Literal Truths

I was recently reading this article from the Boston Globe about the historicity of the New Testament, and it got me thinking, not so much about the historicity of the Qur’an, but about literal reading.

Two verses of the Qur’an come to mind:

We sent not an apostle except (to teach) in the language of his (own) people, in order to make (things) clear to them. Now God leaves straying those whom He pleases and guides whom He pleases: and He is Exalted in power, full of Wisdom. (14:4)

He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge. Say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:” and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. (3:7)

[Both verses adapted from Yusuf Ali’s translation.]

I don’t wish to make this post a tafsir, I’d hardly qualify as a mufasir even if I wanted to do so, but the verses came to mind as I read the article and had me thinking about their meanings.

The first quoted verse (14:4) talks about how God sends His message down to people in their own language, not in God’s “language.” We would not assume for even a second that we as humans could understand God’s true nature, nor his “language;” we are after all imperfect. Therefore, any of our creations, including language, are imperfect. The message cannot come to us without divinely inspired guidance, because the language in which it is given form is incapable of carrying perfection. How then can anyone claim to give us the true meaning without claiming that divine inspiration? However, this position, interpretation without guidance, is exactly the position most literalists have taken. They claim they understand the revealed word, but have no special relationship with God, they are simply better (of course the question must be asked, “better than what?”). In essence the claim they are making is that Arabic is a perfect language, therefore is able to carry the perfect message perfectly. In turn, their intellect is perfect to be able to convey the message to those who are imperfect. Since their perfection was reached without aid from God, are they claiming to be prophets or godlets? Most literal readings are based on a logical fallacy or extreme hubris.

However, even if we were to accept for a moment that their premise was correct – the Qur’an’s message is literal, and only they have the knowledge to explain it – what do you do with the second verse quoted (3:7)? Do we remove God’s statement to us that some verses are allegorical? and then proceed to excise those allegorical parts? Is the argument then that the literalists have reached such a level of perfection that they can change the words of God? Is God’s hand allegorical or literal?

Our language is inherently imperfect; the source are the message are inherently perfect. In order to make the message clear, it cannot be literal; there are no words. How does God describe himself? If it can be put into words, isn’t it mundane? Roses are red is a statement that has no power, but talk of the red of roses coming from the blood spilled by lovers torn by the thorns as they strive for the Beloved, and you have a much more vivid and powerful image, but not literal. The meaning of the rose is so much more clear. The unknowable and indescribably cannot be limited by words. Even in the human realm, try to describe generosity, love, or compassion. That which makes us great, which we strive to be, which makes the human experience, cannot be put in words. Not only does literalism diminish God, it makes us worthless. Religion – the framework in which we try to understand God and our relationship to him – is about the abstract, the unreal, faith; these things cannot be put into words. The grand struggles, the grand myths help to explain the Grandeur. I’m not sure I would trade that majesty for the easiest of answers to the big questions.

نور على نور
nûr ‘ala nûr
light upon light