General Statements and Their Specific Meanings

When a speaker speaks, the meaning of his speech does not only depend on the literal words he says. Most of the time, there is a lot of context that tells the listener his actual meaning.

This article specifically discusses how statements that appear at first glance to be very general may not actually be that general. Examples from both normal speech and Allah’s speech in the Quran will be given in order to demonstrate that this is not unique to the Quran, but it is a feature of most language.

The word “general” in Arabic is ‘ām (عام), and the word “specific” is khās (خاص). The word “unrestricted” in Arabic is mutlaq (مطلق), and the word “restricted” is muqayyad (مقيد). All of these terms will be defined in their sections with the permission of Allah.

1. General statements that intend something specific

In Arabic, this linguistic device is called al-‘ām yurādu bihal-khās (العام يراد به الخاص), literally “the general (statement) that intends something specific.”

This is when a speaker says something about a general group but he intends to refer to someone or something specific from that group.

For an example from common language, a man might say to his family after a dinner party at his home ends, “Everyone finished eating and left.” He says “everyone” but intends “everyone who came to the party.” He definitely does not intend everyone in the world or everyone in history.

This may seem obvious from this example, but some people fail to understand the same thing occurring in the Quran.

An obvious example from the Quran is Allah saying about the destruction of ‘Ād:

And when they saw it as a cloud approaching their valleys, they said, “This is a cloud bringing us rain!” Rather, it is that for which you were impatient: a wind, within it a painful punishment,

Destroying everything by command of its Lord. And they became so that nothing was seen [of them] except their dwellings. Thus do We recompense the criminal people.

Quran 46:24-25

When Allah says “everything,” He obviously means “everything in the city of ‘Ād that the wind touched,” not everything in existence.

An example from the Quran that people misunderstand because they do not understand this linguistic device is Allah saying:

And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

Quran 9:5

This does not mean all polytheists without exceptions. Depending on the exact scholarly interpretation, there are many exceptions (like those who are guaranteed safety due to a treaty or paying jizyah) or the whole statement is specific to the context (the polytheists of Arabia).

Another example from the Quran is Allah saying:

The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah “

Quran 9:30

The meaning of this verse is not that all Jews claim Ezra is the son of Allah, and this is obviously not the case. Most Jews do not and never have explicitly claimed Ezra to be the son of God.

This verse only either refers to a specific subsect of the Jews or, according to many exegetes, refers to a specific Jewish individual in the Prophet’s time who said this mockingly.

People who accuse the author of the Quran of making a mistake by attributing this to the Jews only make this accusation because they do not understand how language or interpretation works. Who in their right mind would think the author of the Quran does not know about such a basic point of Jewish theology when he seems to know the stories from the Torah and Talmud in so much detail??

2. General statements that have exceptions

In Arabic, it is called al-‘ām al-makhsūs (العام المخصوص), literally “the specified general (statement).” This Arabic term has been used for both this category and the previous one.

This is when a speaker says something about a general group but he intends most of the group and does not intend to exclude the possibility of exceptions. He may provide an explicit exception elsewhere in his speech.

For an example from common language, a man might say to his friend, “My family moved here yesterday,” even if one of his sons stayed behind and did not move.

He says “my family” but intends “most of my family” or “my family except my son.” In normal language, he does not need to explicitly mention the exception. His failure to mention it would not be considered lying.

If he said, “My family moved here yesterday,” then said later in the conversation, “My son stayed behind,” the listener would not accuse him of deceit in the first sentence. Rather, it is understood that the general statement allows exceptions.

In this example, the statement about his family would be considered ‘ām, and the one about his son would be a khās exception.

Another example is a principle saying to the school, “Everyone can go home now” then turning to a specific student a few minutes later and saying, “You should stay for detention Adam.” Although he said “everyone,” Adam was still allowed to be excluded.

The same occurs in the Quran and Sunnah.

An obvious example is Allah saying:

The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; the messengers have passed on before him.

Quran 5:75

Although “the messengers” is a general statement, it obviously does not intend to include the Messenger of the time in which the Quran was being revealed. Obviously, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) had not passed on before Isa (AS)!

Another example is Allah saying:

And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander.

And the earth We have spread out, and excellent is the preparer.

And in everything We created two mates; perhaps you will remember.

Quran 51:58

The meaning of this verse is that everything is created in pairs: the sky has the earth, the sun has the moon, and the male has female. All these pairs should remind the listener that this life also has a pair: the afterlife. [1]

The lesson of the verse being to remember the afterlife, it should be obvious that some exceptions to the general rule of pairs do not matter. The verse does not intend to exclude the possibility of exceptions.

This is why claims like “asexual plants are not in pairs, so this verse is wrong,” on top of being wrong (asexual plants can be considered pairs of sexual plants), completely miss the point of the verse. The verse, like normal language, already allows for exceptions and its message is not contradicted.

3. Unrestricted statements that are intended to be restricted

In Arabic, it is called al-mutlaq al-muqayyad (المطلق المقيد), literally “the unrestricted (statement) that has been restricted.”

This is when a speaker says something about an arbitrary instance of a type but intends a more specific type.

The phrase “arbitrary instance of a type” is a mouthful, so let us break it down. It is basically the definition of mutlaq.

First, what is an “instance of a type” and how does it differ from the type itself? Someone saying “a Muslim” is an example of an instance of a type while saying “the Muslims” would talk about the entire type or group itself.

Second, what does it mean to be arbitrary? Arbitrary is when no particular is intended, and anyone or anything that matches the description would work. If someone says, “Talk to a Muslim,” that is an example of an arbitrary instance of a type. The command can be fulfilled by speaking to any arbitrary Muslim. On the other hand, someone saying, “I talked to a Muslim today,” is not arbitrary. That refers to a particular Muslim. It is not possible to assume any arbitrary Muslim in that place.

This will become clearer with examples.

A person can say on Eid ul-Adha (the Eid where we sacrifice animals), “Bring me an animal.” Although he says “an animal,” he means an animal that can be slaughtered, like sheep or goats. So, the mutlaq “an animal” is implicitly restricted and means “a sheep or a goat,” and that is known from the context of his statement.

As another example, if you ask someone, “Did you do anything today?” you intend “anything interesting.” You are not asking about absolutely anything, as that would make no sense. Everyone did something almost by definition.

An example from the Quran is Allah saying:

The heavens almost break from above them, and the angels exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord and ask forgiveness for whoever is on earth. Unquestionably, it is Allah who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.

Quran 42:5

Allah says “ask forgiveness for whoever is on earth,” but they only seek forgiveness for the believers, as he elaborates in another verse:

Those [angels] who carry the Throne and those around it exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord and believe in Him and ask forgiveness for those who have believed, [saying], “Our Lord, You have encompassed all things in mercy and knowledge, so forgive those who have repented and followed Your way and protect them from the punishment of Hellfire.

Quran 40:7

The speaker can say this arbitrary instance of a type but intend a more specific type that remains unsaid in the current speech.


The concept of textual context is usually understood fine. But, the concept of audience context or speaker context is not well-understood.

When a speaker says something, the listener should interpret it in line with common understanding. If common understanding prevents a particular interpretation of a sentence even in the speaker’s context, then the speech should not be interpreted like that.

For example, if a non-crazy person says “a blue sun rises” in the morning and everyone can see the sun is not blue, it should become clear to them that this sentence is non-physical. In fact, this sentence should be interpreted non-physically even by those who did not see the sun that morning. That is because the sun becoming blue is an amazing thing which the speaker would emphasize and make clear. If he just says it without that emphasis on it being physical, it would be obvious it is non-physical. He most likely means it is a sad day.

If someone says about a party, “John was the first to start eating,” it is obvious to both the speaker and audience that John was not the first in history to start the concept of eating. So, it should become clear that the meaning is restricted in some way. In this case, it is restricted to “first at the party.”

When Allah says ⟪The stars and trees prostrate⟫ (55:6), it should be obvious the meaning is not that they prostrate in the way humans prostrate. That is because anyone can see trees and stars. Both the speaker and listener know this. So, the speaker does not need to clarify that he means their prostration in a different sense. Perhaps they prostrate in a spiritual sense which we cannot see.

This is elaborated by Allah in another place:

The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts [Allah] by His praise, but you do not understand their [way of] exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and Forgiving.

Quran 17:44

The same applies to Allah describing the wind as ⟪destroying everything⟫. The speaker and audience both know everything was not destroyed. There does not need to be special elaboration for that. So, the listener should automatically understand the sentence is specified.

Similarly, when Allah quotes Musa (AS) saying he was the first believer (Quran 7:143), it should be obvious to the audience that the meaning is not unrestricted. After all, it is well-known to both the speaker and listener that Musa (AS) was just one of many prophets.


Some people ask the question: Isn’t the Quran supposed to be perfect? Why does it have the flaws of human language? Why isn’t it always completely clear with exceptions and specifications?

There are five reasons Allah uses generalization in the Quran.

Firstly, the definition of perfect language is linked to how Arabs used their speech and how they understood eloquence. Allah says ⟪Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an that you might understand⟫ (12:2), and eloquent Arabic uses figures of speech like this. So, for the Quran to be perfect and eloquent, it also needs to use figures of speech like that.

Secondly, brevity is the height of eloquence. If someone always elaborated every specification and every exception, it would read like a legal manual rather than an eloquent and powerful book of guidance.

Generalization is, thus, not a flaw. It is as fundamental to language as letters and words. It is how language works.

Thirdly, the exact exception or specification is often obvious from the context of the text or the audience. It can also be elaborated in the practice of the Prophet (SAW). So, specifying it in the text becomes unneeded.

Fourthly, brevity creates literary effect that elaboration would not. For example, is it more powerful to say “it destroyed everything” or “it destroyed everything in the city” when the context already indicates it is about the city? The first is more powerful because of how brief it is while conveying the same meaning.

Fifthly, investigation into the words of Allah is a rewarded intellectual endeavor, and Allah wished to give people an opportunity to do so.

And Allah knows best.

  1. Alternatively, this diversity in creation should remind the listener that there must be a creator and the creator Himself cannot be multiple.

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