The Meaning of Exegesis, According to the Commentators and Scholars
There is considerable disgreement as to the meaning of exegesis, ta'wil, and it is possible to count more than ten different views. There are, however, two views which have gained general acceptance. The first is that of the early generation of scholars who used the word exegesis, ta'wil, as a synonyn for commentary, or tafsir. According to this view, all Qur'anic verses are open to ta'wil although according to the verse, "nobody knows its interpretation (ta'wil) except God, " it is the implicit verses whose interpretation (ta'wil) is known only to God. For this reason, a number of the early scholars said that the implicit verses are those with muqatta'ah-letters at the beginning of the chapter since they are the only verses in the Qur'an whose meaning is not known to everyone. This interpretation has been demonstrated in the previous section as being incorrect, a view which is shared by certain of the late scholars. They argued that since there is a way of finding out the meaning of any verse, particularly since the muqattah-letters are obviously not in the same classification as the implicit verses then the distinction between the two (muqatta'ah and implicit, mutashabih) is clear. Secondly, the view of the later scholars is that exegesis refers to the meaning of a verse beyond its literal meaning and that not all verses have exegesis; rather only the implicit, whose ultimate meaning is known only to God. The verses in question here are those which refer to the human qualities of coming, going, sitting, satisfaction, anger and sorrow apparently attributed to God and, also, those verses which apparently ascribe faults to the messengers and Prophets of God (when in reality they are infallible). The view that the word exegesis refers to a meaning other than the apparent one has become quite accepted. Moreover, within the divergence of opinion amongst scholars, exegesis has come to mean "to transfer " the apparent meaning of a verse to a different meaning by means of a proof called ta'wil; this method is not without obvious inconsistencies. Although this view has gained considerable acceptance, it is incorrect and cannot be applied to the Qur'anic verses for the following reasons. Firstly, the verses, Do they await anything but the fulfillment of it [VII:53] and, but they denied that, the knowledge of which they could not encompass and the interpretation of which had not yet come to them [X:39] indicate that the whole Qur'an has exegesis, not just the implicit verses as claimed by this group of scholars. Secondly, implied in this view is that there are Qur'anic verses whose real meaning is ambiguous and hidden from the people, only God knowing their real meaning. However, a book which declares itself as challenging and excelling in its linguistic brilliance could hardly be described as eloquent if it failed to transmit the meaning of its own words. Thirdly, if we accept this view, then the validity of the Qur'an comes under question since, according to the verse, Why do they not reflect upon the Qur'an, if it were from other than God they would have found in it many inconsistencies.
One of the proofs that the Qur'an is not the speech of man is that, despite having been revealed in widely varying and difficult circumstances, there is no inconsistency in it, neither in its literal meaning nor in its inner meaning, and any initial inconsistency disappears upon reflection. If it is believed that a number of the implicit verses disagree with the sound, or muhkam, or explicit, verses this disagree- ment may be resolved by explaining that what is intended is not the literal meaning but rather another meaning known only to God. However, this explanation will never prove that the Qur'an is "not the speech of man." If by exegesis we change any inconsistency in the explicit, or sound (muhkam), verses to another meaning beyond the literal, it is clear that we may also do this for the speech and writing of man. Fourthly, there is no proof that exegesis indicates a meaning other than the literal one and that, in the Qur'anic verses which mention the word exegesis, the literal meaning is not intended. On three occasions in the story of Joseph, ehe interpretation of his dream is called ta'wil (exegesis). It is clear that the interpretation of a dream is not fundamentally different from the actual appearance of the dream; rather, it is the interpretation of what is portrayed in a particular form in the dream. Thus Joseph saw his father, mother and brother falling to the ground in the form of the sun, the moon and the stars. Likewise, the king of Egypt saw the seven-year drought in the form of seven lean cows eating the seven fat cows and also, the seven green ears of corn and the seven dry ears. Similarly, the dreams of Joseph's two fellow-inmates in the prison: one saw himself pouring wine for the king (in the form of the first pressing of wine), while the second saw himself crucified (in the form of birds eating from the bread basket on his head). The dream of the king of Egypt is related in the same chapter, verse 43 and its interpretation, from Joseph, in verses 47-49 when he says, you will sow seven years as usual, but what ever you reap leave it in the ear, all except a little which you will eat. Then after that will come a year when people will have plenteous crops and then they will press (meaning wine and oil).
The dream of Joseph's fellow-inmates in the prison occurs in verse 36 of the same chapter. One of the two young men says to Joseph, "I dreamt that I was carrying upon my head bread which the birds were eating. " The interpretation of the dream is related by Joseph in verse 41 O my two fellow-prisoners! As for one of you he will pour out wine for his Lord to drink and as for the other, he will be crucified so that the birds will eat from his head .
In a similar fashion, God relates the story of Moses and Khidr in the chapter "The Cave" [XVIII:71-82]. Khidr made a hole in the boats; thereafter, killed a boy and, finally, straightened a leaning wall. After each event, Moses protested and Khidr explained the meaning and reality of each action which he had carried out on the orders of God; this he referred to as ta'wil. Thus it is clear that the reality of the event and the dream-picture which portrayed the event-to-be are basically the same: the ta'wil, or interpretation, does not have a meaning other than the apparent one. Likewise God says, talking about weights and measures, "Fill the measure when you measure and weigh with a right balance, that is proper and better in the end, " (that is, more fitting in the final determination of the Day of Reckoning) [XVII:35]. It is clear that the word ta'wil used here in respect to the measuring and weighing refers to fair dealing in business practices. Thus the ta'wil used in this way is not different from the literal meaning of the words "measuring" and "weighing"; it merely deepens and extends the significance of the mundane to include a spiritual dimension. This spiritual dimension is of significance for the believer who has in mind the reckoning of the final day together with his own day-to-day reckoning in the affairs of trade. In another verse God again uses the word ta'wil, and if you have any dispute concerning any matter, refer it to God and the messenger ... that is better and more fitting in the end [IV:59]. It is clear that the meaning of ta'wil and the referring of the dispute to God and His messenger is to establish the unity of Society and to show how each action or event in a community has a spiritual significance. Thus, the ta'wil refers to a tangible ordinary reality and is not in opposition to the actual text in the verses which refers to the dispute. In all, there are sixteen occasions in the Qur'an in which the word ta'wil is used but on no occasion does it have a meaning other than the literal text. We may say, therefore, that the word ta'wil is used to extend the idea expressed to include a further meaning which, (as will be made clear in the next section), is still in accordance with the actual word ta'wil occurring in the verse. Thus, in the light of these examples, there is no reason why we should take the word ta'wil in the verse about the explicit muhkam, and implicit, mutashabih, meanings to indicate "a meaning basically other than the apparent meaning."
Adapted from: "The Quran in Islam" by: "Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i"
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