The Qur’aan contains different types of verses to fulfil different human needs of guidance. Each type plays a different role and elicits different attitudes from the audience according to the subject matter being discussed. Thus, the type of verses being reflected upon is an important consideration to determine the appropriate approach towards their understanding and interpretation.
The Qur’aan has instructed the believers in verses 3:7-8 as follows:
It is He Who has sent down to you (O Messenger) the Book in which are Muĥkamaat verses that are the substance of the Book; while others are Mutashaabihaat. Now, those with perverse mentality pursue the Mutashaabihaat seeking to cause mischief and seeking to determine their exact nature – while only Allaah knows their exact nature. On the other hand, those who are well versed in knowledge say, “We believe in them (Mutashaabihaat); they are all from our Lord;” but no one heeds except the insightful people. 8 They pray, “Our Lord! Do not let our minds become perverse after you have guided us aright, and grant us Mercy from Yourself. Indeed, you are the Oft-Bestower. (Aali ‘Imraan 3:7-8)
The Two Major Categories
According to the verses above, the guidance provided by the Qur’aan can be divided into two major categories.
i. One category of verses educates people about the realities that are hidden from people. They are incapable of discovering them on their own because they are matters of ghayb – beyond the realm of human perception. They are imperceptible through the five senses. People can know about them only through revelations from their Creator. These are matters such as the infiniteness of Allaah, Allaah’s infinite ways of taking actions or doing things; the existence and nature of angels and jinns; the way the revelations were conveyed to the Prophet; the scenarios, proceedings and accountability of the Day of Judgment; the fire and punishment of Hell; the comforts and bounties of Paradise; the existence and animosity of Satan (devil) and his efforts to mislead people; etc. Human languages have exact words or concepts to precisely define only what people can perceive or experience, not for the matters of ghayb. Therefore, the Qur’aan describes those realities in the words that approximate the reality as much as possible given the limits of human language and understanding. Hence, they are called Mutashaabihaat (approximate descriptions of the transcendent realities).
They must be believed exactly as they are described in the Qur’aan, without any attempt to expound them or trying to determine their precise nature in human terms. Since no human being has the capacity to observe or perceive them, any such attempt will be ignorant and misleading. Additionally, such an exercise is futile because whatever was needed to have a proper belief has already been described in the Qur’aan. Hence, no one should try to determine the precise nature and description of Mutashaabihaat in human terms beyond what is mentioned about them in the Qur’aan.
ii. All Islamic teachings that pertain to the realm of this world are described in the verses called Muĥkamaat (teachings that can be grasped precisely and unequivocally). They can be easily grasped by all people who pay attention. These are the matters that require human reflection and action; thus, they must be the focus of human efforts. Such verses convey the following type of guidance:
- Explaining to them the manner in which they should live in this temporary world so that they can excel personally and they can have a beautiful human society to live in and, ultimately, they can succeed in the eternal life Hereafter.
- Impressing upon people that believing in the matters of ghayb (hidden or imperceptible realities mentioned by Mutashaabihaat) is required for people to be counted among the believers.
- Teaching and reminding people that they are a creation of Allaah Who has put them temporarily on earth for a performance test and that they will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment. Thereafter, they will live in comfort or in pain forever.
- Informing them that the messengers have been sent for their guidance as a mercy from Allaah so that people are fully informed of the way Allaah wants them to perform.
- Those who follow the messengers will succeed in this life and the life Hereafter; those who do not follow the messengers are doomed to be losers.
The right-minded people spend their time and energies learning this knowledge, reflecting upon it and fulfilling its obligations in their private lives and implementing it in their society.
The Three subcategories
The Muĥkamaat verses can in turn be classified into three kinds:
1. Allah's commands
They include all do’s and don’ts commanded by Allaah SWT whether they are about acts of worship, avoidance of sins, matters of personal excellence, laws and limits, matters of public policy, establishment of justice, etc.
They must be understood and practised exactly as they were practised, explained, cited or directed by the Prophet. Their meaning or implications do not change with the passage of time or the changes in circumstances.
2. Historical accounts
The Qur’aan frequently cites some of the accounts of the earlier messengers to help people understand different aspects of the Sunnah of Allaah in dealing with His messengers, their followers and their rejectors. The purpose is to illustrate Allaah’s Sunnah in this respect and to teach lessons from the events in their missionary lives, not to teach history or their biographies. That is why they are not all narrated in sequence at one place. Rather, they are cited only in bits and pieces at multiple places, mentioning only that piece of information which explains the point that Allaah SWT wanted to illustrate at that place in the Qur’aan. Only Prophet Yoosuf’s story was described completely at one place but even that was done to draw parallel with the mission of the Prophet and teach lessons in that regard. This has been described in more detail in “Knowing the Qur’aan” section.
3. Signs of Nature – Signs found in humanity’s own existence and in the universe around them.
People are required to believe in all matters described by Mutashaabihaat, but Allaah SWT does not want human beings to be blind believers in anything. He wants people to think, reflect and rationally arrive at the truth about those realities. For that purpose, the Qur’aan mentions many signs at various places in its text so that people reflect on those signs to rationally arrive at the conclusions that lead them into believing the realities the Islamic faith requires people to believe in. Just as smoke is the sign of a fire or gravitational pull is the sign of the existence of a black hole, the signs cited by the Qur’aan are indicators of the existence and power of Allaah and the Qur’aan being the Book of Allaah. Citation of signs illustrates the point of guidance being made by the Qur’aan, inviting people to reflect upon them to find the evidence that supports the facts being taught by the Qur’aan.
To be meaningful to the audience, these signs must make sense to them at their level of knowledge and understanding. The way people understand and interpret these signs naturally changes and evolves with the advancement of the sciences and increase in knowledge. Hence, their interpretation and understanding cannot be static. In fact, it is an amazing miracle of the Qur’aan that it describes those signs with words that people from every age and level of intellect can relate to in their own way and understand at their own level of sophistication and knowledge, without losing the benefits for which the signs have been cited. They make sense to an illiterate person of the 7th century as well as to the research scientist of the 21st century and beyond. In fact, with advancement of scientific knowledge, people can better understand the meaning of the verses of the Qur’aan that cite signs from natural phenomena. The description of these signs can never ever be challenged on the basis of the established scientific facts, which is the miracle of the words of the Qur’aan.
Because the purpose of mentioning such facts is only to serve as SIGNS for people of all times and all levels of intellect, not to teach science, they are referred to only briefly. So, no one should expect a detailed or precise lesson in science. Rather people should reflect on the SIGN in the light of their knowledge of science to see if it supports the point of guidance being made through it.
Why Are the Mutashaabihaat Beyond Human Capacity?
No human being has capacity to understand these things because we can understand, conceive and visualize only what we have experienced. Anything that we have never experienced in our life is beyond our capacity of understanding. As an example, try to explain to a person who was born blind the concept of colour or difference between red and green. Or, try to explain the taste of an exotic fruit to a friend who has never tasted that fruit. The author once tried to explain the taste of a mango to some Canadian colleagues who, at that time, had neither seen nor tasted it. The best he could do was to describe the variations or closeness of the taste and texture of mango as compared to the tastes and textures of other fruits they had experienced in the past.
The vocabulary of human languages is beset with the same limitation and for the same reason. We only have words to describe the concepts we understand. A word without an understood concept or definition is a meaningless word. Similarly, our languages do not have words to describe the realities we have not seen.
The Qur’aan describes those unseen realities through human language that has no words to describe them. Hence, it uses words and phrases that are as close to the reality as possible. The intent is to inform people about them, not to define them exactly. The exact definition will neither be feasible through human language nor understandable due to lack of human capability. Hence, wise people accept those concepts as described without trying to visualize them or to specify their exact nature. They value their time and avoid indulging in futile exercises.
A distinction should be made between the things we do not understand because of a lack of knowledge and the things that are absolutely beyond human capabilities. There may be some concepts that may be beyond the understanding of an ordinary person and but fully understood by a specialist of a particular branch of knowledge. For example, a research scientist specializing in particle physics may exactly describe a physical phenomenon in mathematical terms but a person who has only a rudimentary knowledge of mathematics will not be able to make some sense out of it. Similarly, a Qur’aanic concept or phenomenon may be very clear and specific for a very learned man but a not-so-precise matter of faith for a less knowledgeable person. We are not talking about those things here. The Mutashaabihaat relate to those matters that are beyond human experience.
Distinction should also be made between the Messengers of Allaah and other human beings. The Messengers of Allaah are taken by Allaah through some special experiences that are beyond the capabilities of other human beings. The Prophet’s personal experiences with Jibreel are one simple example.
Do We Not Need to Determine Their Exact Nature?
The exact determination of the nature of Mutashaabihaat (unseen, transcendent realities) is unnecessary for two reasons: Firstly, exact determination does not add any value to our understanding. Regardless of the preciseness of description, the concept will always remain obscure without the benefit of personal experience. Even if the description of their exact nature was possible in human language and was completely provided in the Qur’aan, people would not be able to understand them because of their lack of background or experience. For example, even the most eloquent description of the taste of a mango will not give a clear, precise concept of its taste to a person unless he himself tastes one. It may create a strong desire in a person’s mind, but it will not give him the precise taste.
Secondly, exact understanding is not needed for believing in these realities. We believe in Mutashaabihaat: because they are logically sensible; because the prophets have given witness on their existence; and, because our faith has already been firmly grounded on the basis of the truth we witness in Muĥkamaat. Again, even for the purposes of belief, their exact description does not add any value because, as explained earlier, regardless of the exactness of description we will not be able to understand them. Hence, our belief will still have to be based on Muĥkamaat, logic and witness of the prophets.
How to Deal with These Issues?
On these matters, the Qur’aan provides as much information as is possible for us to understand and as is necessary to form an accurate and useful belief in them. The information provided fulfils the objective of guidance. The wise people who are well-grounded in the sound knowledge of Muĥkamaat, in the logical foundations of Islam and in the wonderful witness provided by the prophets, accept them as they are presented without generalizing any specifics or making any general things specific. They avoid describing these realities except in the words of the Qur’aan.
On the other hand, some people who do not understand their own limitations or the reality of the matter indulge in efforts to pin down their exact nature. The examples are: trying to define what Shaytaan looks like, whether he is male or female, and how he incites us or whispers thoughts to misguide us; what the angels or their wings are like, how they travel, take human shape or perform their duties; how Allaah blew spirit in Adam or for Jesus in Maryam’s uterus; what the physical processes were through which the miracles happened; or how Allaah manages to be everywhere at the same time or how He uses His Throne?
People delve into these kinds of questions with two motives:
Some people do so just to create arguments, conflicts and mischief; to start meaningless discussions to sow doubts in people’s minds or create confusion; and to divert the attention of believers from real Islamic activities to these useless pursuits. The prime example of these people before us were the Jews. There is, however, no shortage of ‘so called’ Muslims who bear Muslim names but play the same games.
Others pursue Mutashaabihaat because they want to specify, determine and describe them exactly. They usually end up becoming a victim of Shaytaan and destroying their own faith either by getting absolutely confused or deriving wrong conclusions. The prime example of people who were in that category before us are the Christians. They tried to determine the exact nature of Allaah’s word or command to create Jesus and the act of blowing spirit, etc. and they ended up creating a religion about Jesus where he has been deified in diametric opposition to what Jesus stood for. Now, none of their religious dogmas makes any sense anymore. Christianity requires blind faith because its dogmas are absolutely illogical. Muslims who indulged in Sufism also tend to get into this dangerous territory and many Sufi sects have come up with illogical and un-Islamic dogmas like Christians.
To understand the futility of this exercise and the dangers it is fraught with, imagine a person born blind trying to precisely define a colour and to explain it in his words to another blind man. Also, imagine this author’s colleague going home and describing “mango” to his wife. He will be safe as long as he sticks to the description the author gave him. If he started describing the taste of the mango in his own words from the mental picture he made in his mind when the author was describing it to him, can you imagine how different that description will be from the taste of a real mango?
Hence, when describing Mutashaabihaat, we must adhere to the words of the Qur’aan without trying to explain them according to our own perceptions.
Proper Attitude towards Mutashaabihaat
Allaah wants us to avoid both of these approaches. Instead, He wants us to be wise like those who accept as much as they are told and do not add or reduce anything to that. They pray,
“Our Lord! Do not let our thinking be warped after you have guided us aright, and grant us Mercy from Yourself. Indeed, you are the Oft-Bestower. Our Lord! You are surely going to gather people on the Day about which there is no doubt. Verily, Allaah never reneges on the promised appointment.”
The Day of Judgment is the time when the exact nature of these realities will be right in front of us. We will experience them first-hand. That Day is going to come on its own time. It cannot come early nor can it be delayed. Until that happens we have to wait patiently and accept our limitations as they are.