The Language of Divine Poetry
(To understand the context in which this issue has emerged, please see MieNet's Rebirth & Growth)
An eye for en eye? A tooth for a tooth?
Can we dream of a wiser and kinder World and Humanity, if we blindly return in kind every wrong that is ever done to us?!!!...
Would you point out that the eye-for-eye & tooth-for-tooth attitude emerges in Holy Books, such as Al-Qu'ran (The Koran, meaning ’The Reading‘) and The Bible (Old Testament) – to cite the most read Holy Books ?
Allah, God (or the phonetic sequence, in your Language, to signal Divinity), He has spoken to us out of His Wisdom, but has had to resort to Human Language – i.e., imperfect, limited human means of expression – which is all we've got for communication, we, human beings.
Now, despite the unquestionable usefulness characteristic of Human Language, despite the marvel of its communicative power, and despite the greatness of Poetry and other forms of Literature, Human Language can be surprisingly limited and deficient, at times, especially when it comes to referring to certain areas of human thinking, ideology, or behavior. Here, when we do not seem tongue-tied, altogether, the risk of ambiguity, or polysemy, can be substantial.
Accordingly, language often feels awkward and limited, when it comes to expressing deeply philosophical and abstract notions, for example. This is most likely why some philosophers (Deleuze, is an excellent example), have resorted to poetic language, in order to get their messages across.
The choice of resorting to poetic language, however, entails a risk of its own. In sharp contrast with the precise language of Logic, the meaning to be derived from poetic language is left on the reader's (or listener's) camp (Can the eye/“I” lie?, on MieNet, offers sub-sections on this topic). In other words, the communicator can, at best, suggest how his/her text (discourse) is to be taken, is to be understood. But (s)he really has very limited control of how the reader (listener) will really take his/her words: the poetical dimension of language allows each mind a large degree of freedom of interpretation.
Yet more striking is the fact that Human Language fails altogether, when we need it to convey the complexity of dynamic three-dimensional references! Want an example? Watch airplane pilots describe their manoeuvres: they will inevitably use their hands, rather than their tongues, to describe movements and relationships in 3D space! Why? Language cannot do it! Try it yourself.
It is relevant to take a minute to stress that this is by no means a deficiency of language, itself! Each language is perfectly adequate for the communicative needs of the cultural group making use of it.
The above limitation results from the fact that it is so rare that we, human beings, need to talk about three-dimensional movements, that no means of expressing them linguistically has developed. If the Human Race could fly, like the birds (and, we might fantasize, the Angels), you can be sure that the languages we spoke would then be suitable to express 3D movement, just as well!
But since flying, as a habitual and self-controlled activity, is the privilege of few, Human Language is only efficient (and then it can be highly so) to express whatever dynamics going on in up to two dimensions (left & right, and backward & forward, and so forth.). Beyond this level, the old Arabic saying a picture is worth a thousand words readily applies. Thus, pilots need to “talk” through their hands, in order to communicate about their manoeuvres.
Now, are we to suppose that the Entity whom we honor as Divine is subject to the same restrictions that we, human beings, are?!!! For example, capable of just a two-dimensional natural mobility?!!!...or bound to the same level and depth of thought or abstraction that we, human beings, can reach?!!!...
If your answer is “yes,” it then follows that  you and I must hold quite different notions of Divinity, and, in this case,  you will likely feel that a literal understanding could be safely derived from Words which I refer to as Wise & Holy, and which I feel transcend the mere level of human intellectual activity, no matter how fabulous and bright our minds. Nonetheless, I'd feel honored if you would bear with me and read further.
But if you attribute the Entity you honor as Divine,  a far higher Wisdom, Magnanimity, “mental” ability, understanding, power of abstraction, etc., than found amid the human realm, in His Omniscience, Omnipresence and Omnipotence, and of course  Existence well beyond the limited and perishable three-dimensional World we are familiar with, you probably find natural that the Messages He has given us cannot be simply interpreted literally !
...or else, wouldn't we be prone to misinterpreting, if not misusing, His Messages?!...
If we agree that He can See so much further than we do, that He can Understand so far beyond what we can, and for this reason He has given us Holy Messages and Wisdom, which are to guide us and to teach us, well...then by taking His Divine Words literally, we'd seem to be falling into flat contradiction! Do you follow?
For our taking His Divine Words literally cannot mean other than our daring to try to understand Him on a level similar to our own! What presumption don't we exhibit when we take literally what stands in Books which we, paradoxically, call Divine?!...
To get a true dimension of what is at stake here, think of Poetry. Why have Human Beings developed the art of Poetry...if not to have at hand means of expression that can transcend the daily limitations of more “objective,” pragmatic, get-things-done, down-to-earth Human Language?
Through Poetry, we can not only better give expression to the sublime, but also to that which does not have an evident one-to-one, linear interpretation. The Language of Poetry is characterized as polysemant (i.e., it allows multiple interpretations, the attribution of multiple meanings).
As a result, Poetical Language (though not necessarily in poetry form) allows us a degree of freedom and expression beyond the natural restrictions inherent to daily, “objective,” communication, or to the language we resort to when we engage in story-telling and in descriptions.
Let's now consider: We, ourselves, have felt the need to transcend the language of daily dealings and story-telling. Are we, then, to be so paradoxically presumptuous as to deny the Divine Entity (which we understand to be well above us) both motive for and capability of expressing His Wisdom and Teachings at a level higher than the common human use of Language?!...
Or should we humble up and realize that “Divine Poetry” (so to speak), rather than language at the common, daily human level, must constitute the Language of what has been handed us in the Holy Books?
And how about likewise realizing that, if it takes some practice to understand Human Poetry, if it takes musing on it, meditating on it, reading it many times, enjoying it many times, so each time we understand it and enjoy it more fully...what won't it take to conceive we understand even a small piece of “Divine Poetry”?!!!...
Can we be so presumptuous as to suppose that Divine Wisdom can be plainly expressed in unpretentious human terms, and consequently be taken just literally?
If we would not read Shakespeare the same way we derive meaning from a newspaper article, does it seem proper to read the Wise and Holy Words the same way we derive meaning from either Shakespeare or news articles?
An eye for an eye? – A tooth for a tooth?...
How do we best Honor the Divine Entity who once gave us these words, above? By humbly and gratefully recognizing, in the Holy Books, their true character of “Divine Poetry” handed over to Human kind?
By the same token, how do we honor the Prophets who have been Divinely inspired, as vehicles of “Divine Poetry” that was/is to be made available to Human kind?
What's important is invisible to the eye [ St. Exupery ]
Whether poetry or prose, for meaning to be properly derived, it must be done in context. (The relevance of context is elaborated in Can the eye/“I” lie?, on MieNet.)
Have you ever wondered why is it that, when we look up a word in the Dictionary, we usually find a number of “synonyms”? In different contexts, words gain different hues, if not substantially different meanings; accordingly, dictionaries offer a number of alternatives, for each word entry. And how do we know which alternative we pick? We identify the alternative that best fits the original context, immersed in which, the word we are looking up has been found.
Let's now consider further: since we need to understand the context, in order properly to understand what is said, within that context, are we to be again presumptuous, and naively suppose we can easily grasp the context from within which “Divine Poetry” has been woven?!!!
Certainly, the “Divine Context” will enjoy a complexity and depth beyond that which we, human beings, are used to and capable of. Thus, prudence seems in order, as we attempt to learn from the Holy Books.
We need to avoid the risk of a reductive approach to the Wisdom and Holy Words we wish to learn from, lest we reduce them to a mere human level . . . when what we intend is precise the contrary: to be able to rise up from our inherent human nearsightedness, ignorance and lack of Wisdom, on the wings of that very “Divine Poetry,” the meaning of which we wish to grasp, and be enlightened by.
Think of the times in which you have been talking to a child, and had to explain a complex idea – most obviously, in a way and level which the child could relate to and, therefore, understand. This example may serve as a useful parallel to allow us a glimpse of the degree of simplification and reduction that must have been necessary whenever the Omniscient Divinity has sent us His Word.
Looking at it from a different angle, the shortcomings of machine translation (mentioned below) may serve as another useful parallel to what could ensue from an attempt to derive meaning from “Divine Poetry,” in the way we do from the daily news or from human literature.
As far as literal translations are concerned, have you noticed how awkward machine translation can turn out to be? By the same token, when we try to write in a foreign language we are not that familiar with, we often face similar challenges, as we look up the translation of words in the dictionary. How do we know which is the adequate translation to use, amid the alternatives we find in the dictionary?... You might have come across this challenge.
Human language, however remarkable, however marvelous, is human; not Divine.
So, how can we take Holy Words literally?
Independently of our religious background (i.e., context), we can probably agree that, among the most fundamental messages contained in “Divine Poetry,” Love emerges as a central theme – Love for the Divine, and Love for our fellow human beings. “Divine Poetry” thus inspires us to be kind with one another, as kind and understanding and forgiving as we'd like others to be with us.
Does it make good sense, then, that we'd, at the same time, also be told to hit back at anyone who may have hit at us? Or does it sound contradictory? Could we be taking these lines of “Divine Poetry” just a bit too literally?
After all, human poets have needed to resort to the very same words, in order to convey quite diverse meanings... (“...and death, once dead, there is no more dying then” – in one of Shakespeare's Sonnets, “And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss” – in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; both cited from memory – see other examples in Can the eye/“I” lie?.)
It evidently takes some learning, so we can appreciate human poetry – the challenge, rather than lying in the message, lies in our own capacity to derive the intended meaning(s), among those possible.
What can we say, regarding “Divine Poetry”? Are we sufficiently enlightened to be capable of deriving the intended meaning(s)?...
It should be no striking surprise if we discover that the language of “Divine Poetry” far transcends the semantic (meaning) complexity we are used to finding in human poetic expression.
By the same token, the Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent Divine tells us He Loves us, human beings. However, we also read about His wrath, though we likewise read about His mercy...
Once more, what meaning(s) are we to derive? A mere contradiction, or paradox, between “love/mercy” and “wrath”?... Derive meaning at the human level, thus reading a sign of “emotional” instability, or inconstancy, in this apparent contradiction, or paradox?... How presumptuous can we be to project our limited, human contexts onto the “Divine Context”?... But then what?... What meaning shall we derive?
I refrain from attempting to suggest answers... Instead, I pray for Wisdom, and share the above questions, along with reflections on human language, communication and cognition.
Finally, I wish you enlightenment, at every line of “Divine Poetry,” you may recite, recall, or cast your eyes on!
Special Note: A relevant detail has deliberately been excluded, above, so as not to detract attention from the intended reflections. Our Holy Books were written way before Gutenberg's days! Thus, how many hand-copies there have been, in succession, till these Books could actually be printed, it does not seem possible to estimate. Conceivable alterations, along each copying process (whether a product of distraction, or tiredness, or intended – even if with the noblest of intentions), can only add to the challenge of reading "Divine Poetry." Moreover, before they could be stored in written form, the Holy Texts had to be handed down from generation to generation, via oral tradition. Could it have been done with full accuracy?!... It seems hardly possible. Finally, translations may not always render the original meaning with full accuracym either – that is, one more addition to the challenge.