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Revelation

By:
Āmina Wadūd Muh.sin, Zahra Ayubi
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Revelation

The term waḥy, from the Arabic verb waḥa, “to put in the mind,” is sometimes understood as “inspiration”; the Qurʾān uses this term not only for divine inspiration to humans but also for spiritual communication between other created beings. Revelation, however, refers specifically to the waḥy that is divine inspiration given to select humans, known as prophets, for the purpose of guidance. Beginning with the first human and prophet, Adam, this process of revelation has continued throughout human history until the message of the revelation was finally preserved intact in the form of the Qurʿān as delivered to Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims consider to be the last of the revelations sent to humanity.

Muslims accept not only the Qurʿān but also the Torah, the Psalms of Dāʾūd (David), the Gospels of Jesus, and other works as links in the chain of divine revelation. They believe that each contains the same basic message; however, the cultural, historical, and linguistic terms of particular revelations correspond to the time and place in which each was revealed. It is the ultimate principles within the revelation that transcend time and place to provide a message of universal significance to humankind.

Understanding revelation requires careful consideration of both the particulars of context and the universals of the message for humankind. Since revelation is given to guide human affairs, then intellectual understanding and practical implementation through a reliable example are also necessary. Thus, the prophets are both messengers and models. However, how they serve as models for Muslims has largely depended on how their examples have been interpreted in a given historical context.

Throughout history, debates have raged over the relative value of knowledge received from divine revelation and knowledge arrived at through independent reasoning. According to some philosophers, human reason can be sufficient to guide affairs and therefore equal to revelation on occasion. If the Qurʿān is the revelation of God's will, however, it must be unchallengeable and without equal. Orthodox Islam—although by no means denying the reasonableness of revelation—opposes the idea that all things can be known by human reason alone. Humanity requires revelation for clear information about such areas as the unseen—the hidden mysteries of existence that inform us of the relationship between the absolute and the manifest.

Recent Muslim thinkers such as Fazlur Rahman and Amina Wadud have expressed the need to free interpretation of the Qurʾānic revelation from narrow literalism and the verse-by-verse, atomistic methods of earlier exegetes. This has led to a new hermeneutics that addresses the universal relevancy of the revelation in a world of rapid and radical change. Such hermeneutics agree with the traditional opinion that revelation is a special body of knowledge linking the divine creator to humans who possess free will and an independent capacity for reasoning. Scholars have also debated how the act of transmission of revelation by prophets, along with the role of prophecy as intermediary between the divine and humanity, has shaped revelation in languages intelligible to human beings, and its message as contingent upon the historical context of revelation. This idea carries great implications for pro-women interpretations of the Qurʾānic text.

No amount of literal and philological analysis can reveal information about the inner dimension of divine–human exchange. Since such information—which cannot be known through empirical means or through logical, sense-based reasoning—is nevertheless considered vital to correct guidance, humanity cannot come to know the ultimate truths except through divine revelation. Thus revelation is considered a unique and necessary area of knowledge.

In traditional Muslim thought, prophethood is defined by the ability to receive waḥhy and since all of the prophets have been men, only men are able receive waḥy. However, in recent years, with an increase in women’s perspectives in the genre of Qurʾān commentary, scholars have problematized the notion of receiving waḥy as an exclusively male experience by pointing to Maryam, the mother of Isa (Jesus), as a recipient of divine communication in the Qurʾān.

See also PROPHETHOOD and THEOLOGY.

Bibliography

  • Arberry, A. J.Reason and Revelation. London: Allen & Unwin, 1971. As the title suggests, a thorough discussion of the subject.
  • Chittick, William C., ed.The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Bloomington, IN.: World Wisdom, 2007.
  • Esposito, John L.Islam: The Straight Path. 4th ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. Sufism and Taoism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Revised edition of A Comparative Study of the Key Philosophical Concepts of Sufism and Taoism: Ibn ʿArabi and Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu, Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1966. Thorough linguistic analysis of Ibn al-ʿArabī's philosophical outlook. With regard to revelation, it includes a discussion of the dilemma of communication between the transcendent and the materially manifest world.
  • Kakar, Palwasha Lena. “Is She a Prophet? Maryam: Mother of Jesus”. Azizah. Vol. 3. Issue 1. (2003): 14.
  • Qadir, C. A.Philosophy and Science in the Islamic World. London and New York: Croom Helm, 1988. Critical and historical overview of philosophy and science as sources of knowledge in Islam.
  • Soroush, Abulkarim. The Expansion of Prophetic Experience: Essays on Historicity, Contingency, and Plurality in Religion. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009.
  • Wadud, Amina. Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Ward, Keith. Religion and Revelation: A Theology of Revelation in the World's Religions. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Yassine, Abdessalam. The Muslim Mind on Trial: Divine Revelation versus Secular Rationalism. Translated by Muhtar Holland. Iowa City: Justice and Spirituality Publications, 2003.
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