The professor and the Builder were driving along the A12 to the eastern shores. It was their intent to spend a day at the beach. They stopped at Newbury Park gas station for some petrol.
They filled their car with fuel, stocked up on crisps and water and were about to depart when the petrol attendant stopped them with a question.
“I see by your dress that you are from that mystical group known as the Sufis. I have always appreciated what I read concerning Sufism. Most of it seems like a mystical expression of divine truth told skilfully and intelligently.”
He addressed the professor. “But I see you wear a beard according to the traditions of the mainstream Muslims. I have a hard time understanding how a Sufi could take the Quran as the literal word of God, or support things like Shariah law. I understand that there are ‘Universal Sufi’ movements that seek to be less dependant on Islam, but I don’t know if these are genuine or more New-Age inspired organizations.”
“To me, Sufi teachings seem to have more in common with mystical Christianity, Buddhism, and Gnosticism, and these philosophies are totally at odds with what Muhammed wrote and said. I know Sufis claim that Sufism predates Islam, so is it possible that many orders just nominally accepted Islam to avoid persecution?”
The builder replied: “Not at all. The People of Remembrance cleave to the Holy Book. The Book is the Mirror of the Light, without a mirror we can’t even call ourselves humans, let alone Sufis or Enlightened.”
There was an awkward, puzzled silence.
The professor broke it: “Er … my friend is somewhat hungover from his revelry last night. You know how builders party. But I agree with his point: the Sufi science has always been integral to Islamic body knowledge, since the time of our sweetest messenger, and is of equal importance to the other sciences.”
The attendant replied: “I have heard this before: I’ve read ibn al-Arabi and the sayings of Hallaj and the rest of them. But it seems to me that they pick and choose the bits of the book as it suits their own mystical agenda. In most of the book, I cannot see any mystical message, the message spoken of by those masters. It seems to me that most of the book is simply laws. Maybe those laws helped and even improved the lives of the Arabs living back in those more barbarous times. Obviously, freeing slaves and stopping the practice of killing female daughters was a big step forward. But we don’t do that kind of stuff these days, and, if atrocities are committed within the world, the guidance of humanism and rationality shows the way forward. In fact, many of the atrocities currently being committed are exactly by people who really cleave, as you say, to their ‘holy books’, be they Quran or Bible or whatever.”
The attendant brought out a battered Quran from his overalls and read:
Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. (Verse 4:34)
“What about that then? I could go on to cite the verses about killing the kafiroon wherever you see them and so on – but I just put the book down there – I’m not going to follow any book of law that espouses violence against women! I’ve got daughters myself: I don’t want any husband of theirs to hit them. I know, I’ve heard the arguments that the beating should only be carried out in extreme circumstances with a feather or some such nonsense. But I can’t see that written in this ‘holy book’! And anyway, why should men have ‘maintenance’ over women? One of my daughters has a PhD in Astrophysics and the other is a doctor. I don’t see why any husband of theirs should be considered superior to them, just because of a random Y chromosome. I’d want them to be like me and my missus: it’s always give and take with us, and we’ve never had any serious disagreement in over 25 years.”
The professor replied. “You were mistaken in thinking that my beard makes me a mainstream Muslim. I count myself amongst those who bow down to the Beloved, but as you can see ” – he lifted his beanie to reveal a rainbow collected yarmulke – “I am also one of the Comrades of the Kabbalah. From my mother’s side, you see.”
“Indeed this verse is a good place to start, as many see it as a simple law or council of marriage guidance. But in Quran, as in Torah, God does not give us stones, but precious diamonds.”
“Let me offer you an interpretation.”
The Jewish professor’s interpretation went as follows:
Secret of the Quran is the same as the secret of the Torah, understood by my brethren. “Men” and “women”, “husband” and “wife” mean something much more than the physical understanding we have.
Ancient knowledge has been remembered in the 20th century: we each have masculine and feminine aspects. Some call these aspects the anima and animus. But Torah and Quran teach the masculine and feminine aspects are more complex: they are multiple emanations of God’s Names. The names God breathed into our bodies: because we are made in the image of God. We all have female and male aspects, in different balance. So these verses address humanity, physically male and female.
If this seems implausible, then it is so only due to the groups who so fiercely defend the literal interpretation. But this book is a holy book! It’s not a marriage manual! But many don’t understand.
In Kabbalah, the feminine name of God that we can realise within is called Shekhinah – or Sakina in Arabic. The concept is complex, but is something close to the notion of the unconscious in psychoanalysis: the field of language from whence all types of signification may play. But for the sake of our discussion, a simple way of thinking of it is that the Shekhinah is the source of all human creativity. If you paint a picture, then you engage with Shekhinah in a way. If you do an equation, similarly. But essentially, prayer and worship are acts of creativity, where we create an image to ourselves of God (something ultimately unimaginable). As we see with the acts of violence and hatred produced by people in the name of religion, clearly this creative name that has been breathed into us can be corrupted, if our creativity is not realised in a righteous fashion.
But if we are seeking God, then it is the feminine name of creativity, of Shekhinah, that we must realise within ourselves, the first gate that must be entered, in order to ascend.
So the feminine name comes first for the spiritual traveller. The Kabbalists often call Shekhinah “poor”, because this emanation is our creative spirit, and, on its own, is not capable of generating any light from God. Instead, it “captures” light from the higher name of God, Ti’fret, the source of prophecy. The words of the Quran itself (and the other holy books) derive from this name, which was realised to its fullest potential in men like Moses and Muhammed. Ordinary folk such as us cannot realise this name, but, through worship as creativity, we may find Shekhinah and, through worship as righteously guided creativity, our Shekhinah may be “married” to Ti’fret, to prophecy.
In this sense, our feminine aspect is “maintained” by the light of our masculine aspect. If this is done, then we may move closer to God. In this sense, the masculine aspects of our psyche are commanded to “spend out of their property”.
The Shekhinah realised within us is righteous if it is obedient in “marriage” to prophecy. That is, our creativities are “good women”, “obedient” and, importantly, “guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded”. God and the higher spiritual realms are the unseen, but the feminine creativity within us can guard these realms. Guarding here means, protecting against the darkness that can fill our creative spirit: if we do not guard this feminine aspect of ourselves, we can create evil in the name of religion, as we see happening again and again.
The last part of that verse then is an instruction and warning about how to treat ourselves, how to treat the creative emanation placed within us. “Those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek.” If you fear your creativity will leave you and move to the darkness, try to make it righteous again, into the light. If that doesn’t work, and your prayers move you to darkness still – or if you encounter a sect that exchanges love for hatred – or enter a mosque where death is preached instead of love – then creativity has been corrupted (mythopoetically, the turn is from Shekhinah into Lilith). If this happens, then beat the unrighteous creativity into submission: stop praying and walk away from that mosque. God willing, something better might come your way.
I know this interpretation is quite obscure. But this verse is interesting, because it was written for you! You indeed have been doubting the dark creative spirits of others who read this verse, take its surface meaning, and perhaps justify it to do evil (such as beating other humans). And you are doing (I hope) what the later part of the verse instructs: walking away from that interpretation.
But remember the first part of the verse: the masculine light of prophecy will provide for our feminine aspect of creativity, and guide us to a righteous worship. So worship with us in this.
May the wife within be wed happily to the husband within, that we might find balance, righteousness, and perhaps ascend higher in our journey!
The professor concluded his speech.
The builder lifted his hands in supplication and then smiled at the attendant. The attendant considered the professors words for a while, and then said: “Your interpretation is pretty wild, but from what I’ve read of it, the language of the Qur’an seems to be written pretty literally and plainly and not as any kind of allegory. But maybe you are right. If we to interpret the Quran in such a way as yours, and I was mistaken in that there was an injunction to take it literally, then there’s no problem at all.”
“Ah!” the professor smiled. “So you see it is possible?”
“Yeah, cause then instead of reading Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them I can say, oh, Give hugs to and help out the unbelievers wherever you find them. I remembered how I heard that there was a theory that Sufis were the ones who created Tarot cards. With the kind of personal interpretation of the Qur’an that you described (women as anima and whatnot) I can now really see how Sufis could have come up with a system like Tarot cards, in which archetypes are juxtaposed and interpreted based on individual personalities and lives!”
The professor sighed, almost despairing.
The attendant continued. “But okay, what you say is strange and I guess pretty deep. I grant you that someone might be able to squeeze that out of the verses of this book. But isn’t there a verse in the Quran explicitly stating that everything written in the Quran is to be taken literally and not metaphorically or symbolically?” He thumbed through his copy. “Yes, here it is, verse 3:7.”
It is He who sent down to you the Book. In it are verses precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation. And no one knows its interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.
“And, assuming you have the correct meaning of the verse about women, how many Muslims are going to interpret it that way? If the only truth of a path is in its esoteric branch, then any exoteric manifestation would be at best useless and at worst extremely counterproductive.”
The builder then gave the following speech.
The builder’s speech.
The problem I would like to address is of interpretation. Our petrol-pumping friend here says that the professor’s understanding of the Quran is an interpretation, one that he sees to be far fetched. I am sure he would also agree that his view of the Quran – as a set of commandments, stories and worldly legislation – is also an interpretation of the text, perhaps a similar interpretation given by, for example, the orthodox scholars. Both the orthodox reader and our petrol-pumping friend would say: “Our interpretation is correct, because the text clearly appears this way to us.”
When it comes to the Quran, our friend judges the Sufi interpretation rather insincere with respect to the language of the text. And views his interpretation as the sincere one. By sincere, he means: what the Prophet Muhammed meant. By an insincere interpretation he means: an interpretation that probably has a lot of mystical merit, but is most certainly not what the Prophet meant!
I would first like to say that all interpretations are insincere to the Quran. The orthodox view is an interpretation, while the true Sufi understanding is not an interpretation at all! In this sense, only the Sufi understanding is sincere with respect to the message. I am a fundamentalist.
Is the so-called mystical interpretation of the Holy Book analogous to the diviner’s reading of Tarot cards?
No. But the statement is close to the truth.
Because everything in life is like reading Tarot Cards. Everything, apart from the prophetic voice.
Tarot cards are like the unconscious. And as Freud and Lacan taught us, the unconscious is like language.
Tarot cards, the unconscious and language are deliniated by two axes: metaphor and metonymy. Cards are signs, arrayed in sequences and relations to one another (the card of death followed by the card of the lovers). For Freud and Lacan, dreams are signs, arrayed in sequences and relations to one another (I am standing at the beach, suddenly a lion appears to attack me). And sentences are also signs, arrayed in sequences and relations to one another (like this sentence, here).
Metonymy (in the technical, Lacanian sense) is the property of signs being arrayed in sequences and relations. We have a name for the order of our psychological reality that is governed by this metonymic nature of language: the Symbolic. All dreams and texts are metonymic: signs coming and going, a flow of free association. The metonymy of a text evades interpretation. As soon as the card of death appears, it is immediately replaced with the card of the lovers. Just when I am trying to work out why I am on the beach, suddenly the lion appears. Just when you were about to process this sentence, I will utter a new one.
Metaphor is employed for signs to be interpreted. Metaphor is when we look at a sign as standing in for another sign. Death means a new beginning, the card of lovers means a happiness: so the cards tell us there will be cessation of your current situation, a new beginning and happiness. The beach means desire, the attack of the lion means the fear of my father. One sign stands in for another. By the sentence “And sentences are also signs, arrayed in sequences and relations to one another”, I mean “And language is also cryptograms, aligned as successive position to each other.”
One of the great realisations of 20th century philosophy is the understanding that there is no absolute interpretation: effectively, all interpretations are relative. As Wittgenstein said, an absolute interpretation presupposes the existence of an ideal language, an ideal semantics, to explain all our “language games”. Interpretation is just metaphor: the substitution of one set of signs for another. And because signs are being replaced by other signs, the deferral of any “final” meaning is actually infinite. A new set of signs cannot absolutely “explain” another set of signs, as the new set are also substitutable and amenable to metaphor. Interpretation is like one set of Tarot cards being swapped for another set of cards. This is intrinsically relative.
We interpret things all the time. That’s why Shakespeare’s plays provide such enjoyment and why English professors have jobs. All this is true of tarot cards, of the unconscious and of language. Mathematics a metonymic procession of signs, whose metaphoric potential permits their valuation within proofs.
So interpretation is very important to humans.
But the value of an interpretation is always relative. A doctor can help a patient by providing a “good” interpretation of their dreams, where the criteria for “good” is evaluated with respect to the patient’s health.
Judaic and Islamic Wisdom have declared that the domain of dreams contain a fraction of prophecy. But dreams are not fully prophetic, and therefore require a “good” interpretation, from someone who loves you. Kabbalah teaches that when Joseph told his dream to his brothers, who hated him, their “bad” interpretation was exactly what led to subsequent problems. When he mastered the ability to find the good interpretation, he was able to ascend.
So interpret well! But understand that metaphor is interpretation and interpretation is metaphor. And so an interpretation is not absolute.
Back to the Quran. (What I say now won’t convince anyone who doesn’t accept that the Quran is written with the prophetic voice, or who isn’t convinced that there is a prophetic voice distinct from our normal voice, but it will at least explain how I see things to stand.)
If you accept the 20th century position, then any interpretation of a text is possible, and we cannot say: this one is more “correct” than that one.
All speech, all text, all dreams occupy this status. All, except those written with the prophetic vision.
For the Quran is not metaphoric. It has been said that metaphor is the brother of lying and God is not guilty of it. And as our petrol-pumping friend has noted, the language of the Quran doesn’t appear allegorical at all – there are no obvious metaphors. Indeed! And more so. Remember that all interpretation is metaphoric, because metaphors are signs substituted for other signs. And so even a “literal”, worldly interpretation of the Quran – such as that assumed by the mainstream – is based upon metaphor. They substitute one set of words for another. They say: this is a command about how to treat your women, not a statement about the feminine aspect of the human psyche (that is bidah). They say this – and so interpret the metonymy of signs as metaphors. It is not obvious at first, because their metaphors are not obviously allegorical. But nevertheless, they interpret, exchanging one set of signs for another, worldly set.
While this is useful, and often necessary for all ordinary speech, for Tarot cards and for dreams, it is not for the prophetic speech:
(3:7) It is He who sent down to you the Book. In it are verses precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation. And no one knows its interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.
The deviating path is to seek an interpretation. The human is not to interpret the Quran.
Why? Because interpretation of the prophetic speech is impossible: there are no signs behind these signs.
How can this be so? After all, prophecy is built from words, and therefore comes from the same place as dreams, the same place as Tarot cards. As speech, it emerges from language.
So, again, how? Consider madness.
Normal speech can be interpreted, because metaphor is its potential. If we do not interpret the signs of normal speech, if we do not interpret the Tarot cards, we are left only with metonymy: with random sequences of signs. We would live life as in a dream. This could be an innocent dream.
But it could also be a nightmare of madness. The tyrants of this world are literally madmen. They live in the space of nightmares, their wars are metonymies of hatred, freely associating oppression, greed, paranoia and bloodshed in succession, without good interpretation, without offering any good reason for their action. Look at the tyrants of the world today: see how they are sleep walking a nightmare of free association!
But the prophetic speech is miraculous: it comes from God, from the Cloud of the Real that exists beyond language! That which is beyond language speaks to us. God tells us: there is no metaphor here, no interpretation. The prophetic speech is purely metonymic. Look at the language of the Quran and see: images, laws, stories blend into each other in seemingly random metonymic succession. It is not a linear book. It is like a dream, but one that evades metaphoric interpretation.
As such, the prophetic vision is the mirror image of madness. Both madness and prophecy consist of free association, signs in sequence, evading metaphoric interpretation. If the Prophet is the highest earthly king, then Shakespeare’s Lear is his reflection below.
When the Prophet says – women, war, Dhul-Qarnain, Mecca, Al-Madina, sex, slavery – he doesn’t lay down signs for interpretation. Because he doesn’t see interpretation.
If I see a woman, I interpret her somehow, as, say, a fellow seeker, a colleague, as a friend, as my wife, as my daughter, as a manifestation of the anima archetype. If I read about Dhul-Qarnain, I interpret him as Cyrus, Alexander or a metaphor for the potential for human ascension. If I read about Al-Madina and Israel, I interpret them as different geographical towns or as synonyms for Sanctuary. That’s me, because I am not a prophet.
But the prophet does not interpret the signs and sees no interpretation. His speech and actions are pure metonymies, without metaphor. They are signs alone, not exchangeable, not convertable for other signs. Signs stand as themselves: this is why the prophetic language is called perfect. When he sees Al-Madina, he sees Al-Madina. When he sees Aisha, he sees Aisha. When he dwells in Al-Madina with Aisha, he dwells in Al-Madina with Aisha. He doesn’t see the dwelling, the town, the wife literally, as the orthodox might, because that is still interpretation, still metaphor, still signs for signs. He doesn’t see the dwelling, the town, the wife as allegory, because allegory is metaphor. He dwells with his wife in the town. And when he fights a war against the kafiroon of Mecca, he fights a war against the kafiroon of Mecca.
If you don’t have faith in the prophecy, you can call his vision madness. Call it madness then – but don’t call it a book of worldly laws. Because surely a speech without interpretation is like madness, and worldly laws are interpretations. You can be fearful of this vision, and puzzle over those seekers who cleave to such a speech. Certainly Muhammed himself was fearful of the vision when he first entered it: “You are not mad” he was assured.
Why do I hold to the prophetic voice? Why do I believe it is from a crown above, rather than a crown below? Because God granted me the Kiss of Certainty. The philosophers were correct about interpretation: there is no absolute human interpretation of language. But prophecy is the limit of language, a golden metonymy. Its signs show and indicate the Truth, the Logos of God, that which we were seeking, that which we hope to realise. God informs us that his interpretation does exist: this is the Kiss of Certainty. And no one knows its interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All is from our Lord.” The ideal language at the end of days. And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.
But what about all this language I am using right now? Is it not interpretation? Ah, not. That’s the secret of my masonry. I build my houses a special kind of brick. A secret shared another day perhaps.
The builder finished his speech.
“You seem to know a lot about psychoanalysis for a builder,” replied the rather astonished attendant.
“I changed jobs: more money in the construction industry, mate.”
The day was getting late, so Professor and the Builder shook hands with the attendant and continued their journey east.