In Islam, the Transcendent God is the key to all faith and hope. For all his mercy and compassion, for all his guidance to mankind and his appointment of man as his deputy on earth, God remains a creator and a judge. He never relinquishes his moral authority or compromises his unique essence. God's Mercy (jamal), in other words, never eclipses his Majesty (jalal). In an academic study, a historian of religion with strong Christian convictions, however, finds the traditional Islamic discourse on the transcendence of God far from significant and meaningful. (Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology. By Ian Richard Netton. Routledge, London and New York, 1989. 383pp.) Here's how this claim was assessed and responded to from the vantage point of Islamic transcendentalism. The review appeared originally in The Muslim Book World Review, Vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 24-7. Given the ever-present challenge to transcendence, be it from secular immanentism or from Christian incarnationism, it is imperative that the Muslim (our common human) vision never looses its transcendent moorings. And this is what is attempted here.
This (Netton's book) is a highly ambitious but outrageously tendentious work, that, notwithstanding the enormous scholarly labour that has gone into its making, fails to prove its thesis or edify the Muslim reader in any significant way. Relying on the insight and methodology of poststructuralism, i.e. eschewing 'history' and 'cause' for 'sign' and 'structure', it sets out to prove that the language of absolute transcendence, as developed by the Neoplatonizing mystics, philosophers and theologians of medieval Islam, is devoid of meaning Indeed, the authors deconstructionist claim is that the theocentric discourse of post-classical Islam betokens the death of God itself. The Allah Transcendent of later Islamic tradition, Netton proclaims with impunity, is just an empty sign that carries no sense and signifies nothing.
Despite its uncompromising monotheism, the author of this semiotic treatise suggests in the introductory note, the faith of Islam has to content with the problem of divine faces: not in the sense of a multiplicity of divinities or a plurality of hypostasis but simply in the fact that Muslims over the ages have regarded their one God in several widely different ways. (So the impudent intrusion of plurality in the sacred metaphor, if not an innocuous slip of Trinitarian consciousness, refers only to the squint in the human vision of the Divine and says nothing can say nothing about the nature of Godhead itself!) He then describes the four models, viz. the Quranic, the allegorical, the mystical and the Neoplatonic, that according to Netton were employed by Muslims to understand the Being of God. (Obviously, Netton is confused here: The Quran is lies outside his or any other system of models: it is not a model but a norm. It is the Text which is always logically prior to, and hence semantically sovereign over, all its interpretations. Inasmuch as any model, including the irreverent structuralist one of Netton, tries to elicit meaning out of the Quranic text, and not pass judgement on it from extraneous norms, it must submit to its cognitive sovereignty.) Nettons quest, then, is not for the Majestic Countenance of the Lord but for the masks of theology, philosophy and mysticism that alienate the Muslim believer from the Creator-God of his Scripture and hide the face of the Divinity.
Following this rather facile schematization of Muslim heritage, there is a protracted discussion on Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ismailism and the Suhrawardiyan Ishraq which form the bulk of Nettons book and supplies the main evidence for its theoretical claims. However, though Netton is both ambitious and assiduous in the service of his project, his poststructuralist explorations do not result in any revised cartography of this familiar terrain. The new methodological lens does not produce any sharper picture of Muslim intellectual history, it merely introduces a distorted ideational perspective. Indeed, for all the radical novelty of his effort, Netton ends up by endorsing the traditional view of Muslim history being a digression from orthodoxy to theosophy and mysticism, as a paradigmatic shift from Quranic creationism to Neoplatonic emanationism. Thus, his insights about the alienation of medieval Islamic self from its Quranic experience does no more than echo the self-vindicating censure of orthodoxy.
Far more serious than these insights are the claims of Nettons method. Against the indigenous ways of the ulama, mystics and theosophists, Netton would inaugurate his own tariqa, the Way of the Deconstructionist! This post-medieval method of signification as yet unused by devout Muslims and unlikely to be used by such a constituency! is a method of emptying language of all meaning, including the word "God." It signals a lack of meaning as that word is commonly understood in our logocentric intellectual universe (325). (From a censure of the transcendentalist idiom of Neoplatonism to a refuge in the emptiness of the linguistic sign: How illogical are the ways of the deconstructionist! In the beginning, he might as well add, there was no Logos, but the pre-noetic cry, devoid of all meaning, of the deconstructionist "I"!)
Thus, though the touchstone of this hermeneutical exercise is the Quranic Creator Paradigm, for its delineation Netton is not in the least indebted to the Islamic tradition. (In fact, he concedes that the Quranic yardstick that he uses for this study of Neoplatonism is no more than a paradigm artificially established ... for academic comparisons. (326). Both the inerrant historical consensus of the Umma, and the dogmatic infallibility of the Imam are superfluous for the construction of his deconstructionist meaning. Indeed, no faith, no commitment, no piety need stand between the reader and the sacred text; only an idiosyncratic and highly subjective theory of textuality is a sufficient guarantee of true meaning (a concept that otherwise is missing in the cognitive repertoire of deconstructionism.) Rejecting the authority of Ijma, thus, Netton appoints himself the chief exegete, the ultimate Sahib al-Kitab, in order to unmask the God of Islam!
Beside being irreverent and impudent, Nettons study nullifies the principal insight of structuralism on which the whole work is based. For, on the one hand, he accepts the claim, made by al-Azmeh, that the true meaning of a text is historical (26). (Obviously, this is a metaphysical statement about the nature of ultimate reality as Time, History or Dahr. It may offer an apology for the postmodernist dogma of contingency but it hardly touches on the question of transcendence, or the believers faith.) On the other hand, we are told that in the structuralist approach to theology there is a need to abandon the obsession with identifying or establishing "truth", "falsehood", and "contradiction" (328). Historical knowledge determines truth, but, when it suits its votaries, it refuses to indulge in the establishment of truth altogether. History is, and is not, the final arbiter of truth. Further, only theological discourse need abandon its obsession with truth, not the historical! Likewise, Netton accepts a fateful contradiction between useful and meaningful statements (324) without realizing its full metaphysical import for a theory of semiotics!
Needless to say, for the religious mind, the implication of the deconstructionist method are staggering: that understanding a sacred text is not seeking guidance from it; that the search for meaning requires no existential submission, no behavioural adjustment; that every mental exercise, every intellectual harlotry, is an act of tafsir. For the moral soul, the deconstructionist insight translates into the highly shocking claim that knowledge need not have any basis in ethics and that cognition and action are worlds apart. For the Muslim, it would also mean that any outsider, no matter how severely infected by the Islamophobic virus, is able to discover the true meaning of the Quranic text, meaning which has eluded the believers, with all their piety, prayers and devotion, for centuries! Far less discomforting is the fact that the Muslims did not discover the sterlingly simple model which was so facilely and effortlessly fathomed by Netton. They did not (do not), after all, possess his (Christian) prejudices. And this is the key to Nettons work: offended religious sensibilities disguised as supercilious, albeit vacuous, academism.
Not surprisingly, Nettons work, which fails to present any coherent theory of meaning of its own, is premised on the insight that Muslims got it wrong (in their reading of the Quran, while the Quran itself misunderstood the nature of Christian trinity). Thus, patronizing in tone (cf. Pp. 2, 16, etc.) and nervous in its apologetic fervour, Netton seems to be fighting his own ghosts (cf. The New Testament paradigm in Christianity where the vengeful Yahweh of the Old Testament has been replaced by the God of love who is to be addressed as "father" (5)). His interest in the theory of textuality and deconstructionism is more for the sake of a, vicarious and surreptitious, defence of the Christian doctrine of Trinity than due to any urge to explore the alleged Muslim puzzlement with the many faces of God. His deconstructionist argument smacks too much of the modern Christian apologetic that, following Kant, claims that God per se belongs to a protean natural theology; only His incarnation in the true-god, true-man Jesus reveals His personality. What justification, otherwise, is there in a book that deals entirely with Islam and is addressed mostly Muslims (?) to denote all chronology by the confessional sign AD rather the more neutral and ecumenical CE?
For the Muslim, the spectre of alienation let loose by the deconstructionist establishment causes little distress assuming that the charge of emptying the sign, God, of all signification is in itself not totally devoid of semantic content. Nettons semiotic insight, after all, rests on two typically Christian prejudices. First, he assumes, in the manner of his companions in faith, that the Muslim too approaches God through theology and discourse, through logos and spirit. However, Islam is a faith founded less on theory and more on practice. What ultimately mediates between God and the faithful is not belief but actions, not theology but law, not discourse but righteousness. How could a faith that is grounded in prayer and piety, in submission and hope, put its wager on an unknowable God? And how can such a God sustain this faith?
Secondly, when Netton argues that only Christianity steered a happy medium between pure allegorization and gross literalism (pp. 2-3), his statement reveals far more of the personal side of his faith than it does of any academic claims of the deconstructionist method. Apart from the fact that to the two other Abrahamic faiths deem this Christian happy medium as a squint in the metaphysical and moral vision, as a idolatrous con-fusion of the signifier and the signified, Nettons logic of compromise fails to perceive the actual dynamic of transcendence as well. For little does he know that even the theosophical discourse of Islam does not empty the sign: it accepts the ineffability of the concept but remains firmly committed to the grace of the experience. Even for the most extreme champions of theosophical mysticism, the Law still relates the created to the Creator and faith and prayers are not superannuated by the reticence of the theologian or the silence of the logician. Nor is God ever projected as a pure essence, an axiomatic fact of reason, in orthodox theology which always speaks of Dhat and Sifat. Thus, unless one is dogmatic about incarnation, that it is the only theory that overarches the transcendent and the immanent, one must grant that the Quranic language solves the same problem without the introduction of either mythology or ontological con-fusion. Further, with respect to incarnation, one must always face the inevitable problem of establishing the historical identity and not merely a structuralist signification of the incarnated God, of authenticating the claim that the historical Jesus is identical with the transcendent Creator! Moreover, whatever the theoretical truth of incarnation, the Christian claim too cannot avoid the arbitration of history and eschew the problem of the authenticity of its foundational texts. In short, the problem of meaning can never be decided on the basis of sign and structure alone: in any encounter between the reader and the text, history is always the uninvited Third. Little wonder that, pace Netton, the Christian solution to the nature of godhead remains as intractable as ever.
Karl Jaspers once very perceptively remarked that it is impossible to make metaphysics out of myth. Having made a non-sense (unintelligible) metaphysics (trinitarian ontology) out of the Christian myth, its modern apologists now seem to be embarking upon a similar exercise with respect to the transcendent God of Islam. However, finding no trace of anthropomorphic myth in the Quran, their Quixotic charge, camouflaged as structuralist inquiry, is now directed at the windmills of theosophical and mystical Islam. Little do they realize that faith in the Only God stipulates that the human search for the many faces of God terminate in the Majestic unity of Divine countenance and not be confounded by any trinity, or plurality, of masks or mimes. For, when all is said and done with, when everyone has had his/her say, what will abide forever is the transcendence of Allah:
Everything passes save the Face of Thy Lord, Possessor of Glory and Honour.