Sheikh Nâsir al-Mâjid, professor at al-Imâm University in Riyadh
The issue of distinguishing between literal and metaphorical expressions in Arabic has been a topic of much disagreement since early times. The vast majority of scholars, including commentators of the Qur’ân, language specialists, and legal theorists, acknowledge the existence of metaphor. They do not distinguish between the language of the Qur’ân in this matter. Among them are some of the most eminent and erudite scholars who adhere to the creed of the Pious Predecessors and defend it.
Those who denied the existence of metaphor were motivated in doing so because of how certain innovators abused the concept to give misinterpretations that negate the meanings of the texts of the Qur’ân and Sunnah relating to the Unseen and to the attributes of Allah.
In actual fact, the recognition of metaphor in the Arabic language presents no danger. This is because the default assumption for any instance of language is that it must be understood literally unless there is a contextual indicator to show otherwise. This is a matter of unanimous scholarly agreement.
When it comes to texts relating to maters of the Unseen, there cannot conceivably be any contextual indicator to show the need for a metaphorical meaning. Therefore, a person cannot correctly resort to a metaphorical interpretation in order to negate the text’s literal meaning.
Those who make such interpretations and negate the attributes actually do so on the basis of their pre-suppositions as to what those texts imply. They come up with these interpretations to dispel the negative implications that they mistakenly discern from the tests.
The texts relating to Allah’s attributes do not lend themselves to being understood metaphorically – neither linguistically nor from their context.
This is, in brief, the general position of Ahl al-Sunnah on the matter.
There is no problem with acknowledging metaphor as being a part of the language. The Qur’ân was revealed in the language of the Arabs. It employed their idioms and modes of speech.
It remains to say that metaphor is a necessity of language – any language – indispensable for its vitality and continued survival. No matter how vast a language might be, its words and expressions are limited in number and can never encompass all the meanings and nuances of meaning that people need to have in order to express the thoughts circumstances of their lives.
If we consider these points, they should dispel our reservations about this topic.
And Allah knows best.
Source: Islam Today