Jumuah lecture on Friday 2 April 2021 (19 Shaban 1442)
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
The question we would like to respond to today is, “how do we understand the Holy Quran, and how do we benefit from the understanding of the Holy Quran?”
In response to this question, we normally say that we try to capture the meaning of the Holy Quran through reading it and its explanations. We then try to reflect on these explanations in our practical life and that is how we derive benefit from the Holy Quran. We also refer to this approach as the Tafsir (commentary of the Holy Quran) or the Quranic exegesis.
WHAT IS MEANT BY TAFSIR OF THE HOLY QURAN?
The great intellectual giant of the 20th century, and one of the foremost commentators of the Holy Quran, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) said that the Tafsir of the Holy Quran has three elements cumulatively:
1. Understanding the explicit meaning of the verses of the Holy Quran; and
2. Understanding the purpose and message emerging from the particular verse or that part of the Holy Quran; and
3. Explain and describe that message to others.
Understanding the words of the Holy Quran is based on knowing the Arabic language, its literature and grammar.
Then, we find that other verses of the Holy Quran can also help us in understanding the verse we are trying to interpret. Furthermore, there are also times when there are Hadith from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) which also helps us in understanding the words of the Holy Quran or the message hidden in the verse we are trying to interpret.
This is an easy and straightforward approach to understanding and benefitting from the Holy Quran. This is also referred to as the apparent understanding of the Holy Quran, from which everyone can take benefit.
ALLEGORICAL VERSES IN THE HOLY QURAN
The above approach has its limitations, whereby you need a different approach to certain verses of the Holy Quran, because the literal meaning of the verse/s is not acceptable. There are many such verses in the Holy Quran.
An example is “yadulla hi fauqa aidihim” in verse 10 of Surah Fath (chapter 48 of the Holy Quran). This phrase means “the hand of Allah is above all their hands”. Now, if we want to apply this as a literal translation, then it means that Almighty Allah (SWT) has a body, which clearly is not the case.
Another example is verse 22 of Surah Fajr (chapter 89 of the Holy Quran), which states that on the Day of Judgement, Almighty Allah (SWT) and the angels will come in a line formation. Again, it does not make sense if we simply take the literal translation of this verse.
وَجَاءَ رَبُّكَ وَالْمَلَكُ صَفًّا صَفًّا
“And thy Lord shall come with angels, rank on rank.
Another example is verse 5 of Surah Taha (chapter 20 of the Holy Quran):
الرَّحْمَٰنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَىٰ
Allah Most Gracious is firmly established on the throne (of authority).”
Again, the literal meaning here does not make any sense. In fact, the literal meaning is in contradiction with our belief in Almighty Allah (SWT)!
TAKING A LITERAL INTERPRETATION TO ALLEGORICAL VERSES IMPAIRS OUR UNDERSTANDING OF TAUHEED
There are so many verses of the Holy Quran which emphasize that Almighty Allah (SWT) is not material. Example is the phrase “laysa kamithlihi shay”, which is an excerpt of verse 11 of Surah Shura (chapter 42 of the Holy Quran), stating that “there is nothing whatever like unto Him”.
He is beyond what our imagination can capture. How can we then say that Almighty Allah (SWT) is sitting or coming in line, as referenced in the above verses?
Another example is verses 22 and 23 of Surah Qiyaama (chapter 75 of the Holy Quran):
وُجُوهٌ يَوْمَئِذٍ نَاضِرَةٌ
22. “Some faces, that Day, will beam (in brightness and beauty)
إِلَىٰ رَبِّهَا نَاظِرَةٌ
23. Looking towards their Lord”
Again, the literal translation here does not makes sense, because surely, Almighty Allah (SWT) cannot be seen with our eyes, today or on the Day of Judgement! If we can see Him with our eyes, then it means that He is in material form ie. with limitations no different to us. He is then no longer Almighty Allah (SWT)!!!
“Yadulla hi fauqa aidihim” in verse 10 of Surah Fath (chapter 48 of the Holy Quran) is not referring to the hand of Allah (SWT), but rather, it refers to His Power and Might. Similarly, “alal arshistawa” in verse 5 of Surah Taha (chapter 20 of the Holy Quran) does not mean that Allah (SWT) is sitting on His throne, but rather, it refers to the establishment of the Kingdom of Almighty Allah (SWT).
Similarly, when we read in verse 54 of Surah A’araaf (chapter 7 of the Holy Quran) that the earth was created in six days, it is not referring to six multiples of the 24 hour day the way we know it.
إِنَّ رَبَّكُمُ اللَّهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ فِي سِتَّةِ أَيَّامٍ ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ
“Your Guardian-Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and is firmly established on the throne (of authority)”
INTERPRETING ALLEGORICAL VERSES AGAINST THEIR LITERAL MEANING
The above list can carry on and on! In these cases, we are forced to interpret these verses of the Holy Quran against their literal meaning. We do this with the help of understanding other verses of the Holy Quran.
This approach is referred to as the “baatin” or “ta’wil” of the Holy Quran, in contrast to ”tafsir” of the Holy Quran. This is the approach whereby we give meaning to verses of the Holy Quran, which is not derived from its direct translation of the verse itself.
This internal layer of understanding and interpretation of the Holy Quran is naturally not something strange, as this approach is acknowledged directly by the Holy Quran itself, as noted in verse 7 of Surah aal-Imraan (chapter 3):
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُحْكَمَاتٌ 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 مِنْ عِنْدِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
“He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding.”
Verse 7 of Surah aal-Imraan (chapter 3 of the Holy Quran)
This verse clearly states that there are verses of the Holy Quran which are definitive, while others are ambiguous.
This verse then also explains that there are people with sick minds who then interpret these ambiguous verses the way that serves their ulterior motives, while the truth of the matter is that the real meaning of these verses is unknown, except Almighty Allah (SWT) and those deeply knowledgeable who are able to understand the hidden meaning of these ambiguous verses of the Holy Quran.
THE TRUE PEARLS OF EACH VERSE OF THE HOLY QURAN IS BEYOND OUR COMPREHENSION
The point we have reached is that there are some verses of the Holy Quran which have a hidden meaning, different to the literal translation. There are authentic Hadith narrated from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), which are recorded in Sunni and Shia compilations of Hadith, stating that there is not a single verse of the Holy Quran which has an apparent meaning and an internal layer.
There are many verses which indirectly indicate that the Holy Quran we have today, presented in the Arabic language, is being descended from a very high position. This means that the truth and reality of the Holy Quran is somewhere far supreme, and it then descended to our level of understanding. In other words, the truth and reality of the Holy Quran is much deeper and has much deeper layers which is beyond our average comprehension.
The key point to note is that it does not mean that the verses of the Holy Quran which have been interpreted to our level of understanding do not have anything deeper in its substance!
So now, we have firmly established that there are certain verses of the Holy Quran which need to be interpreted different to their literal meaning. That being said, there are also verses which makes a great deal of sense by interpreting and explaining them literally. However, even these verses have an internal layer of understanding or esoteric meaning!
It is crucial to be crystal clear on this point, that there are times when the literal meaning makes sense, but there are also other meanings possible for the same verse of the Holy Quran. This means that one verse of the Holy Quran can have multiple understandings, and one particular understanding does not invalidate the other meaning!
IMAM ALI (A.S): WE CAPTURE THE HOLY QURAN BASED ON OUR CAPACITY OF COMPREHENSION
Amir al-Mu’mineen Imam Ali ibn abi Talib (a.s) very beautifully describes this in Nahjul Balagha, where he says that the Holy Quran is like an ocean. We all know the vast nature of the ocean and it has all kinds of things in it.
1. Some people will stand on the coast and throw their fishing rod and catch fish that way.
2. Then there are those who go out into the deep-sea using fishing vessels to catch fish.
3. Then there are those who dive into the ocean
I’m sure you get the point that different people benefit from the ocean differently, depending on their level of capacity and capability. Someone will catch a small fish, while someone else will get a big fish. Then you will find someone diving into the ocean to get the treasures! The ocean is deep, and beneficial for everyone. However, everyone going into the ocean benefits based on their capacity.
As a result, there is a possibility of having different understandings, based on the varying depths to which one can explore, depending on one’s capacity to capture and comprehend the verses of the Holy Quran.
Needless to mention, the various interpretations we derive from these different levels must be supported by other verses of the Holy Quran or Hadith from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) or, for us Shia Muslims, by the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) as well.
SHIA APPROACH TO INTERPRETING THE HOLY QURAN COMES UNDER WRONGFUL REBUKE
As Shia Muslims, our practical approach to these ambiguous verses of the Holy Quran brings us under attack. There is a book written by Dr Muhammad Husain az-Zahabi, titled “Al-Tafsir wal-Mufassirun” (Interpretation of the Quran and the Interpreters), where he very strongly attacks on the Shia approach towards interpreting the Holy Quran.
He agrees with us that there is “zaahir” (clearly definitive) and “baatin” (discrete meaning) of the Holy Quran. However, his rebuke against us Shia Muslims in this book is that he says that the Shia impose their ideas on the Holy Quran, which does not have any evidence to back it up. He says that the words of the Holy Quran do not have the capacity to bear the philosophies imposed by Shia in their interpretation of the Holy Quran.
The Imams of Ahlul Bait (a.s) have approached the question from various angles, regarding why different layers in interpretation.
IMAMS OF AHLUL BAIT (A.S) EXPLAIN THEIR APPROACH TO INTERPRETING THE HOLY QURAN
Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s), the 5th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), was asked for an explanation of the Hadith from Rasulullah (SAWA), where he said that there is no verse of the Holy Quran which does not have both a definitive and discrete meaning.
Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s) very beautifully replied by explaining an important concept, saying that the Holy Quran was revealed at a certain time, in a particular society, with a certain historical background. So, the understanding of the Holy Quran on the first level is referring to that particular society, with that particular background and conditions. This is therefore interpreting verses with the past tense ie. Zaahir of the Holy Quran.
On the other hand, Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s) also clarified that baatin or ta’wil of the Holy Quran means that it is not simply confined to history! What Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s) is reaffirming is that the message of the Holy Quran is universal and continuous. It is not simply a history book for the period 1400 years ago!
Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s) then draws a wonderful analogy, saying that our understanding of the Holy Quran is a continuous function, in the same way that the sun rises and sets daily, and the moon goes through its lunar cycles every month. It is a continuous motion!
This sums up the miraculous nature of the Holy Quran, in that our understanding evolves with the passage of time.
In another Hadith, recorded from our 6th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s), he says that the Holy Quran is alive and moves continuously like the day and night, the sun and the moon.
THE HOLY QURAN IS A LIVING, DYNAMIC REALITY
There may be instances where we find that a verse of the Holy Quran was revealed for a particular purpose or incident in history. However, the message of that verse is not confined, as it can have a much broader understanding.
The approach of the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s), namely us Shia, towards Tafsir (interpretation of the Holy Quran) is pretty much crystalized by the explanation of Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s) and Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s).
The Ahlul Bait (a.s) tried to expand the message of the Holy Quran, in order for it to be understood and appreciated as a living, dynamic reality which continues to address contemporary issues, instead of relegating it to a history book!
To be fair, our Sunni brothers have a similar approach towards interpretation of the Holy Quran, with its verses being understood to have a definitive meaning and discrete meaning.
Ibn Abbas was a great companion of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) who narrated in his Tafsir that it is understood from Surah Nasr (chapter 110 of the Holy Quran) that the time of the demise of Rasulullah (SAWA) is near. Strange indeed…how does one strike a connection between this Surah and the demise of Rasulullah (SAWA)? Hence, the deeper layers of interpretation can often leave us perplexed.
FINDING THE PROMISED MAHDI (ATFS) THROUGH THE ESOTERIC MEANING OF WATER IN THE QURAN
You will recall from our previous Jumuah Khutbah, we delved into a discussion about water in the Holy Quran, specifically how it is presented in the Holy Quran literally as a source of life ie. our whole life depends on water.
We then also explored the other side of water, being the spiritual phase of life. We said that, in the same way that this physical life depends on water (so much so that it is central to its survival), we learn from the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) that there is also a dependency for survival in the spiritual phase of life (beyond matter), which is central to the sustenance and livelihood of the spiritual existence. That is the existence of the “hujjat” proof of Almighty Allah (SWT) on the earth.
We are not saying that water in the Holy Quran does not refer to the liquid water we all know. It is indeed the water we all know, but it is very much possible that the Holy Quran is capable to present numerous meanings for one verse or a subject, such as water in this example.
In this example of water, one meaning is the material form of water which we consume daily, but from the same emphasis on water in the Holy Quran we understand there is something like water for the sustenance and survival of the spiritual life as well.
This is not a contradiction or going against the spirit of the Holy Quran. This is not trying to say that we are imposing on the Holy Quran.
WHO IS THE BAQIYYATULLA?
Another commonly used term is “baqiyyatullahi khairullakum”. This term appears in verse 86 of Surah Hud (chapter 11 of the Holy Quran):
بَقِيَّتُ اللَّهِ خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ مُؤْمِنِينَ ۚ وَمَا أَنَا عَلَيْكُمْ بِحَفِيظٍ
“What remains with Allah is better for you if you are believers, and I am not a keeper over you.”
The context of this verse is set in the prior verse ie. verse 85, where Nabi Shuaib (a.s) said to his people that they should be fair in their business dealings and not deceive people.
وَيَا قَوْمِ أَوْفُوا الْمِكْيَالَ وَالْمِيزَانَ بِالْقِسْطِ ۖ وَلَا تَبْخَسُوا النَّاسَ أَشْيَاءَهُمْ وَلَا تَعْثَوْا فِي الْأَرْضِ مُفْسِدِينَ
“And, O my people! give full measure and weight fairly, and defraud not men their things, and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief.”
After Nabi Shuaib (a.s) said this, verse 86 followed (noted above). So then it begs the question, what can remain with Allah (SWT) as everything comes from Him?
Sunni and Shia commentators of the Holy Quran have all explained what this verse is conveying is that if you follow the command of Almighty Allah (SWT) in fair business practice, then that will have a better outcome for you, instead of unlawful gains you make through deception.
This then clarifies that what Almighty Allah (SWT) will leave for you through ethical business practice (and not what is remaining of Him!) is better for you than profiteering excessively through unfair business dealings.
This is one layer of understanding of the term “baqiyyatullahi khairullakum”, which is correct. However, we have a Hadith from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) which interprets this verse on a deeper level, saying that all the guides from Almighty Allah (SWT) came to guide us as His representatives.
This Hadith from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) then concludes that there is the final guide, the promised Mahdi (atfs), and it is he who will achieve the dreams of the divine Prophets (a.s) and the purpose of all the sacrifices throughout history.
According to this understanding, one of the meanings of “baqiyyatullahi khairullakum” is the final guide of Almighty Allah (SWT) who will lead and establish justice on the earth. To continue linking this final guide (the promised Mahdi (atfs)) to the rest of the verse, we understand that he will be the best for us if we are believers.
THE SACRED HONORABLE COUPLE AND THEIR SUBLIME PEARLS PRESENTED IN SURAH RAHMAN
Let me conclude with the alternate meaning of verses 19 and 22 from Surah Rahman (chapter 55 of the Holy Quran):
مَرَجَ الْبَحْرَيْنِ يَلْتَقِيَانِ
19. “He has made the two seas to flow freely (so that) they meet together.”
So then, two oceans meeting is one literal meaning which we can understand eg. the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meeting. But then we have the Hadith recorded from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) which says that the meeting of two oceans referred to here is the meeting of Imam Ali (a.s) and Lady Fatima (s.a).
The Hadith continues, explaining that emerging from this sacred couple are pearls, described in verse 22, as being Imam Hasan (a.s) and Imam Husayn (a.s)!
يَخْرُجُ مِنْهُمَا اللُّؤْلُؤُ وَالْمَرْجَانُ
22. “There come forth from them pearls, both large and small.”
It does not mean that this interpretation is nullifying the other meaning. Instead, it is another layer of meaning. The beauty is that the miraculous nature of the Holy Quran allows this, supported by the authentic narrations (Hadith) from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA).
This discussion can go on and on. For example, the Holy Quran makes reference to “wajhullah” referring to the face of Almighty Allah (SWT), but this clearly does not mean the face that we understand in the literal sense.
Now, if you look at the Holy Quran through this lense, you will understand that there are so many layers of interpretation which are possible for those who are capable in this field.
TAQWA PROPELS US DEEPER INTO THE OCEAN OF DISCOVERING THE HIDDEN GEMS IN THE HOLY QURAN
I want to make a critical point at this juncture, that it does not mean that we have the license to play with the Holy Quran. There are regulations and a prescribed framework in which we need to operate.
The background and understanding of other verses of the Quran are two aspects to consider, amongst various others. The main criticism we receive from mainstream Muslims is that our belief in Imamat from the Holy Quran is based upon these far-fetched interpretations of verses.
The truth of the matter is that we are not referring to a verse of the Holy Quran or a particular historical incident in isolation. Our approach and belief in Imamat is through analysing the holistic picture from the Holy Quran and Hadith, together with a clear understanding of the context. Therefore, our belief in Imamat is not imposing something far-fetched on the Holy Quran, as our understanding is derived from the Holy Quran itself instead of creating a new meaning!
The appropriate way to close this discussion is to remind ourselves to exhort towards Taqwa (God-consciousness) in our understanding of the Holy Quran. This is the first step, before considering Arabic grammar, history, Hadith, common sense etc.
Almighty Allah (SWT) opens special doors for us when we observe Taqwa, in our worldly pursuits and in our understanding of the Holy Quran as well! We see the result of what a person without Taqwa understands from the Holy Quran versus a person with the greatest of Taqwa opening the Holy Quran! This is like the comparison of someone catching a small fish at the seashore versus someone who dives into the deep sea and captures its rich, hidden treasures!
May Almighty Allah (SWT) grant us the Taufeeq during the upcoming month of Ramadaan, to benefit from the Holy Quran – this greatest favour from Almighty Allah (SWT) to us.
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