Does Some of the Ambiguity in Religious Texts Result From Our Questions?

By Shaykh Haidar Hobbollah

Translated by Ali Jabbar

A dear friend of mine asked me: Do you not think that some of the difficulty in understanding religious texts, and the need for scholars to exert all this effort in performing exegesis of the text, is evidence that the texts themselves are weak? Why is the exegesis something so difficult? How can it be a cure for humanity when it’s in such a state?

I have many thoughts and views on this topic, but here is not the place to discuss it. I answered my friend, however, with what I believe to be is one of the reasons that are responsible for some of the ambiguity that appears to exist in religious texts. I said to him: If you opened Tārīkh al-Ṭabarī [the well-known history book] and you wished to extract from it laws regarding trade and personal affairs, as laws regarding psychology and human development, and you bought with you hundreds of others to examine to the text, and you had certainty prior to this that he discussed all these matters, and you performed this activity for years, what do you expect?

I expect that the texts from written from al-Ṭabarī would become extremely difficult and ambiguous texts. Its texts would become composed of linguistic compositions that have difficult meanings that are not natural. This is because the amount of ta’wīl [searching for deeper or hidden or allegorical meanings] and straining that would be applied to the text would make the text into a completely different creation that is full of peculiarities. We would attempt from any historical story to extract a law regarding one’s personal affairs for example, and [we would say] that al-Ṭabarī intended to show this specific law, and so we milk the text until the very end, and we keep milking and milking. This would occur despite the fact the text has no knowledge nor concern with this law. This is precisely what is said of a scholar – perhaps it’s Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī – that when he heard students of religious studies studying together some of his works, he heard some of the strange interpretations to his texts that he has never thought about in his entire life! It’s also akin to the young man who had unrequited love and thought that any movement from his beloved carried a message for him. Whilst, his beloved barely knows who he is, and he doesn’t cross her mind at all.

It’s possible that, sometimes, we asked the religious text what it has no link to whatsoever, supposing that it has a link to absolutely everything. Due to this, we made the matter much harder for ourselves, and it is as though layers of rocks formed over the text – as Mohammed Arkoun would say, based on the work the Archaeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault – and understanding it needs a deep and strenuous digging process, or that religious texts are composed of two parts, one for specialists and the other for everyone else, and that people ought not to investigate the specialised part because it is specific for the Prophets and Awliyā’. This was the view of some mystics and Akhbārīs from the Imāmīyyah, at least with regards to the Quranic texts.

I know that there is a great deal of discussion regarding the Quran being an exposition for all things, and I know the reasons that many begin with, and some of us may have reservations over these views, but I would like to request – based on a conviction -:

1) To deal with texts more naturally and avoid straining.
2) To reconsider the intellectual and practical extent that religious texts want to discuss.
3) To interpret texts based on the possibility that it is speaking about a certain topic and not on a preconceived certainty that it actually discusses such a topic and that we want to search for the hidden speech regarding the topic. This would make knowing the extent to which religious topics go something we know after exerting effort in an inductive process and not something we build of a preconceived certainty that we drop onto the text from above.

Perhaps, by this approach we can end, partially, the ta’wīl and milking [of the texts] that goes on, and consequently, some of the ambiguity is removed, and all knowledge is with Allah.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.