Quranic Wisdom – Between Abstract Theory and Practical Conduct

The following is an abridged translation of an article written by Shaykh Ḥaider Ḥobollah on 23rd of April, 2012. The complete Arabic version can be read here.

Many words in any given language change in their meanings over the course of time. On other occasions, meanings may not change, but connotations can change depending on how society begins to use them. As such, the following types of changes can take place with words:

1) The original meaning a word was coined for completely diminishes and all that remains is its historical presence. The value of the word is rooted only in its historical context, what it originally meant and how people of the past used it. These words either have no meaning anymore, not even amongst the people of the same language, or they acquire newer meanings that may have some semblance to the previous meaning or perhaps not even that. At times, the newer meaning could being complete opposition to what the word originally meant.

2) The initial meaning of a word is not completely lost since the particular changes in a word’s meaning do not lead to a complete loss of its original meaning. These changes could be of various types. Sometimes they can restrict the original meaning when the original meaning was more general. In this case, the newer meaning is limited to something more specific. At other times, a restricted meaning gains generality and begins to means more than what the word originally meant.

3) The initial meaning does not diminish, however a newer meaning develops alongside it. The word can now possibly mean two different things – this can be conceptualized in two possible ways:

a) The newly formed meaning does not have a significant influence on its original meaning, such that both meanings come to mind when either of them is used. This is very often seen when a certain jargon means something very specific in one subject, but the same jargon means something different in another subject. Two popular examples are the words qiyās and ḥujjīyyah – both holding a very specific meaning when used in logic or philosophy, as opposed to legal theory and jurisprudence.

b) The newer meaning is influenced by its previous meaning when being used, to an extent that though it may weaken its initial meaning, it does not completely diminish it. In other words, when the word is used, the listeners initially conceptualize its newer meaning, but without completely negating its initial original meaning.

Citing examples for all these cases would be too tedious, since instances are too many. Muslims scholars of logic and legal theory as well as philosophers and linguists have analyzed these changes in meaning and words in extensive detail in their works.

That being said, some words used within religious literature, particularly the Qurān and the ḥadīth, either had very clear and specific meanings in their original use amongst the Arabs, or they were given new meanings which were immediately understood by the Arabs. As an example, the word Ṣalāt had an original meaning of supplicating, though after the Prophet (p) it acquired a very specific meaning which is what most Muslims understand from it today. Over time, with the appearance of various intellectual and cultural trends, some groups of people would find meanings of certain words within religious literature resembling new concepts that had appeared in their respective contexts and would use those words with these newer meanings. Whether they intended or not, at times, the original meanings of those words were completely lost upon people and what were meant to be meanings which merely resembled their original meaning, became to be known only with its newer meaning. This resulted in a lot of conflict, accusations and critiques between different schools of thought, concerning the correct approach to dealing with religious text.

Perhaps we can say the terms al-ḥikmah and al-ʿaql are an example of what we are describing above. When we refer back to the original meaning and investigate the usage of the term al-ʿaql for example, we will see that amongst the Arabs al-ʿaql refers to its practical aspect and one that is prone to tendencies, as opposed to its theoretical and abstract aspect. Even when we look at some of the verses in the Qurān where the discussion concerns something theoretical, we will find that al-ʿaql is being inferred as a means to practical conduct.

By practice, we do not necessarily mean societal or political matters and that is it, rather practical aspects should first and foremost be concerned with one’s relationship with Allah (swt). One’s relationship with Allah (swt) is not a theoretical matter. Prophets did not come to wage war against numbers – whether God is 1, 2, 3, 4, or more – rather they message of Divine Unity in religious teachings means to have complete confidence in Him, to seek only His help and to tie every affair of one’s life with Him (swt). Likewise, it means to have patience and sense unity in one’s action and worship. The issue concerns all aspects of one’s life and how one lives with others, not just a matter of struggling to add an extra piece of information regarding Allah’s (swt) unity in light of all multiplicity that exists. One must live a life of unity, not just conceptualize it.

This is the case with the hereafter as well. One’s concern should not just be to determine whether the hereafter is the esoteric aspect of this world or not, but what is important is to live a life where the hereafter plays a role in developing one’s soul and actions.

Hence, we find that the word al-ḥikmah in Arabic is a quality of having mastery and precision over an action and al-ʿaql is a type of preventive measure against something. As such, al-ʿaql and al-ḥikmah are to be considered from the category of action, practice and conduct, before being considered from the category of reflection and contemplation.

This is why we are hesitant in applying newer meanings upon Qurānic vocabulary in such a way that earlier meanings are cast aside. For example, in 19:48:

وَأَعْتَزِلُكُمْ وَمَا تَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ

I dissociate myself from you and whatever you invoke besides Allah.

The word aʿtazilu is not a reference to the Muʿtazilah and neither is it praising them. Just like 2:269

وَمَن يُؤْتَ الْحِكْمَةَ فَقَدْ أُوتِيَ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا

and he who is given wisdom, is certainly given an abundant good

is not a verse supporting the philosophers, rather its meaning is what it linguistically signifies in the custom it was coined and used in. This linguistic meaning could be inclusive of the new meaning, or at times it could be different from it, and at times it could be in complete opposition to it.

What strengthens the opinion that al-ḥikmah in the Qurān is fundamentally concerned with practice is when Allah (swt) mentions a number of practical, ethical and legal matters in Sūrah al-Isrā’, such as the worship of Allah (swt) alone, kindness to parents, being fair in transactions, giving charity, while refraining from squandering, murder, adultery, stinginess, extravagance and eating the wealth of orphans, and then in 17:39 says:

ذَٰلِكَ مِمَّا أَوْحَىٰ إِلَيْكَ رَبُّكَ مِنَ الْحِكْمَةِ

These are among [precepts] that your Lord has revealed to you of wisdom.

The obligations, prohibitions and practical ethical expectations which the Qurān mentions are being characterized as al-ḥikmah. Abiding my them assists in making one’s actions correct, flawless, on point, and precise on both the spiritual and physical planes, in word and in meaning, in the apparent and the esoteric, in its form and its matter.

Allah (swt) says in 31:12:

وَلَقَدْآتَيْنَا لُقْمَانَ الْحِكْمَةَ أَنِ اشْكُرْ لِلَّهِ ۚ وَمَن يَشْكُرْ فَإِنَّمَايَشْكُرُ لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن كَفَرَ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ غَنِيٌّ حَمِيدٌ

Certainly We gave Luqman wisdom, saying, ‘Give thanks to Allah; and whoever gives thanks, gives thanks only for his own sake. And whoever is ungrateful, [let him know that] Allah is indeed all-sufficient, all-laudable.’

The second half of this verse describes al-ḥikmah and that is in being grateful. It is clear that being grateful – be it verbally, spiritually, or mentally – is connected to one’s behaviour and conduct more so than its contemplative aspect.

Does this however mean there is no such thing as rational wisdom – as it is understood today in the sense of metaphysics – in the Qurān? Islamic philosophers – especially Sadrian philosophers – have put in a great amount of effort interpreting the Qurān in a way that it reconciles with transcendental philosophy. In many places, they have alluded to words signifying meanings that had never crossed the minds of previous scholars.

There needs to be a middle ground in interpretation and that is to cast a distinction between establishing Qurānic concepts upon philosophical conclusions and claiming that these words being used themselves signify those philosophical conclusions. These are two different matters. For example, religious texts indicate that Allah (swt) is all Good and Just, while no evil emanates from Him (swt). However, the belief that evil is non-existent – like some philosophers have proposed – does not mean that the words of the Qurān also indicate that evil is non-existent in the very specific way some philosophers have put forth. The Qurān signifies upon the Goodness of Allah and His act of creation, and we may find that this Qurānic concept rationally fits well with the position of evil being non-existent and existence being relatively good, more so than the view that says, abandoning a lot of good for a little evil is itself a great evil, a view which accepts the existence of evil.

As such, we may find numerous philosophical principles help us rationalize concepts present in religious texts, however this does not permit us to interpret and define the meanings of those statements outside of the linguistic scope outlined by scholars of language, legal theory and jurisprudence, unless it is through a methodological allegorical interpretation (ta’wīl).

Many have fallen into this error. Whether the Qurān is inclusive of philosophical positions of the philosophers or not requires evidence in the signification of the words. The mere validity of a position and using it as the means to rationalize and interpret religious text is not sufficient since its validity does not imply that the Qurān is necessarily speaking about it. This practice often results in one having to stretch and play with the Qurānic words in order to fit one’s beliefs.

In any case, we need practical wisdom – internally and externally. Some religious minds are strong in theoretical wisdom and they have a strong grasp over their theoretical intellect, but their practical intellect is weak and vice-versa. We are in need of reconciling both the theoretical and practical intellect so that we grow into balanced individuals – God Willing.

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