Quran Interpretation and the Meanings of the Word “Ayat”

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Ancient ammonite fossil resembling the chambered nautilus

What is the Meaning of the word ayat? How one interprets this word can make a huge difference in how one understands major issues in the Quran, because although it is a short word, relatively confined in meaning, it is used extensively used in the Quran. It has two basic meanings, two major purposes, and four distinct applications interpreted according to context. 

BASIC MEANINGS and their PURPOSE

On the most basic level, there are two general meanings for the word ayat which is plural for aya. I use it as the Arabic word referring to Quranic verses, but we need to dig a little deeper because that’s one application of the word. The two basic meanings are

  1. Something extraordinary, and/or
  2. Something that guides such as a guidepost or instructions. 

Often both meanings are implied. The purpose of ayat in the Quran is also twofold:

  1. To open our understanding of and trust in Allah, our Creator, and/or
  2. To bring us to understand and have faith in the Hereafter/Judgment/Resurrection. 

These are also essentially the whole purpose of the Quran. Reverence for Allah gives us humility and compassion, and faith in the Hereafter makes us better people morally and prevents us from becoming “stuck” in this world and forget our contract with Allah. So you can see how critical it might be to understand what aya means.

FOUR APPLICATIONS OF THE WORD AYAT

  1. FOR VERSES of sacred text. This includes the Quran and any other sacred books/scripture sent by Allah/God in any language to any people. Of course, to be called “signs of Allah” they must be authentic and true. These are both guideposts and extraordinary (coming to us from the celestial realm), guiding us to Allah and to knowledge of the Hereafter.
  2. FOR SIGNS IN THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH also both as guideposts and as extraordinary. Anyone who seriously looks at the sky at night cannot help but be amazed. As guideposts, the stars have been essential for navigation on land and sea, as well as revealing a majestic “celestial” world beyond our own, pointing to another realm such as the Hereafter/ timelessness and to a Supreme Power beyond ourselves.
  3. FOR EXAMPLES FROM WHICH WE LEARN, such as the interaction between ships and water showing us what buoyancy is, or the water cycle and how it purifies and maintains fresh water for us to drink, or how varieties of human culture and appearance shows us how our differences allow for a greater breadth of knowledge and invention. This is similar to scientific method insofar as the directive is go and study everything you can to increase in knowledge and improve your lives. But for the Quran these guideposts also show us how and why to live an ethical life and strive towards our Maker’s mercy and grace. 
  4. FOR MIRACLES which generally refers to physical miracles such as the opening of the Red Sea (Moses) or the raising of the dead (Jesus). For such signs as the ability to interpret events through dreams (for example, Yusuf/Joseph who by correlating events with the King’s dream was able to save many Egyptian lives and gain a high status in what was at that time the Egyptian kingdom), this relates to a prophet’s necessary connection to Allah through the wahi Jibreel. Miracles are extraordinary events/actions that can be undeniably perceived as having an effect in real time that is clearly supernatural. Extraordinary signs or knowledge given to faithful people such as the people of the cave (surah 18) or Al-Khidr (who is described but not named in the Quran) fall into the category of examples (3 above), which are related to us as narratives in the Quran. Importantly, physical miracles are always directed to the nation/people to help support conviction in the authenticity of the prophet’s message. The Quran is the only Divine book which is in all 4 categories: its words/verses, its presentation of signs in the creation embedded in words and its very architecture, in giving us examples, and even in presenting ongoing miracles in the form of mathematical and scientific revelations (relating to physical reality), as well as interacting directly with the reader who is not a denier.

From these applications we can see how the purpose of each type of aya is reflected so we can distinguish between them and not become confused. Even some of the most well-known and frequently-used Quran interpreters (mufassireen) made mistakes in their interpretations because each person is limited by the general knowledge available to them in their time and place. For this reason it is imperative to continuously seek knowledge, and not to rely solely on scholars of the past (which is not to say we shouldn’t read them, but rather that we should also use our minds as well). We can learn for ourselves by reading examples of how the word ayat is used in the Quran. 

EXAMPLES FROM THE QURAN OF WORD AYAT USAGE

There are many examples of each meaning of aya and some usages imply multiple meanings. Here we show specific applications. 

FOR VERSES OF SCRIPTURE:

So there has [now] come to you a clear evidence from your Lord and a guidance and mercy. Then who is more unjust than one who denies the verses (ayat) of Allah and turns away from them? We will recompense those who turn away from Our verses (ayat) with the worst of punishment for their having turned away.

Al-An’am 6:157 (excerpt)

The most common application of the word ayat that is accompanied with blame for its denial is for the meaning “verses.” One of the problems with such a word as ayat with multiple significant meanings is in how it is to be translated. In this translation (Saheeh International) a usage that is clearly regarding scripture is always translated “verses,” and this verse is preceded by a verse (6:155) that mentions the Quran specifically providing the context for this meaning. I list this application of ayat to mean “verses” first because the Quran prioritizes Allah’s scriptural revelations that are sent through prophets over other forms of ayat. This is because although the creation indeed is a magnificent “sign” of its Creator, and although physical miracles given to certain prophets may help get specific audiences to listen to the prophet’s message, words are the most effective long-term way to convey both the truth of Allah and of the Hereafter to people. 

FOR CREATION AYAT: 

Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs (ayat) for a people who use reason.

Al-Baqara 2:164

This aya contains multiple examples of Allah’s signs or ayat in creation for which we should be grateful and through which we can understand both Allah’s might and mercy. Each of these examples is further elaborated in different ayat in the Quran. We also know more about some of these than was known at the time of prophet Mohammad. For example, we now know that having a day where light is diffused by an atmosphere does not necessarily occur on a planet, and that liquid water and a robust water cycle which supports diverse life requires that a planet be in the “Goldilocks zone” — not too far from a sun/star and not too close. A temperate overall climate system requires a highly complex system that needs to be maintained by various means and circumstances that are “just right”. The Exalted shows us that He as Creator has made our earth in a significantly purposeful way that requires a great deal of “fine-tuning,” describing all this long before it could be appreciated to the extent it is today.

Also note that one “sign”/aya mentioned is ships, which are built and loaded (with something to carry) by people. But here what is emphasized is that Allah made the sea have properties that allowed buoyancy so the ships would stay afloat. Elsewhere the Quran mentions that ship/water relationship also requires specific designs for ships, knowledge given/inspired to us by the All-Knowing. 

Note that to use reason is essential to understanding the significance of such signs. For example, the fact that human-made ships are mentioned alongside what Allah created indicates that by learning and inventing beneficial things by studying the nature of creation, Allah the Exalted gives us in return more benefits and opens up more knowledge for us. 

FOR EXAMPLES:

O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as adornment. But the clothing of righteousness – that is best. That is from the signs/ayat of Allah that perhaps they will remember.

Al-A’araf 7:26

Here clothing is a metaphor (“sign”) for protection from shame and to make oneself look one’s best to others. It is compared to righteousness which is a greater protection from shame and makes one look far better to others than what mere clothing can do. This example helps us understand that righteousness is a recognizable benefit to us, not just some kind of useless “virtue” imposed on us by force, which it is not; in fact, righteousness cannot be imposed but rather is the mark of a higher level of ethics that people recognize and admire. So ayat in this case teach us, a more sophisticated kind of guidance used within the Quran. 

FOR PHYSICAL MIRACLES:

And We had certainly given Moses nine evident signs (ayat), so ask the Children of Israel [about] when he came to them and Pharaoh said to him, “Indeed I think, O Moses, that you are affected by magic.”

[Moses] said, “You have already known that none has sent down these [signs] except the Lord of the heavens and the earth as evidence, and indeed I think, O Pharaoh, that you are destroyed.” 

Al-Isra’ 17:101-2

Here the English word used for ayat meaning “miracles” is “signs.” The Quran informs us in other verses about some of these miracles/signs — Moses’ staff turning to a serpent, putting his hand in his pocket and it comes out glowing white, and the parting of the Red Sea. We can assume that the remaining six (out of the nine) could have included additional miracles shown to the Pharaoh (and some also to the children of Israel/Jacob) who was so impressed, although he didn’t show it, that he ordered a contest between his court magicians, who were skillful at what they did, and Moses. Advisors in Pharaoh’s court, who probably disliked Moses to begin with because he looked like the children of Israel who were considered slaves to the Egyptians, may have noticed the effect of these signs on their ruler and so jumped in and dismissed Moses’ signs as “magic.” But Pharaoh himself was arrogant and refused only out of arrogance to believe the miracles of Moses, even after his own magicians fell prostrate and announced their faith in the God of Moses in a powerful display of rejecting the Pharaoh for the real Supreme Power. Evidence for this is in the Pharaoh’s professed faith in “the God of Moses and Aaron” at the moment of his drowning.

These physical miracles were effective because the Pharaoh himself and his people had looked to miracles and physical signs as a part of their existing religion; thus the Omniscient incorporated this into His message. 

Whereas Prophet Mohammad’s miracle was and is the Quran, a far more lasting and effective “sign” than physical miracles could ever be. In fact, several ayat (verses) of the Quran describe this very fact in response to his people goading him to produce a physical “sign”/miracle instead of the Quran. 

And they swear by Allah their strongest oaths that if a sign came to them, they would surely believe in it. Say, “The signs are only with Allah.” And what will make you perceive that even if a sign came, they would not believe?

Al-An’am 6:109

This refers to physical miracles, which the Quran here explains would not cause prophet Mohammad’s people to have faith in Allah or the hereafter, even asking the prophet what will convince him of that. Their oaths are false, as this aya/verse explains, meaning that they are only trolling him with these requests and in their hearts, which the All-Knowing sees, is denial that no miracles would remove. 

QURAN INTERPRETATION MUST BE ONGOING LIKE SCIENCE (or any rational pursuit of knowledge) to succeed over time

Everyone recognizes the scientific achievements of Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Einstein, to name a few of the many, many well-known scientists who made important discoveries. But the vast majority of scientists are far less known, each contributing something upon which others have built yet more comprehensive understandings. Were science to stop seeking more accurate truths, all the work of those most admired scientists would have been for nothing. It’s a very true fact that the more we know, the more we understand how much we don’t know

Interpreting the Quran is like science in this respect: it’s the pursuit of knowledge from the Quran, building on previous scholarship but also discovering new meanings and interpretations that eluded the interpreters of prior eras. Learning about the Quran should be a continuous pursuit, and not restricted to the interpretations of a few. Knowledge of and from Allah is vast, endless, and in truth we can never encompass it or even come close. Thus we are actually commanded and encouraged to seek knowledge from Allah’s signs — in every meaning, every application. In fact, studying the Quran should be our first priority, provided we do not stop also noticing His signs in creation, in examples from the world around us, even seeing in some of these the extraordinary qualities of our Creator and Sustainer, that we may increase in faith and from that, knowledge. 

For the difference between studying the Quran and studying from the various fields of science lies in the ultimate goal of each pursuit. The goal of studying the Quran is to understand more about Allah our Almighty All-Merciful Creator and also about the Hereafter, what happens to us after death. The goal of science is to learn more about the physical world and thus find ways to control it for our benefit in this world. Whereas study of the extraordinary guidance in the Quran benefits us all in ways that extend beyond this world and this short lifetime. Thus the creation that scientists study can also show the higher-minded people of reason the answer to questions scientists cannot know based on empirical evidence. 

It shows us how resurrection occurs with every heartbeat, how we not only originated in the “celestial realm” but will return to it, either appropriately exalted to a higher status or debased as “the lowest of the low” based on a higher law of reciprocity where a simple acknowledgement of our relationship with Allah and our utter dependence on it, and of our ultimate “meeting” with Him again after death, can make the total difference between which consequence we have in that Hereafter. 

In science, finding such discoveries may elude scientists for years or generations, yet many unknown scholars contributed to the discovery by small epiphanies or insights along the way. Similarly, individual faithful people we will never hear of have found in the Quran wisdom to apply to their lives which they’ve found transformative, and others have discovered unique and fascinating interpretations that were never written or mentioned by the ‘ulama’ or scholars that are often quoted and even considered by some to be the “final word” on interpretation. 

If we pursued a rigid and dogmatic path of interpretation, we would lose the very breadth and scope of meaning the Quran has to offer to each new era, each new generation. We would be like those left behind from scientific advancement, living in poverty and disease, unlike the early Muslims who were the vanguard of civilization, the preservers of knowledge, and the inspiration for the “Enlightenment.” Renewal is an essential component of anything worth pursuing, for which death provides us new hope in each generation to discover a better and more relevant, as well as diversely applicable, understanding of things; in this case, our relationship to Allah and the significance of the Hereafter. 

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