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.

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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)

Wooing the Quran (3): Countering the Grand Delusion (Al Kahf, the Cave)

أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ   مَنْ حَفِظَ عَشْرَ آيَاتٍ مِنْ أَوَّلِ سُورَةِ الْكَهْفِ عُصِمَ مِنَ الدَّجَّالِ

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whosoever memorizes the first ten verses of Surah Al-Kahf will be saved from (the trial of) Dajjal.”

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The above Hadith recorded by Muslim in his Sahih, though seemingly straightforward, has always dragged me towards its various nuances since I first became aware of it. There are of course some other versions of it; for instance, the one recorded by Abu Daud also relaters a narrator mentioning the last ten verses as well. There is yet another version which associates the word Fitnah with Dajjal thus rendering an associative phrase, meaning the trial of Dajjal (فتنة الدجال). Then there is always a great anthropomorphic baggage in the classical literature dealing with various descriptions of  End of Times and descriptions of anti-Christ.

However, it is needless to say that there is no way to corroborate or deny the specifics of doomsday predictions. As always, there have been conflicting attempts to amplify the applied domain of these accounts and on the other hand, the outright rejection as well.

So moving from an apriori assumption that the above prescription (in the Hadith) has been truly ascribed to the Prophet – and I do believe so – my readings of  this Surah  have always been overshadowed by the meta-narratives provided by this Hadith. As evident, its an extremely concise text and there are just three interlaced textual elements, that demand an interpretive exercise: 1) the nature and reality of Dajjal, 2) the contents of first and last ten verses of this Surah and 3) how memorizing these verses can guarantee protection against the trial of Dajjal, whatever that phrase means.

KahfSurah Al-Kahf (the Cave), the eighteenth chapter of the Quran, is an extended narrative with usual Quranic blend of interconnected thematic elements and an interactive dialogue while shifting its addressees. From the perspective of original addressees, it does not seem that the whole chapter is revealed in one big chunk, an observation that is also vindicated by the traditional accounts [1], reporting contexts of revelation for various components of texts. There are also subtexts, directly or indirectly intending to reassure Prophet’s psychological state (18:6), which was obviously stressed due to persistent denial of his community, as well as challenges and counter-questions in response to the supposedly extraordinary claims of revelation.

However, besides these context-dependant momentary digressions, the whole Surah is well-knitted in a singular recurring theme related to ontological dimension of this life, and what a particular ontic standpoint entails. Two interlinked, yet seemingly contrasting, facets of this theme are related to natural human responses to respective ontological perceptions, that is, the complete abandonment of this world or its outright embracement.

The former response is generally rooted in a perception, where the reality of this world is necessarily negated and therefore gives it a kind of meaningless or existential/ nihilistic outlook, and the latter is followed when all reality beyond this world is essentially denied.

In the narrative of people of the cave (18:9-26), Quran not only puts world-renunciation in its correct perspective, as an option to preserve one’s religious liberty and life, but also introduces the reader to the correct world-view, where life, death and resurrection is a necessary temporal cycle. An important subtextual peculiarity is how a lay-reader in general and the original recipients in particular are invited to see the bigger picture (18:22), rather than indulging in the usual mythological gossip crystallized due to burden of history [2].

On the other hand, in the story of Dhul-Qarnain (18:83-98), its the worldly power which has been rightly attributed to the mercy and blessings of Allah Almighty (18:98) rather than one’s own inherent capability and endeavours.

However, in my humble view, its the parable of two men (18:32:43) that elegantly presents the epic of this Surah’s thematic discourse. All subtle linguistic references help to draw attention of a receptive interlocutor towards various psychologies usually confronting ultimate questions regarding nature’s ultimate truths. The self-assured materialistic arrogance of the first man (18:34:36) rooted in a careful sceptic demeanour, as he soliloquises while entering his garden is aptly countered by the simple and direct rejoinder of his interlocutor (18:37-41), drawing him to a more plausible explanation of ultimate reality. The simile concluding the parable outlines the final ontological perspective, comparing the life of this world to the rain which is absorbed by the ‘earth’s vegetation’, which soon becomes the ‘dry stubble’, ultimately to be scattered away by the wind (18:45). 

To me, the most intriguing aspect of this Surah is how the ontological enquiry is essentially interwoven with the ethical enquiry, using the story of Moses and the wise man, popularly known as Khidr in Islamic tradition (18:60-82). What can be called a Quranic version of Euthyphro’s dilemma, the most essential question disturbing the most intelligent minds since antiquity is asked, that is, are there any moral standards independent of God’s will ? As far as I can dare to comment, the Quranic answer is an emphatic No [3].

Coming back to the so-called meta-narrative, the Hadith cited in the beginning renders itself to some interesting hermeneutics. For instance, since the root د ج ل  of the noun دجال means to dupe, deceive or cheat, we can speculate that the Prophetic guidance, no matter how vague (due to associated eschatology), is at least referring to a kind of illusory substantive.

The deceptive enterprise of this grand delusion is complex and multidimensional, that is, it is at once related to self-deception, the perpetual desire of this world and an inherent skepticism that has the power to sway one’s belief over the whole spectrum. The word حفظ, it seems,  is not merely memorizing as it is usually believed, rather more aptly connotative of preservation, safekeeping or compliance.

Therefore, as per Prophet’s advice, this beautiful chapter of Quran is our most reliable guard against the grandest of all delusions, that is, the life of this world (18:7, 18:104). Not only it limns this illusive enterprise but also provides the necessary armour to guard against it it.

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  1. The accounts of occasions of revelation can be seen in any traditional exegesis, for instance, Tabari or Ibn Kathir.
  2. For a very good survey of all these linguistic as well as historical intricacies, see Abul Kalam Azad’s Ashab-e-Kahf Aur Yajooj Majooj, which is not yet translated into English as per my knowledge.
  3. However, objectively speaking, the question has merely rendered itself to an epistemic enquiry, because, after all, the answer is only valid if one holds Quran to disseminate the ultimate truth. But this is not the space to discuss the epistemic validity of Quran, from a philosophical, and to some extent, historical perspective.

Wooing the Quran (2): Teleology, Eschatology and Rationality (Al Mulk, the Dominion)

The thoughts shared in the last post will insha’allah continue in future posts. The present piece is not in continuation of the last one but deliberately included in the same series as I want to aggregate all my readings and reflections related to Quran at one place.

An important element of Quranic discourse – and a kind of indirect proof of its Divine originality – is how it pushes the reader towards an almost natural and impulsive mode of pondering. This is sometimes achieved by countering the inner-most arguments developing deep within the folds of the human self. In his autobiographical journey towards Islam from atheism, Dr. Jeffrey Lang shares how he used to encounter responses to his questions as he interacted with the Quran on day to day basis. In fact, most of the Quranic interlocutors would agree that this observation is not a totally extraordinary experience and often there are moments when an unbiased and persistently reflective reader would feel as if his subconscious is laid bare before the Quran.

Being structurally as well as linguistically more coherent and direct, shorter Surahs [1] towards the end of the Quran better depict these characteristics of brevity and candor and this one, i.e., Al Mulk (the Dominion), is indeed no exception.

In what can be called a thematically single and well connected unit, a reader is warned regarding temporal nature of human life and this world, through an invitation to reflect upon the multifarious dimensions in which God’s Omnipotence is depicted in the observable universe. Being a frequently adopted style throughout Quran, this warning is delivered categorically by repetitively invoking the person of the Prophet by using explicitly the vocative case  قُلْ  implying that interlocutors of the Prophet were actively engaged with him where verses of the Quran were continuously serving as part of the ongoing dialogue.

Using observable phenomena in nature as a symbol pointing towards an Omniscient (67:14) and Omnipotent (67:1) Designer, the reader is asked to literally look upwards and observe the universe and creation of skies (67:3-5), look down and observe the creation of earth and how it facilitates movement like a tamed and domesticated camel (67:15) [2], and again pointed above to watch the flight and suspension of birds (67:19).

At first sight, this indeed looks like a straightforward framing of teleological argument, which is critically reviewed by Iqbal in these words [3]:

The teleological argument is no better. It scrutinizes the effect with a view to discover the character of its cause. From the traces of foresight, purpose, and adaptation in nature, it infers the existence of a self-conscious being of infinite intelligence and power. At best, it gives us a skillful external contriver working on a pre-existing dead and intractable material the elements of which are, by their own nature, incapable of orderly structures and combinations.

Even though, Iqbal’s critique of the argument emanates from an altogether different motivation (i.e., aiming at philosophical framing of the argument which is obviously distinct than the Divine formulation; and the latter cannot possibly be restricted under one of the classical arguments for the existence of God), a reader primarily accessing the revelation philosophically may still remain unsatisfied on closely similar grounds as Iqbal. Yet another kind of agnostic reader may feel utterly unmoved by Quran’s call to find the flaws in the perfect design of natural world. Take for instance, the case of this classic argument for denial in someone like Russell [4]:

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. […] Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. […] Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out, it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.

Quranic discourse tends to address most of such counter-arguments all over the revelation; however, in this Surah specifically, part of the above limitations are overcome by what can be called a carefully refining of somewhat mechanistic God-Nature relationship (as viewed in classical framing of the argument) with the one of considered Divine intention and purpose [5]. In my view, this is achieved right in the beginning when the concept of death, which essentially implies transformation of of all life into an eventual mote of cosmic dust in a world without God, is not only attached with the Divine creativity but also given a greater and completely logical purpose of Divine judgement regarding who ultimately succeeds in achieving the moral good (67:2).

As if providing a possible rejoinder to Russell’s last remark, Quran forces the reader to remain attentive to this world as much as the other.

Without picking up this important nuance, the whole argument is rendered too simplistic and seemingly based on mechanistic Designer/ Designed duality. On a different note, these initial verses tend to transpose the way how an atheistic argument would approach this whole issue of life and death, i.e., by turning one’s attention to other things. Quranic argument like the atheistic stand is also rooted in the natural world but unlike the latter, this natural world – in its existence as well as extinction – is not considered to be moving towards a purposeless decay but serving as a test bed for human conduct.

Not classically opposing but nevertheless an ostensibly reasonable counter-question can be that when will this promise of ultimate day of judgement be fulfilled (67:25), to which the Prophet is simply asked to respond that he does not possess such knowledge, as he is merely given the mission to convey a clear warning (67:26). Faith, therefore, is not always based on positivist empirical grounds (67:12).

The acme of this Divine drama as well as response to deniers’ myopic reasoning is set in the hereafter where groups of the persistent deniers, after being thrown into the animated Hell, will be asked whether no warner has been sent to them with the warning. To which, they will reply that warners were indeed sent to them but they rejected them and considered them deluded (67:7-11).

Perhaps the most peculiar and interesting point in these verses is Quranic commentary on rationality. The human faculty of reason, as the dialogue (67:7-11) quite clearly establishes, if used judiciously, must lead man to use natural world as a symbol to infer existence of God and a greater plan in creation. “Is then one who walks headlong, with his face grovelling, better guided,- or one who walks evenly on a Straight Way?”, asks Quran from the ones who ascribe to reason as an ideal in itself and blinds themselves to the actual ideals in the process (67:22).

Just like it is reasonable enough to believe in warnings given to us daily by people whom we fully trust, it is also rational to believe in the warnings given to us by human beings whom God chooses as His messengers. It is perhaps correct to contend that reason, according to Quranic view of rationality, is not an ideal in itself but a means to achieve the only true ideal of conceiving and appreciating the Divine consciousness scattered everywhere in the cosmos [6].

Among the obvious philosophical difficulties of understanding this kind of Quranic discourse – where the argument is rooted in the warning as well as the person of the warner – is the question whether a contemporary reader should differentiate between the direct and indirect recipients of the revelation. In my view, the point regarding warner’s proximity to those being warned clearly differentiates both kind of recipients in how they employ their respective faculties of reason; as what was originally a two-dimensional approach of warning – closely binding the person of Prophet as well as the Revelation – has been transformed into a single textual dimension for later communities after the Prophet.

This indeed is among the common semantic difficulties (albeit usually ignored) which a careful reader of the Quran, especially the one carrying the burden of historical interpretation, faces too often. Important among some other difficulties specific to this Surah are the exegetical issues whether the idiomatic meaning of phrase رُجُومًا لِّلشَّيَاطِين can be taken in verse 67:5 [7]; and what purpose is possibly intended when Quran employs a language that apparently confines God to celestial space (67:16-17) [8].
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  1. Shah Wali Ullah categorizes these Surahs as Mufassal in Al-Fauzul Kabir fi Usul al-Tafsir (although the categorization is not originally from him but coming from the classical tradition of exegesis) and this is the seventh and last group of according to Amin Ahsan Islahi’s grouping in Taddabbur-e-Quran.
  2. Islahi shares great insights on idiomatic constructions in 67:15 in his Taddabbur-e-Quran.
  3. Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.
  4. Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian.
  5. For detailed analysis of Iqbal’s critique and transformation of traditional philosophical arguments for existence of God, see Basit Bilal Koshul, Muhammad Iqbal’s Reconstruction of the Philosophical Argument for the Existence of God in Muhammad Iqbal: A Contemporary.
  6. Muhammad Asad gives brief but good insights regarding these verses in his Message of Quran. For detailed critique of modern views of rationality in relation to human psychology and its inter-relationship with knowledge, ideals, instincts and self, see Muhammad Rafiuddin, Ideology of the Future.
  7. Asad, for instance, translates the verse idiomatically by rendering it to refer to astrologers who use patterns and positions of stars to make futile and random guesses.
  8. This indeed seems to be a metaphorical figure of speech not implying literal confinement to heavens above, as human beings sometimes symbolically (and almost naturally) refer to the celestial spaces while mentioning God. Some translators have rendered the particle فِي as possessive rather than implying the usual meaning of containing within, which is a linguistic stretch in my opinion.

Wooing the Quran (1): The Question of Interpretation

This is first post of a series that I would love (and pray) to continue forever for who would like to stop collecting the jewels scattered in and around Quran. However, these ramblings should be taken as if coming from a novice who is trying to indulge himself into a patient, considerate and occasionally intense dialogue with Quran.

Jalaluddin Rumi compared the Book to a bride, unwilling to lift her veil before a rough and importunate lover; and most importunate of all are those who seek to plumb its depths without effort, patience or humility. It is no mere figure of speech to say that those who wish to win the Quran must indeed woo it. (Gai Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man)

I remember arguing sometime back that Quran is not as simple and straightforward as it is usually purported popularly, by drawing inference from the Quran itself that it is a clear guidance and contains established and explained verses (11:1). This inference, as already elaborated (in the same post), gives a kind of superficially monosemous character to Quranic language implying necessity of universal comprehension and consequently a singular as well as monolithically understood absolute truth. Towards the end of that post, I tried to pose some questions to myself for further deliberation:

What then do we mean by agreed upon universals of language? What we must know in order to determine the reference of an expression? Is it legitimate to disregard and discard agreed upon historical interpretations using tools of linguistic and literary criticism only? Isn’t it true that what we choose to eliminate also has valid basis in language though not always in historical context of revelation? What is the correct priority of sources of understanding Quran? What comes first in Quranic hermeneutics – knowledge of language, tribal dialects and jahilia poetry or Hadith, context of revelation and understanding of Companions and their students? Is it a valid assertion that understanding of Quran would always remain evolving and there would always be room for new interpretations?

Since then, further readings as well as exposure to better developed percepts have helped crystallizing more such questions, which in my view, belongs to the domain of interpretation in general and Quranic hermeneutics in particular. In this backdrop, as far as overall exegetical domain (specifically with respect to Quran) is concerned, better informed technical expositions may include a whole range of historical approaches and variety of methods which have been employed to approach the Quranic text [1].

However, if one takes the liberty of using a broad brush, these myriad of approaches may well be reduced to two parallel (albeit sometimes historically traversing) interpretive traditions, i.e., Tafsir Bil Riwayah (or Mathura) which is primarily based on transmission through written or oral tradition, including the Prophetic Hadith as well as exegesis of companions and their successors, and Tafsir Bil Ra’y having basis in reasonable and considered opinion through textual deconstruction as well as historical context and setting of revelation. Even though both the approaches are not strictly mutually exclusive, – for instance, sharing almost all the sources and tools of interpretation (i.e., context, linguistic tools, Hadith and opinions of past exegetes and classical Jahilia poetry) – there is a considerable difference regarding priority of these sources as well as the manner in which a particular source is employed. To facilitate further discourse we can call them traditionalist and rationalist schools of Quranic interpretation, respectively.

Even though both these approaches have been traditionally distinguished in numerous expects as well as object of a lot of historical (as well as contemporary) heresiography, in my view, there are two fundamental aspects of traditionalist school which may be used to meaningfully characterize its contrast with the rationalist approach: one, the principle that any interpretation of Quran must be based on authentic Hadith or interpretation of the Salaf (including companions and their successors) and two, approaching the Quran as a generally incoherent text (not ambiguous) with no primary consideration of thematic unity. 

Needless to reiterate that these contrasts sometimes reflect considerably different (at times opposing) manifestations of perceived absolute truth, thereby raising complex hermeneutical challenges; for instance, the question whether one should justifiably claim to have located the original Divine intent behind the revelation, for not only because multiplicity of meanings is an inherent characteristic of language, but also because historical pre-understanding is essentially embedded into the community of meanings surrounding the text (as fundamentally characterized in case of traditionalist approach).

In its most fundamental exposition, the first aspect of traditionalist approach draws Prophetic authority of interpretation from the Quran itself when it states that:

(We sent them) with Clear Signs and Books of dark prophecies; and We have sent down unto thee (also) the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought. (16:44)

Thus, it is not even slightly disputable (at least among Muslims) that one of the foremost Prophetic roles was to explain the Quran to its direct recipients. Instances were recorded where Prophet expounded the meanings of various verses to his companions and sometimes responded to their queries. There were companions who toiled hard and spent a lot of time to learn Quran from the Prophet, an example being the record in Muwatta that Abdullah Ibn Umar spent eight years to learn Surah Al-Baqarah from Prophet. Hadith collections and commentaries also record other interesting instances related to Quranic exegesis, for instance the report in Sahih Bukhari that Prophet prayed for Ibn Abbas for granting him the wisdom regarding the interpretation of Quran. Many such reports can be found in Hadith corpus as well as classical encyclopaedic works written on Quran.

However, similar data also suggests that Prophet did not formally arrange to record the interpretation of the Quran, in the modern sense of interpretation proper; ostensibly because the phenomenon of revelation was still open and did not attain its final textual character. Some scholars of Quran have chosen to call this Prophetic interpretive indulgence ‘practical exegesis’. Furthermore, some reports ascribed to him indicate that he even directed categorically that nothing should be formally recorded (in written form) besides the Quran so as to preserve the distinct character of revealed word. Therefore, it is hard to argue the case for formally intended (and preserved) Prophetic exegesis using verses like above, which apparently relate to Sunnah of the Prophet or his authority in general as the character of revelation was embodied in his person according to fundamental Muslim faith and his relation with Quran being ultimately reciprocal.

This last assertion however, does not mean to undermine those authentic reports according to which Prophet did indeed resort to formal interpretation in some sense. For instance, an interesting case is of verse 6:82 when some of the companions took literal meaning of the word Zulm and asked the Prophet that who among them could possibly claim to have never committed any wrongdoing (i.e., Zulm); to which he responded that the Zulm in this verse is synonymous with associating partners with Allah. Another such example is of Adiy Ibn Hatim who literally comprehended the meaning of black and white threads in verse 2:187 and sought clarification from Prophet next morning.

It is obvious that on occasions like above, Prophet indeed gave (or sanctioned) formal and specific meanings to the Divine text but it is still arguable whether these expositive incidents can be used to conclude that these reports add something substantial to the Quran which cannot be otherwise interpreted from the text itself? For in the first case, Quran itself equates associating partners with Allah as the greatest wrongdoing (31:13) and in the second case, the refered companion indeed missed the idiomatic character of the Quranic language, a mistake which was not obviously committed by the complete community of recipients at that time [2].

Historical reports like above can be used as test cases to distinguish the traditionalist and rationalist approaches with regards to the issue of authority of interpretation (the first of the two aspect already mentioned above) and raise some important concerns regarding the autonomy of the Divine text itself or the autonomy of the historical interpretive baggage that surrounds it.

Most importantly, these solitary incidents, though reasonably authentic, cannot serve to add to the fundamental textual character of the Quran as a complete and autonomous body of text even by the standards of traditionalist school itself; because obviously, any interpretation of Quran (including direct expository Hadith) is not synonymous with Quran itself. Indeed, it is hard to deny that Quran itself gives enough pointers to preserve its character of a complete book arranged in a specific order, containing message which does not essentially require support of other texts for its meaningful completion.

Secondly, any historical interpretation attributed to Prophet (or his companions) draws its authority from the fact that the original narrator memorized it and decided to report it later. This act of the narrator was neither directed by the Prophet categorically nor enjoy the elaborate Divine sanction of textual preservance as in the case of Quran; for it does not seem sensible that we would have been trying to distinguish white and black pieces of threads early in the morning had Adiy Ibn Hatim not transmitted this report further down the generations or the report was lost due to some other reason.

Interestingly, as I have already argued previously, similar examples (including the ones shared above) can be used to argue that companions, besides being the direct recipients of Quran and having been better exposed to classical language of the times experienced various kinds of interpretive difficulties. An important dimension of these challenges were posed by various tribal dialects as in the case of Ibn Abbas who correctly understood the meaning of Fatir (35:1) after encountering its usage by two bedouins [3]. These difficulties obviously multiplied considerably in the last years of revelation when the Quranic message reached out to Arab commuities other than Hijaz.

Understanding historical incidents mentioned in the Quran (especially related to Bani Israel) was another important challenge and many companions famously turned to Jewish converts to Islam (for instance Abdullah Ibn Salam and Kaab Ahbar) for better understanding of incidents related to Jewish history. Their personal opinion also mattered a lot in the matters of exegesis when there was no authentic statement of Prophet in their knowledge. Most classical exegetical works are full of those variety of opinions.

In this last respect, both approaches (i.e., Traditionalist and Rationalist) seems to silently converge as tradition-based exegetes, like Tabari or Ibn Kathir for instance, normally relate all such opinions (which are very much personal) reached to them and sometimes mention their own preference (as in usually in case of Tabari) which is obviously based on considered reason (ra’y), formalising it in hermeneutical structure as principle of Tarjih (preference).

In my view, traditionalist school itself acknowledges all these concerns and generally considers it least error-prone (or risky if one may call it keeping in view the sensitive nature of deciphering and deciding the absolute truth from the revealed text) to trust interpretation from a historical chain going to the Prophet or Salaf rather than giving preference to own reason or opinion. Interestingly, a generally accepted traditionalist exegetical principle is that no authentic Hadith can be against the Quran and an attempt is always made to reconcile both, even if it adds something to the apparently clear meanings of the Quranic text.

Rationalist school on the other hand, especially the modernists after Shah Wali Ullah (who in a way belongs to both schools but visibly shifts towards the traditionalist as far as authentic Hadith is concerned), fundamentally considers Hadith and Athar-e-Sahaba (what has reached from companions) as secondary sources which can be used to strengthen (or in some cases specify) the interpretation of Quran primarily reached through textual methods and linguistic tools. In case of handling ostensible incompatibilities and contradictions among Quran and Hadith, it is the latter that has to interpreted differently (and some times rejected) rather than a clearly purported message of the Quran.

It is difficult to locate, therefore, why adherents of both the approaches generally resort to acerbic criticism against each other when both of these ultimately want to achieve a higher aim of understanding the true message, as it was originally received (and perceived)  by the communities in Prophet’s times. For the sake of present discourse if we disregard the secondary reasons – like insecurities related to preservation (and securing) of traditional archetypes related to religious knowledge (especially of Quran), the major conclusions of the Orientalist project and modernist reactions to those conclusions which sometimes resulted in whole scale scepticism (and at times categorical denial) towards tradition – the clue might lie in how the Quran has been approached fundamentally (as far as its textual character is concerned) by both the camps which is the second major aspect in which both the approaches stand in complete contrast to each other.
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  1. See for instance, Shah Wali Ullah, Al Fauzul Kabir Fi Usul al-Tafisr or Jalaluddin Suyuti, Al-Itqan Fi Ulum al-Quran.
  2. Prophet himself referred the verse of Surah Luqman in order to explain the correct meaning of 6:82. The incident is reported widely and Ibn Kathir records it in his Tafsir.
  3. This and few more examples are quoted in a previous entry. Suyuti includes a list of Quranic vocabulary that belongs to different tribal dialects.

Is Islam a patriarchical tradition (II): Exegesis or Eisegesis

Those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding. (Al Quran 39:18)

Every interpreter comes to the text bearing those complex histories of effects we call tradition. There is no more a possibility of escape from tradition than there is a possibility of an escape from history or language. (David Tracy in Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope)

Interpretation being a human enterprise primarily means that it would be essentially modulated by inherent subjectivities of the interpreters, about which they might not be fully aware of themselves. This is because we cannot claim objectivity beyond our personal and social construct of reality. This is exactly the kind of subjectivity which Heidegger calls a reader’s ‘pre-understanding‘ and Gadamer terms as their ‘effect histories‘. Farid Esack, a South African Muslim scholar, terms interpreters as ‘beasts of many burdens‘ and contends that the whole concept of meaning is null and void unless an active and perpetual participation of the reader is assumed [1].

Consequently, as each reader brings along his own burden of contemporary contexts as well as innermost constructs of thought, all of them are bound to approach Quranic text with essentially different viewpoints. Speaking of gender and human sexuality, for instance, is it justifiable (philosophically as well as psychologically) that readings of men, women or eunuchs are understood to produce exactly similar meanings of the scripture? In the words of Cantwell Smith [2],

If you yourself are a Muslim writing a commentary; or a Sufi pir instructing your murid [disciple]; or a conscientious jurisconsult deciding a tricky point of law; or are a modern oxford educated Muslim reflecting on contemporary life; or a 12th century Sherazi housewife; or are a left wing leader of the slave revolt of the Zanji protesting against what seem to you the exploitation and hypocrisy of the establishment – in all such cases the correct interpretation of the particular Quran verse is the best possible interpretation that comes to you or that you can think up.

But the contention, as Smith continues to expound further, does not mean that these individual interpretations are intentionally crafted to concoct pre-concieved meanings of the scripture; rather, these interpretatins represents true will of God in the sincere and uncontrived good judgment of the respective interpreters. Moreover, the fact that one absolutely objective correct reading cannot be claimed by any of the readers does not necessitate that all these individual readings are rendered false. In fact, it is always likely that one of these subjective readings is rendered absolutely true, representing fully well the original intent of the God but there is no way of authoritatively claiming that, since one cannot speak in God’s name; and therefore, the usual concluding remark at the end of all traditional discourses: and God knows best.

While moving towards a better understanding of nature of conservative Quranic exegesis, it is perhaps more fruitful to invoke a framework of tradition rather than aforementioned individual subjectivities. Many contemporary scholars, for instance Fazlur Rahman [3], Amin Ahsan Islahi [4] and Mustansar Mir [5] have noted that traditional exegetes of the Quran generally failed to access it in hermeneutic totality and instead took it as a lineary constructed incoherent text without any literary considerations of textual groups (and sub-groups) with consistent thematic elements and clusters of verses addressed to specific groups of original addressees in their respective contexts. The occassions of revelation (asbab al-nuzul) which these exegetes often refer to are disjointed solitary narrations often having distant contextual imports which are seldom agreed unanimously among themselves. Moreover, there had always been disagreements regarding more important concepts such as nature and extent of abrogation (naskh) and the scriptural content which has been abrogated by the later content.

On a more complex note, originators as well as heirs of this conservative discourse did not possess adequate philosophical tools to realize the true social import of Muslim belief that real Quran is the eternal speech of God and the text between the covers (famously called bayn al duf’atay’n in traditional literature) is its earthly realization [6]; thereby, creating coalesced layers of paradoxes, which on one hand confused Divine ontology with Divine discourse and confused the eternal Quran with its readings on the other.

As the traditions became crystallized and meanings of the scripture were faithfully transferred to next generations of students, complexities like these were eventually buried under the burden of tradition . Consequently, these tendencies to access Quran atomistically and somewhat randomly resulted in future inabilities to consider it as an integrated document perpetually unfolding itself in time.

This hermeneutic view that Divine discourse is unfolding itself in time is well synced with the Quranic claims of divinity, transcendence and applicability for diverse individual and social realities including those which are yet to be realized. These claims are indeed ascribed by conservatives as well, but unfortunately, the failures (or inabilities) to respond to complex hermeneutical paradoxes resulted in a perplexed state of denial as well as acceptance; i.e., denial of historicity and acceptance of some form of imaginary time in which meaning of Divine discourse is strictly atemporal and situated historically.

Furthermore, these subjective responses were always supplemented by an equally ambiguous notion of authorized readings of the scripture, whereas contemporary readings as well as modern hermeneutical methods being rejected as biased and whimsical without due deliberation. Interestingly all the problems followed by assuming this notion of misplaced authority were also referred circularly to the same authority.

A simple and concrete example to depict these interpretive tendencies is verse 33 of Surah al-Ahzaab translated as [7]:

And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former Times of Ignorance; and establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity; and obey Allah and His Messenger. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the Family, and to make you pure and spotless.

Bulk of contemporary conservative exegesis (which in Sunni Islam is conventionally understood to be authorized by an ambiguous authority ahl-e-sunnah wal-jamaah) interprets this verse to contain a mandatory (and commendatory according to some) directive for all Muslim women to remain confined to their homes without an urgent need, which would not be decided by the women themselves but scholars of ahl-e-sunnah wal-jamaah. The popular sermons preached in street mosques display amazing selectivity and seldom mention it (perhaps in a cursory manner) that the said verse is actually addressed to the wives of the Prophet. This is evident by the beginning of the preceding verse (33:32) which states ‘O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women…‘ and also by the end of this verse (33:33) in which ‘members of the family‘ are again mentioned exclusively.

Many orthodox exegetes (for instance Tabari and Ibn Kathir) of early and medieval Islam indeed mention this fact in their respective interpretations while also generalizing the import of this verse for all Muslim women as according to these scholars, they should follow the exemplary character of Prophet’s wives. According to them, the directive was understood in a general sense by the earliest Muslim community, as indicated by some of the historical reports. This is obviously a claim, which though hard to establish for each single woman of that community, can easily be explained by the fact that it was generally a homogeneous community with extraordinary sense of piety due to various factors including presence of God’s Prophet among them.

Furthermore, these exegetes never state categorically that this directive has explicit mandatory value for all Muslim women and seldom brings this issue as a primary message of the verse. Bulk of their interpretations consist of other pertinent issues related to the context of the ayah (and Surah al-Ahzab in general) for which Prophet’s household was cautioned and directed to observe extra care, caution and character. In line with their method of using traditions for interpretation, these traditional scholars also dwell upon sundry issues like the ‘dazzling‘ character displayed by many women during the pre-Islamic (Jahilia) society.

However, the contemporary patriarchical minds employ an extremely piecemeal and authoritarian approach to interpret it as an explicit directive for all Muslim women. Indeed many other misogynist and sexist interpretations can be easily traced back to their respective originating traditions which were not considered as patriarchical in their respective historical and social conditions; but all of course, are not that simple to deconstruct.

In the context of revisiting (and contesting) patriarchical and authoritarian readings of Quran and Hadith, there is a need to retrieve the ‘antipatriarchical epistemology‘ [8] of these texts while also moving towards a unified hermeneutics based upon ethico-religious principles of Quran. There has already been an encouraging trend in contemporary scholarship for finding keys which can be used to enter into Quran-centered hermeneutics in contrast to the bulk of the orthodox approach which is generally tradition-centered. Even though these keys vary according to respective motivations of the scholars, for instance God-consciousness and social justice in case of Fazlur Rahman; Divine unity, justice and incomparability in case of Asma Barlas; Taqwa, Tawhid and liberation of opressed in case of Farid Esack; or Divine justice and Beauty in case of Khalid Abou Al-Fadl [9], all these modernists present a common argument rooted in socio-historical perspectives in which God’s word is not merely an event of the past but a perpetual phenomenon always meaningful to contemporary realities.

Interestingly this aspect of transcendence of God’s word is shared by conservatives as well, but of course with a different (and myopic) viewpoint of history and society with respect to religion and religious authority. There are encouraging pointers in the fact that at least some of these modernists had formal religious education from traditionalist madrasas
at the start of their carriers (for instance Rahman and Esack) thus being exposed to whole myriad of complexities inherent in their discourses. To conclude with the profound words of Farid Esack,

The urgent need of contemporary Quranic scholarship is to remove preunderstanding from the much-maligned tafsir bi’l-ra’y (interpretation based on considered sound reasoning) which, in conservative discourse, has come to mean baseless and devious theological or political concoctions superimposed on the Quran.

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  1. Farid Esack, Quran, Liberation and Pluralism.
  2. Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, The True Meaning of Scripture: An Empirical Historian’s Non-Reductionist Interpretation of the Quran.
  3. This indeed is a recurring theme in Rahman’s various works, especially Islam or Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition.
  4. Amin Ahsan Islahi’s exegetical work Taddabbur-e-Quran is considered one of the best among the modernists and published in Urdu in 8 Volumes. Some parts have been translated in English and can be accessed here.
  5. Mustansir Mir, Thematic and structural coherence in the Quran: a study of ‘Islahi’s concept of Nazm and The Sura as a Unity: A twentieth century development in Qur’an exegesis.
  6. The concept has firm basis in Quran, for instance 85:21.
  7. The quoted translation is Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s.
  8. The term is borrowed from Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an.
  9. Khalid Abou Al Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women.

Is Islam a patriarchical tradition (I): Understanding the hermeneutical gap

We have made it a Qur’an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand.     (Al Quran, 43:3)
Nothing exists except through language.
-Gadamer in Truth and Method

Islamic tradition, in many ways, can be described as a tradition of literature and one way to legitimately analyze the above question is to ask whether the core Islamic texts, i.e., Quran and Hadith are necessarily patriarchical [1]. Although it is true that Quran was originally revealed in a primarily patriarchical society and, at least in Islamic tradition’s formative and post-formative periods, interpreted mostly by the subjects of patriarchies, its text equally allows more coherent, less subjective and unauthoritarian interpretations to contest the popular traditionalist (or orthodox) interpretations with a visible patriarchical bent [2].

A direct import of these orthodox interpretations is that the core texts of Islamic tradition are explicitly sexist in favor of men and advocate a society in which women are essentially subjected to men. Interestingly, these interpretations have ontological as well as hermeneutical basis: ontological, because women are created after/ from men and thus their purpose of creation merely reduces to service provision to a superior creation and hermeneutical, because literal, authoritative and patriarchical readings of the text dictate so.

JunaidJamshedThese patriarchical and to some extent misogynist interpretations of scripture have far reaching implications for the society because they not only serve to demean the status of majority (or at least half) of the Muslim population, thereby subjecting them to the other half, but also render scripture as a misogynist text purporting women as a creation which is essentially unclean, deficient in intellect and created primarily ‘for‘ men. In fact, these readings are authoritatively used to an extent that serving husbands, for instance, is popularly preached as an essential article of a wife’s faith. Indeed, more crass and popularly sold interpretations boastfully build upon vivid details to create a kind of pietism in men where women merely fit as a serving commodity and must not be ‘used more than physically necessary‘ because the real pleasure is coming their way in heavens [3]. But till that time, being an inherent distraction for man’s sexual urges, they should be confined to houses and should be covered from head to toe if they come out.

It is interesting that same interpretations, if objected to, quickly rely upon socio-historical narratives – which are also rooted well in the scripture but generally reduced to secondary narratives in terms of employing them in the popular social discourse – that Islam liberated women from the pre-Islamic traditions and raised their status in a society where daughters were considered a disgrace and female infanticide was a norm.

In my view, the first step towards unreading these oppressively authoritarian and patriarchical interpretations of the scripture is to characterize the hermeneutical tendencies of these predominantly sexist readings. There are various dimensions of this characterization and at least two different broad layers at which critique can be carried out to articulate some right questions: 1) a complete disregard of the so-called hermeneutical gap between various stages of development of Islamic tradition and 2) an almost ambiguous notion of authority, which presumes a monolithic and anachronistic view of interpretive tradition as well as Islamic societies in which that tradition was developed, thereby aiding authoritarian (mis)use of the scripture.

It is perhaps a trite observation that any form of scriptural interpretation is aimed at deciphering the will of God. In Islamic theological tradition, this will, after the demise of Prophet, is essentially embodied in the form of text. It is important to note this peculiarity of character because no human being after the Prophet can explicitly claim absolute knowledge of God’s will. Prophet too, as obvious from the explicit pointers in Quran [4], only possessed that knowledge due to his exceptional status as a messenger of God, thereby giving this possession a kind of metaphysically intuitive miraculous character, not discernible through ordinary human intellect.

This observation, however, must not be misconstrued to understand that I am in anyway implying delimitation of Prophet’s authority and diminishing his interpretive role [5]. In fact, being the direct recipient of revelation and its carrier, Prophet’s will (that is Sunnah) is only the second most important source of Islamic law after Quran; however, this will is also contained in textual reports [6], which are preserved, transmitted and defended by generations of Muslims. The peculiar textual nature of this will is evident by the fact that Muslims have proudly developed exceptionally scientific methods to criticize these textual (and once oral) reports for validity of the content as well as authenticity of transmission. Deciphering God’s will, therefore, since the formative periods of Islam is essentially an interpretive enterprise; and any claim regarding absolute and exhaustive knowledge of that will would not only be fallacious but can be seen as effectively claiming the interpretive character of none other than Prophet himself.

Many modern semantic theories generally characterize texts through three dimensional models which, in one way or the other, incorporate roles of author, reader and the text itself in the hermeneutical or interpretive undertakings. Moreover, these three components are always interrelated as texts are understood to be bound by contexts and contain words with multiple communities of meanings which are used by readers (as they access texts) to decipher the original intent (or will) of the author. Jorge Gracia, a contemporary expert on texts, defines them [7] as

Groups of entities, used as signs, that are selected, arranged and intended by an author in a certain context to convey some specific meanings to an audience.

This is indeed a conservatively concise definition (not involving artifacts and other art forms) but enough to convey the complexities that surround a text for our present purpose. Moreover, this definition explicitly implies that all texts (and Divine ones are no exception) allow variant readings by nature, as all the audience are bound to disagree regarding the original intent of the author to some extent, thus goes the famous cliche that no two persons ever read the same book.

Admittedly, this definition is rather more fluidly structured than the conventional concept of Nass [8] in Islamic tradition, which is more stringently structured and symmetrically deterministic to cater for Quranic claim of divinity, transcendence and immutability; rightly so, because of the peculiar character of the author here – who is Himself believed to be Divine and Transcendent – which necessitates a faith-based assumption that He must have chosen and structured each word and phrase carefully enough to convey His full intent in best possible manner. Yet, these are still words and to paraphrase a saying attributed to Ali Ibn Abi Talib- one of the most knowledgeable and equipped exegetes in whole Islamic tradition – Quran is but ink and paper and ultimately it is a human enterprise which makes sense of it. In other words, it is reasonable to contend that language is an imperfect medium, and the faith-based assumption that God uses that medium perfectly does not reduces the inherent ambiguities and complexities of the medium itself.

Therefore, any interpretive indulgence remaining within the conventional dictates of language, thereby not relying on some esoteric knowledge inaccessible by the whole linguistic community or employing an orphic or quasi-orphic semiotic and semantic framework, has to be respected as a reasonable interpretation of scripture and a well intended exercise to decipher God’s will, albeit allowing disagreement and criticism by adherents of other readings.                                                                                                     ______________________________________

  1. It is important to note that I am not mentioning the sources of Islamic law but the core texts; the former implies sources other than Quran and Sunnah, with Sunnah being defined in various ways and other sources being selected and weighed according to methodological dictates of a particular juridic tradition or an individual jurisconsult. I employ the terminology of text as it is more in line with the present framework of inquiry.
  2. I hate to simplistically employ complex (and often confusing) terminologies like traditional or orthodox but unfortunately the present discourse in predominantly patriarchical Muslim societies like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia demands that; primarily, because adherents to these patriarchical readings of scripture themselves choose to employ these cliches and love to associate with these dualities.
  3. An example is recently circulated video lecture by a Pakistanic scholar on connubial pleasures in heaven. The lecture is in Urdu titled Jannat Ki Hoor and can be accessed here.
  4. See for instance, verse 41:6 or 6:50.
  5. My views on the question of Prophetic authority can be accessed here and here.
  6. To contend that Sunnah is only contained in textual reports (i.e., Hadith) is rather another oversimplification, but one which is the popularly held orthodox stance; in reality, there are classical as well as modernist schools and individuals who also/ or only believed in some form of perpetually transmitted practice as Sunnah, which obviously is supported by textual reports too.
  7. Jorge Gracia, Texts: Ontological Status, Identity, Author, Audience.
  8. Nass is a term used in Islamic jurisprudence to generally mean a clear legal injunction; however, there are other specific legal connotations too, for instance, declaring a legal injunction as Nass may entail that there is not an iota of doubt that the said injunction can be authentically traced back to the originator, which may be God or the Prophet.

Ghamidi’s interpretation post – some afterthoughts about hermeneutics

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Don’t have much time these days to write at length. Still mulling over some really thought-provoking comments on my Ghamidi’s interpretation post.

Is it a plausible conclusion that this fairly recent originalist attempt of fixing the ‘original intent’ of the revealed word can be seen as another tragedy to reduce Quran to the level of computer language, which is perhaps the only monosemous language in the world.

Can it be justifiably shown that historical context of each and every Divine verse is preserved and the ‘original intended meaning’ can be deduced from it without a tinge of doubt?

Contention that understanding the textual coherence (nazm) is mandatory to bring out the intended message almost leads one to assume that coherence is somehow a result of an exhaustive and unified process of textual criticism which is not apt to undergo revisions in times to come. Isn’t it against a seemingly more plausible contention that Quran is strictly an on-going and perpetual inter-communicative project between God and humanity; one that is naturally open to plural socio-ethical and legal interpretations?

To assert, as one brother seemingly does, that nihilistic delusion is a natural corollary to the claim that some degree of equivocalness is an inherent part of language, is a strange kind of interpretive extremism; an argument, which is itself an indicator how words are (mis) understood. Indeed, statements like ‘Philosophy tends to depart from from reality‘ reflect how unconcerned are engrossed interpreters of the text about the modern discourse that surrounds its nature.

As much as I contemplate with all my prejudices and extremely limited knowledge, I fail to see how a text like Quran can be merely viewed as a document with a strictly singular intent frozen in the past. Hasn’t it been shown with enough strength by many philosophical developments of last century that texts carry the burden of historical interpretation with them and its kind of impossible, if not futile, to go behind one ‘historical understanding’ and view them once again.

Texts are authors and readers – and not just authors and their utterances.

In my humble view, the present discourse goes well beyond the historical debates of logic, language and grammar and there are many bridges that have been built by modern philosophy between Abu Bishr Mattas and Abu Said al-Sirafis of our times.