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Friday Thoughts 50

Only Words...?


And when your Creator and Sustainer said to the angels, "I am about 
to put a trustee on earth," they said, "Will You put someone there 
who makes mischief on it and sheds blood while we praise Your glory 
and sanctify You?" He said, "I know what you do not know." And He taught Adam all the names. Then He presented them to the angels, saying, "Tell Me their names if you are sincere." They said, "Praise 
be to You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. You are the Knowing, the Wise." (Surah 2:30-32)

 

This paragraph has moved the commentators' minds to present many different thoughts.

 

Some immediately felt reminded of the Biblical creation story with Adam naming the animals. But if we look once more, and more 
carefully, we wonder if it is the same story at all, although it looks rather similar with the timing in the context of creation 
and "Adam" as a central figure. But the process is completely different. According to the Biblical story, Adam has an active, 
creative role of assigning a name to each animal - this idea would 
indicate a certain power over the respective species that would fit 
the description of humankind as "God's trustee on earth" as repeatedly emphasized in the Qur'an. Being taught seems to be 
something much more passive, especially when it is understood to mean 
being told, being given information: it looks as if God named the 
animals beforehand in the course of the creative process and now 
shares the information with Adam in contrast to the angels - I have come across anti-Islamic polemics that took this as the proof text 
for humankind being mere passive receivers of instruction with no 
initiative of their own and consequently no potential to bear genuine 
responsibility - as well as some counter-polemics according to which 
this is considered an example for the Qur'an correcting human usurpation of power alluded to in the Bible. But nothing of all this is what the text says. It says that God taught Adam all the names, and some translators therefore say, "the names of all things" and 
proceed to explain that this means the inner nature of things.

 

According to some other commentators, "all the names" means the names of people, Adam's descendants as it were, especially the wise and 
prophetic figures among them, and in the light of God saying, "I know 
what you do not know," they understand it as an information about great human beings that can disprove the one-sided assumption that 
they "make mischief on earth and shed blood". This is a very moving 
idea. But unless this is understood in a metaphorical way, there is a 
problem here: while the possibility for human greatness is certainly 
there, the idea of great individuals being known by name since the beginning of creation can hardly be understood except within the 
framework of determinism that is controversial because it does not really leave space for human freedom and genuine responsibility as 
implied in the concept of "God's trustee on earth".

 

Again other commentators understand "all the names" as the capability 
for conceptual thinking and language in general, because the meaning of the Arabic word asmā' is not limited to proper names, but includes 
nouns and concepts in general. If you have studied the "ninety-nine 
most beautiful names of God" in detail, you will have noticed that 
they are attributes, describing complex relationships between the 
Divine and created beings like mercy, justice, or wisdom that cannot 
be grasped immediately like "house" or "tree" or "horse" but take a 
more complicated process of learning and experience. It is then on 
this level that the miracle of human language unfolds that enables people to communicate with each other and with the Divine.

 

In one of his books, al-Ghazali describes the potential and risks of 
this wonderful gift of language. It can be used to share knowledge 
and wisdom, to encourage and to comfort. But it can also be used 
destructively for backbiting, slander, insults and lies. There can be 
useless talk that is a waste of time, and thoughtless talk through 
which people may unintentionally hurt each other. Again, language can 
be used for prayer and study and then be a source of insight and 
spiritual uplifting. He rightly recommends to think before you talk.

 

This is the more important for something that al-Ghazali did not 
consider: misunderstandings. In a multicultural society, we are today 
quite used to the idea that they may occur when different languages 
are involved, and we are increasingly aware of problems of translation when we deal with a basic text in a particular language 
like e.g. the Qur'an. We might have even come to the conclusion that 
solutions can sometimes be found through a good sense of humour, like 
in the funny sufi story where four travellers get into an argument 
about what to buy with their limited budget in order to improve their 
meager bread ration, laban, lassi, dough, or ayran, until an elderly 
passer-by who understands their four languages explains to them that 
they are just using different words for the same thing: what they 
would all like with their bread is a sour milk drink.

 

But misunderstandings can also arise when one and the same word is 
used in several different ways. Let us have a look at the example of 
the Arabic word islām. Its literal meaning is surrender, 
reconciliation. In this most literal sense, it describes an attitude 
that causes all creation to glorify God, minerals, plants, animals 
and humans alike. In the sense of a conscious intention, it is the 
essence of religion in general - that is why the Qur'an describes earlier prophetic teachers and sages as "muslim", surrendering to 
God. This must not be confused with islām in the sense of the message 
of the Qur'an that came at a specific time in history and, while 
confirming earlier teachings, presented some characteristic features of its own. Nor may either of them be confused with Islām as a 
sociological membership in a 1400 year old community that had to deal 
with a variety of challenges and developed a number of different 
branches. Again this is not confused with idealistic Muslims' visions 
of a just and peaceful future. Apart from the different levels of 
meaning, there may be different associations with the word islām 
that may cause a positive or negative emotionally charged reaction. 
If you start from the assumption that your interlocutor shares the 
same concept, level of understanding, and experience when you use the word islām, then you may have a surprise.

 

The same applies to other terms, especially to catchwords like sharī'ah or jihād, but also democracy, freedom, love, or peace. What 
exactly do I mean when I use them? What exactly does my interlocutor associate with them? Why do we suddenly find ourselves at cross-purposes?

 

In fact, sometimes words seem to reach a stage when everybody assumes 
that everyone else knows what they are supposed to mean while, in 
fact, many facettes are attached to them. Sharī'ah: do you mean a codified law system of some glorious empire some centuries ago, or do 
you mean a set of ethical and legal principles that, applied 
according to the demands of each time and age, is a "way to the 
water", to a source of life for human society? Democracy: do you mean
a formalized structure of majority decision, or do you mean a dynamic 
process of arriving at meaningful conclusions involving legitimate 
impulses from a variety of social groups? Peace: do you mean the mere 
absence of armed conflict, or do you mean a balanced situation of 
security, social justice and mutual respect?

 

Unless this is clarified, words, in extreme cases, become idolized. This is essentially what most of the ancient idols were: concepts of 
power, beauty, wealth, honour and the like, cut in stone, that were 
worshipped in the hope to gain personal favour. "They are nothing but 
names that you call, or concepts that you conceive, you and your 
ancestors ... " (53:23).

 

Is it then "only words"? Would it help to do away with concepts and anything that has become a catchword, like iconoclasts destroying 
works of art in order to get rid of idols?

 

We must not forget, though, that words do have meanings. Perhaps as many shades of meanings as there are people. Words are all we have 
for meaningful communication among ourselves, and although silence 
can build up a powerful connection with the Divine, we still use 
words, traditional or straight from the heart, for prayer. Let us therefore listen carefully to ourselves and others and look behind 
the sounds of the words and the images and emotions that can be associated with them. Let us have a dialogue about contents, start 
learning together, and rethink our concepts in the light of new
insights.


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(c) Halima Krausen, 2008