Meaning of the word ‘Qur’an.’
The most popular opinion regarding the linguistic meaning of the word ‘Qur’an’ and that held by at-Tabari is that the word ‘Qur’an’ is derived from qara’a which means, ‘to read, to recite.’ Qur’an would then be the verbal noun of qara’a which thus translates as ‘The Recitation’ or ‘Reading.’
There are many definitions of the Qur’an but they differ in wording only. There is no difference in opinion in what the Qur’an is, but merely what the best way to define it is. One of the more appropriate definitions is as follows: “The Qur’an is the Arabic Speech of Allah, which He revealed to Muhammad (SAW) in wording and meaning and which has been preserved in the mushafs and has reached us by mutawattir transmissions, and is a challenge to mankind to produce something similar to it.”
Allah (SWT) says in reference to the Qur’an: “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an.” (TMQ Yusuf: 2)
“An Arabic Qur’an with no crookedness in it, perchance they will be God fearing” (TMQ Al Zumar:29)
“And thus We have revealed unto you (O Muhammad [SAW]) a Qur’an (in Arabic)” (TMQ Shurah:7)
The term ‘Arabic’ refers to the language of the Qur’an, not to its scope or ideas because the Qur’an addresses all Arabs and non-Arabs. The rules of the Qur’an are universal and not restricted to one ethnic group or a specific area or time. All the Qur’an is in Arabic and contains no foreign tongue. Imam az-Zarkashee said “Know the Qur’an has been revealed in the language of the Arabs. Therefore, it is impermissible to recite it in any other language.”
Elaborating the definition
The next part of the definition of the Qur’an states that it is the ‘..Speech (Kalaam) of Allah..’.
The Qur’an is the Speech (Kalaam) of Allah (SWT), that He (SWT) spoke in a manner that befits Him (SWT). This excludes all speech that emanated from men, jinn and angels.
The next part of the definition states ‘..which He revealed to Muhammad (SAW)..’ This excludes any other Speech (Kalaam) of His that He spoke. The Kalaam of Allah (SWT) is infinite, as the Qur’an says, “And if the trees on earth were pens, and the sea (were ink wherewith to write), with seven seas behind it to add to its supply, still the Words (Kalaam) of Allah would not be exhausted. Verily Allah is Almighty, Wise” (TMQ 31:27)
The Qur’an is specifically the revelation sent down to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). “And truly this Qur’an is a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds, which the Trustworthy Spirt (Angel Jibreel) brought down; Upon your heart (O Muhammad) so that you maybe among the warners” (TMQ 26:192-4)
The next part of the definition states in ‘..in word and meaning..’ This affirms that these words are from Allah (SWT) and not from Jibreel or Muhammad (SAW). This definition also excluded Hadith Qudsi which is only inspired in meaning while the wording is from the Prophet (SAW).
‘…which has been preserved in the mushafs..’ A mushaf is a written copy of the Qur’an. It refers specifically to the copies that Khalifah Uthman (RA) ordered to be written. Therefore it includes 114 surahs starting with Sura Fatihah and ending with Surah Naas. The Qur’an must be written in any one of the mushafs of Uthman (RA).
‘.. has reached us by mutawaatir transmission..’ A transmission is called mutawaatir when it is reported by a large number of people such that they could not all be mistaken or intentionally forge a lie. In each generation so many people narrated it that there is no question of its authenticity.
The last part of the definition states ‘.. and is a challenge to mankind to produce something similar to it..’ This is regarding the miraculous nature of the Qur’an. Allah (SWT) has challenged mankind to produce even a chapter similar to it, and this challenge is reserved for the Qur’an and not for the ahadith.
Names of the Qur’an
The Qur’an has referred to itself by a number of names:
1) The Qur’an
This name is mentioned seventy three times, thus it is no surprise that it is by this name that the Book of Allah is best known.
“Say: If all mankind and jinn were to gather together to produce something similar to this Qur’an, they would not be able to produce it – even if they helped one another” (TMQ 17:88)
2) The Kitaab.
This name is also mentioned over seventy times. This is the Book that Allah (SWT) sent down upon his final Messenger (SAW) containing all the Guidance than man needs.
“Alif, Laam, Meem. This is the Book, there is no doubt in it, a Guidance for the pious..” (TMQ 2:12)
3) The Furqaan (Criterion).
Allah (SWT) has used this name four times in reference to the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the Criterion between tawhid and shirk, truth and falsehood and good and evil.
“Blessed is He Who sent down the Furqaan to His Slave (Muhammad SAW) so that he may be a warner to mankind” (TMQ 25:1)
4) The Dhikr (Remembrance).
This occurs fifty five times in the Qur’an. The Dhikr signifies that the Qur’an is a Guidance and Remembrance of the purpose of life, the history of past nations and the description of Heaven and Hell.
“And verily the Qur’an is a Reminder for you and your people” (TMQ 43:33)
5) The Tanzeel (Revelation).
This name along with all other derivatives, is used to describe the Qur’an in over one hundred and forty verses. The root word ‘nazala’ signifies the descent of an object from a higher place to a lower place. The Qur’an is therefore a Revelation that was sent down from Allah (SWT) to the Prophet (SAW).
“And it is indeed a Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds” (TMQ 26:192)
There are many other descriptions of the Qur’an which some scholars have taken as ‘names’ but it is more appropriate to say that they describe the Qur’an and are not names as such.
The Muhkamaat (clearcut) and Mutashaabihaat (ambiguous)
The Qur’an is composed of ayat which are Muhkamaat (clearcut) and ayat which are Mutashaabihaat (ambiguous), due to the saying of Allah (SWT):
“In it are Verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundations of the Book; and others not entirely clear.”(TMQ Al-Imran: 7)
As for the Muhkam (clear) part, it is the text whose meaning is apparent and clear such that it precludes the possibility of having any other meaning, i.e. its indication is explicit and not open to interpretation. Imam Qurtubi (died 671AH) said “The muhkam is the (phrase or word) whose interpretation is known, its meaning understood and its exposition clear.” Such as the saying of Allah (SWT):
“Allah has permitted trading and forbidden Riba (usury).” (TMQ Al-Baqarah: 275)
“Cut off (from the wrist joint) the (right) hand of the thief, male or female.” (TMQ Al-Ma’ida: 38)
“And there is (a saving of) life for you in Al-Qisas (the Law of equality in punishment), O men of understanding “ (TMQ Al-Baqarah: 179)
As for the Mutashaabih (ambiguous) part, it is the opposite of Muhkam.
It is the text which is open to more than one meaning. It is open to a number of conflicting meanings. For example: “And divorced women shall wait (as regards their marriage) for three menstrual periods.” (TMQ Al-Baqarah: 228)
“Unless they (the women) agree to forego it, or he (the husband), in whose hands is the marriage tie.” (TMQ Al-Baqarah: 237)
“And the Face of your Lord full of Majesty and Honour will abide forever.” (TMQ Ar-Rahman: 27)
“For verily, you are under Our Eyes.” (TMQ At-Tur: 48)
The wordings in these ayats have a number of apparent conflicting meanings which cannot be reconciled initially. Rather they need a linguistic Qareenah (indication), which would specify one of the meanings. It might also have an apparent meaning that implies anthropomorphisation of Allah (SWT), a matter that is not possible, either rationally or by Shar’a, for the word to indicate it. So, it needs a linguistic or Shariah Qareenah (indication) to determine the intended meaning.
The word mutashaabih comes from a root word which means ‘to resemble’, to be ‘similar to.’ Mutashaabih has two meanings, the first one is ‘resembling’ and the second one ‘unclear.’ The second meaning is related to the first, since those objects which resemble one another are difficult to distinguish, hence ‘unclear.’ It is used in both of these meanings in the Qur’an and Sunnah. For example, the Jews say in the Qur’an, ..to us, all cows look alike (tashabaha).. (TMQ 2:70)
In this verse, the word is used in the first meaning (‘resembling’). It is used in the second meaning (‘unclear’) in the famous hadith of the Prophet (SAW) in which he (SAW) said, “the halal is clear and the haram is clear, but between the two are matters which are unclear (mutashabihat)”.
On occasion Allah (SWT) describes the entire Qur’an muhkam. For example He (SWT) said: “Alif, Laam, Raa. These are the verses from the hakeem Book” (TMQ 10:1)
In these verses Allah (SWT) is saying that the whole Qur’an is a clear, perfect Book which acts as a Criterion between good and evil. Imam At- Tabari said “ Allah has protected (ahkama) His verses from any evil entering it, or any flaw, or any falsehood. He set it forth with commands and prohibitions. This is because to ihkaam something means to better it and protect it.”
On other occasions, Allah (SWT) calls the Qur’an mutashaabih: “Allah has sent down the best statements, a Book that is mutashaabih, oft recited..” (TMQ 39:23)
The meaning of mutashaabih in this verse is that the verses of the Qur’an resemble and complement one another in their eloquence and beauty, and in their beliefs and laws, so that there are no contradictions or differences in them. In one verse, however, Allah (SWT) describes the Qur’an as being part muhkam and part mutashaabih.
“He (Allah is the one who has sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Book. In it are verses that are muhkam – they are the foundations of the Book and others are mutashaabih. So as for those who have a deviation in their hearts, they follow that which is mutashaabih, seeking to cause confusion and chaos, and seeking for its ta’weel. But none knows its ta’weel except Allah and those well grounded in knowledge; They say “We believe in it, all of it (both the muhkam and mutashaabih) is from our Lord. And none receive admonition except those of understanding” (TMQ 3:7)
From the various definitions of muhkam and mutashaabih, it can be concluded that the muhkam verses are those that are clear in meaning and cannot be misinterpreted wheras the mutashaabih verses are those that are not clear in meaning by themselves and in order to properly understand them, it is necessary to look at them in the light of the muhkam verses.
The Prophet (SAW) once recited this verse and then said, “ So when you see those who follow the mutashaabih of the Qur’an, these are the ones whom Allah has mentioned, so beware of them.” In this hadith, the Prophet (SAW) warns Muslims against those people who follow the mutashaabih without properly understanding them. The phrase ‘…follow the mutashaabih’ implies that these people who are being warned against take only the mutashaabih verses and interpret them according to their own desires.
It is reported that Ibn Abbas said “I am of those well grounded in knowledge, who know the meaning (of the mutashaabih).” This shows the correct meaning of the mutashaabih is possible and there is no harm if one is qualified to do so.
In conclusion, Allah (SWT) has called the whole Qur’an muhkam, meaning that it is a clear source of Guidance and a Criterion between good and evil. He (SWT) has also called the Qur’an mutashaabih, meaning its verses are similar to one another in terms of beauty and aid one another in meaning; and finally He (SWT) has called part of it muhkam and part mutashaabih.
The portion that is muhkam forms the foundation of the Book, meaning that it comprises all the rules and laws that mankind need for its guidance. The mutashaabih portion of the Qur’an is clear in meaning to those ‘grounded in knowledge’ and it is necessary to understand these portions in the light of the muhkam verses. The actuality of the mutashaabih verses, however, is known only to Allah (SWT).