I would like to answer your question in two parts.
- The two types of verses: Muhkam and Mutashaabih
- How they should be understood
Muhkam and Mutashaabih
The Qur'an contains two types of verses: those that are clear, called Muhkam and those that are ambiguous, called Mutashaabih.
Muhkam verses suggest no confusion. The majority of Quranic verses are considered Muhkam and they represent the foundational pillars of the Book. The Mutashaabih verses tend to require deeper research in their context and meaning to make sense of them, which is why they usually require scholars to make sense of them.
, Allah says in reference to the act of interpretation:
"It is He Who has sent down to you the Book. In it are Verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundations of the Book; and others not entirely clear. So as for those in whose hearts there is a deviation they follow that which is not entirely clear thereof, seeking Al-Fitnah and seeking for its hidden meanings, but none knows its hidden meanings save Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: We believe in it; the whole of it are from our Lord. And none receive admonition except men of understanding." Aal 'Imraan (3:7)
Ibn Kathir's tafseer confirms the distinction between the Muhkam verses and the Mutashaabih verses. He explains that in principle people should refer back to Muhkam verses. As for ambiguous verses, they could be understood following two strategies. The first is in accordance to similar Muhkam verses. The second is interpreting them based on their linguistic criteria, not the semantic implications.
It is possible to use unclear verses to serve personal interests, interpreting wordings in a far-fetched way. It would be futile for them, however, to reword an entirely clear verse, as they would simply be contradicting themselves. Their evil temptations and attempts to cause Fitnah, as Allah says, can be easily aborted. One may compare this idea to the representation of Jesus in Quran. Many Christians believe that Quran confirms Jesus is the Spirit of God, but they also ignore many verses that insist he is nothing but a Messenger. The following verse is an example: "He [Isa] was not more than a slave. We granted Our Favour to him." [al-Zukhruf 43:59]
One may wonder why Allah has divided verses into two types, one of which is clear and the other is not. It is arguable this is a test to distinguish those who follow the path of Allah and those who do not. Some believe verses in Quran contradict each other. If they truly believe in Quran, they would not think of it as contradiction, but as verses that refer to a certain context. If we consider the following verses:
There will then be (left) no Fitnah (excuses or statements or arguments) for them but to say: 'By Allah, our Lord, we were not those who joined others in worship with Allah' [al-An'aam 6:23].
On that day those who disbelieved and disobeyed the Messenger will wish that they were buried in the earth, but they will never be able to hide a single fact from Allah [al-Nisa' 4:42]
A possibly confusing element is the fact that, in the first verse, Allah says By Allah, our Lord, we were not those who joined others in worship with Allah while in the second verse, Allah says they will never be able to hide a single fact from Allah. Each verse is applicable to a different stage in life. Certainly, many believe the day of Resurrection would be as long as fifty thousand years. Throughout that Day, things would change. Another instance has to do with the pronoun We, which Allah utilizes to refer to Himself. Allah says in Sura Yaa-Seen (36:12): Verily, We give life to the dead [Yaa-Seen 36:12] and in Sura Al Hijr (15:09) Verily, We, it is We Who have sent down the Dhikr and surely, We will guard it. Since many Christians are not familiar with this use of personal pronoun, they believe that We, in the Quranic verses, refers not to God as one Self, but to three selves of which Allah is the third.
We however is used as a form of self-respect. The following verse from Sura Al-Baqarah (2:163) clarifies the idea: And your Ilaah (God) is One Ilaah, Laa Ilaaha illa Huwa.
A third example is the following Ayat: Verily, you guide not whom you like [al-Qasas 28:56] and "And verily, you are indeed guiding to the Straight Path" [al-Shoora 42:52]
Both verses could be mistaken as contradictions. However, if we are well-served by knowledge, we would be able to see that the first verse refers to divine guidance that no other angel nor Messenger has control over. The second verse, however, refers to a different type of guidance, an evidence or a tangible proof. Those types of evidence may be provided by Messengers, their heirs and the scholars. Such ambiguities could be clarified through evidence and research. The Mutashaabih verses, which only Allah knows their meaning, are usually related to existential matters such as the story of creation, the essence of existence, the representation of Paradise and so on.
Understanding the verses
Allah says in Sura Al-Nahl (16:43) "So ask those of scripture, if you know not." In light of this verse, one should ask those who know if one is confused about any verse. In all cases, one must have a solid conviction that what Allah says is true. Allah says "We believe in it; the whole of it are from our Lord" [Aal 'Imraan 3:7] in reference to both types of verses.
Certainly, many in the past and even present have tried to prove the Qur'an contains contradictions to stir confusion and doubt. Scholarly and academic reviews of such alleged contradictions results in reconciliations considering historical context, linguistic considerations or relating the text to other verses and traditions.
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