Editor’s Note: Mohib Ebrahim’s article How to Validate the Shia Imamat from the Holy Qur’an presents a novel validation for the manfiest Imamat of the Ismailis based on three facets of the notion of Qur’anic notion of “rightly guided, qualified leadership”. In this we provide excerpts related to the second of the three aspects: interpreting the Qur’an and those with the knowledge to do so.
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Commentary to Thread II
Since this thread is concerned with the question of how we are to acquire the correct meaning of the Qur’an, as explained previously, it is self-evident that the verses which will provide the answer must themselves not be among the ambiguous verses for otherwise we have an intractable paradox: the Qur’an’s instructions on how to obtain the correct meaning of itself cannot be understood because the instructions themselves are ambiguous. Therefore, out of necessity, we have no option but to take all verses relevant to answering this question at their face value, at least as far as their interpretation is relevant for this issue.
When it comes to acquiring the correct meaning of the Qur’an there are three key questions:
- Is the Qur’an fully understandable by all?
- If not, then are the parts which are not understandable by everyone understood by anyone, other than Allah?
- If they are, how can we identify them?
With respect to question (a), verse 3:7 explicitly states that some verses of the Qur’an are plain to understand, while others are allegorical, therefore questions (b) and (c) become pertinent.
With respect to question (b) several verses cited clearly indicate that some do indeed understand the whole Qur’an. In particular verses 29:49, 56:75-80 and 75:17-19, which are discussed below.
VERSES 3:7 (FIRST HALF) AND 29:49
Firstly, from the first part of 3:7 we know parts of the Qur’an are plain for everyone to understand and therefore confirm there is a common base of knowledge everyone has in order to understand those clear parts, yet 29:49 (and 41:3, 6:98, 6:105) speaks of a special group who have been granted additional knowledge to make the Qur’an “clear”. Since this additional knowledge is not needed to understand the plain parts (because everyone can already understand them) it is reasonable to assume the knowledge is for understanding the ambiguous parts mentioned in 3:7, which not everyone can understand. Having such knowledge to understand those parts, would make the Qur’an, for them, fully explained just as 6:114 says the Qur’an is.
Similarly verses 56:75-80 speak of the Qur’an being hidden which none can touch except the purified. It is self-evident that this cannot refer “touching” the physical Qur’an simply because many have defiled the physical Qur’an and such people are not considered “pure” by any definition. Nevertheless, Allah has said the Qur’an has been hidden from everyone except the pure which means, therefore, some other attribute of the Qur’an and not the physical Qur’an is hidden. The question is what attribute is not hidden for the purified?
Thread I set out that, prior to Prophet Mohammad, Allah reserved leadership only for the pure. Similarly, Allah informs us in the verses cited in this thread, that, in the past, scripture and guidance (i.e. knowledge) was also only vested with the pure. Consistent with this, in this, His final revelation, Allah confirms, once and for all, in 6:82, only the pure are rightly guided (i.e. have knowledge of scripture). In other words, only the pure have ever had, or ever will have, that special knowledge of scripture — over and above what everyone already has — that makes them rightly guided.
Summarising the above we have:
- In the past, only the pure were ever vested with knowledge of scripture and rightly guided.
- Only the pure will ever be rightly guided (and thus have the knowledge of scripture to be rightly guided).
- The Qur’an is fully explained and also, per 29:49 (and other verses listed), a special group of people is vested with additional knowledge that makes the Qur’an “clear” to them. In other words, they are vested knowledge of scripture and would thus be rightly guided.
- The Qur’an is not “hidden” for the pure. In other words, the pure (who are rightly guided by definition) are vested with knowledge of scripture.
It is self-evident then that those with the knowledge of scripture which makes the Qur’an clear to them, are the pure. Or, in the converse, what is hidden about the Qur’an (per 56:75-80) for all except the pure, is knowledge of scripture.
Finally, verses 75:17-19 inform us we are to only follow His explanation of the Qur’an. Clearly, the plain verses mentioned in 3:7 above do not require Allah’s explanation, and so the explanations spoken of in 75:17-19 must refer to the explanations of allegorical verses. Therefore it is self-evident if none are vested with that knowledge, we can not get His explanation that He has asked us follow. As we know, and also set out above, Allah speaks to us by vesting knowledge of scripture with the pure and so when the pure — who have been granted that knowledge which makes the Qur’an clear to them — explain the Qur’an to us, they are explaining it to us the way Allah wishes it to be explained, providing us with His explanation that we are to follow, exactly as described in 75:17-19.
VERSE 3:7 (SECOND HALF)
Finally, we come to the second half of verse 3:7, a verse which like 4:59 of Thread I has been the subject of much debate between the Sunni and Shia. The disagreement arises, quite literally, over the placement of a full stop. The Sunni version of the verse is:
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…. None knoweth its [the allegorical verses’] 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.
(Qur’an 3:7, Pickthall)
While the Shia version of the ending is:
… None knoweth its [the allegorical verses’] explanation save Allah and those who are of sound instruction. They say: ‘We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord’ but only men of understanding really heed.
(Qur’an 3:7, Pickthall, modified according to Shia belief)
The difference (underlined) being whether Allah alone knows the meaning of the allegorical verses, or Allah and “those of sound instruction” — or “those firmly rooted in knowledge” as given in other translations — both know the meanings.
As before, when faced with such conflicts our methodology is to invoke 4:82 and see if other verses bring clarity to what is intended, rather than resorting to parsing the Arabic or examining the historical record.
If the Sunni position is correct — that everyone has the knowledge to understand the plain verses of the Qur’an but only Allah knows the meaning of the allegorical verses — then this would be:
- Inconsistent with 6:114 which informs us that the Qur’an is fully explained.
- Inconsistent with verses 29:49 (and other verses listed) and 56:75-80 which, as explained above, inform us that some — the pure — have been granted special knowledge to understand the whole Qur’an.
- Inconsistent with verses 75:17-19 which direct us to only follow Allah’s explanation of the Qur’an. However this command is impossible to follow since He has not vested anyone with the knowledge to provide us with His explanation.
On the other hand, if the Shia version is correct — that there are some vested with knowledge to understand the allegorical — this would corroborate and be consistent with:
- verse 6:114 that the Qur’an is fully explained,
- verses 29:49 (and the other verses listed) and 56:75-80 which, as explained above, inform us that some — the pure — have been granted special knowledge to understand the whole Qur’an,
- verse 75:17-19 which, as explained above, directs us to only follow Allah’s explanation of the Qur’an, which is only possible if some are vested with His knowledge to pass on to us.
Furthermore and notwithstanding all of the above, the Sunni position — that only Allah knows the meaning of the allegorical verses — is just an interpretation of 3:7 since there aren’t, to my knowledge, any verses in the Qur’an stating only Allah knows the meaning of the allegorical verses. On the other hand, the verses of the Thread speak directly to and establish the contrary. And so, as with Thread I, what is explained, understandable and corroborated by several verses takes precedence over an interpretation, with no corresponding verses to substantiate the interpretation.
Since the Sunni interpretation of 3:7, generates all these inconsistencies while the Shia interpretation clears them all then by verse 4:82 — that the Qur’an is free of any inconsistencies — the acceptable interpretation is that Allah and others know the meaning of the allegorical verses.
From the above, we now also have the answer to question (c), posed at the start of the commentary for this thread, and the identifying characteristic of those who have the knowledge to understand the whole Qur’an is they are the purified. As was pointed out with leadership, in Thread I, it is self-evident that if who interpret the Qur’an were also not pure, like the Messenger, they will make mistakes and, thus by definition, cannot be rightly guided. Consequently, to avoid being misled by such interpreters, others with more knowledge would have to double-check them would not only render such interpreters redundant but also undermine the legitimacy of their claim to interpret as the rightly guided.
However, as with Thread I, we are again left with an seemingly impossible situation of knowing who are the pure.