Let it be clear that when the terms occurring in the Qur’an and the Sunnah are explained by the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), we no longer need to need to refer to the explanations of the lexicographers or any other persons. This is the reason why jurists have as classified terms into three categories :
One, whose meanings are known through the statements of the shari’ah, such as Salah and Zakah.
Second, terms whose meanings are known through their use in language, such as shams (sun), and qamar (moon).
And third, terms whose meanings are determined in the light of the conventions of society, such as fahash 1 or ma‘ruf (good practices) in the verse,
“Behave with them according to the ma’ruf (the good practices of society)” (Surah An-Nisa, 4 : 19)
What terms like Salah, Zakah, Siyam, and Hajj mean in the language of God and His Messenger (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) have been fully explained by the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam). The same is true of khamr, wine, and other, similar terms. Their meanings can be fully ascertained from his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) statements.
If anyone tries to give them a meaning different from what the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) has given, his suggestion will not be accepted.
However, as for the derivation of a term, or variation in its meaning, it is part of the science of linguistics. Similarly, the discussion of its significance or the reasons of its choice by the Qur’an from among other similar terms may provide an additional insight; but our knowledge of what is meant by it does not depend on these things.
The most important words in this category are Iman, Islam, Nifaq and Kufr. The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa Sallam) has explained their meanings so thoroughly that we do not need to look at their derivations or the way the Arabs had used them before; we have only to look at their uses in the Qur’an and the Sunnah to determine what is meant by them; that will be more than enough. In fact, the meanings of these terms is known in their essence to everyone, the elite as well as the common folk.
Take, for example, Iman. If you look at what the Khawarij and the Murji’ah have said with regard to it you will know that it definitely goes against the pronouncements of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) . You will also know that obedience to Allah and His Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) is part of Iman or that everyone who commits a sin is not to be dubbed a kafir.
Suppose some people said to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) that they believed in what he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) taught, that they were convinced that it was true, and had no doubt about it at all, and that they openly confessed that God was one and he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) was His messenger, nevertheless they would not comply with any of his commands, they would not offer Salah, or fast, or perform hajj, or they would not speak the truth, keep trusts, fulfill promises, do good to kin, or carry out anything he had commanded, or they would instead drink wine, marry those who are prohibited, kill his companions and the people of his ummah and take their property, even wage war against him along with his enemies and kill him, would the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) say to them that they were true believers perfect in faith, that he would intercede in their favor on the Day of Judgment, that none of them would enter the Fire? Every Muslim knows that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) would say to them that they were the worst rejectors of faith, and that they would be killed unless they repented.
Similarly, every Muslim knows that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) would not treat those who drink, commit adultery, slander or steal as apostates who deserve to be killed. The Qur’an and the mutawatir ahadith from the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) have prescribed definite punishments for these crimes different from what is prescribed for apostasy. The Qur’an, for example, says that the slanderer and the adulterer shall be lashed, that the thief’s hand shall be chopped off. We also know definitely that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) enforced these punishments. Had their perpetrators been apostates, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) would have beheaded them. In short, the views of the Khawarij or the Murji’ah are not at all part of the religion of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam).
When heretical sects deviated from the right path, a disease overtook them. They started building up the structure of Islam on the basis of propositions which they thought to be correct from the point of view of language or reason and ignored the statements of God and His Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam). They did not realize that a proposition which conflicts with any statement of God or His Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) is wrong.
This was the reason why Ahmad wrote his famous work 2 on the refutation of those who adhere to what they suppose to be the view of the Qur’an without referring to the statements of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) Companions and their Successors on the subject. He elaborated the same position in the letter which he wrote to Abu ‘Abdur-Rahman Al-Jurjani 3 refuting the views of the Murji’ah. He was pursuing the method which all the a’immah of the ummah had followed, namely that one should not, so far as possible, diverge from the elucidations of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) on any point. Whoever deviates from this path lands himself in heresy (bid’ah), which means to ascribe something to God and His Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) what one has no knowledge of, or to say what is not true. God and the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) have clearly forbidden this. Speaking of Satan, for example, God has said,
“He commands you what is evil and shameful, and that you should say of God that of which you have no knowledge.” (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2 : 169)
And speaking of the People of the Book, He has said,
“Was not the Covenant of the Book taken from them, that they would not ascribe to God anything but the truth?” (Surah Al-A’raf, 7 : 169).
These verses in effect condemn any interpretation of the Qur’an solely in the light of one’s reason. The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) has issued a clear warning against this stance –
“Whoever speaks about the Qur’an soley in the light of his reason shall have his seat in the Fire.” 4
In order to understand a term that occurs in the Qur’an and the hadith you should first look for similar instances of its use in their pages and find out what God and His Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) meant by it. This will help you understand the language of the Qur’an and the hadith, and the way God and the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) address people, their style and their method. Thereafter, if you find similar instances in the language of the Arabs and get them in considerable number, you may conclude that the meaning of the term and the way it is used is part of the common language and not something peculiar to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam); it is rather the language of his people. You should not interpret his words in the light of the usage of later times not known to him (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) or to his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) Companions. Many people make that mistake without knowing that the usage of the later times did not exist in his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) time.
You cannot use analogy to establish the meaning of a word, though you can use it to express an idea. It is quite permissible to use a word to express an idea similar to what people use to express it, provided you clarify the point with which you differ, but you cannot use a word in a sense or senses other than those in which people commonly use it, and say that they understand it in the sense similar to the one you give to it. This will certainly be altering and distorting the language.
For example, when the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) says, “al-jar ahaqqu bi sahibihi’ 5 (‘the neighbor should be given priority in case of the house in his neighborhood’) the jar is jar, neighbor, not a sharik, partner, for jar does not mean partner in the language of the Arabs. There is nothing in the language to suggest that the jar has a right over the part of the house which is for sale prior to any other (as is the case with the partner); it only means that it is better that the house be sold to him than to any other….
Before interpreting the Qur’an and hadith we must know how God and the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) use the words to express their ideas, and how we should understand their language. We must know the Arabic in which they have addressed us, so that we may understand what they want to say. We should also know the way in which words convey ideas.
The major reason that heretical sects erred lies here. They began interpreting the words of God and His Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) in light of what they thought them to mean, while they did not mean that, and on the basis of their understanding, they called some meanings literal and some metaphorical.
A case in point is the interpretation of the word Iman by the Muiji’ah. They claim that its real meaning is tasdiq, that is, belief or faith; as for action, its inclusion in Iman is only metaphorical.
In response to this, we will say that if we reject the distinction between the real and the metaphorical meanings the matter ends; but if we allow it, even then the Murji’ah will not profit from it, for it will go against them. For the real meaning of a word is the one which it conveys when it is taken by itself, without considering any related factor, and the metaphorical meaning is that which it conveys when the related factors are considered. It is clear that when Iman is used by itself in the Qur’an and the Sunnah actions are included in its connotation, but they are not included when it is qualified. That this is true is proved by the hadith that Iman has more than seventy parts.” 6
As for the hadith of Gabriel,7 if by Iman the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) meant what he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said with regard to it as well as what he said with regard to Islam, then actions are part of Iman and, I am sure, this is what the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) really meant. For in a similar way he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) meant by Ihsan what he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said with regard to it as well as what he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) had said earlier with regard to Iman and Islam. Obviously he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) could not have conceived Ihsan without Iman and Islam.
However, if Iman in the hadith is taken in the sense of tasdiq, belief or faith, it is not possible to take it in that sense without taking into consideration any related factor, which will make the inclusion of actions in Iman metaphorical. If you read the Qur’an and the hadith you will find it too obvious to be contested.
The opposite view that Iman in language means tasdiq and that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) did not change or alter its meaning and only meant by it what people speaking the language meant by it without qualifying its sense, is not true. None of these two propositions can be established; in fact, they are false, and can be easily shown to be false….
In interpreting Iman the Murji’ah have deviated from the Qur’an and the Sunnah and the statements of the Companions and their righteous Successors. Ahmad has often said that most of the errors that people make are due to the symbolic interpretation (ta’wil) and analogical reasoning (qiyas) they indulge in. You will see that the Mu‘tazilah, the Murji’ah, the Rafidah and other heretical sects explain the Qur’an solely by means of their reason, using their so-called rational ideas and symbolic method of exegesis. They do not base their explanations on the ahadith of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), or the sayings of the Companions and their Successors, or the a’immah of the ummah. They refer neither to the Sunnah nor to the consensus of the elders and their traditions. They base them only on reason and language. They hardly consult commentaries which are based upon traditions, which cite ahadith and the sayings of the Elders.
They only consult literary books or theological works which are their own creations. This is the way of renegades. They believe only in the ideas that are set forth in the books of philosophy, literature and language, without referring to the Qur’an, the hadith or the traditions of the Salaf They either ignore Prophetic texts in the belief that they do not yield knowledge, or interpret the Qur’an symbolically in light of what their reason and understanding dictate without referring to the ahadith of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) and the traditions of the Companions. We have already mentioned that Ahmad has refuted these people and condemned them as heretics.
1. Fahash literally means abominable, obscene, vile. In the Qur’an it is used for adultery, fornication, homosexuality, nudity, slander, and marrying a step-mother. In hadith it is used for theft, drinking wine, and begging. In short, it refers to all shameful deeds.
2. The name of Imam Ahmad’s book is Ar-Radd ‘aid Az-Zanadiqah wa al-Jahmiyyah. It was first published by Dr. ‘Ali Sami An-Nashshar along with some other tracts by different authors under the title ‘Aqa’id as-Salaf (Alexandria, Al-Ma‘arif, 1971). It was then edited by ‘Abdur-Rahman Umayrah and published by Dar Al-Liwa’, Riyadh, in 1397/1977.
3. I have not been able to trace him. Probably he was a Murji’i, but his name is not mentioned among the Murji’ah in the Maqalat literature.
4. Musnad Ahmad – Vol 1: 233, 269,323, 327; Tirmidhi – Tafsir (fi at-tarjumah). Al-Albani considers the hadith to be weak (da’if). See his Da’if al-Jami‘ as-Saghir, 5738. But Shaykh Ahmad Shakir has discussed the issue at length and called the hadith authentic. See Sunan At-Tirmidhi (Hims publication) 0:146.
5. Bukhari – Shuf’ah : 2; Abu Dawud – Buyu : 73; Tirmidhi – Ahkam : 33; Nasa’i – Buyu : 109; Ibn Majah – Shufah : 2,3; Musnad Ahmad – Vol 4: 389,390, VI: 10, 390.
6. Bukhari – Iman 3, Hibah: 35, Mazalim: 24, 28, Aqiqah: 2, Birr: 38; Muslim – Iman 57, 58; Abu Dawud-Adab: 160, Zakah: 42, Sunnah: 14; Nasa’I – Iman 16; Tirmidhi,, Musnad – Vol 1 : 7, Vol 2 : 11, 24, 67, 69, 87, 98, 125, 142, Vol 3 : 487; Ibn Majah – Muqaddamah 9, Adab: 7, 9; Musnad Ahmad – Vol 2 : 279, 445, Vol 5 : 17.
7. See: Bukhari – Iman 37, Tafslr 31 : 2; Muslim – Iman 57; Abu Dawud – Sunnah: 16; Tirmidhi – Iman; Musnad Ahmad – Vol 1: 27, 51, 53, 216, Vol 2 : 107,426, Vol 4 : 129, 164.
By: Shaykul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, From the book : Expounds on Islam; this book is a compilation of some of his writings)