The Reality of Revelation & Religious Experience | Part 12

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

Lesson 12 – June 29th, 2021

We been discussing religious experience and revelation and have decided to choose just one scholar as a case study due to lack of time. We have discussed Soroush’s first theory regarding revelation, but he changed this view later on in life and in this lesson we will be briefly explaining that.

Second Theory: Muhammad as the Narrator of Prophetic Dreams

In the first theory we said Soroush believed the Prophet’s religious experience was sacred, but the language is not sacred at all, as the language is from the accidental attributes of religion. In the second theory, Soroush took a big leap which revolves around three elements:

1) There is a difference between an audience and narrator. In other words, the Prophet was not an audience, rather he was a witness of revelation and then narrated it. The Quran or any other divine scripture, was not something that the Prophet heard, rather he witnessed and saw the Quran, and then he would narrate it to people. For example, the Prophet never went to people and said ‘I was told Allah is One,’ rather the Prophet witnessed the Oneness of Allah and then told people what he witnessed. Likewise, the Prophet would have witnessed the reality of Day of Judgement, heaven and hellfire, and then told people about it.

It was not Allah who sent an angel to the Prophet to tell him what to say, rather the Prophet himself is a witness to everything that is present in the Quran. According to Soroush this essentially raises the value of the Quran it self.

Someone may ask Soroush, where is Allah in this explanation of revelation? He says, all of this is happening with the permission and command of Allah, it is Allah who is allowing or making the Prophet witness these things, but He is not sending revelation in the form of words to the Prophet as we understand.

2) Soroush says, the Prophet witnessed all of these matters while in sleep. These were all dreams according to Soroush, it is there where he saw all the events, the Day of Judgement, the stories of the Prophet and so on.

3) What evidence does Soroush have for this position? He offers numerous arguments and evidence for his view, I will mention five of the main ones:

i) The Quran uses the past-tense in its verses even though it is speaking about events in the future. There there too many verses in the Quran that follow this pattern, just take this one for example:

وَسِيقَ ٱلَّذِينَ ٱتَّقَوْا۟ رَبَّهُمْ إِلَى ٱلْجَنَّةِ زُمَرًا

[39:73] But those who feared their Lord will be [lit. were] driven to Paradise in groups

The verb used is past-tense, but all Muslim exegetes believe this event will happen in the future. According to Soroush the reason why past-tense is used is because this is something that Prophet witnessed in his dream, and hence why it is uttered in past-tense, even though it is referring to an event in the future.

ii) Dreams are often all over the place, there is no consistent order in them, and this is why we see the Quran also in this style. Some stories are incomplete, subjects and themes change abruptly at times, some verses are short, some are long, sometimes the same story is repeated multiple times but in different words, and these are all a result of them being witnessed in dreams.

iii) The Quran is full of conflicting and contradicting verses, and Soroush says this is expected as this is what we see in the works of mystics as well who rely a lot on their mystical visions. What does Soroush mean by contradicting verses? Consider one of the examples he gives:

وَإِذَا ٱلْبِحَارُ سُجِّرَتْ

[81:6] And when the seas become as blazing Fire

How does water become fire? Or in the verse:

وَمَا رَمَيْتَ إِذْ رَمَيْتَ

[8:17] And you threw not, [O Muḥammad], when you threw

This verse negates and then affirms an action to the Prophet, and the exegetes themselves have struggled to explain this verse in their books. Another example he cites is how the Quran says only those who believe will be given salvation, but at the same time says Allah is the one who guides and misguides, or when the Quran says goodness is from Allah, and evil is from us, but elsewhere it says everything is from Allah. Soroush believes the Quran is full of these type of contradictions and verses that do not make sense, and Muslim exegetes have spent centuries trying to explain and reconcile these contradictions, in fact some of the verses resulted in the formation of different schools of thought.

According to Soroush, these contradictions can all be explained away with his theory that these were dreams witnessed by the Prophet.

iv) One of the arguments Soroush brings for his theory is science, causality and time. He says, some verses of the Quran have no meaning for us, as they deny causal relationships witnessed by us in the natural world, and in fact some of them even defy time. What does it mean, for example, for Allah to create the world in 6 days? When and where did the realm before our existence in this world, as mentioned in [7:172], exist? Likewise, Soroush believes many assumptions made in the Quran are linked with the understanding of the natural world of that era, and with new scientific discoveries we have either refuted certain assumptions altogether, or have a better understanding of those assumptions.

v) Soroush says this entire phenomenon of treating the Quran as a dream of the Prophet is not absurd or strange. He cites some narrations that are recorded in both Shi‘a and Sunni books that say Prophetic dreams are a part of prophecy, or the story of Prophet Ibrahim (p) where he witnesses a dream. Even the story of Mi‘raj – the ascension – into heaven, many Muslims believed this was just a dream that the Prophet witnessed, even if it was a true dream.

In other words, there are many indications that show dreams are not an absurd phenomenon when it comes to revelation.

4) Soroush is not concerned with the mechanism of how the Prophet received these dreams, what was happening to his brain, or how his soul was reacting to it; none of that concerns him. Rather, his concern is hermeneutics.

He says we have two types of languages: language of wakefulness, and language of dreams. When you see a dream, the way you explain a dream is very different to when you explain something you saw in this physical world. Explaining dreams requires a specific type of language, often times its symbolic, because a person cannot always precisely convey what they witnessed in their dreams, and they often lack words and sentence structures to explain what they saw.

In the language of wakefulness, when you say, sun, moon, star, river, hands, etc. what you mean by them is exactly what everyone else is also witnessing. They are the physical objects that all humans can see and they have a reference point for these words. However, if someone says to you, I saw the sun in my dreams, what does the word sun mean? It is obviously not the physical sun that all humans see in the sky. He believes most of the times these words have symbolic meanings, very similar to the dream of Prophet Yusuf (a) that the Quran itself describes.

According to Soroush one of the biggest fallacies made by exegetes is that they treated the Quranic text as a language of someone who is awake, when instead it should be interpreted and understood as a description of what one saw in their dream.

Someone can ask Soroush, what exactly is the hermeneutical system by which you understand that the word sun is or is not a symbol for some other meaning. What is the system by which one can interpret and understand the language of dreams? According to Soroush, our only way to understand what these words meant, is by understanding what the Arabs themselves understood by what witnessing the sun, or star, moon, etc. in dreams meant. Soroush agrees this is a very difficult task to do especially since no dictionaries and works were written to explain these words, rather all earlier dictionaries were written to explain words when used in the language of wakefulness.

5) If Soroush stuck with his first theory, that theory could still work with the understanding that both the meanings and words of revelation are from Allah, even though Soroush does not accept that even when presenting his first theory, but in the second theory such a thing is definitely not possible. In fact, in the second theory, the words are definitely the Prophet’s and they cannot be from Allah, and more so, even the meanings are witnessed by the Prophet and not revealed to him by Allah. The only thing Allah does is make the Prophet witness these dreams.

Both theories of Soroush have been critiqued extensively by scholars, but in the next level we will summarize some of the major critiques and observations on them, as going through all of them would require an entire series of lessons of its own.