The Concept of “Ghayb” (Unseen) in the Qur’an


Many Qur’anic verses make it absolutely clear that faith is one of the foundations of the belief system of the Muslim. One Qur’anic term that particularly captures this fact is “ghayb.” This term, which occurs 49 times in 48 verses, shares the same root with “ghaba,” which means “disappeared” or “was absent,” and gha’ib, which means “absent.” However, it is used in the Qur’an in this specific sense only twice. The first time is when the repentant wife of al-‘Aziz denied that she would tell lies about Prophet Joseph in his absence:

That [I said] so that he (Joseph) knows that I have not betrayed him in his absence, and because Allah does not guide the scheming of the betrayers. (12.52)

The second instance is when God says that the good wives “hafidhatin lil-ghayb,” which means “they honor their husbands during their absence.”

In the remaining 47 occurrences, “ghayb” means “the unseen,” “the invisible,” or “the unknown.” In ten of these, the term “ghayb” is contrasted with “shahada,” which is derived from the verb “shahad” and refers to things that can be “witnessed” or “seen.” In these verses God describes Himself as “alim al-ghayb wa al-shahada” or “the One who knows the unseen/unknown and the visible/knowable.” This is one of those verses (also 6.73, 9.94, 9.105, 13.9, 23.92, 32.6, 59.22, 62.8, 64.18):

Say: “O Allah, the One who knows the unseen and the visible (’alim al-ghayb wa al-shahada)! You will judge between Your servants about what they dispute about.” (39.46)

The Qur’an describes “ghayb” as something that is known to God only:

With Him are the keys of the unseen (ghayb). No one knows them other than Him. He knows what is in land and sea. No leaf falls but He knows it; nor there is a grain in the darkness of the earth or a green or dry thing but in a manifest Book. (6.59)

In one verse, God derides the disbelievers for behaving as if they know the future in their denial of the verity of the message of the Prophet:

Has he knowledge of the unseen (ghayb) so he can see [the future]? (53.35)

Even Prophet Muhammad is instructed to tell people that he has no knowledge of the unseen:

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I do not say to you that I have the treasures of Allah nor that I know the unseen (ghayb). And I do not say to you that I am an angel. I only follow what is revealed to me.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Are the blind and the seeing equal? Do you not think?” (6.50)

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I cannot control any benefit or harm for myself save what Allah wills. Had I known the unseen (ghayb), I would have revelled in good and no harm would have touched me. I am only a warner and announcer of good news for people who believe.” (7.188)

Even though the Prophet was confident of God’s forthcoming support when challenged by the disbelievers, he could not tell when it would arrive:

They (the disbelievers) say: “Why would a sign not be sent down to him from his Lord?” Say [O Muhammad!]: “The unseen (ghayb) is only Allah’s. So wait and I will be waiting with you.” (10.20)

But God reveals certain things from the unseen to His messengers:

He is the One who knows the unseen (ghayb), and He reveals His unseen (ghayb) to no one (72.26), except to the messenger He is pleased with, so He sends guards before of him and behind him (72.27) so that He knows that they (the messengers) have delivered the messages of their Lord. He encompasses what they have and He has reckoned everything in number. (72.28)

Allah was not going to leave the believers in the state you are in until He distinguishes the vile from the good. Allah would not let you know the unseen (ghayb), but He chooses whom He wills of His messengers. So believe in Allah and His messengers. If you believe and be pious then you will have a great reward. (3.179)

For instance, God revealed to Prophet Muhammad knowledge of past events which he could not have known about, so it is “ghayb.” After recounting in the Qur’an that He gave Prophet Zechariah custody of the little Mary and other events, God goes on to tell Prophet Muhammad:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You were not present with them when they cast lots with their sticks [to decide] who of them should become the guardian of Mary, nor were you present with them when they quarrelled [thereupon]. (3.44)

Having revealed to the Prophet the story of Prophet Noah, God reminds Muhammad that this is knowledge that neither he nor his people knew:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You did not know them nor did your people before this [the Qur’an]. So be patient; the [prosperous] end is for the pious. (11.49)

This is how God addresses the Prophet after revealing to him the story of Prophet Joseph and his brothers:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You were not with them [Joseph’s brother] when they agreed on their course of action, when they were scheming. (12.102)

Similarly, all future events belong to the unseen and unknown. No one could have known about the Day of Judgment because it is an unpredictable future event, but God revealed this knowledge to His messengers to warn people and get them to be prepared for it:

Those who disbelieve say: “The Hour will not come to us.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Yes, by my Lord, it shall come to you. He is the One who knows the unseen (ghayb). Not the weight of an atom in the heavens or in the earth shall escape from him, nor smaller or bigger than that but is in a manifest book.” (34.3)

In the following verse, God’s promise to the believers that they will enter paradise on the Day of Judgment is described as a promise about the unseen, because it is about knowledge of the future. Here “ghayb” appears in the form of “bil-ghayb.” The latter translates literally but incorrectly as “by the unseen,” but its accurate translation is “as a matter of faith”:

The gardens of Eden which ar-Rahman (Allah) promised His servants as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb). His promise shall surely come to pass. (19.61)

So the belief in God includes having faith in things that the person cannot know or verify. This is further seen in eight verses in which the term “bil-ghayb” is used to describe how the believers fear God (3.94, 21.49, 35.18, 36.11, 50.33, 67.12), believe in Him (2.3), or support Him and His messenger (57.25):

[The pious] are those who believe as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb), perform prayer, and spend of what We have provided them. (2.3) And who believe in what is revealed to you and what was revealed before you, and who are certain about the hereafter. (2.4)

Those who fear their Lord as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb) shall have forgiveness and a great reward. (67.12)

These verses remind us that belief in Allah is partly based on having faith in things we cannot see or verify. So “ghayb” stands for things that the person cannot know or, even when they are brought to their knowledge, they cannot be totally certain of, because they cannot check and verify them directly. So accepting such non-provable things as facts becomes a matter of faith.

Finally, I should note that while the term “ghayb” is usually translated correctly as “unseen,” “invisible,” “secrets,” or “hidden things,” the slightly different term “bil-ghayb” is mostly translated incorrectly. The latter is often wrongly translated as “in secret,” which has a completely different meaning from the intended meaning of “as a matter of faith.” This wrong translation is used by many including Shakir, Pickthall, Sher Ali, Palmer, Rodwell, and Sale. Arberry uses “in the unseen,” which is also incorrect. Yusuf Ali and Hilali-Khan, however, use translations such as “fear Him unseen,” which convey the meaning accurately.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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