Al-Ghazali’s Stance on the Scientific Interpretation of the Quran:
This issue was debated a long time ago, and apparently the first one who sparked interest in it is Imam Abu-Hamid Al-Ghazali (died 1111), may Allah have mercy on him.
In his book Al-Ihyaa (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), Al-Ghazali quotes the following from Ibn Mas’oud, the Prophet’s noble companion:
“Whoever among you is seeking the knowledge of the early and latter generations let him ponder on the Quran.”
He also said:
“Generally speaking, all sciences are integral to the Actions and Attributes of Allah, Almighty and Glorified be He. The Quran explains the Essence of Allah (Dhaat Allah), His Attributes and Actions; and these sciences are infinite and innumerous. The Quran gives some general signals to these sciences.”
In his book (The Jewels of the Quran), which he authored after the book of (Al-Ihyaa), Al-Ghazali further elaborated on the issue and expanded with more details. In this regard, he commented,
“All types of knowledge and sciences are derived from one of the sources of the knowledge of Almighty Allah, His Actions, which as we mentioned is a source without boundaries.” (p.32-34)
He then mentioned illness and cure, as among Allah’s Actions. Allah (SWT) says in the Quran in the story of Prophet Ibrahim: “And when I am ill, it is He who cures me.” (Al-Shuaraa, 26:80)
On this verse, Imam Al-Ghazali commented:
“Indeed, Allah's Almighty Action in this regard can be solely understood by He who is knowledgeable of all the aspects of medicine; because the science of medicine is mainly concerned with all dimensions of the symptoms and treatment of a certain disease….”
Then, he added the following verses: “O mankind, what has deceived you concerning your Lord, the Generous, Who created you, proportioned you, and balanced you? In whatever form He willed has He assembled you.” (Al-Infitar, 82: 6-8) On these two verses, Al-Ghazali commented:
“Definitely, no one knows the comprehensive and exact meaning of these verses but only the One who is knowledgeable of body organs anatomy, both internally and externally. He must be aware of the numbers, kinds, the uses and benefits of these organs.”
These are two main citations of Al-Ghazali's reflections on the different types of sciences and knowledge that are mentioned in the Quran.
With this background, we can better understand the commentary of Al-Ghazali when he says that the sciences of this life and the Hereafter are included in the Quran. In other words, one can conclude that Al-Ghazali means to say that all sciences serve to better understand the Quran, and at the same time the Quran itself includes signs to these sciences and refers to them either in an indirect way or in general terms.
Al-Ghazali also mentioned in his book (Al-Ihyaa):
“Furthermore, all what was difficult for rational thinkers to understand and the disagreements in theories and logical assumptions are signaled in the Quran with evidence that can be understood by the people of knowledge and understanding.”
Ibn Abi Al-Fadl Al–Morsi and As-Suyuti's Opinions
Ibn Abu Al-Fadl Al-Morsi came after Al-Ghazali, and As-Suyuti recorded his opinion in his book (Al-Itqan) “Perfecting the Sciences of the Quran” which is similar to that of Al-Ghazali. He mentioned that the fundamentals of all crafts are mentioned in the Quran, such as the following:
- sewing in verse 21 of the chapter [The Heights] "And they began to fasten together over themselves from the leaves of Paradise"; "They covered themselves with the leaves of the garden." The meaning signifies their innate nature to cover up which lead to discovering sewing. They were stripped off their garments and so forth wanted to come up with something to cover themselves up. (Malik, 2001).
- Blacksmithing work in verse 96 of the chapter [The Cave], "Bring me sheets of iron"; Ironing is the basic element used in a blacksmith's work. In this verse, and in verses later on a recount of the mechanism of making the iron hot. (Malik, 2001).
- construction in verse 127 of chapter [The Cow], “And [mention] when Abraham was raising the foundations of the House and [with him] Ishmael”; "Raising the foundations of the House"; this act takes skills of using construction tools like blocks, tons of wet sand. And, so forth people later on started to apply the basic means of construction. (Malik, 2001).
- carpentering in verse 37 of chapter [Hud], “And construct the ship under Our observation”; Constructing a ship is a skill that was later on came to a craft of carpenters. (Malik, 2001).
- spun thread craft in verse 92 of the chapter [The Bees], “And do not be like she who untwisted her spun thread.";
- navigation craft in verse 79 of the chapter of [The Cave], "As for the ship, it belonged to poor people working at sea"; "Working at sea" refers to navigation craftsmenship. (Malik, 2001).
- and pottery-making, in verse 38 of the chapter of [The Stories], "Then ignite for me, O Haman, [a fire] upon the clay". Pottery-making craftsmenship is made by using fire on clay. (Malik, 2001).
With these indicators and references he concluded that the Quran includes the fundamentals of crafts.
As-Syuti confirmed his support to this approach in his book (Iklil Al-Taawiil Fi-Istinbat Al-Tanzeel), and mentioned this also in (Al-Itqan). He cited some Quranic verses and Prophetic narrations to support his opinion. He also gave as evidence the opinions of Ibn Mas’oud, Al-Hassan, Ash-Shafi'i and others.
|The Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, was the first to fight against the illiteracy of his nation when he accepted that the literate prisoners of war in the battle of Badr could ransom themselves by teaching writing to ten Muslim children. Consequently, we do not accept the notion of the illiteracy of the Islamic law unless it is understood as following the pure innate nature and ease, and being devoid of exaggeration and complication.|
Abu Ishaq Ash-Shatibi on Scientific Interpretation
Imam Abu Ishaq Ash-Shatibi opposed this trend in his book (Al-Muwafaqat). He based his opinion on the fact that the Islamic law, or Shari'ah, was revealed to an unlettered nation. According to his view, we should not render this law to exaggerations, complications and philosophy.
Indeed, Imam Ash-Shatibi exaggerated his opposition with this approach, and was later criticized by the erudite scholar At-Taher Ibn 'Ashour in the preface of his exegesis (At-Tahrir Wat-Tanweer) [Freedom and Enlightenment] and by other scholars, in particular Sheikh Abdullah Diraz in his commentary on the book of Ash-Shatibi (Al-Muwafaqat).
Ash-Shatibi is of the opinion that the Islamic Shari'ah was directed to an unlettered community because the Prophet, peace be upon him, was an unlettered messenger and the Arabs of Qurayish - his people - were similarly unlettered. In support of his analysis, he cited verse 2 of Surat Al-Jumuah, "It is He who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves…." (Al-Jumuah, 62:2) He also gave as evidence the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, "We are an unlettered nation, we do not write nor do we calculate." (Hadith in Al-Bukhari & Muslim). Consequently; the Islamic Shari'ah should be in harmony with their understanding and intellectual level.
Ash-Shatibi then stated that the lawful and unlawful commandments of Islamic Shari'ah explored "only" the sciences that were known to Arabs at that time. It did not extend to disclose unfamiliar explanations of science in general. He further rebuked the allegation of some people who claim that the Quran includes all the sciences of this life and the Hereafter in the following statement:
“Based on the aforementioned confirmation of Islamic law as being a law for the unlettered, and that it is consistent with the doctrines of its people (the Arabs), we can reach the following conclusions:
"Many individuals crossed their boundaries when it came to investigating and interpreting the Quran, as they added to it all the branches of knowledge of the early and later generations, such as natural sciences and theories (such as engineering, mathematics, etc…), and the science of logic and letters. They also attributed to the Quran many other arts and sciences similar to those mentioned here. If we relate this approach to the aforementioned rule, it will not be acceptable or applicable.” (Al-Muwafaqat, vol. 2 page 79).
Ash-Shatibi supported his opinion by following the methodology of the predecessors in the interpretation of the Quran. He states:
"All of the righteous predecessors - of the Prophet’s companions and those who followed them - were more knowledgeable of the Quran and its sciences than us. None of their narrations have reached us concerning this claim (i.e. the scientific interpretation of the Quran); only that which was mentioned here, and what is proven of the obligatory rulings, the rulings of the Hereafter and what follows.
Had there been a contribution or an explanation made by the predecessors (in the area of scientific interpretation) we would have received it and this would have helped us clarify the basic foundations of this subject. However, this is not the case, meaning this approach did not exist in their time, and this proves that the Quran does not intend to confirm any of their claims.
Yes, the Quran includes branches of knowledge that were known to the Arabs or which were the base for amazing knowledge which the most intelligent minds could not reach except through the light of Quranic guidance, but nothing beyond that of their claims.”
Al-Shatibi then discussed the evidence of those who promote the scientific interpretation of the Quran:
“As proof for their claim, perhaps they relied on the following verses: “And We have sent down to you the Book as clarification for all things and as guidance and mercy and good tidings for the Muslims.” (An-Nahl, 14:89); and Allah’s (SWT) words “We have not neglected in the Register a thing.” (Al-An’am, 6:38).
In addition to other verses that are similar in meaning, they also mention the “Chapter Openers” in the Quran, which were not known to the Arabs. In this context, the noble companion Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, and others may have some transmitted opinions on this topic.”
Al-Shatibi then presented his rebuttal of these evidences one after the other with his strong logic. He said, may Allah have mercy on him:
“As for the Quranic verses, what is meant by “clarification for all things” according to the exegetes in this regard are the divine commandments and acts of worship. And the meaning of “The Register” in the second verse mentioned above is “Al-Lawh Al-Mahfoudh” translated as the Preserved Tablet. The exegetes did not mention here in this verse any information that implies that the Quran includes all transmitted and logical sciences.
As for the "Chapter Openers” in the Quran: Some people commented on this issue that the Arabs did know some of them, such as the Abjad numerals which they learned from the People of the Book, according to some historians. Another opinion suggests they could be considered as the “Mutashabihat” (unspecific verses), which only Almighty Allah knows their interpretation, and other similar opinions.
Therefore, relating and interpreting these verses according to foreign interpretations is not a valid approach. None of the predecessors claimed or suggested indirectly or directly any of this, which makes their claim lacking a valid foundation. All the textual transmissions reported on the authority of Ali ibn Abi Talib and others are not enough proof for the question at hand.
It is not permissible to add to the Quran all that it does not entail in order to understand the Quranic text. What could be used as supporting knowledge is what the Arabs knew, as with this we understand the knowledge of juristic rulings found in the Quran.
|Depiction of Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi|
In summary, we can say that the one who seeks understanding the Quranic text using the incorrect tools of interpretation and alleged things that Allah and His Prophet, peace be upon him, did not intend or reveal will reach a wrong understanding, and thereby assumes what Allah and His prophet did not reveal. Allah knows best and success is indeed granted by Allah.”
The logic of Ash-Shatibi in this matter is strong and his evidence is irrefutable, with one exception that of relying on the “illiteracy” of Shari’ah based on the illiteracy of the nation, as the illiteracy of the nation is not required nor desirable, quite the opposite. Allah, the Almighty, sent the Prophet, peace be upon him, to take people out of the darkness of ignorance to the horizons of knowledge and light.
Allah the Almighty, in this regard, says, “It is He who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom - although they were before in clear error.” (Al-Jumu’ah, 62:2).
This was the mission and legacy of the Prophet, peace be upon him, towards the illiterates: to teach them the recitation of the Quran and the refinement of their hearts, to teach them wisdom and the basic concepts of the book (the Holy Quran).
Therefore, it is not surprising that the first verses revealed from the Quran predict this concept: “Recite in the name of your Lord who created - Created man from a clinging substance. Recite and your Lord is the most Generous - Who taught by the pen - Taught man that which he knew not.” (Al-Alaq, 96:1-5) Also, “Nun - By the pen and what they inscribe.” (Al-Qalam, 68:1)
Illiteracy is a praiseworthy trait of the Prophet, peace be upon him, as it is a stronger proof of the miraculousness of the Quran, but it is not a praiseworthy trait for his nation. It is obligatory upon the Muslim nation to free itself from illiteracy in order to increase in knowledge and understanding and in order to be able to contemplate the creation of this universe and all what Allah has created. Allah the Almighty, says, “Say O Muhammad, "Are those who know equal to those who do not know?" Only they will remember [who are] people of understanding.” (Az-Zumur, 39:9)
The Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, was the first to fight against the illiteracy of his nation when he accepted that the literate prisoners of war in the battle of Badr could ransom themselves by teaching writing to ten Muslim children. Consequently, we do not accept the notion of the illiteracy of the Islamic law unless it is understood as following the pure innate nature and ease, and being devoid of exaggeration and complication.
Indeed, all success is granted by Allah.
(to be continued)
 I believe, Al-Qaradawi adds, that the Quran does not explore the issue of explaining the Essence of Allah, or dhat Allah, but to clarify the refutation of attributing or paralleling someone’s power to the Power and Authority of Allah and associating others to Allah.
* Malik, M. F. (2001). Al-qur'an: The guidance for mankind. (4th ed.). The Institute of Islamic Knowledge (IIK). Cedar Graphics: USA.