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  • Date :
  • 7/9/2003

The Principles of Interpretation of the Quran


At the beginning of Islam it was commonly believed by some Sunnis that if there was sufficient reason one could ignore the outward meaning of Quranic verses and ascribe to them a contrary meaning. Usually the meaning which opposed the outward, literal meaning was called ta"wil, and what is called "ta"wil of the Qur`an" in Sunni Islam is usually understood in this sense.

In the religious works of Sunni scholars, as well as in the controversies that have been recorded as taking place between different schools, one often observes that if a particular point of doctrine (that has been established through the consensus of the ulama of a school or through some other means) is opposed to the outward meaning of a verse of the Qur`an, that verse is interpreted by ta"wil to have a meaning contrary to its apparent meaning. Sometimes two contending sides support two opposing views and present Qur`anic verses in proof of their contentions. Each side interprets the verses presented by the other side through ta"wil. This method has also penetrated more or less into Shi"ism and can be seen in some Shi"ite theological works.

Yet, sufficient deliberation upon Quranic verses and the hadith of the Household of the Prophet demonstrates clearly that the Holy Quran with its attractive language and eloquent and lucid expression never uses enigmatic or puzzling methods of exposition and always expounds any subject in a language suitable for that subject. What has been rightly called ta"wil, or hermeneutic interpretation, of the Holy Qur`an is not concerned simply with the denotation of words. Rather, it is concerned with certain truths and realities that transcend the comprehension of the common run of men; yet it is from these truths and realities that the principles of doctrine and the practical injunctions of the Qur`an issue forth.

The whole of the Qur`an possesses the sense of ta"wil, of esoteric meaning, which cannot be comprehended directly through human thought alone. Only the prophets and the pure among the saints of God who are free from the dross of human imperfection can contemplate these meanings while living on the present plane of existence. On the Day of Resurrection the ta"wil of the Qur`an will be revealed to everyone.

This assertion can be explained by pointing to the fact that what forces man to use speech, create words and make use of expressions is nothing other than his social and material needs. In his social life man is forced to try to make his fellow-men understand his thoughts and intentions and the feelings which exist within his soul. To accomplish this end he makes use of sounds and hearing. Occasionally also he uses to a degree his eyes and gestures. That is why between the mute and the blind there can never be any mutual comprehension, for whatever the blind man says the deaf cannot hear, and whatever the mute makes understood through gestures the blind man cannot see.

The creation of words and the naming of objects have been accomplished with a material end in view. Expressions have been created for those objects, states, and conditions which are material and available to the senses or near to the sensible world. As can be seen in those cases where the person addressed lacks one of the physical senses, if we wish to speak of matters which can be comprehended through the missing sense we employ a kind of allegory and similitude. For example, if we wish to describe light or color to one who is born blind, or the pleasures of sex to a child that has not reached the age of adolescence, we seek to achieve our purpose through comparison and allegory and through providing examples.

Therefore, if we accept the hypothesis that in the scale of Universal Existence there are immense levels of reality which are independent of the world of matter (and this is in reality the case), and that in each generation there are among mankind but a handful who have the capability of comprehending and having a vision of these realities, then questions pertaining to these higher worlds cannot be understood through common verbal expressions and modes of thought. They cannot be referred to except by allusion and through symbolism. Since religious realities are of this kind, the expression of the Qur`an in such matters must of necessity be symbolic.

God says in his book, "Lo! We have appointed it a Lecture in Arabic that haply ye may understand. And Lo! in the Source of Decrees, which We possess, it is indeed sublime, decisive." (Common comprehension cannot understand it or penetrate into it.) (Qur`an, XLIII, 3-4) He also says, "That (this) is indeed a noble Qur`an, In a book kept hidden, Which none toucheth save the purified" (Qur`an, LVI, 77-79). Concerning the Prophet and his Household he says, "Allah"s wish is but to remove uncleanness far from you, O Folk of the Household, and cleanse you with a thorough cleansing" (Qur`an, XXXIII, 33).

As proved by these verses, the Holy Qur`an  emanates from sources beyond the comprehension of common man. No one can have a full comprehension of the Qur`an save those servants of God whom He has chosen to purify. And the Household of the Prophet are among those pure beings.

In another place God says, "Nay, but they denied that (the Qur`an), the knowledge whereof they could not compass, and whereof the interpretation (in events) [ta"wil] hath not yet come into them" (Qur`an, X, 40) (meaning the day of Resurrection when the truth of things will become known). And again he says, "On the day (the Day of Resurrection) when the fulfillment [ta"wil] thereof (of the whole Qur`an) cometh, those who were before forgetful thereof will say: The messengers of our Lord did bring the Truth!" (Qur`an, VII, 53)


The principle that the hadith possesses validity, as attested by the Qur`an, is not at all disputed among Shi"ites or in fact among all Muslims. But because of the failure of some of the early rulers of Islam in preserving and guarding the hadith, and the excesses of a group among the companions and followers of the Prophet in propagating hadith literature, the corpus of hadith came to face a certain number of difficulties.

On the one hand the caliphs of the time prevented the writing down and recording of the hadith and ordered any pages containing texts of hadith to be burned. Sometimes also any increase in activity in the transmission and study of hadith was forbidden. In this way a certain number of hadiths were forgotten or lost and a few were even transmitted with a different or distorted meaning. On the other hand another tendency also prevailed among another group of the companions of the Holy Prophet who had had the honor of seeing his presence and actually hearing his words. This group, which was respected by the caliphs and the Muslim community, began an intense effort to propagate the hadith. This was carried to such an extent that sometimes hadith overruled the Qur`an and the injunction of a Quranic verse was even considered abrogated by some people through a hadith. Often the transmitters of hadith would travel many miles and bear all the difficulties of traveling in order to hear a single saying.

A group of outsiders who had worn the dress of Islam and also some of the enemies within ranks of Islam began to change and distort some of the hadith and thus diminished the reliability and validity of the hadith that was then heard and known. For this very reason Islamic scholars began to think of a solution. They created the sciences concerned with the biography of learned men and chains of transmission of hadith in order to be able to discriminate between true and false hadith.

The Method of Shi"ism in Authenticating the Hadith

Shi"ism, in addition to seeking to authenticate the chain transmission of hadith, considers the correlation of the text of the hadith with the Qur`an as a necessary condition for its validity. In Shi"ite sources there are many hadiths of the Prophet and the Imams with authentic chains of transmission which themselves assert that a hadith contrary to the Qur`an has no value. Only that hadith can be considered valid which is in agreement with the Qur`an.

Basing itself on these hadiths, Shi"ism does not act upon those hadiths which are contrary to the text of the Qur`an. As for the hadiths whose agreement or disagreement cannot be established, according to instructions received from Imams they are passed by in silence without being accepted or rejected. Needless to say there are also within Shi"ism those who, like a group among the Sunnis, act on any hadith whatsoever which they happen to find in different traditional sources.

The Method of Shi"ism in Following the Hadith

A hadith heard directly from the mouth of the Prophet or one of the Imams is accepted as is the Qur`an. As for hadiths received through intermediaries, the majority of Shi"ites act upon them if their chain of transmission is established at every step or if there exists definite proof concerning their truth, and, if they are concerned with principles of doctrine which require knowledge and certainty, according to the text of the Qur`an. Other than these two kinds of hadith, no other hadith has any validity concerning principles of doctrine, the invalid hadith being called "tradition with a single transmitter" (khabar wahid). However, in establishing the injunctions of the Shari" a, because of reasons that have been given, Shi"ites act also on a tradition which is generally accepted as reliable. Therefore it can be said that for Shi"ism a certain and definitely established hadith is absolutely binding and must be followed, while a hadith which is not absolutely established but which is generally considered as reliable is utilized only in the elaboration of the injunctions of the Shari" a.

Learning and Teaching in Islam

To acquire knowledge is a religious duty in Islam. The Prophet has said, "To seek knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim." According to fully established hadiths which elucidate the meaning of this saying, knowledge here means the three principles of Islam: unity or tawhid; prophecy or nubuwwat; and eschatology or ma"ad. In addition to these principles, Muslims are expected to acquire knowledge of the subsidiary branches and the details of the injunctions and laws of Islam according to their individual circumstances and needs.

It is clear that acquiring knowledge of the principles of religion, even if it be in summary fashion, is possible to a certain extent for everyone. But acquiring detailed knowledge of the injunctions and laws of religion through use of the basic documents of the Book and the Sunnah and technical reasoning based upon them (or what is called demonstrative jurisprudence, fiqh-i istidlali) is not possible for every Muslim. Only a few persons have the capacity for demonstrative jurisprudence, nor is such acquiring of detailed knowledge required of everyone, for there are no injunctions in Islam requiring one to do what lies beyond his abilities.

Therefore, the study of Islamic injunctions and laws through reasoning has been limited through the principle of "sufficient necessity" (wajib-i kifa"i) to those individuals who have the necessary capability and are worthy of such study. The duty of the rest of the people, according to the general principle of the necessity for the ignorant to depend on the one who knows, is to seek guidance from capable and worthy men of learning, who are called mujtahids and faqihs. This act of following mujtahids is called imitation or taqlid. Of course this imitation differs from imitation in the principles of religious knowledge which is forbidden according to the very text of the Qur`an, "(O man), follow not that whereof thou hast no knowledge." (Qur`an, XVII, 36).

It must be known that Shi"ism does not permit imitation of a dead mujtahid. That is to say, a person who does not know the answer to a problem through ijtihad and through religious duty must imitate a living mujtahid and cannot depend on the view of a mujtahid who is not living, unless he had received that guidance while the mujtahid was alive. This practice is one of the factors which have kept Islamic Shi"ite jurisprudence alive and fresh throughout the ages. There are individuals who continuously follow the path of independent judgment, ijtihad, and delve into the problems of jurisprudence from one generation to another.

In Sunnism, as a result of consensus of opinion (ijma") that occurred in the 4th/10th century, it was decided that submission to one of the four schools (of Abu Hanifah, Ibn Malik, al-Shafi"i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal) was necessary. Free ijtihad or imitation of a school other than these four (or one or two smaller schools that died out later) was not considered permissible. As a result, their jurisprudence has remained in the same condition as it was about 1100 years ago. In recent times certain individuals in the Sunni world have turned away from this consensus and have begun to exercise free ijtihad.

Shi"ism and the Transmitted Sciences

The Islamic sciences, which owe their existence to the ulama of Islam who organized and formulated them, are divided into the two categories of intellectual and transmitted. The intellectual sciences include such sciences as philosophy and mathematics. The transmitted sciences are those which depend upon transmission from some source, such as the sciences of language, hadith, or history. Without doubt the major cause for the appearance of the transmitted sciences in Islam is the Holy Qur`an. With the exception of a few disciplines such as history, genealogy, and prosody, the other transmitted sciences have all come into being under the influence of the Holy Book. Guided by religious discussions and research, Muslims began to cultivate these sciences, of which the most important are Arabic literature (grammar, rhetoric, and the science of metaphors) and the sciences pertaining to the external form of religion (recitation of the Qur`an, Quranic commentary (tafsir), hadith, biography of learned men, the chain of transmission of hadith, and the principles of jurisprudence).

Shi"ites played an essential role in the foundation and establishment of these sciences. In fact, the founders and creators of many of these sciences were Shi"ites. Arabic grammar was put into a systematic form by Abu"l-Aswad al-Du"ali, one of the companions of the Holy Prophet, and by Ali. Ali dictated an outline for the organization of the science of Arabic grammar. One of the founders of the science of eloquence (rhetoric and the science of metaphors) was Sahib ibn "Abbad, a Shi"ite, who was a vizier of the Buyid. The first Arabic dictionary is the Kitab al-"ayn composed by the famous scholar, Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Basri, the Shi"ite who founded the science of prosody. He was also the teacher of the great master of grammar, Sibawayh.

The Quranic recitation of "Asim goes back to Ali through one intermediary and "Abdullah ibn "Abbas, who in hadith was the foremost among the companions, was a student of Ali. The contributions of the Household of the Prophet and their associates in hadith and jurisprudence are well known. The founders of the four Sunni schools of law are known to have associated with the fifth and sixth Shi"ite Imams. In the principles of jurisprudence the remarkable advances accomplished by the Shi"ite scholar Wahid Bihbahani and followed by Shaykh Murtada Ansari have never been matched in Sunni jurisprudence according to existing evidence.




Philosophical and Theological Thought in Shi"ism

It has been mentioned before that Islam has legitimized and approved rational thought, which it considers a part of religious thought. Rational thought in its Islamic sense, after confirming the prophecy of the Prophet, provides intellectual demonstrations of the validity of the external aspect of the Qur`an, which is a divine revelation, as well as of the definitely established sayings of the Prophet and his noble Household.

Intellectual proofs, which aid man in finding solutions for these problems through his God-given nature, are of two kinds: demonstration (burhan) and dialectic (jadal). Demonstration is a proof whose premises are true (accord with reality) even if they be not observable or evident. In other words, it is a proposition which man comprehends and confirms by necessity through his God-given intelligence, as for example when he knows that "the number three is less than four." This type of thought is called rational thought; and in case it concerns universal problems of existence, such as the origin and end of the world and of man, it becomes known as philosophical thought.

Dialectic is a proof all or some of whose premises are based on observable and certain data, as for example the case of believers in a religion for whom the common practice is to prove their religious views within that religion by appealing to its certain and evident principles.

The Holy Qur`an has employed both these methods and there are many verses in the Holy Book attesting to each type of proof. First of all, the Qur`an commands free investigation and meditation upon the universal principles of the world of existence and the general principles of cosmic order, as well as upon more particular orders such as that of the heavens, the stars, day and night, the earth, the plants, animals, men, etc. It praises in the most eloquent language intellectual investigation of these matters.

Secondly, the Qur`an has commanded man to apply dialectical thought, which is usually called theological (kalami) discussion, provided it is accomplished in the best manner possible, that is, with the aim of manifesting the truth without contention and by men who possess the necessary moral virtues. It is said in the Qur`an, "Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason ["jadil," from jadal] with them in the better way" (Qur`an, XVI, 125).

Shi"ite Initiative in Islamic Philosophy and Kalam

As for theology, kalam, it is clear that from the beginning when the Shi"ites separated from the Sunni majority they began to debate with their opponents concerning their own particular point of view. It is true that a debate has two sides and that both the opponents share in it. However, the Shi"ites were continuously on the offensive, taking the initiative, while the other side played the defensive role. In the gradual growth of kalam, which reached its height in 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries with the spread of the Mu"tazilite school, Shi"ite scholars and learned men, who were students of the school of the Household of the Prophet, became among the foremost masters of kalam. Furthermore, the chain of theologians of the Sunni world, whether it be the Ash"arites, Mu"tazilites or others, goes back to the first Imam of the Shi"ites, Ali.

As for philosophy, those who are acquainted with sayings and works of the companions of the Prophet (of which the names of 12,000 have been recorded and 120,000 are known to exist) know that there is little in them containing an appreciable discussion of philosophical questions. It is only Ali whose compelling metaphysical utterances contain the deepest philosophical thought.

The companions and the scholars who followed them, and in fact the Arabs of that day in general, were not acquainted with free intellectual discussion. There is no example of philosophical thought in the works of the scholars of the first two centuries. Only the profound sayings of the Shi"ite Imams, particularly the first and eighth, contain an inexhaustible treasury of philosophical meditations in their Islamic context. It is they who acquainted some of their students with this form of thought.

The Arabs were not familiar with philosophical thought until they saw examples of it during the 2nd/8th century in the translation of certain philosophical works into Arabic. Later, during the 3rd/9th century, numerous philosophical writings were translated into Arabic from Greek, Syriac, and other languages and through them the method of philosophical thought became known to the general public. Nevertheless, most jurists and theologians did not look upon philosophy and other intellectual sciences, which were newly arrived guests, with favor. At the beginning, because of the support of the governmental authorities for these sciences, their opposition did not have much effect. But conditions soon changed through strict orders many philosophical works were destroyed. The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, which is the work of a group of unknown authors, is a reminder of those days and attests to the unfavorable conditions of that epoch.

After this period of difficulty, philosophy was revived at the beginning of the 4th/10th century by the famous philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi. In the 5th/11th century, as a result of the works of the celebrated philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Peripatetic philosophy reached its full development. In the 6th/12th century Shaykh al-Ishraq Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi systematized the philosophy of illumination (ishraq) and because of this was executed by the order of Salah al-Din Ayyubi. Thereafter, philosophy ceased to exist among the Muslim majority in the Sunni world. There was no further outstanding philosopher in that part of the Muslim world except in Andalusia at the edge of the Islamic world where at the end of the 6th/12th century Ibn Rushd (Averroes) sought to revive the study of philosophy.

Shi"ite Contributions to Philosophy and the Intellectual Sciences

In the same way that from the beginning Shi"ism played an effective role in the formation of Islamic philosophical thought, it was also a principal factor in the further development and propagation of philosophy and the Islamic sciences. Although after Ibn Rushd philosophy disappeared in the Sunni world, it continued to live in Shi"ism. After Ibn Rushd there appeared such celebrated philosophers as Khwajah Nasir al-Din Tusi, Mir Damad, and Sadr al-Din Shirazi, who studied, developed and expounded philosophical thought one after another. In the same manner, in the other intellectual sciences, there appeared many outstanding figures such as Nasir al-Din Tusi (who was both philosopher and mathematician) and Birjandi, who was also an outstanding mathematician.

All the sciences, particularly metaphysics or theosophy (falsafah-i ilahi or hikmat-i ilahi), made major advances thanks to the indefatigable endeavor of Shi"ite scholars. This fact can be seen if one compares the works of Nasir al-Din Tusi, Shams al-Din Turkah, Mir Damad, and Sadr al-Din Shirazi with the writings of those who came before them.

It is known that the element that was instrumental in the appearance of philosophical and metaphysical thought in Shi"ism and through Shi"ism in other Islamic circles was the treasury of knowledge left behind by the Imams. The persistence and continuity of this type of thought in Shi"ism is due to the existence of this same treasury of knowledge, which Shi"ism has continued to regard with a sense of reverence and respect.

In order to clarify this situation it is enough to compare the treasury of knowledge left by the Household of the Prophet with the philosophical works written over the course of the centuries. In this comparison one can see clearly how each day Islamic philosophy approached this source of knowledge ever more closely, until in the 11th/17th century Islamic philosophy and this inspired treasury of wisdom converged more or less completely. They were separated only by certain differences of interpretation of some of the principles of philosophy.

Outstanding Intellectual Figures of Shi"ism

Thiqat al-islam Muhammad ibn Ya"qub Kulayni (d. 329/940) is the first person in Shi"ism to have separated the Shi"ite hadiths from the books called Principles (usul) and to have arranged and organized them according the headings of jurisprudence and articles of faith. (Each one of the Shi"ite scholars of hadith had assembled sayings he had collected from the Imams in a book called Asl, or Principles.) The book of Kulayni known as Kafi is divided into three parts: Principles, Branches, and Miscellaneous Articles, and contains 16,199 hadiths. It is the most trustworthy and celebrated work of hadith known in the Shi"ite world.

Three other works which complement the Kafi are the book of the jurist Shaykh-i Saduq Muhammad ibn Babuyah Qumi(d. 381/991), and Kitab al-tahdhib and Kitab al-istibsar, both by Shaykh Muhammad Tusi (d. 460/1068).

Abu"l-Qasim Ja"far ibn Hasan ibn Yahya Hilli (d. 676/1277), known as Muhaqqiq, was an outstanding genius in the science of jurisprudence and is considered to be the foremost Shi"ite jurist. Among his masterpieces are Kitab-i mukhtasar-i nafi" and Kitab-i sharayi", which have been passed from hand to hand for seven hundred years among Shi"ite jurists and have always been regarded with a sense of awe and wonder.

Following Muhaqqiq, we must cite Shahid-i Awwal (the First Martyr) Shams al-Din Muhammad ibn Makki, who was killed in Damascus in 786/1384 on the accusation of being Shi"ite. Among his juridical masterpieces is his Lum"ah-i dimashqiyah which he wrote in prison in a period of seven days. Also we must cite Shaykh Ja"far Kashif al-Ghita" Najafi (d. 1327/1909) among whose outstanding juridical works is Kitab kashf al-ghita".

Khwajah Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 672/1274) is the first to have made kalam a thorough and complete science. Among his masterpieces in this domain is his Tajrid al-iteqed which has preserved its authority among masters of this discipline for more than seven centuries. Numerous commentaries have been written on it by Shi"ites and Sunnis alike. Over and above his genius in the science of kalam, he was one of the outstanding figures of his day in philosophy and mathematics as witnessed by the valuable contributions he made to the intellectual sciences. Moreover, the Maraghah observatory owed its existence to him.

Sadr al-Din Shirazi (d. 1050/1640), known as Mulla Sadra and Sadr al-Muta"allihin, was the philosopher who, after centuries of philosophical development in Islam, brought complete order and harmony into the discussion of philosophical problems for the first time. He organized and systematized them like mathematical problems and at the same time wed philosophy and gnosis, thereby bringing about several important developments. He gave to philosophy new ways to discuss and solve hundreds of problems that could not be solved through Peripatetic philosophy. He made possible the analysis and solution of a series of mystical questions which to that day had been considered as belonging to a domain above that of reason and beyond comprehension through rational thought. He clarified and elucidated the meaning of many treasuries of wisdom, contained in the exoteric sources of religion in the profound metaphysical utterances of the Imams of the Household of the Prophet, which for centuries had been considered as insoluble riddles and usually believed to be of an allegorical or even unclear nature. In this way gnosis, philosophy and the exoteric aspect of religion were completely harmonized and began to follow a single course.

By following the methods he had developed, Mulla Sadra succeeded in proving "transubstantial motion" (harakat-i jawhariyah), and in discovering the intimate relation of time to the three spatial dimensions in a manner that is similar to the meaning given in modern physics to the "fourth dimension" and which resembles the general principles of the theory of relativity (relativity of course in the corporeal world outside the mind, not in the mind), and many other noteworthy principles. He wrote nearly fifty books and treatises. Among his greatest masterpieces is the four-volume Asfar.

It should be noted here that before Mulla Sadra certain sages like Suhrawardi, the 6th/12th century philosopher and author of Hikmat al-ishraq, and Shams al-Din Turkah, a philosopher of the 8th/14th century, had taken steps toward harmonizing gnosis, philosophy and exoteric religion, but credit for complete success in this undertaking belongs to Mulla Sadra.

Shaykh Murtada Ansari Shustari (d. 1281/1864) reorganized the science of the principles of jurisprudence upon a new foundation and formulated the practical principles of this science. For over a century his school has been followed diligently by Shi"ite scholars.

To be continued…

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