Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Texts and Interpretations

Razib has a very good post up on an issue that likely would be of interest only to religious philosophers rather than to a general audience, were the temper of our times not what they are.

In The science of the text (see below) a reader correctly observes that: "The Quran is the word of God, and that's why Muslims believe in it 100%" I have pointed this out before to suggest that there are axiomatic problems with deviating too much from the text of the Koran. But note this from Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras (page 18):
It was this latter model that the Shi'a adopted...If the Qur'an was the actually Word of God, how could fallible mortals ever hope to comprehend its true meaning
God always leaves a loophole because the human mind can not comprehend his ways and his words, but humans must jump through the opening. The majority Sunnis (unlike the Daudi Bohras and to a lesser extent other Shia) emphasize the Koran and the Hadiths as axioms that guide their thinking, superseding the judgements of their religious superiors (at least de jure). But, I could imagine a scenario where textual liberals emphasize the Koran's opacity over its transparency as a nod toward the greatness of God, attempting to leverage the righteous piety of conservatives toward the ends of flexibility.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of what is being discussed here. As I've often noted in the past, while it is meaningless to make blanket statements like "Christianity is a religion of peace while Islam is not", it is nonetheless the case that the majority of the schools of thought in Islam today advocate positions that are outright irreconcilable with liberal notions like freedom of speech, the secular state and absolute equality of the sexes before the law. Since the likelihood of all of the 1.2 billion Muslims alive today either suddenly vanishing or abandoning their beliefs for Unitarianism is nonexistent, we must come to terms with the fact that the ongoing struggle with Islamic intolerance will largely be a contest of ideas rather than a mere clashing of arms. However successful we are in "draining the swamp" by killing the current brood of vipers who lead organizations like al-Qaeda, there'll always be more individuals to replace them as long as the ideology they represent seems to many Muslims to be an attractive and seemingly natural outgrowth of the tenets of Islam. With all this in mind, the question of how Islamic religious texts are to be interpreted takes on the utmost importance.

To all this, one can imagine members of both the "Nuke em all!" and "Death to the infidels!" camps insisting that all this talk of the correct "interpretation" is just so much waffling on my part, that the Quran and the Hadiths say what they say and need no "interpretation" to comprehend, and that the ideas they put forward ought simply to be taken at face value. This is a very appealing notion on an intuitive level, representing as it does the age-old idea that a text can "speak for itself", but it is nonetheless a false notion, for all its commonsense appeal. The fact is that words never speak for themselves, whatever medium we happen to encounter them in, and if they did we wouldn't need to learn the languages we acquire in the course of our development. Everything must be interpreted in some context in order to have meaning, and I can find no better illustration of this than the story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote:
It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes'. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
Written in the seventeeth century, written by the "lay genius" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases--exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor --are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard--quite foreign, after all--suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.
It's tempting to take the above as just more evidence of Borges' unique talent for playing literary games, but what he's getting at is highly significant. If a 7th century Arabian merchant writes religious edicts in the style of his times and within the context of his times, it's one thing, but when a Muslim scholar of the 21st century does exactly the same thing - writing and thinking as if he himself were a 7th century Arabian merchant - it's something else altogether, and quite definitely a conscious act of interpretation, as much a modernist (or even rather, postmodernist) affectation as Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon." In that sense, "Fundamentalist" or "Purified" Islam is no more "Fundamental" or "Pure" than the other varieties of the religion it denigrates as deviations from the One True Path.

The idea Razib highlighted in his post, and which I've tried to expand upon here, can be a powerful weapon in the fight against the spread of the aggressively militant Islam that seems to be taking much of the world by storm, and as such it needs to be in the intellectual armory of those who seek to combat it, especially for those occasions when they come face to face with the more intellectually sophisticated proponents of militancy.