Friday, September 12, 2014

Meaning Requires Work

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.
Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim
Al-Hamdu lillahil-Lathi Anzala ala ‘abdihil-Kitaba wa lam yaj’al lahu ‘Iwaja. Praise be to the One (Allah) Who revealed the Book to His Servant (Muhammad), and did not make any distortion to it.

The title of my khutbah today is: The Price of Logical Depth or Meaning requires work

There are some people who like to accuse others of “cherry picking” the scripture. The idea is these others take whatever verses they like, usually ayahs that conform to their own opinions, and pluck them out of the text to validate their own practices and choices. They only take the ripe ones, ignore the rest, particularly the parts of scripture that disagree with their opinions.

There is another word people use which is “engage with the text”, or as I like to call it, “wrestling with the text.” Engaging with the text is more like caring for the whole cherry tree. You aren’t some person wandering through the orchard and just plucking ripe cherries, no you look at the tree, is it healthy, does it need pruning? Grafting? More compost? You look at the other trees in the orchard and you take a more holistic approach, but yes, you do examine individual cherries and leaves, because that gives you information about the tree, too. Engaging the text keeps the scripture more alive in my heart. I’m wrestling with it! I’m demanding answers to my questions! And sometimes I can get these answers right away, sometimes it takes a longer period of time, and sometimes I am still wrestling with the text for meaning years after an initial reading. All this engagement requires work, it does not come easy.

In our time, information is cheap. Information that used to require a trip to the library, looking up things in dusty reference books or microfiche, perhaps enlisting the aid of a friendly librarian, now this same information can be retrieved by a few taps on our personal smart phones. Information is easy and cheap, but processing information- having the time, attention span, and wisdom to act on that information requires work. Not all information is knowledge, and having a lot of knowledge is no guarantee of wisdom. We must work; filter, analyze, and question, in order to obtain meaningful messages.

The mathematician, Charles Bennett, developed a measure of information value, he called this “Logical Depth”. Logical depth is what gives information its usefulness. There is no logical depth in parts of a message that appear random or unpredictable, nor in messages that are repetitious or copied.  The value of a message is what he called, “what might be called its buried redundancy- parts predictable only with difficulty, things the receiver could in principle have figured out without being told, but only at considerable cost in money, time or computation.” When we value a message’s complexity, or its information content, we are sensing a lengthy, hidden calculation. James Gleick writes, “This might be true of music or a poem or a scientific theory or a crossword puzzle, which gives its solver pleasure when it is neither too cryptic nor too shallow, but somewhere in between.”

There are many ayats in the Quran which I feel, illustrate this process of trying to find logical depth in a message. One of the most challenging for me has been the story in Surah 2: 67-73? About the Bani Isreal sacrificing a cow at Musa’s bequest  (Layla Bakhtiar translation).

“And mention when Moses said to his folk: “Truly God demands that you sacrifice a cow,’
They said: Have you taken us to yourself in mockery?
And he said: I take refuge with God, that be among the ones who are ignorant!
They said “Call on your lord for us to make manifest to us what she is.”
Moses said “Truly He says she should be a cow that is neither old nor a virgin, middle-aged between them. So accomplish what you are commanded.”
They said, “Call to your Lord for us to make manifest to us what its hue is.”
He said, “Truly He says; she is a saffron-colored cow, one that is bright in hue that makes the ones who look on her happy.”
They said, “Call to your Lord for us to make manifest to us what she is. Truly cows are alike to us and truly had God willed, we will be ones who are truly guided.”
 He said, “Truly He says she is a cow neither broken to plow the earth nor to draw water for cultivation, that which is to be handed over without blemish on her.  
They said, “Now you have brought about the Truth. So, they sacrificed her and almost accomplish it not. And mention when you killed a soul, then you put up argument over it; and God was One Who Drove Out what you had been keeping back. So We said: Turn him away with some of it! Thus God gives life to the dead, and He causes you to see His signs so that perhaps you would be reasonable.” 

One factor that makes this story hard to understand is that it seems to reference a story that the early listeners of the Quran, the local audience, were familiar with. The details of this story have been lost to us,  we are left with only a fragment. Scholars have explained this story in a number of ways.

a) A man had been murdered and no one knew who killed him. Once the cow was sacrificed, the dead cow pointed out the murderer. This explanation demands a big suspension of belief on my part, belief in substantial miracle that is only referred to once in Quran, and obliquely at that.

b) A man had been murdered and no one knew who killed him. In Jewish law, when you had the case of an unsolved murder, it was necessary for a cow to be sacrificed in order to not bring down any bad luck on the community. The Jewish leaders had to wash their hands in the blood of the cow, thus expiating the sin from the community (Numbers 19 and Deuteronomy 21:1-9)

What has always been a problem for me, however, is the ‘teaching point’ of these ayat. The teaching points are 1) aren’t the Jews stubborn people- but encouraging contempt has never been my path to develop spiritual insight, and who’s say these people were overly neurotic ? 2) don’t ask too many questions- and if you know me, you know I love to ask questions. I’m not going to get into the first point, because I’ve heard people say the Bani Israel weren’t necessarily Jews plus I don’t like to play the “hate game”. For the remainder of this khutbah I’m going to tackle the “asking too many questions” interpretation. I think the problem here has to do with logical depth- does a particular message have value? And if a message has value, then how do you proceed?


(Khutbah Part 2)
Innal-laha  wa Malaaikatahu yussalloona Alan-Nabiy; yaa Aiyuhal latheena Aamanoo, Salloo alaihi, wa sallimoo tassleema. Lo! Allah and His angels shower blessings on the Prophet; O you who believe! Ask blessings on him and salute him with a worthy greeting.

There is a hadith of the Prophet, transmitted by Abu Sa’id al Khudri in the Muslim collection:

“When any of you sees anything objectionable, she must change it with her own hands.; and if she cannot, she must do it with her tongue; but if she cannot, she should at least feel objection in her heart, this being the least thing to be done."

Part of this speaking out against what is objectionable can take the form of a question. “Why are you doing it that way?” This makes people accountable for their actions, and I find it very similar to the Prophet’s hadith, narrated by Tamim ibn Aws:

“Good council is the very soul of Faith. “ The Prophet repeated this three times.
A companion asked, “To whom should council be given?”

Now if you restrict your definition of “council” in terms of doling out advice, the Prophet’s answer will not make sense. But, if you include in your definition of ‘council’ the concept of ‘questioning’, reflect on how a psychotherapist “councils” their clients, then the Prophet’s answer will make sense.

The Prophet answered his companion,“To Allah, to His book, to His messenger, to those who are charged with authority, and to Muslims at large.”

But all this questioning does not come for free, there is a price that you must pay when you question- you must act. Once you have a message where all the questions have been answered, when you have worked hard for logical depth, then you have to DO something.

Now back to the murder mystery- the ‘right’ question to ask was “Who killed this man?” Did the community try hard to answer that question, or were they more concerned just arguing with each other and playing the blame game?  We can’t know, because we don’t have the complete story. We only know that ridding their community of blameworthiness also came at a high cost- a valuable milk cow.

So I think for now, until I have more information or insight, the teaching lesson of the cow story could be; If you think your message lacks logical depth, then ask a lot of questions, but once you have a valuable message, then you must be prepared to act on the answers. Whether you ask no questions or whether you ask many questions, the burden of responsibility is on you to so something. Remember the Prophet’s hadith: Whenever any of you see something objectionable, she must change it with her own hands.

My Lord! Grant me that I should be grateful for Thy favor which Thou hast bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I should do good such as Thou are pleased with and do good to me in respect of my offspring; surely I turn to Thee, and I am of those who submit. 46:15

Rabbi awzi’ni an ashkura ni’mata-ka-llati an’amta alayya wa ‘ala walidayya wa an a’mala salihan tardahu wa aslih li fi dhrriyyati, inni tubtu ilakia wa inni minal-muslimin. Ameen

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