Lecture 17 in the Ramadaan series:
EXPLORING THE SHIA APPROACH TO THE QURAN
Sunday 10 June 2018 (25 Ramadaan 1439) at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town delivered by Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider.
In our previous discussion we had completed our presentation in relation to Abrogation in the Quran.
The next very important topic is the issue of the division of the verses of the Quran into those which are considered to be “muhkamat and mutashabihat verses” or “decisive and metaphorical” verses.
QURAN CLASSIFIES VERSES INTO DECISIVE AND METAPHORICAL VERSES
This categorisation is highlighted by the Quran itself. We read in Surah 3 verse 7:
هُوَ الَّذِيَ أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ
“He it is Who has sent down to you the Book; in it are decisive verses which are the basis of the Book (Mother of the book), while others are metaphorical.”
This verse informs us that Allah is the one who sent down the book and made this classification. In this classification, the decisive verses are the foundation or the Mother of the book. A smaller number of verses are considered to be metaphorical in nature.
However, the very existence of metaphorical verses comes with its related risks and the abovementioned verse further identifies this as follows:
فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ في قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاء الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاء تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلاَّ اللّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلاَّ أُوْلُواْ الألْبَابِ
“But for those in whose hearts there is perversity, they follow the part of it which is metaphorical, seeking (to cause) dissension by seeking it (their own) interpretation, while none knows it’s (hidden) interpretation except Allah and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say: ‘We believe in it, the whole (of it) is from our Lord;’ and none minds save the possessors of intellect.”
These verses identify a group of people with perverted hearts who keenly focus on the metaphorical verses for sake the of fitna or dissension. In contrast to this group the verse makes it clear that only Allah and those grounded in knowledge know the real meaning of these metaphorical verses.
What is the motivation for those with perverted hearts to focus on following the mutashabihat verses?
It is because they can mould the interpretation of these verses for their selfish agendas while appearing to be backed by Divine Revelation!
MESSAGE EMBEDED IN CORPUS OF AHADITH REGARDING DECISIVE AND METAPHORICAL VERSES
In ahadith there is great emphasis on the importance to know what are muhkamat and what are mutashabihat verses.
Furthermore, the ahadith emphasize that if we don’t know the difference between these categories of verses, then we will not be able to understand the Quran itself.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE MUHKAM AND MUTASHABIH VERSES?
The term “Muhkam” comes from “ahkam” which means “restriction”.
This group of verses is called “muhkamat” because the verses do not have multiple meanings but are “restricted” to one understanding. Thus these verses are declared to be the “Mother of the Book” which is essentially the foundation of the Quranic verses which are considered to be the point of reference.
“Mutashabihat” on the other hand are verses with multiple possible meanings.
Look at the following famous example from Surah Taha Verse 5:
الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَي الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَي
“The Beneficent (Allah Who) sits on the ‘Arsh (the Throne).”
Allah is not a material being and thus cannot be sitting on something. This verse is therefore metaphorical and contains multiple meanings.
To properly understand this verse, we should refer to the definitive verses of the Quran. This methodology is called tafseer (interpretation) of Quran by the Quran.
Another example is Surah Fajr Verse 22 which reads:
وَجَاء رَبُّكَ وَالْمَلَكُ صَفًّا صَفًّا
“And your Lord comes and (also) the angels in ranks”.
How could such motions of Allah be compatible with his immaterial existence? Compare this verse to another in Surah Shura Verse 11 which says:
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ
“There is nothing like Him”.
This means that an example for Allah is not possible and Allah is beyond having a body. The manner in which the verse is composed also indicates that He is free from imaginative forms that may be ascribed to him.
So this metaphorical verse of the “coming” of your Lord is understood to mean that the “Command of Allah” will come through the Angels.
WHOLE QURAN IN PRINCIPLE IS MUHKAM!
Interestingly, the Quran sometimes describes itself as completely decisive!
In Surah Hud verse 1, we see that Almighty Allah (swt) begins the surah by establishing the Quran’s definitive nature:
الر كِتَابٌ اُحْكِمَتْ ءَايَاتُهُ ثُمَّ فُصِّلَتْ مِن لَدُنْ حَكِيمٍ خَبِيرٍ
“’Alif, Lam, Ra. (This is) a Book whose verses are set firmly, then explained in detail, from One All-Wise, All-Aware.’
This same theme is continued in the third verse of Surah Fussilat:
كِتَابٌ فُصِّلَتْ آيَاتُهُ قُرْآناً عَرَبِيّاً لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ
“A Book whereof the Verses are explained clearly, a Qur’an in Arabic for people who know.”
If the very purpose of the Quran is to lead us based on clear guidance (as explained by the aforementioned verses), what benefit could there possibly be in mutashabihat verses being present in it which could actually confuse us?
And the reality unfortunately is that numerous individuals throughout history had been perplexed by these verses. Various groups had cropped up and exploited the Quran, in some cases for selfish gains.
Amongst them was a sect called the mujassima. These individuals thought God had a body due to the mutashabih verses present in the Quran. Instead of considering alternative interpretations from the decisive verses, they believed that the words of the Quran should not be reflected upon, and as a result only considered literalistic opinions. So what is the purpose of these mutashabihat verses in the Quran?
The scholars of the Ahlulbait (as) have said that the existence of these verses is not a problem at all, but actually a blessing!
PHILOSOPHY OF HAVING METAPHORICAL VERSES IN QURAN
The reality of the Quran is that it was revealed in the language of human beings, as we are dependent on it for communication and survival. But concepts beyond material limits – such as infinity – are very difficult to convey through words which are created. Language is the mere product of our need to communicate with others. Thus, these words are restricted to the world of matter.
In order to explain truths that are present in the immaterial realm of existence, one uses these same words but mean it in a completely different sense.
This method is used by Allah (swt) numerous times in the Quran:
يَدُ اللَّهِ فَوْقَ أيْدِيهِمْ
“The Hand of Allah is over their hands.”
(Surah Fath Verse 10)
Allah’s hand is symbolic of his power. This does not mean in any sense that Allah has a hand, and human beings have a hand, and since this ayah declares Allah’s hand to be “over their hands”, His hand is physically above theirs. This understanding is completely rejected according to the Ahlulbait (a.s).
This corresponds to the verse in surah Taha, in which Allah is established over the throne. The idea conveyed re-enforces his power and authority over creation.
Another example is present in Surah Qiyamah verse 23:
إِلَىٰ رَبِّهَا نَاظِرَةٌ
“Looking at their Lord.”
This ayah again does not mean that there will be a physical looking that will take place on the day of resurrection. There are certain realities of the Hereafter which are far from our horizon of thought. Our point of view is imprisoned within space and time. We can’t understand them and thus the explanation of those realities becomes ambiguous for us.
Suppose we needed to explain this planet of ours to a baby in the womb of its mother. Would we be able to do this? How does one explain something that the baby’s imagination has not even reached? We would therefore be compelled to use appropriate comparisons in order for him to develop a “sort of” understanding. The baby will never be able to fathom our words until it itself enters this world.
We are also in the womb of this worlds’ existence. Only once we transcend this level of existence will be able to taste the reality of the immaterial realm.
So why have mutashabihat verses in Quran?
One secret of the existence of these verses is to challenge your thinking power! The existence of mutashabihat in the Quran is the greatest favour of Allah, as it initiates an intellectual movement instead of all guidance being spoon-fed.
In addition to this, the Imams (as) have said it exists so that Almighty Allah (swt) could compel you to go to the Quran AND Ahlulbait (a.s). One requires a teacher to understand the metaphorical ayahs, and this is only possible with the Ahlulbait (a.s) being side by side with the Quran. Hadith Thaqalayn also emphasises this very point.
Furthermore, the mutashabihat are regarded as a test. It provides mischief-makers with the opportunity to use the Quran to deviate society at large, and therefore it is able to distinguish between genuine believers and opportunists. A contemporary example of this is in how Quran is used on social media. People often purport interpretations that lack a logical basis.
An important side note related to social media is Tafsir Bi Ra’iy. This is when one has a philosophy about a topic and to justify this, one looks for verses in the Quran to support this idea. You should approach QURAN with a clean slate – your own position on any subject should come from QURAN.
MAJOR CONCEPTS THAT ARE EXPRESSED THROUGH METAPHORICAL VERSES
There are 2 categories of examples I want to pay close attention to which are expressed through metaphorical verses. Firstly those related to the Attributes of Allah:
ثُمَّ اسْتَوَی إِلَی السَّمَا
“Then He rose over towards the heaven.”
(Surah Fussilat Verse 11)
ثُمَّ اسْتَوَى عَلَى الْعَرْشِ
“He established Himself on ‘Arsh (the Throne of authority).” (Surah Furqaan Verse 59)
ثُمَّ اسْتَوَي عَلي الْعَرْشِ
“He established Himself on ‘Arsh (the Throne of authority).” (Surah Sajda Verse 4)
From Surah Taha Verse 5:
الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَي الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَي
“The Beneficent (Allah Who) sits on the ‘Arsh (the Throne).”
وَقَالَتِ الْيَهُودُ يَدُ اللّهِ مَغْلُولَةٌ غُلَّتْ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَلُعِنُواْ بِمَا قَالُواْ بَلْ يَدَاهُ مَبْسُوطَتَانِ
“And the Jews have said: The hand of Allah is tied up! and cursed be they for what they have said. Nay, both His hands (of Power) are (always) spread out.” (Surah Maa-ida: 64)
وَالَّذِينَ صَبَرُوا ابْتِغَآءَ وَجْهِ رَبّـِهِمْ
“And those who patiently persevere, seeking the countenance (face) of their Lord.” (Surah Ra’d verse 22)
وَلِلّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّواْ فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللّهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ
“And to Allah belong the East and the West, wherever you turn, there is the Presence (face) of Allah.” (Surah Baqarah Verse 115)
These verses all provide a materialistic description of Allah (swt), but how can this be? This yet again shows how words used were intended to convey a different meaning. The only manner to solve this issue is to interpret them within the framework of muhkamat verses.
So let’s look at some of these Muhkamat verses.
لاَّ تُدْرِكُهُ الأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الأَبْصَارَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ
“The eyes do not perceive Him, but He perceives the eyes, He is all subtle, the All-Aware.” (Surah An-aam Verse 103)
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ
“There is nothing like Him” (Surah Shuraa Verse 11)
These two verse together show us that Allah (swt) cannot possibly have material existence. ALL those verses that therefore talk about His “hand” or “face” are usually indicators of His attributes, such as generosity and magnanimity.
Moreover, when the Quran speaks about believers looking at Allah (swt) on the day of resurrection, it is not a physical looking. Rather, it is looking at Allah (swt) through the eyes of one’s heart. Similarly, the face of Allah (swt) is related to his existence as the Lord of creation.
MUTASHABIHAT VERSES ON ACTIONS OF ALLAH
The second category is in which Allah (swt) ascribes to Himself actions, as displayed in the following ayahs:
مَن يَشَإِ اللّهُ يُضْلِلْهُ وَمَن يَشَأْ يَجْعَلْهُ عَلَى صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ
“Whomever Allah pleases He leads astray, and whomever He pleases, He sets him on a straight path.” (Surah An-aam Verse 39)
مَّا كَانُواْ لِيُؤْمِنُواْ إِلاَّ أَن يَشَاء اللّهُ
“They would not believe, unless Allah pleases.” (Surah An-aam Verse 111)
Do all of these mutashabih verses indicate that human beings have no free will whatsoever, and their destinies have already been determined??
Before we answer this question, let’s look at certain ayahs that shed further light on this topic.
كَلَّا إِنَّهَا تَذْكِرَةٌ
فَمَنْ شَاءَ ذَكَرَهُ
“Nay surely it is an admonishment,”
“So let him who pleases mind it,” (Surah 80 Verses 11-12).
This clearly shows that the listener is free.
إِنَّ هَٰذِهِ تَذْكِرَةٌ ۖ فَمَنْ شَاءَ اتَّخَذَ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِ سَبِيلًا
“This is a warning and whoever wills, he may take a Path toward his Lord.”
(Surah 73 Verse 19)
لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ
“There is no compulsion in religion.” (Surah Baqarah Verse 256)
إِنَّا هَدَيْنَاهُ السَّبِيلَ إِمَّا شَاكِرًا وَإِمَّا كَفُورًا
“Surely We showed him the Way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful (is up to him).”
(Surah 76 Verse 3)
فَمَنِ اهْتَدَی فَلِنَفْسِهِ وَمَنْ ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا
“Therefore, whosoever accepts the Guidance, it is only for his own self, and whosoever goes astray, he goes astray only for his [own] loss.” (Surah 39 Verse 41)
وَأن لَّيْسَ لِلْإِنسَانِ إِلاّ مَا سَعَی
“And that man can have nothing but what he strives for.” (Surah 53 Verse 39)
وَتُوَفَّي كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّا عَمِلَتْ
“And everyone will be rewarded in full (for) what he has done.” (Surah 16 Verse 111)
إِنَّا لاَ نُضِيعُ أَجْرَ مَنْ أَحْسَنَ عَمَلاً
“Surely We do not waste the recompense of him who does a good work.”
الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْمَوْتَ وَالْحَيَاةَ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ أَيُّكُمْ أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا
“The Lord who created death and life so that He may test you that which of you is better in deed. And He is the Omnipotent, the Oft-Forgiving.” (Surah Mulk Verse 2).
These are all muhkam verses, which further broadens our understanding of this topic. If we were to interpret those mutashabihat as Allah (swt) being unjust towards human beings, they would be inconsistent with a variety of different verses.
The matter lies in the fact that the QURAN provides natural guidance to everybody indiscriminately. If we would like this guidance to increase and continue, we need to beseech Almighty Allah (swt) for assistance and consequentially need to perform virtuous actions. This pathway enables us to be blessed with divine guidance while our freewill is kept intact.
Numerous Muslims were perplexed with this misunderstanding, and as a result it led to the belief in determinism (jabr). This completely contradicts Allah’s (swt) justice as mentioned above, and shows the end that one reaches when mutashabihat are not interpreted under the scope of muhkamaat.
Thus Imam Ali (as) has narrated that whoever does not know mutashabihat from muhkamaat doesn’t know the Quran. On this basis, they cannot teach Quran or be guided by QURAN. This yet again establishes the need for the Ahlulbait’s (as) guidance when it comes to interpreting the Quran.
To be continued………….
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