The Language of the Quran (Part 2): Between The Vernacular (al-lughah al-urfiyyah) and Transcendental (ma fawq al-urfiyyah)

By Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh[1]

Transcribed by Muhammad Jaffer

In the previous article, we explained the vernacular theory of Qurānic language as espoused by a wide range of exegetes, tradents, and jurists.[2] In this discussion we will expand on the opposing perspective, which posits that the language of the Qurān transcends the bounds of human communication. There are several variants of this theory, which we will survey briefly along with their most well-known proponents.

I. The Theory of Transcendental Language of the Qurān

As we discussed for the vernacular theory of Qurānic language, there are two iterations of the transcendental theory as well:

1. The Puritanical View

The proponents of this theory propose that there is no vernacular language in the Qurān at all. In turn, they believe that wherever the language may seem vernacular at first glance, it is only illusory. The proponents of this stringently extreme view are few and far between.

2. The Combinatorial View

This is the more common iteration of this theory; its proponents believe that the Qurān consists of verses that can be understood vernacularly, although much of its language nonetheless transcends human diction and must be decoded through a higher-level filter.

We find several sub-viewpoints within the theory of transcendental language; these are not mutually exclusive but rather seem to intersect with one another. Nonetheless, it is useful to particularize them to facilitate further discussion and analysis.

1. The Parabolic View (al-ittijāh al-ramzī)

This view proposes that since God is unlimited, the Qurān must reflect His omniscience and therefore it is impossible for its language to be constrained by congruent lexical coinage (al-dilālah al-muṭābaqiyyah).[3] The Quran needs to be looked at in a way that transcends lexical and apparent meanings; rather, we must derive the meaning between the lines through appreciating its profundity; the superficial meanings are not what are intended.[4] Since the metaphysical is incapable of being exposited in words,  we must employ a parabolic perspective (al-ṭarīqah al-munḥaniyah) to understand the Qurān. It is not aiming to speak to us directly and clearly, but rather it consists of universal allusions and references that transcend the dimensions of time and space.[5] The meaning has nothing to do with the literal/lexical meanings, rather what is intended is the underlying concept. The Quranic language needs to be understood like this: each sentence has a meaning hidden between the lines.[6] Therefore, per this viewpoint all the efforts that have tried to analyze the Quran directly are incorrect.

While traces of this parabolic approach were present since antiquity, the founding pioneer of this parabolic theory in scriptural exegesis was the Christian German theologian and existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich (d. 1965). His theory came to reconcile divine scripture with scientific, historical, and philosophical phenomena.[7] As it is said, theologians innovate theories in the setting of exigency. In this case, it was about redefining scripture into a set of allegories.

In the setting of this parabolic approach, we see a perspective emerge known as “the denial of scriptural literalism” (nafy al-lughah al-waṣfiyyah): that is, that scriptural language is not based in reality at all but is simply trying to construct a moral and a religious philosophy. There is therefore no meaning in trying to correlate the Qurān with historical or scientific realities, as the scripture simply consists of parabolic stories designed to send ethical messages to the listeners. Instead, the Qurān is only narrating stories much like a theatrical/artistic storyteller, simply aiming to spur its audience towards a higher morality and spirituality.[8] This opens the door to mythical reading of the scripture, whereby it is proposed that the Qurān employs mythical and legendary beliefs to exposit higher humanistic principles.[9] In the Judeo-Christian world, we find roots of this idea in the writings of the post-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer (d. 1945), who proposed in his “Theory of Symbolic Forms,” whereby religion is interpreted as arising from a mythical consciousness as an expressive function of symbolic meaning. Of course, after Cassirer this theory found its own proponents in the Muslim world too.[10] Amidst all the following viewpoints we will discuss, this strain is particularly extreme in its opposition to vernacular language.

2. The Esoteric/Mystical View (al-ittijāh al-bāṭinī/al-‘irfānī)

This view finds itself supported by quite a number of adherents, including the esoteric Ismā’īlīs, bāṭinist extremists, the Ṣūfīs, and practitioners of Islamic mysticism (al-‘irfān). They propose that the Qurān can only be understood through spiritual wayfaring towards God and that its language is allegorical (al-ta’wīlī). In their ontological philosophy, the Qurān is the manifestation of God’s all-encompassing knowledge which descended through the planes of existence into this material realm. Therefore, they propose that in addition to its corporeal iteration, the Qurān has parallel existences in the realm of the intellects (‘ālam al-‘uqūl) and imagination (‘ālam al-mithāl). In order to understand these higher metaphysical dimensions of the Qurān, they state that you must leave the confines of human language and phenomenologically experience the revelation. You must spiritually ascend and refine yourself to appreciate this esoteric dimension of the Qurān.[11] Therefore, we find the likes of al-Ghazzālī and ibn ‘Arabī state that timeless wisdom underlies every word of the Quran; they contend that it is ontologically impossible for human language to be capable of bearing the timeless words of God.

Among the hallmarks of this faction is the theory of the Qurān having simultaneous exoteric (ẓāhir) and esoteric (bāṭin) dimensions. They believe that the Qurān’s exoteric dimension can be apprehended by the lexical meanings while the esoteric dimension transcends the physical and must be appreciated by spiritual witnessing (al-shuhūd).[12]

3. The Traditionist/Literalist View (al-ittijāh al-ikhbārī al-naṣṣī)

This view was adopted by a substantial number of scholars and jurists; although their ideology is quite opposed to the aforementioned groups, they nonetheless intersect with them in the belief that the Qurān is beyond vernacular understanding. The Akhbārīs, and at their head Muḥammad Amīn al-Astarābādī (d. 1036 AH), believed that you must understand the Qurān through the intermediary of the Ahl al-Bayt alone. It is not possible for us to refer to our rationality in interpreting the scripture, but rather we must rely upon Divinely-appointed individuals who have been given the abilities to interpret the Qurān, and no one else has the authority to do so.[13]

In support of their view, they rely on several narrations that the Ahl al-Bayt are the people of the remembrance (“ahl al-dhikr”), those firmly rooted in knowledge (“al-rāsikhūn fī al-‘ilm”), the ḥadīth of the two weighty things (ḥadīth al-thaqalayn), and narrations that the Qurān is addressed only to the Ahl al-Bayt. Of course, the battle between the Akhbāris and the Uṣūlis persisted for nearly two centuries and even continues to persist within some circles to the current day. While the Akhbāris intersect with the mystical school of thought in its critique of rationality and lexical interpretation of the Qurān, they are among the most bitter opponents of utilizing spiritual experience in revealing Qurānic meanings. We also find a point of intersection of this group with the historiographical theory of the Qurān proposed by Muḥammad Arkoun. In gist, they propose, similar to Arkoun, that the historiographical/contextual clues (al-qarā’in al-‘aqlāniyyah) used in interpreting the Qurān are no longer present for us. We did not preserve the oral tradition of the Qurān (al-khiṭāb) that exposited which verses were abrogated, which ones were general and which ones specific, etc. We only preserved the written form of the scripture (al-tadwīn). Since the Arabic language has evolved, we are incapable of understanding the Qurān in the manner that it was historically understood by the early generations. In contrast to Arkoun, however, they believe that the only manner to salvage these specific contextual indicators is by resorting to the narrations of the Ahl al-Bayt.

In short, this strand of thought refutes two propositions simultaneously: both the possibility and legal permissibility of Qurānic exegesis (imkāniyyat al-tafsīr wa shar’iyyat al-tafsīr) for anyone else other than the Ahl al-Bayt.[14] It is in this context that we witness that most traditionist-based exegeses in the Imāmī Shī’ite context did not emerge until the 11th and 12th Hijrī centuries: because the Akhbārīs did not see for themselves any choice for understanding the Qurān except by consolidating all that the Ahl al-Bayt were attributed to have said about it.

4. The Assimilative View (al-ittijāh al-talfīqī)

In the view of this group, the Qurān’s language fuses many different types of language within itself: sometimes it is figurative and sometimes it is literal. Sometimes it is vernacular and other times it is transcendental. They state that we can recognize the type of language based on two principles: the subject of the discourse and the nature of the language. If the subject is about law and social phenomena, this relies on a vernacular register. However, when the Qurān discusses high theology, soteriology, and eschatology, then the Qurānic language cannot be vernacular and we must understand it as transcendent. Secondly, when the Qurān utilizes constructions that are extraordinary or suprarational, we must interpret these verses as employing a transcendental register.[15]

The proponents of this theory include Muḥammad Miṣbāḥ Yazdī (d. 2021) and Dr. Muḥammad Legenhausen. We can also find gleamings of this view in the writings of Sayyid al-Khomeinī (d. 1989).[16] We may find some trace of this theory as well in some of our narrations.[17]

5. The Initiated Language View (al-ittijāh al-lughah al-khāṣṣah)

Perhaps it can be said that this view is simply another iteration of the fourth viewpoint we described above. In gist, the proponents of this view state that the Qurānic language does not resemble any other languages and is altogether unique. Since it is divine, heavenly, and contains hidden truths, it cannot be compared to any human language. They note that one of the features that prove that the Qurānic language is unique is that it appeals to every class of society simultaneously. The high-bred philosopher finds within it a depth of philosophical truth that leaves him overwhelmed, all the while the commoner peasant is capable of understanding and benefiting from it. The second feature unique to Qurānic language is that it, in its own words, exposits all knowledge;[18] this is not a feature of normal language and entails that it transcends the human vernacular. Incidentally, this proposition is also the basis of the theory about the esoteric Qurān (naẓariyyah al-buṭūn) as expounded by the mystics.

Among the proponents of this viewpoint include the likes of Muḥammad Hādī Ma’rifat and ‘Allāmah al-Tabātabā’ī. They note that the Qurān contains facts and realities that cannot be explained by rational discourse. The Qurān contains similitudes within it precisely because metaphysical truths cannot be confined within the dimensions of human vernacular language. It is on this basis that ‘Allāmah Tabāṭabā’ī adopts the methodology of doing exegesis of the Qurān through the Qurān: because he believes it cannot be understood except through itself.[19]


[1] The material presented here is a precis of a lecture delivered by Shaykh Haydar on his Youtube channel. The original Arabic lectures can be found here: Part 1 ( and Part 2 ( When tangential points are made by Shaykh Haydar, we have included these as footnotes; our own rare footnotes are marked by TN (translator’s note).

[2] TN: Perhaps one can find a parallel to the theory of vernacular Qurānic language in the Protestant doctrine of “the perspicuity of scripture.” This is in opposition to the Catholic position that the Bible needs to be interpreted by an authoritative Christian body.

[3] TN: In Arabic logic/jurisprudence, lexical coinage (al-dilālah al-lafẓiyyah al-waḍ’iyyah) is broken into three subsets: al-muṭābaqiyyah (congruent indication), al-taḍammuniyyah (component indication), and al-iltizāmiyyah (entailed indication). For instance, when someone says “Washington said…” and mean the city, this is a congruent indication. When they say “Washington” but mean the White House, this is a component indication. When they say “Washington” and mean the President, this is an entailed indication. The proponents of this theory propose that Divine language cannot be circumscribed within congruent lexical coinage.

[4] For instance “Say: God is One,” does not mean that God is literally One, according to the proponents of this viewpoint.

[5] As an analogy, this group believes that Qurānic language is constructed similarly to a work of art. Just as a painter or artist may create a mosaic consisting of colors that may be recognizable, but the meaning transcends its individual artistic elements. In the view of this group, you must interpret the way the artistic elements have been used.

[6] Perhaps an appropriate analogy at this juncture is that of human proverbs. Consider the phrase, “there is no use crying over spilled milk.” By employing this statement, one is not speaking literally but rather intends a concept that transcends the apparent lexical meaning of the sentence (i.e., the frivolity of lamenting over a foregone conclusion).

[7] For instance, modern-day historiography might say that per strict archeological standards the existence of Moses, Pharaoh, Abraham, etc. cannot be substantiated. The theory of evolution suggests that human evolved over millions of years and refutes the existence of Adam and Eve. In turn, this perspective seeks to reconcile the dearth of scientific/historical evidence for these scriptural personalities by interpreting them allegorically.

[8] It is in this vein that we find a whole school of thought founded in the 20th century aimed at interpreting the artistic and parabolic elements (al-tamthīliyyah wa al-takhayyuliyyah), as embodied by the work of Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallah.

[9] For instance, consider the Qurānic verse “As for those who devour interest, they behave as the one whom Satan has confounded with his touch…” (2:275). In the view of this group, the Qurān employs this analogy not because Satan is capable of demonic possession, but rather simply in keeping with the pre-Islamic Arabian beliefs about the underlying cause of insanity. Therefore, the Qurān leverages this superstition.

[10] TN: As possible examples of proponents of this methodology in the Muslim world, see the writings of Muḥammad Arkoun and Naṣr Abū Zayd.

[11] Some of these views may also be found within the Twelver Shi’ite corpus, such as narrations that identify Qurānic commandments as representing the Ahl al-Bayt or their enemies. Even in the al-Tawḥīd of al-Shaykh al-Ṣadūq we find a gleaming of this mystical perspective on the Qurān attributed to Imām ‘Alī (as), where he is reported to have said that “there is not a single letter in the Qurān except that it is a name among the Divine Names of God.”

[12] In the view of this group, the esoteric dimension of the Qurān is completely independent of the lexical meanings. In other words, they do not believe that the bāṭin of the Qurān is linked to its exoteric meanings; rather it is an ontologically separate dimension that cannot be understood through the conduit of language.

[13] Of course, there are strains of Akhbārīs, some of whom believe that even the most apparent verses have no probative significance on their own and you must return to the Ahl al-Bayt to understand them. Some of them have gone a step further and said that in addition to the Qurān even the speech of the Holy Prophet (saw) cannot be understood on its own, but rather you must return to the words of the Imams to understand both the Qurān and Sunnah.

[14] They utilize riwāyāt that prohibit the use of one’s opinion for exegesis (tafsīr bi al-ra’y) to preclude the use of one’s own ijtihād in understanding the Qurān.

[15] For instance, compare the verses “Establish prayer, and be mindful of Him. To Him you will all be gathered.” (6:72) with the verse, “Had We sent down this Quran upon a mountain, you would have certainly seen it humbled and torn apart in awe of Allah…” (59:21).

[16] In his book Kashf al-Asrār, al-Khomeinī notes that some of the knowledge of Qurān and ḥadīth are symbols specific to God and an eclectic group.

[17] For instance, there is a narration from ‘Āṣim ibn Ḥumayd on the authority of Imām Sajjād (as) stated that God revealed Sūrah al-Tawḥīd and the beginning verses of Sūrah al-Ḥadīd for a profound people who will exist at the end of time, and whoever seeks beyond that has perished.

[18] “And We have revealed the Book to you explaining clearly everything…” (16:89)

[19] For instance, when discussing the descent of Adam and Eve to the Earth and the manner in which the Earth and Heavens come to God willingly or unwillingly, ‘Allāmah describes how these are allegorical.