How Much of the Quran Can/Should We Understand?
Is the Quran meant for everyone to understand? Or are some parts inaccessible to mere human beings?
Verse 3:7 is one of the most commonly mistranslated verses; it is extremely important, since it deals with these very questions. Different interpretations of this verse can lead to two totally different conceptions of Islam! Both Yusuf Ali and Pickthall reflect the majority’s view on behalf of “not understanding,” while Shakir prefers the minority view of “understanding.”
! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering suggests that some Quranic verses can never be understood fully.
|He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meaning except God. And those who are firmly endowed by knowledge say: ‘we believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. (3:7)||He it is Who hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations – they are the substance of the Book – and others (which are) allegorical. But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue, forsooth, that which is allegorical seeking (to cause) dissension by seeking to explain it. None knoweth its explanation save Allah. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord; but only men of understanding really heed. (3:7)||He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding. (3:7)||He is the One who sent down to you the book, from which there are definite signs; they are the essence of the book; and others, which are multiple-meaning. As for those who have disease in their hearts, eager to cause confusion and eager to derive their interpretation, they will follow what is multiple-meaning from it. But none knows their meaning except God and those who are well founded in knowledge; they say, “We acknowledge it, all is from our Lord.” None will remember except the people of intellect. (3:7)|
DISCUSSION OF 3:7
The Arabic word we have translated as “multiple meanings” is mutashabihat. The word comes from shabaha (“to became similar”).
The word can be confusing for a novice. Verse 39:23, for instance, uses mutashabihat for the entire Quran, referring to its overall similarity — in other words, its consistency. In a narrower sense, however, mutashabihat refers to all verses which can be understood in more than one way. The various meanings or implications require some special qualities from the person listening to or reading the Quran: an attentive mind, a positive attitude, contextual perspective, the patience necessary for research, and so forth.
It is one of the intriguing features of the Quran that the verse about “mutashabih” verses of the Quran is itself mutashabih — that is, possessing multiple meanings. The word in question, for instance, can mean “similar,” as we have seen; it can mean “possessing multiple meanings;” it can also mean “allegorical” (where one single, clearly identifiable element represents another single, clearly identifiable element).
As you may have noticed, interpretation of the last part of 3:7 depends on how one punctuates the verse. (There is no punctuation in the original Arabic text.)
If one stops after the word “God,” then one will assume, as centuries of Sunni and Shiite scholars have, that even those who possess deep levels of knowledge will never be able to understand the “mutashabih” verses. However, if the sentence does not stop there, the meaning will change to the opposite: Those who possess knowledge will be able to understand the meaning of allegorical or multiple-meaning verses.
Here are five reasons for why we prefer the second understanding of this verse.
REASON ONE: The passage clearly emphasizes the unhealthy intentions of those who fail to understand multiple-meaning verses. With the disease of doubt in their hearts, they try to confuse others by focusing on their own faulty interpretations of these verses. We think that the passage emphasizes this point because the Quran tells us elsewhere that only sincere people possess the qualities necessary to understand the Quran (as emphasized in 17:46; 18:57; and 54:17).
REASON TWO: The Quran tells us repeatedly that it is easy to understand. (It does so at many points, including 5:15; 11:1; 26:195; 54:17; and 55:1-2.). If one punctuates this verse in the traditional way, there is an apparent contradiction – the Quran is, at least in some places, impossible for any human being to understand — and Muslims maintain that the Quran does not contradict itself.
We believe the Quran broadcasts a very clear, coherent message. However, there is sometimes a problem with our receiver. If our receiver does not hear the broadcast or cannot understand it well, then something is wrong with our receiver and we have to check it. If the signal is weak, we need to recharge our batteries, or reset our antennas. If we do not receive a clear message, we need to set our tuning to the right station in order to get rid of the noises and interference from other sources. We may, of course, ask for some help from knowledgeable people or experts for this task. If the receiver does not work at all, then we have to make a sincere effort to fix the broken parts. However, if we believe that the problem is in the broadcast, then nobody can help us.
REASON THREE: It is beyond dispute that the Quran encourages Muslims to study its words with patience. It advises us not to rush into understanding without sufficient knowledge (20:114). Nevertheless, it claims to be easy to understand (see REASON TWO, above). This, however, is not a contradictory position!
Experience with the book suggests that both of these statements are accurate. Although it can be explored for a lifetime without conquering all of its subtleties, the Quran, as a whole, is in fact quite easy to understand, revolving as it does around three basic ideas:
- There is only one God.
- This life is a test.
- There will be an accounting for each individual after death.
We know that the Quran really is comprehensible and worthy of sustained, careful study, just as it promises. Whoever opens his/her mind and heart as a monotheist and takes the time to study it, will understand it, and that this understanding will be enough for salvation. Such people will also be inspired to explore it deeply, and will find ample rewards for doing so.
REASON FOUR: In order to acknowledge all the verses of the Quran, one does not need to be deeply rooted in knowledge. To be an “acknowledging person” is a sufficient condition to acknowledge all the verses. However, one needs to have deep knowledge of the Quran in order to understand “mutashabih” (multiple-meaning) verses accurately. Therefore, 3:7 mentions a narrow category (those who are deeply rooted in knowledge) in relation to those multiple-meaning verses.
REASON FIVE: If we follow the orthodox punctuation and translation of 3:7, then, we must, by logical extension, establish a clear definition of what the “mutashabih” verses are … in order to avoid trying vainly to understand them or teaching others based on them. We thus need a definitive list of the “mutashabih” verses in order to avoid being among those who are condemned in this verse. There is a problem, however: No one has ever been able to compile such a definitive list! What could the criteria for the list possibly be? Surely one person’s lack of understanding of a verse should not make a verse “taboo” for all other people. If that were the case, the lowest degree of understanding would be the common denominator for understanding and interpreting the Quran! In this Alice-in-Wonderland school of thought, there would be a perpetual race towards ignorance!
Unless one is committed to determining the truth by majority vote, then one may want to reflect upon the five reasons listed here for interpreting the verse as we have.
(A side note: There are a few Sunni commentators who support our understanding of this verse. For instance, the classic commentary of al-Baydawi prefers this understanding. Please note that Yusuf Ali also acknowledges this fact in the footnote of 3:7: “One reading, rejected by the majority of Commentators, but accepted by Mujahid and others, would not make a break at the point marked Waqfa Lazim, but would run the two sentences together. In that case the construction would run: ‘No one knows its hidden meanings except God and those who are firm in knowledge. They say’, etc.”)
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