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Definite & Ambiguous Verses

May 27, 2020

  1. II) The Ambiguous Book ( al-kitab al-mutashabih):

The ambiguous book contains all ‘ambiguous verses’ (ayat mutashabihat) of Allah’s revelation, pertaining to the universal laws given by Allah to His Prophet Muhammad. Universal laws explain processes of nature in the unseen world, those parts of the universe that had not yet been discovered by the human mind when Allah’s revelation occurred. In embodying the signs of the objective reality, ‘ambiguous verses’ separate truth from falsehood— they represent Muhammad’s prophethood (nubuwa). Unlike the ‘definite verses’, they do not contain rules of human behavior and hence are purely descriptive. They contain ‘news’ about the universe, and not prohibitions or permissions.

The ambiguous book is divided into two parts:

  1. a) the seven of repeated (verses) and
  2. b) the grand Quran—as we hear in the following verse:

And We have bestowed upon you the seven oft-repeated (verses) [sab’an min al-mathani] and the grand quran [al-quran al-‘adhim].(hijr:87)

III) Explanation of the Book:

This is inferred from the above phrase: ‘other [than the] ambiguous verses’ (ukhar mutashabihat). Note that the text does not say ‘the others are ambiguous verses’ ( al-‘khir mutashabihat), as many exegetes suggest. It rather points to the existence of a third verse-type that is neither definite nor ambiguous. In the following verse we come across a special term for this type which is ‘explanation of the book’ (tafsil al-kitab):
This Quran is not such as can be produced by other than God;
on the contrary it is a confirmation of (revelations) that went [with] it, and a fuller explanation of the book [tafsil al-kitab]— wherein there is no doubt—from the Lord of the worlds. (Yunus:37)… Surat Yunus refers to all three categories of books in just one verse:
– al-quran (the truth);
– [rules] ‘that went with it’ (explained further as umm al-kitab);
– tafsil al-kitab (the explanation of the book or literally: ‘a fuller explanation of the book—wherein there is no doubt—from the Lord of the worlds’).

The Definite Verses

—The ‘Mother of the Book’ (umm al-kitab) The definite verses (ayat muhkamat) of the Book for which a special term was given: ‘the mother of the book’ (umm al-kitab), are contained in the definite book and cover the rules and principles of human behavior in all spheres of life—they are representing Muhammad’s messengerhood (risala). We have established seven subcategories of definite verses:

  1. 1. Rituals;
  2. 2. The limits of God (hudud ), defining ways of non-ritual worship (ibadat);
  3. General ethics ( al-furqan), moral codes given as commandments, and absolute taboos ( al-muharramat);
  1. 4. Temporary rules (only valid for Muhammad’s time);
  2. Circumstantial rules (e.g., prohibition), only enforceable if a specific historical situation emerges that is similar to the one prescribed in the Book;
  3. 6. General notifications, nonbinding instructions in the Book introduced by the phrase ‘O you Prophet!’ (e.g., instructions for the dress code of women); (Ahzab:59).
  1. Specific notifications, likewise nonbinding as they were specifically and exclusively revealed for Muhammad’s time (e.g., rules of behavior for the Prophet’s wives). (Ahzab:53).

Muhammad received the umm al-kitab from God and, by way of his Sunna, applied it immediately to the historical context of seventh century Arabia. Unlike the other part of the book, al-Quran, it does not require a theoretical understanding but allows for a practical exegesis that considers the needs of society. Such exegesis however requires the Quran to approve and confirm it. Unlike the verses of the Quran, the verses of umm al-kitab do not contain Allah’s words that are eternally valid and to be enforced by necessity. Nowhere in the Book do verses of the ‘definite book’ start with the opening phrase ‘And God said:’ (qala Allah); therefore, the verses of umm al-kitab are:
A). A moral commandment: God commands [Allah ya”amuru] justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion. He instructs you, that you may receive admonition. Nahl:90)
B). A prohibition stated as an imperative: ‘Do not come close [ fa-la taqrabuha]…’ (Baqara:187)
C). A legal rule: God (thus) directs you [ yuwsikum Allah] as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females… (Nisa”:11)

The Ambiguous Verses

Again, the ambiguous book contains all ‘ambiguous verses’ (ayat mutashabihat) of the Book which reveal the universal laws given by Allah to His Prophet Muhammad. The ‘ambiguous verses’ separate truth from falsehood. They represent Muhammad’s prophethood (nubuwa).

The ambiguous book is divided into two parts:

  1. a) the seven oft-repeated and
  2. b) the majestic al-quran.

Al-quran (the Truth)

Al-Quran contains ‘the truth’. It consists of those verses that reveal what is reality and those that explain it. It embodies Muhammad’s prophethood and provides such deep insights into universal realities that those who listen to it shout admiringly, ‘This is nothing but sorcery!’ The Quran’s ‘ambiguous verses’ occupy more space in the Book than those of the umm al-kitab.

The miraculous nature or inimitability (i‘jaz) of the Quran lies in its dual nature of expressing the truth in a total, comprehensive, and absolute manner, on the one hand, and of allowing the possibility of understanding it in a relative, contingent, and subjective manner, on the other. This duality of containing both the totality of the Quran’s truth and the relativity of humans’ perception of it, is what makes the Quran both eternally valid and historically viable. Human understanding of the eternal truth will always be relative, that is, short of the absolute. One may read the Quran from all possible angles, philosophical, scientific, historical, linguistic, religious, and such, but human interpretations will always remain partial and relative.

Therefore, the Quran is the subject of successive, continuous, and progressively improving rational interpretations (ta’wil ), in contrast with traditional verse-by-verse exegesis (tafsir). And because of its partiality and relativity, it is bound to attract a multiplicity of interpretations due to the sheer diversity of human perception and of the subjective ways to understand objective reality.

The Quran consists, primarily, of narratives about the truth and its laws in reality. But it also weaves these together with narratives (hadith) about events that occurred in human history (it never predicts or predestines such events but records them only after they have occurred).

It thus links (qarana) the laws and events of objective reality together with the laws and events of human history. In its capacity as then source of both the cosmic and historical truth it confirms ‘what went with it’ (alladhi baina yadaihi), that is, the umm al-kitab, and functions as the latter’s ultimate protector and guardian.