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8 — Summarized, Clarified, Apparent, and Reinterpreted Speech

(Arabic text and English translation in separate tabs.)

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Degrees of clarity

This section, like the previous one, explains why it is legitimate to make certain kinds of interpretive moves. The interpretive move in the last section was “particularization;” this time it is “clarification.” Like particularization, clarification is a kind of intertextual relationship: one cannot simply clarify a text by explaining what one thinks it means; one has to appeal to another text or piece of evidence, and say that an ambiguous text A is clarified by a clear text B, just as one says that a general text A is particularized by a particular text B. In fact, particularization is really just one kind of clarification: a general text is ambiguous in that it may or may not be intended as general, and a particular text clarifies it by explaining that it was not intended to be as general as it sounds.

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For one text to clarify another, it has to be clearer than, or at least as clear as, the text it clarifies. (Al‑Juwaynī states this in Chapter 16 when he says that “clear evidences are given priority over obscure ones.”) This chapter therefore lays out a simple classification of different degrees of clarity and ambiguity, ostensibly so that interpreters will know which texts should be used to clarify which other texts.

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Al‑Juwaynī’s main category of ambiguous speech is “summarized speech,” which is so called because its verbal form is not detailed enough to spell out precisely all the specific shades of meaning that it is intended to have. The standard example is God’s command to pray: God has in mind a whole sequence of words and motions to be performed at specific times and under specific conditions, but he does not want to spell these out in detail every time he urges people to pray, so he simply condenses the meaning he has in mind into the highly summarized command to “pray,” knowing that the details we need to properly understand and fulfill this command are elaborated elsewhere in revelation. At first glance his command is problematic, in that we do not know how we are to pray; but when we use other revealed evidence to unpack its meaning, we make its meaning evident by clarifying (bayān) or elaborating it (tafsīr), so that the command can thereafter be considered clarified (mubayyan) or elaborated (mufassar). Taken together with the evidence that clarifies it, it can be considered just as clear as “definite speech” (naṣṣ). Definite speech is different only in that its meaning is immediately clear to the hearer from the moment it is revealed to him, without the need for additional clarifying evidence, because it has only one possible meaning. For example, the meaning of “God is one” is so obvious that one simply can’t miss it—just as one cannot fail to identify the bride at a wedding, elevated as she is (in al‑Juwaynī’s culture) on a special raised platform.

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In between these two categories—the ambiguous mujmal and the unambiguous naṣṣ—there lies an intermediate category which is clear enough to follow all by itself—it has a readily apparent meaning—but which might possibly have some alternative meaning. We have already seen the example of the imperative form, which by default can be readily understood as a command imposing an obligation, but can also be interpreted as a mere recommendation or a granting of permission, if some other evidence besides the imperative itself shows this to be the intended meaning. In that case its alternative meaning becomes its “apparent meaning by virtue of evidence.”

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Clarity is in the ear of the interpreter

This simplistic presentation of the matter gives the impression that the clarity or ambiguity of a text is an intrinsic feature of the text itself, which an interpreter immediately recognizes because he finds himself either fully confident that he knows exactly how to obey the text, or utterly unsure how to proceed, or in some intermediate state of being able to act but uncertain whether he is acting correctly. This picture, however, is misleading. It appears to me—and I invite you to argue with me about this—that clarity and ambiguity are not intrinsic features of texts, but instead are labels assigned to texts by an interpreter, after he has already decided what they mean, in order to justify his decision to interpret them in accordance with his own prejudices.

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My first reason for saying this is that although al-Juwaynī sounds like he is simply defining terms and describing intrinsic features of revealed texts, his real goal is to justify interpretive moves like particularization, clarification, and reinterpretation on the basis of evidence. These moves are made by the interpreter, not by the speaker. We might think that further speech from the speaker is what clarifies the speaker’s intent, but in fact this intertextual relationship is established by the interpreter, so clarification depends on the labor of the interpreter, not that of the speaker. The point of defining levels of ambiguity is therefore to empower the interpreter to define intertextual relationships as he sees fit, just as the point of defining generality and particularity was to legitimate the interpreter’s choice of which texts particularize which other texts.

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Like particularization, clarification is a very flexible interpretive maneuver. Any text can be unclear if the interpreter says it is—if he discovers some subtle question that the text does not explicitly address. That means that any text is subject to being reinterpreted by appeal to some other evidence. We have already seen a good example of this in the Prophet’s command to “bathe yourselves before Friday prayer.” This command sounds straightforward, and al‑Juwaynī’s own interpretive rules say that he should interpret it as a command imposing an obligation, but this would contravene the common practice and legal opinion of most scholars, who regard it as a commendable but optional practice. All the interpreter needs to do is say that obligation is only the most “apparent” meaning of the Prophet’s command, but that it might have other meanings; this allows him to appeal to other evidence (the report about ʿUthmān’s praying without bathing) to argue that the command’s “apparent meaning by virtue of evidence” is merely recommendation. This is a very reasonable interpretive move, since al‑Juwaynī has already said that imperatives are obligations only by default, and can easily be interpreted otherwise—which is to say that imperatives are “speech with an apparent meaning.” But the Prophet was also reported to have stated explicitly that bathing before Friday prayer is “obligatory,” which is as clear a statement of a legal value as one could hope to find. That is no obstacle, however, because one can always point out (following al‑Shāfiʿī) that even such an apparently clear statement really contains an element of ambiguity, because it fails to specify whether the Prophet meant “strictly obligatory” or “optionally obligatory.” Once that ambiguity is pointed out—or conjured into existence—it becomes perfectly legitimate to say that an inconclusive report about an event that took place after the Prophet’s death is “evidence” on the basis of which the merely apparent meaning of obligation can be replaced with the “apparent by virtue of evidence” meaning of recommendation.

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The concept of “apparent meaning” provides power and flexibility

The category of ẓāhir—speech with an apparent meaning—is especially useful for legitimating such interpretive flexibility. When the notion of clarification was first introduced into legal theory by al‑Shāfiʿī, he thought of it very loosely (just as he did particularization). He was willing to say that a text was perfectly clear as far as it went, yet could still be clarified by another text that provided additional details. For example, he said that the command to pray was perfectly clear as a statement of the obligatory nature of prayer, but summarized with respect to the manner in which one should pray. A text could be clarified, then, even if it was already clear. But when a later legal theorist of his school, Abū Bakr al‑Ṣayrafī (d. 942), introduced the definition of clarification that we find here in al‑Juwaynī’s treatise—“to remove something from the domain of the problematic into the domain of the evident”—this explicitly ruled out clarification of texts that were not “problematic.” It is easy to declare a text problematic, of course, but did legal theorists really want to declare that all imperatives are problematic? This would mean that they could not be obeyed without further evidence, which implies one would have to suspend judgment about their meaning until one found clarifying evidence. Al‑Bāqillānī (d. 1013) was willing to suspend judgment on commands, but very few others were willing to require separate proof every time they wanted to interpret an imperative as an obligation. Like al‑Juwaynī, they wanted a quick and easy default interpretation that they could assume without having to justify it. This meant they could not say that imperatives were summarized, “standing in need of clarification;” they had to be clear enough to be obeyed, yet still ambiguous enough that they could be reinterpreted. That is why Ibn Fūrak (d. 1015), just a couple generations before al‑Juwaynī, introduced ẓāhir (speech with an apparent meaning) as a separate category in between the categories of summarized and definite. The way ẓāhir is defined, it does not need “clarification,” but it can be “reinterpreted.” That means that one can claim to be following the plain and obvious meaning of a text without having to justify one’s interpretation, but that one is nevertheless free to choose a different interpretation as long as one is willing to provide some shred of evidence supporting that change. One could still call one’s interpretation literal rather than figurative (which, you remember, legal theorists liked to avoid), because all the alternative meanings of ẓāhir speech could be literal.

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The category of ẓāhir thus legitimated both the power and flexibility of legal hermeneutics: words have strong and definite default interpretations, yet they can be reinterpreted as needed.

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Flexibility resisted by the Muʿtazila and Ẓāhiriyya

Not all legal theorists were willing to exploit the concept of ambiguity to this extent. The early Ẓāhiriyya got their name from the concept of apparent meaning, but they argued that the most apparent meaning of a text was not lightly to be set aside. If the apparent meaning of one text was contradicted by another text, rather than selecting an alternative meaning for the first text they preferred simply to disregard whichever text had the least claim to authenticity (a topic that will be discussed in Chapter 13), and stick with the most apparent meaning of the more authentic text. This led them to ignore a great many ḥadīth, even though in principle they accepted the authority of the Prophet’s Sunna.

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The early Muʿtazila were likewise suspicious of ḥadīth, and preferred not to give the interpreter too much flexibility. As with general speech, they argued that God had to say what he meant when he said it, so his speech could not be left unclear pending further revelation. They therefore denied the possibility of “delayed clarification,” just as they had denied “delayed particularization.” This severely limited which evidence could be used to clarify or reinterpret which other evidence. They also tended not to read more legal meaning into revelation than absolutely necessary. Thus their hermeneutic had neither the flexibility nor the power of al‑Juwaynī’s.

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It is interesting to note that these two schools, which both adopted relatively rigid hermeneutical theories and adhered more stringently to the most obvious literal meanings of texts, were far from being fundamentalist, conservative, or anti-rationalist. In the modern West literalism is often associated with a fundamentalist adherence to scripture in opposition to human reason, but the literalisms of the Ẓāhiriyya and Muʿtazila was precisely the opposite: each group’s literalism was the logical consequence of its own sophisticated rational analysis of how and why God reveals law, and how that law relates to humanly constructed morality. Both groups left considerable room for humanly constructed morality, and preferred to limit revelation’s impact to those parts of life that revelation addressed directly. This was precisely what led them to interpret revelation relatively rigidly in those areas of life where they did rely on it. Shiites also had a kind of literalism, but in a different sense: they allowed their Imams to dictate the meaning of scripture. By contrast, al‑Juwaynī and the majority of Sunnī legal theorists claimed that revelation was the sole source of law for all of life, but then they gave human interpreters much more freedom to dictate the meaning of that revelation, allowing them to pick and choose which texts modify the meaning of which other texts, as though revelation were all a single timeless and interconnected speech event.

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Texts are classified as clear of ambiguous depending on how well they fit existing law

I hope I have made my point that for al‑Juwaynī and mainstream Sunnī legal theory, clarity and ambiguity are not intrinsic features of texts that interpreters simply recognize and acknowledge, but labels assigned to texts by interpreters, as a justification for establishing intertextual relationships of clarification that allow them to reinterpret texts with great flexibility. But more can be said. Not only does the theory of ambiguity make it possible for interpreters to pick and choose their interpretations, it actually requires them to pick their interpretation before they decide which texts to call ambiguous and which to call clear.

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This is because al‑Juwaynī’s categories of clarity and ambiguity are defined largely in terms of whether or not a word can be reinterpreted, or has to be reinterpreted in order to fit a certain interpretation. For instance, to call a text definite (naṣṣ) is to say that it has only one possible meaning, but how can one say this until one has decided what that meaning is? To say that a text is “speech having an apparent meaning (ẓāhir) is to say that its true meaning matches the meaning one finds most obvious, whereas to say that it is “speech having an apparent meaning by virtue of evidence” is to say that its true meaning is not its most obvious meaning but some other one. All this presupposes that one has already determined what its true meaning is. Likewise, to say that a text is summarized (mujmal) is to say that it “stands in need of clarification,” but is that an observable feature of the text itself, or of the puzzlement one feels when one reads it? Consider the classic example of summarized speech—God’s command to pray. What is so unclear about this? If we didn’t already know that prayer was supposed to take a certain form, we wouldn’t find this ambiguous at all; we would understand that we were to pray in some way that fits what people ordinarily mean by that word, but that otherwise the form and timing of prayer were up to us. Indeed it might not even occur to us to wonder when or with what words or what motions we should pray. The only reason we know this command to be summarized and in need of clarification is that we already think we know what this command means: because we already know that Islamic law prescribes a set form of prayer, we find this text ambiguous because it does not tell us everything we think we need to know; but if we had not started with this interpretation in mind, we might not find this command to be lacking in detail at all.

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Thus in order to assign a text to one of the categories defined by al‑Juwaynī (or to one of the eight categories defined by Ḥanafī legal theorists: unequivocal, elaborated, definite, apparent, hidden, problematic, summarized, and equivocal) it is not enough to observe the text itself, or to notice how one feels about it when one hears it; the first thing one needs is some preconception about what the speech should communicate, so that one can tell whether it falls short of communicating that expected meaning.

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What is that expected meaning? Obviously, for a jurist, the expected meaning is what the jurist already thinks the law is or should be. No jurist ever comes to a text without some such preconception, because no jurist ever starts with a blank slate, working only from revelation, without any preconceptions, to reconstruct the law from scratch. As we will see in Chapter 17, one of the qualifications for doing legal interpretation is that one must already know the entirety of Islamic law, not only as it is taught in one’s own school, but also as it is taught in other schools of law. Diligent inquiry may be the road to legal science, but one has to have legal science before one can do diligent inquiry.

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Thus the decision to call a text summarized or definite, or to say that its meaning is “apparent” or “apparent by virtue of evidence,” depends on how much clarification or reinterpretation—how much departure from the default meanings that Arabic and legal theory assign to words—is needed to bring that text into line with what one believes the law to be.

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Clarity and ambiguity, therefore, are not features of texts, or degrees of certainty that the reader experiences when reading a text; they are measures of the degree of correspondence between the meanings assigned to a text’s words by the Arabic lexicon and by the rules of legal theory (general expressions are general by default, imperatives imply obligation by default, etc.) and the legal meanings that the interpreter wants to assign to the text. If the verbal form of a text fits easily the interpretation assigned to it, it is clear; if it does not, it is ambiguous. Clarity and ambiguity are interpretive claims, not linguistic givens.

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Al-Juwaynī’s hermeneutic does not threaten the reader or the status quo

The purpose of defining categories of clarity and ambiguity, then, is to make it legitimate for the interpreter to classify speech one way or the other, and thus to legitimate his decision to interpret it one way or another. Its purpose is to justify the kind of radical reinterpretation that made washing before Friday prayer optional, as well the less shocking but equally profound kind of reinterpretation that transforms the simple verb “pray” into a whole host of detailed regulations. No matter how far the words of a text may seem to be from the established laws of a jurist’s legal school, al‑Juwaynī’s hermeneutic gives him the flexibility to make the texts fit the laws.

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Not that a jurist could not also change his mind about the law in order to follow the plain meaning of a text. The history of Islamic law is replete with examples of jurists arguing that their predecessors were wrong and that they have discovered a better way that is truer to the revealed sources. Dramatic innovation has been rare, but minor adjustments and new twists and adaptations are common and quite acceptable, as long as they are framed as refinements to, rather than radical departures from, the prior discourse. But al‑Juwaynī’s hermeneutic is harder to use for defending an innovation than for justifying the status quo. The flexibility of his hermeneutic is such that many different interpretations can be supported through claims of ambiguity and intertextual clarification. But it will always be harder to convince someone of a new interpretation than an old one, because the expectations that help us decide what is clear and what is ambiguous predispose us to seeing some meanings clearly in a text, and not seeing others. There might be many ways that the evidence of revelation could be pulled together to reconstruct the meaning of “prayer,” but one particular way has become so well established that it now seems to be the obvious meaning of God’s command to pray. Even al‑Shāfiʿī’s reinterpretation of the “obligatory” nature of the Friday bath might not seem too far-fetched to someone who is accustomed to thinking of that bath as optional, but if there had long been a consensus that the bath was in fact obligatory, his reinterpretation would seem ridiculous, and would be discounted out of hand. If presuppositions define what is clear and what is ambiguous, only those reinterpretations that accord with one’s presuppositions will seem like reasonable clarifications. Islamic legal theory provides a highly flexible hermeneutic that can in principle support many interpretations and many different legal systems; but for existing law to be reformed, the culture and presuppositions of jurists and of the community as a whole will have to shift. If they do, then changing the law accordingly will be made quite easy by the concepts of ambiguity and clarification. If they do not, then radical innovations, no matter how justifiable in theory, will not gain traction.

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I asked in the introduction whether al‑Juwaynī’s hermeneutic would force the reader to listen carefully and even sacrificially to the words of revelation, so that even his most cherished and subconscious presuppositions could be challenged and transformed by revelation. We have seen that al‑Juwaynī does want the law to stem from revelation, and that he believes the meaning of revelation is governed by God’s intent. But we have also seen that he considers interpretation to be a thoroughly human enterprise, which takes place without the benefit of interaction with the divine author, and that gives the interpreter a great deal of control over the meaning of revelation. Al‑Juwaynī’s brief discussion of ambiguity and clarification has made it still more clear that the reader and his presuppositions have tremendous leverage to shape the meaning of God’s speech. So far his hermeneutic poses no threat to the reader, his presuppositions, his cultural and moral values, or the legal system he inherits.

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Further reading

For a detailed discussion of the many categories of clarity and ambiguity in both Ḥanafī and Shāfiʿī legal theory, see Šukrija Husejn Ramić, Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003).

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Source: http://waraqat.vishanoff.com/v/v8/