The power of metaphor is key to understanding knowledge

February 14, 2004 12:00 AM

One of the most common misperceptions among many students of philosophy and history is that medieval Islamic thought was nonphilosophical. Many make the argument that Islam, being the overwhelming and all-encompassing framework for Middle Eastern arts and sciences, left no room for other sources of wonder or inspiration; since Muslims believed that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth could be found in the Koran, there was no need to look for it anywhere else. Islamic medieval philosophy is then reduced to the work of a set of individuals who were mainly known for their translations of Greek philosophy.

This image is quite inaccurate and, like many things I have been dealing with in this series of articles, is the result of the past 200 years of colonial influence. Colonialism is a process whereby the colonized is redefined by the colonizer. A white person comes to the shores of Africa and calls the people there black. Of course, to themselves, they are not back at all; they are normal human beings and he is white ­ i.e., he is the deviation. As time passes, the colonial master monopolizes language, and the native starts perceiving of himself, or herself, as black.

This happened to Arabs and Muslims, where they were redefined by their conquerors, and for long decades they seem to have accepted such a redefinition. The attitude of Arab elites toward their colonial master was one of hatred and admiration; they hated the French and the British occupation, but seemed to like what the British and the French had. The position on medieval Islamic philosophy is but one expression of such contradictory emotional condition; on the one hand we are asserting our worth, the merit of our national “self” against “the other,” but we do that by claiming we resemble that other, that is, by denying and betraying that very national self we want to assert!

The difference between Islamic and Western philosophy has to do with the concept of metaphor. While Greek philosophy held the assumption that truth was attainable, thought sets of standard procedures, Islamic philosophy was based on the assumption that truth is unreachable, only approachable through metaphor. God in Islam is an abstraction, with no body, shape or time, since any one of these is a limit and God is limitless. Therefore, the absolute infinite God cannot be perceived of in human terms, except by using metaphors. Nature being the creation of God and laws of nature being His will, every truth is derived from and leads to Him, but He is unreachable, only approachable. Discovering a physical law, for example, is a step toward understanding the universe and the force behind it that makes sense of it all.

Yet, since it was established that God is unperceivable except through metaphor, it follows that every truth, every knowledge, is unperceivable except through metaphor, through words. Seeking truth can only happen through the generation and interpretation of metaphors. The Koran is a metaphoric text; no Islamic scholar, 1,000 years ago as well as today could claim to know the full and final meaning that lies in that book or the full and final meaning that lies in the world. Scholars have to interpret the text using their own training in grammar and literature, the historical context in which the Verses of the Koran were revealed, and of course their knowledge of previous interpretations.

Nature itself becomes a text in need of interpretation, the movement of objects, point to the meaning behind them, the logic of the universe, and the scientist’s task is to pass from the physical to the meta-physical; therefore, the word for metaphor in Arabic also means the passage.

Philosophy, the love of knowledge; the science of truth-seeking is called, in the Arab Islamic tradition, ilm al-kalam: the science of words. Far from being a grammatical exercise, ilm al-Kalam is the crux of Islamic medieval philosophy.

With some simplification one could say that modern Western philosophy, whether German or French, swings between two poles; the first is the assertion of the existence and accessibility of truth. Philosophers then set the procedures by which such truth can be reached. This usually results in the denial of the metaphysical, basing knowledge of physical experience, and then coming to some universal definition of human rationality. When others come to different conclusions about truth, they are then deemed irrational, and therefore less human. This approach is best exemplified by the European enlightenment, which accompanied Europe’s colonial expansion.

The other pole, post-modernism, denies the existence of truth altogether. Every claim to have reached the truth is but that: a claim. Whoever makes that claim seeks to convince people of its authenticity because that yields him or her formidable power and control over an audience. Once the fact that no one has the truth is established, this argument allows for a great deal of tolerance. The disadvantage is that this torpedoes the basis of human organization, for every society is based on a set of assumptions about the world out of which the moral laws that keep the society together are derived.

The notion of metaphor lies in the middle between these two poles. No Islamic interpreter of the Koran, or interpreter of nature, could claim reaching the ultimate truth, since that would mean that he or she acquired all of God’s knowledge, as well as all knowledge of what God really is, which in the Islamic tradition is a blasphemy.

Yet, Islamic scholars can claim that theirs is but an interpretation of the metaphor, an interpretation of the hidden truth, which, they would argue, makes more sense to them than other interpretations. This allows societies to believe enough in their assumptions about the world, so as to keep the society together, and to doubt such assumptions enough, so as to accept the interpretations of other societies as legitimate approaches to that ever hidden truth. This allowed medieval Islam to be relatively tolerant, not only of other religions, but of different sects and factions stemming from it.

Unfortunately, all this philosophical heritage found in the debates of the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Khawarij, as well as the various factions of each of these three major sects of Islam, are set aside as pure religion, while the Arabic translations of Aristotle, are coined Islamic Philosophy, to the grin of both Aristotle and Islam!

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