Reading the Phenomena of Islam

From the perspective of epoche, in which a deliberate attempt is made to abstain from pronouncing upon, and judging, the ontological aspect of what appears, a summary thumbnail sketch - which is also phenomenological - may be presented as follows: there are two dimensions: a historical and an intellectual.

Historically, one perceives a pre-Islamic Arabian framework or milieu, - the Jahiliyya or Age of Ignorance, as it is known in Islam, comprising a mysterious, relatively unknown North Arabia and, by contrast, a better-known South at whose heart was Saba of the Sabaeans.460 Assessing 'The Foundations of Greatness' of the

Prophet Muhammad, W. Montgomery Watt evaluates time and milieu as follows:

Circumstances of time and place favoured Muhammad. Various forces combined to set the stage for his life-work and for the subsequent expansion of Islam. There was the social unrest in Mecca and Medina, the movement towards monotheism, the reaction against Hellenism in Syria and Egypt, the decline of the Persian and Byzantine empires, and a growing realisation by the nomadic Arabs of the opportunities for plunder in the settled lands round them.461

The Persians and Byzantines had fought each other into the ground between ad 603 and 630, even though Heraclius (reg. 610-41), the Byzantine Emperor, claimed the final victory.462

The death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 left a very fluid situation: Abu Bakr (reg. 632-4), the first khalifa after the Prophet, proclaimed on Muhammad's death: 'O people, those who worshipped Muhammad [must know that] Muhammad is dead; those who worshipped God [must know that] God is alive [and] immortal'.463

The Prophet's death, from an intellectual perspective, did not leave an intellectual vacuum: his legacy was (1) a sacred text already memorised and, according to tradition, preserved in writing in various forms; and (2) the memory of the Prophet's speech and actions preserved in the minds of his companions, the sahaba. Intellectually, too, we are left with the existence of a young faith whose universe of discourse, like that of Christianity, embraced inter alia three important elements:

• Doctrines, enshrined in, and eternally emanating from, the eternal mind of God made textual in the Qur'an .

• Validating tools, such as tafsir (exegesis), traditions, shari'a and ijtihad (exercise of independent judgement).

• A succession of historico-religious frameworks, ranging from the above-cited proclamation by Abu Bakr, through the Ridda or Apostasy War on the Prophet's death, the Mihna, and the Isma'lll-Fatimid conquest of Egypt in ad 969, to the death of the last Caliph in 1258 as a consequence of the Mongol destruction of Baghdad.

Eidetic reduction, as we have seen, focuses on essences. What constitute the essences of Islam? The answer may be given in a twofold manner. In the first place, as every Muslim will avow, there are the doctrinal essences such as tawhid (the declaration of the oneness of God), iman (faith, 'right belief') nubuwwa (prophet-hood), the belief in angels and the Last Day. Then there are the raw 'validating tools' from which, or within which, all these aspects or fundamentals of Islam have their origins, namely text (Qur'an), tradition (hadith), law (shari'a), authority (khalifa, imam), school of law or madhhab (Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi'i, Hanbali) and sect (SunnI, Shl'ite of one kind or another). There may be some overlap between some of these and the 'validating tools' discussed under the heading of epoche.

The text of the Qur'an, that shrine of tawhid, visibly reveals that it is intended for all time in that it looks backwards, surveys the present (i.e. the period of revelation during the Prophet's life) and looks forwards. It looks backwards, for example, in its graphic references to the unsuccessful attack on Mecca by Abraha in ad 570, delineated in the 105th Sura of the Qur'an, Surat al-Fil (The Chapter of the Elephant). Other Qur'anic references to an essential past, which bind it to the present, include that to the sixth-century ad bursting of the Ma'rib Dam in Saba (sayl al-'arim)464 and the reference to the Byzantine-Persian War in the seventh century in the 30th Sura of the Qur'an, Surat al-Rum (Chapter of the Byzantines):

The sura belongs to the Meccan period and has 60 verses. Its title is taken from the 2nd verse which reads: 'The Byzantine Greeks have been defeated'. This is probably a reference to the Persian capture of Jerusalem . from the Byzantines in ad 614. This is one of the very few references in the Qur'an to contemporary history.465

The Qur'an surveys the present in terms of the essential motif of umma, community:

Thus have We made of you

An Ummat justly balanced

[Wa kadhalika ja' alnakum

Ummatan wasatan]

That ye might be witnesses

Over the nations.

And the Apostle a witness

Over yourselves.

[Wa yakuna al-Rasul

'alaykum shahidan].466

Umma, and the prophethood of Muhammad, are thus neatly, and essentially, linked in a single verse. Later, Abu Hamid al-Ghazall would seek in his writings to connect the Prophet's ta'lim [teaching) with that of a living, historical community, so that the cumulative experience of the Sunni community [became] the repository and continuing guarantor of truth for every individual believer ... Al-Ghazall affirms the necessity of both a teacher and a community. In the K. al-Mustazhiri, the necessity of the community is articulated in terms of al-Ghazall's recurrent emphasis on the centrality of the law as the raison d'etre of the Muslim community ...467

Finally, in numerous eschatological verses, the Qur'an looks forward to a distant era in which the end of the world, the Yawrn al-Qiyama, will arrive:

When the Sky

Is cleft assunder;

When the Stars

Are scattered;

When the Oceans

Are suffered to burst forth;

And when the Graves

Are turned upside down; 468

On that day mankind will be gathered together in a group for judgement,469 an eschatological umma as it were, comprising this time all mankind. (The event is prefigured annually by the wuquf, standing, at 'Arafat during the hajj.47°) On the Last Day, of course, judgement will be uniquely individual.471 However, the Prophet Muhammad himself will intercede for the believers beside the Pool (al-hawd) in Paradise on that Day of Reckoning, as one greater individual for a lesser.472

From everything we have said, then, it is clear that, eidetically, essential salvation in Islam is to be gained through an essential text, an essential Prophet and an essential umma. Islamic eidetic reduction yields a fundamental religious core of Book, Chosen Messenger and Community.

From the final, phenomenological perspectives of cognition and epistemology, we turn to two final, very broad questions, related both to what has gone before and to each other: (1) What is Islam? (2) How is it constituted? A variety of statements will be surveyed in answer to the first question; a variety of structures will be examined in answer to the second.

The Qur'an itself has no doubts about its definition of Islam and Muslims:

Ye are the best

Of Peoples [khayr Ummat'"] evolved For mankind, Enjoining what is right, Forbidding what is wrong And believing in God.473

Here, the motifs of umma, al-amr bi 'l-ma'ruf and tawhid all combine succinctly in a single verse.

The famous hadith of Gabriel, known as Jibril in the Islamic tradition, recorded by the Syrian traditionist al-Nawawi (1233-77), defines Islam in terms of its principal beliefs, especially those encapsulated in the Five Pillars (arkan):

Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to perform the prayers, to pay the zakat, to fast in Ramadan, and to make the pilgrimage to the House [i.e. the Ka'ba in Mecca] if you are able to do so.474

A modern Islamic Student Catechism provides the following succinct definition:

The word Islam means submission to the will of God and obedience to God's law. The will of God is defined by the Koran as good and compassionate, and His law as the most beneficient and equitable. Any human being who so submits and obeys is, therefore, a Muslim in a moral state of Islam.275

Finally, a modern anthropologist writes:

The fundamentals can be set out quite simply. Islam which means submission to God, is constructed upon what Muslims believe is a direct Revelation in Arabic from God: the Quran. This recitation or reading, for that is what the word Quran means, is the miraculous source of the umma, the Islamic community. It is the Word.476

In these various definitions, ancient and modern, the universal Islamic themes shine through; many of them have been surveyed earlier above. Islam is known by its text, by its umma and, above all, by its self-definition as submission to the will of God. So much for cognition and elementary epistemology.

How are Islam's objects of cognition 'constituted in cognition'?477 Islamic structures are manifold. A weak, indeed possibly apocryphal, hadlth records that 'difference [of opinion] in my community is a sign of the mercy of Allah'.478 An antique Arabic proverb also states that 'the person who does not understand divergence in doctrine has not caught the true scent of jurisprudence' (Man la ya'rif al-ikhtilaf lam yashumma ra'ihata 'l-fiqh).479

Islamic structures bear a real witness to the ancient ideas of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. While the fundamental doctrines ('aqa'id) remain constant, they are articulated within a framework of widely differing, and culturally conditioned, structures, hierarchies, patterns and intellectual milieux: there are, for example, in Shari'a law, four SunnI madhahib, law schools; Islam itself divides into the two major branches of Sunnism and Shl'ism (with the latter dividing and subdividing into a plethora of smaller groups); a whole variety of schools of mediaeval theology developed like Mu'tazilism, Ash'arism and Maturldism. The diversity of articulation deriving from an umma united upon its central tenets ('aqa'id) was well observed by the astronomer-poet of Nishapur, 'Umar Khayyam (c. 1038-c. 1132), in his pithy Ruba'iyyat (Quatrains) which Edward Fitzgerald famously paraphrased as follows:

The grape that can with Logic absolute The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute: The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice Life's leaden Metal into Gold transmute.480

In citing this verse, my emphasis is not, of course, on 'the grape' but on the reference to theological and sectarian diversity in mediaeval Islam.

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