A Return to the Text

From Jawdat Said

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The Muslim World has had its problematic relationship with text. It did not see that the text was removed from reality by language, a' fact which must be analyzed further to bring back a positive role for the sacred texts rather than the debilitating role they play presently. We see a radically different attitude toward the text from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who was explaining to Ziad ibn Labeed some misfortunes that were going to befall Muslims. He said, "And that [misfortune] would take place when knowledge dissolves." Ziad ibn Labeed, the companion said: "How could knowledge dissolve while we study the Qur'an and we teach it to our children and our children will teach it to their children?" The Prophet responded, "Woe unto you Ibn Labeed. I thought of you as one of the bright minds of Madina. Are not the Torah and the Bible in the hands of the Jews and the Christians, who are reading them but are not benefiting from their content?!1" In this exchange between the Prophet and his companion, we see a methodic and objective dialogue. Here, the Prophet is not speaking of metaphysical realities or revealed truth. Rather, he is talking about a lived reality by making reference to history and social behavior. When his companion objects that knowledge cannot be lost while texts exist, the Prophet does not use a divine reference to prove his point, nor does he use his status as a prophet. Instead, he refers his companion to a witnessed society within which they live and to those who have lost the ability to benefit from their texts when they have neglected to observe reality outside text.

The Prophet's presentation of the relationship of text to life is significant. He presents the issue as a social law and a social pattern in societies that lose touch with events and objective reality. These societies hold on to text and words without looking at what the words refer to2. Here we see how the Qur'an brings the issue of illiteracy to another level. According to the Qur'an, it is not necessarily a reference to persons who cannot read and write, but to those who halt before the letters of the words. Words are signifiers but what they signify is subject to change. The words "heaven" and "earth," for example, did not in themselves change in all world languages throughout the ages. What they refer to, and the mental perceptions these words trigger, have changed profoundly. Thus, text is a malleable entity. Hence, societies appropriate, empty, refill and even reinvent new meanings of text and what the text signifies.

The problem of text lies in interpretation, and is intertwined with the way a society handles new information about the universe, life, history and society, because these same phenomena are not the signified realities to which these texts had once referred. Language itself is a making of the human mind. It is symbols that facilitate the transmission of information, just as societies invented currency to make financial transactions. The symbols themselves do not carry the meanings. By agreeing on the relationship between a symbol and what it refers to, we provide meaning. Thus, sometimes, the words do not correspond with our intentions. We might say that our trust is in God, when in reality it is in muscles and gold3. Yet, ultimately, our problems do not lie in any text or within the human person. Rather, they lie in our failure to present historical knowledge holistically, without discontinuities. We need to understand history on an evolutionary continuum, not as fragmented pieces, nor short glimpses of a given age. We have, throughout history, played with texts and words. However, history is irreverent to our mishaps and misinterpretations, for the laws that govern history do not change nor do they alter: "No change will you find in God's sunna (law and pattern). No alteration will you find in God's sunna." (Surah 35 Fatir: 43)

Once we distinguish between the images and perceptions in our heads, on the one hand, and external events, on the other, and further understand the relationship between the two, we will come closer to solving humanity's problem. And once we can provide humanity with more authentic references and standards with more objectivity, we will open a path of benefit and utility for humanity4. By doing this, we can liberate humanity from the vagueness of text and the inherently inconstant nature of its meaning. And instead of rejecting text or reality, we will come to an understanding of the relationship that binds them, since text is a carrier of the meaning of reality and is in constant flux. This will lead to a different relationship between humanity and the universe. We will then see the universe as a creative source equal to our own curiosity and ability to utilize its resources.

The problem in the human condition is humanity's inability and struggle to adapt to history, which supercedes humanity and leaves it behind. This is due to the prevalence of the arbitrary movement of knowledge beyond authority. The Prophets knew how to utilize human cognition, relating to it the meaning of the universe and succeeded in creating massive human movements. It is unfortunate that intellectuals, the inheritors of prophetic voice, have not yet succeeded or adapted to such capacity and skill. Intellectuals have lost the significance of sacredness or goodness in existence. We have to compete in inventing the simplest, most economic ways of creating a new consciousness that will construct a new paradigm. We are using here the notion of "paradigm" the way Thomas Kuhn used it in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to present the structural evolution of science5.

In the arms race, we see how ignorance is exploited in marketing obsolete commodities. It is unfortunate that we live in an age where there are too many parties willing to exploit the absence of consciousness instead of finding ways to spread it. The intellectual who is competent to perform the role of the messenger has not yet appeared and has not yet been able to utter the words of Moses: "look at the god you have been worshiping . . . ." (Surah 20 Ta Ha: 97)

Muhammad Iqbal, the Pakistani poet and philosopher, discusses the crisis of the modern age in some of his writings. In one of his poems, he dreams about the intellectual who will play the role of Moses. Iqbal demands an intellectual who is concerned not with attacking religion but with analyzing the age in which we live, shaking its premises, exposing its foundations and stripping off its illusionary masks. Indeed, the illusions of the modern world are somewhat reminiscent of the works of Pharaoh's magicians who kept people captives. "Said Moses: `Throw you (first) so when they threw, they bewitched the eyes of the people, and struck terror into them: for they showed a great (fear of) magic.' (Surah 7 A1 A'raf 116)6 This represents the problematic relationship to text the Prophet was discussing with his companion.

Thus, claims of human rights and equality, at the discursive level, do not represent actual events just the way sacred texts ceased to benefit their upholders. Our ideals are invalidated when we think we can govern the world with terror instead of knowledge, with coercion instead of compassion. A young woman, who was a graduate of a high academic institution, came to see me to inquire whether sorcery was true. She had come to believe that her mother-in-law bewitched her. I found myself telling her that sorcery is a global problem. Entire nations are bewitched, and the world's intellectuals leave people under the spell of the magic of force without exposing the mere sticks and ropes that it is, in just the way the magicians of Pharaoh deluded people about their power.

When Louis Pasteur was looking in vinegar bottles to understand the way organic corruption occurs in biological entities, people were dying around him of different contagious diseases. But for Pasteur, mourning the dead was a less effective way of understanding the mechanisms of disease. Similarly, those who look into our cultural bottles will be able to discover the small mental entities spread in our intellectual food and sanctified cultures, enabling us to practice intellectual hygiene. Just as we discovered how to disinfect and pasteurize our food, we will be able to disinfect our cultural materials from the germs that lead to the murder of people at the hands of their own brothers. And as such, we should also find methods of mental anesthesia, so that our operations will be less painful when we remove harmful tissues, i.e., nullify harmful ideas and notions. When people were ignorant of germ theory and the mechanisms of disease, it was possible for one to catch a disease from a loved one who would cry and mourn his loss. We are still at that level culturally. People have always been preached to, during Sunday sermons, to love their enemies; yet, they did not feel the contradiction when they sanctioned the burning of those who disagreed with them in opinion. Has it become possible to place such an intellectual germ under the microscope? Is it yet possible to analyze and understand the cultural environment in which such a germ flourishes? We devote certain amounts of funds to researching AIDS and cancer to gain control over them. Most people are concerned and follow the results of such efforts closely. But do we yet have advanced consciousness and popular interest at similar levels for intellectual health?7

The World Health Organization published a booklet about "facts of life," which isolated ten known preventable diseases that take the lives of a quarter of a million infants per week in the world. Yet the difficulties in disseminating this information to the mothers, who take care of these children, means that we have not eradicated those diseases. The booklet describes how communicating this information in a simplified manner by various and repetitive sources would shift maternal convictions that would result in live-saving behavioral changes. Will we have experts who will determine the number of intellectual "diseases" which lead to bloodshed and the exiling of millions in the world? And more significantly, will the public have the will to ensure that such knowledge reaches mothers, so that they are convinced to instill those values in their children?

We need to know the level of effort needed to reduce violence and each has to ask himself and herself, how can I contribute to the eradication of the disease of violence which has been left on its own to spread without needed intervention?

In this article, I have tried to shed light on one disease, which I believe can be cured through the prophetic path. It is the disease of accepting coercion as a means to changing human behavior. Misinterpreting existence leads to nihilism and therefore to misunderstanding the human condition as well. We live in world that still largely thinks coercion and compulsion bring about results instead of justice and compassion. This misunderstanding has grown as the result of a misinterpretation of justice. People think justice is a form of loss while equality is a sacrifice of status and privilege. These fears represent the satanic world-view, which is based on hubris and condescension.8

The heart does not heal unless it is cleaned of conceit and its love of privilege. This healing cannot be accomplished without an understanding of human equality as a mathematical equation: the solution lies in ensuring the equality of both sides of the equation. Let those who do not believe this continue on their path, for the days will convince them how knowledge heals the heart and how big is the path it opens and how intense the life it provides the self. They will see how God provided "a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." (Gen 3:24)9 By understanding the interconnectedness of faith and knowledge, one connects earth and heaven, and religion no longer stays in the realm of preaching. Rather, through direct practical observation of reality, knowledge will turn into faith and faith into knowledge. Say:

"Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endowed with understanding that recollect." (Surah 39 Al Zumar: 9)


1 . Note: this Hadith is from Masnad Ibn Ahxnad, and was corrected in the "Tafseer" of Ibn Katheer in Surat 5 Ma'idah: 59: 66.

2 The Qur'an also provides a definition of the illiterate person, who espouses this attitude towards text: b"And there are among them illiterates, who know not the Book, but (see therein their own) desires, and they do nothing conjecture." Surah 2 A1 Baqarah: 78.

3 For example, the Bible says:

What hypocrites! How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you: This people pays me lip.service, but their heart is far from me. Matt 15:7-8.

HEAR how wisdom calls and understanding lifts her voice . . . . `For wisdom is better than red coral and no jewel can match her.' `I am wisdom, I bestow shrewdness and show the way to knowledge and discretion.' `My harvest is better than even than fine gold, and my revenue better than choice silver.' `I follow the course ofjustice and keep to the path of equity.' Prov 8:1, 11-12, 19-20.

4 By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations and by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the springs of the deep burst forth and the clouds dropped dew. My son, safeguard soundjudgement and discretion; do not let them out of your sight. They will be a charm hung about your neck, and ornament to grace your throat. Then you will go on your way without a care, and your foot will not stumble. When you sit, you need have no fear; when you lie down, your sleep will be pleasant. Prov 19-24.

5 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: U. of Chi. Press 1962).

6 "(Moses) said, `Nay, throw you first! Then behold their ropes and their rods-so it

seemed to him on account of their magic-began to be in lively motion! "' Surah 20 Ta Ha: 66.

7 . In the World Health Organization, for example, there are detailed reports that criticize and expose military expenditures at the expense of other humane fields. This is a subtle move towards studying systematically the consequences of militancy.

8 As the Bible says: "Pride goes before disaster [destruction], and arrogance before a fall. Better live humbly with those in need than divide the spoil with the proud . . . but happy is he who puts his trust in the LORD." Prov 16:18-20.

The Qur'an also says, "The Day whereon neither wealth nor children will avail. But only that (will prosper) that brings to God a sound (pure) heart." Surah 26 A1 Shu'ara': 88-89.

9 From the King James version.