Allahu a'alam (God Knows Best)
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Allah knows best, in Arabic الله أعلم (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:
He knows of the hypocrites who refuse to engage in jihad:
He knows that some Muslims secretly disbelieve and commit sins :
He knows who are the bad people:
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):
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:
People say "Allah knows best"
Jesus says he doesn't know what Allah knows:
Joseph believes that Allah knows that what some people said is false:
"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.
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":
The Qur'an gives a command for Muslims to use the phrase to respond to critics of Islam:
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:
In the hadith
Polytheists' dead children may go to hell:
Muslims should say "Allah knows best" whenever they don't know something:
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 . However in the tafsir Al-Jalalayn, from the 15th century, apparently uncomfortable with this explanation, simply says of it "Allah knows best":
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 . 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:
"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.
- 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."
- 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..."
- Dawkins Richard, The God Delusion, p.126, London: Bantam Press, 2006