The Ambiguous Nature of al-Quran

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020

The Ambiguous Nature of al-Quran

 (al-tashabuh) Allah represents the totality of objective reality. His knowledge is absolute. He neither requires further knowledge nor needs any form of guidance. But human beings, in their attempt to apprehend Allah’s absolute knowledge, can only do so within the limits of their relative, historical understanding. Allah took this partiality in human understanding into consideration when He decided to impart His knowledge to humankind.

An analogy to this would be the case of a father who wants to teach his five-year-old son the things he has learned about theoretical physics. The father is a trained physicist and an international authority on the subject, whereas his son knows nothing about it yet. He teaches him his expertise in a piecemeal manner over a long period of time, that is, by considering his son’s age and by proportioning the amount he can teach according to what his son has already understood.

This approach requires that father and son are in constant contact with each other and that the father never stops teaching his son until he fully understands the entirety of his father’s knowledge. Or, alternatively, the father gives his son a text to read which encapsulates an ultimate summary of his knowledge and never again changes what he has written.

Since the son would initially not understand much he will be required to come back to the text year after year and every time absorb a little bit more of it. In this case, even though the text remains fixed and unchanged, its content changes insofar as the son will develop a gradual understanding of it. It is this quality of a text, where the form remains fixed but its content moves, that we define as the text’s ‘ambiguity’, or tashabuh.

Like in the example of father and son, Allah communicated with humankind in two ways: at first, constantly, repetitively, and over a long period of time, but after that only by one single instance. Until His revelation to Muhammad, Allah repeatedly returned to  humankind to renew His message. After the revelation of the Torah, for example, He sent down the Gospel, and after the revelation of the Gospel, He returned again and brought down the Quran. But after that He will never return again, nor will any other prophet or messenger ever appear again to renew Allah’s message.

This has serious consequences for the way we understand the Book. With the Torah and the Gospel, Allah attuned His revelations to the actual historical circumstances that formed the intellectual horizon of the Jews and Christians who were the recipients of His message.

In other words, God’s revelations showed all the signs of the Zeitgeist that these periods had. It would be seriously anachronistic to go back to the Torah and the Gospel in order to understand the text that was revealed later, the Book. It would be more appropriate, as was done during the European Enlightenment, to regard these texts,

which inadequately discuss the laws of nature and the complexities of the cosmos, as historically obsolete. Neither the Torah nor the Gospel possess the universal quality of tashabuh since they are purely historical texts, written for a specific group of people in a narrowly defined historical period. It is no wonder that the Torah and the Gospel have no relevance any more in modern sciences and are only used for liturgical purposes. May God prevent the scholars from inflicting the same destiny upon the Qur’anic text!

Allah no longer communicates directly with human beings. He returns to them solely through the text of the Book, revealed fourteen hundred years ago. And yet, even today we still absorb immense knowledge about objective reality from His text. This can only imply that even if the form of His text is fixed, its content still moves.

A miracle, is this elasticity of the text allows its readers to relate what is read directly to what is experienced in reality. Generations of future readers will do the same without having violated either the form or the content of the text. No one, of course, will ever be able to fully understand or exhaustively interpret the text; this can only be done by God. Even those ‘who are deeply rooted in knowledge’ (al-rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) [3:7] will always be restricted in their interpretations due to their limited understanding of the truth.

As for Muhammad, he never actually ventured to interpret a single line of the Quran; instead, he interpreted other parts of the Book, for example, the umm al-kitab, but not the Quran, which he was asked to deliver, uninterpreted, to the people.

The Approving and Controlling Nature of the quran

The scripture We have revealed to you [Prophet] is the truth and confirms the scriptures that [came with] it [ma baina yadaihi]… (Fatir:31) The disbelievers say, ‘We will believe neither this Quran nor the scriptures that came [with] it [alladhi baina yadaihi].’ (Saba’:31)

Generations of exegetes interpreted the phrase ma baina yadaihi as ‘scriptures (the Gospel and the Torah) that preceded it (the Quran)’, ignoring the fact that their interpretation seriously undermined the authority of Muhammad’s prophethood. Having been provided with a revelation that simply confirmed previous scriptures would have dramatically sabotaged the Prophet’s mission to convince people that he had received a new message from God. They also ignored Muhammad’s assurance that he had brought a revelation that abrogated previous scriptures including the Torah and the Gospel.

How could they ever think that the Quran only confirmed what had been revealed before! The ‘scripture that came with’ the Quran was Muhammad’s messengerhood (risala) that needed to be confirmed by the truth. Verses that instruct people to pray, fast, go on a pilgrimage, arrange divorce and inheritance, and such, are verses that require absolute obedience and therefore need to be authorized.

Approval had to come from outside his messengerhood, and it came through Muhammad’s prophethood. Objective reality, encapsulated within the Quran and the seven-mathani, confirms the rules of human behavior and sanctions what has been declared as allowed or taboo (halal au-haram). Disbelievers are those who believe neither in the Quran nor the umm al-kitab that ‘came down with it’. In sum, revelation to Muhammad in the form of the Quran confirmed the umm al-kitab which had preceded the Quran (35:31).

The Quran’s ambiguous nature ( al-tashabuh) was the ‘miracle’ that Muhammad brought to the people. It was the most abstract miracle that God could ever have created. Previous prophets had to rely on concrete miracles which they performed in front of a disbelieving crowd (e.g., when Moses turned a staff into a snake inside the Pharaoh’s palace). Without the performances of miracles prophets could not convince people that they were in the possession of a divine message.

Their miracles were nothing but extratextual proof that their message came from God. This happened in humankind’s primitive phase when people thought with their senses and when only phenomena that defied the laws of nature would impress people. The miracle that Muhammad performed occurred on a different, more abstract level. His miracle was the Quran itself. No extratextual miracle was required to prove that his message came from God.