The Importance of Being Ambiguous Or the Sin Tax of Ignoring Syntax

Posted from Medina Munawwarah, the City of the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace.

“If a profligate comes to you with news, make sure you understand it (tabayyanu) and make sure you know it indeed happened (tathabbatu), or else you will attack people out of ignorance and end up in great remorse” (Qur’an 49:6).1

How many fault-finders of statements
Yet the fault is faulty understanding
– al–Mutanabbi

Upon seeing one of his students reading a difficult book, a teacher said, “Don’t read that book yet.”
The student replied, “I promise only to take from it what I understand from it.”
“It is not what you understand that concerns me,” responded the teacher, “but what you think you understand.”
– Shaykhna b. Mahfudh

“How quick people are to condemn things they don’t understand.”
– Lady Aishah, the wife of the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace.
Sahih Muslim, Chapter on Funerals

I want to write about the importance of proper reading and writing, as well as the importance of proper adab (manners) when one criticizes or debates another. This topic was partly inspired by the general debasement of our public discourse taking place these days and partly by some comments from readers of my recent blog posts. These comments, some published and some not, concerned statements I wrote regarding Islam and politics, so I shall also take this opportunity to elaborate on those statements.

First, we have to understand that one aspect of language, even in its most simple usage, is ambiguity. Anyone who has ever used a dictionary knows that words often have multiple meanings. (For that reason, Wikipedia has a “disambiguation” option.) In rhetoric, amphiboly refers to the phenomenon of ambiguous syntax.

In the Islamic tradition, the prerequisites of debate include a mastery of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and a branch of logic that involves the comportment of research and dialectic (adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah). Those ill prepared in these areas fall prey to common misunderstandings. In the past, such people did not debate with or challenge statements made by an erudite person because they knew well the verse in the Qur’an, “Are those who know and those who don’t equal?” (39:09) – a rhetorical question, needing no response, as the answer is obvious. Furthermore, in the Islamic tradition, a long-standing convention of glosses exists whereby scholars would shed light on the abstruse language used by their predecessors. The Maliki scholars, in particular, preferred to write in such abstruse language in order to prevent ill-equipped readers from venturing into their books. (In the West, legal books often use a similar tactic so that only jurists can comprehend the text with ease.) Sometimes, glosses were written on previous glosses, and some works contain marginalia that involve three or four books in one. All of the above were ways in which highly capable scholars removed ambiguity from previous texts in order to enable educated but less capable scholars to understand the texts.

I spend a good deal of time reading such texts as a result of my own dependence on far more knowledgeable scholars. I also frequently look up a word in my readings, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of exploring nuances and other times to make sure I understand the word correctly. Recently, reading an Arabic poem, I came across an unusual word and looked it up only to find that the meanings provided in one Arabic dictionary did not make sense within the context of the poem, demanding I resort to another larger dictionary, which, indeed, provided the appropriate meaning.

Reading is an activity largely of the mind, but reading well is an exhausting effort of one’s mental faculties. One of my own teachers said that reading has four levels: understanding the outline of the piece; coming to terms with the author’s terms (meaning that one understands terms as the author intended); understanding the propositions, their arguments, and evidence supporting them; and finally, responding with the appropriate etiquette. This last phase, which Mortimer Adler describes as “talking back” to the author, is the most difficult level of reading. It is the ability to criticize with understanding, giving your reasons for dissent, and supporting them with counter arguments, but this last and problematic phase of reading is entirely predicated upon the mastery of the first three. At this level, criticism means disagreeing with all or part of an author’s assumptions, logic, or conclusions based upon an accurate and contextual reading of his work.

A serious student of knowledge must work to grasp the ambiguities of the text she is reading. For instance, Imam al-Ghazali is noted for saying, “Laysa fi al-imkaan abda’ mimma kana,” and multiple meanings can be inferred from this statement. Indeed, whole books were penned in an attempt to pin down Imam al-Ghazali’s precise meaning.

To use a classical example of an ambiguous statement in usul, scholars mention the hadith of the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, which may be translated from the Arabic as, “Whoever follows up Ramadan with six days from Shawwal, it is as if he has fasted constantly.” The original Arabic contains the phrase, “min Shawwal,” which means, “from Shawwal.” “Min” is a preposition in Arabic. Ibn Hisham’s famous Mughni al-labib is an exhaustive compendium of Arabic prepositions and particles, along with a few verbs and adverbs that he felt needed to be included. (Despite his exhaustive study, commentaries on this book further explain what he meant.) Ibn Hisham lists fifteen possible meanings of the preposition “min” when used in a sentence. Imam Malik believed the “min” in the context of this hadith is initiative, so he interpreted the hadith to mean Shawwal as the time when the fasting may begin and then continue on into the following months. (For example, if one says, “I began my journey from Mecca,” it means one initiated travel from Mecca but continued beyond Mecca.) However, Imam Shafi’ understood the preposition “min” to be partitive, (as in “I ate from the bread,” which does not include eating from other foods.) Hence, Imam Shafi’ believed the hadith to mean that the days of fasting must be only within the month of Shawwal and not extend to the later months. Both interpretations of this hadith are valid. In this case, the disambiguation is simply choosing one interpretation over the other.

The fact that language allows so many meanings and multiple possibilities reveals its richness. Readers can marvel at the sundry possibilities of words on their own or in order; explore the possibilities of meaning in their attempt to exhaust meaning, which is what Muslim scholars and exegetes tended to do; or they can misread and subsequently fall victim to anger and confusion. Some go even further by responding with vituperative diatribes, even using foul language; such people are known affectionately as “trolls” in internet jargon. In actuality, due to their failure to understand as opposed to their ability to read, they simply reveal their own ignorance, as reading and understanding are two distinctly different phenomena. The Qur’an describes those who know the literal Torah, but do not understand it as being like “donkeys carrying books.”

Misunderstanding with the assumption of understanding is common to people who are arrogant, ignorant, or just too lazy to probe further in order to grasp the subtleties or nuances of the language. Their self-conceit leads them to believe that they simply know. “I understood it, and I am right. Hence he is wrong.” This is the path Iblis chose: “I am better than Adam; I am superior to him. My knowledge surpasses his.” On the other hand, when a humble person finds words that ring false or challenge his own assumptions, he pauses, thinks, and asks himself, “Am I understanding this correctly? Did the author mean what I think he means?” If they can ask the author, all the better; if not, they may seek a second opinion from an intelligent friend or resort to a good reference book or dictionary, seeking shades of meaning they may have missed. The Internet provides another albeit dangerous option.

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In my previous blog on Egypt’s “revolution,” I wrote, “Islam is not a political ideology and hence does not offer a political solution per se.” This caused great consternation in some people, and several uncouth remarks were made in response to that statement.

So in the interest of disambiguation, I want to delve further into the issue of Islam and politics. To negate politics as a subject matter that is part of Islam is to deny a rich tradition of scholarship known as siyasah shari’iyyah, the politics of sacred law. But to say that politics is essential to the practice of an individual’s Islam is to deny the hadith in al-Bukhari’s collection in which the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, told Hudhayfah that if there was no clear leader of the Muslims to “disengage from all the sects and cling to a private Islam.” The Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, also informed a Bedouin that if he only practiced the five pillars, he would have salvation.

For most adherents of the faith, Islam is apolitical in that politics or political systems they may happen to live under do not affect their personal faith in God or their personal practice of Islam. But for those involved in politics and especially those who have political power, there is a component in the Islamic sciences known as ‘ahkam al-sultaniyyah, rules that relate to power that they are obliged to follow.

It appears from the comments I received that the reason so many people had trouble with that sentence I wrote is because they did not understand the term “ideology” in my usage, as it has several possible usages. An Arab poet once wrote, “Only the wearer knows what’s under his cloak, and only an author knows what’s the meaning of his book.” Some people responded defending my statement and clearly showed me that many people did understand what I meant by that term. However, “disambiguation” for others was clearly necessary. So, let me explain my usage of the ambiguous term “ideology” and why I think it has nothing to do with Islam. It comes from a French term that was used in the revolutionary period to articulate a new way of thinking not encumbered by metaphysics, religion, or tradition. Napoleon derogatively referred to the proponents of ideology as “ideologues.” While it has a neutral meaning, as in “world-view,” most educated Westerners would view it pejoratively. Islam is wahy, a revelation from God, not an ideology.

Islam shares nothing with what can be called an ideology if we understand the term both etymologically and in modern usage. Indeed, there are several Islamophobic websites now, which claim that Islam is not a true religion but only an ideology. Furthermore, you can’t even find a word in classical Arabic that expresses the meaning of “ideology”; no equivalent word can be found in Ibn Manzur’s authoritative dictionary of classical Arabic, Lisan al-Arab, and it is certainly nowhere to be found in the Qur’an or hadith. Neither the Salaf nor any of the scholars for that past 1300 years of Islam used that term. In fact, it only becomes widespread after ideologues in the Islamic world, infected with Marxist thought, began to re-form Islam as a colonial and post-colonial resistance movement.

Since the Arabs don’t even have a word for this phenomenon in their classical language, they had to make one up to express the idea; when we look up “ideology” in any modern English-Arabic dictionary, we find, “idiolojiyyiah.” However, if we use classical Arabic to attempt to translate this word, “mandhur fikri” is a closer rendering. “Fikr” is not an attribute of God. “Mufakkir” is not one of God’s 99 Names, and unlike “tafakkur,” which carries a positive meaning in the Qur’an, “fikr” has a negative connotation, as in “Innahu fakkara wa qaddara, fa qutila kayfa qaddara” (74:18-19), which is translated, “For he thought and calculated. And how he calculated, to his doom.”

Islam is not an idea, even though some modern writers have used the term fikr Islami (Islamic thought). One of my teachers in Mauritania, a master of Arabic and Islam, once said to me, “What does fikr Islami mean? I have never seen that in an old book on Islam.” When I explained its meaning, he said, “That is very different from how the Salaf would have understood Islam.”

A reader must try to understand the terms of any article, book, or argument based on what the author or speaker meant by it, as writers use words, which invariably have ambiguity, in order to convey their intended meaning. According to Adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah, a book on Islamic manners related to research and discussion, it is a requisite of discussion that when terms are introduced, an interlocutor may request a definition if it is ambiguous; hence, our tradition has glosses and super-glosses. When I used the word “ideology,” I was referring to something that comes from thought that entails an all-encompassing absolutist view, such as found in Marxist ideology. If you have ever had a political discussion with a Marxist, you will understand exactly what “ideology” means. Islam, on the other hand, is far more nuanced than any ideology.

To use ideology to describe our religion is worse still, as most educated Americans consider “ideology” a pejorative term, extreme leftists notwithstanding. In his Political Dictionary, under “ideology,” William Safire says, “Originally, a system of ideas for political or social action; in current political attacks, a mental straightjacket or rigid rules for the philosophically narrow-minded.” In the same entry, he later quotes Reagan saying, “I think ‘ideology’ is a scare word to most Americans.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams mentions that Marx used the term in a pejorative sense saying that ideas were “nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships…. Failure to realize this produced ideology, an upside down version of reality … ideology is then abstract and false thought, in a sense directly related to the original conservative use….” Thus, both conservatives and Marxists originally used it pejoratively.

Lenin departed from Marx’s use of the word, and it later became a common word in Leftist vocabulary to mean a political worldview. Geert Wilders, in a recent book, argues that Islam is not a religion but rather an ideology, and “ideology” is the word he uses when referring to Islam. Unfortunately, he has plenty of uneducated Muslims that will provide him with quotes to support that thesis. And we will continue to hear the detractors of Islam refer to Islam as an ideology rather than a religion. Pat Robertson said, “This Islamic – I want to say religion, but it’s not a religion. It is a political system,” i.e. an ideology.

After stating that Islam was not an ideology, I said that hence it “does not offer a political solution per se.” The operative idiom here is “per se.” Anyone who missed the meaning of “per se” missed the meaning of the whole sentence. (One commentator wished to set “semantics aside”; however, semantics is precisely what is needed to discern the meaning of this sentence.) “Per se,” means “by or of itself, inherently or in isolation.” Hence, in the context of the sentence I wrote, what it means is that without the foundational morality of Islam, any political system, Islamic or not, will not work. For example, in the Egyptian constitution, a political solution to the problem of presidential corruption is that a president may not earn money or take any monetary remuneration outside of the state salary. As such, that is a reasonable political solution, but without the moral basis within the heart of the president, the solution fails. A person with a corrupt heart will not abide by the rulings of any constitution. Therefore, the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state, but rather on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state. “Surely, God does not change the state of a people until they change the state of their own souls” (Qur’an 13:11). We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state.

In one of my favorite books, The Lamp of Rulers (Siraj al-muluk), Imam al-Tartushi says, “The qualities necessary from our religion that are necessary for an Islamic polity are three: gentleness and not roughness with the populace; mutual consultation ; and not to give positions of power to those who seek them or desire them.” If those three were implemented, we wouldn’t need so called revolutions to change the status quo. Instead of serving the people, the rulers have made the people their servants.

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I also want to expound on one of the most important aspects of the Islamic polity known as ahkam al-siyar, i.e. the relations of one polity with another, especially rules of engagement, which are discussed in the section on jihad, which is also part of Islam. I once said on a radio program, “Jihad is never used in the Qur’an to mean war.” Many people misunderstood my statement and, in response, quoted several Qur’anic verses that used various derivations of the verb “jahada.” In the Qur’an, various forms of the word occur four times. In Sura Taubah, it is used in the indefinite form, which can be understood to exalt it; however, according to some of the great usuli scholars, it is for generality, as not all of the usuli scholars stipulate a negative before an indefinite to mean a generality (people who know usul will know what that means), and so it refers to the general struggle of Muslims, which obviously includes going out to defend themselves but is not limited to that type of struggle only.

In Sura al-Furqan, it says to not obey the disbelievers and to struggle with the Qur’an against them, which means, as Imam al-Nasafi and others said, to argue with the disbelievers in a big jihad, using the superior proofs of the Qur’an.

In Sura Hajj, it is mentioned in the context to struggle for the sake of God. The construct is unusual, as the jihad is attributed to God, but actually means for God’s sake. This form, although in the genitive construct, is an accusative of purpose, i.e. why you are doing something, and the grammarians agree that any noun in that form relates to the action of the heart and not the limbs. Hence, the jihad is in one’s intention and not in the action itself.

This is also the form of the word “jihad” in Sura Mumtahanah, which is in the accusative of purpose and therefore refers to the action of the heart and not the limb.

Hence, my statement about jihad, though misunderstood, was accurate without denying martial jihad, which is part of Islam, and to deny that is to deny something known by all in our faith. But martial jihad is conditional – it must be in the right time, under the right conditions, and according to the rules of engagement. The opinion that all jihad is defensive is not a dominant
opinion but is a valid one that does not deny pre-emptive offensive defense. That was relevant in the pre-modern world, where war was the normal state and peace was the anomaly, unlike today when peace is the norm and war is the anomaly.

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Language is the crowning achievement of human beings, and that is something Muslims have always known and revered. We are a literate people whose miracle is a Book from an unlettered man, peace and blessings be upon him, who was the most articulate and eloquent human being who ever lived. We honor our Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, in honoring language that he loved so much and used so well.

We also honor him in honoring, as he did, the ambiguities of language so beautifully expressed in the hadith in al-Bukhari, “Let none of you pray ‘Asr except in Bani Quraydha’s dwellings.”

As the Companions were on their way to Bani Quraydha, the time of ‘Asr came in, and some of them said, “We need to pray.”

Others said, “No, the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, told us to only pray it at Bani Quraydha.”

The first group said, “He meant for us to hasten so we would be there by ‘Asr.”

The other group took his statement literally and did not pray until they reached Bani Quraydha.

When they arrived at their destination, they informed the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, of what happened, and he accepted both understandings as ways to interpret his words.

Disambiguation is sometimes in accepting ambiguities.
1 Tabayyanu and tathabbatu are two different recensions of the same word and thus carry both meanings in this verse.