by Ebrahim Moosa for CONTENDING MODERNITIES on APRIL 11, 2013
Pick up a work by Shah Waliyullah of Delhi (d. 1762), the great Indian polymath and sage-like figure, and he might commend your attention to sensory substitution, or synesthesia – what we can think of as cross talk among sensory areas in the brain.
Indeed, Waliyullah is but a premiere example among many Medieval and early modern Muslim theologians who offer startling insights about perception, ideas which sometimes even resemble trending topics like neuroplasticity. I say this mindful of the warning not to mold our “notion of antiquities after their resemblance to the present.”(Funkenstein, 120)
A bridge between theology and culture
Waliyullah wrote masterfully on Islamic law, spirituality, the Qur’an, and the Prophetic traditions. In these works, he tried to explain how revelations and intuitions are mediated by the human mind, particularly the minds of prophets. In my reading it appears that he tried to build a bridge between theology and culture. His point was to show that while the minds of prophets are in one sense attuned to the celestial spheres, other aspects of their minds refract the maps of their respective cultures. Of particular importance to him were the specifics of law, norms and values that were encoded in revealed religions like Islam at its very inception in the seventh century. For most Muslim thinkers and theologians the relevance of norms and values were never in dispute. Yet, often the form and practice of such norms and values sparked debate. Wrestling with these problems forces figures like Waliyullah to grasp the nettle of the metaphysics and the sociology of revelation.
Ebrahim Moosa, is professor of religion and Islamic studies at Duke University.