Muslims unanimously hold that the Holy Qur’ān is the word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (sws). This, however, does not mean that all that has been discussed in the Book has been addressed by God alone. For example, the verse (1:4):
You alone we worship; You alone we ask for help
issues from a believer. Some scholars hold that the Almighty Allah has taught us this sūrah as though He started by saying, “say these words”. But we do not see the words ‘say’ etc. How can then one establish this view?
The same question applies to the addressees of the Holy Qur’ān. One has to determine who a particular statement addresses because every discourse has an addressor (one that addresses) and an addressee (one to whom something is being addressed). Sometimes both the addressors and the addressees are general whereas the address itself is directed at particular individuals. Similarly, the addressors and the addressees may sometimes be specifically identified while the message is general in nature. Change in addressors and the addressees, as well as taking the address as general or specific, greatly affects the meaning of a discourse. Therefore, we have to form some principles which can help us determine these entities. Erroneous identification of the addressors and addressees in the Holy Qur’ān sometimes leads us to believe in things which border upon polytheism. Mawlana Rūm has been led to say that when God commanded the Holy Prophet to call people by saying (39:53):
Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves…
He rendered the people worshippers of the Prophet (sws). I do not think that by saying this Mawlana Rūm intended committing himself to polytheistic beliefs but the view he has presented is identical to what a polytheist may believe. May Allah forgive him!
Coming to the explanation of the verse, we see that the statement,
“O My servants who have transgressed against themselves…
is directed to humans. It follows the qul (i.e. say, tell, declare) which is used by God to command the Holy Prophet (sws) to communicate this divine statement to the people verbatim.
The study of address, it should be appreciated, is the knowledge that enables us to interpret a discourse after discovering the specifically targeted members of the addressees from its general application. Whoever does not succeed in discerning who are the addressees and who is the addressor will not be able to get to the true interpretation of the text. This knowledge, therefore, is the key to correct interpretation of the text and proper understanding of its coherence. Lack of knowledge in this regard is one of the major causes of confused interpretations. People ignoring this principle may end up reaching at quite the opposite of the intended meanings of the words. One will identify A where B is meant and confuse D for E: nothing can owe more to erroneous interpretations.
I will devote a separate chapter in these preliminary discussions to the study of the general principles of interpretation. By the present discussion I only intend to create familiarity with the discussion before we take it up. Correctly understanding the issue of address leads us to the proper course and brings us to the right conclusion regarding verses where our exegetes have committed mistakes. This, therefore, necessitates that we elaborate upon it separately.
One needs to appreciate the point that when a statement is liable to be ascribed or addressed to more than a single specific entity it becomes like a homonym (mushtarak). We have to identify that single intended implication and leave out the other possibilities. The rules devised for ascertaining the true implication of a general word begin with identification of all of its significations. Then, we turn to see the context and the intended purpose of the statement and then identify the meaning. Similarly, in the case of address we have to identify, first of all, the addressor and the addressees from various possible options.
All parts of the Qur’ānic text, as in any discourse, involve an addressor and an addressee:
- It either issues from God, Gabriel, the Prophet (sws) of God, or the people
- Similarly, it is either addressed to God or to the Prophet (sws) or to the people
- People in the above include, Muslims, the hypocrites, the People of the Book, children of Ishmael, or two or three or all of these entities
- People of the Book include the Jews or the Christians, or both
All of these facts do not take much of research: they are quite obvious. However, there still remains the possibility that in a particular place any of the addressees are taken for another. This issue needs further detail which follows.
As regards the question of the source, mostly Allah, Gabriel, or the Prophet (sws) are confused with one another. A careless reader of the Holy Qur’ān may not be able to discern who the addressor is. The Prophet (sws) and Gabriel are two messengers of God who sometimes speak as though they are communicating someone else’s message and sometimes they simply speak out the words of God without indication. Another problem in this case arises when we see that Gabriel is also a messenger of God to the Prophet (sws) and in this capacity he sometimes addresses the Prophet (sws), but, since he is also the teacher of the Prophet (sws) he also addresses him directly. This last aspect of Gabriel being the teacher of the Prophet (sws) has been made clear by God in the Qur’ān (53:5):
He has been taught (this Quran) by one mighty in power [Jibrael (Gabriel)]
This problem is intensified when we see that all these positions of Gabriel frequently manifest themselves without indication. The context helps us properly identify the addressor and in which capacity he is addressing.
This difficulty is not peculiar to the Holy Qur’ān. The divine speech conveyed by the Prophets of God is inherently pregnant with such possibilities. See psalms 46:7-11, for example:
The Lord of hosts is with us.[…..] Let be then: learn I am God. […..] The Lord of hosts is with us
The guiding principle in this regard is that when the speaker is God, the discourse, characterized by grandeur and power, inspires awe. This kind of speech is only brought to serve specific points of wisdom. The following examples will help understand what we want to make clear:
The early verses of Sūrah ‘Alaq (96) have been addressed by Gabriel till the discourse reached a point where displeasure of God is reflected. From this point on it becomes obvious that God Almighty is the source (96:14):
Nay, if he does not desist We will surely drag him by the forelock
As for the question of addressees, the most common victims of confusion are the messenger and the Muslims. At occasions, apparently the addressee is the Messenger but actually it is the Muslims who are being addressed. Since the messenger is the representative of the ummah he becomes their tongue and their ears. Apparently, when the Almighty intends to address the ummah He directs the verses to the Prophet (sws). Torah is replete with such examples where the messenger, Moses, in second person singular, is addressed but the actual intended recipients of the message are the believers. In the Holy Qur’ān the context helps us discern the actual addressees when the address is apparently to the Prophet Muhammad (sws). In Sūrah Tawbah it has been said (9:50):
If good befalls you, it distresses them; but if disaster strikes you, they say, “We took our matter [in hand] before,”
It seems that second person singular is the Prophet (sws) whereas it is in fact the believers as is clear from the response in the following verse (9:51):
Say, “nothing will befall us except what God has ordained. He is our guardian. In God let the faithful put trust”
Similarly, the Prophet (sws) seems to have been addressed in the following verse (17:23):
If either or both of them reach old age in your presence, do not say fie to them, nor rebuke them; but speak to them respectfully
Here the verse actually addresses the believers. Examples of general address put in the second person singular abound in the Holy Qur’ān. For example the following verse addresses all the possible audience (2:107):
Do you not know that God alone has dominion over the heavens and the earth and besides God you have neither any friend nor any protector?
I think that the following verse too should be interpreted in the light of the above principle…*
*This discussion too could not be completed by the author.
This is a rendering of English translation of Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam ul Quran by the permission of the translator, Tariq Mahmood Hashmi. Original version available here.