The language of revelation & the meaning of existence.

I want to share some things on the question of language.

First, I read the Quran in English, mostly (when it is not my own translation, it is almost always Muhammad Asad’s translation). I do consult Lane lexicon regularly. In my view, knowledge of the Arabic language and knowledge of the meaning of the roots of words, their uses, the various derivations, constructions and the idioms etc. is a means to an end and is not nearly as critical as other matters. If other concepts, especially an understanding of one’s turn to revelation, are in place, one can tell whether one’s knowledge of language is sufficient (whatever level of knowledge it may be) or if it needs to be improved. The truth of a revelation is not in its language but in its message. You can carry pudding on a spaceship or carry it on a horse cart. If you want and get the pudding, it hardly matters if it got to you by spaceship or came laden on a horse cart. And if you have some idea about how to tell real pudding from a plastic replica that looks like pudding but tastes and feels nothing like real pudding, you will know when to stop looking at the bearer of pudding and start eating what you have found.  

Second, the goal of reading revelation is, for me, meaning. Languages have words. Words carry meanings. When these meanings are gathered (which is what reading is supposed to be), they convey some news or message. This message either solves my problem or it doesn’t. It either answers the questions I brought to revelation (or that I learn from revelation are questions worth asking) or it does not. It is this message that I am looking for when I approach something as revelation. My interest in the language is tied to my search for meaning. I have a need. I need to have my questions answered. What meaning do things have? What should be my perspective? I am looking for meaning for my personal questions – the need for understanding the meaning of my life and death and an account of ‘what is happening’ that might be better than what I currently have. As I noted earlier, my own account of what is happening brings me misery and despair and leaves me dissatisfied. I don’t know about you but I am looking for a message from my maker to “reveal” something I do not already know. My existing reading/ ‘meaning gathering’ skills or perspectives have failed me. In short, the message is the goal and the message is in the meanings not the words themselves. In my view, this message can be carried equally by words in all languages. There is no reason for me to think otherwise. If you can bear one more flimsy analogy, I would say that a fragrance and a t-shirt, though very different in form, can carry the meanings of being “birthday gifts from a loving/caring friend” quite analogously, all other things being equal.

Third (and this may be repetition of what I have already said), the purpose of textual revelation is to make the meaning of things known. Revelation makes things speak so that I may hear from them a meaning that I previously did not hear. If revelation makes things speak more clearly than they speak to me without revelation, it reveals something to me. Thus, if the Quran that is in the Arabic language is aimed at making the speech of existence – the bird, the tree, my love of beauty, my sadness at death and separation and so on – understood to me, then whatever textual meanings give satisfactory meaning to the “speech of existing things” is a satisfactory and valid textual meaning as far as I (the one looking for a satisfactory meaning to the speech of things). In other words, the way I can tell if I understand ‘a’ correct meaning of a revelatory text is by experiencing (with heart/mind and all my human senses and capacities) the truth or falsehood of the meanings that revelatory text gives to existence. I cannot evaluate the speech of the creator (in Arabic) without consulting what it makes existing things say to me. Or let me put it in the positive: one reasonable way I can evaluate the validity or correctness of my understanding of a textual message from my maker in any language (Arabic in the case of the Quran) is to see if my life and the universe make sense in a way that they previously did not. If, before revelation, the tree is a tree to me and my relationship with it is that, for instance, I eat fruit that grows on it or burn its wood for heat (and lets say for now that this relation is not satisfactorily meaningful to me) and after revelation, the tree, the fruit it bears and the wood that it is made become news bearers that tell me there is someone who can and wants to and does serve you and nourish you and sustain you etc. and lets say that this latter meaning was to be more satisfactory to me than the previous one, I would say that my understanding of the text of revelation (the text that made the tree and fruit convey satisfactory meaning to me) is correct and satisfactory.

In saying what I have said so far, I am implying (and assuming) that human beings can get verifiable meaning from revelation if they bring their need for meaning to it. If a person feels satisfied with the meanings he or she has already given to existence without feeling the need for this meaning to be revealed to them from their maker and the giver of existence, they cannot experience the transformation from “misguidance” to “guidance” that revelation claims as its most basic function and purpose. The Quran claims to be a book that guides (hudan) and I can’t be guided if there wasn’t any misguidance to begin with. I am assuming that, at the end of the day, a human being can and will judge whether a meaning they get from revelation is satisfactory for them and they will be individually responsible for accepting or rejecting that meaning or looking for something more satisfactory.

This, at any rate, is part of how I think about the relatively secondary importance of knowledge of Arabic language for making sense of revelation. But within the framework I have described above, I have found it quite helpful to slowly learn the Arabic language and the various lexical meanings of words used in the Quran. But I reiterate, if other things are in place, the importance of knowing Arabic is quite marginal and if other things are not in place, I can be a scholar of Arabic literature and I wouldn’t have a clue about how to tell if something is revelation from my maker and which problems I can truthfully say it solves for me.

Some people worry about language because they think “novices” can just make their own DYI Islam by reading into the Quran or reading out of the Quran whatever they will. This is a pseudo problem. Who says that the Quran teaches Islam? That is an interpretation, and a very problematic and invalid one as far as I am concerned. These are worries that arise from within an identitarian and poor-historicizing frameworks. Good historicism is to take one’s own temporal (here and now) existence and need for meaning seriously. It is to take one’s own misguided interpretation of existence seriously and it is to turn to one’s maker for guidance about meaning and perspective proper, in His view, for a being like me, a being that he has made.

In case you didn’t notice, let me say it clearly: I do not understand the Quran to be teaching the religion of Islam so that I would worry people will understand the “DIN” wrongly or correctly. This is a common misunderstanding (in my view). I take linguistic revelation to be revealing the meaning of existence and the truthfulness of the latter is my guide to the validity of the meaning of the message in linguistic form.

Published by Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh

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