Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad (1980)

experience – how can they be successfully conveyed to us? How can we be expected to grasp ideas which have no counterpart, not even a fractional one, in any of the apperceptions which we have arrived at empirically?

The answer is self-evident: By means of loan-images derived from our actual – physical or mental – experiences; or, as Zamakhsharī phrases it in his commentary on 13:35, “through a parabolic illustration, by means of something which we know from our experience, of something that is beyond the reach of our perception” (tamthīlan li-mā ghāba ʿannā bi-mā nushāhid). And this is the innermost purport of the term and concept of al-mutashābihāt as used in the Qurʾān.

Thus, the Qurʾān tells us clearly that many of its passages and expressions must be understood in an allegorical sense for the simple reason that, being intended for human understanding, they could not have been conveyed to us in any other way. It follows, therefore, that if we were to take every Qurʾanic passage, statement or expression in its outward, literal sense and disregard the possibility of its being an allegory, a metaphor or a parable, we would be offending against the very spirit of the divine writ.

Consider, for instance, some of the Qurʾanic references to God’s Being – a Being indefinable, infinite in time and space, and utterly beyond any creature’s comprehension. Far from being able to imagine Him, we can only realize what He is not: namely, not limited in either time or space, not definable in terms of comparison, and not to be comprised within any category of human thought. Hence, only very generalized metaphors can convey to us, though most inadequately, the idea of His existence and activity.

And so, when the Qurʾān speaks of Him as being “in the heavens” or “established on His throne (al-ʿarsh)”, we cannot possibly take these phrases in their literal senses, since then they would imply, however vaguely, that God is limited in space: and since such a limitation would contradict the concept of an Infinite Being, we know immediately, without the least doubt, that the “heavens” and the “throne” and God’s being “established” on it are but linguistic vehicles meant to convey an idea which is outside all human experience, namely, the idea of God’s almightiness and absolute sway over all that exists. Similarly, whenever He is described as “all-seeing”, “all-hearing” or “all-aware”, we know that these descriptions have nothing to do with the phenomena of physical seeing or hearing but simply circumscribe, in terms understandable to man, the fact of God’s eternal Presence in all that is or happens. And since “no human vision can encompass Him” (Qurʾān 6:103), man is not expected to realize His existence otherwise than through observing the effects of His unceasing activity within and upon the universe created by Him.

But whereas our belief in God’s existence does not – and, indeed, could not – depend on our grasping the unfathomable “how” of His Being, the same is not the case with problems connected with man’s own existence, and, in particular, with the idea of a life in the hereafter: for, man’s psyche is so constituted that it cannot accept any proposition relating to himself without being given a clear exposition of its purport.

The Qurʾān tells us that man’s life in this world is but the first stage – a very short stage – of a life that continues beyond the hiatus called “death”; and the same Qurʾān stresses again and again the principle of man’s moral responsibility for all his conscious actions and his behaviour, and of the continuation of this responsibility, in the shape of inescapable consequences, good or bad, in a person’s life in the hereafter. But how could man be made to understand the nature of these consequences and, thus, of the quality of the life that awaits him? – for, obviously, inasmuch as man’s resurrection will be the result of what the Qurʾān describes as “a new act of creation”, the life that will follow upon it must be entirely different from anything that man can and does experience in this world.

This being so, it is not enough for man to be told, “If you behave righteously in this world, you will attain to happiness in the life to come”, or, alternatively, “If you do wrong in this world, you will suffer for it in the hereafter”. Such statements would be far too general and abstract to appeal to man’s imagination and, thus, to influence his behaviour. What is needed is a more direct appeal to the intellect, resulting in a kind of “visualization” of the consequences of one’s conscious acts and omissions: and such an appeal can be effectively produced by means of metaphors, allegories and parables, each of them stressing, on the one hand, the absolute dissimilarity of all that man will experience after resurrection from whatever he did or could experience in this world; and, on the other hand, establishing means of comparison between these two categories of experience.

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Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad, Dar Al-Andalus Limited, 3 Library Ramp, Gibraltar, Consulted online at “Quran Archive - Texts and Studies on the Quran” on 27 Sep. 2022: http://quran-archive.org/explorer/muhammad-asad/1980?page=1008