Meaning in Islamic philosophy

The discussion of the notion of meaning in Islamic philosophy is heavily influenced by theological and legal debates about the interpretation of Islam, and about who has the right to pronounce on interpretation. The introduction of Greek philosophy into the Islamic world produced a new set of authorities on how to interpret texts, and this led to arguments over the potential benefits of the new approaches as compared with the traditional Islamic sciences. The discussion came to centre on the nature of ambiguity, equivocation and analogy, with different philosophers adopting diverse theories and thus attaining a variety of conclusions about how to interpret meaning. These variations have powerful implications for the understanding of their thought. Not only do the different approaches result in different conclusions, they also represent different approaches to the whole philosophical enterprise. The topic of meaning is not so much an aspect of Islamic philosophy as an interpretation of how to do Islamic philosophy itself. The main issues focus on identifying the people best qualified to interpret texts, valid interpretations of the texts, and the notion of meaning that should be employed in our understanding of the texts.

  1. Religious context
  2. Language versus logic
  3. Ambiguity, equivocation and analogy
  4. The main debate

1. Religious context

Since the Qur'an was transmitted in Arabic, an understanding of the nature of that language is a vital aspect to an understanding of the text itself. Those brought up within the traditions of jurisprudence, grammar and theology were of the opinion that they were the best positioned to pronounce on the meaning of the text (see Islamic theology §1). All scriptures require interpretation, and a wide diversity of views arose within the Islamic community over the correct reading of much of the Qur'an, with the creation of different schools of thought based upon political and religious divisions such as those between the Sunni and the Shi'i communities and between the Ash'arites and the Mu'tazilites (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila §1). It was accepted quite early on that while some parts of the Qur'an are clear, others are less easy to grasp and so require more complex interpretations. Some passages are zahir (exoteric) while others are batin (esoteric), and naturally the commentators disagreed on occasion over which texts fell into which category and how the esoteric texts were to be read. In a religious text, of course, even the apparently plain and commonplace can be given a richer and deeper interpretation, and different interpreters produced different interpretations. None of these was arbitrary. All were based upon argument and a variety of Islamic sources, but this hermeneutic process was capable of arriving at a variety of conclusions.

2. Language versus logic

The arrival of Greek logic in the Islamic world caused great controversy in the fourth century ah/tenth century ad. It brought with it the view that logic is superior to language since the latter deals only with the contingent and conventional, while logic encompasses the necessary and the universal. Language deals only with alfaz (utterances), while logic gets to the heart of the matter by analysing ma'ani (concepts) themselves. This controversy was explored in the celebrated debate between the grammarian Abu Sa'id al-Sirafi and the logician Abu Bishr Matta in Baghdad in ah 320/ad 932. Matta argued that logic was more important than language since the meanings which are embedded in a particular language are analysable without reference to that particular language. Those meanings could exist in a whole variety of languages. Logic is the only rigorous tool for judging when language is used correctly or otherwise, and the logician is the best qualified to adjudicate on such issues.

This was a very important debate, since if Matta were to carry the day it would imply that the traditional approach to Islamic texts rests on an error. Only logic, as understood by the Greeks and a non-Muslim such as Matta, is a sound vehicle for the understanding of texts. Al-Sirafi was clear on the significance of the debate, and he argued that it is impossible to separate language and logic in the way Matta wants. Although logic is useful at one level in dealing with concepts, it is far from comprehensive and is better suited to analysing the Greek language than the Arabic. Problems in understanding Arabic texts can only be answered by a good understanding of the Arabic language and the culture which surrounds it. Logic by itself is not sufficient (see Logic in Islamic philosophy).

This sort of debate continued in the Islamic world for some time, albeit in a more sophisticated form. The debate is highly significant, since it is really about the appropriate notion of meaning to be employed. Must that notion of meaning be taken from the context in which the text to be analysed has itself originated, or can it come from elsewhere? How one answers this question has radical implications for the way in which Islamic philosophy is to be pursued, and the protagonists of the argument are well aware of this.

3. Ambiguity, equivocation and analogy

There are two main theories of meaning in Islamic philosophy, one broadly Neoplatonic and adopted by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Ghazali, and one broadly Aristotelian and defended by Ibn Rushd (Averroes). On the former account, the definition of x does not include the existence of x, so that something else is required to move x from the realm of possibility to the realm of actuality if it is to be instantiated. For Ibn Sina the mover is another thing, ultimately God, which causally necessitates the change, while for al-Ghazali it is God who directly established quite arbitrary rules for the behaviour of contingent phenomena. This means that for al-Ghazali it is possible to think of something happening without its customary explanation, that is, without a natural explanation. God could always have brought it about that people on occasion write philosophy books without possessing a head, or that straw does not burn when in contact with fire.

Ibn Rushd operates with a different concept of meaning, in accordance with which the cause of an event is part of its definition or essence. If headless people were to start composing philosophical books we should need to construct an entirely novel conceptual scheme for such a possibility to make sense. Al-Ghazali, by contrast, argues that we can conceive of such changes to our conceptual scheme by using our imagination, and failure to approve the possibility of such changes is merely a result of intellectual laziness, not the flouting of necessity. It is possible, then, for God to do anything he wishes so long as it is logically possible. God can resurrect the dead, he can intervene in the natural world, he can be aware of events in the world, he can create that world at any time he wishes out of nothing. These are all actions which Ibn Rushd argued are not possible even for God, if what is meant when talking about such actions is similar to what we mean when we talk about what we do. Al-Ghazali suggests that any analysis of the properties of God which interprets them as equivocal, ambiguous or metaphorical is a subtle attack upon the notion of God in its religious sense. It involves pretending to make God part of one's metaphysics but changing the way in which one talks about him to such an extent that he no longer is equivalent to the God of Islam.

For Ibn Rushd, there are serious problems in talking about God using the same sort of language we use about ourselves. God cannot be defined in terms of a genus or species since he cannot consist of a plurality of qualities as we do. Rather, he is the exemplar of all things, and we must work towards a conception of him by thinking analogically about the things in the world of which we have experience. The way in which al-Ghazali talks about God seems to be in line with religion, but really it involves treating the deity as someone much like ourselves but more so, and as a plurality of predicates rather than a complete unity. Ibn Rushd goes along with Aristotle's argument that there can be no priority or posteriority within the same genus (see Aristotle §§7-8), and so develops a theory of meaning which is based upon the pros hen notion of equivocation rather than the genus-species relation. We can use the same language about God as we use about ourselves, but we should realize that the latter type of use is derivative upon the former, since the latter concepts are aspects of the paradigm which is to be found when we talk about God. When we use the same concept to refer to God and to ourselves we are speaking not univocally but equivocally, acknowledging the very real difference which exists between the level of the human and the level of the divine.

4. The main debate

In al-Ghazali's concept of meaning, the appropriate people to interpret religious texts are those professionally involved in the religion, such as theologians, jurisprudents and so on. They need to understand the religious context of the text and apply the terms univocally to God and to his creatures. The correct way to think analytically is to adopt the methodology of the thought-experiment, holding ideas together in the imagination to see if they can be combined without contradiction. If we can imagine dead people being resurrected and leaving their graves to continue a physical existence somewhere else, in hell or paradise, then there is nothing impossible about that idea and there is no need to suggest that it is a metaphorical or equivocal reference to something else. If the Qur'an refers to physical resurrection, and if we can think about physical resurrection without contradiction, then why not just accept that what is meant by physical resurrection is what we would normally understand by that miraculous event?

It follows from Ibn Rushd's approach that the best people to interpret difficult theological passages are not the theologians but the philosophers, since only the latter are skilled in understanding analytical and demonstrative thought. The philosopher can understand how a religious text may embody a whole range of meanings, some intended for a more sophisticated audience and some designed for a more na´ve and practically-oriented audience. The latter might understand by physical resurrection that the consequences of what we do outlive us, and the moral status of what we do affects us in this life and others after we are dead. They might find this easier to understand if they can think of themselves, or something like themselves, surviving their death. The more sophisticated audience would understand by the religious text what the philosophers understand by it, what it really means. This sort of audience does not require the rhetorical and poetic language which is capable of moving the largest section of the community to action. Only philosophers are capable of resolving the meaning of a text once and for all. The other theoreticians who work within the Islamic sciences, such as theology and jurisprudence, will constantly disagree about the appropriate meaning, and as a result they will sow discord in the community. The role of the philosopher is to resolve the meaning of the text and then communicate that meaning to different kinds of audiences in different kinds of ways, each suited to the limitations of the audience to understand the real point of the text.

It can thus be seen that the issue of meaning in Islamic philosophy concerns not only the philosophy of language but also politics. It is linked to the question as to who is entitled to derive the meanings of a text and how that meaning may be communicated to others. Although the focus of discussion is generally on the relationship between ordinary language and language about God, it has far broader implications, and leads to a diversity of views on how to do philosophy itself.

See also: Aesthetics in Islamic philosophy; Epistemology in Islamic philosophy; al-Ghazali; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; Logic in Islamic philosophy; Political philosophy in classical Islam

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Abed, A. (1991) Aristotelian Logic and the Arabic Language in Alfarabi, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (A detailed and scholarly investigation of the concept of meaning and the logic versus language debate.)

Abed, S. (1996) 'Language', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 52, 898-925. (Interesting and detailed account of the role that language plays in Islamic philosophy.)

Ibn Rushd (1179-80) Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise), ed. and trans. G. Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, London: Luzac, 1976. (An outstandingly clear exposition of the basic themes of Ibn Rushd on different kinds of meaning.)

Ibn Rushd (1180) Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), trans. S. Van den Bergh, Averroes' Tahafut al-tahafut, London: Luzac, 1978. (A comprehensive comparison of the views of al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd.)

Leaman, O. (1954-) 'Ma'na', in Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden: Brill, 347. (An account of the philosophical use of this Arabic term, equivalent in meaning to 'concept' or 'idea'.)

Leaman, O. (1988) Averroes and His Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2nd edn, 1997. (A general account of the thought of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), with the emphasis upon his approach to language.)

Leaman, O. (1997) 'Logic and Language in Islamic Philosophy', in B. Carr and I. Mahalingam (eds) Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, London: Routledge, 950-64. (Summary of some of the major approaches to meaning in Islamic philosophy.)

Mahdi, M. (1970) 'Language and Logic in Classical Islam', in G.E. von Grunebaum (ed.) Logic in Classical Islamic Culture, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 51-83. (The standard discussion of the battle between the logicians and the grammarians.)

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