Part 15

The ambiguity in the Qur'an and the Sunnah and the resulting dogmatic schools

January 24, 2022

The Prophet Muhammad told us in the Quran about the obligations that would lead us to salvation and bliss.

This process included and necessitated references to:

  • God’s names and attributes to make us acquainted with His essence
  • the spirit attaching itself to us
  • the revelation and the angels in-between God and His messengers.

The Quran includes:

  • the Day of Resurrection and its warning signs, except the exact time for them.
  • combinations of) individual alphabetical letters, at the beginning of certain surahs, which we are unable to understand

The Qur’an calls these “ambiguous”. Those who followed them were censured= “The Quran contains unambiguous verses that are the mother of the Book, and other verses that are ambiguous. Those who are inclined in their hearts toward deviation follow that which is ambiguous in the Qur’an, because they desire trouble, and they desire to interpret it. But only God knows how to interpret it. Those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it. It is all from our Lord.’ Only those who have a heart remember.” 370

The early Muslim scholars from among the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation understood this verse to mean that the “unambiguous (verses)” are those that are clear and definite. The jurists, therefore, define “unambiguous” in their terminology as “clear in meaning.”

People have different notions on the ambiguous verses. Some have said that they just need study and interpretation in order to establish their correct meaning, because they are in contradiction with other verses or with logic.

Therefore, their meaning is obscure and “ambiguous.” In this sense, Ibn ‘Abbas said= “One must believe in the ‘ambiguous (verses),’ but one need not act in accordance with them.” 371 Mujahid 372 and ‘Ikrimah 373 said= “Everything, with the exception of (clearly) unambiguous verses and narrative passages, is ambiguous.”

This statement was accepted by Judge Abu Bakr (al-Baqillani) and by the Imam al-Haramayn.

Ath-Thawri, 374 ash-Sha’bi, 375 and a number of early Muslim scholars said= " ‘Ambiguous’ is what cannot be known, such as the conditions of the Hour, the dates of the warning signs, and the letters at the beginning of certain surahs."

“Mother of the Book” means “the largest and most prominent part of the Quran”. The “ambiguous verses” constitute the smallest part of it. They have no meaning except with reference to the unambiguous (verses). 376

The verse then, censures those who follow the “ambiguous (verses)” and interpret them or give them a meaning they do not have in the Arabic language which the Qur’an addresses us in. The verse calls those persons"deviators" - that is, people who turn away from the truth - unbelievers, heretics, stupid innovators.

The verse says that they act so in order to cause trouble - that is, polytheism and confusion among the believers - or in order to be able to interpret the (ambiguous verses) to suit their desires and to use (their interpretations) as a model for their innovations.

God then informs (us in the verse quoted) that He has reserved the interpretation of the (ambiguous verses) exclusively to Himself. Nobody knows their interpretation, save only Him. He says= “But only God knows how to interpret them.”

The verse then praises scholars for simply believing in the (ambiguous verses). It says= “Those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in them.’ " The early Muslims considered this statement as the beginning of a new sentence. They did not consider it to be coupled (with the preceding statement, in which case it would mean “. . . Only God knows how to interpret them, and so do those who are firmly rooted in knowledge, who say …” ). 377

Belief in something not known deserves greater praise (than belief in something visible). Now, assuming that the two sentences are to be coupled with each other, we would have belief in something visible, because (this interpretation) implies that (the scholars) know the interpretation, and that it is not something unknown.

This is confirmed by the continuation of the verse, “It is all from our Lord.“That shows that human beings do not know the interpretation of the (ambiguous verses). For the words of the language present to the understanding only those meanings given them by the Arabs.

Thus, in cases where it is impossible to relate a certain (piece of) information to the (person) who gives it, we do not know what the words mean. When such information comes to us from God, we leave the knowledge of it to Him and do not bother to find out what it might mean. It would not be possible for us anyhow. ‘A’ishah said= “If you see those who dispute about the Qur’an, they are the ones whom God meant (in the verse quoted) -beware of them!” 378

This was the opinion of the early Muslims concerning the “ambiguous verses” (of the Qur’an). The traditions contain similarly (ambiguous) expressions which were considered by them in the same light, because the source is one and the same.

Now that the different kinds of “ambiguous” statements have been established by our remarks, let us return to the differences of opinion regarding them found among people (scholars).

The statements that people consider “ambiguous” and that have reference to the Hour and its conditions, to the dates of the warning signs, to the number of the guardians of Hell, 379 and similar things, hardly are “ambiguous” statements. They contain no equivocal 380 expression or anything else (that may properly be considered ambiguous). They simply (refer to) dates of events, the knowledge of which God has reserved exclusively to Himself, as expressly stated in His Book and through His Prophet. God says= “The knowledge of them is with God.” 381

It is strange that these things could ever have been counted among the “ambiguous” statements.

The (combinations of) individual letters at the beginning of certain surahs (al-huruf al-muqatta’ah) are, in matter of fact, letters of the alphabet. It is not improbable that they are intended (merely as meaningless letters of the alphabet). Az-Zamakhshari says= “They indicate the wide sweep of the inimitability of the Qur’an. The revealed Qur’an is composed of (letters). Anybody could use them, but since their composition (in the Qur’an), there is a difference in their significance(and they have acquired a superior, divine quality).” 382

Abandonment of the point of view which implies that (these Quranic hetters) do in fact indicate (just meaningless letters), would be justified only on the strength of sound tradition. Thus, it is said that taha is an appellation consisting of tahir “pure” and hath “guide,” and so on. 383

But it is difficult to have a sound tradition. In this sense, the letters might be (called) “ambiguous.”

The ambiguity in statements concerning the revelation, angels, the spirit, and jinn, results from obscurity in the real meaning of (those terms). They are not commonly accepted (terms). Therefore, they are ambiguous. Some people have added (to these things) all related matters, such as the conditions of Resurrection, Paradise, Hell, the Antichrist, the disturbances (preceding the Last Day), the conditions (governing it), and anything that is contrary to familiar custom. They may be right.

However, the great mass (of scholars), especially the speculative theologians, do not agree to that. They have determined the significance of those (terms), as we notice, in their works.

Thus, the only ambiguous statements remaining are those concerning the attributes that God has attributed to Himself in His Book and through His Prophet, the plain meaning of which would seem to suggest a deficiency or weakness on the part of God.

After the early Muslims whose opinions (on the subject) we have already clarified, there were differences of opinion among the people concerning these plain statements. There was discussion. Innovations came to affect dogmatic beliefs. Let us explain those opinions and give preference to the sound ones (among them) as against the corrupt ones. I say -and only God can give me success.

It should be known that God described Himself to us in His Book as knowing, powerful, having volition, living, hearing, seeing, speaking, majestic, noble, generous, beneficent, strong, and great. He also established with regard to Himself that He had hands, eyes, a face, a foot, a leg, 384 and other attributes.

Some of them imply true divinity, such as knowledge, power, volition, as well as life, which is a condition for all of them. Others are attributes of perfection, such as hearing, vision, and speech. Others, again, seem to suggest deficiency, such as sitting, descending, and coming, as well as face, hands, and eyes, which are attributes of created things. The 385 Lawgiver (Muhammad) then informed (us) that we shall see our Lord on the Day of Resurrection like the moon on a night when the moon is full, and shall not suffer any harm in seeing Him, as is established in sound tradition (the Sahih). 386 The early Muslims, the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation, affirmed God’s (possession of) the attributes of divinity and perfection.

They left to Him (the question of attributes) that seem to suggest deficiency, and did not say anything as to what they might mean. Later on, people held divergent opinions.

The Mu’tazilah came and affirmed those attributes as abstract data of the mind but did not assume the existence of a (divine) attribute persisting in the (divine) essence. This they called “declaration of the oneness of God” (tawhid). Then, they considered man the creator of his own actions, and that the latter have nothing to do with the divine power, especially not man’s evil actions and sins, since a wise (Deity) would find it impossible to do them.

They also considered it God’s duty to observe what is best for mankind. This they called (divine) justice (‘adl). Originally, they had denied predestination. They had maintained that everything starts through knowledge which comes into being (in each particular instance), as well as through power and volition which likewise(come into being). This is mentioned in (the sound tradition of) the Sahih, 387 and ‘Abdallah b. ‘Umar refused to have anything to do with Ma’bad alJuhani 388 and his companions who held those opinions. The denial of predestination was taken up by the Mu’tazilah Wasil b. ‘Ata al-Ghazzal, 389 the pupil of al-Hasan al-Basri, at the time of ‘Abd-al-Malik b. Marwan, and eventually by Mu’ammar as-Sullami. 390 The Mu’tazilah, then, retracted their former opinion in this respect.

One of the Mu’tazilah was Abul-Hudhayl al-‘Allaf. 391 He was the chief of the Mu’tazilah. He had learned the Mu’tazilah approach from ‘Uthman b. Khalid at-Tawil, 392 who had it from Wasil. He was one of those who denied predestination. He followed the opinions of the philosophers in denying the existential attributes, because the philosophical opinions made their appearance at that time.

Then came Ibrahim an-Nazzam. 393 He professed (belief in) predestination, and (the Mu’tazilah) followed him. He studied the philosophical works. He strictly denied the (existence of the divine) attributes and firmly established the basic (dogmas) of Mu’tazilism. Then came al-Jahiz, 394 al-Ka’bi, 395 and the Jubba’iyah. 396

Their approach was called “the science of speculative theology.” (This name, which, literally, means “science of speech,” or “talk,” was chosen) either because the school implied argumentation and disputation, which is what might be called talk, or because it originated from denial of the attribute of speech .397 Therefore, ash-Shafi’i used to say= “They deserve to be beaten with palm rods and to be led around (in public).”

Those men firmly established the Mu’tazilah school. They confirmed part of it and rejected (other parts). Eventually, Abul-Hasan al-Ash’ari 398 appeared. He disputed (the opinions of) certain Mu’tazilah shaykhs concerning the problems of (God’s concern for human) welfare and what is best for man.

He abolished Mu’tazilism. He followed the opinions of ‘Abdallah b. Sa’id b. Kullab, 399 Abul-‘Abbas al-Qalanisi, 400 and al-Harith b. Asad al-Muhasibi , 401 who were followers of the ancient Muslims according 402 to the orthodox approach. He strengthened the statements they had made 403 with speculative theological arguments.

He affirmed the existence of knowledge, power, volition, and life, as attributes persisting in the essence of God. (These attributes) are necessary for the argument of mutual antagonism, 404 and they establish the correctness of prophetical miracles.

It also was (Ash’arite) doctrine to affirm the existence of (the divine attributes of) speech, hearing, and vision. On the surface, (these attributes) seem to suggest deficiency, (as they seem to be connected) with corporeal voice and corporeal letter (sound).

However, among the Arabs, speech has another meaning, different from letter (sound) and voice, namely, “that which goes around in the soul” (khalad). 405

Speech in it is a reality, in contradistinction to the first (kind of speech). They ascribed such (eternal speech) to God. Thus, the suggestion of deficiency was eliminated. They affirmed the attribute of (speech) as one that is primeval and of general application, as is the case with the other attributes.

The Qur’an, thus, became a term with a double meaning. It is primeval and persisting in the essence of God. This is essential speech. But it is (also) created, in as much as it consists of combinations of letters (sounds) produced in the recital (of the Qur’an) by (human) voices.

When it is called primeval, the first thing is meant. When it is called recitable or audible, this refers to its recitation and written fixation.

His scrupulousness prevented the imam Ahmad (b. Hanbal) from using the word “created” for (the Qur’an in any way). He had not heard from the ancientMuslims before his time (anything to the effect) that he (was to) say 405a that written copies of the Qur’an are primeval, or that the recitation (of the Qur’an) which is done by (human) tongues was something primeval, as he could observe with his own eyes that it was something created. But only his scrupulousness prevented him from (using the term “created” in those cases).

Had he (avoided using it for any other reason), he would have denied something that is necessary. He certainly would not have done that.

Hearing and vision seem to suggest perception by parts of the body. However, linguistically, they also may mean the perception of audible and visible things. 4 06 This, then, eliminates the suggestion of deficiency, because here we have a real linguistic meaning for the two terms (that may be applicable in connection with the divine attributes).

On the other hand, in the case of the expressions sitting, coming, descending, face, hands, eyes, and the like, the (theologians) abandoned their real linguistic meaning, which would suggest deficiency, anthropomorphically, for metaphoric interpretation. It is the method of the Arabs to resort to metaphoric interpretation whenever the real meanings of words present difficulties.

This is done, for instance, in connection with the verse of the Qur’an= “(A wall) that wanted to collapse,” 407 and similar cases. It is a well-known method of the Arabs which is not disapproved of and constitutes no innovation. (It is true,) the (metaphoric) interpretation (of the attributes mentioned) is contrary to the opinions of the early Muslims, who left (the matter to God).

However, the theologians were led to adopt it by the fact that a number of followers of the early Muslims, namely, the novelty-conscious 408 and more recent Hanbalites, erred with regard to the significance of those attributes.

They considered them to be definite attributes of God of which it is not known “how” they are. With regard to the statement, “He sat upright upon the throne,” 409 they say, “We affirm that He sits, as the word indicates, because we fear to negate Him, but we do not say how, because we fear anthropomorphism, which is denied in negative verses such as (these)= ‘There is nothing like Him’; 410 ‘Praised be God, beyond the attributes they give (Him)’; 411 ‘God is above what evildoers say’; 412 and ‘He did not give birth, and He was not born.’ 413

These people do not realize that it comes under the subject of anthropomorphism for them to affirm the attribute of sitting, because according to the lexicographers, the word “sitting” implies being firmly settled in a place, which is something corporeal. The negation they hate to bring about would (merely) affect the word, and there is nothing dangerous in that. What is to be avoided is the negation of divinity. 414

They also hate to assume the imposition of an obligation that (human beings) are unable to fulfill. 415 This, however, is a delusion, because ambiguous statements have no bearing upon obligations. Then, they claim that (their opinion) is the opinion of the early Muslims, who, in fact, held no such opinion.

Their opinion was the one we established at the beginning, 416 namely, to leave to God (the question of) what is meant by the (attributes), and not to say that one understands them. The (Hanbalites) argue in favor of (God’s) sitting, using Malik’s statement, “(The fact of God’s) sitting is known, but it is not known how (God sits).”

Malik did not mean that sitting is known as a definite (attribute) of God. He certainly would not have said such a thing, because he knew the meaning of “sitting.” He merely meant that (the meaning of) sitting is known linguistically, and it is something corporeal, but how it takes place - that is, its reality, since the reality of all attributes concerns the how - is not known definitely (in connection) with God. 417

These people also argue in favor of a “place” (for God). They do so by using the tradition of the black (slave girl). The Prophet asked her= “Where is God?” She answered= “In heaven.” Whereupon (the Prophet) said (to her owner)= “Set her free, for she is a believer.” 418

Now, the Prophet did not assume that she was a believer because she affirmed the existence of a place for God, but because she believed the plain statements in His Revelation which say that God is in heaven. Thus, she became one of those “firmly rooted (in knowledge),” 419 who believe in ambiguous statements without searching for their meaning. It is definite that one has to disavow the existence of a “place” for God.

This follows from the logical argument denying (God’s) need (for anything), and from the negative evidence that calls for freeing (God’ from attributes), as found, for instance, (in the verse), “There is nothing like Him,” 420 and similar statements. It also follows from the Qur’anic statement, 421

“He, God, is in the heavens and upon earth.” 422 Nothing that exists can be in two places (at the same time). Thus, the verse is not a definite indication that God is located in a certain place, but must mean something else.

These people then extended the interpretation they had invented to the plain meaning of face, eyes, hands, coming, descending, and speech with letter (sound) and voice. They assumed that these words had meanings that were more general than (mere) references to the body. They declared God free from the corporeal meaning of these attributes. However, this is something that is not recognized in the language.

All of them followed this course. The orthodox Ash’arites and the Hanafite theologians shunned them and tried to uproot their dogmatic belief in this respect.

An episode that happened between Hanafite speculative theologians in Bukhara and the imam Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Bukhari, 423 is well known. The anthropomorphists (mujassimah) did something similar in affirming that God has a body but not one like (ordinary human) bodies.

The word “body” is not 424 used in connection with (God) in the Muslim religio-legal tradition, but they were emboldened in their statement by the fact that they affirmed the (literal) existence of these plain statements. They did not restrict themselves to them, 425 but went deeper into the matter and affirmed the corporeality (of God). 426

They assumed something like (what has just been mentioned) concerning (the meaning of corporeality). They (wanted to) free (God from human attributes) by the contradictory, nonsensical statement, “A body not like (ordinary human) bodies.” But in the language of the Arabs, body is something that has depth and is limited.

Other interpretations, such as the one that (body) is something persisting in itself, or is something composed of the elements, and other things, reflect the technical terms of speculative theology, through which (the theologians) want to get at another meaning than that indicated by the language. Thus, the anthropomorphists are more involved (than others) in innovation, and, indeed, in unbelief. They assume puzzling attributes for God which suggest deficiency (on His part) and which are not mentioned in either the Word of God or that of His Prophet.

The differences between the dogmatic opinions of the early Muslims, the orthodox theologians, the noveltyconscious (scholars), 427 and the innovators among 428 the Mu’tazilah, has thus become clear through our remarks. Among the novelty - conscious (scholars), there are extremists who are called al-mushabbihah, because they come out openly for anthropomorphism (tashbih). 429 The story goes that one of them even said= “Spare me from speaking about God’s beard and genitals.

Rather ask me about anything else, whatever you please.” 430 Unless one tries to explainsuch (a remark) in their own interest, by assuming that they want to deal exhaustively with these puzzling plain attributes, and that they consider all of them in the same light as their authorities, it is clear unbelief. God help us!

The books of orthodox scholars are full of argumentations against such innovations and of lengthy refutations of (innovators) with the help of sound evidence. But we have briefly referred to the (subject) in a way that will help to distinguish the details and general outlines of dogmatics. “Praised be God who guided us to this. We would not be persons who are guided aright, had God not guided us.” 431

The following are obscure contrary to custom=

  • revelation
  • angels
  • spirit
  • jinn
  • Purgatory (barzakh) 432
  • the conditions of the Resurrection
  • the Antichrist
  • the disturbances preceding the Last Day
  • the conditions governing it

The Ash’arites are an orthodox people. They consider the above as:

  • evidenced by those words.
  • having no ambiguity, even though we call them ambiguous

Therefore, we want to elucidate the matter and speak clearly about it.


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