12: Interpretation of the holy texts

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Q. 12: What do you think of the modern trends concerning sacred texts [the Qur'an and the Prophet's traditions], according to which any attempt to arrive at truth through examining a text must bring up all the multiplicity of readings: in the sense that no general truth can really be gleaned from a text; that even the attempts at legislation on the basis of texts, and through analyzing texts, is bound to be elusive and illusive, no matter how ardently its adherents claim to be sincere and objective. Is not such position tantamount to assuming that the truth of the sacred text itself is relative, or even nonexistent?

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1: The major stages in the intellectual progress
3: The main features Jawdat's project
4: Two sources of knowledge
5: Are you advocating the discarding of jihad
6: The basic tenets of Iqbal's project
7: The challenge of globalization
8: Patriarchal-glorification-and-infallibility
9: Is the Islamic mind in a crisis?
10: The present Arabic cultural scene
11: Muhammad Arkoun's attitude
12: Interpretation of the holy texts
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A. 12: As you see, Abdul-Jabbar, wherever we turn, we are invariably brought back to how to deal with the text. The text is a series of symbols, vocal and light symbols to which we assign certain significance. While without the symbols we cannot retain any experience we come by, without the experience the text becomes worthless. It is so because the text is just a vehicle of sense; there is a reciprocal relation between text and sense: no experience can be conveyed from one mind to another without the text. I know I repeat this and keep repeating it; I keep reminding those who cling solely to the text: It is the Author of the text itself Who says refer to the facts of the world. You cannot get to the heart of meaning with the text alone.

I may repeat an example that illustrates how our knowledge of the world conditions our understanding of the Qur'an. The two words, 'the sky' and 'the earth' are frequently used in the Qur'an, but what occurs to our mind when we come across 'sky' and 'earth' is not what occurred to the mind to the first audience of the Qur'an. This teaches us to always refer to the basic place, the real world in which we live. This is pointed to by both science and by God. Indeed, even the ancient Arabs used to say the moon is the moon; it is we who have different concepts of it. I may add here that when you hear or read the word 'fire' it does not burn your hand; it is just a symbol, a symbol that we utter. If we can comprehend this and digest it well, it will give us peace and comfort. We can tell anybody who makes any claim: If the signs of the world around us or the inner world of our souls testifies in your favor, then what you say is accepted, for the time being – until something emerges that is nearer to matching with the facts of the real world. It is as the Qur'an challenges a certain people who assert that they will neither believe in the present Scripture, nor in what was revealed to Moses: "Then bring ye a Book from God, which is a better guide than either of them, that I may follow it! Do, if ye are truthful:" (28:49).

The idea of a pair (here the text and the real world) is a basic one in life, as the Qur'an tells us: "And of every thing We have created pairs, that ye may receive instruction;" (51:49). There is no proliferation in life without pairs. That is something that we can readily comprehend. But the Lord establishes the same connection between the text and the real world: "Then, by the Lord of heavens and earth, this is the very truth, as much as the fact that ye can speak intelligently to each other;" (51:23). It helps to analyze how we speak, what happens when we utter words; to remember the participants in the process of speaking: the speaker, the hearer, the topic, the words that express the sense, the vehicle of the sense, without which nothing can be conveyed. It must be clear to us that no sense may be conveyed without reference to reality. The classical example is always the sun, when men accepted for numberless centuries the illusion about its going round us, until the facts became known to them.

Praise be to God

Jawdat Sa'eed. 3 March, 1998