The beauty of Islam lies in its seventy faces


Related: See my ISIS, politics and Islam and Documentaries on Understanding Isis and Al Nustra.


Rhetorical question: If my title is meaningful, what meaning do you give to it?

We’re all ignorant until God gives us light. Does that mean we’re off the hook? Not at all. Acts 2:22-24 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know; 23 him, being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay: 24 whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.” If you don’t understand the truth that God’s decrees – He decrees everything – do not exonerate our ignorance, we would be ignorant of what He has revealed about Himself in the Bible. If we are to obey this revelation, we have to accept that the ideas conveyed by the words deal with certitudes, which demand a one-to-one correspondence between the words (signifiers) and concepts (signifieds). One would expect this rule to be flouted among agnostics/atheists in the post-modern strain, but one would hope not among theologians, especially Christian theologians. Yet, since the abandonment of scriptural inerrancy, postmodernism has been making inroads into Christian theology.

I discuss post-modernism in Christianity and philosophy, which is preparation for the discussion on Islam.

Here is a transcript of part of the Q&A session of the 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. (The audio and the Brueggemann’s theses can be found here). There are four Q&A sessions. In this discussion, I deal with Session 1.

Q and A Session 1 (Parts in brackets have been added)

Question:How do you live with the ambivalence of biblical narrative.”

Brueggemann: “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity. So, what we all want to do, if we can, is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category, and certitude is a flat mechanical category (such as systematic theology, says Brueggemann in his theses ). So, we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude, and then to recognise that if you had all the certitudes in the world, it would not make the quality if your life any better because what we must have is fidelity. …It all went haywire in the 17th century with Lutheranism and Calvinism when we tried to outscience science and switch into categories of certitude …Fidelity is like having a teenager in the house and you never get it settled for more than three minutes, and you’ve got to keep doing it again or you don’t have a relationship.

I elaborate on Brueggemann’s distinction between “certitude” and “fidelity.”

For Brueggemann, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Jacques Derrida (the father of “Deconstuction”) says, to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus unrestricted interaction between suffering persons desiring to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all poststructuralists (who believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as “Being,” no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only (human) beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. And if the Bible stories are able to buck – and back – them up, thank you Holy Spirit. (See Certainty and fidelity in biblical interpretation: the decinstruction of Walter Brueggeman).

There is at least one Muslim who reminds me of this postmodern trend. In the forum “Does Islam need a better PR,” one of the participants says:

What we’ve got to realise is that Islam is not a monolithic block; there are many different interpretations and many different streams. Now the violence of a few violent extremists, who are against the teachings of the the Qur’an, that is the problem. This casts a shadow over the entire media discourse. The vast majority of Muslims condemn these actions and are against them, There is a completely different version, a beautiful version of Islam where social equities, social justice, all these things such as be kind to the weak, be kind to the elderly. All that is part of our value system (minute 2;34 ff).

Summary in a syllogism

Major premise: There are many different interpretations and streams in the Qur’an.

Minor premise: Violent extremism does not belong to the many different interpretations of the Qur’an.

Conclusion: Therefore violent extremism cannot be one of the legitimate interpretations of the Qur’an,

How can I be sure that what the participant says – about the rich variety of different meanings of Islamic texts – has only one meaning (interpretation). In her eyes, the very beauty of Islam is that you can select any interpretation you want and you’ll always find it bristling with beauty and compassion – for not only the poor and widows but also for Christians, Jews, idolators and Muslim apostates.

A course on rabbinical Judaism teaches that interpretation is ”bound to a text with wide room for interpreting its meaning?” In the room are seventy rabbis, each doing his own thing, or rather one rabbi with seventy faces. “There are seventy faces to the Torah: turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (Midrash Bamidbar [Numbers] Rabba 13:15); everything in the sense that it contains the building blocks of everything in and under heaven, which Jacob Neusner calls the “grammar” of rabbinical theology (See Jacob Neusner and Rabbinical Theology).

A Muslim version: A course on Islamic interpretation teaches that interpretation is bound to a text with wide room for interpreting its meaning? In the room are seventy Imams, each doing his own thing, or rather in the room in only one Imam with seventy faces. There are seventy faces to the Qur’an (and Hadiths): turn it around and around, for everything is in it.

Our Muslim participant reminds me of Jacques Derrida. In Derrida’s deconstruction (there is no other kind of deconstruction), language – the sediment of the desire to mean, to communicate – has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin; its existence is a network of differences between signifiers (sounds or written symbols signifying meaning), each tracing and tracking the other. In deconstruction there is no necessary connection between the desire to signify (to mean) and the signifiers (linguistic elements – sounds and writing) that evoke that desire:

[I]f language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal (single) meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins’” (J. Derrida 1981, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 278-93).

Our Muslim participant’s joy over the free play of meanings inherent in the Qur’an clashes with Allah’s obsession with clarity, which he can’t emphasise enough:

Qur’an 6:114—Shall I seek for a judge other than Allah, when He it is Who has sent down to you the Book fully explained?

Qur’an 11:1—This is a Book, whose verses have been made firm and free from imperfection and then they have been expounded in detail.

Qur’an 12:1—These are verses of the clear Book.

Qur’an 16:89—And We have sent down to thee the Book explaining all things.

Qur’an 24:46—Certainly We have revealed clear communications, and Allah guides whom He pleases to the right way.

Qur’an 27:1—These are verses of the Qur’an—a book that makes (things) clear.

Contrary to the Muslim participant in the Forum, the Qur’an claims to be not only clear but the clearest book in the world – which must imply clearer than the instruction manual on how to plug in my TV. Allah says his Qur’an is not only clear but makes everything else clear. For me, Allah’s “clear” means “it says what he means” where the what is not whatnot, but an explicit what. Similarly, the Qur’an is crystal clear that the ISIS types represent the apotheosis of Islam. (See David Wood’s ISIS and the Radicalization of Young Muslims).

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