Methods of Religious Thought in Islam

Introduction to Exegesis

At the beginning of Islam it was commonly believed by some Sunnis that if there were sufficient reason...

The Principles of Interpretation of the Qur'an

At the beginning of Islam it was commonly believed by some Sunnis that if there were sufficient reason one could ignore the outward meaning of Qur'anic verses and ascribe to them a contrary meaning. Usually the meaning which opposed the outward literal meaning was called ta'wil, and what is called "taw'il of the Qur'an" in Sunni Islam is usually understood in this sense.

In the religious works of Sunni scholars as well as in the controversies that have been recorded as taking place between different schools, one often observes that if a particular point of doctrine (that has been established through the consensus of the ulama (scholars) of a school or through some other means) is opposed to the outward meaning of a verse of the Quran that verse is interpreted by ta'wil to have a meaning contrary to its apparent meaning.

Sometimes two contending sides support two opposing views and present Qur'anic verses in proof of their contentions. Each side interprets the verses presented by the other side through ta'wil This method has also penetrated more or less into Shi'ism and can he seen in some Shi'ite theological works.

Yet, sufficient deliberation upon Qur'anic verses and the hadith of the Household of the Prophet demonstrates clearly that the Holy Qur'an with its attractive language and eloquent and lucid expression never uses enigmatic or puzzling methods of exposition and always expounds any subject in a language suitable for that subject. What has been rightly called ta'wil, or hermeneutic interpretation, of the Holy Qur'an is not concerned simply with the denotation of words. Rather, it is concerned with certain truths and realities that transcend the comprehension of the common run of men; yet it is from these truths and realities that the principles of doctrine and the practical injunctions of the Qur'an issue forth.

The whole of the Qur'an possesses the sense of ta'wil, of esoteric meaning, which cannot be comprehended directly through human thought alone. Only the prophets and the pure among the saints of god who are free from the dross of human imperfection can contemplate these meanings while living on the present plane of existence. On the Day of Resurrection the ta'wil of the Qur'an will be revealed to every one.

This assertion can be explained by pointing to the fact that what forces man to use speech, create words and make use of expressions is nothing other than his social and material needs. In his social life man is forced to try to make his fellow men understand his thoughts and intentions and the feelings which exist within his soul. To accomplish this end he makes use of sounds and hearing. Occasionally also he uses to a degree his eyes and gestures. That is why between the mute and the blind there can never be any mutual comprehension. For whatever the blind man says the deaf cannot hear, and whatever the mute makes understood through gestures the blind man cannot see.

The creation of words and the naming of objects have been accomplished mostly with a material end in view. Expressions have been created for those objects, states, and conditions that are material and available to the senses or near to the sensible world. As can be seen in those cases where the person addressed lacks one of the physical senses, if we wish to speak of matters which can be comprehended through the missing sense we employ a kind of allegory and similitude. For example, if we wish to describe light of color to one who is born blind, or the pleasures of sex to a child that has not reached the age of adolescence, we seek to achieve our purpose through comparison and allegory and through providing appropriate examples.

Therefore, if we accept the hypothesis that in the scale of Universal Existence there are immense levels of reality which are independent of the world of matter (and this is in reality the case), and that in each generation there are among mankind but a handful who have the capability of comprehending and having a vision of these realities, then questions pertaining to these higher worlds cannot be understood through common verbal expressions and modes of thought. They cannot be referred to except by allusion and through symbolism. Since religious realities are of this kind, the expression of the Quran in such matters must of necessity be symbolic.

God says in His Book,

Lo! We have appointed it a Lecture in Arabic that haply ye may understand. And Lo! in the Source of Decrees, which We possess, it is indeed sublime, decisive. (Common comprehension cannot understand it or penetrate into it.)﴿ (XLIII: 3-4).

He also says,
That (this) is indeed a noble Qur'an. In a book kept hidden, which none toucheth save the purified.﴿ (LVI: 77-79).

Concerning the Prophet and his Household he says,
Allah's wish is but to remove uncleanness far from you, O Folk of the Household, and cleanse you with a thorough cleansing.﴿ (XXXIII: 33).

As proved by these verses, the Holy Qur'an emanates from sources beyond the comprehension of common man. No one can have a full comprehension of the Qur'an save those servants of God whom He has chosen to purify. And the Household of the Prophet are among those pure beings.

In another place God says.
Nay, but they denied that (the Qur'an), the knowledge whereof they could not compass, and whereof the interpretation (in events) [ta'wil] hath not yet come into them. (X: 40), (meaning the day of Resurrection when the truth of things will become known).﴿

And again he says,

On the day (the Day of Resurrection) when the fulfillment [ta'wil] thereof (of the whole Qur'an) cometh, those who were before forgetful thereof will say. The messengers of our Lord did bring the Truth!﴿ (VII: 53).

* Message of Thaqalayn, A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Studies. By Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, vol. 2 no. 1.Published by Ahl al-Bayt (peace be upon him).

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