Can we become aware of God as we are aware of other objects?
As I contemplate more about the answer of this question, it occurs to me that the question is perhaps more important than the answer. Over the years, I have learnt to ask this question in innumerable ways and each time when it happens, this inquisitive process brings me another step closer to the cognition of Divinity.
Religious experience, as some of us take for granted, is a matter related to faith; one that cannot be justified on pure philosophical grounds and entailing arguments that cannot be contended with the tools of expression. The veracity of these arguments can only be judged within the domain of mysticism. There is a strong argument that this domain being irrational and obscure according to contemporary standards of knowledge is based upon categories which, while swaying on the fringes of vagueness, involve countless imponderables. Which effectively means that any narration of a mystic experience cannot be assessed accurately with conviction through conventional means of assessment.
There exists a counter argument to above, initiated primarily in our times by Perennialists and Sufi philosophers, which suggests that most of the knowledge for primitive civilizations came through pseudo-mystic experiences. To be more precise, primitive man acknowledged his experience of reality – which is ‘Natural’ for us – as a mystical experience and one that is unable to be deciphered rationally. The view tries to establish the validity of mystic experience like other experiences and asserts that mystic consciousness is mandatory in order to claim any knowledge of Absolute Reality.
Being totally oblivious to practical mysticism, I cannot claim to be intimate with the ‘Other Self’, yet I have come to believe that the philosophical contention of God being a metaphysical reality does not necessarily mean that God is physically meaningless.
The Absolute Reality, as I have understood, can only be shaped meaningfully after conjoining the physical and metaphysical. This union of both the realms iterates within each one of us as we interact with the revelation. However, our inner self can only become aware of this union if it is completely at ease with the character of revealed knowledge; for we are not the direct recipients of this knowledge and neither being an audience to that historical happening.
Most of us cannot know God as we know other objects. We get knowledge of His self and attributes indirectly through humans who know Him better than us; humans who are the chosen ones and with whom God communicates through an incorporeal messenger, through inspirational dreams or directly from behind a screen.
Analyzing character of revelation vis-à-vis Prophet’s experience of it as a being in time is a comparatively modern phenomenon. To say the least, there are some contemporary slants to the problem which were not there previously. In addition, this experience of revelation is not merely an object of philosophical enquiry anymore but equally an object of scientific and psychological analysis; especially when the complete experience, which is extended on more than 23 years and has thousands of witnesses, has been downplayed by some of the modern critics, equating it with epileptic seizures and hallucinations.
Jalaluddin Suyuti mentions five different physical states of Prophet Muhammad during Wahy (mode of revelation) in his magnum opus about Quran and related sciences. It used to be an unidentifiable sound at times, trying to make the Prophet attentive for the revelation which usually followed. Most of the times, it was the Archangel Gabriel who either comes in the guise of a close companion reciting verses to be revealed or the message was directly inspired into Prophet’s heart. Revelation also used to come through dreams and Prophet used to remember everything afterwards like a real vision or experience. Suyyuti also mentions another way in which God may have communicated directly with the Prophet, as in the journey of Isra’a or as related in many Qudsi ahadith.
The narratives describing different states of the Prophet are not an object of present scrutiny; what concerns me now is how the modern discourse making sense of these narratives. Three modernist scholars, namely Muhammad Iqbal, Malik Bennabi and Fazlur Rahman, have discussed this matter in great detail. Here is a brief summary of their views:
Muhammad Iqbal: Highest State of Mystic Consciousness Transforms the Heart to Invite Revelation
Iqbal’s project is primarily philosophical. Throughout the first two chapters of Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal tries to reconcile the objectives of revealed religion and philosophy. According to him, the distinctions between both are in terms of greater details but both are one, as far as the original objective is concerned, i.e. acquiring knowledge. For Iqbal, mystic consciousness enables the self to interpret at a higher plane and is as valid as others methods of interpretation. He delineates the characteristics of the mystic experience and contends that there are intellectual and pragmatic tests to verify the knowledge gained through that experience. The example of Prophet Muhammad’s observation of a Jewish boy’s psychic abilities is a case study in carrying out such a test. Regarding claims of psychologists that Prophet was subjected to convulsive seizures, Iqbal takes stand that modern psychology has not yet devised the methods to differentiate between fruitless visions and divinely inspired messages.
Iqbal’s explanation of Prophetic experience of revelation is problematic on two related accounts. Foremost being that establishing the veracity of mystic experience in psychic domain does not automatically proves that Absolute Reality can be envisioned in a similar manner. Secondly, how can a mystic who is capable of acquiring knowledge of ultimate Reality through such an experience can need Prophetic Revelation for guidance?
Fazlur Rahman: Externality of Revelation is a Misunderstanding of Orthodoxy
Feeling-Idea-Word complex is the cornerstone of Fazlur Rahman’s discussion of the problem in his remarkable work on Islam. While insisting that revelation is not something external to Prophet, he asserts that the very idea of its external character is a gross misunderstanding of orthodoxy. Fazlur Rahman does not explicitly negate the being of an angel; neither does he deny the verbal character of revelation, as commonly believed during the days of turmoil. According to him, there was some ‘channel’ for the movement of Moral Law from its Source to Prophet’s heart but he does not speculate about this channel and rejects all the views of it that are quasi-mechanical; quite similarly as he rejects the ‘locomotive’ nature of Prophet’s ascension to heavens.
According to Rahman’s explanation, Prophet’s self in his ‘Quranic Moments’ was extended so much that it is virtually incomprehensible to identify his self as something distinguishable from the Divine Moral Law. In this state of ‘self ascension’ the Prophet’s expression of this Moral Law is Quran.
The single most important problem in Rahman’s construct is the impossibility of explaining tradition in its light. He obviously notes that himself and rejects a large magnitude of tradition (most of which is authentic according to conventional means of judging traditions) and considers it not more than a piece of historical fiction. There are other problems of course, for instance the dependency of textual characteristics of revelation on Prophet’s personal being in a particular historical setting. Rahman explores solutions to these problems by visibly formulating and tweaking his methodology.
Malik Bennabi: Revelation is External to the Prophet
As far as I am concerned, Bennabi’s exposition of the problem is the one that is most plausible among the three and deserves wider recognition. In Quranic Phenomenon, he neatly disentangles the problem into three parts, i.e. mode of revelation, Prophet’s personal conviction and the position of his self in the phenomenon of Wahy.
Bennabi strictly differentiates between intuition/inspiration and the phenomenon called Wahy which, according to his definition, should be taken to mean a spontaneous and absolute knowledge of a non-conceived or even inconceivable object. It is appropriate to quote him directly on this point:
…from the intellectual point of view, intuition does not induce any observable certainty on the part of the subject. It rather creates a semi certainty which corresponds to what one would call a postulate. It is a knowledge whose proof is a posteriori. It is this degree of uncertainty which psychologically distinguishes intuition from wahy. Now, Muhammad’s conviction was absolute, with the assurance in his eyes that the knowledge revealed to him was impersonal, incidental and external to his self. These characteristics were so evident to him that there could never remain any shadow of doubt in his mind as to the objectivity of the ‘revealing source’. This is a primary and absolutely necessary condition for the personal conviction of the subject. […] Is it by intuition that Muhammad himself could interpret the gestures of the mother of Moses, who abandoned her child to the currents of Nile? Is it also by intuition that he would have distinguished two kinds of intuitions in his verbal acts? One kind would include the verses of the Quran – since as sonorous syllables, it is part of those verbal acts – which he ordered immediately for transcription and the other, the ahadith, which he simply confided to the memory of his companions? If it were not for this clear awareness of this duality, so separated on the part of the subject, a similar comparison would simply be absurd.
Bennabi emphasizes the need to realize that Prophet Muhammad’s conviction stands as a direct evidence of the Quranic phenomenon and its supernatural character. According to Bennabi, Prophet Muhammad must have established two criteria to support his own conviction, i.e Phenomenological Criterion and the Rational Criterion. Explaining the first instance when Muhammad was dazzled by the light on the distant horizon as a ‘double sensation’, Bennabi asks:
Did he really hear and see this form? Or was this audio-visual sensation a mere subjective image [as Fazlur Rahman alludes to], surging through him as a result of a painful emotion that had driven him to the edge of the chasm? Was he the victim of over-excited senses?
Bennabi argues, while discussing the Phenomenological Criterion that these question must have occurred to a discursive mind like Muhammad’s, well before the critics of his time as well as ours. Being an engineer, he also asserts that the anomaly of Prophet’s visions is not physically unexplainable. His pointers towards the scientific arguments of luminous vibrations and a particular gamut of imperceptible frequencies below the visible band are the most interesting.
It is arguable and just a matter of personal opinion as to whose explanation among these three great thinkers is more accurate. There are finer nuances that need to be understood in order to compare their thoughts more objectively. The present effort is just an attempt to highlight an important discourse in modernist literature.