Reading the Quran in Postmodern Times

Understanding what is certain and what is probable and what needs qualifying clause when speaking in the name of God or His Book.

Muhammad Maroof Shah
Srinagar, Publish Date: Aug 15 2018 11:53PM | Updated Date: Aug 17 2018 2:05PM
Reading the Quran in Postmodern TimesFile Photo

The positive contribution of postmodern thought consists in alerting us to the danger in absolutization of one’s interpretations and attributing the same to earlier generations in the name of authentic history/received uncontested interpretation/consensus of authorities. Claiming knowledge, certainty, authority (and asserting that the debate is closed) in the name of religious or community interest has become more difficult now.

It needs a lifetime of engagement with the Quran at personal level to understand that the Quran opens up its treasures only on the condition that one continues to maintain great intellectual humility that the weighty, awe inspiring Word calls forth. What the great learning (from the Book of God) requires is a learning in continuous unlearning or learned ignorance and surrendering temptation to absolutize given meaning or considering given interpretation as final. A jurist or theologian who has requisite honesty and integrity to recognize how everything he preaches in the name of Islam or hadith literature or meanings of the Quran is only provisional and may well be superseded the next moment or qualified by greater scholar and what is absolutely certain is only the consciousness of our contingency, situatedness, uncertainty and cognizance of the great mystery that wells up everywhere when encountering that in which “there is no doubt.” The most important problem – whether one is saved or if anything can really be done that will ensure salvation – is not clear and what we encounter as signs in the self and cosmos are to be ceaselessly contemplated by interpreting oneself away to let the Quran read us, decimate us, be ours or better be us. This implies need to be ready for what is presented on every unveiling  and  thus recognizing that some veiling is what is there to stay. One must ever remain watchful or question what one has so far understood as God, the transcendent horizon of our lives and meaning, may well be said to be the ever approximated but never fully accessed. Trying to understand understanding is what one is required to do when the Quran is presented.  God never repeats His disclosures and that means what one has experienced or understood today can’t stay the same.  Keep wondering and kissing the mystery in every object or experience and one  begins to understand why God/Revelation is best understood as a shock to every complacent reading/understanding. “God is ever in new glory” implying one is ever refreshed by newer revelations of meaning/unveilings.

One doesn’t understand the Quran but only attempts to understand it.  Those who claim that have read the Quran haven’t read it. Reading the Quran implies gaining certain innocence/deconditioning/humility to receive the worlds symbolized. Those who don’t find new meanings on every new reading don’t know the adab of Quran. Those who readily jump into chapter and verse number in response to profound questions don’t know what is tadabbur in the Quran.

The Quran invites us to other than itself – cosmic Quran, the Quran inscribed within – and we seldom accept the invitation. It invites us to think and we too readily bring this or that writ even from the Quran against thinking on an issue. The Quran doesn’t settle issues; in unsettles our complacency and asks us to think over issues, have a consultation or dialogue on the same and always consider the best amongst knowledgeable. In fact the Quran as discourse (as distinguished from text, as Abu Nasr Zayd would note) invites us to have a sort of Socratic dialogue with ourselves/others so that what is to be truly honoured or is just or beautiful comes to focus. We usually fail to notice why the Word or Revelation necessarily means renouncing the very desire to interpret on our part. A look at the theory of Revelation across religions clarifies the key question so that we don’t hanker after meanings but prepare for receiving all meanings that there are or become receptive to that which is – prelinguistic suchness – and one transcends all interpretative framing. Incidentally it is the theory of Revelation that is given inadequate attention in Muslim thought and as such justifies the attention given by modern thinkers such as Abdulkarim Soroush (with all their limitations that may be). The Quran asks all humans to be proficient in the language of the heart in order to be vouchsafed the meanings of the Quran. And it doesn’t tire of inviting us to wisdom that needs attuning to our inner intellectual and spiritual resources and not this or that human language. Since the Quran is for all and it is extremely unlikely that all the humans will learn any one language after the Tower of Babul split, the invitation is to learn the language of the heart and the mind – or we can say the language of the Self/Silence. And for these languages tazkiyyah is needed. When tazkiyyah happens and one achieves the eye for beauty (ihsan) one has truly read the Quran. (This doesn’t absolve the need to perfect the eye for beauty of Arabic language that untangles many a knot, shows how it is verbs or processes as against the static nouns or copula “is” that need to be emphasized, convinces one more and more about the miraculous nature of God’s speech. One reason against indifference to or alienation from the Quran is one’s failure to appreciate linguistic miracle that is the Quran). This results in renewed ability to keep wondering and pursue beauty or excellence and as such one never finishes reading the Quran because man ever strives towards unreachable perfection or unalloyed beauty.

Our job is not to seek truth lying somewhere but be available to be consumed by truth and that means newer truths or haq due to every new experience. The Truth is never accessed (that is what la illaha illal lah implies for sages), only approximated as a limit or appreciated under some aspect or veil. One needs to learn how it is God seeking recognition (when worship deepens, it turns into recognition, irfan) from us in every experience. All that we encounter and seems negative is coquetry of the Beloved that makes the game more colourful. All heartaches, failures in relationships, tragedies, getting astray, landing in hell and consequent purification by fire are, in the divine economy of things, part of a larger game that we have chosen to play for its own joy. “All things shining.”  A cosmic dance. Smiles of Mono Lisa and the Buddha. The Quran decimates us and requires that we renounce every conceptual construction we are tempted to impose on that which presents itself, which is a percept and not a concept. Let go. “Ripeness is all. The rest is silence.” One learns this silence from the saints and sages who have perfected the station of  acceptance (raza) and whose sermons are poetry or invitations to aesthetic appreciation instead of moralistic judgment of the world. Appreciation gives life; judgment kills. The task is to honour/perceive God before everything or within every experience.

Those who buy the notion of vetoing new thinking in Quranic exegesis  and assert that we have been handed over by pious ancestors not only text but neatly preserved and for all purposes certain corpus of interpretations as well so that it is not thinking but obeying that is primarily needed may be asked to explain, for instance, such questions/points as:

The first revealed verses (neither iqra nor qalm are best understood in literal terms as there was no book to be read nor physical pen to be primary instrument of teaching knowledge).

The meaning of terms Deen and Islam in what is often considered the last reveled verse in the face of the fact that these can’t refer to what is popularly, juristically framed as Islam which is one manifestation of the Religion or Unifying Underlying Religion/Truth informing all revealed religions.

The significant play of multiple voices and such assertions as that there are four levels, four types of meaning, seven levels of esoteric meanings, and even scores of sciences or thousands of meanings in every verse. 

Invitation to recognition of change/history as signs in the Quran.

The fact that there is no way of determining or delimiting meaning space/horizon of certain words/terms or fixing context/closing debate on asbab-i nuzool of many verses. 

Breakdown caused by immense weight of Divine Word that crushes language as Nasr notes.

The Quran’s intertextuality that is illuminated by in depth engagement with the sacred books of the world or other religions, Semitic and non-Semitic/mytho-poetic narratives of tribal cultures/wisdom traditions and correspondences with the text of the cosmic Quran.

Problems noted by most of great exegetes, especially in modern times, in prevailing privileging of the atomistic (isolated chapter and verse quotations) approach to exegesis and legalistic framing that has partially blocked both metaphysical and axiological foundations or legalistic-theological framing or other elitist views that have put in oblivion aesthetic and philosophical approaches that respect understanding of every addressee of any background. (This was Ibn Rushd’s point against argumentative theologians)

The role of the inherent metaphoricity and differance in much of language that scriptures use simply makes impossible literalist reading (often misattributed to Salaf) of significant part of scripture.  In fact use of the same term ayat for verses of the Quran and signs of cosmic Quran and the fact that almost all the Quranic verses involve reference to realities that can’t be comprehended if taken literally/only literally/as something external or other such as God or Divine attributes/other or higher world/mystery/angels/inner realities/previous scriptures/prophets. These problematize literal, self contained exclusive exoteric understanding and force us to consider other layers of meaning employed by philosophers/mystics/artists/mythographers etc. Extensive use of figurative devices, ellipses, ignoring chronology, sudden jumps or juxtaposing of seemingly disjointed ideas often question any attempt that claims this or that as the meaning of the verse.  Continuing debates on disjointed mystery letters (huroof al-muqatta’at) and on who qualifies as rasikhoon fil ilm or    which verses are clear and which ambiguous or how to frame the later in terms of the former implying we can’t afford to avoid thinking. How we account for attempts vetoing new thinking given huge number of mutashabihat given the fact that understanding them constitutes the more significant portion of the sciences of the Quran (as Anwar Shah Kashmiri pointed out). Without knowing in depth other scriptures we fail to make comprehensible the Quran for audiences shaped by these sacred texts. And one is led  more to appreciate than polemically dismiss self understanding in respective universes of meaning when one takes note of modern conceptual and hermeneutical tools for studying other sacred texts. 

There is great deal of disagreement in interpreting key verses and even foundational concepts like tawhid or messengership of the Quran implying we can continue to keep tradition of debate and discussion open. And, as Ibn Qayyim notes for instance, the issue of what the Revelation has to say about the fate of nonbelievers is far from resolved. What it has to say regarding duration, nature and locale of hell is similarly far from resolved. 

 The Quran is an easy book for masses on the question of  saving from hell but the most difficult book for intellectual or scholarly elite due to its very profound secrets, hints and layered meaning spaces. Read all the exegeses that we have access to (take a look at great Tafsir project – Altafsir.com – that contains many important classical and modern commentaries, of various schools at one place) and one finds much to be desired to help one with the text. The Quran’s meaning spaces can’t be exhausted because Being or Wujud itself is an ocean without shore whose manifestation consists in being not manifest or too blindingly manifest to keep us ever in the hunt or in waiting mode – He/not He, veiled in His unveilings, wondrous tapestry that attracts and induces awe, the holy that resists our approach and yet attracts.  One may conclude by attempting to say the unsayable, that one can’t answer the question what does the Quran say on more important questions in terms that are familiar. The Quran undoes us – one can only be dumb before the Mighty King or Great Beauty – if we take it seriously and one can’t afford clinging to something that posits itself against that which constitutes us. One’s job as a reader is to listen and be gone or become a clearing for Being to unveil and that is all – our greatest freedom and joy expressed through sacred tears and otherworldly sakinah or rahmah that uplifts.

We mostly find people parroting the Quran, not reading it. You find them competing for finishing as much as possible without bothering to ponder that we must be finished before the Quran reveals its depths and heights to us. (“Koran paran zindi kithu roadukh…” “How come you survived reciting the Quran…”). Indeed the Quran needs to be read before a Master to taste something that no written Quran commentary can give. Some secrets – in fact the most profound ones – are only orally transmitted. We are required to write tafsir in contemporary idiom and be ever ready to revise it.

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