Friday, 2 August 2013

Qur'anic Argumentation

Given how human beings and there societies are, the message of the scriptures could have been in either of the following ways:

1. A very general message not constrained by any "contexts" of revelation or anything of that sort.

2. A general but context-constrained message, whose mode of addressing the people is anchored in a specific time and place.

The Qur'an is clearly of the second type, it's discourse molds itself around the society and cultural practices it found itself in. Therefore, the message of the Qur'an is more inclusive than merely the text itself- it could rightly be said that the context of the Qur'anic injunctions are part of the message of the Qur'an. Tangentially, I think this is a debilitating, if not fatal, argument against the radical "hadith rejectors" who insist on a sola scriptura approach to the Qur'an. Our degree of understanding of the Qur'an would be reduced to very little if we were to insulate it from the socio-cultural context.

Now many people have problems with this idea of revelation: if Qur'an's message is universal, why isn't its mode of expression so? Why does it only talk about natural signs (mostly) pertaining to the desert? Why does it not mention "ice" even once? Why does it adopt a particular way of argumentation and rhetoric, which only appeals to some people but not others?

A feasible solution to these dilemmas would come in two distinct packages: one part which argues for the justification of (2) above (1), and the other part which argues for the justification of the specific type of (2) that the Qur'an adopts.

The first it pretty easy. Knowing what we do about human cognition, it would be absolutely implausible for God to use a mode of expression which would appeal to everybody. Either that would be a series of straightforward propositions, and hence not very persuasive; or else it would be too ambiguous to be of any practical benefit to anyone (e.g. "believe in yourself", "conserve your resources", "be nice to people").

I think the fact that the Qur'an anchors its expression to a specific spatio-temporal context is actually an upside for its message. Rather than trying to appreciate a given injunction in isolation, we can try and judge the effect this injunction would have in the context in which it was revealed, which is more poignant. An example from the top of my head: when Qur'an denounces any particular crime, the point is strengthened by looking at the specific criminal's offenses and overall character analysis. Same goes with Qur'anic description of nature, it makes much more sense when we try to appreciate them in the context of 7th Century Arab phenomenology. Thus, the message+the context conjoined fortify the general message, which is more or less universal. So I definitely think the context-laden mode of expression is much more impressive than a simple general approach.

Now for the more pressing question, is the specific type of Qur'anic communication effective?

Let's talk about the type of argumentation the Qur'an adopts, for example. The arguments in the Qur'an are authoritarian in the sense it doesn't really encourage dissent, appeals to emotion and authority are frequently made, truths about theology are (as a rule) simply stated as opposed to argued for. How does this mode of expression appeal to the general audience? Normal people may be persuaded by, say, appeal to emotion. But there are some aspects of Qur'anic communication which is difficult to understand. For example, it introduces the concept of God as if it's absolutely obvious and there can be no honest disagreement about it. Contemporary discourses regarding Natural Theology seems to provide at least an ostensible defeater for this position. Also, it spends too much time on concepts like explicit polytheism and plausibility of resurrection, which doesn't have much appeal in the modern world where radical polytheism is outdated.

One answer to these questions is the direct audience of the Qur'an are given preference in Qur'anic expression. This response is accurate, albeit insufficient.

I have not researched this issue in any depth. This book seems like a really good start:

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