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What Scholars Of Islam Say About Revelation -Part II

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In the second part of a series Aamer Sarfraz explores the debates on revelation as a source of spiritual experience that Prophets have undergone in communicating Divine knowledge. Read part one here.

The first real debate about revelation and the nature of the Quran ensued when the first rationalist theological school, Mu’tazilah, took hold in the 9th century. They interpreted religious dogmas in the light of human reason. The traditionalist Muslims believed that the Quran is the word of God and existed before the creation of the world; its revelation to the Prophet is of course the advent of the time. The Mutazilites denied that the Quran is eternal and is the actual speech of God; they believed He created it like other created creatures and the nature.  

They argued that the word is created in the form of combinations of sounds at the time of its articulation. The act of producing a word is either mediated by the nature (for example the sound coming from the bush to Moses) or by choice, as in the case of some other Prophets, who were given power by God to express the Divine Law. The Quran, they argued, belongs to this second category where word is created in the form of articulated sounds at the time of its revelation. They also believed that the physical eye couldn’t see God in this world or in the hereafter because He is a non- material being.

Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) tried to understand and then explain the phenomenon of revelation through mystic experience. He believed that the highest state of mystic consciousness could transform the heart into inviting revelation. He explained the character of the mystic experience and argued that there are sufficient intellectual and sensible checks available to substantiate the information gained through that experience.

He thinks that mystic consciousness is capable of interpreting self at a higher level and this approach would be as legitimate as other methods of interpretation of such experiences and also that modern psychology has not yet devised the methods to differentiate between futile visions and divinely inspired revelation. The obvious question to Iqbal’s position would be that even if we are able to verify the authenticity of mystic experience, it would not prove that God can be experienced in the same mode.

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Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988) believed that revelation is not a phenomenon which is external to the Prophet (pbuh) and that there seems to be some ‘channel’ for the movement of Moral Law from its Source to the Prophet’s heart. He considered that the Prophet’s self in his ‘Quranic Moments’ was extended so much that it is virtually incomprehensible to identify his self as something distinguishable from the Divine Moral Law. In this state of ‘self-ascension’, the Prophet’s expression of this Moral Law is the Quran.

Rahman was quiet on the nature of this channel but discarded the view that it could be quasi-mechanical; which is similar to the manner in which he rejected the physical nature of Prophet’s ascension to the heavens. He was able to defend his position in the light of the Quran but seemed to have no time for taking traditions/Ahadith into account.

Bennabi (1905-1973) understood revelation in the context of what he called Quranic phenomenon – a spontaneous and absolute knowledge of a non-conceived or even inconceivable object. He emphasized the need to realize that Prophet Muhammad’s conviction stood as a direct evidence of the Quranic phenomenon and its supernatural character.  According to Bennabi, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) must have established two criteria to support his own conviction in those times: phenomenological criterion and the rational criterion.

Explaining the first, he argued how the experience of light on the distant horizon dazzling Muhammad (pbuh) was a ‘double sensation’ and a mere subjective image. On the other hand, Muhammad’s own conviction regarding revelation was absolute as the knowledge revealed to him was impersonal, incidental and external to his self; therefore, he ordered immediately for transcription when it took place. As an engineer, he also pointed out the anomaly of the Prophet’s visions not being physically unexplainable and discussed the scientific evidence about luminous vibrations and a particular range of imperceptible frequencies below the visible band.

Hamidullah (1908-2002), Maududi (1903-1979) and Ghamidi (1951-) have mentioned the Quran & Ahadith descriptions of revelation but offered no insight into the phenomenon.  They have, like others, emphasized that the Prophet (pbuh) was able to clearly differentiate revelation from his own thoughts and inspiration and cite several examples to support that view.

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Parwez (1903-1985) was the only scholar who had the confidence to tackle this issue at length and wrote extensively on the topic. He disagreed with his mentor Iqbal regarding the nature of revelation and rejected the view that it might have similarities with the mystic experience. He highlights the Quranic stance that Wahy is an objective knowledge and experience offered to God’s chosen individuals (Surah 6/105). This knowledge is direct (Surah 83/5) and not acquired (Surah 53/4). No one is aware of the exact nature of this experience, except God who “reveals it on the heart of the Nabi (Prophet)” (Surah 40/15). It is not an illusion, dream, or interpretation offered by the Prophet, but God’s own Word (Surah 9/6 & Surah 2/75).

Parwez clarified that the nature and phenomenon of revelation is unique and cannot be understood in terms of psychopathology such as disorders of thought (overvalued idea, delusion) or perception (illusion, hallucination).  Furthermore, there is no classification of Wahy in the Holy Quran and concepts such as lesser Wahy, Ilham, and Kashaf etc. are non-Quranic and hence un-Islamic.

I have, in the above, reviewed opinions of not all but some of the leading thinkers in history as an attempt to understand and explain the phenomenon of revelation. It is arguable and a matter of personal opinion as to which view expressed by these great minds is accurate or for that matter close to your heart.

My own views are closer to Heschel, Rahman and Parwez primarily because we do not know enough about the functioning of human brain yet to understand and comment insightfully on the phenomenon of revelation – whether we ever will be able to remains an unanswered question.

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