Be Like Adam's Son: Utterances and Concepts

From Jawdat Said

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We may try to twist words this way and this way, but God's law will not change at all; we may give a new name to the same old concepts, but misguidance will not be guidance for the sake of Muslims. Nor will the Europeans' good sense be folly to please us.

Al-Ghazali did think, a thousand years before Saussure, Serle, Chomsky, Heidegger and Nietzsche, along this line, when he said, "Anyone who seeks to draw sense from words will be lost and will end into perdition; he will be like one who seeks to go West, while moving towards the East; but to comprehend concepts first, and then seek the right words for them – that is good guidance."

Words can indicate the required sense, and can indicate its opposite; anyone who thinks that words contain the sense that is required will be far from truth. It may help to consider how skills like swimming are not to be obtained from any writing, no matter how eloquent. So now it maybe easier to consider how the Muslims and other monotheistic religionists go through a time when they do not benefit from what is in their revealed books.

To give the written words their significance, God commands us to move about and observe with open minds what is in the earth.

I say this with reference to the European Union, which was created on the basis of the calculation of profits and losses; statistics and calculations were absolutely the basis for establishing it.

You may wish to see the other side, too. So think of the Soviet Union. It broke up when it failed to approach its problems soberly. It happens that people come to a point when they no longer benefit by their eyes, ears, or minds, as the Qur'an says, (6:7; and 15:13-15). The Soviet Union believed in compulsion and collapsed, in the same way that Muslims at a certain stage believed in compulsion and collapsed.

Hatred took the place of love and confidence, and the Soviet Union no longer cared even for life or wealth; they no longer calculated the profits and losses. This especially happens to nations that have not been in the habit of taking part in taking decisions. And when people are dominated by hatred their faculty of analyzing things comes to a standstill. Of course, there were some wise people who tried to speak sense, but it was not possible to regain the confidence, and history decided that its verdict was disintegration.

I like to use the principle of 'two readings of the Qur'an' in discussing the people of Jonah (Yunus in Arabic). And when I cite the Qur'an, I do that not because it is the Qur'an, but because it expresses what we need to express on the basis of logic and reasoning; or, in modern terms, it discusses things in historical and not metaphysical terms. Let me add, too, that the Qur'an uses the word 'hereafter' in the sense of the Last Day, but also in connection with a later stage in this earthly life; as it says of a certain people, "For them there is nothing but disgrace in this world, and in the world to come, an exceeding torment;" (2: 114) and of another group, "We might give them a taste of a Penalty of humiliation in this Life; but the Penalty of the Hereafter will be more humiliating still." (41:16-18) By disregarding the rewards and retribution in this world, as handled by the Qur'an, we waste a very major point in it. On the other hand, reading the Qur'an with reference to this world, revives it and revitalizes it.

And if you wonder why I keep referring to the Qur'an, then remember that while my words have little effect, and on a small number of people, the Qur'an is the great book of Muslims. They will not rise without the Qur'an, and will only rise by the Qur'an. But the great thing to do is to make Muslims interpret the Qur'an with reference to the consequences of behaviors. As long as the Qur'an is used to refer to the Last Day alone, then it is not referred to to solve the problems of this world. I admire Ibn Taymiah when he said to the philosophers he argued with that he did not quote the Qur'an to silence them, but for the sense and logic in its words. So it is not enough that we assert that the Qur'an is full of miracles; for it is the right of those who we encounter to say do not quote the Qur'an. To them also the Qur'an is not related to the cause-effect life in this world. As my concern is what befalls us in this world, like the two Gulf wars, I use the Qur'an as pertaining to this life.

It was Muhammad Arkoun who asserted that Muslims needed a new theology, an idea that he repeats often in his books. He felt somehow, though it remained vague to him, that Muslims needed to understand the Oneness of God in a new light, that is, to learn to read the Qur'an the two readings. And yet, as I quoted him above, he maintains in another place that according to the Qur'an history is not made by people, but by God. It is such idea that prevents the two readings of the Qur'an to be commonly employed.

Do some people feel reactant at the mention of Ibn Taymiah or Arkoun? Well, their names change nothing of the facts. A fruitful idea is good, apart from the person who utters it.

Now let us go the Qur'an about the people of Jonah: " If you were in doubt as to what We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Book before you: the Truth has indeed come to you from your Lord: so be in no wise of those in doubt. Nor be of those who reject the signs of Allah, or you shall be of those who perish, those against whom the word of thy Lord has been verified would not believe – even if every Sign was brought to them – until they see for themselves the penalty grievous. Why was there not a single township (among those We warned), which believed – so its faith should have profited it – except the people of Jonah? When they believed, We removed from them the penalty of ignominy in the life of the present, and permitted them to enjoy (their life) for a while. If it had been your Lord's will, they would all have believed – all who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe! No soul can believe, except by the will of Allah, and He will place doubt (or obscurity) on those who will not understand. Say: 'Behold all that is in the heavens and on earth'; but neither Signs nor Warners profit those who believe not. Do they then expect (any thing) but (what happened in) the days of the men who passed away before them? Say: 'Wait you then: for I, too, will wait with you.' In the end We deliver Our apostles and those who believe: Thus is it fitting on Our part that We should deliver those who believe!" (10:94-103).

I take up such stories and give them their due importance since I would not accept the nihilism of modern philosophers, including Derrida, for they take the world to be an absurdity; and even Skinner, who I admire and from whom I benefited a lot, takes the same position. He does not even deny that a human's movement is like that of a missile. He does realize that man is the product of his material milieu, but seems not to notice that that milieu is never stationary. Nor does he notice that some individuals just would not be missiles. Indeed, Skinner himself worked hard to change attitudes and concepts, even under the oxygen tent near the end of his life – he did not give up because life had a purpose, and he was not a missile. He was once asked about the most remarkable appreciation he met with, and he said it was from a circus trainer, who told him that they adopted his method with animals – they no longer punished animals to control their behavior, but rather rewarded them only for their right behavior, the famous positive reinforcement of Skinner. And it worked better than punishments.

It was heartening to see that teaching can work better with rewards for positive behaviors. And I would say to Skinner, "It is not important what I feel or you feel about things. The world goes along its track, caring nothing for our feelings. But if your behavior or mine has positive results, then it will stay, and occupy its place in existence." It is such a glaring fact, that those who deny it will only have to pay dearly for their denial. So, there is a reference other than you or me, Skinner.

Roger Garodi did better in the matter of the meaning of things. All his effort was directed at confirming the teleology of the world, that things do not just happen haphazardly.

I say all this because the first verse in the story of Jonah's people reads, " If you were in doubt as to what We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Book before you; " (10:94) which permits doubt, and even urges one to have doubt; for this is the remedy against nihilism. The panacea against nihilism is to look around, and to see and hear what those before us have said. And even if you say I will go to the Qur'an, you will find it will refer you back to the earth and its events, and to those who have studied the events on the earth.

But you need to believe that things are moving, and moving upwards. Things started with animals, and then rose to a human, and a human was given a share in shaping his/her future, and to save time by accelerating creation. This is our panacea against nihilism and absurdity. And it is very healthy after that to be skeptical, very skeptical, which may lead us to sort out what is right and mature behavior, and what is misguided and erroneous behavior. And we cannot afford to waste time. Why should we ignore all this and go doggedly wasting our fortune and life, just clinging to old trodden ways. God has not left men without guidance.