need of Him, simply in order to be and to act. This ontological situation of total dependence on God's lordship is common to all - believers and unbelievers, libertines and good-doers. In the Qur'an, even the Devil says ''O my Lord!'' to the creator.
To proclaim the unique and exclusive lordship of God and to approach Him from the viewpoint of His rulership does not, however, introduce the real essence of God qua God. In order to do so, one must leave ontology in favour of ethics, and ascribe to God's moral will, which He expresses through revelation, at least as much importance as is to be ascribed to His creative lordly will. Manifestly, the world was not created in vain. Creation, as such, however, is not an end in itself, and there is no self-justification for it. Rather, it is as if creation were nothing but an occasion for revelation, which alone will lead to its completion. Just as the power to create belongs to none but God, He alone is entitled to be served, worshipped, adored, feared and trusted. In other words, it is relative to religion, not metaphysics, and thus beyond His seignioriality, that God's godhead can properly be investigated. Godhead (ilahiyya), the Damascene theologian Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) explains, is not the power to create of a God (al-ilah), understood in the sense of the active participle alih, ''creating''. Al-ilah, ''the God'', is to be understood in the sense of the passive participle al-ma'luh, ''the divinised one'', or ''the divinisable one'', which is to say, He who has the exclusive right to be made divine (uliha) and is the only one entitled to be worshipped and loved.1 It is revelation which, beyond creation, inaugurates such a relation and, by doing so, gives the first all its sense. Beyond the realm of what the Lord creates, the dimension of what God says should be given even more importance, as it is exclusively according to this other uncreated reality that the fullest kind of relation can be developed with the divine. It is revelation that brings some moral distinctions into the created reality, with its commands and its prohibitions, and thus initiates, through religion, the differentiation between good and evil, between virtue and sin, between God's friends and His foes.
However great His creative power would be, a God who would not do anything else and, specifically, would not communicate with humans, would be a remote abstract principle closer to the prime mover of Aristotle's metaphysics than to the God of the Qur'an. The latter has indeed frequently spoken and has been the source of innumerable revelations in different ages. The first man was also the first prophet to whom a revelation was given, as the creation of the world and, a fortiori, of mankind, would not have been accomplished without a further manifestation of God's will, this time the ethical and religious one, beyond his ontological Fiat. Inspired mainly by Plato's political philosophy, Farabi, Avicenna and other classical Muslim philosophers and theologians considered prophethood necessary as a means to establish a just society. In contradistinction to this, the necessity of revelation, and of a divine accompaniment throughout the history of mankind by means of revealed scriptures, prior to sealing prophethood with Muhammad, is in Islam a dogma directly related to a proper understanding of the nature of God Himself.
The Qur'an refers to different types of revelation or divine speech, not all of which can be linked to prophethood. ''And your Lord revealed (awha) to the bee: 'Build your homes in the mountains''' (i6:68);''And We revealed (awhayni) to the mother of Moses: 'Suckle him!''' (28:7); ''And when I revealed (awhaytu) to the Apostles: 'Believe in Me and in My messenger!''' (5:iii);''On that Day, the Earth will tell her news: for that your Lord will give her a revelation (awha)'' (99:5). Concerning such processes in which God addresses the earth, animals or some humans who are not prophets in order to give them instructions, Ibn Taymiyya speaks of an ''equivocal'' (mushtarak) form of revelation which is its lowest form.2 This nevertheless demonstrates that God continues to intervene in the world after its creation not just ontologically but with His words, which are evidently not exclusively reserved for prophets.
This being so, it would be a mistake to expect the divine revelation typically to be communicated directly to every human being, through his or her reason, for example. Such a possibility was envisaged by the famous philosopher and physician Abu Bakr al-Razi (d. 925 or 935). As a theist denouncing all historical prophets as impostors, he trusted human reason to be the most appropriate vehicle for God's ethical will. This rationalisation and universal dilution of revelation was, however, deemed as extreme as the simple negation of the phenomenon would also have been, and Rizi's views were unanimously condemned. Preferring once again to follow a via media, the orthodox doctrine thus remained one of a revelation essentially passing through a finite number of prophets or lawgiving messengers, elected by God so as to act as intermediaries between Him and His servants. The modalities of this process of prophetic revelation are alluded to in Qur'an 42:51: ''It is not granted to any human that God should speak to him except through revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal, with His permission, whatever He wills.''
According to Ibn Taymiyya, the three ways God speaks to a man can be understood in the following manner. First, inspiration (ilhim) in the awakened state or during sleep: the true vision of a prophet is indeed a kind of revelation. Secondly, words addressed from behind a veil, as was the case with Moses, when God called him at Sinai, made him draw near to Him and spoke to him but did not let him see Him (Qur'an 19:52; 7:143). Finally, words that God communicates by sending an angelic messenger who reveals, with His permission, whatever He wills. Concerning this last mode of revelation, the Qur'an says: ''It rests upon Us to assemble it and to produce it; and when We produce it, follow its production'' (75:17-18). Exegetes sometimes diverged in their interpretation of the various elements of this verse. Nevertheless they all agreed on God's authorship of the message and on Gabriel's involvement in its communication. According to a famous Companion, Ibn 'Abbaas, ''and when We produce it'' referred to the archangel's reading of the revelation to the Prophet. As for ''follow its production'', Ibn Taymiyya understands it to mean, ''Listen to it until Gabriel finishes reading it!''3
The revelation of the Qur'an itself spread over some twenty-three years (609-32 ce). It all started during a month of Ramadan, during a spiritual retreat of Muhammad on Mount Hiraa', outside Mecca. Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and then taught him the first verses of sura 96. According to 'A'isha, reporting directly from the Prophet whom she would later marry, it happened in the following way:
The angel came to the Prophet and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, ''I do not know how to read.'' The Prophet added, ''The angel then caught me and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read, and I replied, 'I do not know how to read.' Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, 'I do not know how to read (or what shall I read?).' Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, 'Read in the name of your Lord, who has created [all that exists], has created man from a clot. Read!, and your Lord is the Most Generous.'''4
Following a pause, during which the Prophet became depressed to the point of considering suicide, revelation resumed with the sending down of sura 74, or 93. It then came upon the Prophet frequently and regularly until the end of his life, and under the most diverse circumstances, sometimes when he was asked for an opinion or a decision, or while he was riding, or was eating or preaching. According to his own reports, revelation sometimes came to him as a sound, of metal being beaten, of bees humming near his face, or the ringing of a bell. ''This kind is the most painful,'' he recalled. ''When it ceases, I retain what was said.''5 It could also be an angel speaking to him as a man whose words he would retain. Or revelation would approach him in the form of a young man handing it down to him. For people around the Prophet, it was easy to become aware that something extraordinary was going on. He could start shaking his head as if he tried to understand what was said to him, or (until he was told not to do so by 75:16) he moved his lips as soon as the revelation began. Even on very cold days, sweat dripped from his forehead. Sometimes his colour grew livid or he fell into a lethargy, swoon or trance. It was obvious that receiving revelation could cause him great pain and suffering. When he received 4:97, his thigh pressed so heavily upon that of the companion sitting next to him that the latter feared it would break. On one occasion when the Qur'an came down upon him while he was riding, the beast became unable to bear the weight, so he had to descend from it.
The peculiarities of the qur'anic revelation process just depicted triggered important theological and social developments.
A first question could have been phrased, ''Who is speaking?'' As recorded by the Qur'an, the Prophet's fellow Meccans accused him of being majnun, a madman possessed by a jinn (15:6; 26:2; 37:36, etc.). God Himself confirmed that this was not the case: ''So, remind [people]: by the grace of your Lord, you are neither an oracle nor possessed by a jinn!'' (52:29; also 68:2; 81:22). And for the few scholars accepting the historicity of the incident of the ''satanic verses'', as soon as the Devil started interfering with the transmission of the revelation, the Prophet was warned by God and thus protected (ma'sum) from persistence in sinning.6 For some theologians, al-Hallaj, the controversial mystic executed in Baghdad in 922 for saying, ''I am God'', had experienced satanic states and was indeed possessed by a jinn. To claim - as people favourable to him do - that it was God who was speaking for him when he uttered his famous saying would be pure unbelief: God does not speak for a man as jinns speak by possessing epileptics and using their tongues. Similarly, when Pharaoh, as narrated in the Qur'an (79:24), said, ''I am your highest lord!'', God was not speaking through his mouth. This being so, could it ever be said that God is speaking through Muhammad? If what is meant thereby is that God inhabits His Prophet, absolutely not! God does not dwell within humanity and does not speak for a man, through his tongue. If, on the other hand, what is meant is that God sends with His words messengers who say for Him what He orders them to communicate, then this is the proper understanding of revelation in Islam. God speaks through His messenger, through his mouth and tongue, in the specific sense that the prophet speaks on His behalf. Between the extremes of possession and incarnation, there is room for a truly prophetic understanding of revelation, without the person chosen to receive and transmit the message losing any dimension of his humanity or becoming any kind of supernatural being. Muhammad is the perfect man, but even in the highest spiritual station into which he is introduced by his Lord in order to receive the revelation, he essentially remains His servant. ''He revealed to His servant ('abd) that which He revealed'' (53:10). In no way would receiving revelation ever provide a reason to be associated with God as a partner in His godhead.
The idea of the Prophet speaking in the name of God led early Muslim theologians into a second debate, this time concerning the human or divine nature of the revealed speech itself. What was the part effectively played by the Prophet in the phrasing and wording of the qur'anic revelation? For fifteen years (833-48) the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'muan and his successors imposed the dogma of a created and non-eternal Qur'an promoted by Mu'tazilism. This mihna (ordeal) imposed on the community failed and the vast majority of Muslims have since proclaimed the uncreated and eternal nature of the Qur'an. As this doctrine affirmed, the Messenger thus loses all authorship of the Qur'an. In Islam, the Book is indeed never named after him as, for example, the Gospels bear the names of the Evangelists. With time, the interpretation of the qualificative ummi given to the Prophet in the Qur'an (7:157-8) evolved from its probable original meaning of ''Gentile'' to ''unlettered'', as a further confirmation that he could not possibly have authored it. Moreover, on the thin scriptural basis of a non-unanimously accepted way of reading of the last syllable of sUra 85, greater importance came to be given to the idea of a ''Well-Guarded Tablet'', in which the Qur'an would have been eternally inscribed and preserved. Finally, from the ninth century onwards, insistence was laid on the linguistic and stylistic inimitability, or insuperability (i'jaz), of the Qur'an already affirmed in some of its verses (for example in 17:88) as a way to add strength to the dogma of its exclusively divine nature. For Muslims, the revelation received by the Prophet is really what it says it is and its written copies have to be respected as such: ''This is indeed a noble Qur'an, in a book safeguarded, which none shall touch except the purified, something sent down from the Lord of the Worlds'' (56:77-80).
If the Prophet is so important in the eyes of the Muslims, it is due to his divine election, to his total humility as conveyer of God's speech, and to his perfect, paradigmatic implementation of this message, not because he partakes in its production. In this respect, apart from some modernists, today's Sunnis are still convinced that, in this extraordinary intervention of the transcendent in human history signified by sending down the Qur'an to Muhammad, the part played by God is worthy of infinitely greater consideration than that played by His Prophet.
They notably have no difficulty with psychological analyses of the mental process of reception of a revelation. Long ago, classical Muslim thinkers like Faribi and Avicenna or, in their wake, the theologians Ghazali and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, did not hesitate to explore scientifically the phenomenon of prophecy with the conceptual tools they had developed in studying Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotelian psychology. For Avicenna,7 after a purely immaterial contact between, on the one hand, the soul of the Prophet and, on the other, the angelic intelligence or the heavenly soul in charge of our sublunar world, the mental faculties at work in shaping the revealed message into a human discourse as imaged and evocative as the Qur'an are exactly the same as those active in dreams and follow similar patterns. Only the nature of the original data and, a fortiori, of their ultimate source, is essentially different. Revelation proceeds from the transcendent God whereas, usually, oneiric or psychological realities are to be traced back to particular physiological conditions. As the Prophet was chosen by God Himself, these conditions are optimal in his case, and his psyche perfectly transposes the divine message into the speech most appropriate for his human audience, without any distortion resulting from his mediation. The Prophet's statements and the reports of people close to him on the changes occurring in him and in his physical appearance while he was receiving revelation confirm how his whole self was then mobilised for the operation. It is no wonder that the crescent became the symbol of Islam! Just as the moon illuminates the night by doing nothing but reflecting the light that it receives from the sun, the Prophet draws humans out of darkness by humbly conveying a revelation that, fundamentally, is not his.
Muslims are also not that interested, generally, in a historical criticism of the Qur'an of the type to which the Bible was submitted during recent centuries in the West. They do not ignore, however, the importance of the various circumstances and events in the context of which particular verses and suras were revealed to the Prophet for a proper understanding of his message. During the first centuries of Islam, a science devoted to the study of these occasions when the Qur'an was sent down came into being under the name ''occasions of revelation'' (asbib al-nuzul). Ultimately, in a prophetic religion, it is nevertheless God's involvement in the originating of the revealed Book that seems to deserve all the attention, rather than the extremely modest role man had in the process. By contrast, in an incarnationist religion based on the apotheosis of humans, it is quite logical to expect the interest to shift from the transcendent to humans. Seen from this theological viewpoint, historical criticism of holy scriptures could well follow from a typically Christian concern rather than be a demand for truth of universal value.
Someone believing in the power of ideas to mould the course of history should not underestimate the consequences that the traditional SunnI view of the Qur'an as divine speech, and of the role of the Prophet in its conveying as that of a causa serva only, had on the shaping of Muslim societies. In a religious environment encouraging an unconditional acknowledgement of the sole reality of God and of His exclusive rights, this dispossession of the Messenger from his message, by divinisation of the latter, surely contributed to the emergence of a humanism that could be called, in contradistinction to Nietzsche's ''death of God'', a humanism of the ''extinction of man''. In Islamic history, there are indeed other central cases of such a paradoxical process of divinisation of a human achievement or reality to man's own detriment. One thinks, for example, of the famous answer of the great Sufi master al-BastImI (ninth century) to a person knocking on his door and asking, ''Abu Yazld, are you there?'': ''There is nobody here but God!'' Al-Ash'arl, one of the most representative theologians of mainstream SunnI orthodoxy, could also be referred to as he denies man's agency and calls his actions ''creations of God''. In both instances, humans in some way acquire a divine status but themselves become extinct and disappear.
A third important question resulting from the specificities of the sending down of the Qur'an has to do with the fact that it was done in Arabic. For the contemporary Arab poet Adonis, the Qur'an, as of its oral state, had been perceived by the Arabs as a linguistic shock. They were conquered by the beauty of its language and the innovativeness of its aesthetics. This language was the key opening the gates that were to bring adhesion to a new religion: that of Islam. This is why it is impossible to trace a line of demarcation between Islam and the Arabic language. One can say that the first Muslims, those who constituted the hard core of the new religion, adhered to the Qur'an not because they found in it the explanation of the mysteries of the universe or of the human being, or a new system of life, but because they saw in it a model of eloquence and a hitherto unknown and unanticipated form of writing. It is the language which transformed their interior being, and it is this which changed their lives.8
This judgement is of course excessive. The substantial, intrinsic bond that it points to between the revelation sent down upon Muhammad and the Arabic language is nevertheless a fact underlined in the Qur'an itself. ''We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an, in order that you may think'' (12:2). ''With it came down the Truthful Spirit, upon your heart, that you may be among the warners, in plain Arabic language'' (26:193-5). ''Thus We revealed to you an Arabic Qur'an'' (42:7). For a theology dreading all anthropomorphist approaches to the divine essence, a God who speaks is already something of a conundrum; a fortiori when the divine speech is so indivisibly attached to a particular language. Rather than a chosen people, would God have a chosen language, in this case Arabic?
What is certain is that sciences of the Arabic language and its use in the Qur'an - grammar, lexicography, rhetoric, the science of the proper enunciation of Arabic letters and of the various readings traditionally accepted for some parts of the Book, the science of writing even - all became central sciences of the religion. As Ghazali writes, ''in themselves, linguistic science and syntax are not of the sacred sciences, but it has become necessary to engage in their study because of the law since this law has come in the language of the Arabs''.9 Apologetic justifications for God's choice of Arabic rather than any other idiom were also discovered through a comparative study of the qualities and merits of languages. For al-Shafi'i, ''of all tongues, that of the Arabs is the richest and the most extensive in vocabulary''. For Ibn Taymiyya, Arabic is far superior to the Greek language so praised by the philosophers whom he attacks, because of ''its [ability] to express detailed meanings and to distinguish between the subtle ones and the main ones by special terms that enunciate the truth. In perfection, it is followed by the Hebrew language. So, where [can one find] this in the case of the language of your barbaric companions, who carry on using long terms while what is meant is light?''10
That its signifier is such an important part of its signified contributes in making the Qur'an a much richer reality than a mere book to be read and studied. Of course, even before being a scripture, the revelation sent down to Muhammad is a speech. And as God Himself explains, the words of this speech operate in many ways. They are not supposed to affect minds only. ''They only are the believers whose hearts tremble with fear when God is mentioned. When His verses are recited to them, they make their faith increase and they put their trust in their Lord'' (8:2). ''When the verses of the Compassionate are recited to them, they fall down in prostrate adoration, weeping'' (19:58). ''God has sent down the most beautiful speech as a Scripture ... whereat the skins of those in awe of their Lord shiver, and then their skins and their hearts soften to God's remembrance'' (39:23). ''We send down, as the Qur'an, something that is a healing and a mercy for the believers'' (17:82). This healing power of the revelation is understood literally by many, not just spiritually. The qur'an was thus sometimes also used physically for curing ailments: a piece of paper with a qur'anic inscription was dipped into water; once the ink was diluted, the qur'anically enriched water was drunk. By means of amulets, talismanic shirts and other artefacts covered with qur'anic inscriptions, often in conjunction with astrological or magical devices or practices, the revelation came to be put to all kinds of uses, not always strictly orthodox. By procedures reminiscent of the Cabbala, the letters of the Arabic alphabet and their numerical values themselves played an important role in Muslim mysticism, esotericism and the divinatory arts. This is particularly true of the seventy-eight ''mysterious'' letters opening twenty-nine of the qur'anic suras (2-3, 7, 10-15, J9-2o, 26-32, 36, 38, 40-6, 50, 68) and which, once they are reduced to the fourteen of which they are combinations, represent the various basic consonantal forms of written Arabic, hence of the whole Arabic alphabet.11
The fact that through qur'anic psalmody and calligraphy the most manifest ways of celebrating God's revelation have given rise to arts that are among the most representative of Islam, if not the two major Islamic arts, is also to be explained as an aspect of what the Algerian Malek Bennabi rightly called ''the Qur'anic phenomenon''. Be it through architecture, decorative arts, the media or other aspects of everyday life, the divine revelation conveyed in Arabic by the Prophet continues to be as present in the public sphere as it is in the hearts of the millions of those who, in their childhood, learn it by heart, often entirely. And just as Arabic is per se part of the Qur'an, the latter impregnates it to the point of making it impossible for non-Muslim Arabic-speakers not to be, in some way, linguistically Islamised.
There are some differences of opinion between Muslim scholarship and serious Orientalists on the way the revelations received by Muhammad over twenty-three years were collected during his lifetime and soon afterwards recorded in a written form. All, however, agree in acknowledging two amazing facts: the rapidity of the process which led to the production of the so-called vulgate of 'Uthmian, the third caliph (d. 656), and the total invariability of this vulgate over the centuries. This second fact deserves more attention here, as it had directly theological connotations, with important societal implications.
The Arabic script, in manuscripts of the Qur'an, evolved greatly towards a more precise and detailed notation of several consonants with dots, vowels and peculiarities in the pronunciation of some letters. As a uniform way of reciting various passages of the text never achieved unanimity, a certain number of readings received a canonical status. However, this evolution and this multiplicity never jeopardised the permanence of the vulgate's organisation and content as they had been defined during the time of the Prophet and of his Companions, without a single word of the Qur'an being deleted, added or changed in fourteen centuries. As God had stated: ''It was We who sent down the Reminder, and We will be preserving it'' (15:9). In fact, just as the creation and the religion in general belong to God, so does His speech. And just as the Prophet conveyed the message without interfering with it, no man after him had any right to change it in any way. For some theologians, this notably meant that, apart from what the Prophet himself said, there was no better way of speaking about God - and therefore no better theology -than quoting what God Himself says about Himself in the Qur'an. Even for less exclusively scripturalist scholars, it also meant that nothing valid could be said concerning the creed and practice of Islam in any idiom other than Arabic, with the obvious consequence that a translation of the Qur'an is not the Qur'an. At best, a translation may be considered an essay to render its meanings, with all the other essential aspects of the qur'anic reality already alluded to being lost in the process. Once more, the situation is reminiscent of the Jewish Bible rather than of the Bible known to Christians.
The sacral nature and irreplaceability of the language of the revelation in Islam undoubtedly helped in the shaping of Muslim societies, especially Arabic-speaking ones. With the Qur'an, it was also, indeed, a linguistic norm that Muslims started integrating into their lives and communities. They of course disobeyed it often, and Arabic dialects were - and are still - spoken here and there. As for replacing this norm by another, nothing less than the revelation itself made it impossible. Nowhere was any of these dialects ever accorded a status that would have enabled it to replace qur'anic Arabic, with the revelation being ''translated'' into it, thereby sacralising it, and thus paving the way for a nationalistic division of the umma. One would search in vain for an
Islamic equivalent either of Luther's German Bible or of King James's Authorised Version.
The presence of rhyme, assonanced prose, regularly repeated formulas, and even refrains characterises the style of the Qur'an. Sometimes the revelation takes the form of oaths, curses or threats, praise formulas, prayers, declarations or articles of faith, rhetorical questions, statements resolving disputed matters or interrogations, commands and prohibitions, regulations and prescriptions, narratives and parables. Among other things, various accounts are proposed of the history of past prophets - Biblical or not - messengers, cities and peoples. Attention is drawn towards the signs of God manifest in His creation - man as well as nature and the cosmos. Vivid or dramatic depictions are given of human origins, of death and of eschatological realities. The way is paved for the organisation of the individual and collective lives of the believers, as well as of their relations with other religious communities, in particular Judaism and Christianity. Various passages relate exclusively to Muhammad or concern the revealed Book itself.
This multiplicity of styles, literary forms and content of the Qur'an made it an urgent requirement, among theologians, Sufis and even philosophers, to define a rule for its interpretation. How was it possible to make sense of such a diversity? What in fact were God's intentions in sending down such a revelation? How were the ''reminding'', the ''warning'', the invitation to ''think and reflect'', the ''teaching'' and the ''guidance leading out from darkness towards the light'' repeatedly evoked in the new scripture to be effectively understood? Was the revelation a call to some knowledge of an esoteric type, or mainly a pragmatic message aimed at establishing an ethical order within human societies? Could symbols opening to inner, esoteric truths be found in it? Alternatively, was it an exhaustive exposition of the religion to be followed literally, without going beyond its outer meaning? The way Islam would develop as a comprehensive system of life depended on the kinds of answer given to these hermeneutical questions.
One of the most interesting and radical positions was adopted by Avicenna in a short but seminal work, the influence of which can be felt in later debates on the subject. ''Concerning the law'', the Iranian philosopher wrote, ''one ought to know one single rule [qanun], that is, that what is wanted by the law and religion that have come to us through the tongue of any of the prophets is to address all the crowd.'' It is ''to address the crowd about things that they understand, bringing things that they do not understand closer to their imaginations by striking likenesses and similitudes. If matters were otherwise, the laws would be of no use at all.'' Asking the vulgum pecus to believe in truths that it would not be able to grasp would lead it into doctrinal discussions dangerous to the public order and the stability of human societies. With its apparent anthropomorphisms about God and its physical descriptions of the hereafter, the Qur'an has fortunately ''come up with the most eminent and the most perfect things that laws could possibly come up with. It was therefore right for it to be the Seal of the laws and the last of the religions.'' Given its primary audience, ''somebody wanting to be a member of the elite of humans, not of the commonalty'', should realise that ''the outer meaning of the laws cannot be used as an argument'' in matters like eschatology and theology.12
In Avicenna's opinion, God's purpose in sending messengers is thus mainly practical, having to do with collective action and justice rather than with knowledge of the Truth in itself. All forms of scripturally based theology or eschatology consequently become illegitimate and can be dispensed with. Very useful for policymakers, the revelation is of no immediate interest to philosophers able to discover the truth by their own rational means. And it is the philosophers themselves who recognise images of this truth in the letter of the revelation. To claim that the purpose of the outer meaning of the Qur'an is to introduce the commonalty to some esoteric meaning is wrong. Likewise is the idea that it would do so per se.
Esotericism in interpreting the Qur'an nevertheless appealed to many, and still does today. For some, it is not only in doctrinal matters but also in ritual and legal ones that Muslims should deactivate the literality of the revelation in favour of their own interpretations of its real intentions, either for elitist reasons reminiscent of those of Avicenna or, more recently, as esotericism is now giving way to historical relativism, under the influence of modern humanities and ideologies. Yet, the great majority of traditional scholars and ordinary believers reject all essentially utilitarian understandings of the revelation as guidance conceived for mobilising imaginations and to be followed by the populace in its literality but which would be unacceptable as a source of knowledge for defining any kind of creed. First, without denying the infinite semantic depth of the revealed message, they indeed have no epistemological problem in reading it literally and founding their beliefs and practices upon it. According to them, there is, for example, room for a via media between the excesses of the apophatic, negationist, theologies of Mu'tazilism or falsafa and, at the other end of the doctrinal spectrum, the anthropomorphist assimilation of the creator to His creatures. This is the path of mainstream Sunnism which, faithful to clear scriptural and prophetic statements, asserts the reality of the divine names and attributes as well as God's absolute transcendence, acknowledges man's incapacity to grasp the modalities of these aspects of the divine nature and sees no advantage in entering into excessive scholastic discussions about them. Secondly, it is precisely because the manifest meaning of the qur'anic revelation, in its outward appearance accessible to anybody, corresponds so well to the truth knowable to humans that Islam, as Avicenna rightly indicates, is such a successful religion and contributes to the implementation of so much justice and order in human societies. Truth and ethics are not incompatible. On the contrary, they support each other, and the message ''sent down'' upon the Prophet came with both in the most ideal and complete form, reconciling the outer and inner dimensions of reality.
''Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but the Messenger of God and the Seal of the prophets'' (33:40). With the Prophet's death in 632, the sending down of the Qur'an was completed and prophethood was ''sealed'' for ever. Is it nevertheless true that the phenomenon of revelation per se has thereby also come to an end? In fact, an extra-qur'anic form of divine speech can be found in the particular genre of the Prophet's authentic sayings traditionally called ''holy traditions'' (hadath qudsi). These are some ninety sayings, sometimes transmitted in different versions, preserving first-person statements attributed to God by the Prophet, yet not included in the Qur'an. The beginning of a famous example runs: ''O My servants, I have forbidden injustice to Myself and made it forbidden among you.''13 Muhammad's holy hadith confirm that God's revelatory activity is, in his case, not limited to the sending down of the Qur'an. Does, however, such a process of non-scriptural revelation continue after 632?
In cases of indecision over difficult choices, Muslims were advised by the Prophet to let God inspire them during their sleep after a prayer called istikhara, ''search, or request, for what is better''. The Qur'an (2:186) states: ''When My servants question you about Me, I am surely close. I answer the call of the caller when he calls Me.'' The Prophet also affirmed: ''The veridical dream-vision of the believer is one forty-sixth part of prophecy.''14 The Companion 'Ubada ibn al-Samit is credited with the words: ''The dream-vision of the believer is a speech by which the Lord speaks to His servant in his sleep.''15 Important forms of communication in which God speaks to humans do thus still exist after the ''sealing'' of prophethood. Although scholars prefer to analyse them in terms of inspiration (ilham) rather than of revelation (wahy), they can sometimes even be of a relatively prophetic nature. Classical Muslim thinkers developing a philosophical model for the reception of revelation could be expected to show a great interest in such potentialities. They saw in them a confirmation of their theory that the Prophet was in fact extraordinary in that he alone actualised perfectly psychological powers belonging per se to the essence of man, with the consequence that, although Providence did not lead most human beings to live their essence fully, prophethood was seen as consisting, in theory, of powers accessible to everybody.
For people preoccupied by qur'anic hermeneutics, the idea that God can in a way continue to speak to some beyond His last Messenger provided the most welcome solution to their problem. It could indeed mean that, after the historical completion of the sending-down of the Qur'an, it was God Himself who, through individuals whom He chose to inspire, was in charge of guaranteeing the adequate interpretation of the Scripture, the permanence of its performance among His servants, and the Muslim community's final salvation. For Shl'ites, these divinely guided mediators had to belong to the family of the Prophet. Muhammad, God's Messenger, was the city of knowledge, but his cousin and son-in-law, 'All, the Friend (wall), or Saint, of God, was the gate to this city. He knew the true inner meaning of the revelation and, after him, his charisma was transmitted to eleven other Imams among his offspring (the Isma'ilis recognised only seven Imams). A somewhat similar approach to post-Muhammadan divine inspiration also appeared among some later Sufis, with the consequence that they were sometimes accused of promoting a Shi'ism without Imams. Often influenced by Avicennan prophetology, some spiritual masters indeed claimed to be divinely spoken to during their ecstasies and given special sciences or prodigious powers. Also considered Friends (wali) or Saints of God by their followers, they became in their eyes the true heirs to Muhammad, the best interpreters of the qur'anic revelation and the most enlightening guides to follow on the Prophet's path.
Obviously, the further away the true meaning of the Scripture is said to be from its literality, the more indispensable and useful post-Muhammadan mediators can claim to be. From this point of view, the growth of gnosticism and esotericism, either in Shil'ism or in some types of Sufism, did not come as a surprise. However, in none of these particular Islamic ways of thought did the gulf between the Qur'an and its supposedly true meaning - inner or other - widen to the point where the revelation sent down to Muhammad was effectively deposed and replaced by its so-called exegesis, whose author would then become a new prophet or messenger. As soon as such a development took place, as was effectively the case with Baha'ism and Qadiyanism at the end of the classical period, it would inevitably have already excluded itself from Islam.
Mainstream SunnIs have a special respect not only for the Companions of the Prophet but also for his family and all the true Friends of God, the righteous believers who fear Him. This being said, it is mainly through the community itself that they believe that God acts since the completion of the sending-down of the Qur'an and the sealing of prophethood in 632. Dream-visions, divine inspirations, answers to prayers, and, to say it simply, God's ''being with'' (ma'iyya) each of His servants are all true facts. Yet, a sound collective understanding of the revelation, and its continuing implementation in the world on the path traced by the Prophet, are not entrusted by God to any particular group or class of people (charismatic, ecstatic or political), but are the responsibility of the entire umma, animated and counselled by its scholars so as to reach the widest possible forms of consensus (ijma'). ''The consensus of the community'', Ibn Taymiyya writes, ''dispenses with the necessity of the infallibility of imams.'' Or, ''what the Muslims agree on is a truth brought by the Prophet''16 - that is to say, it has the same value as his divine message. Such devolution of responsibility to the believers themselves is all the more logical as SunnIs generally consider the religious message revealed in the Qur'an to be essentially clear, self-explanatory and complete, in need of little elaboration beyond its literality. In a prophetic, non-incarnationistic religion like Islam, whose founder was told more than once by his Lord to say, ''I am but a man like you, to whom it has been revealed that your God is only One God'' (18:110; see also 21:108; 41:6), it would moreover have been rather contradictory to have anybody in particular legitimately claiming to have better knowledge and more authority. It is in fact revelation itself that makes Islam a religion of liberation for mankind, freeing God's servants from all forms of sacerdotalism, ecclesialism, caesaro-papism, Ma'muI nism, esotericism or neo-Mu'tazilism.
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