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Interpreting Allegorical or Mutashabihat Verses of Quran: Imran Nazar Hosein’s Methodological Approach

By Kaniz Fatma, New Age Islam

20 August 2018

This article aims to put forward the study of Mutashabihat (allegorical) Verses based on the methodological approach adopted by a well-known modern Islamic scholar, author and philosopher, Dr Imran Nazar Hosein. It then seeks the participation of scholars of and others, hoping they would answer or refute Dr. Imran Hosein’s points with solid and accepted arguments.

What Does The Quran Say About Mutashabihat Verses?

The Quran says;

“He it is who has bestowed upon you from on high this divine scripture, containing verses that are Muhkam, i.e., plain and clear in and by themselves – and these are the essence of the Book – as well as others that are Mutashabih, i.e., allegorical. Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the scripture which is allegorical, seeking to confuse, and seeking to interpret them [in an arbitrary manner]; but none save Allah, as well as those who are firmly-grounded in knowledge, know their final meaning. They (the learned) say: “We believe in it; the whole [of the Book] is from our Lord-God – albeit none takes this to heart save those who are endowed with insight.” (3:7)

Having quoted the above mentioned verse, Dr Imran Hosein opines that the Quran comprises of two types of verses – the first being Muhkamat which are clear and plain and need only to be explained (i.e. Tafsir). These Muhkamat verses are described as the heart of the book. This includes all verses with legal rulings related to permissible and forbidden things. The second types of verses are Mutashabihat which have to be subjected to Tawil (i.e. interpretation) so that their meaning can be discovered. This is the most direct and basic simplification of the term Mutashabih, since this is derived from the Quranic verse which introduces the subject. The Quran declares that only Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge (Rasikhun Fil Ilm) know the meaning of Mutashabihat verses, and concludes with this declaration that no one receives this message except for the men of insight and understanding (Ulul Albab). This implies that a scholar not only has to spend his entire life in a bid to study the Quran with both adequate methodology and spiritual insight (Basirat), but he also has to attain knowledge directly from Allah Almighty (as did Khizr – peace be upon him). Muhammad Asad, therefore, explains it in his commentary to the ayat below, “he penetrates the utmost depth of mystic insight accessible to man:

“And found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed grace from Ourselves and unto whom We had imparted knowledge [issuing directly] from Ourselves.” (18:65)

In the revelation of the Quranic verses 2:183-187 can be found a classical example of Mutashabihat verses which replaced the previous ruling of fasting mentioned in Torah (i.e. the ruling of fasting from sunset to sunset with no food, drink during the hours of fasting), with a new ruling of fasting in which one can eat and drink during the nights of fasting until the white streak of dawn is distinguished from the blackness of night, at which time fasting would begin and then remain until the day has ended:

“…and eat and drink until you can discern the ‘white thread’ of dawn against the black thread of night, and then resume fasting until nightfall (i.e. until the day has ended)…” (2:187)

In connection of the verse above, Imran Nazar Hosein writes; 

“A companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who understood the command to be literally applied, took two pieces of thread, one white and the other black, and then struggled with them at a time close to dawn to determine the time at which the fast would commence. Since he had difficulties with that process, he took his problem to the Prophet (peace be upon him) who promptly responded with a Tawil or interpretation of the ‘white’ and ‘black’ threads (i.e., in the verse) to mean that the fast would commence when the light of the day became distinct from the darkness of the night.  By virtue of the fact that the blessed Prophet interpreted the verse, it was confirmed to be Mutashabih (i.e., a verse which has to be subjected to Tawil or interpretation).

“Had this interpretation of the verse not been provided, all Muslims, to this day, would have had to arm themselves with two pieces of thread – one white and one black – and would have had to struggle with them every morning of the blessed month of Ramadan to determine the time when the fast began.

“It was not by accident, despite the above, that the verse was revealed by Allah Most High and was transmitted by the Prophet without an interpretation. Allah Most High wanted to do three things: 1) He wanted to provide an unambiguous example of an Ayah Mutashabiha; 2) He wanted to provoke a clear event in which the blessed Prophet would interpret an Ayah Mutashabih; 3) He wanted to thus refute a false punctuation of the verse which He knew would eventually be inserted into the Qur’an by human beings.

“Here is the verse with the (false) punctuation:

“…..But none save Allah, as well as those who are firmly-grounded in knowledge, know their final meaning. They (the learned) say: “We believe in it; the whole [of the Book] is from our Lord-God – albeit none takes this to heart save those who are endowed with insight.” (3:7)

“This false punctuation has delivered a meaning to the effect that no one knows the interpretation of these Mutashabihat verses except Allah (i.e., not even Nabi Muhammad peace be upon him). Hence we are left with the ridiculous and obviously false conclusion that Allah Most Wise sent down His last scripture to the last of His Prophets, and appointed him to teach the Book, but there is one part of the Book whose meaning even he, the teacher, does not know, and no one can ever know until the end of the world. What then is the use of such revelation? How can it function as guidance? Can a Wise God do such a foolish thing? Allah Most High has knowledge of all things, and so He knew that this false punctuation would be put into the Quran, and hence He created a situation in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) could refute the falsehood by himself interpreting an Ayah Mutashabiha of the Quran.” (Dr. Imran Nazar Hosein, “Methodology for the Study of The Quran” chapter 9)

“There are other Mutashabihat verses in the Quran, i.e., verses which have to be interpreted in order for their meaning to be discovered, and we have discovered that many of them belong to the subject of Akhir al-Zaman. Let us, however, turn our attention to the most difficult and challenging of the Ayat Mutashabihat in the Quran, i.e., the Muqattaat.”

The Verses of Mutashabihat: The Muqatta’at

Certain letters of the Arabic letter with which some Quranic verses commence, say Dr Imran Hosein, are the most important of all Quranic verses of Mutashabihat. Undoubtedly the Quran itself commences with three letters of the Arabic alphabet alif, laam, meem- which are located at the very beginning of the second chapter, Surah Baqarah. Other letters of the Arabic alphabet come in the beginning of other Quranic verses. 

Dr Imran Hosein says, “It was not by accident, but by Divine design, that the text of the Qur’an commenced with three letters of the Arabic alphabet, nor was it by accident but, rather, by Divine design, that he who was sent to teach the Qur’an, never taught the interpretation of these letters of the alphabet in the Qur’an. Rather the divine plan appears to have been designed to challenge those who would study the Qur’an, to locate a methodology of study through which they could eventually attempt an explanation for the Muqatta’at”.

An adequate effort to locate the system of meaning that would allow for a possible interpretation of the Muqatta’at, he says, “must be based on recognition of the fact that we have no evidence of Allah Most High, or the blessed Prophet, or any previous Prophet, ever previously employing a letter of an alphabet to symbolize a meaning or message being conveyed allegorically. In recognition of the theory of consistency in the Divine literary method, we can dismiss the view that these letters symbolize some meaning which was being symbolically conveyed, such as an interpretation that ا, (i.e., Alif) stands for Allah, م (i.e., Mim) stands for Muhammad, and ل (i.e., Lam) stands of the last letter in the name of Jibrail (or Gabriel).” 

He then says, “We do find in the Qur’an, however, evidence of a numerological system which protects and guards the Qur’an from forces of evil which may seek to penetrate and corrupt it. How else can we explain the anomaly that all Surahs of the Qur’an commence with the phrase “with the Name of Allah Most Gracious, Most Merciful” except Surah al-Taubah? Since the Qur’an itself declares that it has no defect or inconsistency, how do we explain this anomaly other than by recognizing the existence of a numerical system which binds together, in an inter-locking foolproof security-system, all the verses and even letters of the Book? There are 114 Surahs in the Qur’an and this number seems to have a numerical significance. As a consequence of the fact that there are 114 Surahs in the Qur’an, it appears that the phrase “with the Name of Allah Most Gracious, Most Merciful” must also occur 114 times. Had this phrase appeared at the beginning of Surah al-Taubah, the number of occurrences in the Qur’an would have been 115 instead of 114 because the phrase also occurs once within the text of Surah al-Naml:

 “Behold, it is from Solomon, and it says ‘with the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful’.” (Qur’an, al-Naml, 27:30)

If we believe that the letters of the Arabic alphabet used in the Qur’an have a numerical value, then the Muqatta’at, Imran Hosein says, “can be recognized to have a function of guarding or protecting the Qur’an and to therefore constitute a part of that security-system of the Qur’an. It would also appear that the second Surah of the Qur’an was chosen to commence with the Muqatta’at, and not the first, since the function of Surah al-Fatihah is to open or unlock the security system of the Qur’an, and hence it was given the name The Surah which Opens. And Allah Knows best!  It is therefore advisable never to recite the Qur’an without first reciting Surah al-Fatihah, and to do so with the consciousness in the heart that with this recitation the Qur’an can be unlocked for those who possess faith in it.” 

Dr Imran Hosein goes on to offer some examples of the Quranic verses of Mutashabihat, such as 1) the verse concerning preservation of Pharaoh’s body, 2) the verse regarding Abraham’s dream in which he saw himself sacrificing his son, and 3) the third concerning Dhul Qarnain.

The Verse Of Mutashabiha: Pharaoh’s Body 

It is widely known that while Pharaoh was drowning, Dr Imran Hosein narrates, “something very dramatic occurred underneath the water which remained unknown for thousands of years until it was revealed in the Qur’an: “When We took the Children of Israel across the sea, Pharaoh and his hosts followed them in insolence and spite. But when he was drowning he (realized that he was not God and declared:

 “I (now) believe that there is no God except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of those who submit (to their God).” (Qur’an, Yunus, 10:90)

Allah Most High, responded to that declaration of faith as follows:

Ah now! But a little while before, you were in rebellion! – and you were engaged in acts of destructive corruption!” – (10:91)

This day We (have decided to) preserve your (physical) body, so that you (i.e., your physical body, when it is discovered, or when it resurfaces in the historical process) may (function as) a Sign for a people who will come after you. But verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our Signs!” (Qur’an, Yunus, 10:90-92). The Qur’an has repeated this information that the matter concerning Pharaoh’s end constitutes an End-time Sign for mankind: “So, when they angered Us, We punished them and drowned them every one. And We made them a thing past, and an example for those after (them).” (Qur’an, Zukhruf, 43:55-56)

Dr Imran Hosein further says, “there is conclusive evidence that the body of the Pharaoh who died by drowning, was discovered in 1898, and this confirmed the amazing Divine declaration in the Qur’an concerning the preservation of his body. But the Qur’an did not simply say that his body will be preserved; rather it said that when his body is discovered it would function as a Sign for a people to come after him. It then concluded with the sad recognition that most people are negligent concerning Allah’s Signs. The world of Islamic scholarship has responded to the discovery of the body in 1898, and to its subsequent positive identification by the most eminent of French scientists in the 1980’s, with in the precise way which Allah Most High lamented. Their response has never ventured beyond recognition that a Divine prophecy in the Qur’an was fulfilled, and that this has further validated its claim to Truth. Rather, this is an Ayah Mutashabiha which requires an interpretation, and that interpretation cannot be discovered without proper methodology of studying the Qur’an as a whole to locate the system of meaning of the subject.”

Dr Imran Hosein then quotes from his book “Jerusalem in the Quran” the following passage that he regards as his analysis and interpretation of the event of the discovery of Pharaoh’s body:

The body of Pharaoh (of the Exodus) would be recovered and that would indicate that the Jews would now suffer the same fate that Pharaoh suffered.

The Qur’an provided yet another sign to show that the final countdown for Banu Israil in the Last Age had now arrived and that the worst possible punishment would now be unleashed upon them by Allah Most High. That divine sign was the recovery of the body of the Pharaoh who was drowned when he attempted to cross the sea in pursuit of Moses. Allah Most High had parted the sea in order to save Banu Israil. And after they had crossed over to safety He brought down the waters on Pharaoh and his army and they were all destroyed. The Qur’an refers to this: “And remember We parted the Sea for you and saved you and drowned Pharaoh’s people before your very sight.” (Qur’an, al-Baqarah, 2:50).

Banu Israil did not know, and still do not recognize, that they would themselves one day be destroyed (as Pharaoh was destroyed), and in the same manner as Pharaoh, if they betrayed Allah Most High and committed certain sins. How did Pharaoh die? The gentle reader would be astonished when he reads of the Qur’anic account of Pharaoh’s death:

“We took Banu Israil across the sea: then Pharaoh and his hosts followed them in insolence and spite. At length, when overwhelmed with the flood, he said: I (now) believe that there is no God except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of those who submit (to the God of the Israelites). “(It was said to him: Ah now! But a little while before, you were in (a state of) rebellion! And you were inflicting oppression (and violence)! “And so this day (We have decided that) We shall save you in your body (i.e. We shall preserve your dead body), so that you (i.e., your dead body when it reappears in history) may be a Sign for those who come after you! But verily, most among mankind are heedless of Our Signs!” (Qur’an, Yunus, 10:90-2) “But when they continued to challenge Us We inflicted Our retribution on them and drowned them all. And We made them a thing of the past and an (ominous) example for those to come after them.” (Qur’an, al-Zukhruf, 43:55-6)

And so the Qur’an made the amazing prophecy that the dead body of the Pharaoh of the exodus would one day be discovered, and that when it was discovered that would constitute a most ominous divine sign. Amazingly the body of that Pharaoh was discovered close to the end of the last century. It was an even more ominous sign for the Jews that the Zionist Movement was also established at just about the same time that the body of Pharaoh was discovered. It is clear that Dajjal, the False Messiah, was the mastermind behind the creation of the Zionist Movement. And so the age of Gog and Magog was also the age of Dajjal. The implication of the above is that the Jews were now being led by Dajjal, the False Messiah, and by Gog and Magog, on a path which would witness the worst possible punishment being unleashed against them and which would culminate with divinely ordained destruction. But the end would come upon them in the same way that the end came to Pharaoh. What would be that end? The discovery of the body of Pharaoh was a momentous Sign from Allah Most High that the world would now witness the greatest drama ever enacted in human history. Time was now up for the Jews in particular, and for all of mankind in general. Those who lived like Pharaoh did, would now die the way Pharaoh died.” (Jerusalem in the Qur’an, 2nd. Edition. pp. 164-167)

The question is whether the scholars agree with what Dr. Imran Hosein said in his book as quoted above. He challenged the prominent scholars of this age to comment on the interpretation of the Quranic verses as quoted above, but no one has yet accepted his challenge, as he says,  “more than 13 years have passed since this best-selling book (Jerusalem in The Quran) was published, and despite the fact that it has been read by very large numbers of people, reprinted more than a dozen times, and translated into many different languages, yet no prominent scholar of Islam in the modern age has as yet come forth to even comment on the above interpretation of the verse of the Qur’an; nor is it likely that they will ever do so, since so many of them appear to be imprisoned by the false punctuation of the verse concerning the interpretation of an Ayah Mutashabiha of the Qur’an. This writer urges a research student to take up the subject of an Islamic eschatological analysis of events, including most of all, World Wars, which have occurred since the body of Pharaoh was discovered in 1898. Such a research work would certainly confirm that the world is now experiencing the last count-down to the end of history. History, in turn, will end with the Jews who support Israel, experiencing exactly the same fate which Pharaoh experienced while drowning.”

This interpretation of Dr. Imran Hosein is really a matter of great concern, as no one has yet appeared to answer him. I wish the scholars associated with could have a look at his interpretation and answer him.

The Verse of Mutashabiha: The Dream of The Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him)

It is widely narrated that the beloved Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) once saw in his dream sacrificing his son. Dr Imran Hosein quotes a passage from the Quran which narrates this event and suggests his reader to note that “it was only after the conclusion of this event that the God conveyed to Nabi Ibrahim (peace be upon him) the glad tidings that he would have another son whose name would be Ishaq i.e., Isaac. Hence it is quite clear from the Qur’an that the son of the sacrifice had to be his son whose name was Ismail i.e., Ishmael. So long as a Christian or a Jew rejects this view from the Qur’an, and holds on to the contrary view that the son of the sacrifice was Nabi Ishaq (i.e., Isaac  peace be upon him) he will never succeed in penetrating eschatology, and, as a consequence, never be able to read the world correctly in the End-time.”

And [Abraham] said:

 “Verily, I shall [leave this land and] go wherever my Lord-God will guide me!”(37:99) [And he prayed:]

“O my Lord-God! Bestow upon me the gift of [a son who shall be] one of the righteous!” (37:100)

“Whereupon We gave him the glad tiding of a boy-child gentle [like himself]?” (37:101)

“And [one day,] when [the son] had become old enough to share in his [father’s] endeavors, the latter said: “O my dear son! I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice you: consider, then, what would be your view!” He (the son) answered: “O my father! Do as you are ordered: you will find me, if Allah so wills, among those who are patient (in such a trial)!”  (37:102

“But as soon as the two had surrendered themselves to [what they understood to be] the will of Allah, and [Abraham] had laid him down on his face,” (37:103)

 “We called out to him: “O Abraham,” (37:104)

“You have already fulfilled (what was required of you in) that vision (which came as a dream)!” Thus, verily, do We reward the doers of good. For, behold, all this was indeed a trial, clear in itself.” (37:106)

 “And We ransomed him with a tremendous sacrifice, (37:107)

“And left this (i.e., the sacrifice) to occur in a later time:” (37:108)

 “Peace be upon Abraham!” (37:109) “Thus do We reward the doers of good” (37:110)

 “For he was truly one of our believing servants. (37:111)

“And We (then) gave him the glad tiding of Isaac, [who, too, would be] a prophet, one of the righteous.” (37:112) (Qur’an, chapter al-Saffat, 37:99-112)

Having quoted the above-mentioned Quranic verses, Dr. Imran Hosein writes:

In analyzing this event we must carefully note that Allah Most Just, is never unjust to anyone! Since the son did nothing for which death would have been a just punishment, it would have been an act of injustice for Allah Most High to give an order for his life to be literally taken. In addition, the Qur’an came to put an end to all forms of pagan sacrifice, and this most certainly included human sacrifice. Instead, sacrifice is always of an animal. It would therefore have been a contradiction for Allah Most High to order a human sacrifice.  Finally, although Nabī Ibrāhīm (Abraham peace be upon him) never actually sacrificed his son, yet Allah Most High declared to him that he had already fulfilled what was required of him in the vision. The implication is that Allah Most High never ordered a literal sacrifice of the son, nor did he ever order a human sacrifice for any reason whatsoever.”

Our methodology has led us to the conclusion that the vision conveyed to Nabi Ibrahim (Abraham peace be upon him) a sign that was Mutashabih i.e., something that had to be interpreted, and that the interpretation of the Sign was linked to Akhir al-Zaman [end time]. What, then, is the interpretation of this sign? There can be only one such interpretation, and it is that Allah Most High wanted Nabi Ibrahim (Abraham peace be upon him) to accept the sacrifice of his son, in the form of his son’s seed, for some momentous Divine plan. Who, then, are his seed (i.e., his progeny), and what is that Divine plan? Nabī Muhammad (peace be upon him) traced his lineage directly to Nabi Ismail (Ishmael peace be upon him) who was the son of the sacrifice:

Wathila bin al-Asqa reported: I heard Allah’s Messenger saying: Verily Allah granted eminence to Kinana from amongst the descendants of Ishmael; and He granted eminence to the Quraish amongst the Kinana; and He granted eminence to Banu Hashim amongst the Quraish; and He granted me eminence from amongst the tribe of Banu Hashim.”  (Sahīh Muslim: Kitab al-Fadail)

Based on the discussion mentioned above, Dr Imran Hosein concludes that “the Arabs are from the seed of Nabi Ismail (Ishmael peace be upon him) and hence the dream indicated that a sacrifice of the Arabs was to come in the End-time in order for a Divine plan to be fulfilled, and Allah Most High wanted Abraham (peace be upon him) to accept that sacrifice. When he did so, Allah Most Knowing then declared that he had left the event to occur in a later time (see 37:108 above). We have specific information concerning that momentous sacrifice of the Arabs that is to come, and it was conveyed to Nabī Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a vision. We know when it will occur. The blessed Prophet was asleep at the home of his wife Zainab (may Allah pleased with her) when he woke from his sleep with his face flushed red. He had seen a terrible vision and it affected him tremendously and he then spoke those ominous words which were connected to the fulfillment of Abraham’s dream: “Woe unto the Arabs because of an evil which now draws close” and then went on to confirm the destruction of the Arabs in the End-time:

Narrated Zainab bint Jahsh:

The Prophet got up from his sleep with a flushed red face and said: None has the right to be worshipped but Allah. Woe to the Arabs, from the great evil that is close and is approaching them. Today a hole has been made in the Radm (structure built like a dam) of Gog and Magog like this (Sufyan illustrated by this forming the number 90 or 100 with his fingers.) She asked: Shall we be destroyed though there are righteous people among us?” The Prophet said: Yes! (it will occur) when Khabath (i.e., rubbish) has increased (i.e. prevails).” (Sahih Bukhari)

Dr Imran Hosein is of the view that “Khabath or rubbish now prevails everywhere – the political system, economy, market, monetary system, sexual relations, feminism, etc., and that the destruction of the seed of the Prophet Ismael (Ishmael peace be upon him) (i.e., the Arabs) that was conveyed in the vision, is now taking place incrementally even as this book is being written. However there is a time-line for that destruction to be completed – and it is the succession of Pax Americana by Pax Judaica.” 

He says, “It is now not difficult to understand why the destruction of the Arabs has to take place. Through our understanding of Islamic eschatology, we anticipate that a so-called Pax Judaica will seek to replace Pax Americana, in the same way that Pax Americana replaced Pax Britannica. It should be obvious that Pax Judaica – or Jewish Israeli rule over the world, will not be possible without: 1) Destruction of the Islamic Caliphate 2) Abandonment of the Hajj and 3) Destruction of the Arabs. However, Allah Most Kind has sent a message to His believing servants amongst the Arabs that should console them. The message is that their father the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham peace be upon him) has himself consented to, or accepted, the destruction of those who will be from the seed of his son Nabi Ismail (Ishmael peace be upon him) in order that the Divine response to Jewish oppression in the Holy Land might one day culminate with trees and stones speaking and calling for the punishment of those oppressors.  And Allah Knows best!”

Of course there are scholars who would object to Dr. Imran Nazar Hosein’s interpretation concerning the verses of Mutashabihat especially those related to the End-time as discussed above, but it would be better for them to comment on his interpretation in the best way i.e. by producing solid and accepted arguments.  

Acknowledgement:  This study is based on Dr. Imran Nazar Hosein’s book, “Methodology for the Study of The Quran” chapter 9.

Related Article:

The Mutashaabihat Or The Allegorical Verses Of The Quran


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