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

In the beginning of surah Aal ‘Imran, Allah says:

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 * رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْوَهَّابُ * رَبَّنَا إِنَّكَ جَامِعُ النَّاسِ لِيَوْمٍ لَّا رَيْبَ فِيهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يُخْلِفُ الْمِيعَادَ

It is He who revealed the Scripture to you. In it there are muhkam verses which are the Umm al-Kitab and others which are ambiguous. As for those in whose hearts is deviation, they follow the ambiguous parts of it, seeking fitnah and seeking distortion. But none knows its interpretation except Allah and those whose are firmly-grounded in knowledge. They say, “We believe in it. All of it is from our Lord.” And none will be reminded except for those of understanding.

“O our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us! And grant us from Yourself mercy. Indeed, You are the Bestower.

Our Lord, surely You will gather the people for a Day about which there is no doubt. Indeed, Allah does not fail in His promise.” [3:7-9]

In his famous book of tafsir, al-haafidh Ismaa’eel ibn Kathir dedicated considerable space to explaining these ayaat. For the sake of clarity and brevity, we have used sheikh Muhammad Moosaa Nasr’s abridgement of Tafsir ibn Kathir in order to present a more streamlined explanation:

يخبر تعالى أن في القرآن آيات محكمات هن أم الكتاب ، أي : بينات واضحات الدلالة ، لا التباس فيها على أحد من الناس ، ومنه آيات أخر فيها اشتباه في الدلالة على كثير من الناس أو بعضهم ، فمن رد ما اشتبه عليه إلى الواضح منه ، وحكم محكمه على متشابهه عنده ، فقد اهتدى . ومن عكس انعكس ، ولهذا قال تعالى : ( هو الذي أنزل عليك الكتاب منه آيات محكمات هن أم الكتاب ) أي : أصله [ ص: 7 ] الذي يرجع إليه عند الاشتباه ( وأخر متشابهات ) أي : تحتمل دلالتها موافقة المحكم ، وقد تحتمل شيئا آخر من حيث اللفظ والتركيب ، لا من حيث المراد . ـ

Allah is informing us that in this Qur’an there are:

  1. Muhkam verses which are the heart of the Book – i.e. verses whose message is plain and clear, such that no one would have any confusion about them
  2. Other verses whose message is somewhat ambiguous to some or many of the people

So whoever refers those confusing passages back to the clear ones and makes the clear parts a judge over the those he finds to be ambiguous will be rightly guided. And whoever does the opposite will have the opposite result. That is why Allah said:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ

It is He who revealed the Scripture to you. In it there are clear verses which are the Umm al-Kitab

meaning the foundation of it which is referred back to when confusion arises

وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ

… and others which are ambiguous

meaning: one could interpret their message in a way that fits and agrees with the clear verses, or one could interpret them to mean something else depending on which words were chosen and how they were arranged, not on the basis of what is actually intended.

وقد اختلفوا في المحكم والمتشابه فروي عن السلف عبارات كثيرة ، فقال عن ابن عباس المحكمات ناسخه ، وحلاله وحرامه ، وحدوده وفرائضه ، وما يؤمر به ويعمل به . ـ

And there has been some differing as to the meanings of these terms muhkam and mutashabih (ambiguous), as the salaf have transmitted a number of different ways of explaining them. It has been transmitted that ibn ‘Abbaas said:

The Muhkam verses are those that abrogate/clarify earlier ones, those deal with what is permissible and impermissible, or which prescribe legal punishments and specific legislated acts of worship, and what has been commanded and is put into practice.

وعن ابن عباس أيضا أنه قال : المحكمات [ في ] قوله تعالى : ( قل تعالوا أتل ما حرم ربكم عليكم ألا تشركوا به شيئا ) [ الأنعام : 151 ] والآيتان بعدها ، وقوله تعالى : ( وقضى ربك ألا تعبدوا إلا إياه ) [ الإسراء : 23 ] إلى ثلاث آيات بعدها . رواه ابن أبي حاتم ، وحكاه عن سعيد بن جبير. ـ

It has also been transmitted that ibn ‘Abbaas said:

The muhkam are Allah’s statement:

قُلْ تَعَالَوْا أَتْلُ مَا حَرَّمَ رَبُّكُمْ عَلَيْكُمْ ۖ أَلَّا تُشْرِكُوا بِهِ شَيْئًا

Say: Come, I will recite to you what your Lord has forbidden for you – that you should not take anything as a partner with Him …

and the next two ayaat [6:151-153]. And Allah’s statement:

وَقَضَىٰ رَبُّكَ أَلَّا تَعْبُدُوا إِلَّا إِيَّاهُ

And your Lord has decreed that you should not worship anything but Him alone …

and the next three ayaat [17:23-26]

This narration was recorded by ibn Abi Hatim and transmitted by Sa’eed ibn Jubayr.

عن سعيد بن جبير : ( هن أم الكتاب ) يقول : أصل الكتاب ، وإنما سماهن أم الكتاب ، لأنهن مكتوبات في جميع الكتب . ـ

It has been transmitted that Sa’eed ibn Jubayr said:

هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ

They are the Umm al-Kitab

The Foundation of the Book, and the reason that they are called the Umm al-Kitab is because these meanings are written in every one of the scriptures.

وقيل في المتشابهات : إنهن المنسوخة ، والمقدم منه والمؤخر ، والأمثال فيه والأقسام ، وما يؤمن به ولا يعمل به . قاله ابن عباس . وقيل : هي الحروف المقطعة في أوائل السور ، قاله مقاتل بن حيان . ـ

Some have said that the mutashabih verses are those that are abrogated or further clarified by later verses, those in which certain information is fronted or delayed, parables and oaths, or thing which we believe in but do not act on. This was mentioned by Ibn ‘Abbaas.

And others have said: they are the disconnected letters at the beginning of some surahs. This was the position of Muqatil ibn Hayyaan.

وأحسن ما قيل فيه الذي قدمناه ، وهو الذي نص عليه محمد بن إسحاق بن يسار ، رحمه الله ، حيث قال : ( منه آيات محكمات هن أم الكتاب ) فيهن حجة الرب ، وعصمة العباد ، ودفع الخصوم والباطل ، ليس لهن تصريف ولا تحريف عما وضعن عليه . قال : والمتشابهات في الصدق ، لهن تصريف وتحريف وتأويل ، ابتلى الله فيهن العباد ، كما ابتلاهم في الحلال والحرام ألا يصرفن إلى الباطل ، ولا يحرفن عن الحق . ـ

But the best of what has been said on this subject is what has been attributed to Muhammad ibn Ishaaq ibn Yasaar when he said:

مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ

… in it there are clear verses which are the Umm al-Kitab

In them one finds the Lord’s proof, the slave’s safety, and something to repel argumentation and falsehood. They do not allow for any twisting or distortion of what they present.

And the mutashabih verses affirm one another, however they can be given to twisting, distortion or misrepresentation. Allah tests His slaves through these, just as He tests them regarding the permissible and impermissible things, that they would not twist them to support falsehood nor would they distort them away from their true meanings.

ـ [ ص: 8 ] ولهذا قال تعالى : ( فأما الذين في قلوبهم زيغ ) أي : ضلال وخروج عن الحق إلى الباطل ( فيتبعون ما تشابه منه ) أي : إنما يأخذون منه بالمتشابه الذي يمكنهم أن يحرفوه إلى مقاصدهم الفاسدة ، وينزلوه عليها ، لاحتمال لفظه لما يصرفونه ، فأما المحكم فلا نصيب لهم فيه ، لأنه دامغ لهم وحجة عليهم ، ولهذا قال : ( ابتغاء الفتنة ) أي : الإضلال لأتباعهم ، إيهاما لهم أنهم يحتجون على بدعتهم بالقرآن ، وهذا حجة عليهم لا لهم ، كما لو احتج النصارى بأن القرآن قد نطق بأن عيسى هو روح الله وكلمته ألقاها إلى مريم ، وتركوا الاحتجاج بقوله [ تعالى ] ( إن هو إلا عبد أنعمنا عليه ) [ الزخرف : 59 ] وبقوله : ( إن مثل عيسى عند الله كمثل آدم خلقه من تراب ثم قال له كن فيكون ) [ آل عمران : 59 ] وغير ذلك من الآيات المحكمة المصرحة بأنه خلق من مخلوقات الله ، وعبد ورسول من رسل الله . ـ

That is why Allah said:

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ

As for those in whose hearts is deviation …

meaning: misguidance and going outside the bounds of the truth into falsehood

فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ

… they follow the parts of it that are ambiguous …

meaning: they only take the its ambiguous parts which they are able to twist to suit their corrupt aims and they subject it to the interpretation of its wording which they concocted. But when it comes to the muhkam verses they are not at all able to do this because these verses are indisputable and act as a proof against them. That is why Allah said:

ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ

… seeking fitnah

meaning: to misguide their followers, deceiving them into thinking that they are able to substantiate and validate their innovations from the Qur’an. But the Qur’an is a proof against them and not for them. It is just as if a Christian were to try and argue that the Qur’an supports his beliefs because the Qur’an states that ‘Eesaa is the Rooh of Allah and His word which he gave to Maryam, while ignoring evidence to the contrary in Allah’s statement:

إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا عَبْدٌ أَنْعَمْنَا عَلَيْهِ

He was not more than a slave. We granted Our favor to him … [43:59]

and His statement:

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

The likeness of ‘Eesaa before Allah is the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust and then said to him, “Be!” and he was [3:59]

as well as others clear and explicit verses that ‘Eesaa was just one of Allah’s creations and a slave and one of the messengers of Allah.

وقوله : ( وابتغاء تأويله ) أي : تحريفه على ما يريدون ـ

And His statement:

وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ

… and seeking its ta’weel

meaning: to twist them as they wish.

عن عائشة ، رضي الله عنها ، قالت : تلا رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : ( هو الذي أنزل عليك الكتاب منه آيات محكمات ) إلى قوله : ( وما يذكر إلا أولو الألباب ) قالت : قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : ” فإذا رأيت الذين يتبعون ما تشابه منه فأولئك الذين سمى الله فاحذروهم ” هذا لفظ البخاري . ـ

It is transmitted that A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) said:

Allah’s Messenger recited:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ

It is He who revealed the Scripture to you. In it there are clear verses …

until the end of the ayah and then he said, “So if you see those who follow the ambiguous parts of it, then those are the ones whom Allah has described, so beware of them!”

This is the wording found in al-Bukhari.

[Click here to read ibn Kathir’s discussion of the first innovation, which we have omitted from this already lengthy translation but previously published elsewhere]

ـ [ وقوله ] ( وما يعلم تأويله إلا الله ) اختلف القراء في الوقف هاهنا ، فقيل : على الجلالة … ومنهم من يقف على قوله : ( والراسخون في العلم ) وتبعهم كثير من المفسرين وأهل الأصول ، وقالوا : الخطاب بما لا يفهم بعيد .  ـ ،

And His statement:

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ

And none know its meaning except Allah

the scholars of Qur’anic recitation have differed as to where to pause in this part of the ayah. Some said to stop after Allah’s name … while others would stop after Allah’s statement:

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ

And none know its meaning except Allah and those who are well-grounded in knowledge

and many of the scholars of Tafsir and Usool al-Fiqh also followed them in this opinion, saying that it is far-fetched that we would be addressed with something we cannot understand.

 وقال ابن أبي نجيح ، عن مجاهد : والراسخون في العلم يعلمون تأويله ويقولون آمنا به . وكذا قال الربيع بن أنس . ـ

Ibn Abi Najeeh relayed that Mujahid said, “Those firmly grounded in knowledge know its meaning and say ‘We believe in it.'” This was also the position of al-Rabee’ ibn Anas.

وقال محمد بن إسحاق ، عن محمد بن جعفر بن الزبير : ( وما يعلم تأويله ) الذي أراد ما أراد ( إلا الله والراسخون في العلم يقولون آمنا به ) ثم ردوا تأويل المتشابه على ما عرفوا من تأويل المحكمة التي لا تأويل لأحد فيها إلا تأويل واحد ، فاتسق بقولهم الكتاب ، وصدق بعضه بعضا ، فنفذت الحجة ، وظهر به العذر ، وزاح به الباطل ، ودفع به الكفر . ـ

Muhammad ibn Ishaaq relayed that Muhammad ibn Ja’far ibn al-Zubayr said:

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ

And none know its meaning …

that which Allah intended for it to mean

إِلَّا اللَّـهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ

… except Allah and those firmly-grounded in knowledge. They say “We believe in it.”

and then they refer the interpretation of the ambiguous portions back to the known meanings of those clear parts which only allow for one interpretation. In this way, the entire Qur’an is in harmony, each part affirming the rest, and thus the Qur’an acts as a miraculous proof, leaving no room for excuses, sweeping away falsehood and refuting disbelief.

وقوله إخبارا عنهم أنهم ( يقولون آمنا به ) أي : بالمتشابه ( كل من عند ربنا ) أي : الجميع من المحكم والمتشابه حق وصدق ، وكل واحد منهما يصدق الآخر ويشهد له ، لأن الجميع من عند الله وليس شيء من عند الله بمختلف ولا متضاد لقوله : ( أفلا يتدبرون القرآن ولو كان من عند غير الله لوجدوا فيه اختلافا كثيرا ) [ النساء : 82 ] ولهذا قال تعالى : ( وما يذكر إلا أولو الألباب ) أي : إنما يفهم ويعقل ويتدبر المعاني على وجهها أولو العقول السليمة والفهوم المستقيمة . ـ

Then comes Allah’s statement giving us further information about those people:

يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ

They say, “We believe in it …

i.e. the ambiguous sections

كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا

… All of it is from our Lord”

meaning: both the clear and ambiguous parts are true and accurate, and each of these parts affirms and supports the other because all of it is from Allah, and there is nothing from Allah that is contradictory and at odds, as comes in His statement:

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

Do they not then consider the Quran carefully? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much contradictions. [4:82]

and that is why Allah said:

وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

and no one will be reminded except the people of understanding.

meaning: the only ones who will understand, comprehend and reflect on the meanings as they were meant to be understood are the people who possess sound intellects and an upright understanding.

ثم قال تعالى عنهم مخبرا أنهم دعوا ربهم قائلين : ( ربنا لا تزغ قلوبنا بعد إذ هديتنا ) أي : لا تملها عن الهدى بعد إذ أقمتها عليه ولا تجعلنا كالذين في قلوبهم زيغ ، الذين يتبعون ما تشابه من القرآن ولكن ثبتنا على صراطك المستقيم ، ودينك القويم ( وهب لنا من لدنك ) أي : من عندك ) رحمة ) تثبت بها قلوبنا ، وتجمع بها شملنا ، وتزيدنا بها إيمانا وإيقانا ( إنك أنت الوهاب ) ـ

Then Allah continues to provide information about these people, that they supplicate to their Lord by saying:

رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا

O our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us!

i.e. do not allow our hearts to sway away from the truth after you have established them on it and do not make us like those whose hearts contain deviance, those who follow the ambiguous sections of the Qur’an. Instead make us firm upon Your straight path and upright religion

وَهَبْ لَنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ

And grant us from Yourself …

i.e. from what You have with You

رَحْمَةً

… mercy

to thereby make our hearts firm and, unite us together, and increase us in eemaan and certainty

إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْوَهَّابُ

Indeed, it is You who is the Bestower.”

وقوله : ( ربنا إنك جامع الناس ليوم لا ريب فيه إن الله لا يخلف الميعاد ) أي : يقولون في دعائهم : إنك – يا ربنا – ستجمع بين خلقك يوم معادهم ، وتفصل بينهم وتحكم فيهم فيما اختلفوا فيه ، وتجزي كلا بعمله ، وما كان عليه في الدنيا من خير وشر . ـ

And His statement:

رَبَّنَا إِنَّكَ جَامِعُ النَّاسِ لِيَوْمٍ لَّا رَيْبَ فِيهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يُخْلِفُ الْمِيعَادَ

“Our Lord, surely You will gather the people for a Day about which there is no doubt. Indeed, Allah does not fail in His promise.”

meaning: They say in their supplication, “It is You, our Lord, who will gather up all Your creatures on the Day that You have promised them. You will settle what is between them and make a final judgement as to the matters in which they differed, and You will recompense each one for his deeds and whatever good or evil he did during his worldly life.

[See al-Durar al-Natheer 146-148, which is sheikh Muhammad Moosaa Nasr’s abridgement of Tafsir ibn Kathir 2/6-15. This translator has made some slight abridgements to further streamline this translation, namely in omitting some discussion of other usages of the terms muhkam, mutashaabih and ta’weel and ibn Kathir’s discussion of the first innovation. However we have published articles on these same topics elsewhere on the website, and anyone interested can explore those subjects in the links or refer back to ibn Kathir’s original, baarakAllaahu feekum.]

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

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

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

See also: Supposed Contradictions in the Qur’an: ibn ‘Uthaymeen

See also: Supposed Contradictions between the Qur’an and Hadeeth: Sheikh Muhammad Bazmool

See also: A Comprehensive Statement regarding Bid’ah: Imam al-Sa’di

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5 thoughts on “Guidance for Interpreting the Qur’an in Surah Aal ‘Imran: Tafsir ibn Kathir

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  2. Pingback: The Meanings of Muhkam, Mutashaabih, and Ta’weel: al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah | Tulayhah

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