Qur’anic verses are divided into two groups, known as muhkam or mutashabih. What is the difference?.Part1

Qur’anic verses are divided into two groups, known as muhkam or mutashabih. What is the difference?.Part1

These two categories of Qur’anic verses are concerned with their meaning; muhkam means established, decisive, while mutashabih means allegorical.

a. The meanings of the terms muhkam and mutashabih:

The term muhkam literally means “to make something firm and perfect, or to preserve something against defects or errors.”

In connection with the Qur’an, this term is used for those Qur’anic verses that are easily understandable, which do not need much exegetical effort, and which have one clear meaning.

Whereas, the term mutashabih literally has the meaning of “things that are comparable and consistent with each other, or which have mutual resemblance or which are alike,” while in relation to the Qur’an, this term means “those verses that have more than one meaning, that need exegetical effort for elucidation, or whose true nature cannot be conceived by mere reasoning or narration.”

There are three verses in the Glorious Qur’an that are related to this subject. According to the first of these, the entire Qur’an is muhkam:

“Alif. Lam. Ra. (This is) a Book whose Revelations in verses have been made firm (absolutely free of doubt, alteration, or annulment) and full of wisdom, and arranged in sequence and distinctly detailed. It is from One All-Wise, All-Aware” (Hud 11:1).

The term muhkam here has the meaning of “something far removed from annulment and doubt in all aspects, which is firm and well-established, which is durable and resilient at all times, and is orderly and full of supreme virtues.”

According to the second verse, the entire Qur’an is mutashabih:

“God sends down in parts the best of the words as a Book fully consistent in itself and whose statements corroborate, expound and refer to one another…” (Zumar 39:23).

The term mutashabih here means “Qur’anic verses which resemble each other in beauty, wisdom, authority and soundness, which verify one another and which are founded on ultimate truth and honesty; verses that contain words and meanings that are in full concordance and harmony.”

The term mathaniya in the above verse means “that in which the decrees, admonitions or narratives are repeated, the reading, promises and challenges of which is repeated, or that in which something is mentioned and afterwards something opposed to it is mentioned (as the mentioning of believers or unbelievers, or of Heaven and Hell).”

According to the third verse, some Qur’anic verses are muhkam and some others are mutashabih:

“It is He Who has sent down on you this Book, in which there are verses explicit in meaning and content and decisive: they are core of the Book, others being allegorical…” (Al Imran 3:7).

The terms muhkam and mutashabih in this verse have been used with meanings that are different to that above. These two terms have contrasting meanings here. Accordingly, there are certain verses which are mutashabih and can thus be grasped only by those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; the meanings of such verses are only known by God.

b. Types of mutashabih verses:

The reason why there are mutashabih verses is that Divine Wisdom is a mystery and can never be known exactly. There may be something hidden in words or meaning, or sometimes hidden in words and meanings both.

1. Mutashabih only in words: The quality of being mutashabih can be contained in a single word or in a sentence. That is, a single word may occur either because that word is a gharib (uncommon) word, because it has more than one meaning, or because it is in a sentence which has an intricate meaning or which is not totally clear. Now, let us examine these in more detail in order to understand better:

a. Uncommon words: The verse, 

“And fruits and herbage” (Abasa 80:31)

may be regarded as an example of this category. The meaning of the term abban in this verse (which can be transliterated as “Wa fakihatan wa abban”) was not known as it was not a commonly used word at that time. There is a narration that when preaching from the pulpit, Caliph Umar read this verse and said, ‘‘We all understand these, but what does this a bb (in the verse) mean?’’ He said: “O God! I swear that it is a hardship and an onerous task to try to understand this.” Talking to himself, he continued and said, “O Umar! So what if you do not know the meaning of abban?” Recognizing the limitations of human beings in the face of Divine Knowledge, Umar went on to say, “Look into what is explained in the Qur’an and act in accordance with it; leave whatever you
do not understand to (the All-Knowing) God. ’’

b. Words with multiple meaning: A word can be mutashabih in some instances if it has more than one meaning. For instance, the term yamin has more than one meaning in the verse,

“Then he fell upon them, striking them (the idols) with his right hand (with all his strength)” (Saffat 37:93),

meaning right hand, strength or oath.

c. Being mutashabih due to brevity of the sentence: Another reason for a sentence being mutashabih is that some words may not be clearly mentioned in the sentence, but rather are implied by the text. For instance, the phrases law tazawwajtumuhunna, meaning “when you marry” and min ghayrihinna, meaning “other (than them)” are implied by the context, even though they are not clearly mentioned in the verse,

“If you fear that you will not be able to observe their rights with exact fairness when you marry the orphan girls, you can marry, from among other women (who are permitted to you in marriage and) who seem good to you…” (Nisa 4:3).

d. Being mutashabih due to word order: Another reason for a word or phrase being mutashabih could be the structure of the sentence. For instance, if the word qayyiman, or unerringly straight, in the verse came earlier in,

“All praise and gratitude are for God, Who has sent down on His servant the Book and has put no crookedness in it, – unerringly straight, to warn of a stern punishment from Him and give the believers who do good, righteous deeds the glad tidings that for them is an excellent reward” (Kahf 18:1-2),

there would not be a lack of clarity or case of mutashabih here. When the word qayyiman is put in a different place in the sentence, the meaning would be more direct and easier to understand, “All praise and gratitude are for God, Who has sent down on His servant the Book and has made it a flawless guide (for human beings)….” 

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