Clarity and Ambiguity in the Quran
By Sh. Ali Mashhour
“It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses [that are] precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.’ And no one will be reminded except those of understanding” (Quran 3:7).
In the above verse from Al-Imran, Allah classifies the Quran relative to its meaning and implication into two main types: those verses which are clear, and others that are open to interpretation. Allah describes the Quran as clear guidance; a book that puts everything in a human being’s life and environment into a proper perspective. Those verses which are unclear are only ambiguous in meaning relative to the reader, not the text itself.
Allah describes the Quran as being free of error. He says: “[This is] a Book whose verses are perfected and then presented in detail from [one who is] Wise and Acquainted” (Quran 11:1). And again here: “These are the verses of the clear Book” (Quran 12:1).
In these verses, Allah articulates that the Quran is clear and unambiguous while affirming in the top verse from Al-Imran that parts of the Quran may appear ambiguous to some. Hence, we understand that the Quran as a whole is clear, while parts may be obscure.
Allah further says that the Quran is evident in the chests of those who possess knowledge of it. He says: “Rather, the Quran is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who are given knowledge. And none reject Our verses except the wrongdoers” (Quran 29:49). “And these examples We present to the people, but none will understand them except those of knowledge” (Quran 29:43).
To further clarify this concept, Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) is reported by At-Tabari in his explanation to have said:
“The Quran is of four types (with regards to meaning):
-a type which Arabs understand naturally,
-a type which no one is excused from not knowing,
-a type which only the scholars (of Islam) understand,
-and a type which only Allah alone possesses the knowledge of.”
The first type of meaning that Arabs understand naturally would be the nuances of grammar and eloquence, which can only be appreciated by those who master the Arabic language sufficiently enough to notice them.
The second type is those meanings of the Quran, which are so evident that anyone who hears them will understand them regardless of their level of education or intelligence. For example, the understanding that Allah is one and the only one worthy of worship, that adultery is impermissible, that stealing and lying are prohibited, are clearly wrong not and not open to any type of justification.
The third type Ibn Abbas refers to in regards to the meaning of the Quran is that which only the scholars of Islam understand. With proper understanding, the definitions of this portion of the Quran rely heavily upon tying these meanings in with other parts of the Quran and authentic Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah.
Hence, only those with a wealth of knowledge and proper understanding of the Quran and Sunnah can adequately understand these meanings. In other words, one must look at the Quran in its entirety to see the forest for the trees. Anyone can understand the verses of the Quran, still, only those of immense knowledge and experience can understand the Quran and Sunnah in the way that Allah and His Messenger intended.
The fourth and final type of meaning that Ibn Abbas mentions are those meanings of the Quran, of which only Allah reserves the knowledge. Allah describes paradise in vivid detail, yet these are merely an approximation of its actual being. From the narration of Abu Hurairah: “I have prepared for My righteous servants a place the likes of which no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, and has never been imagined by any human being” (Bukhari: 3072/ Muslim: 2824).
Despite the stunning and eloquent detail in which Allah describes paradise, no matter how lively our imagination and how strong our understanding of the concepts put forth, no human being can ever adequately imagine it. Rather its reality is known only to Allah until we get our chance to experience it, inshaAllah.