Understanding the Principle: al-ʿIbrah bi ʿUmūm al-Lafẓ Lā Bi Khuṣūṣ al-Sabab
By Yusuf Sulaiman (5th Year Alim Student, DarusSalam Seminary)
In Islām, the Revelation that Allāh sent – the Qurʾān and the Sunnah – establish doctrine and legislation. The scholars expended their utmost effort expounding on these sources. They transmitted the Revelation through a continuous chain, generation after generation; and with their painstaking sacrifices, both the Qurʾān and the Sunnah have been preserved. The Prophet’s Companions and the early scholars were vigilant in this regard. They were truly mindful of what the Prophet said:
مَنْ قَالَ فِي الْقُرْآنِ بِرَأْيِهِ فَأَصَابَ فَقَدْ أَخْطَأَ
“Whoever comments on the Qurʾān with his own opinion, and is correct, he has still erred.”
Like the other Islāmic Sciences, the subject of Qurʾānic exegesis has principled methodologies and maxims. The science in which these are analyzed is called: ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān. Herein, one very important maxim will be discussed, namely: al-ʿibrah bi ʿumūm al-lafẓ lā bi khuṣūṣ al-sabab.
Before elucidating this, I shall discuss the significance of what is termed: sabab al-nuzūl, i.e. the reasons for why verses were revealed and their contexts. Mentioning an example of sabab al-nuzūl may help facilitate understanding this concept.
After the revelation of the verse:
وأنذر عشيرتك الأقربين
“Warn your close family members.”
the Prophet began to preach Islām to the Tribe of Quraysh publicly. He climbed onto Mount Ṣafā and said: “I warn you of a severe punishment.” Upon hearing this, Abū Lahab cursed him and said: “May you be destroyed.” Thereafter, Sūrat al-Masad was revealed castigating Abū Lahab.
In Manāhil al-ʿIrfān, Zurqānī (d. 1367) categorized the Qurʾān’s verses into two:
(1) The verses that were revealed without a sabab (trans. a specific context). Many of these were reveled in the beginning of Islām and establish the religion’s creedal teachings.
(2) The verses that were revealed with a sabab.
The Qurʾān’s verses must be understood while considering the backdrop of their revealed contexts. Both Zarkashī (d. 794) and Suyūṭī (d. 911) explained this through a maxim:
When a verse’s wording is general and evidence excludes some of those included in the wording, then they must be excluded. And this applies except for when the sabab al-nuzūl is specific to them.
Zurqānī elucidated this principle through an example. The Prophet said: “al-walad lil-firāsh,” while judging on the dispute between ʿAbd b. Zamʿah and Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ. In this context, the “firāsh” was an odalisque (ar. amah). Therefore, Zurqānī stated that through a specifier (ar. mukhaṣṣiṣ) exclusion is possible, like excluding a married woman (ar. mankūḥah) or the slave girl who has one’s children (ar. umm al-walad) from the wording “firāsh.” But an amah may not be excluded because the textual evidence came specific to that case.
Zurqānī pointed out that if one is unaware of the sabab al-nuzūl, they may inadvertently exclude the original sabab. Therefore, a solid comprehension of it is crucial to not make interpretive mistakes.
Analyzing the topic at hand, Suyūṭī opined that a verse’s ruling is generalized, even when revealed in a specific context or for a specific individual. Furthermore, he expressed this using nomenclature that is indicative to his preference of opinion, i.e. “al-aṣaḥḥ ʿindanā.” And this implies that there is another view.
This second opinion maintains that the ʿibrah is restricted to the sabab al-nuzūl. However, adopting this opinion seems difficult considering what Suyūṭī and Zarkashī presented in support of the first position.
Verses outlining the atonement for ẓihār were revealed because of Khawlah bint Thaʿlabah. However, all the jurists generalize the rulings found in Sūrat al-Mujādilah to comparable cases. Likewise, the castigation for one who accuses a chaste woman of adultery (ar. ḥadd al-qadhf) was revealed when ʿĀʾishah was accused (ar. ifk). And the ḥadd is generalized and applied to other cases. The examples of this are many. We may suffice with what Zamaksharī said in his exegesis of Sūrah Humazah: “The sabab may be specific, but the lesson is general. Whoever commits the crime will receive the same punishment.”
It should be noted that those who maintain the second position do accepted these rulings. They do not deny them; but rather, they establish them through other proofs, like analogy (ar. qiyās) or the Prophet’s sayings (ar. ḥadīth) instead of generalizing the verses.
For example, in the verse revealed regarding Hilāl b. ʿUmmayyah, most extended the ruling to others based on the general nature of the ism mawṣūl. However, others established this through the statement of the Prophet: “My judgement for one is my judgement for the whole group.” It is imperative that one note this difference in methodology, so they do not understand anyone to have rejected these rulings.
When clarifying the views of the other group, Ibn Taymiyyah stated that no one would state that the Qurʾān and the Sunnah are restricted in application to just one person. The most anyone would claim is that the verses are specific to a certain type of people sharing in a specific qualification, and the verse applies to all those who are similar to them.
Still, there are verses that are specific to individuals. The wording of these verses does not contain any ʿumūm; and thus, must be restricted.
For example, Q 92:17 was, by consensus, exclusive to Abū Bakr; and stipulating that it applies to anyone else is erroneous. The alif/lām [trans. definite particle] in al-atqā is for ʿahd; hence, no ʿumūm is found in it. According to Suyūṭī, the alif/lām infers ʿumūm only when it is connected to ism mawṣūl or a plural word.
Dr. Nūr al-Dīn ʿItr corroborates this opinion. He stated that when the text is revealed for a specific reason and the wording is not general, then it is restricted to that. He cited the example of Abū Bakr. However, if the text is revealed for a specific reason and the wording is general, then the maxim – al-ʿibrah bi ʿumūm al-lafẓ lā bi khuṣūṣ al-sabab – is applied.
In conclusion, the science of tafsīr and deriving legislation from the Qurʾān is intricate. Understanding the verses according to the contexts in which they were revealed is very important and ensures that one will properly understand their meanings. Moreover, their meanings are not necessarily limited to those contexts but may be generalized extending to the entire ummah.
– ʿItr, Nūr al-Dīn. ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān al-Karīm. Damascus: Maṭbaʿah al-Ṣibāḥ, 1414/1993.
– Ibn Kathīr, Ismāʿīl b. ʿUmar. Tafsīr al-Qurʿān al-ʿAẓīm. ed. Muḥammad Ḥusayn Shams al-Dīn. Beirut: Dār al-Kubub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1419/1998.
– al-Suyūṭī, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Abū Bakr. al-Itqān Fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān. ed. Muṣtafā Shaykh
Muṣṭafā. Beirut: Muʾasasat al-Risālah, 1329/2007.
– al-Zamakhsharī, Maḥmūd b. ʿAmr. al-Kashshāf ʿan Ḥaqāʾiq Gawāmiḍ al-Tanzīl. Khalīl Ma’mūn. Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifah, 1430/2009.
– al-Zarkashī, Muḥammad b. ʿAbd Allah. al-Burhān fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān. ed. Muḥammad Abū Faḍl Ibrāhīm. Aleppo: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyyah, 1376/1957.
– al-Zurqānī, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm. Manāhil al-ʿIrfān fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān. Aleppo: Maṭbaʿah ʿĪsā al-Bābī.
 Tirmidhī, #2952.
 Q, 26:214.
 Musnad Aḥmad, #2801.
 Burhān, 33-34; Itqān, 71-72.
 Manāhil, 106-107.
 ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān.