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Qur’anic Hermeneutics: Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd

Qur’anic Hermeneutics: Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd By Motiur Rahman “From Ibn ‘Abbas concerning the words of God ‘In a (clear) Arabic tongue’ [i.e. Q.16: 103; 26:195]. He said: [that is] in the language of the Quraish: if there had been other than Arabic in [the Qur’an], [the Arabs] would not have understood it. God had not revealed a book without it being in Arabic and then Gabriel translated it for each prophet into the language of his people. Therefore God said: ‘We do not send a prophet except in the language of his community’

[i.e. Qur’an Q.14: 4]

. There is not in the Qur’an any language other than Arabic although that language may coincide [wafaqat] with other languages;

however, as for the origin and category [of the language used], it is Arabic and nothing is mixed in with it.” The statement quoted above, attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas, in Al-Lughat Fil Qur’an, is a good starting point to consider the issue of ta’wil as it sets out some of the conditions that have to be fulfilled in order to understand the Qur’an, and also essence of Qur’anic Arabic or the language of the Quraish.

In this statement also there is an indication of how ibn ‘Abbas (and/or the earlier generation) approached the issue of ta’wil of the Qur’an. “It is He who has sent down to you the book in which are clear ayats [muhkamat] that are the essence of the book and others that are unclear [mutashabihat]. As for those in whose hearts is a perversion, they follow the unclear part, desiring dissension and desiring its interpretation [ta’wil].

But no one knows its interpretation [ta’wil] except God and those firm in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it; all is from our Lord.’ Yet none remember except men who understand” (Qur’an 3: 5-6) Following the above quoted ayats in the Qur’an traditional Muslim exegetes have drawn up a distinction between two types of ayats in the Qur’an, the muhkam and mutashabihat ayats.

Traditionally there seems to be no difficulty in the interpretations of the muhkam ayats, but there has been various disagreements and differences in interpreting the mutashabihat ayats, ranging from small reconcilable differences to major theological shifts. Indeed, there has even been disagreements in the definition of the mutashabihat, it can be argued that what seems to be clear and straightforward to some may appear to ambiguous and unclear to others.

The search for the objective understanding of the Qur’an as opposed to the subjective interpretation has been an important search for the believers as they hold the Qur’an to be a divine revelation from God. It has been an important for the Muslims to know correctly and accurately the message of God that has been sent to His Messenger, the last Prophet. The science of tafsir is said to have started with the Prophet, known as tafsir an-nabi and historical data suggest that a select few of the Companions had made (at least oral) commentaries on some ayats of the Qur’an.

By the fourth century AH the science of tafsir is thought to have fully evolved, combining different trends of interpretation in a single volume such as in the case of al-Tabari’s Jami’ al-bayan ‘an ta’wil ay al-Qur’an. The distinction between tafsir bi-al-ma’thur (interpretation by tradition) and tafsir bi-al-ra’y (interpretation by opinion) had been formulated at least by the fourth century AH. Also by the fourth century AH ‘Ilm al-kalam’ (or less accurately scholastic theology) which deals with the interpretations of religious doctrines through the means of discursive arguments had arrived as a result of various in-fighting among the different sects in Islam. During this period Muslim theology can be classified into five different groups of thinkers loosely- the Mu’tazila (or rationalists), Traditionalists (mainstream Sunnis, Ash’ahrites), the Batinis (Shi’ites and Imamites), the philosophers (Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian) and the Literalists (Hashawiyya), giving rise to more complex approaches and styles to the interpretation of the Qur’an.

Ibn Rushd Ibn Rushd thought that philosophical studies are obligatory for the Muslims and that philosophy contains nothing that is opposed to Islam. But since the majority are not able to comprehend the philosophical arguments philosophical interpretations of the Scriptures should not be taught to the masses. Also, the Qur’an has both an apparent meaning and an inner meaning. He explains,

“The reason why we have received a Scripture with both an apparent meaning and an inner meaning lies in the diversity of people’s natural capacities and the difference of their innate dispositions with regard to assent. The reason why we have received in Scriptures texts whose apparent meanings contradict each other is in order to draw the attention of those who are well grounded in science[1] to the interpretation which reconciles them.[73]”[2] In his Kitab fasl al-maqal he says, “whenever we find in the works of our predecessors of former nations a theory about beings and a reflection on them conforming to what the conditions of demonstration require, we ought to study what they said about the matter and what they affirmed in their books. And should accept from them gladly and gratefully whatever in these books accords with the truth, and draw attention to and warn against what does not accord with the truth, at the same time excusing them.”[3] And further on,

“From this it is evident that the study the study of the books of the ancients is obligatory by Law, since their aim and purpose in their books is just the purpose to which the Law has urged us, and that whoever forbids the study of them to anyone who is fit to study them, i.e. anyone who, unites two qualities, (1) natural intelligence and (2) religious integrity and moral virtue, [46] is blocking people from the door by which the Law summons them to knowledge of God, the door of theoretical study which leads to the truest knowledge of Him; and such an act is the extreme of ignorance and estrangement from God the Exalted.[47]”[4] Ibn Rushd distinguishes between three types of men in terms of nature and temperament in relation to the assent in the knowledge of God,

“For the natures of men are on different levels with respect to [their path of] assent. One of them comes to assent through demonstration; another comes to assent through dialectic arguments, just as firmly as the demonstrative man through demonstration, since his nature does not contain any greater capacity; while another comes to assent through rhetorical arguments, again just as firmly as the demonstrative man through demonstrative arguments,”[5] justifying this statement twofold, on a rational level because the message of Islam should be accessible to all men and by alluding to hadith, and the Qur’an, “Summon to the way of your Lord by wisdom and by good preaching, and debate with them in the most effective manner,” which he quotes. Ibn Rushd’s principle is that the Qur’an does not contradict philosophical truths (demonstrative conclusions).

He says, “truth does not oppose truth but accords with it and bears witness to it”.[6] Taking this into consideration he seems to suggest the framework for the science of ta’wil should be rooted in philosophical principles and not the other way around, i.e. ta’wil must comply with demonstrative principles, and also, the starting point of the study should stem from demonstrative principles, “whenever demonstrative study leads to any manner of knowledge about any being, that being is inevitably either unmentioned or mentioned in the Scripture.

If it is unmentioned there is no contradiction, and it is in the same case as an act whose category is unmentioned, so that the lawyer has to infer it by reasoning from Scripture. [61] If the Scripture speaks about it; the apparent meaning of the words inevitably either accords or conflicts with the conclusions of demonstration about it. If this [apparent meaning] accords there is no argument. If it conflicts there is a call for allegorical interpretation of it.”[7] The question then is how the demonstrative principles can be arrived at with absolute certainty in order to lay the philosophical framework to approach the issue of ta’wil in the Qur’an?

Al-Ghazali had been critical and pointed out that logical deductions only prove validity of the arguments and not the soundness of it. So there is a clear break from holding onto traditional methodology in Ibn Rushd’s theology and interpretation of the Qur’an, guided only by demonstrative principles and whenever there is an apparent contradiction this is to be resolved through an allegorical interpretation which must conform to philosophical first principles or premises from which logical deductions are to be made.

But there remains the problem of the soundness of the first principles at least in terms of the Scripture, the definition of Qur’anic words, and the interpretation and the methodology. There is the circularity in his argument – in order to have ta’wil one must have first principles or premises but one cannot have this first premises to derive conclusions from until there is assumed some sort of ta’wil. How far can one go in taking an allegorical approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an? What are the limits or guiding principles? Ibn Rushd says,

“The meaning of ‘allegorical interpretation’ is: extension of the significance of an expression from real to metaphorical significance, without forsaking therein the standard metaphorical practices of Arabic, such as calling a thing by the name of something resembling it or a cause or consequence or accompaniment of it, or other things such as enumerated in accounts of metaphorical speech [62].”[8] This suggests a very liberal approach and in practice as long as the conclusions conform to the premises there is no logical contradiction. It seems Ibn Rushd, as opposed to al-Ghazali and the Ash’arites, adopted the ancient Greek philosophical principle, ex nihilo, i.e. nothing comes out of nothingness, but did not openly speak his mind (at least publicly) for he says,: “He tells us his condition before the creation of the universe, “His throne was above the waters” [Qur’an 11.9]. He also says, “Verily your Lord is God who created the heavens and the earth in six days” [Qur’an 7.52],

and “Then He set His mind to the creation of the heavens, and it was smoke” [Qur’an 12.10]. In addition to these there are other verses of the Book, pertaining to this subject. So it is incumbent that nothing out of them should be interpreted for the common people, and nothing should be presented to them in explaining it but this illustration. For one who changes it, makes the wisdom of the Law useless. If it be said that the Law teaches about the universe that it is created, and made out of nothing and in no time, then it is a thing which even the learned cannot understand, not to speak of the common people. So we should not deviate in this matter of the Law. . .”[9] .

Al-Ghazali Al-Ghazali’s self-defined mission seemingly was not to bring new ideas to philosophy or theology but rather to rekindle and renew the original Muslim thought and knowledge, reaffirm and rescue faith from the dogmatism of all sides, in other words, a return to the awwal, (ta’wil) and the first generation. As he says in the introduction to the Ihya Uloom id-Deen, “I proceed to enlighten you, who are the most self-righteous of those who reject belief, and you, who are the most immoderate of the thoughtless unbelievers. I am no longer obliged to remain silent, because the responsibility to speak, as well as warn you, has been imposed upon me by your persistent straying from the clear truth, and by your insistence upon fostering evil, flattering ignorance, and stirring up opposition against him who, in order to conform to the dictates of knowledge, deviates from custom and the established practice of men”.

Al-Ghazali defined ta’wil as a “possibility backed by a proof, which allows conjecture to prevail over the apparent meaning.”[10] Like Ibn Rushd, who was later than al-Ghazali and made references to al-Ghazali in his writings, also thought that there is no inconsistency between reason and the revealed Law or the Sunna.[11] Al-Ghazali says that it is possible to arrive at theological knowledge through philosophy, “by means of speculative reasoning, rational inquiry and the correct elaboration of logical demonstrations,”[12] and that the truth of the Revelations can be proved “through demonstration that has been fully carried out, whose conditions are completely fulfilled, and whose foundations and premises have been reviewed step by step and term by term until there remains no room for ambiguity and no opening for confusion.[13]” Although this is possible theoretically in practice this is not the case as has been demonstrated through the errors and mistakes of the Falasha says al-Ghazali. “It is in the metaphysical sciences that most of the philosophers’ errors are found. Owing to the fact that they could not carry out the apoplectic demonstration according to the conditions they had postulated in logic, they differed a great deal about metaphysical questions. Aristotle’s on these matters, as transmitted by al-farabi and ibn Sina, approximates the teachings of Islamic philosophers.[14]” In The incoherence of the philosophers al-Ghazali sets out 20 charges against the Falasha, seventeen of them being innovation in religious matter and three major charges of unbelief. The charges of unbelief relates to philosophers’ proposition that the world is eternal, denial of the bodily resurrection and the denial of God’s knowledge of particulars.

In explaining the hadith, ‘When men draw near to God by means of various kinds of devotions, then draw you near by mind (bil-aql)’ al-Ghazali says, “drawing near is not possible either by one’s native instincts or by such knowledge as is given immediately, but rather by that which is gained through rational inference.[15]” In contrast to the falasifa and their system al-Ghazali calls ilm al-kalam the universal science of religion while other religious sciences are only particular. E.g. al-fiqh assumes the truth of revelation but depends on kalam for its foundation,[16] because the jurist does not have the authority to judge the theological interpretation (ta’wil).

Under the Ilm al-Kalam falls the study into the rational investigation of God’s essence and attributes and His actions. The classes of created beings and the subclasses and the orders of accidents and their relation to animate and inanimate beings falls into this category. According to al-Ghazali Ilm al-nazar or logic of the philosophers is the tool of kalam[17]. Like Ibn Rushd, al-Ghazali maintained that to some people Ilm al-Kalam is harmful as it is the “demon of dialectic” and results to confusion and doubt. Others who have a superior mental quality and “to whom questions and doubts occur, either from things that others say or by nature” must pursue Ilm al-Kalam until the questions are resolved[18]. Al-Ghazali’s ta’wil The Mishkat al-Anwar is a good concrete example for al-Ghazali’s approach to ta’wil. The Mishkat deals principally with the ayat known as the Light-Verse, “Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.

The similitude of His Light is as it were a Niche wherein is a Lamp: the Lamp within a Glass: the Glass as it were a pearly Star. From a Tree right blessed is it lit, an Olive-tree neither of the East nor of the West, the Oil whereof were well-nigh luminous though Fire touched it not: Light upon Light” [Qur’an 24: 35] as well as some certain texts in the Hadith including, “Allah hath Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and Darkness: were He to withdraw their curtain, then would the splendours of His Countenance surely consume everyone who apprehended Him with his sight.”

Al-Ghazali says in relation to the purpose for behind this book, “You have knocked at a locked door which is only opened to those who know and ‘are established in knowledge[19]’”, and “Moreover, not every mystery is to be revealed or divulged; not every truth is to be laid bare or made plain… ‘To divulge the secret of the Godhead is to deny God’”, and quotes further in the same page, “He who bestoweth Knowledge on fools loseth it, And he who keepeth the deserving from her doeth a wrong.”[20] Al-Ghazali in explaining the word “Light,” says there are layers or shades of meaning and that “the real light is Allah; and that the name ‘light’ is otherwise only predicated metaphorically and conveys no real meaning.”

“You must know that the word light is employed with a threefold signification: the first by the Many, the second by the Few, the third by the fewest of the Few. Then you must know the various grades of light that relate to the twp latter classes, and the degrees of reality appertaining to these grades, in order that it may be disclosed to you, as these grades become clear…[21]” In the first signification or the meaning taken by the Many al-Ghazali explains that light is that “which is by itself visible, like the sun and the moon, and fire when it blazes up, and lamps…that the name ‘light is given.[22]” “In sum, then, light is an expression for that which is by itself visible and makes other things visible, like the sun.” In the second signification the name “Light” is more appropriately applied to the faculty of perception, i.e. the eye or the percipient spirit. Al-Ghazali says that “thus men apply the word light to the light of the eye, and say of the weak-sighted that ‘the light of his vision is impaired’, and of the blind that ‘his light is quenched’.[23]” Al-Ghazali identifies seven defects of the eye and says that as the Intelligence is free from defects it deserves to be called Light more appropriately and questions, “then tell me by what right the physical eye is given equality with the intelligence in claiming the name Light?[24]” Although al-Ghazali says that the mistakes of vision are manifold but the Intelligence is free from errors: “perhaps you will say, we those who are possessed on Intelligence making mistakes nevertheless.

I reply, their imaginative and phantastic faculties often pass judgments and from convictions which they think are judgments of the intelligence.[25]” In the third signification (or the ta’wil according to the Fewest of the Few) al-Ghazali makes a distinction between borrowed light and the Real, primary true Light that depends on no other for its existence “above Whom there is no light at all, and from Whom all light descends upon all other things.

Nay, I do not hesitate to say boldly that the term ‘light’ as applied to aught else than this primary light is purely metaphorical; for all others, if considered in themselves, have, in themselves and by themselves, no light at all.[26]” Al-Ghazali did define a science of symbolism or allegorical interpretation, an apparent meaning and a hidden meaning for certain ayats of the Qur’an and validated the apparent meaning which cannot contradict the hidden meaning. Al-Ghazali warns, “Pray do not assume from this specimen of symbolism and its method that you have the licence from me to ignore the outward and visible form…that I had asserted that Moses had not really shoes on, or did not really hear himself addressed by the words,

‘Put thy shoes from off thy feet.[27]’ God forbid,” reinstating that “whoever abstracts and isolates the outward from the whole is a Hashawiyya, and whoever abstracts the inward is a Batiniyya,

while he who joins the two together is perfect.”[28] [1] Alluding to Qur’an 3: 6-7 [2] Kitab fasl al-maqal, translated by G. F. Hourani, http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ir/fasl.htm [3] Kitab fasl al-maqal, [45] translated by G. F. Hourani, http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ir/fasl.htm [4] Kitab fasl al-maqal, translated by G. F. Hourani, http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ir/fasl.htm [5] Ibid [56] [6] Ibid [60] [7] Ibid [62] [8] Kitab fasl al-maqal, translated by G. F. Hourani,

http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ir/fasl.htm [9] Averröes, The Philosophy and Theology of Averroes, Problem First: the Creation of the Universe, trans. Mohammed Jamil-al-Rahman (Baroda: A. G. Widgery, 1921)

[10] Ghazali, al-Mustasfa, (Bulaq, 1325) p. 196 [11] Iqtisad, (Ankara, 1962) p. 1, 9ff [12] Ihya 1, (Cairo, 1377/1957) p. 15, 12f. [13] Iljam, (Cairo, 1406/1985) p. 112, 2ff [14] Munqidh trans. R. Mccarthy.

p. 76 [15] Ihya 3, p. 16 3-5 [16] Mustasfa 1, pp. 5f [17] Jawahir, (Cairo, 1352/1933) p. 21 [18] Faysal, (Cairo, 1319/1901) p. 48, 3-6 [19] Mishkat al-Anwar, p. 3 Cairo Arabic edition, 1322 AH [20] Ibid [21] Ibid p. 4 [22] Ibid p. 4 [23] Ibid p. 4 [24] Ibid p. 8 [25] Ibid p. 10 [26] Ibid p. 16, 17 [27] Qur’an 20: 12 [28] Mishkat al-Anwar, p. 35

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