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A grammar of religion: Metaphorical understanding of religious discourse

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Thesis type
(Thesis) M.A.
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This thesis addresses the need for a metaphoric understanding of religious language. However, the task to distinguish metaphoric meanings from literal ones is not always easy because all linguistic meaning, metaphoric or not, is expressed through the literal. While there has been some research that has shed light on the problem of metaphoric language and religion, no academic work has been done regarding this problem with respect to the religion of Islam. This thesis is an attempt to fill that gap. Since accounting for the comprehension of meaning is a complex endeavor, the study of metaphor lends itself naturally to philosophy. Therefore, I review two philosophical accounts, those of Paul Grice and Josef Stern before I discuss the two linguistic views of metaphor that I embrace, those being Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) and Relevance Theory (RT).In adopting Conceptual Metaphor Theory, I build on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s cognitive linguistics work (1980), which changed what we know about language and cognition. In terms of Relevance Theory, I draw from Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s work (1986; 2008) and Carston’s (2002; 2010) to make my argument that relevance is a pre-requisite for metaphorical understanding of religious language. Both theories proved helpful in providing a harmonious analysis. Using both these theories, I analyze an underlying Quranic metaphor, life is a test. I clarify that it is not directly stated in the Qur’an, yet Muslims use it in everyday discourse, and take it as if were literal. I argue that the concept has to be essentially metaphoric for it to be consistent with the Islamic belief of God as All-Knowing and I discuss its inferences and entailments. Since this underlying metaphor reveals the Islamic view of life and its purpose, I further examine the metaphorical nature of religious discourse, by analyzing part of a relevant religious lecture given by the spiritual consultant of Az Zahraa Islamic Centre in Richmond, British Columbia. One of the examples I analyse in this lecture utilizes the Journey domain, while another reveals the Container schema. Although both theories seem to be able to account for this Quranic metaphor, yielding the same cognitive result (CMT through domain mapping and RT through lexical adjustment), Relevance Theory was especially useful in providing the terminology to describe how I arrive at the metaphoric realization, that being “the search for relevance”. This suggests that RT has more explanatory power for understanding problematic concepts which might not seem to make sense, while CMT is well-suited for analyzing non-problematic metaphors. In the life as test metaphor, a conceptual metaphoric analysis was not even possible without the cognitive maximisation of relevance. I agree, therefore, with the scholars who argue that the two theories are not contradictory and hence should be integrated. The thesis also includes a transcription of other excerpts that are rich in poetic metaphors, with a discussion of how religious discourse contains some metaphorical expressions that stem from our embodiment and others that are merely “loosely” used.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Hedberg, Nancy
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