Q: What is
meant by Muhkam (decisive legislative, self-contained Qur'anic verses, closed to any interpretation) and Mutashabih (similar and dependent Qur'anic verses, open to more than one interpretation or whose meaning is known only to Allah)?
There is an argument raised by some people that if the Qur’an is an explanation of each and every thing and if it is guidance to all mankind and Jinn, how can this be reconciled with the Saying of Allah (Exalted be He):
...but none knows its hidden meanings save Allâh. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge
What is meant by "those who are firmly grounded in knowledge"? What is the difference between Ta’wil (interpretation) of the Qur’an and Tafsir (explanation/exegesis of the meanings of the Qur’an)?
Firstly, Muhkam is used to refer to perfection and accuracy, and as such, perfecting speech means making it accurate and clear in terms of its meaning, whereby truth becomes distinct from falsehood, and the right path becomes distinct from the wrong path. In this context, all the Ayahs (Qur'anic verses) are perfect. They are all crystal-clear, causing no confusion to anyone, as Allah (Exalted be He) says:
(This is) a Book, the Verses whereof are perfected (in every sphere of knowledge), and then explained in detail from One (Allâh), Who is All-Wise, Well-Acquainted (with all things).
He (Glorified be He) also says:
These are the Verses of the Book (the Qur’ân) Al-Hakîm.
(Part No. 4; Page No. 171)
Mutashabih (i.e. Resembling or similar) is used to refer to speech that carries similar harmonious meanings, whereby the commands given therein confirm one another. It does not enjoin a certain command in one location and prohibit it in another. The accounts it relates are all consistent and harmonious. Any occurrence or event confirmed in one location is not negated in another. In this context, the entire Qur’an is similar from the perspective that its parts are not in contradiction or confusion with one another. Allah (Exalted be He) says:
Do they not then consider the Qur’ân carefully? Had it been from other than Allâh, they would surely have found therein many a contradiction.
Allah (Exalted be He) also says:
Allâh has sent down the Best Statement, a Book (this Qur’ân), its parts resembling each other (in goodness and truth) (and) oft-repeated.
In this context, Mutashabih (resembling or similar) does not negate the general meaning of Muhkam (perfect, exact, or accurate). Each part of the Glorious Qur’an integrates with the other and confirms it without any taint of contradiction among them.
the particular meaning of similarity occurs when a thing resembles another in one aspect but differs from it in another. In the Glorious Qur’an, there are some Ayahs that in this sense are termed Mutashabihat (similar Ayahs, yet not entirely clear independently). They carry implications that agree with the Muhkamat (clear-cut Ayahs) in certain regards and differ from them in others. Thus, their intended meaning become unclear to people. But anyone who refers to the self-explanatory, clear-cut Ayahs to understand in their light such similar yet not entirely clear Ayahs, will clearly perceive their intended meanings and will be guided to the right path. (Part No. 4; Page No. 172) On the other hand, any scholar who understands the Mutashabihat alone without referring to the Muhkamat will fall into error and deviate from the right path, as the Christians did in their claim that Allah (Exalted be He) has a son. Allah (Exalted be He) states about `Isa (Jesus, peace be upon him) that he is the son of Maryam (Mary, may Allah be pleased with her), and that he was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word which He bestowed upon
Maryam and a Ruh (spirit) created by Him. Despite this, the Christians have disregarded the Statements of Allah (Exalted be He) concerning `Isa (peace be upon him):
He [‘Isâ (Jesus)] was not more than a slave. We granted Our Favour to him
Verily, the likeness of ‘Isâ (Jesus) before Allâh is the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then (He) said to him: "Be!" - and he was.
Say (O Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم): "He is Allâh, (the) One."
"Allâh-us-Samad (السيد الذي يصمد إليه في الحاجات) [Allâh the Self-Sufficient Master, Whom all creatures need, (He neither eats nor drinks)]."
"He begets not, nor was He begotten.
"And there is none co-equal or comparable unto Him."
This particular meaning of Mutashabih and Muhkam and the different attitudes of people towards them is pointed out in the Saying of Allah (Exalted be He):
It is He Who has sent down to you (Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم) the Book (this Qur’ân). In it are Verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundations of the Book [and those are the Verses of Al-Ahkâm (commandments), Al-Fara’id (obligatory duties) and Al-Hudud (legal laws for the punishment of thieves, adulterers)]; and others not entirely clear. So as for those in whose hearts there is a deviation (from the truth) they follow that which is not entirely clear thereof, seeking Al-Fitnah (polytheism and trials), and seeking for its hidden meanings, but none knows its hidden meanings save Allâh. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in it; the whole of it (clear and unclear Verses) are from our Lord." And none receive admonition except men of understanding.
Thus, it becomes clearly evident that the Qur’an is an explanation of each and every thing, and that it is guidance and mercy and bears glad tidings to the Muslims. (Part No. 4; Page No. 173) It also becomes clear that the texts of the Noble Qur’an are harmonious, without a taint of contradiction about them. "Those who are firmly grounded in knowledge" are those who seek the truth. They explain the Mutashabih in the light of the Muhkam, and so any misinterpretation is eliminated. "As for those in whose hearts there is a deviation from the truth," they are the obstinate people who stubbornly adhere to their opinion and follow their whims and tendencies. They explain and interpret the Mutashabih without referring to the Muhkam with the aim of sowing the seeds of doubt and unrest in the hearts of the believers. Moving to the issue of difference between Ta’wil (interpretation) and Tafsir (exegesis) of the Noble Qur’an, interpretation may refer to explanation given to its meanings in words that clarify what is intended, even if by resorting to the Muhkam. Therefore, it is correct that a reader pause at the word "knowledge" in the Saying of Allah (Exalted be He):
...but none knows its hidden meanings save Allâh. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge
Those who are firmly grounded in knowledge understand the Mutashabih and their meanings by referring to the Muhkam. Accordingly, people who are firmly grounded in knowledge are joined to the Word "Allah" through the conjunction "and" in the Saying of Allah (Exalted be He):
And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge
Ta’wil of the Qur’an may also mean the actualization and realization of its words. Allah (Exalted be He) says:
Await they just for the final fullfilment of the event? On the Day the event is finally fulfilled (i.e. the Day of Resurrection), those who neglected it before will say: “Verily, the Messengers of our Lord did come with the truth
The same applies to the Saying of Allah (Exalted be He) concerning the story of
Yusuf (Joseph, peace be upon him) (Part No. 4; Page No. 174) when his parents and brothers bowed to him:
O my father! This is the interpretation of my dream aforetime!
Yusuf (peace be upon him) explained their bowing as the realization of his dream which thus came true. Also known to those who are firmly grounded in knowledge is the Attributes of Allah which He confirmed in the Noble Qur’an, such as Istiwa’ (Allah’s rising over the Throne in a manner that befits Him) in His Saying:
The Most Gracious (Allâh) rose over (Istawâ) the (Mighty) Throne (in a manner that suits His Majesty).
And His coming with angels in rows in His Saying:
And your Lord comes with the angels in rows.
The meaning of "Istawa" and "comes with the angels in rows" is known to scholars firmly grounded in religious knowledge. As for how Allah rises over the Throne or how He will come with the angels in rows, it is only known to Allah (Exalted be He). Therefore, it is correct to pause at the Word "Allah" when reciting the following Ayah:
...but none knows its hidden meanings save Allâh.
Both pauses are correct, as each conveys a certain true meaning. Another example of Ta’wil when used to signify that something comes true or is fulfilled is the Hadith authentically reported on the authority of
`Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to say while bowing and prostrating:
Glory be to You, O Allah, our Lord, and praise be to You. O Allah, forgive me,
in interpretation of the Ayah (Part No. 4; Page No. 175)
So glorify the Praises of your Lord, and ask His Forgiveness.
Ta’wil in the context of ‘Aishah’s words means actual fulfillment of the words. However, as far as the Qur’an and other legal texts are concerned, it may mean giving precedence to a probable opinion over a less probable one because there is proof that supports the first. This is the meaning used by many jurists and scholars of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and it principles, and is also the one applied by the late interpreters of the texts speaking of the Attributes of Allah (Exalted be He). However, the Shaykh of Islam
Ibn Taymiyyah criticized this at the end of the fifth rule in his book Al-Tadmuriyyah. For more details, please refer to this book.May Allah grant us success. May peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family, and Companions.