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Tajalli wa-Ruya: A Study of Anthropomorphic

Theophany and Visio Dei in the Hebrew Bible, the


Quran, and Early Sunni Tradition
Below is the summary presentation I gave to my committee and the public at
my dissertation defense April 2, 2008. It is a synopsis of my dissertation.
Islam is a Semitic religion. It is probably safe to say that this statement is
a revelation to no scholar writing on Islam today, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Yet rarely are the theological implications of this statement fully reflected
upon. Such reflection, e.g., might highlight some pretty radical
discontinuities between Islam, or at least the normative formulation and
articulations of Islam, and the pre-Islamic Semitic tradition. Not that one
can essentialize with such a diverse tradition that is the Semitic tradition; but
there are some common characteristic features that seem to transcend the
linguistic and ethnic groups designated Semitic. My dissertation discusses
one such feature and its apparent absence in Islam.
In a moment of self-reflection the Quran emphasizes that it is an
Arabic Quran and it, the Quran or God in the Quran, places itself squarely
within the distinct Semitic monotheistic tradition that began with Abraham
or Ibrahim. The Prophet Muhammad, we are told, seals this tradition.
Characteristic of this Semitic monotheism is a tradition of transcendent
anthropomorphism, theophany and visio Dei. That is to say the deity of
Semitic monotheism, not unlike the gods of Semitic polytheism, was believed
by most of the monotheists to have been anthropomorphic, i.e. he possessed
an anthropoid or human-like form. But this form was also in a fundamental
way unlike that of humans in that it was transcendent, either in size, or
maybe in the substance of which it was composed ruach (spirit), e.g. rather
than basar, the fallible flesh that distinguishes mortal bodies. No doubt the
signature feature of this transcendent anthropomorphism is a dazzling
radiance, and brilliant luminosity that is the morphic manifestation of Gods
signature holiness. It is for this reason, we are given to understand, that
humans cant see God. Not because God in invisible, but because humans
are unholy, and unholy beings are in great danger in the immediate presence
of Gods consuming, morphic holiness. When God chooses to manifest his
person to humans, e.g. for the purpose of imparting revelation, for the
protection of these humans he must veil his destructive luminosity with a
cloud, a veil, or even a non-luminous, mortal-like form.
This tradition of transcendent anthropomorphism, theophany, and
visio Dei is evident in the HB and is even presupposed in the NT, for
example with Pauls inaugural Christophany experience and the Gospel
narrative of the transfiguration of Christ. Does the Quran evince such a
tradition? I argue in this dissertation that it does, even though I recognize
that such a tradition may seem to do violence to normative Islamic
constructions of divine transcendence, according to which God is completely
incorporeal and, therefore, ontologically invisible. Humans dont see God
because, in as much as the sinequa non of visibility is corporeality, God is
simply incapable of being seen. I argue, however, that such a construction of
divine transcendence is Hellenistic in origin and alien to ancient Semitism,
and that it actually entered Islamic tradition during the post-quranic period.
I argue that, when read against the backdrop of this pre-Islamic
Semitic monotheism rather than from the view of the post-quranic
Hellenizing theology, the quranic passages that are usually assumed to
categorically deny the visibility of God, actually seem to affirm it, but with
qualifications and restrictions. I argue in this dissertation that the quranic
evidence suggests that the Prophet Muhammad himself claimed to have seen
God, maybe even in his luminous, transcendently anthropomorphic form.
The question of whether Muhammad saw God was intensely debated,
though most textbooks on Islamic theology give little or no hint of this. I
document this debate as it allegedly transpired among Companions of the
Prophet, over 19 of which reportedly affirmed that he did see God, one
definitely but maybe two- Aisha and AbdAllah b. Masud- denied that he
had ever seen God. I cannot say for certain how much if any of this
discussion reflected in the hadith literature is historical. What can be said,
however, with some measure of confidence, is that Sunni Islam, particularly
traditionalist Sunnism, for the first four hundred years or so (3
rd
/ 9
th
-6
th
/ 12
th
),
affirmed the Prophets vision of God; indeed, this affirmation seems to have
been characteristic of Sunnism during this period. Not only did opposing
theological schools such as the Mutazila and the Shia so characterize and
caricaturize it on this basis, but frequently self-definitions offered by
traditionalist Sunni scholars included the affirmation of Muhammads vision
of God. Among those who affirmed such, there was discussion over its
manner: did Muhammad see God with his eyes or in a dream-vision, or
maybe both on different occasions? Whether it was a visiointerna or a visio
corporalis, the general sentiment among those traditionalist Sunnis who
affirmed it seems to have been that it was a real theophany either way.
The main implications of this study are, I believe, two. First, this close
and extended association between Classical Sunni Islam and traditions of
transcendent anthropomorphism, theophany and visio Dei calls into
question, I suggest, most descriptions of Islamic theological development. In
particular, in the modern academic discussions of the medieval Muslim
controversies over the divine attributes, for example, by failing to take due
notice of this association, scholars also fail therefore to grasp the nuances
involved in the discussion. The outcome is that in many cases the description
offered reflects as much the presuppositions of the modern authors who,
thus, less than accurately and/ or less than adequately present the medieval
Muslim discussion as it seems to have actually occurred on the ground.
Secondly, though modern, normative Islamic constructions of divine
transcendence may be radically discontinuous with the Semitic tradition, this
association situates Sunni Islam squarely within the latter. This is not
surprising, as it was traditionalist Sunnism that, at least ostensibly, rejected
the Hellenizing efforts of the Mutazila and other Greek-friendly schools. If
my experiment, and such is all it was, at reading the quranic material in the
light of pre-Islamic Semitic monotheism is found methodologically
acceptable, I suggest that this Islamic tradition of transcendent
anthropomorphism, theophany, and visio Dei secures Islams place within
the Semitic religious tradition. From this perspective, one might take another
look at a host of major themes of the Quran, if you will, from constructions
of divine unity to the nature of the revelatory process, etc.