I have completed the write up of the first lecture below. If you notice any errors please post them in the comments section below.
I do not deny that the Quran plays a similar role in other Islamic schools of thought, however, here I wish to analyse the importance of the Quran in Shi'i Islam.
I hope to show the status of the Imams - those who are infallible and divinely appointed successors of the prophet, owe their position not simply to being the successors, but also have an integral connection to the Quran itself.
It may even be said that the status of the Imams is due to this particular relationship to the Quran and secondly to the fact they are chronologically speaking the successors to most of the functions of the prophet.
To demonstrate this, we can site one of the well known traditions of the prophets that are found not only in Shi'i but also in Suni books of traditions. Many of the traditions that are referred to by the Shi'i are also found in the Suni books. I will not repeat this on every occasion but I will deal with this matter in more detail as to why are the same conclusions not drawn from the same Hadith.
The prophet is reported to say, 'I leave among you two precious and weighty trusts, one being the book of God (Quran), the other my progeny. These two legacies will never be separated from each other, if you lay firm hold of them you will never go astray'. (Hadith of Thaqalayn - Hadith of two weighty objects)
The essence of the matter is that the prophet before his departure from this world addresses the believers saying, he leaves among us two precious items, one the book of God and the other his progeny, his family and these two will never be separated from one another. In other words there is an integral and essential relationship between the Quran and the progeny of the prophet, they shall never be separated from one another.
A variety of conclusions can be drawn from this. The essential error, from the Shi'i point of view, that has been committed by other Muslims, is to disregard and not pay sufficient heed to this integral link. Khumaini in his last will and testament began with this Hadith saying, all misfortune and disasters in the history of Islam have come from ignoring this one link. To ascribe a complex history to one event may of course be questionable, but the important point from the Shi'i point of view is indeed these two belong together and if a separation of the two is attempted, the consequences can not be overlooked. So they do belong together, although historically a degree of separation may have taken place.
In confirmation of the Hadith of Thaqalayn we have another Hadith where the prophet is reported to have said the following:
Ali is always with the Quran and the Quran is with Ali, they will not be separated from each other.
The first Hadith - Hadith of Thaqalayn is a more general Hadith referring to all the family, the second more specific referring just to Ali and the Quran.
So given this, to speak of the Quran is a useful and justifiable point of departure. Before focussing on certain aspects of the Quran that are of particular significance to the Shi'i tradition, we will remind ourselves of certain general features of Islamic belief concerning the Quran are shared by all schools of Islamic thought.
The first most important point to realise is that, from the point of view of Islam, the Quran is integrally and exclusively the divine word. It is not an inspired text, but entirely of divine origin. The prophet has no share in the Quran except: it's reception and faithful transmission; exemplification in his own life; and its interpretation.
Words used in the Quranic text to describe it are the following:
- Tanzil (Revelation) - However revelation implies the uncovering of that which is secret, whereas Tanzil implies sending down. The Quran is Tanzil in as far as it is sent down from the divine to the human plane. Divine words sent down, being clothed in human language at a certain point in history.
- Wahih (Revelation) - Wahih implies the conveyance of each portion of the Quranic message to the prophet at given times. The etymological sense of Wahih is a secret or a hidden communication. Secret or hidden in the sense that revelation is an experience of its own kind which can not be observed or experienced by any other than the prophet.
So we say the Quran is Wahih and tanzil - revelation in these two senses.
Given this belief or assertion by Islam concerning the Quran a number of other conclusions or essentials doctrines follow:
Quran is Quran only in Arabic. There are a number of verses in which the Quran is being described as being sent down in a clear Arabic tongue. The purpose of this is not to restrict the scope of the Quranic message, on the contrary we have versus that speak of the universal address and appeal of Islam. The mention of Arabicity of the Quran is exclusively with the language of the Quran. It follows if the linguistic container as well as the content is of divine origin, then as soon as a translation takes place from Arabic to other languages there is an intervention of a human element. This is not to say that a translation of the Quran is invalid or a forbidden practice. In fact we know that very early translations of the Quran took place and it is quite likely that translations took place during the lifetime of the prophet himself. It does however mean, that the translations are aids to understanding and can not be or act as equivalent to the original Arabic.
Another corollary of the divine nature of the Quran is its miraculous inimitability. By this we are translating the Arabic term i'jaal, meaning other human authors, other than the divine author, are incapable of producing the Quran either in part or in whole. There are in fact contained within the Quran a number of challenges to the contemporaries of the prophet, who rejected the revelation, to produce even a small part of the Quran, or a few verses comparable to the Quran itself.
There are other aspects to the i'jaaz, for example the complete lack of any internal inconsistencies or contradictions in the Quran. The Quran was revealed to the prophet over a period of 23 years and it is reasonable to assume that any book of human composition, the writing of which started out over a long period of time, will exhibit some evidence of change, contradiction, inconsistencies due to the mutability of human thought or inclination and the limit of human memory. But the Quran proclaims:أَفَلا يَتَدَبَّرونَ القُرآنَ ۚ وَلَو كانَ مِن عِندِ غَيرِ اللَّهِ لَوَجَدوا فيهِ اختِلافًا كَثيرًاDo they not contemplate the Qurʾān? Had it been from [someone] other than Allah, they would have surely found much discrepancy in it. (4:82)
Of course a number of non-Muslim scholars, who have studies the Quranic text, have claimed that there are indeed inconsistencies and it is to the resolution of these apparent inconsistencies that many of the commentators have turned, most particularly within the Shi'i tradition. In any event from the point of view of Muslims, the Quran is a seamless and consistent universe within which no contradiction or difference exists.
- The integrity and the preservation of the text. Not only Shi'i and Suni, but various subgroups have disagreed on a vast number of subjects. But one of the few matters on which all Muslims agree, is the integrity of the Quranic text. In other words, within Islam there are no problems with the authenticity of the Quranic text as preserved and transmitted from the earliest period. this is indicated not only by history or the absence of history of the Quranic text, but also by the following verse:إِنّا نَحنُ نَزَّلنَا الذِّكرَ وَإِنّا لَهُ لَحافِظونَIndeed We have sent down the Reminder, and indeed We will preserve it. (15:9)
The meaning of this verse, from the point of view of Islamic belief, forbids the questioning of the integrity of the text. Therefore, it is important to recognise that despite occasional polemical assertions to the contrary, Shi'i Muslims believe in precisely the same Quranic text as do Suni Muslims. It is said that Imam Ali drew up a complete text of the Quran soon after the death of the prophet and that this text, although no longer available, corresponds to the text established under others. The integrity of the text of the Quran is important from the Islamic point of view because of the finality of the Quranic message. If the Quran is the to be the final message, the final revelation of the divine will to mankind, then it follows that it must necessarily be preserved in its integrity. If it was subject to distortion with additions or subtractions being made, then its status as a final revelation would inevitably suffer. In the Quran we have the description of the messenger as:
Seal in a number of important senses, most obviously in the chronological sense that he is the last in the series of messengers that came to mankind, also in the sense that he brings to end and places his seal of authority on the entire series of messengers that preceded him.
So far we have looked to the general considerations of the Quran as they pertain to all schools of Islamic thought. As to the purpose of the Quran - what is the purpose of revelation, the Quran in particular and the revelations that preceded it:
- Guidance - Guidance is one of the most important semantic components of the Quran, the word guidance as a noun and the words derived from it. One of examples from the Quran is:إِنَّ هٰذَا القُرآنَ يَهدي لِلَّتي هِيَ أَقوَمُIndeed this Qurʾān guides to what is most upright. (17:9)
The Quran is a guide to the straight path. A straight path could varyingly be understood as the path of moral rectitude which leads to man's happiness in this world and the hereafter. At a different level that straight path may be thought of as the path which leads to a direct perception of the divine presence. Or to put it somewhat differently, it is the path that leads to the fulfilment of man's ultimate purpose, which is the knowledge of his creator. To understand the term in a little greater detail we may refer to another verse:
In other words, the giving of guidance is not exclusive to man, man receives guidance through scripture from messengers, but all things receive a form of divine guidance. They receive not only a certain physical form which defines them and differentiates them from other beings as other entities, but also a certain guidance. What may that guidance be? It is clearly not a guidance that involves morale choice, but an inherent direction towards the purpose they were created for. All things are in a sense guided. Inanimate objects are also guided, that is to say, they have within them something supplementing their material shape and form, that which guides them towards which they were created. In the case of man the guidance comes from revelation, the Quran in particular which is the final and most perfect instance.
- Remembrance:وَما هُوَ إِلّا ذِكرٌ لِلعالَمينَYet it is just a reminder for all the nations. (68:52)
The word Dhikr has all sorts of different interpretations and meanings in Islam, but we will not go into these here. The Quran is Dhikr, it is in itself a reminder as well as encouraging men to remember. What is implied here by the Quran being a reminder or a remembrance? In just the same way that without guidance man would necessarily be in a state of misguidance - you would be wondering. Without guidance, he would be in a state of forgetfulness. In other words one may deduce from these verses of the Quran, that man were it not for the Quran and the practises that spring from the Quran, then man would be in a state of forgetfulness. In just the same way, the Quran is guidance to rescue man from a state of wandering in order to orient him towards the true purpose. Likewise, the Quran is that which rescued him from a state of forgetfulness and induces in him a state of remembrance. Forgetfulness and Remembrance of what? Primarily of the reality of his lord and creator, his own origin and also of his destiny and the hereafter to which he will be directed.
From these two terms we may deduce some of the essential purposes of the Quran. Of course, each in tern has a number of further implications e.g. Reminder + Guidance for daily prayer embodies both of these. Guidance in the sense that it orients man clearly and repeatedly in the direction of his lord. Obviously, it is a reminder in removing him from forgetfulness that worldly existence otherwise plunges him in.
Let us look at some aspects of the Quran as they concern in particular Shi'i Islam. We have said that the Quran is in its nature a divine book and can be regarded as a confluence of the divine and the human, it is the divine word expressed in human language. Precisely by being sent down and by being caused to descend from a higher to a lower plane, it must necessarily have been for it to be understood. It must be a book that is understood. In other words a divine revelation that resists understanding, that forbids understanding, is in the nature of things a contradiction. Allah has no need of its revelation, it is the humans that need the revelation and therefore once the revelation is given, it must be made in a sense comprehensible. The question that arises is of course the mode of understanding revelation and what is involved in understanding and interpreting the revelation. Here a number of points are to be made. Firstly the primary instructor in the understanding of the Quran, the first authority, or if you like the first aid to the general order of humanity in the understanding of the Quran, is the prophet himself. We have in the Quran:
The operative phrase is, teaches them the book. Allah describes the messenger as one who teaches people the book, in other words, it is not one who simply conveys the book to them and then in respect with understanding the book, is on an equal level with the remainder of the believers, rather he is the primary teacher or instructor of the Quran.
From the point of view of Shi'i Islam, one of the functions of the prophet that is inherited or perpetuated in the persons of the Imams, is precisely this instructions in the book. They have, as suggested by the Hadith that was quoted at the start, a particular relationship with the book. It is they who are inseparably joined to the book. Therefore, the understanding of the Quran by the Imams from among the descendants of the prophets has a degree of authority comparable to the authority of the prophet himself with respect to the understanding of the book. This does not mean to say that there is no possible understanding of the book without reference to the Imams of Shi'i belief. It does mean however that they have a certain position of primacy with respect to other potential sources of knowledge and understanding. This is a matter of general principle. How does this work out in practice and what are those matters which in particular require the attention of interpretors, after all the Quran describes itself as a clear book. Of course a great deal of the Quran is immediately comprehensible without exegetical effort. What are those matters where exegetical effort is clearly required and the authoritative use of the Imams and the perpetuators of this particular teaching function of the prophet become necessary. Here we can refer to the following, those verses of the Quran which are not immediately accessible to understanding. Verses that are referred to in the Quran itself as Mutashabihaat which is a term that is very difficult to translate as a one word equivalent in English. Sometimes we find the word allegorical put forward as a translation. But allegorical implies a lack of intentional relationship between verse and imposed meaning. Mutashabih is a verse or series in which the meaning immediately accessible from the verse does not do justice to its understanding. A very straight forward example is this:
This verse would certainly be classified as Mutashabih. If we say it is allegorical, this might imply the statement is simply a symbolic statement of an inner truth. In other words we have to dissolve as it were, almost like a riddle, the wording of the verse in order to arrive at a true meaning. This is not the solution, rather the solution is to assert that indeed the verse is true, however it is true that if Allah says this, he indeed did say this, but what is the sense of these words? Clearly the words can not correctly be understood in terms of human experience. In other words, it is not permissible to ascribe to Allah motion. Motion implies the movement of a body, limited and finite, defined by a dimension from one space to another and that motion must necessarily take place in time. Therefore, a literal understanding of the human experience of this verse would impute to Allah temporality and spaciality, neither of which is acceptable. Therefore, the meaning of the verses which are Mutashabih, who are guarding against any kind of allegorical dissolution of the precise and specific language, is an understanding that goes beyond the immediate sense yielded by the word.
The counter part of the Mutashabih verses are Muhkam - firm, obvious in meaning, verses which do not require exegetical exercises in order to attain the meaning. Examples of these verses include legislative verses of the Quran - verses which convey legal ordinances with respect to the devotional life or social interactions or economic activity. All of these clearly belong to the category of Muhkam. The two categories of verse are juxtaposed in a verse of the Quran:
Here we come to a difference of opinion among the commentators of the Quran as to where you break the sentence. Is those firmly routed in knowledge a second subject of the verb knows, or is it on the contrary a subject of the following verb they say we believe in all of the Quran as being from our lord. Among Sunni commentators of the Quran there is this difference of opinion. This verse is understood by all Shi'i commentators and a large number of Suni commentators to mean that knowledge or the interpretation of the Mutashabih is known only to Allah and those firmly routed in knowledge. Those who are firmly routed in knowledge from the Shi'i perspective, are the Imams. It is they who are firmly routed in knowledge. What is meant by being firmly routed in knowledge is not simply a high degree of erudition, this is not enough for being routed in knowledge, which is a higher degree. Being knowledgeable is one thing, being routed in knowledge implies that ones whole being grows out of the soil of knowledge. These are precisely the imams that have the knowledge conveyed to them and reinforced in them by Allah.
The word used for interpretation is Tawil. Sometimes the word Tawil is used for any type of interpretation of the Quran, not just this difficult category of verses called the Mutashabih. Clarification of obscure words, unusual grammatical constructions, allusions to certain historical events. The clarification of all of these is sometimes regarded as Tawil, however, the essence of Tawil is some what different. If one looks at the word Tawil, one sees that it comes from the root Awal - first. So Tawil is the process of moving back as it where, to that which is primary in each of the verses of the Quran. To put this differently, from that which is most immediately accessible, the outer text, towards that which is less accessible, the inner sense. The inner sense, in so far as it lies at the core of each verse, is also that which is primary to it. So the Tawil is the uncovering of that which is primary, i.e the inner most senses of each verse. We have here another complementary duality - the Muhkam and Mutashabih and also the outer and inner. There are outer meanings of the Quran and inner meanings of the Quran. There is a statement described by the prophet, that the Quran has an outer dimension and an inner dimension, and that inner dimension has in term 7 more inward dimensions.
In addition to that saying of the prophet which refers explicitly to the Quran, by way of precisely Tawil, one can deduce from another verse of the Quran, that the Quran contains an inner and outer dimension:
Here the reference is obviously not exclusively to the Quran. The bounties or the blessings of Allah are many and not restricted to revelation, but as a matter of general principle, here this verse establishes that the bounties of Allah have an inner and an outer dimension, and this general principle must necessarily apply to the Quran as well.
So the Tawil is that which operates not only with respect to the Muhkam and the Mutshabih, but also with respect to the outer and the inner. This is confirmed by the one among the Imams, who after Imam Ali, is best known as an exegete of the Quran, Imama Jaffer As-Sadiq. He is the 6th of the Imams and therefore, from a mathematical point of view holds a centrality. According to Imam Jaffer As-Sadiq, each verse of the Quran has 4 dimensions or 4 aspects:
Ibadah - The wording of each verse. The obvious meaning to be drawn from the wording of each verse. Accessible to anyone with the understanding of Arabic.
Ishadah - Indication. A meaning indicated by, but not explicitly conveyed by the wording. That which is indicated by the wording, but not explicitly stated.
Latifah - Subtlety. That which is contained within the verse, but is not so easily deduced from it as the Ishadah. If it is more subtle, it is more elusive, it requires a greater effort or predisposition to gain access to it.
Haqiqah - Truth or Reality. Ultimate truth enshrined in each verse of the Quran. It is said in explanation of this category, that it is that which is accessible only to the prophet and his successors the Imams, in the sense that they alone have access to this portion of the Quranic meaning.
The Quran as a text, is of course revealed to the entirety of the Muslim community and potentially to all of humanity. The address of the Quran is of course to all of humanity, it is not a question of some portion of the Quran being held in reserve for an elite category, however, as a matter of precisely reality, there are those whose capacities of understanding vary. The Ibadah is more or less within the reach of anyone, if one knows Arabic or takes the time to learn it. The Isharah is not within the reach of everyone, but with appropriate effort it is still accessible. The Latifah is again accessible, but not to everyone, to a smaller category of people. The Haqiqah is restricted only to the Masumin - those who possess the attributes of inerrancy.
In connection with this Haqiqah, the 4th dimension of the Quranic meaning, we can site the Quran:
This verse furnishes among other things, the origin for the ordinance that one should not touch the written copy of the Quran whilst in a state of ritual impurity. However there is an inner meaning here that is being perceived by numerous commentators, not only Shi'i but primarily, that the touching of the Quran, is gaining access to the innermost most intimate secrets and meanings. This is accessible only to the Mutahirun - those who are utterly purified, not simply in the ritual sense, having made the necessary ablutions, but inwardly purified also. In fact this understanding of the term the purified, ties in with that other key verse of the Quran from the point of view of Shi'i doctrine:
The people of the household are described as being utterly purified. The Mautahirun are understood not exclusively, but in this particular context, to refer to the Imams- those who are utterly purified of sin and error, and have unique access to the ultimate truth that are contained within each verse of the Quran.
It may appear to be contradictory, now that we have laid this heavy stress on the authority of the Imams in interpreting the Quran, to draw attention to the fact that one of the primary methods for the understanding of the Quran, according to the Imams of Shi'ism, is the Quran itself. There is a statement that one portion of the Quran interpreted another and one portion of the Quran clarifies another. In other words although the prophets, and after him as his heirs the Imams, are as it were instructors and teachers of the Quran, the Quran itself is a guidance to an understanding. There are utterances to this effect both from the prophet and Imam Ali. How do we understand this statement and how do we reconcile or combine it with what has been said about the specific function of the Imam's as exegetes? We understand it in the following sense, that if one takes the fundamental Islamic belief that the Quran lacks any contradiction, internal inconsistencies, if it constitutes the whole and the complete universe, then it follows that all of its parts are mutually compatible. Its parts complement, support, explain each other. Therefore, in order to understand one verse of the Quran, one would necessarily take into consideration all other relevant portions of the Quran dealing with the same topic, containing the same wording and so forth. The Quran from this point of view, may be thought of as an organic living whole, one part of which necessarily functions in conjunction with another, it can not be regarded as a separate product. On the other hand we have said already that the prophets and the Imams have the functions of being instructors of the Quran, and precisely the mode whereby they exercise their instruction includes drawing attention to the interconnectedness of all parts of the Quran with each other. If one looks at many of the traditions from the Imams regarding the Quran, one sees, that in fact precisely what they do is to draw attention to other relevant portions of the Quran to draw together and synthesize the meaning of the verses and remove thereby any appearance of inconsistency or contrast.
Particular Verses of the Quran of Relevance to Shi'i Islam
Up until now, we have sketched the importance of the general import of the Quran and the particular approach Shi'i Islam has to the interpretation of the Quran. Although we will now be focussing on specific verses, it should never be imagined that the Quran as a whole is not relevant for, or valued by Shi'i Muslims, even though we will now be focussing on a few specific verses.
A further preparatory remark is that, although we will now be reviewing certain verses of the Quran and Hadith of the prophet which have been constantly sighted by Shi'i scholars in support of their particular understanding, it should not be imagined that they were all sighted explicitly as a textual collection from the very outset. In other words, let us suppose immediately after the death of the prophet, certain events, disagreements took place, we will not find discussions concerning the meanings and Hadith we are about to review. They were drawn out and made the subject of explicit commentary and very frequently controversy, at a subsequent period. None the less, we are justified in reviewing them at this early point in the course precisely because they do constitute the the particular basis in revealed and authoritative sources of the central doctrines of Shi'ism.
We start by saying that the Quran lays heavy stress upon matters of succession in the divine guidance of man by prophet. For example:
Ibrahim is addressed here and told he will be made an Imam for the people. As a note, when speaking of the prophets who are apparently shared between the biblical and Quranic tradition, I will generally use the Arabic term, because if one uses the English equivalents, then the mistaken impression arises that the personality as dictated in the two books are essentially the same, whereas, they are radically different. Therefore, instead of speaking of Abraham, I will speak of Ibrahim. Returning to the verse, Imam obviously comes to be that title which is most commonly awarded in Shi'i Islam to the divinely appointed authoritative successors of the prophet. Obviously in this verse, this is not what is at issue, as Ibrahim is a prophet not a successor to the prophet. But from this verse, the conclusion has been draw that the function of being an Imam is in a sense contained within the function of Prophethood. The question arises, why is he here addressed by Allah as saying I shall make you an Imam for the people rather than saying I shall make you a prophet for the people. In the view of Shi'i commentators of the Quran, precisely because the essential functions of an imam are also vested in a prophet, Imamate being an outpost of Prophethood, must in a sense be contained within it.
Then Ibrahim in response to this divine promise says, shall this same quality be vested in my offspring, and the elliptical answer is given saying, my covenant shall not embrace the wrong doers - in other words yes, your descendants will be made Imams, unless they transgress.
Interestingly, the word Imam is used for two other prophets before Muhammad, Ishaaq and Yaqub:
Here the word Imam is used, but clearly they are prophets.So here we have an indication from the pre-Muhammadan history of Islam, of the close relationship between Imamate and Prophethood.
As far as the hereditary transmission is concerned of divine leadership and guidance, we can refer to another verse of the Quran:
Here the term Imam is not used and I site the verse only as evidence of the pattern of sacred history established in the Quran for the prophets preceding the seal of the prophets. If the lineage of the prophet Ibrahim is established in the Quran as carrying divine guidance and leadership, then the conclusion may be draw, I am not saying it ought to be drawn, that the lineage of the prophet Muhammad should have the same dignity vested in it, the dignity of divinely appointed leadership and guidance of humanity. All of these considerations concerning the previous prophet is the establishment of divinely sanctioned heredity pattern among them, is only of secondary relevance with respect to the establishment of the Imamate.
Let us begin the review of the verses of the Quran which are more directly and explicitly relevant. The first verse is:
Your protector or guardian is an extremely important concept here, the word Wali. This word has a whole range of meanings in Arabic and part of the reason for the inability of Sunni and Shi'i scholars to agree on a meaning of commonly accepted text, is the numerous shades of meaning contained within the term Wali. For the time being let us simply note the term without going into the various shades of meaning. For the time being we will translate Wali as protector or guardian. At first this verse may appear as though it has nothing to do with the question of succession to the messenger. However, the final category, the faithful who maintain the prayer and give the zakāt while bowing down, is interpreted by a large number of Sunni as well as the totality of Shi'i commentators to mean Imam Ali. How is this possible even though we have a plural - those believers who perform prayer. This is one of the peculiarities of the Quranic style, where for a singular individual, by way of honouring that individual, a plural may be used. Moreover there is a particular incidence to which this verse is seen to be alluding. Let us for the moment ignore the plural and take it to be that believer who performs prayer and gives alms whilst prostrating. There is an anecdote to the effect that Imam Ali was approached whilst in the course of prayer by someone asking for alms and he gave whilst in prostration. So here there is an indication, in the view of all Shi'i commentators and a large number of Sunni commentators, that the person in issue here is Imam Ali and he appear as the third in a series of which the first two are God and his messenger. To paraphrase, the verse means - your true guardian is in the first place, God and in the second place, Muhammad, the messenger and in the third place, Imam Ali. We will continue with this verse and a few others next time.