Muslim theologians differed for centuries in dealing with the concept of categorical verses (muḥkam) and ambiguous verses (mutashābih), giving rise to questions such as: What method should be applied when reason seems to contradict revelation? How should the ambiguous verses be understood and interpreted? The persistence of this dilemma led scholars such as Abūl Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī and Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī to develop a science, ʿilm al-kalām, in order to defend the Sunnī orthodox inherited creed and to find a balance between reason (ʿaql) and revelation (naql). Ahlus-Sunna wal-Jamāʿa (Sunnī orthodoxy and consensus) outlined a rule of interpretation: When the literal meaning of the ambiguous verses (mutashābih) contradicts sound reasoning, one must deny the literal meaning and resort to either tafwīḍ al-maʿna (consigning the meaning) or taʾwīl (clarifying the metaphorical meaning). There did exist, however, anomalous figures who defied this rule of interpretation, claiming that when the literal meaning contradicted sound reasoning, predominance should be given to the literal interpretation.
The concept of categorical verses (muḥkam) and ambiguous verses (mutashābih) is mentioned in the Qurʾān:
It is He who has sent you down the Book: Some of its verses are unmistakably plain, which are the basis of the Book; while others are subtle of understanding between nuances. As for those in whose hearts is perverseness, they pursue only the subtle of it, seeking to sow doubts, and seeking to interpret it as they please, while no one knows its true interpretation but Allah and those firmly grounded in its knowledge: They say, ‘We believe in it, each of these kinds of verses is from our Lord.’ Yet none remember and heed but those of insight and mind.(3.7)1
If ambiguous verses referring to God are to be taken literally, it denotes that God literally forgets, needs help, is vulnerable to being harmed, moves through clouds, has physical limbs, and other absurdities that are unbefitting of God as a perfect independent necessary being (see the verses: 9.67, 47.7, 33.57, 2.210, 48.10). So, not only do the literal implications of these verses contradict sound reason, but they also contradict verses that are categorical such as the verses in Sūra al-Ikhlāṣ which denote that God is the necessary being, beyond place and time:
1. In the Name of Allah Most Merciful and Compassionate: Say: He is Allah: the Wholly One Divine Reality Alone.
2. Allah is the Sole Indomitable Recourse for all needs.
3. He never gave birth, nor was given birth;
4. And no one even compares with Him.(112.1-4)1
Without reason, one will lack access to the revelation. So, reason “comes to govern how the text is to be understood, the caliph in the realm of sacred text.” 2 There are some people who attempt to deny the intellect as a source of knowledge because logical conclusions may appear contradictory given differences among logicians. This has been answered by many scholars such as Imām Nūr al-Dīn al- Ṣābūnī who writes in Al-Bidāya fī Uṣūl al-Dīn:
And how is it that you know that logical conclusions are contradictory? If you say by the intellect, then you have contradicted yourselves, as essentially you are saying, “By the use of the intellect, we know that nothing can be known by the intellect.” If you say by a narration then how do you if it is true or false [since that distinction can be known only by reason]? If you say by the senses, then you are simply being obstinate.
We then say: Logical conclusions are not contradictory; rather, logicians themselves simply disagree with one another, either due to some having inferior intellects or due to some not fulfilling all the requisite conditions for proper reasoning.”3
Since it has been established that it is impossible to forego reason, a rule of interpretation has been articulated by the scholars of Ahlus-Sunna wal-Jamāʿa such as Imām Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Hindī and others as:
If reason-based and tradition-based proofs oppose one another, it is not possible to affirm both or deny both because it is impossible to affirm two opposites or deny both of them. Nor [is it possible] to affirm revealed tradition because reason is the foundation of revealed tradition (al-ʿaql aṣl al-naql). The probative value of revealed tradition is not established until the existence of the Maker and His attributes – knowledge, power, and His acting by free choice – and miraculous proof for the truthfulness of the messengers have been established. It is not possible to establish these matters by revealed tradition, on account of the impossibility of circular reasoning. If we denied reason-based proofs in order to authenticate tradition-based proofs, we would deny the root to authenticate the branch, but denying the branch necessitates denying the root. Authenticating revealed tradition by denying reason necessitates denying both of them, which is impossible. So, nothing remains but to affirm reason and divert what the tradition-based plain senses (ẓawāhir) indicate from their plain senses and delegate (tafwīḍ) knowledge of them to God – Exalted is He – and work to clarify their reinterpretations (taʾwīlāt). The first is better, and it is the doctrine of most (akthar) of the salaf. The second is the doctrine of most theologians (uṣūliyyūn). We do not believe that they did not permit the first. On the contrary, according to most of them, both [tafwīḍ and taʾwīl] are permitted. As for the ancients, perhaps they did not permit the second on account of the danger in it.4
Rational proofs and scriptural proofs are either conclusive or inconclusive (see FIGURE A below)5. One must keep in mind that the “reason” (ʿaql) the scholars were referring to in the above context is rational proof that is conclusive (qaṭʿī). In this context, conclusive rational proof and conclusive scriptural proof can never oppose each other. Ibn Rushd, the “arch-rationalist Averroes” states, “revelation is true; whatever is proven by reason is true; and there can be no contradiction between the two truths.”6 Additionally, ambiguous verses are inconclusive (ẓannī) in their signification (dalāla) as mentioned in the verse (3.7) regarding categorical verses (muḥkam) and ambiguous verses (mutashābih) stated above. Alternatively, instead of perceiving the rule of interpretation as a matter of predominance between reason and revelation, one may perceive it as a matter of predominance between conclusive proof (qaṭʿī) and inconclusive proof (ẓannī) regardless of whether they are rational or scriptural (see TABLE A below).
Despite all of this, there remained some figures who vehemently opposed this rule of interpretation, advocating that given a contradiction between the inconclusive (ẓannī) scriptural proof and conclusive (qaṭʿī) rational proof, predominance is given to the inconclusive (ẓannī) scriptural proof. Ibn Taymiyya, in his work, Darʼ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql, states that “if reason and revelation contradict each other, then revelation must be given priority over reason.”5 This led him and his followers to many contradictory notions of God, such as believing that God is a physical entity contained in time and place. Jon Hoover, a preeminent scholar of Ibn Taymiya’s works, concluded the following: “Nevertheless, he does not deny that God is corporeal or spatial. Ibn Taymiyya is decidedly empiricist. He claims that nothing incorporeal and non-spatial exists outside the mind. Something existing outside the mind must be accessible to the human senses, and God is no exception.”7
Ibn Taymiyya fiercely rebuked the Ashʿarīs and Māturīdīs for denying the literal meaning of ambiguous verses and resorting either to tafwīḍ al-maʿna (consigning the meaning) or taʾwīl (clarifying the metaphorical meaning). In addition, he does not, in his works, deny God having a direction (jiha), modality (kayfiyya), physical boundary (ḥad), etc., leading many to charge him with anthropomorphism. This begs the question: Since Ibn Taymiyya did not deny the literal meaning and was against the rule of interpretation, then what other alternative is there to these verses except anthropomorphism?8
In conclusion, reading sacred texts like the Qurʾān in a literal way may lead to logical inconsistencies, driving the scholars of the past to develop the science of ʿilm al-kalām. From this emerged a rule of interpretation and a meticulous method of discerning between what is categorical and what is ambiguous. The Qurʾān is believed to be the word of God according to all Muslims, and so its grammatical, logical and rhetorical nature is a proof to this; if it was a mere simple book to be read literally, God would not have challenged mankind to “…then bring but one sura anything like it…” (2.23) because then it would have been a fairly easy task to accomplish.1
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.Endnotes
- Keller, N. (2022). The Quran Beheld. Stanchion Press.
- Walbridge, J. (2013). God and Logic in Islam: The Caliphate Of Reason. Cambridge University Press.
- Khan, F. (2020). An Introduction to Islamic Theology (English and Arabic Edition). Zaytuna College.
- Hoover, J. (2020). ‘Early Mamlūk Ashʿarīsm Against Ibn Taymiyya’. In Philosophical Theology in Islam. Leiden; Boston: BRILL.
- El-Tobgui, C. S. (2020). Ibn Taymiyya on Reason and Revelation A Study of Dar taru al-aql wa-l-naql (Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science. Texts and Studies) (Vol. 3). BRILL.
- Adamson, P. (2018). Philosophy in the Islamic World: A history of philosophy without any gaps (Reprint ed., Vol. 3). Oxford University Press.
- Hoover, J. (2019). Ibn Taymiyya. Oneworld Publications.
- Mohd. Farid Mohd. Shahran. (2017). ‘Fakhr Al-Dīn Al-Rāzī on Divine Transcendence and Anthropomorphism. Islamic and Strategic Studies Institute (ISSI).
Salvatore Tarek Bagnato
Salvatore Tarek Bagnato is a former student of the Islamic University of Medina. He is currently working towards a Master of Teaching (English) in Sydney. His interests include theology and philosophy.