The Endless Meanings of the Quran

The Endless Meanings of the Quran

The Koran is the basis of the spiritual identity of Muslim men and women. Word of God, it carries within itself infinite meanings, indescribable perspectives, it opens up truly ineffable horizons. The task of an Islamic theology is not to circumscribe this infinity, nor to close the act which consists in reading the sacred text, but to contribute, on the contrary, to bringing to life in the consciousness of the reader and the reader the creative potentialities, the emancipatory potentialities of the divine Word.

If theology (‘ilm al-kalam, ‘ulum ad-din) is possible and necessary, it is primarily because the quest for meaning is rooted in the heart of the believer’s inner and collective adventure. It is precisely between the infinitude of the Koran and the finitude of our readings and interpretations that this quest for meaning takes place.

The latter is less in the text itself than in the act of reading. The Koranic imperative is explicit here, and it is in it that the adventure of Islam originates:

” Read ! Read” demanded the Angel to the one who thereby became the Messenger of God (rassoul allah). (“Read in the Name of your Lord who created! He created man from a clot of blood. Read!… For your Lord is the Most Generous who instructed man by means of the pen and taught him what he did not know) [Coran XCVI, 1-5].

If the meaning is not in the Koran, it is not either, contrary to what a sterile historicism might believe, in man. It would be useful, it is in any case our theological perspective, to think in terms of a relationship and not only of an object. Meaning emerges from the relationship between the Quran and man. This means that consciousness must rise to a site beyond both the situation in which the human thickness of the reader is abolished (in the name of a reductionist understanding of divinity) and the situation in which it is the transcendental horizon of the Koran which is denied (in the name of a reductionist understanding of humanity).

Meaning, let us repeat, lies at the heart of the relationship. Moreover, it is not useless to recall that the reading of the Koran must be carried out under the guidance of the ‘aql. But unfortunately it is customary to reduce it to reason (the ratio of the Latins). What is proposed, in fact, is less to read the sacred text according to the rules of a rationalism which could be mutilating, than to integrate the achievements of “rational” reading in a larger and more stimulating perspective for the living faith of the believer. We refer here to the study by our friend Eric Younès Geoffroy entitled “On the Exceeding of Reason in Sufism”

In the context that is ours today (and we must measure the distance with the context of medieval Islam), it seems important to us to emphasize that the ‘aql of the Arabic language is not reducible to the dominant Western reason. As much as reason proceeds by reduction (from the Logic of Aristotle to the Discourse on the Method of Descartes), the ‘aql proceeds by analogy, through a cognitive process by which, instead of cutting up, decomposing and fragmenting reality, one proceeds to its unification. The establishment of relations, links, correspondences between all that exists in phenomenal reality is the ultimate aim of the use of the ‘aql, the subtle organ of the human soul.

It is in this sense that we can say that the ‘aql aims for the Muslim soul to reach the clear-consciousness of tawhid, in other words of the original unity between the divine, the cosmic and the human. This awareness of unity is a dynamic type process (which evokes the process of Alfred N. Whitehead) and the word says it well: tawhid is the verbal name of the 2nd form of the Arabic root WHD. But this 2 nd form is dynamic. Ibn ‘Arabi produced a beautiful work about this original unity, prior to duality; just read his pages on the wahdat al-wujud. We will come back to it.

Michel Fattal, a great connoisseur of ancient philosophies, has offered a remarkable study on reason as it reveals itself in Western and Eastern contexts. In his eyes, the Word of the Koran does not belong to the same universe as the Greek Word as it was expressed by Plato and Aristotle. It is neither “logical” nor “rational”. Logic is designated by the substantive mantiq which derives from the verb nataqa, to profess (a word).

It appears only once in the Koranic corpus (XXVII, 16) and it should be emphasized that the logic to which the text refers is not that of men, but that of the language of birds! The substantive ‘aql – which refers to the Greek logos – does not appear in the Koran, except through the verb ya’qila (to understand). He writes this: ‘Aqala means to understand well and to be endowed with intelligence as well as to bind and bind. Intelligence, ‘aql, is therefore a link, ‘uqlat. “(For a new language of reason. Convergences between the East and the West, Paris, ed. Beauchesne, coll. “Library of the Archives of Philosophy”, 1987, p. 70)

The Arab-Muslim horizon of the ‘aql is therefore indeed that of a connection (in contemporary terms we would say of a “networking”!). There would be material to make the connection between this horizon and that of the transdisciplinarity to which the current movement of science invites us, from the hard sciences to the human sciences and if we want to speak of reason at all costs about the ‘aql, that we then speak of “open reason” in the sense given to this expression by Edgar Morin or even of “open rationality” in the wake of Antoine Faivre.

Moreover, we endorse what he says about the “open rationality” of the German Nature Philosophers of the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, a “rationality likely to fertilize research by favoring the advent of a transdisciplinarity that is well understood and essential today. A rationality, finally, diverting us from tracing our representation of the world solely on the methodological principles of positive science, which should never remain anything other than servants of knowledge, ancillae philosophiae, that is to say means for a functional approach to reality. (Philosophy of Nature, Paris, ed. Albin Michel, coll. “Ideas”, 1996, p. 19).

A transdisciplinary reading of the Koran can prove to be fruitful in that it is not content with rational analysis and the use of scientific disciplines. Even if historical criticism, literary analysis, psychology, cultural anthropology, etc., can bring important insights (and the first Muslims did not refrain from resorting to rational methods such as the “Science of the conditions of revelation” (asbaban-Nuzul)), these sciences must be “servants”, tools of knowledge with a view to tawhid and inner realization.

This is the difference between transdisciplinary reading and disciplinary, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. In the latter, we are still on the ground of rationality, argumentation, proof, a sort of minor ‘aql; and we use this expression in the same sense as minor jihad (jihadal-asghar). Transdisciplinarity assumes disciplinarity and radically goes beyond it. Here we are back to the “overcoming of reason” mentioned above.

Let us underline that going beyond is not breaking and it is not illegitimate to say that it translates the passage from the minor ‘aql to the major ‘aql, like an echo of the ‘aql al-awwal of Ibn Sina and of Muslim neoplatonism. The trans says both the through (the rational disciplines) and the beyond (of these same disciplines). In this beyond, the cognitive process summons other inner faculties and other organs of knowledge are solicited.

We are here in the presence of the famous distinction between tafsir and ta’wil. Seyyed Hossein Nasr recalls that it is “through spiritual work that man acquires the possibility of reaching the inner meaning of the sacred text, through this process called ta’wîl, which is the symbolic and hermeneutic interpretation of the Book, just as tafsîr is the explanation of its external aspect. (Islam. Perspectives and realities, Paris, ed. Buchet Chastel, Paris, 1975, p. 71).

He continues: “The etymology of ta’wil indicates the very process involved in this Arabic word, the literal meaning of which is: to bring something back to its beginning, to its origin. To penetrate the interior mysteries of the Koran is precisely to go back to its Origin, because the Origin is what is most interior, whereas the revelation, or manifestation, of the sacred text is both a descent and an exteriorization of it.

Everything, in fact, proceeds from the inside out, from the inside out, and we who live “outside” must come back inside if we want to reach the Origin. Everything has an inside (batin) and an outside (zahir), and ta’wil is going from zahir to batin, from outer form to inner meaning. (pp. 71-72).