Arabic / Surat al-Baqara / Tafsir

‘Unlettered People…A Tafsir of al-Baqara Verse 78’


“Tafsir Verse 78 of al-Baqara:

Shaykh Ata’ Ibn Khalil”


The noble shaykh and jurist Shayh `Ata’ Ibn Khalil (Allah preserve him) comments regarding surat al-Baqara verse 78: {and among them are those who do not know the scripture except what is far from true (amaniyyu)[1] and they are those who only have conjecture…}.[2]

After Allah – Glorified is He! – mentioned the condition of the Jewish scholars[3] when they would listen to the word of Allah and recite the Tawrat while at the same time changing it and corrupting it as He mentioned in the verse {and a group of them would listen to the words of Allah and distort it after they had understood it},[4] meaning they knew that it was the Truth before its distortion and that the distorted portions where false, i.e. they knowingly distorted it; after mentioning that, Allah informs us of another group from among them who were al-ummiyyun,[5] not knowing how to read nor write. These people did not know anything from the Book except what they hoped would be for them such as Allah’s pardon and not being punished in Hellfire except for a few days as well as other beliefs their scholars made them falsely believe and have hope in. Those ummiyyun did not know anything of the Book except what was falsely taught to them by their scholars so they thought they knew [what was taught to them] but mere thought (al-zann)[6] is doubt and uncertainty and is not knowledge (`ilm) because they were absolute followers (muqallidun) of their scholars…”[7]

Imam Ibn Kathir explains the verse to mean: “…from Mujahid who said regarding the verse {ومنهم أميون لا يعلمون الكتاب إلا أماني} that it means a group from the Jews did not know anything from their scripture but yet would speak about it based on supposition that had no basis in the scripture; they would say their scripture contained it when it did not…al-Rabi` and al-Qatada said: {إلا أماني}, i.e. they held expectations of Allah they had no right to…”[8]

قوله تعالىإلا أماني قال ابن أبي طلحة عن ابن عباس إلا أماني  إلا أحاديثوقال الضحاك، عن ابن عباس، في قولهإلا أماني يقول: إلا قولا يقولونه بأفواههم كذبا . وقال مجاهد إلا كذبا . وقال سنيد، عن حجاج، عن ابن جريجعن مجاهد ومنهم أميون لا يعلمون الكتاب إلا أماني قال: أناس من يهود لم يكونوا يعلمون من الكتاب شيئا، وكانوا يتكلمون بالظن بغير ما في كتاب الله، ويقولون: هو من الكتاب، أماني يتمنونها. وعن الحسن البصري، نحوه وقال أبو العالية، والربيع وقتادة إلا أماني يتمنون على الله ما ليس لهموقال عبد الرحمن بن زيد بن أسلم إلا أماني  قال : تمنوا فقالوا : نحن من أهل الكتاب . وليسوا منهمقال ابن جرير والأشبه بالصواب قول الضحاك عن ابن عباس، وقال مجاهد إن الأميين الذين وصفهم الله أنهم لا يفقهون من الكتاب الذي أنزل الله على موسى شيئا، ولكنهم يتخرصون الكذب ويتخرصون الأباطيل كذبا وزورا . والتمني في هذا الموضع هو تخلق الكذب وتخرصه . ومنه الخبر المروي عن عثمان بن عفان رضي الله عنه: ” ما تغنيت ولا تمنيت ” . يعني ما تخرصت الباطل ولا اختلقت الكذبوقال محمد بن إسحاق حدثني محمد بن أبي محمد، عن عكرمة أو سعيد بن جبير، عن ابن عباس لا يعلمون الكتاب إلا أماني وإن هم إلا يظنون ولا يدرون ما فيه، وهم يجحدون نبوتك بالظنوقال مجاهد وإن هم إلا يظنون  يكذبونوقال قتادة وأبو العالية، والربيع يظنون الظنون بغير الحق .



Some important points emerge from this verse:

[1] The Jewish scholars would knowingly distort the Tawrat whether to mislead the laity or present false interpretations. > danger of wrong and distorted exegesis.

[2] A group from the Jewish community had absolutely no knowledge of their scripture and so relied utterly on the interpretations given to them by their Rabbis who would be in a position to mislead, misguide, delude, dupe and deceive the laity. > the dangers of absolute taqlid in religious matters.

[3] The unlettered group thought they knew what they were discussing regarding their Scripture but it was not based on knowledge (`ilm), i.e. it was not grounded in any evidence. > the dangers of interpreting Scripture without any knowledge.

Important lessons emerge for the Muslim community, such as: [1] the key to access their scripture – the Noble Qur’an – is the Arabic language. If the Arabic language is not understood then any claims to know what the scripture states would be a false claim. The Qur’an is in Arabic and hence the linguistic forms, styles, rules and lexicon must be known in order to begin to have even a minimal understanding. One of the factors for decline in the Muslim umma historically was the disconnection from the Arabic language which in effect disconnects Muslims from their primary legislative sources (Qur’an and Sunna) and so the solutions from these sources were obviated; [2] the unlettered group from the Jewish community is also held by Qur’anic commentators to have merely listened to their scripture and recited it without knowing the “fiqh” of it, i.e. the rulings in it that apply practically to their life. In other words, they had no idea of how to implement their scripture. Similarly, the Muslims are warned not to become like this earlier community where the extent of knowledge of the Qur’an is mere recitation, reading and listening (as important and virtuous as these actions are) without knowing the real objective of the Book which is to be implemented in life.[9]

And with Allah is all success.


[1]  أمانيَّ : this word in the context of the verse takes on several meanings: 1) mere words (ahadith); 2) lies spoken from the mouth; 3) wishful thinking; 4) taking without any knowledge and 5) false belief.

[2] Q. 2:78.

[3] i.e. the Rabbis.

[4] Q. 2:75.

[5]  أُمِّيُّون : this can several things: 1) those unable to read or write; 2) someone who does not improve his writing; 3) a people who do not believe in a divinely appointed Messenger or Divinely revealed Book but write their own books and 4) ignorant people of their own scripture. See Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-`Azim, vol.1, p.310.

[6] ظن : conjecture, opinion, speculation, doubt, supposition, a belief not based on evidence.

[7] `Ata’ Ibn Khalil, al-Taysir fi Usul al-Tafsir, p.101.

[8] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-`Azim, vol.1, p.311.

[9] Ibn al-Jawzi states: “And the second position is that the word “الأماني” means recitation. Hence the meaning of the verse would be: they did not know the fiqh of their Scripture restricted merely to them listening to it recited to them…” Zad al-Masir, vol.1, p.90.

والثاني: أن الأماني: التلاوة، فمعناه: لا يعلمون فقه الكتاب، إنما يقتصرون على ما يسمعونه يتلى عليهم.

See also on the dangers of having the Islamic rulings – the solutions for a particular problem –entirely absent from life.


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