Mutashābihat Verses?


Verse 3:7 of Surah Al-Imran had always been used by Muslims as an excuse to not study the Quran, based on the belief that a large portion of the verses of the Quran were allegorical or unclear for interpretations or understanding.  This notion is often used by clerics as the reason why we must refer to the hadith and tafseer of scholars of yesteryears. This analysis will prove it was their own misunderstanding and deviations that had prolonged for over a thousand years, diverting from the real message of the verse.

Let’s take a look at what traditional translators had translated over the word ‘mutashābihat’ into: 

Muhammad Assad : allegorical

Yusuf Ali : allegorical

Shakir: allegorical

Ali Unal : allegorical

Safi Kaskas : ambiguous

Abdel Halem : ambiguous

Muhammad Sarwar : may have several possibilities

Syed Vickar : those that have abstraction

Sahih International : unspecific

The translation – ‘allegorical’ will have issues because there is another Arabic word being used for similar meaning : mathal  (مَثَل) – generally translated as parable, example, likeness or similitude as in the following verses:

2:26 Lo! Allah disdaineth not to coin the similitude [mathalan] even of a gnat. Those who believe know that it is the truth from their Lord; but those who disbelieve say: What doth Allah wish (to teach) by such a similitude? He misleadeth many thereby, and He guideth many thereby; and He misleadeth thereby only miscreants. (Pickthall)

13:17 He sends rain down from the sky and watercourses flow according to their capacity, and the torrent carries rising foam-like the foam that appears when people melt metal with fire to make ornaments or utensils. Thus God depicts Truth and falsehood. As for the foam, it vanishes, [being] cast off, but that which benefits human beings remains behind. In this way God presents analogies [al-amthāl]. (Safi Kaskas) 

14:26 While the metaphor [mathalu] of a corrupt word is that of a rotten tree, uprooted from the face of the earth, unable to stand. (Safi Kaskas)

24:35  God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The allegory [mathalu]   of His light is that of a pillar on which is a lamp. The lamp is within a glass. The glass is like a brilliant planet, fueled by a blessed tree, an olive tree, neither eastern nor western. Its oil would almost illuminate, even if no fire has touched it. Light upon Light. God guides to His light whomever He wills. God thus cites the parables for the people. God is cognizant of everything. (Talal A Itani)

47:15  A parable [mathalu] of the garden which those guarding (against evil) are promised: Therein are rivers of water that does not alter, and rivers of milk the taste whereof does not change, and rivers of drink delicious to those who drink, and rivers of honey clarified and for them therein are all fruits and protection from their Lord. (Are these) like those who abide in the fire and who are made to drink boiling water so it rends their bowels asunder. (Shakir)

From the above translations, we should recognize that mutashābihat must carry a distinct and different meaning against the word mathal.  Mutashābihat cannot carry the same meaning as mathal – as allegorical.

Mutashābihat is derived from the triliteral root shīn bā hā (ش ب ه) that occurs 12 times in the Quran.

Lane Lexicon, identifies the basic meaning of  تَشْبِيهٌ, as:

He made it to be like it, or to resemble it; he assimilated it to it; 

(The “Muḳaddamet el-Adab” of Ez-Zamakhsheree / The “Kenz el-Loghah,” of Ibn-Maạroof )

If we look at other verses in the Quran of its contextual meanings, the word simply means to resemble, or resembling.

Let’s take a look at how the Quran presents the usage and context of the word shubbiha (شُبِّهَ) / tashābaha (تَشَٰبَهَ) / mutashābih (مُتَشَٰبِه) / mush’tabih (مُشْتَبِه)

Nowadays we can study the meaning of a particular word by checking word concordance that has been digitized online.
2:25  And give glad tidings to those who believe and do good deeds, for them there will be gardens under which rivers flow (Paradise). Whenever they will be provided with fruit from there, they will say: “This is what we were provided with before," and they will be given from there things having resemblance [mutashābihan] (of earth); and for them therein will be chaste spouses, and they will live therein forever. (Abdul Hye)

2:70  Said' they: "Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that He make clear to us what she is to be like, for to us all cows resemble [tashābaha] one another; and then, if God so wills, we shall truly be guided aright!" (Muhammad Assad)

2:118 And they who know not the scriptures say, unless God speak unto us, or thou shew us a sign, we will not believe. So said those before them, according to their saying: Their hearts resemble [tashābahat] each other. We have already shewn manifest signs unto people who firmly believe. (Sale)

4:157  And [for] their saying, "Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah." And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble [shubbiha] him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.  (Sahih International)
6:99  And He (is) the One Who sends down from the sky water, then We bring forth with it vegetation (of) every thing. Then We bring forth from it green plant, We bring forth from it grain - thick clustered. And from the date-palm, from its spathe clusters of dates hanging low. And gardens of grapes and the olives and the pomegranates resembling [mush’tabihan] and not resembling [wa-ghayra mutashābihin]. Look at its fruit when it bears fruit and its ripening. Indeed, in that (are) signs for a people (who) believe. (WBW-Dr Shehnaz Shaikh)

6:141  For it is He who has brought into being gardens-[both] the cultivated ones and those growing wild -and the date-palm, and fields bearing multiform produce, and the olive tree, and the pomegranate: [all] resembling one another [mutashābihan] and yet so different! [waghayra mutashābihin] Eat of their fruit when it comes to fruition, and give [unto the poor] their due on harvest day. And do not waste [God's bounties]: verily, He does not love the wasteful. (Muhammad Asad)

Both verses 6:99 and 6:141 clearly illustrate the meaning of the words.  One cannot fit the meaning, whether it is allegorical, or ambiguous, or unspecific, in these context. 

13:16  Say, who is the Lord of heaven and earth? Answer, God. Say, have ye therefore taken unto yourselves protectors beside Him, who are unable either to help, or to defend themselves from hurt? Say, shall the blind and the seeing be esteemed equal? Or shall darkness and light be accounted the same? Or have they attributed companions unto God who have created as He hath created, so that their creation bear any resemblance [fatashābaha] unto His? Say, God the creator of all things; he is the one, the victorious God

Other words being used in other translations: similar, or alike.

All the above translations actually reinforced the meaning of mutashābihat as be about resemblance, similarity or likeness, and does not fit into the context of methaphor, allegories, analogy or even ambiguous.  

Based on this, the translation of verse 3:7 should read as follows:

He is the One Who [huwa alladhī]
revealed to you [anzala ʿalayka]
The Scripture [al-Kitāba],
from Him, [min'hu]
Signs [āyātun] 
absolutely firm [muh’khamātun]

they are the foundation of the Scripture, [hunna ummu l-kitābi]

and OTHERS [wa-ukharu]
are RESEMBLING [mutashābihātun]

Then as for those 
in their hearts (is) perversity 
[ fī qulūbihim zayghun]
so they follow 
what is RESEMBLING [mā tashābaha] 

from Him, [min'hu] 

seeking discordance [ib'tighāa al-fit’nati] 
and seeking its interpretation [wa-ib'tighāa tawīli-hi], 

and not knowing its interpretation [wamā yaʿlamu tawīlahu]
except Allah. [illā l-lahu]

And those firm [wal-rāsikhūna]
in the knowledge [fī al-‘il’mi], 

they say, [yaqūlūna]

"We are secured with it. [āman-nā bi-hi]

All is from our Lord." 
And not will take heed 
except men of intellect [ulūl-albābi].

Before we explore the verse in detail, it is very important that we have a clear understanding of the key quranic words used in this verse and their meanings.

The words that we need to address are āyātun and al-Kitāba.

A sign of things to come

Āyāt means Signs, not verses.

Although the term āyāt is generally understood as verse, the Quran more appropriately renders its meaning as Signs.  

A verse, however is the text form of the sign. 

Examples of the word āyāt:

13:3  And it is He who spread the earth and placed therein firmly set mountains and rivers; and from all of the fruits He made therein two mates; He causes the night to cover the day. Indeed in that are signs [la-āyātin] for a people who give thought.

13:2  It is Allah who erected the heavens without pillars that you [can] see; then He established Himself above the Throne and made subject the sun and the moon, each running [its course] for a specified term. He arranges [each] matter; He details the signs [l-āyāti] that you may, of the meeting with your Lord, be certain.

13:4  And within the land are neighboring plots and gardens of grapevines and crops and palm trees, [growing] several from a root or otherwise, watered with one water; but We make some of them exceed others in [quality of] fruit. Indeed in that are signs [la-āyātin] for a people who reason.

The above verses explains what are the signs – āyāt.  Clearly not referring to verses of the book Quran, but the indications and evidence of the Creator.

16:69   Then eat from all the fruits and follow the ways of your Lord laid down [for you]." There emerges from their bellies a drink, varying in colors, in which there is healing for people. Indeed in that is a sign [la-āyatan] for a people who give thought.

Similarly the āyat / sign in the verse, is not referring to a verse in the Quran, but the events by the Creator.

10:71  And recite to them the news of Noah, when he said to his people, "O my people, if my residence and my reminding with the signs [bi-āyāti] of Allah has become burdensome upon you - then I have relied upon Allah. So resolve upon your plan and [call upon] your associates. Then let not your plan be obscure to you. Then carry it out upon me and do not give me respite.

10:72  And if you turn away, then no payment have I asked of you. My reward is only from Allah , and I have been commanded to be of the Muslims."

10:73 And they denied him, so We saved him and those with him in the ship and made them successors, and We drowned those who denied with Our signs [bi-āyātinā]. Then see how was the end of those who were warned.

Noah’s community denied the signs as warned by him. Not verses from a book.

So in 3:7, the word āyātun does not refer to verses of the Quran but Signs of Al-Kitāb (The Scripture).  Since we now understand that āyātun is not verses of Al-Quran, we can also acknowledge by now that Al-Kitāb is not the book Al-Quran.

The Quran is a book explaining Al-Kitāb

10:37  and what is this, the reading [al-Qur’ānu]
that can be produced from other than Allah 
but a confirmation which is before his hands
and an explanation [wa-tafseela]
of the scripture [al-Kitābi],
no doubt in it, 
from the Lord of the World.

From the previous verses on the word Āyāt / Signs, we can comprehend that all the signs being mentioned are in evidence of Al-Kitab – the written, the ordained script, embedded by the Lord of the Universe.   Everything in this Universe, is embedded with His script.

6:38 And not of any animal in the earth and not a bird that flies with its wings - but are communities like you. Not we have neglected in the Scripture [al-Kitābi] of anything, then to their Lord they will be gathered.

16:89  And the Day We will resurrect among every nation a witness over them from themselves. And We will bring you as a witness over these. And We sent down to you the Scripture [al-Kitāba] as a clarification of every thing and a guidance and mercy and glad tidings for the Muslims.

Again Al-Kitāb cannot be the book Quran that explains all worldly matters.  We have to look and read the Signs of Al-Kitāb.

All the scientific discoveries are God’s Scriptures, that gave us Signs.

This is because the word of your Lord is endless, and not limited to 6236 verses.

18:109 Say, "If were the sea ink, for the Words [kalimāti] of my Lord, surely would be exhausted the sea before that were exhausted the Words [kalimātu] of my Lord, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement."

31:27  And if whatever is in the earth of the trees were pens and the sea, to add to it from after it seven seas, not would be exhausted the Words  [kalimātu] of Allah. Indeed, Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise.

Now that we are clear that both the Signs [Āyāt] from The Scripture [al-Kitab] are not referring to the verses of the Quran, we can attest that what was meant as “absolutely firm [muh’khamātun]” are actually clear and solid evidence of the script that we cannot deny – the foundation of the Scripture.

The next question, that has become the subject of debate is the phrase : 

[wa-ukharu mutashābihātun].

The verse then explains:

Then as for those 
in their hearts (is) perversity [ fī qulūbihim zayghun]
so they follow 
what is RESEMBLING [mā tashābaha] 
from Him, [min'hu] 

This is actually describing others that is trying to resemble the Signs of the Scripture, because of the perversity in their minds.

At this point, we have to look into the following verses, that further explain:

3:8  "Our Lord! Do not deviate our hearts after when You have guided us, and grant for us from Yourself mercy. Indeed You, You are the Bestower

3:9  Our Lord! Indeed, You will gather the mankind on a Day, there is no doubt in it. Indeed, Allah does not break the Promise."

These two verses 3:8 and 3:9 describe the promise to those following the Signs of the Scripture.

While the following verses then describe those with perversity in their minds, lied with the Signs of their Lord.

3:10  Indeed, those who disbelieved [kafarū] never will avail for them their wealth and not their children against Allah anything, and those - they are the fuel for the Fire.

3:11  Like behavior of the members of Firaun and those who were from before them. They lied with Our Signs [bi-āyātinā], so seized them Allah for their sins. And Allah is severe in the punishment.

And we know this lies were accomplished by mixing truth with falsehood,(2:42) so it will resemble the Signs of the Scripture.

With the falsehood, they seek discordance and interpretations which they do not know, except Allah and those firm in the knowledge from the Signs of the Scripture.

A book produce to resemble words of God, literally by their covers too.

Today we can see many examples of scriptures, written by men, made as if to resemble the word of our Lord.  And they say it was from God:

3:78  And indeed, among them surely is a group - they distort their tongues in the Scripture so that you may think it is from the Scripture [al-Kitab] and not it is from the Scripture [al-Kitab].  And they say, "It is from Allah." But not it is from Allah." And they say about Allah the lie while they know.

The outcome of their perversity and discordance, because of their inability to interprete the signs, leads them to conjecture, and the sufferings that come with it.  

With them are scriptures that tried to resemble words of God.

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