Anonymous Mentions

Gibril Fouad Haddad

Mubhamāt al-Qurʾān is a branch of exegesis (tafsīr) devoted to the exposition of “anonymous mentions” (mubhamāt), specifically the identity or identifying features and details related to living beings, events, times and dates, places, and things referred to in the Qurʾān.


Mubham is a passive adjective derived from the root b-h-m in the causative fourth form abhama—“to be or make vague or confused” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn 4:62), infinitive noun ibhām—the contrary of bayyana, “to make clear,” infinitive noun bayān, as in relation to speech. Derived from this are (i) the substantive bahīma for “dumb beasts; specifically excluding, in customary usage, feral animals and birds” according to al-Rāghib (d. 502/ca.1108) in the Mufradāt as in Q 5:1, 22:28, 22:34; and (ii) the afʿal-form descriptive abham, used in the accusative plural in the hadith, “People shall be resurrected buhman” (Aḥmad, Musnad al-Makkiyīn, hadith Abd Allāh b. Anīs §16042), that is, without any distinguishing mark and, by extension, naked.

Exegetical Function

 Al-Zarkashī (745-794/ca.1344-1392) in al-Burhān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān (Type 6, 1:155-163) lists seven reasons for the existence of anonymous mentions in the Qurʾān.

Economy: when the anonymous mention is elucidated elsewhere. For example, those You have favored (Q 1:7) are the Prophets and the most truthful and the martyrs and the righteous (Q 4:69) and those who are true (al-ṣādiqīn) (Q 9:119) are the Quraysh Emigrants (see Muhājirūn) (Q 59:8).

Fame: since Ḥawwāʾ (Eve) is known by all to have been Ādam’s only wife, her name is left unmentioned and she is referred to simply as your wife (Q 2:35). Similarly Qābīl and Hābīl are the two sons of Ādam (Q 5:27), and Nimrūd is him who disputed with Ibrāhīm concerning his Lord (Q 2:258).

Protection of identity as a conciliatory stance (istiʿṭāf), as practiced by the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—when he criticized particular individuals without naming them. Thus, Mālik b. al-Ṣayyif may be the party meant in Is it ever so that when they make a covenant a party of them set it aside? (Q 2:100), while Or do you desire to question your Messenger as Mūsā was questioned in former time? (Q 2:108) targeted Rāfiʿ b. Ḥuraymila and Wahb b. Zayd, and among mankind there is he whose conversation on the life of this world pleases you (Q 2:204) the murderous hypocrite al-Akhnas b. Sharīq (see Hypocrisy and Hypocrites).

Irrelevance: the message is complete without need to elaborate on the denomination, for example, of the precise places meant in verses such as Or the like of him who, passing by a township (Q 2:259), Ask them of the township that was by the sea (Q 7:163), If only there had been a township (Q 10:98): respectively Jerusalem, Eilat, and Nineveh.

Universals over particulars: the general import of the verse matters more than its incidental circumstances. Thus, the message is more important for all people at all times than for the one person meant at one time in such verses as and whoso forsakes his home, a fugitive unto Allah and His Messenger, and death overtakes him, his reward is incumbent on Allah (Q 4:100) or Those who spend their wealth by night and day, secretly and openly (Q 2:274).

Emphatic praise: a full, laudatory description is further emphasized by concealing the identity of the person meant, such as Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq—Allah be well-pleased with him—in the verse And let not those who possess dignity and ease among you swear not to give to the near of kin and needy (Q 24:22).

Dismissive blame: here, understatement is used for the opposite purpose, namely as a curt, disparaging reference according little importance to the person alluded to, in such verses as It is your insulter who is without posterity (Q 108:3) and If an evildoer brings you tidings (Q 49:6), where al-ʿĀṣī b. Wāʾil and al-Walīd b. ʿUqba respectively were meant.

Stylistic Function

The last two of al-Zarkashī’s reasons refer to stylistic devices used in the Qurʾān reflecting the purity of Arabic style and beauty of expression—both conveyed by the term faṣāḥa—as well as eloquence (balāgha) and, most especially, concision (ījāz) of the type known as “curt” or “elliptical” (ījāz ḥadhf). This aspect of style, held in the highest esteem by Arab rhetoricians from pre-Islamic times, is the trope most literally connected to the anonymous mentions (mubhamāt) since, like the latter, it suppresses more or less indispensable elements of speech to achieve a fuller outcome in both style and substance. Such ellipsis might even include obligatory syntactical elements, as in the verse And those who kept their duty to their Lord were driven unto the Garden in troops until, when they reached it, and the gates thereof were opened, and the warders thereof said unto them: Peace be unto you, pure ones! So enter, to dwell therein (Q 39:73). Here the entire conditional-clause apodosis (jawāb al-sharṭ) that would normally follow “until” is deliberately omitted, the inferred meaning being that they shall behold something sublime beyond description (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 39:73; Ḥabannaka, al-Balāgha p. 41) (see Rhetoric and Eloquence).

Importance of the Genre

The masters of exegesis showed great keenness in investigating the minutiae of anonymous mentions. Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688) said he waited no less than a year to ask ʿUmar (d. 23/644), who overawed him—Allah be well-pleased with them—if he knew who were the two women that connived against the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—as mentioned in Q 66:3 (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, bāb tabtaghī marḍāta azwājik and in three other places; Muslim, Ṭalāq, bāb fī-l-īlāʾ wa-iʿtizāl al-nisāʾ), to which ʿUmar answered that they were Ḥafṣa (d. 41/661) and ʿĀʾisha (7bh-57/623-677). Either Ibn ʿAbbās or his client ʿIkrima (d. 104/722) travelled for 14 years to discover exactly who had been meant in the words and whoso forsakes his home (Q 4:100): it was Ḍamura b. Abī al-ʿAyṣ as narrated by Ibn Mandah (310-395/922-1005) in his Maʿrifat al-Ṣaḥāba.

Thus, early scholars left no stone unturned to complete their exegetical documentation, the identification of anonymous mentions ranging:

from the extremely momentous—such as Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq’s historic extraction, upon the demise of the Prophet, of the leadership status of the Emigrants (see Muhājirūn) over the Helpers (see Anṣār) from the verse For the poor fugitives who have been driven out from their homes and their belongings, who seek bounty from Allah and help Allah and His messenger: those are the truthful ones (Q 59:8) together with the verse O believers, fear God, and be with the truthful ones (Q 9:119). He himself is the truthful one par excellence—And he (Muḥammad) who has come with the very truth and he (Abū Bakr) who confirms it: those are the Godfearing (Q 39:33), whereby his superiority over all other believers is firmly established in the Qurʾān;

to the temporally momentous, such as knowledge of the date of the Night of Worth (Laylat al-qadr) in the sura of the same name, which according to al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-1505) reached forty-odd alternate glosses (al-Taḥbīr fī ʿilm al-tafsīr p. 436);

to the less significant, such as individuals remotely associated with past Sīra events or highlighting individual merits or demerits, and persons whose exact names are uncertain, such as the Prophet Shuʿayb’s two daughters, the Prophet Sulaymān’s ministers, the Prophet Ibrāhīm’s ancestors, the twelve chieftains of the Israelites, the disciples of the Prophet ʿĪsā, al-Khaḍir, the Companions of the Cave (and their dog), and the many unnamed Israelite Prophets—upon our Prophet and upon all of the above be blessings and peace.


The act of discovery was deemed improper by some. Al-Zarkashī said, “I wonder at those who had the audacity to say that the jinn or Qurayẓa were meant in the verse and others besides them, whom you know not, but Allah knows them (Q 8:60)!” Al-Suyūṭī replied that there was no audacity involved, since the verse only denied the knowability of individual identities, not that of groups; moreover, the latter were actually identified in certain Prophetic reports narrated by Ibn Abī Ḥātim (d. 327/939) in his Tafsīr. They concurred, however, that knowledge of the Hour was off limits: Allah—He alone has knowledge of the Hour (Q 31:34) (Burhān 1:155; Itqān 2:1101) (see Resurrection).

History of the Genre

Adducing countless mubham-oriented narrations of the founders such as Ibn ʿAbbās and his students, the largest commentaries from the earliest times are full of identifications of anonymous mentions. The period from the 6th/12th to the 10th/16th centuries saw the composition of great works on mubhamāt as a dedicated exegetical sub-genre:

The hadith master, linguist and historian Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. al-Khaṭīb ʿAbd Allāh al-Khathʿamī al-Suhaylī (508-581/1114-1185), one of the “seven Moroccan arch-scholars” (al-rijāl al-sabʿa), authored what is commonly regarded as the first specialized monograph on anonymous mentions, the modest al-Taʿrīf wal-iʿlām li-mā ubhima fī-l-Qurʾān min al-asmāʾ wal-aʿlām, also known as al-Īḍāḥ wal-tabyīn li-mā ubhima min tafsīr al-Kitāb al-mubīn. In his introduction, he specified that he did not confine himself to authentic narrations.

The Majorcan linguist and historian Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Khaḍir al-Ghassānī al-Mālaqī (d. 636/ca.1238), known as Ibn ʿAskar, expanded al-Suhaylī’s work with al-Takmīl wal-itmām li-kitāb al-Taʿrīf wal-iʿlām, adding entries on 479 more verses but leaving out fifteen of the shorter suras in Juzʾ ʿAmma beginning with Sūrat al-Ghāshiya (Q 88).

An exegete from Fez, Aḥmad b. Yūsuf b. Aḥmad, known as Ibn Firtūn (d. 660/1262), wrote another corrective, no longer extant, entitled al-Istidrāk wal-itmām lil-Taʿrīf wal-iʿlām while the jurist, grammarian, exegete, philologist and poet of Granada Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Yaḥyā al-Gharnāṭī, known as al-Shāmī (671-715/ca.1272-1315), followed up with another corrective on al-Suhaylī as per the bibliophile Ismāʿīl Bāshā al-Baghdādī (d. 1339/1920) in Hadiyyat al-ʿārifīn (2:143) and ʿĀdil Nuwayhiḍ in his Muʿjam al-mufassirīn.

The discipline left the Mālikī Andalusian realm with the Shāfiʿī Egyptian Imam Badr al-Dīn Ibn Jamāʿa’s (639-733/1241-1333) al-Tibyān fī mubhamāt al-Qurʾān, which he also abridged as Ghurar al-tibyān fī man lam yusamma fī-l-Qurʾān, as stated in the latter’s introduction. The Ghurar is a condensed yet inclusive treatment which, unlike its predecessors, does not employ contextual exegesis but refers strictly to the anonymizing (mubhim) word or phrase in order of its appearance in the Qurʾān, gives its gloss(es), and moves on to the next item for all 114 suras except al-Ikhlāṣ (Q 112), making it the most comprehensive reference work of the genre to date.

The Valencian grammarian, rhetorician and exegete Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Balansī (714-782/1314-1380) wrote the summa in the genre, Ṣilat al-jamʿ wa-ʿāʾid al-tadhyīl li-mawṣūl kitābay al-Iʿlām wal-Takmīl, in which he incorporated his Majorcan predecessors’ two works, further enlarging on them with references chiefly from al-Zamakhsharī’s (467-538/ca.1074-1143) Kashshāf and Ibn ʿAṭiyya’s (480-542?/ca.1087-1148?) al-Muḥarrar al-wajīz, among more than seventy sources.

Then came the Egyptian Shāfiʿī and polymath Imam al-Suyūṭī with his concise but well-documented Mufḥimāt al-aqrān fī mubhamāt al-Qurʾān. By “the peers” (al-aqrān) in the title he meant al-Suhaylī, Ibn ʿAskar, and Ibn Jamāʿa, as indicated in his preface: “This is a book that surpasses their three books in its benefits, additions, elegant concision, and the tracing of every statement to its speaker as sourced in the books of hadith and transmission-based exegeses, that being more conducive to acceptance and more impressive.” He failed, however, to acknowledge that al-Balansī’s masterpiece predated his by a century (a fact with which he was familiar since he refers to it in his biographical notice on al-Balansī in Bughyat al-wuʿāt) and adduced al-Zarkashī’s aforementioned seven reasons verbatim without acknowledging his source. Also, al-Suyūṭī covered only 91 suras (omitting al-Ghāshiya and subsequent ones), so falling short of Ibn Jamāʿa’s comprehensiveness.

Subsequent works are summaries and recapitulations of previous ones, such as the abridgment of al-Suhaylī’s Taʿrīf by Muḥammad b. ʿUmar b. Mubārak, the Ḥaḍramawt-born, Ḥijāz-trained jurist and litterateur of India known as Baḥraq (869-930/ca.1464-1524); Tarwīḥ ulī al-damātha bi-muntaqā al-Kutub al-Thalātha by ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Salāma al-Adkāwī (1104-1184/ca.1692-ca.1770), a concatenation of the Taʿrīf, Ikmāl, and Ṣila in two volumes; an anonymous manuscript in the Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul entitled Asāmī al-ladhīna nazala fīhim al-Qurʾān al-Karīm; and al-Yāqūt wal-marjān fī tafsīr mubhamāt al-Qurʾān by the Egyptian scholar ʿAbd al-Jawād Khalaf ʿAbd al-Jawād.

Mubhamāt as a Category of Qurʾānic Sciences

More or less extensive discussions of the mubhamāt can also be found in reference works devoted to the sciences of the Qurʾān, including the following.

The Cairene Imam Badr al-Dīn al-Zarkashī gave the subject nine pages in Type 6 of his Burhān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān, including observations on related insights, such as the facts that the only Arab tribe identified by name in the entire Qurʾān is Quraysh and the only woman Maryam.

Al-Suyūṭī produced at least two other sizeable treatments of the subject.

In Type 100 of his al-Taḥbīr fī ʿilm al-tafsīr (which he reportedly completed in 872/1468) he mentioned the prior work of Shaykh al-Islām Jalāl al-Dīn al-Bulqīnī (d. 824/1421) on the subject within the latter’s work on ʿulūm al-Qurʾān entitled Mawāqiʿ al-ʿulūm min mawāqiʿ al-nujūm, his basis for the Taḥbīr. He then divided the topic into four categories, citing a selection of Qurʾānic verses under each heading: (i) individuals; (ii) groups (where he states that whenever the Qurʾān says “O people/mankind” (Yā ayyuhā al-nās), it is addressing the Makkans); (iii) “animals, places, stars and the like”; and (iv) “days, nights and other times.”

In Type 70 of al-Itqān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān (completed in 878/1473), after first mentioning the same three forerunners in the discipline as in the Mufḥimāt (which he mentions in passing), he divides the topic into two categories, listing examples of individuals or groups identifiable in full and those only partly identifiable.

The Muḥaddith and Musnid of the Ḥijāz Jamāl al-Dīn Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Saʿīd b. Masʿūd al-Makkī al-Ḥanafī, known as Ibn ʿAqīla (before 1100-1150/before 1690-ca.1737), treated the mubham in Type 134 of his al-Ziyāda wal-iḥsān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān, reproducing al-Suyūṭī’s text from his Itqān.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Since it requires no analysis or evaluation but entirely rests on quantifiable data and denomination, the science of mubhamāt is of necessity transmissive (naqlī) and formed of glosses originating either in the Qurʾān or in the Sunna. Only from the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—can we know, for example, that the servant from among our servants whom We taught knowledge from Our presence (Q 18:65) was al-Khiḍr, as related from Ibn ʿAbbās in the Ṣaḥīḥayn (Bukhārī, ʿIlm, mā yustaḥabbu lil-ʿālim idhā suʾila ayy al-nās aʿlam and elsewhere; Muslim, Faḍāʾil, min faḍāʾil al-Khaḍir) and Sunan (Tirmidhī, Tafsīr, wa-min Sūrat al-Kahf). Herein lie the greatest strength and attraction of that science.

Yet when the reports are weak or mutually contradictory (whether weak or strong), the glosses can show great variance and remain conjectural—as is shown, for example, by the unresolved interpretations of the men on the heights (Q 7:46) and the middle prayer (Q 2:238) (see table below). In addition, the early generations sometimes resorted to Israelite accounts (q.v.) when it came to information shared with Judeo-Christian scripture. Consequently, the mubhamāt genre at times included forgeries and uncertain reports, such as those indicated in, for instance, the story of the supposed seduction, fall, and punishment in Babylon of the angels Hārūt and Mārūt (see Angels). Concerning the latter al-Balansī exclaims: “It is not at all as they claimed about this sordid story!” (Ṣilat al-jamʿ 1:171), citing al-Rāzī’s lessons in Mafātīḥ al-ghayb (sub Q 2:102) highlighting the orthodox doctrine of angelic and Prophetic immunity from sin.

A Divergent Gloss of Q 80:1-5

Shīʿī exegetes—from ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (d. 329/941), Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭūsī (d. 460/ca.1068), and al-Ṭabarsī (d. 560/1165) to al-Kāshānī (d. 1091/1680), Abd ʿAlī al-Ḥuwayzī (d. 1112/1700) and al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1402/1982)—have said that the subject of the verb ʿabasa in Q 80:1 was not the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, but a man of Banū Umayya, some even naming ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān—Allah be well-pleased with him (cf. al-Kāshānī, al-Ṣāfī 5:284; al-Aṣfā 2:1405; al-Ḥuwayzī, Nūr al-thaqalayn 5:508). They meant to exonerate the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—of having actually frowned or turned away from “the blind man” (Ibn Umm Maktūm), arguing that the Prophet’s overly gentle character precluded him from such ascription. In their view, Q 80:1 was therefore a reference to someone else to whom the rest of the verses up to Q 80:10 are also addressed, and they adduced a narration from Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq to that effect (Tafsīr al-Qummī 2:404; Ṭabarsī, Majmaʿ 10:266).

Al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209), however, cited “consensus among exegetes” that the subject of the verb ʿabasa is indeed the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—and that “the blind man” is Ibn Umm Maktūm (Tafsīr, sub Q 80:1). Both are identified thus in the reliable Tafsīrs and books of hadith as narrated from Ibn ʿAbbās, ʿĀʾisha, and ʿUrwa. Granted, Ibn al-ʿArabī al-Mālikī (468-543/ca.1076-1148) in Aḥkām al-Qurʾān rejects the identification of the pagans as the Makkan leaders cited, arguing that the incident necessarily took place in Madina—where they did not set foot while the Prophet was there. Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) quotes him in his Tafsīr without comment; but Abū Ḥayyān (d. 745/1344) in al-Baḥr al-muḥīṭ rejects Ibn al-ʿArabī’s objection and states: “They [the Quraysh pagans and Ibn Umm Maktūm] are all from Quraysh, and the Sura is entirely Makkan by consensus” (see Descent of the Qurʾān).


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See also

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