By January 11, 2021 Read More →

How to read Scriptures? – Part 2

How to read scriptures to benefit from them? (part 2)

Most of the sections in the Quran are loaded with figurative speech.  How should we read them?  In order to approach this topic, we first have to define the text.  The text claims to be the Speech of the Creator of the universe.  By definition, the Creator of the universe is “the Absolute Being”.  We are not arguing about how the author of the Qur’an is the Absolute being.  The Quran says that my Author is the Creator of the universe.  Hence, by definition, the Absolute Being’s qualities must also be Absolute.  The Speech comes from the knowledge of the Absolute Being, the Knowledge itself must also be infinite.

The purpose of the Quran is to instruct the human being about the reality of creation, in particular, the existent things out there.  The Quran says that I am going to teach the reality of creation, the Source of existence (SOE) of this world, which is not in this world and so it cannot be comprehensible within the conditions of this world. Moreover, you can understand and confirm what “the Source of existence” of this world refers to.  That SOE is understandable and confirmable within the capacity of the human mind and feelings.  In other words, your reasoning and intellect understand SOE, but you cannot describe it as anything of this universe because it is unlike anything of the universe.  In the language of the Quran, it is “ghaiby” i.e. not of the nature of this universe.

The language of the Quran must be such as to be able to teach and instruct the human mind at their level. The human mind can thus grasp what the message is talking about because the message is talking about something which is not of the nature of the universe, called “ghaib”.  The mind knows it, acknowledges it, and requires it i.e. I look for it, “what is the source of existence of this universe?” is the question asked by the human mind.  I can understand it, but I am not capable of describing it as an essence (because it does not have any physical form which is describable within the conditions of this universe).  The Quran speaks in this way.  That is why the language of the Quran is full of figurative speech. Literary tools such as metaphors, analogies, similes…rhetorical devices/means are used in order to bring the reality of “ghaib” to the vision of human beings; so that they can liken their understandings of “ghaib” through their experiences of the universe.

Example: The qualities of the Creator cannot be comprehensible with a literal description of it.  The literal description is only possible with the things that have a physical body/matter.  

  • How can you describe the taste of the food you just ate to a person that has not experienced it?  Can you give a physical description of the taste?  Impossible!  You have to use metaphors, similes such as sweet as an apple, sour as a lemon, soft as a flour dough, and use all sorts of figurative language.  
  • Symbolism is inevitable in the literature of the Quran.  
  • Figurative speech is inevitable for the language of the Quran.  

We made the distinction between dos and don’ts of the verses (in part 1) which consists of around less than 3 percent of the Quran.  The interpretation of the 3 % is an exception and not the subject of our discussion now because that is not our specialty as there are many people who are experts on those subjects (so let’s leave it to those scholars who talk about it excessively and learn from them). At the same time, we need to bear in mind that dos and don’ts are usually related to physical actions in this world, and can easily be describable in physical terms, which does not need to be expressed with figurative language. Of course, these physical actions have spiritual sides as well. These sides are related to one’s realization of the belief matters. These matters need to be learned from other verses of the Qur’an.

In this class, we emphasize the 97 percent of the Quran which is about the description of human feelings, the purpose of human creation and humanity, and the description of “ghaib” (the Absolute Creator).  Also, the angelic (meaning) side of the universe, the message the Creator delivers to human beings through a particular manner, through a selected human employed and instructed by the Creator.  We don’t know how the speech is delivered from an Absolute being to a person.  General knowledge says that angel Gabriel brought it.  What does “angel” mean and how do we describe “angels”?  How does the angel take the revelation from the Absolute being?  We don’t know because we cannot experience the angels in physical terms.   However, this sequence of events results in the revelation and is not physically taking place.  We can study it, try to logically understand it, and if we are satisfied with it, we can confirm it.  If we are not satisfied with it (it is not conveying me the truth that I can witness and confirm), then we are free to reject it.

  • Human beings have free will.  

Don’t expect a literal description of an Absolute Being or a literal description of angel Gabriel bringing the speech to a Prophet.   It is impossible!  By definition, it is “ghaiby” or Absolute but we can see the result of it and we can logically reason about the result of the revelation, along with emotional apprehension of the revelation and confirm it  (accept/reject it according to our free will).

The Quran says that you better confirm it because it is the truth and it does not contradict your reality.  Of course, it is not binding the human being physically to accept it but hinting that the human being is responsible for their choices.  Again, we are all free, but we are not free not to take the consequence of our choices.  Example: I may harm someone and that does not mean that I am not responsible for my choice.  I am responsible for my choices always!

The symbolic teachings cover “the ghaib matters” narrated in the Quran through the mission of the Prophets and the existence of another creation, which we have not experienced called “hereafter”.  These matters and the consequence of our human choices which result in reward/punishment or the establishment of complete judgment (partial judgment is experienced here) is taken in the next creation to be executed by the Creator.  Again, we don’t know what the next creation is like because we have not experienced it.  If we have not experienced something, then we don’t know about it and we need to use some rhetorical means/devices to explain it, only by benefitting from these devices we can understand it.

The 3rd chapter of the Quran (Al-Imran) says that there are well-established verses (muhkamat) and others that are (mutashabihat) that need interpretation.  That is, no one knows its final interpretation, just like allegories.  People can interpret the allegorical teachings of the Quran in a way that they like but the intention should be good in line with the fundamental teachings emphasized in the well-established verses.  However, the final meanings of the allegorical teachings of the verses are known to God only, what does it mean?

  • Human beings can never reach the bottom of Absolute knowledge.  
  • We cannot reach Absolute or infinite.
  • If we reach the last point of the infinite, we grasp the Absolute, which is impossible.  
  • If something is grasped, then it is not infinite, and it becomes self-contradictory.  

How can I know the Absolute meaning of what Absolute Power is?  Impossible!  I cannot know the final meaning of Absolute Power.  But I can use some rhetorical devices to make a comparison between the power of an ant compared to the power of a lion and see the various layers of degrees of power manifested.  Just like when I imagine the power of the degrees of an atom, I am using experienced objects (ant and lion) to come to a conclusion about the Infinity of power.  That infinite power can only belong to the Creator of the universe, by definition the Absolute being.  

  • If the Creator was not Absolute, then it would be impossible for the human mind to explain how this universe comes into existence, the reality that I am experiencing now, and how it is organized and taken care of in the perfect order/way, continuously changing and how every particle is taken care of individually at the same time.  
  • If the power was not infinite, then it would be impossible for the universe to exist and continue as we experience.  That is the human mind’s conclusion.  Hence, the power must be infinite and so nothing can prevent the Absolute Being from manifesting Itself at the same time with limitless ease.

We see that the universe is continuously changing and there is no difficulty in its changing.  Everything is perfectly under control, which is called by human beings as the “order”.  The order of the universe does not have an external existence by itself, but it is the result of our observation of the universe and we name it “orderly creation.”  Example: When you enter a room, the furniture is put in order.  When you take out the furniture, where is the order?  There is no order left without the furniture.  Order is a quality ascribed by us that exists along with the created things. The order is a concept used by human beings to describe the setting of the furniture of the room.  That is called the “order”.  Similarly, there is no externally existing order separate from the universe (simply put it, the order is not physically existing).  

Sometimes, people may not be aware of what the order is and may say: “This is the order of the universe, that is how it works”.  As if, the order of the universe is an agent working in the universe, but it cannot be the fact.  Again, this is contradicting because there is no such thing that arranges itself and is physically active to do something.  There is no substance within the universe called a “natural cause” but we observe the events coming into existence in a sequence of events. We may describe this sequence of events as “the order”, “a law” or “a principle” in which the universe functions and exists.

Again, we cannot describe “order” as to what it is.  But we may name the universal laws as a result of our observation of the universe as “natural causes” or “nature” for how they are brought into existence.  There is a consistency of how things come into existence.  Human beings observe this consistency and call it “order.”  Furthermore, we can only understand “order” in a descriptive way, we cannot describe the nature of the “order” which is a concept that we use.  

“Mutashabihat” or allegorical verses use rhetorical devices in order to explain “ghaib” or “not of the nature of the universe,” to the human mind.  Anything which is not according to the nature of the created beings is called “ghaib”.  The action is in front of us, but the actor is not visibly known.  

  • Example: When I read the book, I see the meaning, but I don’t see the author in the book.  I conclude easily that this book that carries meaning to me must have a conscious, knowledgeable author.  Have I seen the author?  No.  Do I need to see the author in order to conclude that this book has an author?  No.  But I am sure that there must be an author to this book because the paper and ink cannot produce the meaning.  
  • Meaning can only be produced by a conscious being/author.  

This relationship between the physical objects and the meaning they carry to my being/feelings are explained using the descriptive language of the Quran via allegorical/ rhetorical teachings, called “mutashabihat”.  These verses/teachings are open to interpretation.  There are rules to understand these rhetorical devices and people may or may not obey the rules according to their choices.  If they follow their own egoistical ambitions, they interpret its meaning according to their egoistic aims.

Following the rules of interpreting the “mutashabihat” teaching is a personal responsibility and these rules are mostly driven from the grammatical rules, historical and textual contexts, and rhetorical structure of the language.  This means that the meaning of the word cannot be interpreted arbitrarily.  Each word carries a certain meaning and this meaning must be understood within the rules of the grammatical structure.  Again, we cannot make people follow the rules.  Example: Is there a rule/constitution in this country?  Yes.  Is there a judicial system?  Yes, and there are prisons as well.  But the people are free to follow the law or not.  When they do not follow the law or contradict the law, they are taken to court and put in prison.  That is how human experience demonstrates this reality.  Thus, when I interpret the verses arbitrarily without following the grammatical rules and without respecting the purpose of the speech of God by fitting it according to my own egoistic desires, then I am bound to misinterpret the verses.  

  • Example:  If there is a “no parking” sign on the street, can I park my car there?  Yes, I can, but I may get a ticket and I need to pay for it.  No one as an individual can say to me not to park there, however, the signs say that I shouldn’t park there.  I may arbitrarily interpret this sign to my advantage and say that the “no parking” sign is for the people who are not in a hurry.  
  • Similarly, you can interpret the allegorical teachings of the Quran as you like but you must take the responsibility of your interpretation.  In any case, no one can claim the final interpretation of the allegorical teachings.  We can only say: “according to me, this allegory means this”.  Even the great scholars who devoted their lives to understanding the Quran (50-60 years of their lives), cannot say that their interpretations are the final meaning of the allegorical teachings.
  • The arbitrary interpretations of the rhetorical/allegorical teachings of the Quran are a result of human choice rather than following the grammatical rules and structure.

The belief aspects of the teachings of the Quran are related to “ghaib”.  We are all responsible for our capacities to interpret these teachings and notice the rhetorical devices employed in the Quran to acquaint us with “ghaib”.  But it is better to take some training on this.  Interpreting literature is a discipline that you must study under the tutelage of someone who has studied before you and has some experience about it.  That is how human knowledge improves like a snowball effect.  That is the human endeavor to utilize these experiences, learn from the experts (accumulation of knowledge from previous people) and apply the case to ourselves, our life conditions.  

  • Without taking a course on literature, no one can do justice to the literary interpretations.
  • Similarly, trying to understand the Quran also needs a certain level of training (according to the level that you can exercise.  However, never claim that this is the ultimate meaning, or this is the best interpretation, rather say: “that is within my capacity and I understood it in this way” i.e. according to our own capacity we can try to interpret.)

The Quranic concepts are related to human training, human morality, and understanding of “ghaib” or the responsibility of the human being before “ghaib”, i.e. comprehending “ghaib” and then concluding (true or false).

  • Example: “God” is an abstract concept; we cannot demonstrate it in a physical form.  Similarly, we cannot demonstrate “angels” in a physical form.  Also, belief in the hereafter, a new type of creation is not in this universe.  Additionally, a person being the messenger of God and receiving the message from God via angels cannot be described in physical form.   
  • Example: Hell is like a prison or deprivation from God’s Mercy.  That is how Hell is described, a situation where everyone will be left to their own devices.  Of course, “the causes” that we worship (regard them as the source of the existence of everything including myself and presenting my gratitude to them) instead of God,  cannot be the source of existence of anything, they are created beings.  Just like soil is created and is given existence within an order and obeys the order of creation and the universe.  Same goes with water.  They cannot act on their own.  The Source of existence of everything exists.  If God does not authorize trees to produce the fruits, can they have the quality to produce the fruits by themselves?  No.  And this freedom to choose between Hell (having no authority to provide anything for human beings) and Paradise is given to us here in the Quran.

Translating “mutashabihat” as only an allegorical teaching would be in a limited sense.  Rather, any means of rhetorical devices in the Quran which explains the abstract notions by using all kinds of rhetorical devices would be “mutashabihat”.  No one can get the ultimate final meaning of it, neither can human beings reach to the end of it because Absolute is infinite and has no end.  That is why the Quran says that no one can get the final meaning of anything, only Absolute knows it and human beings are not Absolute.

Let us investigate some common rhetorical devices (given below) to apply as an approach to understanding scriptures.  These rhetorical devices are used everywhere in the Quran.  At least, if we have not taken any training on these teachings of the Quran, we can recognize the rhetorical devices employed in certain verses.  All rhetorical devices must be presented to me in a physical description so that my mind can comprehend it.  That is how the human being is able to learn and develop their understanding.  

  1. Metaphor: A thing regarded as the symbolic representative of something else, especially something abstract.  A metaphor is a comparison which is not literally true.  It suggests what something is like by comparing it with something else with similar characteristics.  
  • Example: Bob has a heart of gold.  We all know that the heart is a living biological thing, whereas gold is a precious metal.  The sentence is used to describe someone with a pure heart, where the heart is the representation of the human character.  We cannot describe purity because “purity” is a qualification, it is something abstract, like the order, like the causes, like nature.  These are abstract things and they cannot have physical existence.  But this is how human beings describe the qualities of the objects.  When you use “the heart of gold” as a metaphor to describe Bob, you are letting us know that the person Bob is kind and has a pure good heart (not spoiled). (Mecaz)
  1. Analogy: A comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.  A process of arguing from similarities in known respects to similarities in other respects, usually for unknowable things.  A thing which is comparable to something else in significant respect.  
  • Example: Jane has a voice of velvet.  We know that velvet is a fabric and voice is a different matter.  Velvet is smooth, when you touch your hand, it is very soft and smooth.  And so, a velvet voice comes to the human ear with a sweet taste and we can only explain this by using analogies.
  • Example: A shoe is to the foot as a tire is to the wheel. 
  1. Allegory: A story, poem or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, especially a moral or political one.  
  • Example: Pilgrims’ progress where one is called “Hajji”, which is an allegory of the spiritual journey.  Hajj is not a physical journey only, rather, while the body is doing the physical journey, we are expected to be aware that this is also a spiritual journey.  I must concentrate on the spiritual side of the actions that are required to be done during Hajj, my spirit must be busy with it and my body must follow the physical rules.  The physical rules are within the category of “muhkamat” or rules and not to be interpreted.  Let’s say you go to Mount Mina; you cannot say that I don’t have to be there physically, and my mind can go there by a spiritual journey.  No!  Your body must be there and while you are doing this action with your body, your spirit must go through a spiritual progress, that is what the meaning of Hajj is.  Again, our humanity consists of body and soul.  Hence, I have to go on a spiritual journey through my spirit and my body has to go through a physical journey.
  • Example: I want to be pleased with God; I am hungry, and I ask God to give me food.  Food is there and I eat it.  After eating the food and satiating the stomach, I say my God is so Merciful. Without eating, my body suffers.  After eating, I say that my spirit is very satisfied with God’s Mercy.  If I have not experienced the feeling of Mercy here in physical form, how can I conclude that my God is Merciful?!(Mutashabih)
  1. Parables: A simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.  It illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles by using metaphorical analogies and human characters (archetypes).  Quran is full of figurative languages (Tamthil, Kinayah).
  • Example: Time is money.  This means that time is precious.  
  • Example:  He has a heart of stone.  This means that he is rude.  
  • Example:  You are my sunshine.  This means that I like your company and you make me happy.
  1. Euphuism:  A mild, indirect or vague term that often substitutes a harsh, blunt or offensive term.
  • Example: I am letting you go.  This means that I will fire you.
  • Example: He passed away.  This means that he died.
  1. Hyperbole: An exaggeration for emphasis or effect. It is extremely and widely used in the Quran, to draw attention and shake the human spirit from heedlessness that you don’t take notice of the purpose of your existence, you know the result of your choices, decisions and concerns and you are responsible for it.  The price you pay is huge and you cannot afford it and stand it.  
  • Example: I told you a thousand times.  Rather than once or twice.  
  • Example: You will burn in Hell forever.  Rather than you better not make this choice.
  • Example:  Prophet Noah delivered the message for 1000 years.  Rather than he spent his life in acknowledgment of God or God consciousness.
  1. Personification: Gives human qualities to non-living things or ideas. 
  • Example: Snowflakes danced like a human being.  
  • Example: The thunder grumbled.  The Quran is full of these languages everywhere.  
  1. Simile: A comparison between two unlike things using the words “like” or “as”.  
  • Example: As slippery as an eel 
  • Example: Like peas in a pot
  • Example: As blind as a bat. 
  • Example: Eats like a pig.
  1. Idiom: A figure of speech, something different than a literal translation of words would lead one to believe.
  • Example: Stabbed in the back.  It means talking behind someone to insult them.
  • Example: Killed two birds with one stone.  It means to take care of multiple things by doing one thing.
  • Example: This is a piece of cake.  It means this is easy.
  1. Allusion: When a piece of writing tries to hint at a person, place, thing, literature, or art.  When we hint something and expect the other person to understand what we are referencing.
  • Example: Don’t be a Casanova.
  1. Metonym: A change of name as a literary device.  A way of replacing one object or idea with something related to it instead of stating what it is.  
  • Example: Hollywood is obsessed with new diets.  This means not the place, rather celebrities who reside there.  
  • Example: Wall street is used to refer to the financial sector.  
  • Example: The US Capitol refers to law making.  
  • Example: The crown refers to a royal person.  In the Quran, Pharaoh’s palace is a metonym.  Abraham’s castle is a metonym. “The castle is transparent” is a metaphor referring to the message of Abraham which is clear to understand for the people where nothing is hidden about the truth.
  1. Paradox: It is a juxtaposition of a set of seemingly contradictory concepts that reveal a hidden or unexpected truth.  It may be hard or impossible to believe.  Although the juxtaposition can be reconciled if the reader thinks about it deeply.  
  • Example: I know one thing that I know nothing.  
  • Example: It’s weird not to be weird. 
  • Example: Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it.  
  1. Elliptic: It is a series of three dots “…” that indicates an intentional omission of a word, sentence, or whole section of the text without altering its original meaning.  Elliptic is employed in all the Prophetic stories.  Suddenly the story changes from one phase to another phase.  It is not the point of the Quran to convey to us the story, rather use the story to convey to us the message.  Wherever the message is possible to be conveyed to address human beings’ needs.  
  • Example: All prophetic narrations and stories are using elliptic.  The language of the Quran is a concise teaching and removes all superfluous extra language.
  1. Tropic: Phrases are used with a non-literal or figurative meaning such as a metaphor. 
  • Example: In Arabic, “sabr” means patience.  In fact, the word “sabr” means a rope which binds all polls of a tent to keep the tent upright.  Another meaning is a rope which ties an animal to keep the animal away from the food (not for torturous reasons).  In other words, “sabr” means tying the animal so it does not go astray.  Another meaning of “sabr” is to keep a person under custody until he takes an oath to pay back the money that he owes to someone.  In other words, you keep this person by tying him until he pays the money back, that is called “sabr”.  That is how the notion of patience is represented in the language of the Quran.  You just keep the reigns of your anger and hatred under control so that it will not go do something dangerous or harmful, that is patience.  
  1. Symbolism: It is a literary device that uses symbols (people, words, locations, marks, abstract ideas) to represent something beyond the literal meaning.  It is not confined to the words of literature.  We see symbols all around us.
  • Example: A flag is a symbol of a country. 
  • Example: An eagle is a symbol of the USA.

In the teaching of the Quran “Pharaoh” is the symbol of tyranny, arrogance, self-conceited person etc. The prophet Job and the prophet of Jacob are the symbols of “patience.” Abu Lahab is the symbol of a person who takes his wealth as a means of pride and arrogance. Abu Lahab’s wife is a symbol of someone who supports an arrogant person with no justification. 

These are some examples of rhetorical devices that we can find in the Quran. We should look out for these as they are widely used everywhere in the Quran.  From this we understand that the Quran is a piece of literature not to be read literally. Just as we cannot read a poem in its literal language.  A poem is an emotional description of something.  The Quran is also an emotional description of my human state but at the same time, it is mostly a description of “ghaib” (i.e. not physically possible to understand or comprehend).  The Quran must use these rhetorical devices, it is inevitable not to use them, otherwise the Quran cannot present to us “ghaib”.

All the rhetorical devices are subject to interpretations and it is impossible to avoid it because it is always referring to something else.  In the Quran, everyone can interpret these rhetorical devices, because the human freewill is free.  However, it shouldn’t be taken arbitrarily because literature needs to be studied by taking proper literature courses.  There are rules on how to interpret these literature pieces.  

  • If you learn it, you still need to interpret it.  Example: When you write a poem, and distribute it to 100 students, they will all come up with 100 different interpretations.  They take the meaning from that literature. 

 Example: I have one dollar and you have one million.  

  • Is there a difference?  Yes, the amount is different.  
  • Is there a common point?  Yes, both are dollars.  
  • What changes?  The number.  Value wise, the dollar has the same value. But, one person has more, and the other has less.  

I interpret one phrase according to my good intention and my capacity (one dollar) and the other interprets it with his larger than mine capacity (one million dollars).  Someone gets a larger amount.  If my intention is good, I will get according to my capacity.  

Let’s say the Quranic language is like an ocean (a simile to illustrate endless knowledge or endless water)  I get one cup of water from it according to my capacity and the other person gets a huge tank of water out of the ocean according to his capacity (i.e. he learned more).  The water I have and the water you have is different in amount, but the benefit is in the core of the message (what you got and what I got) and it is the same.  

  • The amount of the message depends on my capacity, the important thing is to have a good intention to get the gist of the message.  
  • We should not worry about the different interpretations of these rhetorical means, we have to look at our intentions: “Am I trying to divert the meaning with a good or bad intention, depending on my attitude?  

The amount of how much I get, should not put me off from trying to benefit from the Quran.  At the same time, I should be aware of my limitations.  I cannot claim that my understanding represents the Absolute meaning of the verse.  No one can claim such and everyone gets according to the capacity of their understanding of the message.  But try to increase your capacity and learn more to benefit from it.  The ocean and knowledge are endless.  It should not intimidate us that I need to take a long course on grammar and literature…  The Quran speaks to every level of people.  The Ocean is ready for anyone, whatever the capacity of the cup is, the ocean is ready to give water/knowledge to these people.  

  • Take your cup and get as much as your cup can contain.  
  • It should not mean that we shouldn’t try to enlarge our cup.  
  • I should try to learn more and increase my knowledge of how to benefit from the Quran.
  • I should try and at the same time I should not be frustrated because of the limitations of my cup.  At the end of the day, everyone’s cup is limited, from a small cup to a large tank.  

The ocean is so generous to give you something, go and take it.  Again, we should not get disappointed that all these different kinds of rhetorical devices are employed in the Quran and I am not a man of literature and so I cannot benefit from the Quran.  The Quran says that I speak to anyone who reasons and tries to benefit from it and uses his capacity and intellect.  The Quran speaks to human beings, we should try to benefit from it and at the same time we should try to receive as much education as we can on how to benefit from the Quran.  We must have a good intention and a balanced attitude towards the Quran.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Post a Comment