language


language
   In religion, issues of language and meaning are highly significant. A religion based on a text has to determine what the text means, and although this might have been clear to those who were present when the revelation of the Qur’an was given in the seventh century ce, it certainly is not after that date. It may not have been entirely clear to the early Muslims either, since they came to Muhammad for help on interpretive difficulties frequently. An early controversy in Islam took place between those who thought that the grammar (nahw) of Arabic is what is needed to resolve issues of meaning, and those who thought that something stronger such as logic should be invoked. This is an argument about whether the best people to resolve issues of meaning are grammarians, those who understood the alfaz or literary aspects of the text, or those who were best able to assess the ma‘ani or meanings, the philosophers. The latter argued that they were the best people for the job since they understood not just one language, but all languages, in the sense that their conceptual machinery could deal with issues in any and every language. This was not just an abstract argument, of course, since its outcome had implications for who was going to have the main hermeneutical role in religion, those trained in the religious sciences or the philosophers. There were strong arguments on both sides, and the opponents of the philosophers had at their disposal a wide range of theoretical techniques, including not only grammar, but law, the determination of when the revelations in the Qur’an were given (in Mecca or Medina, and when), the context of the revelation, how one passage contrasts with others, and so on.
   Another controversy that continued for some time was between those who thought that language brings with it an ontology, in the sense that it is linked with what actually exists, and those who argue that language is independent of existence. Al-Ghazali and Ibn Sina both argued that language is independent of ontology, in that our use of language is a matter only of employing concepts, and the actual existence of what those concepts refer to is an entirely different issue. Essence and existence are then entirely separate from each other. Al- Ghazali used this to suggest that anything can happen since only God can make things happen, and so we could imagine observing someone writing a book without a head. God could make someone write without a head if he wanted to, despite our normal experiences. We would still mean the same thing by the concepts ‘head’, ‘human being’ and ‘writes’. Ibn Rushd accepted the logical distinction between essence and existence here, but argued on the contrary that our ordinary experience of the world is part and parcel of what we mean when we use words, and if someone said that a headless person wrote a book, we would not understand what he meant. What is behind this disagreement is a difference in how to link God with the world. For Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali, the world is only as it is because of divine action, and something is needed to get it going, and keep it going. For Ibn Rushd, by contrast, the constitution of the world is something that has to exist in the way that it does, and although God is no doubt responsible for it distantly, what comes about has to come about in that way. So meanings are strongly linked with the nature of reality and our experience of the world, and the use of imagination to suggest otherwise breaks down because it produces ideas that have no meaning.
   An important issue is the acceptability of using language to describe God. Given the Islamic ban on shirk, associating partners with God or idolatry, there are good grounds for sharply distinguishing between God and His creation, to the extent perhaps even that the ordinary language we use to describe the world cannot be used to describe the Deity. Yet the Qur’an does use ordinary language to describe both Him and His creation. Al-Ghazali suggested that there is no problem in applying predicates or qualities to God, and they are taken to mean what they mean when we apply them to ourselves, but they differ in their scope. Ibn Rushd did not accept this approach, especially since he agreed with Aristotle that there can be no priority or posteriority within the same genus or kind of thing, which God certainly is. Trying to apply a predicate to God makes Him too much like His creatures. But it is important that we can say something about God, and Ibn Rushd advocates treating Him as like us equivocally, so that there is no direct line from us to Him. His possession of qualities are seen as paradigmatic, and our possession of them is merely a weaker version of something perfect.
   Further reading: Black 1990; Kennedy-Day 2003; Leaman 1997, 2000; Mahdi 1970; Margoliouth 1905; McAuliffe 2001; Walbridge 2000a

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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