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Mourning the Wastage of Meaning
Reflections
Nadir Aqeel

 

Of all the tragedies that befell the Muslims – which include the storm of Tartars from the east1, and the scramble of European scavengers from the west2 – difficult as it may seem to grade them in order of the extent their being catastrophic, tragic and mortal, I find it convenient to place the wastage of the meaning of the Holy Qur’ān foremost. The cornerstone of their faith, their prime motivation for all goodness and their chief weapon of defense against the incursions of Lucifer, was, with the passage of time, relegated to the status of chants and spells3, where only sounds mattered, not the meaning. The loss of meaning was the result of a composite effort, though the corrupters did not have the doubtful advantage of mutual consultation.

In the early fourth century, after the perfection of God’s words, some found difficulty in encompass the light of Faith within the dark cloak of mysticism4. They resolved the difficulty by transmitting the meanings of the Holy Book in an esoteric form. In their attempt to find the Hidden Meaning of the text, such far fetched and bizarre meaning were brought out that ‘push the author to a state of inferiority complex’ because such meanings he never intended. With arrant insolence, they disturbed the musical harmony between words and their meaning. The winged words of the book were spurred to fly high till they were out of sight5. Ironically, this was construed as an achievement, in which they rejoiced like a child who had laid hands on a new toy that jingles with arrhythmic painful sounds of all sorts. Fortunately, each of them built his own edifice of hidden meaning, till the overwhelming number and variety of their constructions was lost in a jungle of buildings, and the people forgot all of them.

When the jurists approached the book, they brought it down to the level of a compendium of Roman Laws and imposed upon themselves the ambiance of a court room, interpreting it with the minds of advocates and attorneys, who battle to win the case, even if the client is destroyed6.

The scholastics and theologians, equipped with the sickle and knife of cold Aristotelian logic, mutilated the text with insensate cruelty to prove the truth of the teachings of the First Master and in their zeal to prove sectarian theses, scarred the moral fiber of a purifying discourse. Their work provided yet another instance of the human proclivity to draw out and extract with overgrown nails from a painting whatever helps prove their thesis, even if it leaves the painting foul and disfigured7.

As if all this were not enough, many well meaning commentators degenerated into a new mode of exegeses. This, in time, became the most effective means to hide and distort the true intended meaning of the scripture. These commentators deserve a somewhat detailed treatment.

They picked the text to pieces. They began to analyze the verses and words of the text, after dismembering the unity of a text8 which is like a picture masterly painted – symmetrical, complete, convincing, just and beautiful. The Holy Book is the finest example of construction with the greatest degree of originality9. Its totality was destroyed and its unity fragmented. Unfortunately the splendid construction and thematic coherence of the Book has been picked to pieces by the men who studied it most carefully and should presumably have admired it most. Failing utterly to appreciate the perfect design and startling unity of the Book, they understood and presented this well woven piece of unprecedented embroidery as an ugly collage of patchwork, created in a sordid sartorial process. They never hesitated to divorce the words and sentences from the beautiful construction or to discover multiple meanings for each sentence. It became fashionable to present the startled laity with forty, fifty or a hundred conflicting meanings a verse is pregnant with10. With twenty meanings for each sentence, and all of them considered valid, we have a right to be scandalized!! The conglomerate of meanings they heaped up in the process was fascinating as a game and miserable as exegesis. But it was hardly surprising. A lone word, plucked from the bosom of the parent text, is left to the vagaries of the commentator and can be interpreted variously, leaving the anarchy of meaning to rage for centuries. The chief weapon of those who tried to pick the book to pieces was ignorance – ignorance of the language and the style of the Most High and the diction of the times in which it was revealed11 .

The Holy Qur’ān has been termed as a Book by its author, and not as an ill-organized collection of scattered golden maxims. We can present it as the most coherent and thematic discourse, though most original in its organization. And this we must do with indomitable pride, authority and definiteness. They say it was compiled later by mortal human beings. I argue that such a high degree of consistency and flow of sequence would have proved impossible without the pen of the author himself.

The wonders of the internal arrangement of the Holy Book never cease to amaze. There is such a parallelism among the twin chapters that it could not have missed the attention of a careful reader skilled in the art of interpreting revealed scriptures and immersed in the classical Arabic of the Prophet’s days. Instead of the advanced techniques of modern literature, the style, language and diction of the pre-Islamic Arabia are useful here. The way the units of this discourse dovetail into each other, and the beauty with which, after a number of digressions, a single unified idea is thrown up by every chapter, was shown by a number of insightful people but the difficult and mind consuming hours that were required to understand and investigate turned out to be too oppressive for most of the commentators. The Holy Book invites and then so deeply familiarizes the reader with its melody and the high and low tones, that it becomes possible to point out where a tone has been dropped to avoid a clutter of words, give depth to the text and strike at the objective directly. Such intentionally missing phrases and clauses are to be understood and brought out in translation and commentary.

The different techniques of raising the discourse till it reaches the pinnacle or coming down in pleasing pace till the discourse reaches its very foundation should be noted. The book addresses the Prophet (sws) with intimacy and then may shift the focus of its address to others, sometimes to patronize and felicitate the believers and sometimes to show its distaste to the hypocrites. The choice of words and the aura thus created, immediately points out the situation at hand and the stage of the Prophet’s life that is the subject of Divine words. Words are employed in their conspicuous meanings and, far from puzzling and flummoxing usage, clarity of meaning is achieved in its highest form. The Holy Qur’ān thus appears to be ‘a perfume, which only had to be stirred for the scent to spread to the heavens and earth’12. But this stirring requires the noise of Hell to awaken the Muslim clergy from its dogmatic slumbers.

Another example is the way many rhyming verses of the Holy Qur’ān end with names and attributes of Allah. Many orientalists consider these verse endings superfluous and tend to explain these away as decorative trappings of an epic style. None of the Muslim commentators dare say this, although their works reflect that they too do not attach any significance to this usage in the Holy Qur’ān, which betrays the opinion they share with the orientalist. The names of Allah appear as adjectives which search out the quintessence of the beauty and perfection of his attributes. It has been shown with convincing reasons that such usage is not a compulsion of rhyming. What is so remarkable is the fact that each time an attributive name of God appears at the end of the verse, the selection of a particular Divine Attribute is deeply linked with the problem at hand and the failure to understand this relationship veils the meaning of the verse13.

I am only hinting at a few of the delicacies of the Qur’ānic style here, and not attempting to give a comprehensive list. Surely there are many other aspects of the unique style of the Divine Book, which in these later days of literature we are too sophisticated to note with wonder, or not to note at all.

I mourn the wastage of the essence and meaning of the scripture. I mourn because the Divine Book was brutally subjected to Hellenistic ideals, mystic goals, sectarian purposes and legal battles. Above all, for centuries the literary and thematic unity of the Book was dismembered and served up piecemeal to the boys of religious schools, myself included.

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1. The attack of Mongol hoards that was brewing for years finally came in the mid-thirteenth century and in 1258 resulted in the sack and destruction of Baghdad. This dealt a death blow to the already tottering Abbasid Dynasty, which later shifted to Cairo. The attack of Tartars caused great misery for people who had to face large scale massacres, destruction of cities, burning of libraries and the psychological shock of the termination of their centuries-old prestigious rule.

2. The colonial era, coinciding with the maturing of renaissance in Europe is another name for the imperialism that signified the highest form of capitalist ideals. Asia and Africa were the prime victims of the plague of colonialism that destroyed their traditional lifestyle, plundered their institutions and robbed them of their resources. The astounding prosperity of European nations today rests on the foundation stemming from the influx of resources from their colonies. Apart from the political turmoil that followed in each of the colonized nations, this colonialism planted the seeds of sedition, terrorism, poverty and moral decadence everywhere. When the colonized nations struggled successfully to win freedom, they were disappointed to see that, even after obtaining freedom, imperialism still persisted through the modern global economy, commonly termed as neo-colonialism.

3. The reference is to the elaborate system of talismans and chants that became popular among Muslims under the influence of Mysticism and other occult disciplines, wherein the words of the Holy Qur’ān are employed for medicinal purposes, for success in the ordeals of life like wars, court cases, examinations and even love affairs. Detailed literature was produced prescribing verses of the Holy Qur’ān for the resolution of specific problems. Verses are to be written down on pieces of papers and either swallowed, or dissolved and taken, buried in the foundations of houses, hung in the neck or tied with the arms. In many cases the Holy Book is waved and the wind is considered curative for sick people. Omens are drawn by drawing lots from the Holy Qur’āsn. Other occult disciplines like numerology reduced the most eloquent words of God into lifeless numbers, which are considered extremely powerful in helping men in their everyday lives. Such a preposterous attitude was then articulated into impressive sciences with intricate terminology in which Muslims gradually began to take pride. Dr Hussain Nasr, modern mystic, was audacious enough to compile a two-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Islamic Spirituality’, (Sohail Academy, Lahore), to present this ‘proud’ though superstitious legacy before the modern world.

4. Muslim Mysticism, or Tasawwuf, born of Neo-Platonic and Christian influences received in the Muslim world through the Syriac translations and writings, during the Abbasid Era, transfigured the Muslim concept of God, piety, and the hereafter. (See Ghamidi: Islam and Tasawwuf, Burhān, Danish Sara, Lahore, 2001, Lahore)

5. The most ignoble examples of attempts to bring out the ‘hidden meaning’ can be seen in the works of the so called Great Master, Muhī Uddīn Ibn ‘Arabī in his works like ‘Futūhāt-i-Makkiyyah’ (The Makkan Disclosures) and ‘Fusūsu’l-Hikm’ (The Bezels of Wisdom).

6. The corpus of legal opinions developed during the Middle Ages is replete with such discussions. Deriving rules for the purity of a Muslim who touches the Holy Book from a verse that speaks of Angels (56:79) should serve as an example.

7. The famous ‘Tafsīru’l-Kabīr’ of Imam Rāzī the polemicist and scholastic par excellence is an example.

8. This plague afflicted almost all the commentators with few exceptions. The sermonizers on the pulpit, the jurists, the mystics and the polemicists, mostly developed their case on the basis of lone words and verses of the Holy Qur’ān without referring to the context or the theme. Such examples can be found in abundance among the old and the new authors, belonging to both the orthodox as well as the heretic schools.

9. The genre of the Holy Qur’ān is difficult to determine because of its originality. It is neither poetry nor prose. At best it can be compared with the orations of the Arab tribal and religious leaders of the pre-Islamic days. That it has a structure, anatomy and thematic arrangement has always remained in the knowledge of leading Muslim scholars, with two important hurdles that did not let this aspect of the Book come to the fore. One, that despite their acquiescence to this reality, they seldom make use of it. Second, when they do, the level of scholarship is poor and its low quality may as well convince a reader that the concept of coherence is being imposed on the text artificially. Therefore, though most of the early commentators are not oblivious of the coherence yet they remain deprived of the fruits of understanding the themes of the Holy Book. Farāhī (d: 1930) with his intrepidity in the face of well trenched conservatism forcefully argued for it and also applied the principles to the text with a fine level of scholarship.

10.The exegesis of Tabarī and of Rāzī each present numerous examples of such multiplicity of meanings.

11. 11. The Holy Qur’ān claims to be in the language of the Metropolis (Arabic Ummu’l-Qurā –Mother of Cities) Makkah and declares its language ‘Arabī i Mubīn’ (Lucid Arabic). Sufficient data is available in pre-Islamic literature of which a large treasure of poetry (odes) has survived, that supplies the background of words, their meaning and usage. The literature created during the century immediately before Hijrah is considered the apex of the pre-Islamic language & literature. Exactly this material forms the basis of all seminal lexical works in Arabic. The idiom, meaning, style and even cultural information, that this literature offers is the basis of all attempts to understand classical Arabic and also the Holy Qur’ān. Although this critical importance of classical Arabic literature is widely accepted and the classical literature has always remained an integral part of the curricula of religious seminaries for the last ten centuries, yet it is rarely applied towards understanding the Holy Qur’ān. The uses of this approach, when applied properly, can be seen in Zamakhsharī’s ‘Kashshāff’ and Farāhi’s ‘Mufradātu’l-Qur’ān’.

12. Homer: Iliad

13. It would be niggardly not to appreciate the logic of such explanations, examples of which abound in the work of Islāhī (Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān), Faran Foundation, Lahore.

 

   
 
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