The Mutashabihat of the Qur’an

    Question: In the Qur’an, there are many verses which are ambiguous and unclear. The Qur’an itself calls them the Mutashabihat (3:7). My question is: Why has the Almighty revealed verses whose meaning is vague or unclear? Isn’t guidance the real purpose of revelation? How can we be guided through such verses? 
    Answer: It needs to be clarified that the Mutashabihat of the Qur’an are verses in which things that are beyond human observation or comprehension are mentioned in the form of comparison (Tashbih) to things which we know in our own language and through our own experience. The actual purport conveyed by these verses is clear. However, human intellect is not equipped to grasp the reality to which they refer. For example, it is said in Surah Haaqah that the Almighty’s throne shall be lifted by eight angels on the Day of Judgement. Now we cannot know what the throne will be like, though we may have a slight idea since the word throne is also a common word in our language. Similarly, Surah Muddaththir says that there will be 19 sentinels guarding Hell. Again we cannot say why there will be 19 and what they will be like, though we know that the word 19 mentions a definite number. Consequently, verses which mention the blowing of spirit in Adam1, the birth of Jesus (sws) without a father2, nature of God’s actions like His sitting on a throne3, the blessings of Paradise like the nature of its milk and honey4, the torments of Hell like the tree of Zaqqum growing in Fire5 are examples of the Mutashabihat. The real purpose of such verses is that they become a trial and test for people since they must profess faith in them, without going after their reality. The Qur’an says: 

    He it is Who has sent down to you the Book; in it are verses fundamental; they are the foundation of the book: others are Mutashabihat. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the Mutashabihat seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows their true reality except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. (3:7) 

    An important point worth noting in the above mentioned verses is that it has not been said that the meaning of the Mutashabihat is only known to Allah. Rather it has been declared that their reality is only known to Him. The actual word used is Ta’wil which is used in same sense here as in the following verse 

    He [Joseph] said: This is the reality [in the interpretation] of my dream which I had seen before. (12:100) 

    Consequently, the meaning of the words in which the dream of Joseph has been mentioned in the Qur’an is clear to everyone who knows Arabic. However, the reality denoted by the various elements of the dream like the sun, the moon and the eleven stars (12:4) was only known once the dream was fulfilled. 
    It is evident from these details that the Mutashabihat of the Qur’an are verses the true reality of which human intellect is not capable of knowing since there can be no words in a language which can describe things yet to come in human observation. Consequently, words which may be similar to the concepts conveyed by these things of the unknown world are used to portray these details. It is incorrect to regard them as verses whose meaning is unclear or doubtful. 

1. See for example 15:29, 38:72
2. See for example 21:91, 66:12
3. See for example 2:29, 7:54, 20:53 
4. See for example 47:15 
5. See for example 37:62, 44:43, 56:52