On con-similar verses in the revealed texts

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  • Including a brief history of private interpretation
All books are composed of statements that are explicit and statements that are con-similar (or implicit). An explicit statement is one about which there can be no debate regarding its meaning. It can therefore be torn loose from its context, used as a stand-alone statement, and there still would be no danger of its being misinterpreted. On the other hand, a con-similar statement on its own could have more than one compatible meanings. So that if it’s torn loose from its context, many different interpretations can be given to it. This, by no means, is the fault of the author; for any book, of necessity, has statements that stand on top of other statements; or else it’s a collection of miscellaneous statements, and not a coherent book in the first place. Most people find no difficulty in appreciating this distinction, because they interpret the con-similar statements in their proper context, and in the light of the explicit ones. It’s so natural and intuitive that they aren’t even conscious of doing so.
When it comes to the comprehension of revealed texts however, this distinction suddenly and mysteriously becomes lost to many. The Quran explicitly warns that it contains two kinds of verses: muhkamaat and mutashaabihaat; and that the reader should desist from giving arbitrary interpretations to the latter [3:7]. And yet, the history of religion is a long series of men doing precisely that. The fragmentation of religious groups into sects and subsects has, for the most part, found theoretical support from this source. It’s true that thanks principally to Saint Paul, the mainline Christians don’t strictly follow the Bible in their theology or legal affairs; but many among the fundamentalist minority that do employ the proof-text method have traditionally been guilty of giving arbitrary extratextual meanings to Bible verses. Many Muslims too have been guilty of doing the same with the Quranic verses.
It all started more than two millennia ago with the Jews however, when they had their first encounters with the Greeks. The Greeks boasted of their own philosophers who had already been debating complex subjects such as free-will and political censorship. In contrast, they pointed out how primitive the Jewish revelation was, talking about some prophet striking a rock with his staff upon which streams of water had gushed forth. Some of the religious folks, in their embarrassment, claimed that the rock and the staff and the streams had been used symbolically, not literally; and that they meant (say) obstacles, hard-work and wisdom respectively. This started a practice that continues in religious circles to this day. The reason for its longevity is that it gives one the opportunity to give to any verse any interpretation of one’s liking. It has been the preferred tactic of those wanting scriptural backing in support of their preferred positions.
Anybody who claims he knows these modalities is therefore trying to fool others
The problem with private interpretation is that if a meaning isn’t based on something in the text itself, then the most that can be said about it is that the interpreter likes it. It’s as good (or as bad) as any other interpretation that can’t be found in the text either. As for something being symbolic or figurative, that must be decided by the context and the language employed in the text; and not by the interpreter’s whim or desire. Therefore, one can’t simply disregard the text while giving an interpretation to any verse.
When it comes to revealed texts there’s an additional complication that has been a cause of much misunderstanding.  Revealed texts talk about this life; but they talk about the next life too. And they talk about angels, about Paradise, about God himself, all of which are outside the experience of living souls. The difficulty here is obvious: the words that could convey details regarding such concepts don’t exist. Therefore, they can, of necessity, only be conveyed symbolically. So, while there’s still no difficulty in understanding the meaning of those verses, the modalities are impossible to know. The Quran, for example, talks about a man in Paradise enjoying fruit as one of his rewards. The meanings are clear: man, joy, fruit, and reward are all familiar concepts. The modalities however (the questions of, for example, whether or not he will have two arms, two legs, two lips and a tongue like he has in this temporary existence; and in what shape and form will the fruit be) are impossible to know because we can’t even have any idea about how many dimensions (and of what sorts) will there be in the next life. Anybody who claims he knows these modalities is therefore trying to fool others. He is obviously fooling himself.
To get a final point out of the way, the inability to comprehend the details of the next life is a human failing, not God’s limitation (as is sometimes insinuated). Just think of the impossibility of explaining to a toddler, say matters pertaining to sexual attraction. You have the requisite knowledge and the power of expression at your disposal, but he doesn’t (yet) have the capacity of comprehension – something he will develop only after reaching a certain stage of his life. There are many other-worldly details that it’s futile to seek in this life. Because they are not only impossible to know, but because they don’t affect how one ought to live one’s life here and now.