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Divergent Thinking and the Religious Texts: The Case of Islam
Mar 1, 2012

The concept of divergent thinking was first mentioned by prominent psychologist J. P. Guilford (1950), who defined it as "thinking in multiple ways." Divergent thinking has been regarded as one of the most important components of creativity. A person with a high divergent thinking ability is the one who has the potential to produce many and original ideas. As well as the traditional solutions, divergent thinkers can find several ways which many others cannot imagine. Divergent thinking has been conceptualized as opposed to (and also complementary to) convergent thinking, which means thinking in a particular way to attain the single best answer. Therefore, convergent thinking has been thought to be more related to intelligence and is basic for academic testing.

Especially after the 1950s, divergent thinking has been studied a lot by psychologists. Innovations, discoveries and novelties have been associated with divergent thinking which intrigued the scholars in the fields of management, military and advertisement, as well as psychology and education. However, we lack studies that link the concept of divergent thinking to religious texts. One basic contribution of employing divergent thinking to religious texts would be to broaden the understanding of the texts and to seek alternative perspectives. Such endeavor seems consistent with the consideration that religion (hence, religious texts) is an everlasting source of wisdom and inspiration, and if so, why is it confined to the early interpretations? Why not become seekers of original interpreters of religious texts and discover the unveiled aspects of it? This article will discuss the perspective from psychology and religious texts to find an answer for these questions in the case of Islam.

Among the several views on divergent thinking, a brief psychological framework that can be applied to religious texts would be helpful. This framework was conceptualized by Donald Campbell (1960). According to this, in order for original ideas to appear, the initial task would be thinking in various ways. This phase is called "blind variation." Think of the question "List possible uses of a brick." Possible answers to such prompts would be "build a wall," "break into pieces," "step on it to reach something" or "use as a pillow." Among those responses, the first one ("build a wall") would be a conventional response while the second, third and fourth responses are non-conventional or original ideas. However, the fourth one "use as a pillow" does not seem to be an appropriate or useful response even though it is original. Therefore, appropriateness and originality may not go hand in hand and such original but non-useful and inappropriate ideas should be filtered out. This phase is called "selective retention" which makes the process of divergent thinking more valid and a functional way of idea generation. When we apply this two-stage method of idea generation to the field of theology, verse(s) of the spiritual texts could be regarded as prompts to ponder systematically.

Two basic approaches to religions should be recalled here. One school of thought, known as orthodoxy, refers to adherence to traditional and established views on the texts. Because of the persistence on the traditional views, orthodoxy was regarded in relation to dogmatism and accused of lacking originality (Shedd, 1893). Heterodoxy implies a departure from the established and traditional views of orthodoxy. Apparently, this article does not favor a strict orthodoxy as it does not add new perspectives to our understanding of the religions. On the other hand, the extent of departure which is not at odds with the general framework of a given religion is of interest. Given the two aspects of divergent thinking (blind variation and selective retention) discussed above, generation of original ideas and novel inspirations from the religious texts can be theoretically achieved without deviating from the given frameworks of the religions.

Divergent thinking for religious texts

If one thinks of religious texts of the monotheistic religions, Biblical Judaism goes back to 4th century BCE; Christianity has a history of more than two millennium. Islam, being the recent religion, has a history of 15 centuries. The texts are obviously old and for an academic field of study, there is an enormous amount of knowledge accumulated throughout the centuries by many scholars. On the other hand, those deeply rooted traditions have created their own ways of understanding which contributed to the convergence and contraction of the interpretations. Even though converging perspectives might yield more accurate interpretations, it is still possible that many subtle or alternative aspects of religious texts have probably been ignored or not yet discovered.

As time goes by, the discrepancy between the interpretation of human beings and the original texts have increased with excessive amounts of the interpretations masking the divine message of the original texts. Interpretations converged and shrank even more since new generations were simply taught what the early generations have understood instead of being encouraged to generate new meanings. The natural transmission of religious knowledge survived for centuries. Yet, it is possible to put forward that convergent thinking has been overwhelmingly weighted in the field of theology as in other fields for the purpose of finding the single best interpretation of religious texts. We owe current level of knowledge to those scholars with a divergent mind who intervened in the process of religious thinking and teaching, and enlarged the horizons of religious thought.

As a matter of fact, older interpretations of religious texts may not always be compatible with the problems and needs of contemporary life. Since the life conditions and the intellectual climate (or zeitgeist) have dramatically changed and today's intellectuals are educated in a different mindset which separate religious thought and scientific/philosophical issues into two distinct categories, arguments of theologians have become less convincing than they used to be. Critically, this insufficiency has been attributed to the religion itself such as "opiate of the masses" rather than the religious scholars who are unable to reproduce the religious thinking in contemporary ages without removing it from its fundamentals or simply attempting to reform it. For a theologian who believes in the idea that the role and mission of religion never ends and the religion is able to guide human beings eternally, being satisfied with the traditional views and taken-for-granted interpretations should not suffice. Indeed, the attempt to inquire new ways of interpretations of the scriptures does not necessarily negate the previous interpretations because they had validity under certain conditions in the past, and can explain today to a considerable degree. In other words, employment of divergent thinking in understanding the texts should aim to enrich and widen perspectives of the individuals rather than replacing the current views and reforming the religions.

The contribution of divergent thinking to religions can be seen in the works of scholars who came up with divergent interpretations to the texts. Richness in their interpretations without imposing necessarily one unique truth provides the readers with room for elaborating on the texts and interpretations. This attitude helps people to diverge their thinking and even go beyond what they literally see in the texts.

Some examples

There are many examples of divergent interpretation in the works of Said Nursi who is a prominent twentieth century Muslim scholar. One of the foremost features of Nursi is his approach to questions, verses of Qur'an and hadiths (collection of writings that document the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) in multiple ways. For example, Nursi has shown several ways to interpret one hadith about cosmology:

People asked the Prophet what the earth rests upon. He replied that the earth rests upon a fish and another time upon an ox. This hadith has been discredited given the cosmology knowledge of human beings when it is taken literally. However, alternative explanations of the hadith show how some allegoric statements in the religious texts can be understood. His first interpretation was about the angels created by God who are responsible for every creation in the universe called as "commissioned angels."

Two angels were created for the earth. Their names were "thawr" (meaning ox) and ‘hut' (meaning fish). With that in mind, this verse means that the earth would not survive if these angels did not take care of it.

Another interpretation was related to the way people make their living. Especially in the past, people were making their living through farming and hunting. Ox represents the farming and fish represents hunting. The third interpretation is based on the different answers given at different times. According to this interpretation, the earth was on particular cosmological position or horoscope. Nursi also argued that this kind of response is legitimate because people at that time would not understand the complexity of the cosmology and the Prophet told them the truth in a way they would understand.

Another such example that Nursi interprets by going beyond its literal meaning is the verse about Moses (peace be upon him):

Again (remember) when Moses (on an occasion when his people were without water in the desert) beseeched water for his people, so We told him: "Strike the rock with your staff!" (As soon as he struck) there gushed forth from it twelve springs. Each tribe knew their drinking place. Eat and drink of that which God has provided, and do not go about acting wickedly on earth, causing disorder and corruption. (Qur'an 2:60)

According to Nursi, this verse prophesized the discovery of sounding underground to get water. This explanation is legitimate given the context that the solution is suggested "miraculously" after the people asked help from Moses for their need for water.

Nursi, as a divergent thinker, viewed the miracles in the Qur'an in a different way than others. In classical view, the extraordinary events that take place in Qur'an were indicative of the strength that God has granted some special people in history. Nursi did not restrict those verses within this view. According to him, those verses conveyed a more critical message for us as well as their message in their own contexts. The extraordinary events that happened in the past also indicate the ultimate level human beings can arrive at by working hard on sciences. This message of the miracles is the possibility that other people who work hard on understanding the rules of the nature designed by God could also achieve what have been wondrously achieved before. Therefore, those miracles that the Qur'an mentioned are not some stories that should solely bewilder, but call human beings to go beyond their limited knowledge and discover the further facts. If every technology that we take for granted was some sort of a miracle in the past, why not chase the new "miracles" by thinking outside of the box? As a result, the miracles in the Qur'an are more than the stories of unexplainable events. Such subtle messages however, are read only by divergent minds that transcend the cursory meanings.

There are many examples which scientific advances uncovered alternative interpretations of texts. The Fountain readers are very lucky to brainstorm novel interpretations. One example of divergent explanations about the verses of Holy Qur'an is the description of creation of iron. In one issue several years back Nuh Gedik (2006) brought an interesting comment on the 25th verse of Sura Hadid: "…And We sent down Iron, in which is great might, as well as many benefits for mankind…." Scholars used to interpret "sending down" the iron as one of the God-sent blessings coming from above, His supreme treasure consisting of everything. "Sending down" is taken as metaphorical, reflecting the relationship (status) between human beings and God, rather than its literal meaning. Even though this interpretation might be correct, Gedik argued that being "physically sent down from the sky miraculously points out to a very important scientific fact that was discovered only very recently" (Gedik, 2006).

According to Gedik, supernova explosions that create very high energy and heat can allow a heavy element like iron to form. According to this scenario, formation of iron can be attributed to supernova explosions that occur in Space and "sent down" on earth rather than the scenario that presumes iron resides under the soil as a consequence of some chemical reactions. While these two scenarios do not necessarily conflict, the former and more recent one gives birth to another interpretation.

The same verse inspired other divergent minds too. Salih S. Duran (2009) explained another mechanism that results in the "sending down" of iron. According to this argument, desert sands in varied magnitude travels on the air and are hanged on the atmosphere where the miraculous chemical reactions that reduce Fe+3 to Fe+2 are fulfilled with the help of water vapor and sun. Eventually, resultant iron materials are descended to earth with the rains. Those two novel explanations are neither the best nor the ultimate perspectives, but are worth considering while reading the Qur'an.


More examples can be found, but a critical question still remains to be answered: Can we come up with any interpretation for the verses? Are there limitations to interpret the verses? The answer for these questions lies in the perspective that is provided in the beginning of this article where I discussed the processes of blind variation and selective retention. Religions (specifically Islam in the scope of this article) have basic belief systems and the understanding of the verses and hadiths have to be understood in accordance with this basic structure. For this reason, some original interpretations may not be the valid interpretations. In fact, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, warned "Whoever explains the Qur'an according to his [wrong] personal opinion shall take his place in Hell." Some experts who focused on the outward meanings of the Qur'an have argued that this hadith prohibits personal interpretations at all, and understanding and interpreting Qur'an should merely rely on early interpretations like those of Ibn Abbas and other exegetes. Quasam (1982) outlined Al-Gazali's theory regarding the recitation and interpretation of the Qur'an where he objected to the interpretation of this hadith as evidence negating the attempts to make new interpretations. He argued that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, also said that "Surely the Qur'an has an outward aspect, inward aspect, a limit and a prelude." If there is an inward aspect, how can we achieve to learn it? Assuming that early interpretations have covered all possible meanings contradicts with the presence of inward aspect. If the outward meaning is clear and enough, and there is no need to seek anything new in it, why did Ali, the fourth caliph, say "If I so will I can certainly load seventy camels with the exegesis of the Opening Sura (chapter) of the Book" while this chapter is very short? Then the question is, how can we reconcile those hadiths which seem to conflict with each other?

Al-Gazali argued that this hadith actually prohibits the interpretations which aim to adduce arguments that favor interpreters' own purposes or passions whether it is a valid purpose or not. With such incentive, the interpretation is simply corrupt rather than a personal effort to understand the Qur'an. A second reason is to prohibit those who try to interpret the Qur'an without any fundamental knowledge of the Qur'an and Arabic language which are necessary for the outward aspects. Therefore, this hadith should be seen as a warning for the appropriateness of the interpretations. Now, the nature of divergent thinking as suggested by Campbell (1960) should be recalled. Even though developing several meanings of the religious texts corresponding to blind variation is critical, it should be tested within the overall framework of the religions which is the criterion for the stage of selective retention.

To conclude, divergent thinking is one of the promising abilities of human intellect that many fields like education, psychology, management and military have utilized. However, the need for divergent thinkers is increased in the era which people cannot appreciate the intellectual depth in religious texts. Different and legitimate interpretations of religious texts will reform people's minds regarding the potential in the old texts for our civilization and intellectual life. Contributions of Islamic scholars like Said Nursi should encourage other divergent minds for new inspirations and state-of-art perspectives.

Zekeriya Ozsoy is doctoral student studying educational psychology. For correspondence with the author: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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