Home » All My Posts » Among Dogmatic Slumberers (III): Quranic Contemplation into Universe, A Universally Communicable Experience of Ultimate Reality or Insistence on an Esoteric Mystic Consciousness?

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (III): Quranic Contemplation into Universe, A Universally Communicable Experience of Ultimate Reality or Insistence on an Esoteric Mystic Consciousness?

A modified Urdu version of this essay is published in Al-Shariah (Aug, 2014), and can be accessed here

When a supposedly well-crafted exposition sets about by throwing a classical ad hominem, it defies the whole aura of academic critique. Besides adding a tinge of offensive posture, otherwise customary for social media brawls, it also lays bare the hidden biases which deform even a good and otherwise well-intended argument. This is what can be called a first reaction to Abdullah Shariq’s essay in a recent issue of Al-Shariah; needless to mention that his concern is well-intended and his argument is a reasonable representation of a complete strata of classical modern Islamic thought. Some readers might be amazed by my use of the word ‘modern’ but there are well grounded reasons to read these simplistic trends as modernist; since unlike the classical periods of theory-making, positions are taken here which are ostensibly oblivious to underlying philosophical standpoints regarding theory of knowledge, its cosmological underpinnings, and conception of God and human being. Or else, if these omissions are advertently intended, then the whole exposition can be labelled as a reductionist tirade.

To recapitulate, here is the crux of the argument: The kind of contemplation Quran, and therefore God, requires an individual to do regarding the universe is not ‘scientific contemplation‘ rather a ‘spiritual‘ one. Because the scientific contemplation is centered on materialistic, empirical enquiry, it cannot instill the desired religious experience bordering on an esoteric spiritual recognition of the majestic glory and presence of Allah Almighty. Scientific activity, even if an individual engages in it, is legally categorized by the author as Mubah. Simply speaking, God is indifferent if one undertakes scientific contemplation in the nature and working of universe. Consequently, as the desired religious experience is essentially a spiritual one, it is poles apart from any scientific enterprise in the name of exploring religious truth. Moreover, a pressing leading question, appealing to historicism from early generations of formative period of Islam, is raised: If scientific contemplation and an attitude of materialistic enquiry is appropriate, why wouldn’t Prophet encouraged it, and companions engaged themselves actively in it? As a corollary to this question, why would it took a century after first four caliphs before the so called translation movement from Greeks set off in the Abbasid dynasty? Why didn’t earlier Muslim invasion of Sassanian or Byzantium empire trigger the translation movement?

Interjecting it as a disclaimer, I must begin by appreciating that from the perspective of ongoing tussle between modern scientific materialism and classical religious spiritualism, the views expressed by the author have an element of genuine concern. The ‘scientific‘ education rooted in modern capitalist knowledge-based economy is giving way to epistemic attitudes, where a modern man’s thinking patterns are essentially dualistic, if not totally tilted on the side of various forms of materialism. It must also be noted that we are talking about a religious man since that is a necessary assumption of the whole dialogue. However, with all the good intention of reviving this balance in favor of transcendental spiritual element, the whole argument is questionable on number of accounts. Since the whole phenomenology of engaging with a text, which is in our case claimed to be Divine, is not the central issue of the dialogue we must proceed from a necessary presupposition, that is, the act of deliberation over Quran cannot situate itself extraneous to the individual who is engaging with the Divine text. In other words, we must agree from the onset that this act of contemplation, or to employ the exact Quranic terminology Tadabbur, is not orthogonal to the human experience, since we cannot possibly speak of an individual engaged with Quranic text without assuming something about his experience. Therefore, in order to move forward, we must agree that the enterprise of Tadabbur would necessarily vary from individual to individual, but the underlying aim is to guide towards a common transcendental Truth or Ultimate Reality.

Moving from this necessary agreement, various questions automatically pose themselves to a scientific temperament engaged with Divine truths. For instance, in the Quranic semantics, what constitutes an enterprise of contemplation into the universe? Is Quran indifferent to the questions regarding the ultimate nature and functioning of universe? What is the exact nomenclature of human experience of the external world? How is this experience related to the internal world of innumerable inspirations, attitudes, psychologies and temperaments? Is this internal psychology and external sensory experience closely entangled as a unified monolithic whole or can we necessarily identify one that triggers the other? Is it possible to speak of some psychological models that can characterize all individuals in terms of their experiences of transcendental truths asserted by the revelation forcefully and unequivocally, and the resulting fulfillment? What is the relationship between human knowledge and experience, in other words the perennial question of knowledge and being?

Most importantly, since the whole premise is basically the necessity of inward and outward contemplation to access the Ultimate Truth, is Quran only interested in making case for a higher-poetic experience, a kind of mystic union so to speak, or modern man’s concrete habits of thought can also result in the kind of knowledge which can make such a union possible?

The purpose obviously is not to supply exhaustive, satisfying answers to all these questions; since minds far better than us, belonging to diverse religious, scientific or philosophical domains, have been tackling these since the age of great sages and prophets of antiquity. However, the human consciousness and experience is continuously undergoing a process of enrichment and creativity, thereby supplying new answers and looking at the past in the light of new knowledge. Therefore, the present motivation is only to question the presented classical discourse and help framing questions which are meaningful to a mind of modernist as well as traditional bent.

Unlike the ostensible classical perception insinuated from the referred piece, the truth of Quran is essentially a monolith, the Ultimate Reality being essentially singular. The categories of knowledge such as physical, biological or psychological sciences are in fact meant to guide us towards exploring that singularity. A largely prevailing modern view in philosophy of science – one that is motivating research since almost last few centuries – that the whole universe is governed by a singular identifiable law [1] echoes reasonably well with the overall Quranic spirit. Moreover, since the cosmos also encompasses the world within, the singularity of its governing principle also entail singularity of human experience. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the same mind which is engaged with knowing the external world around him is capable of knowing the Ultimate Reality. In this regard, arguing for a mystic experience as something essentially in contrast with the more concrete intellectual, and thus scientific, experience may not be such a plausible idea. Here we can see this peculiar atomistic tendency of classical viewpoint in the central argument of the referred exposition. In an almost poetic prose with some mystic element, the author sets about explaining what Quran means by contemplation in universe,

It means contemplation which draws attention towards the creator of the universe and produces an attitude of attention towards God, the kind of contemplation which provokes him to see the light of God in each and every particle of the universe, and he finds himself completely immersed in this light; the kind of contemplative process, during which the individual finds himself absorbed in the Being of God, finds himself overpowered with the Divine power and glory, and attitude of closeness to God is instilled into him. [2]

The problem here is not the pattern of thinking where sensory experience of the universe is giving way to a kind of religious experience of transcendental reality, or existence of Divine presence in the macrocosm. That is obviously a given from any reading of the Quran including the one shared above, may it be scientific or otherwise. Rather the problem is the classical thought almost inadvertently pitting a mystic experience against a more concrete, so called scientific experience of reality. As I read it, this view is provoked by a largely mystic-pietistical understanding of human fulfillment through religious experience.

In one of the most original studies regarding nature of religious experience in modern times, William James shed some light on the nature of it varieties [3], and Iqbal discussed it in depth in his first lecture [4], explaining significance of Islamic doctrine, and placing its metaphysical element in the context of concrete rather than esoteric experience,

No doubt, religious beliefs and dogmas have a metaphysical significance; but it is obvious that they are not interpretations of those data of experience which are the subject of the science of Nature. Religion is not physics or chemistry seeking an explanation of Nature in terms of causation; it really aims at interpreting a totally different region of human experience – religious experience – the data of which cannot be reduced to the data of any other science. In fact, it must be said in justice to religion that it insisted on the necessity of concrete experience in religious life long before science learnt to do so. The conflict between the two is due not to the fact that the one is, and the other is not, based on concrete experience. Both seek concrete experience as a point of departure. Their conflict is due to the misapprehension that both interpret the same data of experience. We forget that religion aims at reaching the real significance of a special variety of human experience.

What does it mean therefore to say that contemplation in the universe, which is essentially a sensory experience interpreting some data immediately available to it, can guide me towards a higher reality?

It isn’t merely a spiritual catastrophe that doesn’t instigate a rich experience of highest truth, in other words an attention towards the glory of God almighty, in most modern temperaments. Of course, it has a lot to do with distorted modern human condition, regarding actual place of human self in the cosmic scheme, yet it will not be reversed simply by appealing to moral and practical aptitudes, since it has a lot to with transformation of human experience that has taken place since the so called age of enlightenment [5]. Such a reversal is only possible through studying the nature and historical context of cultural and philosophical factors that shaped such an experience and suggesting means to enrich it in modern settings. Indeed, the means of enrichment and the enrichment itself must only come about from a single source, that is, revelation.

The question about the nature of contemplation automatically presumes something about the object of contemplation. The Quran obviously presents the whole cosmos as an indirect pointer towards the Divine creativity. This teleological appeal contains in itself an inherent demand to know. The problem, therefore, boils down to the classical problem of knowledge, and this is the area where the intellect and the object it wishes to perceive necessarily interact.

We are not interested here in the epidemiological dimensions but a more simpler question, namely, how does the object of knowledge presents itself to a knower? Even a cursory reader of Quran would agree that revelation primarily addresses our intuitive capacities and then invites our ordinary sensory-experience to vindicate that intuition; after all, its the ordinary sensory-experience that is our sole universal possession. Besides breaking away from the classical esoteric traditions of perceiving higher reality, this novel aspect of Quran is also not contradictory to modern science. From a scientific perspective, Quran simply provides intuitive symbols towards an higher reality to an engaging mind, and motivates him to know the intricacies in the universe. For instance, when a reader is told that God sends rain (Luqman: 34), it is simply an intuitive knowledge to provoke further exploration for environmental regulatory mechanisms bringing about rain; when Quran says that man is created from a quintessence of clay (Al-Muminoon: 12), it provides the bare minimum knowledge serving intuitive thrust and motivating a biological academic quest; and when it contends that Kuffar are worst than animals (Al-Airaaf: 179), it doesn’t set about on a detailed theory of human nature and belief, thereby providing intuitive pointers for development of moral philosophy and psychology.

In this manner, since it moves forward from an assumption of Divine revelation from the mouth of Prophet, Quran suffices itself with more or less intuitive aspects of knowledge. To maintain that these intuitive aspects of knowledge are something distinct from Quranic contemplation is not only based on erroneous, insufficient or biased readings of Quran but also based on simplistic philosophical or scientific foundations. It is true that there are academic currents denying or questioning them, but from a sheer religious perspective the ultimate cornerstone of separating truth from falsehood is again revelation. Therefore, for a curious religious reader it is merely a preservation of faith in revelation that these intuitive and imaginative aspects, as well as metaphysical foundations, underlying scientific enterprise are being exhaustively explored by philosophers of science, for instance, Edwin Burtt [6] and Gerald Holten [7].

Consequently, if religious solace of recognizing a higher truth can just come about from staring at heavens, and feeling glory of God showering upon us, there is nothing objectionable in it, per se. However, its a kind of religious experience that cannot be concretely communicated as a universal truth statement, in other words, its a personal intuitive version of truth still demanding to be verified or falsified.

It is also correct that any such experience does not depend upon a particular academic position regarding the state of universe, such as earth being flat or universe being heliocentric. However, it is also a fact that besides inviting a reader to look up towards the skies and peep inwards into his heart, revelation continuously frames arguments which implicitly or explicitly force a reader towards envisioning a particular version of physical reality. As mentioned above, this aspect of revelation, however, is not an scientific-empirical judgement but necessarily an intuition about aspect of physical, or psychological reality – that is, signs in the outer as well as the inner world which are meant to be deciphered by the consciousness. Faith in an Ultimate Reality has therefore a necessary cognitive element to it. Being a byproduct of ethical, aesthetical and religious elements of consciousness, each of us, in at least some sense, do experience higher-reality in a unique way. Since immediacy of this experience lies in an individual’s interaction with the text, what we understand as expressions of knowledge or truth would greatly expand with the kind of meanings are intellects are capable of creating, being function of our present state of knowledge. Thus the appropriate Quranic promise: Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things? (Fussilat: 53)

For what is faith but our possession of truth, what kind of force it has if it cannot be expressed outside ourselves? If you insist that contemplating signs such as “He surrounds (all the mysteries) that are with them, and takes account of every single thing (Al-Jinn 28)” gives you a kind of overwhelming psychological feeling regarding presence of Lord and “there is not a thing but its treasures are with Us; but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures (Al-Hijr 21)” gives you a taste of showering glory, I have a respect and reverence for your faith, and have no motivation to doubt its psychological element, but there is no way to express it beyond yourself as a sound knowledge because there are no universals principles that can judge its general relationship with all human beings. On the other hand, a logician, mathematician or scientist, while interacting with same components of text, would obviously get an intuitive motivation to explore the nature of infinities since he decipher those signs as assertive judgement regarding cosmic truths. Hence, to reduce the complex nomenclature of human consciousness to a mere psychological element is an ironical error of judgment. What is more ironical is to insist, to borrow words from Iqbal, that a purely psychological method can fully explain religious passion as a form of knowledge.

To reiterate, it can certainly give you a sense of individual fulfillment but its not a knowledge upon which you can insist with conviction and certainty outside yourself. On a generalized scale, this is complex and problematic since regardless of scientific, social or psychological dimensions, ultimate unison of knowledge and being is primarily a religious demand and a fundamental prerequisite for any possibility of arriving at a sustainable meta-theory.

We are now in a position to analyze the assumption regarding the early Prophetic community not engaging in a sustained empirical enquiry in a scientific contemplative fashion. Disregarding the socio-historical and cultural aspects, and what ‘scientific contemplation‘ may mean in the pre-medieval tribal societies, we can at least argue from the perspective of placing response of immediate Prophetic community to revelation and how they understood truth in relation to it. In this respect, Dr Muhammad Rafiuddin, a really imaginative philosopher and an interpreter of Iqbal, had some really interesting ideas to offer regarding putting the Prophetic mission in philosophical perspective. According to Rafiuddin, since human beings naturally have variety of intuitive ideas due to their different dispositions, Prophets are God’s way of intervening to sift right intuitions from the wrong ones [8]. We have already discussed above how revelation primarily serves with emphatic truth statements, leaving the aspects of rationalization or theory-construction to the intellects. In this regards, its the natural mode of perception which is first receptor of revelation before the subsequent take over by the somewhat artificial intellectual self. The immediate Prophetic community, by virtue of its interaction with the Prophet living among them, did not naturally have the need of enterprises like theory-formation, truth-construction and knowledge-production. Moreover, the challenge presented to their claim of truth was not primarily rational or intellectual but more of a skeptic bent, per se, regarding truthfulness of Prophet, who was essentially a person like them claiming to be sent from God and having unequivocal possession of truth. As soon as this early, enclosed society expanded and interacted with other rich cultures and scientific-philosophical traditions, the nature of challenges exponentially diversified. The culmination of creative potentiality of human intellect can be inferred directly from the fact Quran is the the last word of God and Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. That creative potential, however, is still in the process of actualization and text of Quran subsequently has the potential to incessantly create new meanings and rich vocabularies of expressing truth.

Lastly, arguing for scientific or philosophical contemplation in universe to picture reality, is not in any way meant to down play the spiritual or psychological aspects of reality. Truth and consciousness do have a certain esoteric relation but insisting on a transcendental pattern without understanding that relationship is a dangerous tendency. Human beings, by virtue of diverse conscious make-ups would continue to envision and understand truth in innumerable fashions. But an inward possession and sustenance of truth does not automatically entail a meaningful, consistent expression. Since the time of Pythagorean tradition, human beings have tried to produce consistent, rigorous pictures of higher-reality employing abstract mathematical concepts. There have been many historical troughs later, yet it has been undoubtedly established that scientific exclamation and description of truth is one of the most cogent and sustainable approaches out there. On the other hand, spiritual and psychological aspects of the faith are related to our aesthetical selves. In that domain too, we have rich poetical and mystical traditions of the past, for instance the Greek tragedy.

Considering modern extension of scientific methods to linguistics, psychology and even theory-making in aesthetic creative disciplines, religion is being increasingly commented upon using scientific vocabularies. Religious temperament, being the proud possessor of Divinely sanctioned truth propositions, must naturally come out with universally convincing synthesis of knowledge and being. Rather than strictly reducing scientific enterprise to utilitarianism, and finding flimsy foundations in history, a religious mind must possess the right combination of intellect and spirituality, or materialistic and the ineffable. The act of contemplation is a deliberate intended activity desired out of any addressee of the Quran, regardless of her apriori leanings; however, only that manner of propounding truth would be considered universally meaningful and fulfilling which can claim to come from a universal body of principles and agreed upon methodologies of discourse. Otherwise, our insistence on possession of truth would not be more than a mere personal statement having no universal value whatsoever.

___________________________

Bibliography

  1. Edwin. A. Burtt, Religion In An Age Of Science (1930)
  2. Muhammad Abdullah Shariq, Tadabbur-e-Kainat Kay Qurani Fazail: Roohani Tadabbur Murad Hey Ya Sciencey, Al-Shariah (June, 2014)
  3. Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930)
  4. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902),
  5. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1919)
  6. Edwin. A. Burtt,  The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. A Historical and Critical Essay (1924)
  7. Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (1973) and The Scientific Imagination: Case Studies (1978)
  8. Muhammad Rafiuddin, Ideology of the Future (1946)

One thought on “Among Dogmatic Slumberers (III): Quranic Contemplation into Universe, A Universally Communicable Experience of Ultimate Reality or Insistence on an Esoteric Mystic Consciousness?

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