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Ayaat – The Semiotics of Meaning

by Zohair Abdul-Rahman MSc and M. Nazir Khan MD

 

Introduction

The terms ayah (sign) and ayaat (signs) are mentioned over 400 times in the Quran collectively[1]. Rather than sentence or verse, the word used to the describe the smalls unit of complete meaning in the Quran is ‘sign’. Signs are entities that indicate meaning. Intuitively, we know that if something is called a sign, it has something to tell us. The Quran references articulated signs in the book itself (Ayaat Masmoo’ah [heard signs] or Ayaat Qur’aaniyya [Qur’an based signs]) and unarticulated experiential signs in nature (Ayaat Mashhoodah [witnessed signs] or Ayaat Kawniyya [existential signs])[2]. These semiospheres are the two ways that Allah communicates with humanity.

In more than 750 places in the Quran, we are directed to study both sets of signs.[3] For instance, the Quran urges the reader to contemplate the signs in the book itself, “Have they not pondered upon the Quran[4], “A blessed book sent down so that they may ponder upon its signs[5], “We have sent down an Arabic Quran except so that you can comprehend[6]. The Quran also guides the reader to study the unarticulated signs found around them, “And how many signs in the heavens and the earth do they pass by while they are turning away from it[7] “Say: Observe everything in the universes and the earth[8], “Say: Travel the earth and see how was the end of those who came before[9].

This article will explore both categories of signs in the context of semiotics (the academic study of signs) and the Islamic concept of light (nur). We will discuss the connection between the two classification of signs of Allah and the meaning that they represent. The profound relationship between the articulated signs of Allah found in the Quran and the unarticulated signs of Allah found in the world around us will also be investigated. Through this investigation, we will uncover the primordial religion (deen hanif) derived from humanity’s intended interaction with the signs of Allah.

The article is divided into 3 sections. Section I: Signs in Nature builds the case for conceptualizing nature as being made up of signs as opposed to the alternative view of reductionist naturalism. Section II: Semiotics of Signs discusses how meaning emerges from signs and examines its connection with nur (light). The final Section III: Experiencing the Divine Signs will build on the previous two sections and provide a phenomenological perspective on how we are meant to interact with the signs of Allah in His Book (Articulated) and His Creation (Unarticulated).

 

Section 1: Signs in Nature

 There are essentially two ways of viewing the natural world: 1. We can choose to see the natural phenomenon around as representative of a higher order meaning, as the intended consequences of the Divine Will, or 2. we see the world as nothing more than the amalgamation of blind material, chemical and physical forces that ultimately bear no greater significance – a worldview referred to as naturalism.

Incoherence of Naturalism

Even in the minds of many Muslims, we often find the implicit assumption that the natural world we inhabit is the world described by science. It is a world of matter entirely reducible to vibrating particles, governed by mathematical equations described by the scientific endeavour – a mindset molded by the philosophical worldview of naturalism.[10] This philosophy sees Reality as the physical world made up of exclusively natural entities. Therefore, Truth is reduced to merely accurate descriptions of the objective world. The Qurān describes this notion,

“…But rather most of mankind do not know. They only know what is apparent in the life of this world and they are willfully blind to the hereafter.”[11]

However, when we analyze the ontological and epistemological presuppositions that emerge from a worldview of naturalism, we find that they are not consistent with widely shared human beliefs and conceptualizations of the world.[12] Naturalism denies beliefs of virtue, value and meaning itself. Virtue represents the idea of how people should act on the world. Virtues such as compassion, justice and courage are not made of matter and cannot be reduced to particles or atoms. Thus, if a person believes that Reality is exclusively what is made up of observable matter, it poses a problem to the belief of virtue. A similar line of reasoning can be applied to value and meaning. Aesthetic values of beauty and ugly, moral values of goodness and evil and spiritual values of purpose and growth all become delusions and fantasies of the mind. The meaning that emerges from relationships and life itself are also nothing more than illusions. Richard Garner, a contemporary philosopher, points out that naturalism and its indispensable view of atheism necessarily results in the disbelief of these metaphysical ideas.[13]

The only thing that exists is matter –> We are nothing more than collection of particles that exist without purpose –> There is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ way the world should be –> There is no ideal way of acting in the world –> There is no such thing as virtue, value or meaning

It is important to recognize that virtues, values and meaning existing as purely subjective realities is not coherent. The notion of virtue or value is embedded in the idea that the world ought to be a certain way. Naturalism states that the emergence of life and the world itself is the unintended consequence of blind physical forces and is not meant to be in any particular way. Thus, conceptions of virtue or value become incoherent in this worldview. Similarly, the notion of meaning is embedded in the idea that the world is about something. Naturalism cannot support the intentionality of the world and thus meaning becomes meaningless.

Furthermore, Edmund Husserl, the founder of the philosophical school of phenomenology points in his critique of naturalism that paradoxically naturalism challenges the foundations of science itself.[14] Paul Davies, contemporary physicist, explains, “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.”[15] Science is nested in the presupposition that the world contains meaning and that it is intelligible to us. The logical consequence of naturalism is the denial of meaning and thus the entire system of science loses its foundation and becomes fundamentally incoherent.

Often, discussions surrounding truth are divorced from human behaviour. However, it is an essential dimension of understanding how people conceptualize reality. People act in the world based on what they believe about it. There are an almost infinite amount of actions that a person can be engaged in at any point in time. The choice a person makes is based on a belief about value. It is not possible to perform any action in this world without a value system. Even those who profess to not believe in values, implicitly affirm them simply by acting. The mere vocalization of the disbelief of values implies that there was value in making that statement over not making it. Even eating or drinking carries the implicit belief that self-preservation is important. That is a value judgement. Thus, human behaviour itself presents one of the most foundational problems of adopting naturalism. Behaviour requires a value system. And a value system requires the existence of a realm beyond matter.

The World of Signs

Historically, the Western world disregarded the natural world in the study of semiotics, focusing exclusively on language and man-made signs and symbols.[16] The Quranic paradigm advances the idea that the entire world is made up of signs,

Indeed, within the universes and the earth are signs for the believers. And in the creation of yourselves and the animals that He disperses are signs for those who have conviction.[17]

In addition to the physical objects that occupy the world, the Qur’an also describes time and movement as signs,

And in the alternating night and day, and in what God sends down from the sky of provisions and the spring of life emerging from the earth after its death and the directing of the winds are signs for rational people.[18]

Elma Berisha, a cognitive semiotician, explains that the Quranic qualification for sign is very broad, including anything that can be conceived of in creation.[19] She provides a non-exhaustive overview as organized in the Table 1.

But what does it actually  mean for something to be perceived as a sign? And why does the Qur’an make the concepts of signs the basis of our epistemology?

Consider an example. If one is driving and sees a red traffic light, that is immediately recognized as relevant and significant as opposed to seeing a red light that is simply hanging as decoration. The red traffic light is a sign that immediately triggers the cognitive understanding that traffic in a particular direction will temporarily stop to permit other road users the right away, and that red light carries a discrete behavioural instruction – “stop your car”. Basically, a perception (“red light”) is linked to a particular cognition (“I need to stop my car”).

The red traffic light is not a decorative adornment. It is a sign that immediately is recognized as relevant and meaningful by drivers at that intersection.

On materialism, all the events in our lives are as devoid of meaning and relevance as the static noise of a television display.

Now consider another example. A television displays static noise. The viewer perceives both sight and sound, but in this case the external stimulus is bereft of any deeper meaning or significance. This is mere stimulus, but not a sign. A sign is a perceived stimulus that is recognized as relevant based on conceptual background that allows the human mind to interpret the significance of the sign. The sign corresponds to a cognition, but it doesn’t just stop there. A sign allows one to organize additional thoughts around the initial cognition in order to develop more sophisticated and advanced thoughts. The more profound the sign, the greater it’s constructive capacity to engender new ideas, interpretations and thoughts.

The activity of the human mind functionally requires the presence of signs. The human mind is comprised of thoughts, ideas, concepts, emotions, all of which need to be linked together by some associations, based on some notion of which things are relevant to what. This allows cognitive structures to be organized and arranged in a particular way to permit a human being to make sense of the world and how to act in it. This is, in essence, what it means for something to be recognized as truth, Haqq. It serves as a scaffold for constructing a higher resolution understanding of the world.

 

Table 1:

Sign Type Verse
Natural Phenomena “Indeed, within the universes and the earth are signs for the believers” (45:3)
Supernatural Phenomena “If We willed, We could have sent down to them a sign from the sky for which their necks would remain humbled.” (26:4)
Warnings “And nothing has prevented Us from sending signs except that the former peoples denied them. And We gave Thamud the she-camel as a visible sign, but they wronged her. And We send not the signs except as a warning.” (17:59)
Blessings “He causes to grow for you thereby the crops, olives, palm trees, grapevines, and from all the fruits. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who give thought.” (16:11)
Punishments “And We showed them not a sign except that it was greater than its sister, and We seized them with affliction that perhaps they might return [to faith].” (43:48)
Celebratory Feast Said Jesus, the son of Mary, “O Allah , our Lord, send down to us a table [spread with food] from the heaven to be for us a festival for the first of us and the last of us and a sign from You. And provide for us, and You are the best of providers.” (5:114)
Languages “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (30:22)
Text “And when We substitute a sign in place of a sign – and Allah is most knowing of what He sends down – they say, “You, [O Muhammad], are but an inventor [of lies].” But most of them do not know.” (16:101)
Historical Events “So today We will save you in body that you may be to those who succeed you a sign. And indeed, many among the people, of Our signs, are heedless” (10:92)
Artefacts “And their prophet said to them, ‘Indeed, a sign of his kingship is that the chest will come to you in which is assurance from your Lord and a remnant of what the family of Moses and the family of Aaron had left, carried by the angels. Indeed in that is a sign for you, if you are believers.’”(2:248)
Inherited Knowledge “And has it not been a sign to them that it is recognized by the scholars of the Children of Israel?” (26:197)
Technology “And a sign for them is that We carried their forefathers in a laden ship.” (36:41)
Human Beings “And [mention] the one who guarded her chastity, so We blew into her [garment] through Our angel [Gabriel], and We made her and her son a sign for the worlds.” (21:91)


Section II: Semiotics of Signs

Abstracting Meaning from Signs

Meaning arises from a person’s ability to make distinctions between signs in a given sign-set.[20] For instance, the ability to understand a spoken English sentence is predicated upon the receiver discriminating between words in the sentence. Failure to distinguish words from each other will result in an incomprehensible singular sound. This is why it is difficult to understand a person when they are speaking very fast. The speed makes it difficult for the mind to differentiate the words and so it sounds “gobbled up” to the listener.

Another way of looking at meaning is as a mechanism to simplify a complex world.[21] This is closely connected to the process of discrimination described above. When a person can appropriately distinguish between categories, concepts or ideas within a given phenomenon, they are able to understand it better. They haven’t necessarily understood the phenomenon completely, as it is more complex with more potential meaning than a person can possibly fathom. For example, a person can look at the sky above them and see sun, cloud and blue sky. He has distinguished 3 different parts of the sky and that has resulted in a certain level of understanding. A person unfamiliar with the objects of the sky, may see it all as one thing and fail to understand them as separate phenomena. This person has abstracted less meaning from the sky and has an insufficiently ordered view. However, the person that recognized the 3 separate phenomena cannot claim to have understood the sky in its totality. The more learned a person is, the more distinctions they can make. Perhaps they understand that there are different types of clouds that result in further differentiation – cumulus, stratus, cumulonimbus, and so on. There may be something that the particular pattern of clouds in the sky indicates in terms of portending weather. Furthermore, a person can know what the cloud, atmosphere and sun is made from and proceed to differentiate further within each phenomenon. This microscopic differentiation can go all the way down to the level of quarks and atoms and potentially beyond.

Meaning can also result from reverse differentiation, where a person sees a diverse set of objects as a whole in relation to something else. Following our previous example, a person can telescopically zoom out and see the sky as part of the planet earth, which is part of a solar system, which is part of a galaxy, which is part of a cluster galaxy and beyond.

 

Comprehensive and Distinguished Signs

These two processes (integration and differentiation) are alluded to in the Quran, “A book whose signs are uhkimat (comprehensive) and then are fussilat (distinguished) from One who is Wise and Acquainted.”[22] The Quran describes the meaning in its own articulated signs as resulting from both differentiation and integration. The process of excavating these meanings from the articulated signs of Allah is a science that has over a thousand-year history and is known as Uloom at-Tafseer (Science of Interpretation). The vast majority of work in exegesis deals with understanding the signs through the process of differentiation; namely, breaking passages down into individual elements, sentences and words, and detailing the meaning of each individual component to arrive at a conclusion. A growing area of focus in the last few centuries has been an integrative comprehensive approach that identifies themes in the Quran and chapters attempting to discover eloquent patterns embedded in the text. The fields of study that have emerged in this area include tanasub al-Ayat (recognizing inter-textual links between passages), maqasid al-suwar (identifying over0arching objectives of each chapter), and tafseer al-Mawdu’i (studying a particular topic thematically in several passages throughout the Qur’an). In this regard, the Quran resembles the universe that can also be analyzed and appreciated from both a micro and macro level.

The Quran also explains that Allah distinguished (fasl) the unarticulated signs, rendering them meaningful, “He is the One who made the sun shining and the moon illuminated determining for it its stages so that you can know the number of years and account (for time). Allah created all of that with a purpose, He distinguishes the signs for people of knowledge.[23] This fascinating passage explains the source of meaning in the universe and why it is intelligible through the process of distinguishing of signs performed by Allah.

Ibn al-Qayyim describes the entire intellectual pursuit of truth as a quest to simply distinguish and discriminate.[24] Fundamentally, a person must distinguish truth from falsehood at every level of analysis. He focused on distinguishing truth from falsehood in relation to virtue such as the difference between nobility and arrogance, generosity and extravagance, discipline and rigidity and optimism and wishful thinking. He analyzes more than 35 of these dualities. He also explained falsehood as a failure to appropriately distinguish things as they ought to be. Ibn al-Qayyim gives the example of failing to distinguish animal from human when deliberating on the ethics of meat consumption.[25] This can either lead to cannibalism or veganism, but both are predicated upon the failure to distinguish human from non-human creature.

Semiotics as an Indication of the Divine

The scholars of semiotics have grappled with the problem of anchoring apparently arbitrary signs, such as the words in a given language that do not seem to correlate with their represented meaning.[26] Thus, the words of language are conceived as a system of signs that are socially learned.[27] This necessitates a point of origin that initiated the entire system of arbitrary signs, that subsequently evolved into the diverse set of languages seen today.[28] The point of origin cannot have been socially learned, since there was a time where no one was using any system of arbitrary signs. The point of origin also cannot have emerged naturally because then it would not be arbitrary. Another problem articulated by C.S. Pierce, one of the most significant figures in semiotics, is the issue of infinite semiosis.[29] Semiosis is the process of making meaning from the environment or language. The basic axiom is that the more a person can differentiate between signs, the more meaning they are able to achieve. Thus, the more a person deconstructs a sign, differentiating its parts, the more meaning they can produce.

Infinite semiosis refers to realization that the process of differentiation can potentially be infinite. How can this be concluded? Both of these problems point to the dependency of semiospheres such as language on an external agent to render the entire system of semiosis meaningful.

Light Carries Meaning

Meaning embedded in the Divine signs is explained in the Islamic tradition as nur (light). Meaning that emerges from the signs of Allah represents a high-ordered form of light that is beyond the physical realm as described by contemporary theologian, Sa’id ibn Ali-Al-Qahtani, author of the famous Fortress of a Muslim prayer compilation, “There are two types of light. The first type is empirical light (nur hissi) that exists in the physical world…The second type is the semiotic light (nur ma’nawi) that is perceived through the spiritual heart.”[30]

Ibn al-Qayyim expands,

“There is light that is intelligible (ma’qool) and processed by the eyes of the heart and there is physical light that is perceived through the physical eyes.”[31]

“Inner vision beholds it (light) with a perception linked to the heart in the same way that the objects of physical sight are linked to the eye.”[32]

The link between light and meaning also exists within the English language. We often refer to people who gain knowledge as being en-light-ened. Physical light clarifies our physical surroundings and spiritual light clarifies our metaphysical surroundings. Just as physical light provides us with physical guidance in space-time, semiotic light provides intellectual guidance for our belief structures and moral guidance for our behaviour. Most importantly, it provides us with knowledge of Allah that enables us to traverse the path toward Him, as we grow in our knowledge and actualize good in the world.

The signs and the meaning that they represent are both emitting light. The light that is reflected from the physical sign is physical light processed by the physical eye and the light of meaning is processed by the spiritual eyes in the heart. The Quran states, “It is not the eyes that are blind, but rather it is the hearts in the chests that are blind”[33]

When this light is perceived by the heart, the human being becomes enlightened. Then when a person acts according to this light, their bodies become encompassed with it. They become a sign for others, as their positive behaviours reflect forth the light that initially entered their heart.

DIAGRAM

For instance, when a person is inspired by the Mercy of Allah he sees in the world. He or she is perceiving this light with their spiritual eyes. When they act in a manner consistent with this quality, perhaps by showing love and care to a drown-trodden child, they are reflecting their light onto their limbs through that action. When they act, their body exudes that same light that entered the heart. Others around them can perceive the light that they were initially inspired with. In summary, the goal of a believer is to bring light into their hearts to elevate their soul, stirring them to action, resulting in light that emanates from their being.

Ibn al-Qayyim explains, “This is why the Prophet asked his Lord so fervently to put light in his flesh and bones, muscles, hair and skin, his hearing and sight, above and beneath him, on his right and on his left, behind him and before him – saying, ‘and make of me light’. In short, he would ask his Lord to make every particle of his inner and outer being into light…”[34]

To conclude this section, the process of taking something as a sign involves the following steps:

  1. Recognition of the stimulus and its relevance
  2. Differentiation and integration
  3. Interpretation to construct meaning and obtain enlightenment
  4. Mobilizing new cognitions towards values and goals

The fourth stage will became more evidence throughout the course of the third section of this article.

 

Section 3: Experiencing the Divine Signs

Ayaat Masmoo’ah: Articulated Signs and the Determinate World

The bipartite division of the signs of Allah as articulated and unarticulated and the interaction between the two represent a deeply fundamental reality of life. The articulated signs of Allah explain to us how we are meant to live our life. The Quran informs us of our purpose in this world, our mission in life, our responsibilities and obligations. It shapes our perceptions, emotions and identities as we traverse the path it has laid out for humanity known as Seerat al-Mustaqeem (The Straight Path). At its root, the articulated signs construct the appropriate determinate world that we are meant to inhabit. The determinate world of an individual is comprised of a series of motivational ‘mini-worlds’ that are organized in a hierarchy based on a person’s values.[35] Each motivational state has an undesired starting point and a desired end-point.[36] The end-points represent our goals and aspirations.

In a person’s life, every action they take is necessarily directed toward some objective. Nobody can move without a purpose or aim. Ibn al-Qayyim categorizes these goals into extrinsic or intrinsic.[37] Extrinsic goals are those that are sought after because they will bring about another desired goal.[38] For instance, an extrinsic goal for most people is consuming food. It is done for goals of preserving life, increasing energy or averting hunger. Intrinsic goals are sought after for themselves. An intrinsic goal is the ultimate Truth that organizes all extrinsic goals. It represents the purpose of your life. It unifies all a person’s aims to provide clarity, meaning and purpose to all a person’s pursuits. This unification of life’s pursuits under one ultimate purpose is the essence of Tawheed (Unification of the Divine).

“Say: My prayers, my sacrifice, my life and my death are all for Allah, the Master of all the realms.”[39]

The intrinsic goal is the god that a person worships in this world, even if they do not affirm a transcendent God. As Allah mentions in the Quran, “Have you not seen the one who takes his desires as his God.”[40]

Extrinsic goals necessitate an intrinsic goal by virtue of the problem of infinite regress (I am doing action A because of X, which is done because of Y, which is done because of Z, Which is done because of Q, which is done because of W etc.) and circularity (I do action X because of Y, which I do because of X). Furthermore, if there is no intrinsic goal, then extrinsic goals are rendered meaningless, since there is nothing external to it that is intrinsically valued. It is necessary that there is a foundation to everyone’s value hierarchy that fundamentally operates as a god. It is what is loved, valued and perceived as the source of ultimate benefit. A person without a clear conception of God is doomed to wander the world pursuing meaningless extrinsic pursuits, being pulled in every direction. The Quran captures this reality, “Verily your pursuits are dispersed[41]

The articulated signs of Allah determine the hierarchy of goals in relation to their relevance to the only intrinsic goal worthy of pursuit – Allah, Himself. The emotions we experience and the strength of our various identities are all in relation to the hierarchy of motivational mini-worlds that combine to produce our determinate world.[42]

The meaning found in the articulated signs of Allah are too profound and vast for humanity to completely excavate. Whatever a person can understand from it determines their determinate world at that particular point in time. This determinate world is termed as the Seerat al-Mustaqeem.[43]

Ayaat Mashooda: Unarticulated Signs and the Indeterminate World

What is the purpose of the unarticulated signs if the articulated signs are sufficient in producing the determinate world that can guide us to Allah? The problem lies with the psychology of the human being. From a neuropsychological perspective, there is constantly an interchange between our cognitive systems (‘aql) and the pleasure system of our brain (hawa) that combine to determine the motivational states we experience in life. Ibn al-Qayyim explains this tension by describing the struggle between the nafs ammara bis-soo’ (nature within our soul that inclines to evil) and the nafs mutma’inn (the nature within our soul that inclines towards a higher existence) in vivid detail.[44] When we integrate these two perspectives together, we can understand this phenomenon as the nafs mutma’inn constructing motivational mini-worlds in a hierarchy toward Allah. Conversely, the nafs ammara bis-soo’ attempts to destroy the motivational worlds that are constructed from revelation and reconstruct its own motivational worlds to reach its blameworthy end-points. Thus, the determinate world is constantly under threat and distorted as we struggle to get through life. The unarticulated signs of Allah challenge us to re-examine our lives and transform our worlds into a better representation of the Divine Will (the intended determinate world) expressed in the Quran. They emerge from the indeterminate world, a construct that represents the ignored complexity of the world.[45] This ignored complexity can be conceptualized as the signs of Allah in nature that are beyond the capacity of language expression and are hence, unarticulated. This is because, at its highest level, these signs communicate to us the Divine Names and Attribute that are beyond human comprehension and cannot be expressed through language. Additionally, the unarticulated signs of Allah can be understood as ignored complexity that can potentially become comprehensible through the form of a test or trial.

Involuntary Encounter of the Unarticulated Signs

The encounter with the unarticulated signs of Allah can be involuntary or voluntary. Involuntary encounters are the tests and trials that a person faces in life. They direct us to look to the articulated signs of Allah for the guidance necessary to enhance, fix or reconstruct our Seerat al-Mustaqeem or our Divinely Ordained determinate world. The process of the test and its intended results are described in the Quran,

“And We will surely test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, life and fruit. Congratulate those who have sabr (patience, perseverance, resolve). Those who say, when a disaster strikes them, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.’ Those are the ones upon whom are praises from their Lord and mercy. And those are the ones who are guided.[46]

 

DIAGRAM

The end of the verse makes clear that the purpose of the test was to guide the individual. The process of obtaining guidance from the calamity is outlined as 1) Sabr and 2) returning to Allah. This can be understood as first having the strength and courage necessary to confront the test, rather than be controlled by it and second modify one’s determinate world to return it back to the straight path towards Allah. When a person engages in this process they receive mercy from Allah and are guided as a result, back to him.

This is a very important cycle of life that constantly renews and enhances a person’s journey in life. The concept of unarticulated signs of Allah coming in the form of trials and calamities so that mankind can return to Him is mentioned in several places in the Quran,

And We tested them with good times and bad times perchance they may return.[47]

Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea because of what humanity has done. This is so that they can taste a portion of their own actions and so that they may return.[48]

And we will surely let them taste the lesser punishment before the greater punishment so that they may return.”[49]

We have certainly destroyed cities surrounding you and diversified the signs so that they may return.[50]

The other way that a person can encounter the unarticulated signs of Allah is through voluntary exploration of the indeterminate world. This process is described as a spiritual pursuit by Jordan Peterson, a personality psychologist, in his discussion of the determinate and indeterminate worlds.[51] The Quran describes it as the process of contemplating the signs of Allah in Nature.[52]

 

Voluntary Encounter of the Unarticulated Signs

This voluntary exploration of the unarticulated signs of Allah can result in different layers of meaning based on the cognitive pursuit.

The first order of meaning emerges from the empirical features of the unarticulated signs. It requires the sensory system of the mind to be able to perceive. The meanings associated with it are in the domain of Khabar (description). For instance, a particular rock formation can be explained scientifically by merely describing its appearance, shape, colour and composition. This is meaning that has emerged from the sign in the form of khabar.

The second order of meaning arises from rational deliberation of the sign and is known as ‘ilm (knowledge). Cognitive processes are required to abstract meaning in relation to the etiology (‘Illah) or purpose (Hikmah) of a particular natural phenomena embedded in a wider context. Continuing from the previous example, explaining the geological processes that lead to the rock formation along with its current role in the ecosystem of that area would all qualify as second order meanings. Second order meanings have resulted in great technological advancement throughout history, especially in the recent centuries.

The third and final order of meaning arises from a myriad cognitive processes along with psycho-spiritual states as described in the Quran. Distraction and vice also hinders a person’s ability to recognize this order of meaning. The Quran consistently explains the signs of Allah as only being able to be perceived by people with faith, conviction, knowledge and intellect through the action of contemplation, remembrance, deliberation, listening and seeing. The fundamental cognitive process that occurs in this order of meaning by all people capable is known as Qiyaas bil-Awlaa (High-ordered Analogy). Terminologicaly, it refers to argumentum a fortiori – recognizing that a conclusion applies even more strongly in an analogous case. Pyshologically, it has wider implications and Qiyaas bil-Awlaa allows extension of the perceived reality to metaphysical constructs. Relying on purely literal and syllogistic (Aristotelian) thinking will blind a person from this order of meaning. Qiyaas bil-Awlaa enables the process of abstracting values (moral, intellectual and spiritual) from the natural world and appropriately recognizing their ontological and epistemological dependence and source from the Divine (Ma’rifah). The values that are abstracted are Divine Names and Attributes manifested in a limited form in this reality. The beauty, majesty and awe that arises from gazing upon the rock formation, along with the recognition of the metaphysical basis for these values in the Divine is the essence of this highest order of meaning.

Processing Third-Order Meanings

The processing of this meaning primarily occurs through the heart as described earlier. The heart can also distort light that shines forth at this level. The Quran gives the metaphor of the heart as glass,

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. The metaphor of his light is like a niche in which is a candle and the candle is encased by a glass, shining…”[53]

As Ibn Qayyim explains, the glass is referring to the heart, and the candle is the light of faith that illuminates the soul[54]. One of the reasons why glass is used as an analogy for the heart is because of its clarity. Ibn al-Qayyim says, “By its clarity, (the believer) sees truth and direction”[55]

Thus, we can conceptualize the heart as a glass through which the light abstracted from the signs of Allah in the external world project through. The image that results from the interaction of the light and the glass is projected onto our consciousness. This “image” is not physical, but the meaning, significance, knowledge and truth that we abstract from the Divine Signs. It is comprised of light, but the end-product is determined by its interaction with the projector that is the heart. The “image” can be distorted if the heart is tarnished. Ibn al-Qayyim says, “And if this tarnish builds up, blackens and envelops the heart completely, the heart’s reflective quality and perception will be totally lost, so that it will neither accept what is true nor reject what is false.”[56]

The Quran often describes the psycho-spiritual state of people who are unable to perceive the light that emerges from the signs of Allah. In fact, this reality is first expressed as early as the third page of the Quran,

Certainly, those who reject faith, they are indifferent to your warnings and will never believe. Allah has sealed their hearts and ears and veiled their sight. For them is a painful punishment.”[57]

 

Integrating All Orders of Meaning

 The scientific pursuit abstracts the first two orders of meanings from nature, while disregarding highest orders. It is important to note that science is not capable of deriving all aspects of these orders due to its limitation of empiricism. It will not be able to discuss all aspects regarding purpose and role within environments beyond observation, such as spiritual or moral purposes and roles. Mythology and religious symbolism attempts to abstract higher order meanings while ignoring the lower order meanings on which it should be based on. If taken in isolation, both represent epistemological extremes that has resulted in the iconic clash between religion and science.

The Islamic worldview provides an understanding of the highest order of meanings that builds upon the lower orders, resulting in harmony rather than conflict. They are meant to be seen as connected, rather than separate. This linkage can be further expounded by appreciating that reality, the subject of all knowledge, is a manifestation of the Divine Will. Thus, any meaning that emanates from reality, emerges from the Will of Allah. Knowledge of the natural world is knowledge of the Divine Will manifested through the intelligible systems of ecology, biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Ibn al-Qayyim calls components of the natural world as Ayaat Mashooda (empirical signs) because of the meaning (or light) that emerges from it[58]. The entire discipline of natural science is a sign of Allah’s hikmah (wisdom and purpose), ‘ilm (knowledge) and qudra (power). This is alluded to by Paul Davies as quoted earlier, “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.”[59] The ordering (qudrah of Allah), rationality (hikmah of Allah) and intelligibility (ilm of Allah) of nature are constantly being abstracted and reaffirmed (tasdeeq) through every advancement of science.

Furthermore, the scientific endeavour rests on the assumption of a specifically monotheistic conception of God.[60] The constancy of natural patterns and laws is what enables meaning to be abstracted from the universe. If there were multiple gods acting as divine agents of the universe, there would be chaos and a constant alteration of reality. The Quran mentions,

Had there been gods other than Allah in the heavens and earth, it would have resulted in the corruption of the universe. Thus, Allah is exalted, the Lord of the Throne, above what they assert.[61]

Allah has not taken a son, nor is there a god besides him. If this were the case, each god would have a portion of its creation and attempt to invade other territories, exalted is Allah above all they assert concerning Him.”[62]

Science proceeds from the assumption that the patterns in nature are intelligible, and thus consistent. Competing patterns stemming from diverse wills over the universe would have resulted in an unintelligible chaotic universe that would be an inviable canvas for scientific investigation. Therefore, the success of science as seen in technological advancements is a testament to the unity of the divine (tawheed) manifested in the intelligibility of the consistent patterns found in nature.

The knowledge that exists in the world is certainly not limited to natural science. The entire corpus of social sciences, humanities, anthropology and history also emanate from the Divine Will as explained in the Quran,

(This is) the established way (Sunnah) of Allah with those who passed on before, and you will not find in the established way of Allah any alteration.[63]

 

Unarticulated Signs and The Determinate World

The third order of meaning is what enables a person to achieve guidance for their determinate world. It strengthens the nafs mutma’inn (Part of the self that inclines toward God) in its battle against the nafs ammara bis-soo’ (Part of the self that inclines toward evil), enabling the person to defend distortion and corruption to their path toward Allah. The process of voluntary exploration and the guidance that resulted is described in the Quran,

In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and day are signs for people of intelligence. Those who remember Allah standing, sitting and lying on their sides, thinking about the creation of the heavens and the earth. (They conclude) ‘Our Lord you have not created this without purpose, exalted are you above that, so save us from the punishment of the fire.[64]

The pre-requisite to abstracting guidance from the unarticulated signs of Allah is having a consciousness filled with the remembrance of Him. The unarticulated signs can be conceived as being immersed in darkness. In fact, the domain of nature and the indeterminate world is symbolized as chaos, disorder and darkness.[65] Just as the sun is the necessary source of light for the darkness of the physical world, consciousness of Allah in the heart is the source of light necessary within the individual to illuminate the darkness of the indeterminate world, allowing the unarticulated signs to manifest. The Quran (articulated signs of Allah) is another light that interacts with the existing light in the heart to produce a phenomenon described in the Quran as ‘light upon light’.[66]

 

The Meta-Religion: Deen Hanif

The voluntary and involuntary process of encountering the signs of Allah and deriving meaning and guidance for one’s life is the primordial way of life for all of humanity known as Deen Hanif (The primordial religion) in the Quran,

So turn your face toward the primordial religion (deen hanifah). It is the primordial way of Allah that He has originated mankind upon and there is no changing in the creation of Allah. That is the true path but most of mankind do not know.”[67]

Interestingly, Jordan Peterson, who is also a mythologist, explained the process of encountering the indeterminate world and incorporate its lessons into one’s determinate world as the meta-narrative of all religions and cultural myths.[68] Ismail Faruqi, a 20th century Muslim philosopher also theorized that the meta-narrative behind all of mythology and religious ideology can be conceptualized as the deen hanif.[69] The obvious pagan notions embedded across all mythology and religions are later aberrations, but despite that, they have retained the basic hanif structure. Ismail Faruqi comments, “It is the conviction that the diversity of religions is due to history with all its affecting factors, its diverse conditions of space and time, its prejudices, passions and vested interests. Behind religion diversity stands al-din al-hanif (the primordial religion of God) with which all men are born before acculturation makes them adherents of this or that religion.”[70]

The deen hanif that stems from the fitrah (natural disposition of man) is so strong that it can’t help but manifest across cultures, myths and religions. Jordan Peterson explains that this is also the necessary structure to the archetypal hero story that is told through folklore, mythology, novels and modern day film. The hero must either voluntarily or involuntarily confront an anomaly emerging from the indeterminate world to achieve some treasure or lesson that makes the determinate world better. A person who lives their life according to this narrative is following the deen hanif. This inclination toward the deen hanif is found within each human being and is the necessary light that must be taken into the darkness of the indeterminate world to abstract truth from the unarticulated signs of Allah. The Quran most commonly associates the deen hanif with the way of Ibrahim.[71] The stories of Ibrahim in the Quran exemplify the most intense of trials sent to human beings. Being isolated from his family, kicked out of his own home by his father, thrown into a pit of fire, walking away from his family leaving them homeless and being willing to sacrifice his own son with his own hands are some of the immense tests faced by this great man. He faced them all with courage and submission to Allah, prioritizing the Truth over all other pursuits in life. Through his sabr and submission, he emerged from these encounters better than before, as the hero all of humanity is meant to aspire toward. His journey to Truth and his fierce commitment to it, is the essence of the deen hanif.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.

[2] Miftah Dar as-Sa’adah, Dar alim Fawa’id 9th edition, p. 537

[3] Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.

[4] Quran, 4:82

[5] Quran, 38:29

[6] Quran, 12:2

[7] Quran, 12:105

[8] Quran, 10:101

[9] Quran, 30:42

[10] Smith, J. & Sullivan P. Transcendental Philosophy And Naturalism, p. 11.

[11] Qurān, 30: 6-7.

[12] Moran, D. (2008). Husserl’s transcendental philosophy and the critique of naturalism. Continental Philosophy Review, 41, 401-425.

[13] https://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Morality_The_Final_Delusion

[14] Moran, D. (2008). Husserl’s transcendental philosophy and the critique of naturalism. Continental Philosophy Review, 41, 401-425.

[15] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24davies.html

[16] Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.

[17] Qurān, 45:3-4

[18] Qurān, 45:5

[19] Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.

[20] Ibid

[21] Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2).

[22] Quran, 11:1

[23] Quran, 10:5

[24] Kitab ar-Ruh, Maktabah Tawfeeqiya, 2012, p. 369

[25] Ibid

[26] Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Sa’id ibn ‘Ali al-Qahtani, Sharh Asmaa Allah al-Husna fee Dawu al-Kitab wa Sunnah, p.159

[31] The Invocation of Allah: Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib, p. 66.

[32] Ibid, p. 77

[33] Quran, 22:46

[34] The Invocation of Allah: Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib, p. 61

[35] Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2).

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid, p. 68

[38] Ibid

[39] Quran, 6:162

[40] Quran, 25:43

[41] Quran, 92:4

[42] Ibid

[43] The ideal form of this path is also termed as Shari’ah and our limited understanding of it is our Fiqh.

[44] Kitaab ar-Ruh, p. 328.

[45] Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2).

[46] Quran, 2:157.

[47] Quran, 7:168

[48] Quran, 30:41

[49] Quran, 32:21

[50] Quran, 46:27

[51] Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2).

[52] Quran, 3:191.

[53] Quran, 24:35

[54] The Invocation of Allah: Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib, p. 64.

[55] Ibid

[56] Ibid, p. 47

[57] Quran, 2:6

[58] Miftah Dar as-Sa’adah, p. 537

[59] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24davies.html

[60] Ismail Faruqi, Al-Tawhid: Its Implications on Thought and Life, p. 53

[61] Quran, 21:22

[62] Quran, 23:91

[63] Quran, 33:62

[64] Quran, 3:191

[65] Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2).

[66] Quran, 24:35

[67] Quran, 30:30

[68] Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2).

[69] Faruqi I, Tawheed and its Implications for Thought and Life, p. 47

[70] Ibid

[71] For example, Quran, 4:125, 16:123

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