Symbols, Realities & the Limits of Language

Peace, one and all…


I was recently asked to attend an inter-faith dialogue event in Cardiff, at Women Connect First (which helps ethnnic minority women find access to jobs, business and educational opportunities).  So it was that yesterday, I went along.  After a morning spent looking at and discussing the main concepts of four main faiths (Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and Islam), we spent the afternoon visiting local temples, etc. 

I have to say that I enjoyed the event, for several reasons.  Firstly, I always enjoy talking about God and faith.  So it was nice to have an opportunity to talk shop as it were.  Secondly, it was nice to meet with various officials from the Welsh Assembly Government.  Thirdly, this was my first time visiting a Hindu Temple and Sikh Gurudwara.  All in all, then, a pleasant day.  And praise be to God who maketh it so…

At several points during the day, I found myself thinking about shared values.  That is, about the common ground that exists between all faiths.  Overall, it seems, our common ground relates to what you might call ‘an experience of the sacred’ and putting that experience into physical and moral practice.  In other words, religions call to something beyond the merely human, and then explore the necessity for a moral reaction.  This moral impact is often described as compassion (or in other similar terms).  In Islam, we would call it `ibada (the next, long-delayed, installment of my Quranic journey will touch on this theme shortly, insha Allah; episode 1 and episode 2), or worship/service.  In Hinduism and Sikhism, the concept of seva (‘service’) springs to mind.  Judaism has similar notions of service.  An Anglican priest who attended yesterday’s event, also touched upon this aspect in Christianity (see an earlier post of mine on this point).  [For links to web sites from other faith traditions, see the Learning from Other Faiths page].

Different religious traditions do this in very different ways, and use very different language in doing so.  This much was also obvious from the event.  Hearing the ‘words’ of others can be very challenging.  Thinking outside of our comfort zones is always a little uncomfortable.  It is, however, both necessary for growth and deeply stimulating.  The more I learn, the more I come to see that many religious differences are more apparent than real.  That might seem a strange statement for me to make, so please allow me a moment to explain myself more fully.  And a mighty helper is God.

I am not denying the many and important theological differences between the world’s faiths.  This would be both foolish and dishonest.  Christianity and Islam, for example, have very different understandings of the nature of God.  To pretend otherwise, does a disservice to both.  What I do mean, though, is that beneath the surface, all religious traditions are trying to translate their experience of the sacred, so that it might be shared with others.  Moreover, once you begin to explore these experiences in depth, they are not as different as we might think. 

This is why, during the past few years, I have benefitted greatly from conversations with members of other faith communities, as I have benefitted greatly from conversations within my own faith tradition.  Indeed, the more I reflect on this question, the more I come to see the importance of such conversation

I guess, in a sense, we’re dealing with the relationships between symbols and meanings (or realities, if you prefer).  Symbols are significant because of the meanings attached to them, because (in some important manner) they describe a particular understanding, or truth, or orientation to the world.  But, it seems, the symbol is not the reality itself.  It is, at best, a metaphor, an approximation, a description – part of God’s ongoing conversation with humanity, I suppose.  And, on reflection, conversations always take place within the confines of a given language, with all of its expressive power and human limitations.

In recent years, I’ve increasingly been struck by the limitations of human language (mostly through my own inability to express myself fully).  Words fail when reaching towards the Divine.  Upon reflection, I now begin to see that these limitations are actually an advantage.  That is, because we are imperfect, the possibility of looking at these important questions from different angles opens up all sorts of new opportunities, or new directions to move in.  Reflecting upon my own experience, it was when I thought the work complete that forward motion ceased (and what a fool I was)!

And my last prayer is in praise of God, the Sustainer of All the Worlds.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

3 thoughts on “Symbols, Realities & the Limits of Language

  1. Sorry to be so late in reading this. I think you’ve hit the nail very nicely on the head (to use a rather mechanical metaphor) in this excellent and inspiring post. John Hick, the Christian theologian, speaks of the different maps of the transcendent territory that each of the great faith and philosophical traditions has. Problems arise when we mistake the map for the territory or the pointing finger for what is being pointed at. And, sad to say, we do this all too frequently.

    I’m glad you’ve mentioned the central theme of compassion/service. This, I think, really is a common ground amongst all the great faiths (understood properly). It certainly figures prominently in the Baha’i sacred texts and is an inspiration to the great good that people of all faiths do in their best moments.

  2. Peace Barney,

    I’ve read a little of John Hicks and what I’ve read has been very interesting. Wasn’t he the author of ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’?

    Compassion/service does seem to be a central theme. The more I reflect on this, the more I feel that many of the apparent differences are really questions of expression – that is, different traditions speak of ultimate realities using all sorts of historically and conceptually loaded terms. However, once you begin to understand them on their own terms, links become clear.

    O God! Let me follow Your finger!

    Abdur Rahman

  3. I was born in Ilayangudi a small town in South India. At the age of six I went to learn to read the Quran in a local Masjid and I completed the Arabic Quran at the age of 12 or so.

    When I went to college my ideas changed and I thought it was useless( astagfirullah) just to read the Quran in Arabic without understanding the meaning. So I started reading teh English translation of the Quran and eventually forgot to read the Arabic Quran fluently

    After reading the following Quotation from a Christian Arabic Language professor on the beauty of the Quran, I started re-learning to read the Quran in Arabic.

    “The Quran was revealed in Arabic. It is a matter of faith in Islam that it is of divine origin, it is inimitable and hence to translate is always to betray. Muslims have always deprecated and at times prohibited any attempt to render it in another language.

    Anyone who has read it in the original is forced to admit that this caution seems justified. No translation however faithful to the meaning has ever been fully successful.

    Arabic when expertly used is a remarkably tense, rich and forceful language.

    And the Arabic of the Quran is by turns, striking, soaring, vivid, terrible, tender and breathtaking.

    As Prof Gibb has put it, “No man in 1500 years has ever played on that deep toned instrument with such power, such boldness and such range of emotional effect.”

    It is meaningless to apply adjectives such as “beautiful” or “persuasive” to the Quran, its flashing images and inexorable measure go directly to the brain and intoxicate it. It is not surprising then, that a skilled recitor of the Quran can reduce an Arabic speaking audience to helpless tears.”


    TITLE: Islam
    AUTHOR: John Alden Williams ( a non-Muslim Arabic scholar)
    PUBLISHER: Prentice Hall International, London 1961

    The following Quotation taken from the foreword of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s Glorious Quran reinforces the above views of Prof. Alden equally effectively and forcefully.

    “The Quran can not be translated. That is the belief of old- fashioned sheykhs and the view of the present writer. The Book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language.

    But the result is not the Glorious Quran, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy.

    It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Quran: and peradventure something of the charm: in English.

    It can never take the place of the Quran in Arabic nor is it meant to do so.

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