The end of epistemology

Still, Ibn Taymiyya is himself not the most helpful guide for unpacking how much can be fitted into his concept of al-kalaam al-musta'mal, or ''discourse in use'', or for that matter into the notion of intention insofar as the latter applies to divine speech. In his view, linguistic use is a thoroughly empirical notion. For divine discourse is linked with human language by a world of shared human experience which underlies both. As he says, ''the expression 'experience' (tajriba) is used for what a person surveys with thought as well as with sense'',34 inasmuch as ''in human action every sensation is tied to intellectual thought (kull al-hiss al-maqrun bi'l-'aql min fi'l al-insan)''.35

From the standpoint of Ghazali's thinking in the Niche of Lights this means that Ibn Taymiyya's ''discourse in use'' restricts itself to only one level of meaning, the meaning revealed in the material world. But the same is true for Ghazali's ''inner speech''. Its domain of reference is the same world. But the possible range of meaning (ma'ani) nevertheless extends beyond that domain. For this world (al-mulk wa'l-shahada) ''parallel[s] the world of malakut [the immaterial world of divine royalty]''36 and ''there is nothing in the former that is not a representation [mithal] for something in the latter''.37 But he adds that ''one thing perhaps is a mithal for several things in the world of malakut; perhaps a single thing in malakut has many representations in the visible world''.38 Hence, ''to enumerate all these representations would call for an exhaustive account of all the entities in both worlds in their entirety''.39 And for this task ''human capacity is inadequate;it does not extend to its comprehension''.40

There are then other possibilities of meaning beyond empirical and rational meaning, since words and sentences can signify realities in the ''world of power'' (jabarut) contiguous to mulk and situated between the latter and malakut. Hence, linguistic signs used in the Qur'an signify not simply because they share with the signs of ordinary language the ability to reflect a common world of experience. They point beyond that world to the ''Preserved Tablet'' (al-lawh al-mahfaz) situated in the realm of malakut. In the final analysis, this suggests that the order of intentions that inform divine discourse cannot be assimilated to ones only expressible in terms of human experience.

In consequence, an epistemology of divine discourse worked out only in terms of logic or even in terms of Ibn Taymiyya's analysis ultimately fails. The picture of divine discourse presented in the Niche does not portray the Qur'an as a static container of meaning. Rather, it is an arena where hearers and readers encounter the divine discourser, a point of ascent (matla') from which fresh meanings can arise. The Qur'an is not an inert and self-contained artefact from the past. Recall that in al-Mustasfa Ghazali says divine discourse (kalam) is ''something a prophet hears from an angel or an angel from God, or a prophet from

God, or a saint (wall) from an angel or the Muslim community from the Prophet''. That is, God's speech has real significance only to an appropriately qualified audience.

The rational thinker is restricted to knowledge ('ilm);but 'ilm is analogical (qiyas). That is, 'ilm emerges from the inferences made between propositions that come in the form of declarative statements or reports (akhbar, sing. khabar). Recall, ''tasdiq only applies to the khabar''. Its ''essential nature (haqiqa) is recognition (i'tiraf) of the existence of what the Messenger has reported (akhbara 'an) about its existence''. In contrast, the attitude of the Muslims at large not qualified by 'ilm is taqlid, or the imitation of established precedents.

However, for those who have reached a full perfection of knowledge through divine bestowal, the ''knowers'' ('arifun)41 or saints (awliya', plural of wall), the epistemological situation shifts. Their mode of hearing divine speech is like that of prophets. Recall that Ghazali in the Mustasfa says that the divine speech heard by Moses had ''no letter nor sound nor language established in such a way that one knows its sense (ma'nahu) through prior cognition of its assigned'' or agreed-upon (muda') meaning. In the Niche, he offers an interpretation of the qur'anic verse where the prophet Moses exclaims ''Lo! I see in the distance a fire'' and says to those around him, ''Perchance I shall bring you a report (khabar) from there or a brand from the fire that you may warm yourselves'' (28:29). Ghazali says that those who ''may warm themselves'' are the ''knowers''. Those who only hear a report or khabar are those who merely follow what it says by rote (taqlid). For ''only a person who has a fire of the prophetic spirit can warm himself, not the one who hears a report (khabar) about fire''.42

For the 'arifun there is no mediation of linguistic sign or symbol. As a result, as Ghazali explains again in the Niche,

The knowers ('arifun) do not need the day of resurrection to hear the Creator's proclamation, ''Whose is the kingdom today? It belongs to the One, the Overwhelming'' [40:16]. On the contrary, this proclamation never leaves their hearing. They do not understand the saying, ''God is greater'' to mean that He is greater than other things ... For there is nothing in existence along with Him than which He could be greater. Or rather, nothing other than He possesses the degree of ''withness'' (ma'iya);everything possesses ''following after''. In contrast, everything other than God exists only under the description of that which lies next. The only existent thing is His face.43

In support of this last claim Ghazala cites the qur'anic verse, ''Everything is perishing save His face'' (28:88). To him this verse means that ''there is none in existence save God ... since the essence of anything other than He is considered with respect to its essence; it is totally nonexistent''. To those who see nothing in existence except the One, knowledge ('ilm) as tasdaq comes to an end. Its ''essential nature (haqlqa) is recognition (i'tiraf) of the existence of what the Messenger has reported (akhbara 'an) about its existence''. But if everything other than God is non-existent, there is nothing about which one can make such epistemic claims.

The ''knowers'' then ''see nothing in existence except the One, the Real'', that is, God.44 As Ghazala explains, ''Everything has two faces: a face turned towards itself and a face towards God.'' Only ''from the standpoint of its own face, it has no existence''.45 But ''from the standpoint of its face which is towards God, it exists (huwa ... bi' 'tibar wajh Allah mawjud)'', or ''is found there''. ''From the standpoint of its own face'' includes also the self. ''For he [sc. the 'arif] is aware neither of himself ... nor of any absence of awareness of himself'', inasmuch as ''awareness of unawareness is yet an awareness of self''. They have arrived at the level of total self-extinction (fanaa'). So at the level of ''withness'', spatiotemporal proximity and distance have no meaning. Everything arising from God's existence is perceived as equidistant from its ontological source. That is why he says that God's proclamation to the 'aarifuan ''never leaves their hearing'' and their position thus differs from the 'ulama' or rational thinkers and the rest of the Muslim community. The latter hear divine discourse mediated by a report like a man who says, ''I heard the poet Mutanabba'', and means by his claim that he heard Mutanabba's poetry being recited by someone.46

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