Table of Contents     Chapter 2

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The task of interpreting the Qur'an is a delicate one. Many interpretations have been written, generally concluding with the phrase: "God and His Apostle alone know the truth". The statement indicates that the interpretation reflects a personal understanding and that the true interpretation remains in the knowledge of God and His Apostle Muhammad.

God warned the Muslims in the Qur'an against interpreting the Qur'an. This is stated very clearly in the Surih of the Family of 'Imran (III, v. 5) [3:5]:
He it is who hath sent down to thee "the Book." Some of its signs are of themselves perspicuous; these are the basis of the Book and others are figurative. But they whose hearts are given to err, follow its figures, craving discord, craving an interpretation; yet none knoweth its interpretation but God And the stable in knowledge say "We believe in it; all is from our Lord" But none will bear this in mind, save men endued with understanding.

Part of this verse is cited by Baha'u'llah in the Kitab-i-Iqan, the punctuation contributing to its meaning:
"None knoweth the interpretation thereof but God and they that are well-grounded in knowledge."1

It is evident from the above verse that the Qur'an includes verses that are clear and others that are figurative. The clear verses are ones which provide

  1. Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 17 and 213, as translated by Shoghi Effendi. See also Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 11

    The Shi'ih interpretation of "they that are well-grounded in knowledge" is that of being in reference to the Imamate. See An introduction to Shi'i Islam by M. Momen. pp. 151-2.

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the laws and ordinances of the Faith, such as those concerning prayer, ablutions, fasting, alms, marriage, divorce and inheritance. These laws and ordinances distinguish the believers of the Qur'an as an independent community. The verses which set forth these laws and ordinances, being "perspicuous", are not essentially and necessarily in need of interpretation. Whenever specific issues and situations arise which call for the application of these verses, it is generally understood that in the first instance the "well-grounded in knowledge" and after them, distinguished men of learning, may explain and interpret such verses in order to make them applicable to the individual as well as to the community. The figurative verses, however, definitely require interpretation in order that their meanings may be understood. Those described by the Qur'anic verse as leaders who, "craving interpretation", will make pronouncements according to their own whims and fancies, seeking to expound meanings of the figurative verses, will in the end be sources of "error" and "discord". The interpretation of these verses is known only to God and the "well-grounded in knowledge" who do not have the permission to reveal their interpretation despite their knowledge of it. Those endowed with understanding, men of true knowledge, will know that the figurative verses of the Qur'an should not and cannot be authoritatively interpreted by mortal minds. In the Surih of Resurrection (LXXV, vv. 16- 19) [75:16-19], God addresses Prophet Muhammad:
Move not thy tongue in haste to follow and master this revelation: For we will see to the collecting and the recital of it [qur'anahu];

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But when we have recited it, then follow thou the recital,
And, verily, afterwards it shall be ours to make it clear [bayanahu] to thee.2

In some translations "make it clear" is translated as "explanation thereof', both having the same meaning

It is evident from the verse cited above that God called on Prophet Muhammad, and thereby His followers, not to hasten efforts to master the understanding of the Qur'an, but rather to follow the instructions therein. God further gives the assurance that He will reveal the explanation of the Book, and that such a clarification will be forthcoming at some future date.

In the Surih of the Heights (VII, vv. 50-1) [7:50-51] it is written:
And now have we brought them the Book: with knowledge have we explained it; a guidance and a mercy to them that believe. What have they to wait for now but its interpretation? When its interpretation shall come, they who aforetime were oblivious of it shall say, "The Prophets of our Lord did indeed bring the truth; shall we have any intercessor to intercede for us? or could we not be sent back? Then would we act otherwise than we have acted" But they have ruined themselves; and the deities of their own devising have fled from them!3

  1. See Miracles and Metaphors, part II, Commentary on "Then it is Ours to Explain It," pp. 51-58, end p. 11.
  2. cf. Qur'an 10:40. Cited by Mirza Abu'l-Fadl in Baha'i Proofs, p. 213, in connection with prophecies concerning the unsealing of the Texts at the time of the return. Additional commentary on this theme and these verses can be found on pp. 10 and 52 of Miracles and Metaphors.

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God thus confirms that the interpretation of the Qur'an would come in the future. "What have they to wait for now but Its interpretation?" implies that they should expect and seek the forthcoming interpretation. Moreover, the verse confirms that when the interpretation is revealed, it would be rejected and meet with the opposition of the forgetful and heedless.

Muhammad did not leave an interpretation of the Qur'an, nor did any of His Successors. During later centuries, after the ascension and disappearance of the Imams, when interpretations were attempted, none of the interpreters claimed authenticity or divine origin for their interpretations.

In Six Lessons on Islam, Marzieh Gail provides the following description concerning the recital and gathering of the verses of the Qur'an, about which there is general agreement among Muslim historians:
. . . The verses were written down at the moment of revelation or soon after, on palm leaves, leather, stone, the shoulder-blades of sheep; furthermore, the Arabs had wonderful memories, and many learned it by heart....Soon after the ascension of Muhammad many reciters of the Qur'an were killed in battle; it was therefore thought necessary to compile the entire Qur'an into one; the task was given to the Prophet's amanuensis, Zayd ibn Thabit. Therefore, although with misgivings and doubting the propriety of the work, Zayd searched out the entire Qur'an and compiled it, simply putting the long surihs first, regardless of chronology. As a matter of fact, the short surihs at the end, telling of the coming of the Day of ....God, were revealed at the beginning Zayd's text continued to be standard during 'Umar's caliphate, but it was found that variations had crept into many copies; the men of Syria and 'Iraq had different readings, and the caliph 'Uthman

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therefore had all the versions compared with Zayd's original, Zayd and three coadjutors being appointed to do the work. Transcripts of this recension were sent out to all the cities, all other copies were burnt, and what we still have is this recension of the third Caliph's. Zayd's original compilation was made within two or three years of Muhammad's ascension, and there is no question as to its accuracy; 'Ali the Imam, was there, and many of the devout who knew the Qur'an by heart, and besides the transcripts of the separate portions were in daily use.

The Qur'an was therefore revealed, recited and preserved during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. Its compilation and recension, resulting in its present form, were made soon after His ascension. God promised to send the interpretation of the Qur'an. The believers were enjoined to look for the interpretation which would be made manifest as decreed by God, and were further warned that any interpretation made in the meantime could only be the result of "craving discord" on the part of the interpreter, giving rise to schism and dissension. How and when, therefore, would the promised interpretation become available to the world? Who would come to the world with the interpretation?

Table of Contents     Chapter 2

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