Allahu 'alam (God Knows Best)

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Allah knows best, in Arabic الله اعلم (Allahu 'alam, literally "Allah knew"), is an Islamic phrase that finds frequent usage in Islamic literature such as the tafsir. In Arabic as a whole it is used in instances where the speaker does not know the answer to a particular question. In Islamic historical and theological writing it is often used as a reply to questions about the history of the Islamic narrative that are difficult to answer and questions that cast a doubt on the truthfulness or authenticity of Islam.

The phrase in Arabic

The phrase, though originating in Islamic discourse, has become very common in all registers of Arabic. It used by people of all religious persuasions to indicate that a particular question has no answer which is known to the speaker. An example outside of a religious context might be a scientist speaking about what happened before the big bang in modern cosmology--modern mathematical models take us to the very earliest microseconds before the explosion of the singularity, however they cannot tell us anything about where the singularity came from or what it was doing, if anything, before the explosion; as most modern cosmological models also explain that time itself began with the big bang, the question of "what was before the big bang" lacks meaning as it would normally be understood. As such, when asked about such a thing which is basically unknowable to modern science, an Arabic speaking cosmologist might answer "allahu 'alam" "God (only) knows" id est I don't know, an admission of lack of knowledge.

Uses In the Qur'an

The Qur'an uses Allahu A'alam frequently. It is often used as "wa-Allahu A'alam" meaning "and Allah knows best." "wa" literally means "and" in Arabic but its use is considerably wider and carries more shades of meaning than in English.

Allah knows about people

He knows difference the genders of babies better than their own mothers:

So when she brought forth, she said: My Lord! Surely I have brought it forth a female-- and Allah knew best what she brought forth-- and the male is not like the female, and I have named it Marium, and I commend her and her offspring into Thy protection from the accursed Shaitan.

He knows of the hypocrites who refuse to engage in jihad:

And that He might know the hypocrites; and it was said to them: Come, fight in Allah´s way, or defend yourselves. They said: If we knew fighting, we would certainly have followed you. They were on that day much nearer to unbelief than to belief. They say with their mouths what is not in their hearts, and Allah best knows what they conceal.

He knows that some Muslims secretly disbelieve and commit sins [1]:

And Allah knows best what they hide,

He knows who are the bad people:

Say: If that which you desire to hasten were with me, the matter would have certainly been decided between you and me; and Allah best knows the unjust.

Interestingly, this phrase does not find use when it comes to scientific realities that would have been unknown to 7th century Arabs, a domain in which one would think God could have provided insight.

Allah knows better than people

He knows that Abraham, Ishmael and Jacob were neither Jews nor Christians (secular scholars tend to see them as totally mythological):

Nay! do you say that Ibrahim and Ismail and Yaqoub and the tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Are you better knowing or Allah? And who is more unjust than he who conceals a testimony that he has from Allah? And Allah is not at all heedless of what you do.

You might think that some people (Jews and Christians, in this case) are your friends, but they are your enemies:

Have you not considered those to whom a portion of the Book has been given? They buy error and desire that you should go astray from the way.

And Allah best knows your enemies; and Allah suffices as a Guardian, and Allah suffices as a Helper.

Allah knows what is good for humans better than they can themselves know what is good for themselves:

Fighting is enjoined on you, and it is an object of dislike to you; and it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you love a thing while it is evil for you, and Allah knows, while you do not know.

People say "Allah knows best"

Jesus says he doesn't know what Allah knows:

And when Allah will say: O Isa son of Marium! did you say to men, Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah he will say: Glory be to Thee, it did not befit me that I should say what I had no right to (say); if I had said it, Thou wouldst indeed have known it; Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I do not know what is in Thy mind, surely Thou art the great Knower of the unseen things.

Joseph believes that Allah knows that what some people said is false:

Said the brothers: "If he has stolen (no wonder), his brother had stolen before." But Joseph kept this secret and did not disclose it to them, and said (to himself): "You are worse in the degree of evil, for God knows better of what you allege."

"Allah knows best" in response to critics

In some verses, "Allah knows best" seems to be an excuse used by the Qur'an against its critics.

In this example, the unnamed critics wanted to get some message directly from Allah, not via the messengers. But the Qur'an "reveals" that "Allah knows best" and then threatens the people with punishment.

And when a communication comes to them they say: We will not believe till we are given the like of what Allah´s messengers are given. Allah best knows where He places His message. There shall befall those who are guilty humiliation from Allah and severe chastisement because of what they planned.

People wondered why the message seems full of contradictions and why it needs an abrogation principle. The Qur'an responds by revealing that "Allah knows best and you don't".

And when We change (one) communication for (another) communication, and Allah knows best what He reveals, they say: You are only a forger. Nay, most of them do not know.

In this example, the Jews knew some religious stories. They asked for Allah to reveal to them those stories, so that they can compare them and if his stories are the same as theirs, and ascertain if Muhammad is the messenger of god. One part of those stories was information about how long did the companions of the cave dwell in their cave. Muhammad revealed 309, which was incorrect. So in response came the verse "Allah knows best":

Say: Allah knows best how long they remained; to Him are (known) the unseen things of the heavens and the earth; how clear His sight and how clear His hearing! There is none to be a guardian for them besides Him, and He does not make any one His associate in His Judgment.

The Qur'an gives a command for Muslims to use the phrase to respond to critics of Islam:

And if they contend with you, say: Allah best knows what you do.

However that verse was abrogated, according to the scholars, as stated in Tafsir al-Jalalayn. Now Muslims shouldn't respond with "Allah knows best", rather they should respond by engaging in war:

And if they dispute with you in the matter of religion say ‘God knows best what you do and will requite you for it — this was revealed before the command to fight them.
Al-Jalalayn on 22:68

In the hadith

Polytheists' dead children may go to hell:

It was narrated that Abu Hurairah said: "The Messenger of Allah was asked about the children of the idolators and he said: 'Allah knows best what they would have done."'

Muslims should say "Allah knows best" whenever they don't know something:

...For indeed, it is part of a man's knowledge, that when he is asked about something he does not know, he says: "Allah knows best." ...

In the tafsir

In the early tafsirs on the verse 68:1, we can read about the whale, called ن (Nun), which carries the Earth on its back [2]. However in the tafsir Al-Jalalayn, from the 15th century, apparently uncomfortable with this explanation, simply says of it "Allah knows best":

﴿ن﴾ أحَد حُرُوف الهِجاء اللَّه أعْلَم بِمُرادِهِ بِهِ ﴿والقَلَم﴾ الَّذِي كَتَبَ بِهِ الكائِنات فِي اللَّوْح المَحْفُوظ ﴿وما يَسْطُرُونَ﴾ أيْ المَلائِكَة مِن الخَيْر والصَّلاح Nūn is one of the letters of the alphabet. God knows best what He means by it. "And the pen" which writes the (fate) of all beings on the preserved board. "and what it writes" id est the angels from goodness and soundness."
Al-Jalalayn on 68:1

Comfort in Ignorance

On of the reasons Intelligent Design is not accepted by the community of scientific biologists is because it stifles further inquiry, according to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins [3]. The idea that "god did it" and "god knows the answer" smothers inquiry by taking away the impetus for further investigation. Saying "Allah knows best" instead of "I don't know" or "I am not sure" effectively makes people more comfortable in their ignorance, and is thus inimical to the scientific method which always seeks to ask questions where mysteries remain.

Dawkins sums up the scientific opposition to the "allahu 'alam" culture of Islam saying:

“It worries me about religion that it teaches people to be satisfied with not understanding.”

"Allah knows best" is sometimes used as a response to questions from the critics of Islam.

The phrase is also used as an "explanation" of some things in Islam which don't make sense or if they are in conflict with science. One example was already discussed, regarding the tafsir Al-Jalalayn on the verse 68:1.

See also

References

  1. Al-Jalalayn commentary on the verse 84:23 "and God knows best what they are amassing accumulating in their scrolls in the way of disbelief denial and evil deeds."
  2. Tanwir Al-Miqbas: "And from his narration on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas that he said regarding the interpretation of Allah's saying (Nun): '(Nun) He says: Allah swears by the Nun, which is the whale that carries the earths on its back while in Water, and beneath which is the Bull and under the Bull is the Rock and..."
  3. Dawkins Richard, The God Delusion, p.126, London: Bantam Press, 2006