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Mutashaabihaat, Reflection and Thinking


Two Major Categories of the Verses of the Qur-aan

The kind of subject matter being discussed in the verses of the Qur-aan is another important consideration to guide the determination of the meanings of the Qur-aan. In Soorah Aali ‘Imraan verse 7, Allaah SWT has indicated two major categories of the verses of the Qur-aan. To explain those points, following is what I have written in explanation of those verses, starting from verse 5:

People should clearly understand that Allaah knows everything in this universe. He knows what is true or false, what is correct or incorrect, what will establish peace and justice and what will not; He knows who accepts His guidance with sincere motives and who rejects because of prejudices, ignorance or ulterior motives; who had a chance to discover the truth about Islam and the Qur-aan but he did not avail it and who did not have any reasonable chance to do so; etc.
5 From Allaah, verily nothing is hidden in the earth or in the heavens. 6 He it is Who shapes you in the wombs as He likes; there is no God but He, the Almighty, the Wise.

Everything that takes place through the working of the laws of nature can rightly be attributed directly to Allaah SWT, the Creator of the nature and its ways (laws) of operating. Allaah SWT has designed a very meticulous and detailed way of shaping human beings in their mothers’ wombs by coding it precisely in DNA, which is not visible to the human eye and was not known or understood by human beings until very recently. Until its discovery and mapping, people had no clue how it worked. Discoveries of things like this show how powerful and wise our Creator is. We do not even know how many more mysteries exist in the nature of human beings that we still have not discovered or do not understand. Only Allaah our Creator knows everything about our nature and everything that is good or bad for us. Thus, we must fashion our lives according to His guidance because only His guidance is definitely valid, true, good and perfect. Whether it is the provision of the best guidance to people or it is to hold them accountable, He has power and wisdom to do both perfectly.
7 It is He who has sent down to you (O Muĥammad) the Book wherein there are verses that convey precise, definite teachings{footnote}Muĥkamaat: Precise, vivid, specific injunctions and teachings that people have capacity to fully comprehend, understand and put into action.

{/footnote}. Such verses are the substance of the Book. There are other verses that convey approximate description of transcendent{footnote}Mutashaabihaat: approximate descriptions of the transcendent realities that are beyond human comprehension, imagination, or perception; describing supernatural, abstruse and recondite facts in human language.

{/footnote} realities. The people with warped mentality pursue the transcendent issues 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{footnote}This translation follows the punctuation of the Mus-haf (Qur-aanic Scripture). A great majority of the scholars and commentators of the Qur-aan agree that only Allaah knows the exact specifications of Mutashaabihaat. No human being can. A few scholars have a differing view of the punctuation. They punctuate it to render that only Allaah and the people of sound knowledge know the meaning of Mutashaabihaat. This rendition is totally inappropriate and does not fit the context. Just the phrase preceding it said that those whose hearts are perverse or have crooked mentality pursue Mutashaabihaat. People with sound knowledge will have to find the exact nature of Mutashaabihaat either through revelation or through their personal pursuit. Revelation only came to the prophets and ended with Prophet Muhammad. Hence, any other person will have to pursue them personally to determine their exact nature, which, according to this Aayah itself, means they have crooked mentality. How can they be sound in knowledge and have a crooked mentality at the same time? Similarly, this rendition does not fit with phrases afterwards where the people with sound knowledge have been reported to believe in Mutashaabihaat without pursuing them, saying, “We believe in them. They are all from our Lord.” That is why the great majority of scholars reject this variant opinion in punctuation. The minority that holds this opinion consists either of Shia’s who believe that their Imaams receive special knowledge from Allaah or the Sufis who also believe that they can receive such special knowledge. Both of these claims have no basis in Islam.

{/footnote}, “We believe in them. They are all from our Lord.” The fact is that only insightful people really heed. 8 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. 9 Our Lord! You are surely going to gather people on the Day about which there is no doubt. Verily, Allaah does not back out of assignation”.{footnote}Aali-Imraan 3:7-9

{/footnote}


The guidance provided to people by the Qur-aan can be divided into two major categories:
  • Reminding people that they are a creation of Allaah put temporarily on the earth as a test and that they will be held accountable on the Day of Judgement and will live thereafter in comfort or pain forever; and explaining to them the manner in which they should live in this temporary world so that they can have a beautiful human society to live in and can succeed in the eternal life Hereafter. Such knowledge is the essence and substance of the Qur-aan and the main purpose and reason for its revelation. The Qur-aan imparts this knowledge succinctly, precisely and categorically. For that reason, the verses that convey this knowledge are called Muĥkamaat.

    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 collectively in their society.
  • Informing people about the things they have no way of finding out except through revelation. These are things such as the infinite attributes of Allaah, Allaah’s infinite ways to make things happen by commanding ‘Be’; the existence and nature of angels; the fire and punishment of Hell; the comforts and bounties of Paradise; the existence and animosity of Shayŧaan and his efforts to mislead people; etc. Because they are described in a human language that does not have precise words and concepts to describe these realities, their description approximates the reality as much as possible given the limits of human language and understanding. Hence, they are called Mutashaabihaat.

    Except to believe in the way these things are described in the Qur-aan, no human being has either the capacity or the need to know the exact nature of these unseen realities. They must be believed on the basis of rational reasoning, without trying to determine their nature precisely.

    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 the difference between red and green. Or, try to explain the taste of an exotic fruit, let us say Chonsa mango, to a friend who has never seen, smelled or tasted it. The best one can do is to describe the variations or closeness of the taste and texture of that fruit as compared to the tastes and textures of other fruits they have 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 needs to describe those unseen realities through human language that has no words to describe them precisely. 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 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 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 issue here concerns 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.

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 Chonsa 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 logic, Muĥkamaat, and witness of the prophets.

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 defining their nature precisely, 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 how Shayŧaan looks like, whether he is male or female, and how he incites us or whispers thoughts to misguide us; how the angels or their wings look like, how they travel, take human shape or perform their duties; how Allaah blew spirit in Adam or in Maryam’s womb for Jesus; or what are Allaah’s physical attributes, how does Allaah manage to be everywhere at the same time or how does He use His Throne?

Only people with a crooked mentality delve into these kinds of questions. They do so with one or both of the following motives:
  • Some people raise such questions 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 objectives to these useless pursuits. The prime example of these people before us was that of Jews. Instead of performing their duties assigned to them by Allaah, they spent their energies playing games with the words used for Mutashaabihaat.
  • Others pursue Mutashaabihaat because they want to specify, determine and describe them exactly or they insist on taking the words that describe the phenomena of unseen quite literally in human terms. They usually end up becoming a victim of Shayŧaan and destroying their own faith either by getting absolutely confused or by deriving wrong conclusions. The prime example of people who were in that category before us are Christians. They took Prophet ‘Eesa’s being “kalimah{footnote}Literally, kalimah means a word or phrase, whether it is a statement or a command

    {/footnote} of Allaah” literally and tried to determine the exact nature of “Allaah’s word” and how it transformed to become Jesus instead of understanding it to be the command of Allaah to create Jesus. They took this approach to most of the Mutashaabihaat matters. With that attitude, they ended up creating a religion about Jesus where he has been deified in diametric opposition to what Jesus actually stood for. Their beliefs have become totally un-Islamic and none of their religious dogmas makes any sense anymore. Christianity requires blind faith because its dogmas are absolutely illogical.


There is, however, no shortage of ‘so called’ Muslims who bear Muslim names but play games with the words used for Mutashaabihaat. They raise questions about them to create Fitnah. You can see many of such elements busy spreading their Fitnah on different Internet forums. Then there are others who, like Christians, tend to be very religious but their interest in religion centres around Mutashaabihaat. For example, Muslims who indulge 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. On the other extreme are Salafis who take literal meaning of Mutashaabihaat instead of just believing in the message being given through those approximate descriptions. Not only do they take the words literally according to human understanding of those words, but they also make it a matter of ‘Aqeedah. They are behaving like people in the past who created an issue that Qur-aan being word of Allaah is a creation and insisted in making it a matter of ‘Aqeedah.

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 my colleague going home and describing mango to his wife. He will be safe as long as he sticks to the description I 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 it was being described to him, can you imagine how different that description will get from the taste of a real Chonsa mango? Hence, when describing Mutashaabihaat, we must stick with the words of the Qur-aan without trying to explain them according to our own perceptions.

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 does not back out of assignation.

The day of Judgement is 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.

In addition to Muĥkamaat and Mutashaabihaat, The Qur-aan also has regulations about Ĥalaal and Ĥaraam and historical anecdotes. A Hadeeth concisely describes how a Muslim should relate with all these types of verses of the Qur-aan.
The Prophet said, “The Qur-aan has been revealed featuring five types of information: Ĥalaal, Ĥaraam, specific teachings (Muĥkamaat), transcendent concepts (Mutashaabihaat), and anecdotes. So enjoy Ĥalaal, avoid Ĥaraam, act upon clear teachings, believe in transcendent concepts, and learn from the anecdotes.” Reported from Aboo Hurayrah in Mishkaah

Thus, a Muslim should believe in the Mutashaabihaat as they are described in the Qur-aan without pursing to determine their meaning any more than the words of the Qur-aan. While believing in the Mutashaabihaat, they must focus all their attentions and energies on Muhkamaat that are the substance of the Qur-aan (ummul kitaab).

Unfortunately, some brothers suggest that the Mutashaabihaat should be pursued because Allaah wants us to reflect upon them. Following are my thoughts on this assertion:

One may suggest that Allaah SWT expects us to reflect on (do Tadabbur in) the Qur-aan, which includes both Muhkamaat and Mutashaabihaat. What will be the nature of reflection on Mutashaabihaat if we cannot determine their precise meaning? Similarly, Allaah invites us to think, does that thinking apply to Mutashaabihaat?

Let us talk about Tadabbur (reflection) first. It has been used only twice in the Qur-aan. However, its variant verb (Iddibaar) has been used another two times. The first use of Tadabbur is in Soorah An-Nisaa verse 82. I have written the following about this verse:
82 Do they not then reflect on the Qur-aan? Had it been from anyone other than Allaah, they would have found in it many a discrepancy.

The unparalleled consistency of the text of the Qur-aan in itself is a compelling proof of it being Divine revelation, not a human product. It is humanly impossible to maintain any semblance of consistency in any of the following aspects that Qur-aan maintains so perfectly:

It was revealed over a period of 23 years in bits and pieces but put together as one book, it flowed so beautifully from beginning to end perfectly consistent in its literary style, its standard of eloquence, its themes and its philosophy as if it was written within one sitting under a well thought-out vision, plan and goal. This happened without ever needing any revision whatsoever of any word or phrase throughout the book of more than 6,000 verses.

During the time of its revelation, the life of the Prophet went through so many drastic changes, so many different phases, so many different circumstances and so many different mental frames and emotional states, but none of that is reflected at all in any part of the Qur-aan. The text of the Qur-aan remains so steady and consistent in its approach to life situations and outlook reflecting the fact that there was never a shift in the mental state or thoughts of the author – Allaah SWT.

The belief system it teaches, the system of life it ordains, the commands it gives, the actions it encourages, the behaviours it decrees, the ethics it promotes, the morals it dictates, the examples it cites, the history it quotes, the punishments it mentions and the rewards it promises, everything is so consistently interdependent, so smoothly integrated and so harmoniously tuned that any slight variation in any of those things disturbs the delicate balance and equilibrium it established as a whole. Every part of the total Islamic system and its sub-systems fits perfectly well with each other as well as with human nature, its surroundings and the environment. The coherent system of life that results from its teachings is equally beneficial for individuals and societies, for life of this world and the hereafter, for mundane aspects of life and spiritual, for short term and long term, and for the primitive societies and the most advanced.

The second use is in Soorah Muĥammad:
Do they not then reflect on the Qur-aan? Or is it that on the hearts are their locks? Muĥammad 47:24

This verse is enveloped between verses about hypocrisy. Allaah SWT talks about hypocritical behaviour of shirking Qitaal in the way of Allaah. Because of this serious weakness in their faith, they were cursed and labelled as dumb and blind. Then, this verse about reflection indicates that had they open-mindedly reflected on the message of the Qur-aan, their faith would have been strong, they would have fully dedicated themselves to the objectives of the Deen and would have readily been participating in Qitaal for attaining those objectives. But they were hindered from getting the message of the Qur-aan due to the locks on their hearts: such as love of the life of this world, fear of death, concern about loss of wealth and comforts, ego and pride, jealousy and cowardice, etc. Then, it continues to declare that Allaah SWT treats this hypocrisy as apostasy, which Shayŧaan has made easy for them.

Thus, it is clear that the reflection being discussed here is the reflection that brings sincerity and strength to one’s faith.

The third instance is in a different verb format (Baab Ifti‘aal, instead of Tafa“ul):
Do they do not ponder over the Word (of Allaah), or has something come to them that which did not come to their forefathers? Or do they not recognise their Messenger, so that they deny him? Or do they say, "He is possessed"? Nay, he has brought them the Truth, but most of them hate the Truth. Al-Mu-minoon 23:68-70

Once again, it is clear here that pondering over the Qur-aan refers to evaluating the beliefs that Qur-aan invites to, in that they make sense and that they must be adopted. A person who listens to or reads the Qur-aan but does not come to that conclusion, either is not pondering over its message carefully or has some built biases that are hindering him from a rational judgement.

The last instances, in the same format as the third one, is in Soorah Saad:
And We did not create the heaven and the earth and what is between them without purpose; that is what disbelievers assume; so suffering for disbelievers from Fire. Shall We treat those who believe and do good actions as those who spread corruption in the earth; or shall We treat the pious as the wicked? This is a blessed Book that we have sent down to you so that people ponder over its signs and the wise are mindful. Ŝaad 38:27-29

As you can see, reflection on the purpose of the creation guides people to realization that this life is a test and that once this test is over, people will encounter different kind of treatment based on their performance.

All these four examples clearly indicate that the purpose of the reflection is to help people realize the truth that:
  • This finite universe and everything in it has one unique Creator who is infinite;
  • He has created human beings and a wonderful system of sustaining life, showing that He is very gracious and extremely merciful;
  • Giving human beings freedom and delegating authority to them cannot be purposeless, people must have to be accountable for the freedom and authority they have been given;
  • This life is temporary to see who voluntarily adopts slavery to Allaah and works to attain objectives for which He has put us on the earth;
  • The prophets and books have been sent to let people know those objectives and the actions needed to attain those objectives; The Prophet is the true and last Messenger of Allaah;
  • The Qur-aan is from Allaah bringing a consistent message and well-integrated system of life according to which we must live and attain objectives of Deen;
  • There will be a time when people finally will be held accountable and when perfect justice will be done to all. Those who perform well in attaining the objectives of Deen will be rewarded, others punished. That life will be eternal.


These are the facts that become evident when a person sincerely and properly ponders over human life, its surroundings and the functioning of the universe and reflects upon the signs of Allaah abundant in these things. That is the sole purpose of reflection. It has nothing to do with efforts to determine precise meaning of Mutashaabihaat.

The Qur-aan also emphasizes on the human need to think about the signs of Allaah found in our own selves and around ourselves in the universe. There are 14 verses of the Qur-aan on this topic. But Qur-aan itself explains the purpose of this thinking is for the abovementioned objective. The fact that sincere and proper reflection leads to such conclusions is beautifully mentioned in the following verses:

Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are definite signs for sensible, understanding persons – those who always think about Allaah while standing, sitting or lying on their sides, and who ponder over creation and operation of the universe. (They exclaim):
“Our Lord! You have not created all this in vain. Your Glory is above and beyond (indulging in purposeless acts). So, save us from the torment of the Fire. Our Lord! Whomever you cast into the Fire will indeed be disgraced and never will such transgressors find any helpers. Our Lord! We heard a caller calling to the Faith, saying: ‘Believe in your Lord.’ So we believed. Hence, Our Lord! Forgive us our sins and remit our evil deeds from us and let our end be with the righteous people.”
Aali-‘Imraan: 190-193


Thus, whether it is Tadabbur or Tafakkur, it is solely for the purpose of perceiving the truth that it makes sense to believe in the articles of Islamic faith and for the purpose of understanding the goals and objective that Islam wants us to achieve in this temporary life. Any discussions that deviate from these two objectives have been strongly discouraged. It is as dangerous as not doing any reflections or pondering on the teachings of the Qur-aan.

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