The Qur’aan was revealed to mankind as a furqaan, a means of distinguishing between truth and falsehood in man’s relationship with his Creator and with the creation in which he exists. The basic principles of these relationships have been clearly defined in the Qur’aan, leaving no room for speculation or doubt, and these are the principles which make up the essence of the Book (umm al-kitaab). For example, the principle of salaah (prayer) defines the primary relationship between man and God, while that of zakaah (institutionalized obligatory charity) defines a primary aspect of human relationship. It is from this viewpoint that Allaah describes the Qur’aan in the following verse:
“A Book whose verses have been made clear, an Arabic reading for a people who are aware.”
Hence, the foundations for the unity of the Muslim nation (Ummah) are firmly laid down by the essential verses of the Qur’aan itself. These verses and the principles which they contain have been referred to as the muhkamaat. However, since the Qur’aan addresses the mysteries of man and his world, there are, of necessity, vague and obscure references to aspects of realities about which man’s knowledge is limited. Some of these references may only be understood in relationship to other verses, while the reality of other references cannot be understood at all.
For example, the letters of the alphabet with which some of the soorahs of the Qur’aan begin have no obvious meanings in themselves. Although they were used in ancient Arabic poetry, they were never used at the beginnings of verses, and the context would always indicate the intended meanings. An example of that can be found in the following couplet of Arabic poetry:
Qulnaa lahaa: qifee, fa qaalat: qaaf
(We said to her, “Stop,” and she said, “Qaaf.” [short for waqaftu, “ I have stopped.”])
However, with regard to the Qur’aan, it has been noted by the early scholars that there is a mathematical relationship between the introductory letters and their occurrence in their respective soorahs, as well as in the other soorahs of the Qur’aan itself. For an illustrative example, let us examine Soorah Qaaf, which begins as follows:
“Qaaf, By the Glorious Qur’aan.”
It has been shown that the Arabic letter Qaaf occurs more frequently in this soorah than any other letter of the Arabic alphabet. Also, the ratio of Qaafs to the total number of letters in this soorah is higher than in any of the other one hundred and thirteen soorahs of the Qur’aan. However, the intended meaning of the letter Qaaf is unknown. Some commentators of the Qur’aan have speculated that it is abbreviation for the word “Qur’aan,” while others have proposed that it represents the phrase, “ qudiyal- amr,” (“the matter has been destined”). Since the last Prophet, Muhammad (ﷺ), to whom the Qur’aan was revealed, did not explain its meaning, and the grammatical context in which it is used does not indicate any obvious meaning, we can only honestly say that Allaah alone knows its reality.
Another example in relation to man himself is that of the rooh (soul). Its existence is confirmed by revelation, as well as human experience, but its reality is unknown to man. Allaah, in the Qur’aan, points out its origin for us, saying,
“They ask you about the rooh; tell them, ‘The rooh comes from my Lord’s command.’ ”
Hence, we know that the soul is created, but as to what it is created from, Allaah alone knows. We know other things about it, like the fact that an angel is responsible for placing it in the fetus at the beginning of the fifth month of its development, and another angel is responsible for extracting it from the human body when its appointed time of death has arrived, etc. But how it was created, its form, its place in the body, or how it is connected to the body is not part of our knowledge. In relation to man and his world, an example can be found in the references to the next life and the final hour. Fruits and drinks of paradise and Hell are mentioned by name, but as Ibn ‘Abbaas (r) explained, only the names are similar; their realities are totally different. Allaah Himself indicates that by mentioning some of their unique qualities, such as rivers of flowing milk that never sours or wine that does not intoxicate, a scale that weighs deeds and the skins of those doomed to the Fire, which grow back again as soon as the fire has burnt them.
Similarly, knowledge of the appointed time for the end of this world is unknown. Although many of the signs have been mentioned in the Qur’aan and Sunnah, and the process of disintegration has been vividly described, the exact time of its occurrence is completely hidden from man. Hence, Qur’aanic references to the Final Hour and the components of the next life are always vague. The Qur’aanic verses that speak on the mysteries of creation and the Creator in such a way that their reality remains obscure are referred to as the “ mutashaabihaat.” The Qur’aan has described itself in various verses as being entirely muhkam, in one verse as being entirely mutashaabih, and in another verse as being partially muhkam and partially mutashaabih.
There is no contradiction here, because the first two cases use the words in their general sense, while the final one uses the words according to a more technical meaning. Since the general meaning of the Arabic term muhkam is “perfected” or “completely formed,” the whole Qur’aan may be referred to as being muhkam in respect to it construction, its logic, and its message. Hence, we find Allaah referring to the Qur’aan as follows:
“Alif, Laam, Raa. A Book from the Wise and Aware (Allaah), whose verses were made muhkam, then explained.”
Likewise, Allaah applied the general meaning of mutashaabih, “mutually resembling one another” or “similar,” to the whole Qur’aan in the following verse:
“Allaah has revealed the best speech (in the form of) a mutashaabih book repeating (its message).”
That is, all of the verses of the Qur’aan resemble each other in their rhythmic and poetic perfection, and they all mutually confirm each other’s meanings. However, the specific meanings of these two terms play a very important role in the science of tafseer. Those meanings are contained in the following verse, along with a very stern warning:
“It is He Who revealed the Book to you; in it are muhkamaat verses which are the essence of the Book (umm al-kitaab) and other (verses) which are mutashaabihaat. As for those whose hearts are twisted, they follow the mutashaabih, seeking to sow discord and searching for its inner meanings, but no one knows its inner meaning except Allaah. And those firmly grounded in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it, as it is all from our Lord.’ Yet, none will realize (this) except the wise.”
Hence, the muhkam could be defined as those verses whose meanings are clear, and the mutashaabih as those verses whose inner meanings are known only to Allaah. ‘Aa’ishah reported that once the Prophet (ﷺ) recited the above mentioned verse and said,
“ If you meet those who seek out the obscure verses (mutashaabih), they are the ones whom Allaah has named in the Qur’aan, so beware of them.”
The concepts of muhkam and mutashaabih provide a set of guidelines by which the Qur’aan should be understood. The system of fiqh (Islaamic law) has evolved from the muhkamaat verses. The early scholars concentrated on those verses which had direct relevance to human actions, the verses which could be applied and interpreted according to logical and universally acceptable grammatical principles. However, those who sought to destroy the message of Islaam from within began their attack at the very source, the Qur’aan. The muhkamaat verses do not lend themselves to philosophical interpretations.
Hence, the mutashaabihaat became the pillars upon which counter-Islaam was built, and Allaah’s names and attributes became the starting point. For example, Allaah describes Himself in Qur’aan as al-Baseer, the Seer, and as-Samee‘, the Hearer, among His many names and attributes. During the era of the Prophet (ﷺ) and that of the four Righteous Caliphs after his death, the sahaabah understood the verses containing these attributes according to their obvious meanings without delving into the why and the hows. To them, Allaah sees and hears all things without resembling His creation in any way. However, after the era of the sahaabah, the argument was raised by some that seeing and hearing were human or animal characteristics which required particular sensory apparatuses not befitting the Lord God Almighty. He had already said in the Qur’aan that:
“Nothing is like Him.”
As a result, a school of philosophy known as the Jahmeeyah arose, which denied Allaah’s names and attributes. Out of this school evolved another, the Mu‘tazilah, which toned down clearly heretical statements of Jahm ibn Safwaan with Greek logic and rationalist interpretations of the texts of the Qur’aan and Sunnah. Under the patronage of the early ‘Abasssid rulers, this school engulfed the Ummah, to the degree that its concepts became the norm, and those who opposed them were systematically persecuted. Allaah’s names were recognized, but were made void of any meaning, and His attributes of sight and hearing were taken to mean knowledge.
In time, there arose others among the Ummah who claimed that all of the Qur’aan was mutashaabih and that they alone knew its real meanings. They called the outer meanings the thaahir or the Sharee‘ah and the inner meanings were termed the baatin or the haqeeqah. Some claimed that the inner meanings were handed down secretly through the Prophet’s descendants, whom they named imaams, while others claimed that they were passed down through a chain of shaykhs or spiritual leaders.
Fortunately, the Qur’aanic description of this trend as being a result of twisted hearts and deviation and the Prophet’s warning to the Muslim Ummah to avoid those who take this path aid us in continuing to hold high the essential purity and clarity of the Qur’aanic message contained in the muhkamaat verses.
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