Is the Qur'an Clear or Incomprehensible?


In one of his articles[1] Mr. Jochen Katz has pointed out a contradiction in Al-Nahl 16: 103 and Aal Imraan 3: 7.

Al-Nahl 16: 103 reads as:

And We know that they are saying that a person has taught this [Qur'an] to him. The language of him, to whom they falsely ascribe it, is non-Arabic, while this is a clear Arabic dialect.

Aal Imraan 3: 7 reads as:

It is Him, Who has revealed this book on you [O Prophet], in which there are precise verses, which form the foundation of the book and there are others, which are analogous [in nature]. As for those, whose hearts are perverse, they are after the analogous among these verses, seeking discord and seeking their reality. But [the fact is that] no one knows about their reality, except God. And the firm in knowledge say: We believe in it. All these [verses] are from our Lord. And no one shall be reminded [of the truth] except men of understanding.

Mr. Katz writes:

Sura 16:103 states that the Qur'an is "clear Arabic speech." If it were really clear, why is this explanation even necessary? But it doesn't seem to be so clear after all when we read:

At this point, Mr. Katz has given A. Yusuf Ali's translation of Aal Imraan 3: 7, which reads as:

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 analogous. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is analogous, 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.

-- Sura 3:7

Mr. Katz further writes:

In the same verse it says that ONLY Allah knows the meaning of these difficult allegorical verses in the Qur'an ... and then it goes on to tell that "men of understanding" can grasp it. Is that a contradiction or do we want to resolve it with the concept of "incarnation" [God becoming man] which is so much looked down upon by Muslims? But Christianity believes God became man only once. The Qur'an talks about men in the plural...

Actually Arberry translates "... desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretation, save only Allah." It does not talk about having a plain clear meaning and also a hidden meaning, but that there are verses which none knows at all what they mean, even though they desire its explanation or interpretation.

In the above paragraphs, Mr. Katz has pointed out two contradictions. The first contradiction is with reference to Al-Nahl 16: 103 (which states that the Qur'an is in clear Arabic) and Aal Imraan 3: 7 (which states that the meaning of the analogous verses is known only to God). While the second contradiction is within Aal Imraan 3: 7 (which first states that the meaning of the analogous verses is known only to God and then states that men of understanding do grasp it).

As far as the first criticism is concerned, it is based on an incorrect premise that clarity in language necessarily results in ease of comprehension. This, as the readers will agree, is not always the case. A message may be written in a clear and a pure dialect, yet it may not be easily comprehensible.

However, one may ask that if it is only God, who knows the reality of the analogous verses, then why are such verses given in the Qur'an. What, after all, is the utility of including such verses in the Qur'an, the true meaning and implication of which is known only to God?

To fully comprehend the stated issue, it is important to understand that, besides other things, the Qur'an has informed man about a yet non-existent world -- the hereafter. However, because the Qur'an wants to incite man to work for the rewards of the hereafter and to warn him against the severe punishment thereof, it has, therefore, given a broad concept of the rewards and punishments of the hereafter. Nevertheless, due to an inherent weakness in human language and comprehension, the Qur'an has referred to the rewards and punishments in a way, which would give an overall concept of these concepts.

In one of my earlier articles[2], I had explained the referred inherent weakness of human language and comprehension in the following words:

Man can understand and develop physical concepts about things in primarily two ways. Firstly, if something comes within the scope of man's sense of touch or his sense of sight; and secondly, by comparison to things that come within the scope of man's senses.

Take the example of the words 'light bulb'. As soon as I speak the words 'light bulb', I get a picture of a round or a pear-shaped glass container for the filament of an electric light. The reason for such spontaneous physical imaging of the words 'light bulb' is that whatever we call a 'light bulb' in the English language is something that is within the scope of our sense of touch and our sense of sight. In other words, because we have already developed a physical image of a 'light bulb' through our sight or our touch, we can easily recall the already developed image as soon as the words 'light bulb' are uttered in front of us. The same is the case with most of the words of our languages that connote physical entities. The words man, woman, child, horse, donkey, cat etc. all belong to the same category.

Closely related to this category of words entailing physical concepts is another category, which connotes imaginary physical entities. For instance, the word 'unicorn' connotes an animal, which although does not exist in reality, yet its image can be developed by explaining it. However, to develop effective images of such imaginary physical entities, it is extremely important that they be explained with reference to those physical entities that we are already exposed to. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Encyclopedic Dictionary describes the word 'unicorn' as:

A mythical animal resembling a horse, with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead.

This explanation, if correctly understood, would help in developing a physical image of a non-existent entity. However, it is important to note that to be comprehendible the explanation had to resort to words, which already had their respective physical images in our minds. Note the words 'animal', 'horse', 'single', 'straight', 'horn' and 'forehead'. All these words have their respective physical or abstract images in our minds. It is only on the basis of these already existing images, that we can now form a new physical image of a non-existent physical entity.

From the above explanation, it should also be clear that human languages, normally, are a collection of words connoting such physical or abstract entities, which the particular group of human beings has either been exposed to or has a clear concept of. Thus, it is obvious, that centuries ago, none of the human languages could have contained the word 'airplane' or 'computer'. These words came in vogue only after the entities that they connote became clear in the minds of the speakers of that language -- even if such entities were only conceptual and not physical in the beginning. Now suppose, someone living about fifteen hundred years ago, somehow, had a visualization of an airplane and wanted to explain to the people living around him that hundreds of years down the road, people would use high speed airplanes for traveling long distances. How would he do that? Simple!! He would say: 'People would start using airplanes for traveling'. Well, not so simple after all. We forgot that the word 'airplane' would be non-existent. What then would he say? Keeping in mind the limitations of human languages mentioned above, it is obvious that whatever the person says, would likely be within the frame of reference of his own times. He may say: soon there will be a time when people start using 'flying horses' or 'huge birds' or 'big mechanical birds' etc. for traveling from one place to another. This explanation, however, unclear it may seem, is probably the closest that a person living fifteen hundred years ago is likely to able to give and his listeners able to comprehend (even if such comprehension is not likely to be very accurate).

In the above example of communicating the 'visualization', we see, once again, that a relatively unknown concept (whether physical or abstract) can only be communicated in human languages by using references from what those human beings are already exposed to.

Thus, to summarize the preceding discussion, a person can comprehend a physical or an abstract concept if:

  • Such physical or abstract concept enters the scope of man's senses; or
  • Such physical or abstract concept is explained to man with reference to what has already entered the scope of his senses. However, this is only possible if the concept is explainable by referring to any existing concepts or if the listener is exposed to the concepts to which reference is being made. Thus, a 'unicorn' is only explainable if the listener is aware of what the words 'animal', 'horse', 'single', 'straight', 'horn' and 'forehead' imply.

Thus, the Qur'an has referred to Fire and Boiling Water and the Tree of Zaqqoom to communicate the severity of the punishment in the hereafter and has referred to Fruits and rivers of honey and perfected partners to give an idea of the rewards of the hereafter. All these references are actually to communicate the concept of the reward and punishment that man shall be subjected to in the hereafter and because the human languages do not have words to communicate the reality of these concepts, the Qur'an has, therefore, introduced them by drawing analogy with things, which man is aware of.

The concepts communicated through analogous verses, even though they are in pure and clear Arabic, are understandably slightly vague, only conveying the general idea of the concepts thus communicated. The reality and the details of these concepts are known only to God, till the time that man comes face to face with these concepts, on the Day of Judgment.

As far as the second criticism is concerned, it is a classical example of the fact that because most of the modern day critics of the Qur'an are absolutely ignorant of the Arabic language, they have to completely rely on the various translations of the Qur'an. It is due this reason that most of the times their criticism is actually on the translation, rather than the Qur'an itself.

This should also remind my readers of the vulnerability of the books of which the original text is no longer available. If the original text of a book is no longer existent and only translations thereof are available, then all we have left is one or more interpretations of the book, which -- in all fairness -- cannot be considered as the book itself.

Nevertheless, I congratulate Mr. Katz on having very successfully criticized Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation of Aal Imraan 3: 7. However, as far as the verses of the Qur'an are concerned, because we still have their original text, we can easily check to see whether the stated criticism applies to them or not.

Mr. Katz writes:

Sura 16:103 states that the Qur'an is "clear Arabic speech." If it were really clear, why is this explanation even necessary?

Mr. Katz should take another look at Al-Nahl 16: 103 and see that in this verse, the Qur'an has, in fact, not 'explained' that it is in 'Clear Arabic'; one the contrary, it has actually referred to this fact to refute an unfounded claim of its rejecters, who used to say that the Qur'an is not revealed by God, but is actually dictated to Mohammed (pbuh) by a foreigner. To refute this point, the verse has pointed toward the quality of the Qur'anic language, stating that how can these rejecters make such an unfounded allegation. Do these people not see that this book is in a dialect, which is so pure and clear that it is impossible even for the proud Arabs to produce anything like it, and yet these idiots want people to believe that it has been dictated by a foreigner.

Mr. Katz's further writes:

In the same verse [i.e. Aal Imraan 3: 7] it says that ONLY Allah knows the meaning of these difficult analogous verses in the Qur'an... and then it goes on to tell that "men of understanding" can grasp it.

Those who know the Arabic language, can easily see that the stated objection does not even remotely apply to the text of the Qur'an. The verse does not say that men of understanding can grasp "it". On the contrary, the verse ends with the words: "only men of understanding shall take admonition/be reminded". It is clear that Mr. Katz has based his objection on the translation of Yusuf Ali, who has translated the related part of the verse as: "and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding." Mr. Katz has mistakenly taken the phrase 'the Message' to refer to the unknown reality of the analogous verses, while, it seems that Yusuf Ali had intended these words to imply the overall message of the Qur'an. Whatever the case, the point remains that the text of the Qur'an cannot, in any way, be interpreted to imply that 'Men of understanding do understand the reality of the stated analogous verses.'

© Copyright December 2000. All Rights Reserved with the Author


[1] The complete article may be accessed at: http://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Contra/qi023.html

[2] Reference is to one of my previous article titled 'Basic Articles of Islamic Faith -- Tawheed'.