Scriptural Reasoning: Healing the Divide Between the Self and the Other

The purpose of this piece is to bring attention to the field of scriptural reasoning which, among other approaches, proposes the use of logic of relations and a constructive-critical engagement with the Other. These approaches help curb the colonial instinct, or what has been identified as the subsuming nature of the Western philosophical thought, that stems from Enlightenment prejudices. The healing nature of these approaches can lead to possibilities of mediation and peaceful coexistence in the contemporary world order and the interaction between Islam and the West. It will help understand the needs of both the Other and the Self without delegitimizing or oppressing either one, because upon losing sight of the aim of peaceful coexistence one is bound to fall into the colonial instinct — as is the case with Enlightenment reasoning. 

In his essay, “The Qur’anic Self, The Biblical Other and the Contemporary Islam-West Encounter,” Basit Koshul argues that Islam’s encounter with the West has led to the establishment of two types of attitudes to Enlightenment, “accultured liberals and fundamentalist zealots.” He expands, saying, “the former position sees nothing good in Islam and requires a complete embrace of the Enlightenment while the latter position sees nothing good in the Enlightenment and advocates an assertion of traditional (or premodern) Islamic ideals in the face of encroaching modernity”. [9] Both of the approaches do not take into account the post-Nietzschean critique of the Enlightenment, and fail to take an approach that introduces Islam “as a prophetic, dissenting witness within the reality of the modern world” [18], which will help modern scholarship find a common ground between the two. To elucidate, Koshul calls attention to the Quran’s interaction with the Torah and the Bible of the New Testament. He argues, “one of the main tasks that the Qur’an sets for itself is to undo the maculation of the Divine Word by pre-Qur’anic religious communities and restate the Divine Word in its immaculate purity”. [1] In addition, the Quran also constructively engages with the Bible to reaffirm some of its own central theological claims by referring to the people of the book and giving context to illiterate pagan Arabs regarding Quranic concerns, such as the concept of prophethood. Here, the Biblical Other affirms the Quranic Self and sees itself as a source to heal the afflictions of the Bible. Koshul further highlights the Quran’s various approaches to the Biblical Other and categorizes them as follows: “1) critical engagement that sees the Self distancing itself from the Other; 2) a constructive engagement that sees the Other as affirming the Self; 3) an invitation by the Self to the Other to come to a common understanding so that both can work together toward a common goal”. [1]

In the first approach, he argues that it is extremely difficult to articulate a position from the tradition of religion and the tradition of classical philosophy that is dissenting or valid from within the paradigm of the modern world. He believes this becomes especially difficult in the case of Islam because of its opposing worldview. While Islam teaches Ihsan (grace), Islam (surrender) and Iman (faith), the Enlightenment is premised on the brutish and selfish state of nature. Therefore, he proposes that human reason will play a decisive role in bridging the gap between the two. This constructive approach necessitates the utilization of the reparative nature of prophetic vision. It is not alien for Islam to critique as well as advocate the positions of previous cultures; rather, it is a part of its heritage and prophetic vision to critique and reaffirm the established trends and norms of the society that it aims to correct. The same must be done for the interaction with Enlightenment ideals such as universalism, materialism, and individualism, which are consistently addressed in Muslim intellectual history as well as the tafasir of the Quran. Twentieth-century thinkers such as Max Weber, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Peter Berger have attempted to establish links between the ideals of universalism, individualism and materialism with the monotheistic vision of reality founding the modern world. It is argued that the transcendent God, a demythologized cosmic order and individuation of man from mythological collectivities — central motifs of monotheistic faiths — created the space for the rationalization of everyday life and ethics. Koshul thereby posits, “to the degree that the analysis linking monotheism with modernity is correct, it provides the traditional monotheistic religions with the opportunity to consider the Enlightenment as a post-traditional expression of monotheistic ideals and engage with it on constructive terms”. [1] Therefore, Koshul’s approach is one of “redeem-reform-replace” rather than “critique-condemn-replace”. [1]

Similar to Koshul, Steven Kepnes introduces the concept of Scriptural reasoning in his article titled “Islam as Our Other and Islam as Ourselves,” expounding further on the guidelines laid down by Koshul: engaging with the Other on constructive grounds and inviting the Other to work towards a common goal. Through his detailed reading of the life Hagar and Ishmael, he tries to prove that the Judeo-Christian tradition needs to take Islam seriously “not only as a third monotheism but as a tradition that is rooted in Genesis and whose origin and destiny is intertwined with Israel”. [2] He argues that Hagar and Ishmael play important roles in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, concluding that they are a potential common ground for discussion, especially the potential to unite. 

While Hagar and Ishmael are often viewed as the “Other” in Judaic tradition, at the same time, Hagar is also the third wife of the patriarch Abraham. This tenuous relationship is also representative of the understanding that the Judeo-Christian tradition has of Islam — Other but also the self at the same time. Kepnes proposes that “through Hagar and Ishmael, Islam regains its place as simultaneously the first child of Abraham and the third stage in the development of monotheism.” He gives the analogy of a family whose destiny is to guide the nations of the world and so it embraces its long lost members instead of treating them as the Others. He cites from Genesis 16, the Bible’s attitude to Hagar, which is similar to how the Bible treats “biblical characters of significance: Adam, Cain, Abraham, Elijah, and Jonah” [2]; this attitude has both an existential and a testing nature. Her journey, which takes her from Egypt to Canaan and back to Egypt, is similar to Abraham’s divine mission and journey. 

A closer study of the verses that give Abraham the tidings of his offspring who is “’Ger iyeh zarha,’ strangers shall your offspring be” [2], reveals that Egypt was referred to as Ger – which literally means stranger. And in the very next chapter, Ha-Ger is introduced as “Hagar the stranger, Hagar the servant, Hagar wife of Abraham and mother of Ishmael is Israel! She presages, she prefigures, Israel’s suffering in Egypt”. [2] It is her connection to God, whereby God listens to her sufferings and rewards her with a multitude of offspring, through which she becomes Israel’s redemption. Kepnes draws a parallel between Abraham and Hagar; noting, “‘it is remarkable that after God names Ishmael, Hagar names God,’” similar to when “Abraham called on or called out the name of God’”. [2] Hagar’s journey out of Egypt, into the wilderness searching for a source of water, establishes a pattern for future Prophets such as Moses who starts his journey from the wilderness. Similarly, in the New Testament in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his mission through baptism and then journeys into the wilderness. Furthermore, Hagar is immortalized and sown into the fabric of the Torah, which has an insistent message of love and empathy for the stranger. It is this development of humanitarian love that is the great achievement of religious morality and which stems from Israel’s encounter with exile and slavery. 

Kepnes ties his argument together by distinguishing Scriptural reasoning and Western philosophical reasoning and the possible advantages of pursuing Scriptural reasoning. He highlights that the treatment of the Other in the Bible is ambiguous at best, both in the case of Hagar and Ishmael and in the case of the Jews in the New Testament. Western philosophical thought demands that the Other in both cases be consistently treated in negative terms. However, scriptures of the monotheistic faith neither demonize the Other nor do they leave their narrative out. Rather they preserve their stories and narratives in terms of how they relate to the Other. He cites Peter Ochs argument that the Enlightenment reasoning follows logics of dichotomies, it looks at empirical reality in binaries of old/new, spirit/matter, same/other, them/us and modernity/tradition. Scripture, on the other hand, offers us a logic of relations which open up possibilities of dialogue precisely because it goes beyond the binary. He writes, “Scripture offers us concepts of connectedness: creation, revelation, covenant, redemption. It offers us figures of mediation, Adam, Abraham, Hagar, Jesus, Muhammed. These figures are given to fill the gap between us and then, between God and human, and between human and human”. [2] Concomitantly, this means that even the interpretation of scripture is a relational activity, it is embedded in the contexts of the people it is revealed to and it takes into account both differences and similarities. Kepnes, however, emphasizes the idea that logic of dichotomies is flipped onto its head by modernity’s universalizing principles which subsumes the Other into the Self. This universalizing impulse has been a cause of great suffering for various communities and religious scriptures. Here, Scriptural reasoning can heal the gaps in Western philosophical thought. The former is wrought with examples of particularism and universalism at the same time; Kepnes, rightly points to the story of the Tower of Babel which negates the universalization of language and culture as it goes against the grain of Divine Will. The possible reconciliations and resolutions offered in the Bible in the case of Sarah and Ishmael, Isaac and Hagar are not some universal principles rather the shared belief in the Oneness of God. The field of Scriptural reasoning along with Christianity and Judaism, is a fruitful endeavor; however, with the addition of Islam, the possibilities of mediations increase exponentially. Having identified the aforementioned dual ethnocentric and theocentric approach as a healing tool, Islam’s ethnocentrism brings an added newness due to its resistance against the liberalizing impulse of modernity.

What we learn from the works of these authors is that equally valid forms of logic and rationality exist besides the imposing Enlightenment rationality and logic. These authors explore scriptures to extract and highlight these other forms of logic and rationality, which were and are operative in the non-Enlightenment regions of the world. It is to be noted, however, that these alternative forms are peculiar and particular to the monotheistic traditions which have the ability and the capacity to meet Enlightenment reasoning, toe to toe. They break the hegemony of Enlightenment reasoning, which has been challenged by postmodern thought. The consequences of this reasoning on the nature, attitude, approaches and methodologies of studying the Other, especially the monotheistic faiths, are immeasurable.

Works Cited:

[1] Koshul B.B. (2007) The Qur’anic Self, The Biblical Other and the Contemporary Islam-West Encounter. In: Koshul B.B., Kepnes S. (eds) Scripture, Reason, and the Contemporary Islam-West Encounter. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

[2] Kepnes S. (2007) Islam as Our Other, Islam as Ourselves. In: Koshul B.B., Kepnes S. (eds) Scripture, Reason, and the Contemporary Islam-West Encounter. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Photo by Ömer Haktan Bulut on Unsplash

About the Author: Mahnoor Nadeem is a graduate in Anthropology/Sociology from Lahore University of Management Sciences and is currently pursuing her A’limiyyah degree. Her interests include Muslim intellectual history, Islamic sciences as well as Western philosophical thought.

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