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Should Qur’an be Studied in the Light of Structural Anthropology? A critical Analysis, Letter By Prof. Muhammad Hasan Askari to Prof. Muhammad Arkoun Algerian

Should Qur'an be Studied in the Light of Structural Anthropology? A critical Analysis, By Prof. Muhammad Hasan Askari

INTRODUCTION: The late Prof. Muhammad Hasan Askari, whose translation of the Ma’ariful Quran is a permanent feature of “Al-Balagh International” was originally a scholar and critic of the Urdu, English and French literature, also recognized for his vast knowledge of the modern trends in philosophy and the related subjects. By virtue of his extensive knowledge and experience he was fully aware of the danger inherent in the superficial efforts of the so-called modern interpretation of islam’ mainly based on the ever-changing Western concepts. In a number of articles he has shown the fallacy of this approach on pure academic grounds.

The following is a letter he wrote the Prof. Muhammad Arkoun, an Algerian scholar who had written a preface to a French translation of the Holy Quran in which he had suggested a new methodology for the exegesis of the Holy Quran. The letter was written in Nov.25, 1975, but the points raised therein of great benefit ever today. With our gratitude to the quarterly journal Studies in Tradition’ where this letter has been reproduced recently, we have the privilege to publish it our readers. 

On New Methodology Of The Quranic Studies

A letter by Prof. Muhammad Hasan Askari to Prof. Muhammad Arkoun Algerian

I am very happy to receive your letter and I thank you for your kindness. By all means write to me in French. I can follow it with ease, for I have translated Stendhal into Urdu. My only regret is that I cannot write French with fluency, for I have very few occasions to do so nowadays though I have written some 300 pages in my bad French on the subject of Islam and Muslims in Pakistan and India in the shape of letters to the late Michael Valsan, the Editor of “Etudes Traditionnelles” who had started publishing  them in his review, but his death interrupted the process. Excuse me if I write a longish letter and take your time but I have so much respect for you and your work that I want to establish a proper rapport with you. 


Your Preface to the Holy Quran was introduced to me by a lady who after taking the Maitrise degree from Paris VII under the joint supervision of “Charless V”;  and me, was doing her Doctorate in English Literature at your own Paris III. She was so enthusiastic about your Preface that she was reading it again and gain. Muslim writers who write about Islam in European languages are for the most part rather superficial. So I was immediately impressed by the great ease with which you move among western ideas and the probity of your mind and your wide ranging intellectual interests. Naturally, I wanted to know more about you and I found Dr. Hamidullah full of admiration for your scholarship and sincerity of purpose.

As for me, I used to be what is known as “a man of letters”, and your’ colleague, Prof. Andre Guimbretiere, Head of the Pakistan-India-Bangladesh Department, had a kind word to say about me in his article in “Les Litteratures Contemporaines a travers le Monde” (Hachette, 1961). My field is a little limited (that is literature) and I do not meddle too much with things which I do not understand so I cannot say that I write on Islam. However, one or two trifles of mine have appeared in French, and would be easily available in Paris:

(I) “orient et occident: Ibn e Arabi et Kierkegaard”, translated from Urdu into French by Prof. Guimbretiere, in ” Reveue de Metaphysique et Morale”, along with a six page rebuttal by Jean wahl, followed by other from Henri Corban in 1963 issue.

(II) “Tradition et Modernisme dans le Monde Indo-Pakistanais”, in “Etudes Traditionnelles” (MaiJuin et Juillet-Aout, 1970.) The same review published extracts from my letter in the same subject in Janvier-Fevrier, 1969. I have also translated a few sufi texts from Persian and Urdu for this Review, but they have not been published so far perhaps the review itself has died.

 Islamic sciences preserved by Ulema of subcontinent.

I am glad that you are interested about Islam and Muslims in our region. There are a number of books on the subject in English but unfortunately the writers take a historical or a sociological view and have no proper understanding of the metaphysical basis. Sadder still, even our Arab brothers are not properly informed about us, do not know the fact that from the 17th. Century onwards the task of preserving and furthering Islamic sciences was taken up by the ulama (religious scholars) of this Subcontinent The highest achievement in this respect is the collection of the letters (in Persian) of Sheikh Ahmed of Sarhind known as Mujaddid Al-Thane, written in the first half of the 17th. Century. Arabic translation of these letters was made in the 19th. Century and has recently been republished in Turkey. If you are interested, you can write a line to the publisher for the complete edition or a selection of the letters and you will get it free for he is an engineer and has been distributing the book all over the world without charging any price:

Huseyn Hilmi Isik, Kitabevi, Darussafaka

Caddes No. 72, P.K 35, Fathi, Istambul, Turkey.

Next come the works (mostly in Arabic) of Shah Walliullah of the 18th. Century, who is known to Arab countries as Sheikh el Dehlavi. Many Orientalists are now working on his books, and I suppose you are familiar with his Hujjat-ul-Balligha, which has been in Beirut too. If you so desire I should be glad to send some of his Arabic works to you. Louis Gardet found them immensely helpful. Out of thousands of books that have been written in Arabic, here I should not forget to mention a book of philosophy written in the 17th. Century: Al Shamsul Baazighah by Mulla Mahmud of Jaunpur. I may venture to remark that during the 19th. and early 20th.Century Urdu has developed into the third great Islamic language, coming after Arabic and Persian.

If you ever need any information or documents with regard to Islamic sciences in the Sub-Continent, I am always at your service and will be happy to send you anything that you require.

Now turning to your Preface to the Holy Quran I make bold to offer without going into details a few broad and general considerations not in a spirit of carping criticism, but as random thoughts that occurred to me while reading your Preface. After all you are specialist in philosophy, linguistics; etc. as well as in Islamic studies while I am only an amateur even in literature. So you know better.

Continuous changing Trends of West 

(1) Your desire to make the Westerners read the Holy Quran sympathetically is quite legitimate and even necessary. But one may as legitimately ask: when a sacred book is in question, may one make large concessions to the mentality of possible readers? Is one to present a sacred books its adherents see it, or as the readers foreign this particular tradition would like to see it? An average Western reader is likely to take up the Holy Quran only out of a desire to find out what the Muslims believe in. Will it not be far more satisfactory to such a reader if he is provided with the established and orthodox view of the Holy Quran? He may not agree with this view, but he will have got the information he needs. Then how long will we, the Westernized Muslims, go on being on the defensive and apologetic? Your Preface was written in 1970. Things have been happening in the world since then. Do the new circumstances not require a new stance on our part? Please allow me to be more candid. I have been glancing through Arabic newspapers and magazines and also through Persian ones. I have read a report on the seminar of Arab intellectuals held in Kuwait and also the proceedings of a cultural conference in Iran. I am struck by a strange anomaly while Arab intellectuals demand more Westernization,

the Iranian avant grade wants nothing but pure orthodoxy, I observe the latter tendency among the writers of Pakistan and other Muslim countries though much feebler than the Iranians. So I have been led to believe that one cannot do justice to the questions of Muslims and Islam in the present world without being aware of two Iranian books: “Islam Shanasi” (Understanding Islam) by Dr. Shariati, a friend of Kateb Yacine and “Garb Zadagi” (the disease of Westernization), a small book by Jalal Aale-Ahmed, the translator of Stendhal, Flaubert, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky etc. The second book has become a sort of manifesto for the avant  garde and many university students know it by heart. Things have gone so far that Henri Corbin has become in the eyes of Iranian writers a pompous clown who descends on them to explain the meaning of Shahabuddin Suharwardy or Mulla Sadra. Thus, there is a new mood abroad in the Muslim world and there is a thirst for going back to one’s own sources even a demand for the revival of orthodox methodology in the study of poetry. I find that in most Muslim countries the best minds are passing through exactly the same trajectory; Baudelaire, Rimband, Sartre, Camus, Kierkeggaard, Ibn e Arabi, the Holy Quran and Hadith. I am sure that you yourself are quite aware of these new facts and will naturally keep them in view while writing your new book on the Holy Quran for which I shall be waiting impatiently.

Study of Quran and Anthropology 

2) You propose that the Holy Quran should now be studied in the light of linguistics, cultural anthropology, structuralism etc. I not only understand but admire such a wish and I am certain that a man possessing necessary acuity of mind as you do can perform the task brilliantly. Once upon a time when Wilhelm Reich was still a laughing stock of psychoanalysts and exactly fifteen years before he became a cultural hero of Parisian students a man with such meager intellectual resources as I, extracted a methodology for studying literature out of the characterology and ontology of ,WR, (Wilhelm Reich).

And allow me to confess with deep shame that I started to study the Holy Quran only in 1959 out of a curiosity to trace in it the Cosmic Orgonotic pulsations. “WR” being, if anything, more “in” than linguistics in 1975 I cannot help being thrilled at the prospect Of the ultra-chic Western sciences finding an application in the field of Islamic studies as well. There is however, a peril. You of course have the necessary intellectual equipment and scholarship and sense of responsibility too. But what of those who will follow your lead without these qualifications and merely out of a desire for adventure? Would it not be opening a pandora’s Box? Then there is a more weighty  consideration. Intellectual trends keep changing in the West as swiftly as the width of bikini suits. By the time you have finished your study of the Holy Quran from this point of view or that “L’ intelligence contemporaine” you want to appeal to, will have Started demanding something else. I recall the visit that Louis Gardet paid to me in I 970. Just to be polite to him I remarked how popular Strauss was getting in the English-speaking world. And he exclaimed with surprise: ”Who reads Strauss now?” And I could save myself from looking like a fool only by mumbling a few words about Lacan. Foucault and Althussere. Gardet on his part was full of Marcuse, who had already started to lose his punch in America. To take a more general example, Freud has hit ”L’ intelligence contemporaine” after all? My dear brother you are a Philosopher. contemporaine francaise” so late that even twenty years ago Anglo Saxon psychoanalysts used to laugh at their French counterparts for taking Stekel seriously. So what is this “L’ intelligence contemporaine” after all? My dear brother you are a philosopher, for your ideas and intellectual trends reside in the mode of succession. I am an ordinary student of literature, for me they reside in the mode of simultaneity, For example everything that is new and fresh and exiting in the pop culture of today for its admirers is for me as old and stale and boring as the Dadaists. So, when it’s the question of intellectual fashions, I cannot, in my depravity help contemplating them with a certain amusement. And I ask myself: Is it at all legitimate to subject the Holy Quran, which Muslims believe to be eternal to the vagaries of changing vogues? It might be said  answer to this question that the West alone is capable of investigating things from an objective or scientific point of view and the changing fashions are only part of the ever changing. ever continuing search for truth. So we must go along with the West.

Fine enough, but you must be aware of the great popularity of Castaneda’s book on the Red Indians in America, and you yourself are an admirer of ”La pensee Sauvage” .Now if the Red Indians and primitives can be allowed the privilege of possessing a point of view peculiar to them, should Muslims alone be denied this basic right? At a time when the savage mode of thought is not only been legitimized but even been glorified and further still, being actually sought by thousands of western youths, should Islamic orthodoxy alone be gagged and throttled?

Linguistics as a means of study The Quran. 

3) Your desire to promote linguistics as a means of studying the Holy Quran is also laudable. But if one gives to the Holy Quran the kind of significance as sacred book which it deserves and which, I am sure you do accord, one had better given before embarking such an uncharted adventure, some thought to the nature and origin and the orientation of the approach one wishes to adopt. Linguistics is supposed to be a new science. As to what science is in its basic urges, I may remind you that Einstein himself is on record as having said that he was not concerned with discovering this scientific theory or that, but with knowing how the mind of God works! As for the linguistics, one would forget at one’s own risk its roots in British Logical Positivism and the Vienna School of Philosophy, both of which motivated by a maniac depressive pursuit of denying the possibility of metaphysics. I do not see how a sacred book ‘qua’ sacred book can logically be submitted to such a scrutiny. And if one respects “L’ Intemgence contemporaine” one can already see it rejecting such philosophies. (Vide the recently published collection of essays, ”The Dark Rainbow”). Moreover, the application of linguistics to literary texts has already got a history behind it. Some ten years ago there was a battle royal in France between professors Roland Barthes and Picard Barthes, accusing French critics of being out of date and far behind the Anglo Saxon Anglo-Saxon critics in using linguistic methods for the study of literature, and Picard defending the methodology of the Sorbonne. Within five years, even American and Blitishers had to admit that the French were far in advance of themselves in the science of linguistics, and by 1974 they came to feel that Roland Barthes was the best literary critic in the world in the linguistic mode superior even to the Norwegian Jacobson. Bai1hes being the latest culture hero, let us look at what he has been doing lately. Take “siz” in which he has tried to understand a writer through linguistic methods and his book on Japan in which he has tried to understand a civilization. What are these books fundamentally but fantasies? If all one wishes to do is to indulge in a daydream, or as the American say “to go on a trip” where is the need for the paraphernalia of linguistics? If all one wishes to accomplish is to pick up a pea, should one really call to one’s aid a hippopotamus?

Is Strauss helpful in the study of Quran? 

4) You seem to feel that Claude Levi Strauss would be very helpful in the study of the Holy Quran Apart from the question whether he is still ‘in’ or ‘out’ his basic dilemma is two-fold:

a) He is dissatisfied with the “objective” method of science, and would like to try “objective” approach in cultural anthropology but for a final verification of his results he would again return to the  “objective” method. He totally fails in deciding between the two, or in arriving at a synthesis.

(b) He is open-minded enough to reject the established Comtian view of magic and ritual as merely an intermediary step towards science, and to affirm “la pensee sauvage” as a mode parallel to scientific thought. But he cannot shake off the conviction habitual to westerners that the scientific mode is, after all said and done, the super mode. Tus he keeps, to use a vulgar English idiom, ‘shitting from ham to ham’. The ambiguity arises from his failure to evolve, perhaps even to see the need of a clear-cut idea of hierarchy. Hence, also the fluidity of a half a dozen significations which he gives to the words “real” and “reality”, on the same page. I find that Wilhelm Reich’s concept of “reality” is much more coherent and all of a piece than anything else available in the West today and that “L’ Intelligence contemporaine” is being very perceptive in raising him to the status of a modern “myth”. At Oxford they say that Strauss is a very difficult and hence a great thinker. I would very humbly suggest that he is very difficult because he is woolly in his thinking. Take a single example. Everybody has always been saying that a work of art is a metaphor. Strauss has made the discovery that the scientific approach is of a metonymical order (English translation of’ ‘la pensee’ sauvage”, page 25). In reading the rest of the book, we keep marveling at the ingenuity of his thought, and also wondering as to who far the analogy is correct for, if science recreates an effect by its cause, walking toy may be said to do the same and hence deserve the name of a metonymy. We keep wandering till we come to page 205, where we find the proud declaration: ‘We need not in this work regard ourselves as bound by grammarians’ refinements. This too, I suppose, is’ a great contribution to philosophy on the part of “L’ Intelligence contemporaine” for, according to this view, any attempt to define the meaning of a word is to indulge in a contemptible “refinement”. Even otherwise one of his favorite phrases is: ”to put it in a crude way”. I only wish that Strauss had deigned to read the American thinker Kenneth Burke on the four tropes to find out what happens to a society when it begins to confuse a metonymy with synecdoche.

New Methodology: Phenomenon Humain. 

5) In your Preface you are very sanguine about the prospect of the study of Holy Quran according to a new methodology leading to “Elaboration d’un humanisme a’ la mesure. de notre temps” (p30). Since I am not as informed about ‘la mesure de notre temps” as you can be in Paris, I would very much like to know who represents this humanism. Strauss? Foucault? Marcuse? Reich? “Charlie” Bebdo? If one were to believe as eminent an humanist as Simone de Deuvoire, Mademoiselle Brigittte Bardot too just oozes with the milk of “I, humanisme a’ la mesure de notre temps”. And only last month no less a person than madame La Becarie who has all the. proportions necessary for a “mythical structure” delivered herself of the exquisitely humanistic sentiment that she very swiftly induces her man into detumescence which again is a highly monumental procedure ‘releasing an effect by its cause’ (Vide Strauss). I am not at all being facetious, but taking these phenomenon as seriously as the greatest representatives of “L’ Intelligence contemporaine”. do “a’ Ia mesure de notre temps”.

6) You see the Quranic language as a “mythical structure” and advise the Muslims to study it in the light of the new concepts of the ‘myth’ which have been advanced by modern psychology and cultural anthropology. It is wholesome idea but it is rather disturbing that you also express the desire for ”demystification et demythologisation” (p31). In this phrase you are plainly using the word ”myth” in the 18th. Century meaning of this term. I do not understand how these two things can be done at the same time. Or perhaps it means, that Islamic doctrine should be beaten into pulps in the mortars of the 18th. Century, and then this pulp should be fed into the mould of the 20th. Century to produce something exotic “a’la mesure de notre temps”. I notice that you do draw a distinction between ”(de) mythologisation” and “(de) mythisation” (p35). But in practical terms it would mean leaving things at the mercy of the idiosyncrasy of the individual writer.

7) I have a suspicion that you have been rather unjust to Mohyuddin Wal-Millat Imam Ghazali and his ‘Al-Qirtas ul-Mustaqem. Can we not put it in this way: he was pressing Aristotle, the Strauss of his day, into the service of Islam? If he discovered AristoteHan syllogisms in the Holy Quran, after all you too have discovered ‘mythological structure’ in it. Where is the difference in procedure? Does the difference lie in the fact that ‘myths’ and ‘structure’ enjoy a greater ‘cachet’ these days? And is Aristotle really so out of date? You yourself have recommend Maritain to the attention of Muslim writers, and I too would recommend him to our modernizers. But shall we ignore Maritain’s of Aristotelian logic? I do not purposely mention the American intellectuals for whom Aristotelianism is very much alive and kicking. For, you have not included any American thinker in your catalogue of modern luminaries. Perhaps at Paris I’ll no Americans stands for “L’intelligence contemporaine’ ‘, (while things may have a different look at Paris VII and VIII.

8) You want to deal with the Holy Quran phenomenologically as a “phenomenon humain” in other words, not as Muslims see it but as you would like to see it in order to legitimize it in the eyes of the westerners. In that case, the Holy Quran would cease to be a sacred Book and become a historical document inspite of your “vision imaginative transhistorique” and it would be of little interest even to an average westerner who turns to the Holy Quran believing it to be sacred Book of the Muslims. for whom, then would you be waiting your book? For the Muslims would certainly not thank you for an effort to this nature. The Holy Quran stands as a Devine Book; it can have no other relevance.

9) As for your effort to promote the new Protestant theologians among Muslims, that my dear brother is the limit. For, even the West has not produced another group of imbeciles. I would rather follow Andre Breton than Karl Barth.

10) You are very kind to the sufis and shias. But would any sufi or shia worth the name, past or present, agree to see the Holy Quran treated as a phenomenon humain’?

11) You want to read the Holy Quran analytically and critically, which is a noble undertaking indeed. I would now humbly request you to read a page of Strauss or Barth as well critically and analytically.

12) I am extremely happy to note that you are aware of making “des formulations imprudentes” (p35). This is the most relevant sentence in your Preface. I acknowledge that you are a very learned man and I myself am a novice in learned matters. But for the last forty years or so, I too, in my humble way, have been concerned with ”I’ Intelligence contempormne” and “des measures de notre temps”. So, I suppose I have not been impertinent in writing to you such a long and tedious letter. But I have had no wish to offend you in the least. I have spoken to you frankly as one Muslim would to another, and I would not have written to you at all if I did not respect you deeply and did not sincerely admire your great capabilities. But if there is still something offensive to your sentiments in my letter I offer my profound apologies. Burn this letter, and forget all about me. But if you find some sense in my humble suggestions, we can go on to discuss the details in a spirit of fraternal co-operation. For,I still believe that if you admit the proper orthodox point of view, you would win the gratitude of millions of westernized Muslims all over the world.

I end with assurances of my deepest respect and regard for you.

Posted in Contemporary studies, The Nobel Quran, Various Islamic studies

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