Embracing Apocalypse II: Tafsir as Prophetic Knowledge and the Uncreated Quran or Why No Counternarrative Can Exist

In Part I of Embracing Apocalypse I delineated the way the Islamic State is anchored in the past as part of an evolved adaptation: multidimensional and multi-generational.  The pervasive influence of Ibn Taymiyya, al Shayyk al Islam cannot be overestimated. In Part II I want to discuss the instantiation of the Islamic State in the present, and most particularily the memetic inerrency of the Uncreated Quran and the certainty of prophetic knowledge.

The way I became muminah, a believer, was the Quran. It hit me like a tidal wave.  And that is the core problem for all the jihadologists and political scientists cranking out books and making a living from the monetizing of islamic “terrorism”– to understand Islam one must contemplate Quran…but if one contemplates Quran, one becomes muslim.

Here is a pretty good description of Taymiyya’s radical hermeneutics based on his Introduction to Principles of Tafsir.  The only thing the monograph glosses over is Taymiyya’s insistance on an arabic Quran, which I believe is critical.  In the West it is often said that Islam needs a “reformation”, like protestantism or reform judaism.  But the problem for everyone desperately trying to craft a more “moderate” version of Islam is that tafsir has already had its reformation in the person of Ibn Taymiyya.

The small treatise Muqaddima fī uṣūl al-tafsīr (An Introduction to the Foundations of Qur’ānic Exegesis) by Ibn Taymiyya has had a remarkable influence on the history of Qur’ānic exegesis. Barely 15 folios, it not only proclaims a new hermeneutical program that became the foundation for a subgenre of tafsīr that would generate several major Qur’ānic commentaries, but it boldly attempts to overhaul the entire history of Qur’ānic exegesis.
So Taymiyya completely changed the model for quranic exegesis, in ways that would shape the contemporary Islamic State centuries after his death.  My particular interest is in the transformation of tafsir into prophetic knowledge.
Thus the transformation here, though subtle, is nonetheless profound: the Prophet is presented as having commented on the Qur’ān, in the manner of an exegete, to his Companions and hence there is another corpus of prophetic material that is, strictly speaking, not part of the traditional understanding of the Sunna. The Sunna in turn is understood by Ibn Taymiyya to include a prophetic commentary on the Qur’ān. Granted he does not explicitly make this point, yet it is an inescapable conclusion that follows from the import of his statements in this chapter.
Ibn Taymiyya’s aim is thus to turn the commentary literature into prophetic knowledge, and as such interpretation itself, as issuing from an infallible individual, becomes a type of knowledge that is in agreement with his definition of what constitutes knowledge. One needs only to verify that it is indeed from Muḥammad for it to become authoritative. Hence inherited interpretations are to be assessed in the same way as one assesses Hadith, using the customary tools of the science of Hadith.
This is a rather radical redefinition of Qur’ānic exegesis—elevating it to the level of prophetic knowledge.

Another important concept developed by Taymiyya is the idea of the Quran being self-defining.

Explaining the Qur’ān with the Sunna is a common enough hermeneutical Sunni strategy that is not surprising here. It is the notion of interpreting the Qur’ān with the Qur’ān that seems to be the novelty. This hermeneutical device is not unknown in the tradition; many examples from the interpretive tradition show that the exegetes were well aware of this possibility as a method of interpreting the Qur’ān.  It is Ibn Taymiyya’s placing it at the top of a hierarchical order of interpretation that is the interesting development here.
In modern terms this means the Quran is recursive– it is defined in terms of itself.  This is a very powerful armor against innovation or what John Kerry unfortunately called “airstrike fatawa”.  I like to call it the wall of recursion– the Quran is self-similiar.
What Ibn Taymiyya was doing was replicating in the interpretation of the Qur’ān the same steps one followed in the discovery of God’s law, as formulated by the Sunni jurists. According to Sunni legal theory, the sources of the Sharī‘a are the Qur’ān, the Sunna, the consensus of the community and juristic analogy; thefirst two elements in both theories are thus the same. The brilliant stroke on the part of Ibn Taymiyya is to draw this parallel between the two systems. He makes his theory almost impossible to unseat as long as one also upholds the rules of the Sunni juristic practices as outlined in uṣūl al-fiqh manuals.
A year ago I became interested in the rise of the Islamic State, and this correlated with the beginning of my love for Ibn Taymiyya.  The mujahiddeen I talked to on twitter (back before talking to mujahiddeen on twitter became a criminal offense) patiently explained to me that Ibn Taymiyya was the dominant scholar of ISIS, followed by his students Ibn Qayyim and Ibn Kathir.   This is observably true in reading Aymenn Al-Tamimi’s carefully curated collection of IS fatawa– jurisprudence of the State is strongly informed by Taymiyyan scholarship.
We can see how Taymiyya’s introduction of radical hermeneutics armors quranic meaning against both in-group mutation and out-group penetration.  So when President Obama talks about beating IS with ideas, I simply do not see that happening.  For example, its not going to be possible to impose acceptance of Shi’a theology on Sunni populations.  Its not possible to cherrypick the Quran or twist its meanings because it is a synchronous self-referential whole.
So now that we have a toolset to transform tafsir into prophetic knowledge, we can project that into the future carried by the vector of the uncreated, revealed Quran– outside time and space.  And that will be Part III.
ramadan mubarak!



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