The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic and was first addressed to the Arabs. Therefore, the meanings of the verses of the Qur’an will be authentic only as understood by an expert in classic Quranic Arabic, provided he follows the grammar and the usage of the language and interprets precise in its concert meaning a and a figure of speech as a metaphor. But, since the vocabulary of all languages was coined to convey the things in ‘this material world’ and their meanings, the words do not have the competence to cover human sentiments and feelings, not to speak of the Attributes of Allah.
I have, so far, avoided the discussion of problems concerning differences in scholastic theology or among theologians on this subject. But there is one issue – namely, the verses of the Holy Qur’an referring to the attributes of God, which have been subject to many debates and wide difference of opinion. It is a subject deserving attention, and I would therefore like to inform readers of the issues involved. Our Almighty Lord has, in the Holy Qur’an, described Himself with words which are normally used in everyday language to express human feelings and activities. Needless to say, there is nothing equal to God, Who, as the Creator and Sustainer, is above all comparison with any of the creations. These words, therefore, when they occur in the context of Divine attributes, cannot be interpreted to mean the same as when used in the context of human beings. We may, for instance, say that such and such a person is well-informed and that another person is knowledgeable. We may also say of God that He is well-informed and knowledgeable, but the processes by which a human being learns and perceives are not the same as those pertaining to God. We say, for example “The teacher seated himself at his Desk”. The verb ‘to seat’ also occurs in the Holy Qur’an: “Verily, your Sustainer is God, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days and is seated on the throne of his Almightiness.”(Qur’an;7:54) In this verse the verb ‘to seat’ has been used to convey the meaning of ‘establish’. We know the lexical meaning of ‘establish’ (in Arabic the verb istava is used in both instances), nevertheless, we apply it to a teacher with a completely different meaning from that in the quoted verse. Theologians are unanimous in their agreement with regard to the denotation of the verses dealing with the attributes of God, and that these are His words. If He had said”… and is established …”, no one could ask “What could’ is established’ be?” But opinions vary greatly with regard to the purpose and Intention of these attributes and as to whether they are real or metaphorical. The question is whether they can be subjected to interpretation and clarification or not.
One school of thought took the stand that these verses can be interpreted and clarified, and agreed with the scholars of the science of rhetoric, who, by and large, hold the view that words are essentially to be used in the meanings they signify. There is no doubt that the Arabic language contained the language of the Holy Qur’an before it was revealed. These words were used to denote ordinary and everyday meanings. But as they are not adequate enough even to express human emotions and feelings, what can we possibly say about their inadequacy to express Divine attributes? Let us consider, for example, the words at our disposal to express beauty. We know that beauty has several forms and entities, such as the beauty of nature, a poem, a building or the dazzling beauty of a young girl. When we want to express anything regarding beauty, we are forced to bring in the words ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’, as our linguistic repertoire is rather limited. Thus human language falls short of expressions to convey the concept of beauty – and the same applies to the concept of love. Think of all the different manifestations of love – and the words at our disposal to describe or discuss them.
The vocabulary of any language is considered to be a vehicle to convey the thoughts, feelings, actions, emotions, etc. which pertain to life in this world. The vocabulary in the Holy Qur’an also draws from this repertoire of mundane meanings, meanings concerning our material existence in this world, or (example, the words referring to God concerning some of His actions like: ‘He sat, He came, He deceived, He was cunning, He forgot.’ etc. It would be a contradiction in terms to say that these words in the Holy Qur’an are not to be understood in their ordinary, everyday meaning and that they have occurred as metaphorical expressions. Among those who reject the theory of metaphorical usage of such words in the Holy Qur’an is the famous scholar, Ibn Taymiyya. He is of the opinion that metaphorical interpretation The Oneness of God is also man-made and will therefore also reflect mundane.
Three Categories of Verses about Attributes of God:
I find, after studying these verses (about God); that they fall into three categories:
1) Verses which are in the nature of a statement of fact by God, as in: The Most Gracious established on the throne of His almightiness. (Qur’an;20:5) We do not interpret this verse either by denying the act of being ‘established’ or by saying that the Almighty’ established or seated’ Himself on the throne, in the same way as a person would sit on a chair. Such a statement would amount to a comparison between the Lord and His creation. But we believe that it is the Word of God and that the human intellect cannot grasp the inner meaning of such a statement. We quoted other situations earlier, in which the human intellect remains helpless.
2) Verses containing ‘extended metaphors’ – a suggestion of likeness or analogy which is a recognised form of stylistic expression. For example, Abu Tammam, the famous Arab poet says: Ninety thousand lions of the forest have become ripened… (i.e., they are all set to fight) This is like the ripening of figs and grapes. This mode of expression can be noticed in several verses of the Holy Qur’an: “They have forgotten God, and so He is oblivious of them”(Qur’an;9:67). The words ‘to be oblivious’ in this verse are not to be taken in their lexical meaning regarding us human beings, but as an extended metaphor, with reference to the Almighty, Who is never oblivious of anything, which is clearly stated in the following verse: “And thy Lord was never forgetful”(Qur’an;19:64). As to the following verse: “And He is with you wherever you may be. And God is Seer of whatsoever ye do”(Qur’an;57:4). Commentators all agree that it is to be understood in the sense of the Omniscience of God. He is aware of your existence without being physically with you. And: “We shall dispose of you, Oh you two dependents (man and jinn)”(Qur’an;55:31); “And they (the disbelievers) schemed, and God schemed (against them): and God is the best of Schemers”(Qur’an;3:54); “Lo! The hypocrites seek to beguile God, but it is He Who beguiles them. When They stand up to worship, they perform it languidly and to be seen of men, and are mindful of God but little” (Qur’an;4:142). All such verses have Divine connotations, and therefore should not be understood in their literal and ordinary meanings.
3) Verses, the meanings of which are made clear by other verses: And the Jews say “God’s hand is shackled!” It is their own hands that are shackled and rejected (by God) because of this their assertion. Nay, but wide are His hands stretched out. He dispenses (bounty) as He wills. (Qur’an;5:64) The above verse can be understood by perusing another verse form a different chapter. Make not thy hand tied (like a niggard’s) to thy neck, nor stretch it forth to its utmost reach. (Qur’an;17:20)
It is evident that the expression regarding the stretching of hands has been used here metaphorically, in order to indicate generosity and bounty, and we should therefore not assume that God has two hands, as we do. In fact the words ‘two hands’ which come up in the Holy Qur’an in verses referring to the hand of mercy of God, or His punishment, are not to be taken in their literal sense.
Qur’an: Explanatory & Allegorical Verses:
It is mentioned in Qur’an that: “He it is who has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in and by themselves – and these are the essence of the divine writ – as well as others that are allegorical. Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in an arbitrary manner]; but none save God knows its final meaning. Hence, those who are deeply rooted in knowledge say: “We believe in it; the whole [of the divine writ] is from our Sustainer – albeit none takes this to heart save those who are endowed with insight.”(Qur’an;3:7). God the Almighty has revealed verses in the Holy Qur’an that are self-explanatory – messages that are clear in themselves, and they are the essence of the Divine Writ. There are also verses that are expressed figuratively, where the meaning is implied metaphorically and not directly. The verses referring to the Divine Attributes occur in this latter category, namely, allegorically.
Attributes of God-Majority’s View on Verses:
The Muslims of the best of the eras who were the finest, the most virtuous and the most excellent members of the Muslim community, did not debate or argue about the obscure verses of the Qur’an no did they conjecture any interpretations of them; they accepted them and believed in them as revealed by Allah and had faith in them consummate with the purport of Allah. However when the scholastic theology/dialectics raised its head and Islamic doctrines began to be criticized, a new section of the Ulema came in to existence who, piled argument on argument in order to refute these objections. They gave different explanations of the verses relating to the Attributes of Allah, and in conformity with the traditions of the Arabs, applied metaphorical meanings to those expressions which could not bear plain explanation.
The course Adopted by the Elders and the Ancient is reported to be safe and the standpoint of their followers is considered more judicious. However both of them agree that all these verses are revealed by Allah and any one, who renders them ineffective saying that these words are meaningless, is also an infidel. And, one who tries to interpret them in their literal meanings and attribute, and equates the Creator with His creatures is also an infidel. It is a very hazardous path and it may fatal to march on it. The best and the safest course to follow is the path of the Elders and the early Muslims because that alone ensures security and stability.