The Muhkam and Mutashabih

“He is the One who sent down to you the Book, from which there are fixed verses (Muhkam)-they are the Mother of the Book-and others which are equivalent (Mutashabih). As for those who have a disease in their hearts, they follow that of it which is equivalent, seeking to confuse, and seeking to derive an interpretation. But none know its interpretation except God, and those who are well founded in knowledge; they say: ‘We believe in it, all is from our Lord.’ And none will remember except those who possess intelligence.” (Qur’an 3:7)

In our continuous study of the Book of God, many of us have stopped over verse 3:7 to ponder and reflect, and then we move on after finding its meaning vague or open to interpretation.

Why does God tell us this fact about His Book? Why does He mention that its verses are split into at least 2 categories, ‘Muhkam’ & ‘Mutashabih,’ and that the Mutashabih verses will be used by those who harbor a disease in their hearts to mislead and confuse others, while only those well founded in knowledge would grasp their interpretation?

Isn’t the Quran easy to understand (54:17)? If so, then why would we think that there are parts of it that can be used to mislead?

It is this sequence of questioning that leads most of us to skip 3:7, and to simply declare: ‘We believe in it, all is from our Lord’.

The Meaning of “Muhkam” and ‘Mutashabih”

The translators of the Qur’an struggled with this verse as much as we have struggled and have decided that God is speaking about ‘clear’ Vs. ‘ambiguous/allegoric’ verses:

Pickthall: 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.

Yusuf Ali: 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 meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in 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.

From a pure language/linguistic view, the words ‘Muhkam’ and ‘Mutashabih’ can carry the following meanings:

  • Muhkam (Fixed/Firm/Established/Precise/Fundamental)
  • Mutashabih (Equivalent/Similar/Alike)

So, how do we determine which verses of the Qur’an are ‘firm’ and which verses are ‘similar’ (or clear Vs. allegoric as the translators have written?). Clearly one person’s clear verse is another person’s allegoric verses – and vice versa!

The Book and the Qur’an

In 1990, a Syrian Civil Engineer, Dr. Mohammed Shahrour, published a very unique study of the Qur’an entitled “The Book and the Qur’an”. The work created much debate at the time, and at its premise was a very simple idea: that the ‘Qur’an’ is on a part of the Book of God and that there are other parts that are given other names/descriptions (i.e. that the Book of God is a compilation of books).

While the premise of Dr. Shahrour was groundbreaking, his theory was difficult to follow as it was unclear in the definition of which parts of the Book were ‘Qur’an’ and which parts were simply ‘the Book’. Also, many of the concepts were difficult to follow, eluding the wider audience from appreciating the work(s).

Dr. Shahrour has many other publications (mainly in Arabic) and is a delight for those who read Arabic to look at http://www.shahrour.org/.

The Qur’an is a Compilation of ‘Books’

Building on the idea of Dr. Shahrour that the Book of God may contain more than one type of style in it, we find the following verse which seems to affirm such an understanding:

“A messenger from God reciting purified scripts. In them are valuable books. (Qur’an 98:2-3)

The manuscript that the Prophet was reciting is described as being a compilation of ‘books’. Could these books include the ‘Muhkam’ and ‘Mutashabih’ as well as other kinds?

In-fact, the Qur'an itself uses such terminalogy elsewhere where it refers to a part of itself as: 'a Book that is equivalent/Mutashabih'...

"God has sent down the best narrative, a Book that is equivalent, but dual. The skins of those who are concerned towards their Lord shiver from it, then their skins and their hearts soften up to the remembrance of God. Such is the guidance of God; He guides with it whoever He wills. And for whoever God misguides, then none can guide him." (Qur'an 39:23)

Thinking along these lines of different books, we are drawn back to the very first verses of the Qur’an in the beginning of Sura/Chapter 2 where the use of the word “Dhalika/That” has always stood out as a linguistic oddity, but was simply brushed away by most of us as a quirk in the language:

“ALM. That Book (Dhalika Al-Kitaab), without doubt, is a guide for the righteous.” (Qur’an 2:1-2)

The Arabic word ‘Dhalika’ which is best translated as ‘That’ or ‘That Other’, cannot be used in spoken or written form to depict a thing that is at hand, but can only be used to refer to a thing that is somewhere else or further away (in Arabic the form to refer to a present item is to use the ‘Hatha’). So, the translators were forced to amend the material they were working on to make it flow…

Pickthall: This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off (evil).

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah;

If we keep the Arabic words to their correct grammatical form, and think along the lines of the Qur’an containing ‘more than one book,’ then the word ‘Dhalika/That’ is referring not to the verses in Sura/Chapter 2, but to other verses in other Suras/Chapters. Here is how the verses read after being corrected grammatically:

“ALM. That Book, in which there is no doubt, is a guide for the righteous. The ones who believe in the unseen, and hold the Communion, and from Our provisions to them they spend. And the ones who believe in what was sent down to you, and what was sent down before you, and regarding the Hereafter they are certain. Those are the ones guided by their Lord, and those are the successful ones.” (Qur’an 2:1-5)

Such reading transforms the meaning considerably as it means that there is ‘another book’ which does not include Sura/Chapter 2, and that such book is needed to guide the people who have advanced to become ‘righteous/mutaqeen.’

Which Book is Muhkam?

Knowing that the Qur’an is indeed a compilation of Books, and knowing that one of these Books is the ‘Muhkam Verses’, the question presents itself: How do we know which it is?

“And those who believe say: "If only a chapter is sent down!" But when a fixed (Muhkam) chapter is sent down, and fighting is mentioned in it, you see those who have a disease in their hearts look at you, as if death had already come to them. It thus revealed them.” (Qur’an 47:20)

The Qur’an has identified for us one of the chapters that are ‘firm,’ and that is the chapter where warfare has been decreed for the believers. Out of all the chapters in the Qur’an, there is only one where we can find warfare decreed:

“Warfare has been decreed for you while you hate it; and perhaps you may hate something while it is good for you, and perhaps you may love something while it is bad for you; and God knows while you do not know.” (Qur’an 2:216)

Chapter 2 is the longest and one of the most detailed chapters in the Qur’an, and we can state for a certainty that it is a ‘Firm/Muhkam’ chapter based on it containing the decree for warfare. While this information is priceless, it still does not give us the ‘criteria’ for finding the other chapter(s). Can we find more clues?

“ALR, a Book in which its revelations have been made fixed (Uhkimat), then detailed, from One who is Wise, Expert.” (Qur’an 11:1)

Verse 11:1 speaks of a Book whose verses have been made ‘fixed’, thus implying that the chapter itself is ‘fixed/muhkam’.

Finally, not forgetting the most important verse which brought us to this subject, that is 3:7, we must conclude that such a verse and its prevailing chapter are also ‘fixed/muhkam’ verses, otherwise the instruction on categorizing the Qur’an becomes a ‘similar/mutashabih’ verse which can be ignored as it may cause misguidance to those who are not well founded in knowledge.

Chapter 2 – fixed / Chapter 3 – fixed / Chapter 11 - fixed

The Initialed Suras/Chapters

A common fact to the composition of the Holy Book are the unique ‘initials’ that dominate 29 Suras/Chapters and which have been explored in the article ’19: Fact or Fiction?’

The reason this subject is being referred to here is that the 3 chapters that have been flagged as being ‘firm’ all have the common trait of being from the ‘initialed chapters’ which populate 29 chapters of the Qur’an:

No. Chapter No. Quranic Initials
1 2 A.L.M.
2 3 A.L.M.
3 7 A.L.M.S'.
4 10 A.L.R.
5 11 A.L.R.
6 12 A.L.R.
7 13 A.L.M.R.
8 14 A.L.R.
9 15 A.L.R.
10 19 K.H.Y.A'.S'.
11 20 T'.H.
12 26 T'.S.M.
13 27 T'.S.
14 28 T.S.M.
15 29 A.L.M.
16 30 A.L.M.
17 31 A.L.M.
18 32 A.L.M.
19 36 Y.S.
20 38 S'.
21 40 H'.M.
22 41 H'.M.
23 42 H'.M.A'.S.Q.
24 43 H'.M.
25 44 H'.M.
26 45 H'.M.
27 46 H'.M.
28 50 Q.
29 68 N.
 

Could it simply be that all the 29 initialed chapters form the ‘firm’ verses of the Qur’an, while the remaining 85 chapters represent the ‘similar/mutashabih’ verses?

What About The Difference in Initials?

In the table of initialed verses, any reader will notice that there are a total of 13 combinations (ALM/ALMS’/ALR/ALMR/KHYA’S’/TH/TSM/TS/YS/S’/HMA’SQ/Q/N). It can only be speculated at this stage, that each combination represents a “type of book” and that the letters are akin to mathematical sets where intersection indicates common traits, for example:

“ALM. These are the signs of the Book of Wisdom.” (Qur’an 31:1-2)

“ALR, these are the signs of the Book of Wisdom.” (Qur’an 10:1)

“ALR, these are the signs of the Book of Clarity.” (Qur’an 12:2)

“T'SM. These are the signs of the Book of Clarity.” (Qur’an 26:1-2)

“T'SM. These are the signs of the Book of Clarity.” (Qur’an 28:1-2)

“T'SM. These are the signs of the Book of Clarity. (Qur’an 26:1-2)

This reasoning tells us that all Suras/Chapters with “ALM” represent the “Book of Wisdom,” while all Suras/Chapters with “ALR” represent both the “Book of Wisdom” and the “Book of Clarity”, while all “T’SM” Suras/Chapters represent the “Book of Clarity”, etc.

The qualities and features of each Book is not within the scope of this article, however, it would be an interesting exercise to match the qualities of each Book based on its common initials.

Where are the Controversial Verses?

Keeping in mind the premise that initialed Suras/Chapters are being presented as the ‘Muhkam Verses,’ and that the remaining 85 Suras/Chapters are being presented as the ‘Mutashabih Verses,’ then according to 3:7, that would mean that there are elements within those 85 Suras/Chapters where those with a disease in their hearts would find ammunition to mislead others…

Below is a short compilation of some verses that have been misused by various groups and sects over the centuries to justify abuse, injustice, war, or outright idolatry:

  • Cutting off the hands of thieves (found in 5:38). This interpretation has proven to be in error as it ignores the story of Joseph and his brother in dealing with theft under God’s law.
  • Taking the words of the Prophet as law (found in 59:7). This verse specifically deals with the Prophet distributing the ‘spoils of war’ and was never for the following of man-made laws.
  • Marrying more than one wife (found in 4:3). This verse ignores the condition of ‘orphans’ being the subject matter for polygamy as a form of social justice rather than sexual adventure.
  • Beating women into obedience (found in 4:34).
  • Fighting the non-believers until they pay a ‘tax’ (found in 9:29). The subject deals with the groups who have fought the believers and are required to pay ‘reparations’.
  • The misunderstanding for women to cover their heads (24:31).
  • Keeping women at home in emulation of the Prophet’s wives (33:33).
  • Constantly praising and revering the Prophet in a misunderstanding of the command (33:56).

The list can be expanded, however, the common thread that all these controversial verses have is that they all occur in the ‘non-initialed chapters.’

Conclusion

“He is the One who sent down to you the Book, from which there are fixed verses (Muhkam)-they are the Mother of the Book-and others which are equivalent (Mutashabih). As for those who have a disease in their hearts, they follow that of it which is equivalent, seeking to confuse, and seeking to derive an interpretation. But none know its interpretation except God, and those who are well founded in knowledge; they say: ‘We believe in it, all is from our Lord.’ And none will remember except those who possess intelligence.” (Qur’an 3:7)

The author of the Qur’an would not have given us such instructions on how to study and apply His Book unless such instructions could be easily understood and applied. By believing that the ‘Mutashabih’ are ‘Allegoric’ and thus subject to subjectivity, or that ‘none know them except Allah,’ or that we do not need to know the difference between them, etc. is to speak in ignorance against God’s words and instructions which are meant to guide and save us from our wrongdoings and ignorance.

This brief study has, God willing, shown that the Qur’an is a collection of ‘Books,’ and that two of these books, the ‘Muhkam’ and the ‘Mutashabih,’ can be identified very easily by the prefix that begins each chapter.

What this means from a theological point of view is that the general population that is seeking the religion of Islam/Submission can be content with following the rules and guidelines and taking lessons from the stories and narrations contained with the 29 chapters of the ‘Book of Wisdom/Clarity’. The implications of which can be highlighted as follows:

  • The story of our creation and journey to Earth is addressed in detail (2:29-39)
  • The stories of the Prophets and the history of Moses and the Children of Israel is given (2:40)
  • The People of the Book are addressed in great detail to remind them of their covenant (3:187)
  • The requirement for paradise is simply to believe in God and live a good life (2:62)
  • Dietary prohibitions are limited to the 4 basic rules (2:173)
  • The laws of marriage, divorce, finance, testimony, and all the major requirements for a functioning and dynamic society have been covered.

Perhaps with this advancement and simplification of our understanding, humanity will be able to come together and unite around the ‘Muhkam’ of the Qur’an which has at its core a message of peace, brotherhood, piety, morality, and justice.

 

By Layth Al-Shaiban (laytth@hotmail.com)

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