The Meanings of Muhkam, Mutashaabih, and Ta’weel: al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah

The Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fataawaa of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia received the following question. In their collected statements, they placed this question and answer as the first entry in their section of tafsir-related questions:

س: ما هو المقصود بالمحكم والمتشابه في آيات القرآن الكريم؟ وكيف ندفع الإِشكال الذي يورده البعض من أنه إذا كان القرآن الكريم تبيانًا لكل شيء وهدى للعالمين؟ فما هو وجه التوفيق بين ذلك وبين قوله تعالى: وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلا اللَّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ ؟ وما المقصود بالراسخين في العلم؟ وما الفرق بين تأويل القرآن وتفسيره؟ ـ

Question: What is the intended meaning of the terms Muhkam and Mutashaabih when they come in the Qur’anic verses? And how can we rebut the problem which some people raise that since the Qur’an is a clarification of everything and a guidance for mankind, then how do we reconcile that with Allah’s statement:

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ

And no one knows its ta’weel except Allah, and those firm in knowledge [3:7]

And what is the intended meaning of those firm in knowledge? And what is the difference between the ta’weel of the Qur’an and the tafsir of the Qur’an?

ج: أولاً: يطلق الإِحكام بمعنى: الإِتقان، فإحكام الكلام: إتقانه ووضوح معناه فيتميز به الصدق من الكذب في الأخبار، والرشد من الغي في الأوامر، والقرآن كله محكم بهذا المعنى، واضح لا التباس فيه على أحد، قال الله تعالى: كِتَابٌ أُحْكِمَتْ آيَاتُهُ ثُمَّ فُصِّلَتْ مِنْ لَدُنْ حَكِيمٍ خَبِيرٍ ، وقال سبحانه: تِلْكَ آيَاتُ الْكِتَابِ الْحَكِيمِ . ـ

Answer:

○ First: the term muhkam is applied to the meaning of al-itqaan (excellent proficiency), so muhkam speech  would mean proficiency of speech and clarity of meaning such that it distinguishes the truth from falsehood in terms of information and guidance from misguidance in respect to commands. And according to this usage, the entire Qur’an is muhkam; it is clear without any confusion whatsoever. Allah said:

كِتَابٌ أُحْكِمَتْ آيَاتُهُ ثُمَّ فُصِّلَتْ مِن لَّدُنْ حَكِيمٍ خَبِيرٍ

a Book whose verses are perfected and then presented in detail from the Wise and Acquainted. [11:1]

and He said:

تِلْكَ آيَاتُ الْكِتَابِ الْحَكِيمِ

These are the verses of the clear Book [10:1]

ثانيًا: التشابه في الكلام يطلق على تماثله وتناسبه، بمعنى: أنه يصدق بعضه بعضًا في أوامره، فلا يأمر بشيء في موضع وينهى عنه في موضع آخر، ويصدق بعضه بعضًا في أخباره، فإذا أخبر بثبوت شيء في موضع لم يخبر بنفيه في موضع آخر، والقرآن كله متشابه بهذا المعنى فلا تناقض فيه ولا اضطراب، قال الله تعالى: أَفَلا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِنْدِ غَيْرِ اللَّهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلافًا كَثِيرًا ، وقال تعالى: اللَّهُ نَـزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا مُتَشَابِهًا مَثَانِيَ الآية. ـ

○ Second: the term al-mutashaabih, when it is referring to discourse, is used to refer to mutual resemblance of two things or a relation between them, meaning that one part affirms the other in regards to its commands, so it does not command something in one instance and then prohibit it in another, and one part affirms the other in its information, so that if it affirms something in one place it does not negate it in another place. And according to this usage, the entire Qur’an is mutashaabih for it does not contain any contradiction or disorderliness. Allah said:

أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ ۚ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ غَيْرِ اللَّـهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا

Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction. [4:82]

and He said:

اللَّـهُ نَزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا مُّتَشَابِهًا مَّثَانِيَ

Allah has sent down the best of speech as a Book, its contents mutually affirming and oft-repeated [39:23]

والتشابه بهذا المعنى لا ينافي الإِحكام بالمعنى العام، بل يصدق كل منهما الآخر ولا يتناقضان. ـ

So when used with this meaning, the term al-mutashaabih does not conflict with the general usage of the term al-muhkam. On the contrary, these two terms complement each other and do not contradict one another.

ثالثًا: التشابه بالمعنى الخاص: هو مشابهة الشيء غيره من وجه ومخالفته له من وجه، وفي القرآن آيات متشابهات بهذا المعنى تحتمل دلالتها على ما يوافق الآيات المحكمة وتحتمل الدلالة على ما يخالفها فيلتبس المقصود منها على كثير من الناس، ومن رد المتشابهات بهذا المعنى الخاص إلى الآيات المحكمات الواضحات بنفسها تبين له المقصود من المتشابهات وتعين له وجه الصواب، ومن وقف من العلماء عند الآيات المتشابهات ولم يرجع بها إلى المحكمات الواضحات ارتكس في الباطل وضل عن سواء السبيل، كالنصارى في احتجاجهم على أن عيسى ابن الله، يقول الله تعالى فيه: إنه كلمة الله ألقاها إلى مريم وروح منه، وتركهم الرجوع إلى قوله تعالى في عيسى عليه السلام: إِنْ هُوَ إِلا عَبْدٌ أَنْعَمْنَا عَلَيْهِ ، وقوله: إِنَّ مَثَلَ عِيسَى عِنْدَ اللَّهِ كَمَثَلِ آدَمَ خَلَقَهُ مِنْ تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ قَالَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ ، وقوله سبحانه: قُلْ هُوَ اللَّهُ أَحَدٌ (1) اللَّهُ الصَّمَدُ (2) لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ (3) وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ ، وقد دل على هذا النوع من التشابه الخاص، والإِحكام الخاص، وبين اختلاف الناس في موقفهم منه قوله تعالى: هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْـزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلا اللَّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِنْ عِنْدِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلا أُولُو الأَلْبَابِ . ـ

○ Third: The term al-mutashaabih can be used with a specific meaning, which is that it something resembles something else in one way but differs from it in another way. In the Qur’an there are verses that are mutashaabih in this sense of the word, meaning that they could indicate something which is in conformity with the muhkam verses or they could indicate something which goes against those verses, and so the intended meaning of those mutashaabih verses seem ambiguous to most people. But whoever refers the verses that are this sense of mutashaabih back to those muhkam verses which are clear in-and-of-themselves, then the intended meaning of the mutashaabih verses will become clear to him and indicate the correct way for him to understand them. But those scholars who come across mutashaabih verses and do not refer them back to the clear muhkam verses fall into falsehood and go astray from the correct path. This is like the Christians in their protest that ‘Eesaa is the son of Allah whom Allah described him by saying that he is the word of Allah which He directed unto Maryam and a soul from Him [see 4:171], but they do not return back to Allah’s statement concerning ‘Eesaa (peace be upon him):

إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا عَبْدٌ أَنْعَمْنَا عَلَيْهِ

He was not but a slave whom be blessed [43:59]

and His statement:

إِنَّ مَثَلَ عِيسَىٰ عِندَ اللَّـهِ كَمَثَلِ آدَمَ ۖ خَلَقَهُ مِن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ قَالَ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ

Indeed, the example of ‘Eesaa to Allah is like that of Adam. He created Him from dust; then He said to him, “Be,” and he was. [3:59]

and His statement:

قُلْ هُوَ اللَّـهُ أَحَدٌ * اللَّـهُ الصَّمَدُ * لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ * وَلَمْ يَكُن لَّهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ

Say: He is Allah, One * Allah is al-Samad * He does not beget nor was He begotten * Nor is there any equivalent to Him [112:1-4]

And there is a statement of Allah’s which has indicated towards this type of mutashaabih in the specific meaning of the word and muhkam in the specific meaning of the word and has clarified the differences of the people in their stances towards these, and that statement is:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

It is He who has sent the Book down to you; in it are muhkam verses – they are the foundation of the Book – and others which are mutashaabih. As for those in whose hearts is deviation they will follow that the mutashaabih ones, seeking discord and seeking its ta’weel. And no one knows its ta’weel except Allah. And 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. [3:7]

وبهذا يعلم أن القرآن تبيان لكل شيء وهدى ورحمة وبشرى للمسلمين، ويتبين التوفيق بين النصوص، وأن الراسخين في العلم: هم الذين يبتغون الحق فيرجعون بالمتشابه من الآيات إلى الآيات المحكمات تحكيمًا لها، فيزول الالتباس فيما تشابه من الآيات بالمعنى الخاص ويتعين المقصود منها، بخلاف من في قلوبهم شك وزيغ فهم الذين يركبون رؤوسهم ويتبعون أهواءهم فيقصدون إلى المتشابه من النصوص دون رجوع به إلى المحكم؛ ابتغاء الفتنة، ورغبةً في التلبيس على الناس وإضلالهم عن سواء السبيل. ـ

So based on all this, one learns that the Qur’an is a clarification of everything, a guidance, a mercy, and a glad tidings for the Muslims, and the harmony of the religious texts becomes clear. And one may also learn that the raasikhoon fi’l-‘ilm – “those firmly grounded in knowledge” – are those who desire the truth and so they refer the mutashaabih verses back to the muhkam verses to determine how they should be understood. So this removes any ambiguity concerning the verses which can be described as mutashaabih in the specific meaning of the word and indicates their intended meanings. This is in contrast to those who have doubt and deviation in their hearts, for they are the ones who follow their whims and desires and who go straight to the ambiguous texts without referring them back to the muhkam verses. In doing so they are desiring trouble and eager to conceal the truth from people and to misguide them from the correct path.

أما الفرق بين تأويل القرآن وتفسيره: فتأويله قد يراد به تفسيره بكلام يشرحه ويوضح المقصود منه، ولو برده إلى المحكم منه، وعلى هذا يصح الوقف على كلمة العلم في قوله تعالى: وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلا اللَّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ ، فإن الراسخين في العلم يعلمون معنى المتشابه من آيات القرآن والمقصود منها برده إلى المحكم من الآيات، ويفسرونها ويبينون معناها، فتكون الواو في قوله تعالى: وَالرَّاسِخُونَ ، عاطفة على لفظ الجلالة. وقد يراد بتأويل القرآن حقيقته ومآله والواقع الذي يؤول إليه الكلام، كما في قوله تعالى: هَلْ يَنْظُرُونَ إِلا تَأْوِيلَهُ يَوْمَ يَأْتِي تَأْوِيلُهُ يَقُولُ الَّذِينَ نَسُوهُ مِنْ قَبْلُ قَدْ جَاءَتْ رُسُلُ رَبِّنَا بِالْحَقِّ ، وكما ذكر تعالى في قصة يوسف لما سجد له أبواه وإخوته – عن يوسف عليه السلام أنه قال: يَا أَبَتِ هَذَا تَأْوِيلُ رُؤْيَايَ مِنْ قَبْلُ ، فجعل عين ما وجد في الخارج تأويل رؤياه: أي مآلها وحقيقتها التي وقعت، ومن ذلك كيفيات الصفات التي أثبتها الله تعالى لنفسه؛ كالاستواء في قوله تعالى: الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى ، وكمجيئه يوم القيامة والملائكة صفًّا صفًّا، قال الله تعالى: وَجَاءَ رَبُّكَ وَالْمَلَكُ صَفًّا صَفًّا ، فكل من معنى الاستواء والمجيء معلوم للراسخين في العلم، أما كيفية ذلك فلا يعلمها إلاَّ الله وحده. ـ

○ As for the difference between ta’weel of the Qur’an and tafsir of the Qur’an, then ta’weel of the Qur’an could be referring to tafsir of the Qur’an with speech that explains it and clarifies its intended meaning, and this terminology is appropriate even if this explaining is done by referring back to the muhkam verses. So according to this meaning of the term al-ta’weel then it is fine to pause after the word “al-‘ilm” [knowledge] in Allah’s statement:

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ

And no one knows its ta’weel except Allah and those firm in knowledge [3:7]

because the raasikhoon fi’l-‘ilm – “those firm in knowledge” – know the meaning of the mutashaabih verses of the Qur’an and what is intended by them by referring them back to the muhkam verses which explain them and clarify their meanings. So in this case, the word “and” in Allah’s statement, “and those firm in knowledge” is including them along with Allah in that action.

Also, the term al-ta’weel of the Qur’an could be used to mean the true interpretation or the result or the actual reality which explains the speech. This is like Allah’s statement:

هَلْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَّا تَأْوِيلَهُ ۚ يَوْمَ يَأْتِي تَأْوِيلُهُ يَقُولُ الَّذِينَ نَسُوهُ مِن قَبْلُ قَدْ جَاءَتْ رُسُلُ رَبِّنَا بِالْحَقِّ

Do they await except its ta’weel [result]? The Day its ta’weel comes those who had ignored it before will say, “The messengers of our Lord had come with the truth” [7:53]

and it is also like what Allah mentions in the story of Yusuf when his parents and brother prostrated to him, that Yusuf (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

وَقَالَ يَا أَبَتِ هَـٰذَا تَأْوِيلُ رُؤْيَايَ مِن قَبْلُ

O my father, this is the ta’weel of my vision from before [12:100]

so he took the essence of what he was seeing in front of him as the ta’weel of his dream, meaning the end result and realization of his dream which had come to pass. And an issue in this vein is the kayfiyyah – the “how” – of those attributes which Allah has affirmed for Himself, such as the istiwaa’ in His statement:

الرَّحْمَـٰنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَىٰ

The Most Merciful above the Throne istiwaa’ [20:5]

or such as His coming on the Day of Resurrection along with the angels coming in rows, as Allah said:

وَجَاءَ رَبُّكَ وَالْمَلَكُ صَفًّا صَفًّا

And your Lord comes, and the angels in ranks [89:22]

For the meanings of both al-istiwaa’ and ‘the coming’ are known to those firmly grounded in knowledge, but as for the “how” of those things, then no one knows that except for Allah alone.

وعلى هذا يكون الوقوف على لفظ الجلالة في قوله سبحانه: وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلا اللَّهُ ، وكل من القولين في الوقف الصحيح؛ لأن كلا منهما مبني على اعتبار معنى في بيان التأويل صحيح. ـ

So according to this, then the pause would be after Allah’s name in Allah’s statement:

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ

and no one knows its ta’weel except Allah. [3:7]

And pausing at either place is fine and correct because both of them are based on and in accordance with a correct meaning of the term al-ta’weel.

ومما يمثل به للتأويل بمعنى بيان المآل والحقيقة، ما ثبت عن عائشة رضي الله عنها، أنها قالت: كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يقول في ركوعه وسجوده: [ سبحانك اللهم ربنا وبحمدك، اللهم اغفر لي ] يتأول القرآن، تعني قوله تعالى: فَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ وَاسْتَغْفِرْهُ ، فالتأويل في كلامها بمعنى: المآل والحقيقة التي آل إليها الكلام. ـ

And an example of this usage of the term al-ta’weel to mean clarifying the end result and reality of something is what is authentically transmitted from ‘Aa’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) that she said:

“In his bowing and prostration, Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to say:

سبحانك اللهم ربنا وبحمدك، اللهم اغفر لي

Glory be to You, O Allah, my Lord, and Praise! O Allah, forgive me!

in which he was making ta’weel of the Qur’an.” [Muslim #484]

She was referring to Allah’s statement:

فَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ وَاسْتَغْفِرْهُ

So exalt your Lord with praise and seek His forgiveness [110:3]

So the term al-ta’weel in her speech was with the meaning of the outcome and realization of what he understood from Allah’s speech.

وقد يراد بتأويل القرآن ونحوه من النصوص الشرعية: صرف اللفظ عن الاحتمال الراجح إلى الاحتمال المرجوح لدليل يقترن به، وهذا اصطلاح كثير ممن تكلم في الفقه وأصوله، وهو الذي عناه أكثر من تكلم من المتأخرين في تأويل نصوص الصفات، وقد نقد شيخ الإِسلام ابن تيمية ذلك في آخر القاعدة الخامسة من كتاب [التدمرية]، فليرجع إليه من أراد التوسع في الموضوع. وبالله التوفيق. وصلى الله على نبينا محمد، وآله وصحبه وسلم. ـ

Also, the term ta’weel of the Qur’an or ta’weel of some other source material of the sharee’ah could be used to mean turning a phrase away from its most likely meaning unto an unlikely meaning by means of some evidence being paired with it. This is a terminological use frequently used by those who speak about the sciences of al-Fiqh and al-Usool, and this usage is what is meant most of the time by those latter-day people when they speak about the ta’weel of the texts concerning Allah’s attributes. And sheikh al-Islaam ibn Taymiyah has criticized that in his book al-Tadmuriyyah in the end of the fifth principle, so whoever wants to know more about this subject should refer to it.

Success is from Allah, and may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our prophet Muhammad, and upon his family and companions.

 اللجنة الدائمة للبحوث العلمية والإِفتاء
The Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fataawaa

عضو            نائب رئيس اللجنة                 الرئيس
عبد الله بن غديان     عبد الرزاق عفيفي     عبد العزيز بن عبد الله بن باز

Signed by: ‘Abdullah ibn Ghudayyaan (member), ‘Abd al-Razzaaq ‘Afeefi (Deputy Director of the Committee), and ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn ‘Abdullah bin Baaz (Director)

[al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah, Fatwaa #11627, (Vol. 4, pages 170-175). See here.]

See also: The Wisdom of Dividing the Qur’an into Muhkam and Mutashaabih Verses: Ibn ‘Uthaymeen

See also: Guidance for Interpreting the Qur’an in Surah Aal ‘Imran: Tafsir ibn Kathir

See also: Understanding the Ayaat al-Sifaat: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

See also: Who Knows the Ta’weel? : Imam al-Sa’di

See also: The Importance of Tafsir and its Sources: Sheikh al-Fawzan

See also: Understanding the Qur’an: Sheikh Muhammad Bazmool

See also: A Note on the Different Qiraa’aat: Sheikh bin Baaz

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9 thoughts on “The Meanings of Muhkam, Mutashaabih, and Ta’weel: al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah

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  4. Pingback: The Wisdom of Dividing the Qur’an into Muhkam and Mutashaabih Verses: Ibn ‘Uthaymeen | Tulayhah

  5. Pingback: Who Knows the Ta’weel? : Imam al-Sa’di | Tulayhah

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  9. Pingback: Guidance for Interpreting the Qur’an in Surah Aal ‘Imran: Tafsir ibn Kathir | Tulayhah

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