Peace, one and all…
What assumptions do I bring to all my readings and interactions? What hermenuetical strategies do I employ in the act of reading? Through what ideological, theoretical and cultural membranes do I filter my reading of the primary sources of the Islamic tradition? What kinds of interpretive frameworks am I using in my attempts to explore and understand the teachings of Islam? Or, to put this question in its most basic terms: how do I read?
Questions such as these demand both rigour and honesty. Rigour is necessary because laying bare my hidden assumptions is absolutely fundamental to growth of any kind. Honesty is necessary if I am to open my inner workings to reflective scrutiny.
So, with these thoughts in mind, what are my personal assumptions? How do I read? I have been pondering this question for a while, and I have come to some basic conclusions. I would like to offer them here.
1. Human Autonomy
My reading of any text starts from the basic assumption of individual human autonomy/free will. My reading of specifically religious/spiritual texts only amplifies this basic assumption. That is, any serious engaged reading has to start from the position that each human being is the centre of their own unique world, their own universe of meanings, ideas and associations. Thus, each human being has the fundamental right/duty to determine their own realities and allegiances, to construct their own languages of meaning and profundity, and to own their own beliefs.
If, as outlined briefly above, the world is populated by autonomous individuals, then any reading of a religious text must seek honest engagement with other readings. That is, it must lead to an encounter with and experience of the other. Moreover, religious texts must themselves be approached in this manner. That is, the fundamental unity of purpose of a given religious text must be acknowledged and respected. In other words, it too must be encountered as other.
3. Companionship & Conversation (Sohbet/Suhbah)
If autonomy breeds encounter, then encounter should lead to an open and honest dialogue, in the sense that it should generate a move towards communication. This is why I find the metaphor of conversation to be so very profound. Conversation implies the development of a relationship. It also implies a real attempt to explore meanings beyond our own (sohbet). It suggests a meeting of equals, on a platform of open enquiry. Moreover, this necessitates an acute understanding of the ethics of dialogue. That is, we are forced to consider the impact of our words/thoughts and also to consider the vantage points and values of others in a formal, concrete fashion.
4. Ethical Orientations (Adab)
This term, drawn from the Arabic lexicon of Islam, is pregnant with a wide range of meanings. It conveys the sense of ettiquette, in the sense of formalised social practice. It also denotes respect, consideration and more broadly, manners. Furthermore, it is used to refer to someone with education, erudition and civility. This accounts for its more extended meaning of literature. I use it here to refer to a structured, informed committment to ethical dialogue, in a practical sense.
These four broad principles inform the ways I seek to interact, with texts in general, with religious texts in particular and with the wider world at large. It is important to note, however, two key points. Firstly, as with any human being, there is much that moves beneath the surface; there are always hidden motivations at work. It is therefore important to acknowledge their existence, to accept them and to strive to understand their wider impact. Secondly, these principles represent to isolate significant strands of my own thought/approach. They are not meant to be taken as final summations, nor as sealed containers.