Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Monday, September 24, 2007

Diversity of Interpretations

We are all aware that we live in a world where diversity is often evoked as a threat and, more particularly, where diversity in the interpretation of a faith can be seen as a sign of disloyalty. This phenomenon is sometimes perceived to apply principally to Muslims, but it also exists in other societies. Absolutist, exclusivist, and rejectionist claims to the truth, especially to religious truth, are increasingly heard from all quarters. Rather than seeing religion as a humble process of growth in faith, some people presume to claim that they have arrived at the end of that journey and can therefore speak with near-divine authority.

Unfortunately, in some parts of the Muslim world today, hostility to diverse interpretations of Islam, and lack of religious tolerance, have become chronic, and worsening, problems. Sometimes these attitudes have led to hatred and violence. At the root of the problem is an artificial notion amongst some Muslims, and other people, that there is, or could ever be, a restricted, monolithic reality called Islam.

Our Ismaili tradition, however, has always accepted the spirit of pluralism among schools of interpretation of the faith, and seen this not as a negative value, but as a true reflection of divine plenitude. Indeed, pluralism is seen as essential to the very survival of humanity. Through your studies you have known the many Quranic verses and hadiths of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that acknowledge and extol the value of diversity within human societies. You all know, I am sure, the hadith to the effect that differences of interpretation between Muslim traditions should be seen as a sign of the mercy of Allah.

~ excerpt from a speech by Prince Rahim Aga Khan at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in 2007.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Batin or the Origin of al-Fatiha.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr addresses the inner meaning of the Divine Revelation in his chapter entitled "The Quran - the Word of God, the source of knowledge and action." It is instructive to note that any profound understanding of al-Fatiha and hence any translation will depend on the spiritual capacity of the translator(s):

"It is essential to realize that we cannot reach the inner meaning of the Quran until we ourselves have penetrated into the deeper dimensions of our being and also by the grace of heaven. If we approach the Quran superficially and are ourselves superficial beings floating on the surface of our existence and unaware of our profound roots, then the Quran appears to us also as having only a surface meaning. It hides its mysteries from us and we are not able to penetrate it. It is by spiritual travail that man is able to penetrate into the inner meaning of the sacred text, by that process which is called ta'wil or symbolic and hermeneutic interpretation, just as tafsir is the explanation of the external aspect of the book.

The Arabic term ta'wil contains etymologically the meaning of the process involved. It means literally to take something back to its beginning or origin. To penetrate into the inner mysteries of the Quran is precisely to reach back to its Origin because the Origin is the most inward, and the revelation or manifestation of the sacred text is at once a descent and an exteriorization of it. Everything actually comes from within to the outside, from the interior to the exterior and we who live 'in the exterior' must return to the interior if we are to reach the Origin. Everything has an interior (batin) and an exterior (zahir), and ta'wil is to go from the zahir to the batin, from the external to the inner meaning. The word phenomenon itself brings up the question 'of what.' which implies the existence of a noumenon. Evn Kant conceded the necessity of noumena but because he limited the intellect to reason he denied the possibility of our coming to know them. But when intellectual intuition is present and under the guidance of revelation one can penetrate the appearance to that reality of which the appearance is an appearance; one can journey from the exterior to the interior by this process of ta'wil, which in the case of the Quran means coming to understand its inner message.

The idea of penetrating into the inner meaning of things is to be seen everywhere in Islam, in religion, philosophy, science and art. But it is particularly in the case of the Quran that ta'wil is applied especially by the Sufis and the Shi'ah. To demonstrate the traditional basis of this important doctrine we quote two traditions, one from a Sunni and the other from a Shi'ite source. There is a famous tradition of the sixth Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq as follows: 'The Book of God contains four things: the announced expression ('ibarah), the allusion (isharah), the hidden meaning related to the suprasensible worlds (lata'if), and the spiritual truths (haqa'iq). The literary expression is for the common people ('awamm); the allusion is for the elite (khawass); the hidden meaning is for the friends of God (or saints) (awliya'); and the spiritual truths are for the prophets (anbiya').

There is also a Hadith of the Prophet as transmitted by Ibn 'Abbas, one of the most respected transmitters of Hadith in Sunni sources, as follows: One day while standing on Mt. 'Arafat he made an allusion to the verse 'Allah it is who hath created seven heavens, and of the earth the like thereof.' (LVX, 12) and turned to the people saying 'O men! if I were to comment before you this verse as I heard it commented upon by the Prophet himself you would stone me.' What does this statement mean but that there is an inner meaning to the Quran not meant for anyone except those who are qualified to hear and understand." (Ideals and Realities of Islam, 1967, pp. 58-59).

Those who have gone astray...

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, noted scholar of Islam, suggests that those who have gone astray are those who fail to use their intelligence correctly:

"This is not the place to analyse fully the Arabic word al-'aql which means both reason and intellect and although used to mean reason is also what binds us to God. In fact one of the meanings of the root 'aql is to tie or to bind. The Quran calls those who have gone astray from religion as those who cannot intellect, 'la ya'qilun, those who cannot use their intelligence correctly. It is very significant that the loss of faith is equated in Quranic language not with corruption of the will but with the improper functioning of intelligence.

Herein lies one of the major distinctions between the Islamic and Christian points of view, one that makes it difficult for many Westerners to understand the nature of the Islamic perspective. Christianity is essentially a mystery which veils the Divine from man. The beauty of Christianity lies in the acceptance of God as a mystery and in bowing before this mystery, in believing in the unknown as St. Augustine said. In Islam, however, it is man who is veiled from God. The Divine Being is not veiled from us, we are veiled from Him and it is for us to try to rend this veil asunder, to try to know God. Our intelligence is not a Luciferian faculty but a God-given instrument whose ultimate object is God Himself. Islam is thus essentially a way of knowledge; it is a way of gnosis (ma'rifah). It is based on gnosis or direct knowledge that however cannot by any means be equated with rationalism which is only an indirect and secondary form f knowledge. Islam leads to that essential knowledge which integrates our being, which makes us know what we are and be what we know or in other words integrates knowledge and being in the ultimate unitive vision of Reality."
(Ideals and Realities of Islam, 1967, p. 21-22)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Psychology of the Qur'an.

“Last, but not least in significance, it must be constantly remembered that the Qur’an is not just descriptive but is primarily prescriptive. Both the content of its message and the power of the form in which it is conveyed are designed not so much to “inform” men in any ordinary sense of the word as to change their character. The psychological impact and the moral import of its statements, therefore, have a primary role. Phrases like “God has sealed their hearts, blinded their eyes, deafening them to truth” in the Qur’an do have a descriptive meaning in terms of the psychological processes described earlier; but even more primarily in such contexts, they have a definite psychological intention: to change the ways of men in the right direction. Thus, all our clarifications and interpretations of such usages in the Qur’an – psychological (in the sense of both a process and an intended effect), factual and moral – operate jointly and must be properly understood and assigned proportionate roles.” (Major Themes of the Qur’an, Fazlur Rahman, p. 22-23, 1989).