Lecture: Revelation in Sunni & Ismaili Islam by Khalil Andani
In April 2017, I gave a talk at University of Texas - Austin at the invitation of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. The topic was - what is Qur’an and how was it revealed to Prophet Muhammad?
Summary of Lecture:
Throughout history, Muslims of different communities of interpretation, including Sunni, Shia, and Sufi affiliations, have interpreted the Qur’an in a diversity of ways. However, it is little known that there are different Muslim views about the actual process of the Revelation of the Qur’an. This presentation discusses two different viewpoints about Revelation in Islam: the Sunni view and the Shia Ismaili view. To begin, the presentation examines what the Qur’an actually says about itself and the process of revelation, arguing that “kitab” in the Qur’anic context does not mean “book”, but rather, “divinely-prescribed guidance” and that the Qur’anic idea of “wahy” means “divine inspiration” instead of the verbatim “dictation” of Arabic verses to the Prophet. In the lifetime of the early community of believers, the Qur’anic revelation was a dynamic process in history, that was also inseparable from the Prophet Muhammad since divine inspiration extended to the Prophet’s verbal guidance as well. Accordingly, the Qur’an presents itself as a verbal, historical and situational “rendering” (tanzil, tafsil) in Arabic of a transcendent divine repository of knowledge called “al-Kitab.” Following the Prophet’s death, the Qur’an was compiled and came to be re-defined among proto-Sunni exegetes as a “book” pre-existing in the heavenly tablet before being “dictated” to the Prophet, thus demarcating the Qur’an’s status from that of Prophet Muhammad. This evolved into the standard Sunni doctrine of “verbal revelation” where the Angel Gabriel dictates the Arabic Qur’an to the Prophet who then repeats it to his community. This proto-Sunni view of the Qur’an was further sublimated during the 9th century debates over whether the Qur’an was created or uncreated, leading to the consolidation of the doctrine of the Qur’an as God’s Uncreated Speech (kalam) in the 11th century. The presentation then discusses how Shia Ismaili Muslim thinkers conceived the revelation of the Qur’an, looking at the views of the 14th Ismaili Imam al-Mu‘izz and several Ismaili philosophers including Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani, Jafar b. Mansur al-Yaman, and Nasir-i Khusraw. According to these Shia Ismaili thinkers, the Prophet Muhammad was a special human being who possessed a higher intellectual power called the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, the Prophet received divine inspiration (wahy, ta’yid) in a purely spiritual and luminous form and he was responsible for producing the Arabic Qur’an as a symbolic revelatory expression (tanzil) of divine inspiration in the form of miraculous speech. In Ismaili doctrine, the Ismaili Imams continue to receive divine inspiration in non-verbal spiritual form but they are not prophets because they do not produce a revelatory discourse (tanzil).