Methods of Religious Thought in Islam
By "religious thought" we mean that form of thought which is concerned with any of the problems of a religious nature within a particular religion, in the same sense that mathematical thought is the form of thought which deals with mathematical questions and solves mathematical problems.
Needless to say religious thought, like other forms of thought, must have reliable sources from which the raw material of its thought originates and upon which it depends. Similarly, the process of reasoning necessary for the solution of mathematical problems must have a series of established mathematical facts and principles.
The single source upon which the divinely revealed religion of Islam depends and upon which it is based, inasmuch as it is based on a revelation of celestial origin, is none other than the Holy Quran. It is the Quran which is the definitive testament of the universal and ever-living prophet hood of the Prophet and it is the content of the Quran that bears the substance of the Islamic call. Of course the fact that the Quran is alone the source of Islamic religious thought does not eliminate other sources and origins of correct thinking, as will be explained later.
There are three methods of religious thought in Islam. The Holy Quran in its teachings points to three paths for Muslims to follow in order to comprehend the purposes of religion and the Islamic sciences:
1- The path of the external and formal aspect of religion (the Shari'ah):
2- The path of intellectual understanding; and
3- The path of spiritual comprehension achieved through sincerity (ikhlas) in obeying God.
These three methods differ from each other in several ways. For instance, since the external forms of religion are verbal expressions in the simplest language, they are in the hands of all people, and everyone benefits from them according to his own capacity. On the other hand, the other two paths, which are appropriate to a particular group (the elite-khawass), are not common to all. The path of the external forms of religion leads to the understanding of the principles and the obligations of Islam and results in knowledge of the substance of the beliefs and practices of Islam, and of the principles of the Islamic sciences, ethics, and jurisprudence. This is in contrast to the other two paths. The intellectual path can discover the problems connected with faith, ethics, and the general principles governing practical questions, but the intellectual method cannot discover the specific religious injunctions given in the Quran and the Sunnah. The path of purification of the carnal souls since it leads to the discovery of God given spiritual truths can have neither limits nor measure of its results or of the truths revealed through this divine gift. Men who have reached this knowledge have cut themselves off from everything and forgotten everything but god and are under the direct guidance and dominion of God Himself-May His Name be Glorified. Whatever He wants and not what they want is revealed to them.
We will now take up in detail the three methods of religious thought in Islam.
FIRST METHOD: THE FORMAL ASPECT OF RELIGION
The Different Facets of the Formal Aspect of Religion
It has become clear from what has been said thus far that the Holy Quran, which is the principal source of religious thought in Islam has given full authority to the external meanings of its words for those who give ear to its message. The same external meaning of the Quranic verses has made the sayings of the Prophet complementary to the words of the Quran and has declared them to be authoritative like the Quran. For as the Quran says:
﴾And We have revealed Unto thee the Remembrance that thou mayst explain to mankind that which hath been revealed for them﴿1.
﴾He it is who hath sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite unto them his revelations and to make them grow, and to teach them the scripture and wisdom﴿2.
﴾And whatsoever the messenger giveth you, take it And whatsoever he forbiddeth, abstain (from it)﴿3.
﴾Verily! in the messenger of Allah ye have a good example﴿4.
It is quite evident that such verses would not have any real meaning if the words and deeds of the Prophet and even his silence and approval were not authority for us just as the Quran itself is. Thus the words of the Prophet are authoritative and must be accepted by those who have heard them orally or received them through reliable transmission. Moreover, through such a completely authentic chain of transmission it is known that the Holy Prophet said,
I leave two things of value amidst you in trust which, if you hold on to, you will never go astray, the Quran and the members of my household. These will never be separated until the Day of Judgment.
According to this and other definitely established hadith the words of the Family and Household of the Prophet form a corpus that is complementary to the prophetic hadith. The Household of the Prophet in Islam has authority in religious sciences and is inherent in the explanation of the teachings and injunctions of Islam. Their sayings, received orally or through reliable transmission, are reliable and authoritative.
Therefore, it is clear that the traditional source from which the formal and external aspect of religion is derived, which is an authoritative document and which is also the basic source for the religious thought of Islam, consists of two parts: the Book (the Quran) and the Sunnah. By the Book is meant the external aspect of the verses of the Holy Quran; and by the Sunnah, hadith received from the Prophet and his revered Household.
Traditions of the Companions
In Shi'ism hadith transmitted through the companions are dealt with according to this principle: if they deal with the words and actions of the Prophet and do not contradict the hadith of the Household of the Prophet, they are acceptable. If they contain only the views or opinions of the companions themselves and not those of the Prophet, they are not authoritative as sources for religious injunctions. In this respect the ruling of the companions is like the ruling of any other Muslim. In the same way, the companions themselves dealt with other companions in questions of Islamic law as they would with any Muslim, not as someone special.
The Book and Tradition
The Book of God, the Holy Quran, is the principal source of every form of Islamic thought. It is the Quran which gives religious validity and authority to every other religious source in Islam. Therefore, it must be comprehensible to all. Moreover, the Quran describes itself as the light which illuminates all things. Also it challenges men and requests them to ponder over its verses and observe that there are no disparities of contradictions in them. It invites them to compose a similar work, if they can, to replace it. It is clear that if the Holy Quran were not comprehensible to all there would be no place for such assertions.
To say that the Quran is in itself comprehensible to all is not in any way contradictory to the previous assertion that the Prophet and his Household are religious authorities in the Islamic sciences, which are in reality only elaboration of the content of the Quran. For instance, in the part of the Islamic sciences which comprise the injunctions and laws of the Shari'ah the Quran contains only the general principles. The clarification and elaboration of their details, such as the manner of accomplishing the daily prayers, fasting, exchanging merchandise, and in fact all acts of worship (ibadat) and transactions (mu'amalat), can he achieved only by referring to the traditions of the Holy Prophet and his Household.
As for the other part of the Islamic sciences dealing with doctrines and ethical methods and practices although their content and details can be comprehended by all, the understanding of their full meaning depends on accepting the method of the Household of the Prophet. Also each verse of the Quran must be explained and interpreted by means of other Quranic verses, not by views which have become acceptable and familiar to us only through habit and custom.
Ali has said:
Some parts of the Quran speak with other parts of it revealing to us their meaning and some parts attest to the meaning of others.
And the Prophet has said,
Parts of the Quran verify other parts.
Whosoever interprets the Quran according to his own opinion has made a place for himself in the fire.
As a simple example of the commentary of the Quran through the Quran may be cited the story of the torture of the people of Lot about whom in one place God says, ﴾And we rained on them a rain,﴿ and in another place He has changed this phrase to, ﴾Lo! We sent a storm of stones upon them (all)﴿.
By relating the second verse to the first it becomes clear that by "rain" is meant "stones" from heaven. Whoever has studied with care the hadith of the Household of the Prophet, and the outstanding companions who were the followers of the Prophet, will have no doubt that the commentary of the Quran through the Quran is the sole method of Quranic commentary taught by the Household of the Prophet.
The Outward and Inward Aspects of the Quran
It has been explained that the Holy Quran elucidates religious aims through its own words and gives commands to mankind in matters of doctrine and action. But the meaning of the Quran is not limited to this level.
Rather, behind these same expressions and within these same meanings there are deeper and wider levels of meaning, which only the spiritual elite who possess pure hearts can comprehend.
The Prophet, who is the divinely appointed teacher of the Quran, says:
The Quran has a beautiful exterior and a profound interior.
He has also said,
The Quran has an inner dimension, and that inner dimension has an inner dimension up to seven inner dimensions.
Also, in the sayings of the Imams there are numerous references to the inner aspect of the Quran.
The main support of these assertions is a symbol, which God has mentioned in Chapter XIII, verse 17, of the Quran. In this verse divine gifts are symbolized by rain that falls from heaven and upon which depends the life of the earth and its inhabitants. With the coming of the rain, floods begin to flow and each riverbed accepts a certain amount of the flood, depending on its capacity. As it flows, the flood is covered with foam, but beneath the foam there is that same water which is life giving and beneficial to mankind.
As is indicated by this symbolic story, the capacity for comprehension of divine sciences, which are the source of man's inner life, differs among people. There are those for whom there is no reality beyond physical existence and the material life of this world which lasts but a few days.
Such people are attached to material appetites and physical desires alone and fear nothing but the loss of material benefits and sensory enjoyment. Such people, taking into consideration the differences of degree among them, can at best accept the divine sciences on the level of believing in a summary fashion in the doctrines and performing the practical commands of Islam in a purely outward manner without any comprehension. They worship God with the hope of recompense or tear of punishment in the next world.
There are also those who because of the purity of their nature, do not consider their well being to lie in attachment to the transient pleasures of the fleeting life of this world. The losses and gains and hitter and sweet experiences of this world are for them no more than and attractive illusion.
Memory of those who have passed before them in the caravan of existence, who were pleasure-seekers yesterday and no more than subjects of stories today, is a warning that is continuously present before their eyes. Such men who possess pure hearts are naturally attracted to the world of eternity. They view the different phenomena of this passing world as symbols and portents of the higher world, not as persisting and independent realities.
It is at this point that through earthly and heavenly signs, upon the horizons and within the souls of men, they "observe" in a spiritual vision the Infinite Light of the Majesty and Glory of God. Their hearts become completely enamored with the longing to reach and understanding of the secret symbols of creation. Instead of being imprisoned in the dark and narrow well of personal gain and selfishness they begin to fly in the unlimited space of the world of eternity and advance ever onwards toward the zenith of the spiritual world.
When they hear that God has forbidden the worship of idols, which outwardly means bowing down before an idol, they understand this command to mean that they should not obey other than God, for to obey means to bow down before someone and to serve him. Beyond that meaning they understand that they should not have hope or fear of other than God: beyond that, they should not surrender to the demands of their selfish appetites; and beyond that, they should not concentrate on anything except God, May His Name be Glorified.
Likewise when they hear from the Quran that they should pray, the external meaning of which is to perform the particular rites of prayers, through its inner meaning they comprehend that they must worship and obey God with all their hearts and souls. Beyond that they comprehend that before God they must consider themselves as nothing, must forget themselves and remember only God.
It can be seen that the inner meaning present in these two examples is not due to the outward expression of the command and prohibition in question. Yet the comprehension of this meaning is unavoidable for anyone who has begun to meditate upon a more universal order and has preferred to gain a vision of the universe of reality rather than his own ego, who has preferred objectivity to an egocentric subjectivism.
From this discussion the meaning of the outward and inward aspects of the Quran has become clear. It has also become evident that the inner meaning of the Quran does not eradicate or invalidate its outward meaning. Rather, it is like the soul, which gives life to the body. Islam, which is a universal and eternal religion and places the greatest emphasis upon the "reformation" of mankind, can never disperse with its external laws which are for the benefit of society, nor with its simple doctrines which are the guardians and preservers of these laws.
How can a society, on the pretense that religion is only a matter of the heart, that man's heart should be pure and that there is no value to actions, live in disorder and yet attain happiness? How can impure deeds and words cause the cultivation of a pure heart? Or how can impure words emanate from a pure heart? God says in His Book,
﴾Vile women are for vile men, and vile men for vile women. Good women are for good men, and good men for good women﴿5.
He also says,
﴾As for the good land, its vegetation cometh forth by permission of its Lord, while as for that which is bad, only evil cometh forth (from it)﴿6. .
Thus it becomes evident that the Holy Quran has an outward and an inward aspect and the inward aspect itself has different levels of meaning. The hadith literature, which explains the content of the Quran also contains these various aspects.
The Principles of Interpretation of the Quran
At the beginning of Islam it was commonly believed by some Sunnis that if there were sufficient reason one could ignore the outward meaning of Quranic verses and ascribe to them a contrary meaning. Usually the meaning which opposed the outward literal meaning was called ta'wil, and what is called "taw'il of the Quran" in Sunni Islam is usually understood in this sense.
In the religious works of Sunni scholars as well as in the controversies that have been recorded as taking place between different schools, one often observes that if a particular point of doctrine (that has been established through the consensus of the ulama (scholars) of a school or through some other means) is opposed to the outward meaning of a verse of the Quran that verse is interpreted by ta'wil to have a meaning contrary to its apparent meaning.
Sometimes two contending sides support two opposing views and present Quranic verses in proof of their contentions. Each side interprets the verses presented by the other side through ta'wil. This method has also penetrated more or less into Shi'ism and can he seen in some Shi'ite theological works.
Yet, sufficient deliberation upon Quranic verses and the hadith of the Household of the Prophet demonstrates clearly that the Holy Quran with its attractive language and eloquent and lucid expression never uses enigmatic or puzzling methods of exposition and always expounds any subject in a language suitable for that subject. What has been rightly called ta'wil, or hermeneutic interpretation, of the Holy Quran is not concerned simply with the denotation of words. Rather, it is concerned with certain truths and realities that transcend the comprehension of the common run of men; yet it is from these truths and realities that the principles of doctrine and the practical injunctions of the Quran issue forth.
The whole of the Quran possesses the sense of ta'wil, of esoteric meaning, which cannot be comprehended directly through human thought alone. Only the prophets and the pure among the saints of God who are free from the dross of human imperfection can contemplate these meanings while living on the present plane of existence. On the Day of Resurrection the ta'wil of the Quran will be revealed to every one.
This assertion can be explained by pointing to the fact that what forces man to use speech, create words and make use of expressions is nothing other than his social and material needs. In his social life man is forced to try to make his fellow men understand his thoughts and intentions and the feelings which exist within his soul. To accomplish this end he makes use of sounds and hearing. Occasionally also he uses to a degree his eyes and gestures. That is why between the mute and the blind there can never be any mutual comprehension. For whatever the blind man says the deaf cannot hear, and whatever the mute makes understood through gestures the blind man cannot see.
The creation of words and the naming of objects have been accomplished mostly with a material end in view. Expressions have been created for those objects, states, and conditions that are material and available to the senses or near to the sensible world. As can be seen in those cases where the person addressed lacks one of the physical senses, if we wish to speak of matters which can be comprehended through the missing sense we employ a kind of allegory and similitude. For example, if we wish to describe light of color to one who is born blind, or the pleasures of sex to a child that has not reached the age of adolescence, we seek to achieve our purpose through comparison and allegory and through providing appropriate examples.
Therefore, if we accept the hypothesis that in the scale of Universal Existence there are immense levels of reality which are independent of the world of matter (and this is in reality the case), and that in each generation there are among mankind but a handful who have the capability of comprehending and having a vision of these realities, then questions pertaining to these higher worlds cannot be understood through common verbal expressions and modes of thought. They cannot be referred to except by allusion and through symbolism. Since religious realities are of this kind, the expression of the Quran in such matters must of necessity be symbolic.
God says in His Book,
﴾Lo! We have appointed it a Lecture in Arabic that haply ye may understand. And Lo! in the Source of Decrees, which We possess, it is indeed sublime, decisive﴿. (Common comprehension cannot understand it or penetrate into it.)7.
He also says,
﴾That (this) is indeed a noble Quran. In a book kept hidden, which none toucheth save the purified﴿8.
Concerning the Prophet and his Household he says,
﴾Allah's wish is but to remove uncleanness far from you, O Folk of the Household, and cleanse you with a thorough cleansing﴿9.
As proved by these verses, the Holy Quran emanates from sources beyond the comprehension of common man. No one can have a full comprehension of the Quran save those servants of God whom He has chosen to purify. And the Household of the Prophet are among those pure beings.
In another place God says.
﴾Nay, but they denied that (the Quran), the knowledge whereof they could not compass, and whereof the interpretation (in events) [ta'wil] hath not yet come into them﴿10. (meaning the day of Resurrection when the truth of things will become known).
And again he says,
﴾On the day (the Day of Resurrection) when the fulfillment [ta'wil] thereof (of the whole Quran) cometh, those who were before forgetful thereof will say. The messengers of our Lord did bring the Truth!﴿11.
The principle that the hadith possesses validity, as attested by the Quran, is not at all disputed among Shi'ites or in fact among all Muslims. But because of the failure of some of the early rulers of Islam in preserving and guarding the hadith, and the excesses of a group among the companions and followers of the Prophet in propagating hadith literature, the corpus of hadith came to face a certain number of difficulties.
On the one hand, the caliphs of the time prevented the writing down and recording of the hadith and ordered any pages containing texts of hadith to be burned. Sometimes also any increase in activity in the transmission and study of hadith was forbidden. In this way a certain number of hadith were forgotten or lost and a few were even transmitted with a different or distorted meaning. On the other hand, another tendency also prevailed among another group of the companions of the Holy Prophet who had had the honor of seeing his presence and actually hearing his words. This group, which was respected by the caliphs and the Muslim community, began an intense effort to propagate the hadith. This was carried to such an extent that sometimes hadith overruled the Quran and the injunction of a Quranic verse was even considered abrogated by some people through a hadith. Often the transmitters of hadith would travel many miles and hear all the difficulties of travelling in order to hear a single saying.
A group of outsiders who had worn the dress of Islam and also some of the enemies within the ranks of Islam began to change and distort some of the hadith and thus diminished the reliability and validity of the hadith that was then heard and known. For this very reason Islamic scholars began to think of a solution. They created the sciences concerned with the biography of learned men and chains of transmission of hadith in order to be able to discriminate between true and false hadith.
The Method of Shi'ism in Authenticating the Hadith
Shi'ism, in addition to seeking to authenticate the chain of transmission of hadith, considers the correlation of the text of the hadith with the Quran as a necessary condition for its validity. In Shi'ite sources there are many hadith of the Prophet and the Imams with authentic chains of transmission which themselves assert that a hadith contrary to the Quran has no value. Only that hadith can be considered valid which is in agreement with the Quran.
Basing itself on these hadiths, Shi'ism does not act upon those hadiths which are contrary to the text of the Quran. As for hadiths whose agreement or disagreement cannot be established according to instructions received from the Imams they are passed by in silence without being accepted or rejected.
Needless to say there are also within Shi'ism those who, like a group among the Sunnis act on any hadith whatsoever which they happen to find in different traditional sources.
The Method of Shi'ism in Following the Hadith
A hadith heard directly from the mouth of the Prophet or one of the Imams is accepted as is the Quran. As for hadiths received through intermediaries, the majority of Shi'ites act upon them if their chain of transmission is established at every step or if there exists definite proof concerning their truth, and, if they are concerned with principles of doctrine which require knowledge and certainty, according to the text of the Quran. Other than these two kinds of hadith, no other hadith has any validity concerning principles of doctrine, the invalid hadith being called "tradition with a sincere transmitter" (khabar wahid). However, in establish in the injunctions of the Shari'ah, because of reasons that have been given, Shi'ites act also on a tradition which is generally accepted as reliable. Therefore, it can be said that for Shi'ism a certain and definitely established hadith is absolutely binding and must be followed, while a hadith which is not absolutely established but which is generally considered as reliable is utilized only in the elaboration of the in junctions of the Shari'ah.
Shi'ism and the Transmitted Sciences
The Islamic sciences, which owe their existence to the ulama of Islam who organized and formulated them, are divided into the two categories of intellectual ('aqli) and transmitted (naqli). The intellectual sciences include such sciences as philosophy and mathematics. The transmitted sciences are those which depend upon transmission from some source, such as the sciences of language, hadith, or history. Without doubt the major cause for the appearance of the transmitted sciences in Islam is the Holy Quran. With the exception of a few disciplines such as history, genealogy, and prosody the other transmitted sciences have all come into being under the influence of the Holy Book. Guided by religious discussions and research, Muslims began to cultivate these sciences, of which the most important are Arabic literature (grammar, rhetoric, and the science of metaphors) and the sciences pertaining to the external form of religion (recitation of the Quran, Quranic commentary (tafsir) hadith, biography of learned men, the chain of transmission of hadith, and the principles of jurisprudence).
Shi'ites played an essential role in the foundation and establishment of these sciences. In fact, the founders and creators of many of these sciences were Shi'ites. Arabic grammar was put into a systematic form by Abu'l-Aswad al-Du'ali, one of the companions of the Holy Prophet and by Ali. Ali dictated an outline for the organization of the science of Arabic grammar. One of the founders of the science of eloquence (rhetoric and the science o metaphors) was Sahib ibn 'Ahbad a Shi'ite, who was a vizier of the Buyids.
The first Arabic dictionary is the Kitab al-Ayn composed by the famous scholar, Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Basre the Shi'ite who founded the science of prosody. He was also the teacher of the great master of grammar, Sibuwayh.
The Quranic recitation of Asim goes back to Ali through one intermediary, and Abdallah ibn Abbas, who in hadith was the foremost among the companions, was a student of Ali. The contributions of the Household of the Prophet and their associates in hadith and jurisprudence are well known. The founders of the four Sunni schools of law are known to have associated with the fifth and sixth Shi'ite Imams. In the principles of jurisprudence the remarkable advances accomplished by the Shi'ite scholar Wahid Bihbahani and followed by Shaykh Murtada Ansari have never been matched in Sunni jurisprudence according to existing evidence.
* Message of Thaqalayn, A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Studies, by: Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, vol. 2 no. 1. Published by Ahl al-Bayt ('a) World Assembly, P.O. Box 15815-1956, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran. Phone: 890226, 890237, 890245 (country and city codes: 98-21) Extensions: 11, 12, 14. Reproduced with permission by the Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project team.
1- XVI: 44.
2- LXII: 2
3- LIX: 7
4- XXXIII: 21
5- XXIV: 26.
6- VII: 58
7- XLIII: 3-4
8- LVI: 77-79.
9- XXXIII: 33.
10- X: 40
11- VII: 53.