International Islamic University Malaysia
January 4, 2005

M.A.R. Habib

Deconstruction has been a widespread movement and phenomenon in the Western world from the late 1960s until the present time. It has been visible mainly in the spheres of literary criticism and philosophy, though its influence has extended to other areas. Deconstruction was originated, in modern times, by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). While Derrida himself has insisted that deconstruction is not a theory unified by any set of consistent rules or procedures, it has been variously regarded as a way of reading, a mode of writing and, above all, a way of challenging interpretations of texts based upon conventional notions of the stability of the human self, the external world and of language and meaning. What I would like to do here is give a brief account of deconstruction and then to raise certain questions about how the insights of deconstruction might be applied to thinking about Islam, whether in the form of scholarship or in terms of popular images and practice.

Derrida was born in Algeria to a Jewish family and suffered intensely the experience of being an outsider. While in Algeria he undertook a study of several major philosophers, including Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. He then studied at various prestigious institutions in Paris, eventually becoming a teacher of philosophy. He also worked at Harvard and, in 1975, began teaching at Yale University. More recently, he has given lectures at various American institutions, in particular at the University of California at Irvine. He established a reputation in France during the 1960’s, a reputation which crossed to the United States in the 1970’s.

Proponents of deconstruction often point out that it is not amenable to any static definition or systematization because the meaning of the terms it employs is always shifting and fluid, taking its color from the localized contexts and texts with which it engages. Indeed, deconstruction is often regarded as undermining all tendency toward systematization. However, there are a number of concerns, and certain heuristic terms, that can be said to characterize deconstruction. The most fundamental project of deconstruction is to display the operations of “logocentrism” in any “text” (where the meaning of “text” is broadened to include not merely written treatises in a variety of disciplines but the entire range of their political, theological, social and intellectual contexts, as manifested primarily in their use of language).

What is logocentrism? Etymologically and historically, this term refers to any system of thought which is founded on the stability and authority of the Logos, the divine Word. The various meanings accumulated by this word in the Hebrew, ancient pagan and early Christian worlds are complex. The scholar C.H. Dodd explains that Logos is both a thought and a word, and the two are inseparable: the Logos is the word as determined by and conveying a meaning. He also observes that the root of the Hebrew equivalent fro Logos means “to speak,” and that this expression is used of God’s self-revelation. Moreover, in Hebrew culture, the word once spoken was held to have a substantive existence. The word and concept Logos may have derived in part from the Greek thinker Heracleitus and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. – 50 A.D.); in its simplest meaning can signify “statement,” “saying,” “discourse” or science (Dodd, 263-265). In the Gospel of John, the plural logoi refers to the words spoken by Jesus or others; but the singular Logos signifies the whole of what Jesus said, his message as both revelation and command. The life of Jesus is the Logos incarnate, and events in this life are signs of eternal realities. And the Gospel in general is the record of a life that expresses the eternal thought of God, the meaning of the universe (Dodd, 284-285). Dodd states that all of these senses accord with the fundamental Greek connotation of Logos as the spoken word together with its meaning or rational content. A further sense of logos in the fourth Gospel is the “Word of God,” his self-revelation to man; it denotes the eternal truth revealed to men by God. Hence the Logos is not simply an uttered word; it is truth itself, it has a rational content of thought corresponding to the ultimate reality of the universe. And this reality is revealed as spoken and heard (Dodd, 266-267). As such, the Logos is the thought of God which is the “transcendent design of the universe and its immanent meaning” (Dodd, 285). In its ancient Greek philosophical and Judaeo-Christian meaning, then, the Logos referred both to the Word of God which created the universe and to the rational order of creation itself. In other words, it is in the spoken Logos that language and reality ultimately coincide, in an identity that is invested with absolute authority, absolute origin, and absolute purpose or teleology. If we think of the orders of language and reality as follows, it is clear that one of the functions of the Logos is to preserve the stability and closure of the entire system:


Language Reality

Signifier 1 -a- Signified 1 —————-b—————- Object 1

Signifier 2 — Signified 2 ———————————- Object 2

Signifier 3 — Signified 3 ———————————- Object 3

Signifier 4 — Signified 4 ———————————- Object 4

Ad Infinitum

It is because the Logos holds together the orders of language and reality that the relation between signifier (word) and signified (concept), i.e. relation a, is stable and fixed; so too is relation b, the connection between the sign as a whole and the object to which it refers in the world. For example, in a Christian scheme, the signifier “love” might refer to the concept of “self-sacrifice” in relation to God. And this sign as a whole, the word “love” as meaning “self-sacrifice,” would refer to object 1 which might be a system of social or ecclesiastical relationships institutionally embodied in a given society, enshrining the ideal of self-sacrifice. In other words, the meaning of “love” is sanctioned by a hierarchy of authority, stretching back through institutional church practice, theology, philosophy, as well as political and economic theory, to the authority of the scriptures and the Word of God Himself. In the same way, all of the other signifiers and signifieds in language would be constrained in their significance, making for a stable and closed system in terms of which the world and the human self could be interpreted in terms of their origins, their meaning and purpose in life, what counts as good and evil, what kind of government is legitimate and so forth. The Logos thereby authorizes an entire world-view, sanctioned by a theological and philosophical system and by an entire political, religious and social order.

If, now, the Logos is removed from this picture, what happens? The entire order will become destabilized; historically, of course, this disintegration does not happen all at once but takes centuries, as indeed does the undermining of the Logos. Once the Logos vanishes from the picture, there is nothing to hold together the orders of language and reality, which now threaten to fly apart from each other. The relations a and b both become destabilized: if we are not constrained by a Christian perspective, we might attribute other meanings to the word “love,” meanings which may even conflict with the previously given Christian signification. Moreover, various groups might give different meanings to the word so that a general consensus is lost. In this way, signifier 1 may be defined by a meaning attributed to signified 1. But since there is no authoritative closure to this process, it could go on ad infinitum: signified 1 will itself need to be defined, and so this signified will itself become a signifier of something else; this process might regress indefinitely so that we never arrive at a conclusive signified but are always moving along an endless chain of signifiers. Derrida attributes the name of “metaphor” to this endless substitution of one signifier for another: in describing or attempting to understand our world, we can no longer use “literal” language, i.e. language that actually describes the object or reality. We can only use metaphor, hence language in its very nature is metaphorical. Hence there cannot be a sharp distinction between, say, the spheres of philosophy and science, on the one hand, which are often presumed to use a “literal” language based on reason, and literature and the arts, on the other hand, which are characterized as using metaphorical and figurative language in a manner inaccessible to reason. Even the languages of mathematics, science and philosophy are ultimately metaphorical, and cannot claim any natural and referential connection with the world they purport to describe.

Logocentrism, however, is not uniform but takes a variety of guises: for example, the stabilizing function of the Logos might be replaced by other notions. For Plato, this notion might be eidos or the Forms; what holds Aristotle’s metaphysics together, as its foundation, is the concept of substance; similarly we could cite Hegel’s “Absolute Idea” or Kant’s categories of the understanding. Modern equivalents in Western society might be concepts such as freedom or democracy. All of these terms function as what Derrida calls “transcendental signifieds,” or concepts invested with absolute authority, which places them beyond questioning or examination. An important endeavor of deconstruction, then, is to show the operation of logocentrism in all of its forms, and to bring back these various transcendental signifieds within the province of language and textuality, within the province of their relatability to other concepts.

Hence, in one sense, the most fundamental project of deconstruction is to reinstate language within the connections of the various terms that have conventionally dominated Western thought: the connections between thought and reality, self and world, subject and object. In deconstructive thought, these connections are not viewed as already existing prior to language, with language merely being the instrument of their expression or representation. Rather, all of these terms are linguistic to begin with: they are enabled by language. We don’t simply have thought which is then expressed by language; thought takes place in, and is made possible by, language. The notion of language that is thereby reinstituted by deconstruction is partly influenced by Saussure: it is a notion of language as a system of relations; the terms which are related have no semantic value outside of the network of relations in which they subsist; they depend on those relations for their meaning and significance. Also implicit in this view of language is the arbitrary and conventional nature of the sign: there is no natural connection between the sign “table” and an actual table in the world. Equally arbitrary and conventional is the connection between the signifier “table” and the concept of a “table” to which it points. Moreover, there is no “truth” or “reality” which somehow stands outside or behind language: truth is a relation of linguistic terms, and reality is a construct, ultimately religious, social, political and economic, but always of language, of various linguistic registers. Even the human self, in this view, has no pregiven essence but is a linguistic construct or narrative. Derrida’s much-quoted statement that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,”often translated as “there is nothing outside the text,” means precisely this: that the aforementioned features of language, which together comprise “textuality,” are all-embracing; textuality governs all interpretative operations. For example, there is no history outside of language or textuality: history itself is a linguistic and textual construct. At its deepest level, the insistence on viewing language (as a system of relations and differences) as lying at the core of any world view issues a challenge to the notion of identity, a notion installed at the heart of Western metaphysics since Aristotle. Identity, whether of the human self or of objects in the world, is no longer viewed as having a stable, fixed or pregiven essence, but as fluid and dependent, like linguistic terms, on a variety of contexts. Hence a deconstructive analysis tends to prioritise language and linguistic operations in analyzing texts and contexts.

While this prioritization of language is the fundamental form of deconstruction’s exhibition and undermining of logocentrism, deconstructive analysis enlists other strategies and terms toward the same general endeavor. One of these strategies is the unravelling and undermining of certain oppositions which have enjoyed a privileged place in Western metaphysics. Derrida points out that oppositions, such as those between intellect and sense, soul and body, master and slave, male and female, inside and outside, centre and margin, do not represent a state of equivalence between two terms. Rather, each of these oppositions is a “violent hierarchy” in which one term has been conventionally subordinated, in gestures that embody a host of religious, social and political valencies. Intellect, for example, has usually been superordinated over sense; soul has been exalted above body; male has been defined as superior in numerous respects to female. Derrida’s project is not simply to reverse these hierarchies, for such a procedure would remain imprisoned within the framework of binary oppositional thinking represented by those hierarchies. Rather, he attempts to show that these hierarchies represent privileged relationships, relationships that have been lifted above any possible engagement with, and answerability to, the network of concepts in general.

Logocentrism, then, is sanctioned and structured in a multitude of ways, all of which are called into question by deconstruction. The privileging of speech over writing, for example, has perpetuated what Derrida calls a “metaphysics of presence,” a systematization of thought and interpretation that relies on the stability and self-presence of meaning, effecting a closure and disabling any “free play” of thought which might threaten or question the overall structure. A metaphysics of “presence” would be a metaphysics of complete self-identity: an entity’s content is viewed as coinciding completely with its existence. For example, an isolated entity such as a piece of chalk would be regarded as having its meaning completely within itself, completely in its immediate “presence.” Even if the rest of the world did not exist, we could say what the piece of chalk was, what its function and constitution were. Such absolute self-containment of meaning must be sanctioned by a higher authority, a Logos or transcendental signified, which ensured that all things in the world had specific and designated meanings. If, however, we were to challenge such a “metaphysics of presence,” we might argue that in fact the meaning of the chalk does not coincide with, and is not confinable within, its immediate existence; that its meaning and purpose actually lie in relations that extend far beyond its immediate existence; its meaning would depend, for example, upon the concept of a “blackboard” on which it was designed to write; in turn, the relationship of chalk and blackboard derives its meaning from increasingly broader contexts such as, a classroom, an institution of learning, associated industries and technologies, as well as political and educational programs. Hence the meaning of “chalk” would extend through a vast network of relations far beyond the actual isolated existence of that item; moreover, its meaning would be viewed as relative to a given social and cultural framework, rather than sanctioned by the presence of a Logos. In this sense, the chalk is not self-identical since its identity is dispersed through its relations with numerous other objects and concepts. Viewed in this light, “chalk” is not a name for a self-subsistent, self-enclosed entity; rather it names the provisional focal point of a complex set of relations. It can be seen, then, that a metaphysics of “presence” refers to the self-presence, the immediate presence, of meaning, as resting on a complete self-identity that is sanctioned and preserved by the “presence” of a Logos.

A deconstructive reading of a text, then, as practised by Derrida, will be a multifaceted project: in general, it will attempt to display logocentric operations in the the text, by focusing on a close reading of the text’s language, its use of presuppositions or transcendental signifieds, its reliance on binary oppositions, its self-contradictions, its aporiai or points of conceptual impasse, and the ways in in which it effects closure and resists free play. Hence deconstruction, true to its name (which derives from Heidgger’s term Destruktion), will examine all of the features that went into the construction of text, down to its very foundations. Derrida has been criticized for his lack of clarity, his oblique and refractive style: his adherents have argued that his engagement with the history of Western thought is not one of mere confrontation but necessarily one of inevitable complicity (where he is obliged to use the very terms he impugns) as well as of critique. This dual gesture must necessarily entail play on words, convolution of language that accommodates its fluid nature, and divergence from conventional norms of essayistic writing. It might also be argued that the very form of his texts, not merely their content, is integral to his overall project.

We now come to the question of how the insights of deconstruction might be applicable to the study and understanding of Islam. I will propose a number of ways in which deconstructive thought might be used to undermine conventional stereotypes of Islam and facilitate a better understanding:

(1) Firstly and most obviously, if deconstruction challenges the very notion of identity, if it sees identity as an intellectual and ideological construct, then clearly we might ask, what do we mean by the word _Islam_? What identity is designated by this word? The answer given by many Western scholars sees Islam as a category of Orientalist thinking: Islam is given negative characteristics, which are opposed to the Western Enlightenment tendencies of reason, freedom and perfectibility. Islam is seen as irrational, associated with despotic political systems, and as occupying a random place in the scheme of world history. In other words, Islam in this negative characterisation is a mere construct, motivated ultimately not by objective inquiry but by imperial and colonial aims. We can see the same procedure operative today in many media portrayals of Islam.

(2) Secondly, deconstruction can help undermine the binary oppositions on which these negative characterisations of Islam rest. Orientalist scholars have erected a sharp opposition between the Orient and the Occident, endowing the one with qualities of rationality and enlightenment, the other with associations of sensuality, barbarsim and blind fanaticism. If anything, this opposition has been reinforced in recent times, as is testified by the war in Iraq. Ostensibly, democracy is being imported into this country, along with all of the values of an enlightened civilisation. But deconstruction helps us to see also that the very categories such as _democracy_ and _freedom_ which are held up as ultimate goals and foundations, as transcendental signifieds, are themselves in need of analysis.

(3) Thirdly, deconstruction encourages us to challenge any image of _Islam_ as a monolithic and mythical reality, somehow beyond the reach of real time and real history. In practice, there are many different forms of Islam; Islam as defined by Usmama bin Laden is not the Islam as practised by many Muslims. In other words, if Islam is a contruct, it is contsructed on the basis of ideological as well as religious motives; and it may be that the definition of Islam is an arena of struggle and debate. Indeed, a deconstructive mode of thinking, since it challenges any arbitrary closure of meaning and thought, might impel us _ as some Muslim scholars are already doing _ to re-examine the reasons behind the closing of the doors of ijtihad during the tenth century. Why was the door closed? How did the pronouncements of al-Ashari attain such pervasive authority? Why did his view of Ibn Hanbal as the _infallible imam_ go apparently unchallenged? The Qur_an itself and the hadith of the prophet (S) not only encourage knowledge and learning but attach the highest value to it. Deconstruction might impel us to read the Qur_an again, and to examine the sunnah more closely.