Interview with a  700-Year-Old Scholar — How to Interpret the Quran

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Ring Composition Quran 3:7

The Quran itself has been miraculously preserved, but its interpretation has remained a source of disagreement, even partly contributing to divisions between Muslims, by definition believers in the Quran. The aya above, a ring composition analysis from Surat Al-Imran 3:7, shows us a path to a middle ground, a guide to interpretation based on the two different kinds of ayat/verses described in sections 1 and 2 above in yellow and bluegreen. Because the scholar Ibn Kathir (c.1300-1373) wrote the explanation, translated into English, that helped me understand its analysis, I interviewed him — remotely, of course — to share with you in his own words. 

NOTES RE INTERVIEW- I used the Tafsir (Explanation) of 3:7 by Ibn Kathir in English, all quotations from which are in quotation marks. Quotations from the Quran and other sources are formatted as blockquotes, and individual Quotes within those use “apostrophe-style” (‘) quotes. The rest are my own words, adding a more conversational tone to Ibn Kathir’s replies. Parenthetical statements within the “replies” of Ibn Kathir are mine for reference or clarity. Also note the translation above (closer to the Arabic meaning) is different than the one used with the Ibn Kathir English translation (better for the context of his explanation). 

The Interview with Ibn Kathir

114Chambers’ UmuHafez: Assalamu ‘alaykum Imam Abu l-Fida, thank you for honoring our humble blog with an interview. And since you are now known as Ibn Kathir, shall I call you by that name?

Mufassir Ibn Kathir: Wa’alaiki assalam, UmuHafez, of course, use whatever name you think best. And you understand my time is constrained, so this will accordingly be brief. 

UH: Definitely insha’Allah. So as an esteemed and famous mufassir (explainer) of the Quran, you agreed that the most relevant Quranic aya to guide us to the proper explanation or exegesis of the whole Quran is in Surat Al-Imran 3:7 (pictured above). So what is the most important guideline in this aya?

IK: Clearly, it lies in the difference between two kinds of ayat (sections 1 and 2 above): “The Mutashabihat and Muhkamat Ayat.” 

UH: Please explain the difference for us. 

IK: “Allah said in Al-Imran 3:7 (1st yellow section),

هُوَ الَّذِيَ أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ ايَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ

It is He Who has sent down to you the Book. In it are verses that are entirely clear,

“Allah here states that in the Qur’an, there are Ayat that are Muhkamat, entirely clear and plain, and these are the foundations of the Book which are plain for everyone.

“And there are Ayat in the Qur’an that are Mutashabihat not entirely clear for many, or some people. So those who refer to the Muhkam Ayat to understand the Mutashabih Ayat will have acquired the correct guidance, and vice versa.

“This is why Allah said (in 3:7 1st yellow section),

هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ

They are the foundations of the Book,

“meaning, they are the basis of the Qur’an, and should be referred to for clarification, when warranted. 

“Then Allah said:

وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ

And others not entirely clear, (in first bluegreen section)

as they have several meanings, some that agree with the Muhkam and some that carry other literal indications, although these meanings might not be desired (in every application).

The Muhkamat are the Ayat that explain the rulings, the allowed, prohibited, laws, limits, obligations and rulings that should be believed in and implemented. As for the Mutashabihat Ayat, they include the parables, oaths, and what should be believed in, but not implemented. 

UH: Thank you, Imam. Can you explain, then, what is meant by the central aya in pink above, how is it that tafsir (explanation) can be done for Fitnah (confusion/misleading) using the Mutashabihat? 

IK: Let me quote “Muhammad bin Ishaq bin Yasar (who) commented on, 

مِنْهُ ايَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ

In it are verses that are entirely clear 

“as, ’Containing proof of the Lord, immunity for the servants and a refutation of opponents and of falsehood. They cannot be changed or altered from what they were meant for.’

“He also said, ‘As for the unclear Mutashabihat Ayat, they can (but must not) be altered and changed, and this is a test from Allah to the servants (people), just as He tested them with the allowed and prohibited things. So these Ayat must not be altered to imply a false meaning or be distorted from the truth.’

“Therefore, Allah said,

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ في قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ

So as for those in whose hearts there is a deviation,

“meaning, those who are misguided and deviate from truth to falsehood. 

فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ

they follow that which is not entirely clear thereof,

“meaning, they refer to the Mutashabih, because they are able to alter its meanings to conform with their false interpretation since the wordings of the Mutashabihat encompass such a wide area of meanings.

“As for the Muhkam Ayat, they cannot be altered because they are clear and, thus, constitute unequivocal proof against the misguided people.

“This is why Allah said,

ابْتِغَاء الْفِتْنَةِ

seeking Al-Fitnah,

“meaning, they seek to misguide their following by pretending to prove their innovation by relying on the Qur’an — the Mutashabih of it — but, this is proof against and not for them.

“For instance, Christians might claim that `Isa is divine because the Qur’an states that he is Ruhullah and His Word, which He gave to Mary, all the while ignoring Allah’s statements, 

إِنْ هُوَ إِلاَّ عَبْدٌ أَنْعَمْنَا عَلَيْهِ

He [`Isa] was not more than a servant to whom We granted Our favor. (43:59)  

and,

إِنَّ مَثَلَ عِيسَى عِندَ اللّهِ كَمَثَلِ ادَمَ خَلَقَهُ مِن تُرَابٍ ثِمَّ قَالَ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ

Verily, the example of `Isa before Allah is the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him:”Be!” and he came into being. (3:59)

“There are other Ayat that clearly assert that `Isa is but one of Allah’s creatures and that he is the servant and Messenger of Allah, among other Messengers.”

UH: And what is meant, in that same pink section, by Ta’wil?

IK: I say that “Allah’s statement,

وَابْتِغَاء تَأْوِيلِهِ

And seeking its Ta’wil,

“refers to how such people alter the meaning of them as they desire through such interpretation.

“Imam Ahmad recorded that Aishah said,

The Messenger of Allah recited (aya Al-Imran 3:7) until, “Men of understanding” and he said,

فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمُ الَّذِين يُجَادِلُونَ فِيهِ فَهُمُ الَّذِينَ عَنَى اللهُ فَاحْذَرُوهُم

When you see those who argue about it (interpretation) using the Mutashabihat, then they are those whom Allah meant (by those in whose hearts are deviation). Therefore, beware of them.

Al-Bukhari recorded a similar Hadith in the Tafsir of this Ayah as did Muslim in the book of Qadar (the Divine Will) in his Sahih, and Abu Dawud in the Sunnah section of his Sunan, from Aishah;

The Messenger of Allah recited this Aya (3:7) until, “And none receive admonition except men of understanding.” He then said,

When you see those who follow what is not so clear of the Qur’an (the similar/multiple-meanings ayat), then they are those whom Allah described (as deviators), so beware of them.

“This is the wording recorded by Al-Bukhari:

‘Only Allah Knows the TrueTa’wil (Interpretation) of the Mutashabihat.’”

“Allah said,

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلاَّ اللّهُ

But none knows its Ta’wil except Allah.

UH: But, respected Imam, how can we say that only Allah knows the Ta’wil of the Mutashabihat, when these ayat were given to us to try to understand? Are we then supposed to just read them and not understand their meaning? That makes no sense!

IK: Insha’Allah have some patience, UmuHafez. I was about to explain that! “Scholars of Qur’an recitation have different opinions about pausing at Allah’s Name in this Ayah. This (pause at Allah’s name) was reported from Aishah, Urwah, Abu Ash-Sha`tha’ and Abu Nahik. 

“Some others pause after reciting, ‘And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge,’ saying that the Qur’an does not address the people with what they cannot understand” as you in fact, just said.

UH: Imam, when you say “pause,” do you mean in such a way as to change the meaning from “only Allah knows” to “only Allah and those firmly grounded in its Ta’wil” know?

IK: Exactly! “Ibn Abi Najih said that Mujahid said that Ibn Abbas said, ‘I am among those who are firmly grounded in its Ta’wil interpretation.’ It is also reported that the Messenger of Allah supplicated for the benefit of Ibn Abbas: ‘O Allah! Bestow on him knowledge in the religion and teach him the Ta’wil (interpretation or explaining and describing).’” This indicates that this type of Ta’wil is possible for us and even advisable. 

So we must clarify that “Ta’wil has two meanings in the Qur’an: the true reality of things and what they turn out to be”, and explaining and describing (interpretation).

“For instance, the Quran states,

وَقَالَ يأَبَتِ هَـذَا تَأْوِيل رُوْيَـى مِن قَبْلُ

And he said:”O my father! This is the Ta’wil of my dream from before!” (12:100 in reference to prophet Yusuf’s dream)

and

هَلْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلاَّ تَأْوِيلَهُ يَوْمَ يَأْتِى تَأْوِيلُهُ

Do they just wait for its Ta’wil? On the Day (Day of Resurrection) its Ta’wil is finally fulfilled… (7:53)

“refers to the true reality (of Resurrection in 7:53 and the dream fulfillment in 12:100) they were told about.” 

Both Ayat above refer to the true reality fulfilled” – from prophet Yusuf’s dream (12:100), and in the reality of Resurrection (7:53) fulfilled from what the people were told.

If this (ie fulfillment of reality) is the (applicable) meaning desired, then pausing after reciting Allah’s Name is warranted, because only Allah knows the true reality (and outcome) of things.

In this case, Allah’s statement, 

وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ

“And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge,” 

is connected to His statement, 

يَقُولُونَ امَنَّا بِهِ

“say: ‘We believe in it’” (3:7).

If the word Ta’wil means the second meaning, that is, explaining and describing, such as what Allah said, 

نَبِّيْنَا بِتَأْوِيلِهِ

(They said):”Inform us of the Ta’wil of this” (12:36)

“meaning its explanation, then pausing after reciting, ‘And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge’ is warranted. This is because the scholars have general knowledge of, and understand, what they were given in the Quran as a whole, even though they do not have knowledge of the true reality of things. Therefore, Allah’s statement, ‘say: We believe in it’ describes the conduct of the scholars.

“Similarly, Allah said,

وَجَأءَ رَبُّكَ وَالْمَلَكُ صَفّاً صَفّاً

And your Lord comes, and the angels, in rows. (89:22)

“means, your Lord will come, and the angels will come in rows.

“Allah’s statement that the knowledgeable people proclaim,

يَقُولُونَ امَنَّا بِهِ

We believe in it,

means, they believe in the Mutashabih;

كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا

all of it is from our Lord,

“meaning, both the Muhkam and the Mutashabih are true and authentic, and each one of them testifies to the truth of the other. This is because they both are from Allah and nothing that comes from Allah is ever met by contradiction or discrepancy.

“Allah said,

أَفَلَ يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْءَانَ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ غَيْرِ اللَّهِ لَوَجَدُواْ فِيهِ اخْتِلَـفاً كَثِيراً

Do they not then consider the Qur’an carefully! Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein many a contradiction. (4:82)

“Allah said in this Ayah 3:7,

وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلاَّ أُوْلُواْ الالْبَابِ

And none receive admonition except men of understanding.

“meaning, those who have good minds and sound comprehension, understand, contemplate and comprehend the meaning in the correct manner.

“Further, Ibn Al-Mundhir recorded in his Tafsir that Nafi` bin Yazid said,

Those firmly grounded in knowledge are those who are modest for Allah’s sake, humbly seek His pleasure, and do not exaggerate regarding those above them, or belittle those below them.

IK: And with that, UmuHafez, I must take my leave. I’ve run out of time! Thank you for this opportunity. Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wabarakatuh.

UH: Wa‘alaykum salam, ya Imam Abu l-Fida! Thank you so much for coming here! Ya Imam … apparently, we’ve lost our connection. 

—————————————————————-

RING COMPOSITION DETAILS: SPOTLIGHT ON EXAMPLE OF “MULTIPLE MEANINGS”

Now after this interview, I will apply what we’ve heard more directly to the ring analysis. It is notable that this one aya actually not only guides, but exemplifies the interpretation issue in its very text, especially section 4, where we discovered the word ta’wil has two distinct meanings.

Without Ibn Kathir’s insight, I wouldn’t have seen the necessity for section 4 to include the entire discussion regarding knowledge of ta’wil, which can be thought of in two different ways: one pausing at the name Allah (swt) to mean “none knows its ta’wil except Allah,” (for ta’wil in the sense of “fulfillment of a predicted reality”) and the other pausing after “knowledge” to mean “none knows its ta’wil except Allah and those firmly grounded in knowledge” (for ta’wil in the sense of “interpretation”). Thus we do not have to choose between the two possible meanings, keeping them ”open” in the same section. 

In both cases, “those firmly grounded in knowledge” say “we believe in it – all of it is from our Lord.” This too could be understood in two ways, but in this case simultaneously: people of knowledge believe in the whole Quran, emphasizing this means both muhkam and mutashabih ayat (as per Ibn Kathir), as well as that their knowledge of and faith in the Quran’s entirety (seeing the interrelationships between ayat) forms the foundation of their ability to interpret it. This also highlights the truly knowledgeable ones’ certainty that all of it is from Allah and nothing in it (in the final written/memorized text) has been abrogated or is without purpose or intent to be there. 

Distinguishing between the two meanings of ta’wil is itself an example of “how to properly interpret” the Quran included within this aya, also guiding us in this way and even showing us, in the words of the 700-year-old scholar, how that human input can also be part of Allah’s guidance. No one is perfect, of course, but this does not mean we should refuse to benefit from the insights of such “people of knowledge.”

RING COMPOSITION: Contrasting knowledge based on faith with deception based on deviation

Section 4 is paired with section 2, which points out that “those in whose hearts is deviation” from the truth, who therefore have no real faith, are “followers” of the mutashabih ayat which have multiple-meanings. Such meanings cannot be understood by a simple, single interpretation, and often require context. That context is provided in knowledge of the whole Quran in both specific references relevant to the passage being interpreted, and in the overall understanding of unequivocal muhkam ayat in the Quran’s presentation of its message. Ibn Kathir gave us one example above. 

Thus we can distinguish the deviators by what ayat they try to interpret, and the “confusion” and misleading that occurs in their followers. These could be metaphorical ayat, for example describing Allah using a metaphor such as His “hand(s)”, and wrongly taking this literally, inventing further that He has “feet” and arguing about whether He can “stand” or “sit.” (I have seen this happen.) Or they could be ayat taken out of context, often those misused by Islamophobes regarding fighting such as 2:256, stating in part “kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.” This is simply an admonition to fight to win in the case of war, ignoring that surrounding this aya are “rules of engagement in war” more just than the best of those codified in Western countries. The enemy happened to be polytheists. This does not in any sense mean “kill all polytheists” at all times, places, and situations. To think this is to either have no mind to think with, or be very comfortable with lying and liars. Thus we are shown how wrong tafsir can be used in ignorance or intentionally to deceive or mislead/misdirect. 

So the central section 3, at the heart of this aya, shows us that misinterpretation comes from the heart, one’s “intent.” It also is a warning to those who may be ignorant not to venture into interpretation without knowledge. That knowledge comes from the Quran as a whole, and also from scholars who strived to obtain it through much study, such as Ibn Kathir, with the higher goal of each generation of scholars improving on interpretations of the past in the light of knowledge that often increases over time, such as technological and scientific discoveries. Certainly the Quran is a vast resource about which successive generations can add their well-thought-out, reverent, and inspiring insights. 

The frame, of the first and last sections in yellow, connects the truth, that Allah the Omniscient sent this book with a firm foundation of unequivocal ayat, with the “people of understanding” who “bear in mind” this overriding principle. 

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