A Literal World: Perceiving the World as a Linguistic Construction before the Emergence of the Metaphor in Arabo-Islamic Thought

My research investigates dichotomies in classical Islamic thought, including the dichotomies of sunnah-bidʿah, veridicality-tropicality, reason-tradition, word-meaning, and exoteric-esoteric. My current project focuses on the dichotomy between the literal and the metaphorical (veridicality-tropicality = ḥaqīqah-mağāz), so essential to medieval and modern Islamic thought. In medieval Islamic thought, the discussion of the dichotomy runs across the disciplines of exegesis, theology, jurisprudence, grammar, philology, stylistics, logic, rhetoric, poetics, literary criticism, and philosophy. In modern Arab-Islamic thought, the discussion gained a new momentum when Luṭfī ʿAbd al-Badīʿ, an influential Egyptian critic, published his Falsafat al-mağāz in 1986. That work, arguably, started what has been called the “literary modernism movement” in Saudi Arabia. In Arabic philosophical circles, the modern interest in the dichotomy started also in 1986, when the late Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Ğābirī, the prominent Moroccan intellectual, wrote his controversial Binyat al-ʿaql al-ʿarabī, a chapter of which was dedicated to this dichotomy. Since then, the dichotomy has been debated and studied by many. Nevertheless, there are several dimensions that remain neglected in these debates, and that I try in my work to address.

My main argument is that this dichotomy is not self-evident. It was constructed in the early ʿAbbāsid era as a theoretical framework that would facilitate an ongoing process of disenchantment in Islam. Nevertheless, the multiple logical fallacies and incoherencies in establishing the dichotomy made it totally dependent on the grammar of the disenchanted mindset for which it was meant to provide a solid theoretical foundation. Central to this grammar, I argue contrary to many, is the emergence of the miraculous as a category, away from the notion of inherent signs; i.e., those which have the power of signification inherently, and not by mere convention. In other words, it was not the rejection of miracles that should be seen as a mark of disenchantment, but it was the emergence of the category itself. This project has four dimensions that I am treating separately, although they are quite connected:

(1)    The philosophical dimension: here I am mainly interested in the way the dichotomy was established by Ğurğānī, and the way it was rejected later by Ibn Taymiyyah. Aristotle and Wittgenstein would be engaged in this discussion; the former as a main source for the Islamic theory, and the latter as a philosopher whose arguments can be used to sharpen many of Ibn Taymiyyah’s own arguments. While the attack of Ibn Taymiyyah on the dichotomy is profound, as I argue, it failed miserably from a historical perspective. I try to give my interpretation of and for this failure.

(2)    The anthropological dimension: here I engage some major theorists (especially Max Weber and Marcel Gauchet) on the concept of disenchantment. My contribution is to introduce the emergence of the dichotomy as a characteristic of the disenchanted mind. This would include a contrast between the enchanted and disenchanted minds with regard to the ways the language is perceived.

(3)    The theological dimension: my aim here is to show that the all Muslim theological discussions of divine attributes as they relate to the veridicality/tropicality dichotomy are products of the disenchanted mind; this applies to muğassimah as much as to munazzihah. The question then would be: how would an enchanted mind, such as that of early Muslims, understand divine attributes if the differentiation between the literal and the metaphorical is to be dismissed?

(4)    The historical dimension: here I argue that Islam, if we allow for essentialist terms, in contrast to Christianity, at least as interpreted by Gauchet, does not embed any process of disenchantment within its parameters. This might explain, at least partially, the fact that for many Muslims, pace theologians, the enchanted world continued to be a livingperception. But the question then would be: how would the emergence of the dichotomy be interpreted from a historical perspective?


Author: Dr. Abdallah Soufan
soufan@orient-institut.org