Muhammad's illiteracy, poetry unlearnability and isolation
Reply #97 - December 08, 2016, 04:55 AM
I can't sleep for some reason, so I'm going to literally share my thoughts:
It is a risky business to allow others unfettered access to one’s reasoning operations (or so it seems to be the case when it comes to authors in the process of marshalling their thoughts). Particularly risky for anyone who sets store by how others might perceive them, thereby creating for themselves unnecessary and external-to-subject implications which easily have the theoretical capacity to restrict and limit the relaxed and free flowing of their critical communication.
Well, folks, I luckily do not care about all that because I am not here to impart particular truths (which, to the extent they can be said to exist in my posts, are decidedly incidental) but to search, to carefully experiment and finally, to learn by shedding a new and balanced conceptual light on what freely offers itself of the textual evidence to contradiction (e.g. doubt and uncertainty).
At risk of repeating myself and getting tedious in the process, what I have to offer here, therefore, is an equally descriptive and negative approach — think of it, if you will, as an apophatic analysis whose sole purpose is to demonstrate the practical and particular (as opposed to the theoretical) limitations and inconsistencies of the current claimant(s) regarding the first of the three matters in question here, namely Muhammad’s illiteracy as found in the Quran and authenticated Hadith and Al-sīra (and absolutely nowhere else).
The restatement of this is necessary for anyone who understandably has thrown their hands up in capitulation to the incredible complexity of textual Islam which, moreover, requires two specific and difficult to come-by qualifications of anyone before they could be conceived capable of producing a commensurate analysis — a) an appreciation of ‘enabling key skills’ (علوم الآلة) such as language, Arabic literature and ‘history’ etc; and b) a competent familiarity with the substantive fields of textual Islam (علوم الغاية) such as tafsir, the ‘science’ of Hadith, jurisprudence/figh etc.
Such apparent complexity does not, however, seem to excuse nor exempt any commentator on the Quran from engaging with it on its own evidentiary terms. That is to say, if anyone is brave/reckless enough to make positive claims on textual Islam, then it ill behoves them to do so in the slapdash manner in which politically far-right commentators in the West seem to do with textual Islam i.e. quote mining and or picking up any translation (thereby, an interpretation) of the Quran and running with it to all sorts of apparent pre-set conclusions, as though their basic understanding of their first language as well as ‘common sense’ should be the sufficient and necessary qualifications for undertaking and completing the interpretive business at hand by themselves to anything like a dispassionate, thorough and believable description of textual Islam.
This is not to deny the existence (and the robust, if partial validity) of a counterargument which places interpretive enabling and contextualisation elsewhere outside the purlieu of the two prerequisite competencies above, as deemed necessary requirements in traditional commentary. I have to acknowledge this because I’m certainly not taking an absolutist stance in my opposition to any alternative approach whose proponents might lack the two competencies in themselves to begin with (and this could arguably explain why some modern and academic scholarly works on the Quran in the West would seem to rely, perhaps a little too much, on the secondary textual data of those western scholars who came before them, thereby the former communicating in the process at least the mistaken impression of self-reliant primary research and an air of analytical originality whilst it could easily be the case that they are being misled, albeit probably unintentionally, by the tentative and or inexhaustive findings of those on whose seminal books/articles they rely and to which they refer for scholarly purposes such as backing up their new assertions with Islamic textual evidence etc.).
Nor does this oppositional stance revolve around or centre on a singularity in approach beyond limiting itself to what is authenticated, primary and directly textual. Indeed, if the reader is interested in retracing the limits of my oppositional stance as an exercise in critical and conceptual grounding, then I should probably link it, for ease of reference, to another interesting area of inquiry, that of legal certainty in common law, in which the accepted convention broadly seems to be that when the practitioners (judges et al) contend themselves with dutifully applying the law and its principles that that somehow puts the endeavour, in formulaic terms, on a par with mathematical predictability and absolutism (American judge Oliver Holmes famously resisted legal formalism; and on the English side, much judicial activism was done by Lord Denning who, for our purpose, flouted doctrinal precedence when it seemed to run contrary to his independent reasoning, and thus seems to create legal uncertainty*). As a law student, brief as that has been, I was greatly influenced by Dr Gunnar Beck whose recent book, The Legal Reasoning of the Court of Justice of the EU, touches on similar conceptual matters and themes as we are grappling with here in relation to approaching textual Islam with or without the two competencies which theoretically give their owner the ability to contextualise Islam as it is accepted by its mainstream subscribers (aka the inside arguments).
If so, then before resuming with giving textualist tafsir examples in which its proponents arbitrarily oscillate between interpreting the Quran literally and non-literally (a task I don't seem to be able to resume soon enough), it is important to note that I have oversimplified and lumped distinct schools of tafsir commentators together.
There are many thorny issues in this thread which are simplistically referred to as “some textualists say” and “the textualist interpretation is..” as if giving precise references and a detailed representative account of these statements/arguments and their authors were an optional extra. That is certainly not the case.
Furthermore, a whole book could be written on exploring the full scope of what such generalities as “interpreting non-literally” cover when attributed to the textualists. This is a tempting endeavour I see no reason why I shouldn’t undertake in a couple of years; notwithstanding the very little encouragement there is to be found in such truisms as Dr Samuel Johnson’s observation that the greatest part of a writer’s time is spent on reading in order to write; that a man will turn over half a library to produce one book. That is unless, of course, if the output should contend itself with joining the queue of ‘quickie’ books the modern field seems to be saturated with.
((In fact, if one is going to comprehensively survey the linguistic prestidigitation of the textualists in principle, then it would indeed be a lopsided undertaking if it does not, at the same time, include an analysis of “interpreting non-literally” that is done by other “insiders” or divinity-based Muslims whom cannot be captured by the umbrella term <textualists>. A contemporary example would be people who advocate ‘humanistic hermeneutics’ in interpreting the Quran as a living discourse or discourses; people who do so in a way that goes much further than it is locatable in traditional tafsir. This is in order to express a modern scholarly focus shift from the origins of the Quran (to be traced to Judaism and or Christianity) to how it is received (textus receptus). Insider people like Nasar Hamid Abu-Zayd, in other words. In reception terms, moreover, it has always been the rationalists who conceptually exploit the Quranic dichotomies when they divide its verses into “clear” (المٌحكَم) and “ambiguous” (المتشابِه) in accordance with [3:7] concerning its wording and meanings as well as its structure. That is to say, in the sense it was done by such divinity-based rationalists as the Mu’tazilites who accepted the existential reality of Allah but seemed to have refused the literal interpretation of the Quran as a divine text. The Mu’tazilites contended that it was as a duty imposed by Allah on humans to use their intellect (النظر" كما عند الجويني والقاضي عبد الجبار") in attaining authentic Islamic knowledge, and not just fall back on the ‘created’ text – literal or not as such thing occupied the textualist theologians. Thus, the Mu’tazilites seem to have worked out and sidestepped what the textualists/Atharis were doing; differentiating between “earlier” and “later” revelations as a jurisprudential progression which gave authoritative regard only to the latest, and thus, took the gradual revelatory process that the Quran had had to undergo in 23 years to mean the gradual distillation of semantic certainty, coherence and total unity of the otherwise one and indivisible message. However, it is a little deficient to lump ibn Rushd (the grandson) with the rationalists here, even though he was a believer and thus an insider like them. But ibn Rushd’s rational approach differs markedly in that it divides the Quranic verses into three distinct addresses to three corresponding addressees; one for the philosophers (الخطاب البرهاني), one for the jurists (الخطاب الجدلي) and the last one is for the common man on the street (الخطاب البياني). And if for interpretive inclusiveness, then it is the Sufis who traditionally seem to champion diversity of Quranic reception which knows no bound. Ibn Arabi in his book The Meccan Revelations puts the Quranic verses into four different categories or layers: the upward (الظاهر), the inward (الباطن), the Hadd including halal and haram (الحد) and lastly what Allah wants from His slaves (المطلع). This four-layered conceptualisation gets attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib too by the Shia. It is never the less the case that each layer, according to the Sufis, caters for a type of insider people according to their readiness and receptive willingness -- cf.[18:65]. Obviously, it’s not possible to detail these different ways of receiving the Quran by the believing insiders who went beyond practice to try to reason out their particular take on the Quranic text. Rather, this is to give the reader a general idea and sketching the probable direction of travel in any future book project on Quranic interpretation by the insiders and their departure or otherwise from what is literal)).
The reason for this gross oversimplification has more to do with the reader and this medium; it is not a secret that this is a thinking process or at least it is hoped and presented as thought-provoking. A process in which the reader has been continually encouraged to distrust, question and take it upon him/herself to investigate any positive claim made about absolutely anything.
* This legal swerve, I suspect, has something to do with the ongoing Brexit hearings at the Supreme Court.