A Book ‘Being’ In-and-for-Itself?

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020

How does the Book constitute its ‘being’ in-and-for-itself? We believe it is because of the stability or firmness of the text, or better: the stable nature of al-dhikr, which is the linguistic, that is, phonetic/ lexical, format of the Book. The text’s dhikr, which we have in front of us today, is exactly the same dhikr that existed in the seventh century. And it is the same text that Allah revealed into Muhammad’s brain from where it was then transmitted -ad verbum ipsissimus- to his fellow men. The text of al-dhikr does not possess ‘becoming’ or ‘progressing’, hence its textual format is fixed forever. On that we hear: It is truly We who have revealed [ al-dhikr], and we are truly its guardians. ( Al-hijr 15:9)

Notice that the text uses the term al-dhikr, and not al-kitab, al-Quran, or al-furqan; on the nonsynonymous use of all these terms against conventional tafsir. If the Book possesses the quality of ‘being’ in-and-for-itself, how are human beings supposed to deal with it? How should we, being subject to ‘becoming’ and ‘progressing’, read the divine text? And how should future readers, whose ‘becoming’ and ‘progressing’ will have inevitably moved on to a more advanced level of knowledge, understand the Book?

We believe that readers of different historical periods will have understood different things from the text. Readers of the eighth, ninth, twelfth, eighteenth and twentieth centuries have differed from one another in terms of their intellectual capacities and methodologies. Some have discovered things that others have overlooked, and a third group of readers may have elicited things from the text that the other two groups have completely ignored. This is because despite its fixed ‘being’, the Book is a text of life into whose ‘becoming’ and ‘progressing’ the reader has been absorbed according to his own degree of ‘becoming’ and ‘progressing’.

This fundamental hermeneutical principle underlines our dictum that ‘the text is fixed but its content moves’, expressing a subtle dialectical relationship between textual structure and meaning. The messages that readers receive from the text and the messages that they might overlook depend on the epistemological context in which they read the text. In this regard, every reading is bound to be contemporary. A reader of the twelfth century approached the text with the scientific and social awareness of his time, his reading being the most contemporary reading possible at that time; we in the twenty-first century apply the scientific and intellectual level of our own age, turning our reading into the best possible contemporary reading.

A reader in premodern times will have used the most up to-date knowledge available to him to understand the text’s explanation of life on earth. He would have used the model of the four elements of water, earth, air, and fire which scholars at that time employed to explain nature and life. In the modern age, however, we apply the findings of laboratory experiments that explain life as the basic transformation of hydrogen into uranium, that is, we are using an altogether different explanatory model. In both cases the most contemporary forms of knowledge have been applied and yet two different interpretations have resulted.

This is because the scientific and intellectual horizon of the prescientific reader simply was not as advanced as ours, by which we recognize the unstoppable, relentless progress of ‘becoming’ and ‘progressing’ in our scientific knowledge. We now understand much better why the Book is the only and ultimate source of prophethood and messenger hood (not the so-called Sunna!). It is the only text that possesses the quality of ‘being’ in-and-for-itself, and therefore, the only text that is sacred. No other text by a human being, whether prophet or messenger, can ever claim to possess the same level of sacredness as the Book. Since God’s religion, al-Islam, can be broadly defined as ethics and moral principles, the implementation of Islam would secure a balance between humans and nature, and a responsible use of human and natural resources.

A Critique of the Traditional Understanding of the Sunna

In this section we refute the traditional understanding of the Sunna which has caused serious damage to Arabic civilization. Because ‘becoming’ has been forced to stay locked in the period of the first three centuries of Islamic history, the traditional fixation on the Sunna of the Prophet has made Arab-Muslim societies—philosophically speaking—flat, two dimensional. In contrast to other more three-dimensional civilizations, Arab-Muslim societies have remained backward and still display symptoms of cultural decay and intellectual stagnation. A traditional understanding of the Sunna forces today’s jurists to make their legal decisions strictly analogous to those issued between the seventh and the ninth centuries. The traditional view has it that the Sunna relates to us the words, acts, good deeds, statements, and decisions of Muhammad, God’s Messenger.

It requires us to emulate the example of the Prophet as rigidly as possible in our daily conduct. The following verse of Al-Ahzab and two hadiths have often been cited to convince and discipline us: You have indeed in the Apostle of God a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for anyone whose hope is in God and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of God. ( Al-Ahzab 33:21) The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “I have left two things to you. As long as you hold to them you will not go astray: these [two things] are the book of Allah and the Sunna of His Prophet. “Behold, I have been given this book together with something similar/ equal. Based on the dubious notion of Muhammad’s sanctity as prophet and messenger, the Sunna, that is, the collective body of all hadiths that capture the words and deeds of a supposedly über-human being, has gained an authority that intrudes into the daily life of every Muslim-Believer.

General issues of religious belief and specific questions of social conduct are indiscriminately treated as equally authoritative and binding on us all. Every little detail of the Prophet’s life has been defined as equally sacrosanct, whether it concerned questions of universal, objective laws (nubåwa) or legislation (risala), whether it referred to prophetic knowledge (‘ilm) or to legislation (ahkam shar’iyya). The hadiths of the Sunna have thus acquired the status of sacred texts whose authority cannot any longer be questioned. As a result, the hadiths, regardless of their often dubious origins and weak chains of transmitters, were given priority to the divine text even when they contradicted the verses of the Book.

Neither Muhammad himself nor his companions would ever have approved of such notions of sanctity. On the contrary, we hear that Muhammad explicitly forbade his followers from compiling anything but the words of God. The oft-heard argument that the collection of hadiths enabled the Prophet’s companions to better distinguish between Muhammad’s words as a prophet (and human being) and the words of God (the divine author), and thus protect the latter from being mixed with the former, can be refuted by quoting verse 9 of Surat al-hijr that rebukes such efforts. In this verse we are assured of the fact that Allah Himself will take care of His words as the sole and best protector of the Book, and that He would not need hadith compilers to do so:

We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption). (Alhijr 15:9) The truth is that after the prophet’s death in 632 his companions were preoccupied only with the task of producing an authoritative collection of divine revelations. They did not bother at all about prophetic hadiths. They started collecting the divine ayat under the caliph Abu Bakr and completed the task under the caliph Uthman bin ‘Affan, who eventually compiled the written mushaf, the copy we hold in our hands today. This is what has become known as the codex of Uthman.

It is said to have abrogated all other codices that existed at that time and which were subsequently all destroyed. The Prophet’s companions had realized that whatever Muhammad said or did as a human being could not have originated from a divine source and thus was strictly related to the politic al-historical context in which he lived. Even though they could have started to collect hadiths they continued to rely exclusively on the divine text. Knowing the Book very well they realized that to collect hadiths in order to complete divine revelation would have contradicted Allah’s words in verse 3 of Surat al-Ma’ida: This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you al-Islam as your religion… ( Al-Ma’ida 5:3)

It was clear to them that the religion of Islam was perfected even without the existence of a single hadith. It was indeed inconceivable to think that Allah has given them an incomplete religion of which half, the hadiths, was still missing. And it would also be inconceivable to think that they, after having successfully collected all existing divine revelations, could have been so neglectful of not having exhaustively collected all existing hadiths (a process that lasted several centuries), therefore embarrassing generations of future Muslims by having secured only half of Islam. The collection of hadiths and the process of turning them into sacrosanct texts is undoubtedly a later development. The following aspects have triggered this fateful turn towards the sanctification of the Prophet’s Sunna. We have identified six major errors which all occurred because of a wrong interpretation of a verse in the Book. In dealing with these errors, we quote the verse first, highlight the mistakes made, and then introduce our own reading of the text.