From Jawdat Said

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Only through perception can we understand our existence, and inasmuch as religion is a perception, we can only understand it through symbols.

The vast difference between reality and our perceptions can be illustrated in the history of humankind's misinterpretation of the sun's role in causing day and night. That misinterpretation, held by humankind at large for centuries, was so deeply rooted that people were ready to die for it and to send those who publicly doubted it to their death. Indeed, Galileo Galilee (1564-1642) was eventually coerced to withdraw his dissent to the common misinterpretation with his hand on the Bible. Ironically, then, the sun, which is humanity's central metaphor for glaring clarity, is also our biggest historical metaphor of human misconception.

Given this, can there ever be an interpretation immune to fallacy, for which people could be sent to their death?

The evidence of our perceptual errors makes it possible to distinguish two worlds: a world in which we live, of which we are part; and a world that we construct in our minds. These worlds, real, biologically perceived, and imagined, have always been central subjects of debate throughout the history of thought.

Humanity is now keen to understand its own journey, and its knowledge of itself and of its environment increases daily. Humankind's potential to exercise control over its environment lies in the nervous system, which absorbs and transmits experience to others through speech. It is the nervous system that enabled humanity to expand its knowledge. But what is so incredible about the human species is our ability to name things, as the French anthropologist Levi Strauss points out in his writings . Yet, the power of naming, or attaching symbols to what surrounds us, is also what has created a profound and deep disconnection of humanity from the rest of beings.

A human being is the only living creature that comes to life without the knowledge required for his or her survival, acquiring it later, unlike other organisms that seem to be born with their behavior and survival needs programmed genetically. Yet, human beings carry the ability to acquire knowledge through the socialization and upbringing which society provides to them. This potential to acquire knowledge has engendered a vast expansion of human understanding of ourselves and our environment. Our knowledge now stretches to the edges of time and space. Time has expanded to more than 20 billion years. We have reached the molecule as well as the secrets of existence in its genetic design. We can compare creatures with magnificent huge bodies and incredibly small brains that inhabited our planet 70 million years ago with ourselves as a species, with a small fragile body and large brain, and we can also imagine the kinds of creatures who will inhabit the earth 10 million years from now.

We now are also aware that humanity stretches back more than 3 million years, as the bones of Lucy indicate; the life of our species pre-exists the discovery of fire, and the domestication of animals and agriculture. We are aware that there was a time when humans were, like other creatures, unable to significantly influence or direct their lives, even to produce their own food. Perhaps that is why we say in Islam that the 8th day of existence has started with the expansion of our knowledge.

To the extent humanity understands its history, it will understand its future and its potential capacities. Just as we can see in an infant who cannot fend for himself the promise of what he will become, so we must guard against that momentary look at our species that put us in doubt, confusion and despair, a moment when a holistic vision of the future is missing. That moment makes so many intellectuals pessimistic because they do not understand the nature of humanity's journey: they focus on human drawbacks, refusing to see the incessant creativity and innovation that mark human history. Yet, with a deep understanding of the past, which stretches into the future, humankind may gain an optimistic outlook and an admiration for the laws that govern our universe and thus be lifted from its pessimism. In fact, we could say that a person is human to the extent that person knows about humanity: extensive historical knowledge is the soul of humanity.

The decisive evolution that set humanity apart from the rest of living creatures was our ability to use nervous and vocal systems to transfer experience or `knowledge' to others, to communicate through an aural symbol. After our nervous system absorbs things through visual symbols, we are capable of translating all `visual' experience to `aural' symbols that can be transmitted to another person, and those symbols, in turn, are turned into visual ones again through the invention of writing. Writing became the great human economy, preventing the waste of experience at the death of the one who carries the experience. It is striking that this invention that saved individual experience is still relatively new in our history, perhaps 5,000 years old, and paper, which facilitated the progress of writing, is barely over one thousand years old, while digital preservation of information is only a few decades old.

Despite this wonder, as we have learned that we must acknowledge the possibility of error in transmitting knowledge, we have lost confidence that we can even transmit anything at all accurately. The possibility for error led our age to nihilism, much like the old Sophists . But such a refusal to acknowledge the possibility of truth and meaning is an exaggerated response to our ability to err. For example, we may misconceive of the movement of the sun, but the sun will not change its course to fit our misconceptions, nor will it be affected by them. It will continue following its own law. Similarly, we may misunderstand a spoken phrase or a written sentence, even in a holy book, for it is only through our perceptions that we connect to this world, and religion is such a perception, received through symbols. Yet, the objective reality, the truth that the holy texts and our reality tell us, does not change because we are mistaken, for the laws that govern our world do not change to fit our misconceptions. The inadequacy of our signifying symbols in transmitting the meaning of experience can be overcome if we turn to contemplate that which is signified, and do not simply focus on the signifying symbol or our perceptions of it. It is the objective living world that we must turn to, a world that does not change its course, for the laws of existence do not err, no matter how mistaken we are in understanding or interpreting them. Given this, we can analyze the problematics of text, symbol, and signifier, all which are central in discussing the religious point of view, and can verify what its signifiers should be by turning to the sl~jects they signify.

The ability to symbolize distinguishes humans from the rest of living creatures and enables humanity to move on a course of continual understanding, expanding information about the laws of the universe and how it can be utilized by human beings. Symbols permit us to differentiate between the entities surrounding us and our perceptions of them. The Qur'an and the Bible both refer to this need for mediating language to differentiate entities from our perception of them. For instance, the Bible notes:

In all this teaching to the crowds Jesus spoke in parables; indeed he never spoke to them except in parables. This was to fulfill the saying of the prophet: `I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret since the world was made.' (Matt 13:34¬35)

And in the Qur'an we see, "And such are the Parables We set forth for people, But only those who understand them who have knowledge." (Surah 29 A1 `Ankabut: 43)

In these passages, we can see the interconnection between a reality that maintains its laws, our own mental perception of it and our spoken or written symbols for reality. We cannot benefit from symbols without experience, and we cannot benefit from experience if we cannot transmit it through symbols. The center of human creativity consists in the fact that our species has freed itself from transmitting its experiences genetically and can transmit them through visual and aural symbols. Hence, neither the truth of revelation nor that of experience can be transmitted to another human except through symbols. Because of our capacity for error, we must also acknowledge that the one sent to prophesy, the revealed book and the person receiving revelation are all subject to the same misconceptions that affected our understanding of the movement of the earth and sun. Without returning constantly to observe the objective world from which we created our perceptions, we can never fully rely on a mental construct, nor on aural-visual symbols; nor can we find our own sight and hearing usefizl or reliable.

This continuous connection and disconnection between our mental perceptions and the objective world is a central issue in the religious life of humanity, particularly because it is harder to discern the separation of signifier and signified in religious experience. We could say that religion, the infinite or the sacred, addresses us in two languages: the language of laws, which govern our existence, and the language of symbols, which illustrate the universe through interpretation. But it is important to distinguish signifier and signified: if the word "fire" were really fire, it would burn the tongue that utters it and the paper on which it is written. In order for us to keep in mind both the connection and distinction between perception and the world, we must continue to refer to and seek out the external world through symbols or books which put us in touch with the knowledge which has been already acquired through others' experiences. As we interact with the outside world, we discover that it has its laws: beneficial outcomes are sifted through long processes of classification and counting. Similarly, symbol-making has its laws. And despite the incredible utility of symbols, the outcome of our search for truth does not come from the symbols themselves: the real reference is in the outside world to which they refer.

One of humanity's greatest needs is to both connect and disconnect the sacred and the worldly just as we connected and disconnected reality from our own mental constructs of it. We need to see the relationship between signifier and signified. We might thus look at the entire universe as a symbol of the creator. In this case the direction of reference is somewhat different because, in this case, we recognize the sacred through the worldly. This can happen because it is through the universe that we acquire knowledge about the sacred.