By: Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah (ra)
Translated by: Manal SamhatLinguists have been discussing the issue of words with multiple layers of meaning. They have come up with two theories. The first theory proposes that words are not endowed with more than one meaning, while the second theory indicates that words might mean one thing, but they mean something else at the same time. This is because they have both a literal and a figurative meaning.Literal means “following the ordinary or usual meaning of the words.” However, when words are used figuratively, they are used to convey an idea rather than a fact, and communicate something beyond the dictionary meaning. Some linguists delved even deeper into the issue and came up with the conclusion that there is a level of the Quran for the public and another one for the elite and the latter cannot be understood except by those entrusted with the Divine secrets of the revelation.
However, the Quran addresses all people when it calls on them to recite, understand, and contemplate its verses. It does not talk about a certain group and exclude others, which could mean that the apparent meaning of the Quran is the one that Allah wants people to understand and adhere to, although they might differ in understanding it, just as they differ in understanding any literary text.
In addition, it must be noted that people do not tend to use figurative language and eloquence in their everyday speech since it is not a favorable way of communication; it does not facilitate the process of comprehension as well.And usually the meaning of the word could be understood from the general context (the pragmatic meaning), even if the word has more than one layer of meaning.However, the Quran has a different and more eloquent style which happens to be artistic and supreme.
When discussing the esoteric meaning, we must note that “[it] is known only by those who are firmly rooted in knowledge,” and we might wonder about the reason behind the fact that only those rooted in knowledge have access to these secrets. Is it because that the knowledgeable [the infallibles] are Allah’s arguments whose views concerning the secrets of religion must be accepted?
Since they are infallible, their knowledge is authentic, and the hidden truths they reveal should be accepted without having to include them in the Quran.
Right in this point in our discussion, it might be useful to talk about an important principle in understanding any Islamic doctrinal issue, which is the authenticity of the narrations quoted by the Prophet (p) and the Members of the Household (a.s.) when it comes to both the chain of authorities relating the quote or the content of the quote itself. This verification is of a great importance since the stories of the infallibles are used to deduce Islamic rulings.
Such negligence of seeking certainty in concluding the authenticity of the narrations might have made us fall into the chaos of the diverging narrations that deal with doctrinal issues, as well as those of life and the universe.
In the light of this, we might have to examine thoroughly the Hadiths that deal with the interpretation of the Quran, since it constitutes the intellectual image that is presented to the people concerning Allah's guidance to man and life, as well as the general mentality of the Muslim in his view towards the entire universe. It also might have a positive or a negative impact on those who study the struggle between righteousness and falsehood.
Adopting the right methodology in dealing with the Hadiths, especially those of the apparent and hidden meanings of the Quran, would prevent us from falling into dangerous traps.
In this respect, we cannot imagine the apparent and hidden meanings in a materialistic way. A word is composed of a set of letterconveying a meaning. And a spoken word is made up of a unit of sound. It is made up of the vocal entity and the thematic entity. In the same breathe;the apparent meaning represents the surface one, while the hidden meaning represents the deep one. Therefore, we ought to study any term on the basis having one meaning, which would differ in its understanding according to the different cultures of people, just as some would imagine the sun as a flat circle while others would realize its real nature and role, owing all that to the difference in their knowledge. Thus, it could seem that there are two meanings, although in fact, there is one meaning that has several aspects.
On another level, the meaning could be attached to the actual events of the time of occurrence or extend tobroader meaningsthat apply to all times, so that the Quranic verse does not only apply to a specific occasion in which they were revealed, but rather forms a generalized rule for all life and the entire future.
This is what Imam Al-Baqir (a.s.) had mentioned in several Hadiths, such as the one narrated by As-Sadouk who quotes the Imam saying that the apparent (Thaher) of the Quran pertains to the people it was revealed to, while the hidden (Baten) to those who would come later and follow them in their practices.
A second Hadith by Al-Baqir (a.s.) considers both Az-Zahr and Al- Batn as the interpretations. Some of which have already happened and some have not occurred yet. It runs just as the sun and the moon does. Everything it talks about happens and “but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge”(03:07) Notice in this Hadith and in the verse that follows the Imam assures that the specific occasion the verses talks about contains the general universal meaning that is renewed throughout time. This is also what the Imam explained in another saying when he said that the Quran would die if it were sent to specific people who would later perish, but the truth is that its teachings apply to all times and its movement is just as that of the sun and the moon.
Thus, the issue is the model that embodies the general idea the Quran focused on. There are not any two meanings for any term or word. There is only one meaning that moves through time from the past to the present and to the future that people will meet in their private and public lives and issues.