– Locutus est autem Deus –
Contrary to popular belief, The Qur’an, if studied as an oral dialectic, is not defined by textual limitation and its contents may be interpreted in a modern context as oppose to being suspended in time. If this is the case then a modern interpretation is entirely possible and perhaps necessary without being constrained by previous cultural, social and geographical issues that may have been apparent at a particular period in history. The Qur’an acts as a framework as to how certain life situations ought to be approached or practiced. Using this blueprint to evaluate modern conditions will invariably produce results that are quite different from those faced in seventh century Arabia. Any issues the Qur’an would have dealt with during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his successors would have been specific to the cultural, linguistic and geographic conditions which may or may not have relevance in a modern society. A distinction between terminology and the interpretation such as proposed by Abdolkarim Soroush (e.g. The distinction between the ‘essentials’ and the ‘accidentals’ of religion) and Fazlur Rahman (his works on prophecy) may also be helpful in determining if the context of revelation has an effect on the apparent hudud punishments of the shari’ah and if they are in fact divine mandates of an eternal unchanging nature, or specific to time, location and circumstance with no real binding or definite application. It may even be the case that some o these punishments are not applicable at all regardless of time and location.
Muslim belief holds that messengers of God are merely human and were chosen to be the trusted deliverers of the Word of God who reveals his “primordial Truth” (Böwering, 2003). The Muslim position in regards to the Qur’an is that it is the pure and unadulterated Word of God and is protected from change or falsification. While the Qur’an was revealed at a specific point in time it is “rooted in the eternity of God” (Böwering, 2003, p. 348). As the Qur’an was revealed the Prophet’s companions would memorize the verses and scribes would be hired to write them down. There is some contestation as to whether the compilation of the Qur’anic text was compiled during Muhammad’s lifetime or after his death. John Wansbrough came to the conclusion that there was no formal compilation of the Qur’anic text until at least two to three hundred years after his passing; whereas John Burton asserted that the prophet himself had commissioned a final vocalised text of the Qur’an (Böwering, 2003).
In recent times the topic of hudud (An explanation on the lexical and technical term on hudud is given in the chapter titled ‘hudud’ in part two) has become a centralised point of debate in Islamic discourse (Such as the move to install a shari’ah system in Malaysia (Seda-Poulin, 1993), (HAMID, 2009), (Kamali, 1998) and has unfortunately come to be the ‘face’ and defining character of what most people imagine when it comes to the religion. Accusations of heresy, apostasy, and other such slurs have become part of the modern image as well as a harsh penal code that is neither progressive nor conducive to progression. This two part work will first examine the role and mechanics of revelation by exploring verses from the Qur’an and hadith in an attempt to shed light on whether scripture needs to be ‘humanised’ and if revelation has any real link to the legal hadd rulings.
To clarify my position, this work is an ongoing process which is constantly evolving in understanding. It is in no way meant to give definite answers nor claim to hold any absolute truth. It is in the spirit of education, understanding and an attempt to clarify some things through research and an honest and open mind that is open to learning as much as possible to hopefully one day settle on an adequate state of mind regarding such things. I do not necessarily hold the views or opinions of the scholars represented, yet I do find their views to be insightful and enlightening in regards to modern day interpretations and understanding of scripture for a person living so very far removed from the 7C. Having said that, I certainly hope that this work may spark some conversation, or perhaps encourage people to do their own research in to such topics by providing a starting point, however small it may be, and God knows best.
Relevant Topics examined:
1.1 Revelation And The Word/Speech
1.2 Modes Of Revelation And Prophethood
1.4 Revelation And Contextualism
1.5 Transformation: From Ethico/Moral to Legal/Judicial
1.6 Soroush And The Expansion
1.1 Revelation and the Word/Speech
Historically there have been two opposing views as to the existential nature of the Qur’an amongst scholars (Saeed, 1999). The first, which is the more dominant view, is the Ash’arite stance which holds that the Qur’an is ‘uncreated’; while the second view, the Mu’tazalite stance, is that the Qur’an is ‘created’. While the two groups differ on the theological aspects of the speech of God they do agree however that it is in fact the Word of God in Arabic and that God converses with man (in a manner of speaking). The position on the ‘uncreatedness’ of the Qur’an however is not as simple as saying that the Qur’an is eternal. There are three levels to the revelation of the Quran which are (Saeed, 1999):
1) Language and utterance (lugha wa-nutq)
2) Letters and writing (huruf wa-kitaba)
3) Spirit and meaning (ruh wa-ma’na).
The first two levels can be considered ‘created’ as they take a temporal and solid form whereas the third, spirit and meaning, can be considered ‘uncreated’ or co – eternal with God (at least this last part can be assumed). The Mu’tazalite view point rejects this on the basis that nothing can be co – eternal with God since He is one and without association or partnership according to scripture and that nothing is like unto Him. The Mu’tazila position was to “defend the unity of God against all encroachment and to show that no shadow of evil fell on his providence” (A. S. Tritton, 1947).
God’s ‘speech’ in regards to revelation has come to be a mysterious phenomenon since He has spoken on occasion to a number of people as referenced in the Qur’an. However in each instance He would have spoken to each individual in their own respective language e.g. to Moses in Hebrew, to Muhammad in Arabic, etc. The assumption then, is that there is a ‘divine’ speech or ‘God’ speech’ that He codifies or translates in to human linguistic terms so that it can be understood. This ‘divine’ speech would presumably be beyond human comprehension, abstract or completely transcending all known speech. Sa’id Nursi goes further, saying that God’s divine speech can also be a manifestation of something created such as the process of creation i.e. God’s speech does not have to be vocal in order to be understood as communication (Turner, 2013, p. 193). Furthermore, Nursi posits that in order for a creator to bestow the gift of speech upon His creation, said creator must also possess this ability. This ability to ‘speak’ however would not necessarily depend upon physical means of expression. The Qur’an mentions that “There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the Hearing, the Seeing” (Q, 42:11) which would imply that His divine speech is transcendent from human speech and that in order for Him to communicate with and be understood by His creation it would be “Divine condescension to the minds of men” (Turner, 2013, p. 194).
According to Nursi, the message that is given to man by God is eternal, but the forms that it takes i.e. language, words etc. are not (Turner, 2013). Ultimately then, the speech of God is “transcendent at the source, but when communicated to the created realm, it takes on a form appropriate to that realm” (Turner, 2013, p. 194). This premise is strongly reflected in the works of Abdolkarim Soroush and his ‘essentials’ and ‘accidentals’ of religion which will be examined later.
When heaven is mentioned in the Qur’an, it references things that are understood on a physical/tangible level e.g. flowing rivers and gardens. Yet at the same time it is noted that what is in heaven cannot be imagined by the human mind as there has not been anything like it in human experience. The earthly references here are made because any reference to something that is not knowable by human thought or imagination i.e. ‘heavenly’, would necessarily be dependent on the experience of the material world in order to be understood through human capacity. The only way to understand such a message or to receive it would be through the medium of a prophet and the process of revelation.
Sa’id Nursi – 1877 – 1960
1.2 Modes of Revelation and Prophethood
Al Ghazali understood prophecy to be a means by which a prophet could come to understand things that transcend the ordinary sphere of knowledge and cannot be acquired by ordinary means (Frank, 1994). Therefore revelation and prophecy could be the only means by which to attain such knowledge that is otherwise unseen or hidden.
There are various words that describe the modes of revelation that are used in the Qur’an. The most frequently used words are taken from the root n – z – l, ‘nazala’ and ‘anzala’ which refer to the act of bringing something down (Reubin, 2007); in this case, the bringing down of revelation (e.g. Q, 2:41). However revelation is not received directly by the prophet as there is an intermediary between God and the recipient of the message; the intermediary being the angel Gabriel or the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit in this case most likely refers to the angel Gabriel).
The avenues through which the Qur’an explains the ways in which the Word of God is revealed are not limited to one pathway. In chapter fifty two of the Qur’an God is telling Muhammad (PBUH) of the different ways in which He communicates with humanity:
“And it is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a partition or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills. Indeed, He is Most High and Wise”. (Q 52:41)
“And thus We have revealed to you an inspiration of Our command. You did not know what is the Book or (what is) faith, but We have made it a light by which We guide whom We will of Our servants. And indeed, (O Muhammad), you guide to a straight path” (Q 52:52)
What we have from these verses are three definite modes of contact, and in each instance the reader presumes a natural speech with which God is communicating. What is interesting here, as pointed out by Saeed, is that the stylistic features of ‘qasr’ (Saeed, 1999, p. 99) (Qasr is a linguistic stylistic feature that can be used to denote ‘negation’ and ‘exception’ (nafi wa istithna’) (Larcher, 2013, p. 194) in the Arabic language mean that the descriptions of the modes of revelation that are used in these verses are the only ones that are allowed in regards to the actual mechanics or delivery of revelation which will be examined later in the topic on ‘Revelation and Contextualism’ (1.4).
In order to understand the Qur’an and its underlying principles in regards to contextualisation it is essential to examine it through the lens of its historical backdrop. Revelation must be analysed in parallel to the “historical context” that produced it so that we may clear the path to its relevance in our own time. This is not meant to take a reductionist approach, but rather to expand our appreciation of it in the twenty first century.
Contextualism provides us with an alternative to the otherwise dominant approach that is the norm when trying to understand the Qur’an, ‘textualism’. This approach, which strongly favours a literal reading of Qur’anic text can have an unfortunately invariable, rigid interpretation of certain areas regarding Qur’anic message that must be addressed in order to be understood in a modern setting that has radically moved on from the seventh century. While ‘textualism’ can be broken down on a varying spectrum in regards to its rigidity (from hard textualism to soft, in which soft may incorporate varying degrees of contextualism (Saeed, 2014)) it still does not have the flexibility of the contextualist approach that seems more in line with the spirit of a scripture that is revealed for ‘all time’.
Qur’anic exegesis, notably in regards to ethics and jurisprudence has had a tendency to rely heavily on the literal uncomprehensive understanding of Qur’anic verses that give attention to the more pragmatic function of everyday life. However, a textual reading can only take us so far in regards to the application of these verses since the vicissitudinal aspects of cultures and people are always and unrelentingly moving and evolving. Because of these changes, these kinds of readings can and have been enforced and practiced in a distorted way.
Breaking down contextualisation as follows will help to elaborate why context is a crucial tool to the hermeneutical approach of understanding the Qur’an and its message:
– A) Saeed explains that this is the linguistic approach that seeks to understand the way in which a particular word or phrase relates to the following or preceding verse as well as how it relates to the chapter and or text as a whole.
– B) This is what Saeed appropriately calls the Macro Context that examines the political, social, economic, geographical, and intellectual environment in which the revelation took place and to whom it was specifically addressed and why.
Applying a reading that is based on the Macro Context will allow for a better understanding of the circumstances in which a given verse from the Qur’an was revealed and can lead to better insight as to the substance of what was being conveyed.
What can be understood from this approach is that certain passages from the Qur’an seem to be addressing certain situations that were specific to the very situation that they were revealed in which Saeed calls the “ethico-legal” texts.
1.4 Revelation and Contextualism
Traditional thought regarding the Qur’an perpetuates that the text is the literal word of God and is unaltered or influenced by human faculty or experience. It maintains that the Qur’an is an exact copy revealed form “al lawh al mahfouth” (Q, 85:21), the preserved/protected tablet that is with God and contains his literal word. Pivotal to this premise is that the prophet (PBUH) would have had no role in the formulation of the verses nor any guiding influence over what is written. He acts merely as the recipient of the message and by extension as messenger to the community.
While most scholars adhere to this perspective, there are a few who do not believe that this view is adequate enough to rationalise certain areas. While all are of the opinion that the Qur’an is of divine origin and transmits God’s message, some propose that the the prophet is not merely a passive intermediary messenger. Using Ibn Sina’s (d. 1037) interpretation, that the prophet attained his status as a receiver and messenger of prophecy through his intellectual capabilities, these scholars have tried to understand and formulate their perspectives on the role he played.
One of the key influential intellectuals in this area of thought is Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) who was of the opinion that the prophet was not merely the recipient of the divine revelation, but had an active role in its formulation (Rahman F. , Islam, 1966). Rahman argues that while Muhammad (PBUH) did not aspire to become a prophet, his life experiences with the world he lived in had shaped his character and spirit to one that was ideally suited to becoming a prophet. His life as an orphan would instil in him a receptiveness for the societal issues and injustices that were rife in his age, his life as a trader would gain him valuable experience in dealing with people on all levels, his early life with the Bedouins can be compared to other prophets who were farmers, shepherds etc. While Rahman agrees that the essence of the Qur’an is divine, he also posits that it is also human. Rahman adheres to the principle that while the source of the revelation is from God, its internalised aspect within the prophet is what gives it its human mode. In this sense, if the prophet was using his own words to speak the utterances of revelation, they were in fact Gods words since they were put there and intrinsically linked to his soul or essence.
Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919 – 1988)
“The words heard were mental and not acoustic, since the Spirit and the Voice were internal to him, and there is no doubt that whereas on the one hand, the Revelation emanated from God, on the other, it was also connected with his deeper personality” (Rahman F. , 2009, p. 100)
In Rahman’s reasoning, the prophet is then a conduit in to a metaphysical store that contains the Qur’an, wholly, and is tapped in to when the need arises. Thus, while he is channeling the divine message, it is given shape with his own words which in turn are still the words of God, sanctioned by God. Abdullah Saeed writes that this connection between the revelatory process and the person of the prophet brings us closer to a stronger contextual analysis of revelation and its purpose through the person of the prophet (PBUH). Why was this line of reasoning not followed by earlier scholars of Islam? To put it bluntly, Rahman did not believe that early scholars of theology had the capacity to reason with the idea that the prophet may have had a closer relationship with the Qur’an and that there could be any human element within its verses or its very genesis (Saeed, 1999). This reasoning, while sound, is not entirely in line with certain verses within the Qur’an itself as to the role of the prophet and the extent of his involvement with the formulation of the text:
“And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, those who do not expect the meeting with Us say, “Bring us a Qur’an other than this or change it.” Say, [O Muhammad], “It is not for me to change it on my own accord. I only follow what is revealed to me. Indeed I fear, if I should disobey my Lord, the punishment of a tremendous Day.” (Q 10:15)
“And if Muhammad had made up about Us some (false) sayings, We would have seized him by the right hand; Then We would have cut from him the aorta. And there is no one of you who could prevent (Us) from him” (Q 69:44 – 47)
Rahman addresses this issue with his explanation of how prophecy could work. With the prophet’s intellect going through certain natural stages of development and with natural philosophical and inward reflection, only then is the prophecy or revelation revealed to him through his natural faculties (Rahman F, 2011). While the prophetic intellect may go through certain stages of development that are the same as the development an ordinary mind would go through, there is a difference according to Rahman’s take on the issue which is influenced by his study of such scholars as al Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Greek philosophers. The mind is likened to a mirror in that it needs to be polished through a process of cognitive development to be able to reflect more than it normally would as it is obscured with dirt or dust and the “sensitive cognitive process” of development is what polishes that mirror to be more receptive, or more accurately, reflective to the Divine Consciousness (Rahman F, 2011). Furthermore, another difference between the prophetic mind and the ordinary is that the latter, like the mirror can only reflect one thing at a time, whereas the former can reflect all things (knowledge) at the same time. While this reasoning on the mechanics of how a prophetic mind receives revelation is sound in its attempt to understand the mechanics of revelation, it still does not fully conform to most accounts of how the prophet received revelation. There have been many instances that have been recorded in hadith narrations that would suggest that on some occasions the revelations were given externally and not through an internal cognitive process. In a narration reported in Bukhari, A’isha says:
“Al-Harith b. Hisham asked the Prophet: ‘O Allah’s Messenger. How is the wahy (revelation) revealed to you?’ Allah’s Messenger replied: ‘Sometimes it is (revealed) like the ringing of a bell, this form of inspiration is the hardest of all and then this state passes off after I have grasped what is inspired. Sometimes the angel comes in the form of a man and addresses me and I grasp whatever he says”
What is of note here is the last part of this narration, “the angel comes in the form of a man”, implies that this particular form of revelation happens as a conversation or narration that is external to the body of the prophet (PBUH). In each instance described in the above narration there is nothing to suggest that the prophet already has the entirety of scripture hidden away in some deeper part of his consciousness or ‘soul’ that can be tapped in to when needed. In fact, the revelation seems to have come without warning, very much like the occasion at the cave of Hir’a when the angel Gabriel revealed the first verses of the Qur’an (Q 96 : 1-5). The scripture itself denies any authorship to the prophet:
“And it was not (possible) for this Qur’an to be produced by other than Allah, but (it is) a confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of the (former) Scripture, about which there is no doubt, from the Lord of the worlds. Or do they say (about the Prophet), “He invented it?” Say, “Then bring forth a surah like it and call upon (for assistance) whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful” (Q, 10:37 – 8) (See also: Quran 4:82, 26:192 – 5, 11:13)
Not only is it implied that the prophet (PBUH) has no control or influence on the verses of the Qur’an or revelation, but he has no control as to where, when or how they are to come to him as noted in chapter nineteen verse sixty nine which reads “And we (angels) descend not except by the order of your Lord. To Him belongs that before us and that behind us and what is in between. And never is your Lord forgetful…” suggesting that it is only through God’s order and pace that any revelations are to be delivered to the prophet (PBUH).
Abdolkarim Soroush’s words also echo those of Rahman when he says that the prophet had acquired a divine quality through a union with the divine. So much so that whatever the prophet would say would be as though God were speaking: “whatever he said was both earthly and divine; these two things were inseparable” (Soroush A. , The Word of Mohammad, 2007). The issue here is the fact that on more than one occasion the Qur’an i.e. God, seems to be correcting or rebuking the actions of the prophet (PBUH) on certain matters which would not conform to the premise that the words of the prophet always carry the weight of the ‘Word of God’. For example in chapter eight of the Qur’an, ‘‘Abasa’ (‘He Frowned’), it seems that God is rebuking the prophet (PBUH) for frowning and turning away from a blind man because he felt that his time was better suited to a different matter. In chapter sixty six, ‘at Tahrim’ (‘The Forbidding’), God is questioning the prophet (PBUH)as to why he is forbidding something that God had made lawful. In each instance this correction of the prophet’s (PBUH) perceived mistakes are mentioned in the first verses of these chapters, making clear that even the prophet (PBUH) was fallible to some degree.
Other advocates of a more contextual outlook include Mohammad Arkoun and Nasr Abu Zayd. Arkoun asserts that revelation is bound or encased within the framework of the history and the socio-political economic complex of the tribal cultures of the period (Arkoun, 1988). As such, the Message of revelation is directly correlated to the period in which it was revealed (Arkoun, 1988).
Abu Zayd differentiates between a monophonic and a polyphonic Qur’an in order to help clarify his understanding that the prophet (PBUH) was more than just a passive recipient. While he puts forth that the Qur’an is the ‘speech of God’ he asserts that the scripture has more than one voice in its narrative: “there are so many voices in which the ‘I’ and /or ‘We’ speaker is not always the Divine voice” (Zayd N. A., 2004, pp. 18-21). Abu Zayd mentions that the Qur’an seems to have three voices, that of the ultimate Divine source, the intermediary, and finally the prophet (PBUH); and by extension, presumably, that of the people. In chapter ninety six of the Qur’an, the first 5 verses seem not to be the words of the Divine voice but that of the intermediary between God and the Prophet, the angel Gabriel. These first few verses, which are generally accepted to be the first revealed verses of the Qur’an, speak of God in the third person perspective. These verses begin as an introduction of the Divine:
“Recite, in the name of your Lord who creates man from a clot. Recite; your Lord is most bounteous, who teaches by the pen, teaches man that which he knew not”. (Q Al Alaq, 96:1-5)
These words, Abu Zayd posits, are not expounding the Word of God but rather “providing information about Him to Muhammad; the mode of discourse is ’informative’” (Zayd N. A., 2004, pp. 18-21). This of course does not mean that God cannot or does not speak of Himself in the third person, it is just intellectual speculation on Abu Zayd’s part.
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943 – 2010)
Not only does the Qur’an seem to have three voices but also three modes of reading for different mind sets of semantic expression: 1) Khatabi – the poetic form addressing the masses 2) Jadali – addressing theologians 3) Burhani – addressing philosophers. This would suggest that there can be no primacy among the ‘ulama to explain or interpret the Qur’an in concrete terms since it is intended to speak to people on different levels (Zayd N. A., 2004, p. 16).
While Abu Zayd and Arkoun share basically the same position on this, Arkoun explains, using the same chapter (Al Alaq, 96:1-5) that there are two distinct ‘protagonists’, the prophet to whom the revelation is being revealed, and Man, to whom revelation is directed. God in this case is the ‘ontological origin and the ultimate addressee of all existing creatures…” (Arkoun, 1988, p. 68). In this instance, Gabriel is merely giving Muhammad the Word of God directly, without any input from himself.
Arkoun also analyses the ‘semiotic’ aspect of the Qur’an e.g. in chapter eighteen, al Kahf (The Cave), he points out three separate narrations 1) the people of the cave (the cave being the namesake of the chapter) 2) the Gilgamesh narrative and 3) Alexander the Great (Arkoun, 1988, p. 72) (Although this last narrative is in dispute as to whom the third narrative character is supposed to be or represent). In this instance we see all three narratives, which are of ancient Near Eastern origin collected in to one chapter. This, in and of itself, speaks volumes in that almost all narrations in the Qur’an are stories that would have been known by the people of the Hijaz, stories that the people could relate to and understand.
Mohammad Arkoun (1928 – 2010)
1.5 Transformation: From ethico – moral to legal and judicial
In regards to the law, the Qur’an is not mapped out with clear parameters that are intended to be a legal framework for Muslim society. This issue seems to have been left to the scholars. The Qur’an was used as a general guide by those in authority regarding juridical matters, and this was perhaps the first step in the formulation of the shari’ah and the concept of fiqh (Arkoun, 1988, p.73). This move from the previous Qur’anic speech to a legal juridical one began a shift in the concept of revelation. The practical lenses through which jurists read the Qur’an would eliminate the symbolic, metaphorical, and mythic aspects in favor of one that would allow them to elaborate and establish a system of a “normative code of rules for administrative and governmental purposes” (Arkoun, 1988, p. 73).
The Qur’an had gone through a process of oral transmission, propagation, codification and canonisation. Once it was canonised there could be nothing added, taken away, or changed. Arkoun labelled this as the Official Closed Corpus or the O.C.C (Arkoun, 1988, p. 75). As a result of the Book being codified and canonised there came in to being three new and distinctive changes that gave the shift from dialectical discourse to a text with much more permanence:
1) What was once originally an oral tradition in the vein of a dialectical discourse now becomes a written text.
2) The revered spiritual and metaphysical nature of the text now encompasses the temporal material form of the Book.
3) As a fixture in the social fabric, the Book would allow for the increase and domination of a more intellectually text based tradition over the previous “oral folk culture” (Arkoun, 1988, p. 75). This in turn would give rise to the ‘ulama who would be the guardians over Qur’anic interpretation as well as expanding the legal system.
Abu Zayd stressed that the content of the Qur’an reveals a strong connection between the text and linguistic structure which are “culturally and historically determined” (Zayd P. D., 2000-2001). He also points out that Qur’anic verses were revealed verse by verse, suggesting that each revelation was brought about to answer community needs as and when they were needed. All this points to a very dialectical relationship between the divine and the community. This is also reinforced with phrases used in the Qur’an such as “And when they ask you/they ask you” suggesting a dialogical relationship. For Abu Zayd, the issue was on whether to approach a study of the Qur’an as an oral dialectical tradition, or as a text, a Closed Corpus, locked in the seventh century. According to Abu Zayd, an analysis of the Qur’an and its message must begin in the “contextual reality and the 7th century culture” (Zayd N. A., 2004). The Qur’an, having been formed in Arabia, with an Arabic language and addressing cultural Arab issues made it a device of its own environment; a device that produced a new system from the one that it addressed. The issue with the idea of a culturally constructed Qur’an however is outright rejected by the ‘orthodox’ players and implies a temporal aspect to God’s word. This struggle could be seen in the life of Abu Zayd and others who were declared as apostates and heretical as a result of their views. This issue will be explored in the chapter on apostasy and hudud.
1.6 Soroush and the expansion
One of the more recent thinkers in modern times, Abdolkarim Soroush, like Rahman, believes that the Qur’an, while being divine, still has its human expression. There are many aspects of religion that Soroush considers of lesser importance than others and these mutable aspects he calls “accidentals”, while the important aspects are called the “essentials” (Soroush A. , 2009, pp. 63-91) . Soroush argues that a somewhat temporal aspect of revelation, as brought through the mind of the prophet (PBUH) i.e. a humanistic one, is how we should be reading the Qur’an. Using this reasoning in our approach will allow for individual persons to decide which verses of the Qur’an are directly relevant to them and their own particular lives in a modern setting. Soroush’s writings have been inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution in regards to the religion’s adaptation to the environment (Soroush A. , 2000) (See also ‘The Expansion of Prophetic Experience’, p. 9 – 13, ‘Evolutionary Nature of Prophetic Experience’).
Like Rahman, Soroush posits that the process by which revelation happens is an internal one, happening inside of the mind of the prophet. As such, the output is then shaped by the environment that the prophet (PBUH) lived in that in turn shaped him as a human being from birth, to prophethood, until his death (Soroush A, 2000). Since the prophet (PBUH) was born, raised and died in what is now Arabia, he was influenced by the cultures, politics, trade, and socio aspects of that period. Therefore, some of the messages contained in the Qur’an would be referenced directly to that particular context and setting: “the verses are in keeping with the Arab environment of the time” (Soroush, 2007). For Soroush, any approach to the Quran must be tempered with the study and full context of the period it was formed in including the socio-historical and cultural aspects that the message is directly referring to. Soroush states in no uncertain terms that he has no doubts that the prophet (PBUH) had some sort of influence in the formation of the Qur’an: “In my view, however, the Prophet played a pivotal role in the production of the Koran” (Soroush A, 2007).
To help clarify the mechanics of revelation and its conformity to the realities of seventh century Arabia Soroush gives the example of a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi: “Through the Prophet’s union with God, the ocean is poured into a jar” (Soroush A, 2007). Meaning, if the ocean were the Word of God, and the prophet the vessel that is to contain the Word of God, then surely, when the waters from the ocean were to be poured in to the prophet the message would still be the same but simply conforming to the shape of the vessel that carries it.
To explain this, Soroush presents the “essentials” and “accidentals” of religion which also apply to revelation. The accidentals of religion are given as eight distinguishing features listed below, that ‘clothe’ the ‘essentials’ much in the same way a jug ‘clothes’ the water it contains. These ‘accidental’ features are:
- The Arabic language with which the prophet and the people of the time spoke as well as the language of the revealed scripture which Soroush posits could have been replaced by another language.
- The culture of the Arabs at the time that may have influenced the scripture in regards to the people that it was addressing.
- Terms, concepts, theories used by the prophet.
- The historical events that are mentioned in the Qur’an that would have been known by the people during the time of revelation.
- The questions and the answers posed by the community of the time and their answers from a Qur’anic perspective.
- Fiqh and Islamic Law
- The false and polemical issues introduced in to the religion by the opponents of the faith.
- The intellectual capabilities of the people that the religion is addressing.
While all of these features of the ‘accidentals’ are what give shape to the ‘essentials’, even if they were all to be based in a different continent with different features i.e. language, culture etc., the ‘essentials’ would still be the same; this is very similar to Sa’id Nursi’s position on the matter as previously mentioned. Using this premise of ‘essentials’ and ‘accidentals’, this author posits that for the part two, the Qur’an acts as the ‘essentials’ and that hadith narrations as ‘accidentals’.
The Eccentric Seeker
Cont in part two…