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Faith

The Reality of Revelation and Religious Experience

It is necessary to be humble and admit that our understanding of revelation is deficient, this is all we know, and we can only refer to the possessor of revelation to tell us about it.

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It is necessary to be humble and admit that our understanding of revelation is deficient, this is all we know, and we can only refer to the possessor of revelation to tell us about it.

In these lessons we wish to engage with the topic of revelation (waḥī), what is it, how was it defined by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, in the past and in contemporary times. In passing, we also wish to touch briefly upon the nature of Prophethood as it concerns the topic of revelation.

Reality of Revelation

What pushed theologians, philosophers, mystics, contemporary intellectuals, and even those who reject revelation, to discuss the reality of revelation? There are four motives that pushed scholars from different camps to engage in this discussion.

1. Faith

Some scholars believe the reality of revelation, how it was revealed and how it was utilized, is a matter needed to strengthen one’s faith itself. If you believe in Prophethood, then one of the requirements of faith is to understand the reality of revelation and how it works. Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 164), famously known as Mullā Ṣadrā, in his Tafsīr al-Qurān al-Karīm writes:

كما يجب علينا الايمان بالكتب الإلهيّة المنزلة على الأنبياء عليهم السلام، فكذلك يجب على المؤمن ايمانا حقيقيّا بما أنزل إليهم من حيث كونه منزلا إليهم، أن يعلم كيفيّة الإنزال و الإيحاء و كيفيّة إرسال الأنبياء عليهم السلام

“Just as it is obligatory upon us to have faith in the divinely revealed books upon the Prophets (p), likewise it is obligatory upon a believer to possess real faith (īmānan ḥaqīqīyyan) on what was revealed upon them, from the perspective of it being revealed upon them (p), such that one learns about how it descends and is revealed, and how messengers (p) are sent forth.”1

Notice how Mullā Ṣadrā says that for one to develop true, real faith, it is necessary to gain an understanding of how the revelation was sent and how Prophets were chosen to be sent forth. It is not enough to just believe that a book was revealed by Allah, or that a Prophet was sent by Allah, rather, it is necessary to understand its nature.

This is very similar to how contemporary humans think, where it is not enough for them to merely establish that something is, rather one must go beyond and try to understand how it is, what is its relation with reality and nature. In this case, we would have to contemplate how a Prophet receives this revelation, what is its ontological reality, how is it protected and kept free from error etc.?

Of course, we can ask Ṣadrā how faith necessitates having to understand the nature of these things, and why faith cannot suffice with simply believing that revelation exists, but this is not our discussion at the moment.

2. Epistemological

A philosopher, theologian, a mystic, or even a rejector of revelation, all have an epistemic need to determine what the foundations of knowledge are. When a philosopher hears about a source of knowledge called revelation, which they themselves have no experience with, they need to understand how this source of knowledge fits within their epistemic framework and foundations of knowledge.

It is for this reason why we find mystics explaining the reality of revelation in accordance with their epistemic frameworks, Peripatetic philosophers explaining its reality in accordance with their rational framework, and even rejectors of revelation explaining the phenomenon away within their epistemic framework, usually by referring to it as a psychological state or claiming it is merely a person who is extraordinarily genius.

3. Defensive

This motive is usually found amongst philosophers and mystics. They say that a person’s life journey and goal is towards gaining mystical experience or philosophical experience – the latter being done through one’s connection with the Active Intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘āl) according to the Peripatetics – and that this is the very path Prophets take during their lives.

In other words, philosophers and mystics are motivated to defend their epistemology and beliefs by arguing that the philosophical or mystical paths are the same paths that the Prophets took. The only difference is that we, as philosophers or mystics, cannot reach the end of these paths, whereas the Prophets did. In defense of their beliefs, they repeatedly emphasize there is no contradiction between the heart as a source of knowledge and revelation, or the intellect and revelation.

Consider how Mullā Ṣadrā and other Muslim philosophers repeatedly emphasize how revelation, intellect, and transmitted knowledge all work in tandem, and there is no conflict between them. Ṣadrā says in his al-Asfār:

و حاشا الشريعة الحقة الإلهية البيضاء أن تكون أحكامها مصادمة للمعارف اليقينية الضرورية و تبا لفلسفة تكون قوانينها غير مطابقة للكتاب و السنة

“The true luminous divine law resists being in conflict with certain necessary knowledge, and may such philosophy be destroyed whose principles are not in accordance with the Book and the Sunnah.”2

4. Humanistic

Many philosophers, and especially mystics, see humans qua humans as a very important subject of study. Theologians are primarily concerned with Allah, His Attributes, Names, and His Acts; hence Prophethood or resurrection are seen as an Act of Allah (swt). However, philosophers and mystics, though they are not heedless of God and do engage in extensive discussions regarding Him, they have an exceptional concern towards humans in their works. They believe humans play a central role in the very realm of existence and it is also in this context that the idea of the Perfect Man (al-insān al-kāmil) emerges.

When they speak of revelation, they discuss how humans can receive revelation, what capacity does a human need to have to experience revelation, how does a human reach a level where he can hear the Speech of Allah. On the contrary, one will notice that theologians speak of revelation from the perspective of how Allah (swt) speaks to humans. The perspective of looking at the phenomenon is different.

Divisions of Reality of Revelation

What are the most important divisions of revelation offered by scholars when it comes to placing it in terms of sources of knowledge? We will mention three major divisions:

First Division: The first division of revelation is based on the sources through which we can understand the phenomenon and reality of revelation. Since revelation is only experienced by very few humans, we need to clarify and explain our own sources of knowledge to determine the best way to understand its reality.

Within this discussion, there are two trends:

1) On the one hand, we have theologians, Ahl al-Ḥadīth, and Quranic exegetes who usually rely on the Prophet (p) and transmitted knowledge itself to explain revelation, as they believe only these sources can tell us about its nature. This trend also exists amongst theologians of other religions and is not specific to Muslims.

2) A group of scholars rely on their presuppositions, outside of the religious texts, and use those presuppositions to understand the nature of revelation. For example, a Peripatetic philosopher will rely on his intellect and the principles they have derived a priori, or a mystic will rely on their understanding derived from mystical experiences (shuhūd), to then investigate the nature of revelation.

This second approach was generally taken by Peripatetic philosophers, Sadrian philosophers, mystics, and contemporary scholars who discuss religious experiences. More details regarding these groups will be mention in later lessons.

Second Division: The second division of revelation is based on whether one believes in the religious concept of revelation or not. There are two trends here as well:

1) The phenomenon of revelation is seen as a means to access the metaphysical realm. This perspective is held by Sadrians, mystics, theologians, and Quranic exegetes.

2) As for those who do not accept the religious concept of revelation, they often see revelation within the framework of sociology, psychology, or religious experiences.

Third Division: The third division of revelation is based on its connection with actual words or meaning. This is a very lengthy discussion on its own and we will not expand on it in our lessons, as I have already discussed it elsewhere. The question being investigated in this division is whether actual words were being revealed to the Prophet or meanings that were later turned into words by the Prophet (p) himself. The latter position is what was presented by Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush, although it is not a new position and a number of Muslim scholars in the past also held this position.

If we say revelation was actual words, then we can divide it as follows:

1) Revelation is the act of Divine Speech and it is the very essence of revelation. Theologians and Sadrians both maintain this position, although the way they explain it is drastically different.

2) Revelation has no relation with speech or words, rather words come after the phenomenon of revelation. This view was held by Peripatetic philosophers such as Farābī (d. 950) and Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), as well as some contemporary scholars who explain revelation as a religious experience, or those who outright reject the concept of revelation, but explain it as a sociological phenomenon.

Revelation as Interpreted by Muslim Theologians

Before we explain this position, it should be noted that it is not the case that every single theologian who appeared in Islamic history necessarily held the views we will be summarizing. Rather what will be summarized is the general position of how most Muslim theologians understood revelation.

During our research, we found a few theologians who did not agree with this explanation or some who in some of their works accepted the theological explanation, but in other works leaned towards the philosophical explanation. This disclaimer will be true for later sections as well when we discuss the position of philosophers and mystics.

The theological interpretation is a view held by Muslim theologians until today, and as well as Christian theologians during the Middle Ages and most traditional Catholic theologians also hold this position today.

This interpretation has four key elements:

1) Revelation is an act of giving information – from God to a Prophet. It is not a psychological state, nor a personal religious experience, nor a sociological phenomenon. It is an announcement made by God to a Prophet. This is one of the most important elements for revelation according to the theologians.

2) Revelation is the conveyance of information through speech and words. Therefore revelation is a Divine Act of Speech according to theologians.

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3) The Prophet does not add anything to revelation; they are like a sound recording device, which hears the Speech in words and their only role is to playback this Speech.

4) Revelation descends to the Prophet. The Prophet can be anywhere, he can be sitting in his house, or on a journey in another country, and revelation descends down to him. This is contrary to the way Sadrians, mystics, and even Peripatetic philosophers understood revelation which makes it a process of the Prophet ascending and receiving it. For the latter group, the Prophet is essentially ascending to higher realms, not that the higher realms are being brought down for the Prophet.

Before moving on, note that Islamic theology has gone through a number of phases:

i) During the time of the Imams (a),

ii) During the school of Baghdad which emphasized separating and distancing theological arguments from philosophical arguments;

iii) Post-Khwājā Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī who brought theological and philosophical arguments closer; and

iv) Post-Mullā Ṣadrā where many theologians began adopting numerous concepts, jargon, and a philosophical way of thinking, even though they claim to be against philosophy.

Despite living in a Post-Mullā Ṣadrā era of Islamic theology, we still find them disagreeing with philosophers on the fourth element of revelation. Consider as an example, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Mishkīnī (d. 1358 AH) in his marginal notes on al-Kifāyah where he critiques the philosophers:

لا دليل على كون الوحي و الإلهام باتّصال النّفس بعالم اللوح المحفوظ أو بعالم المحو و الإثبات، لا سيّما الوحي، فإنّه قد كان بنزول الأمين جبرائيل.

“There is no evidence that revelation and inspiration are through the connection of the soul with the Realm of the Preserved Tablet or the Realm of Effacement and Confirmation, especially revelation, for it is brought down by the trusted angel Gabriel.”3

I believe this difference of approach between theologians and philosophers is rooted in something much deeper. Why is it that a theologian considers the process of revelation as something descending on the Prophet, while a philosopher or a mystic sees it as a process of the Prophet ascending towards it? This is due to the understanding each group has regarding the individual person before prophethood, not after prophethood.

A theologian does not see it necessary for a Prophet to have certain specific qualities before prophethood to receive revelation. Theologians will not deny that a Prophet may have had certain qualities before receiving prophethood, but what they say is those qualities were coincidental, and not a necessary condition for him to receive revelation. As for a philosopher or a mystic, they believe a Prophet even before reaching the stage of prophethood has already gone through severe spiritual experiences and levels, which allow him to build this capacity and perfection so that he can become a Prophet.

It is for this reason that the former will focus on terms like iṣṭifa – being chosen as a Prophet – while the latter will focus on terms like kamāl – perfection. Therefore their conclusions on the nature of revelation also end up differing.

Consider what Sharīf Jurjānī (d. 1413), while commenting and reaffirming the words of Muḥaqqiq Ījī, both being prominent theologians, says:

(و لا يشترط فيه) أي فى الارسال (شرط) من الاعراض و الاحوال المكتسبة بالرياضات و المجاهدات في الخلوات و الانقطاعات (و الاستعداد) ذاتى من صفاء الجوهر و ذكاء الفطرة كما يزعمه الحكماء (بل اللّه) سبحانه و تعالى (يختص برحمته من يشاء من عباده) فالنبوة رحمة و موهبة متعلقة بمشيئته فقط

“(It is not conditioned by) i.e. being sent revelation (any condition) such as attributes and acquired states through spiritual exercises and exerting extensive effort in private meditation and by cutting one’s self off from society (and capacity) that is inherent, such as the purity of the substance and the cleverness of primordial disposition, like the philosophers have assumed (rather Allah) subhānau wa ta‘āla (distinguishes through His Mercy whoever He wishes from amongst His servants), and so Prophethood is a mercy, and it is gifted, connected to His Volition only.”4

It is for this reason that when philosophers and mystics speak of the Prophet’s qualities, they go to far lengths to establish certain qualities. For example, they will claim the absolute extent of infallibility possible, knowledge of the unseen, all sorts of other perfections, and it was these ideas that also impacted later Muslim theologians, unlike classical theologians, particularly after Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1635) and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274).

The theologians, whose primary lens of knowledge is through the texts, will generally cite textual evidence for their views as well. Consider the following verse of the Quran:

وَقَالُوا۟ لَوْلَا نُزِّلَ هَـٰذَا ٱلْقُرْءَانُ عَلَىٰ رَجُلٍۢ مِّنَ ٱلْقَرْيَتَيْنِ عَظِيمٍ

أَهُمْ يَقْسِمُونَ رَحْمَتَ رَبِّكَ ۚ نَحْنُ قَسَمْنَا بَيْنَهُم مَّعِيشَتَهُمْ فِى ٱلْحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا ۚ وَرَفَعْنَا بَعْضَهُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍۢ دَرَجَـٰتٍۢ لِّيَتَّخِذَ بَعْضُهُم بَعْضًۭا سُخْرِيًّۭا ۗ وَرَحْمَتُ رَبِّكَ خَيْرٌۭ مِّمَّا يَجْمَعُونَ

[43:31-32] And they exclaimed, “If only this Quran was revealed to a great man from one of the two cities!” Is it they who distribute your Lord’s mercy? We alone have distributed their very livelihood among them in this worldly life and raised some of them in rank above others so that some may employ others in service. But your Lord’s mercy is far better than whatever wealth they amass.

In these verses, people demand that revelation should have been sent to someone who they consider to be great, but Allah (swt) does not respond to them by mentioning qualities of the Prophet (p), rather He (swt) says this is from the Mercy of Allah and He can distribute it any way He wants.

To summarize this entire discussion, we will quote the opinion of Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022) the prominent Shī‘ī Imāmī theologian, as he defines revelation as follows:

فأما الوحي من الله تعالى إلى نبيه ص فقد كان تارة بإسماعه الكلام من غير واسطة و تارة بإسماعه الكلام على ألسن الملائكة

“As for revelation from Allah to the Prophet (p), then it is either Him (swt) making the Prophet hear the Speech without a medium, or making him (p) hear the Speech through the tongues of the angels.”5

We began with the view of the theologians because it is the simplest one to explain, and closest to what most Muslims will have an understanding of. We do not intend on turning these lessons into advanced ijtihādī lessons and so will not go into any advanced critiques and detailed analysis of these claims.

Observations on the Interpretation of Muslim Theologians

1. How did other groups of scholars see the view of theologians – especially the philosophers and mystics?

To help one understand the response of the philosophers and mystics, one should note that in the history of Islamic civilization, you will find a very common trend. You will find that a jurist considers the position of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth to be simple and laughable, the Uṣūlī will belittle the jurist and consider them to be simple-minded, a theologian will belittle the Uṣūlī, considering their discussions to be very simplistic, a philosopher will belittle the theologian considering their views to be childish, and finally, a mystic will make fun of a philosopher saying they are limited in their understanding of existence due to their intellect while there is an entire realm yet to be experienced beyond the intellect.

In this discussion, the same trend occurs. The philosophers and mystics accuse theologians of offering a very simplistic and laughable explanation of revelation. For a philosopher, the interpretation of a theologian is similar to if someone asked how a car is driven, and a person responds, “a person has to get into the car, ignite the car with a key, and hit the pedal”, while a philosopher is demanding an explanation beyond this and is interested in how the entire engine and motor works.

Likewise, philosophers want to know every step of the process of revelation. It is for this reason that when Shahīd Muṭahharī expands on the topic of Prophethood and revelation, he refers to the theological definition as the ‘awāmī understanding, the understanding of the laity and simpletons.

However, is the theologians’ interpretation really that simple? Perhaps a theologian may respond that this phenomenon is an exceptional phenomenon in reality and we do not have access to it except through the simplistic understanding we have offered. Hence, it is necessary to be humble and admit that our understanding of revelation is deficient, this is all we know, and we can only refer to the possessor of revelation to tell us about it. In this case, this is the most transmitted knowledge has informed us about.

For this reason, we find even many contemporary theologians confessing that revelation is a very ambiguous matter. In fact, even some Quranists who also happen to be philosophers have confessed to this matter, and claim their inability to perceive its reality. Even consider a great scholar and philosopher like ‘Allāmah Ṭabātabā’ī who in his treatise on revelation called Waḥī yā Shū‘ūr Marmūz engages with an Indian scholar who denies revelation, and ‘Allāmah confesses that revelation is a very ambiguous matter. We will expand on ‘Allāmah’s view in later lessons, but even besides him, scholars like Shaykh Ja‘far Subḥanī, Shaykh Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī, Shaykh Reyshahrī, and others have also acknowledged this matter.

This article was originally published on Iqra Online, found here


Footnotes

  1. Tafsīr al-Qurān al-Karīm, vol. 1, pg. 295.
  2. Al-Asfār, vol. 8, pg. 303.
  3. Ḥawāshī al-Mishkīnī ‘ala al-Kifāyah, vol. 2, pg. 460.
  4. Sharḥ al-Mawāqif, vol. 8, pg. 218
  5. Taṣḥīḥ al-I‘tiqādāt, pg. 122.

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