The Apparent and Inner Meaning of the Qur’an – Ibn Rushd on the Boundaries of Religious Interpretation1
December 18, 2012 by theislampost
by Björn Rúnar Egilsson
Averroes’ Decisive Treatise is a part of a trilogy contained within the same manuscript, accompanied with the Exposition and an epistle dedicatory, most likely addressed to the prince of the believers, “his friend and patron, the Almohad ruler Abu Ya’qub Yusuf.”[i] Its purpose is to examine the attitude of the Islamic scriptures towards philosophy and logic and give a decisive ruling on the relationship between the two; whether from the standpoint of the Qur’an engagement with philosophy is to be allowed, prohibited or mandatory. The Treatise is furthermore an inquiry into the connection between the divinely revealed law and human intelligence on one hand and the intention of the law on the other and its author sets forth a religious epistemology and a psychology on which it is founded. Since God’s intention with scripture is to reveal the truth to all his children and instruct them in the proper way of life there are three various ways to arrive at assent to the religious Law which are in accordance with the dramatic difference in intellectual prowess between men, viz. through rhetorical, dialectical and demonstrative arguments. Averroes infers the status of human reason from the Law and decrees that the study of philosophy is in fact obligatory and he argues in favor of scriptural interpretation that is derived from sound methods of syllogism and is coherent with the intention of the law.[ii] At the heart of his argument lies the notion of the Unity of Truth, which states that truth cannot conflict with truth but must conform to it, i.e. true religion found in the Qur’an and science, the methodology of logical demonstration which renders truth, must be in accordance with each other. The idea of truth coinciding in revealed scripture and philosophy is especially important in understanding the Qur’an, because it has an apparent meaning derived directly from the text itself and an inner meaning. The inner meaning is reached through allegorical interpretation which is possible through demonstration. The implications of his contention renders the philosopher in a superior position to the laity and speculative theologians with regard to interpretation of the scriptures. Averroes holds that the philosopher is able to give allegorical interpretation to texts where others are in danger of falling into unbelief. To this effect he establishes a boundary within which interpreters of the Qur’an must operate and respect and explicates the rules of interpretation with regard to scriptural error. But how exactly does demonstration contribute to allegorical understanding and what are his reasons for defining the boundaries of interpretation? In order to answer these questions this paper will give the Treatise an expositional and critical treatment to see how it justifies the practice of philosophical demonstration on religious grounds and finds the intention of the Divine Law compatible with human epistemology.
The Decisive Treatise is not philosophical work in the strict sense for it does not have a demonstrative structure as one might have expected, given the nature of the subject matter. It is rather a dialectical “plea before a tribunal in which the divine Law of Islam is the sole authority”[iii] where Averroes renders a ruling (how decisive or strong it is, is debated[iv]) in favor of the role of philosophy in religion. Averroes conceives of and answers objections which challenge the role of philosopher and is confident about the Qur’anic blessing of philosophy for Muslims. Close study of its verses establishes an obligation to study intellectual reasoning and he thinks it is clear that the Law commands “reflection on beings, and the pursuit of knowledge about them”[v] as textual support for the “the obligation to use intellectual reasoning or combination of intellectual reasoning and legal reasoning”[vi] is not wanting. The Qur’an is a “text urging the study of the totality of beings […] by the intellect and reflection on them”.[vii] The study of the totality of beings, urged by several verses[viii], must be conducted in the best possible manner and of the most perfect kind, i.e. by demonstrative reasoning. These scriptural encouragements for reflection are the poles of the bridge between the “religious law governing the lives and conduct of Muslims and the Aristotelian philosophical wisdom grounding the commitment to rationality”[ix] Averroes intends to build. Just as the legal scholar[x] must have knowledge of legal categories to be able to differentiate between valid and invalid syllogisms regarding jurisprudence, the one who wants to know God must acquire a knowledge of intellectual reasoning.[xi] Thus the “religious thinker must make a preliminary study of logic”[xii] and then proceed to philosophy proper. This he must learn from the ancients who mastered the art of demonstrative philosophy prior to the advent of the Prophet in order to gain the instruments necessary to reflect upon “beings and the indication of art in them”.[xiii] Since happiness consists in the knowledge of God, He out of his generosity made different pathways for every Muslim according to the “method of assent that his temperament and nature require. For the natures of men are on different levels with respect to [their paths to] assent.”[xiv]At first glance the scriptural passages cited by Averroes appear to offer insubstantial support for engagement with the ancient philosophical tradition. People like Mushin Mahdi have expressed doubts concerning Averroes’ interpretation of a handful of implicit scriptural commands of “study” and “reflection” as being a reference to the pagan demonstrative sciences and ask why the Scriptures would not have made their intention explicitly clear.[xv] The answer Averroes would offer for an objection of this kind lies in the difference in intellectual capacities among the members of the Muslim community and the universal intention of the Divine Law: “Complex syllogistic explanation is not the appropriate method for persuasion for the common folk and so it is not found in the Qur’an.”[xvi] Averroes is not content with simply discerning the various methods and approaches to the Religious Law but “is interested in pursuing this issue into the discussion of the natures of the rational powers of individuals as they pursue the understanding of the religious Law.”[xvii] He believes that the three ways of assent make it possible for everyone to adhere to God’s word and that each path provides the believer with the same level of “personal certainty and firmness of belief in matters of Religious Law”[xviii] although they are “not equal in their ability to gain access to the truth by which they will be able to give their assent”.[xix] Rhetorical discourse exploits available means to persuasion and builds on the arguments most suitable for convincing an audience of a given point. Generally speaking, people who are swayed thus will hold beliefs that are subject to chance with regard to their truth; just as a being on a raft on the ocean, they will drift where the strongest wind takes them and if they reach land they can consider themselves fortunate. The same goes for their beliefs; if they are true they merely happen to coincide with the truth. Averroes treads carefully when it comes to the issue of rhetorical persuasion. Although it is concerned with “forms of outward show and intended to affect the audience” and even the “corruption of the audience”[xx] as Aristotle put it, he recognizes its political importance for the Muslim community and is content with not driving his critique too far as it would ultimately cast “doubt [on] the merits of Muhammad’s rhetorics.”[xxi] After all, God had given Muhammad the task of exhorting people rhetorically to confess to Islam and it was widely believed that this permission was extended to figures of religious authority to educate and persuade people about the Word of God.[xxii] Even though messages for the masses are best delivered by rhetorical arguments, their premises are chosen without regard to what is truly well-known and based upon “prevailing unexamined opinion”.[xxiii] Rhetorical arguments and conclusions do therefore not amount to substantial or clear understanding.
Acceptance of dialectical argumentation is on a higher intellectual level than that of rhetorical persuasion. Dialectical conclusions are reached through argumentative process with a mediated consensus or a decisive ruling that ensues from widely held assumptions based upon commons sense or traditional beliefs. Arriving at the truth in this manner is likewise merely accidental because the inquiry is based on an uncertain foundation and procedure which is likely to render the whole enterprise futile from the beginning. Assent by demonstration differs dramatically from the former two as it proceeds from certain premises through sound syllogisms to conclusions which are beyond doubt. The acquisition of knowledge of the religious law, i.e. a logical conclusion based on a certain foundation, is neither required of nor within reach of every believer. Most people are not able to live up to the high standard of the demonstrative class because demonstration is “so hard to learn and takes so much time [even] for those who are qualified to learn”.[xxiv] Only those with the required intellectual capacity and training are able to understand God’s revelation with certainty when it comes to establishing the correct interpretation of scripture or the appropriateness of exploring the inner meaning of the Qur’an along with the apparent. Averroes asserts that “[f]or if the precious Book is inspected, there will be found in it the three methods that are available for all people, [namely] the common methods for the instruction of the majority of the people and the special method.”[xxv] He does not ground the division of epistemic assent in Qur’anic passages like the commands to study philosophy but infers it from the compatibility of the empirical observation that assent is on different intellectual levels with the universal intention of the Law.
According to Averroes, “Scripture is divided into apparent and inner meanings: the apparent meaning consists of those images that are coined to stand for those ideas, while the inner meaning is those ideas [themselves], which are clear only to the demonstrative class.”[xxvi] The two modes of meaning were included in the Law by providential arrangement “to suit people’s diverse intelligence” and if contradictions appear they are simply meant to “stimulate the learned to deeper study.”[xxvii] Demonstrative truth and scriptural truth cannot conflict because religion which is true encourages study which leads to the truth, “for truth does not oppose truth but accords with it and bears witness to it.”[xxviii] The unity of truth principle excludes the possibility of double or multiple truths to be found and asserts that the religious law and philosophical demonstration “must be in agreement at the level of ultimate truth of statements and propositions about reality.”[xxix] Averroes seems to have borrowed the principle from Aristotle without revealing his source as one can imagine his intended non-philosophical readership frowning at the idea that the ultimate justification for doing philosophy was not found in scriptural passages after all, but in the heathen philosophical tradition of the Greeks. He in fact sought many things in Aristotle’s workshop[xxx] in order to reconcile the philosophical treatment of and explication of the Religious Law; its truth has both theoretical and practical connotations as the intention of the Law is to educate humanity, reveal the truth and no less importantly to give instructions of practical issues. It therefore matters not that the majority of people come to assent to the truth of the “practical sphere of action”[xxxi] and are guided towards moral excellence on uncertain grounds, by rhetorical or dialectical persuasion. The Law is true, no matter what path the believer takes to assent to it.
Returning to the theoretical level however, the sphere of absolute and necessary truth, if the apparent meaning of the scripture conflicts with demonstrative conclusions the solution is found in interpreting the former allegorically, by “extension of the significance of an expression from real to metaphorical significance”.[xxxii] Even the speculative theologians cannot refrain from interpreting allegorically, for a superficial reading of the scripture does not treat God as the sole existing entity at the time of the world’s creation.[xxxiii] Scriptural assertions like these cannot be taken as literal truths because being logically inconsistent they would entail the break up of the unity of truth. Access to the inner meaning of the scriptures is restricted to the learned and “someone who is not a man of learning in this field and who is incapable of understanding it” should be content with his apparent understanding and the learned should not disclose metaphorical interpretation to him.[xxxiv] Allegorical interpretation for him is unbelief as it leads to unbelief: “To explain the inner meaning to people unable to understand it is to destroy their belief in the apparent meaning without putting anything in its place.”[xxxv] The majority of the religious community is not barred from the truth because of their shortcomings, but its members must refrain from digging beneath the surface.
The inescapable implications of Averroes’ view of logical syllogism as the “primary structure for human understanding of truth”[xxxvi] are that philosophy reigns supreme in matters of religious interpretation. If interpretations of the Law are in conflict with logical demonstration “the former must give way to the latter, not because the truth of the religious Law has been contradicted but rather because the truth of the interpretation of the Religious Law has been contradicted.”[xxxvii] On questions of the highest ambiguity or difficulty of interpretation the “qualified judge of his subject is excused by God, while error by an unqualified person is not excused.”[xxxviii] One often thinks that ignorance can reduce the severity of misconduct but the opposite holds for Averroes with regard to interpretation of the scriptures.[xxxix]
Men qualified in their field who disagree in matters of interpretation will either gain merit if they are right or be excused if they are in error, for assent is a matter of compulsion arising of indication in the soul; “it is not for us [to choose] not to assent or to assent as it is to stand up or not to stand up.”[xl] A man who has formed an erroneous interpretation “as a result of consideration that has occurred to him”[xli] is excusable if he is a scholar but sinful otherwise. Averroes regards allegorical interpretation as a delicate matter and asserts that it must be performed within the constraints of fundamental principles and truths which are accessible by all methods of assenting to the truth: “When it happens […] that we know the thing itself by the three methods we do not need to coin images of it and it remains true in its apparent meaning, not admitting allegorical interpretation.”[xlii] The roots, which may not be touched upon by allegorical elucidation but must be taken in their apparent meaning by learned and laity alike, are the existence of God, Muhammad’s prophetic mission and the prospects of happiness or misery in the afterlife. These principles form the bedrock of the Islamic faith on which the Divine Law rests upon: “To be interpreted, the divine law must first exist. To exist, its roots must be solidly embedded in the mind of the believer.”[xliii]
Averroes maintains that the need for allegorical interpretation of the Qur’an rises when apparent reading goes against demonstrative conclusions, but discernment of an inner meaning in the apparent is in itself not an exercise in logic, it “cannot be demonstrative because it is a non-demonstrative procedure of identifying the meaning of symbols.”[xliv] It is important to stress that he did not hold that the philosophers were the ultimate judges of the inner meaning of all sacred texts for there are texts over which there is uncertainty whether they must be interpreted allegorically or not[xlv] and there is plenty of room for disagreement on those texts that allow for metaphorical explanation among competent interpreters.[xlvi] Nor did he think that metaphorical meaning could not be conceived of by those who were not seasoned logicians, but rather that the philosophers could do so safely and thus evading unbelief and factionalism. Averroes contends that careless the practice of allegorical interpretation is to blame for hostile sects rising within Islam. False interpretations (made by the Ash’arites and the Mu’tazilites) and the supposition that everyone should be exposed to allegorical understanding of scripture resulted in opposing groups throwing people into mutual hatred, each side accusing the other of unbelief or heresy. The failure to realize “the aim of the Legislator” and that it is possible to come to assent to the Law in more ways than one resulted in discord and civil strife.[xlvii]
The philosophers posses as Richard Taylor has suggested[xlviii] the power to veto or override incoherent interpretations of the Law. Philosophy is supposed to act as a cutoff device on excessive allegorical interpretation that cannot withstand comparison with demonstrative conclusions. Logical necessity is not the only part of the boundaries within which the interpretative activity must take place as Averroes clearly states that the roots of Islam, the basic truths without which one cannot consider oneself to a be a Muslim can and may not be subject to metaphorical interpretation, “[y]et nothing proves the truth of such matters, not even calling them roots. Clearly, though, one can deny them only by rejecting the primacy of the divine Law, that is by rejecting the basic framework of the treatise.”[xlix] Even if we held on to the primacy of the Law and regarded its truth being guaranteed by divine revelation, Averroes’ choice of fundamental truths which must be outside the reach of a metaphorical interpretation needs justification. If the philosopher as a competent interpreter is to respect Averroes’ ruling and uphold the limits he set for allegory he must understand its validity; what makes some beliefs untouchable while others are not. Surely most believers would recognize the roots as core beliefs but what makes them merit the status of foundations is unfortunately not adequately explained in the Treatise as he does not elaborate on how the roots are known in themselves by the three ways of assent. In his Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes goes to great lengths to defend Alfarabi’s and Avicenna’s philosophical handling of highly sensitive traditional Islamic beliefs, such as the creation of the world, God’s knowledge and bodily resurrection. They are beliefs which these peripatetic philosophers did not think logically consistent and for which Al-Ghazali charged them of unbelief saying that their views were “in no way compatible with Islam.”[l]We must therefore wonder how Averroes’ foundational beliefs are different from the beliefs mentioned above and drove Al-Ghazali to write the Incoherence of the Philosophers.Much effort goes into refuting Al-Ghazali (and some common contentions made by the dialectic theologians) within the Treatise and Averroes states that the philosophers’ view of God’s eternal knowledge, which is the “source of the difficulties regarding the creation of the world and bodily resurrection”,[li] is in the spirit of Islam as it asserts the difference between mortal knowledge of particulars and divine knowledge “of both particulars and universals […] in being the cause, not an effect, of the object known.”[lii] Thus Averroes claims it to be utter ignorance and philosophical impotence on behalf of Al-Ghazali and those who follow him to “identify the essences and properties of opposing things” and their qualms with the idea of the pre-eternity of the world can be on closer inspection reduced to a minor “disagreement about naming.”[liii] The roots are however not explicated to the same extent and we are left in the dark with regard to their demonstrative soundness. Averroes makes do with asserting their foundational status by saying that they are accessible through each way of assent. That suggests that the roots are either untouchable because they have been demonstrated or that they are rational first principles but he argues for neither. If he is able to demonstrate their truth by syllogism he has a reason for refraining from disclosing it in the Treatise, as it is a legal ruling and not a demonstrative work: He is observing his own ruling by not going into the details of these beliefs. But ultimately the boundaries of allegorical interpretation rely on a promise that isn’t fulfilled and so this aspect of his ruling does not have much force philosophically speaking. Averroes’ evasion of delivering a logical conclusion suggest that the need for boundaries is just as political as it is philosophical in nature. His concerns in the Treatise are practical as well as theoretical as he points out the social consequences of irresponsible interpretation. The community of believers needs conformity and stability in the face of factionalist rivalry and discord and fixed revealed truths for orientation and clear guidelines on what counts as unbelief are appropriate to that effect. Although Averroes allows some room for disagreement among philosophers with regard to allegorical interpretation he sees the need to prevent all believers from straying too far from traditional orthodox belief. He does not want the Qur’an commanding the study of philosophy if philosophy is turned against it and used to refute it on a fundamental level, inviting communal instability. “[H]e will therefore take into account, unite or harmonize the interests of the divine law, of philosophy and of the prince”[liv], whose duty it is to uphold the law and safeguard peace and unity. It is no surprise that “no one is excused for the error of interpreting these texts allegorically.”[lv] Unless there is unanimous assent to the validity of the foundations of the Islamic community within it, “there can be no community.”[lvi]
Aristotle. On rhetorics: a theory of civic discourse. Trasl. George A Kennedy. Oxford University Press: New York. 2007.
Butterworth, Charles E. “The Source that Nourishes, Averroes’s Decisive Determination”. Arabic Sciences and Philosophy vol. 5 (1995): 93 – 119.
Butterworth, Charles E. “Rhetoric and Islamic Political Philosophy”. International Journal of Middle East Studies 3 (1972), 187-98.
Cropsey, Joseph. Ancients and Moderns – Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss. Basic Books: New York / London. 1964.
McGinnis, J & D.C. Reisman. Classical Arabic Philosophy: an Anthology of Sources. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis / Cambridge. 2007.
Marmura, Michael E. Islamic Theology and Philosophy. State University of New York Press: Albany. 1984
Taylor, Richard C. ““Truth Does Not Contradict Truth: Averroes and the Unity of Truth”. Topoi 19 (2000): 3 – 16.
[i] Cropsey 1964: 118 -119.
[ii] Marmura, 1984: 188 – 189.
[iii] Butterworth, “The Source that Nourishes”, 97.
[iv] See Marmura, 1984, p. 201: “Averroes’ conclusions cannot, without further specification, be considered “determinations” at all; for he merely says “perhaps” or “sometimes” these things must be done.”
[v] McGinnis & Reisman, The Decisive Tretise: 3.
[vi] Ibid: 3.
[vii] Ibid: 3-4.
[viii] An example of the Qur’anic verses quoted: “Reflect, you [who] have vision”, “Have they not studied the kingdom of the heavens and the Earth and whatever things God has created?” and “they give thought to the creation of the heavens and the Earth.”
[ix] Taylor, “Truth Does Not Contradict Truth: Averroes and the Unity of Truth” , 3.
[x] The parallel Averroes makes between philosophy and jurisprudence is understandable as his intended readerships consists of fellow jurists.
[xi] McGinnis & Reisman, The Decisive Treatise: 6.
[xii] Ibid: 4.
[xiii] Ibid: 10
[xiv] Ibid: 16.
[xv] Marmura 1984: 190. Mahdi asks: “If the divine law intended that its adherents pursue demonstrative science (if its intention, as [Averroes] says at the end of his solution, is the same as that which the Ancients meant to accomplish in their books), then why did the divine law not follow the method followed by the Ancients in their books and instruct its adherents in demonstrative science?”
[xvi] Adamson & Taylor 2005: ch. 9.
[xvii] Taylor, “Truth Does Not Contradict Truth: Averroes and the Unity of Truth”, 4.
[xviii] Ibid: 5.
[xix] Ibid: 5.
[xx] Aristotle, 2007: 195 – 196.
[xxi] Marmura 1984, 134.
[xxii] Butterworth, “Rhetoric and Islamic Political Philosophy”, 190.
[xxiii] Marmura 1984: 132.
[xxiv] McGinnis & Reisman, The Decisive Treatise: 54.
[xxv] Ibid: 70.
[xxvi] Ibid: 42.
[xxvii] Ibid: 21.
[xxviii] Ibid: 18
[xxix] Taylor,“Truth Does Not Contradict Truth: Averroes and the Unity of Truth”, 6.
[xxx] See ibid: 7-8. Taylor argues that the unity of truth principle is taken from De Anima and the distinction of theoretical and practical knoledge from his Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphsics.
[xxxi] Ibid: 8.
[xxxii] McGinnis & Reisman, The Decisive Treatise: 19.
[xxxiii] See ibid: 36 & 37. Apparent reading of verse (11.7) indicates that “God’s throne” and the “water” were already in existence when He created the world, which compromises God’s priority to his creation.
[xxxiv] Ibid: 24.
[xxxv] Ibid: 59.3.
[xxxvi] Taylor, “Truth Does Not Contradict Truth: Averroes and the Unity of Truth”, 7.
[xxxvii] Ibid: 11.
[xxxviii] McGinnis & Reisman, The Decisive Treatise: 37.
[xxxix] Ibid: 44.
[xl] Ibid: 38.
[xli] Ibid: 38.
[xlii] Ibid: 43.
[xliii] Marmura, 1984: 194.
[xliv] Taylor, “Truth does not Contradict Truth: Averroes and the Unity of Truth”, 8.
[xlv] McGinnis & Reisman, The Decisive Treatise, 39.
[xlvi] Ibid: 45.
[xlvii] Ibid: 66-69.
[xlviii] Taylor, “Truth does not Contradict Truth: Averroes and the Unity of Truth”, 9.
[xlix] Butterworth, “The Source that Nourishes”, 107.
[l] Cropsey 1964: 122.
[li] Ibid: 123.
[lii] McGinnis & Reisman, The Decisive Treatise: 28.
[liii] Ibid: 31.
[liv] Cropsey 1964: 125.
[lv] Ibid: 39.
[lvi] Butterworth, “The Source that Nourishes”, 107.