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Six Major Errors (3-4)

May 27, 2020

We continue with the six major errors which all occurred because of a wrong interpretation of a verse in the Book.

3- The third error has occurred by inventing the notion of the Prophet’s impeccability (al-isma). This view can easily be rejected by reading the following verse of Surat Al-Ma’ida: Messenger, proclaim everything that has been sent down to you from your Lord—if you do not, then you will not have communicated this message—and God will protect you from people. God does not guide those who defy Him. (Al-Ma’ida 5:67) The verse makes it clear that Muhammad was not infallible as a prophet per se. His impeccability as a prophet is qualified by, a) his infallible delivery of the revealed text of al-dhikr al-hakim (because he transmitted the message without adding or taking away a single letter and without letting any human being interfere in the process of transmission); and by, b) his moral perfection, in the sense that he did not violate an absolute taboo of God or transgress a limit set by God.

His moral perfection lied in the fact that he never ventured to perform ijtihad in anything that God had explicitly forbidden. Instead, in everyday life he performed practical ijtihads within the parameters of what God had allowed       (al-halal). His ijtihads were never fixed once and for all and were never declared absolute as they changed and developed according to historical circumstances. In other words, by his Sunna he impeccably specified what Allah had allowed in His Book. But such impeccability does not imply that the Prophet’s specifications are absolute and to be enforced in other regions of this world or in other sociohistorical contexts of human history.

4- The fourth misunderstanding pertains to the common exaggeration of Muhammad’s prophetic role: (We sent them) with clear proofs and scriptures; and We revealed to you the reminder, so that you may make clear [li-tubayyin] to mankind what has been revealed to them, and that, perchance, they may reflect. (Al-Nahl 16:44) This verse of Surat Al-Nahl has led to much confusion among Muslim commentators. This confusion produced the outrageous view that the Sunna is superior to the Qur’an, in the sense that the Sunna overrides the authority of the Qur’an if the latter contradicts the former, which basically amounted to an abrogation (naskh) of the divine text. The problem lies in a too literal understanding of verse 44 of Al-Nahl and the phrase ‘that you may make clear to mankind what has been revealed to them’.

It was thought that this refers to textual ambiguities in the divine text which Muhammad was meant to clarify, or to too generally formulated injunctions that he was sent to specify. In other words, the Sunna of the Prophet was seen as a pragmatic specification and perfect exemplification of Allah’s rather ambivalent legal injunctions. Legal experts had forthwith to use the instrument of analogy in applying Muhammad’s decisions in order to find and establish their own. In the end, the hadiths were believed to be the perfect filter through which one could explain an obscure divine text, while the Sunna became the absolute yardstick of the ‘real’ legal intentions by the divine text. To read the Book without the filter of the hadiths became increasingly difficult, resulting in the fatal thinking that the Sunna overrides the Qur’an’s authority and that ‘the Qur’an needs the Sunna more than the Sunna needs the Qur’an’.

And yet, ‘Allah, the Highly exalted, is above what they ascribe to Him’! Confusion occurred over the correct interpretation of the Arabic phrase li-tubayyin and its root words bayan or tibyan. The verb bayana was often thought to mean ‘to explain clearly’ or ‘to make clear’ and was identified as the main task of the Sunna. The following verses of the Book, however, show that bayana rather denotes ‘to make evident’, or to bring out what is hidden (i.e., not yet discernible): Those who conceal the clear (signs) We have sent down, and the guidance, after We have made it (known) [bayyanuhu] for the people in the Book—on them shall be God’s curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse. ( Al-Baqara 2:159). And remember God took a covenant from the People of the Book, to make it known and clear [latubayyanunnahu] to mankind, and not to hide it… (al ‘Imran 3:187).. O people of the Book! There has come to you our Apostle, revealing to you  [yubayyinu lakum] much that you used to hide in the Book… (Al-Ma’ida 5:15) ‘And eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears [ yatabayyina] to you distinct from its black thread…’ ( Al-Baqara 2:187)

It is clear that in this context the root meaning of b-y-n is ‘to make apparent’, that is, visible to the eyes, something that is hidden, obscured, that is, invisible to the eyes. We hear further proof in the following two verses: And Abraham prayed for his father’s forgiveness only because of a promise he had made to him. But when it became clear to him [tabayyana] that he was an enemy to God, he dissociated himself from him: for Abraham was most tender-hearted, forbearing. ( Al-Tawba 9:114) He has created man; He has taught him speech (and intelligence) [ al-bayan]. ( Al-Rahman 55:3–4)

In altawba 9:114 we learn that tabayyana refers to the moment when the enmity of Abraham’s father to God became evident to Abraham— perceived by his senses and understood by his rational mind: Allah has taught human beings how to use their language in order to communicate to other people, and he remarks how, through such intercommunicative skills, they establish groups and communities, that is, social cohesion in their daily life. The traditional scholars’ insistence on the need of the Sunna of the Prophet for the bayan of the Book, seems really absurd in this respect, because [if bayan means ‘to show’ and ‘to display’, and not the narrow notion of ‘to explain”] why should communities in Tokyo, Cairo, Washington, or the Himalayas ever need the Sunna of Muhammad in order to hear God’s speech?

Surely, the disclosure or pronouncement of the Book in all these locations does not need the Sunna of Muhammad. When we have recited it, repeat the recitation and We shall make it clear [bayanahu]. (Al-Qiyama 75:18-19) We have sent down to you the Book [revealing] all things [tibyanan], a guide, a mercy, and glad tidings to Muslims. ( Al-Nahl 16:89) There is, in their stories, instruction for men endued with understanding. It is not a tale invented, but a confirmation of what went before it—a detailed exposition [tafsila] of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe. (Yusuf 12:111) This is the way of your Lord, leading straight: We have detailed [fassalna] the signs for those who receive admonition. (Al-An’am 6:126).

The Book says it over and over again: the divine text is clearly visible to the eyes and audible to the ears; in all its details it is unobscured, uncovered, and unambiguous. Such a crystal-clear text does not need clarifications by the Sunna: it has already been explained and made clear, and all the necessary details have been given. Why should there be a need to lessen the confusion if there is no confusion in the first place?

An example taken from contemporary politics can illustrate what is really meant by bayan. Just imagine that two heads of state come together to negotiate a new bilateral treaty. At the end of their meeting a joint communiqué is prepared with a summary of the talks, and this is distributed among the accompanying press journalists. What happens is that the spokesperson announces all the details of the negotiations even though he did not take part in them.

Furthermore, he does not know what else has been discussed and what the communiqué does not mention. The spokesperson’s only task is to read the communiqué to the press, and make its points audible and visible, that is, known to his audience; a clarifying commentary by him is neither requested nor expected. This example illustrates the role that Muhammad played. His role as a messenger of God was to make Allah’s revelation known to people. It was neither requested nor expected that he changes the form or shape of the revelations (the dhikr al-hakim), nor that he reformulates them in his own words.

Some Muslim scholars have claimed that Muhammad merely received inspirations from God and that he put them into his own words which he then announced as divine revelations. If this is true, it would mean that Muhammad possessed all the superhuman capacities necessary to formulate such sublime speech, and that he had completely understood all the divine instructions. It would mean that the Prophet’s ‘being’ is the ‘being’ of the most praiseworthy, but surely Allah, the highly exalted, is above what they ascribe to Him! Let us repeat the fundamental truth that in front of us is the Book, the unaltered, unfiltered, and untampered word of God that came down to Muhammad in its final format and complete in content. It was delivered to the people without the need for clarification or specification, and without the need for protection or guardianship. Such protection has since been achieved by written copies of the original manuscript, first as scrolls, then, after the invention of the printing machine as books and, nowadays, as computer files or audio/video CDs and DVDs. Before all of that was possible, the Prophet Muhammad was in this respect the most reliable, most trustworthy, and most perfect transmitter of the divine text.

A final thought: if it is true that the Book is ambiguous and the Sunna unambiguous, and that one always has to go back to see how the Sunna has specified the general rules of the Book, it would leave no room for human reason, experiment, reflection, or independent thinking. It would disqualify verse 2 of Surat Yusuf as being entirely meaningless: We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, in order that you may learn wisdom. (Yusuf 12:2)