Erasing the line between literal and Ficural meaning

But if ''a word (lafz) is never used alone (mutlaqan)'', that is, without a context, one must reject a symmetric priority of literal over figural meaning. When, for example, we hear the metonymic statement ''The fish and chips wants his bill'' it is literal when used by waiters in the context of a restaurant. If this is so, why is the metonymic phrase ''Ask the village where we were ...'' (12:82) any less literal when encountered in the Qur'an? Readers and hearers of divine discourse determine the meaning of its expressions from information arising from its context of use (isti'mal).

Ibn Taymiyya claims to trace his stance back to Abu 'Ubayda Ma'mar ibn Muthanna (d. c. 824), who observed in his Metaphor in the Qur'an (Majaz al-Qur'an) that since the Qur'an has been revealed in ''clear Arabic speech'' the forefathers and those to whom [God's] revelations from the Prophet were revealed did not need to inquire about its shades of meaning; for they were speakers of Arabic, and so could dispense with inquiring about its shades of meaning and about whatever it contains due to their immediate understanding of it.28

For Ibn Taymiyya, this argues that Muslims originally had no recourse to anything other than the very words God Himself uses in interpreting the Qur'an. For with the utterance of words, in his view, goes also how they are to be taken. No qur'anic utterance occurs without a specific force. ''There is no part of the Qur'an or the hadith,'' he says, ''that God and His Messenger have not made clear to their hearers and readers in such a way that they would require some other source of information to clarify their meanings.''29

Finally, ''how can one know for certain that the words that the Arabs were using to communicate with each other before and at the time of the Qur'an's revelation had not been used previously to convey different meanings?'' We cannot. Furthermore, if we are ''not certain that such words were not used differently at a previous time, then neither is it possible to know whether they bear a literal meaning in conflict with that upon which [people] have agreed''.30 The literal then may be a metaphor whose original figural sense has simply been forgotten.

Certainly, many lexical items prove to be dead metaphors that were alive and kicking at some time in the past. For an example, he observes that ''the word za'Ina was originally used to refer to a ... camel for riding, after which people came to apply the same word to the woman who rides on the camel's back in a litter''.31 Someone could use ''zalna'' in a true sentence while his contemporaries continued to speak falsehoods with the same words.32 If this is so, then what we call figural speech merely reflects a usage that is so far unfamiliar. We call ''literal'' those words we are able to handle based on our present and past knowledge. What we call ''figural'' then simply reflects our perception of what is unsuitable for use in any context we have known so far.33 Once this is granted, it seems difficult to maintain that there exists a specifically figural as opposed to a literal meaning in divine discourse. But for Ibn Taymiyya literal meaning is all the meaning there is.

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