The Interpretation of the Qur’an

Excerpted from "Dictionary of Islam" by Thomas Patrick Hughes © 1886

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I. 'Ilmu 'I-Usul, or the Exegesis of the Qur’an, is a very important science, and is used by the Muslim divine to explain away many apparent or real contradictions. The most authoritative works on the' llmu- Usul of the Qur'an, are Manaru 'I-Usul and its commentary, the Nuru 'I-Anwar, and as-Suyuti's Itqan (ed. by Sprenger). The various laws of interpretation laid down in these books are very complicated, requiring the most careful study. We have only space for a mere outline of the system. 

The words (alfaz) of the Qur’an are of four classes: Khass, 'Amm, Mushtarak, and Mu'awwal. 

(1) Khass Words used in a special sense. This specialty of sense is of three kinds: Khususu'l-jins, Specialty of genus, e.g. mankind; Khususu 'n-nau', Specialty of species, e.g. a man; khususu'l -'ain, Specialty of an individual, e.g. Muhammad. 

(2) 'Amm Collective or common, which embrace many individuals or things, e.g. people. 

(3) Mushtarak Complex words which have several signification e.g. ain, a word which signifies an Eye, a Fountain, the Knee, or the Sun. 

(4.) Mu'awwal words which have several significations, all of which are possible, and so a special explanation is required. For example, Surah cviii. 2, reads thus in Sale's translation. "Wherefore pray unto the Lord and slag (the victims)." The word translated "slay" is in Arabic inhar, from the root nahr, which has several meanings. The followers of the great Legist, Abu Hanifah, render it "sacrifice," and add the words (the "victims "). The followers of Ibn Ash- Shafi'i say it means" placing the hands on the breast in prayer." 

II. The Sentences ('Ibarah) of the Qur'an are either Zahir or Khafi, i.e. either Obvious or Hidden.  Obvious sentences are of four classes: Zahir, Nass, Mufassar, Muhkam.

(1.) Zahir Those sentences, the meaning of which is obvious or clear, without any assistance from the context (qarinah). 

(2.) Nass, a word commonly used for a text of the Qur'an, but in its technical meaning here expressing what is meant by a sentence, the meaning of which is made clear by some word which occurs in it. The following sentence illustrates both Zahir and Nass: "Take in marriage of such other women as please you, two, three, four wives." This sentence is Zahir, because marriage is here declared lawful; it is Nass, because the words "one, two, three, four," which occur in the sentence, show the unlawfulness of having more than four wives. 

(3.) Mufassar, or explained. A sentence which needs some word in it to explain it and make it clear. Thus:" And the angels prostrated themselves, all of them with one accord, save Iblis (Satan)." Here the words "save Iblis " show that he did not prostrate himself. This kind of sentence may be abrogated. 

(4.) Mukham, or perspicuous. A sentence as to the meaning of which there can be no doubt, and which cannot be controverted, thus: "God knoweth all things." This kind of sentence cannot be abrogated. To act on such sentences without departing from the literal sense is the highest degree of obedience to God's command. 

The difference between these sentences is seen when there is a real or apparent contradiction between them. If such should occur, the first must give place to the second, and so on. Thus Muhkam cannot be abrogated or changed by any of the preceding, or Mufassar by Nass, etc. 

Hidden sentences are either Khafi, Mushkil, Mujmal, or Mutashabih. 
(1.) Khafi. Sentences in which other persons or things are hidden beneath the plain meaning of a word or expression contained therein: e.g. Suratu 'I-Ma'idah (v.), 42, "As for a thief whether male or female cut ye off their hands in recompense for their doings." In this sentence the word sariq, "thief," is understood to have hidden beneath its literal 
meaning, both pickpockets and highway robbers. 
(2.) Mushkil. Sentences which are ambiguous; e.g. Siratu 'd-Dahr (lxxvi.), 15, "And (their attendants) shall go round about them with vessels of silver and goblets. The bottles shall be bottles of silver." The difficulty here is that bottles are not made of silver, but of glass. The commentators say, however, that glass is dull in colour, though it has some lustre, whilst silver is white, and not so bright as glass. Now it may be, that the bottles of Paradise will be like glass bottles as regards their lustre, and like silver as regards their colour. But anyhow, it is very difficult to ascertain the meaning. 

(3.) Mujmal. Sentences which may have a variety of interpretations, owing to the words in them being capable of several meanings; in that case that meaning which is given to the sentence in the Traditions relating to it should be acted on and accepted; or which may contain some very rare word, and thus its meaning may be doubtful, as: "Man truly is by creation hasty" (Surah lxx. 19). In this verse the word halu', "hasty," occurs. It is very rarely used, and had it not been for the following words, "when evil toucheth him, he is full of complaint; but when good befalleth him, he becometh niggardly," its meaning would not have been at all easy to understand. 

The following is an illustration of that first kind of Mujmal sentences: "Stand for prayer (salat) and give alms (zakat)." Both salat and zakat are" Mushtarak “ words. The people, therefore, did not understand this verse, so they applied to Muhammad for an explanation. He explained to them that salat might mean the ritual of public prayer, standing to say the words" God is great," or standing to repeat a few verses of the Qur’an; or it might mean private prayer. The primitive meaning of zakat is "growing." The Prophet, however, fixed the meaning here to that of " almsgiving," and said, "Give of your substance one-fortieth part." 
(4.) Mutashabih. Intricate sentences, or expressions, the exact meaning of which it is impossible for man to ascertain until the day of resurrection, but which was known to the Prophet: e.g. the letters Alif, Lam, Mim (A. L. M.); Alif, Lam, Ra' (A. L. R.); Alif, Lam, Mim, Ra' (A. L. M. R.), etc., at the commencement of different Surahs or chapters. Also Suratu 'l-Mulk (lxvii.) 1, " In Whose hand is the Kingdom," i.e. God's hand (Arabic, yad); and Suratu TaHa(xx.), "He is most merciful and sitteth on His throne," i.e. God sitteth (Arabic, istawa); and Suratu 'I-Baqarah (ii.), 115, "The face of God" (Arabic, wajhu'llah). 
III. The use (isti'mal) of words in the Qur'an is divided into four classes. They are either Haqiqah, Majaz, Sarih, or Kinayah. 
(1.) Haqiqah.Words which are used in their literal meaning: e.g. ruku', "a prostration
zina, "adultery." 
(2.) Majaz.Words which are figurative as salat in the sense of namaz, or the liturgical prayers. 
(3.) Sarih.Words the meaning of which is clear and palpable: e.g." Thou art free," 
" Thou art divorced." 
(4.) Kinayah.Words which are metaphorical in their meaning: e.g. "Thou art separated"; by which may be meant, "thou art divorced." 
IV. The deduction of arguments, or istidlal, as expressed in the Qur'an, is divided into four sections: 'Ibarah, Isharah, Dalalah, and Iqtiza.
(1.) 'Ibarah, or the plain sentence. "Mothers, after they are divorced, shall give suck unto their children two full years, and the father shall be obliged to maintain them and clothe them according to that which is reasonable." (Surah ii. 233.) From this verse two deductions are made. First, from the fact that the word "them" is in the feminine plural, it must refer to the mothers and not to the children; secondly, as the duty of supporting the mother is incumbent on the father, it shows that the relationship of the child is closer with the father than with the mother. Penal laws may be based on a deduction of this kind. 
(2.) Ishtirah, that is, a sign or hint which may be given from the order in which the 
words are placed; e.g. " Born of him," meaning, of course, the father. 
(3.) Dalalah, or the argument which may be deducted from the use of some special word in the verse, as: "say not to your parents, 'Fie! (Arabic, uff)." (Surah xvii. 23.) From the use of the word uff, it is argued that children may not beat or abuse their parents. Penal laws may be based on dalalah, thus: "And they strive after violence on the earth; but God loveth not the abettors of violence." (Surah v. 69.) The word translated "strive” is in Arabic literally yas'auna, "they run." From this the argument is deduced that as highwaymen wander about, they are included amongst those whom "God loveth not," and that, therefore, the severest punishment may be given to them, for any deduction that comes under the head of dalalah is a sufficient basis for the formation of the severest penal laws. 
(4.) lqtiza. This is a deduction which demands certain conditions: "whosoever killeth a believer by mischance, shall be bound to free a believer from slavery." (Surah iv. 94.) As a man has no authority to free his neighbour's slave, the condition here required, though not expressed, is that the slave should be his own property.