Friday Thoughts 50
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.
(c) Halima Krausen, 2008