Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Contention in Quranic Hermeneutics

I was directing my previous comments toward you rather than toward your friend. Had I been doing so, I would have certainly worded them a little differently to avoid any potential misunderstanding and also to avoid the very situation that I spoke out against in my preliminary discussion. I wrote that to attempt the introduction of esoteric doctrines among individuals who are content with a religious life would have evoked disdain and the inevitable retort that these teachings do not correspond to their conception and understanding of Islam. Furthermore, I said that I was capable of going to great lengths in justifying the orthodoxy of Sufism which has been ably done by its most skillful exponents, but this would do nothing more than provoke them to a greater disdain for my presumption to teach them their religion. It appears that your friend is of an amiable disposition so that he was able to avoid disdain, but by introducing Schuon's esoteric teachings to him you have evoked the inevitable retort that these do not correspond to his conception of Islam.

He lists a few points of apparently irreconcilable contention between his interpretation of the Qur'an and the principle of the Transcendent Unity of Religions including the practice of idolotry, the perspective of polytheism, and the doctrine of the Trinity. To argue these points would be to enter into a debate of Hermeneutics, or the science of scriptural interpretation. Suffice to say that the Traditional Muslim writers from whom I initially learned and continue to learn about Islam use the very same scripture to support the perspective of the Transcendent Unity while everywhere displaying the highest indications of personal piety, integrity (within which I include the concept of orthodoxy), and intellectual sophistication.

Personally, I believe that Zaid's perspective of the exclusive validity of the religion of Islam is not only a legitimate possibility but also a sort of luxury in that it prevents one from encountering the very same dilemma that I experienced for about a dozen years, that of choosing one from among several equally valid religions. Additionally, it protects one from becoming distracted from the pursuit of a single chosen path. It is for these reasons and others that I deliberately refrain from attempting to wrest a person from the security of a pious albeit exclusive faith.

On the other hand, the perspective of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, particularly as it has been masterfully expounded by Frithjof Schuon in his book of the same title, has been chiefly responsible for making religion a possibility for many people who might not otherwise have found satisfaction within the limitations of popular religious doctrine, especially when confronted with the many outwardly conflicting religious forms. Additionally, it has the capability of allowing us to rise above religious and sectarian differences and their sometimes attendant animosities by making possible the harmonious existence of many complementary as opposed to contradictory points of view.

I will deliberately refrain from entering into an argument concerning Hermeneutics (i.e. "my interpretation of the Qur'an is better than yours") and simply say that the metaphysical perspective and its scriptural support is openly available to those who are so inclined as to seek it out and who are capable of understanding it. As Frithjof Schuon so adequately stated in the interview that you called attention to, the primary aim of religion is to save man from sin and damnation and to establish a realistic social equilibrium, not to explain universal principles or the nature of things. The latter is the province of Metaphysics which exists as an inner dimension of religion and is capable of fulfilling the needs of those who by their inherent nature seek to know with certainty the Truth about God, themselves, and the world.

* * *

In my recent correspondence I wrote primarily concerning the tension between the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of a particular religion, a subject which was rendered most explicit in my reply to Tobias. Zaid and I belong to the same faith but we have perspectives that seem to conflict because they represent different possiblities. This conflict is most evident through the interpretations that we each accept concerning the Quran. Although I have been careful to avoid providing the details of hermeneutical application at this particular time, it is apparent that we derive from the same text a different set of conclusions, mine in support of the transcendent unity of religions as described by Schuon and others, his in support of the unilateral subordination of religions to that of Islam, a perspective that is held by many adherents of religion in respect of their chosen faith. It is evident that despite our differences, we nonetheless belong to the same religion.

Far from contradicting me you do not seem to have taken up this issue having instead steered the conversation in a different direction, specifically regarding the encounter between people of different religions. I think that this and other ideas that you introduce constitute a fruitful source of potential discussion but for the moment I would like to continue addressing the original subject. You wrote that “there are some who love being in a diversified community so that they may have the chance to affirm their religion”. To bring this back to the topic at hand we might modify it to read: “Within the context of a particular religion there are some who like being in a community of diverse perspectives so that they may have the chance to affirm their own opinions” – and continue the discussion from there.

It has been my experience that the only way to ensure peaceful relations in such a community of diverse opinions is to be silent and let others speak. I think that amiable relations may exist between people of diverse perspectives, but equilibrium within such an encounter can only be maintained with a great deal of patience, silent (but not necessarily passive) listening, and a standpoint consisting of either sympathetic inquisition or secure realization. In the first instance, a person is searching for the truth of a matter and so is interested in understanding rather than confuting. Likewise all questions are posed with the intention of elucidating the subject, not with undermining it, regardless of its veracity which in any event has not yet been ascertained. In the second instance, a person has achieved a degree of certainty concerning a matter such that they are secure in their beliefs. Such security creates a disposition in which there is no need to assert oneself or one’s dominance. Either the person realizes a self-evident Truth that needs no external corroboration which is to say that it is true regardless of how many people agree with it, or they realize that they adhere to a perspective that is inherently relative such that it can peacefully co-exist with others that possess a similar status.

The highest manifestation of the second standpoint can be gleaned from an episode in the life of the great master of gnosis ‘Allama Tabataba’i, who, according to all accounts, possessed a superior degree of intelligence, dignity, and respect for his fellow man. According to Ayatullah Ibrahim Amini,

“I used to participate in the higher level jurisprudence and principles of jurisprudence classes of Hazrat Imam Khumayni and the philosophy classes of ‘Allama Tabataba’i and was very attached to and loved both of these pious teachers very much. One day I invited both teachers to my room in Madrasa Hujjatiyya for lunch. They accepted my invitation and arrived at my room. I wanted to coerce the two teachers into a philosophical debate, but however much I tried I was not successful because they were completely free of any personal desire and thus avoided all types of academic argumentation. In that session, if I addressed Imam Khumayni and asked him something, he would reply and ‘Allama Tabataba’i would remain quiet and listen carefully. And if I asked ‘Allama a question, he would reply and Imam would remain quiet and listen carefully.”

For myself, it is this type of an ideal that I strive for in conversation with others who belong to my faith. In many instances it involves avoiding altogether such issues that may be a cause for unnecessary strife and focusing on those that unify all of the diverse manifestations of Islam.

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