On Claims, Contradictions, Context & Internal Relationships

M S M Saifullah & Muhammad Ghoniem

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

Last Modified: 19th September 1999


Assalamu-alaikum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

Claims & Contradictions

Every book is to be dealt with on the basis of what is claims and how it is to be understood. The Qur'an is no exception to this. The claim of the Qur'an is that:

Do they not consider the Qur'an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much discrepancy. [Qur'an 4:82]

There are two methods of examining whether the Qur'an is what it claims to be.

The first is a very cumbersome process, which involves reading the whole book, verifying the information present in it and then passing a verdict.

The second method is much simpler. This would involve not to look to the meanings of the words, but to treat them as abstract logical terms. To make this clear let us consider the difference between

Tokyo is a large city

and

Tokyo has 5 letters

In one phrase, we are referring to the city and in the other to the name 'Tokyo'. Let us now apply this logic to the Qur'an. We can rewrite verse 4:82 as:

Do they not consider the Qur'an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein ikhtilafan kathiran. [Qur'an 4:82]

Or

Do they not consider the Qur'an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein ikhtilafan many. [Qur'an 4:82]

Rearranging the words, we get:

Do they not consider the Qur'an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein many ikhtilafan. [Qur'an 4:82]

Now, what a clever logician would do is to simply treat ikhtilafan as a word and not consider its meaning and start counting number of its occurrences in the Qur'an. This would simply enable him to check whether the author of the Qur'an understands the difference between use and mention of the word. The clever logician would find that the word ikhtilafan occurs only once in the Qur'an, i.e., in the above verse.[1] Therefore, had the Qur'an been from any other than Allah, the logician would surely have found therein many ikhtilafan.

One can say that this is an isolated case. However, we notice that the word wahidan meaning "alone"[2] did occur in the Qur'an:

Leave Me and him whom I created alone (wahidan) [Qur'an 74:11]

What would you expect for this word, how many times is the word "alone" in the Qur'an? The answer is once.[3] It is alone.

How is the Qur'an to be undestood? This would be important before one can even claim a contradiction in the Qur'an. This is dealt with in the next section.

Understanding The Qur'an

Before we embark upon refuting the claim of Christian missionaries that there are internal contradictions in the Qur'an, there is a need to do a systematic exposition of how the Qur'an is to be understood, and that is the aim of this article.

Here we discuss the most important aspect of the Qur'anic exegesis, the principle that the best tafsir or exegesis of the Qur'an is the Qur'an itself.

All honest attempts at tafseer must begin with the tafsir of the Qur'an by Qur'an itself. What is remained unexplained must be then sought in the Sunnah.[4]

Ahmad von Denffor elaborates:

The interpretation of the Qur'an by the Qur'an is the highest source of tafsir. Many of the questions which may arise out of certain passage of the Qur'an have their explanation in other parts of the very same book, and often there is a no need to turn to any sources other than the word of Allah, which in itself contains tafsir. To seek to explain an aya from the Qur'an by referring to another aya from the Qur'an is the first and foremost duty of the mufassir. Only if this does not suffice, he will refer to other sources of tafsir.[5]

A careful reader of the Qur'an would notice that the distribution of the material, whether it is the stories of the Prophets of the past, Day of Judgment, heaven and hell, previous scriptures etc., varies in length between one surah and the other. It is sometimes very short and sometimes it is very long. But when the material mentioned is very short, it recalls and evokes the more extended descriptions. So, the exegesis of the Qur'an is carried by the Qur'an itself. This is brought out particularly in the Qur'anic commentaries which apply the two principles: al-Qur'an yufassiru bacduhu bacdan (different parts of the Qur'an explain one another) and yuhmal al-mutlaq cala-muqayyad (unqualified statements should be interpreted in the light of qualified ones).[6]

We will deal only with the first principle in detail, i.e., al-Qur'an yufassiru bacduhu bacdan. The material which is used here is from "Context And Internal Relationships: Keys To Qur'anic Exegesis A Study Of Surat al-Rahman", an article written by Professor M A S Abdel Haleem of School of Oriental & African Studies. This article is in the book Approaches To The Qur'an, G R Hawtings & 'Abdul Kader A Shareef, Routledge, London & New York, 1993, pp. 71-98. We are only going to use some part of the article here without making changes. Interested people may refer to the original article in the book.

Introduction[7]

This paper argues that a most relevant and fruitful approach to understanding the text of the Qur'an is by means of two key concepts developed by Muslim scholars in the classical period; context and internal relationships. The importance of context (maqam) was recognized and formulated for the study of the text of the Qur'an by Muslim linguists whose work in this respect anticipated by many centuries modern linguistic thinking. Internal relationships were encapsulated in the dictum: al-Qur'an yufassiru ba
cduhu bacdan (different parts of the Qur'an explain one another), which, given the structure of Qur'anic material, was argued to provide the most correct method of understanding the Qur'an.

Context & Internal Relationships[8]

The Qur'an was the starting point of numerous branches of Arabic and Islamic studies. In his
Itqan, Suyuti dedicates a chapter to al-culum al-mustanbata min al-Qur'an in which he quotes from the commentary of Al-Mursi a passage listing various sciences based on the Qur'an and developed to serve it, and to serve Islamic studies in general: branches such as phonetics, grammar, usul, fiqh, tafsir, balagha and others.

Balagha was undoubtedly one of the most important subjects for Qur'anic exegesis, and began and developed around the central question of the appreciation of the style of the Qur'an and its i'jaz in particular, as witnessed by such titles as Dala'il al-i'jaz of cAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjani. The importance of balagha, especially cilm al-macani and cilm al-bayan, for tafsir in general is universally recognized and the attention paid to it by such commentators as Zamakhshari and Razi gives their work particular distinction.

One of the important contributions of scholars of balagha was their recognition of the concept of maqam (the context of the situation) and its role in determining the utterance and providing the criterion for judging it. A central issue in cilm al-macani is: mutabaqat al-kalam li-muqtada'i 'l-hal (the conformity of the utterance to the requirements of the situation).

Al-Khatib al-Qazwini explains:

The context that demands the definite, generalization, advancement of part of a discourse, and inclusion (of particular words) differs from the context that demands the indefinite, specification, postponement and omission; the context of separation differs from that of joining; the situation that requires conciseness differs from that requiring expansiveness. Discourse with an intelligent person differs from discourse with an obtuse one. Each word with its companion is suited to a particular context. A high standard of beauty and acceptability of speech depends on its appropriateness to the situation and vice versa.

Tammam Hassan points out that when scholars of balagha recognized the concept of maqam, they were one thousand years ahead of their time, since the recognition of maqam and maqal as two separate bases for the analysis of meaning has been arrived at only recently as a result of modern linguistic thinking. When they said li-kull maqam maqal (each context demands its own distinctive form of speech) and li-kull kalima maca sahibatiha maqam (each word, with its companion, should have its own context) they hit on two remarkable statements that could be applied equally to the study of other languages. When Malinowski coined his famous term 'the context of the situation' he did not know that scholars had formulated the same concept a thousand years earlier under the name maqam.

Scholars of usul al-fiqh have recognized the importance of the notions of maqam and maqal for the study of the Qur'an. In his Muwafaqal Shatibi states:

The science of macani and bayan by which the i'jaz of the Qur'an is recognized, revolves around knowing the requirements of the situation during the discourse from the point of view of the discourse itself, the discursant, the discursee or all of them together; for the same statement can be understood in different ways in relation to two different addressees or more. A question with one and the same form can imply other meanings, such as agreement, scolding etc. Likewise an imperative can have the meaning of permission, threat, incapacity/impossibility.

Another key tool of Qur'anic exegesis is the internal relationships between material in different parts of the Qur'an, expressed by Qur'anic scholars as: al-Qur'an yufassiru bacduhu bacdan (different parts of the Qur'an explain each other). Utilization of such relationships is considered by Ibn Taymiyya to be the most correct method of tafsir (asahh al-turuq). He explains; 'What is given in a general way in one place is explained in detail in another place. What is given briefly in one place is expanded in another.' Shatibi states that many Qur'anic verses/passages can only be properly understood in the light of explanations provided in other verses or suras. This old concept in Qur'anic studies may, thus, be viewed within the framework of the modern linguistic concept of 'intertextuality' which involves the dependence of one text upon another.

Certain themes have been treated in more than one place in the Qur'an, including, for instance, God's power and grace, the hereafter, stories of earlier prophets, etc. The conciseness or expansion in one place or another depends on muqta
da'i 'l-hal, and an expanded statement in one place clarifies a concise one in another. Sound linguistic analysis surely requires that a technique of comparison in such situations should not be ignored. Commenting on stories of earlier prophets, Shatibi again remarked that their purpose was to strengthen the Prophet in the face of various forms of denial and obstinacy from his opponents at different times. The form of the story would echo a situation similar to that which the Prophet was facing.

The particular from of the narrative varies according to the situation, while all of it is true, factual, with no doubt about its being correct.

Suyu
ti mentions a feature of Qur'anic style that further illustrates the internal relationships of Qur'anic passages, namely, al-iqtisas for which such examples as the following were given:

wa-lawla nicmatu rabbi la-kuntu min al-muhdarin (37:57) with reference to : ula'ika fi'l-'adhabi muhdarun (34:38) and yawma 'l-tanadi (40:32) with reference to wa-nada ashabu 'l-jannati ashaba 'l-nari (7:44).

Readers of the Qur'an recognize this feature clearly. Take for example a verse from the Fatiha, that practising Muslims recite many times daily: sirat alladhina an'amta 'alayhim (1:7) and how it is clarified with reference to alladhina an'ama 'llahu 'alayhim mina 'l-nabiyyina wa'l-siddiqina wa'l-shuhada'i wa'l-salihina (4:69).

The importance of context in determining the meaning of any discourse, Qur'an or otherwise, is now established beyond doubt. The style of the Qur'an being what it is, the importance of internal relationships in understanding the text of the Qur'an cannot be seriously challenged. Context, with the expression it demands, and internal relationships which call for comparison between different related statements in the Qur'an focus our attention on the Qur'anic text itself, which must surely take priority over any other approach to understanding and explaining the Qur'an.

Examples[9]

A case in the point is the detailed explanation of 5:2 by 5:4, concerning permissible and prohibited meat. Another example of explanation of one aya in the Qur'an by another concerns a question of which might arise from Sura 44:3. It is explained in Sura 97:1

We sent it down during a Blessed Night: [Qur'an 44:3]

Which might is this blessed night, in which the Qur'an was sent down?

We have indeed revealed this (Message) in the Night of Power. [Qur'an 97:1]

A third example is the explanation of Sura 2:37 by Sura 7:23:

Then learnt Adam from his Lord words of inspiration, and his Lord Turned towards him; for He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. [Qur'an 2:37]

These 'words of inspiration' are explained by the Qur'an as follows:

"Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls: If thou forgive us not and bestow not upon us Thy Mercy, we shall certainly be lost." [Qur'an 7:23]

Conclusions

It is discussed that the key to the Qur'anic exegesis is the Qur'an itself. One of the key tool of the Qur'anic exegesis is the context and the other the internal relationships between material in different parts of the Qur'an; the latter is expressed by Qur'anic scholars as: al-Qur'an yufassiru bacduhu bacdan (different parts of the Qur'an explain each other). The other important principle is yuhmal al-mutlaq cala-muqayyad (unqualified statements should be interpreted in the light of qualified ones).Together, these two principles play and important role in understanding the themes in the Qur'an that discuss God's power and grace, the hereafter, stories of earlier prophets, etc. Concerning these issues what is given in a general way in one place is discussed in detail in some other place in the Qur'an. What is dealt with briefly at one place is expanded in some other place.

It will be seen, inshallah, that using the above two principles, which are the key to the Qur'anic exegesis are also keys in refuting so-called internal contradictions in the Qur'an as claimed by the Christian missionaries.

   Islamic Awareness Qur'an Contradictions Internal On Claims, Contradictions, Context...


References

[1] Muhammad Fu'ad `Abd al-Baqi, Al-Mu`ahjam al-Mufahris li al-Fadh al-Qur'an al-Karim, 1997, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut (Lebanon), p. 305.

[2] J. M. Cowan (Editor), Hans-Wehr Dictionary Of Modern Written Arabic, 1980 (Reprint), Librairie Du Liban, Beirut, p. 1055.

[3] Muhammad Fu'ad `Abd al-Baqi, Al-Mu`ahjam al-Mufahris li al-Fadh al-Qur'an al-Karim, Op. Cit., p. 914.

[4] Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, Usool at-Tafseer, 1997, Dar al-Fatah, p. 49.

[5] Ahmad von Denffer, `Ulum al-Qur'an, 1994, The Islamic Foundation, p. 124.

[6] Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Understanding The Qur'an: Themes And Style, 1999, I. B. Tauris Publishers, London and New York, p. 94.

[7] G R Hawtings & 'Abdul Kader A Shareef, Approaches To The Qur'an, 1993, Routledge, London & New York, 1993, p. 71.

[8] Ibid., pp. 72-74.

[9] Ahmad von Denffer, `Ulum al-Qur'an, Op. Cit., p. 125.

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