Shades of reading

Our ability to see is fundamentally defined by our ability to perceive differences. Our eyes can distinguish between black and white because we can perceive the difference between the two. We suspect that an engine is not running smoothly because we perceive the difference (of sound and vibration, perhaps) that it produces. Our appetite is aroused when we smell good food because we can sense its difference from the not-so-good food.

The same applies to reading: depending on each individual’s degree of sensitivity, there are as many shades of reading. And by reading, I mean the relationship between the reader and the text.

The first shade is to consider that there is a direct relationship between the reader and what is said in the text. Here, the content of the text is given a privilege. A reader’s attention is usually given to the different topics that are discussed in the text. Here, the text is treated like a flat surface---no other, and no deeper than a single sheet of paper. What is written in the text is what the text is.

The second shade is to consider that the text says as much about the author than the content of the text itself. At this level, a reader is able to sense the deliberation and clumsiness of the author in stitching together different thoughts. A reader is able to sense how the author may or may not follow a certain structure in organizing the text. What is written in the text starts to convey different senses of meaning through the different ways of expression.

The third shade is to consider that the text says more about the author than the content of the text itself. Now some warnings must be given since reading at this shade may lead a reader either to blind admiration or hasty denigration. For a reader to continue reading, it is important to suspend his or her disbelief and appreciate why the text is written the way it is. A reader’s value judgment of the text (in a simple term, either it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’) is not to seal off an interpretation but as an opening point to explore whether multiple interpretations are available. This is neatly summarized by the late literary theorist Umberto Eco. He asserts that to read (and to interpret) a text is “to decide whether it has a fixed meaning, many possible meanings, or none at all” (Eco, 1994, p. 23). In other words, our ability to sense why a text is written gives more depth to what is written and the ways it is written.

Throughout the three shades above, our perception of difference is sensitized from seeing text to say something about itself to seeing text to say something more about its author. The beauty of seeing is, of course, when we can perceive how different colors intermingle and complement each other in a harmonious dance.

Reference

Eco, U. (1994). The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Perjalanan seorang intelektual

“Aku sudah baca draft-mu Sam,” kata Bagus, merujuk kepada tulisan yang Samidi kirim kepadanya dua minggu yang lalu. Waktu itu, Samidi minta tolong agar tulisannya dibaca dan dikomentari. Bagus adalah sahabat karib Samidi. Dia juga salah satu dari sedikit lawan debatnya yang tega membombardir Samidi dengan kritik tajam.

Karena antara Bagus dan Samidi terpisah jarak antar benua, pembicaraan mereka kali ini tersambung melalui salah satu teknologi komunikasi yang populer dengan nama Skype.

Sambil membenarkan posisi laptopnya, Bagus menyergah, “Kalau ujung-ujungnya kamu itu merujuk kepada Qur’an, buat apalah kamu susah-susah sekolah setinggi itu? Toh semua sudah jelas ada di dalam Qur’an. Dan semua yang ada disana sudah pasti benar. Tinggal dibaca, cetha wela wela. Tidak seperti risetmu yang—tidak cuma panjang dan njelimet—tapi juga belum tentu benar.”

Dalam draft-nya, Samidi menuliskan hasil riset yang ia lakukan selama ini yang disertai sebuah appendix yang berisi refleksi mengenai keterkaitan antara proses risetnya dengan ayat-ayat Al-Qur’an. Refleksi itu pun ia tambahkan karena tahu bahwa Bagus lah yang akan menjadi pembacanya.

“Betul, den Gus,” jawab Samidi setengah sabar. “Kalau yang menjadi tujuan keberagamaan itu hanya membaca apa yang tertulis, sejak SD pun sudah aku baca yang tertulis itu. Tapi yang aku inginkan adalah memaknai dalamnya apa yang tertulis itu Gus. Kesederhanaan itu adalah puncak segala ilmu. Dan Al-Qur’an itu sungguh adalah bukti bahwa pengetahuan Tuhan adalah pengetahuan yang tertinggi. Susah lho, Gus menuliskan kebenaran dengan sederhana dengan kedalaman yang tak terhingga.”

“Wah, kalau kamu bilang begitu, artinya kamu sedang mendaki jalan yang sulit. Maksudmu, kamu mau nggathukke antara sains dengan agama? Antara aktivitas yang membuat klaim atas dasar empiris dengan entitas yang tak terjangkau wujudnya secara panca indra?”

Lha, kamu kan tadi tanya, kenapa ujung-ujungnya kesimpulan tulisanku mengarah kepada Qur’an? Nah, jawabanku tadi adalah caraku memaknai pekerjaanku saat ini. Dari sudut pandang bidang yang aku tekuni sekarang. Gusti Allah sudah menaruhku di sini, membukakan dan membimbing jalanku. Bagaimana caraku berterima kasih? Yang aku yakini saat ini, adalah dengan selalu bertanya kemana ilmu yang aku dapatkan ini membawaku? Apakah semakin dekat, atau semakin jauh dengan Dia.”

Bagus masih mencoba mengikuti alur pikir Samidi ketika Samidi menyambung, “Begini, Gus. Tanggung jawab seorang intelektual adalah menjembatani dari sebuah pengetahuan yang berupa common sense menuju kepada sebuah bentuk pengetahuan yang diturunkan Tuhan melalui Al-Qur’an. Walaupun sebetulnya, kalau dilihat secara sepintas, antara common sense dan ‘wahyu Tuhan’ itu hampir sama.”

Hus! Ngawur aja kamu ini. Masak, common sense kamu samakan dengan firman Tuhan? Samanya dimana?”

“Mereka sama-sama sederhana. Ya tho Gus? Walaupun tentu kesederhanaan itu ada dua macamnya: kesederhanaan yang ‘ngono thok’ dan kesederhanaan yang menyimpan sejuta keelokan. Untuk saat ini, cukuplah kita taruh mereka dalam satu label ‘sederhana’.”

“Akan tetapi,” lanjut Samidi. “Meskipun keduanya sederhana, yang membedakan antara keduanya adalah kedalaman argumennya. Misal kalau common sense hanya bilang ‘langit itu biru’, dalam Al-Qur’an menyebutkan bahwa pada penciptaan langit dan bumi itu terdapat tanda-tanda kebesaran-Nya.”

Bagus mulai mengangguk pelan dan kemudian menanggapi, “Oke, oke. Kalau begitu yang kamu lakukan sekarang ini adalah mengidentifikasi peran seorang intelektual dalam horizon ilmu pengetahuan.”

Wedyan, canggih tenan kamu, Gus!” kata Samidi sambil sedikit sumringah. “Isa dadi judhul tesis kuwi!”

Tanpa menghiraukan komentar Samidi, Bagus segera mengambil bolpen dan kertas dari mejanya. Dengan bolpennya ia tarik dua sumbu horizontal dan vertikal yang membentuk sudut 90 derajat. Kemudian ia lanjutkan dengan membuat kurva lonceng yang cembung di bagian tengahnya. Kurva tersebut pun ia bagi menjadi beberapa bagian yang setiap bagiannya ia tandai. Setelah beberapa saat, Bagus mengarahkan kertas tersebut ke kamera laptopnya.

Sing awakmu jelaske mau, nek tak rangkum dadine ngene,” kata Bagus sambil menunjuk ke diagram yang baru saja ia gambar. Samidi tidak bisa menyembunyikan kekagumannya. Sambil membaca setiap tanda pada diagram tersebut, ia mengangguk-angguk tak bersuara.

Exactly, Gus! Itu yang tak maksud!” sahut Samidi bak Archimedes yang berteriak eureka. “Yang menjadi tugas seorang intelektual adalah memberikan penjelasan atas ilmu pengetahuan pada derajat kompleksitas menengah hingga derajat kompleksitas yang tinggi. Porsi itulah yang semestinya dipikul oleh seorang intelektual. Namun pada titik tertentu—seiring dengan bertambahnya kedalaman pada argumen—seorang intelektual yang baik akan mampu menurunkan tingkat kompleksitas penjelasannya. Seperti halnya Einstein. Di balik rumus sederhana Einstein terdapat begitu banyak pembuktian matematika yang sangat kompleks. Namun kerumitan tersebut mampu ia lampaui dan ia sajikan secara sederhana. Itu pula lah arah yang semestinya seorang intelektual tuju. Pelajarilah dunia ini dengan segala interaksinya. Tenggelamlah pada kerumitan teori, data, temuan, dan penjelasan. Baca apa yang sudah ditulis oleh pendahulu-pendahulu ilmu. Pahami sudut pandang mereka, kenali keterbatasannya. Jikalau kamu nantinya sampai pada titik jawaban, pada saat itulah kamu menemukan titik kesederhanaan. Pada akhirnya, titik kesederhanaan itulah yang membuat perjalanan intelektual ‘kembali’ kepada Qur’an. Kembali kepada Tuhan.”

Sumber: Gambar diagram Bagus yang disusun ulang oleh Samidi.

Sumber: Gambar diagram Bagus yang disusun ulang oleh Samidi.

Avoiding disjunctive scholarship

Ibn Khaldûn’s book “The Muqaddimah” has brought me to enter the scholarly activities around the 14th century. Yes, the 14th century, seven hundred years ago. A period of time that never before I cared so much, until now. Especially with my recent visit to Andalusia (where I witnessed the remnants of Islamic greatest achievements in Granada and Cordoba) the world’s history between (roughly) the 8th until 15th century cannot be neglected to understand where we are standing in the present day.

I recalled how Yasin, my tour guide and a good friend in Granada, described that every component of Alhambra is a pinnacle of scientific and artistic achievements during that time. I imagine, at that time, people were able not only to develop scientifically but also to practically apply those scientific advancement in their everyday life. It was a period when spiritual devotion elevates one’s scientific exploration.

It was based on that curiosity that I looked for any publications written by Muslim scholars at that time, especially in the social sciences. Then I came across Ibn Khaldûn’s “The Muqaddimah.” Ibn Khaldûn himself is known for his historical analysis of the Arabic world but, as I read further, his writings are also about sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, and business management. And wait, his analyses and theorizations are still very relevant with what we are dealing now in the 21st century! Socially, we seem to be not so much different from those in Ibn Khaldûn’s era.

This led me to explore other Muslim scholars (especially in philosophy and social sciences) such as, that I am trying to read so far, al-Ghazali, al-Kindi, and Ibn Battuta. All with two questions: What are their views of the world? And how their views relevant (or not) with the current scientific discourse? If the modern day social sciences pride themselves to refer to the work of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Anthony Giddens or Joseph Schumpeter, why don’t they refer as far back as those scholars in the 8th–15th century? Especially given the high relevance of the latter in today’s era.

Then I came to the conclusion that—as far as I read—what have been thought, discussed, and debated by our 20th and 21st-century scholars are not something new if compared to the problems back in the 14th century. In fact, our scholars in the past have been able to settle the problems in a much simpler and concise way than what is proposed now. If, in the past, we already possess such knowledge, then how come that we lose the knowledge now? When was it that we ‘lost the memory’ of such knowledge? We claim to live in the modern age, but it seems that we are now ‘re-inventing the wheel’ by discussing what has been discussed before. What exactly is this “modernity” means?

I believe that we can learn a great deal by coming closer to the writings of the great scholars in the past. Given the strong influence of the Middle Ages Muslim scholars in the subsequent scientific “progress” (what is ‘progress’ anyway?), it would be a significant blindspot for us if we never came across the works produced during that period. Their worldview, based on the faith that there is no god but God, is unique. And this colors their theorization in a way that is different from the modern day, secularistic view. As a Muslim student, I feel incomplete and unjust if I read so much about the writings of the Western scholars but never touched any work by the great Muslim scholars. Pak Sony Warsono, a respected senior lecturer from Universitas Gadjah Mada, said to me that Islam is currently not in a favorable “swing.” This is a reminder that every nation, every group of people, every ummah has its own rise and fall, and one cannot quicken or delay the time designated to each. What should we do (especially for Muslim scholars), then, to advance our knowledge and science for a better understanding the world? To improve ourselves, Ibn Khaldûn advises us to travel “in quest of knowledge” and meet “the authoritative teachers of his time” (Ibn Khaldûn, 2015, p. 426). If this means that you have to go to the US or Europe or Australia or Egypt, please go for it. Go for it.

Reference

Ibn Khaldûn. (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (F. Rosenthal, Trans.). Woodstock: Princeton University Press.


Thanks to the invention of a PhD position, I am able to spend my time thinking, reflecting, and writing about something of “very little practical relevance” and instead carried away to contemplate the doings of people and how could we make sense of why they do what they do in the way they do.

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