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July 21st, 2014

Standards Adhered to in Interpretation of Quran from within Quran

Interpretation of the Qur’ân[1]: The rule as to the interpretation of the Qur’ân is thus given in the Book itself: "He it is Who has revealed the Book to thee; some of its verses are decisive — they are the basis of the Book — and others are allegorical. Then those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead, and seeking to give it their own interpretation. And none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord. And none do mind except men of understanding" (3:6). In the first place, it is stated here that there are two kinds of verses in the Qur’ân, namely, the decisive and the allegorical — the latter being those which are capable of different interpretations. Next we are told that the decisive verses are the basis of the Book, that is, that they contain the fundamental principles of religion. Hence whatever may be the differences of interpretation, the fundamentals of religion are not affected by them, all such differences relating only to secondary matters. The third point is that some people seek to give their own interpretation to allegorical statements and are thus misled. In other words, serious errors arise only when a wrong interpretation is placed on words which are susceptible of two meanings. Lastly, in the concluding words, a clue is given as to the right mode of interpretation in the case of allegorical statements: "It is all from our Lord" — meaning that there is no disagreement between the various portions of the Book. This statement has in fact been made elsewhere also, as already quoted (see 4:82[2]). The important principle to be borne in mind in the interpretation of the Qur’ân, therefore, is that the meaning should be sought from within the Qur’ân, and never should a passage be interpreted in such a manner that it may be at variance with any other passage, but more especially with the basic principles laid down in the decisive verses. This principle, in the revealed words, is followed by "those well-grounded in knowledge."[Footnote 37][3] The following rules may, therefore, be laid down:

– The principles of Islam are enunciated in decisive words in the Qur’ân; and, therefore, no attempt should be made to establish a principle on the strength of an allegorical passage, or of words susceptible of different meanings.

– The explanation of the Book should in the first place be sought in the Qur’ân itself; for, whatever it has stated briefly, or merely hinted at, in one place, will be found expanded and fully explained elsewhere in it.

– It is very important to remember that the Qur’ân contains allegory and metaphor along with what is plain and decisive, and the only safeguard against being misled by what is allegorical or metaphorical is that the interpretation of such passages must be strictly in consonance with what is laid down in clear and decisive words, and not at variance therewith.

When a law or principle is laid down, any statement carrying a doubtful significance, or a statement apparently opposed to the law so laid down, must be interpreted subject to the principle enunciated. Similarly that which is particular must be read in connection with and subject to more general statements.

Rules of Qur’ânic interpretation:[4]A "Statute," says Maxwell in his well-known book on The Interpretation of Statutes," is the will of the Legislature, and the fundamental rule of interpretation, to which all others are subordinate, is that a statute is to be expounded according to the intent of the Legislature. If the words of the statute are in themselves precise and unambiguous no more is necessary then to expound these words in their natural and ordinary sense." If we consider the case-law of the British and American Courts, we can deduce inter alia the following further rules of interpretation:

1. The words of a statute, when there is a doubt about their meaning, are to be understood in the sense in which they best harmonise with the subject of the enactment.

2. The language of a statute must be given its plain literal construction. It must not be strained to make it apply to a case to which it does not legitimately, by its terms, apply.

3. The true meaning of a passage in a statute is to be found not merely in the words of that passage but in conformity with the other parts of the statute. Every clause of the statute should be construed with reference to the context and the other clauses of the statute, so as, so far as possible, to make a consistent enactment of the whole statute. It must be read as a whole in order to ascertain the true meanings of its several clauses, and the words of each clause should be so interpreted as to bring them into harmony with the other provisions.

4. The words and phrases of a particular nature should be read with, and subject to, the words and phrases of a general import and interpreted accordingly.

5. A statute should be so interpreted as not to be inconsistent with the comity of nations or with established natural laws. To avoid a breach of this rule even a narrow construction, if necessary, must be put on it.

6. A statute should be presumed to void absurdity, excess in exercise of power, alteration of previous existing laws, inconsistency, repugnancy, unreasonableness or unnaturalness.

"These legal presumptions," said Lord Bacon in his Advancement of Learning, "are beacons to be avoided – rather than as authorities to be followed." Sir William Blackstone, in his Laws of England, laid down that a statute contrary to natural laws, equity or reason, or repugnant or impossible to perform, must be deemed to be void; and there is no legal sanction for the supposition that every unjust and absurd consequence was within the contemplation of the law.

These rules of interpretation, based as they are on principles of common sense, equity and justice, must be deemed to be of universal application. We do not find any inconsistency in the laws of nature. God made them according to a measure (The Holy Qur’ân, 55:7). The Holy Qur’ân drawing specific attention to the regularity and uniformity of the laws working in nature, says:

"… You see no incongruity in the creation of the Beneficent God, then look again, can you see any disorder? Then turn back the eye again and again; your sight shall come back to you confused while it will get fatigued …. Does He not know Who created? And He is the Knower of the subtleties, the Aware" (Ibid., 67:3, 4, 14).

These verses point to the existence of the Supreme Being as witnessed in the regularity and uniformity of the laws of nature, or in other words the absence of any inconsistency in them, and the succeeding verse calls special attention to the spiritual laws contained in the Book, which also work with uniformity.

The laws of nature, nay creation itself, it has been said, are the acts of God: and divinely revealed books are the words of God. There cannot, therefore, be any inconsistency between the two, or in either of them, and if any interpretation produces such a result it must be rejected.

I will presently deal with the rules of Qur’ânic interpretation which have been laid down by Muslim divines; but the claims of the Holy Qur’ân and the special rules of interpretation which it gives itself must be considered first.

The Holy Qur’ân claims to be a collection of the best teachings (Ibid., 39:27) and a complete guide (Ibid., 10:37) from God, a Book which verifies the previous true revelation (Ibid., 2:89, 101, etc.) and replaces them (Ibid., 16:101). It explains everything (Ibid., 16:89) and is right directing (Ibid., 18:2). It settles all differences (Ibid., 16:64) and was revealed so that all disputes might be judged and settled according to the directions contained in it (Ibid., 5:49). It further claims that, being a Divine revelation, it contains rules of guidance for humanity. It supports them with intelligent arguments (Ibid., 2:185) and needs no champion for its cause, for it meets all objections raised against it with clear proof and convincing arguments (Ibid., 25:33). The Book says:

"Again, on Us (devolves) the explaining of it" (Ibid., 75:19).

It is a distinguishing feature of the Holy Qur’ân that it explains the wisdom of its teachings by means of arguments. It does not only state the basic doctrines and articles of faith, but it also demonstrates their truth by reasons. "This is a book," says the Holy Qur’ân, "whose verses are established with wisdom and set forth with clearness." The Holy Qur’ân also claims that its verses are conformable to others in its various parts (The Holy Qur’ân, 39:23), and that there is no inconsistency or discrepancy to be found in it (Ibid., 4:82). These claims, unique as they are – and no religious Book has ever put forward similar claims – establish more than anything else the Divine origin of the Book.

The Holy Qur’ân further says that it contains, inter alia, verses which are decisive (Ibid., 3:7), and goes on to give its rule of interpretation in the following terms:

"He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose heart there is perversity, they follow the part of it which is allegorical seeking to mislead, and seeking to give it their own interpretation; but none knows its interpretation except Allah; and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding" (Ibid., 3:7).

It is significant that this verse occurs at the beginning of the third chapter of the Holy Qur’ân, which deals with the birth and death of Jesus. It is due to an intentional and dishonest misinterpretation of the allegorical verses that Christian missionaries try to find support from the Holy Qur’ân for their dogmatic beliefs. But the Holy Qur’ân, some fourteen hundred years ago, pointed out that they only follow the allegorical part of it simply to mislead others. To believe and follow them regardless of the decisive verses, according to the Holy Qur’ân, is a perversity which Muslims should avoid.

The Holy Qur’ân lays down certain fundamental principles of Islam and they are contained in the decisive verses. They form the basis of the Book. These principles are unchangeable and are stated in unambiguous terms. The allegorical verses must be interpreted in the light of the decisive verses, and no attempt should be made on the strength of these allegorical verses to set up a principle in conflict with the decisive verses. As the Book decides all matters, the explanation of the words and verses of the Holy Qur’ân should therefore be sought from the Holy Qur’ân itself. Thus the particular should follow the general, and the interpretation of the allegorical verses should be strictly in consonance with the decisive verses. These rules of interpretation are indicated by the words: it is all from Allah and none knows the interpretation except Allah. In other words, that interpretation would be the correct one, and should alone be accepted which renders the allegorical verses conformable to the other parts of the Holy Qur’ân. Keeping these principles in mind Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad has explained the following rules of Qur’ânic interpretation (in Barakat-ud-Du'a, 15-17):

1. A verse should be so interpreted as to be conformable with the other parts of the Book. Inconsistency, repugnancy, unreasonableness and unnaturalness should be avoided; and particularly all allegorical verses should be so interpreted as to become conformable with, and subject to, the decisive verses.

2. God revealed His will to the Holy Prophet and made him understand it. His interpretation of any verse through his Sayings or Sunna (conduct) must be accepted.

3. The interpretation of the Companions of the Holy Prophet must also be accepted.

4. The interpretation of Mujaddids and Aulia Allah (saints) should also be accepted.

5. If the Holy Qur’ân is read with pure and pious mind, it will explain its true meaning itself. If its teachings are acted upon, it will make the meaning clearer still.

6. To understand the spiritual laws and facts stated in the Holy Qur’ân, recourse should be had to the laws of nature.

7. Arabic Lexicon should be taken into consideration, but if a word is used in one sense in one part of the Holy Qur’ân the same import must be attributed to it in the same context.


[1] “Religion of Islam” by Maulana Muhammad Ali, p. 35-36, 6th Edition, pub. 1990, Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat Islam Lahore.

[2] 4:82. Will they not then meditate on the Qur’ân? And if it were from any other than Allah, they would have found in it many a discrepancy. – Footnote: The Qur’ân was not written out and given on one occasion, but it continued to be delivered in small portions during twenty-three years under the most varying circumstances. But what is striking throughout the entire revelation is that it keeps up one and the same strain — absolute submission to Allah, entire trust in Him, perfect confidence of future success, a liberal view of humanity, an attitude of charity towards all nations and religions, and goodness to all alike. The spirit of the revelations to the solitary, persecuted, and rejected preacher of Makkah does not differ in these and a hundred other particulars from the spirit of the revelations to the sole temporal and spiritual monarch of Arabia – Al-Nisa – Women: Muhammad Ali – Zahid Aziz

[3] Footnote 37: The subject of the interpretation of the Qur’ânic verses is very appropriately dealt with in the opening verses of the third chapter which begins with a discussion with the followers of Christianity, for, it must be borne in mind, that it is on a wrong interpretation of certain allegorical statements that the fundamental principles of Christianity are actually based. The basic doctrine of the religion of all the prophets in the Old Testament is the Unity of God, but there are a number of prophecies couched in allegorical language having reference to the advent of Christ. The Christians, instead of interpreting these in accordance with the clear words of the principle of Divine Unity, laid the foundations of Christianity on the metaphorical language of the prophecies, and thus by neglect of the true rule of interpretation were misled to such an extent as to ignore the very essentials of the religion of the prophets. Christ was believed to be god on the strength of metaphorical expressions, and the doctrine of the Trinity thus became the basis of a new religion. The epithet "son of God" was freely used in Israelite literature, and was always taken allegorically. The term occurs as early as Gen. 6:2 where the "sons of God" are spoken of as taking the daughters of men for wives. It occurs again in Job 1:6 and 38:7, and good men are no doubt meant in both places. In Ex. 4:22 and many other places, the Israelites are spoken of as the children of God: "Israel is my son, even my first born." The expression is used in the same metaphorical sense in the Gospels. Even in the fourth Gospel, where the Divinity of Christ is looked upon as finding a bolder expression than in the synoptics, Jesus Christ is reported as saying in answer to those who accused him of blasphemy for speaking of himself as the son of God: "Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If He called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world. Thou blasphemest, because I said, I am the Son of God?" (Jn 10:34-36). It is thus clear that even in the mouth of Jesus the term "son of God" was a metaphorical expression, and by taking it literally the Church has destroyed the very foundation of religion. It is to this fundamental mistake of Christianity that the Qur’ân refers by giving the rule for the interpretation of allegorical verses in a discussion of the Christian religion. [Emphasis added]

[4] “Jesus in Heaven on Earth” by Khwaja Nazir Ahmad, Chapter 2 – Islamic Resources, p. 51-54 First U.S.A. Edition 1998. Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat Islam Lahore Inc. U.S.A.

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