The basic tenet of Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims is that the word of God, i.e., the Quran, is not open to interpretation; the meaning is apparent from what is stated and woe unto those who indulge in the needless and dangerous talk of interpretation.
On the other hand, those who hold views similar to those held in the Mutazilite tradition, for example Shias and some Sunni sects, believe that the literal meaning needs to be interpreted and we can interpret the Quran to obtain its true meaning.
Interestingly, two groundbreaking, and opposed works by the same man, the unrivaled genius Ludwig Wittgenstein, shed valuable light on these issues.
Wittgenstein was the protege of the great Bertrand Russell. He set out to lay the base for Russell’s and Frege’s program of developing semantics for formal language (maths), which resulted in his landmark work ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’. However in his later years, to his great credit, he did what very few thinkers in history have been able to do: He declared his previous groundbreaking work to be wrong, and went on to present other equally, if not more, groundbreaking ideas about language.
In his first landmark work, the Tractatus, the so-called ‘Early Wittgenstein’ argues that all propositions in natural language, while ambiguous on surface, can be subjected to a technique called logical analysis, using which their true meaning can be found. If people perform ‘logical analysis’ of the text, they would discover its true meaning. This is analogous to the Mutazilite tradition, which holds that the interpretation of a text can reveal its real meaning.
However, this is not what the Salafis/Wahhabis argue. What they say is that we have to adhere to the apparent meaning of the text and that the real meaning is only God’s prerogative.
And this brings us to the so-called ‘Later Wittgenstein’, who argues, ostensibly on the Wahhabi side, that there is no such thing as the real or essential meaning of language utterances. The later Wittgenstein came to realize that no such technique as logical analysis, for discovering the “essential meaning” of a text, could actually be applied in practice. To argue his point, Wittgenstein used the concept of a “Language Game”. The following is an example of a “Language Game” involving a shopkeeper given by him:
“I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples”. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a color sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers [. . .] up to the word five and for each number he takes an apple of the same color as the apple out of the drawer.”
Wittgenstein aims to show through this simple example that language words or utterances function in different ways for different people. For the shopkeeper the word “Apple” means that he has to pick objects from the apple drawer. Similarly the word ‘red’ tells him to consult a color sample; and the world “five” tells him to count out numbers till five while picking an apple with each count.
However, notice that people playing another “language game”, for example a group of children eating red apples, would have different functions for these words. And this is where obviously Wittgenstein goes against Wahhabi doctrines as well. Apparent meaning, which Wahhabis want to adhere to, is different for different people, and those others who are not playing the same “language game” as us, would ascribe different functions for the same words.
So the only way others can ascribe the same meaning to the text as us is for them to play the same language game. And if they do not wish to play that game, then we either leave them alone or force them to play our game!
Therefore, much like the US imperialists should drop all rhetoric of democracy and human rights, and proudly and unashamedly attack and destroy other countries, it would be very honorable and honest on the part of Wahhabi Islamists to drop the garb of literal/apparent meaning, and openly admit that they want to force everyone to adhere to their specific apparent meaning of the Quran. At least this is is what Wittgenstein would tell them!