QURAN IN RAMADAAN: Assumptions or Certainty? Part I

In Ramadaan, Science|Religion, Words of Gold: The Quran on August 23, 2011 at 9:59 pm

21st Ramadaan, 1432:

Today’s post takes inspiration from one word in a special context in Sura Yusuf. I will mention the source ayah in context:


Sura Yusuf is one of the most beautiful suras of Quran, the only example where one tale is described fully and solely from the beginning to its end. It is unlike the general style of Quran in depicting portions of a tale in different contexts at numerous places.

The Surah tells us that after being thrown into a dry well by his bothers, being sold into the hands of an Egyptian official, and being lured by his wife and rejecting her temptations, the young Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) ended up, wrongly,  in prison. Here, after many years, he interpreted the dreams of two imprisoned workers of the Egyptian kingdom who had been involved in a dispute. Prophet Yusuf predicted that their dispute had been decided with the result that one will go to the gallows and the other will be set free.

At this point, Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) asks the prisoner he had assumed to be set free to mention him, prophet Yusuf, in the court of the king (in the hope of his wrongful imprisonment being reconsidered). Here is the ayah that describes this occurence:

وَقَالَ لِلَّذِي ظَنَّ أَنَّهُ نَاجٍ مِّنْهُمَا اذْكُرْنِي عِندَ رَبِّكَ فَأَنسَاهُ الشَّيْطَانُ ذِكْرَ رَبِّهِ فَلَبِثَ فِي السِّجْنِ بِضْعَ سِنِينَ

AND he said to one of them who he imagined would be saved: mention me in the presence of thy lord. Then the Satan caused him to forget to mention him to his lord, so that he tarried in the prison several years. (Sura Yusuf, 42)

 The word I have highlighted is ZUNN.


Linguistic background of the word

The Arabic word zunna constitutes three root letters za-nun-nun ( ز ن ن ). According to the Quranic dictionary: Mukhtasir-ut-Tasheel fi Lughat-it-Tanzeel* this root stem means: assumption, suspicion, thought, speculation, belief, arbitrary notion, educated guess, doubt, and predominant belief. The online Project Root List adds ‘to know’ and ‘to imagine’ to the list of meanings. It also informs us that when zanna is followed by the words an ( أن ) or anna (as in above ayah) it means ‘to be sure of’.

From the root of the word, we may deduce that the essence of zunn is an assumption which the person may or may not be sure of and which may have been derived arbitrarily or systematically. Many translators of the Qur’an have used the word ‘knew’ for it for the above ayah, whereas many others have preferred words such as imagined (Daryabadi), considered (M. Asad), deemed (Arberry), and sensed (Ahmed Raza Khan)**.  


Contextual background of the word

It is a well-known fact that Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) had been give a special skill by God, i.e., the art of dream interpretation. Although, as Prophet Mohammed (salla-Allahu alaihi wasallam) has informed us that a true dream is the 46th part of prophecy (i.e. wahi), Hazrat Yusuf seems to have been given special proficiency in dream interpretation as a science, apart from it being a prophet’s wahi source. Infact, he had been distinguished by Allah Ta’la in the art of interpretation of events in general as attested by the term used to refer to this skill in the Sura:

تَأْوِيلِ الْأَحَادِيثِ

 interpretation / inner meaning of happenings/things/visions/narratives (in 6, 21, and 101)


We know that dream interpretation is an area in psychology and has been practiced as a science since ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures. Given that it is an acknowledged part of prophethood (and that Hazrat Yusuf alaihi-salaam was given special proficiency in it and in general interpretation of events) certainly elevates it to the status of a psychological/parapsychological science. In practice, for us, though, it still remains a weak science in the sense that we, deprived of divine illumination and providence, have no bedrock of observed or confirmable knowledge on which to base it.

Yet, to Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) the sources of knowledge and the level of skill required for the realm must have been available. Indeed, he seems to have been ‘sure of’ his prediction ( ظن أنه ); and perhaps that is why he even made a personal request to the person he had predicted as the one to be acquitted in the dispute.

On the other hand, we have already seen the undoubted ‘tentativeness’ of knowledge captured in the word zunn. In contrast the word for ‘certain knowledge’ in Quran, whether referred to God or to humans, is ilm ( علم ).


Ilm versus Zunn

Combining the two sources of Arabic meanings already mentioned, ilm means to be aware of, to discern, to know, to recognize, to believe, science, learning, knowledge, information. The connotation is certainly of factual knowledge or perceived information, rather than derived conjectures or assumed notions. The most remarkable instances of uses of this word are where Allah Subhana Ta’ala refers to His own Knowledge, which is certain beyond doubt; and in mentioning the God-consciousness and its consequent certainties in the minds and tongues of the firm believers. For instance:

ۚ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ

AS FOR the believers, they know it is the truth from their Lord. (in Al-Baqara, 26

Since Qur’an is the direct revelation from God, every single iota of information in it is based on certain truths. Therefore, when we see our God carefully avoiding the more certain word ilm in favor of the more doubt-connoting word zunn in case of Hazrat Yusuf’s prediction, the following conclusion seems logical: All human predictions (unless lifted from direct divine information) carry a measure of doubt.


Doubt in human sciences…?

A majority of predictions in today’s world are made by scientists and professionals in one area or another. Masses, media and leaders all rely on them, trust, quote, promote, and defer to them. Yet the above conclusion seems to strike on the heart of the very business of science. And on examination, it will be revealed that doubt indeed riddles and pervades all areas of science and that the ‘extent’ of trust placed by society is often not well-based.

One may say that humanity has developed and advanced hugely a multitude of sciences which have led to such and such increase of our knowledge and such and such acceleration of our cultural progress. All of that seems to cast doubt in the public mind of ‘any doubt’ in the predictions, knowledges, propositions and counsel of scientists and professionals. The masses naively come to rely and believe on this human source of knowledge without ever suspecting that the whole range of human sciences carries the germ of doubt and uncertainty.

To prove my point, I will proceed in the next part of this post with a brief survey of certain well-known sciences in the descending order of the amount of doubt expected and acknowledged in them by specialists and academics in the pertinent fields themselves. Since, the seed for this idea has come from dream interpretation, I will include that and its fellow ‘para-sciences’ as well at the lowest level. I will also attemp to present, in laymen terms, the scientific issue of doubt in research.


Continued in Part II.



* Ed. Aziz-ur-Rahim Danish Imdadi, 1995, Hyderabad (Sindh): Haji Imdadullah Academy, p. 248

** Scroll down through the list of translators on the linked tanzil.net reference page.


Related posts from this blog:

THE METHOD: Pirsig, Scientific relativism, and rational knowledge

SCIENCE|RELIGION: Observations of a scientist upon science and reality


  1. […] QURAN IN RAMADAAN: Assumptions or Certainty? Part I […]

  2. Salam…interesting take!

    But you know I had an arguments with a friend of mine who claims to be atheist and other people in general that the problem with religious knowledge/scholars is that they are too certain of it. For, when a scientist speaks- he/she speaks with certain margin of error(i am sure you are aware of hypothesis errors) – which is pretty much what you are discussing here. Isn’t it?

  3. Your comment is interesting since that is the very crux of the matter being discussed here. Scholars are certain of their knowledge because of the source it comes from and to truly answer your question actually requires a full-fledged essay detailing why we deduce (and are so certain) that Quran is indeed the Word of God, and the Prophet (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) brought us divine information. But this topic is actually quite commonly available; what is required is an open mind, and a serious attitude devoting time to study it. May be someday, I myself will come round to presenting it on my blog; right now it is so basic in my thoughts and in the bedrock of my blog that I have never thought of doing it.

    Keep visiting and commenting.
    JazakaAllahu khair.

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