The Poetics of Religious Experience
The Islamic Context
LONDON• NEW YORK
in assocation With
The Institute of Ismaili Studies
The Poetics of Religious Experience
do I say that classical Islam is historically conditioned while the Qur’an is not. The fact that the Qur’an has spoken and continues to speak, poignantly and powerfully, to innumerable followers through the course of centuries shows that something in it is timeless. But this ‘something’ needs to be distinguished from such phenomena as ordinances of war and truce, reactions to local ‘others’, whether Jews. Christians, or the Meccan Quraysh, codes of punishment, etc., all of which were clearly conditioned by local and regional circumstances. Rather than distinguishing between fundamental beliefs and not-so-fundamental applications—a procedure which is as mechanical as it is methodologically dubious—it is ultimately more fruitful to inquire into what this problem might reveal about the nature of faith. And one good answer to this question is in terms of a distinction between symbolic conceptions and doctrinal concepts.
The distinguishing feature of symbolic conceptions is that they are what we might call leading notions: open, elastic, and indeterminate. A good illustration of a symbolic conception is the notion of a final judgment, which is so germane to the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions. As a symbol, it represents an ideal of justice and an ideal resolution of life, where virtuous action and well-being coincide. Such an outcome is seldom realised in actual experience. But as what we might call a ‘horizon idea’, it provides a foundation for moral life. Similarly, the notion of the Last Day declares that change, decay, and death are not the last word on the question of the meaning of life. The more general and embryonic this notion remains, the more fertile it will prove in suggesting diverse interpretations. The more theologically definite it becomes, the narrower will be the range of ideas it is capable of suggesting. Narratives of what is supposed to happen beyond death are purely speculative, having little impact in the here and now. But there is an alternative way of looking at them, i.e., as symbolisations of a dimension of existence in the here and now. On this, Wittgenstein’s remarks are thought-provoking:
Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.’
The quest for the meaning of life, given its finiteness, can lead to many different attempts, not necessarily exclusive, to transcend its brevity: in pious hope for life after death, however conceived; in mystical realisation of a spiritual dimension, transcending the mundane, in the here and now; and not least, through the commitment of one’s life to a better and more equitable future for all. The symbols of ‘another’ life are open-ended symbols, with a plethora of associations, with the potential to grow and develop in new directions, and assimilate new nuances of meaning.
We are now in a position to sum up some of the propositions contained in the title of this essay. We saw that ‘religious experience is meant here in the widest rather than the narrowest sense. It refers to a vision of being, present in core-symbols, which provide an orientation to life and guides ethical conduct in the world.
We saw that this vision is both more and less than the entirety of a religion: less because religion is always an embodiment (which is to say, an interpretation, in the sense indicated above). It is also more, because the core-symbols are not exhausted by the forms which may prevail in a given time or place. On the contrary they are capable of supporting new and unforeseen nuances of meaning in ongoing history. Lastly, the symbolic character of these conceptions is what gives rise to poetics. This concept also needs preliminary exploration before the introductory section can be brought to a close.
By ‘poetics’ what is meant here is something more than poetry though poetry is part of it. It refers to creativity of a particular kind, namely exploration in language. The kind of language which lends itself to exploration is the language of symbol and metaphor The nature of this language will become clearer if we contrast it to a kind of language which gives information.
Unlike the language of information, poetic language does not state facts. The statement, on a given occasion, that it is dark outside (say, owing to a power failure, or to a lack of street lighting) is a plain, literal assertion of fact. Its truth or falseness can be checked by observation by anyone who has normal eyesight and knows the meaning of the word ‘dark’. However, when in Macbeth,Shakespeare makes Banquo say to his son as they grope their way in the thick of the night, shortly after we have been let into Macbeth and his wife’s wicked scheme to murder the King of Scotland, so that (in line with the witches’ prophecy) Macbeth may gain the throne—when, against this background, Shakespeare makes Banquo exclaim: ‘There’s husbandry in heaven, their candles are all out …,‘ we know at once, in our deepest being, that something considerably more is said in these lines than that the night is dark. The difference is not simply between plain and ornamental speech. It is a question of the scope of meaning. What Banquo sees in the darkened sky is not solely a reflection of his own fears and concerns. It is a suspicion, a foreboding vision, of something looming there, encompassing the universe, in the shape of an objective menace, Of this, the personal careers of various protagonists are a partial reflection. Thus, the text unfolds on several levels at once. It depicts the lives and characters of its protagonists. But in doing so, it also makes statements about the kind of world in which such men and women live; in which mysterious forces, beyond their intellectual control, play on them.
Thus, while being all too concrete, the words quoted here have the force of an impersonal, universal statement. They do not only remind us that a heinous murder is about to occur. They tell us something much more, something which is true on a cosmic scale. This cosmic statement may be put simply as follows: there is Evil abroad. Since what is evoked here is the scheme of things entire, and not merely a single incident in space or time, it is not just an evil episode with which we are brought face to face, but Evil as a cosmic principle. Here another very important point deserves to be noted. On this level, which we may call the metaphysical level, there is no statement which is not at the same time a question. This is shown, above all, in what such language does to a listener or reader. Statements inform us; questions challenge us. When we hear ‘Evil is abroad,’ we are moved, perplexed, and stirred into an interrogation of being. Out of the bewilderment which comes no sooner than the terror of this recognition dawns on us, we think of our own lives, our own experience. We wonder whether we have not ourselves encountered, or observed in others, the power of an incomprehensible destiny in human life. We ask our-selves what this could mean. We search for ways in which to fathom this experience, to see it in some kind of perspective, and if possible, to go beyond it. We are reminded of the opposite principle of Evil, the principle of Good, celebrated both in classical philosophy and in religious scripture. Jews and Christians may be reminded of the Book of Job. Christians may remember the Passion of Christ. And Muslims may well recall the all-too-vivid evocation of an evil which shuts out all light, blots out all vision, in the following passage of the Qur’an:
Like the darkness in a fathomless sea darkened
By wave above wave,
and above it all, clouds.
Layers over layers of dark.
If one stretches forth his hand he can scarcely see it.
For he for whom God has not setup a light, has no light.
What we find in poetry like Shakespeare’s are echoes of symbols which were first given in the Judaeo—Christian, Islamic, and Classical traditions. Poetic traditions in the cultures derived from these sources have been continually nourished and replenished by these original symbols. It was in the Biblical, Qur’anic, and in a few other sites in the world, that long-enduring fundamental intimations about the human experience of being were revealed. To be sure, religious vision cannot be reduced to poetry; it is much more than that. Religious meaning binds a whole community, an entire society, through a narrative of beginnings and ends, i.e., of human existence interpreted in the frame of cosmic time and space. The point of such narrative is to give meaning to human life, but also, in so doing, to induce meaningful action, i.e., action oriented to ethical ends. Poetry is only a specialised pursuit within this civihisational totality. But the language of poetry, especially poetry which seeks to speak of being as a whole, is a good example of a kind of language which differs from straightforward propositions of fact. It shows a way of thinking and speaking in which metaphor, symbol, and analogy are of the essence; which challenges the imagination, feeling, and reason, and thus engenders creativity.
In short, such language is semantically pregnant. It has a way of radiating outwards—laterally, above, and into the depths. This element of continual inquiry is also what we find, in a different form, in science. Observation stimulates further inquiry in science, and knowledge builds on knowledge. For, the scientist is a poet of nature; just as the poet is a scientist of the heart. Nothing is further from the argument of this essay than the false opposition, encountered so often in modern times, of the poetic or humanistic to the scientific mind; of intuition to intellect; or of science to religion. These dichotomies, to which I shall return, arc products of modern European history. The contrast with which I am concerned here lies elsewhere. It is a contrast between two models of knowledge, one of which sees acquisition of facts as its essence, while the other is an exploratory model. Statements of fact tend to fill and satiate; whereas poetic, philosophical, or scientific thought, while no doubt dealing with facts, whets renewed hunger. Furthermore, it is critical in spirit. And there is something of this spirit we may call it, in a sense to be explained later, the prophetic spirit—at the heart of religious experience.
The language of faith enunciates the bond between man and what he perceives or experiences as sacred. The sacred cannot be captured in propositions of fact. There is something about it which makes symbolic expression especially suited to it. Several points need to he noted in this connection. First, the sacred is always perceived in the context of a relationship. It is never grasped as an object in itself. While God is depicted in the Qur’an, for instance, as the Absolute, having attributes radically free of the limitations of creatureliness, significantly the revelation of God occurs there primarily in a dialogical context. God speaks, and this speech is the most consequential act as far as human affairs are concerned. For the divine is not contemplated as if by a spectator. Hence the limitations of theology, which is an intellectual contemplation of God. The divine is primordially revealed in a dialogical act. In the Qur’an, humanity is addressed either directly or indirectly through the figure of a messenger or prophet. Reciprocally, the prophet, or the humanity which he represents, enters into a verbal exchange (through prayer, etc.) with the divine.
The second principle follows from the first. The importance of the relational aspect means that the sacred becomes known to man in forms which reflect human psychology and culture. In one form or another, the human relation with the divine involves intermediation. I shall return to this point later. Thirdly, the relationship of man to his own being, and to the being of all things, is by its very nature manifold rather than singular. This implies, as its logical corollary, the legitimacy of spiritual pluralism. Lastly, the indeterminacy of language about the sacred, which was noted above as a characteristic of symbolic language, argues not only against literalism, but in favour of a continuing rather than completed symbolisation.
The rest of the essay is devoted to elaborating the themes broached throughout this introductory section. As these themes are addressed in the Islamic context, I shall illustrate them mostly with Islamic examples; though they are, in fact, of more general importance, applicable to the study of other religious traditions, and indeed, to wider issues of culture
The epic poem of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the Iranian mystic, opens with these famous lines:
Listen to the reed,
how it tells a tale
complaining of separation:
Ever since I was parted
from the reed-bed,
my lament has made
men and women weep.
I search for a heart
Smitten by separation
that I may tell the pain
Everyone who has got far from his source
harks back for the time
when he was one with it