The Evolution of the Status of the Revelation in Islam: The Hermeneutical Posture of Mojtahed Shabestarî

In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation « VERBUM DOMINI » of Pope Benedict XVI, the status of the scriptures is defined as follows:

« The bible was written by the People of God and for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. »

This evocation of the status of the bible incidentally informs us about what the scriptures are not.

So, according to the Catholic Church, the Bible is not the literal word of God. In other words, its content is not the result of a divine dictation or an outright recitation of the words literally transmitted by God.

Conversely, the notion of revelation as it is perceived by the conservative stream of Muslim tradition is based on the idea that the Qur’an is the literal and perfect word transmitted by God and free from all error. For most Muslims, the Koran would be God’s dictation.

(Wahy) وحى

“Wahy” is the root of the arabic word used to mean the idea of revelation, inspiration, discreet information. Several occurrences of this root appear in the Koran among Which :

Koran 16:68: And he inspired, your lord of the bees: « Build houses in the mountains and in the trees, and in (the beehives) which they build for you. « 

Koran 28: 7: We inspired the mother of Moses: “Breastfeed him, and when you fear for his life, throw him into the river without fear or sorrow. We will return him to you, and make him one of the messengers. « 

Quran 6-121: Do not eat of that which GOD’s name has not been mentioned on, for it is an abomination. The devils inspire their allies to argue with you; if you obey them, you will be idol worshipers.

The way in which the term « inspiration » or « revelation » is perceived depends in particular on the degree of agency that one wants to attribute to Mohammed, that is to say his degree of freedom of action or of autonomy, its capacity to act on the world, which helps to determine the representation that Muslims have of the Koran

To describe some of the various representations that Muslims have of revelation as well as the conceptions which apply to the Qur’anic text, several criteria can be used, and in particular, the degree of agency of Muhammad.

The influence of the perception of Muhammad’s degree of agency on the status of revelation.

At the zero degree of agency, Muhammad exerts no influence on both the form and the meaning of the revelation which is purely and simply identified with the Qur’anic text.

God remains the creator and transmitter of the meaning of the verses and the words that compose them. Thus, the Quran is free from errors and paradoxes.

According to one variant, human language being limited and consequently not being able to perfectly transpose the divine message, the Koranic text is deemed as an approximation of the divine revelation. However, Mohammed’s impeccability is supposed to preserve the text from errors or paradoxes.

Another way of thinking, that of Abdolkrarim Soroush, attributes to Mohammed a medium level of agency.

Muhammad is no longer seen as a passive receiver, but as the editor of the Qur’anic text, the Qur’an being the result of Muhammad’s interpretation of his own dreams.

Among the conceptions which attribute to Mohammed a very high degree of agency, we will deal with Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestarî’s ones.

Mohammad Shabestarî

Mojtahed Shabestarî is an Iranian theologian born in 1936 in Shabestar in a Shiite clerical family from Azerbaijan.

From 1951 to 1964, he studied at the seminary of Qom notably with Hoseyn Ali Montazeri and Seyyed Hoseyn Tabatabâ’i.

From 1970 to 1978, he was the director of the Islamic center in Hamburg and learned German. He will take advantage of his stay to study philosophical hermeneutics, in particular through the work of Hans-Georg GADAMER.

Back in Iran, he will become a professor at the University of Tehran. Despite being a pious Muslim and a respected leading theologian who will teach theology at the University of Tehran, Shabestarî will follow a special path.

Indeed, he will gradually reject the classical conception of revelation to see it as the result of Muhammad’s prophetic experience of the World.

Applying the precepts of philosophical hermeneutics, Shabestarî will endeavor to seek to understand the Koran independently of all metaphysical presuppositions, freeing himself from the dogmatic filter of tradition, from the prejudices and the preliminary concepts carried by this tradition.

Shabestari put it this way:

« We must admit the hypothesis which is not only intelligible but inevitable » that « the Qur’an is the prophetic word of a human being. « 

“I argue that if one takes into consideration modern philosophies of language and modern hermeneutics, understanding the Quran as a story is the most defensible understanding and exegesis. « 

The nature of revelation and the Qur’an

“The Quran is a narration of the World and Muhammad is the narrator… This narration is a form of interpretation and understanding, and according to what is proposed in the Quran, the prophet experiences and considers this interpretation to be possible due to the divine assistance. « 

Thus « a Muslim is someone who participates in the prophet’s narration and tells the world to himself through a monotheistic frame. « 

Shabestarî defines revelation as what the prophet interprets as divine assistance which allows him to experience as well as a prophetic reading of the world as that of a manifestation of God, which « involves all kinds of phenomena including phenomena natural, human destiny, history and social realities. « 

According to this theologian, “what must be interpreted in a text is a proposed world, a world in which I can live and in which I could project most of my own possibilities. « 

Ultimately, adherence to the prophetic experience of Muhammad amounts to creating a new existential situation allowing the Muslim to dive into a monotheistic experience of the world, to observe it and to evolve in it through a monotheistic reading grid.

The theology based on Shabestari’s philosophical hermeneutics having been summarily exposed, it is now appropriate to turn to the effects induced by his conception of revelation.

The theology of Shabestarî : A remedy for the problem of cognitive dissonance

The hermeneutical-based theology of Shabestari responds to the need of those who would like to continue to think of themselves as Muslims but who no longer manage to make sense of the idea that the Quran is the Word of God.

Today, the idea that the Qur’an is the literal word of God no longer fits the mold of contemporary thought.

Faced with certain questions, Muslims sometimes feel trapped and sometimes even find themselves confronted with the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

So if you ask a Muslim the following question: « Did Adam and Eve exist? » « , More often than not, aware of being locked in a double bind with no way out, he will not answer you.

Indeed, without effort, he will understand that by answering in the negative, he contradicts the dogma of the Koran, the literal true Word of God and that by answering positively, he risks passing for a naive being or even an idiot.

In order to put an end to this tension, with this cleavage that affects thought, with its folds between the eyebrows that form when the Muslim is confronted with this type of constraint, with the dogmatic ambiguity, the theology of Shabestarî seems to be an effective spiritual means.

Shabestari Theology: A Remedy for Aversion to Islam

Today in many so-called « Muslim » countries, particularly Iran, aversion to a certain version of Islam is growing. The normative view of Islam is no longer accepted, especially by the youth.

According to some authors, the crisis of the Islamic faith results from the dogmatic vision of the Koran that tradition has never ceased to impose and its confrontation with the thought of this century.

The idea that the Qur’an is the word of God, or even his literal word, no longer fits into contemporary thought patterns and demands to be overcome.

Would not the solution to this existential problem be the abandonment of this so called « tradition » that is founded on a dogmatic system formed of metaphysical presuppositions constituting a set of ad hoc hypotheses?

As a conclusion, here is a question :

Does not understanding and adhering to the theology of Mojtahed Shabestarî pave the way for a peaceful spiritual path and help redefine the way of being a Muslim?

Note: The author of this article was inspired by the following three sources and in particular the dissertation by SAMAN FAZELI.

Sources :

Thesis submitted to the faculty of the graduate School of the university of colorado in partial fulfillment Of the requierment for the degree of master of religious studies by SAMAN FAZELI

Acclimatizing philosophical hermeneutics in Islam: Shabestarî, from the critique of exegetical methods to the theory of the historicity of the Koran In Revue de l’Histoire des religions2019 / 1 (Volume 236)

A Shiite theologian, Mojtahed Shabestari, Yann Richard, In The Thought of Noon 2009/1 (N ° 27), pages 109 to 118

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