Perennial Philosophy: Interpretation or Accusing of Lying, Ta’wil or Takdhib


Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

It is obvious to all, including perennialists, that perennial philosophy is completely at odds with orthodox Islam. Those perennialists who claim to be Muslims do so whilst claiming to believe that the esoteric, metaphysical realisation of the faith confirms the ‘transcending’ of the ‘dogmatism’ or ‘formal theology’ of Islam through ‘spiritual conversion from within’, i.e. by retaining the outer ‘form’ of Islamic practices (in whatever vague form they practically give to such an allegiance to the ‘law’). Perennialists uphold the ‘transcendent unity’ of ‘true religions’, but oppose ‘religious pluralists’ (who seek to do away with the distinctive ‘forms’ of each religion on a ‘horizontal’, i.e. worldly, level) and ‘modern syncretistic cults’ (who seek to form new, idiosyncratic religions considered false even by perennialists). ‘True religions’ are portrayed, by perennial philosophy, as being:

“graphically represented by points on the circumference of a circle, with each point being connected with the centre, that is, with God, by a radius. The points stand for the outward aspects of the religions [namely, the exoteric], whereas each radius is the esoteric path which the religion in question offers those who seek a direct way to God in this life.”

These ‘true religions’ of the present time, according to the perennialists, certainly include Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and even Native American faith. Perennialism is the explicit rejection of the ‘exclusivist idea that there is only one valid religion.’ Perennialism does not so much dismiss ‘the orthodox dogmas’ of the various religions, but it effectively dismisses its importance by seeing these ‘dogmas from the universal point of view’ as:

“a series of points of reference, conceptual orientations opening out to, or ‘intending’ realities that transcend the dogmas. What can be affirmed is thus the consummation of the orientations, practices, and aspirations set in motion by the beliefs in question: they are ‘true’ insofar as they can lead one to the ‘real’.”

In this statement above, we have a natural acknowledgement of the problem of conflicting dogmas between the various religions. Thus David Ray Griffin, in his debate with the perennialist Huston Smith in Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology, sets out what any fair-minded person would conclude when looking at the fundamental differences in dogma between various religions:

“It does not seem plausible to me, in any case, to think of the various great religions as equally embodying revelations of the same divine reality. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism are oriented primarily to a personal deity, while much of Buddhism and much of Hinduism, especially Advaita Vedanta, are oriented toward an impersonal, infinite, absolute reality. To say that the devotees of both types of religion are really worshipping the “same God” does not seem illuminating. Not sharing Smith’s belief that the personal God is really derivative from, and hence less ultimate than, the impersonal absolute, I cannot agree that the God who inspired the ten commandments, liberation of people from sociopolitical captivity, and the Sermon on the Mount is really the same as the divine reality to which Shankara and Nagarjuna were oriented. To say that all religions are equally adequate for salvation seems equally un-illuminating. That statement implies that the salvation sought by, say, Moslems and Mahayana Buddhists is the same. But meditation on Emptiness and submission to Allah seem to produce strikingly different types of people. While the inclusive doctrine that “we are all on the same path” seems appealing in comparison with the exclusivist claim that “there is no salvation outside of our church,” it is not illuminating of the empirical realities.”

Now the theology of Islam is taken to be based upon the complete understanding of all the texts of the Qur’an and Prophetic sayings (ahadith, sing. hadith), as passed down from the Prophet’s Companions to every subsequent age en masse in every generation, without an interruption in that mass transmission at any generational point; hence the overwhelming number of Muslims have always held the same comprehension of Islam’s finality. To essentially dismiss the creed passed on by a mass of people in each generation from the Prophet ﷺ (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) (tawatur), whereby the chance of being mistaken is nil, is to effectively accuse the whole collective of being mistaken, or involved in deception or to have spoken in complete allegory to the point that the overwhelming number of their listeners completely failed to make sense of the message – may God forgive us for pointing out these preposterous notions!

It is akin to the challenge that Ghazzali put in chapter five of Fada’ih al-Batiniyya when disputing the idiosyncratic interpretations of the Batinites. He said that if the Prophet ﷺ had to divulge these secrets, then why did he not? Especially when God says in the Qur’an (3:187): “You must make it clear to the people and not conceal it. Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ would not have been ignorant of such a truth; and he would never have allowed himself to have been misunderstood, knowing that people would take his words literally. By way of example, I can here add the following saying of the Prophet ﷺ reported in Sahih Muslim: “By Him in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, any person of this Community, any Jew, or any Christian who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with will be an inhabitant of hell,” (trans. Keller).

One perennialist argument is that the ‘particularist, exclusivist’ (‘normative Islam’) and the ‘inclusivist, metaphysical’ (perennialist) understandings of the Qur’an are interpretations which are “one of an indefinite number of meanings that are all ‘intended’ by God to be derived from the words” of the Qur’an; and that “no one interpretation can therefore be put forward as right and true to the exclusion of all others.” This recourse to an interpretation as a way of maintaining an Islamic identity is interesting, especially in light of a non-perennialist’s argument that perennialism was not anti-Islamic, but merely “a rather novel interpretation,” “rooted…in the Qur’an” and “rarified [sic] metaphysical considerations that are better pointed out as heterodoxies that fall into a category of opinion and interpretation.” Furthermore, the non-perennialist asserted that perennialism be deemed a mere ‘innovation’ due to it simply being a ‘ta’wil, or interpretation, and scholars are careful of declaring disbelief in such circumstances, despite the author accepting that the four schools of Islamic law consider it disbelief (kufr) to oppose the orthodox understanding on this specific question (as illustrated above). This well-intentioned attempt by a non-perennialist to retain perennialism as an Islamic heterodoxy, i.e. ‘Islamic’, in so much as it is not other than Islam, seems to result from a literalist understanding of ta’wil, as can be seen from numerous scholars of repute.

An interesting case study for beginning to test the question of whether denying Islam’s finality is disbelief or a mere heterodox interpretation is the Shifa’ of Qadi ‘Iyad, which has elaborate theological discussions contained therein, and which highlights where such an understanding of perennialism as a heterodox interpretation might be developed, yet seem to miss the nuance associated with the point.

The relevant material of the Shifa’ for our purposes comes in the third chapter: on the ruling of one who insults/reviles (sabb) God Most High, and His angels, Prophets, Books, and the people (al), wives and Companions of the Prophet [Muhammad] ﷺ. The second section (fasl) of the chapter opens with a discussion that, in part, covers the fact that the teaching (qawl) of Malik and his Companions differs (wa’khtalaf) on the issue of those who ascribe to God what is not befitting by way of interpretation (qualified by Mulla ‘Ali Qari in his commentary as ‘false’ (al-fasid) interpretation). Lengthy discussions are then presented over the course of the second section into the third section. What is clear from these discussions is that the central controversy here is with relation to the established sects that have emerged amongst the Muslims, such as the Khawarij and the Mu’tazilah. The fact that this discussion of the disagreement concerning the anathematization of those with ‘false interpretation’ is not related to the idea of denying Islam’s finality not being heresy is categorically clarified by Qadi ‘Iyad at the end of the third section (with “Q” designating the commentary by ‘Ali Qari):

“…it is disbelief for one who does not declare the disbelief of a Christian, a Jew and all of those separate to the religion of the Muslims, or hesitates in declaring their disbelief or has a doubt (al-shakk).

Qadi Abu Bakr [Q: Baqillani] said the unambiguous Sacred transmission [al-tawqif; Q: that is, by hearing from the God and His Messenger] and the Consensus (al-ijma’) agree about the disbelief (kufr) of them. Therefore whoever hesitates in that has disowned (kadhdhaba) the text (al-nass) [Q: of the Qur’an] and the unambiguous Sacred transmission [Q: from the Sunna that is correct], or doubts it; and disowning or doubting does not come to pass except from a disbeliever (kafir).”

Muhammad Shafi, in his commentary of the Qur’anic verses 41:40-46 in Ma’riful Qur’an, states that “scholars and jurisprudents have clarified” the meaning of not declaring a muta’awwil (a false interpreter) as a “kafir or Non-Muslim” as being “subject to the condition that the interpretation in matters relating to the self-evident elements (Daruriyyat-ud-din) should not be against their definite (qat’i) meanings.” He adds that ‘false interpretations’ of such definitively-established matters are not included under excusing such an interpreter, because such a person “is actually denying the teachings of the Holy Prophet ﷺ.” Shafi establishes a distinction in this issue between false interpretations that are disbelief and those that can be deemed unlawful innovation, through recourse to a statement from Shah ‘Abdal-‘Aziz Dehlawi: firstly, false interpretation of “definite, unambiguous texts of the Qur’an or of the mutawatir ahadith [mass-transmitted beyond any doubt in every generation] or of an absolute consensus of the ummah [Islamic nation]” are kufr; yet, secondly, “an interpretation against the texts that are, though clear and semi-certain, are not certain or definite in absolute terms,” then such is not kufr, but “fisq and misguidance.”

Furthermore, Ghazzali, in Faysal al-tafriqa, mentions that “disbelief” (kufr) is a designation of the Sacred Law (hukm shar’i), and it therefore has legal consequences. In essence, it is accusing the Prophet ﷺ of lying (takdhib) about something he brought; and faith (iman) is the belief in everything that he brought. The proof of the ruling of disbelief is established by explicit Sacred text (nass), as is the case with the establishment of the disbelief of the Jews and the Christians; or through analogical reasoning (qiyas) with what has been explicitly stipulated (‘ala mansus). Regarding false interpretation, Ghazzali states that kufr is not designated upon such an individual as long as his interpretation does not pertain to the foundational tenets of belief (usul al-‘aqa’id); yet one does charge with disbelief one who interprets against an important, foundational tenet of belief away from its externality (zahir) without a categorical proof (burhan qat’i).

In Fada’ih al-Batiniyya (section two of the eighth chapter), Ghazzali discusses the ‘unambiguous disbelief’ (kufr sarih) of challenging the descriptions of the Garden and the Fire which the Prophet ﷺ described with “clear utterances” (alfaz sarih); and such a refusal to accept is to accuse the Prophet ﷺ of lying (takdhib) and cannot be considered an interpretation (ta’wil). Therefore, again, we see that not every interpretation is free of being considered an accusation of lying against the Prophet ﷺ.

Ghazzali, in Faysal al-tafriqa, specifies that the foundations of faith (usul al-iman) are three: belief in God, in His Messenger ﷺ and the Last Day; he, furthermore, argues that anything else is from the ‘branches’ (furu’); and one can only charge disbelief in the face of a person’s rejection of a ‘branch’ when it is the rejection of one that has been established and narrated through mass-transmission that is beyond doubt, and impossible to have been connived through lying or conspiracy (bi’l-tawatur). Ghazzali then adds that the denial of one of the three foundations of faith or a mass-transmitted “branch” of faith would amount to an absolute accusation of lying (takdhib mahd) against the Messenger ﷺ.

Concerning the Prophetic narration, “If one of the Muslims accuses his companion of disbelief, [the accusation] returns to one of them,” (narrated in Sahih Muslim), Ghazzali argues, in Faysal al-tafriqa, that it relates to what the accuser knows of the accused. Hence if the accuser knows the accused to be a believer, then the accuser falls under the charge of disbelief; however, if the accusation of disbelief is based upon the supposition that one has accused the Messenger ﷺ of lying, but it is an [honest] error on the accuser’s part concerning the condition of the accused, then this would not be disbelief for the original accuser.

In the same way we have expounded on the profundity underlying the classical authorities on the issue of false interpretation of Scripture, one should likewise have a rounded – and not superficial, no matter how politically or personally expedient such superficiality might be – approach to understanding such statements as the one attributed to Abul-Hasan Ash’ari in Dhahabi’s Siyar a’lam al-nubala’: “We do not anathematise anyone from the community of believers; rather, these are semantic issues upon whose meanings we differ”; or the words of Ibn Taymiyya quoted in the same latter work: “We do not anathematise anyone who guards his wudu, as the Prophet said, ‘Only a believer guards his wudu.’” Good sense and good manners mean that we should refrain from placing a post-modern relativism and false representation upon these statements, which are both insulting to the utterers themselves as well as intellectually dishonest. It appears clear that these were uttered in relation to the sects amongst the Muslims, and were not intended to be applied against those who deny core Islamic beliefs.

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14 Comments

  1. Reed says:

    “To essentially dismiss the creed passed on by a mass of people in each generation from the Prophet ﷺ (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) (tawatur), whereby the chance of being mistaken is nil, is to effectively accuse the whole collective of being mistaken, or involved in deception or to have spoken in complete allegory to the point that the overwhelming number of their listeners completely failed to make sense of the message – may God forgive us for pointing out these preposterous notions!”

    Don’t we accuse the whole collective of Christianity (or any other religion) of being mistaken? If a collective of one religion can be so mistaken, one cannot dismiss the possibility of our own religious beliefs as being mistaken.

    “the four schools of Islamic law consider it disbelief (kufr) to oppose the orthodox understanding on this specific question.”

    Great weight must be given to those who have studied the Quran and hadith all their lives. At the same time, we cannot allow previous scholarship to oppose truth or to assume that their position is truth. Only a prophet can be said to have access to truth. All others are fallible, and thus scholarship is a matter of interpretation. So, what is needed is not only what the four schools have considered but also their reasoning so we can revisit and reconsider their rulings.

    “In Fada’ih al-Batiniyya (section two of the eighth chapter), Ghazzali discusses the ‘unambiguous disbelief’ (kufr sarih) of challenging the descriptions of the Garden and the Fire which the Prophet ﷺ described with “clear utterances” (alfaz sarih); and such a refusal to accept is to accuse the Prophet ﷺ of lying (takdhib) and cannot be considered an interpretation (ta’wil). Therefore, again, we see that not every interpretation is free of being considered an accusation of lying against the Prophet ﷺ.”

    Ghazzali was a great scholar, but if one accepts the descriptions of the Garden and Fire as metaphorical (whether or not we agree or disagree with such an interpretation), then how can that person be said to be accusing the Prophet ﷺ of lying?

    • H. Seymour K says:

      Your beliefs would invalidate the entirety of Islam because then literally anyone would be allowed to come up with any interpretation of any verse and it would be impossible to oppose him on anything. People could interpret some ayahs concerning drinking as making it lawful and say the others were abrogated by this ayah; how would one oppose them? If you brought the times of the revelations they could just disagree!

      Your beliefs would turn Islam into the Protestant religion and destroy the entire shari’ah.

      • Tom says:

        That’s not a very good argument H., firstly because he hasn’t stated what his beliefs are, he’s simply positing questions, and secondly because for the sake of the argument it can’t be assumed that orthodoxy is already correct, and that anything that undermines orthodoxy is incorrect by definition. The whole point of this debate is to question why we uphold a certain doctrinal point of view, after all

        • H. Seymour K says:

          We uphold this doctrinal point of view because every religion other than Islam is the religion of Abu Jahl or has been corrupted by the religion of Abu Jahl, and failure to recognize that is itself removal from the religion of Islam.

          3:19, 5:72-73, 9:30-31 pretty much lay it out. I don’t see how there’s any room for interpretation unless you just ignore them.

        • al-Biryani says:

          “it can’t be assumed that orthodoxy is already correct”

          “You must adhere to my Sunnah and the way of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs who come after me. Adhere to it and cling to it strongly, and beware of newly-invented matters, for every newly-invented matter is an innovation (bid’ah) and every innovation is a going astray.” Narrated by Abu Dawud

          Abu Amir al- Hawdhani said, “Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (may Allah be pleased with him) stood among us and said, ‘Beware! The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) stood among us and said’: ‘Beware! The People of the Book before (you) were split up into 72 sects, and this community will be split up into 73, seventy-two of them will go to Hell and one of them will go to Paradise, and it is the majority group.” Narrated by Abu Dawud

          It CAN be safely assumed that orthodoxy is correct. In fact, in Islam, it already is.

      • Reed says:

        Actually, you are referring to possible problems with metaphorical interpretation, but that does not answer my point of whether or not such an interpretation is the same as lying.

        As to the existence of metaphor in the Quran, simply look at 33:40 in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is called the seal of the prophets. Obviously, he is not literally a “seal.”

        • Abdul Sattar says:

          Reed,

          I am not sure if you are ignoring the way Islamic orthodoxy views Christianity or if you are unaware of it. Your writing style shows some level of learning and education so I am confused.

          1. Islamic orthodoxy doesn’t just plain old “view Christianity as mistaken”. Rather, than Christianity began as a completely genuine truth, embodied in the teachings of Jesus, calling towards the worship of One God.

          That over time, these teachings were changed and altered to include the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus himself. Islamic orthodoxy’s claim against Christianity is not that its root is false, but that its fruit was not preserved and was mixed with ideas and practices originating from nearby cultures and traditions. The battle between the Arian and the Nicaean creeds in early Christianity is sufficient testimony to that tradition’s own confusion as to what the nature of Jesus really was.

          In a similar vein, if a person were to start a new Christian sect today, claiming himself to be a divinely inspired writer of the sacred text- holding this sect to be false and this person to be a liar – is not considered anti-Christian, but pro-Christian, in that one wishes to preserve what Christianity is. Islam takes this approach with the writers of what has come to be the New Testament, written many years after Jesus, with no direct link to him nor clear clues about the authorship of the text.

          2. What Ghazali says is extremely important, not because he necessarily represents the end all and be all on the correct position, but because of the fact that Perennialist authors often lay claim to the Sufi tradition in support of their position. Ghazali was perhaps the Sufi’s Sufi, and is one of the most highly respect figures in orthodox Islam and in Sufism. To hear from his own work, his total and utter disowning of Perennialism speaks volumes as to the absolute intellectual bankruptcy of Perennialism with regards to its claiming a hold on Sufism or on Islamic tradition or orthodoxy.

          3. Tom – you make a good point.

          As far as Islam goes, the most basic premise we must at least rest on as far as Muslims go, is that the Prophet spoke the truth and trained his companions to understand Islam. There are various verses and statements of the Prophet that support this idea.

          What the Companions understood as Islam and related to us, is what we hold to be the true position. But your point about “why we hold something to be true” is a valid one.

          Allah knows best.
          Abdul Sattar

        • H. Seymour K says:

          You can’t really assert that the term is a metaphor unless you’re using the Arabic definition for the Arabic word which probably has different connotations than the English word ‘seal.’

      • Mahmud says:

        Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

        I agree with Seymour.

        • Reed says:

          Re-reading the comments, I see that Seymour is talking about the word “seal” instead of “metaphor.” Technically, he’s correct, but if it’s not a metaphor, then someone needs to explain what the Arabic means so that it is clear that it’s not a metaphor. And why would translators choose a metaphor when literal meanings would suffice?

          Even so, metaphor is a normal occurrence in language. And there are quite a few instances in the Quran. Here’s just one more:
          17:24 – And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: “My Lord! bestow on them thy Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.”
          Again, it would be odd for the translator to choose the metaphor of “wing” if a more literal word was available.

        • Gibran Mahmud says:

          Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

          Yes, there are known metaphors in the Arabic language, however there is no way to interpret the ayat on who exactly gets to Jannah metaphorically. It is clear only Muslims may enter Jannah.

    • Abu Hunain says:

      As salamu alaikum,

      In regards to the first point; the essential problem of Christianity lies in that the revelation and hence the beliefs were not transmitted via tawatur.

      Regarding the second point it seems that your are conflating beliefs and legal rulings. They are not one in the same. While there is some overlap between the two it is important to distinguish where the two meet and also where they diverge. What is understood from the Sunni perspective is that, yes, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is infallible but also the core set of beliefs (qati’) were taught and transmitted from him in a clear unambiguous way which is not subject to reinterpretation. His companions (may Allah be pleased with them) understood and transmitted these beliefs. There are other secondary beliefs (thunni) that are subject to disagreement such as the whether or not the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) saw Allah (swt) on the occasion of the Ascension.

      The enterprise of compiling books of creed as done in the early period of Islam was a response to the issue of misinterpretation and reinterpretation that had emerged. That is to say that the early Muslims clearly understood that there was a normative and established understanding of creed. Accepting or rejecting it is a matter of personal choice and we are not Relativist. One is ultimately responsible for ensuring that they have exerted the necessary effort to understand these beliefs correctly.

      In any regard, the Sunni creed is clearly documented with proofs and reasoning as are the positions of the schools of law. It is important, however, that we have a clear understanding of basic principles of Usool al-fiqh such as understanding Qati’(clear unambiguous texts) and Thunni (probabilistic texts they carry more than one meaning) and bearing this in mind while reading.

      In regards to your final point. Then I will defer to the author of the post.

      I hope my contribution is of some benefit and Allah (swt) knows best.

  2. Reed says:

    @H. Seymour,

    If the Arabic has a different understanding of metaphor, I’d certainly be interested in learning about it. However, my point was simply, How can someone be accused of accusing Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) of lying if that person were to take a metaphorical position of interpretation? And I was using the English understanding of metaphor to make that point.

    Also, I also see some verses as clear and unambiguous. That’s not the point. Rather, to seek truth, we must always question what we believe and why, and do our best to understand the Quran and Sunnah, not blindly follow scholars. Elsewhere on this site (see http://www.suhaibwebb.com/islam-studies/islamic-law/taqlid-and-following-a-madhhab-between-absolutism-and-negligence/), the position of Ibn Hazm is mentioned:

    “The second opinion is the exact opposite of the first: prohibiting taqlīd and requiring ijtihād for all people. Those who hold this position obligate every Muslim to take their legal rulings directly from the Qur’an and Sunnah. They fiercely reject the following of the four madhāhib”

    There are other perspectives among the scholars, of course, as that article shows. I simply point out that it is an acceptable perspective, and one that I follow.

    @Abdul Sattar,
    I am aware of the orthodox perspective of Christianity. My point was simply that the logic of relying upon a “collective” of opinion is not valid. The goal is to determine the truth of something by examining the evidence and reasons to support it. The fact that a great number of people believe something is irrelevant, as can be seen in the case of Christianity.

    I completely agree that anything that Ghazzali has to say is important: He was a great scholar, and he sincerely followed the path of Allah. My point was that even what he says must be examined, and I gave an example of that.

    @Abu Hunain
    “the core set of beliefs (qati’) were taught and transmitted from him in a clear unambiguous way which is not subject to reinterpretation.”

    For me, that is following the traditions of men, not the Quran of Allah nor the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh). That is, men are fallible, and it’s my responsibility to learn as much as I can and to act according to my understanding. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s important to get the understanding of scholars on any point in Islam. That’s a part of learning and being open to truth. As I noted above, I find certain verses and hadiths as clear and unambiguous. But to assume that my understanding of those verses is correct, for me, is a dogmatic arrogance instead of the required humility that is open to truth. That doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t think that they’re right; it means that the door to the possibility of being wrong should always be left open.

    • al-Biryani says:

      “’The second opinion is the exact opposite of the first: prohibiting taqlīd and requiring ijtihād for all people. Those who hold this position obligate every Muslim to take their legal rulings directly from the Qur’an and Sunnah. They fiercely reject the following of the four madhāhib’

      There are other perspectives among the scholars, of course, as that article shows. I simply point out that it is an acceptable perspective, and one that I follow.”

      Okay then, Islam becomes 1.7 billion sects, everyone has a different interpretation, everyone makes takfir of each other, the end.

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