The Benefits of the Presence of Ambiguous Verses in the Qur’an

A common criticism is that since the Qur’an is supposed to be a Book of guidance and clarity, why does it contain verses that are Mutashabihat (ambiguous)?

This criticism can be addressed by shedding light on the following:

  1. Benefits of the presence of Mutashabihat, which are possible to contemplate on.
  2. Benefits of the presence of Mutashabihat, which are not possible to contemplate on.
  1. Benefits of the presence of Mutashabihat which are possible to contemplate on

Firstly: The presence of Mutashabihat encourages the scholars to look and search deeper, and to uncover the hidden details and find the precise meanings underlying the verse. Being motivated to pursue this knowledge is a great act of piety. Another benefit is to avoid what the disbelievers said: “Indeed, we found our fathers upon a religion” (Qur’an 43:22)[1], whereby when there is a need, there is an expected drive to generate ideas and thoughts, while in the case of contentment, sluggishness and ineptitude creeps in[2].

Secondly: Showing the excellence of the knowledgeable one over the ignorant one whose knowledge urges him to seek more knowledge to attain and keep the excellence level high. Noble souls look to pursue further knowledge and attain it[3], and if the entire Qur’an had been muhkam (entirely clear to everyone) with no need for interpretation or to search to uncover its meanings, then everyone would have been equal in the virtue of understanding it. The Qur’an and the excellence of the knowledgeable one over others would not have been apparent.[4]

Thirdly: Affirmation of and display of the miraculous nature of the Noble Qur’an. The more ambiguous the verse, the greater the opportunity to uncover its eloquence, preciseness, the consistency of its meanings, and the purity of its words.[5]

Fourthly: Trying to uncover the correct meaning of the ambiguous verses entails enduring difficulty in reaching the intended goal. The more the difficulty increases the more the reward we receive as Allah the Almighty has said: “Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while Allah has not yet made evident those of you who fight in His cause and made evident those who are steadfast? (Qur’an 3:142)[6].

Fifthly: Because the Noble Qur’an includes clear and the unclear verses, the scholars required learning the methods of interpretation and to determine which interpretations were stronger than others; all this required them to pursue various sciences such as linguistics and lexicology and the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. Without the Mutashabihat, people would not need to pursue all of these sciences.[7]

Sixthly: The presence of the Mutashabihat makes the Muslim more humble as it makes him see that someone knows what he does not. This makes him seek more knowledge and admit to and be wary of his limitations.[8] Regarding this, Amr b. Murrah said: Every time I come across a Qur’anic verse I don’t know, I get sad as I recall what Allah said: “And these examples I present to the people, but none will understand them except those of knowledge (Qur’an 29:43)[9].

Seventhly: The Qur’an’s inclusion of both the clear and unclear passages drives the reader (or listener) to seek intellectual evidence, which would then enable him to get rid of the darkness of blind following and attain the light of inference by evidences. However, if the Qur’an was all Muhkam (clear to everyone), then one would not be in need to hold fast to the intellectual evidences and would stay content in following blindly.[10]

Eighthly: If the Noble Qur’an had been completely clear to everyone then there would have been only one school of thought (madhab) and all other schools would have been done away with. Through utilizing the Mutashabihat, other schools of thought are affirmed as well. Followers of each school of thought seek to find support for their views in the Glorious Qur’an in order to strengthen their opinions and make their views preferable. All the followers look attentively towards it and make every effort in pondering about it. When they do this well and with effort, the clear verses form a basis of interpretation for the unclear ones. This way, the falsehood is expunged and the truth is reached.[11]

Ninthly: Facilitation of memorizing the Noble Qur’an and preserving it. All the aspects that the Qur’an includes requiring uncovering shows that there are many meanings in addition to what we can understand from the original text and if these secondary meanings are expressed by words, then the Noble Qur’an would be in large and wide bookbinders that would be very difficult to memorize and preserve; “Say, If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if I brought the like of it as a supplement (Qur’an 18:109).

Also, the reader who ponders over the accuracy and greatness of words of the Noble Qur’an realizes the magnificence of it and its delight urges him to continue reading further and encourages him to memorize and learn it by heart.[12]

  1. Benefits of the presence of Mutashabihat, which are not possible to contemplate on.

Firstly: Revealing the unclear verses—and their subsequent inclusion into the Qur’an—as a trial for His slaves. The believer does not find any doubt in it nor does he mistrust it; his reaction is one of two; being able to refer it to the clear verses or to say “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord” if the meaning is not clear enough for him. Therefore, there is good for him in everything, his reward would be greater, and his station would be elevated in the sight of Allah.

On the other hand, the hypocrites doubt and the Noble Qur’an does not increase them except in loss as their hearts have deviated. Like the heretics, they follow the unclear passages to confuse people and attract them to their innovations. The context of the verse and what comes after indicates the reasons for revealing the unclear. Allah said: “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 [who say], “Our Lord, let not our hearts deviate after You have guided us and grant us from Yourself  mercy, Indeed, You are the Bestower (Qur’an 3:7-8).

Allah the Almighty mentioned in the Qur’an that He tests His slaves by what He reveals; those who believe will increase in faith and people of misguidance will be misguided, as Allah said: “Indeed, Allah is not timid to present an example – that of a mosquito or what is smaller than it. And those who have believed know that it is the truth from their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, they say, “What did Allah intend by this as an example?” He misleads many thereby and guides many thereby. And He misleads not except the defiantly disobedient (Qur’an 2:26)[13].

Secondly: As a mercy of Allah for the weak human beings who do not have the capacity to know everything. If the mountain, when Allah the Almighty appeared to it, fell flat and Musa fell unconscious, then how is it possible that Allah appears to the human beings by His revelation and the truth of His attributes?  Similarly, Allah hides the hour of resurrection as a mercy for the people so that they do not become lazy of being prepared for it and do not become over fearful or panic if they knew exactly how close it was from them. For this reason, Allah the Almighty veils His slaves’ moment of death, to make them live a comfortable life (in this aspect). Glory be to Allah the Most Wise, the Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate.

Thirdly: Establishing the evidence for human beings’ incapacity and ignorance. No matter how great their preparation is and how vast their knowledge is, the fact is that He is the Only One who encompasses all things in knowledge and all His creatures encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. By this, the slave (of Allah) submits and shows reverence[14].

References and footnotes:

Note: This article was adapted from the book Shubuhaat Uloom al-Qur’an, pages 27 – 30. Some similar arguments have been made against the Qur’an and responses to these can be read here.

[1] Al Burhan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an by az-Zarkashi (1/75); Al Itqaan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an by as-Suyuti (3/30)

[2] Ta’weel Mushkil al-Qur’an by Ibn Qutaybah (108).

[3] Al Burhan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (2/75).

[4] Al Itqaan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (3/31).

[5] Manahil al-Irfan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an by az-Zarqani (2/224); Mushkil al-Qur’an by Abdullah b. Hamad al Mansur (108).

[6] Al-Tafseer al-Kabeer by ar-Razi (7/172), Al Itqaan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (3/32), Al Burhan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (2/75).

[7] Al-Tafseer al-Kabeer (7/172).

[8] Mushkil al-Qur’an (108).

[9] Tafseer ibn Abi Hatim (9/3064/17327).

[10] Al-Tafseer al-Kabeer (7/172).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Manahil al-Irfan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (2/225-244).

[13] Da’awi at-Tai’neen (77-78), see also al-Burhan (2/75), al-Itqaan (3:31), Mushkil al-Qur’an (108), Manahil al-Irfaan (2/223), Mudhakirah fi Usul al-Fiqh by al-Shinqiti (78).

[14] Manahil al-Irfaan (2/ 223-224).

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