Symbolism and allegory in the Quran

 

When studying the Quran, one frequently encounters what may be described as “key­- phrases” – that is to say, statements which provide a clear, concise indication of the idea underlying a particular passage or passages: for instance, the many references to the creation of man “out of dust” and “out of a drop of sperm”, pointing to the lowly biological origin of the human species; or the statement in the ninety-ninth surah (Az-Zalzalah) that on Resurrection Day “he who shall have done an atom’s weight of good, shall behold it; and he who shall have done an atom’s weight of evil, shall behold it” – indicating the inelucctible afterlife consequences of, and the responsibility for, all that man consciously does in this world; or the divine declaration (in 38:27), “We have not created heaven and earth and all that is between them without meaning and purpose (baatilan), as is the surmise of those who are bent on denying the truth.”

Instances of such Quranic key-phrases can be quoted almost ad infinitum, and in many varying formulations. But there is one fundamental statement in the Quran which occurs only once, and which may be qualified as “the key-phrase of all its key-phrases”: the statement in verse 3:7 to the effect that the Quran “contains messages that are clear in and by themselves (ayat-e-muhkamaat) as well as others that are allegorical (mutashabihaat)”. It is this verse which represents, in an absolute sense, a key to the understanding of the Qur’anic message and makes the whole of it accessible to “people who think” (li-qawmin yatafakkarUn).

In my notes on the above-mentioned verse I have tried to elucidate the meaning of the expression ayaat muhkimaat as well as the general purport of what is termed mutashabih (“allegorical” or “symbolic”). Without a proper grasp of what is implied by this latter term, much of the Qur~an is liable to be – and, in fact, has often been – grossly misunderstood both by believers and by such as refuse to believe in its divinely-inspired origin. However, an appreciation of what is meant by “allegory” or “symbolism” in the context of the Quran is, by itself, not enough to make one fully understand its world-view: in order to achieve this we must relate the Quranic use of these terms to a concept touched upon almost at the very beginning of the divine writ – namely, the existence of “a realm which is beyond the reach of human perception” (aI-ghayb). It is this concept that constitutes the basic premise for an understanding of the call of the Quran, and, indeed, of the principle of religion – every religion – as such: for all truly religious cognition arises from and is based on the fact that only a small segment of reality is open to man’s perception and imagination, and that by far the larger part of it escapes his comprehension altogether.
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