To understand a term of the Quran and the hadith, the first thing one should do is to look for its usage in the Book of God and the ahadith of the Prophet, and then its usage in the language of his people and his Companions. Never should one interpret it in the light of its usage in the language which developed later and was not known to the Prophet or his Companions. The main reason heretical sects misinterpreted Quranic terms is that they based themselves on literary and theological writings of later times or resorted to metaphorical interpretations and conjectures and did not turn to the Quran and the ahadith themselves or to their elucidations by the Companions and their Successors.
In order to understand a term that occurs in the Quran and the hadith you should first look for similar instances of its use in their pages and find out what God and His Prophet meant by it. This will help you understand the language of the Quran and the hadith, and the way God and the Prophet address people, their style and their method. Thereafter, if you find similar instances in the language of the Arabs and get them in considerable number, you may conclude that the meaning of the term and the way it is used is part of the common language and not something peculiar to the Prophet; it is rather the language of his people. You should not interpret his words in the light of the usage of later times not known to him or to his Companions. Many people make that mistake without knowing that the usage of the later times did not exist in his time.
You cannot use analogy to establish the meaning of a word, though you can use it to express an idea. It is quite permissible to use a word to express an idea similar to what people use to express it, provided you clarify the point with which you differ, but you cannot use a word in a sense or senses other than those in which people commonly use it, and say that they understand it in the sense similar to the one you give to it. This will certainly be altering and distorting the language. For example, when the Prophet says, “al jar ahagqu bi sahibihi”425a ('the neighbor should be given priority in case of the house in his neighborhood') the jar is jar, neighbor, not a sharik, partner, for jar does not mean partner in the language of the Arabs. There is nothing in the language to suggest that the jar has a right over the part of the house which is for sale prior to any other (as is the case with the partner); it only means that it is better that the house be sold to him than to any other
Before interpreting the Quran and hadith we must know how God and the Prophet use the words to express their ideas, and how we should understand their language. We must know the Arabic in which they have addressed us, so that we may understand what they want to say. We should also know the way in which words convey ideas. The major reason that heretical sects erred lies here. They began interpreting the words of God and His Prophet in light of what they thought them to mean, while they did not mean that, and on the basis of their understanding, they called some meanings literal and some metaphorical. A case in point is the interpretation of the word iman by the Murji'ah. They claim that its real meaning is tasdiq, that is, belief or faith; as for action, its inclusion in iman is only metaphorical.
In response to this, we will say that if we reject the distinction between the real and the metaphorical meanings the matter ends; but if we allow it, even then the Murji'ah will not profit from it, for it will go against them. For the real meaning of a word is the one which it conveys when it is taken by itself, without considering any related factor, and the metaphorical meaning is that which it conveys when the related factors are considered. It is clear that when iman is used by itself in the Quran and the Sunnah actions are included in its connotation, but they are not included when it is qualified. That this is true is proved by the hadith that iman has more than seventy parts.”426
As for the hadith of Gabriel,42' if by iman the Prophet meant what he said with regard to it as well as what he said with regard to islam, then actions are part of imdn and, I am sure, this is what the Prophet really meant. For in a similar way he meant by ihsan what he said with regard to it as well as what he had said earlier with regard to iman and islam. Obviously he could not have conceived ihsan without iman and Islam. However, if iman in the hadith is taken in the sense of tasdiq, belief or faith, it is not possible to take it in that sense without taking into consideration any related factor, which will make the inclusion of actions in iman metaphorical. If you read the Quran and the hadith you will find it too obvious to be contested. The opposite view that imdn in language means tasdiq and that the Prophet did not change or alter its meaning and only meant by it what people speaking the language meant by it without qualifying its sense, is not true. None of these two propositions can be established; in fact, they are false, and can be easily shown to be false.
In interpreting iman the Murji'ah have deviated from the Quran and the Sunnah and the statements of the Companions and their righteous Successors. Ahmad has often said that most of the errors that people make are due to the symbolic interpretation (ta'wil) and analogical reasoning (qiyas) they indulge in. You will see that the Mu'tazilah, the Murji'ah, the Rafidah and other heretical sects explain the Quran solely by means of their reason, using their so-called rational ideas and symbolic method of exegesis. They do not base their explanations on the ahadith of the Prophet, or the sayings of the Companions and their Successors, or the a'immah of the ummah. They refer neither to the Sunnah nor to the consensus of the Elders and their traditions. They base them only on reason and language. They hardly consult commentaries which are based upon traditions, which cite ahadith and the sayings of the Elders. They only consult literary books or theological works which are their own creations. This is the way of renegades. They believe only in the ideas that are set forth in the books of philosophy, literature and language, without referring to the Quran, the hadith or the traditions of the Salaf. They either ignore prophetic texts in the belief that they do not yield knowledge, or interpret the Quran symbolically in light of what their reason and understanding dictate without referring to the ahadith of the Prophet and the traditions of the Companions. We have already mentioned that Ahmad has refuted these people and condemned them as heretics.
Author: Ibn Taymiyyah
Islamic Topic: TERMINLOGY OF THE QURAN & SUNNAH
Source: Book: [Fatawa 47:115-91 ] / Also mentioned in “Ibn Taymiyyah Expounds on Islam”