Aal-Imran · Juz 3 · Qur'an Tafseer

The Mutashabih and Muhkam Ayaat

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Tafseer Surah Aal-Imran Ayah 7

Moving from the affirmation of the principle of Allah’s Oneness, the text now answers some doubts raised against it. This ayah was revealed in a specific background. Once a group of Christians came to the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and started talking about religion. The Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam refuted their doctrine of Trinity in details and proved the Oneness of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala with reference to the eternal existence, the perfect power, the all-encompassing knowledge, and the most unique creativity of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala who had to be One and indivisible. The Christians had to accept these premises and once Tawheed was proved, the belief in Trinity was also proved untenable.

The Christians then expressed their doubts about some words of the Qur’an in which ‘Eesa [Jesus] ‘alayhi salaam has been called “Roohullah” [the Spirit of Allah] or “Kalimatullah” [the Word of Allah], which according to them led to prove that Jesus (peace be upon him) had a share in the divinity of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

Through this ayah, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has put an end to these doubts by saying that such expressions are in the category of Mutashabihat where the outward meaning is not intended. They are, rather, a secret between Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and His Messenger, the reality of which cannot become manifest to others for whom it is not even appropriate to go about determining the possible meanings of these words. One has to have faith in them by believing that whatever Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has elected to mean through them is the truth. It is not permissible to dig deeper and mount further researches in this direction.

There are two kinds of ayaat in the Qur’an: the Muhkamat and the Mutashabihat. The word Muhkam [مُّحْكَم] from the word ha-kaf-meem (hukm) are the clear and plain ayaat which can be understood by everyone. These are the foundations of the Qur’an. The Mutashabihat [مُتَشَابِهَات] from the root word sheen-ba-ha (shuba) are the unclear ayaat and pertain to the unknown world such as the life of the Hereafter. Nobody has witnessed what happens after death. We have narrations that tell us about the questioning in the grave and the punishments but nobody has returned from the other realm to confirm what actually happened. Therefore, we believe in the Unseen [ghayb] without ever witnessing it.

Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says those who are the rightly guided and their hearts are pure believe in every word of the Qur’an. They do not try to delve deeper in the unclear ayaat and create fasad [corruption, disturbance]. On the contrary, those who are of a diseased heart they leave the plain and clear ayaat of the Qur’an and go for the Mustashabihat. Their intention is not to understand these ayaat but to create confusion among people and give way to Fitnah. This is severely disliked in the Deen – creating disunity and confusion are not likeable traits.   

The Muhkamat are the foundations of the Book meaning they are the basis of the Qur’an and should be referred to for clarification when warranted. Recall in the earlier posts we mentioned that there are several ways of understanding the Qur’an. First is to understand the Qur’an from the Qur’an meaning look for similar ayaat in the Qur’an and see what has been said. Second, look at the explanation of the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, then the Companions radhiAllahu ‘anhum, the Tabieen [the generation after the Companions], and so on. Therefore, before coming up with our own interpretations we have to see what has been said in other places in the Qur’an.

The Mutashabihat are those, which have several meanings, some that agree with the Muhkam ayaat and some that carry other literal indications, although these meanings might not be desired. Look at the beginning of Surah Aal-Imran, it begins with Haroof Muhkamat. Many people have tried to interpret the meaning of these letters but the truth is that no one knows their real meaning except Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and we should leave them as they are. We should not try to give a meaning to these letters on our own without a backing from a quotation of the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and his Companions radhiAllahu ‘anhum.

The Muhkamat are the ayaat, which explain the abrogated rulings, the allowed, the prohibited, laws, limits, obligations and rulings that should be believed in and implemented. As for the Mutashabihat, they include the abrogated ayaat, parables, oaths and what should be believed in, but not implemented.

Commenting on these ayaat Muhammad ibn Ishaq said that the Muhkamat contain proof of the Lord, immunity for the servants and a refutation of opponents and of falsehood. They cannot be changed or altered from what they were meant for. As for the Mutashabihat, they can (but must not) be altered and changed, and this is a test from Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala to the servants, just as He tested them with the allowed and prohibited things. So these ayaat must not be altered to imply a false meaning or be distorted from the truth.

Therefore, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala said, “So as for those in whose hearts there is a deviation (from the truth) they follow that which is not entirely clear…” The word zayghun [زَيْغٌ] is from the root words zay-ya-ghayn and it means “to decline or deviate.” Those who are misguided and have corruption in their heart they deviate from the truth to falsehood. Instead of studying the Muhkamat, they delve into Mutshabihat because their meaning is not clear and one can interpret them as it suits his understanding. There is a high risk of one’s deviation here. One might ask then why did Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala place them in the Qur’an? This was answered by Muhammad ibn Ishaq in the comment above: To test mankind. It is similar to engaging in what is purposeful and productive and wasting one’s time in arguments and unnecessary things. We have a choice in picking our path.

Why do people go for the Mutashabihat? Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala answers: It is to seek Fitnah. What kinds of news pieces make headlines? Anything that is out of the ordinary, right? Same is with the religious discussions. Say anything that is completely new, unheard of or different from the ordinary and it will be a big hit among people. There will be discussions and reports and people will leave that which is clear and evident. Such discussions and sensational news pieces become the trap for people to deviate from the right path. Therefore, we need to be really careful about what discussions we follow, what we read and what delights our hearts.

Ibn Katheer gives an example of a Mutashabih ayah that is quite popular among people even today. In the Qur’an, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says that ‘Eesa [Jesus] ‘alayhi salaam is the Rooh [Spirit] of Allah and His Word which He gave to Mariam [Mary] ‘alayhi salaam. The Christians use this ayah from the Qur’an to justify that ‘Eesa was not a servant or prophet of Allah but god himself (we seek refuge with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala from such a claim). While they point out this ayah, they completely ignore the other ayaat that claim that he was not god or son of god but one of His servants. In Surah Az-Zukhruf ayah 59 it has been said, “He (‘Eesa/Jesus) was not but a servant upon whom We bestowed favor.” (43: 59)

And,

“Indeed, the example of Jesus to Allah is like that of Adam. He created him from dust; then (He) said to him, ‘Be!’ and he was.” (3: 59)

There are other ayaat that clearly assert that ‘Eesa [Jesus] is but one of Allah’s creatures and that he is the servant and Messenger of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, just like other messengers.

The Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam warned us against sitting with those who leave the Muhkamat and debate over Mutashabihat (because there is a serious risk of our emaan getting corrupted). ‘Aishah radhiAllahu ‘anha narrated that the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam recited this ayah then he said,

فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمُ الَّذِين يُجَادِلُونَ فِيهِ، فَهُمُ الَّذِينَ عَنَى اللهُ، فَاحْذَرُوهُم

“When you see those who argue in it (using the Mutashabihat), then they are those whom Allah meant. Therefore, beware of them.” This hadeeth with similar wordings has been recorded by Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmad, and Abu Daw’oud.

In another hadeeth, it has been reported that the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said, “I have three apprehensions about my Ummah: (1) that they become wealthy and start envying each other resulting in rifts and bloodshed; (2) that the Book of Allah is trifled with (that is, even the uninitiated and ignorant claim its perfect understanding through translations) and that which is not supposed to be understood (meaning the Mutashabihat) becomes the object of deliberations and investigations although Allah alone is the One Who knows their meaning; (3) and that they allow their knowledge, once it has increased, go to waste by forsaking efforts to increase it further. [Ibn Katheer with reference to Tabarani].

(contd.)

رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيم                
“Our Lord, accept [this] from us. Indeed You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” [Al-Baqarah 2: 127]
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