To say that Quranic language is completely devoid of any lexical ambiguities may lead one to infer that at least one interpretation can be claimed as universal. This would be a rendering which in principle can be accepted as absolutely monolithic if correct analytical tools are agreed upon by all. The argument can be extended to contend that one can reach the ‘true’ purport of an ayah primarily through literary methods. Ruminating whether one can be sure to discover this original intent and limning methods to substantiate authenticity of any such discovery is not my present objective. I just want to assert in this entry that Quranic language is partially polysemous and its not a very straightforward document to interact with.
This characteristic embedded in the very design of Arabic language should not be confused with two seemingly contradictory facts emanating from the Quran itself. One, that Its a perspicuous Book with clear verses of established meaning and two, that It contains firm (Muhkamaat) and ambiguous (Mutashabihaat) verses. Shah Wali Ullah presents an exposition of both these claims in al-Fauz al-Kabir fi Usual al-Tafsir. He lucubrates that when Almightly says in Quran that its a clear book revealed in Arbic proper with unambiguous and clear verses,
the intention is to avoid going deep into the interpretation of allegorical verses, in drawing the picture of realities of God’s attributes, in determining the doubtful and in the narration of stories in minuteness.
On the other hand firm verses are those from which the masters of speech (ahle lughat) can take only one meaning while ambiguous are those which admit duality in meanings. An example of this are words employed which are common to two meanings for instance lamas[tum], which means both the sexual intercourse and as well as touching with hand. Another case is when there happens to be a possibility of both the copulative conjunction and commencement of new sentence; for instance the verse Wa ma Yala’m Tawilahu Illalah wa al-Raasikhun fil Ilm.
Intersetingly, the import of Shah Wali Ullah’s explanation is that the verse of Mukam and Mutashabih ayahs is itself abstruse and ambiguous to some degree. There are of course various other reasons, for instance different figures of speeches causing obscurities in text. Works on the language of Quran are full of such discussion and would perhaps move me later to dedicate a complete post. The present concern, as I have mentioned above, is regarding various interpretations of seemingly firm and unequivocal portions of Quranic text.
It has reached through various reports that even Prophet’s companions sometimes understood various verses differently. Anas narrates that Umar, while addressing from pulpit, mentioned fakihaatin wa abba (fruits and fodder) and said that we understand fakiha but it is very difficult to say what is ab’ba. Ibn Abbas narrates that he did not know about the meaning of faatiris samawat till two bedouins came to him with a dispute, giving him an indirect clue what that phrase might have meant.
Suyyuti includes long lists of words and phrases with their meanings narrated from Dhahak and Ibn Abbas. Knowledge of connotations associated with different words is also necessary to help eliminate the ‘wrong’ interpretation. An important question is regarding the basis to know whether a particular connotation understood by the interpreter was originally intended or not. A valid example is Ibn Abbas’ (who is one of the major source of classical exegetes) inclusion of music while explaining phrases like lahw al-Hadith and wa antum Saamiddoon.
What then do we mean by agreed upon universals of language? What we must know in order to determine the reference of an expression? Is it legitimate to disregard and discard agreed upon historical interpretations using tools of linguistic and literary criticism only? Isn’t it true that what we choose to eliminate also has valid basis in language though not always in historical context of revelation? What is the correct priority of sources of understanding Quran? What comes first in Quranic hermeneutics – knowledge of language, tribal dialects and jahilia poetry or Hadith, context of revelation and understanding of Companions and their students? Is it a valid assertion that understanding of Quran would always remain evolving and there would always be room for new interpretations?
The fact that answer to these questions are multifarious and sometimes extremely complicated implies that Quran by itself is not a very straightforward document. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say (in the words of Fazlur Rahman) that Quran is as ‘straightforward’ and as organically coherent as life itself.