The Semiotics of Ayah: An Introduction to Qur’anic Scriptural Reasoning

Basit B. Koshul
University of Virginia

In the very beginning of his essay on the rules of scriptural reasoning, Prof. Ochs states that the purpose of the SSR is “to recover the practices of hearing God s speech that both preceded and still provide the terms for modern thinking” (I) . This recovery of God’s speech is not to be done in isolation from the intellectual culture of the modern academy, but is to be done in conversation with it. Any attempt to present “God’s speech” in isolation from this culture risks sounding confessional, parochial, and emotive, thereby inadvertently reinforcing the claims of the secularists that religion is irrational. The attempt to recover “God’s speech” under these conditions means that those engaged in this project acknowledge “that they are themselves both instruments of modern intelligence and exponents of the scriptural reasoning that can redeem that intelligence” (I) . The following pages contain the reflections of a Muslim on the possible contribution that the Qur’anic narrative can make in the project of recovering “God’s speech” with the aim of redeeming the modern intelligence that has shaped the concrete socio-historical reality in which we find ourselves. A question may emerge at the very outset in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims alike–a question that is not directly related to either “God’s speech” or the rules of scriptural reasoning: What is a Muslim doing in a forum largely made up of Christians and Jews? This question is all the more pressing in light of the personal history of the present writer who consciously avoided all such “interfaith” forums at one point in his intellectual development. Past experience taught me that most forums were basically “interfaith-less” forums where agnostic Muslims, Christians and Jews met to basically confirm each others’ agnosticism. So when I was approached by Prof. Ochs and Prof. Elkins after the first semester of my studies at Drew University to participate in a scriptural study group I instinctively hesitated. This instinctual hesitancy ran counter to another instinct of not turning down a gracious invitation, especially when such an invitation comes from one’s teacher. The latter instinct overruled the former and I began attending the Drew University Scriptural Reasoning study sessions from their very beginning. It was not long before I discovered, to my elation, that this particular “interfaith” forum was unlike any other that I had known. The unique character of this forum was due to the three fundamental pre-suppositions on which it was based:

  • 1)Each of the three traditions confidently asserts its claims to uniqueness, as well as universality;
  • 2)At the same time it does not view this claim as being an obstacle to genuine dialogue, because;
  • 3)This dialogue is centered on the Revealed Text.

The experience of the past three years has shown me that there are very good reasons why Muslims should participate in the conversation related to Scriptural Reasoning. The most important reason is that Jews and Christians have been struggling with many of the challenges facing religion in the post-Enlightenment period for a very long time–challenges that most Muslims have not even been aware of until very recently. At the same time Muslims have something very important (almost unique) to offer to this conversation without which the Jews and Christians cannot hope to effectively engage modernity/post- modernity. This Muslim contribution is centered on the Qur’anic principle of treating the material world of nature, the human ego, and the unfolding of the historical process in a genuinely “modernist” manner but with the aim of explaining and explicating the spiritual verities of religion.

Spirit of Tawhid, and the Modern Fragmentation of Knowledge

A macro-view of the Scriptural Reasoning project reveals that it is an attempt to mediate the divide that separates “religious” knowledge from “secular” knowledge in the modern academy. This requires going beyond the compartmentalization of knowledge so characteristic of rationalistic, Enlightenment thought and adopting a more holistic approach towards knowledge by establishing an organic link between “religious” and “secular” knowledge. This retrieval of the holistic vision of knowledge is in fact a manifestation of an attempt to make Tawhid a living force in the realm of philosophy and epistemology. Tawhid refers to Unitary Monotheism in theological language and the Unity of Being in philosophical language (referring strictly to the fact that all of created being is the sign of the one Creator God). Tawhid is the original, fundamental theological principle of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions (the three monotheistic religions). A seemingly simple theological principle, Tawhid is in fact the most powerful life-giving force on the intellectual and spiritual level. Unfortunately, during centuries of decline and neglect, the custodians of this principle have forgotten its nobility and power and have reduced it to mere theological dogmatics. Muhammad Iqbal (whose work remains the defining expression of post-foundationalist Islamic thought, even though he died in 1938) sums up the fate of this noble concept in a couplet:

This very Tawhid was a life giving force in past history.
What is it today? Merely an issue of theological dogmatics.

An overview of the development of human knowledge from the early-modern era to the late-modern reveals an interesting and telling trend: in spite of intense efforts to keep it compartmentalized, knowledge is moving towards a holistic and unitary state. If one looks at the development of science during the course of the 20th century it appears that “science” gradually comes to resemble higher mysticism. For example, the new physics has demonstrated that the division between matter and energy is an artificial division–matter is merely energy trapped in a specific dimension of space-time. New research in the field of neuroscience and psychology demonstrates that the division between rationality and emotions is an artificial division–individuals whose emotional hemispheres in the brain are damaged become incapable of rational thought. This means that a healthy emotional life is necessary for productive “rational” thought. Groundbreaking research in mathematics and computer programming suggests that there is no such thing as a random event (i.e. Chaos theory) and Heisenberg demonstrated long ago that completely reliable predictability is not possible. In this last example, the implications for the debate between freewill and predestination are intriguing indeed.

All of these examples illustrate that ideas and concepts that have been traditionally viewed as polar opposites are now provisionally considered by scientists as differing manifestations of a single, unitary phenomenon. Furthermore, one school of modern Islamic thought, stretching from Muhammad Iqbal to Israr Ahmad, posits that higher physics and higher mathematics (from the natural sciences) and higher religion and higher philosophy (from the social sciences)–with higher psychology being the mediating medium–all converge on a common unitary point. The thinkers belonging to this school argue that all acquired higher knowledge points towards the same True Reality: the Reality of the Creator God.

To actually make the connection between different fields of acquired knowledge requires the aid of revelatory knowledge. Practically speaking, it is unlikely that a unifying principle can emerge from within modern science itself to integrate the various fields of knowledge, or even to draw provisional links between findings from different fields. The world of modern science resembles the proverbial Tower of Babel where the scientists cannot communicate with the social scientists, who in turn cannot communicate with the scholars in the humanities. The situation has reached such absurd proportions that specialists within a given field of inquiry have great trouble communicating with each other (the particle physicist may just as well be speaking Greek when talking to a cold-fusion physicist). The phenomenon at Mt. Sinai, the person of Jesus (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and the Qur’anic revelation are all part of a process to remind humanity of the noble principle of Tawhid . This principle is to be the central axis of spiritual and intellectual pursuits, helping the believer to discern order where chaos seems to reign and to draw links between phenomena that are seemingly unrelated. It appears that any attempt to integrate modern knowledge would require the aid of this particular revelatory principle.

The Relationship Between Revealed Knowledge and Acquired Knowledge: A Qur’anic Perspective

The Qur’anic perspective on the relationship between Revealed Knowledge (revelation) and Acquired Knowledge (science) can be gleaned by examining the way the Qur’an employs the word ayah (pl. ayaat ). This word is often translated as “verse”–thus the Qur’an is composed of more than 6000 ayaat (verses). But the translation of ayah as “verse” is insufficient– ayah literally means “sign, symbol, evidence.” Consequently each verse of the Qur’an is actually a “sign, symbol, and/or evidence” pointing towards the Ultimate Reality. Besides referring to the verses of which it is composed as being ayaat , the Qur’an identifies three other sources of the ayaat of Allah: a) the world of nature; b) the “self” of the human being; and c) the unfolding of the historical process.

From a hermeneutical point of view it is of tremendous significance that the Qur’an declares Divine Revelation to be composed of ayaat while at the same time informing the believer that the world of nature, the human self, and the historical process also contain the ayaat of Allah (swt). When discussing the “the rules for Scriptural Reasoning,” the question that emerges immediately in light of the Qur’anic use of the term ayah is: Can there be any Qur’anic hermeneutics that is divorced from a proper understanding of the world of nature, the human self, and the unfolding of the historical process? Even though it is a bit early to discuss this issue in detail, it remains in the background for the time being–but even then it serves to focus our discussion–as we explore the manner in which the Qur’an employs the term ayah in the extra-Scriptural sense. In the following paragraphs, specific citations will be given from the Qur’an illustrating the manner in which it employs the term ayah in relation to the Revealed Scripture, the world of nature, the human self, and the historical process.

The fact that Qur’an is composed of ayaat is made clear in the following words by the Qur’an:

Ta. Sin . These are the ayaat of the Qur’an a divine writ clear in itself and clearly showing the truth: a guidance and a glad tiding to the believers (26:1-2).

Alif. Lam. Ra . These are the ayaat of a Clear Book: behold, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an so that you might understand (12:1-2).

The following ayah expressly states who is the source and who is the initial recipient of this Divine Writ:

For indeed, clear ayaat have We bestowed upon thee [O, Muhammad] from on high; and none denies their truth save the iniquitous (2:99).

And again:

Alif. Lam. Mim. Ra. These are the ayaat of the Book: and what has been revealed to thee [O, Muhammad] from your Lord is (indeed) the truth yet most people will not believe (13:1).

Ayaat in the World of Nature Defined As Such By the Ayaat of the Qur’an

The foregoing self-referential discourse in the Qur’an demonstrates that the Qur’an considers itself to be composed of ayaat that serve as signs, evidences, and pointers of the Ultimate Reality the Reality of the Creator God. (Even though this point cannot be detailed here, it must be mentioned that it is of great philosophical/hermeneutical significance that Qur’anic discourse is consciously self-referential from the very outset.) In Ricoeurian terms, the ayaat of the Qur’an are “the symbols of the sacred.” In identifying the Revealed Words as such, the Qur’an is echoing the position of other religious traditions. But the following words point in a specifically Qur’anic direction regarding the concept of “the symbols of the sacred.” After stating that the Qur’an is composed of ayaat sent for the guidance of humanity, Allah says:

It is Allah who has raised the heavens without supports that you can see, and is established on the throne of almightiness; and He has made the sun and the moon subservient [to His laws], each running its course for a term set [by Him]. He governs all that exists.

Clearly does He spell out these ayaat for you so that you might become certain that you are destined to meet your Lord [on Judgement Day]. And it is He who has spread the earth wide and placed on it firm mountains and running waters, and created thereon two genders of every [kind of] plant; [and it is He Who] causes the night to cover the day. Verily, in all this there are ayaat for people who think (13:2-3).

The next ayah goes on to detail the wonders in the plant world where all the plants are watered by the same water from the sky, but each plant has its own distinctive taste, characteristic, and use. The ayah concludes by saying: Verily in all this there are ayaat for people who use their reason! (13:4)

The following ayah can be called the ayah of ayaat –in it a wide variety of “symbols of the sacred” are catalogued from the very “profane” world of material existence, symbols that serve as clear pointer towards a supra-material reality from “people who use their reason”:

Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the succession of night and day: and in the ships that speed through the sea with what is useful to man: and in the waters that Allah sends down from the sky, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless, and causing all manner of living creatures to multiply thereon: and in the change of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between the sky and earth: [in all this] there are ayaat indeed for people who use their reason (2:164).

The fact that both Revelation and Creation ultimately proceed from the Word of Allah explains the fact that Qur’anic discourse uses the term ayah to refer to both both serving as “symbols of the sacred.” Commenting on the Qur’anic view of the “profane” world of nature and its relation to the transcendent “spiritual” reality, Karen Armstrong notes:

The Koran constantly stresses the need for intelligence in deciphering the “signs” or “messages” of God. Muslims are not to abdicate their reason but to look at the world attentively and with curiosity. It was this attitude that later enabled the Muslims to build a fine tradition of natural science, which has never been seen such a danger to religion as in Christianity. A study of the natural world showed that it had a transcendent dimension and source, which we can talk about only in signs and symbols. [38]

Human Identity: The Second Source of Ayaat “Outside” the Qur’an

Modern anthropological, psychological and sociological research has shown that we cannot speak of the human identity in isolation from the “profane” natural environment. Depending on the context, the term “identity” refers to the self, the ego, the corporate dimension and so on. It is well established that the natural environment profoundly shapes human identity. Following the logic of the Qur’an, this leads one to believe that even this “profane” dimension of human identity would contain ayaat that are “symbols of the sacred,” because it is a part of the natural order. As if to draw our attention to the fact that human identity cannot be considered in isolation from the world of nature, while at the same time instructing us that the world of nature and human identity are “symbols of the sacred,” the Qur’an states:

And among His wonders is this: He creates you out of dust–and then, lo! you become human beings ranging far and wide! And among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own selves, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are ayaat for people who think! And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors: for in this, behold, there are ayaat for all who have knowledge. And among His wonder is your sleep, at night or in daytime, as well as your [ability to go about in] quest of some of His bounties: in this, behold, there are ayaat for people who [are willing to] listen! (30:20-23)

Imagine for a moment that this passage is specifically addressing you as an individual: what, therein, are the implications of a plain sense reading of the text? “My wife/husband, the love and tenderness that bind us, the language that I speak, the color of my skin (my ethno-linguistic heritage), my routine of sleeping in order to refresh myself, my quest to earn a living for my family all of these are the ayaat of Allah.”

The following is another example of a very “mundane” thing that has been designated as being among the ayaat of Allah by the Qur’an:

O Children of Adam! Indeed We have sent down on you a garment to cover your nakedness and as a thing of beauty: but the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all. Herein is one of Allah s aya at, so that happily they may remember (7:26).

In this passage the very clothing that human beings wear as a means of modestly covering their physical beauty, is called an ayah of Allah.

While one dimension of human identity is profoundly shaped by the natural environment, in Qur’anic symbolism the part of the human being that has been “created out of dust/mud,” there is another dimension that is “not of this world.” This dual nature of the human being is clearly indicated by the following instruction given by Allah to all who were present, as He was putting the “finishing touches” on the newest of His creatures, Prophet Adam (as):

And lo! Your Lord said unto the angels: “Behold! I am about to create mortal man out of sounding clay, out of dark slime transmuted; and when I have shaped him fully and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down before him in prostration!” (15:28-9)

Along with being made of dust/clay/mud, the human being also contains the very spirit of Allah–the spirit establishing the human link with the spiritual realm, just as the dust/mud establish the human link with the natural/material realm. As the foregoing discussion has shown, the “mundane” dimension of human identity contains numerous “symbols of the sacred,” so it is to be expected that the spiritual dimension of human identity also has a close relationship to the sacred. Just how intimate this relationship is can be inferred from the following ayah :” . . . and do not become like those who forget Allah, whom He therefore causes to forget themselves: it is they, they who are truly depraved (59:19)”. Among humans beings there is a category of people who are completely oblivious of their own “selves”. It is obvious that there is no human being who is oblivious of his/her own “physical self”–the “self” that needs sleep, food, drink, etc.–because every human consciously tends to the needs of the physical self. But there is a category of human beings who are oblivious of their spiritual selves–that part of the self that is directly related to the very “spirit of Allah” . This spiritual self is so intimately related to Allah that Allah is warning humanity that forgetting Allah necessarily entails forgetting this spiritual self. And forgetting the spiritual self creates a vacuum that is filled with a wide variety of theories that reduce the human being to an economic animal, a social animal, reasoning animal, sexual animal, etc. Whereas the dimension of human identity that is related to the natural order contains “symbols of the sacred,” the spiritual dimension of human identity has an even more direct relation with the sacred.

The Unfolding of the Historical Process: The Third Source of Ayaat Outside the Qur’an

While the natural world and the human self contain “symbols of the sacred,” the unfolding of the historical process contains the record of the consequences of not paying heed to the Reality towards which these symbols point. Therefore a special relationship is established between the ayaat of Allah and the historical process the historical process provides the stage on which the functionality of these ayaat can be observed. The following passage illustrates this relationship as it concludes by encouraging the individual to travel around the earth and study the fate of those who came before:

And indeed, within every community have We raised up an apostle [entrusted with this message]: “Worship Allah, and shun all transgression!” And among those [past generations] were people whom Allah graced with His guidance, just as there was among them [many a one] who inevitably fell prey to grievous error: go, then, about earth and look at what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth! (16:36)

In the many passages that encourage the individual to study the fate of previous civilizations, the Qur’an specifically draws attention to the fate that befell those who rejected the Revealed Word and the reality of Resurrection. This fact strengthens the link between the historical process and the world of nature as being “symbols of the sacred.” In the passages cited above that refer to the ayaat of Allah in the world of nature; the passages immediately following often draw the individual s attention to the reality of Resurrection. In the same way the passages that encourage the individual to study the unfolding of the historical process specifically mention the claim of the unbelievers that Resurrection will not take place. For example, a little after the passage just cited (16:36), the attitude of the unbelievers towards Resurrection is described in these words: “As it is, they swear by Allah with their most solemn oaths, Never will Allah raise from the dead anyone who has died” (16:38). In the following passage the Prophet is being directly addressed because he is distressed at the fact that the unbelievers are not paying heed to his message. Allah draws the Prophet s attention to the events of the past as a means of firming up the Prophet s resolve to continue the mission. Allah says:

And, indeed, before your time [O, Muhammad] prophets have been derided–but those who scoffed at them were [in the end] overwhelmed by the very thing which they were wont to deride. Say: “Travel through the earth, and look at what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth” (6:10-11).

It is well known that Prophet Musa (as) was sent to the Israelites with a number of different miracles and ayaat in order to impress upon them the verity of the Message that he was carrying. In addition to these miracles and ayaat , the Qur’an points to something else that Musa (as) was to employ in his efforts to convey the Divine Message to the Israelites: “the days of Allah.” The Qur’an states:

And, indeed, We sent forth Musa with Our ayaat [with the instructions]: “Lead thy people out of the depths of darkness into the light, and remind them of the Days of Allah!” Verily in this [reminder] there are ayaat indeed for all who are patient in adversity and deeply grateful [to Allah] (16:5).

This passage clearly differentiates between two categories of ayaat : a) the ayaat that were in the form of miracles and b) the ayaat that come to one’s attention as one ponders over the unfolding of the historical process. During times of extreme hardship and tribulation that is being incurred due to loyalty to the Divine Message, the believers are encouraged to recount the “days of Allah” in order to draw strength and patience that will allow them to persevere during the difficult times. These “days of Allah” contain ayaat , just as the Revealed Word, the world of nature, and the human self contain ayaat –“symbols of the sacred” that lead the seeker towards the Ultimate Reality. Just as the Qur’anic command to study the world of nature inspired the Muslims to develop a fine tradition of the study of the natural sciences, the Qur’anic command to ponder over the “days of Allah” and to “travel through the land” inspired the Muslims to develop a fine tradition of historiography and travel memoirs (the most famous being the one by Ibn Batuta).

The Rules for Scriptural Reasoning–Some Preliminary Remarks

At this point in the discussion we can offer some preliminary proposals regarding the rules of Scriptural Reasoning, as we attempt to articulate a language that will allow us to speak “religiously” in the modern academic setting. A look at the unfolding of the discourse above provides important insights into the very basic rules of Scriptural Reasoning. The most important and fundamental rule is to recite the Revealed Word and listen carefully to the discourse contained therein there can be no genuine understanding without sincere attention being given over to the Revealed Word. The terms of this first rule are contained in the very first words that were revealed to the Prophet, thus commencing his prophetic ministry in Makkah:

Recite in the name of you Lord, who has created–created man out of a germ-cell. Recite–for your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who has taught [man] the use of the pen–taught man what he did not know (95:1-5).

After taking the Scriptural discourse seriously, we began with posing a question about the Scripture, and used the Scripture itself to answer the question: how does the Scripture employ the term ayah ? The discussion of the Qur’anic use of the term ” ayah ” began by an exploration of the Qur’anic text itself–this provides us with the second most fundamental rule of Scriptural Reasoning. The most authentic commentary on the Scripture is the Scripture itself. The way the Scripture employs a certain term or phrase at one place is clarified and detailed by the way it uses the same term/phrase at another place. To understand the Scripture it is of pressing importance to do a great deal of cross-referencing–as one part of the Scripture details, highlights, illuminates other parts, and is illuminated by other parts. This means that we have to meet the Scripture on its own terms, leaving aside other terms, methodologies, and/or theories that we might be tempted to bring to the table. If we look at this rule in a vacuum it appears to be exceedingly dangerous in that the possibility of tunnel vision, and being wrapped up in a limited frame of reference is all too obvious–if the Scripture offers the most authentic commentary on itself, why go anywhere else? And it is a socio-historical reality that some approaches to Scriptural exegesis exhibit this very “narrowing” characteristic. But as the subsequent discussion showed this “narrowing” approach is actually a betrayal of the logic of Scriptural Reasoning. The Scripture itself repeatedly recommends, commands, and challenges the student to consider the ayaat of Allah that are contained outside the Scripture, in the world of nature, in the human self, and in the unfolding of the historical process. In other words the ayaat of the Qur’an inform the individual that these ayaat complement and are complemented by “extra-Qur’anic ayaat .”

At this point we can formulate the third rule of Scriptural Reasoning: Proper study and understanding of the Scripture requires pro-active interaction with the natural, human, and historical sciences. The importance of the third rule can be demonstrated by referring to the second. In the second rule we stated that the Scripture itself was the most authentic commentary on the Scripture. According to this rule, the entire project of Scriptural Reasoning would be jeopardized if we ipso facto bracketed one portion of the Scripture and said that we will not refer to this portion as we study some other section of the Text. By its very nature, such “bracketing” would compromise the integrity of the project. In the same way, Scripture has informed us that the world of nature, the human self, and the historical process also contain “symbols of the sacred” in the same way that the Revealed Word itself contains/is a “symbol of the sacred.” Our inability and/or refusal to take these extra-Scriptural “symbols of the sacred” into account as we are doing Scriptural Reasoning would profoundly limit and circumvent the integrity of the project as a whole. It is also almost self-evident that talking religiously in modern academia requires that we incorporate the extra-Scriptural “symbols of the sacred” into our discourse, if we are to be genuinely both instruments of modern intelligence and exponents of the scriptural reasoning that can redeem that intelligence (I) .

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