Muhkam and Mutashabih

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Muḥkam (Arabic: مُحکَم) and Mutashābih (Arabic: مُتَشابِه) are terminologies in Quranic sciences. According to the verse 7 of Sura Al 'Imran of the Qur'an, there are two types of Quranic verses: muhkam and mutashabih. "Muhkam" refers to verses of the Qur'an whose meanings are so clear that no other meaning can be assigned to them, and "mutashabih" is a verse which might have a variety of possible apparent meanings. A group of Sunni scholars believe that the meaning of "mutashabih" verses is exclusively known by God, but most Shiite scholars maintain that mutashabih verses can be understood with reference to muhkam verses.

Different reasons have been mentioned for why the Qur'an involves mutashabih verses.

Meaning

Most scholars of Quranic sciences believe that "muhkam" verses are the ones whose meanings are so obvious that no other meaning can be assigned to them, and "mutashabih" verses are the ones which are liable to a variety of possible apparent meanings.

There are other views about the terminological meaning of "muhkam" as well:

  • Muhkam verses are the ones concerning halal and haram, as well as commands and prohibitions.
  • Muhkam verses are the ones which have not been abrogated (mansukh), and mutashabih verses are the abrogated ones.
  • Muhkam verses are the ones in which rewards or punishments are stated.
  • Muhkam verses are the ones whose words are not repeated.

And there are other views about the terminological meaning of "mutashabih" as well:

  • Mutashabih verses are the abrogated ones upon which one should not act.
  • Mutashabih verses are the ones concerned with allegories.
  • Mutashabih verses are the ones whose real meanings are left to God and in whose apparent meaning we believe.
  • Mutashabih verses are the openings of some Quranic chapters (or suras), that is, al-huruf al-muqatta'a (disconnected letters).
  • Mutashabih verses are the ones that cannot be understood except by ta'wil (interpreting away or esoteric interpretations) and giving up the apparent meanings.
  • Mutashabih verses are the ones concerning the knowledge of the hidden which is exclusively possessed by God, such as the time of the resurrection, the time of raining, the time of death, and the like.
  • Mutashabih verses are the ones that can be understood when juxtaposed with other verses, that is, they cannot independently be understood.

Raison D'être

Since mutashabih verses can be misused to provide improper interpretations of the Qur'an, the question arises what the raison d'être of such verses is. A number of views have been proposed as a response to the question, including the following:

  • A group of theologians believe that mutashabih verses encourage a deeper and more careful reflection on the Qur'an, since people feel the necessity to employ the reason and consult scholars when there is "ambiguity".
  • Some mystics believe that since travelers of mystical journeys are at different degrees and stages, Quranic verses have been revealed in accordance with different degrees of people's epistemic and psychological capacities.
  • Some philosophers maintain that since the Qur'an is also addressed to people who cannot comprehend the reality of immaterial worlds, some Quranic verses ascribe material attributes to God and employ words which fit the worlds of estimation (wahm) and imagination. However, there are also "muhkam" verses which state the ultimate truth. Thus, laypeople begin to move from the idea of an entity with material features to the idea of a totally immaterial being free from spatial attributes.

Methods of Interpretatioin

Exegetes of the Qur'an have adopted different approaches to mutashabih verses. In his essay, Mutashabihat al-Qur'an, Mulla Sadra enumerated four common methods of interpretation:

  • The method of philologists, People of Hadith, and Hanbalis: they believe that mutashabih words should be taken at face value, that is, their apparent meanings. It is not permissible to ascribe a meaning to a verse other than its apparent meaning, even if the apparent meaning is contrary to rational principles. On this view, ta'wil should always be rejected.
  • The method of the majority of the Mu'tazila: they permit ta'wil with respect to mutashabih verses, that is, such verses should be interpreted in accordance with rational principles. Their view is based on the exaltation (tanzih) of God from contingent attributes and imperfections.
  • The method of the majority of Ash'aris and some Mu'tazila: they believe that with respect to some verses, we should adopt tanzih (exaltation), and with respect to others, we should adopt tashbih (assimilation to the material world). For example, verses concerning the resurrection should be taken at face value (as similar to the material world).
  • The method of those who are "firmly grounded in knowledge": Mulla Sadra explains this method as follows: they understand the real intention behind mutashabih verses through revelations and internal intuitions, and are thus immune to mere exaltation and mere assimilation, and never confuse the two. So, it is possible to discover the meanings of mutashabih verses through the light of the heart and prophethood. This method does not lead one to tendencies to apparent meanings, assimilation, and the shutdown of any talks about God, nor does it lead one to ta'wil.

Method of Ahl al-Bayt (a) in the Interpretation

There is a hadith in 'Uyun akhbar al-Rida (a) from Imam al-Rida (a) according to which, "a person who refers mutashabih verses of the Qur'an to its muhkam verses (that is, understands the former in terms of the latter) will be led to the right path". He then added, "there are mutashabih hadiths like mutashabih verses of the Qur'an; our mutashabih hadiths should be referred to our muhkam ones." The whole Qur'an, including its mutashabih verses, have meanings which can be obtained, but the meanings should be provided in light of muhkam verses. Contrary to some Islamic schools of thoughts which restrict the knowledge of mutashabih verses to God, the school of Ahl al-Bayt (a) does not suspend our understanding of mutashabih verses.

People Firmly Grounded in Knowledge

According to the verse 7 of Sura Al 'Imran in which the issue of muhkam and mutashabih verses appears:

If "those who are firmly grounded in knowledge" (al-rasikhun fi l-'ilm) is a conjunct of "Allah", it would mean that they also know the meanings of mutashabih verses. But if it is not, then they do not know their meanings, though they just believe in them.

The majority of Sunni scholars believe that mutashabih verses are only known by God, and so, we have to stop thinking about their meanings. And "those firmly grounded in knowledge" are content with a mere belief in these verses, without understanding them.

Most Shiite scholars and some Sunni scholars take "those who are firmly grounded in knowledge" to be a conjunct of "Allah", and thus, they hold that these people know the interpretation of mutashabih verses. They argue that if these people did not know the interpretation, then why did the Qur'an praise them? The Shi'as appeal to some hadiths to show that "those firmly grounded in knowledge" are Ahl al-Bayt (a).

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