Linguistic Ambiguity and Multiple Meanings of a Qur’anic Ayah: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

Allah begins surah al-An’aam by describing Himself in several ayaat, including:

وَهُوَ اللَّـهُ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَفِي الْأَرْضِ يَعْلَمُ سِرَّكُمْ وَجَهْرَكُمْ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا تَكْسِبُونَ

And He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth He knows your secrets and your statements and He knows what you earn. [6:3]

As one can see from the Arabic and may also be able to see from this approximate translation of the meaning, there is some linguistic ambiguity (what linguists would call syntactic or structural ambiguity) to this ayah resulting in multiple plausible interpretations. Specifically, the question relates to where one should pause while reciting this ayah, a field known as al-Waqf w’al-Ibtidaa’ in the Qur’anic sciences. In his well-known book of tafsir, sheikh Muhammad al-Ameen al-Shinqitee addresses this issue in his explanation of this ayah as follows:

في هذه الآية الكريمة ثلاثة أوجه للعلماء من التفسير وكل واحد منها له مصداق في كتاب الله تعالى : ـ

There are three ways that the scholars have explained this ayah, and each one of these explanations has something to support and substantiate it from within the Qur’an.

الأول : أن المعنى ، وهو الله في السماوات وفي الأرض ، أي وهو الإله المعبود في السماوات والأرض ، لأنه جل وعلا هو المعبود وحده بحق في الأرض والسماء ، وعلى هذا فجملة «يعلم » حال ، أو خبر

1) That the meaning is “And He is Allah in the heavens and the earth”, i.e.: and He is the deity who is worshiped in the heavens and the earth because He is the only one truly deserving of worship in the earth and the sky.

So according to this interpretation, the word

يَعْلَمُ

and He knows …

is an adverbial phrase

[“And He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth, knowing your secrets and your statements …”]

or a predicate

[“And He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth who knows your secrets and your statements …”]

وهذا المعنى يبينه  ويشهد له قوله تعالى : { وهو الذي في السمآء إلاه وفى الارض إلاه } [ الزخرف : 84 ] أي ، وهو المعبود في السماء والأرض بحق ، ولا عبرة بعبادة الكافرين غيره ، لأنها وبال عليهم يخلدون بها في النار الخلود الأبدي ، ومعبوداتهم ليست شركاء لله سبحانه وتعالى عن ذلك علوا كبيرا ، { إن هي إلا أسمآء سميتموهآ أنتم وءابآؤكم مآ أنزل الله بها من سلطان } [ النجم : 23 ] { وما يتبع الذين يدعون من دون الله شركآء إن يتبعون إلا الظن وإن هم إلا يخرصون } [ يونس : 66 ] . هذا القول في الآية أظهر الأقوال ، واختاره القرطبي . ـ

This understanding is further clarified and finds support in Allah’s statement:

وَهُوَ الَّذِي فِي السَّمَاءِ إِلَـٰهٌ وَفِي الْأَرْضِ إِلَـٰهٌ ۚ وَهُوَ الْحَكِيمُ الْعَلِيمُ

And it is He who is the deity in the sky and the deity in the earth. And He is al-Hakeem al-‘Aleem [43:84]

meaning: it is He who is the one truly deserving on worship in the sky and the earth and no weight should be given to the disbelievers’ worship of others because that worship and its evil consequences will come back on them and they will spend eternity in the hellfire and because the ones that they worship are not partners to Allah – high and exalted is He above that.

إِنْ هِيَ إِلَّا أَسْمَاءٌ سَمَّيْتُمُوهَا أَنتُمْ وَآبَاؤُكُم مَّا أَنزَلَ اللَّـهُ بِهَا مِن سُلْطَانٍ

They are nothing but names which you have created – you and your forefathers – for which Allah has not sent down any proof. [53:23]

أَلَا إِنَّ لِلَّـهِ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَن فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ وَمَا يَتَّبِعُ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّـهِ شُرَكَاءَ ۚ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَخْرُصُونَ

Nay, all who are in the heavens and all who are in the earth belong to Allah. Those who call on others besides Allah do not actually follow partners; they only follow guesses and they only invent lies. [10:66]

This interpretation of the ayah is one that most immediately comes to mind, and it is the one that al-Qurtubi favored.

الوجه الثاني : أن قوله { في السماوات وفي الأرض } يتعلق بقوله { وهو الله في السماوات وفى الأرض يعلم سركم } أي وهو الله يعلم سركم في السماوات وفي الأرض ويبين هذا القول ويشهد له قوله تعالى : { قل أنزله الذي يعلم السر في السماوات والأرض } [ الفرقان : 6 ] الآية . قال النحاس : وهذا القول من أحسن ما قيل في الآية نقله عنه القرطبي . ـ

2) That Allah’s statement:

فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَفِي الْأَرْضِ

… in the heavens and in the earth …

is tied to

وَهُوَ اللَّـهُ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَفِي الْأَرْضِ يَعْلَمُ سِرَّكُمْ

And He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth He knows your secrets …

meaning:

And He is Allah; He knows your secrets in the heavens and in the earth …

[“And He is Allah. In the heavens and in the earth He knows your secrets and your statements and He knows what you earn.”]

This position is further clarified and supported by Allah’s statement:

قُلْ أَنزَلَهُ الَّذِي يَعْلَمُ السِّرَّ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ

Say: It has been sent down by He who knows all secrets in the heavens and the earth [25:6]

al-Nahhas said, “This is one of the best explanations that has been given for this ayah“, and al-Qurtubi included this quote of al-Nahhas in his tafsir.

الوجه الثالث : وهو اختيار ابن جرير ، أن الوقف تام على قوله في { السماوات } وقوله { وفى الأرض } يتعلق بما بعده ، أي يعلم سركم وجهركم في الأرض ، ومعنى هذا القول : إنه جل وعلا مستو على عرشه فوق جميع خلقه ، مع أنه يعلم سر أهل الأرض وجهرهم لا يخفى عليه شيء من ذلك . ويبين هذا القول ، ويشهد له قوله تعالى : { أءمنتم من في السمآء أن يخسف بكم الأرض فإذا هي تمور أم أمنتم من في السمآء أن يرسل عليكم حاصبا } [ الملك : 16-17 ] ؟ الآية ، وقوله : { الرحمان على العرش استوى } [ طه : 5 ] ، مع قوله : { وهو معكم أين ما كنتم } [ الحديد : 4 ] ، وقوله : { فلنقصن عليهم بعلم وما كنا غآئبين } [ الأعراف : 7 ] ـ

3) The position that ibn Jarir al-Tabari favored: That one should come to a complete stop after reciting:

وَهُوَ اللَّـهُ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ

And He is Allah in the heavens.

and then Allah’s statement:

وَفِي الْأَرْضِ

And in the earth …

[“And He is Allah in the heavens. And in the earth He knows your secrets and your statements and He knows what you earn.”]

is connected to what follows that, i.e. He knows your secrets and your statements in the earth. So the overall meaning of ayah then becomes: that He is elevated above His throne above all of His creation while at the same time He knows both the secrets and the statements of the inhabitants of earth with none of that being hidden from Him at all. This position is clarified and supported by Allah’s statement:

أَأَمِنتُم مَّن فِي السَّمَاءِ أَن يَخْسِفَ بِكُمُ الْأَرْضَ فَإِذَا هِيَ تَمُورُ * أَمْ أَمِنتُم مَّن فِي السَّمَاءِ أَن يُرْسِلَ عَلَيْكُمْ حَاصِبًا

Do you feel safe that the One above the sky won’t cause the earth to swallow you up and suddenly it shakes? Or do you feel safe that the One above the sky won’t send a violent storm against you? [67:16-17]

as well as His statement:

الرَّحْمَـٰنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَىٰ

al-Rahman rose over the throne [20:5]

understood alongside:

وَهُوَ مَعَكُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ

And He is with you wherever you may be [57:4]

and also His statement:

فَلَنَقُصَّنَّ عَلَيْهِم بِعِلْمٍ ۖ وَمَا كُنَّا غَائِبِينَ

So we shall certainly narrate it to them with knowledge, and We were not absent [7:7]

[Adhwaa’ al-Bayaan 2/214-216]

After mentioning this very passage in his book entitled “Reasons for Mistakes in Tafsir“, Dr. Tahir Mahmoud Muhammad Ya’qub then commented:

فمثل هذا الخلاف محتمل ، وكل الاقوال فيه حق ولا يدخله ترجيح لكون الاقوال صحيحة وجميعها مراد من الاية والقرآن يشهد لكل واحد منها .ـ

So this type of differing is certainly possible to entertain, as each one of these interpretations regarding the meaning of this ayah is true. There is no way to definitively champion one over the others due to the fact that all of them are accurate, all of them are in fact meanings that the ayah does carry, and each of these meanings is affirmed in other places in the Qur’an.

[Asbab al-Khata’ fee al-Tafsir pg. 922]

See also: The Importance of Learning Where to Pause and Start While Reciting the Qur’an: Abu ‘Amr al-Dani

See also: A Note on Differing Reports in Tafsir: Ibn Taymiyah

See also: Reasons for Differences in Tafsir: Sheikh Khalid al-Batili

See also: Why do the Mufassiroon differ?: Ibn Taymiyah

See also: Reasons Why the Tafsir of the Sahabah Differed: Muhammad Bazmool

See also: A Reward Without Interruption: Tafsir al-Tabari

2 thoughts on “Linguistic Ambiguity and Multiple Meanings of a Qur’anic Ayah: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

  1. Pingback: Reasons for Differences in Tafsir: Sheikh Khalid al-Batili | Tulayhah

  2. Pingback: A Reward Without Interruption: Tafsir al-Tabari | Tulayhah

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