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The Qur'anic Phenomenon


BY MALEK BENNABI

This work was not able to see the light normally; indeed it is the reconstruction of an original destroyed under special circumstances. We believe, we have saved the essential; the development of an analytic method in the study of the Qur'anic phenomenon.

Practically this method strives to serve two aims: to give on the one hand the young Algerian Muslim an occasion to meditate seriously on his religion, and on the other to suggest a timely reform in the spirit of classical commentary. Indeed, it is necessary to realise that in Algeria, as in all Arab countries, the cultural revolution is passing through a phase: "The Muslim renaissance" which receives all its technical ideas from the western culture, particularly and notably by means of the Egyptian awakening. These technical ideas not only influence the new material life, which is adapted more and more by young Muslims, they also concern in a less susceptible manner, it is true, the spiritual things of the soul-the spiritual life in a word.

In fact, it is amazing, most of the young Muslims today receive their religious build-up and even sometimes their religious impetus, by means of the writings of European specialists. The number of Islamic studies, which appear in Europe, from the pen of eminent orientalists are a fact undeniable. But can one imagine the important place which this type of activity occupies in the movement of modern ideas in Muslim countries? There is in this general crisis an aspect which interests, in particular, the aim of this study, namely: the influence of the work of orientalists on the religious spirit of our young university graduates-either by bibliographic necessity or by simple intellectual affinity-to refer to some of these western sources even for personal Islamic information. In fact the local sources of information are devoid of their cultural treasures, appearing henceforth at the bottom of the national libraries of Europe.

It is curious to note the complacency, in Egypt especially, which helps the most wild ideas coming out of the universities in the West. Unquestionably the most instructive example in this respect is the hypothesis formulated by an English orientalist on "Jahillian poetry". There would be nothing excessively abnormal if, from the moment of publication, the hypothesis of Margoliouth had not received the keen appreciation from the Arabic reviewers and from certain theses of young Arab doctors. It has even acquired the value of a positive criterion, noticeably in the study of Dr. T. Sabbagh on the "METAPHOR" in Qur'an.

This author systematically refuses, from now on, to consider the Jahillian poetry as a positive domain of Arab philology. Up to this point, "The miracle of the Qur'an" was based on the major argument of the transcendence of the "Word of God" on the "speech" of man. Hitherto, the commentary had recourse to the style to prove the miracle of the Qur'an on a rational basis. But in drawing conclusions from the Margoliouth hypothesis, as in the case of Dr. Sabbagh, it is exactly this basis which would be in error. Since then, the problem of interpretation of the Qur'an would be posed on an extremely important point for the belief of a Muslim, namely: the proof of the miracle of the Qur'an. In any case the intellectual revolution would not have lacked to lead our university youngsters to assert, sooner or later, the weakness in the classical criterion, which had so far furnished the arguments in favour of the supernatural origin of the Qur'an. For a mind with a Cartesian bend, of what value can be an argument proving hitherto purely subjective?

Indeed no Muslim, Algerian in particular, could from now on compare objectively a Qur'anic verse to the period of rhythm or the rhyme of the pre-Islamic era. Long since we have ceased to possess the spirit of Arabic language to be able to draw a judicious conclusion from a literary comparison. Long time ago our belief on this point was satisfied by a principle of authority which hardly agrees with the demands of the spirit of the elite hitherto infatuated with positivism. Hereafter, hence the problem of the commentary is posed in a new angle.

The subject of our study is related, partially, to this doctrine under the relation of the rational conviction with the intellectual conviction, placed first under the aegis of theology. Otherwise, we would like to furnish directly the necessary rational base for this conviction, at any rate, to open methodically and broadly the religious debate in order to lead the Algerian intellectual to build himself this base necessary for his faith.

The method followed here is to tie the particular case of Islam to religious phenomena in general, to place its prophet as the ultimate in the chain of prophetic movement and to place the Qur'anic doctrine as the outcome of the stream of monotheistic thought. Consequently, this consists of deducing from the Qur'an, from the phenomenological point of view, an authentic criteria for Islam as a revealed religion. But we cannot neglect to establish the tie, dialectically necessary between the chapters of this study, to pre- establish a first criteria devoted to the messenger, Mohammed, since the second criteria is devoted to the message of the Qur'an. Such are the outlines of the method, which we would like to put at the disposal of the young Algerian intellectual to help him establish the rational basis of his religious faith.

The Religious Phenomenon

That the human conscience faced the metaphysical problem thus and with such regularity, at all its phases of evolution, is itself a problem, which the sociologists wished to resolve by characterising man as "an essentially religious animal". Two divergent theoretical consequences follow from this basically objective definition:

(a) Is man "a religious animal" in an inborn instinctive manner, as a consequence of an original disposition of his nature?

(b) Or else has he acquired this quality by a sort of psychic osmosis, propagated by entire humanity, begun by an initial cultural accident which occurred among a group of humans?

Precisely these are the two basic theses which arise out of the problem put by the religious phenomena. Of course it would be naive to strive to resolve this philosophical antagonism by a mathematical solution, as some of our estranged intellectuals would wish, probably by an oblivious scientism, or by some elementary principles of Positive science itself. Be that as it may, once the fundamental principle of a system is established the system must remain rigorously compatible with it; coherent in all its consequences. Now the two questions, which we have just put, as a consequence of the religious phenomenon, do not expose religion by means of science, as one may tend to believe. Science does not prove the inexistence of God. Not any more-we con- cede it on principle-his existence. The debate here is between two religions, between theism and materialism; between the religion which has postulated God and that which has postulated matter.

The aim of this chapter is to compare these two philosophical systems: that which regards the religious sense of man as an original part of his nature-an idea, which is recognised in many aspects as an essential factor of all civilisations: and that which treats religion as a simple historical accident of human culture. And its conclusion would moreover be supported by conclusions from following chapters, which will bring forward also a sort of posterioric proof, furnished by the prophetic phenomenon and the Qur'anic phenomenon, which places religion at the level of a cosmic phenomenon, next to the physical laws.

The Prophetic Movement

In the preceding chapter we have already established the necessity of putting simply a postulate; here we proceed to examine a particular aspect of monotheism, which-while bringing forth with it from the mouths of Prophets, its transcendental proof-becomes itself a criterion for the totality of the religious phenomenon.

Since Abraham, some individuals, moved by an irresistible force had come periodically to talk to people, in the name of an absolute truth, of which they were said to have a personal and exclusive knowledge by a mysterious means-revelation. These men claim themselves to be envoys of God, sent to carry this word to the people, who couldn't listen to it directly. The exclusiveness of this revelation and the convincing character of the mission of a prophet constitute a special aspect of prophethood, which is the essential basis of monotheism and its phenomenological evidence. By the unique testimony of the prophet, the prophethood appears as an objective phenomenon, independent of the human "me" which expresses it. The problem precisely is to find out whether this is something purely subjective and not an objective phenomenon as magnetism, for example. The existence of magnetism is shown to us by a loadstone needle, which exhibits qualitatively and quantitatively the specific aspects of magnetism. But we can only establish the prophethood by means of the testimony of a prophet and the contents of the written message he has brought to propagate. Hence the problem is psychological on the one hand and historic on the other. It should be remarked that the mission of the prophet is not an isolated fact, it is a continuous phenomenon which repeats itself regularly between two fringes of history with Abraham and Muhammad,peace be upon them both

The continuity of a phenomenon, which repeats itself periodically is already a useful scientific evidence, to admit in the principle its existence, under the conditions always to verify this by compatible facts with reason or by the nature of the principle. Now from the phenomenological point of view, if a case of a particular prophethood explains or establishes nothing, its repetition under certain conditions justifies the general existence of the phenomenon in a manner already more scientific. Hence it remains to examine seriously the type of this repetition, in order to distinguish its special character, from the general law, which can control the totality of the phenomenon.

One has no valid reason to accept a priori, the prophethood as a psychological accident affecting the history of one human "me". One has also no reason to claim directly the intervention of a pathological factor to explain the prophethood by the personal equation of the prophet in affirming that it is or it could be due to over-excited nerve, or of exalted imagination, or of thought directed by some purely subjective phenomenon.

If it were possible for physicists to make a sample of iron talk under the influence of magnetism, undoubtedly, they would be very happy to ask a lot of precise information rather than deducing it all from known facts, or from some hypothesis which are not rigorously supported by calculation. However, the prophet is a subject who can talk to us of his internal state, who even argues it, first of all for his personal conviction and later for the external service of his mission. If there is prophethood, first of all it ought to be considered as the disturbing cause which breeds in a human "me" the irresistible attraction of a mission, whose motives and aims could not be explained by this "me".

That is why the knowledge of the phenomena by the prophet himself is essential for a critical study of the subject. Jonas, Jeremiah, Mohammed are such subjects who are as much individuals and who, at first, wished to voluntarily avoid the prophetic call. They resisted, but finally they were carried away by their call. Their resistance emphasises, however, the polarisation between free will and determinism which bent their wills and subjected their "me". In these indications, there is already a strong presumption for an objective thesis of prophet- hood.

The Rational Criterion

Mohammed was an illiterate, whose very meagre knowledge could have come to him only from his material environment. In this chivalrous, idolatrous and nomad atmosphere the social and metaphysical problems were never raised. The knowledge of Arabs on the life and thought of other people is insignificant, as can be clearly inferred from pre-Islamic poetry, which forms in this respect a precise source of information. Hence while leaving for his retreat of Ghar Hira, Mohammed could only have the ordinary know- ledge of the usual ideas of a primitive milieu. Now the revealed knowledge just shakes up his superficial knowledge, doubly formed by the general ignorance and the very "Ummi" (illiteracy) of Mohammed.

It is necessary to visualise the surprising meaninglessness that is expressed in this "read" which is the first word of the revelation. Mohammed is an illiterate; this order shakes him up naturally, since it is so contrary to his being an "ummi". He timidly replies "I can't read". But what a sudden shock for a positive spirit like his! When, at the subsequent revelation, the voice ordered him to preach, he wonders with anxiety, who shall believe in me?" There is surprise of the unexpected and an uncertainty of conviction in this question. Moreover the revelation is interrupted for some time. He begins to wish for it, even desperately call for it. But the revelation does not come. Mohammed finds the worst times of his moral crisis at Mount Hira. Further from diminishing, his uncertainty increases tragically. He complains to his sweet wife. She tries to con- sole him but with no avail. Finally, after two years the revelation resumes and brings the supreme and the only consoling expression, The Word, to him.

Now he has an infinitely more objective certainty on this point. But this long wait so anguishing and the unexpected joy which followed it, should be the psychological conditions most favourable to this graceful state of his mind, when there was not any shadow of uncertainty. In fact it was the extreme uncertainty of Mohammed, which obliged him to torment himself and followed the intellectual process which resulted in the final certainty.

The Literary Aspect of Qur'an

The literary aspect of the message, which was the principal subject of study for the classical commentators, loses its importance more or less in our time, which is more scientific than literary. in fact, since we do not have adequate material that contains the spirit of pre-Qur'anic language, we could not judge relevantly the transcendence of the style of the Qur'an. However, there is a verse carrying historical information of the utmost importance on this point. In this verse the Qur'an explicitly claims this transcendence, with which it intends to overcome the literary spirit of the period. It throws a stupefying challenge at its con- temporaries as follows:

"Bring a single sura similar (to this) and ask for the support of men and jinns, if you wish".

History does not record that this challenge had ever been met. One can conclude from this that the challenge has existed without response and hence that the literary "miracle" had effectively overcome the spirit of the particular period. But as far as we are concerned, there are also some other sources, leading to a conclusion even on this particular aspect of the question. The bedouin spirit is essentially music loving; its aspirations, its moments and its progress are all translated in the rhythmic musical expression of the Arabic verse, whose metre could be as short or as long as the step of a camel. It does not treat any mystical or metaphysical obsession, and it also ignores the dialectical subtleties and the abstractions of philosophical, scientific or religious thought. Its terminology corresponds to the simple requirements of the internal and external life of a bedouin and not of a settler.

Such are the characteristics of this Jahillian, idolatrous nomadic language which the Qur'an nevertheless, bends to its own spirit in order to express a universal thought. Moreover for expressing this thought the Qur'an adapts the form of blank verse, something new in Arabic rhyme: it frees itself from the metre and it is amplified. . . .

Thus when the Qur'an was revealed it was not a progressive evolution for Arabic, but something like a revolutionary explosion: such a philological phenomenon is unique in the history of languages. With a single jump, Arabic had become, from its primitive dialectical stage, a language technically organised to carry the thought of a new culture and a new civilisation.


The Muslim
October-November 1975















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