Reading the Signs of Islam

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Everything Signifies:481 Umberto Eco's dictum allows us to identify at least six important semiotic fields in any attempt at reading the signs of Islam. They may be successively termed (1) the Textual, (2) the Foundational, (3) the Terrestrial, (4) the Proclamative, (5) the Eschatological and (6) the Celestial. This listing, which is progressive, is by no means intended to be exclusive. Many other semiotic fields might have been cited, but we will restrict our attention to these six as a summary guide to reading the signs of the Islamic religion. It is to be stressed that the six constitute a logical progression: the first arena of the textual leads ineluctably to the sixth arena of the Celestial, with its twin dimensions of the Salvific and the Damnatory, via the four stated intermediate fields.

Textual semiotics. Earlier, we identified one of the principal sign systems or structures of Christianity as its system of sacraments. We also noted the comment of Brother William of Baskerville, hero of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, that 'The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things.'482

This is as true of the Qur'an as it is of the New Testament. The text of the Qur'an constantly proclaims the signs (ayat) of God.483 And the Qur'an is indeed made up of verses/signs (ayat) which speak of other signs, which in turn speak of a multiplicity of things throughout the sacred text. That multivocal wealth of signs includes the heavens and the earth (al-samawat wa 'l-ard), night and day (al-layl wa 'l-nahar), the rain (ma anzala Allah min al-sama' min ma'in), beasts (lit. dabba) and clouds (al-sahab) - all are signs which bespeak and signify not only the direct manifold mercies of God 'for a people that are wise' (li-qawmn ya'qiluna) but other things such as sustenance and climate which flow indirectly from these major aspects of the divine creation.484 And we see the truth of Eco's protagonist's first statement that 'the good of a book lies in its being read' paralleled in the Qur'an's injunction to 'recite the Qur'an, in slow measured, rhythmic tones'485 for it contains 'a healing and a mercy (shifa' wa rahma) to those who believe'.486 Indeed, the very text and content of the Qur'an itself are a striking sign:

Yet they say: 'Why Are not Signs sent down To him from his Lord?' Say: 'The Signs are indeed With God: and I am Indeed a clear Warner'. And is it not enough For them that We have Sent down to thee

The Book (al-Kitab) which is rehearsed To them? Verily, in it Is Mercy and a Reminder To those who believe.487

Foundational semiotics. Islam has no sacraments nor direct concept of such rituals. Thus it was clearly impossible for it to develop any form of sacramental theology. However, it does have an alternative, quasi-parallel, semiotic structure, the five arkan or Pillars of Islam, namely, Shahada (The Declaration of Faith), Salat (The Prayer Ritual), Zakat (Almsgiving), Sawm (Fasting in the Month of Ramadan) and Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca in the Islamic Month of Dhu 'l-Hijja).488 No other faith tradition embraces such a precise listing, and so it is original as well as foundation-ally important for Islam.

The five arkan are important from such diverse perspectives as the phenomeno-logical, the anthropological and the theological as well as the semiotic, the sociological, the eschatological, the ritual and the liturgical.489 All derive from the sacred text of the Qur'an, with data supplemented by the hadith literature on occasion. And, indeed, it is the famous Hadith of Gabriel which constitutes one of the most vivid articulations of these foundational semiotics, the universe of the arkan.490

Terrestrial semiotics. The first verses of the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, describe God in the beginning creating heaven and earth, night and day, the sun, the moon and the stars, the beasts of the earth and, finally, a man and a woman. After each moment of creation, the text observes that God ' found it good'. The chapter concludes: 'And God saw all that he had made, and found it very good'.491 The text here signals that He who is the essence of goodness itself perceives His creation to be 'good' in unequivocal and lucid terms. As one pair of commentators, Richard J. Clifford and Roland E. Murphy, put it:

God pronounces the light good, beautiful; the phrase will be repeated six times of created elements, climaxing in the seventh climactic occurrence for the whole universe (v. 31). The declaration is not a deduction from human experience but a divine declaration that all of creation is good . There is no evil, only beauty, in the world that God makes.492

In the Qur'an, a similar paradigm is in operation: Allah is characterised as the One 'Who has made Everything which He has created Most Good' (alladhi ahsana kulla shay' khalaqahu).493 Among the many meanings of the basic adjective hasan are 'excellent', 'good' and 'exquisite'.494 Even if one takes Arberry's slightly less powerful translation of the above Qur'anic phrase as 'Who has created all things well',495 it is clear that both the Book of Genesis and the Qur'an share a common field of discourse with regard to God's pleasure in His creation.

In addition, the Qur'an vaunts the truth, reality and rightness (bi 'l-haqq) of God's creation,496 as well as its intrinsic and ubiquitous order and beauty.497 All these things are signs for the believer.498 And these terrestrial signs of God are a constant motif in the Qur'an, ranging from the creation of the heavens and the earth499 and the existence of the night, the sun and the moon500 to the presence of camels, sky, mountains and earth.501 All are signs of the mercies and blessings of God which have been revealed in and to the depths of their hearts as well as the farthest horizons.502

Proclamative Semiotics. Can Islam be said to have a semiotics of proclamation and dialogue akin to that espoused in Christian interfaith and ecumenical circles? To pose this question is to invite a brief study of Qur'anic da'wa, a word which may literally be translated as 'call' but which translates better in this context as 'mission', 'missionary work' or even 'propaganda' and 'prayer'.503 The second edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam notes:

In the religious sense, the da'wa is the invitation, addressed to men by God and the prophets, to believe in the true religion, Islam: Kur'an XIV.46 [44].

The religion of all the prophets is Islam, and each prophet has his da'wa ... Muhammad's mission was to repeat the call and invitation: it is the da'wat al-Islam or da'wat al-Rasul. As we know, the infidels' familiarity with, or ignorance of, this appeal determined the way in which the Muslims should fight against them. Those to whom the da'wa had not yet penetrated had to be invited to embrace Islam before fighting could take place.504

It is clear from this, then, that a major aspect of da'wa semiotics must be nubuwwa, prophethood.505 The response will also signal whether a certain country is to be considered Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), Dar al-Harb (House of War) or Dar al-

Sulh (House of Truce); each of these terms signals in a very precise way a particular relationship with Islam. The companion sign of nubuwwa in Islam, of course, is the Text of the Qur'an itself.506

While recognising the difficulties that may arise in interfaith dialogue, and the sometimes apparent contradiction between dialogue and proclamation, branches of the Christian Church have felt the need to stress that no one should be forced to become a Christian.507 Q.2:256 articulates a similar message for Islam, deploying the phrase that there should be no compulsion in religion: la ikraha fi 'l-din. Neither Muslim nor Christian would have any quarrel with the idea that in the works of mission and da'wah (summons), our actions must be founded upon a respect for the inalienable dignity and freedom of the human person created and loved by God. Both Christians and Muslims are called to defend the inviolable right of each individual to freedom of religious belief and practice.508

Semiotic indicators of true da'wa, then, on both the Muslim and Christian fronts would include tolerance, mutual understanding and mutual respect, together with a pressing need to learn as much as possible about the position of the other person. This is, of course, ideal da'wa, and it is recognised that the reality has sometimes fallen short of the ideal.509

Each side, however, will impose limits on its reception of the other's da'wa. The death penalty is classically prescribed in Islam for apostasy (irtidad),510 while Christianity, in all its talk of proclamation and dialogue, has also taken care to signal its aversion to a false eirenicism511 or indifferentism.512

A final semiotic indicator of da'wa can therefore be said to be tension, within the framework of dialogue and proclamation. On the one hand, the International Islamic Committee for Relief has been responsible for the creation of an International Islamic Committee for Dialogue, which resulted from Catholic contacts. This consultation committee meets to discuss 'the promise and peril of contact with non-Muslims'. The former President of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue (Pontificium Consilium pro Dialogo Inter Religiones), Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald M.Afr.,513 observes of this Committee that 'it offers a forum in the Islamic world that did not previously exist ... and in itself represents a new level of commitment to dialogue'.514

The al-Azhar University also has a permanent committee for dialogue with monotheistic religions____Fitzgerald noted that the Vatican and Al-Azhar have established a joint committee for on-going relations that meets annually and officials at Al-Azhar have asked that the meeting take place each year on Feb. 24 - the anniversary of John Paul's visit to Al-Azhar .515

Fitzgerald also drew attention to the Pakistan Association for Inter-Religious Dialogue which, he said, 'is doing impressive work bringing Christians and Muslims together despite a very difficult social and political situation'.516

On the other hand, sources of tension and potential hostility are omnipresent in attempts at da'wa on either side of the Muslim-Christian divide. On 6 January 2003, Cardinal Severino Poletto of Turin informed his congregation that they should not 'allow good manners to deter them from evangelizing new arrivals in Italy, especially Muslims'. It has been observed that nothing Poletto said is inconsistent with respectful dialogue. Yet even if the tension isn't a logical one, some Muslims will doubtless be irked by the suggestion that they should consider changing religions in order to avoid threatening the identity of a historically Christian nation. The delicate balance between evangelization and tolerance will need constant pastoral attention especially given the already tense atmosphere.517

Pursuing this theme that one of the key signs of da'wa in any religion must inevitably be tension, we note also a case which complements what has already been outlined above. An Italian-Scottish convert to Islam, Adel Smith, received much Italian TV coverage 'by asserting the superiority of Islam and predicting doom for Christian infidels'.518 Two of his appearances on Italian TV were so incendiary as to precipitate a fight.519

The fact that the remarks by such men as Poletto and Smith have been rejected and disowned by others among their own religious compatriots does not prevent us from recognising that the delicate concept of da'wa may easily be hijacked by extremists on all sides and that tension, potential or actual, is a semiotic indicator of real da'wa, proclamation and dialogue.520

Eschatologicalsemiotics. When the eskaton, final judgement, is about to be realised, the emphasis in Islam will shift semiotically from the guiding arkan to the Signs of the Hour (isharat al-sa'a, ashrat al-sa'a) . The second edition of The Encyclopaedia of lslam puts it like this:

The materialisation of the Kur'anic Sa'a will be preceded by a cataclysmic catastrophe. The moon will be split (LIV, 1), the earth will quake, and the people will be terrified (XXII, 1-2). The preceding signs (ashrat) of the Sa'a are already manifest (XLVII, 18). The Hour is already 'heavy' in the heavens and in the earth (VII, 187).521

The Hour will be preceded by a series of natural disasters as well as the breakdown of human society and the natural and normal order of things. There will be wars and civil wars; 'Isa will fight the Islamic anti-Christ, al-Dajjal; and Gog and Magog, semiotic indicators of chaos par excellence, will be loosed to foster mayhem. The MahdI will appear.522

Among the many commentators and delineators of the Signs of the Hour was the great collector of traditions, Muhammad b. Isma'll al-Bukharl (ad 810-70). In the Book of Discords (Kitab al-Fitan) of his famous tradition collection entitled al-Sahih (The Authentic), he forecast, inter alia, the following signs of the coming Hour of judgement and doom: fire will come forth from the Hijaz lighting up the necks of the camels in Busra (Syria);523 two great bands or parties (fi'atani) will fight each other with many casualties, even though they both follow one doctrine (da'wa); about thirty lying dajjals (literally, anti-Christs, imposters, charlatans) will arise, each claiming to be the prophet of God (rasul Allah); there will be earthquakes and disorder (al-harj); people will build high structures; and people will be unable to eat or taste the food which they raise to their mouths.524 There will be many other signs of the approaching Hour, but the emphasis in al-Bukhari's scenario on fire, war, lies, earthquakes, civil disorder and an inability to taste (or eat) are semiotic indicators that the days preceding the end of the world will indeed be dire, appalling to man and beast alike.

It was not only the great collectors of traditions like al-Bukhari who dwelled on such matters. The Signs of the Hour were an important aspect of the Qur'anic exegetical literature, the tafsir, as well. In Q.43:6i, we read the following:

And (Jesus) shall be A Sign (for the coming Of) the Hour (of judgement): Therefore have no doubt About the (Hour), but Follow ye Me: this Is a Straight way.525

Like Yusuf Ali above, the famous Qur'anic exegete before him, al-Baydawi (died c. i29i) interpreted these verses as referring to Jesus ('Isa) as a herald of the Day of Judgement. Reflecting on this verse, he notes that Jesus may rightly be identified here with the sign mentioned, since it is well known in Islam that his appearance will signal that the Judgement Day is close. He will descend through a mountain pass carrying a spear with which he will kill the anti-Christ (al-Dajjal). He will then perform the morning prayer in Jerusalem, destroy the crucifixes, churches and synagogues and kill those Christians who do not acknowledge him according to

Islamic belief.526

Celestial Semiotics. Any consideration of eschatological semiotics leads, logically, to a consideration of the semiotics of the final destinations of mankind; these might usefully be termed here the celestial. Thus we have come full circle, from the textual which proclaimed the semiotics of the two worlds of mercy and warning (and thus rewards and punishments), through the unfolding articulation of the semiotics of the foundations of Islam, their terrestrial deployment, their proclamation and their eschatology, to the final semiotics of these two worlds themselves, al-Janna and al-Nar. Indeed, each of these two words, meaning literally The Garden and The Fire and standing as the classical Arabic words for Heaven and Hell respectively, enshrine a whole world of signs in extenso.

There is a logic in viewing these celestial signs in Islam as bound up with the whole concept of God's justice or theodicy. God does not punish people in Hell fire without first signalling in His sacred text the existence of that Fire and the need for repentance; nor does He grant anyone reward in the eternal garden of bliss without first signalling the existence of that Garden and what mankind must do in order to enter it and dwell therein for all eternity.

Divine justice thus decrees and signals reward for tawhid and a consequent fruitful observance of Islam on earth:

Verily those who say,

And remain firm

On them shall be no fear,

Nor shall they grieve.

Such shall be Companions

Of the Garden, dwelling

Therein (for aye): a recompense

For their (good) deeds.527

If any do deeds Of righteousness, -Be they male or female -And have faith, They will enter Heaven, And not the least injustice will be done to them.528

The abode of Hell Fire is clearly signalled as the destination of those who reject the signs of God: in a powerful set of verses, this theme of rejection is clearly spelled out:

The Companions of the Fire [ashab al-Nar]

Will call to the Companions

Of the Garden [ashab al-Janna]: 'Pour down

To us water or anything

That God doth provide

For your sustenance'.

They will say: 'Both

These things hath God forbidden

To those who rejected Him; -

Such as took their religion

To be mere amusement

And play, and were deceived

By the life of the world'.

That day shall We forget them

As they forgot the meeting

Of this day of theirs

And as they were wont

To reject Our Signs.529

The message from the Qur'an is crystal clear: if man rejects God and the ubiquitous signs that God has manifested, then God will 'forget' man. And such divine 'forget-fulness' implies an eternal spiritual death for the sinner who has been warned over and over again:

This is the Hell Of which ye were (Repeatedly) warned!530

The Unbelievers will be Led to Hell in crowd: Until, when they arrive there, Its gates will be opened, And its keepers will say, 'Did not apostles come To you from among yourselves, Rehearsing to you the Signs Of your Lord and warning you Of the Meeting of this Day Of yours?' The answer Will be: 'True: but The Decree of Punishment Has been proved true Against the Unbelievers!' (To them) will be said: 'Enter ye the gates of Hell, To dwell therein: And evil is (this) Abode of the arrogant!'531

In any reading of the Signs of Islam, one must identify and stress the primary semiotic register of the Ma'ad, literally the Return, especially with reference to Celestial Semiotics. While there were those who interpreted Platonically such Qur'anic verses as 'Come back thou / To thy Lord - / Well pleased (thyself), / And well-pleasing / Unto Him!',532 seeing such verses as a sign or evidence of the preexistence of the soul before the divine creation of the body,533 mainstream Islam has usually interpreted the ma'ad as a reference to 'the hereafter' or 'the life to come'.534 The word is a synonym of al-akhira and al-dar al-akhira.535 Ma'ad itself has conno-tatons both of 'place to which one returns' and '(place of) destination',536 and it is clearly in the latter sense that al-ma'ad has come to mean 'the Hereafter'.

If, however, one also examines the implicit connotations, and fundamental meanings of ma'ad in the sense of 'return', there are some interesting parallels to be drawn with the Neoplatonic concept of return consequent upon the basic Plotinian themes of emanation, yearning or longing, and return.537

Everything does indeed signify. The six semiotic fields which we have surveyed confirm the omnipresence of the Signs of the Deity throughout the universe. Rejection of these signs logially is itself a sign of kufr, unbelief. As we have stressed, Allah in the Qur'an confirms that He will respond to the sign of rejection, the sign of kufr, with his own special sign of 'forgetfulness'. Of course, since Allah possesses the divine attribute of perfection, no defect can be regarded as implicit in this word.

Yusuf Ali explains:

'Forgetfulness' may be involuntary, from a defect of memory, or figuratively, a deliberate turning away from, or ignoring of, something we do not want, as when we say in an argument, 'you conveniently forget that so-and-so is so-and-so'. Here the latter kind is meant. If men deliberately ignored the Hereafter [the Ma'ad] in spite of warnings, can they be expect[ed] to be received by God, Whom they themselves rejected?538

The exegetes Jalalayn interpret 'That day shall We forget them' as 'We will leave them in Hell' (Natrukuhum fi 'l-nar).539

A final sign of God's mercy for Islam, which attempts to prevent that human rejection and its terrifying divine consequence of 'forgetfulness', is the sending of a mujaddid, a Renewer of the Faith, at the beginning of every Islamic century. For example, the great Abu Hamid al-Ghazall (1058-1111) became persuaded that he was the 'Renewer' for the sixth Islamic century:540

My resolution was further strengthened by numerous visions of good men in all of which alike I was given the assurance that this impulse was a source of good, was genuine guidance, and had been determined by God most high for the beginning of this century; for God most high has promised to revive His religion at the beginning of each century.541

And al-Ghazall carefully recorded the signs of the coming Ma'ad.542 This is the essence of his magnum opus the Ihya' (Revival).

In many sign systems - Islam is no exception - there is a need for a guide and an interpreter. Islam cleaves to a Revelation revealed through the final guide or interpreter, Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets. But other guides, interpreters and prophets had come before and attempted in their own ways, as the Qur'an many times shows, to draw attention to the ubiquitous signs of God. After Muhammad, there could be no more prophets: for Islam, he ranks as the very last prophet. But lesser beings than Muhammad, in the shape of a mujaddid, a Ghazall, could attempt to unravel and exhibit that universe of signs which is Islam and its revealed text, the Holy Qur'an. Such men as al-Ghazall were both the disclosers of signs as well as being signs themselves.

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