Text and the requirement of compliance
Text and the requirement of compliance
Rabat – Text is an authoritarian phenomenon. It tends to impose a strict behavior towards it. Meaning, for instance, cannot be derived in the same way from two different genres. Likewise, what makes the aesthetic value in poetry is not what makes it in a short story, in a novel or a play. In same manner, a text authored in or for a community in a given language, will not be possible to read through the codes of other communities and of other languages. In other words, the appreciation of text is a dependent of its own authority.
The authority of text determines the ranges of the readings and of the interpretations that will be possible for various members of the community in whose language it has been authored. The more a text will carry meaning for the community, the more powerful the authority it exerts for deriving significance from it will be and the more reduced will the freedom of individuals who wish to approach it be. The reading will be wrapped in sets of rituals that require special initiation, the acquisition of specific tools and keys, and that will be based on privileges all of which operating in one single sense, that of perpetuating that authority and that power. In no case, unless one clashes with the community and is willing to risk exclusion, rejection, exile and/or excommunication, can one transcend the authority of text. Any attempt at accessing text without these keys and these privileges would be accounted for as unlawful assault, violent breaking in, abuse and a grave default of compliance with the fundamental laws and values of the community and would deserve the most severe punishments.
In the case of a religious text, especially one of the dimension of the Holy Books, the Torah, the Bible and the Koran, history has recorded rather rough treatments of those who have dared attempt transcending them. Examples include the fate that was reserved to those who saw the Earth revolving and not being the centre of the universe and those who saw God where others were unable to or who got so close to him that they got loose of the reading constraints and hiked above the frontiers they imposed. More recently, individuals, both men and women, have been cleared for assassination for the mere fact of using new tools for reading the Koran. These include Nawal Saadaoui, Abu Zeid, Fatima Mernissi, Roshdi, and scores of others.
The reading challenge
One challenge of many a Muslim is to overcome the overwhelming urge of learnt-by-heart texts including religious and literary texts to pop up with readymade solutions to every problem one has to face up to. In fact, for traditional interpretations to survive and established ideologies to continue to avail, traditional reading approaches and thinking strategies had to be protected and perpetuated. The aims of education in general, and those of reading more specifically, had grown to ensure that for all problems, examples, solutions, evidence and norms would hurry up to the imagination of the Muslim investing it, filling it up to saturation, paralyzing it and imposing themselves to his consciousness to rule out any that might originate in other sources than those previously learnt by heart or be legitimated by reasoning strategies that would challenge their validity. This approach to problem solving was to be applied to such problems as those that individuals encounter in their daily lives, in their families, and in their business endeavors, but also to as wide ranges of issues as grammatical, philological and lexical issues and to hard astronomy, biology, sociology, anthropology and any field that human knowledge can encompass. The assumption is that the holy text has answers to all questions – those men have already asked and those they will ask in the future. Thinking, conceiving, framing, answering questions, solving problems, imagining, behaving and communicating all become strained by the memory of texts learned by heart. Intellectual production had to become an exercise of restitution! Not finding an answer in the holy text would not mean that it does not provide it, but that the searcher has failed to find it, to spot it and to understand it. Minds were trained to excel in the reproduction and protection of frames and models.
When this learning has occurred at an early age and had been cultivated throughout the maturing process of the individual, critical approaches become out of reach. In my own case, for instance, I had made the conscious decision to unlearn and forget many of such texts by discontinuing my active membership in the socio-cultural mechanisms that support them and by dissociating myself from the social setups that had been constructed to perpetuate their memory. It was a conscious effort in an attempt to recover for my mind some of the capabilities I assumed it should have had and that must have been paralyzed by the pressure of memory grown to extreme malignity states.
For a long time, I had evidence from these texts for any event, situation or problem. It is only long after I had stopped having such reactions and that I had felt I was reacting in a relative independence from memory that I started revisiting its foundations for very specific and utilitarian purposes. The textual heritage had to be intellectualized, analyzed, synthesized and appropriated through critical appreciation processes which mere memorization thwarted severely. Ownership of these texts had to go through the repudiation (i) of addictive and reflexive reactions as well as (ii) of the many add-ons that stuck to them as they strived to make history.
The detached, methodic and disciplined approach to the reading of text, any text, and especially those with high emotional charges such as religious texts cannot be done under the pressure of passion and/or while hostage to their power over the reader. In other words, emancipating oneself from the hold of text is a pre-requirement for reading it. The difficulty, however, is that because the boundaries and the roots of a text as well as many of its manifestations and extensions are intertwined with – and invasive of – those of other texts, one has to undo all the non textual connections that tie one to that which is to be read. A difficult task it is, indeed! Short of this total disconnection, one would have to cultivate one’s critical awareness of the complexity of the phenomenon and of the possibilities and risks of misusing analytical tools and reasoning strategies and/or mistaking interpretation attitudes.
In the specific case of reading the Koran which construes itself as a continuation and a confirmation of other texts (some partaking in the same holiness it claims for itself and others less holy and/or of lesser known or consensual origins), the reader has to be able not only to dissociate oneself from the emotional, ideological, rhetorical and structural aspects of other texts, but also to set aside the elements which make up his/her expectations, anticipations, satisfactions, and that contribute to confirm referential norms, construct sense, comfort convictions, and validate legitimacy. Reading the Koran, one has to have emancipated one’s imagination, intellect and mind and submit to the will of the text, to investigate its own structure, to accept its own coherence and to acknowledge its own referential frameworks.
In this sense, submission to text is neither contrary to nor paradoxical with dissociating and detaching oneself from it. Submission to text does not mean that one would have to take for cash or buy anything the text encompasses, conveys or teaches. In fact, submitting to a text means to protect it from the distortions of other texts and to grant it authority over itself so as to empower it and allow it to reveal itself to every reader independently of any external influence outside its natural environment. Granting authority to text means protecting it from opportunistic parasitic aggression and abuse, removing it from any other party that would or would “have” snatch(ed) it, deport(ed) it from its natural environment to undergo special treatments, monopolize(d) it or self-declare(d) itself as the most proper to read it. Submitting to text also means acknowledging the primacy of history, of knowledge as best agreed upon while the reading is done, and of human intelligence at its highest manifestations and performance. In other words, while the reading of religious a text has to remain secular, it has to take account, as best and rigorously as can be done, of its religious intentions as well as of the linguistic, the socio-cultural, the economic and the political environments in which targeted audiences received it and within which they appreciated its symbolic forces. It has to be made historical and freed from any attempt to turn it a-historical.
It might be argued that historicising text comes to subjecting it to interpretation frameworks that preset values and reduce the forbearance of reading opportunities while amplifying the amplitude of subjective appreciation. However, historicity being the value through which text acquires reliability, validity, and authenticity for a given community, it is the “natural” condition for text to be framed to up-hold the significance, the sense and the orientation which human interrogation seeks to get out of it. Furthermore, because text is a complex set up of signs, symbolism, figures of speech, rhetorical functions, and spatial and temporal relations none of which is stable, it can yield sense only when the intentions underlying and motivating it, which are stable at least during the time of its occurrence, and the values it promotes, which tend to be universal, can be accessed through the unstable and the relative variables of history. Reading in this sense becomes, the effort of reconstructing original meanings through the identification of original intentions and values, with the instruments available and at the costs possible, and establishing conceptual bridges between this reconstruction and the intellectual readiness and aptitude of a reader displaced in time and space.
While in English, one pronoun “you” which is genderless, refers to singular, dual and plural forms Arabic pronouns as used in the Koran are marked both as to gender and to number which they distinguish as singular, dual and plural. Furthermore, while in this form of the Arabic language, the dual and the plural can refer invariably to a group of humans or a group made up of humans and non humans as is the case in the verse (qifa nabki min dhikra)’ literally, “oh you two, stop walking and let’s weep” which addresses a man and his camel, linguistic constraints of other languages – including many current varieties of the Arabic language – prohibit addressing humans and non humans as one community regardless of their species. This one example will suffice to illustrate the imperative of the historical contextualization of text, in general, and of the religious text in particular.
Likewise, repetition being a structural tradition in Arabic discourse, it is an intrinsic part of the culture. As such, it is both pursued intentionally and controlled for various reasons and occurs simply as any characteristic feature of the structure of Arabic discourse. This means, that should economy, for example, be sought in Arabic discourse, it would have to be found in other features such as the various forms of ellipsis. In no way should repetition be judged as undue redundancy. That would imply that an external norm is being applied to the Arabic text which would imply that this language should comply with the dictates of a community other than that of its speakers. In sociolinguistics, this is referred to as linguistic hegemony.
Languages and cultures differ also at the conceptualization plane. One way they differ at this level is how they conceive of identity and therefore of what makes unity and multiplicity, sameness and difference and, how they name experience, objects, ideas, creatures, etc.. A good example is the concept of God in Islam. God is one but has ninety nine names many of which apparently contrary to others. Muslims will say what seems to be contrariness is but apparent and is actually necessary complementarity. The identity of God, the One, is complex and conciliates in a transcendental harmony contraries that would in other cases create a monster! In this case, the multiplicity of names does not contradict the unity and the oneness of the named nor can it in any way suggest his multiplicity. They all refer to the same and one who would not be should any one of those names-dimensions not be. The same is true for the prophet. Names can be multiple but the named will be always one. An anecdote tells the story of a pre-Islamic man who has been called “dog” by a foe, the man interjected, “the dog is he who does not know one hundred names for the dog”. It is also reported that Arabs have scores of names for lion, for camel, for sand, and for many other living creatures. While many counterarguments from anthropology and linguistics can be opposed to this analysis suggesting that this might be a universal feature of language, what counts here is that how it is perceived by Arabs themselves and how they have intellectualized it and conceptualized it for their religious narrative. The multiplicity of names can also aim at creating exclusive characteristics or to bring a complex reality under the same and one being.
The Koran, for instance, establishes similarity and oneness of religions where many see and have seen difference, multiplicity, contrariness and opposition. All religions of the Book anterior to Islam are but one with it and all messages prior to it bear the same truth goes the aya: “The religion God has established for you is the same religion as that which He enjoined on Noah, as it is also the same We enjoined on Abraham Moses and Jesus” (42:13). In fact, this idea is repeated in the Koran several times with reference to other prophets and messengers. “We have revealed to you the same We sent to Noah and the Messengers after him; We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms” (4:163-164). It is, therefore, inferred that all the prophets are considered as Muslims in the Qur’an. (See 6:163; 7:143; 10:72, 84, 90; 27:31, 38, 42, 91; 39:12; 46:15 etc.)
Muslim scholars have taken this concept further when they declared all exegesis is one despite apparent contradictions provided it is done by a true Muslim and an authentic faithful. Contradiction fades away and vanishes in the oneness of origin, which in this case, is adherence to Islam.
This idea of unity has grown to become central to Arab-Islamic thought and culture. In its most dramatic form, it was forced to migrate to politics to prohibit the plurality of alternative ways of looking at the same problem, reading and interpreting a text and of imagining a substitute to what makes good ruler or to one in power! But this aspect of the issue will have to be addressed elsewhere.
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