The Reality of Revelation & Religious Experience | Part 11

These are transcripts of lessons on “Reality of Revelation and Religious Experience” delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah once a week in 2021.

Lesson 11 – June 22nd, 2021

Phase 5: Prophecy and Revelation in Context of Religious Experience

We have been discussing the sixth interpretation on revelation that looks at it from the perspective of a human religious experience. We discussed four preliminary phases to provide some context on what exactly religious experience are and the different opinions on it.

In the fifth phase we will discuss how revelation through the lens of religious experience studies what happens to the Prophet himself when he experiences revelation and what is its historical implications.

In the Muslim world, perhaps the three most prominent figures to study and expound on revelation through this lens are Abdul Karim Soroush, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, and their objective was not necessarily to discuss revelation qua revelation, rather they were more interested in offering a consistent hermeneutical system to interpret religious texts. This is contrary to what some of the earlier Muslim philosophers were doing, for example, Ibn Sina or Farabi were not discussing the reality of revelation to offer a hermeneutical system for interpreting religious texts, rather their very objective was to discuss its reality by presenting a rational explanation for it.

Scholars like Soroush, Nasr Hamid and Shabestari and others like them are instead looking at revelation so to be able to offer a new system of interpretation for it, unlike the system of interpretation used by jurists or exegetes. Someone like Shabestari in his works explicitly says he is not concerned with prophecy and reality of revelation, rather their concern is hermeneutics.

As there are many other scholars who have studied revelation through the lens of religious experience, we will only choose Abdul Karim Soroush as a case study. As for Shabestari and Nasr Hamid, I have discussed them in several articles and also some of their ideas in my book Shumūl al-Sharī‘ah and have critiqued them, those interested can refer to those works.

Abdul Karim Soroush: From “Expansion of Prophetic Experience” to “Muhammad as the Narrator of Prophetic Dreams”

I have already discussed Soroush many times and have presented my critiques on his views, so I will not expand on all of his ideas in any detail here. One must note that Soroush has changed and worked on his theory of revelation over the course of times, but between 1997 and 2013 two major changes happened.

During the first stage, Soroush wrote his work Expansion of Prophetic Experience and from it the idea that the Quran are the words of the Prophet emerged. However, in the second stage, he wrote a number of articles and a book where he presented a slightly altered theory considering the Prophet as a narrator of Prophetic dreams. We will discuss both these theories briefly here.

First Theory: Expansion of Prophetic Experience

This theory is build upon the following points:

1. It is necessary to revisit religion in the modern world, and to deem revelation as a religious experience in order to save the faith of people. Religious experience for the Prophets would give the Prophets a lot of strength and faith, and part of their experience tells them that they must save humanity. In other words, revelation not only gave them an inner experience, but also the sense of responsibility of saving and guiding people.

2. Soroush believes the laymen want to believe in prophethood through miracles, but mystics and those who have religious experiences, want to accept the prophethood of a person through experiencing the teachings of the Prophet. This is similar to a person who says they are a physicist, and they speak to a crowd of laymen, but in that crowd another physicist is also sitting, the latter can truly identify the speaker as a true physicist or a charlatan.

The Prophets want other humans to also go through religious experiences that allows them to understand the Prophetic experience in the best of manner, instead of listening to the Prophets with blind imitation.

3. Soroush believes religious experience has grades and just as someone who works with poetry for a longer period of time, they get stronger and better at it, likewise one who receives more religious experiences, their understanding also gets better and stronger. In other words, the most experiences the Prophets go through, the greater they become in their prophethood and ranks. It is not the case that the Prophet only receives one religious experience and then builds his entire life and worldview on it.

Over here, Soroush relies on an analysis by Ibn Khaldun who says that Makkan chapters are shorter, because the revelations were a new experience for the Prophet and he did not have the capacity to experience stronger and lengthier chapters. However, as he gained more and more religious experiences, he developed a greater capacity and in Medina we see much longer chapters. It is for this reason that when Musa (a) or Muhammad (p) had their first religious experience, they were afraid and scared, as it was a new experience for them, however as they kept experiencing more revelation, that initial fear and worry disappeared completely.

4. Soroush believes, as the Prophet got used to religious experience of revelation, he himself was able to effect and influence the type of experiences he would receive. In other words, revelation was subordinate to him, not him subordinate to revelation. This resembles a little of what the mystics were saying in our discussion of the Muhammadan Reality and how angels receive revelation from the Prophet himself.

5. Soroush believes, history itself plays a role in the type of experience the Prophet receives. In other words, if the Prophet’s religious experience of revelation was in Europe, the Quran would have been different, if it was in China, it would have been different and so on.

Soroush says, consider the example of Prophet Isa (a) where you find almost nothing in his religious experience that is political. Compare that with Prophet Muhammad’s (p) experience where he was a merchant before Islam and very much involved in politics afterwards, and hence why we see many verses in the Quran that are political or concerning trade. In fact, Soroush believes if the Prophet lived longer the Quran would have been longer, and if certain incidents in the Prophet’s life such as with his wives or companions did not occur, we would not have found some of the verses that we now have in the Quran.

This is how understanding revelation through the lens of religious experience flips one’s understanding of the Quran as something emanating from within the Prophet as opposed to being revelated to him from outside.

6. Soroush also tries to explain the concepts of immediate and gradual revelation, a discussion in the Quranic sciences that scholars have engaged in. Immediate revelation is essentially the overall message of Islam, such as obligation of Salat, or monotheism etc. but the gradual revelation involves not just the relaying of these teachings, but rather the audience itself participates in the composition of the Quran in the sense that their questions and experiences play a role in the Prophet’s religious experience.

When Soroush says religion is a human phenomenon, he does not mean it is not sacred or that it has no divine aspect, rather what he is trying to say is that it is a formed through the participation of people and occurences of the natural world, which result in certain Prophetic experiences.

7. Soroush cites Shahīd Muṭahharī who believes that slavery was superimposed onto Islam, meaning, it already existed and Islam had to deal with it, but Islam itself did not institutionalize it. Soroush uses this example and says therefore it was impossible for Islam to completely abolish slavery which was such an integral part of human societies. However, as technological progress took place in the world, humans were able to abolish slavery as they no longer saw a need for it.

This means history itself has an impact on religion and religious experience of what the Prophet goes through. Soroush uses this point to say there are aspects of Prophet’s experience that has nothing to do with his religious message, rather it was something that was forced onto him. It is here where Soroush says politics is not an essential component of Islam, rather the context of society was such that it superimposed politics onto individuals and their experiences.

This view was what Soroush defined as the essence and accidental attributes of religion.

8. Just because the Prophet’s religious experience was the greatest religious experience for a person, it does not mean later humans cannot experience anything like it. It is here where Soroush speaks about the expansion of Prophetic experience and considers the religious experience of the Imams after the Prophet, and as well as the mystics, are all a source to understand religion.

I speculate Soroush was influenced heavily by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd in his discussions and in some of the examples he has given in his points.

Ten years after presenting this theory, Soroush also argued that the words of the Quran are by the Prophet and by that he argued for the language being an accidental attribute of religion, not its essence. What makes up the essence of religion are meanings, while the words are by the Prophet and influenced by his own historical experiences. With this theory, his entire hermeneutical system to interpret text differs.

Later on, Soroush offered an even more unique theory regarding revelation which questions a lot of self-evident axioms of religion as understood by Muslims. In the next lesson we will briefly explain that theory as well, and then offer some observations on it.