By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi and translated by Dr. Abu Zayd
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They asked: Tell us about the Book of our Lord.
I replied: It is the Book which God the Exalted revealed onto our Prophet Muḥammad, peace and blessings be upon him, devoid of all aberration, which brings mankind from darkness into light; a self-consistent Book which repeats its contents in manifold forms from which shiver the skins of those that hold their Lord in awe; and then their skins and their hearts soften for God’s remembrance. It is the guidance of God through which He guides those whom He wills, and the one who is led astray has no guide at all.
I asked: Which of its many dimensions do you seek to be informed about?
They replied: The sheer number of the books of tafsīr (Qurʾānic commentary) are formidable and beyond delineation, and we do not know which ones to rely upon, refer to, and consider authoritative. We are greatly confused and bewildered about this and unable to arrive at a decisive and conclusive stance.
I replied: Did our Lord reveal His Book to human beings in order for them to provide commentary on it? Did the Prophet recite it to the people and provide such commentary for them? You would have a bad opinion of God if you believed that to be the case in any way. In fact, it is an independent and self-sufficient Book revealed from our Lord, the One Who is independent from all creation. Look at many books of tafsīr, filled as they are with Israelite narrations, fanciful tales, philosophical and speculative views, strange interpretations and remote possibilities. For instance, Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī in his commentary of the word fatḥ (victory) in sūrah al-Nasr (“When comes the help of God and His victory”) states that it can refer to the conquest of Makkah, Khaybar, Ṭāʾif, a generic victory, or the opening of the sciences. However, it is not hidden from anyone who has a basic connection with God’s Book that the victory here refers to the opening of Makkah.
They asked: What is the proof for your claim that the Noble Qurʾān does not need commentary?
- I replied: The following statements of God:
- “There are the verses of the Qurʾān and a clear Book.” [27:1]
- “Alif Lam Rā. These are the verses of the clear Book.” [12:1]
- “There has come to you from God light and a clear Book.” [5:15]
- “Indeed We have sent down to you signs that make things clear.” [24:34]
- “A clear Arabic language.” [16:103 and 26:195
This all means that it is a Book whose meanings are clear, whose goals are obvious, whose explanations are clear, and proofs decisive. It is an Arabic Qurʾān free of all aberration. It has frustrated the most eloquent experts of Arabic from bringing the likes of even the shortest of its sūrahs, despite the issuing of an open challenge to do so, which hasn’t been retracted and remains standing to this day.
They said: Explain to us the exact meaning of it being clear.
I replied: Generally, when scholars and philosophers utter any word or write any statement, it remains a mere claim until it is accompanied by proof, evidence or support. And then their evidences themselves require evidences, while their proofs require proofs, and their support requires more support, without end. But God’s Book is intrinsically clear. It uncovers the innate nature that mankind was created upon and the connection between that nature and God’s signs in creation, all in complete harmony and accord, and aided by the faculties of the senses, intellect and reason in complete balance and order. Similarly, the language that He chose for His Book was a clear Arabic which had entered the hearts of the early Arabs without their permission and without their request. The Qurʾān was never accused of confusion in wordings or meanings, and no one ever became averse to it due to improper pronunciation or foreign, non-Arabic elements. This clarity of the meanings of the Qurʾān and its language is shared by no other book or speech. And no one can be guided to that except the one who ponders over it and fears God. O Allah, to you is all praise for revealing it to us as guidance, clear expression, radiant light and healing!
They asked: Doesn’t God say to the Prophet in sūrah al-Naḥl verse 44: “We have also sent down onto you the reminder so that you may explain clearly to mankind what has been sent down to them so that they may reflect”?
I replied: Of course.
They asked: What does that mean?
I replied: The Prophet’s explanation of the Book of God has three meanings.
They asked: What are they?
I replied: The first is his explanation of the Noble Qurʾān using one portion to explain another, based on God’s statement: Then it is for Us to make it clear to you. [75:19] And God has immediately followed many explanatory verses with statements of the likes of: “Thus God explains His verses to mankind.” So the Prophet quite frequently explained one portion of the Qurʾān through another, for the Qurʾān is general in some portions and more specific in others.
As an example, He says: “And glorify the praises of your Lord in the night and day.” [40:55] And He says: “And glorify the praises of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting; And in the night, too, extol His glory and at every prayer’s end.” [50:39-40] He also says: “And glorify the praises of your Lord whenever you wake up, and praise Him at night, and at the time the stars retreat.” [52:48-9] He also says: “Glory belongs to God when you come to the evening and when you enter the morning; And His is all the praise in the heavens and the earth, in the afternoon as well, and when you enter upon the hour of noon.” [30:17-8] He also says: “So bear patiently what they say, and glorify the praises of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting, and during some of the hours of the night, and the sides of the day, so you may attain happiness.” [20:130] He also says: “And establish the prayers at the beginning and end of the day, and during the early watches of the night, for verily, good deeds drive away the evil ones..” [11:114] He also says: “Establish Prayer from the declining of the sun to the darkness of the night; and hold fast to the recitation of the Qur’an at dawn, for the recitation of the Qur’an at dawn is witnessed; And rise from your sleep and pray during the night, as a free offering from you, and your Lord may well raise you to a praiseworthy station.” [17:78-9]
The second meaning of the Prophet’s explanation of the Qurʾān is his implementation of its directives. And so, his ablution, prayers, fasting, charity, Ḥajj and all of his acts of worship are in fact an elucidation of the Noble Qurʾān, i.e. his application of it. Bukhārī relates from ʿĀʾishah who said: The Prophet would frequently mention in his bowing and prostration, “Glory belongs to you, our Lord, and all praise. O God, do forgive me.” He was simply applying (taʾwīl) the Qurʾān. [Bukhārī, Kitāb al-Ādhān, Bāb al-Tasbīḥ wa al-Duʿāʾ fī al-Sujūd] What this means is that his glorification (tasbīḥ) was the application of the verse: “And glorify the praises of your Lord and seek His forgiveness.” [110:3] Ibn ʿUyaynah says: The sunnah (Prophetic practice) is simply the application of the commands and prohibitions, and this is the intent of Shāfiʿī and others who said that the sunnah is an explanation of the Noble Qurʾān.
The third meaning of the Prophet’s explanation of the Qurʾān is his own extractions from God’s Book. So many of his personal practices reflected his understanding of the Book of God, and his own extrapolations. For instance, his statement: “The best of generations is my generation and then those that followed them,” is his own extrapolation from God’s statement: “And the first and foremost from the Emigrants and Helpers, and those that followed them in excellence, God is well pleased with them, and they are well pleased with God. [9:100] Also, the expiation for the one who breaks a fast of Ramadan is extrapolated from the Qurʾānic expiation for the separation of Ẓihār (an unlawful pagan form of divorce in which the husband said to his wife, “You are to me like my mother’s back.”), because this practice involved forbidding what God made lawful (and the one who deliberately breaks his fast makes lawful what God made unlawful). Lawfulness and unlawfulness are exclusive rights of God. So the Prophet made the both of them equivalent in expiation. There is no doubt that equivalency of likes is one of the best types of reasoning and ijtihād. This is the meaning of the verse: “Verily We have revealed to you the Book in truth so that you may judge between people in accordance with what God has taught you.” [4:105]
They asked: Doesn’t your explanation of the Prophet’s clarification of the Qurʾān contradict your earlier assertions that the Qurʾān is a clear Book in a clear Arabic language which does not need the commentaries of human beings?
I replied: There is no contradiction between these two matters:
- Every type of clear speech that exists is composed of portions, all of which support one another. Yet this fact still does not prevent people from taking the statements of their wisest people, one against the other, agreeing with some and disagreeing with others, and the Qurʾān is no different.
- Every instruction must rely on practical demonstration, and the Qurʾān is no different. So any speech, despite its clarity, is always in need of interpretation, and interpretation and application are two matters extrinsic to speech itself. If you were to compile the principles of driving in the clearest of language, for instance, it would still not guarantee that people will learn driving from that alone, but rather, they would require in addition the element of practical instruction, and I don’t think this matter is hidden from anyone.
- Every clear statements uttered by the wise ones encompass many different meanings, open or hidden, overtly apparent or more minute. They also possess various connotations and senses, in their expressions, through their allusions, or through those things that they necessitate. This becomes apparent for the one who ponders deeply over these, and none of this contradicts the clarity of the speech. The Qurʾān is an ocean of meaning with no shore and it holds within it realities, open and hidden, with no end.
They asked: We have comprehended what you have explained for us in terms of exploring the clarity of the Book of God. We are grateful to you and pray for you increase in knowledge and understanding, so what would you advise us?
I replied: I advise you to recite the verses of God, looking into them and pondering over them deeply. God says: “A Book We have revealed to you which is blessed, so that you may ponder over its verses and those endowed with insight may take them to heart. [38:29] He also says: “Do they not ponder over the Qurʾān, or are there locks over their hearts?” [47:24] He also says: “Do they not consider the Qurʾān carefully? Had it been from other than God, they would surely have found therein much contradiction.” [4:82]
Know that pondering (tadabbur) with reverence for God (taqwā) is the guarantee to prevent interpretations based on mere personal opinion. Distorted commentaries and corrupt interpretations have reached the Muslims only because of turning away from the Book of God or not pondering deeply over it.
Disclaimer: Translations have not been checked by the author and represent the work of the translator