Friday, September 10, 2010

"none but the purified shall touch it"

This has been rattling in my head for the past month (and longer actually) but now that the month of the Quran is over it seems a little bit late.

I.
One of the more controversial debates in Islamic theology has to do with the nature of the Quran and whether it is created or uncreated. The dominant orthodox position is that "it" is uncreated. But what does it mean to say that "the Quran is uncreated"? The physical Quran made of paper and ink is obviously created. When the Quran is recited, the sound waves of the recitation are similarly created. The letters and sounds of human language, Arabic included, are arguably created as well. (although some schools of thought might begin to disagree with this point).

One of the most satisfying explanations I've found on this topic comes from Belief and Islam (I'tiqad-nama) by Mawlana Diya ad-din Khalid al-Baghdadi. Some of the linguistic and psychological claims may be controversial but, I would argue, they still work for the purposes of analogy (also note that Syriac is a form of Aramaic):
When a person wants to give an order, to forbid something, to ask something or to give some news, first he thinks about and prepares it in his mind. These meanings in mind are called “kalâm nafsî,” which cannot be said to be Arabic, Persian or English. Their being expressed in various languages does not cause these meanings to change. Words expressing these meanings are called “kalâm lafzî.” Kalâm lafzî can be said in different languages. So, kalâm nafsî of a person is a pure, unchangeable, distinct attribute that exists in its possessor like other attributes such as knowledge, will, discernment, etc., and kalâm lafzî is a group of letters that express kalâm nafsî and that come out of the mouth of the person uttering them and that come to the ear. Thus, the Word of Allâhu ta’âlâ is the eternal, everlasting, non-silent and non-creature Word existent with His Person. It is an attribute distinct from the as-Sifât adh-Dhâtiyya and from as-Sifât ath-Thubûtiyya of Allâhu ta’âlâ, such as Knowledge and Will. The attribute Kalâm (Speech, Word) never changes and is pure. It is not in letters or sounds. It cannot be differentiated or classified as command, prohibition, narration or as Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish or Syriac. It does not take such forms. It cannot be written. It does not need such apparatuses or media as intelligence, ear or tongue. Nevertheless, it can be understood through them as a being distinct from all beings we know; it can be told in any language wished. Thus, if it is told in Arabic it is called the Qurân al-kerîm. If it is told in Hebrew it is the Tawrât. If it is told in Syriac it is the Injîl.

So one of the more interesting corrolaries of the above is that from "God's perspective", from the view of kalam nafsi, the Quran, the Torah, the Gospel and the Psalms (at least in their original forms) are actually the same book! Al-Baghdadi goes on to write:
The ’ulamâ’ of the right path unanimously say that al-Kalâm an-nafsî is not a creature but it is qadîm (eternal). There is no unanimity on whether al-Kalâm al-lafzî is hâdith (created) or qadîm. Some who regarded al-Kalâm al-lafzî as hâdith said that it was better not to say that it is hâdith for it might be misunderstood and come to mean that al-Kalâm an-nafsî is hâdith. This is the best comment about it. When the human mind hears something that denotes something else, it simultaneously remembers the denoted thing. When one of the ’ulamâ’ of the right path is heard to have said that the Qurân al-kerîm was hâdith, we must understand that he referred to sounds and words which we read with our mouth. The ’ulamâ’ of the right path have unanimously said that both al-Kalâm an-nafsî and al-Kalâm al-lafzî are the Word of Allâhu ta’âlâ. Though some ’ulamâ’ considered this word metaphoric, they all agreed that it was the Divine Word. That al-Kalâm an-nafsî is the Word of Allâhu ta’âlâ means that it is Allâhu ta’âlâ’s Attribute of Speech, and that al-Kalâm al-lafzî is the Word of Allâhu ta’âlâ means that it is created by Allâhu ta’âlâ.


II.
When I try to contemplate what it means to say that the Quran, Gospel and Torah are the "same" in their pre-eternal forms, the concept which comes to mind is what I would call the "telescopic" aspect of different Abrahamic scriptures.

For example, there is the famous story about the time the great rabbi Hillel was asked by a prospective convert to teach him the entire Torah while he standing on one leg and Hillel said "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this--go and study it!" (An interesting side note: Ludwig Zamenhof, more famously known as the inventor of the language Esperanto also tried to develop and promote his own religion/ethical philosophy which he called Hillelism)

Using similar language, the New Testament attributes to following to Jesus (as):
So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the Tanakh). (Matthew 7:13)

In Islam there are many texts (both authentic and authoritative texts and secondary writings as well) which vividly describe the merits, the significance, the oceans of meaning associated with "La ilaha illa Allah" (no god but God) and some would even argue that the entire Quran is merely a commentary on this phrase.

Alternatively, according to one of the Naqshbandi saints:
All of the knowledge which God gave to humanity is contained in the four heavenly books (the Quran, the Torah, the Gospel and the Psalms). All the knowledge of the four books is found in the Quran. All the knowledge of the Quran is found in Al-Fatiha (the first surah). All the knowledge of Al-Fatiha is contained in the Bismillah (the first verse). All the knowledge of the Bismillah is found in the Ba (the first letter). And all the knowledge of the Ba is found in the dot underneath it.

III.
The above reminds me of an argument I had with a Christian friend of mine a few years ago. He claimed that the Bible was a "good" size, but that the Quran was too short a book to be a suitable guide to life. I had to explain to him that if length was the important yardstick, that if you add the hadith collections to the Quran the Islamic scriptures are actually several times longer than the Bible. But I also tried to make the more important point that length of scripture is a really bad yardstick. Religious language is uniquely capable of packing large amounts of meaning in a few words. Hillel's Golden Rule or "La ilaha illa Allah" could fit on a sheet of fortune cookie paper and that would be "sufficient". Everything else is just commentary.

IV.
Of course, if you are Muslim you will be more "at home" with the distinctive features of the written Quran. It's structure will be more understandable. It's stories more familiar. It's verses more comforting and inspiring. But I'm still intrigued by the possibility that in a "telescopic" sense different religions can "contain" one another. I might have to wait for another post to develop that idea further.

V.
Finally, I've been thinking about all of the above while following the news about the Dove "World" Outreach Church and Pastor Terry Jones' Quran-burning stunt., especially in the context of the ayat "None but the purified shall touch it [the Quran]". On one level it is a proscriptive statement which alludes to the requirement that one be ritually clean before handling the physical text of the book. On another level it is a metaphysical statement that only the angels will have access to the copy of the book in heaven. On a spiritual/intellectual level it suggests that only the person of pure intention can truly understand the book. And so in the end, regardless of whether or not Jones decides to burn copies of the Quran made of paper and ink, on multiple levels he has no "grasp" of the real Quran which is safe from his ignorance and bigotry.

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