(Muhkam) Clarity, (Mutashābih) Ambiguity, and Interpretation in the Holy Qur’an - Page 2


As you can see these verses make it clear that the Qur’anic wisdom is highly exalted. Even so, every individual understands it differently and to a certain extent. Thus are the mutashābih verses of the Qur’an. The fault comes from the reader not the words of God.
The second type is comprised of matters related to social norms and subsidiary precepts. This type also encompasses abrogative [nāsikh] and abrogated [mansūkh] verses. These verses are abrogated because the reasons for their establishment were superseded. Also, the Qur’an has been revealed gradually.
These two issues, i.e. nāsikh and mansūkh, in the Qur’an and gradualness of the Qur’an’s revelation lead to tashābuh (i.e. the property of being mutashābih) in the Qur’an. Nevertheless, this tashābuh is resolved by referring mutashābih verses to muhkam ones and mansūkh to nāsikh.
Following mutashābih verses
God states:
“Those in whose hearts is doubt and divergence follow the ambiguities in it…”9
In explanation I must say that this verse divides the people into two groups according to their attitude towards the Qur’an. The first consists of deviants who seek sedition, to corrupt the people, to (re)interpret (the Qur’an), and follow mutashābih verses. The other group is composed of those with firm knowledge and steadfast hearts who apply muhkamāt in order to employ mutashābihāt.
This explanation makes it clear that by ‘following mutashābih verses’ practical adherence is meant not belief. It does not mean that believing in mutashābihāt is blameworthy, rather that it is wrong to exploit them in practice, seeking sedition and reinterpretation of verses. Clearly this culpability only arises if one follows mutashābih verses without referring them to muhkam ones.
If we refer mutashābihāt to muhkamāt and understand and conform to the signification of the mutashābih verses, we are in truth adhering to muhkam not mutashābih.
What is ta’wīl (interpretation)?
Basically, the word ta’wīl means referral. Therefore, the ta’wīl of mutashābih is the reference of a mutashābih verse and the ta’wīl of the Qur’an is the main source of Qur’anic wisdom. In order to clarify this matter, we must first know that exegetes10 have defined many meanings for the term ta’wīl, the most illustrious of which is: ta’wīl is a meaning that is contrary to the superficial meaning of the words.
This definition has become so established among recent exegetes that, even though the term ta’wīl primarily means referral, it has now come to mean ‘that which is contrary to the appearance’. This meaning is not acceptable for the following reasons:
First, the usage of ta’wīl as ‘against appearance’ is something that emerged after the revelation of the Qur’an and there are no grounds for defining ta’wīl, which has been mentioned in the Qur’an sixteen times, as‘against appearance’. In fact, if one seriously contemplates the Qur’anic usage of this word, it will become clear that none of the meanings that exegetes have mentioned are completely accurate although a number of them are relatively correct.
Secondly, this definition of ta’wīl necessitates that there exist a series of meanings in the Qur’an that are in opposition to the appearance of the verses and because these appearances are against the muhkamāt of the Qur’an, they bring about subversion and deviation of the people. This would mean that there are contradictions among Qur’anic verses that cannot be resolved without stripping some verses of their formal meanings and restoring them to significations not understood by the general public.
If we maintain such a discrepancy in the Qur’an, the following argument would be invalid:
“Why do they not ponder upon the Qur’an? If it was from other than Allah surely they would find within it much discrepancy.”11
In order to fully understand this it must be noted that if the discrepancy between two verses is resolved by professedly ‘ta’wīl-ing’ one verse to another and saying that it has a meaning other than what it appears to mean, something known by no one but God (and those firm in knowledge), the verse with such a meaning will be completely invalid.
In explanation, we can also ta’wīl the statements of people in a similar manner, even ones that are surely lies. We could say that the apparent meaning is not meant rather the signification is the true meaning intended by the speaker, which others cannot understand!
In short, if we want to resolve discrepancies in the Qur’an in this manner, it is in opposition with what the previous verse (4:82) has declared. This verse clearly expresses that the Qur’an can be understood by the minds of the general public and they can discuss and contemplate it and there is no verse in the entire Qur’an whose intent is something contradictory to its Arabic wording or is some kind of riddle.
Even so, with our so-called ta’wīl we have forgotten these truths. Essentially, we cannot say that words that we believe to be elevated above normal statements and contradictory views, beyond reproach, perfect in every way, are to be ‘ta’wīl-ed’ in the same manner that one could ta’wīl lies and nonsense.
Now I will first define ta’wīl in my own view and then bring various verses as proof in accordance with my exegetical style.
Ta’wīl is the real external truth upon which Qur’anic statements, including precepts, exhortations, and wisdom, are based. This truth exists in all Qur’anic verses whether muhkam or mutashābih. That verses have ta’wīl has nothing to do with them being mutashābih and their referral to muhkam.
Ta’wīl is not specific to mutashābih verses. The whole Qur’an has ta’wīl, muhkam has ta’wīl, and mutashābih also has ta’wīl. Ta’wīl is something apart from textual concepts and meanings; therefore, words cannot impart it. It consists of exalted truths that words cannot contain. God has moderated these lofty truths into words so that they may become closer to something we are able to comprehend. These words are analogies used to explain things in a way we may better understand. The Qur’an states:
“By the Book that makes things clear, verily We have made the Qur’an an Arabic book that you may understand and it is with Us in the Mother of the Book, high in dignity and correct in foundation.”12
Bearing in mind the purport of this verse and similar verses that implicitly or explicitly express this meaning, it becomes clear that the Qur’an possesses a lofty status in the transcendent realm where it is beyond the understanding of the people; however, in order to make it more accessible to human understanding it has been presented this way. That lofty reality that is beyond general understanding is called ta’wīl and it pertains to the whole Qur’an, whether muhkam or mutashābih.

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