The Reality of Revelation & Religious Experience | Part 7

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

Lesson 7 – May 25th, 2021

So far we have looked at three main interpretations of revelation amongst Muslim scholars. In this lesson, we will speak of two interpretations which are slightly different: neurological and sociological.

These interpretations say revelation has nothing to do with Allah or an angel bringing verses to the Prophet, rather these are the words of the Prophet which were constructed based upon certain experiences. This discussion originated in debates between Christianity and Islam, because Christian apologists who critiqued Islam believed the Prophet had a neurological issue and the Quran is a product of that. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, certain orientalists took this critique and expanded on it further, and gave it a more academic robe.

What is ironic is that the Quran itself says other Prophets were accused of something very similar, when they were accused of being possessed by Jinns or afflicted with magic. Hence, accusing Prophet Muhammad (p) of psychological or neurological problems is not necessarily new, rather it is the same type of accusation the polytheists were also making, but its form has changed.

1. The Temporal Lobe

From around the 19th century, some orientalists proposed the idea that the Prophet had an abnormal temporal lobe and in real the Prophet had a material medical problem. This caused the Prophet to hallucinate and imagine certain things, such as angels around him. They used some narrations from the Islamic ḥadīth corpus to prove their point as well, such as the narrations speaking about the ringing sounds the Prophet would hear. They argued, someone who has an abnormal temporal lobe and begins to hallucinate, also hear similar sounds or begin to imagine things around them.

Michael Persinger (1945-2018) was a professor of psychology who conducted an experiment known as the God helmet, to determine the relationship between temporal lobes and supposed mystical experiences. In this experiment, he concluded participants were experiencing very similar experiences as described for the Prophets.

Norman Geschwind (1926-1984, a behavioural neurologist or professor Siddharthan Chandran, and others have also argued that revelation or mystical experiences are nothing but neurological phenomenon. This abnormality results in a behaviroual condition called hypergraphia where a person has an intense desire to write or draw.

2. Political and Sociological Genious

The Scottish orientalist William Montgomery Watt (1909 – 2006) says Prophets were very smart politicians and intellectuals, so much so that they were exceptions in their societies. Prophet Muhammad for Watt was extraordinarily smart and his prophecy was merely an attemp by him to implement his sociological and political views on society to take them towards what he believed to be justice.

This view also then negates any metaphysical dimension of revelation. Not all proponents of this interpretation necessarily accuse Prophets of being liars, or malicious, nor suffering from any ailment. This is one of the most prominent explanations of prophecy and revelation in contemporary Western academic discourse.

3. A Renaissance of the Subconscious and a Moral Duty

This interpretation perhaps gives Prophets the greatest benefit of the doubt and considers their movements to be that of a genuine concern for the well-being of society. They saw the state and condition of societies and felt great pain for it. It is for this reason they would detach from their societies for long periods of time, they would go and meditate and try to connect with the cosmos until they would reach a state where their own inner selves would speak to them.

The French scholar Emile Dermenghem (1892-1971) believed Prophet Muhammad went through such an experience, and since he had met Christians during his trade trips to Syria as a young man, he was able to learn from them and present something unique for the Arabs. Likewise, Montgomery Watt also believed Prophets had a very powerful creative imagination, and perhaps he was influenced by some of the discussions of the Peripatetic philosophers. The Persian rationalist scholar ‘Alī Dashtī (1897-1982) in his work 23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, argues in a similar fashion and explains the phenomenon of revelation as such.

Premises of a Sociological and Neurological Interpretation of Revelation

We have very briefly skimmed over some of these sociological and neurological interpretations of revelation, and we see that they are both based on two key assumptions: their analysis of revelation is based on human experimentation, and a rejection of revelation having a metaphysical aspect. However, there are other premises and assumptions involved in these interpretations as follows:

1. The Primacy of Resemblance (tashābuh): According to this assumption, anything that occurs in the world, is necessarily not unique and it must occur or resemble other events in this realm. This primacy is clearly originating in modern scientific discourse.

For example, if I say that I saw it raining yesterday, the primacy of resemblance says this phenomenon must be able to occur elsewhere and should resemble other events around creation as well. Likewise, if the Prophet is coming with something called revelation, this phenomenon must resemble something that other humans can also experience and cannot be something unique to the Prophets.

2. The Primacy of Cohesion (tarābuṭ): According to this assumption, anything that happens in the world, is not disconnected from other aspects of this world. For example, it cannot be the case that the phenomenon of revelation has nothing to do with anything in this realm such as society, culture, geography, etc. but is connected to something that is outside the domain of this realm.

3. The Primacy of Impenetrability (inghilāq): According to this assumption, anything that happens in this material realm, even if it is connected to something outside of its immediate surroundings, ultimately it should still be connected to something within the material realm and not a metaphysical realm. In other words, events that occur in this realm are tied down to other events or phenomenon only in this realm.

Much of modern science is also based on these three assumptions and these are being applied to the phenomenon of revelation as well by proponents of sociological or neurological interpretations. According to these proponents, there is nothing outside of this realm that has any relationship with revelation, rather whatever revelation is connected with has to exist in this material realm and should be able to be explained from within this realm.

Observations & Critiques

As we mentioned earlier, what we have described so far is an extremely brief summary of these interpretations. Nevertheless, there are a number of observations and critiques offered on these interpretations.

1. We have to mention that our discussion is not a theological discussion, rather it is a discussion on the philosophy of religion. In the latter’s approach, we are concerned with whether this interpretation is consistent and cohesive, and whether it weakens the possibility of other interpretations being true or not. We are also not using these interpretations to prove Prophethood or rejecting it, rather the discussion specifically concerns the nature and reality of revelation.

2. There is no scientific evidence to prove that Prophets suffered from a medical issue in their temporal lobes. All we have are a few reports that seem to resemble some qualities of those who do suffer from an abnormality in their temporal lobes. Why are these reports not enough to establish this interpretation? There are a few reasons for that:

a) Those who suffer from abnormalities in their temporal lobes do not behave the same way all the time, rather they exhibit different types of bevhaviour. This is while we are dealing with individuals who are experiencing a very consistent phenomenon for long periods of time.

b) The reports that speak about the Prophet hearing certain sounds are only specific to certain moments of revelation, and not that he would receive revelation like that at all times. How can a neurologist generalize all experiences revelation were due to a medical condition when their source of knowledge are historical reports and these historical reports do not describe all instances of revelation like that.

c) Even if the Prophet suffered from some medical issue, this does not explain how the Prophet was able to attain and convey all this knowledge. How can the Prophet attain all this information about past nations and stories of past Prophets, that are in line with exists in the books of Ahl al-Kitāb? In other words, the neurological interpretation does not explain how the Prophet gained all this knowledge, all it explains is the power and ability to do something like this, not where he actually got the expertise to do so.

For example, if someone already possesses the ability and expertise to paint and they had hypergraphia, we can say that the individual possessed the expertise to paint already, and now due to this condition, they produced a lot of paintings. In our situation, we are speaking of a Prophet for whom it is claimed he did not possess such literary and poetic expertise, to begin with, so his having hypergraphia does not explain where he acquired the expertise to convey the contents of the Quran.

d) A major fallacy has been committed here, and that is the fallacy of cherry-picking. Some of these proponents who interpreted revelation as a neurological phenomenon looked at patients who were religious and suffering from an abnormality in the brain and used that data to explain revelation. This is while they ignored data on those patients who suffered from the same problem but were not religious, or those individuals who are religious and experience similar feelings, but are not suffering from issues in their temporal lobe. Proponents of this interpretation have taken one set of data and have applied it to the entire phenomenon of revelation.

e) Some of the reports in the works of Muslims themselves are not proven in accordance with the standards of Islamic scholarship. If these reports are not proven or established, they cannot be used as evidence for anything.

In fact, if we want to take to go with the narrations, there are some reports that say even those companions around the Prophet would hear a certain sound during the time of revelation, but in a different form. Does that mean all the companions were also suffering from a problem in their temporal lobes?

f) Before I mention this observation, I just want to clarify I am not an expert in the field of neurology, rather I am simply presenting the different critiques and observations that have been published or written either by experts in the field or those who have a greater understanding of the subject. Some critics have said that in some of the experiments, like the ones conducted by Michael Persinger, were conducted on patients, the patients were already informed as to what the doctors and psychologists were expecting to happen and in essence, they subliminally or explicitly guided them towards the desired behaviour.

3. The sociological or political explanation for revelation is not inherently wrong, but the purpose of it is to say that since we find certain humans making false claims about themselves and for certain agendas that they have, the Prophets were also doing something similar. The question is, why are proponents of this theory assuming this to have been the case with the Prophets? Why couldn’t their mission have been a genuine one and not one based on some personal and ungodly motive? What intellectual justification do proponents have for jumping from observing certain individuals who have such motives and generalizing it for anyone who ever made a claim to Prophethood or connection with God?

Ultimately, these are merely possibilities being given by proponents of the two interpretations and they do not necessarily weaken the other interpretations, and in fact someone can argue that the interpretation of the Peripatetics or any of the earlier groups was far more consistent and reasonable than any of the two interpretations discussed in this lesson.

4. The three fundamental assumptions made by proponents of these two interpretations discussed, namely, the primacy of resemblance, cohesion, and impenetrability, all need to be proven. Why do we have to believe that cohesion or impenetrability only exists when an event is connected to other events in the material realm and nothing outside of it? Someone can say they also believe in the primacy of cohesion and impenetrability, but this can also be with things that exist in the metaphysical realm.

In the next session, we will be speaking about the interpretation given by those who deem revelation to be a religious experience.