, whereas the mutashaabih must be understood in the light of other verses.
- The muhkam does not need any interpretation in order for it to be understood, whereas the mutashaabih needs interpretation.
As can be seen, the various definitions have the same theme: the muhkam verses are those verses that are clear in meaning, and cannot be distorted or misunderstood, whereas the mutashaabih verses are those verses that are not clear in meaning by themselves, and in order to properly understand the mutashaabih verses, it is necessary to look at them in light of the muhkam verses.
The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) once recited this verse and then said, “So when you see those who follow the mutashaabih of the Qur’an, then these are the ones, whom Allah has mentioned, so beware of them.” (Al-Bukhari). In this hadith, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) warns Muslims against those people who follow the mutashaabih without properly understanding them in light of the muhkam. The phrase, ‘… follow the mutashaabih...’ implies that these people who are being warned against take only the mutashaabih verses and interpret them according to their desires. Therefore, those people who interpret the mutashaabih verses in light of the muhkam verses are not blameworthy. The proof for this is the statement of lbn ‘Abbas quoted above, who, after reciting this verse, said, “l am of those well-grounded in knowledge, who know the meaning (of the mutashaabih).” This shows that the correct interpretation of the mutashaabih is possible, and there is no harm if one is qualified to do so. What is blameworthy is the improper interpretation of the mutashaabih.
In conclusion, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) has called the whole Qur’an muhkam, meaning that it is a clear source of guidance and a criterion between good and evil; He has also called the whole Qur’an mutashaabih, meaning that its verses are similar to one another in beauty and aid one another in meaning; and, finally, He has called part of it muhkam and part mutashaabih, meaning that part of the Qur’an is clear and not open to distortion, and part of it is unclear and open to distortion by those ‘who have a deviation in their hearts.’
The portion that is muhkam forms the foundation of the Book, meaning that it comprises all the moral and social laws that mankind needs for its guidance. The mutashaabih portion of the Qur’an is clear in its meaning to ‘those well-grounded in knowledge,’ and it is necessary to understand these mutashaabih portions in light of the muhkam ones. The actuality of the mutashaabih verses; however, is known only to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى).
Other Categories of Mutashaabih
…There are yet other definitions of ‘mutashaabih’ that deal with another meaning of the word: that of ‘resembling’… Some of the scholars have defined mutashaabih verses as those verses which resemble one another in their wording. There is no contradiction between this definition of mutashaabih and between the one that was discussed previously…
It can also be said that the discussion of the previous section involved the mutashaabih with regards to meanings, whereas this definition involves the mutashaabih with regards to wordings. Each of these two definitions is a separate science, and it is the second definition that will be elaborated upon in this section.
The definition of this category is quoted by as-Suyootee as: “The muhkam are those verses which are not repeated, and the mutashaabih are those verses whose wording is repeated.” In other words, a phrase or sentence is repeated somewhere else in the Qur’an, either exactly the same, or with a slight difference.
Az-Zarkashee lists many phrases in the Qur’an that occur more than once, in exactly the same wording. For example:
- Those phrases which occur twice (e.g., “… but most of them are not thankful” (Soorah Yunus, 10:60 and Soorah an-Naml, 27:73)
- Thrice, (e.g., “Do they not travel through the land…” (Soorah ar-Rum, 30:9; Soorah Fatir, 35:44 and Soorah Ghafir, 40:21)
- Four times, (e.g., “And when We said to the angels…’’ (Soorah al-Baqarah, 2:34; Soorah Al-Isra, 17:61; Soorah Al-Kahf, 18:50 and Soorah Taha, 20:116)
- Five times, (e.g., “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (Soorah an-Nisa’a, 5:59, Soorah Al-Maidah, 5: 92; Soorah an-Nur, 24:54; Soorah Muhammad, 47:33 and Soorah at-Taghabun, 64:12)
- Six times. (e.g., “In this are signs for a people who believe” (Soorah an-Anam, 6:99; Soorah an-Nahl 16:79; Soorah an-Naml, 27:86; Soorah al-Ankabut, 29:24; Soorah ar-Rum 30:37 and Soorah az-Zumar, 39:32); and so forth.
As for those phrases which re-occur in other verses with a slight difference in wording, az-Zarkashee also divides them into various categories, classifying them based upon the type of difference between the verses:
- The difference involves the addition or subtraction of a letter or word (e.g., ‘‘It is the same, whether you warn them or not, they will not believe” (Soorah al-Baqarah, 2:6), and “And it is the same, whether you warn them or not, they will not believe” (Soorah Ya-Sin, 36: 10); or,
- the exchange of word order (e.g., “… We will feed them and you…” (Soorah al-Anam, 6:151), and “… We will feed you and them …’’ (Soorah al-Isra, 17:31); or,
- the exchange of a word with its synonym (e.g., There gushed forth therefrom twelve springs” (Soorah al-Baqarah, 2:60), and “There flowed forth therefrom twelve springs” (Soorah al-A’raf, 7:158); or,
- the change from singular to plural.
There have been a number of books written concentrating on these differences, and how they change the meaning of the verse. These subtle changes bring about different meanings and suit the context within which they occur. Thus, part of the job of the interpreter of the Qur’an is to analyze why one phrase occurs in a certain manner in one part of the Qur’an, and in a slightly difference manner in another part. For example, the command prohibiting infanticide occurs twice in the Qur’an; in one verse, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) says, “We will provide them sustenance and you (also)” (Soorah al-Isra, 17:31) and in the other, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) says, “We will provide them sustenance for you and for them” (Soorah al-Anam, 6:151)
At first glance, there does not seem to be any benefit in reversing the order of the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘them’. However, if the two verses are examined closely, the reason and wisdom why each one occurs in a particular order is seen. The first verse reads, “And do not kill your children for fear of poverty; We will provide them sustenance and you (also)”, whereas the second verse reads, “And do not kill your children because of poverty; We will provide sustenance for you and for them”
The two verses cater to different situations. The first verse is addressed to those parents who fear that they will be inflicted with poverty in the future because of their children. These parents are worried that they will not be able to provide enough for their children. Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) refutes this fear by stating that He will provide for the sustenance of the children, as well as the parents. The second verse, on the other hand, is addressed to those parents who are already inflicted with poverty, presuming that it is their children’s fault. In this case, the parents are actually feeling the effects of this poverty and are not managing to feed themselves properly. Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) assured them that they do not have to fear this poverty, for He will provide for them, and for their children. Thus, the exchange of the pronouns in the two verses adds a subtle meaning to each verse.
(The above is an excerpt from the book ‘An introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan’ by Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi)
Allahu A’lam (Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) knows best) and all Perfections belong to Allah, and all mistakes belong to me alone. May Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) forgive me, Ameen.