The Third Premise
Some of the borrowings from the earlier non-Islamic, particularly Israelite, sources and ancient Greek philosophy infiltrated the sphere of pure Islam and, donning religious apparel, caused revolutions in some minds.
The Arabs were largely an illiterate people during the age of pre-Islamic ignorance. When the truth manifested itself among them, arousing their abilities, they saw that Islam was clear in itself and that the truth had been revealed, opening the way to the entire truth; as a result, their efforts and inclinations were focused on learning the Religion. Their observation of the universe was not in the name of scientific investigation, but rather for the purpose of finding evidence for the truth of their faith. What appealed to their natural tastes and inspired them was their awe-inspiring natural environment, and what motivated, informed and trained their talented natures was the Qur’an. However, when they later began to take other peoples into their community, the information that came with these peoples became “Muslim.” In particular, the conversion of some Jewish scholars, such as Wahb ibn Munabbih7 and Ka‘b alAhbar,8 caused some excerpts from Israelite sources to find their way into the minds of the Arabs and polluted their way of thinking. In addition, these borrowings received unconditional welcome from people because such scholars from among the People of the Book enjoyed great respect as they had converted and earned renown as Muslims. Since in appearance these borrowings were not contradictory to the fundamentals of Islam and circulated in the form of narratives, they were accepted uncritically. Unfortunately, they later came to be accepted as criteria for certain truths and for understanding some verses of the Qur’an, giving rise to many doubts and misunderstandings.
These excerpts from Israelite sources could be used to understand some implications of the Qur’an and Sunna. But they could never be taken as meanings or interpretations of the Qur’anic verses and Prophetic Traditions. Provided they were true, a place could be found for them in meanings of a secondary, even a third or fourth, degree. However, those who concentrated only on the literal meanings of the Qur’anic verses and who were lacking in, or did not look for, reliable sources to understand the verses, attempted to interpret some Qur’anic verses, as well as some Prophetic Traditions, in the light of the Israelite narratives. By contrast, what reliably interprets the Qur’an is primarily the Qur’an itself and the reliably narrated Hadith.9 Neither the Torah nor the Gospels, whose legal rules and decrees had been abrogated and narratives distorted, can be used to interpret the Qur’an. The suggestions and connotations of the (words and images employed in some) Qur’anic verses and Prophetic Traditions cannot be taken as the underlying or essential meanings (to which those words and images allude) but, in some cases, people did take certain suggestions or connotations as the true meanings, and so likelihoods or possibilities were presented as if they were the underlying or essential meaning.
A time came during the reign of Caliph Ma’mun10 when some works from ancient Greek philosophy were translated in order to “Islamize” that philosophy. Thus, that philosophy, which is based to some degree on a wide variety of myths and superstitions and thus had been contaminated to a certain degree, was mixed with the pure thinking of the Muslim Arabs and, in its relation to those foreign works, caused imitation to replace verification to certain extent.
Although the Arabs were knowledgeable and intelligent enough to infer the meanings and rules they needed from the pure, sufficient sources of Islam, they lowered themselves to become students of Greek philosophy. Fortunately, in the same way as the Muslim linguists who had exerted themselves to establish and put into writing the rules of the Mudar dialect of Arabic when that dialect, the origin of the Arabic language, showed signs of corruption when non-Arab peoples entered the fold of Islam, meticulous truth-seeking scholars of Islam attempted to purify Islam of the corrupt elements of Greek philosophy and the false borrowings from Israelite sources, when these began to seep into the sphere of Islam. Despite their considerable success, some of those elements and borrowings remained and were not eliminated. In addition, when great, praiseworthy efforts began to be concentrated on the interpretation of the Qur’an, some of those who restricted themselves to the literal meanings of the verses tried to reconcile the narratives in the Qur’an with borrowings from related material in the Israelite sources, as well as trying to interpret some intellectual questions in the terms drawn from ancient Greek philosophy. They saw that the Qur’an and Hadith address and satisfy both the heart and the intellect, and contain the whole of the revealed knowledge. Thus, they attempted to find conformity between purely religious matters in the Qur’an and the Hadith and the Israelite reports, which were in fact corrupted and distorted. Since they also imagined there to be some sort of agreement between some intellectual questions in the Qur’an and the Hadith and ancient Greek philosophy, they tried to apply the latter also to the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith.
This was indeed the wrong way. The Qur’an is a miraculous Divine Word; it cannot be imitated and no one can produce even a single verse that resembles it. So first of all, the matter should be approached from this point. What will interpret the Qur’an is itself—its own sentences, expressions, and phrases. Its meaning is in and of itself, like a pearl in an oyster. Even if one intended to declare the truth and excellence of the Qur’an through an imagined agreement between the Qur’an and Greek philosophy, again, it would be pointless. The Book, which is clear in itself and reveals all truth, is far removed from needing to be proven by such rational and reported knowledge, which itself is in need of the Qur’an to be proven and accepted. Conversely, if the Qur’an does not prove that knowledge, its testimony would not be worthy of attention. The Pleiades should be searched for in the sky, not on the earth. So too, you must search for the meaning of the Qur’an in the Qur’an, in its wording. Do not search for it in your pocket, where everything is jumbled together. You cannot find it there; even if you think you have found it, the Qur’an does not accept this because such verification does not bear the stamp of its eloquence.
It is among the accepted facts of eloquence that what we call meaning is that which penetrates the mind and heart when the wording has poured into the ears, and then is absorbed by the inner intellect, which causes it to open into flowers of thought. So, if you take for the meaning of the Qur’anic verses and the Prophetic Traditions those thoughts that have sprung up in your mind because of your preoccupation with other things and if you add to that what you have stolen from the false elements of philosophy and some fictitious narratives, attempting to introduce them as the true meaning of the Qur’an or Hadith, the answer you will receive is thus: “What you present as meaning is false. One who knows the genuine from the false will reject it. Something that is miraculous throughout, as the Qur’an is, rejects whoever has counterfeited it. Since you have attempted to destroy the order of the Qur’anic verses and the Prophetic Traditions, the verses will complain about you and the judge of eloquence will imprison your whims in your imagination. Any truth-seeking customers will not buy your counterfeit goods. They will tell you, ‘The meaning of a verse is a pearl, but what you present as the meaning is a pebble. The meaning of a Tradition engenders life like a spirit, but yours is something very ordinary!’”
AN EXAMPLE TO CLARIFY
It is narrated among the Kurds: A man who stole honey was warned that his theft would be discovered. Upon this, he filled a hive with bees that did not produce honey, and stored in it the honey he stole from other hives. When asked about the honey, he would say, “This is the honey produced by my bees,” and he would say to his bees, “You do the buzzing and I will provide the honey.”
O one who attempts to interpret the Qur’an wishfully! Do not console yourself with this analogy with a theft on some pretext that you are not the only one who steals. Besides, the meaning you give to the Qur’anic verses is not honey, it is poison. The words you attempt to interpret are the words of that perfect Book, which inspires the spirits of truth in the heart and conscience. Those words are like angels. As for the Prophetic Traditions, they are a mine of truth and inspire the truth.
In short, just as going to one extreme is harmful, going to the opposite extreme is also harmful; in fact, it is even more harmful. However, going to one extreme is the greater fault, as this causes others to go to the opposite extreme. Such extremes have opened the door to tolerance for any interpretation, and unsound things have become mixed with sublime Qur’anic truths. This has led some unfair critics, and those who tend to go to extremes to accuse the Qur’an and the Prophetic Tradition of containing certain fallacies. They have horribly wronged these two priceless sources of Islam and genuine sources of truths. If some counterfeit coins have become mixed into a treasure of precious coins, or some rotten apples fallen into an orchard from a neighboring one, is it fair or just to claim that the whole treasure consists of counterfeit coins or that the orchard only has rotten apples and reject it altogether?
What I would wish to conclude from this premise is the following: Common opinion demands a new interpretation of the Qur’an. Each age has characteristics peculiar to itself and therefore has its own needs and demands. Time adds its own interpretation, and new events and developments cause many new meanings to be discovered. What now prevails is scientific public opinion. So, I declare that there should be convened a “parliament of scientists” that would consist of specialists in natural and religious sciences. This parliament should bring into being a new interpretation of the Qur’an, without at all neglecting to make reference to the classical interpretations. They should work on the acceptable elements in these, deepening and developing them. We are living under a constitutional regime, so we should follow the principle of consultation in every matter. Public opinion is an observer. The consensus of scholars on a matter is a source of legislation in Islam. Thus, this principle confirms my thesis.
7 Wahb ibn Munabbih (654–737?) was one of the earliest Muslim traditionists. Well-versed in Jewish traditions, according to some, he was of Jewish origin. He was mostly influenced by ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas, one of the famous, most knowledgeable Companions of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. (Trans.)
8 Ka‘b al-Ahbar (?–653) was previously a Jewish Rabbi from Yemen. He accepted Islam after the death of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. He was criticized for narrating Isra’iliyat (borrowings from Israelite sources). (Trans.)
9 As commonly accepted, Hadith denotes the record of whatever Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, said, did, or tacitly approved. It is the collection of the Prophetic Traditions. (Trans.)
10 Abu Ja‘far al-Mu’min ibn Harun al-Rashid (786–833) was one of the most famous ‘Abbasid Caliphs. He ruled from 813 until his death. He founded al-Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom) where especially Greek philosophy and sciences were translated into Arabic. (Trans.)