What is the wisdom behind the mutashabih verses in the Quran?

The Details of the Question

- Some verses of the Quran are clear and understandable; no interpretation is needed but others need interpretation.

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

To Understand Mutashabih Verses

One of the most important ilms related to the Quran is the issue of mutashabih verses. Allah Almighty divides the verses in the Quran into two as “Muhkam (established, clear, decisive) and Mutashabih (allegorical, ambiguous)”.

“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:" and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. "Our Lord!" (they say), "Let not our hearts deviate now after Thou hast guided us, but grant us mercy from Thine own Presence; for Thou art the Grantor of bounties without measure.(Aal-i Imran, 3/7 and 8)

First, let us dwell on the meanings of the words muhkam and mutashabih mentioned in the verse: Shibh means ‘mithl’, that is, similar.

The words tashabuh and ishtibah derived from this root mean “to be confused/mixed with each other, to cause hesitation” since they resemble each other. Mutashabih is the doer/agent form of the noun tashabuh, meaning the word having this quality. In this aspect, it means “mutashabihat: mutamathilat and mushkilat”. The opposite of it is “muhkam: sound, definite, understandable, and clear”. The word mutashabih is also mentioned in another verse: az-Zumar, 39/23. However, tafsir scholars have no disagreement in understanding this verse. This verse states that the verses of the Quran are similar to one another in terms of being true, miraculous, perfect in eloquence and it is difficult to prefer one verse to another. Different views exist related to the word mutashabih mentioned in verse 7 of the chapter of Aal-i Imran.

In the books written about the ilms of the Quran, various definitions of these two words with about the same meaning are given. In short, muhkam means “having one meaning” and mutashabih means “that can have more than one meaning”, or muhkam means “not needing any other evidence in order to be understood”, and mutashabih means “needing some evidence other than itself in order to be understood”. 1

The views of scholars lead to the following conclusion: Muhkam means a word showing the meaning without any ambiguity and mutashabih means a word not showing its meaning clearly. Thus, in fiqh methodology, the parts called ‘nass’ and ‘zahir’ are included in muhkam. For, ‘nass’ is a word ‘that shows the purpose on its own’ and ‘zahir’ is a word ‘that shows the purpose on its own without needing any other evidence but its concept is not the real purpose’. Mujmal, muawwal and mushkil are included in mutashabih because mujmal needs to be explained. The meaning that muawwal shows is known only after it is interpreted. Mushkil is the word that includes ambiguity and whose indication is hidden. 2 That the letter “waw” at the beginning of the word ‘warrasikhun’ has the function of reference or beginning brings about an important difference in meaning. Those who say it has the function of reference claim that rasikh scholars can also interpret mutashabih verses. Those who say it has the function of beginning say that only Allah knows the meaning of  mutashabih verses and that rasikh scholars should not interpret them but should show their acceptance by saying “We believe in whatever Allah means to say.” It is better to express the second view as follows:

“Rasikh scholars interpret mutashabih verses and show their acceptance by saying, ‘We believe in whatever our Lord means to say.’” That view is reported from Ibn Abbas and Mujahid. 3 Mujahid says, “Rasikh scholars know their interpretations but they still say, ‘Amanna (We believed)’.” Dahhak says, “Rasikh scholars know the interpretations of mutashabih verses. If they had not known, they would not have known nasikh and mansukh, halal and haram, muhkam and mutashabih.”

The most important person who adopts this view is Imam al-Ash’ari; according to him, the place of stopping in verse 7 of Aal-i Imran is the phrase "warrasikhuna fil ilmi". Having explained this view, Abu Ishaq ash-Shirazi (D. 476/1088) states the following:

“There is no part of the Quran whose ilm Allah allocates only for Himself. Allah enabled scholars to understand the Quran. For, Allah uttered that statement in order to praise scholars. If they did not know it, they would be among ordinary people.”4

Nawawi prefers this meaning in ‘Sharhu Sahihi Muslim and states the following: “That is the most correct explanation. For, it is irrational to think that Allah addresses His creatures in a way that they cannot know. There are many more scholars who agree with this view. It is reported that the majority of salaf scholars hold the view that the interpretations of mutashabih verses cannot be known. They mean the following by that view:

“It is not appropriate to know the definite meaning of mutashabih verses and to say ‘this is the divine purpose of this verse’. They do not mean ‘it is not appropriate for scholars to try to interpret those verses and it is impossible to understand anything from those verses’.” For, there are explanations reported from them about verses like that. We can divide mutashabih verses into two as real mutashabih and relative mutashabih from this point of view. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to understand real mutashabih verses. Huruf al-muqatta’a at the beginning of some verses are included among those verses. However, tafsir scholars have tried to explain even those verses too. 5

In our view, the only example of real mutashabih in the Quran is huruf al- muqatta’a. Mahmut Shaltut, one of the contemporary scholars, holds this view too. 6 Some scholars regard some words that are mentioned in the Quran about some things related to Allah called mutashabihus-sifat in this group. In fact, their meanings are understood but it is very difficult to realize their real nature. On the other hand, there are a lot of relative mutashabih verses and scholars interpret them differently based on their knowledge.

Scholars agree unanimously on the following issues of mutashabihs about some things related to Allah:

1. Zahiri (apparent) meanings that are impossible are not meant by Allah. For, they are understood both from the other words of Allah and from the rational evidences.  

2. If a mutashabih verse has only one reasonable and rational form, it is necessary to accept it. For instance, in the verse “And He is with you wheresoever ye may be” (al-Hadid, 57/4), it is understood that Allah is with us with His knowledge, power, will, hearing and seeing, not in person. Scholars disagree among themselves related to other issues.  

     a) Salaf say Allah is free from the apparent meanings of mutashabih verses that are impossible and refer their real meaning to Allah.

     b) Khalaf interpret mutashabih words with a meaning that exists in the language and that fits Allah religiously and mentally. Their evidence is as follows: It is desirable to implement religious words as much as possible. For, if they are ignored, that is, if those words are not implemented, it will cause confusion and make them meaningless.  

This is necessary as long as it is possible to give Allah’s words a sound meaning. For, it is necessary to benefit from the words that come from Allah, who is the Knower and Wise. It is necessary to say that He is free from meaningless, unproductive and inefficient words.

     c) The way of the scholars who follow the moderate way: Suyuti reports from Ibn Daqiq al-Iyd’: “If the interpretation is close to the logic of the Arab language, it cannot be denied. If it is far, we will stop and believe in the meaning meant by Allah by saying that He is free from incomplete things. If those interpretations have meanings that are understood from the language and speaking of Arabs, we will accept them without hesitation; for instance, interpreting the phrase ‘janbillah’ (az-Zumar, 39/56) mentioned in the verse as ‘fitting His majesty’. 7

From this viewpoint, we can divide mutashabih verses into two as real mutashabih and relative mutashabih. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to understand real mutashabih verses. Huruf al-muqatta’a at the beginning of some verses are included among those verses. However, tafsir scholars have tried to explain even those verses too.


The scholars who write books on the Quran ilms mention the following wisdoms:

1. Keeping the circle of guidance wide

Fakhruddin Razi states the following:

“The Quran invites both the educated and ignorant people to the religion. The nature of the majority of people is not apt to understanding abstract realities. If they are invited, at the very beginning, to believe in a being that is not matter, that is not located in a place and that is not even pointed to, they will not accept it. They will think that they are asked to believe in in something that does not exist. And they will fall into denial. Therefore, the most appropriate style for them is to use some words that are appropriate for their mentality and to place the expressions that include the clear truth in them. The first part is mutashabih, and the second part, that is, the expressions that state the clear truth, is muhkam. This wisdom is clear especially related to divine attributes and things.”

2. Allah’s will to be manifest in a way that weak people can endure by His grace

For, if Allah had been manifest with His real attributes, people would have been destroyed. Even Hz. Musa, one of the greatest prophets, could not endure a manifestation of Allah and fainted; this manifestation broke the mountain into pieces.  (al-A’raf, 7/143)

3. Attracting attention to the importance of the mind

Since the Quran includes both muhkam and mutashabih verses, the reader feels the need to apply to mental evidences. Thus, he is saved from the darkness of imitation. This elevates the position of the mind and attracts attention to its importance. If the whole Quran consisted of muhkam verses, man would not need mental evidences and hence the mind would be ignored. 8

4. The need to tell man, whose mind and understanding is limited, the absolute truths

Allah uses mutashabih verses as a means of guiding us. Mutashabih words are not fully in compliance with facts but they are in compliance with, that is, similar to, them in one aspect. For instance, when you tell a group of people about something that they have never seen, you explain it to them by likening it to something, not with its real form. It is difficult for man to understand the truth with all aspects from   mutashabih words. A believing scholar knows that mutashabih verses come from Allah and that they indicate the truth properly. He believes that they are true words that come from Allah and he obtains knowledge from them without straining the words. 9

5. Encouraging scientific research

Scholars are encouraged to research and learn the secret aspects and hidden beauties of the Quran in this way. Thus, the skills of the scholars will appear; thoughts will be saved from being frozen and degrees of virtue will be manifest. If the whole Quran were muhkam, there would be no difference between scholars and ordinary people.  

6. Making slaves their place in the face of divine ilm

Allah wants people to act humbly, to remind them of their weakness and servitude in the face of His absolute ilm, to test them and to make them show their devotion. Scholars do not have to know everything that is in Allah’s ilm and book. There are so many things that scholars do not know. Muhammad Abduh states the following regarding the issue :

“Allah sent down mutashabihs to test our hearts about approving Him. If everything in the book were very clear and understandable for everybody, whether clever or stupid, there would be no meaning of obeying Allah and accepting His prophets in believing in them.” 10

This inability of the scholars to understand them though the Quran was sent down in the language that they knew proves that it was sent down by Allah. Reporting most of those wisdoms from Fakhruddin Razi, Zarqani states the following in conclusion:

“Some of those wisdoms are manifest in a certain part of mutashabihs but all of them become manifest in the whole. This is enough for the validity of this explanation.” 11


1) az-Zarkashi, al-Burhan fi Ulumil-Quran, 1/70.
2) Suyuti, al-Itqan fi Ulumil-Quran, 2/3; Dr. Subhi Salih, Mabahith, 282.
3) Zarkashi, ibid., 1/73; Suyuti, ibid, 2/4.
4) Subhi Salih, ibid, 282.
5) For various interpretations made about them, see İsmail Cerrahoğlu, Tefsir Usûlü, Ank. 1976, p: 134-138.
6) Mahmut Shaltut, Tafsirul Quranil Karim, Cairo, 2nd imp. 1960, p. 68-69.
7) Suyuti, ibid, 2/ 8; Abdulazim az-Zarqani, Manahilul-Irfan fi Ulumil-Qur’an, Cairo 1980, 2/286-290.
8) Zarqani, ibid, 2/284.
9) Abdulmajid Zandani, Tawhidul Khalik, Jedda, no date, p. 413.
10) Tafsirul-Manar, 3/170.
11) Manahil, 2/285.

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