A sister from Norway asked the Tailor: “You have stated here that you would continue with your Tailorite Sufic reading of the Sahih Bukhari even if it turned out that those hadeeth were fabricated by someone 50 years ago. And you’d insist on your uncompromisingly “spiritual/metaphoric” peace and love based understanding of Torah and Qur’an even if there was definitive historical evidence that these books were actually designed as tools to drum up political and martial support within some distant historical conflict. You have stated that Muhammed never shed physical human blood, that Abraham’s sacrifice of his son was a purely ceremonial case of fana, that “4 wives” does not mean physical wives, that the lashings for adultery and the beatings for wives are Qur’anic tropes meaning some kind of purification of the soul. And you have stated that it doesn’t matter what others think, what others have said in the past or present, you have said this “Truth” you have found within these texts is the stand alone light, transcending scholarship and history.
But what about the intentions of the speakers: what about Bukhari’s intent — or Abraham’s intent — or Muhammed’s intent?”
The Tailor thought for a moment and said: “These questions are put to me again and again, in different forms: because they are central questions to ask. Central, perhaps, to the very future of Islam, though that might not appear obvious. But sometimes the manner in which the question is asked is just as important as the answer. See here, a dialogue I had once with a brother from Turkey: if it does not answer your question, then at least it will show you the form — one of adab — by which the Answer may be negotiated!”
The Tailor proceeded to load up a transcript of a dialogue with this Turkish brother, held within Bookface, a well known meta-social networking site.
The Bookface dialogue.
The Turkish brother:
Do the intentions of the speaker – what was meant by the person who spoke the words of the hadith, the sense in which they were meant to be understood by the hearers – not matter in trying to discover the meaning of the words? Are the words as it were stand-alone, and the intentions irrelevant?
Pardon me if I appear as a ‘hostile critic’. I assure you, I am not at all hostile to your general point of view, as far I understand it. I would just like to see if your interpretation (taking this hadith as a test-case) holds up under a little critical (but friendly and basically sympathetic) scrutiny. You’re clearly a singular person; and I should like to make the same spiritual journey you have – but I should also like bring my mind along with me. Think of me as an errant disciple, humbling petitioning for light and clarification.
In answer to your question: yes, and no.
From one perspective, yes, the words are standalone with respect to any Truth we can find in them, because ultimately there is only One Speaker. Everything else is a kind of illusory intermediary, and to believe in a particular intermediary can sometimes distract us from this fact.
This is the meaning behind the verse:
You killed them not, but Allah killed them. And you (Muhammad ) threw not when you did throw but Allah threw, that He might test the believers by a fair trial from Him. Verily, Allah is All-Hearer, All-Knower. (8:17)
By which we understand, “Allah is the All Speaker” (same difference, because Allah’s Knowledge is Creation, whose seed is the Kalim, the Word).
When I first fell in love, I had this wonderful kind of experience: each song on the radio suddenly became about my love, pop songs that hitherto were banal commercialism became rich and deep, each TV program somehow reminded me of her, romantic pulpy films were transformed into Donne sonnets.
It felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes and I could see love written everywhere, my love for her recited by every event, object, media encountered.
This phenomenon is not uncommon for people who fall in Love (it surprised me at the time partly because it so closely matched the standard cliche).
Now, this is the sense in which the intentions of pop song writers, the TV and film producers — they don’t matter and the words stand alone because God’s Love is the engine behind the mechanics of it all.
Since that time I have aimed to retain that state of Love: I aim to cultivate this way of listening to the world, a reading that follows through all things (not just hadith). The angel says: “Iqra/Read!” and I follow this command. And by this we get closer to our originary, perfect state. The Qur’an means “The Reading”: to be a True Muslim is to follow this practice, to cultivate this mode of reading.
But then there is a second answer to your question regarding intentions.
Yes, niyat/intentions do count, they count for a lot. We don’t ignore the niyat of Muhammed when asking “what did he intend by such-and-such an action in such-and-such a hadith?”.
But “niyat/intentions” means something quite different from what we understand them to mean.
We often imagine “intention of an author/agent” to entail a particular kind of selfhood (a historical, a political, a power-driven selfhood) that is contained, situated, in and of itself. For example, it is common practice (in modern tafsir) to imagine a historical Muhammed with a contained selfhood that said or did not say such-and-such, that meant or did not mean such-and-such — situated in relation to the power struggles, spiritual crises of his day (and then to extrapolate to our times). “There was great sexual immorality amongst the Arabs of the time, so he emphasized the need for modesty.” “Though Qur’an says to kill a man is to kill all of humanity, Muhammed was forced to kill men in battle because Islam was in danger of being lost completely which would have lead to even greater injustices in the long term.”
But such an image of selfhood — and its intentions — is illusory, as European philosophy has recently concluded (Sufism has been telling us since the time of Seth, the first Sufi). When I claim to have an intention behind a particular action — “I am walking to the shop to buy some milk because I want some in my tea” — I am speaking with respect to an illusory “I” (a capitalist “I” who is characterised by the action of buying and drinking) and my “reason” for buying is also an illusory intention (it’s built upon a constructed language game of consumption and power, an impermanent, inherently false, valuative semantics).
But there are niyat — there is real intention. This is Muhammedean niyat. Rather than being a “reason” for a self’s action (a “he did this because …”) — Muhammedean niyat is what constitutes the true, permanent, Selfhood, the True Life, the real “Me”. The illusory niyat is assumed to follow a construction of a self. In contrast, the true, Muhammedean niyat preceeds the “Me”: it is the real “Me”.
(I’m not talking about union with God here, not quite, but God’s image, still distinct and separate from God, the final author).
We each have an illusory “ego”, a valuative historically/politically/socially situated, imaginary “I” that says something for an imaginary “reason”. But these things are illusions.
Our real Selfhood is the living through (intending) our words in a Muhammedean mode — inasmuch as we are “like” Muhammed, then we truly exist (as wheat). Inasmuch as we deviate from this pure intention, and engage with valuative “reasons” we do not exist (we are chaff).
So yes, intentions/niyat matter a great deal, provided they are Muhammedean intentions/niyat.
And Muhammed is the perfect exemplar of that kind of intentionality.
So what does this mean then, with respect to historical tafsir? Muhammed (the perfect exemplar) — and that Muhammedean mode of intention — transcends history. It is therefore a meaningless question to ask: “Did Muhammed mean such-and-such?”
Okay, that’s Muhammed. What about Bukhari, the collector of hadiths? Well, basically, I believe that there was/is a Muhammedean locus around Prophecy’s revelation that meant people who were closest to him (including story collectors, including saints and teachers all the way up to today) who are subject — to a lesser or greater degree — to engaging with his historically transcendent niyat. There are people who can be said to exist more than others — there are degrees of existence and non-existence. And these degrees are dependent on how much Muhammedean intention runs through the veins of the person in question.
These degrees are determined purely by exposure, not by our own attempts to intend like Muhammed. Exposure to Muhammedean niyat will affect people anyone close to him: like nuclear fall out. In some cases and an entire region/people/religion will be affected for a number of years afterwards — so that people who collect his stories (or read them) are can be partially Muhammedean in their intent, in their reality. From a historical/social perspective, we could say this or that about Bukhari’s reasons and motivations — it really doesn’t matter: the only real sense in which Bukhari can be said to have intended such and such a reading is inasmuch as there is Muhammedean intent running through his Central Asian veins, and we can definitely affirm that this is the case. Surely there was other stuff going on as well, because Bukhari wasn’t Muhammed — but that chaff has long been discarded and, at least over here, Bukhari is a silo amongst the silos of wheat that has been set aside for us, to last us the current famine.
The Turkish brother replied:
All right. thanks for your answer/s. I’m trying now to glean what sense I can from them.
You would accept, I suppose, that there was also a historical Muhammad, besides the transcendent super-Muhammad, beyond history (and ordinary language), that you’ve described. I’m concerned with this historical Muhammad, the one who existed in history. I understand the existence of this man is illusory, in the same way that your existence and my existence are illusory – because ultimately there is only the one self, and separate existents are only so many masks and mirrors of that one true being. Nonetheless, you would accept, I suppose, that in some sense Muhammad also existed in temporal, conditioned, phenomenal reality, as you and i do, though this be only a dream. Now, let us confine ourselves to this phenomenal existence, and to this phenomenal Muhammad – my question had to do with the words of this man. Put differently, this question is: did this man, in your view, understand by his words – the words of the hadith – what you understand by his words? Either he did or he did not.
If he did, then:
(1) Why express himself, needlessly, in such an obscure fashion – that is, why express himself in words whose ordinary and literal signification (the primary sense in which people would understand them) is so utterly different from the real sense in which he meant them? Why, especially, as he was almost certainly going to be misunderstood? (Presumably, he did not wish to be misunderstood.) Why, also, when he might quite easily have availed himself of an explanation (yours, for example) whose terms are less open to complete and total misunderstanding?
(2) Why, if we grant that perhaps at least some among his listeners or among the subsequent generations of those who gathered up his sayings in hadith collections understood his real sense, why have none of these left any indication that this is indeed what was meant by the hadith in question? (These are of course rhetorical questions, my point being that he could not have understood by his words what you’ve described, because if he did, either: (1) there would have been at least some reasonable and intelligible relation between the ordinary, literal sense of his words and your taylorite sense – which there isn’t – more particularly, such as to avert the possibility (a high probability) of its total misunderstanding (or else why bother with language in the first place, if not to communicate something intelligibly?), or (2) assuming at least some comprehension (in spite of wanton ambiguity, or unintelligibility), we would have at least some indication of the Tailorite sense in the hadith’s recorded history – which we don’t.)
On the other hand, if we say that he not mean anything Tailorite by his words, but that nonetheless the Tailorite sense is in fact their true sense, then i don’t think there’s really much more to be said. For we would seem to have arrived at an evident absurdity. You would then be in the slightly ludicrous position of asking us to believe that while Muhammad did not know or understand what he was saying, you, as if by enchantment, do.
Either way, the Tailorite interpretation in untenable.
The Tailor replied:
I think your points (1) and (2) are quite valid.
There’s a precise answer and a fantasy answer.
The fantasy answer involves coming up with a historical story to explain why these forms of reading remain a “secret” to the majority of scholars and Muslims today. It’s a fantasy because it is a kind of speculation about history that is essentially literary in character (we don’t know what happened historically, so the judgement of how good the story is has to be how exciting and strong it is from a literary perspective).
As one example amongst an infinity of others, I have heard some sufis argue for a “conspiracy theory” approach here. Remember that even in Sunni hadeeth and sira, the treatment of Muhammed’s family is pretty appalling (there is the story of Fatima’s fadak, her inheritance denied to her by hypocrites and political usurpers, the weaker story of how she lost her baby due to an assault by hypocrites, and the accepted fact that his sahaba were basically at each other’s throats after he died, illustrating a political abuse of Islam from the very beginning). It could be argued here that it is therefore not surprising that the “secret” reading of Qur’an was lost in the very early days — particularly as this reading is one sufis generally attribute to Ali.
So there is a conspiracy theory argument as to why there isn’t much of a trace, historically. In this fantasy, we could paint an image of Muhammed as being treated as a mere figurehead by actual wordly Kings, who were the real source of worldly power all through the revelation. A Muhammed who had no control over how he and his family were abused and used by politicians, hypocrites who utilized his charisma for gain. Not a foolish Muhammed, though — this Prophet knew and accepted how people were using him, but remained silent because ultimately he knew that his Truth would hold out, and the hypocrisy and power abuse around him would, in fact, become just a sign within his larger revelation. The Kings though they were using him for political gain, but in fact they became words in his revelation.
But that is just one particular fantasy, one conspiracy theory view. It can be helpful to an extent to engage with fantasy, but sometimes it can be a hinderance as well.
There is a precise answer as well, if you really want to press me here.
I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory fantasies (apart from as a kind of mental exercise in visualization).
This is because I don’t believe the illusory, historical Muhammed ever existed. There is a “real” you and me (the one that links up to the Self) — and there are illusory, historically/socially/politically situated identities that we conveniently consider to be “us”. But in the case of Muhammed, I believe that there never was a historically/politically/socially situated Muhammed. The only Muhammed to have graced this earth was/is the “transcendent”/symbolic “real” Muhammed.
If you’ve ever seen the films “Who framed roger rabbit” or “Mary Poppins”, you may remember the scenes were a human character enters into cartoon land. That’s how I see Muhammed’s influence on the history — and historical individuals — we (mistakenly) consider objective reality.
We’re like Roger Rabbit or Mary Poppins’ penguins, existing in the cartoon world — and Muhammed is like Mary Poppins or Dick Van Dyke or Bob Hoskins.
Muhammed is the exception to the general fact of life that a human consists of a transcendental “real” Self and an imaginary, temporal, temporary ego.
He was always purely a “real” Self, at all times. He was never historically situated, though he dances with the penguins and changes their cartoon lives, making some of them more human and more real. So if you were to travel in time back to the historical events of his time — the battle of Badr say — you wouldn’t see anything like a historical account might imagine. you’d see something entirely paranormal, ghostly. You wouldn’t “see” anything, not in the normal way you see things around you right now. You’d encounter something wild and freaky and strange and miraculous and beautiful. You’d see Mary and Dick dancing with cartoon penguins. And I can guarantee that no penguin blood would be shed.
From the perspective of world religion, I am not anything particularly radical. I am contradicting the primacy of the laws of Physics and standard scientific materialism — a materialism that, out of the religions, is strongest within Islam (in part because historically the Islamic world is responsible for much of the rationalism and materialism that is part of the 21st century).
I’m talking about a paranormal Muhammedean encounter here. This ought not to be strange to Muslim ears — we are meant to believe that angels came down during the battle and literally assisted. We are meant to believe in the supernatural. But a paranormal Muhammed is not a fit with current Islamic ijma, colonized, as it is, by the forces of rationalist and materialist discourse.
These questions are put to me again and again, in different forms: because they are central questions to ask. Central, perhaps, to the very future of Islam, though that might not appear obvious. But sometimes the manner in which the question is asked is just as important as the answer. See here, a dialogue I had once with a sister from Norway: if it does not answer your question, then at least it will show you the form — one of adab — by which the Answer may be negotiated!”