By Faeza Abdurazak
Earlier this month, Professor Riaz Hassan delivered a thought-provoking lecture entitled “The Arab Historical Memory and Muhammad’s Prophetic Consciousness: A Sociological Explanation.” His lecture was premised on the view that Muhammad’s prophetic consciousness was shaped by his personal, social, cultural, and religious milieus. Throughout the lecture, he explored the sociological factors that led to Muhammad’s prophetic consciousness, in particular the role of intellectual mentoring, religious-ethical values, and the family connections of his first wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid. Hassan gave a detailed account of Muhammad’s formative years, explored the motivations behind Khadija’s proposal to him, and analyzed the positive impact that the marriage had on Muhammad’s life.
The premise of Hassan’s talk was that prophets are social creations. Their divinity and sanctity thus inheres not in their person or sacred objects, but in the attitudes of the believers, who experience a relationship with them. From this perspective, explanations of Muhammad’s prophethood and his prophetic consciousness embodied in the Qur’an stem from Arab religious traditions, specifically those evident in Meccan society in the seventh century, as well as social factors such as Khadija’s constant mentoring. From the accounts of Muhammad’s reactions to the first revelation he received from the Archangel Gabriel, it is evident that he lacked self-confidence at this early stage—and reassurance from Khadijah and her cousin Waraqah must have been pivotal in countering his doubts.
Muhammad believed that the message he received from Gabriel was not a product of his own mind. Theologians have tirelessly debated over this belief, and the debate has spawned three main views. The first, orthodox view is that the Qur’an is the uncreated “word” or “speech” of divine origin. The second is that the Qur’an is the product of Muhammad’s personality, which is the view mainly held by Western secular scholars. The third sees the Qur’an as the work of divine activity but produced through the personality of Muhammad in such a way that certain features of the Qur’an are ascribed primarily to the humanity of Muhammad. This explanation thus combines the first two explanations in that both Muhammad’s personality and divine activity are at play in the Qur’an. This idea is what Hassan calls “Muhammad’s prophetic consciousness.”
Hassan then questioned and discussed the nature of “prophetic consciousness” by using Scottish historian W. Montgomery Watt’s exploration of the framework that Auguste Poulain, a nineteenth-century French Christian mystic, had developed in his book Graces of Interior Prayer. In it, Poulain divides religious experiences between locutions and visions. Poulain made a distinction between exterior and interior types of locution. Exterior types consist of words heard by the ear, though not produced naturally; similarly, exterior visions are visions of what appear to be material objects as perceived by the eyes. Interior locutions are divided into the imaginative and the intellectual. The former are received directly without the assistance of the ear and can be said to be received by the imaginative sense; the latter is a simple communication of thought without words and consequently without any definite language. Interior visions may similarly be either imaginative or intellectual.
This framework bears a striking resemblance to the Islamic notion of revelation. According to Muslim scholars, there are several “manners,” or kaifiyyat, of revelations, but most cases of revelation have been classified as “suggestion,” or wahy. Watt, in his comprehensive biography of Muhammad, Muhammad at Mecca, explains that Richard Bell, the British Arabist who had published a translation of the Qur’an, concluded that the Qur’anic usage of wahy does not mean direct communication, but rather “suggestion,” “prompting,” or “inspiration” coming into a person’s mind from the outside. The Islamic view is that communication comes directly from God to the person intended via voice or messenger. The person who receives it “understands” the message as objective, not subjective, and that it is from God. From this perspective, the revelations to Muhammad were imaginative experiences in some instances and intellectual locutions in others.
While orthodox Muslim scholars have used the notion of wahy as the divine method that delivered the Qur’anic revelation from Allah to Muhammad, Hassan argues that this notion of wahy is only valid in the context of religious revelations that are in the context of faith—and thus it is not an empirically explorable phenomenon. As German philosopher Karl Jasper argued, the explorable phenomenon is not the revelation, but is rather the faith in the revelation. In Hassan’s opinion, there is potential merit in using autochthonous thought as an explanation of subjective religious phenomenon in the way it is used in psychology and psychoanalysis, referring to ideas arising independently of an individual’s own train of thought but nevertheless grounded in an individual’s “historical memory” (in Freudian terms, the “collective unconscious”). While autochthonous thought is not yet easily suited to empirical enquiry, it is still part of the modern social science lexicon and carries much promise for further development. For example, it could be hypothesized that its expression would occur in the medium familiar to the subject; therefore, the experience and the expression of autochthonous thoughts and ideas by a person in seventh-century Arabia would be in the medium familiar to him/her, such as in the Arabic language and, more importantly, in the thought-forms of the Arabs. The Qur’an is thus an account of the historical memory of the Arabs, incorporating the intellectual and spiritual outlook of Muhammad.