General Statements

General (‘ām) and unrestricted (mutlaq) statements occur commonly in the Quran and Sunnah.

General statements are defined as those statements that describe or attribute something to an unenumerated group. Enumerated [1] or singular [2] statements do not count.

Words like “people”, “men”, “the believers”, and “man” [3] are general. If there is a plural or a singular which refers to a group, it is a general statement.

General statements are rarely general in meaning. It is common to use general statements even while there are: 1) unspoken exceptions or 2) specifications.

Specific statements are any statements about a specific person, group, or species. Being specific is somewhat relative. The phrase “cows” is general compared to a specific cow but specific compared to animals in general.

Unrestricted statements are those statements which say a word or phrase in an unrestricted manner even though the intention might be to restrict them.

Restriction could be in the form of a specific adjective, time, or context. Phrases like “first to do X” and “last to do X” are unrestricted. Restriction would be something like “first at this event to do X.” Words like “Muslims” might be unrestricted compared to words like “Muslim men” or “Muslim women.” [4]

Restricted statements are statements that are restricted in some way compared to unrestricted statements. So, “first at this event to do X” would be restricted compared to “first to do X.”

Unrestricted statements are often implicitly restricted.


Imagine a man who tells his friend, “My family moved here yesterday,” even though he told him the other day that one of his sons was not coming. The statement “my family” is general and should presumably include all sons, but he intended to exclude one son. Yet, he does not need to mention the exception explicitly because he already mentioned it in another place.

It also works when he did not mention the exception before. Imagine the same man telling his friend the same thing without having informed him about his son not coming. Would that be a lie? No, because it is allowed for a speaker to mention a general word even though there are exceptions to it. This is how normal language works. A person does not need to tell everyone his son is not coming before he can say, “My family is coming.” The fact that most of his family is coming is enough.

Allah says in the Quran:

Indeed, you [disbelievers] and what you worship other than Allah are the firewood of Hell. You will be coming to [enter] it.

Had these been [actual] gods, they would not have come to it, but all are eternal therein.

Quran 21:98-99

He says “what you worship other than Allah” goes to Hell, however, it is clear there are exceptions to this. For example, pious people whom disbelievers unjustly worship will obviously not go to Hell. The meaning of the verse is only that their idols and statues will go to Hell along with those who wanted to be worshiped.

Anyone who uses this verse to mean anything else is playing with words. In fact, some disbelievers did exactly this, and they mocked the verse by mentioning Jesus (AS). They asked, “Will Jesus go to Hell too?” even though they knew very well that was not the meaning of the original verse.

Allah talks about this in the Quran, saying:

And when the son of Mary was presented as an example, immediately your people laughed aloud.

And they said, “Are your gods better, or is he?” They did not present the comparison except for [mere] argument. But, [in fact], they are a people prone to dispute.

Quran 43:57-58

Whoever interprets words in this way is doing so in mere argument and bad faith. That is because generality is how language works. General words do not remove the possibility of exceptions.


Imagine a man who tells his friend when he comes to the party late, “Everyone already left.” When this man says “everyone,” he means “everyone who came to the party.” He says something general but intends something specific that can be derived from the context.

Allah says in the Quran about the people 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

The phrase “destroying everything” means the wind destroyed all of their city, not everything in existence. This is obvious from the context of the audience. The audience knows very well not everything is destroyed, so the sincere audience will not interpret it as meaning that. They would know it must mean something more specific, and it is clear from the context it means the city.


Imagine a man who goes to a farmer on Eid ul-Adha and says, “Get me an animal to slaughter.” The farmer will get him a goat or a sheep. If the farmer got him a rat or a snake, he would be called crazy.

Why is this the case even though rats and snakes do fall under the definition of “animal”? That is because context can restrict general words. When someone asks a farmer for an animal on Eid, it is clear they mean one of the animals meant for slaughter. Rats and snakes do not fall into that.

Similarly, if a traveler in the past asked for an “animal,” he would mean a horse, not a pig or sheep.

If someone says at a party, “John was the first to eat,” the meaning is “John was the first to eat at the party.”

Some people quote verses in the Quran where Musa (AS) says, “I am the first of the believers,” and complain that there were believers before Musa (AS).

Although “I am the first of the believers” is unrestricted in wording, it is obvious to everyone that it is implicitly restricted. Musa (AS) is simply referring to his context. He was the first believer in his time and place.


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, 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. Like “twenty men”
  2. Like “a man”
  3. Like in the statement, “Man is greedy.”
  4. Like in the sentence, “It is recommended for Muslims to go to the mosque for prayer.” The meaning of “Muslims” here is “Muslim men.”

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