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The Explanation of the Book

May 27, 2020

The Explanation of the Book (tafsil al-kitib)

We have said that the ‘explanation of the book’ refers to a third category of verses: those that are neither ambiguous nor definite.

These verses were revealed directly from Allah and, because of their in-between status, they transcend the division between ‘definite’ and ‘ambiguous’. The following verses show how this category is connected to the other parts of the book:
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) There is, in their stories, instruction for men endued with understanding. It is not a tale invented, but a confirmation of what went [with] it—a detailed exposition [tafsil] of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe. (Yusuf:111)

A-L-R. (This is) a book, with verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning), further explained in detail [fussilat]—from one who is wise and well-acquainted (with all things). (Hud:1),  Say: “Shall I seek for judge other than God, when He it is who has sent unto you the book, explained in detail [mufassalan]?” They know full well, to whom We have given the book, that it has been sent down from your Lord in truth. Never be then of those who doubt. (An’am:114) According to the dictionary of Ibn Faris, the Arabic term tafsil can mean both ‘elaborate exposition’ and ‘to set apart’. As for these two meanings we come across two further subdivisions:

  1. Exposition as ‘commentary’:

Verses that do not contain general laws of the universe or rules of human behavior but which provide information about either of the two, are ‘explanatory’ and function as a running commentary on other verses. For example, verses that elucidate that the Quran came down in Arabic, or that the Book contains ambiguous and definite verses etc., are commentaries on either the nature of the Quran (revealed in Arabic) or the composition of the Book (types of verses). Thus, they provide further information. One might say that these are the self-reflective verses of the Book.

  1. Setting apart in the sense of ‘to contextualize’: Verses that place a specific event in a concrete, historical context will set that event apart from other events that occurred elsewhere and at other times. Such verses help to establish a chronological sequence as they distinguish between earlier and later events.

In both functions, the ‘explanatory’ verses interrupt the flow of verses that are either ‘ambiguous’ or ‘definite’. They also put the different chapters into a specific order as they structure and subdivide the various categories of verses. This is particularly significant as the Book does not provide a thematically or chronologically coherent exposition of its topics. Instructions concerning issues of family law, for example, are scattered throughout different chapters (e.g., Baqara, Nisa”, Ma”ida) without attempting to introduce either a systematic order or consistent argument. To identify the ‘explanatory’ verses is, therefore, an important exegetical operation so that gaps of information, created by the scattered nature of the book’s line of argument, can be closed.

If these verses are neither ‘ambiguous’ nor ‘definite’, and if the Book knows only these two types of verses, ‘book of prophethood’ and ‘book of messengerhood’, to which of the two should one allocate ‘explanatory’ verses? As they do not contain any rule, commandment, or moral instruction, they are clearly not in the book of messengerhood. By exclusion, they are part of Muhammad’s prophethood, even if they are not ambiguous. But since Muhammad held only two offices, of prophet and messenger, there cannot be a third category. And yet, even as non-ambiguous verses of Muhammad’s prophethood their origin is still different: they were revealed directly from Allah; the explanatory verses do not originate from either lawh mahfuz or imam mubin as do the other prophetical verses.

Why is the Book composed in such a multi-structured way, containing so many different types of books and categories of verses? The answer lies in the history of revelation. Until the revelation of the Book, Allah had sent down revelations to the Jews and Christians which only consisted of rules and commandments, that is, revelations came down as books of messengerhoods and definite verses. As it happens, human beings transgressed against the commandments, divine instructions were ignored and new rules were added and declared as divine:

Then woe to those who write the book with their own hands, and then say: “This is from God.” (Baqara:79) In order to prevent a recurrence of this calamity, Allah’s last revelation was equipped with the criterion of truth, the Quran. It not only confirms ‘what went with it’, the ‘definite verses’ of the umm al-kitab, it also controls and monitors their application. That is why the two books and the three categories of verses are so harmoniously intertwined in the text, and why they are so precisely, mathematically arranged in a manner that has, until now, escaped the penetrating view of so many commentators on the divine text.

But just as modern medicine explores further and further the complexities of the genes, tissues, and organs of the human body, and just as the natural sciences correlate more and more the different signs of changes in the weather, climate, and human habitats, so does a contemporary reading of the Book. The One who created the human body and nature in such a complex manner will do the same with His revealed words—to perceive the Book in a simpler way would not do justice to God’s power.