"The Semiotics of Ayah: A Comparative Introduction"
Basit Bilal Koshul
As is the case with non-Abrahamic religious traditions Judaism, Christianity and Islam are very much concerned with the sacred. But, as Paul Ricoeur points out, the Abrahamic religions have a different understanding of the sacred in contrast to other religions. In the Abrahamic traditions "the accent is placed on speech and writing and generally on the word of God" (Ricoeur, 1995, 48) when referring to the sacred. In contrast the non-Abrahamic religious traditions often see the sacred as being present in the natural world (and the human world that is part of the natural world.) From the non-Abrahamic perspective anything and everything in the natural world can be a place, object or occasion for a hierophany—the numinous irruption of the sacred: "The sacred can manifest itself in rocks or in trees that the believer venerates; hence not just in speech, but also in cultural forms of behavior" (Ricoeur, 1995, 49). Beginning with the Revelation at Mt. Sinai the revealed word "takes over for itself the function of the numinous" and rejects all claims of the numinous/sacred being present anywhere in natural or cultural phenomena (Ricoeur, 1995, 65). For Ricoeur Biblical Revelation, as expressed by the early Hebrew prophets, presents itself not only as a "constant, obstinate struggle against the Canaanite cults—against the idols Baal and Astarte, against the myths about vegetation and agriculture" but also as a struggle against the claims of "any natural and cosmic sacredness..."(Ricoeur, 1995, 55). In short the "hermeneutics of proclamation" that Biblical kerygma is rooted in (or gives birth to) rejects any claims of the sacred being present in the world based on a "phenomenology of manifestation" of the sacred in the natural world. For Ricoeur the origins of contemporary desacralized culture can be traced back to the split between a "hermeneutics of proclamation" and "phenomenology of manifestation" engendered by Biblical revelation. Ricoeur argues that understanding our contemporary cultural condition requires coming to grips with the religious (more precisely the Biblical) origins of the process of desacralization. He posits that an adequate understanding of the origins of the malaise is necessary in order to redress the problematic engendered by it. And redressing the problematic is a most pressing task because a "renaissance of the sacred" has to happen "at least if humankind itself is not to die" (Ricoeur, 1995, 64).
In the late 19th, early 20th centuries the founding fathers of the modern social sciences anticipate some of the key observations made by Ricoeur regarding the problematic side-effects of desacralization. Important elements of what Ricoeur has called desacralization have been labeled as disenchantment (Weber), alienation (Marx) and anomie (Durkheim) by the pioneering social scientists. In spite of the apparent and real differences between them it appears that Ricouer and his predecessors see the loss of meaning and significance as being the most serious problematic that desacralization/disenchantment has given birth to. In pre-Biblical religion a sense of meaning was attached to the empirical realm of reality because it was seen as being inherently infused with divinity (or having direct access to numina). In the following pages I will use the insights offered by Ricoeur, especially his distinction between the "hermeneutics of proclamation" and the "phenomenology of manifestation", to see how the process of desacralization has been understood by modern social science (as represented by the work of Peter Berger and Mircea Eliade). In agreement with Ricoeur both Berger and Eliade trace the roots of contemporary desacralization back to the origin of monotheistic religion. Then I will offer the work of Hegel, Feurbach and Jung as examples of modernist attempts to understand and redress the problematic caused by desacralization. I will argue that the work of these thinkers has not so much dealt with the issue of meaning, as it has made it even more problematic. Then I move on to describing post-disenchantment possibility suggested by the Qur'anic narrative. Here I will turn to the semiotics of ayah to bridge the gap between "the hermeneutics of proclamation" and the "phenomenology of manifestation". This part of the discussion will take the work of Muhammad Iqbal, an early 20th century Muslim philosopher, as its starting point. Iqbal notes that the Qur'an sees the entire empirical domain of reality (natural, historical and human) as a sign, token, marker, symbol—an ayah—of the differently-empirical domain of reality (the Divine). In other words, the phenomenological world a sign or symbol of the sacred. At the same time the Qur'an describes itself as being composed of ayaat (plural of ayah). This makes the Qur'anic kerygma a sign, symbol of the sacred in the same way that the phenomenological domain is a sign/symbol of the sacred. I will argue that the semiotics of ayah bridges the divide between the "phenomenology of manifestation" and the "hermeneutics of proclamation" identified by Ricoeur. At the same time I hope to show that Ricoeur's philosophical investigations into the this divide open up heretofore only potential and obscure possibilities in the Qur'anic narrative.
Revelation and the Disenchantment of the World
The religious cultures of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia viewed the universe from a cosmological perspective in which the world and everything in it was part and parcel of a sacred chain of being. In other words the entire universe was clothed in numinosity and had a share (or at least direct access to) supernatural powers (i.e. charisma). The human being was not only surrounded by the numinous and super-natural, he was an integral part of this order. The traditional cosmological view of the universe;
not only fails to make the sharp modern differentiation between the human and non-human (or "natural") spheres of empirical reality, but, more importantly, it is an order that posits continuity between the empirical and the supra-empirical, between the world of men and the world of the gods (Berger, 1990, 113).
The difference between the empirical and supra-empirical domains (or the domain of the gods and the world of the humans) was not a difference in kind, but a difference in degree. This is evidenced by the fact that balance and harmony in the supra-empirical domain "up above" was directly dependent upon the rituals, prayers and festivals that took place in the human world. The relationship between the world of the humans and the world of the gods "is realized (not just reaffirmed but literally re-established) again and again in religious ritual" (Berger, 1990, 113) in ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Egypt, etc. In contrast to the dominant religio-cultural background against which it emerged, the Biblical view of the universe posited a discontinuity between the empirical and the supra-empirical realms. This view asserted that the empirical realm of reality was devoid of any sacred/divine elements—with all sacredness/divinity being the exclusive province of a God who was not a part of this empirical order. From the perspective God was an utterly transcendent being who stood far above and beyond the empirical realm and was quite distinct from it in every imaginable way. Weber uses the term "disenchantment of the world" to describe the Biblical denuding of the world of nature of any trace of divinity, sacredness or supernatural powers.
But just because God was above and beyond the world of nature did not mean that human beings could not come to know Him. The Biblical narrative posited that God would make Himself known through His intervention in human history. At critical junctures in the history of the people who had pledged to worship none other than Him, He would intervene on their behalf and help them overcome their enemies and any other calamities. Whereas the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians had seen the divine in the enchanted cosmos around them, the Israelites saw the Hand of the Divine in historical events. Berger notes:
Israel's faith was a historic one from the earliest sources of their canonical codification. It referred above all to a series of historically specific events—the exodus from Egypt, the establishment of the covenant at Sinai, the taking of the land. Thus the first known "creed" of ancient Israel, the text now contained Deuteronomy 26:5-9, is nothing but a recital of historical events, all, of course, attributed to God (Berger, 1990, 117ff.).
A transcendent God who stood above and beyond the empirical realm made Himself known through His intervention in history. The people of this God, for their part, covenanted themselves to regulate their lives according to the specific commandments that He had revealed, thereby becoming evidence of His existence to all the peoples in the world. Consequently, the relationship between God and His people was mediated through a Revealed Law, with the unfolding of the historical process providing the stage on which the mediation would be played out. Describing the departure of the Biblical conception of God from ancient Near Eastern religions, Berger notes:
It may be said that the transcendentalization of God and the concomitant "disenchantment of the world" opened up a "space" for history as the arena of both divine and human actions. The former performed by a God standing entirely outside the world. The latter presupposes a considerable individuation in the conception of man (Berger, 1990, 118).
Along with drawing attention to the significance of history and its relation to the Divine Will, Israelite religion provided an entirely new concept of time itself. Eliade notes:
Compared with the archaic and palaeo-oriental religions, as well as with the mythic-philosophical conceptions of the eternal return, as they were elaborated in India and Greece, Judaism presents an innovation of first importance. For Judaism, time has a beginning and will have an end. The idea of cyclic time is left behind. Yahweh no longer manifests himself in cosmic time (like the gods of other religions) but in historical time, which is irreversible (Eliade, 1987, 110).
Eliade notes that since Yahweh manifests Himself in historical time, each historical event "becomes a theophany" (Eliade, 1987, 111) for the Israelite. Beginning with these Jewish roots, Christianity goes further and valorizes historical time even more. In the Christian understanding one specific historical event represent not merely a theophany, it marks the actual appearance of God in time. Eliade notes:
Since God was incarnated, that is, since he took on a historically conditioned human existence, history acquires the possibility of being sanctified...For the Christian, too, the sacred calendar indefinitely rehearses the same events of the existence of Christ—but these events took place in history; they are no longer facts that happened at the origin of time, "in the beginning" (Eliade, 1987, 111).
While they have their own particular understanding of significance of the unfolding of history, both Judaism and Christianity view history as ultimately having a transhistorical purpose—salvation at the end of history. But in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, the idea of history having a transhistorical purpose is subject to intense rational investigation and interrogation and is reworked anew to keep pace with the spirit of the times. Eliade notes:
Hegel takes over the Judaeo-Christian ideology and applies it to universal history in its totality: the universal spirit continually manifests itself in historical events and manifests itself only in historical events. Thus the whole of history becomes a theophany; everything that has happened in history had to happen as it did, because the universal spirit so willed it (Eliade, 1987, 112).
This de-linking of the "sacredness of history" from its roots in the Revealed Tradition, opened the way for the emergence of "various forms of twentieth-century historicistic philosophies" (Eliade, 1987, 112). Eliade argues that the very criticism that Biblical religion leveled at pre-Biblical or "archaic" religion can be applied to Biblical religion itself. Pals paraphrases Eliade's argument in these words:
Secular thinkers can argue as follows: If biblical religions like Judaism and Christianity made one great change in the world's religious consciousness, does that not license us to make another if we should so wish? If the prophets felt they had a right to take the sacred out of nature and find it only in history, why can we not follow their own example and dismiss it from nature and history alike? (Pals, 1996, 184).
After the desacralization of nature by the Bible and of historical processes by the science of history the inner world of the human being provided a final refuge for the sacred. If the world of nature and the unfolding of history were devoid of the sacred, an argument could still be made that something special inside the human being was very different from the "external" world. Hence a space could be created "inside" the human being where religious faith could find a refuge—but even this refuge was not secure from rational probing. The psychological propensity for religious belief was attributed to a variety of factors, with the most daring claim being put forward by Freud in this regard. After discussing the origins of religious belief in the human psyche, Freud declared in stark terms: "Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity" (Freud, 1961, 43). Freud began by looking at the issue from the perspective of the fundamental factors that shape human psychological motivations. He argued that the human personality is shaped by the manner in which it attempts to come to terms with, or altogether avoid, the dependencies and traumas that inevitably accompany the biological and psychological development of the human being. The most important factors in this regard are the needs for protection and consolation from the harsh natural environment and the vagaries of fate. These feelings are accompanied with the sense of fear of being left unprotected and the sense of guilt for not behaving according to the proper norms. In the initial stages of the individual's development, the presence of the parental figures is sufficient to provide a sense of psychological security, and the parents also serve as the foci around whom the sense of fear and guilt is centered. But as the individual grows and matures it becomes apparent that the parents are just as vulnerable as the individual self. Paden summarizes Freud's understanding of religion's relationship to human psychological needs in these words:
Through its gods and mythologies, religion symbolizes or "substitutes" representations of our ego's relationship to its original emotional ties and fears. Gods supply the feeling of being accepted, the exposure of guilt and its expiatory resolution, the lost strength and protective authority of the father, and the sense that one's sacrifices are viewed favorably and rewarded. We experience oneness with the divine as a way of regressing to a pre-egoic, boundary-less state of security known in infancy or even in the womb (Paden, 1992, 21).
Since religion is a relic from the collective childhood of humanity, it is bound to disappear as the collective human consciousness matures. Freud summarizes the origins, characteristic and the eventual fate of religion in these words: Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neuroses of children, it arose out of the Oedipus Complex, out of relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that we find ourselves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of development (Freud, 1967, 43).
When Biblical proclamation originally divested the natural world of any traces of the sacred or super-natural, a space was opened up where empirical reality "became amenable to the systematic, rational penetration, both in thought and in activity, which we associate with modern science and technology" (Berger, 1990, 112). It is obvious that the modern understanding of history and the psyche merely takes the Biblical desacralization of the natural world further by divesting history and the human psyche (or soul) of any numinous elements/significance. The progressive disenchantment of the world initiated by Biblical revelation can be summed up thus:
- the world of nature is desacralized/disenchanted by Biblical proclamation;
- the unfolding of history is desacralized/disenchanted by a variety of historicist philosophies and methodologies;
- the human psyche/soul is desacralized/disenchanted by a variety of modern psychologies.
Even though it appears counter-intuitive, Ricoeur argues that the process of disenchantment is not only anticipated by the Biblical narrative, it is "in line with a certain destiny proclaimed in the Old Testament":
This great enterprise seeking to desacralize, to profane the universe, in its cosmic, biological, and psychic aspects is in line with a certain destiny proclaimed in the Old Testament. Man is called to dominate over all beings—Psalms 8 mentions it, as does the first chapter of Genesis, provided he holds love of neighbor as the limit and the first rule of all usage. There is nothing, as it were, sacred, and the Old Testament already announces this possibility, this profound theological signification of desacralization (Ricoeur, 1978, 226).
In short the demise of the sacred, the supernatural, charisma, numina, etc. in modern times is not only the result of the process of rationalization that began at Mt. Sinai but also in keeping with the original intent of Biblical kerygma.
The Modernist "Re-Enchanting" of the World
It is well know that pain and suffering are part and parcel of the human condition. This is as true of the pre-modern enchanted cultural condition as it is of the modern disenchanted period-but there is a difference between the two. The scholars who have described the process of disenchantment, have also noted that this disenchantment has brought with it a specifically modern manifestation of pain and suffering in the human world. Berger notes:
Probably for the first time in history, the religious legitimations of the world have lost their plausibility not only for a few intellectuals and other marginal individuals but for broad masses of entire societies. This opened up an acute crisis not only for the nomization of the large social institutions but for that of individual biographies. In other words, there has arisen a problem of "meaningfulness" not only for such institutions as the state or of the economy but for the ordinary routines of everyday life (Berger, 1990, 124ff.).
In pre-modern times a sense of meaningfulness was attached to phenomena through the mediation of divinity. That which was closer to divinity was that much more meaningful, with the Sacred and Divine being the Most Meaningful. The organic relationship between the empirical and supra-empirical domains of reality imbued human existence (as a matter of fact all existence) with a sense of meaningful. In other words the relationship of the empirical domain to divinity symbolized meaningfulness. But in a disenchanted world shorn of all traces of divinity, meaning is impossible to find. This is not to say that attempts have not been made to endow the empirical realm of reality with a sense of meaning by post-Enlightenment thinkers. The work of Feuerbach, Hegel and Jung are interesting examples of modernist attempts to find meaning (and ultimate meaning at that) is nature, history and the human self. A look at these modernist approaches reveals that they are actually negative affirmations of the pre-modern position. Pre-modern cultures took certain attributes that they saw as the defining characteristics of the supra-empirical realm and used them to study, understand and define the empirical realm. The moderns for their part have taken certain attributes from the empirical realm and used them study, understand and define the dynamics of the "supra-empirical" realm.
The pre-moderns posited that the empirical domain of nature had a numinous quality to it because it was related to the supra-empirical domain of reality. Feuerbach argues that the very notion of the supra-empirical domain is a derivative of the empirical domain, from which this notion is abstracted. He laments the fact that human beings have sought to situate the "cause" of nature outside of nature itself in the form of "God". For him the chief theoretical goal of modern thought is to "recognize the republican constitution of nature, not to situate the governing principle of nature outside it, but to find it grounded in nature" (Feuerbach, 1990, 55). Feuerbach argues that even if it is conceded that "God" is the cause of nature, this statement is meaningless because one cannot talk of cause independent of effect, therefore one cannot say anything of God independent of the effects that one perceives in the world of nature. He argues:
Thus if I omit the world, nothing remains of God. Why then should we not confine ourselves to the world, since in any case we cannot go above or outside it, since even the idea and hypothesis of God throws us back on the world, since if we take away nature, we deprive the world of all reality and consequently negate even the reality of God insofar as He is conceived as the cause of the world? (Feuerbach, 1990, 55).
While the pre-moderns considered the empirical domain to be enveloped in a cloak of numinosity, Feuerbach goes much further by making "divinity" imminent in the world of nature and then claiming that it is futile to look for it elsewhere. Hegel's attitude regarding the relationship between Spirit and history is remarkably similar to Feuerbach's claim regarding the relationship between God and nature. The relationship between Spirit and history can be better understood by first distinguishing Spirit from matter. Hegel contrasts Spirit and matter in these words:
[Matter] strives towards ideality, for in unity it exists ideally. Spirit, on the contrary, is that which has its center in itself. It does not have unity outside itself but has found it: it is in itself and with itself. Matter has its substance outside of itself; Spirit is Being-within-itself (self-contained existence) (Hegel, 1953, 23).
These words echo Feuerbach's claim that nature is simultaneously cause and effect, a reconciliation of beginning and end. The following description of the activity of Spirit by Hegel bears an even stronger resemblance to Feuerbach's description of nature. Hegel states:
Spirit is essentially the result of its own activity. Its activity is transcending the immediately given, negating it, and returning to itself. We can compare it to the seed of a plant, which is both beginning and result of the plant's whole life (Hegel, 1953, 94).
The ultimate goal of the Spirit is to reach the pinnacle of self-consciousness and it is towards this end that all of the Spirit's activity is geared. The entire dialectic of history, or the movement of world history, reflects the struggle of the Spirit to reach the state of self-consciousness. Hegel asserts that the Spirit is not just an abstract or metaphysical construct, it has a "concrete nature" that manifests itself in "its self-determination...in the form of states and individuals" (Hegel, 1951, 51). And it is on the stage of history that the "self-determination" of the Spirit in the form of states and individuals is manifest. In other words history is the realm in which Spirit achieves its goal of self-determination (or self-consciousness) and unveils itself before us in its "concrete nature". Given the intimate link that Hegel establishes between the struggle of the Spirit to attain self-consciousness and the progress of history it is not at all surprising that he would actually equate history with divinity. Hegel says:
[W]orld history is the manifestation of the Divine, the absolute process of Spirit in its highest forms. It is this development wherein it achieves its truth and the consciousness of itself (Hegel, 1953, 67).
By equating the movement of history with the Divine, Hegel has attempted to present a system in which the rupture between the empirical and supra-empirical domains of reality appears to have been repaired. But the job of repair has been done so well by Hegel that any distinction between the two domains is also nullified. James offers the following observation of Hegel's attempt to bind everything in the empirical and supra-empirical domains of reality within his philosophical system:
Hegel, by trying to show that nonentity and concrete being are linked together by a series of identities of a synthetic kind, binds everything conceivable into a unity, with no outlying notion to disturb the free rotary circulation of the mind within its bound. Since such unchecked movement gives the feeling of rationality, he must be held, if he has succeeded, to have eternally and absolutely quenched all rational demands (James, nd, 72).
Speaking in strictly logical terms, Jung places the human psyche in a position very similar to the position of nature in Feuerbach's work and history in Hegel's work. Jung sees the psyche as providing the matrix on which the entirety of conscious and unconscious phenomena are played out for both the human individual and collectivity. If nature is simultaneously the cause and effect for Feuerbach, history the beginning and the end for Hegel, the psyche is the root of all experience for Jung. He states:
[E]very science is a function of the psyche, and all knowledge is rooted in it. The psyche is the greatest of all cosmic wonders and the sine qua non of the world as an object. It is in the highest degree odd that Western man, with but very few—and even fewer—exceptions, apparently pays so little regard to this fact. Swamped by the knowledge of external objects, the subject of all knowledge has been temporarily eclipsed to the point of seeming non-existence (Jung, 1997, 411).
The description of the psyche as being the root of all knowledge suggests that it is also the root of our knowledge about the "religious". A look at the differing attitudes of Jung and Freud regarding the "contents" of the psyche reveals that, for Jung, this is indeed the case. For Freud the psyche was nothing more than a repository of traumatic experience, psychological enigmas and repressed thoughts. For Jung the psyche had "positive" attributes that could aid the individual's ego-development, as well as the "negative" attributes that inhibited ego-development. Paden describes the differing view of religion that results from this differing view of the psyche in these words:
While for Freud religious symbols were ironic, disguised fragments of one's unresolved childhood, for Jung they might also function as positive mediators between the ego and a deeper part of the self, i.e. as active agencies of psychological change and recentering. If the gods represent projections of dependency relationships, they also represent projections of ego-transcendence and an emerging, larger self-consciousness (Paden, 1992, 49).
Looking at Jung's definition of psyche and his understanding of the role that the psyche plays in relationship to religion, the question emerges: Is the psyche a means that the gods use to attain their own ends, or are the gods a means created by the psyche to achieve its own end? Jung agreed with the theologians who asserted that God is something that is outside of us, but with the caveat that it is a God that is "experienced" as an "other." For Jung religiousness is the observation and taking into account of forces "outside" of us that impinge on our lives, but these forces are in fact rooted in our unconscious psychic life and they only confront us as the "other". Should we disregard this "other" and not give it its due, we would in fact be disregarding our own self to our own detriment. In this account, it appears that the gods are employed by the psyche to achieve its own ends, not they other way around. Paden notes:
Gods here become symbols of the unconscious; religious experiences like conversion or the "felt Grace of God" translate into ways in which the ego undergoes transformations in relation to its own psychic ground or by which a wider self is re-created (Paden, 1992, 51).
Whereas Feuerbach and Hegel identify nature and history with the divine, Jung is cautious enough not to make such a "metaphysical" claim. But the entire tone of his work and approach suggests that it would be exceedingly difficult to find the Divine outside the psyche.
It appears that the Feuerbach, Hegel and Jung have more than succeeded in their search for meaning in a desacralized and disenchanted world. Their respective systems have made sacrality so imminent in nature, history and the psyche, respectively, that it has actually become passe. The work of Feuerbach, Hegel and Jung can be seen as examples of "the hermeneutics of manifestation" (i.e. the philosophical exposition/explanation for empirical reality) marginalizing and in the end negating "the phenomenology of proclamation" (i.e. the reality and validity of revealed scripture.) This is an inversion of the process that began with the event at Mt. Sinai where the "hermeneutics of proclamation" progressively marginalize and eventually discredit the "phenomenology of manifestation." It is indeed the case that the aforementioned philosophical approaches offer something that the Biblical approach does not in terms of addressing the problematic birthed by desacralization/disenchantment. But it is an unmitigated value-judgment to claim that the philosophical approaches are "superior" to the Biblical approach. This is obvious in light of the fact that the dialectic between "hermeneutics" and "phenomenology" is no less pronounced in the philosophical approaches than it is in the Biblical approach. It would be probably more accurate to say that the dialectic is more pronounced in the philosophical approaches than in the Biblical approach because as Ricouer notes the Biblical approach foresees a future in where proclamation and manifestation will be reconciled. (For Ricoeur this future possibility is announced/contained in the "Word" that has become flesh.) Using the insights offered by Ricoeur regarding the problematic engendered by the dialectic of hermeneutics and phenomenology and the additional insights gained by looking at the work of Feuerbach, Hegel and Jung in light of Ricoeur's analysis, the discussion now turns to the Qur'an and post-disenchantment possibilities.
A Qur'anic Perspective on Post-Disenchantment Possibilities
A look at the Qur'anic narrative suggests that the potential of a different possibility than the one offered by either Ricouer or the different philosophical approaches to the problematic engendered by desacralization/disenchantment. This possibility centers around the semiotic of the Arabic word "ayah" and the way it is employed by the Qur'an. The manner in which the Qur'an uses this word opens up the possibility that human beings can come to understand the world of nature, the unfolding of the historical process and the human self in such a way that these three dimensions of empirical reality can serve as a sign or pointer to the supra-empirical spiritual dimension. In other words the Qur'anic narrative holds open the possibility that by establishing a rational understanding of the world of nature, the historical process and the human self, human beings can come to understand and interact with the Divine. This Qur'anic strategy is different from both the pre-modern and modernist understanding regarding the relationship between the empirical and supra-empirical. In contrast to the pre-modern understanding the empirical domain is not inherently divine/sacred. In contrast to the modernist understanding the supra-empirical domain is not inherently/solely a reflection or projection of empirical phenomena. In other words the Qur'an does not make divinity imminent in nature, history or the self but at the same time it does not make divinity irrevocably transcendent above nature, history and the self. The Qur'anic narrative links the empirical realm with the supra-empirical realm by asserting that the empirical is a sign, token, marker, symbol (an ayah) of the supra-empirical, with the supra-empirical in its turn affirming the reality and goodness of the empirical. The Qur'anic perspective on the relationship between empirical and supra-empirical realms of reality can be gleaned by examining the way the Qur'an employs the word "ayah" (pl. ayaat). This word is often translated as "verse"—thus the Qur'an is composed of more than 6000 ayaat (verses). But the translation of ayah as "verse" is insufficient. In addition to meaning "verse", ayah also means "sign, token, mark; miracle; wonder, marvel, prodigy; model, exemplar, paragon, masterpiece" (Wehr, 36:1976). Consequently each "verse" of the Qur'an is simultaneously a "sign", "token" and/or "exemplar" pointing towards something beyond itself. The "something beyond itself" is the spiritual reality towards which the Revealed Word draws the individual's attention. Besides referring to the "verses" of which it is composed as being ayaat, the Qur'an states that the ayaat of Allah are also contained in: a) the world of nature, b) the "self" of the human being and c) the unfolding of the historical process. In other words these three domains of "empirical" reality contain signs, tokens, exemplars etc. that point towards something beyond the domain of empirical reality—that which exists in the domain of supra-empirical reality. From a hermeneutical point of view it is of no small significance that the Qur'an declares Divine Revelation to be composed of ayaat while at the same time informing the believer that the world of nature, the human self and the historical process also contain the ayaat of Allah. Muhammad Iqbal stresses this point again and again, because he considers it to be of utmost philosophical importance. He notes that that Revelation is the personal religious experience of a Prophet by which he gains knowledge of the Divine. But the Divine Word gives equal importance to the empirical domain as being a source of knowledge about the Divine. Iqbal notes:
There is no doubt that the treatment of religious experience, as a source of Divine knowledge, is historically prior to other regions of human experience for the same purpose. The Qur'an, recognizing that the empirical attitude is an indispensable stage in the spiritual life of humanity, attaches equal importance to all regions of human experience as yielding knowledge of the Ultimate Reality which reveals its symbols both within and without (Iqbal, 1996, 12).
When discussing post-disenchantment possibilities in the aftermath of rational disenchantment the question that emerges immediately in light of the Qur'anic use of the term "ayah" is: Can there be any Qur'anic hermeneutics that is divorced from a rational and scientifically valid understanding of the world of nature, the human self and the unfolding of the historical process? Even though it is a bit early to discuss this issue in detail at this point, it remains in the background for the time-being—but even then it serves to focus our discussion, as we explore the manner in which the Qur'an employs the term ayah in the extra-Scriptural sense. In Ricoeur's terms, the word ayah is simultaneously employed by the Qur'an to refer to the "hermeneutics of proclamation" and the "phenomenology of manifestation". The ayaat of the Qur'an themselves state that "symbols of the sacred" are not the exclusive province of the Revealed Word, because symbols of the sacred can also be found in the world of nature, the human self and the unfolding of the historical process. In other words the kerygma of the Qur'an affirms the sacrality of the material world insofar as it is a symbol of the supra-empirical domain. In the following paragraphs specifics citations will be given from the Qur'an illustrating the manner in which it employs the term ayah in relation to the Revealed Scripture, the world of nature, the human self and the historical process.
The fact that Qur'an is composed of ayaat is made clear in the following words by the Qur'an:
- Ta. Sin. These are the ayaat of the Qur'an—a divine writ clear in itself and clearly showing the truth: a guidance and a glad tiding to the believers....(26:1-2)
- Alif. Lam. Ra. These are the ayaat of a Clear Book: behold, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an so that you might understand. (12:1-2)
The following ayah expressly states who is the source and who is the initial recipient of this Divine Writ:
- For indeed, clear ayaat have We bestowed upon thee [O, Muhammad] from on high; and none denies their truth save the iniquitous. (2:99)
- Alif. Lam. Mim. Ra. These are the ayaat of the Book: and what has been revealed to thee [O, Muhammad] from your Lord is (indeed) the truth—yet most people will not believe. (13:1)
These Qur'anic passages illustrate the fact that the Qur'an considers itself to be composed of ayaat. In terms of numbers, there are more than 6000 ayaat in the Qur'an, divided into 114 surahs (chapters).
Ayaat in the World of Nature Defined As Such By the Ayaat of the Qur'an
The foregoing Qur'anic citations demonstrates that the Qur'an considers itself to be composed of ayaat that serve as signs, tokens, marks of the Ultimate Reality—the Reality of the Creator God. In identifying the Revealed Words as being symbols of the sacred, the Qur'an is echoing the position of other religious traditions. But the following words, point in a specifically Qur'anic direction regarding the concept of the symbols of the sacred. After stating that the Qur'an is composed of ayaat sent for the guidance of humanity, Allah says:
It is Allah who has raised the heavens without supports that you can see, and is established on the throne of almightiness; and He has made the sun and the moon subservient [to His laws,] each running its course for a term set [by Him.] He governs all that exists. Clearly does He spell out these ayaat for you so that you might become certain that you destined to meet your Lord. And it is He who has spread the earth wide and placed on it firm mountains and running waters, and created thereon two genders of every plant; [and it is He Who] causes the night to cover the day. Verily, in all this are ayaat for people who think (13:2-3).
The next ayah goes on to detail the wonders in the plant world where all the plants are watered by the same water from the sky but each plant has its own distinctive taste, characteristic and use. The ayah concludes by saying: "Verily in all this there are ayaat for people who use their reason!" (13:4)
The following ayah can be called the ayah of ayaat—in it a wide variety of symbols of the sacred are catalogued from the profane/empirical world of nature. And these symbols from the empirical domain serve as "signs" that point towards a supra-empirical reality for "people who use their reason".
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the succession of night and day: and in the ships that speed through the sea with what is useful to man: and in the waters that Allah sends down from the sky, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless, and causing all manner of living creatures to multiply thereon: and in the change of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between the sky and earth: [in all this] there are ayaat indeed for people who use their reason. (2:164)
The fact that both Revelation and Creation ultimately proceed from the Word of Allah explains the fact that Qur'anic discourse uses the term "ayah" to refer to both—both serving as symbols of the sacred. Commenting on the Qur'anic view of the profane world of nature and its relation to the transcendent spiritual reality, Armstrong notes:
The Koran constantly stresses the need for intelligence in deciphering the "sings" or "messages" of God. Muslims are not to abdicate their reason but to look at the world attentively and with curiosity. It was this attitude that later enable the Muslims to build a fine tradition of natural science, which has never been seen such a danger to religion as in Christianity. A study of the natural world showed that it had a transcendent dimension and source, whom we can talk about only in signs and symbols (Armstrong, 1994, 143ff.).
The significance of the Qur'anic engagement with empirical reality as a means of understanding the supra-empirical realities can be further highlighted by a comparative study of the Qur'anic and classical Greek attitudes. Iqbal notes that Greek thought on the whole was speculative and theoretical in nature and very much neglectful of concrete fact. As evidence to support his claim, he refers to the attitude of Socrates towards the natural environment surrounding human beings and to Plato's attitude towards human sense perception. For Socrates, the proper subject of study for human beings was the human world itself. Iqbal notes that for Socrates the "world of plants, insects, and stars" was not worthy of study if one wanted to get insights into the human condition (Iqbal, 1996, 3). This attitude makes the human being a self-sufficient "island," divorced from the natural environment. While Socrates doubted that any humanly relevant knowledge could be gained by studying the non-human natural environment, Plato doubted that human sensory perception could provide any reliable knowledge. For Plato, sensory perception could help the individual study the material realm alone, but ultimate reality was to be found in the ideal realm. In essence, sense perception could provide no reliable knowledge about the ideal realm (or true reality) and was therefore to be shunned in the human search for knowledge. There is a logical connection between Socrates' attitude towards the world of nature and Plato's attitude towards sensory perception. Iqbal notes: "As a true disciple of Socrates, Plato despised sense perception which, in his view, yielded mere opinion and no real knowledge" (Iqbal, 1996, 3).
Countering Socrates' disdain for the study of the non-human environment, Iqbal notes:
How unlike the spirit of the Qur'an, which sees in the humble bee a recipient of Divine inspiration, and constantly calls upon the reader to observe the perpetual change of the wind, the alternation of day and night, the clouds, the starry heaven, and the planets swimming through infinite time. (Iqbal, 1996, 3)
Here Iqbal is alluding to the Qur'anic passages that draw the believers' attention towards the bee constructing its beehive (16:68-9), the dynamics of weather and the passage of time (2:164, 24:43-4, 30:48), and the starry heavens above (15:16, 25:6, 37:6)—all in order to gain better knowledge and understanding of Ultimate Reality. Countering Plato's dismissive attitude towards sense perception, Iqbal notes: "How unlike the Qur'an, which regards 'hearing' and 'sight' as the most valuable Divine gifts and declares them to be accountable to God for their activity in this world" (Iqbal, 1996, 3). Here Iqbal is alluding to the Qur'anic passages that encourage the believers to use their sensory perceptions wisely (16:78, 23:78, 32:9) as they interact with their natural environment, and warns them of the consequences of the neglect or abuse of these Divinely bestowed gifts (17:36). It is perhaps in his criticism of the Mu'tazilah (the early Muslim rationalists) that Iqbal most succinctly captures the spirit of the Qur'an regarding this particular issue. He posits that the Mu'tazilah failed to recognize the fact that "...in the domain of knowledge—scientific or religious—complete independence of thought from concrete experience is not possible" (Iqbal, 1996, 4). Whereas classical Greek thought sought to "free" human thought from the shackles of concrete experience in the search for philosophical knowledge, the Qur'an has a "concrete spirit" (Iqbal, 1996, 102) that demands sensual encounter with the concrete, natural world of fact in the search for both scientific and religious knowledge.
Commenting on the final outcome of the Muslim attempt to read the Qur'anic narrative while still under the influence of Greek categories of thought, Iqbal notes:
In view of the concrete spirit of the Qur'an, and the speculative nature of Greek philosophy which enjoyed theory and was neglectful of fact, this attempt was foredoomed to failure. (Iqbal, 1996, 102)
Keeping in mind Socrates' attitude towards the non-human world and Plato's attitude towards sense perception, this attempt was indeed "foredoomed to failure" because:
The Qur'an sees signs of the Ultimate Reality in the 'sun', the 'moon', the lengthening out of shadows', 'the alternation of day and night', 'the variety of human colors and tongues', the alternation of the days of success and reverse among peoples'—in fact in the whole of nature as revealed to the sense-perception of man. And the Muslim's duty is to reflect on these signs and not to pass them by 'as if he is dead and blind', for he 'who does not see these signs in this life will remain blind to the realities of the life to come'. (Iqbal, 1996, 102)
Iqbal notes that once they had realized their shortcoming because of the Greek lenses, Muslim thinkers began to look for alternatives. This was a natural outcome because "dissatisfaction with purely speculative philosophy means the search for a surer method of knowledge", and it is in this search for a "surer method of knowledge" that "the foundations of modern culture in some of its most important aspects" were laid (Iqbal, 1996, 102). The following observation by Iqbal offers the link between the "empirical attitude of the Qur'an" and the birth of modern science:
No doubt, the immediate purpose of the Qur'an in this reflective observation of Nature is to awaken in man the consciousness of that of which Nature is regarded a symbol. But the point to note is the general empirical attitude of the Qur'an which engendered in its followers a feeling of reverence for the actual and ultimately made them the founders of modern science. It was a great point to awaken the empirical spirit in an age which renounced the visible as of no value in men's search after God. (Iqbal, 1996, 11)
Whereas classical Greek thought set up the dichotomy of "real" vs. "ideal" (or material vs. spiritual) and then shunned the "real" (material) in the search for and understanding of the "ideal" (spiritual), the Qur'anic narrative overcomes this dichotomy by positing that the "real" (material) is an ayah of the "ideal" (spiritual). Consequently, sensual engagement with the "empirically real" becomes a fundamental prerequisite for coming into contact with the "spiritually ideal". This Qur'anic perspective regarding the "empirically real" being a "symbol" of the "spiritual ideal" is poignantly illustrated by the way the Qur'an employs the term ayah. By employing the term ayah in the manner that it does, the Qur'anic narrative is able to reinvest meaning and significance in the empirical domain of reality in a manner distinct from pre-modern religious enchantment and post-Enlightenment rationalist re-enchantment. This Qur'anic approach is the middle ground between the inherently numinous/sacred character ascribed to the world of nature by the former and the totalizing character ascribed to it by the latter (i.e. Feuerbach). Iqbal describes this middle position in these words:
The naturalism of the Qur'an is only a recognition of the fact that man is related to nature, and this relation, in view of its possibility as a means of controlling her forces, must be exploited not in the interest of unrighteous desire for domination, but in the nobler interest of a free upward movement of spiritual life. In the interests of securing a complete vision of Reality, therefore, sense-perception must be supplemented by the perception of what the Qur'an describes as Fuad or Qalb, i.e. the heart.... (Iqbal, 1996, 12)
The Unfolding of the Historical Process: The Second Source of Ayaat "Outside" the Qur'an
While the natural world and the human self contain "symbols of the sacred", the unfolding of the historical process contains the record of the consequences of not paying heed to the Reality towards which these symbols point. Therefore a special relationship is established between the ayaat of Allah and the historical process—the historical process provides the stage on which the unfolding of these ayaat can be observed. The following passage illustrates this relationship as it concludes by encouraging the individual to travel around the earth and study the fate of those who came before:
And indeed, within every community have We raised up an apostle [entrusted with this message]: "Worship Allah, and shun all transgression!". And among those [past generations] were people whom Allah graced with His guidance, just as there was among them [many a one] who inevitably fell prey to grievous error: go, then, about earth and look at what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth! (16:36)
In the many passages that encourage the individual to study the fate of previous civilizations, the Qur'an specifically draws attention to the fate that befell those who rejected the Revealed Word and the reality of Resurrection. This fact strengthens the link between the historical process and the world of nature as being "...symbols of the sacred". In the passages cited above that refer to the ayaat of Allah in the world of nature, the passages immediately following often draw the individual's attention to the reality of Resurrection. Similarly, a number of passages that encourage the individual to study the unfolding of the historical process also mention the claim of the unbelievers that Resurrection will not take place. For example a little after the passage just cited (16:36), the attitude of the unbelievers towards Resurrection is described in these words: As it is, they swear by Allah with their most solemn oaths, "Never will Allah raise from the dead anyone who has died" (16:38). In other words, just as certain phenomena in the world of nature contain pointers towards the reality of Resurrection, certain events in history also bear testimony to this "spiritual" reality.
In the following passage the Blessed Prophet is being directly addressed because he is distressed at the fact that the unbelievers are not paying heed to his message. Allah draws the Blessed Prophet's attention to the events of the past as a means of firming up the his resolve to continue the mission. Allah says:
And, indeed, before your time [O, Muhammad] prophets have been derided—but those who scoffed at them were [in the end] overwhelmed by the very thing which they were wont to deride. Say: "Travel through the earth, and look at what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth" (6:10-11).
It is well known that Prophet Musa was sent to the Israelites with a number of different miracles in order to impress upon then them verity of the Message that he was carrying. In addition to these miracles the Qur'an points to something else that Musa (as) was to employ in his efforts to convey the Divine Message to the Israelites: "the days of Allah". The Qur'an states:
And, indeed, We sent forth Musa with Our ayaat [with the instructions]: "Lead thy people out of the depths of darkness into the light, and remind them of the Days of Allah!". Verily in this [reminder] there are ayaat indeed for all who are patient in adversity and deeply grateful [to Allah]. (16:5)
This passage clearly differentiates between two categories of ayaat: a) the ayaat that were in the form of miracles and b) the ayaat that come to one's attention as one ponders over the unfolding of the historical process. During times of extreme hardship and tribulation that is being incurred due to loyalty to the Divine Message, the believers are encouraged to recount the "days of Allah" in order to draw strength and patience that will allow them to persevere during the difficult times. These "days of Allah" contain ayaat, just as the Revealed Word contains ayaat, the world of nature contains ayaat and the human self contains ayaat. These are symbols of the sacred that lead the seeker from the empirical domain of reality, towards a supra-empirical domain of reality and finally to the Ultimate Reality itself. A better appreciation of the Qur'anic attitude towards time and history and its relationship to the sacred, can be gleaned by comparing the Qur'anic attitude to classical Greek thought. Jenson describes the Greek position on the relationship between time and deity in these words:
Greece identified deity by metaphysical predicates. Basic among them is timelessness; immunity to time's contingencies and particularly to death, by which temporality is enforced. The Greeks' great fear was brought to a formula by Aristotle: "Can it be that all things pass away?" Mythologically: "Father Time eats his children—will he get them all?" All Greek religion and its theology, that is "philosophy", is a passionate insistence that the answer be no. Deity is that in which the quest is fulfilled: the Olympian gods, for example, were precisely "the immortals" and nothing else was required for their deity. (Jenson, 1997, 94)
In Greek pagan theology, more commonly called "philosophy", the concepts of "deity" and "time" are seen as being mutually exclusive-just as ideal/real or material/spiritual are also seen as being mutually exclusive. The divine is equated with the immortal/eternal and the worldly is that which succumbs to the passage of time. In other words, that which is divine stands above and beyond the temporal flux of events and is not affected by them in any way. Jenson details this point in these words:
The interpretation of eternity as the contradictory of time both established Mediterranean antiquity's spiritual security and threatened its specific damnation. Timeless deity was posited to be the ordering foundation of time's otherwise meaninglessly fleeting sequences. But since the relation of eternity to time was grasped by mere negation, the difference between eternity and time could also come to be felt as simple discontinuity between two sorts of reality, in one of which we are confined and in the other of which all of life and truth are located. (Jenson, 1997, 94).
Once such a radical dichotomy between "two sorts of reality" is posited, the problem of mediation between the two becomes a pressing issue—how is the human realm that is subject to the ravages of time related to the divine realm that lies above and beyond time? This issue had to be resolved in order to establish a meaningful relationship between the human and the divine. Logically speaking, it is not possible for any relationship to exist between the two if there is no relationship between the two respective realms that they inhabit. From the Greek perspective, "time" and "deity" have become "alienated" from each other. This means that those who inhabit the temporal domain will have to get beyond the concerns for and illusion/s of time in order to understand deity—just as they had to get beyond the concerns for and illusion/s of the material world of nature and the human senses in order to approach the ideal reality.
The foregoing discussion regarding the Qur'anic employment of the word ayah to describe the movement of history indicates that the Qur'anic position regarding the relationship between time and "deity" is radically different from the Greek position. Iqbal posits that this is indeed the case because the Qur'an projects a "keen sense of the reality of time and the concept of life as a continuous movement in time" (Iqbal, 1996, 112). From among his intellectual predecessors, Iqbal credits Ibn Khaldun for having articulated the most authentic Qur'anic interpretation of history. Putting the work of Ibn Khaldun's work in historical perspective, Iqbal summarizes Ibn Khaldun's views on time and history in these words;
considering the direction in which the culture of Islam had unfolded itself, only a Muslim could have viewed history as a continuous, collective movement, a real inevitable development in time. The point of interest in this view of history is the way in which Ibn Khaldun conceives the process of change. His conception is of infinite importance because of the implications that history, as a continuous movement in time, is a genuinely creative moment and not a movement whose path is already determined. (Iqbal, 1996, 113).
This view of time, and of history's movement in time, is in stark contrast to the Greek attitude. Comparing Ibn Khaldun's view of history to the classical Greek view of time and history, Iqbal states:
In the work of this genius the anti-classical spirit of the Qur'an scores its final victory over Greek thought; for with the Greeks time was either unreal, as in Plato and Zeno, or moved in a circle, as in Heraclitus and the Stoics. Whatever may be the criterion by which to judge the forward steps of a creative movement, the movement itself, if conceived as cyclic, ceases to be creative. Eternal recurrence is not eternal creation; it is eternal repetition. (Iqbal, 1996, 113).
Iqbal argues that the "Qur'anic view of the 'alternation of day and night' [2:164, 3:190, 10:6] as a symbol of the Ultimate Reality which 'appears in a fresh glory every moment' [55:29]..." illustrates the point of departure between the Qur'anic and Greek attitudes towards the movement of time and history (Iqbal, 1996, 113). While the Greek position required a "skeptical" attitude towards time in order to come into contact with deity, the Qur'anic narrative considers historical time to be one of the ayaat, (signs, tokens, markers, symbols) of Allah. Not only is the Qur'anic position regarding history markedly different from the Greek position, its is equally distinct from Hegel's interpretation of the relationship between Spirit and History. The Qur'anic narrative presents history as being a "sign" of Something beyond itself, without making it identical with the Something.
Human Identity: The Third Source of Ayaat "Outside" the Qur'an
Modern anthropological, psychological and sociological research has shown that we cannot speak of the human identity in isolation from the "profane" natural environment. (Depending on the context, the term "identity" refers to the self, the ego, the social/corporate dimension etc.). Following the logic of the Qur'an this leads one to believe that even this "profane" dimension of human identity would contain symbols of the sacred, because it is a part of the natural order. As if to draw our attention to the fact that human identity cannot be considered in isolation from the world of nature, while at the same time instructing us that the world of nature and human identity are "symbols of the sacred", the Qur'an states:
And among His wonders is this: He creates you out of dust—and then, lo! you become human beings ranging far and wide! And among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own selves, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are ayaat for people who think! And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors: for in this, behold, there are ayaat for all who have knowledge. And among His wonder is your sleep, at night or in daytime, as well as your [ability to go about in] quest of some of His bounties: in this, behold, there are ayaat for people who [are willing to] listen! (30:20-23)
Imagine for a moment that this passage is specifically addressing you as an individual—what are the implications of just a plain sense reading of the text. "My wife/husband, the love and tenderness that bind us, the language that I speak, the color of my skin (my ethno-linguistic heritage), my routine of sleeping in order to refresh myself, my quest to earn a living for my family—all of these are the ayaat of Allah". The following is another example of a very mundane thing that has been designated as being among the ayaat of Allah by the Qur'an:
O Children of Adam! Indeed We have sent down on you a garment to cover your nakedness and as a thing of beauty: but the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all. Herein is one of Allah's ayaat, so that haply they may remember. (7:26)
In this passage the very clothing that human beings wear as a means of modestly covering their physical beauty, is called an ayah of Allah.
While one dimension of human identity is profoundly shaped by the natural environment, in Qur'anic symbolism the part of the human being that has been "created out of dust/mud", there is another dimension that is "not of this world". This dual nature of the human being is clearly indicated by the following instruction given by Allah to all who were present, as He was putting the finishing touches on the newest of His creatures, Prophet Adam:
And lo! Your Lord said unto the angels: "Behold! I am about to create mortal man out of sounding clay, out of dark slime transmuted; and when I have shaped him fully and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down before him in prostration!". (15:28-9)
Along with being made of dust/clay/mud, the human being also contains the very "spirit" of Allah—the spirit establishing the human link with the spiritual realm, just as the dust/mud establish the human link with the natural/material realm. As the foregoing discussion has shown the "mundane" dimension of human identity contains numerous symbols of the sacred", so it is to be expected that the spiritual dimension of human identity also has a close relationship to the sacred. Just how intimate this relationship is can be inferred from the following ayah: "...and do not become like those who forget Allah, whom He therefore causes to forget themselves: it is they, they who are truly depraved." (59:19) Among humans beings there is a category of people who are completely oblivious of their own "selves". It is obvious that no human being can be oblivious of his/her own "physical self"—the "self" that needs sleep, food, drink etc.—because every human consciously tends to the needs of the physical self. But there is a category of human beings who are oblivious of their spiritual selves—that part of the self that is directly related to the very "spirit of Allah". This spiritual self is so intimately related to Allah that Allah is warning humanity that forgetting Allah necessarily entails forgetting this spiritual self. And forgetting the spiritual self creates a vacuum that is filled with a wide variety of theories that reduce the human being to either an economic animal, a social animal, a reasoning animal, a sexual animal etc. From the Qur'anic perspective, whereas the dimension of human identity that is related to the natural order contains symbols of the sacred, the spiritual dimension of human identity has an even more direct relation with the sacred.
The following lines by Rumi link the human self, through the passage of time and the world of nature to the Reality towards which all of this points:
First man appeared in the class of inorganic things,
Next he passed therefrom into that of plants.
For years he lived as one of the plants,
Remembering naught of his inorganic state so different;
And when he passed from the vegetive to the animal state
He had no remembrance of his state as a plant,
Except the inclination he felt to the world of plants,
Especially at the time of spring and sweet flowers.
Like the inclination of infants towards their mothers,
Which know not the cause of their inclination to the breast...
Again the great Creator, as you know,
Drew man out of the animal into the human state.
Thus man passed from one order of nature to another,
Till he became wise and knowing and strong as he is now.
Of his first soul he has now no remembrance.
And he will be again changed from his present soul.
Building upon the insights of Rumi and looking at the developments in human thought that had taken place since Rumi's time, Iqbal articulated a unique understanding of the human "self" as it is presented in the Qur'an. Iqbal notes that the Qur'an "...emphasizes the individuality and uniqueness of each human being in a simple yet forceful manner" (Iqbal, 1996, 50). Iqbal's focus on the importance of individual personality can be better understood in the context of the longstanding debate in history of philosophy regarding the Ultimate Constituent of Reality—since Greek time a debate has raged whether it is matter or spirit that is the true constituent of Reality. Traditionally, attempts to address this issue have been limited to abstract, logical reasoning. While Iqbal makes use of these tools, he also avails himself of the wisdom of the Revealed Word and the findings of modern science to better address this issue. He comes to the conclusion that it is neither matter nor spirit that is the true constituent of Reality, it is something that simultaneously embraces and transcends both—the Ego. Iqbal notes:
I have conceived the Ultimate Reality as an Ego; and I must add now that from the Ultimate Ego only egos proceed. The creative energy of the Ultimate Ego, in whom deed and thought are identical, functions as ego-unities. The world, in all its details, from the mechanical movement of what we call the atom of matter to the free movement of thought in the human ego, is the self-revelation of the "Great I am". Every atom of Divine energy, however low in the scale of existence, is an ego. But there are degrees in the expression of egohood. Throughout the entire gamut of being runs the gradually rising note of egohood until it reaches its perfection in man. That is why the Qur'an declares the Ultimate Ego to be nearer to man than his own neck-vein. (Iqbal, 1996, 57)
The fact that the entire universe and everything in it is made up of constituent egos or selves—egos and selves that "...proceed from the Ultimate Ego"—is hinted at in the following passage:
Limitless is He in His glory, and sublimely, immeasurably exalted above anything that men may say [about Him]. The seven heavens and the earth—and all that they contain—extol His limitless glory: and there is not a single thing [therein] that does not extol His limitless glory and praise: but [O Men] you fail to grasp the manner of their glorifying Him. (17:43-4)
The following ayah explicitly states that the Ultimate Ego is closer is closer to the human being than his/her own jugular vein: Now, Verily, it is We who have created man, and We know what his innermost self whispers within him: for are closer to him than his neck-vein. (50:16) While the human being shares the characteristic of having a "self" or "ego" with all of the created universe, the human being is set apart from the rest of creation by the fact that "egohood" reaches its culmination in the human being. Consequently the manner in which the human ego can "..extol His limitless glory" is qualitatively different from the manner in which the other egos in the universe can extol the limitless glory of the Ultimate Ego. Iqbal states:
Man...in whom egohood has reached its relative perfection, occupies a genuine place in the heart of Divine creative energy, and thus possesses a much higher degree of reality than things around him. Of all the creations of God he alone is capable of consciously participating in the creative life of his Maker. Endowed with the power to imagine a better world, and to mould what is into what ought to be, the ego in him aspires, in the interests of an increasingly unique and comprehensive individuality, to exploit all the various environments on which he may be called upon to operate during the course of an endless career. (Iqbal, 1996, 58)
While other egos can extol the glory of their Lord in their own way, it is only the human ego that is capable of extolling the glory of his/her Lord by "participating in the creative life of [the] Maker". This means that the human ego has the ability to change "what is" into "what ought to be".
The Qur'anic view of human identity/personality is quite distinct from the view of Greek philosophy that shaped the Mediterranean culture and the dualistic Magian view that shaped much of Asian culture. Various schools of thought in the Muslim world were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and Magian thought to different degrees and in both cases the unique perspective of the Qur'an was compromised. Under the influence of Greek thought many Muslim philosophers "regarded the soul as a finer kind of matter or a mere accident which dies with the body and is re-created on the Day of Judgement" (Iqbal, 1996, 77). While many Muslim philosophers fell under the spell of Greek philosophy, other schools of thought came to reflect the "dualistic soul-picture" that is characteristic of Magian thought. As some of the dominant philosophical and religious schools were endeavoring to express Greek and Magian ideas in Islamic terms, Iqbal identifies a trend in traditional Islamic thought that attempted to understand the Qur'anic view of human nature and the human soul in its own terms. Iqbal notes that it was the genuine schools of devotional sufism that "alone tried to understand the meaning of the unity of inner experience which the Qur'an declares to be one of the three sources of knowledge, the other two being history and nature" (Iqbal, 1996, 77).
The Qur'an states in unequivocal terms that the human "self" is a repository of profound wisdom and knowledge just as the world of nature and the unfolding of hisotry are repositories of knowledge and wisdom. The following passage reflects this fact clearly.
And on earth there are ayaat [of Allah's existence, visible] to all who are endowed with inner certainty, just as [there are ayaat thereof] within your own selves: can you not, then, see? (51:20-21)
This Qur'anic view of the human "self" opens the possibility of attaining self-knowledge and one may even say that the Qur'an requires the attainment of self-knowledge as a means to attaining knowledge of the Ultimate Reality. In light of the importance that the Qur'an attaches to the human "self" and its singularly unique perspective on the composition of this "self" Iqbal developed his famed "Philosophy of Khudi". The word khudi can be roughly translated as "self" or "ego", even though both of these translations are inadequate. Just as the world of nature and the unfolding of history are the ayaat of Allah, the human "self" is also an ayah, but as noted above the human being has to potential of becoming much more. By living a life in accordance with the Divine Will the possibility is opened up that the human being can become a partner with God in the creation of a new world of ideals. Iqbal has expressed this possibility in these words:
Why should I ask the sages about my origin?
It is my ultimate potential that I am really concerned about.
Elevate your khudi to such heights that before every Decree,
God Himself asks you: "Tell me what is your volition?"
As was the case with the naturalism of Feuerbach and the historicism of Hegel, the Qur'anic narrative is able to infuse the human ego with "meaning" without making a god out of it. An argument could be made that the Qur'anic narrative is able to dignify the human ego to a degree that Junginan psychology can't, without making the human ego an end in itself.
In light of the discussion above we can confidently state that the manner in which the Qur'an employs the term ayah offers a viable strategy to invest meaning and significance in the empirical domain of reality in the aftermath of the desacralization and disenchantment of the world. The semiotics of ayah in the Qur'an bridge the divide between the hermeneutics of proclamation and the phenomenology of manifestation in a way that avoids the pitfalls of pre-modern religious enchantment and modern rationalist re-enchantment. In other words the Qur'anic semiotics of ayah contains novel and fecund post-disenchantment possibilities. One the one hand the Qur'an posits that Allah is Absolutely Unique, there is nothing that partakes of His Divinity. At the same time that the Qur'an asserts the empirical domain and everything in it is an ayah of Allah. The Qur'an establishes a relation between the empirical and supra-empirical realms of reality by positing that the former is a sign, token, mark (an ayah) for/of the latter. In short the Qur'anic position is the middle ground between the post-Enlightenment and pre-modern positions. The pre-moderns claimed that the empirical domain is inherently invested with the characteristics of sacredness and divinity and the post-Enlightenment thinkers negated this position. The Qur'anic semiotics of ayah can simultaneously take into account the insights offered by post-Enlightenment scholarship and criticism, while at the same time maintaining a commitment to important elements of the pre-modern sense of sacredness and wonder.
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