quran

The Unseen & The Witnessed – Join islam

The term “ghayb” ( غيب ) in Arabic refers to that which is unseen or hidden from sensory perception. It comes from the root “Gh-Ya-Ba” ( غ ي ب ) and occurs 60 times in the Quran, and has the following derivative meanings:

unseen; to go away; remote; hidden; secret; slander; backbite; absent; beyond human understanding or perception; intimacy; bottom

It encompasses not only what is visually concealed but also what is beyond human knowledge or understanding. The concept of ghayb extends to matters that are invisible or imperceptible, including future events, the intentions of the heart, and other realities beyond the physical world that are not accessible to human experience or scientific investigation. Ghayb in the Quran is typically translated as “unseen,” but this root is also used in reference to secrets, privacy, backbiting, an abyss, and events of the future or the past. Therefore, ghayb covers both the visually unseen as well as that which is unknown, emphasizing the limits of human perception and knowledge.

Knower of the unseen and the witnessed

To better understand this word’s meaning, it helps to understand its opposite. Ten times in the Quran, the word “ghayb” is paired with the word “shahad” in the expression:

“Knower of the unseen and the witnessed”

عَـٰلِمُ ٱلْغَيْبِ وَٱلشَّهَـٰدَةِ

These occurrences are in verses 6:73, 9:94, 9:105, 13:9, 23:92, 32:6, 39:46, 59:22, 62:8, and 64:14.

[6:73] He is the One who created the heavens and the earth, truthfully. Whenever He says, “Be,” it is. His word is the absolute truth. All sovereignty belongs to Him the day the horn is blown. Knower of the unseen and the witnessed, He is the Most Wise, the Cognizant.

وَهُوَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضَ بِٱلْحَقِّ وَيَوْمَ يَقُولُ كُن فَيَكُونُ قَوْلُهُ ٱلْحَقُّ وَلَهُ ٱلْمُلْكُ يَوْمَ يُنفَخُ فِى ٱلصُّورِ عَـٰلِمُ ٱلْغَيْبِ وَٱلشَّهَـٰدَةِ وَهُوَ ٱلْحَكِيمُ ٱلْخَبِيرُ

It is worth noting that while God witnesses all things (58:6), the unseen is relative to all other entities, including messengers (5:109), jinns (34:14), and angels (2:33).

One Cannot Witness (Shahad) the Unseen (Ghayb)

This particular juxtaposition of terms suggests a dichotomy, implying that what is “unseen” (ghayb) is the opposite of what is “witnessed” (shahad). Since “witnessed” refers to what is observable, “unseen” must pertain to what is beyond observation.

Therefore, we cannot bear witness (shahdah) to the unseen (ghayb), as this would create a contradiction in logic, for something cannot be observed and unobserved simultaneously.

Knowledge and the Unseen

The assertion that God is the “Knower of the unseen and the witnessed” covers all realms of knowledge, which aligns with God’s omniscience. This expression also informs us that one can have knowledge of both the unseen (ghayb) and what is witnessed (shahad) without creating a contradiction. Thus, classifying something as unseen (ghayb) or witnessed (shahad) does not hinge on an individual’s knowledge of it, as knowledge can encompass both the unseen and the witnessed.

This concept is illustrated in another instance within the Quran, where both terms are mentioned together. Specifically, this occurs in Surah 12, Joseph (Yusuf), which, for context, occurs after Joseph’s brothers visit him and lose their youngest brother after the king’s cup is discovered in his bag.

[12:81] “Go back to your father and tell him…’Our father, your son has committed a theft. We know for sure, because this is what we have witnessed. This was an unexpected occurrence.

 ٱرْجِعُوٓا۟ إِلَىٰٓ أَبِيكُمْ فَقُولُوا۟ يَـٰٓأَبَانَآ إِنَّ ٱبْنَكَ سَرَقَ وَمَا شَهِدْنَآ إِلَّا بِمَا عَلِمْنَا وَمَا كُنَّا لِلْغَيْبِ حَـٰفِظِينَ

5 yāabānā يَـٰٓأَبَانَآ O our father!
6 inna إِنَّ Indeed,
7 ib’naka ٱبْنَكَ your son
8 saraqa سَرَقَ he stole,
9 wamā وَمَا and not
10 shahid’nā شَهِدْنَآ we witnessed
11 illā إِلَّا except
12 bimā بِمَا to what
13 ʿalim’nā عَلِمْنَا we knew.
14 wamā وَمَا And not
15 kunnā كُنَّا we could (be)
16 lil’ghaybi لِلْغَيْبِ of the unseen
17 ḥāfiẓīna حَـٰفِظِينَ guardians.

Joseph’s brothers were present when the event with their brother and the king’s cup transpired. Therefore, they were able to bear witness to the occurrence. Yet, they were not able to foresee what was unexpected. Therefore, “ghayb” ( غيب ) is not limited to what is known or unknown but specifically to what is not seen.

Known but Not Seen?

The concept of ghayb encompasses not just the physically unseen but also that which is beyond immediate human perception or understanding, including knowledge of events, states, or entities that are not directly observable. This includes things that we may know through indirect evidence or informed belief but have not witnessed or cannot see directly, such as aspects of the metaphysical world or certain principles of faith.

While the Qur’an primarily uses ghayb to refer to the unseen in the context of the divine, the unseen realm, or future events, it also encompasses aspects that may be known through divine revelation but remain unseen or unobservable in the physical sense.

One example where ghayb refers to something known through revelation but still considered part of the unseen is the events of the Day of Judgment or the details of the afterlife. Believers are informed about these through the Qur’an, making them “known” through scripture, yet they remain unseen and part of the ghayb until they occur or are experienced. Therefore, it would not be correct for someone to say they bear witness to the Day of Judgment, even though it is a matter of fact and confirmed by God in the scripture.

Another instance is the knowledge of angels and their roles, which are part of the unseen world. Adherents of the Quran believe in the existence and roles of angels based on the Quranic descriptions, but these beings remain part of the ghayb because they are not directly observable in the physical world. Therefore, it would be incorrect to claim to bear witness to the angels, even though their existence and participation in this world is a matter of fact and confirmed by God in the scripture.

Thus, ghayb in the Qur’an can refer to both the completely unknown and those aspects of the divine and metaphysical that are made known to humans through scripture or reasoning but are beyond direct human observation or sensory experience.

Additionally, there are examples of ghayb outside the realm of divine knowledge. One common use of the term is for privacy.

[21:49] The ones who reverence their Lord, even when alone in their privacy, and they worry about the Hour.

 ٱلَّذِينَ يَخْشَوْنَ رَبَّهُم بِٱلْغَيْبِ وَهُم مِّنَ ٱلسَّاعَةِ مُشْفِقُونَ

[5:94] O you who believe, GOD will test you with some game within reach of your hands and your arrows (during pilgrimage). GOD thus distinguishes those among you who observe Him in their privacy. Those who transgress after this have incurred a painful retribution.

 يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَيَبْلُوَنَّكُمُ ٱللَّهُ بِشَىْءٍ مِّنَ ٱلصَّيْدِ تَنَالُهُۥٓ أَيْدِيكُمْ وَرِمَاحُكُمْ لِيَعْلَمَ ٱللَّهُ مَن يَخَافُهُۥ بِٱلْغَيْبِ فَمَنِ ٱعْتَدَىٰ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فَلَهُۥ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

Just because someone does something in private does not mean that it is not known. This shows that ghayb refers to one being in private without others present.

Additionally, we have the root utilized for the word “absent” ( ٱلْغَآئِبِينَ ). This again signals the connection with the root and being physically present for an event.

[27:20] He inspected the birds, and noted: “Why do I not see the hoopoe? Why is he absent?

 وَتَفَقَّدَ ٱلطَّيْرَ فَقَالَ مَا لِىَ لَآ أَرَى ٱلْهُدْهُدَ أَمْ كَانَ مِنَ ٱلْغَآئِبِينَ

This indicates that the entity is not physically present, irrespective of whether it is known where they are or not, as seen in the following verse.

[7:7] We will inform them authoritatively, for we were never absent.

 فَلَنَقُصَّنَّ عَلَيْهِم بِعِلْمٍ وَمَا كُنَّا غَآئِبِينَ

Additionally, one of the derivative meanings from the root of ghayb is that of backbiting and slandering, as used in the word “yaghtab” ( يَغْتَب ) in the following verse.

[49:12] O you who believe, you shall avoid any suspicion, for even a little bit of suspicion is sinful. You shall not spy on one another, nor shall you backbite one another; this is as abominable as eating the flesh of your dead brother. You certainly abhor this. You shall observe GOD. GOD is Redeemer, Most Merciful.

 يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ ٱجْتَنِبُوا۟ كَثِيرًا مِّنَ ٱلظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ ٱلظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ وَلَا تَجَسَّسُوا۟ وَلَا يَغْتَب بَّعْضُكُم بَعْضًا أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُمْ أَن يَأْكُلَ لَحْمَ أَخِيهِ مَيْتًا فَكَرِهْتُمُوهُ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ تَوَّابٌ رَّحِيمٌ

Backbiting involves talking negatively about someone in their absence, regardless of whether the person being talked about is aware of it or not. The awareness of the individual being talked about does not change the nature of the act itself.

We also see that God reveals knowledge of the ghayb.

[72:26] He is the Knower of the future; He does not reveal the future to anyone.
[72:27] except to a messenger that He chooses, does He reveal from the past and the future, specific news.

 عَـٰلِمُ ٱلْغَيْبِ فَلَا يُظْهِرُ عَلَىٰ غَيْبِهِۦٓ أَحَدًا
 إِلَّا مَنِ ٱرْتَضَىٰ مِن رَّسُولٍ فَإِنَّهُۥ يَسْلُكُ مِنۢ بَيْنِ يَدَيْهِ وَمِنْ خَلْفِهِۦ رَصَدًا

[3:44] This is news from the past (the ghayb) that we reveal to you. You were not there when they drew their raffles to select Mary’s guardian. You were not present when they argued with one another.

 ذَٰلِكَ مِنْ أَنۢبَآءِ ٱلْغَيْبِ نُوحِيهِ إِلَيْكَ وَمَا كُنتَ لَدَيْهِمْ إِذْ يُلْقُونَ أَقْلَـٰمَهُمْ أَيُّهُمْ يَكْفُلُ مَرْيَمَ وَمَا كُنتَ لَدَيْهِمْ إِذْ يَخْتَصِمُونَ

Lastly, we see an example of ghayb in reference to the sleepers of the cave in Sura 18. It states that even though their count was “ghayb” we are informed that few did know the correct number.

[18:22] Some would say, “They were three; their dog being the fourth,” while others would say, “Five; the sixth being their dog,” as they guessed regarding the unseen. Others said, “Seven,” and the eighth was their dog. Say, “My Lord is the best knower of their number.” Only a few knew the correct number. Therefore, do not argue with them; just go along with them. You need not consult anyone about this.

These examples inform us that ghayb does not necessarily mean that the matter is unknown, but just that the person was not there to witness it.

 سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَـٰثَةٌ رَّابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًۢا بِٱلْغَيْبِ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ قُل رَّبِّىٓ أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ فَلَا تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلَّا مِرَآءً ظَـٰهِرًا وَلَا تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِم مِّنْهُمْ أَحَدًا

One Believes in Ghayb, not Bears Witness

Therefore, regarding matters of ghayb, these must be believed, as direct observation in the form of shahad is logically impossible. This is precisely what is required of believers, as spelled out in the first occurrence of this word in the Quran.

[2:3] Those who believe in the unseen observe the Contact Prayers (Salat), and from our provisions to them, they give to charity.

 ٱلَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِٱلْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَـٰهُمْ يُنفِقُونَ

This shows that we are to believe in the unseen (ghyab), which implies that we have been given knowledge of them. Yet, we cannot bear witness to these things. Therefore, one can know the unseen, but one cannot bear witness to the unseen.


Appendix

bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in the unseen, 2:3:3
ghayba غَيْبَ (the) unseen / secrets (of) 2:33:14
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / past – 3:44:4
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / future, 3:179:20
lil’ghaybi لِّلْغَيْبِ in the unseen / privacy / secrets 4:34:18
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in the unseen / privacy. 5:94:16
l-ghuyūbi ٱلْغُيُوبِ the unseen / secrets.” 5:109:15
l-ghuyūbi ٱلْغُيُوبِ the unseen / secrets. 5:116:44
l-ghayba ٱلْغَيْبَ the unseen / future 6:50:10
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret, 6:59:3
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 6:73:20
ghāibīna غَآئِبِينَ ones absent. 7:7:6
l-ghayba ٱلْغَيْبَ the unseen / future 7:188:15
l-ghuyūbi ٱلْغُيُوبِ the unseen / secrets? 9:78:11
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 9:94:25
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 9:105:11
l-ghaybu ٱلْغَيْبُ the unseen / future 10:20:10
l-ghayba ٱلْغَيْبَ the unseen / future, 11:31:9
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / past, 11:49:4
ghaybu غَيْبُ (the) unseen / future (of) 11:123:2
ghayābati غَيَـٰبَتِ (the) bottom / abyss (of) 12:10:9
ghayābati غَيَـٰبَتِ (the) bottom / abyss (of) 12:15:8
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in [the] secret / absence, 12:52:6
lil’ghaybi لِلْغَيْبِ of the unseen (unexpected) 12:81:16
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / past 12:102:4
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 13:9:2
ghaybu غَيْبُ (the) unseen / future (of) 16:77:2
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ about the unseen. 18:22:10
ghaybu غَيْبُ (the) unseen / secrets (of) 18:26:7
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in the unseen / privacy. 19:61:7
l-ghayba ٱلْغَيْبَ the unseen / future, 19:78:2
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in the unseen / privacy, 21:49:4
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 23:92:2
l-ghāibīna ٱلْغَآئِبِينَ the absentees / ones missing? 27:20:12
l-ghayba ٱلْغَيْبَ the unseen / future 27:65:8
ghāibatin غَآئِبَةٍ hidden 27:75:3
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the hidden / secret 32:6:3
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / future.” 34:3:12
l-ghayba ٱلْغَيْبَ the unseen, 34:14:22
l-ghuyūbi ٱلْغُيُوبِ the unseen / secrets.” 34:48:7
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ about the unseen 34:53:7
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ [in the] unseen / private 35:18:24
ghaybi غَيْبِ (the) unseen / future (of) 35:38:4
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in the unseen / privacy. 36:11:8
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 39:46:7
yaghtab يَغْتَب [he] backbites 49:12:15
ghayba غَيْبَ (the) unseen / secrets (of) 49:18:4
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in the unseen / privacy, 50:33:4
l-ghaybu ٱلْغَيْبُ the unseen / future, 52:41:3
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / future, 53:35:3
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ by the unseen / faith. 57:25:24
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 59:22:9
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 62:8:13
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / secret 64:18:2
bil-ghaybi بِٱلْغَيْبِ in [the] private, 67:12:5
l-ghaybu ٱلْغَيْبُ the unseen / future, 68:47:3
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen / future, 72:26:2
ghaybihi غَيْبِهِۦٓ His unseen / future 72:26:6
l-ghaybi ٱلْغَيْبِ the unseen (news) 81:24:4
bighāibīna بِغَآئِبِينَ ever ones to be absent. 82:16:4

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