Rehearing Qur’an

Re-hearing Quran in Open Translation: Ta’wil, Postmodern Inquiry and a Hermeneutics of Indeterminacy

Neil Douglas-Klotz


This paper uses hermeneutical and comparative methods to explore the similarities among an esoteric Quranic interpretative tradition, modern attempts to render the Quran in open poetic forms, and post-modern inquiry strategies. Classical Ismaili and Sufi scholars posited an “inner” hermeneutic called ta)wi!l, which allowed for multi-valent, non-literal interpretations of the Quranic text (Schimmel 1994, Daftary 1999). Parallels to both ta)wi!l and recent attempts to render the Quran through Western poetic forms can be found in the postmodern “new paradigm” social science research models of Torbert, Reason and Rowan (1981). The dialogue between ancient hermeneutics and postmodern inquiry suggests the development of a poetic “hermeneutic of indeterminacy” when dealing with Quranic texts in Western language translation. Such a hermeneutic would explore the boundaries of text, receptor-hearer, and the inter-subjective phenomenology of interpretation in order to see and hear Islam with Western eyes and ears in a more complex way.

This paper uses hermeneutical and comparative methods to explore the similarities among an esoteric Quranic interpretative tradition, modern attempts to render the Quran in open poetic forms, and post-modern inquiry strategies. It suggests the possible development of a poetic “hermeneutic of indeterminacy” when dealing with Quranic texts and traditions in Western language translation. Such a hermeneutic would explore the boundaries of text, receptor-hearer, and the intersubjective phenomenology of interpretation in order to hear Islam with Western ears in a more complex way.

Classical Ismaili and Sufi scholars posited an “inner” hermeneutic of the Quran called ta)wi!l (literally, “bringing back to the root”), which allowed for multi-valent, non-literal, phenomenologically-based interpretations of the Arabic text, adapted to express the needs of particular historical communities as well as the expressions of particular mystics.

The first mention of an “inner meaning” occurs in Quranic Sura 18 (78,82), in the story of the Prophet Musa (Moses) and Khidr. Khidr having temporarily accepted Moses as his traveling companion, performs three strange acts. When Moses questions him about these, a behaviour that Khidr had previously forbidden, Khidr gives him the ta)wi!l or inner  explanation of his actions. In the historical development of Quranic exegesis, scholars distinguished between ta)wi!l and tafsi4r, the outer explanation of a passage. Ta)wi!l was primarily practiced in Shia and Sufi circles. As always in this area, it is virtually impossible to distinguish the origins of a practice that embraces both Ismaili Shia and Sufi Sunni traditions (for instance, see Daftary 1999, on the way in which Ismaili practices were often hidden under a Sunni Sufi exterior).

Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel (1992) comments on the profundity of Quranic interpretation attempted by Islamic mystics and served by the Arabic language itself:

[T]he mystics of Islam … knew that a deeper meaning lies behind the words of the text and that one has to penetrate to the true core. It may be an exaggeration that an early mystic supposedly knew 7,000 interpretations for each verse of the Koran, but the search for the never-ending meanings of the Koran has continued through the ages. The Arabic language has been very helpful in this respect with its almost infinite possibilities of developing the roots of words and forming cross-relations between expressions (p. 48).

The basis for ta)wi!l lies in the qualities of the Semitic languages that lead to ambiguity in the meaning of a particular text. Both Jewish and Islamic traditions of mystical hermeneutic point to the importance of individual letters and letter combinations. The Semitic languages depend upon a root-and-pattern system that allows a text to be rendered literally in several different ways. In Islamic mysticism, this interpretive approach begins with a study of the letters of the alphabet themselves, which come to symbolize cosmic or universal patterns of energy.

For instance, the sixth Shia imam, Ja8far as[ Sa\diq (d. 765) writes in his Quranic commentary: In the first place a thought surged in God, an intention, a will. The object of this thought, this intention, and this will were the letters from which God made the principal of all things, the indices of everything perceptible, the criteria of everything difficult. It is from these letters that everything is known (translated by and quoted in Schimmel, 1994, p. 151).One tenet of early Ismaili

ta)wi!l was that the written Quran was but a reflection of the “Quran of creation,” which itself contained the source of all symbols of the sacred. The Quran itself supports this interpretation by mentioning the“Mother of the Book” (ummi!l ki!tabi!, Sura 43:4) and the “Well-preserved Tablet (lauh9mah9fu4z, Sura 85:22), which remain with Allah in pre-existence. In the relation to this interpretation, modern Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossain Nasr (1968) relates the practice of ta)wi!l to Islam’s unified cosmology of humanity, nature and the divine:

In Islam the inseparable link between man and nature, and also between the sciences of nature and religion, is to be found in the Quran itself, the Divine Book which is the Logos or the Word of God…It is both the recorded Quran (al- Qur’an al-tadwini) and the “Quran of creation” (al-Qur’an al takwini) which contains the “ideas” or archetypes of all things. That is why the term used to signify the verses of the Quran or ayah also means events occurring within the souls of men and phenomena in the world of nature (1968, p. 95).

An important dimension of ta)wi!l is the confluence of spiritual experience and interpretation. As French Islamist Henry Corbin points out (1986), the word ta)wi!l itself indicates “an exegesis which is at the same time an exodus, a going out of the soul toward the Soul.”In Islam, ta)wi!l, “the exegetic leading back to the source,” answers to that law of interiorization, that experiential actualization of symbolic correspondences, which, being an innate and fundamental impulse of the religious Psyche, leads the Spirituals of all communities to the same goal (p.134). The same dense texture of sound and multi-valent letter roots, branching into multiple layers of meaning, also helps to support the notion of the inimitability of the Quran (its i(ja3z ), which according to Muslims is proof of its divine character as well as Muhammad’s prophethood. On this basis, no literal translation into any other language is actually possible. As Schimmel points out (1994), this led to the problem of how to transmit the contents of the Quran in lands where Arabic was not the native language:It is the inadequacy of translations that has caused and still causes so many misunderstandings about the Koran and its message, especially when sentences are taken out of context and set absolute; for according to the Muslims’ understanding, not only the words and ayath but also the entire fabric of the Koran, the interweaving of words, sound and meaning, are part and parcel of the Koran (p. 165).

Similarly, in prefacing his recent translations of the Quran, Michael Sells (1999) points out that considering the text in an oral, non-linear, communal context presents a key to its understanding:

For Muslims, the Qur’an is first experienced in Arabic, even by those who are not native speakers of Arabic. In Qur’an schools, children memorize verses, then entire Suras. They begin with the Suras that are at the end of the Qur’an in its written form. These first revelations to Muhammad express vital extistential themes in a language of great lyricism and beauty. As the students learn these Suras, they are not simply learning something by rote, but rather interiorizing the inner rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics—taking it to heart in the deepest manner….

The Qur’anic experience is not the experience of reading a written text from beginning to end. Rather, the themes, stories, hymns and laws of the Qur’an are woven through the life of the individual, the key moments of the community , and the sensual world of the town and village (pp.11, 12).

In order to convey some of this context, Sells includes in his work multiple renderings of certain passages as well as a CD of traditional Quranic recitation. Using methods that emulate the context that creates ta)wi!l, a number of other recent authors have also attempted multiple, multi-valent translations of Quranic text into Western languages in order to communicate the dense intra-textuality of the original and to better communicate Quranic poetic language and concepts to nonscholarly Western audiences. These attempts have included “open” translations, using multiple “literal” and “non-literal” poetic language (Douglas-Klotz, 1995;Hixon, 1988).

For instance, the late Sufi author Lex Hixon created free renderings of important Quranic passages with the aim of communicating some of the phenomenological dimension of the text for practicing Muslims (1988):

My attempt in these meditations is to dramatize what, from my own experience in the world of Islam, the sensitive Muslim person actually feels when reading the Holy Koran or listening raptly, sometimes without clear verbal comprehension, to the melodious chanting of the classical Arabic (p.50).

Like other Sufis or Ismailis who practiced ta)wi!l, Hixon rejected the distinction of “literal” versus “figurative” meanings of the text when considering the way in which the Quran is actually experienced by a Muslim:

[M]y meditations stay very close to the basic level of meaning in the Holy Koran. For this fundamental stratum of significance I would not use the phrase “literal meaning,” because this suggests some sort of merely literal meaning, which  an be dismissed as relatively unimportant in relation to the high mystical quest…. What I would call the “basic meaning” of the verses is profoundly important. It forms the basis of Muslim practice and experiential belief, without which the various higher levels of mystical meaning would be nullified (p. 50, 51).Parallels to both the esoteric tradition of Quranic interpretation as well as its recent rendering through open Western   poetic forms can be found in the postmodern “new paradigm” social science research models of Torbert, Reason and Rowan (1981). These research models emphasize 1) a community process, 2) an open rather than closed field of research, 3) the development of an “inter-penetrating” attention and 4) a spiral rather than a closed circle of hermeneutical inquiry.

This school of research has questioned the view that interpretation, because it cannot be completely “objective,” must necessarily be completely “subjective.” Peter Reason and John Rowan (1981) in an essay “On Making Sense,” pose the following question:

“If we cannot transcend our historical position, and get rid of our prejudgments, the basic problem for our understanding is how to distinguish between “legitimate” prejudgments and those which get in the way of our understanding (p. 133).”

Using the example of feminist approaches to history, they conclude that, while past experience cannot be transcended in making an interpretation, one can, by revealing this past experience as much as possible, open up an “intersubjective” interpretation:

“Once this historicity of human experience is realized, it is clear that we must distinguish between some notion of an “objective” understanding or interpretation which is unattainable and meaningless, and reach for an interpretation which is “intersubjectively” valid for all the people who share the same world at a given time in history (p. 133).”

Similarly, in proposing a model of collaborative research, William Torbert (1981a) challenges the notion of “controlled” research and criticizes much modern educational research as uneducational:

“Both in research and in organizational practice the effort at unilateral control presumes that the initial actor (whether researcher or practitioner) knows what is significant at the outset and that this knowledge is to be put to the service of controlling the situation outside the actor, in order to implement the pre-defined design as efficiently as possible (p. 142).”

In such controlled research, if participants begin to question assumptions, examine methods or motivations, compare varying kinds of perceptual attention or otherwise depart from the researcher’s plan, the research project is labeled “out of control.” Torbert suggests that such “controlled” educational research is not only “anti-educational” in that it fails to discover anything new, but also anti-social in that it fails to prepare teachers or students for the world as it is:

“[I]n a world where different cultures must learn to live together as one planet, at a time when different cultural groups are increasingly refusing to subordinate their values, and at a time when change is occurring so fast that each new generation of school children and college students (i.e., every four years or so) represents virtually a new culture, the model of unilateral control simply doesn’t work. Literacy decreases and violence increases (p. 142-143).”

As an alternative, Torbert suggests a model of “action research” in which both the researcher and participants collaborate in an open system of “experiments-inpractice” that are not rigidly controlled but, in fact, encourage the unexpected. In this respect, the setting of action research seeks to duplicate the conditions under which the research will eventually be applied–life itself:

“All social actors, whether individuals or organizations, whether called “students,” “teachers,” “researchers,” “administrators,” “schools,” or “businesses,” engage in continuous, more-or-less flawed inquiry-in-action aimed at functioning increasingly effectively (p. 145).”

In a number of elements, these new paradigm research models parallel the hermeneutics of ta)wi!l. The research of so-called unilateral control in the discourse of  these researchers corresponds to the strictures of a priori religious (or academic) principles on the ta)wi!l interpretation or open rendering of a Quranic passage,  including the experience of hearing it. In order to obtain one “right” or “objective” answer, suitable to all occasions, variables must be controlled and limited (for instance, certain academic study requires a “literal” rendering of a passage, but which one?). In both the new paradigm and ta)wi!l hermeneutics, the researcher or spiritual community becomes the central focus for inquiry and experience. The extent of control on the expression of ta)wi!l in a given community corresponds to the degree of control imposed upon the inquiry and on the range of what constitutes validity (that is, the “usefulness” of the interpretation).

Besides encouraging an atmosphere of collaboration among participants, the action-researcher must, according to Torbert, develop an “interpenetrating attention” capable of “apprehending simultaneously its own dynamics and the ongoing theorizing, sensing and external eventualizing.” That is, this attention must bridge subjectivity and objectivity, neither discounting the researcher’s own actions, feelings, thoughts and sensations nor allowing them to acquire so much importance that the rest of the system is lost to sight.

Torbert (1981b) suggests further that “the prospective action scientist might well seek training in somatic movement forms such as tai chi, judo or the Gurdjieffian movements, all of which cultivate direct, moment-to-moment sensual awareness” (p. 443).

Reason and Rowan (1981) propose that all qualitative researchers in the social sciences and education undergo a process of “cleansing the instrument,” which amounts to an ongoing commitment to self-transformation and therapy.

“As soon as we begin to open up our own subjectivity, and to get in touch with what is there, we usually discover more than we had bargained for. We discover all kinds of unfinished business, and attaining the clarity seems to mean finishing the business….

This is usually done through some process of therapy, counseling, personal growth work or general self-discovery, whereby these patterns are questioned in a way that they can change. The self-image gets taken apart, and the rich realm of subjectivity which was pushed down as being too dangerous and too weak is now opened up and entered into and allowed to exist and be used and  ransformed. There is a feeling which then comes in, of being real instead of unreal (p. 124).”

Looking again at its parallels with ta)wi!l and an open approach to translating the Quran, Torbert’s “interpenetrating attention” corresponds to a contemplative awareness of word, meaning and symbol, influenced by both personal and community experience. Various Islamic mystics over the ages, in both Sunni and Shi’ite circles, developed practices that intended to cultivate such an “interpenetrating attention,” using breathing, body awareness and chanting. They understood these practices within Islam’s doctrine of unity (tawhid), which states that there is ultimately only one reality, and found justification for them in a famous extra-canonical saying of Allah conveyed by the Prophet Muhammad (one of the socalledhadith qudsi):

“My servant draws near to me through nothing I love more than the religious duty I require of him. And my servant continues to draw near to me by superogatory worship until I love him.

When I love him, I become the ear by which he hears, the eye by which he sees, the hand by which he grasps, and the foot by which he walks. If he asks me for something, I give it to him; if he seeks protection, I provide it to him (translated in Ernst 1997, p. 51).”

Finally, new paradigm research also proposes the concept of “research cycles” proposed by Rowan (1981, p. 97ff), which suggests further parallels with ta)wi!l. In articulating the value of a “dialectical paradigm” for research, Rowan recommends that new paradigm researchers begin to see their work as a spiral rather than a line or a closed circle. The six moments in the research cycle he proposes are: Being, Thinking, Project, Encounter, Making Sense and Communication. Rowan proposes that an inquiry could actually begin anywhere on this cycle and that at most stages, one can also be in contact with others in a collaborative or action inquiry. The stages of the research cycle or spiral, as Rowan outlines it, compare favorably to the process of multi-leveled translation of sacred Quranic texts pursued orally in mystical circles using ta)wi!l. Being corresponds to training in meditative awareness derived from the spiritual practices of the tradition. Thinking corresponds to the grammatical or  language training necessary to approach a text. Project corresponds to the choice of text and the rendering of its Arabic roots in a thorough way. Encounter involves a confrontation with the text itself as a whole, by oneself and in relation to one’s historical community of inquiry. Making Sense arises out of these multiple relationships. Communication involves translation of a text that opens meaning for another cycle of inquiry, beginning with the practice of Being.

The multiple renderings or interpretations of a particular Quranic text spiral around its essential meaning, which can never be translated. However, the net of meaning that these multiple translations create places the reader or hearer within a symbolic universe that calls for his/her own experience to fix a final meaning for this moment, in relation to a particular community of inquiry. The indeterminacy of the interpretation can then be seen as a strength rather than a weakness, akin to the usefulness of the principle of indeterminacy in quantum physics.

The theories of the new paradigm social science researchers emphasize an open, collaborative process that includes the “subjects” as active participants in the research. Rather than hide the questions involved in the inquiry, participants are engaged in the questions, and the oral process that results becomes part of the “research instrument.” Parallels to this idea, and the hermeneutics of indeterminacy suggested here, may be found in several recent studies on orality and sacred texts.

In an insightful study of the place of oral and written texts in classical religions, East and West, religious studies researcher Harold Coward (1988) reviewed text traditions in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In all of them, he suggests, the spiritual or religious experience of the word was traditionally located in an oral rather than written relationship to it.

Previous generations, in all the traditions, learned scripture by heart, notes Coward. The progressive dominance of the printed word in religious circles has paradoxically led to its diminishment as a source of inspiration.

“[F]or most moderns, scripture has ceased to be the guiding companion of life that resides in one’s deepest layers of consciousness, influencing one even when one is not aware of its presence. Instead, scripture has become a literary object to be studied and analyzed along with the other literary texts that we possess (p. 177).”

Coward maintains that sacred words must shift again from the visual sense of an external object to the oral-aural sense of subjective, living word. Simiarly, Jacques Elul (1985) suggests that modern experience biases us toward printed words as signs representing fixed facts. The oral word, on the other hand. emphasizes a symbolic value that may transcend rationality and overflow into emotion, ambiguity and paradox (pp. 1-4).

Related to this theme, a number of biblical scholars have begun to focus on the entire context of scriptural experience, not simply the “source-message” but also the “text-receptor “ or “hearer-response” (Lategan and Vorster, 1985). Along these lines, Coward proposes that approaching scriptural communication from the reader response side makes clear the function of scripture as symbol rather than sign. The resulting hermeneutics proposed has clear links to the practice of ta)wi!l in relation to  the Quran.

“Rather than there being one correct meaning for a text, the hearing or reading of a Vedic poem or New Testament parable may convey many different meanings or insights depending on the listener, the time and the place. Instead of a hermeneutics of reduction, based on the assumption that the text has only one correct meaning, the oral experience of scripture paves the way for a hermeneutics of unfolding [Entfaltung], an opening up of the richness of the word in terms of its symbolic potentialities (p. 182).”

The clear differences between ta)wi!l hermeneutics and new paradigm modelslie, of course, in the tendency of communities engaging in ta)wi!l to valorize  particular notions about the essential nature of the divine and its purposes in human affairs. However, valorizing tendencies can as equally be found in the value placed by postmodern researchers on certain foundational epistemological principles of their own discourse, for instance, various definitions of validity.

Nonetheless, a meeting place between the language and philosophic concerns

of both ta)wi!l and postmodern inquiry can be established in a number of areas,

which suggest the notion of what this author has called a “hermeneutics of indeterminacy”(see also Douglas-Klotz, 1999). In his experience, such a hermeneutic proves useful in considering particular Quranic passages in translation and in opening up the conclusions that may be drawn from them. This hermeneutic has also proven useful in teaching Western students about the Quran and Islam.Rudimentary principles of this hermeneutic, generated from a

ta)wi!l postmodern dialogue, include the following:

(1) Structure and Openness. There can be no one definitive translation or interpretation for all times, but several “open,” poetic translations can create an intersubjective bridge between the unique cultural, linguistic experience of a text and the experience of the interpretive community rooted in a different language.

(2) Multi-leveled, Evolutionary. Each translation or interpretation can create a tapestry or net of possible meaning that can be meditated upon and interpreted according to the life experience of the person and community confronting it. The “meaning,” while rooted in the same text and participating in a phenomenological reality connected to the historical religious experience of the community, reveals itself according to the needs of an emergent, evolutionary reality.

(3) Oral and Organismic. In engaging in a community of inquiry, the written text leads the receptor toward the oral, both in its expanded translation style and in the encouragement to use methods such as guided listening, story-telling, chant and body prayer to experience the phenomenological and even somatic dimensions of a particular text.

(4) Ecological and Relational. The limitation of translation of sacred texts to one so-called literal translation can inhibit diversity and understanding in a learning context. In the context of a community that adheres to the notion of a unitive cosmology, the “text” behind the sacred written text can be recognized as the manuscript of nature as it is experienced in a particular cultural, social, political and ecological con-text. This is the system in which all study, interpretation and practice takes place.

20 years ago, the author experienced all of these elements in a community of inquiry focused on the Quran for non-Muslims by a septugenarian teacher from Pakistan. The following example of a “hermeneutic of indeterminacy” (Douglas- Klotz, 1995, pp.90-91) arose from his experience of a ta)wi!l of the Arabic of the first Sura of the Quran, Sura Fateha, and subsequent study of the rest of the Quran. All of the renderings below are “literal” (based in the possible meanings of each word or root) but none definitive until the reader adds her or his own relationship to the text to the process. Such a meditative rendering fulfills the root meaning of “translation”–carrying meaning across a linguistic and cultural bridge. At the same time, it tries to avoid becoming an object in itself in favor of evoking a response that engages the inquirer in a search for meaning. In the context of a learning community discussion, this search could be aided by contemplations and meditations that lead one back to two constants in the human experience: the awareness of the body and the awareness of nature. From a cultivated landscape of “word-for-word” translation, the wilder aspects of the text’s ecosystem then begin to re-appear.

The Opening

(Meditation on Sura Fateha, Al Quran 1 from the Arabic)

Bismillahir rahmanir rahim Upon hearing the Irresistible Voice of Love’s Wellspring and Goal, we are led to affirm that

Alhamdulillahi rabbi-l‘alamin arrahman irrahim Whatever the Universe does, small or large, through any being or communion of beings, which helps further its purpose, this act celebrates the Source of our unfolding story. The essence of all praiseworthy qualities constantly returns to the One Being Give praise and celebrate! This Being of beings mysteriously nurtures and sustains, grows and brings to maturity all worlds, universes and pluriverses, all aspects of consciousness and knowledge, all storylines and lesson plans. This Source is the Original Womb of Love in all its aspects.

maliki yaumadin It says ‘I can’ on the day when all elements part company and return home, when the threads of interweaving destiny unravel and the invoices come due. This Universe Being accepts the mission to resolve the unresolvable at the time when time ends just as it said ‘yes’ to the birth movements that began it.

Iyyaka n‘abudu wa iyyaka nasta‘ain Cutting through all distractions, addictions and diversions, all conflicting taboos, theologies, offenses and misunderstandings, we will act only from this Universe Purpose, we will develop abilities only in service to the Real, we will bow to and venerate only the deepest Source of all Life and we will only expect help from this direction, the ration of what we need, freely given by the One.

Ihdina sirat almustaqim We ask you to reveal our next harmonious step. Show us the path that says, “stand up, get going, do it!” that resurrects us from the the slumber of the drugged and leads to the consummation of Heart’s desire, like all the stars and galaxies in tune, in time, straight on.

sirat alladhina an‘amta ‘alayhim ghayril maghdubi ‘alayhim wa laddalin. The orbit of every being in the universe is filled with delight. When each travels consciously, a sigh of wonder arises at the expanse, the abundance. This is not the path of frustration, anger or annoyance, which only happens when we temporarilylose the way and become drained, roaming too far from the Wellspring of Love.

Amin. May this become the ground of our reality.


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Copyright Neil Douglas-Klotz 2002


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“Virtual Insanity”

That's not nature's way Well that's what they said yesterday There's nothing left to do but pray I think it's time I found a new religion Waoh - it's so insane To synthesize another strain There's something in these Futures that we have to be told. JAMIROQUAI
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