When Should We Interpret Metaphorically?

5 Outreasoned ScriptureMetaphors

Sohail makes the following criticism about the use of metaphorical language, especially with respect to prophetic functions and miracles, in the Quran:

Don’t you find it rather thoughtless of a super-intelligent deity to describe the miracles of Jesus in the Qur’an using such literal and suggestive language on purpose? Re. Quran 3:50 and 3:51 

…“Moreover, why was it so important for Allah to call out both spiritual transformations as distinct from one another (healing the blind, raising the dead) if neither were to be taken literally?” 

…“Since Christians of the time believed these same miracles of Jesus literally, why didn’t Allah in the Qur’an correct those misunderstandings?” and “To not make a correction here brings to mind the like of one who has heard misleading information and yet chooses to pass it on in a manner that will continue to mislead. Someone who repeats a confusing narrative instead of correcting it with clarity. Is this Godly? Is this being merciful to people who have now been misled to believe that supernatural miracles are real?”

…Is there any evidence from sahih hadith with undisputed isnads, that these were metaphors and not literally true? …“If these really were metaphors, why is it that no such metaphor exists in the Qur’an to recount Muhammad’s success stories with preaching?” Did Muhammad not give the spiritually dead spiritual life? If he did, where is this recorded in those terms?


Sohail in this passage raises a number of important objections that are worthy points to be addressed. Let’s take them one by one. 

Firstly, what is the point of God using metaphorical language when it has the potential to mislead people? One should understand that the Quran is a correction of past scriptures. The greatest points of contention between Islamic theology and the theology of past scriptures relate to the use of metaphorical terms that, according to Islamic theology, have been misunderstood by past peoples. 

An example of this is the description of Jesus by himself as God’s son. Jesus himself in the Bible points out that this is no more than a metaphor, used by people in the past to refer to their high spiritual station, citing the fact that Jews would refer to themselves as “children of the Most High”. The Quran deals with this claim utilising similar metaphors within an interpretative framework that is explicitly made clear. Thus, the Quran states in (3:8-9) that the Quran contains two types of verses: firstly those that are clear and obvious in meaning and secondly, those that are susceptible of various interpretations. It advises the reader to accept the whole of the Quran, thus advising that those who are knowledgeable and correct in their understanding of the holy text do not interpret it in such a fashion as invites contradiction into it. This is reiterated at other points in the book (4:83). The Prophet of Islam (sa) too made the same point, and emphatically so, expressing outrage at the notion of Muslims introducing contradiction between the words of God. 

The Quran, by thus introducing the same metaphors into its framework, while containing explanatory uses of the same terms, gives both an example of how the original terms were used in past scriptures, as well as giving an explanation of what they truly meant. 

In the case of Jesus being called the Son of God therefore, the Quran refers to the Prophet Muhammad as the coming of God Himself and his actions as the actions of God. Indeed, parts of this verse apply not only to the Prophet but to his companions also: 

So you killed them not, but it was Allah Who killed them. And thou threwest not when thou didst throw, but it was Allah Who threw, that He might overthrow the disbelievers and that He might confer on the believers a great favour from Himself. Surely, Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.

Quran 8:18

This is an example of a verse that is susceptible of different interpretations. The Quran also possesses other verses that place this squarely into a metaphorical context, by explaining that the Holy Prophet (sa) is nothing more than a human being from the perspective of physical constitution:

Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; but I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him who hopes to meet his Lord do good deeds, and let him join no one in the worship of his Lord.’

Quran 18:111

Thus, the metaphor of God being in the place of the Prophet (sa) is understood as a spiritual matter, not a literal one. It is to point to his spiritual rank, not to his physical constitution. The Quran also advises Muslims to praise God as they praised their fathers, replacing their fathers with the position of God, a matter which is precisely in line with how Jesus spoke and referred to himself: 

And when you have performed the acts of worship prescribed for you, celebrate the praises of Allah as you celebrated the praises of your fathers, or even more than that. And of men there are some who say, ‘Our Lord, grant us good things in this world;’ and such a one shall have no share in the Hereafter.

Quran 2:201

In this manner, when the Quran describes Jesus creating birds from clay, for example, it is utilising the language of past narrations in the Bible and explaining their true significance and meaning by placing them in the correct context of other Islamic verses that state that only Allah is the Creator (16:19-20). 

The same is true for Solomon and the ants. The notion of Solomon literally speaking to ants and other animals was developed from Biblical texts that had been misconstrued, by virtue of misunderstanding that local tribes came to be known by the location in which they resided (1Kings 5:13). This is a matter discussed at length in the article titled “Did Prophet Solomon (as) Talk to Ants?”

Secondly, this also explains why was it necessary for God to describe different metaphors for non-literal matters. For example, why does the Quran describe Jesus as healing the blind and raising the dead, when they both are non-literal events? This is because the Bible – which was written in the language of common metaphors understandable to ordinary people – used such terms, and it is in explanation of those terms that the Quran utilises them, while clarifying the boundaries of human capabilities. 

Thirdly, Sohail alleges that Christians of the time of Jesus believed the miracles ascribed to him as literally taking place. He then goes on to argue that the Quran is deliberately misleading the reader by including such statements that could give rise to the notion of Jesus literally being capable of raising the dead and giving sight to the blind. This is easily answered – the Christians contemporaneous to Jesus did not believe in these miracles to be literal. We know this because the Bible records Jesus’ opponents at multiple times asking for a sign (Matthew 23:38). What was Jesus’ reply? Did Jesus reply: “Hey I’ve just raised the dead, driven demons out of pigs, cured the blind and healed the lepers! What more do you want?” Indeed, one would wonder why anybody would ask for a sign in the first place if such events were physically commonplace.

Instead, Jesus replies: “No sign shall be shown except the sign of Jonah, for as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the son of man be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 23:39). Thus, Jesus prophesied his survival from crucifixion as the only sign to be shown to the people and explicitly, through the use of a categorical negative, denied the possibility of any other sign being provided. This shows explicitly that descriptions of Jesus’ miracles that appear in the gospels are later interpolations, and literal descriptions of what at the time, were regarded as metaphorical events. Jesus giving sight to the blind referred to spiritual blindness, leprosy to the curse of arrogance, and the dead refer to idolators or atheists. 

Fourthly, Sohail demands evidence of Muhammad (sa) being described in similar terms, arguing that it would clarify Jesus’ raising of people from the dead as metaphorical. He asks: If these really were metaphors, why is it that no such metaphor exists in the Qur’an to recount Muhammad’s success stories with preaching? Did Muhammad not give the spiritually dead spiritual life? If he did, where is this recorded in those terms? This is indeed true. And it does exist – explicitly so in the Quran itself: 

O ye who believe! respond to Allah, and the Messenger when he calls you that he may give you life, and know that Allah comes in between a man and his heart, and that He it is unto Whom you shall be gathered (8:25)

We hope for a retraction from Sohail of these points and a statement acknowledging his error and regret for misleading people as regards the Islamic texts.