The word muhkamat - (sg. muhkama) is derived from the root uhkima which means to decide between two things. It is a verbal noun in the plural, meaning judgements, decisions and in technical language refers to all clearly decided verses of the Qur'an, mostly those concerning legal rulings, but also to other clear definitions such as between truth and falsehood etc. This is what is meant by 'general muhkamat'.
Mutashabihat (sg. mutashabiha) is derived from the root 'ishtabaha' meaning 'to be doubtful'. It is a verbal noun in the plural, meaning the uncertain or doubtful things. In technical language it refers to those verses of the Qur'an the meanings of which are not clear or not completely agreed upon, but open to two or more interpretations.
Example of muhkamat:
'O you who believe! When ye deal with each other, in transactions involving future obligations, in a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing. Let a scribe write down faithfully as between the parties ...' (Al-Qur'an 2: 282).
Example of mutashabihat:
'(God) Most Gracious is firmly established on the throne (of authority)' (Al-Qur'an 20: 5).
Note that the words in brackets have been added by the translator in an attempt to interpret this aya.
The Qur'an says of itself that it contains two kinds of ayat, both of which are fundamental components of the book, and both of which must be accepted:
'He it is who has sent down to thee the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the book: others are allegorical, that is those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God 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' (Al-Qur'an 3: 7).
Here muhkamat and mutashabihat are described as follows:
- Something of which knowledge was desired.
- Something with only one dimension.
- Something sufflcient in meaning, requiring no further explanation.
- Something known to Allah only.
- Something with more than one dimension.
- Something requiring further explanation.
Hence in the Qur'an those ayat dealing with halal and haram, punishments, inheritance, promise and threat, etc.belong to the muhkamat, while those concerning the attributes of Allah, the true nature of the resurrection, judgement and life after death etc. belong to the mutashabihat.
Some verses of the Qur'an are of a very wide, general application (al-'am), e.g. including all human beings, or all Muslims etc. Other ayat are restricted in their application to certain special circumstances only (al-khas).
'Every soul shall have a taste of death' (Al-Qur'an 3: 185)
'Let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness nor wrangling in the Hajj' (Al-Qur'an 2:187).
'God (thus) directs you as regards your children (inheritance)' (Al-Qur'an 4: 11).
Furthermore one also distinguishes between 'general verses' which remain general, and others which intend a specific meaning.
'Pilgrimage thereto is a duty man owes to God- those who can afford the journey' (Al-Qur'an 3: 97).
Of the 'special meanings' there are several varieties. Usually some kind of condition or limitation is specified.
'Your step-daughters under your guardianship, born of your wives to whom you have gone in' (Al-Qur'an 4: 23).
'It is prescribed when death approaches any one of you, if you leave any goods that he make a bequest to parents and next of kin' (Al-Qur'an 2: 180).
'So keep away from the women in their courses, and do not approach them until they are clean' (Al-Qur'an 2: 222).
Some of the ahkam verses are valid, 'free' (mutlaq) from any conditions or circumstances, while others are 'bound' (muqayyad) to special conditions or situations, and apply only therein.
'If it is beyond your means, fast for three days, that is expiation for the wrath ye have sworn' (Al-Qur'an 5: 92).
It is free, i.e. left to one's discretion whether to fast three days consecutively or with interruptions.
'And if ye find no water then take yourselves clean sand or earth and rub therewith your faces and hands' (Al-Qur'an 5: 6). [Some say this aya is 'bound', as the same aya mentioning wudu' instructs washing of the hands 'to the elbows'; others say it is 'free'.]
The meaning of certain ayat is derived from the literal wording (mantdq) while that of others is derived from what is understood (mafhum) by them:
Of the literal understanding there are several kinds. The first concerns a clear text, i.e. a text clear and without ambiguity.
'But if he cannot afford it, he should fast three days during the Hajj and seven days on his return, making ten days in all' Al-Qur'an 2: 196).
In other cases the text may be somewhat ambiguous in its expression but obvious as far as the meaning is concerned.
'And do not approach them until they are clean' (Al-Qur'an 2: 222).
The Arabic word tatahharna may refer to the end of the woman's menstrual period, or the completion of the bath after the period; the second being more obvious. [Qattan, M.: mabahith It 'ulum al-qur'an, Riyadh. 1971.]
Still other verses imply a meaning through the context, although the wording itself is not clear.
'And out of kindness reward to them the wing of humility' (Al-Qur'an 17: 24).
This applies to parents, and not to all human beings in general, as the context of this verse suggests.
The so-called 'abbreviated letters' are an important section of the mutashabihat' [Itqan, II, p.8f. A summary of the orientalists' efforts on this topic is in Jeffery. Arthur: The Mystic Letters of the Quran, MW, 14 (1924), pp. 247-60. Some of the orientalists suggested that the letters are abbreviations of the names of the various Companions who used to write the Qur'an for Muhammad. Still others say that the letters are simply symbols employed to distinguish the Sura from others before the now common names were introduced. Sura Ta Ha would be a case in point. This is also based on some Muslim scholars' views (Itqan, 11, p.10). Watt, the Edinburgh priest-orientalist, writes 'We end where we began; the letters are mysterious, and have so far baMed interpretation' (Watt, M.: Bell's Introduction to the Qur'an, Edinburgh, 1977, p.64).] insofar as their meanings are not known.The word is derived from the root 'qata'a' - to cut, and means 'what is cut', and also 'what is abbreviated'.
In technical language the word is used for certain letters found at the beginning of several suras of the Qur'an, called 'the abbreviated letters'.
There are fourteen such letters occurring in various combinations at the beginning of 29 suras. The following is a list of their occurrence and distribution in the Qur'an:
Alif Lam Ra: 10, 11, 12, 14, 15.
Alif Lam Mim: 2, 3, 29, 30, 31, 32.
Alif Lam Mim Ra': 13.
Alif Lam Mim Sad: 7
Ha Mim: 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46.
Ta Sin: 27.
Ta Sin Mim: 26, 28.
Kaf Ha Ya 'Ain Sad: 19.
Ya Sin: 36.
The meaning and purpose of these letters is uncertain. There have been a variety of explanations offered by Muslim scholars throughout the ages. Among them are: [See itqan, 11, pp.9-11.]These letters might be abbreviations for certain sentences and words, such as e.g. Alif Lam Mim meaning Ana llahu A'lam; or Nun meaning Nur (light), etc. These letters are not abbreviations but symbols and names of Allah, or something else. [e .g. the letter nun standing for 'fish' . which occurs in every sura that has nun as 'abbreviated letter' in front, or ta standing for snake, as every sura with [a as abbreviated letterw in front contains the story of Musa and the snake.] These letters have some numerical significance, as the semitic letters also have numerical value. These letters were used to attract the attention of the Prophet (and later his audience) for the revelation to follow.
There are also many other explanations which cannot be referred to here. The 'abbreviated letters' are part of the Qur'anic message, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and therefore included in the text of the Qur'an. They are to be recited and read as part of the suras where they occur. They are a good example for one kind of mutashabihdt which is referred to in the Qur'an itself, (3: 7), the meaning of which is known to Allah. The Qur'an says of them: '... these are the symbols of the perspicuous book' (12: 1).