In the interpretation of verse 38:29, almost all commentators have portrayed that only people of understanding can comprehend and receive guidance present in the Qur’an. Therefore, these interpretations reflect that (i) all non-Muslim scholars, including scientists, are not persons of understanding, (ii) common people, Muslim or non-Muslim, cannot get guidance directly from the Qur’an. A critical analysis of the matter is as follows.
The Qur’anic Verse Under Observation
38/29 كِتَابٌ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَأُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
Some Conventional Translations
[This is] a blessed book which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], that they might reflect upon its verses and that those of understanding would be reminded.
(This is) a Scripture that We have revealed unto thee, full of blessing, that they may ponder its revelations, and that men of understanding may reflect.
(Here is) a Book which We have sent down unto thee, full of blessings, that they may meditate on its Signs (verses), and that men of understanding may receive admonition.
(It is) a Book We have revealed to you abounding in good that they may ponder over its verses, and that those endowed with understanding may be mindful.
It is a blessed Book which We revealed for you so that they will reflect upon its verses and so the people of understanding will take heed.
The Error in Conventional Translations
The Qur’anic exegetes and translators have commonly interpreted أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ in the above verse as “people of understanding.” Though it is one of its literal meanings, it is incongruous in the verse. The first section of the verse, كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِّيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ , is asking all human beings to ponder Quranic verses. Then right after it, how can God say that “only persons of understanding” would receive the guidance?
In other words, if “only persons of understanding” would receive the guidance, why is God asking all humans, i.e. humans of all mental levels, to reflect on these verses? Don’t these two sections, كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِّيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ and وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ , then become contradictory?
A Critique of the Meaning of أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
أَلْبَابِ is the plural of “lʊbb” whose primary definition is pure, best, or essential part of an object or a group of objects. In a secondary definition, this “best part” is pinned down in the context in which an object or a group of object is being looked at. For example, the Arabs used to call the pit above the chest and between the collar bones of a camel “Lʌb-bʌtʊn” because this is the best part to stab a camel for slaughtering it. The point here is: this pit is the best part in the perspective of slaughtering a camel; in other respect, this would not be the case.
The Meaning in the Verse:
We human beings have various body parts and mental endowments. Among the things that generate human functionalities, intellect is the best part lʊbb of us. There is no disagreement over it.
In the verse, أَلْبَابِ is the plural of lʊbb. Also, there is definite article ال (= the) before it, turning it to الالباب meaning “the intellects“. Regardless, whether word intellect (عقل) is count noun or not, word lʊbb (= pure or essential part) is countable. Therefore, أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ literally means “persons of the intellects”. In Arabic, since persons is plural, intellect has to be plural too. In English, this would be “persons of the intellect”. Here the question is: what is meant by “the intellect”? In other words, it is referring to what kind of intellect?
Now let us change the perspective from the best human attribute (intellect) to the best kind of human intellect. We know that the level of each person’s intellect is not the same. Some people develop their intellect to a higher functionality such that they can understand, even solve, complex matters. This higher intellect is considered to be the best kind, and is termed understanding or intelligence. This very meaning is commonly claimed by the Qur’anic commentators for “lʊbb” in the compound word أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ in the Qur’anic verse above. This meaning (people of understanding) of أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ is also recorded in Arabic dictionaries. But the context that a higher level of human intellect is required to embrace Qur’anic messages is nowhere in the same verse or the verses surrounding it. So the interpreters have obviously chosen an out-of-context meaning.
If the verse is read in the context of human problem it is on, it is not addressing a higher level of intellect but pure intellect that is free from emotions, assumptions, prejudices, agendas, or the like. This context is apparent from the fact that whenever God sent down His message, most people did not use their unadulterated intellect to think over it. Rather, they used:
~ their prejudices with respect to their forefathers, religious priests and scholars, and community leaders;
~ their skepticism about life after death;
~ their perception that no divine hand is behind the works of nature;
~ their attitude that outside teachings must not replace their communal values;
~ their baseless thinking that an ordinary or gentile person cannot be the prophet of God;
~ and the like.
In such situations, only pure intellect deserves appreciation and is naturally attuned for examining and distinguishing the truth. To the contrary, an intellect tainted with prejudice would stand in the way of open-minded examination and lead to taking a position that is biased. Furthermore, it is also apparent from the history that, whenever a prophet of God started conveying God’s messages, it was mostly unlettered people who accepted them. So saying that a higher intellect is required to receive God’s teachings is not backed by evidence on the ground. When Jesus (peace be upon him) came, Jewish scholars — who were the men of understanding then — rejected him. And today among scientists, who are certainly the persons of great understanding, most of them are atheists or secularists.
A Fitting Translation of the Verse
كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِّيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
[O Muhammad] a book We have sent it down to thee, carrying [guidance for] immense good, so that they (all mankind) may reflect upon its verses, and the Open-Minded Ponderers may take heed.
A Side Note on مُبَارَكٌ :
The Qur’an also attaches the attribute مُبَارَكٌ or مُبَارَكَةً (the feminine counterpart) to rainwater, olive tree, the House of God at Mecca, one specific night of Ramadan, and to some other things. Naturally, the reason for being blessed differs from object to object. The Qur’an defines itself as the “uncorrupted book of divine guidance for all humanity.” Therefore, it is “blessed“because of its original divine guidance that can help humanity to achieve the salvation, as well as other great benefits in this life and the hereafter.
This is also disappointing that conventional commentators have not clarified the meaning of مُبَارَكٌ (blessed) in the verse. If the reason why the Qur’an is blessed is not clearly understood, its blessings cannot be adequately availed of. On top of it, this omission opens the door to myths. For instance, a good many Muslims believe that if the Qur’an is put inside their homes, it would bring blessings to them by itself. To the contrary, the above verse is saying that in order to obtain the blessings of the Qur’an, one must reflect on its verses and pay heed to its guidance.
Coming back to the original issue!
The compound word أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ in the verse means:
~ open-minded ponderers,
~ unprejudiced thinkers,
~ those who reflect with pure intellect,
~ those who reflect without any prejudgment or agenda,
~ and the like.
That is, the verse is asking human beings of all nations and mental levels to ponder Qur’anic verses, then guaranteeing that persons from the unlettered to the post-doctorate will receive guidance if they reflect without any prejudgment, bias, or agenda.
Here, the key points are:
(i) The purpose of the Qur’an is not that the scholars alone should reflect on its verses, and others should rely on their observations. Rather, each and every human being is supposed to reflect on Qur’anic verses — verses of his/her interest at least.
(ii) Whoever reflects on Qur’anic verses without any prejudgment or agenda will surely get the guidance in there.