Approaching the Quran

This post is taken from the Light of the Furqan blog.

The following is based on a talk I gave at UTSC on March 8th 2018. The talk was entitled, “Approaching the Quran”.

Every verse of the Quran can serve as an index to centuries of discussion amongst exegetes. All these discussions occur between various scholars each adopting potentially different approaches to understanding the Quran. The purpose of this post is to highlight a few of these approaches in a practical manner by discussing a fragment of verse 89 of sūrat al-Naḥl. The verse is as follows,

…وَ نَزَّلْنا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتابَ تِبْياناً لِكُلِّ شَيْ‏ءٍ…

…We have sent down the Book to you as a clarification/explanation of all things1

There have classically been two major understandings of this fragment, although there are many more understandings than that. The first understanding asserts that the Quran is comprehensive of all knowledge and sciences. That is, the Quran contains information relevant to subjects such as philosophy, the natural sciences etc. in addition to its content related to the guidance of humans towards God. The second view is of a more minimalist nature and asserts that the Quran necessarily contains what is relevant for humans to be guided to God and therefore does not necessarily contain information or references pertaining to unrelated subjects.

In what follows, I will cover each view sequentially, detailing proponents of each view, discussing the approaches taken by different scholars to reach each view and furthermore discussing areas where these views are applied. At the end I will mention some other possible thoughts on this verse.

View 1

As previously mentioned this view asserts that the Quran explains/clarifies all things. There are many scholars who assert this view such as al-Ghazālī, al-Suyūṭī2, al-Ṣadrā and Shaykh Jawādī Āmulī3. In this regard al-Ghazālī states that, “the Qurān is an ocean with no shores4”. He argues that all knowledge of what has been, what is and what will be can be found in the Quran. Al-Ṣadrā makes similar assertions, arguing to the reader that if there was a path from the inner being of the reader to the unseen realms, the reader would realize that the Quran explains all things5.

Different scholars have come to this understanding through different approaches. Below I have highlighted two such approaches.

A Literal Approach to the Language of the Quran

The first approach takes a literal look at the language of the Quran. This approach understands the word kull/كل to strictly be a quantifier equivalent to the English “every” or “all”. Furthermore, the word shay/شيء is understood literally to mean “thing”, resulting in the phrase “all things” or “everything”. This is in contradiction to an alternative approach to the language within this verse that will be discussed in the second view.

Overall, this approach takes a relatively straight forward look at the language used in the verse. Perhaps it can be said that this approach takes the Quran’s language “for what it is” or that it takes what seems to be the “apparent” meaning of the Quran6.

Approaching the Quran through the Ḥadīth Corpus

Another method to understand the text of the Quran is to refer to authorities on the Quran. In this case such authorities are constituted by the Prophet, his companions or those who are recognized to be his successors. The following is mentioned in a narration attributed to ‘Abd Allah bin Mas’ūd7,

حدثنا القاسم، قال: ثنا الحسين، قال: ثنا محمد بن فضيل، عن أشعث، عن رجل، قال: قال ابن مسعود :أنزل في هذا القرآن كل علم و كل شي‏ء قد بين لنا في القرآن. ثم تلا هذه الآية

Al-Ṭabarī narrates that al-Qāsim narrated that al-Ḥusayn narrated that Muḥammad bin Fuḍayl narrated from Ash’ath from a man who said that Ibn Mas’ūd said that, “Every science has been revealed in this Qurān and everything has been explained to us in the Qurān.” Then he recited the verse8.

Another narration from al-Ṣādiq is as follows,

عِدَّةٌ مِنْ أَصْحَابِنَا، عَنْ أَحْمَدَ بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ، عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ سِنَانٍ، عَنْ يُونُسَ بْنِ يَعْقُوبَ، عَنِ الْحَارِثِ بْنِ الْمُغِيرَةِ وَ عِدَّةٍ مِنْ أَصْحَابِنَا؛ مِنْهُمْ: عَبْدُ الْأَعْلى‏ وَ أَبُو عُبَيْدَةَ وَ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ بِشْرٍ الْخَثْعَمِيُّ: سَمِعُوا أَبَا عَبْدِ اللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ السَّلَامُ يَقُولُ: “إِنِّي لَأَعْلَمُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَ مَا فِي الْأَرْضِ، وَ أَعْلَمُ مَا فِي الْجَنَّةِ، وَ أَعْلَمُ مَا فِي النَّارِ، وَ أَعْلَمُ مَا كَانَ وَ مَا يَكُونُ” قَالَ: ثُمَّ مَكَثَ هُنَيْئَةً، فَرَأى‏ أَنَّ ذلِكَ كَبُرَ عَلى‏ مَنْ سَمِعَهُ مِنْهُ، فَقَالَ “عَلِمْتُ ذلِكَ مِنْ كِتَابِ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَ جَلَّ؛ إِنَّ اللَّهَ- عَزَّ وَ جَلَّ- يَقُولُ: فِيهِ تِبْيَانُ كُلِّ شَيْ‏ء

Some of our companions narrated from Aḥmad bin Muḥammad from Muḥammad bin Sinān from Yūnus bin Ya’qub from al-Ḥārith bin al-Mughīrah and from some of our other companions such as ‘Abd al-A’lā, Abū ‘Ubaydah and ‘Abd Allah bin Bishr al-Khath’amī that they heard Abā ‘Abd Allah (al-Ṣādiq) say, “I know what is in the skies and what is in the earth, I know what is in heaven and I know what is in hell, I know what has been and what will be.” Then the Imām paused and saw that what he had said had astounded those who were listening to what he was saying. Then he said, “I know this from the Book of Allah, Allah has said that in it is the explanation of all things9’”.

Both narrations represent a much larger group of narrations, all making a similar claim, that the Quran is comprehensive of all knowledge. Ghazālī’s words that the Quran is “an ocean with no shores” seem to reflect the general meaning of these narrations which point towards the apparent infinite nature of the Quran.

As evident, this approach, by referring to authority in the form of the narrative tradition, arrives at the same conclusion as the first approach; the Quran explains all things.

A Problem

While further criticism will be discussed later, there is one very evident problem that this view seems to run into. That is, if one is to accept that the Quran indeed explains all things, where is all this information or knowledge to be found?

Proponents of this view were not ignorant of this problem and offered numerous ideas as solutions.

One such solution refers to the narrative tradition once again in describing the Quran as containing “inner” meanings. The tradition is a very famous one and is as follows,

عَلِيُّ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ عَنْ أَبِيهِ عَنِ النَّوْفَلِيِّ عَنِ السَّكُونِيِّ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ عَنْ آبَائِهِ ع قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص‏ أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّكُمْ فِي دَارِ هُدْنَةٍ وَ أَنْتُمْ عَلَى ظَهْرِ سَفَرٍ وَ السَّيْرُ بِكُمْ سَرِيعٌ وَ قَدْ رَأَيْتُمُ اللَّيْلَ وَ النَّهَارَ وَ الشَّمْسَ وَ الْقَمَرَ يُبْلِيَانِ كُلَّ جَدِيدٍ وَ يُقَرِّبَانِ كُلَّ بَعِيدٍ وَ يَأْتِيَانِ بِكُلِّ مَوْعُودٍ فَأَعِدُّوا الْجَهَازَ  لِبُعْدِ الْمَجَازِ- قَالَ فَقَامَ الْمِقْدَادُ بْنُ الْأَسْوَدِ فَقَالَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَ مَا دَارُ الْهُدْنَةِ قَالَ دَارُ بَلَاغٍ وَ انْقِطَاعٍ فَإِذَا الْتَبَسَتْ عَلَيْكُمُ الْفِتَنُ كَقِطَعِ اللَّيْلِ الْمُظْلِمِ فَعَلَيْكُمْ بِالْقُرْآنِ فَإِنَّهُ شَافِعٌ مُشَفَّعٌ وَ مَاحِلٌ مُصَدَّقٌ‏ وَ مَنْ جَعَلَهُ أَمَامَهُ قَادَهُ إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ وَ مَنْ جَعَلَهُ خَلْفَهُ سَاقَهُ إِلَى النَّارِ وَ هُوَ الدَّلِيلُ يَدُلُّ عَلَى خَيْرِ سَبِيلٍ وَ هُوَ كِتَابٌ فِيهِ تَفْصِيلٌ وَ بَيَانٌ وَ تَحْصِيلٌ وَ هُوَ الْفَصْلُ لَيْسَ بِالْهَزْلِ وَ لَهُ ظَهْرٌ وَ بَطْنٌ‏ فَظَاهِرُهُ حُكْمٌ وَ بَاطِنُهُ عِلْمٌ ظَاهِرُهُ أَنِيقٌ وَ بَاطِنُهُ عَمِيقٌ

‘Alī bin Ibrāhīm narrated from his father from al-Nawfalī from al-Sukūnī from Abī ‘Abd Allah from his fathers who said that the Prophet Said, “…When discord surrounds you like a piece of the darkness of the night, then hold firmly to the Qurān… It has an “apparent meaning” and an “inner meaning”. Its “apparent meaning” is a ruling while its “inner meaning” is a science. Its “apparent meaning” is elegant while its “inner meaning” is deep…10

The above illustrates the idea that the Quran has layers to its meanings. Specifically, an “apparent” meaning and an “inner” meaning. Some may also understand these words to imply exoteric and esoteric meanings. Such an understanding of the Quran solves the proposed problem. That is, the Quran does explain all things, however one must access its inner meanings to understand as such.

Another solution that is often proposed is that the Quran has “higher realities”. Shaykh Jawādī Āmulī suggests that one way to understand the Quran explaining all things is to understand that the Qurān has higher “levels” such as the “Umm al-Kitāb” or the “Kitab Maknūn”11. Both of these terms are understood to be abstract realities of the Quran whereas the Quran before us is a physical manifestation of such realities12. According to this understanding, the physical Quran that is present before us may not explain all things, but abstract realities of the Quran do. This may be what al-Ṣadrā was also attempting to propose when he argued that if one established a path from their inner being to the unseen realms, s/he would realize that the Quran explains all things.

In conclusion, there have been various solutions proposed to the problem of not being able to find the knowledge of all things within the Quran. As evident, these solutions largely depend on broader definitions/understandings of the Quran rather than simply understanding the Quran to be the text of the Uthmanic codex13.


The view that the Quran explains all things has been applied to many discussions. Below are some examples where this understanding of the verse has been applied.

Application in the Islamic Sciences

This understanding of the verse is often used in discussions within the Islamic sciences. One particular example is a discussion that al-Suyūṭī partakes in within his work on the Quranic sciences, al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān. Here he brings up the discussion of whether there is foreign vocabulary present in the Quran. The question of whether foreign vocabulary existed in the Quran was originally a very heated issue amongst Islamic scholarship. Some scholars such as Ibn Fārs were very vehemently opposed to such a possibility.

It should be noted that answering this question is not merely a matter of finding a foreign word within the Quran and thus proving the claim to be true or vice-versa. This is because in a case where such a foreign word was produced, other scholars would argue that the word was only similar to another word within a foreign language but not a word foreign to the Arabic language itself.

Ibn Fārs argued that one of the reasons that the Quran was a miracle was because the Arabs had not been able to meet the challenge of the Quran in producing something equivalent or better than it. However, if the Quran had contained foreign vocabulary within it, then Ibn Fārs saw this as an unfair challenge. Furthermore, if the challenge was unfair then Ibn Fārs argued that the Quran was not really much of a miracle at all. As such, Ibn Fārs rejected the very possibility of foreign languages existing in the Quran14.

On the other hand, al-Suyūṭī was certain that there must be foreign language within the Quran. One of the main reasons for this was because of his understanding of the above-mentioned verse. That is, he believed that the Quran explains all things and thus it must contain references to foreign languages for this verse to be fact. Furthermore, he quoted narrations that he thought to be authentic that claimed that there was a word from every language within the Quran.

Applications to the Natural Sciences

There are many verses within the Quran that deal with natural phenomenon. Some scholars have said that there are up to 750 verses in the Quran discussing natural phenomenon. There are verses that seem to discuss the origins of the universe, the origins of life, fetal development etc. Over the course of history these verses have come under a lot of scrutiny by different scholars. Some such as al-Ghazālī encouraged interpreting these verses through knowledge gained from the natural sciences.

Scholars who believe in the expansive interpretation of the verse may attempt to understand certain verses of the Quran through scientific discussions. This has also given rise to the concept of scientific exegeses of the Quran such as Tafsīr al-Manār by Shaykh Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā.

One famous example of a scholar who attempted to understand the Quran through scientific discussions was Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān who interpreted Adam within the Quran as a symbol of evolution and as a fusion of different chemicals15. It should be noted, that understanding the verse in an “expansive” manner does not necessitate agreeing with specific scientific interpretations.

Others may go further and try to determine scientific hypotheses based on the Quran. This has occurred before with groups or societies holding conferences where papers were presented based on hypotheses developed from the Quran16. According to this interpretation of the verse, there is no problem in such scientific applications of the Quran, although once again, anyone of this view may disagree with particular scientific applications.

View 2

The second view mentioned asserts that the Quran does not necessarily discuss or contain information relevant to anything that is not necessary for the guidance of humans. This is not to say that the Quran does not contain anything related to subjects such as the natural sciences, it is just that it does not necessarily contain any such discussions. The view asserts that what is necessarily true is that the Quran is comprehensive of anything that humans require to attain guidance. This has been a very popular opinion and has proponents such as al-Ṭabrisī, al-Ṭūsī and al-Baiḍāwī.

A Contextual Approach to the Language of the Quran

This view can be determined by taking a contextual approach to the language of this verse. This approach focuses on the meanings understood from the words kull/كل and shay/شيء within the verse.

The word kull/كل can actually be understood in multiple ways and is actually the subject of a lot of discussion. Just as the above-mentioned verse is an index to centuries of discussion, the word kull/كل also serves as an index to centuries of discussion. There is a whole genre of literature within the Islamic tradition that is in part dedicated to understanding the meanings of certain common features or keywords that occur within the Quran and ḥadīth corpus. In this regard, many scholars have proposed that the word kull/كل is not only used as a quantifier to mean “all” but also to mean “many” or “a lot”17.

Another argument can be advanced to alter the interpretation of the word shay/شيء within this verse. Some may argue that seeing as the verse is addressing the Prophet, the revelation of the Book as an explanation is to be taken in context with the goal and purpose that the Prophet strove to accomplish, namely the guidance of humankind. This is, in fact, stressed in the continuation of the verse which is as follows,

نَزَّلْنا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتابَ تِبْياناً لِكُلِّ شَيْ‏ءٍ وَ هُدىً وَ رَحْمَةً وَ بُشْرى‏ لِلْمُسْلِمين‏

…We have sent down the Book to you as a clarification of all things and as a guidance and mercy and good news for the Muslims18

Seeing as the Quran is a book of guidance and the Prophet’s mission was the guidance of humankind, the word shay/شيء can be taken into context to mean “things related to the guidance of humankind”.

According to this understanding the verse could perhaps be translated as such, “We have sent down the Book to you as a clarification of most things related to the guidance of humankind”. Even if one does not accept the interpretation where the word kull/كل is taken to be equivalent to the English “many”, the verse could be translated as, “We have sent down the Book to you as a clarification of all things related to the guidance of humankind”.

A Narrative Approach

Similar to the previous view, the narrative tradition can be referred to in order to understand this verse. The following is a narration attributed to Imām al-Riḍā,

أَبُو مُحَمَّدٍ الْقَاسِمُ بْنُ الْعَلَاءِ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ رَفَعَهُ عَنْ عَبْدِ الْعَزِيزِ بْنِ مُسْلِمٍ قَالَ: …وَ أَنْزَلَ عَلَيْهِ الْقُرْآنَ فِيهِ تِبْيَانُ‏ كُلِّ شَيْ‏ءٍ بَيَّنَ فِيهِ الْحَلَالَ وَ الْحَرَامَ وَ الْحُدُودَ وَ الْأَحْكَامَ وَ جَمِيعَ مَا يَحْتَاجُ إِلَيْهِ النَّاسُ كَمَلًا…

“God revealed the Quran upon him (the Prophet) and in it is the explanation of all things. In it he has explained the permissible, impermissible, the punishments, the laws and everything that humans needs for perfection19

This narration explains that the Quran contains whatever humans require for guidance. There are many similar narrations, particularly within the Sunni ḥadīth corpus, that emphasize the same point.

Criticism of the Narrative Approach

It is possible to criticize the use of the narrative approach for this particular view. Firstly, the amount of narrations in support of the first view heavily outnumber the amount of narrations emphasizing that the Quran is only necessarily comprehensive of that which humans require for guidance.

Secondly and more importantly, scholars can argue that narrations in support of this view only “tell part of the story”. That is, the assertion that the Quran contains everything humans require for guidance does not contradict the statement that the Quran is comprehensive of all knowledge. Any such narrations cannot be used to falsify the assertion that the Quran is comprehensive of all knowledge.

Application to Science

As mentioned before, this view does not imply that verses in the Quran cannot be understood through science or that scientific hypotheses cannot be developed from the Quran. Rather, the view asserts that it is not necessary that the Quran addresses such matters. In reality it may indeed address such matters.

There are some scholars of the view that the Quran should not be attempted to be understood through science. Scholars such as Ṣubḥī al-Ṣāliḥ and Bint al-Shāṭī have written against the use of such methods20. Such scholars typically voice fears about the changing nature of scientific theories or stretching the meanings of verses of the Quran past acceptable boundaries.

Other scholars take a more moderate view, attempting to strike a balance between scholars who attempt to conform the Quran to science and scholars who reject the use of science at all. One such scholar is Sayyid Quṭb, the author of Fī Ẓilāl al-Qurān.

Further Thoughts and Conclusion

If anything is clear by now, it is that perhaps it is not so easy to come to a conclusion about the meaning and implications of this verse. This is a general theme within the exegetical genre of literature, verses of the Quran are generally the subject of a lot of discussion. Many times these discussions do not only occur within exegetical literature but in other genres as well.

In terms of this verse, ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī tries to take a “middle route” when confronted with the different interpretations that are present. He initially understands the verse in a similar manner to the contextual approach outlined above under the second view. He argues that, when understood in context, the verse implies that the Quran explains what is necessary for the guidance of humankind. However, he concedes that there are many narrations implying that the Quran is comprehensive of all knowledge. He concludes that if the authenticity of those narrations can be established, then one would have to accept that the Quran is comprehensive of all knowledge. However, he argues that in such a case, such knowledge would have to be conveyed through the Quran through means other than solely the meanings understood from its words21.

This is a sort of “middle route” that acknowledges the need to establish the authenticity of the narrations that attribute such an expansive role to the Quran. Perhaps it is more convincing because of the fact that it is an attempt to take the “middle route”. Regardless, it still leaves a lot of room for thoughts, research and discussion.

  1. Al-Naḥl 16:89, some translators translate the word tibyān/تبيان as clarification while others translate it as explanation 
  2. Al-Suyūṭī does not seem to assert this view in the exegesis written along with his teacher, Tafsīr al-Jalālayn, however he goes on to argue for this in other works such as al-Itqān in the discussion on whether there is foreign vocabulary present within the Qurān, see al-Suyūṭī, Al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān pg. 288 
  3. See the following article written by Shaykh Jawādī, 
  4. Al-Ghazzālī, Jawāhir al-Qurān pg. 28 
  5. Al-Ṣadrā, Mafātīh al-Ghayb pg. 11 
  6. These phrases refer to lengthy discussions within the science of Uṣūl al-Fiqh, the principles of jurisprudence, where jurists discuss the importance of understanding verses within the Quran according to their apparent meanings 
  7. Ibn Mas’ūd was a famous companion of the Prophet and is recorded to have compiled a codex of the Quran before ‘Uthmān’s compilation 
  8. Al-Ṭabarī, Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī v. 14 pg. 108 
  9. Al-Kulaynī, Al-Kāfī v. 1 pg. 649-650, some scholars may argue that the chain of narration for this narration is weak because of the presence of Muḥammad bin Sinān 
  10. Al-Kulaynī, Al-Kāfī v. 4 pg. 595. The authenticity of this chain may be criticized by the presence of the famous narrators al-Nawfalī and al-Sukūnī although al-Ṭūsī is known to have cemented their status as being reliable 
  12. These understandings can be derived from some narrations such as the narration discussing the revelation of the Quran to bayt al-ma’mūr 
  13. One understanding that I did not cover in the talk is popularly advanced by many of the Akhbārī school of thought. Some scholars of this school claim that the whole of the Quran is currently possessed by the 12th Imam although this does not affect the authority of the codex of the Quran that is currently accessible. This view and the relevant evidence that is presented for it can be found in the introduction to Tafsīr al-Burhān written by Shaykh Hāshim al-Baḥrānī 
  14. The argument is quoted by al-Suyūṭī in al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān pg. 288 
  15. Dar, The Religious Thought of Sayyid Ahmed Khan pg. 160, 172 
  16. See for example, The Holy Qur’an and Science conference 
  17. See for example Sharīf al-Murtaḍā’s discussion on ‘ūmūm in Al-Ẓarī’ah fī Uṣūl al-Sharī’ah pg. 188 
  18. Al-Naḥl 16:89 
  19. The narration has been mentioned in multiple works, particularly by Shaykh al-Ṣadūq. This version is present in al-Ṣudūq, Kamāl al-Dīn wa Tamām al-Ni’mah v. 2 pg. 676. The chain of this version is incomplete; other versions, where a complete chain has been mentioned, contain narrators whose authenticity has not been testified to 
  20. See ‘Ā’ishah bint al-Shāṭī, Al-Qurān wa-Qaḍāya al-Insān pg. 426; Ṣubḥī al-Ṣāliḥ, Ma’ālim al-Sharī’ah al-Islāmīyah pg. 291 
  21. Ṭabāṭabāī, Al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 12 pg. 325