March 6, 2011

Book Review: "God and Man in the Koran"

There is a reason Toshihiko Izutsu's book is available through Islamic booksellers online: its a great introduction to what is at stake for the believer in the language the Qur'an. If, as Izutsu explains, the ultimate guarantee of the Semitic religions is that God reveals himself to humans, then an understanding the language through which that revelation came is an indispensable part of understanding divine reality.

Izutsu take a long time building up to his argument about clusters of word and meaning in the Qur'an, and how they are often found in opposing pairs. The Qur'an, argues Izutsu, took the vocabulary of the pre-Islamic Arabs and expanded or narrowed the conceptual scope of certain words. In discussions of words like imam, kufr, wahy, kitaab, nabii, and tanziil, God and Man in the Koran offers an invaluable insight into the Gestalt, or Weltanschaung of the Qur'an.

Izutsu's work, despite being immersed in the technical vocabulary of semantic and linguistics, is readable enough for anyone to gain some insight, and for those (like me) who first read the Qur'an in English and found it (initially) ponderous and unpoetic, this book impresses an appreciation for the intricacy and vision of the original Arabic text. It may seem obvious to any scholar, but it bears repeating that any text in any language cannot be understood properly apart from the cultural context in which it is embedded. That is why the act of translation is so fraught with peril--something of the flavor, the style of the original text is always lost.

The status of the Qur'an as a holy revelation for Muslims complicates the commonsense application of this thesis (culturally embedded) Muslims have to wrestle with extracting universal meaning from the text (the debates over the uncreatedness of the Qur'an in early Muslim theology reflect this tension) and debates over the hidden meanings, abrogated meanings, literal meanings, and contingent meanings permeate this atmosphere of meaning-making.

In order to show what the Qur'an introduced to the Arabs, Izutsu sets out to explain the "darkly pessimistic" attitude of the Jahiliyya Arabs and their particular attitude and style of life. He shows how materialistic their worldview was, and how much they valued language and particular styles of recitation (i.e. saj') as having the potential to release the magical power contained in words. He explains how they initially saw Allah as just another djinn, since djinn were known to pounce upon human beings, throw them to the ground, kneel on their chest and force them to become the djinn's mouthpiece to the world.

Thus when the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) first began his prophetic mission, the Jahiliyya Arabs understood it in terms of spirit possession. However the Prophet (SAW), saw his mission in terms of a revelation from Allah, the Only True God, through His Angel Gabriel. The innovation this introduced in the worldview of the Jahiliyya Arabs is something Izutsu brings out well. The content of these revelations, which took place over twenty years, and which the Prophet (SAW) sometimes heard in terms of tinkling bells, after which he would understand what Allah meant to say, had to be communicated through the Prophet as a coherent message, what Izutsu calls a "Sprachwerk", an objective linguistic work. And it had to take form in a language-system peculiar to his community.

Sura 26, as-Shuara (The Poets)

وَلَوۡ نَزَّلۡنَـٰهُ عَلَىٰ بَعۡضِ ٱلۡأَعۡجَمِينَ

فَقَرَأَهُ ۥ عَلَيۡهِم مَّا ڪَانُواْ بِهِۦ مُؤۡمِنِينَ

Translation: "Had we sent this down upon some non-Arabian prophet, and had he recited it to them in Arabic, they would not have believed in it."

Based on this sura, Izutsu goes on to make a valuable conclusion, "The use of Arabic as the language of Revelation was not intended to be the open declaration of the superiority of Arabic." Arabic, argues Izutsu, was chosen for its usefulness, not for its inherent qualities.

Why is this argument important? Because it helps one avoid a kind of implicit ethnocentrism that runs through many hadith: that the language of paradise will be Arabic for example, and that Arabic is naturally the most exalted and best medium for expressing spiritual reality and complexity. Instead, the message had to be in Arabic because it had to be a prompting to action. Yet in order for the revelation (wahy) to remain a prompting to action, it cannot continue to be a "sprachwerk." That is, its interpretation cannot be fixed in the time it was revealed, even if the content remains the same.

In this reviewer's interpretation, this demonstrates that the inner meaning of the Qur'anic message is not necessarily literally attached to the interpretation of the signs themselves, which changes over time, but to the correct performative recitation of the revelation and the spiritual disposition it creates in the heart of the believer. Izutsu's work thus sheds light on why Muhammad Asad once remarked that no one should attempt to translate the Qur'an from Arabic unless he had personally lived among the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula.

For linguists, Izutsu's approach to the language of the Qur'an as a kind of worldview comes uncomfortably close to the Whorf-Sapir theory of language and meaning, in which language determines reality. I will let those with linguistic training critique this aspect of the book, if they have read it. For me, as a historian, Izutsu's work is "good to think with" and offers a sympathetic portrayal of an oft-misunderstood book.


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