هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ
It is He who has sent down to you the Book. Parts of it are definitive verses, which are the mother of the Book, while others are metaphorical.
(Sūrat Āli ‘Imrān, No.3, Āyat 7)
One of the manners of speech that the Quran uses is that certain verses of it are indefinite, meaning they are metaphorical or ambiguous. On the other hand, there are other verses in the Quran that are definite, verses that are very clear and cannot be misinterpreted. Note that this manner of speech is something rational and expected from a profound speaker. It is not a concept unique to the Noble Quran. Nonetheless, it has been explicitly mentioned in the above verse, and plays a key role in understanding the Quran.
The term umm al-kitāb, translated above as “the mother of the Book”, means a source of return and reference. In Arabic both the word wālidah and umm are used for a mother, but while the former is used to indicate the biological relationship as being the one who gave birth to a child (e.g., Q 2:233), the latter is used as the source of refuge or return (as in Q 80:34-35). For this reason, at times the word umm is used simply as a source of return, without referring to an actual mother (verses that use the term umm al-qurā meaning the main city in a region, such as Q 6:92). Similarly, in this verse of Sūrat Āli ‘Imrān the word umm is used as a reference point, not referring to an actual mother. The point being made is that the definite verses of the Quran are the source of reference, based on which the ambiguous verses must be understood.
It is narrated that Imām al-Ridhā (peace be upon him) said: Whoever returns [and interprets] the indefinite verses of the Quran to the definite verses, then he has indeed been guided to the straight path. One point to keep in mind with regards to this division is that being definite, or indefinite is something relative. It cannot be categorically claimed that certain verses are definite while certain other ones are indefinite. A single verse could be definite from one angle and indefinite from another. For one reader of the Quran a verse may appear indefinite but for another it may be definite. For example, after the understanding that comes with studying Islamic sciences, a previously indefinite verse would be considered definite!
Take for example the verses in Sūrat al-Qiyāmah that read:
وُجُوهٌ يَوْمَئِذٍ نَّاضِرَةٌ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهَا نَاظِرَةٌ
Some faces will be fresh on that day, looking to their Lord (Q 75:22-23).
Individuals who are unfamiliar with other verses of the Quran and have not understood the correct intellectual understanding of God, may be confused by these verses. For them these verses could be referring to a material type of looking.
A second point with regards to this idea of understanding the indefinite verses based on the definite verses, is that this does not negate the importance of seeking Islamic teachings from the Ahl al-Bayt, peace be upon them. On the contrary, definite verses have referred us to the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt (e.g., Q 16:44, 4:59, and 59:7) to understand Islam. The confusion of what it means to look at Allah can clearly be understood by someone who seeks Islam from the door of the Ahl al-Bayt. In one narration Imām Ali (a) says: The eyes do not perceive Him by the witnessing of sight, but rather the hearts see Him through the reality of faith.
InshāAllah in future Reflection, the remainder of this same verse will be commented upon. We pray to Allah to allow us to understand the Noble Quran correctly and benefit from it in our life. We beseech Him in the name of His most noble creation, His final messenger Muhammad, to bless us with the correct understanding of the Quran as taught by him and his progeny, peace be upon them.
Resources: Āyatullāh Muhammad Taqī Misbāh Yazdī, Qur’an Shenāsī (Cognition of Quran).