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MOTHER OF THE BOOK

MOTHER OF THE BOOK The expression umm al-kitab (literally, ‘the Mother of the Book’) occurs three times in the Qur

) an. It has always been

an opaque and controversial term, causing much exegetical speculation. In 3.7, we find:

The Qur ) an distinguishes verses that are

mutashabih (probably meaning ‘ambiguous’) from those that are muhkam (most likely meaning ‘clear’). The latter are said to constitute the umm al-kitab. 43.2-4 says: ‘By the clear book, behold, We have made it an Arabic Qur

) an;

haply you [pl.] will understand; and behold, it is in the umm al-kitab, with Us; sublime indeed, wise’; 13.39 states: ‘God blots out, and He establishes whatsoever He will; and with Him is the umm al-kitab.’ The preceding verse says that it is God’s privilege to entrust his messengers with signs (ayat, which may also mean ‘verses’ in this context). If these verses are taken together, umm alkitab seems to signify a heavenly prototype, the substance, essence or ‘matrix’ of all holy books, including not only the Qur

) an but also Jewish and Christian

scripture. The Qur ) an, as the Muslim

community preserves and knows it, is neither identical with umm al-kitab, nor independent of it. Yet, although such a meaning seems

warranted by the contexts of 3.7 and 43.2-4, it is possible that in 13.39 the meaning of umm al-kitab is different. Muslim scholars often identify it here with the ‘Preserved Tablet’ (al-lawh al-

mahfuz) (85.21 and on four other occasions), i.e. the heavenly slate of destiny on which all human deeds, together with the Qur

) an itself, are recorded. The

expressions umm al-kitab and al-lawh almahfuz apparently share with the more general term kitab, as used in the Qur

) an, a high degree of ambiguity. It

cannot be determined with certainty where in the Qur

) an something like the

prototype of scripture or the slate of destiny or both meanings is meant by these terms. The metaphorical expression umm al-kitab as self-classification of the Qur

) anic text seems, however,

primarily concerned with the relationship between the Qur

) an, on the one

hand, and Jewish and Christian scripture on the other. Its opaqueness may reflect the Qur

) an’s changing view of its

own textuality. Muslim commentaries developed

what Madigan (2001) called a ‘topography of revelation’, beginning with the ‘well-guarded tablet’ and involving the ‘noble scribes’ (80.15-16) who transmitted the text to Gabriel (Jibril), before Gabriel in turn gave it to the Prophet. Later speculative exegesis saw many things in umm al-kitab, e.g. a designation of the first sura (al-Fatiha), which was felt to encompass all scripture or the principle of all writing. More philosophical and mystical-esoteric explanations identified it with the Neoplatonic first intellect or with pre-existing divine knowledge. According to the Syrian commentator M. Shahrour’s (b. 1928) no less speculative modernist interpretation, umm al-kitab means not so much a part of revelation but rather a specific modality of revelation that contains the muhkam-verses, the ‘Seven OftRepeated’ (sab‘ al-mathani, an enigmatic name for that part of scripture that occurs at 15.87) and another group of verses, which Shahrour calls ‘verses of elucidation’ (ayat al-tafsil).