The Equivocal Qur’an

The 7th verse of the 3rd Sura of the Qur’an offers one hell of an enigma, opening up a flood of comments.

« It is He who has sent down the Book to you, there are unequivocal verses in it. (ءَايَتُ مُّحْكَمَتُ ), which are the mother of the Book, and other equivocal ones (مُتَشَبِهَتُ ). People who have an inclination to straying in their hearts, put the emphasis on the equivocal verses, seeking dissension by trying to find an interpretation for them, when no one knows the interpretation, except God and men of a deep science. They say, ‘We believe: all things come from our Lord’, but only men of understanding remember them.» i

The word « unequivocal » translates the adjective مُّحْكَمَتُ, coming from the verbal root حَكَمَ « to judge, to decide ». The word « equivocal » translates the adjective مُتَشَبِهَتُ . But this adjective may have other meanings : « doubtful, ambiguous, uncertain, suspicious ».

It is really not common, for a revealed text such as the Quran, to challenge itself directly, by claiming that Quranic verses can be « equivocal » or even « dubious, suspicious » – as the word مُتَشَبِهَتُ implies.

There is another question, perhaps an even deeper one, which has fascinated such eminent philosophers as Averroes or Ghazzali: is this verse 3:7 itself equivocal or not?

Indeed, there are two very different ways of reading its second sentence, thus producing a real equivocation as to its true meaning.

The first reading, which has just been given, suggests that philosophers and men of profound science can decipher the obscure allusions and secret knowledge that the text conceals, and come closer to its true interpretation, the one that God knows.

But if the end of the sentence is marked just after « except God », – as the lack of punctuation marks in Arabic allows –, the text then reads:

« No one knows the interpretation, except God. But men of deep science say: ‘We believe in it’…etc. ».

This second reading brings the « men of deep science » back to a radical modesty. They are granted only the possibility of conceiving the existence of these allusions and their potential secrets from a distance, but without being able to grasp them, to explain them, to understand them. Philosophers and men of science are reduced to measuring their ignorance and the absolute transcendence of God.

In this second interpretation, philosophers and scientists would therefore be held silent on all equivocal verses, including verse 3:7, – which deals with the existence of equivocal verses in the Qur’an in an equivocal manner.

They must renounce the apparent superiority of their science of interpretation, not so much out of humility, but because they have to admit their radical limits with regard to the transcendence of the revealed text.

Averroes addressed this delicate issue in his Decisive Treatise.

He takes a clear stand for the first reading: « We opt, for our part, for the reading that consists of pausing after the words:  »and men of deep science ».»ii

In so doing, it supports the cause of philosophers, recognizing the freedom of scholarly analysis, and the benefit of seeking to reconcile science and belief, reason and faith.

He makes a thorough analysis of the various levels of meaning to be found in the Qur’an, and the precautions to be taken in this regard. Only philosophers and men of science can be brought to discuss this subject, far from the unlearned ears of common people and crowds. « True interpretations [of revealed statements] should not be written down in books for the masses, let alone those that are flawed.» iii

Revelation, perhaps a little paradoxically, is not always clear; it does not reveal everything and there are many things that continues to keep hidden.

« We know from the tradition of their words that many figures of the first age of Islam believed that the Revelation includes the apparent and the hidden (ظاهِرأوَباطِنأ , zāhiran wa bātinan), and that the hidden should not be known by those who are not men who possess the science of it and who would be incapable of understanding it. Proof of this, the sayning of ‘Ali ben Abi Tālib – reported by al-Boukhāri – God be pleased with him: ‘Speak to men about what they know. Do you want to tax Allah and His Prophet with a lie?’, and similar words that are reported from many other pious elders. » iv

There is a radical difference between « clear » verses, which often deal with practical religious issues, around which it has been easy since the earliest ages of Islam to form a consensus and then to conform to it, and « equivocal » verses, which raise theoretical questions, which in themselves offer no possibility of consensus.

Consequently, Averroes judged, like many others before him, that the interpretation of these verses should not be made public. « No era has been short of scholars who felt that the Revelation contains certain things whose true meaning should not be known by everyone.»v

If consensus is not conceivable in these theoretical matters, the consequence is that one cannot call it ‘infidelity’ either if one breaks the consensus on this or that interpretation.

But not everyone is as broad-minded as Averroes:

« What about Muslim philosophers, such as Abū Nașr (al-Fārābī) and Ibn Sinā (Avicenna)? Abū Hamid [Ghazali], in his book known as Incoherence of Philosophers, however, categorically concluded that they were unfaithful to three questions.» vi

(These three famous and unresolved questions were the issue of the eternity of the world, the assertion according to which God does not know the particulars, and the theses of the ressurection of the flesh and future life.)

Averroes concludes that it is better to keep secrecy about philosophical research and interpretations of the Qur’anic text. And this for a very good reason :

« It is because of the interpretations, and because of the opinion that these should, from the point of view of the revealed Law, be exposed to everyone, that the sects of Islam appeared, which came to the point of accusing each other of infidelity or blameworthy innovation, especially those of them that were perverse. The Mu’tazilites interpreted many of the prophetic verses and traditions, and exposed these interpretations to the crowd, and so did the Ash’arites, although the latter interpreted less. As a result, they precipitated people into hatred, mutual abhorrence and wars, tore the Revelation to pieces and completely divided people. » vii

One may say ‘Yes’ to science, therefore, ‘Yes’ to philosophy, ‘Yes’ to making an effort to interpret the Qur’an, in its most ambiguous, opaque, uncertain verses. But it’s an absolute ‘No’, as for communicating the results to the people, to the crowd.

This would only lead to hatred, division and wars…

Is truth equivocal? Should it be kept secret?

Averroes, unequivocally, answered « yes » to these questions.


iQur’an, 3.7

iiAverroes. Decisive Treatise. § 28

iiiIbid. §63

ivAverroes. Decisive Treatise. § 26

vAverroes. Decisive Treatise. § 26

viAverroes. Decisive Treatise§ 27

viiIbid. §64

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