The General and the Specific

The General and the Specific

It is not customary in various languages of the world that every word should signify just one meaning or that every linguistic style should have just one denotation. A word or a linguistic style generally signifies multiple meanings. Ascertaining the meaning of a word or a linguistic style depends on the construction of the sentence, diction of the speaker, sequence of the discourse, the context and other similar indicators. The way this is done is that the mind after reflecting on various possibilities and at times almost spontaneously gives its verdict in this regard. It is while pointing to this very aspect of a language on the basis of which Imam Shafi'i (d. 204 AH) while commenting on the general and the specific of the Qur'an has written in his book al-Risalah that the components of a language can have more than one meaning. When its general or specific words, styles or constructions form part of a discourse, then it is not necessary that in all circumstances they are used in the same meaning for which they were primarily coined. The Book of God has been revealed such that a word is mentioned in its general sense but implies something specific and that a word occurs in it in a specific sense but implies something general.[1] Thus neither can it be said about a specific word that it signifies with certainty what it is used for nor can it be said about a general word that it signifies with certainty all the entities it stands for.

One group of usul scholars holds a different view. However, in reality, it is Imam Shafi'i who holds the correct view. This is because it is not just a word but the occasion and context in which it is used which makes a reader or listener decisively gauge the meaning implied by it. I have written in my book Mizan:

… There are many places in the Qur'an where the words are general; however, the context testifies with full certainty that something specific is meant. The Qur'an uses the wordالنَّاس (people), but it doesnot refer to all the people of the world; and many a time, it does not even refer to all the people of Arabia: it refers to a group among them. It uses the expression عَلَي الدِّيْنِ كُلِّهِ (on all the religions), and it does not refer to all religions of the world; it refers to المُشْركُوْن (polytheists) but they do not refer to all those who are guilty of polytheism. Similarly, the words إِنْ مِنْ أهْلِ الْكِتَابِ (and from these People of the Book) do not refer to all the People of Book of the world. It mentions the word الإِنْسَان (man) but it does not refer to mankind. This then is a common style of the Qur'an, and if it is not taken into consideration while explaining and interpreting the Qur'an, a person can end up misunderstanding the whole purport of the Qur'an. Thus it is of paramount importance that the interpretation of words of the Qur'an must always remain subservient to its context and usage.[2]

It is this very nature of a language because of which the scholars and researchers of the Qur'an demand that if the intent of the speaker or writer needs to be gauged, then this cannot merely be done by what words convey apparently; for this, delving deep into them is necessary. The Prophet (sws) has done this very service to the Book of God and through his sayings has explained the insinuation and implications which would have been difficult to understand for people who are unable to comprehend these subtleties of words and their meanings. Imam Shafi'i rightly insists that one must not ignore these explanations and elucidations of the Prophet (sws) on the basis of what is apparently understood by words. The Prophet (sws) has explained the Qur'an; his explanations cannot be against the Qur'an. The Prophet of God is subservient to the Book of God. He explains it and does not change or alter its meanings. Imam Shafi'i has given many examples of prophetic explanations and has repeatedly emphasized the fact that whatever the Prophet (sws) has said about the directives of the Qur'an, is merely their explanation and nothing else; if these explanations are not accepted, then this would not be regarded as following the Qur'an; it would be regarded as deviation from it because the speaker's intention is only what is evident from the explanations and elucidations of the Prophet (sws); this intent is not different from these explanations and elucidations.

What can be more true than what has been said by Imam Shafi'i. However, the weakness in the reasoning of the Imam lies in the fact that on most occasions he has not been able to clarify how a particular prophetic statement can be invested with the status of explanation of a Qur'anic directive. Thus, it is a result of this that he has accepted certain narratives that depict the knowledge and practice of the Prophet (sws) which cannot be regarded as explanations of the Qur'anic directives in any way even though it could have been debated whether their narrators even properly understood and reported the intent the Prophet (sws). This is the real impediment in the mind of those who have differed with the view of Imam Shafi'i.

I have attempted to exemplify the stance of the Imam in my book Mizanbecause in principle it is the correct stance. Readers can look up these discussions under Mizan and Furqan which forms part of the preface "Usul-o Mabadi"[3] (Fundamental Principles). It will become evident from reading them that what has been mentioned in the narratives as an explanation of the directives of the Qur'an is actually the implication of its words which the Prophet (sws) has unveiled through his elucidations. From these explanations, the students of the Qur'an should educate themselves in delving deep into the meanings of a word and should dare not reject them or regard them to be abrogation of the Qur'an.

(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)


[1]. Al-Shafi'i, Al-Risalah, 222. It is by not understanding this point that some people have been led to conclude that the Imam does not regard the intentionality of a text to be univocal. The fact is that he only wants to point out that a word can have more than one meaning and so one must not show haste in assigning a meaning to a word and one should reflect deeply so as to ascertain which meaning is implied by the speaker at a particular instance.

[2]. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Mizan, 9th ed. (Lahore: Topical Printing Press, 2014), 23-24.

[3]. Ghamidi, Mizan, 24-41.

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