The Qur'an Possesses Revelation and Exegesis
We shall discuss the word, exegesis, ta'wil, in relation to three Qur'anic verses. Firstly, in the verses concerning the implicit mutashabih and the explicit verses:
"But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue, in truth, that which is allegorical talking dissension by seeking to explain it. None knows its explanation except God". (III: 7)
Secondly, the verses, "In truth we have brought them a scripture which we expound with knowledge, a guidance and a mercy for a people who believe. Do they await anything but the fulfillment of it".
(Here the word ta'wil is used connoting the appearance or clarification of meaning).
"On the day when the fulfillment of it comes, those who are forgetful of it will say: the messenger of our Lord brought the truth."(VII: 52-53)
Thirdly, the verse "And this Qur'an is not such as could ever be invented ... but they denied that, the knowledge of which they could not encompass and the interpretation (ta'wil of which had not yet come to them. Even so it was that those before them deny. Then [X: 37-39]see what was the consequence in the wrongdoers.
In conclusion, we should note that the word exegesis ta'wil comes from the word awl, meaning a return. As such, ta'wil indicates that particular meaning towards which the verse is directed. The meaning of revelation tanzil, as opposed to ta'wil, is clear or according to the obvious meaning of the words as they were revealed.
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The Meaning of Exegesis, According to the Commentators and Scholars
There is considerable disagreement as to the meaning of exegesis, ta'wil, and it is possible to count more than ten different views. There are, however, two views which have gained general acceptance. The first is that of the early generation of scholars who used the word exegesis, ta'wil, as a synonym for commentary, or tafstr. According to this view, all Qur'anic verses are open to ta'wil although according to the verse, "nobody knows its interpretation (ta'wil) except God, it is the implicit verses whose interpretation (ta'wil) is known only to God. For this reason, a number of the early scholars said that the implicit verses are those with muqatt'ah-letters at the beginning of the chapter since they are the only verses in the Qur'an whose meaning is not known to everyone.
This interpretation has been demonstrated in the previous section as being incorrect, a view which is shared by certain of the late scholars. They argued that since there is a way of finding out the meaning of any verse, particularly since the muqatt'ah-letters are obviously not in the same classification as the implicit verses then the distinction between the two (muqatta'ah and implicit, mutashabih) is clear.
Secondly, the view of the later scholars is that exegesis refers to the meaning of a verse beyond its literal meaning and that not all verses have exegesis; rather only the implicit, whose ultimate meaning is known only to God. The verses in question here are those which refer to the human qualities of coming, going, sitting, satisfaction, anger and sorrow apparently attributed to God and, also, those verses which apparently ascribe faults to the messengers and Prophets of God (when in reality they are infallible).
The view that the word exegesis refers to a meaning other than the apparent one has become quite accepted. Moreover, within the divergence of opinion amongst scholars, exegesis has come to mean "to transfer" the apparent meaning of a verse to a different meaning by means of a proof called ta'wil; this method is not without obvious inconsistencies. Although this view has gained considerable acceptance, it is incorrect and cannot be applied to the Qur'anic verses for the following reasons. Firstly, the verses:
Do they await anything but the fulfilment of it [VII: 53]
"But they denied that, the knowledge of which they could not encompass and the interpretation of which had not yet come to them (X: 39) indicate that the whole Qur'an has exegesis, not just the implicit verses as claimed by this group of scholars. Secondly, implied in this view is that there are Qur'anic verses whose real meaning is ambiguous and hidden from the people, only God knowing their real meaning. However, a book which declares itself as challenging and excelling in its linguistic brilliance could hardly be described as eloquent if it failed to transmit the meaning of its own words. Thirdly, if we accept this view, then the validity of the Qur'an comes under question since, according to the verse:
Why do they not reflect upon the Qur'an, if it where from other than God they would have found in it many inconsistencies.
One of the proofs that the Qur'an isot the speech of man is that, despite having been revealed in widely varying and difficult circumstances, there is no inconsistency in it, neither in its literal meaning nor in its inner meaning, and any initial inconsistency disappears upon reflection. If it is believed that a number of the implicit verses disagree with the sound, or muhkam, or explicit, verses this disagreement may be resolved by explaining that what is intended is not the literal meaning but rather another meaning known only to God.
However, this explanation will never prove that the Qur'an is "not the speech of man". If by exegesis we change any inconsistency in the explicit, or sound (muhkam), verses to another meaning beyond the literal, it is clear that we may also do this for the speech and writing of man. Fourthly, there is no proof that exegesis indicates a meaning other than the literal one and that, in the Qur'anic verses which mention the word exegesis, the literal meaning is not intended. On three occasions in the story of Joseph, the interpretation of his dream9 is called ta'wil (exegesis). It is clear that the interpretation of a dream is not fundamentally different from the actual appearance of the dream; rather, it is the interpretation of what is portrayed in a particular form in the dream.
Thus Joseph saw his father, mother and brother falling to the ground in the form of the sun, the moon and the stars. Likewise, the king of Egypt saw the seven-year drought in the form of seven lean cows eating the seven fat cows and also, the seven green ears of corn and the seven dry ears. Similarly, the dreams of Joseph's two fellow-inmates in the prison: one saw himself pouring wine for the king (in the form of the first pressing of wine), while the second saw himself crucified (in the form of birds eating from the bread basket on his head). The dream of the king of Egypt is related in the same chapter, verse 43 and its interpretation, from Joseph, in verses 47-49 when he says:
you will sow seven years as usual, but what ever you reap leave it in the ear, all except a little which you will eat. Then after that will come a year when people will have plenteous crops and then they will press (meaning wine and oil).
The dream of Joseph's fellow-inmates in the prison occurs in verse 36 of the same chapter. One of the two young men says to Joseph:
"I dreamt that I was carrying upon my head bread which the birds were eating. "
The interpretation of the dream is related by Joseph in verse 41:
"O my two fellow-prisoners! As for one of you he will pour out wine for his Lord to drink and as for the other, he will be crucified so that the birds will eat from his head. "
In a similar fashion, God relates the story of Moses and Khidr in the chapter "The Cave" [XVIII: 71-82]. Khidr made a hole in the boats; thereafter, killed a boy and, finally, straightened a leaning wall. After each event, Moses protested and Khidr explained the meaning and reality of each action which he had carried out on the orders of God; this he referred to as ta'wil. Thus it is clear that the reality of the event and the dream-picture which portrayed the event-to-be are basically the same: the ta'wil, or interpretation, does not have a meaning other than the apparent one. Likewise God says, talking about weights and measures:
Fill the measure when you measure and weigh with a right balance, that is proper and better in the end," (that is, more fitting in the final determination of the Day of Reckoning) [XVII: 35].
It is clear that the word ta'wil used here in respect to the measuring and weighing refers to fair dealing in business practices. Thus the ta'wil used in this way is not different from the literal meaning of the words "measuring" and "weighing"; it merely deepens and extends the significance of the mundane to include a spiritual dimension. This spiritual dimension is of significance for the believer who has in mind the reckoning of the final day together with his own day-to-day reckoning in the affairs of trade. In another verse God again uses the word ta'wil:
And if you have any dispute concerning any matter, refer it to God and the messenger ... that is better and more fitting in the end (IV: 59)
It is clear that the meaning of ta'wil and the referring of the dispute to God and His messenger is to establish the unity of Society and to show how each action or event in a community has a spiritual significance. Thus, the ta'wil refers to a tangible ordinary reality and is not in opposition to the actual text in the verses which refers to the dispute. In all, there are sixteen occasions in the Qur'an in which the word ta'wil is used but on no occasion does it have a meaning other than the literal text. We may say, therefore, that the word ta'wil is used to extend the idea expressed to include a further meaning which, (as will be made clear in the next section), is still in accordance with the actual word ta'wil occurring in the verse. Thus, in the light of these examples, there is no reason why we should take the word ta'wil in the verse about the explicit muhkam, and implicit, mutashaibih, meanings to indicate "a meaning basically other than the apparent meaning."
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The Meaning of Exegesis in the Tradition of the Qur'anic Sciences
What is apparent from the verses in which the word ta'wil occurs is that ta'wil does not indicate a literal meaning. It is clear that the actual words of the dream described in chapter XII, "Joseph", do not in themselves contain the literal interpretation of the dream; the meaning of the dream becomes clear from the interpretation. And, likewise, in the story of Moses and Khidr, the actual words of the story are not the same as the interpretation which Khidr gave Moses. Moreover, in the verse: Fill the measure when you measure and weigh with a right balance the language does not in itself indicatethe particular economic conditions which we are intended to understand. Again, in the verse: "And if you have a dispute concerning any matter then refer it to God and the messenger"
There is no immediate literal indication that what is meant is the Unity of Islam. Thus, although the words indicate something not essentially different from their literal meaning, there is, nevertheless, in all the verses the same shifting of perspective, namely, from the actual words to the intended meaning. Moreover, all the meanings are based on a real situation, an actual physical event. In the case of the dream, the interpretation has an external reality which appears before its actual occurrence in a special form to the dreamer. Likewise, in the story of Moses and Khidr, the interpretation that the latter gives is, in fact, a reality which is to take place as a result of his action. Therefore, the interpretation of the event is rooted in the event. In the verse which orders man to fair dealing and measuring, the aspect of the verse is a reality which appears as a social benefit.
Thus the order is connected to the effect it is supposed to have in the raising up of society and, in particular, of trade. In the verse concerning referral of the dispute to God and His messenger, the meaning is again fixed to reality, namely, the spiritualization of the life of the community. To conclude, we may say that interpretation of each verse springs from a reality; the interpretation looks forward to or, in a subtle way, actually brings into being the reality it is talking about. Thus its meaning both contains and springs from a future or ulterior event. Just as the interpreter makes the interpretation meaningful, so the manifestation of the interpretation is already a reality for the interpreter.
The idea is also present in the form of the Qur'an since this sacred book has as its source realities and meanings other than the material and physical or, we may say, beyond the sensory level. Thus it expresses meanings which are more expansive than those contained in the words and phrases used by man in the material world. Although these realities and meanings are not contained in the literal explanation of man, the Qur'an uses the same language to inform man of the unseen and to produce correct belief and good action. Thus, through belief in the unseen, in the last day and in the meeting with God, man adopts a system of morals and a quality of character which allows him to achieve happiness and well-being. In this way the Qur'an produces a spiritual effect which, in turn, produces a physical social change, the importance of which will become clear on the Day of Resurrection and the meeting with God. There is further reference to this same theme when God says in chapter XLIII:2-4:
By the Book which makes plain. Take heed, we have appointed it a lecture in Arabic that perhaps you will understand. And indeed the source of the Book which we possess, it is indeed sublime, decisive.
It is sublime, in that the ordinary understanding cannot fully comprehend it, and decisive in that it cannot be faulted. The relationship of the last part of the verse to the meaning of exegesis ta'wil, (as we have discussed above) is clear. It says, in particular, that "perhaps you will understand," implying that one may or may not understand it; it does not imply that one will understand the book fully, merely by studying it.
As we have seen in the verse concerning the explicit muhkam, and the implicit mutashabih, knowledge of exegesis ta'wil, is particular to God; moreover, when in this same verse corrupt men are blamed for following the implicit mutashabih, verses and for intending to sow dissension and conflict by searching for an exegesis, ta'wil, or special interpretation, it does not state that they necessarily find it. The exegesis of the Qur'an is a reality, or several realities, which are to be found in the Source Book, the Book of Decrees with God; the Source Book is part of the unseen and far from the reach of corrupters. The same idea is treated again in chapter LVI:75- 80 when God says:
Indeed I swear by the places of the Stars - And truly that is surely a tremendous oath if you but knew - that this is indeed a noble Qur'an, in a book kept hidden, which none touch except the purified, a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds.
It is clear that these verses establish for the Qur'an two aspects, namely the position of the hidden book protected from being touched and the aspect of revelation which is understandable by the people. What is of particular interest to us in this verse is the phrase of exception, "except the purified. " According to this phrase, we can arrive at an understanding of the reality of the exegesis of the Qur'an.
This positive view of man's capability to understand the Qur'an does not conflict with the negation of the verse, "And no one knows its ta'wil except God." Since the comparison of the two verses produces a whole which is independent and harmonious. Thus we understand that God is alone in understanding these realities, yet one may come to know these truths by His leave and teaching. Knowledge of the unseen is, according to many verses, the special domain of God but in chapter LXXII:26-27, those who are worthy are excepted from this:
"He is the knower of the unseen and He reveals to no one His secret, except to every messenger whom He has chosen. "
Again we conclude that knowledge of the unseen is particular to God and that it is fitting for no one except Him and for those he gives leave to. Thus the purified amongst men take the verse concerning the "purified ones" as leave to enter into contact with the reality of the Qur'an. In a similar way we read in chapter XXXIII:33 :
"God's wish is but to remove uncleanliness from you, O people of the Household, and clean you with a thorough cleaning."
This verse was revealed, (according to a sound tradition with an unbroken chain of transmission), specifically with regard to the family of the Prophet.