Academic Islam

Some humble attempts by a student of Islam

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Qur'an: Comparative Study - 2:3

“Yu’minuna bil Ghayb”
Saadia Malik

(The essay below is supposed to be an objective presentation of four scholars’ interpretation of the term, “yu’minuna bil ghayb” in verse 2:3 of the Qur’an. An abrupt ending is somewhat inevitable given the author’s resolve not to bring in any subjectivity, and hence, any conclusion must be every reader’s own personal verdict.)

Muhammad Asad translates yu’minuna bil ghayb, from verse 2:3 of the Qur’an as follows:

"Those who believe [in the existence of] that which is beyond the reach of human perception."


Generally, English translations of the Qur’an have translated ghayb as the Unseen. Asad regards that as an erroneous translation, and would rather expound on it as ‘that which is beyond human perception’. In other words, al-ghayb is anything that cannot be proven or disproven by humans, within their limited means, but that still exists and ought to be believed in. The existence of God, life after death and spiritual forces are some of the articles of faith that Asad regards as ghayb.

In the context of yu’minuna bil ghayb, Asad offers that those people who are convinced of ghayb – thus, not slaves of the observable world – are the only ones who can believe in God and the purpose of this life. And such are the folks who can exquisitely benefit from the Qur’an.

Abu’l Ala Mawdudi, in his commentary on the first few verses of al-Baqarah, defines six pre-requisites in order to benefit from the Book of Allah. Iman bil ghayb seems to be second on the list, the first being the fear of Allah that induces righteousness and commitment in faith.

So what does Mawdudi understand by Iman bil Ghayb? He defines ghayb as all that is beyond man’s experience and observation. All those articles expounded upon by the Qur’an and yet, which cannot possibly be seen, heard, felt, touched or smelt by us.

Iman bil ghayb, then, according to Mawdudi, would refer to a person’s belief in the Unseen – if I may, for convenience sake – offered as truth by Allah’s Prophets, who are to be heard and believed by holders of faith, in a snap. God’s attributes, His revelation, Heaven and Hell, are some of the entities understood as ghayb by the exegete. He goes on to elaborate that those demanding proof of the same, will never be able to benefit from the Book, for they would fall short of faith.

Allama Shabbir Ahmad Usmani offers the exact same explanation. Thus, a denial of the ghayb serves as a passport to ignorance, no guidance forthcoming.

There hardly seems to be any disagreement over the meaning of the word “ghayb” as well as “yu’minuna bil ghayb”, between exegetes. Essentially, most will agree upon the interpretations provided above. Amin Ahsan Islahi, however, offers a more in-depth analysis of the terms – providing a fresh analysis.

Iman, Islahi says, is belief, trust and submission. A momin, thus, being any person who professes faith in Allah, His Signs and puts himself at the disposal of His directives.

Ghayb, the exegete illustrates, comes in various tones throughout the Qur’an:

i) Anything not visible to us;
ii) Anything that is not verifiable by us;
iii)Any place or incident that is not or cannot be evidenced directly by us or whose nature cannot be determined;
iv) A secret or a hidden reality.

Not taking “ب’’ as a preposition, the above applications do not fit into context in ‘yuminuna bil ghayb’, according to him.

“The first opinion” he presents, offers the following grammatical explanation. He takes the ‘ب’ in bil ghayb as a zarf (nomen locus - as in al-Anbiya:49 and al-Faatir:18). This essentially means that the ‘ب’ denotes a noun of place, moment or position. Hence, bil ghayb will take the meaning to be in a place, moment or position of ghayb. Yu’minuna bil ghayb will thus be considered as per its common implication – implying faith in all things that the Qur’an and Allah’s Prophets may require believers to accept and submit to, even while the truth is hidden and concealed from them. In the context of the Qur’an, God and the Hereafter are the two foremost hidden realities. Since faith in the Hereafter is explicitly mentioned in verse 2:4, Iman here implies Iman in Allah, especially.

Another correct grammatical explanation (as applied by most scholars) – “the second opinion” - would be to take ‘ب’ as a silla (preposition), thus, placing ghayb as an adverb for yu’minina. So instead of translating yu’minina bil ghayb as ‘those who believe even as a reality is hidden from them’, it would be translated as ‘those who have faith in the ghayb’ – as understood by Asad, Mawdudi and Usmani. Islahi humbly disagrees – not on language grounds, but ideological grounds – as follows:

1. Iman is reduced to those constituting ghayb only, and leaves out of consideration, all articles of faith not regarded likewise. This is a crucial point, since benefiting from the Qur’an seems to be dependent upon the conditions laid forth in the verse: while the Qur’an, on the one hand, demands faith in some ghayb and some not ghayb, this verse is directed strictly to the former.

2. After Allah, belief in the Prophet and the Qur’an, are the two most imperative ingredients of faith. Surely, the Iman required to benefit from the Book ought to be derived from adherence to the aforementioned; however, since these are not categorized as ghayb by the Qur’an, we again face a contradiction.

3. Also, the Qur’an at no instance, refers to the Almighty or His attributes as ghayb. Would it not then be absurd to reduce the equation of Iman down to Angels and the Afterlife?

4. Those understanding the ‘ب’ in bil ghayb as a silla, also offer the Hereafter as a foremost example of ghayb. Interestingly, the very next verse (2:4), says belief in the Hereafter is an exclusive requirement in addition to ‘yuminuna bil ghayb’. Now, if the latter is understood as ‘faith in the ghayb’, then this would be repetitive within one series of requirements and thus, redundant.

5. Taking the ‘ب’ as zarf, also displays a very important reality. It reveals the true identity of a believer: one who has fear of Allah and one who uses his wisdom to put his trust in all realities, even as they may be hidden. On the contrary, lies the definition of a disbeliever: one who does not submit to Allah, keeps demanding evidence and claims submission only when he sees doom staring him in the face. As illustrated in the Qur’an itself: “Would ye then believe in it at last, when it actually cometh to pass? (It will then be said:) ‘Ah! Now? And ye wanted (aforetime) to hasten it on!” (Yunus:51)

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