Origins and Development of Systematic Theology
Origins and Development of Systematic Theology
The Problem of Authenticity . Kalam, the ArAbic word for “theology,” literally means “speech” or “word.” It was used in ArAbic translations of works by Greek philosophers as a synonym of the Greek word logos, which means “word,” “reason,” or “argument.” In the works of Muslim theologians who were influenced by Greek philosophy, theologois the Greek word for “theologians,” was translated as “masters of the divine Kalam” or “practitioners of Kalam in divinity.” In this way, Kalam came to signify formal or systematic theology. The interchange ability of the terms logos and kalam reflects one of the major problems of systematic theology in Islam—the reliance of this discipline on methods and terminologies that came from outside the Islamic tradition. For the opponents of Kalam, this problem was proof that systematic theology was an inauthentic discipline, alien in its origins and development from the original sources of Islam.
Kalam as a Formal Discipline . Kalam came into its own as a formal discipline during the reign of the Abbasid khal-ifah Harun al-Rashid (ruled 786–809). The first century of Abbasid rule (circa 750–850) was a period of great intellectual ferment. The new capital of Baghdad in Iraq, possibly the largest city in the world at that time, attracted visitors from as far away as Byzantium, Africa, and India. A thriving book trade stimulated translations of Greek, Christian, and Indian works. Many scholars of this period came from non-Arab backgrounds. Their parents or grandparents had converted to Islam from Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastri-anism, Manichaeism, and other religions of the Middle East and Asia. Christian theologians writing in Arabic, such as Theodore Abu Qurrah (circa 750–826) and the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I (died 823), debated Muslims at the Abbasid court and added to Muslims’ knowledge of Christian theological arguments. The annotated bibliography of writings in Arabic compiled by Ibn al-Nadim (circa 936–995), a scholar and librarian from Baghdad, mentions eighty Greek authors whose works were translated into Arabic. The multicultural environment of Abbasid Iraq had much to do with the development of Kalam as an intellectual discipline.
Methodology . The hallmark of Kalam was the discussion of theological issues with little or no recourse to tradition as a source of proof texts. When a scriptural passage was used to prove a point, it usually came from the Qur’an, not from hadiths. Instead of a saying of the Prophet, logical arguments—usually taken from Greek philosophical models—were used to prove or disprove assertions. The literary style of Kalam treatises was the dialectical method, also known as the point-counterpoint debate (munazara or jadal). Kalam treatises were often written as a series of disputations in which an opponent’s opinion was signaled by the phrase “if it is said,” and the author’s opinion was signaled by the phrase “it is said” or “it should be answered.” Masjids, private homes, schools, and the audience halls of government officials were the sites of Kalam debates. In the
intellectual culture of the time, Kalam was a performative discipline: reputations were made and lost in public disputations before highly trained audiences. A frustrating aspect of Kalam texts for the modern reader is that the lively debate that originally gave rise to an argument is not reproduced in the text, and a dry, stylistic formalism takes its place. To regain the flavor of the debate, the medieval reader of a Kalam text would have to reconstruct the original context of the argument, drawing on years of study with Kalam instructors and fellow students.
Christianity and Kalam . During the height of the Abbasid khilafah in the ninth and tenth centuries, Islamic thought was eclectic; that is, it shared many concepts and terminologies with neighboring cultures and intellectual traditions. This eclecticism is evidence of the confidence that Muslims had in their religious and political institutions. For scholars living in the Abbasid era, Islam had created the most powerful empire since ancient Rome; Baghdad was the economic and cultural capital of the world; and the teachings of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad were on the cutting edge of religious history. It was only a matter of time, they believed, before Islam became the universal religion of the world. This optimistic outlook allowed Muslim thinkers to interact freely with representatives of other religions and engage with them in public debates. Texts derived from Christian and Jewish sources were used to amplify arguments that the Qur’an touched on only briefly. Collections of stories and legends known as Israiliyat (Stories of Israel) were used by commentators on the Qur’an to fill in the details of biblical narratives.
Terminology . The writings of Arab Christians provided early Kalam scholars with key theological terms. An example of this influence can be found in the debate over God’s attributes. In the eighth century, there arose in Islam the belief that certain of the “names” of Allah in the Qur’an stand for real entities, which have existed in God from eternity. The opponents of this view accused its adherents of borrowing ideas from the Christian concept of the Trinity. To a certain extent, this charge was true. The most common Kalam terms for “divine attribute” are mana and sifah. Kalam scholars who believed in divine attributes conceived of these qualities—such as power, glory, and mercy—as “things” or “entities” that exist co-eternally with God. The Arabic word for “thing” or “entity” is shay. Arab Christian theologians, starting with Theodore Abu Qur-rah, used shay as a translation of the Greek word pragma, which also means “thing” or “entity.” Christian theologians used the term pragma to describe the three parts of the Christian Trinity. The Arab Christian philosopher Yahya ibn ‘Adi (died 974), commenting on a work by Abu Qur-rah’s teacher John of Damascus (circa 675 – circa 754), used the Arabic term sifah to describe the attributes of each “person” of the Trinity: existence, essence, and generosity are sifat of the Father, life and wisdom are sifat of the Son, and knowledge, life, and power are sifat of the Holy Spirit. The Muslim use of the term sifah for divine attributes dates from the same period. More than a century and a half earlier, the Shi’ite theologian Hisham ibn al-Hakam (died 815) used the related term mana to describe the essential attributes of God. Like John of Damascus and Abu Qur-rah, he believed that divine attributes such as knowledge and power are incorporeal “bodies” or “things” that co-exist with God. The difference was that for Hisham there was no separation of God’s attributes into three categories or “persons.” These “things” were instead essential attributes of the One God and were paired with the Qur’anic “names” that most closely resembled them.
From the Qadariyyah to the Mu’tazila . One of the most vehement opponents of the doctrine of divine attributes was Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ (699–748), a native of Basrah who was a student of Hasan al-Basri. According to Wasil, “he who posits a ‘thing’ or an ‘attribute’ as eternal posits two gods.” For Wasil, divine unity meant divine simplicity. According to his understanding of the statement “There is no god but Allah,” nothing but God is equal to God or is even a part of God, including God’s own actions and attributes. Attributes of God cannot be eternal because only God Himself is eternal. Thus, the “names” of God mentioned in the Qur’an are not real entities. They are only metaphors, figures of speech or created “modes” of divine action.
Theological Rationalism . Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ is best known as the founder of the Mu’tazila, a movement of theological rationalism that supported the Qadarite doctrine of free choice. Lasting for approximately four hundred years, Mu’tazilism became the official theology of the Abbasid khilafah in the mid ninth century and enjoyed a revival in the guise of Islamic modernism in the twentieth century. Western scholars of Islam have favored the Mu’tazila because their doctrines seemed to foreshadow the rationalistic philosophy of the European Enlightenment. Such scholars forget, however, that the Mu’tazila were not modern liberals. Although they favored reason over tradition, they would not have agreed with the Enlightenment critique of religion, and they followed the decidedly nonlib-eral policy of persecuting their opponents when they had political power.
Origins of Mu’tazilism . According to the standard account of the origin of the Mu’tazila, Hasan al-Basri was asked during one of his lessons whether a grave sinner should be counted as a believer or an unbeliever. When Hasan hesitated, his student Wasil replied that the grave sinner was neither a believer nor an unbeliever but occupied an “intermediate position” between the two. Having contradicted his teacher, Wasil withdrew (itazald)to another part of the masjid, followed by several of Hasan’s students. Despite the popularity of this story, historical research has determined that it is no more than a legend. Modern scholars believe that the term Mutazila was originally political in nature. Like the term Murjiah, it connoted “neutrality” or “withdrawal,” most probably from the conflicts that raged between the Umayyads and their opponents. During the four centuries of its existence as a major theological movement, Mu’tazilism spread as far as North Africa and Central Asia and left a strong influence on Shi’ite theology, but in its formative years it was confined almost exclusively to Iraq. In the eighth and ninth centuries two Mu’tazilite theological schools formed in Basrah and in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.
The Basrah School . The more important of the two schools was the Basrah school. Basrah Mu’tazilism was primarily associated with Abu al-Hudhayl (752 – circa 840), whose most creative period was before the year 800. Abu al-Hudhayl was noted for his debates with Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians and was eventually asked to settle in Baghdad, near the khalifah and the chief ministers of the Abbasid court. Politically, he was anti-Shi’ite. He believed that the choice of a khalifah was a matter for the Muslim community to decide and that the community would choose the best candidate. On the subject of ‘Uthman’s khilafah, he argued that ‘Uthman was more qualified than ‘Ali during the first six years of his rule; as for the remainder of ‘Uthman’s khilafah, he refused to make a judgment. In doctrinal matters, Abu al-Hudhayl appears to have been the first to formulate the Mu’tazilite Five Principles.
The Baghdad School . As Basrah Mu’tazilism grew in popularity under Abu al-Hudhayl, another branch of the movement formed in Baghdad under Bishr ibn al-Mu’tamir (died after 817). Bishr was a noted poet as well as a theologian and composed refutations of his theological opponents in verse. Under Bishr, the Baghdad school of
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the Mu’tazila enjoyed close relations with the Abbasid court. These relations culminated in the proclamation of Mu’tazil-ism as the official theology of Islam by the khalifahs al-Ma’mun (ruled 813–833), al-Mutasim (ruled 833–842), and al-Wathiq (ruled 842–847). Politically, the Baghdad Mu’tazilites held a more favorable view of Shnsm than did their counterparts in Basrah. Bishr ibn al-Mu’tamir accompanied the khalifah al-Ma’mun to the Central Asian city of Merv in 817 in order to proclaim ‘Ali al-Rida, the eighth leader of the Imami Shi’ites, heir to the khilafah.
Free Choice . Both schools of the Mu’tazila supported the Qadarite doctrine of free choice. They believed that it would be unjust for God to punish people for acts for which they were not responsible, and they concluded that if God commands human beings to do something, they must have the ability (istitaati)or independent power (qudrah] to do it. Thus, they said that even if God knows that a person will not obey His commands, he cannot be punished until he demonstrates that he has freely chosen to disobey. Children, captives, and the mentally or physically impaired are not held accountable for their actions because they do not have the Ability to make a rationally considered choice between moral alternatives. According to Abu al-Hudhayl, the Ability to act in a morally correct way is a potential that resides in all human beings. Before acting, each person must decide which of two possibilities will be carried out: he or she will act either as God commands or contrary to God’s command. This moment of decision separates the potential act from the actual act. God judges only the actual act, after it has been performed. Expanding on this view, Bishr ibn al-Mu’tamir advocated the doctrine of “secondary effects” (tawallud). He asserted that any secondary effect that is generated from a person’s act is also that “act,” and therefore the person’s responsibility. Bishr’s doctrine of secondary effects is similar to the modern legal concept of liAbility, in which a company can be sued for injuries resulting from the fabrication of a faulty product.
Inquisition . Shortly before his death in 833, the khalifah al-Ma’mun instructed the governor of Baghdad to require all state-appointed judges to submit to an examination of their beliefs. This inquisition lasted for seventeen years and resulted in the persecution, imprisonment, and even torture of many Muslim scholars. When the khalifah al-Mutawakkil ended the inquisition in 850, the Baghdad school of the Mu’tazila fell out of favor. During this period, al-Jahiz (circa 776–869), a well-known essayist and theologian of the Baghdad school, wrote Fadilat al-Mutazila (The Excellence of the Mu’tazila), a treatise defending Mu’tazilism. Later, Ibn al-Rawandi (died 910), a Shnte political activist and theological freethinker, wrote Fadihat al-Mutazila (The Disaster of the Mu’tazila), a refutation of al-Jahiz’s work.
The Spread of Mu’tazilism . After the decline of the Baghdad Mu’tazila, the movement continued to be influential in Basrah, from whence it spread to the rich and heavily populated cities of eastern Iran and Central Asia. The Basrah school reached its zenith under a father and son known as the “Two Masters,” Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i (died 915) and Abu Hashim ibn al-Jubba’i (died 933). These “Two Masters” had an enormous influence on the subsequent development of the Kalam tradition. For the Mu’tazila, the son was more influential than the father. Through his student Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Basri (died 977) and al-Basri’s student Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar (died 1024), Abu Hashim’s views on Mu’tazilite theology became dominant among the later Mu’tazila. The influence of Abu Hashim’s father, Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i, was also important. Apart from his son, Abu ‘Ali’s most-prized pupil was Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (died 935). Al-Ash’ari eventually rejected the doctrines of Jubba’i and left to form his own school of theology, that of the Ash’arites, which became the most influential Kalam school of Sunni Islam.
The Five Principles . The most important sources of information on Mu’tazilite theology are the works of al-Ash’ari and Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar. Originally from Hamadan in Iran, ‘Abd al-Jabbar served as chief judge (qadi al-qudai)of the city of Rayy, which was located near modern Tehran. Rayy controlled the trade routes from Iran to the Byzantine Empire and was one of the most important cities of the Buyids, a family of Shi’ite military leaders who governed the Abbasid state from 945 to 1055. As patrons of both Imami Shi’ite and Mu’tazilite theologians, the Buyids presided over the period in which Imami Shi’ism became influenced by Mu’tazilite theology and developed the doctrines by which it is known today.
Systematization . Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar was best known as a compiler and systematizer of Mu’tazilite thought. He built a comprehensive and coherent system of theological thinking on the foundations laid for him by the older generations of Mu’tazila. He considered his greatest merit to be the creation of a systematic approach to theological questions and the elaboration of theological arguments. ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s most important works are al-Mughni whose full title is translated as “The Comprehensive Book on the Subjects of Divine Unity and Justice,” and Kitab al-usul al-khamsah (Book of the Five Principles). These works are a synopsis of the teachings of the Basrah school of Mu’tazilism as represented by the followers of Abu Hashim.
Unity . The first and most important principle of Mu’tazilite theology was divine unity (tawhid}. For ‘Abd al-Jabbar, knowledge of divine unity depends first of all on the knowledge that God exists. This sort of knowledge is based on rational thought (nazar), which is a responsibility imposed on all human beings. The rational knowledge of God is based on four kinds of evidence: reason, the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, and the consensus of the Muslims. Of these four kinds of evidence, reason is the most important because the validity of scripture, tradition, and consensus is based on the rational knowledge that God exists, that He is truthful, and that He would not deceive his creatures. One of the
most important Mu’tazilite arguments for the existence of God is the argument from contingency. Reason, which is based on experience, tells one that one cannot live forever and that one is limited in one’s powers and Abilities. Thus, a person is a contingent being: one must depend on something outside of oneself for one’s creation and support. This noncontingent, necessary being is God, who is unlike human beings in every respect. People die, but God is the Living; God, not people, is the ultimate Creator of all things; God is the Powerful, but people are constantly confronted by their powerlessness.
Negative Theology . The argument from contingency is an example of negative theology, a discourse about the nature of God that is based not on God’s positive attributes but on logical oppositions. God is whatever the human being is not. Another approach to negative theology is to describe God in terms of what God is not. According to al-Ash’ari, this approach was also practiced by the Mu’tazila: “The Mu’tazila agree that God is one; there is no thing like Him.… He is not a body, not a form, not flesh and blood, not an individual, not a substance or an attribute … not begetting nor begotten; magnitudes do not comprehend Him, nor do veils cover Him; the senses do not attain Him; He is not comparable to men and does not resemble creatures in any respect.” Because God is exalted above all forms of resemblance, statements of God in the Qur’an such as “What prevents you from prostrating yourself before what I have created with my two hands?” (38: 75) can only be metaphorical. The “hands” of God must stand for something other than real hands, such as God’s Ability to create and maintain the world. All the other divine names and attributes in the Qur’an are metaphorical as well. They should be understood as partial and approximate descriptions of a divine reality that is ultimately indescribable. The Mu’tazila accused those who believed in the reality of divine attributes of falling into the heresies of anthropomorphism, the belief that God has human attributes such as hands or a face, or corporealism the belief that God’s attributes are corporeal entities that exist within Him.
Justice . The fundamental principle of Mu’tazilite ethics was divine justice. Justice, as understood by the Mu’tazila, was based on two hypotheses and a corollary: God desires good for human beings; thus, He does not will or create evil; God provides guidance for human beings in the form of divine revelations; thus, He does not want people to go astray; and follows from these hypotheses that God cannot force human beings to commit immoral or unlawful acts. God would be unjust if He punished people for acts that He forced them to perform. In their writings on ethics the Mu’tazila faced a problem that was as old as Socrates: Does God give laws to human beings because the laws themselves are good, or are the laws good because God made them? For most Sunni theologians, God’s laws as revealed in the Qur’an and the Sunnah are good and must be obeyed because they come from God. For the Mu’tazila, God’s laws are objectively good. That is, reason demonstrates that they are beneficial for humankind, even without the aid of the Qur’an. Following Bishr ibn al-Mu’tamir, Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar viewed the Shari’ah—the law of Islam—as a grace or blessing (ni’mati) bestowed by God on humanity. This grace is like a rope thrown to a drowning man or food given to a starving person. God provides the opportunity for salvation, but it is up to the human being to accept it or reject it.
Explaining Suffering . Another problem discussed by the Mu’tazila had to do with theodicy: How should one understand the suffering caused by natural disasters or human actions? ‘Abd al-Jabbar argued that bad things happen in the world, but to attribute injustice to God would mean that God willed something that He hated or prohibited something that He wanted. This idea, said ‘Abd al-Jabbar, was absurd. Other Mu’tazilites tried to posit reasons for God’s appearing to make bad things happen to good people. Bishr ibn al-Mu’tamir argued that, when innocents were killed in acts of war or natural disasters, God was punishing them for hidden sins or preventing them from committing evil in the future. ‘Abd al-Jabbar tried to soften Bishr’s harsh judgment by arguing that God granted an indemnity to innocent people for their sufferings. As proof, he cited the following saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “The pen [of judgment] is raised in three instances: a man sleeping until he awakens, a child until he reaches puberty, and a madman until he recuperates.” Even animals earned an indemnity for their suffering. Some Mu’tazilites suggested that grazing animals killed for food would be granted everlasting enjoyment in the pastures of Paradise. Beasts of prey posed a greater moral problem because their survival depended on the suffering of other animals. The Baghdad Mu’tazilite Ja’far ibn Harb (died 850) believed that carnivorous beasts were condemned to prey on each other in a “stopping place” (mawgif) between heaven and hell. Others said that beasts of prey would go to hell, but only in order to punish human evildoers.
Divine Promise and Threat . The Mu’tazilite principle of promise and threat (al-wa’d wa al-waiz)was a corollary of the principle of justice. Most simply, it meant that whatever God promises is bound to come to pass. For some Mu’tazilites, this “promise” included a predetermined date for the end of a person’s life (ajaf). Abu al-Hudhayl was so convinced that a person’s days were numbered that he said, if a murdered man were somehow spared from being killed, he would die on the same day from another cause. Other Mu’tazilites, seeing that Abu al-Hudhayl’s fatalism might contradict the concept of free choice, sought to draw a distinction between a person’s sustenance (rizq) which was predetermined by God, and the moral course of one’s life, which was a matter of personal choice.
Intercession . Among the later Mu’tazila, discussions about the principle of promise and threat were mostly about eschatology. ‘Abd al-Jabbar discussed the promise of heaven for the virtuous believer and the threat of hellfire for the grave sinner. In particular, he sought to disprove the Murjiite assertion that the grave sinner may have access to salvation through the intercession of prophets and saints. Although Mu’tazilite theology, which stresses divine transcendence over divine immanence, seems to rule out the possibility of intercession, ‘Abd al-Jabbar did not deny that intercession exists, but he limited the scope of intercession by saying that it increases only the degree of virtue that a person already possesses: intercession cannot transform a vice into a virtue. For ‘bd al-Jabbar, the Murjiite statement “Where there is faith, there is no sin” contradicts the logic of the Qur’anic arguments about justice. As a Mu’tazilite, he believed that hadith accounts affirming intercession for the grave sinner should not be allowed to contradict a statement made by God in the Qur’an or the logic based on it.
The Intermediate Position . The “intermediate position” (al-manzilah bayn al-manzilatayn) was one of the two principles of Mu’tazilite theology that defined Mu’tazilism for Sunni historians. It is said that this principle caused Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ to remove himself from the circle of Hasan al-Basri and start a new theological movement. For the Mu’tazila, however, the “intermediate position” was merely another corollary of the principle of justice. Just as the principle of divine justice defined theodicy for the Mu’tazila, the “intermediate position,” along with the “promise and threat,” defined Mu’tazilite ethics. As with the rest of the Five Principles, Mu’tazilite arguments about the intermediate
position depended on conclusions that were drawn logically from statements of God in the Qur’an.
Defining the Believer . Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar opened his discussion of the intermediate position with the question “Why do you say that one who fornicates and commits murder is a grave sinner, and not a believer?” He answered by saying that the term believer (mumiri)is a noun of praise in the Qur’an. Citing Qur’anic verses to prove his point, he argued that a fornicator or a murderer is not a praiseworthy person and thus does not meet God’s definition of a believer. “Then why,” he was asked, “Do you say that the grave sinner is not an unbeliever?” Because, replied ‘Abd al-Jabbar, if the grave sinner were an unbeliever, the Qur’an would require that he pay the tax levied on unbelievers and the Shari’ah would allow such a person to be enslaved as a prisoner of war. Since neither the Qur’an nor the Sunnah mandates such punishments for the grave sinner, such a person cannot be considered an unbeliever. Finally, Hasan al-Basri’s opinion of the grave sinner was raised: “Do you say, then, that he is a hypocrite?” No, said ‘Abd al-Jabbar. The hypocrite is a person who hides his unbelief within himself while outwardly professing Islam. The grave sinner hides nothing; because his sins are there for everyone to see, he cannot be called a hypocrite. In any case, the grave sinner would still face punishment after death, for the Qur’an says: “Oh Lord! Twice you have made us die” (40: 11), and “They will be exposed to hellfire morning and evening” (40: 46).
Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil . The third corollary of the Mu’tazilite principle of justice was the last of the Five Principles: “commanding good and forbidding evil” (al-amr bi-l-maruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar). Like the previous two principles, it also served as a hallmark of the Mu’tazilite definition of ethics. Although the Mu’tazila shared this principle with Kharijites and Shi’ites, unlike these two groups, they did not apply it to sectarian conflicts. Instead, they made it the foundation principle for a strict ethic of right and wrong. According to ‘Abd al-Jabbar, the person who does not prohibit wrongdoing has disobeyed God. The same applies to commanding the good. The only exception would be in the case of one who might be persecuted for carrying out this principle. In such a case, a person would be justified in keeping his opinions to himself. This position is similar to the Shi’ite doctrine of “dissimulation” (taqiyati), which allows a person to hide his true opinions if they might bring danger to himself or his family.
The Doctrine of the Created Qur’an . Apart from the “intermediate position,” the best-known doctrine of the Mu’tazila was the concept of the created Qur’an (khalq al-Qurari). For Sunni theologians, this doctrine set the Mu’tazila apart from the Sunnis as a theological movement. This doctrine also lay at the heart of the Mu’tazilite inquisition of 833-850. In 833 the khalifah al-Ma’mun declared: “He who does not believe that the Qur’an is created has no belief in God’s unity.” After the inquisition, Sunni theologians transformed this hallmark of Mu’tazilite doctrine into proof of Mu’tazilite heresy. Ironically, the argument over whether the Qur’an is created or uncreated is still one of the least understood theological disputes in Islam.
Creation versus Eternal Existence . For the Mu’tazila, the doctrine of the created Qur’an was derived from the principle of divine unity and was related to their rejection of eternal divine attributes. The Qur’an variously describes itself as an “Arabic Qur’an … in the Mother of the Book” (43: 3-4); a “Noble Qur’an, in a Hidden Book” (56: 77-78); and a “Glorious Qur’an on a Preserved Tablet” (85: 21-22). To Mu’tazilite theologians, these passages implied that the Qur’an was created as a model or archetype of divine scripture before the creation of the world. The Qur’an that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad was a copy of this pre-existent Qur’an and was sent down to confirm Muhammad’s role as the Seal of the Prophets. In its most basic form, the Mu’tazilite doctrine of the created Qur’an was similar to the Jewish doctrine of the pre-existent Torah. In Judaism, the Torah, as the source of the Divine Law, is both pre-existent and created; that is, God created His law before He created the world. Less than fifty years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas, a noted hadith scholar and cousin of the Prophet, claimed that God’s speech was uncreated and co-eternal with God. According to this doctrine, the Qur’an was also uncreated and eternal because it contained the word of God. Evidence that Ibn Abbas’s doctrine of the uncreated Qur’an was widely accepted in the Umayyad period can be found in the “Debate Between a Saracen and a Christian” by the Arab Christian theologian John of Damascus. In this work, the Christian tries to get the Muslim to admit the divinity of Christ by acknowledging that both the Qur’an and Christ are the uncreated word of God.
The Case for Eternal Existence . In the Abbasid period, the best-known proponent of the doctrine of the uncreated Qur’an was Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. Ibn Hanbal, who suffered severe persecution at the hands of the Mu’tazilite inquisition, claimed that “the word of God is His eternal knowledge, and hence it is uncreated.” He further claimed that “what is between the covers of the Qur’an is the word of God, and what we read and hear and write is the word of God. It therefore follows that the words and letters of the Qur’an are the word of God. Inasmuch as agreement has established that the word of God is uncreated, it follows that the words of the Qur’an are also uncreated.” Ibn Hanbal and his successors realized that the concept of the created Qur’an had a serious theological shortcoming. If the verses of the Qur’an were created at the moment of their revelation, the text of the Qur’an would be fixed in historical time, and thus its relevance would be limited to the period in which it appeared. If the Qur’an were seen historically as a product of seventh-century Arabia, it would follow that its statements and injunctions addressed seventh-century Arabian concerns. Thus, certain Qur’anic injunctions might be suspended if the conditions that gave rise to them changed. An uncreated Qur’an, however, not fixed in historical time and space, would have no such limitations. Such a Qur’an would be truly universal. Being free of the limitations of both culture and history, its injunctions would be valid for all peoples and all historical periods, whether in seventh-century Arabia or in twenty-first-century America.
The Case for Creation . However, the extreme, histori-cist interpretation of the doctrine of the created Qur’an feared by Ibn Hanbal was held by only a few of the Mu’tazila. One of them was the libertarian Ibrahim al-Nazzam (died 836). For Nazzam, the verses of the Qur’an were created “in the air” at the moment of their revelation. This belief meant not only that the Qur’an was fixed in time and space but also that human beings could copy, and even improve, its literary style. According to Nazzam, the content of the Qur’an, not the style of its verses, proves the truth of Muhammad’s prophetic mission. A similarly libertarian view was held by Mu’ammar of Basrah (died 830), who taught that the word of God was a capacity that belonged to the “body” in which it appeared. Thus, the word of God that Moses heard in the burning bush belonged not to God, but to the bush; likewise, the word of God in the Qur’an belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. Since Nazzam denied the uniqueness of the Qur’an and appeared to allow the abrogation of its verses—and since Mu’ammar appeared to deny the divinity of the word of God—it was understandable that Sunni theologians would suspect them of heresy. But most Mu’tazilites were not libertarians such as Nazzam and Mu’ammar. Instead, they more commonly held that God created the Qur’an as a pre-existent, heavenly scripture, and that the text of this created, yet pre-existent, scripture was sent down to Muhammad as a divine revelation. The idea that the Qur’an, although created in time, exists as a heavenly archetype eliminated the danger that the word of God might be suspended or abrogated by later generations of Muslims. Whether created or uncreated, its existence on a heavenly “Preserved Tablet” ensured that it would retain its universal and timeless validity. The “Two Ja’fars” of Baghdad Mu’tazilism, Ja’far ibn Harb and Ja’far ibn Mubashshir (died 851) taught that the Qur’an was created in an “abode,” which was another term for the Preserved Tablet.
This pre-existent Qur’an has exactly the same form as the Qur’an that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, including the same letters, sentences, and arrangement of verses. But the true word of God, the real Qur’an that “none but the purified may touch” (56: 79), is the pre-existent Qur’an, which subsists in its “abode” on the Preserved Tablet. The Qur’an that Muslims read and recite is an “imitation” of this pre-existent Qur’an, and whatever is recited or held in the believer’s mind is an imitation of the divine word, not the divine word itself.
The Sunni Critique of Mu’tazilism . In the year 850 the khalifah al-Mutawakkil put an end to the Mu’tazilite inquisition by forbidding public disputes about the nature of the Qur’an. His decree led to the decline of the Baghdad school of the Mu’tazila and the rise of Sunni theology, which held that the Qur’an was the uncreated word of God and that the doctrine of the created Qur’an was an innovation (bid’ah), a departure from the authentic teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. One of the side effects of the Mu’tazilite inquisition was that Sunni theologians became acquainted with the doctrines and methods of the Kalam. Some Sunni theologians adopted positions that were not too different from those of the Mu’tazila. One such scholar, Husayn al-Karabisi (died 862), taught that although the Qur’an is uncreated, a person’s utterance (lafz) of the Qur’an—whether by voice (as in recitation) or by writing its verses with a pen—is created. Karabisi and his followers, who were known as the Lafziyyah, attempted to address an important paradox of the written word that Ibn Hanbal and other Sunni literalists did not take into account. When one reads the works of a long-dead writer such as Ibn Hanbal, one can say metaphorically that Ibn Hanbal “speaks” through his writings. Similarly, one can say that Ibn Hanbal’s “speech,” as expressed in his writings, is “re-created” whenever his works are read. Thus, one can also say that God “speaks” through the text of the Qur’an, which is “re-created” metaphorically whenever its verses are recited or read. By framing the doctrine of the uncreated Qur’an in terms of what today would be called communication theory, Karabisi hoped to counter the argument of the two Ja’fars that the Qur’an was created in an “abode.” For strict literalists such as Ibn Hanbal, however, Karabisi’s approach was no improvement on the Mu’tazilite position. To Ibn Hanbal, Karabisi was even worse than a Mu’tazilite, because as a Sunni theologian, he gave legitimacy to Mu’tazilite arguments while denying their conclusions.
Al-Ash’ari versus the Mu’tazila . The most significant Sunni theological response to Mu’tazilism was formulated by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (died 935). This former Mu’tazilite scholar converted to Sunni Islam in the year 912 and attempted to combine the logical arguments of Kalam with Ibn Hanbal’s reliance on tradition. Born in Basrah to a family of religious notables, al-Ash’ari spent the formative years of his life studying Mu’tazilism under his stepfather, Abu ‘Alial-Jubba’i. Al-Ash’ari remained with Jubba’i until the age of forty and shared with his stepbrother Abu Hashim ibn al-Jubba’i the status of favorite pupil. There are several stories about why al-Ash’ari left Jubba’i and the Mu’tazila. Some claim that the break had to do with rivalry over who was to head the Basrah school of the Mu’tazila when Jubba’i retired. When it became clear that Jubba’i preferred his son to his stepson, al-Ash’ari left and formed a rival Kalam school. Other accounts speak of a spiritual conversion. According to them, al-Ash’ari had three dreams of the Prophet Muhammad during the fasting month of Ramadan. In the first dream, the Prophet commanded al-Ash’ari to defend tradition, as contained in the hadiths. When al-Ash’ari began to study hadith accounts about the vision of God, intercession, and visionary dreams of the Prophet, Muhammad appeared to him a second time and asked about his progress. In the third dream, the Prophet commanded al-Ash’ari to defend tradition by using the intellectual tools of Kalam that he had learned from his Mu’tazilite teachers. Another account states that al-Ash’ari went into seclusion for fifteen days and then publicly proclaimed his change of mind from the pulpit of the great masjid of Basrah, saying “I divest myself of all I have believed just as I divest myself of my cloak.”
Divine Power . Al-Ash’ari’s greatest dispute with the Mu’tazila was over the subject of divine power (qudrah). This problem lay at the heart of the differences between the Qadarites, who included the Mu’tazila and the Shi’a, and their opponents, the Sunni predestinarians, who included the Ash’arites and the followers of Ibn Hanbal. For the Qadarites, a just God must share His power with human beings, and thus humans were given the power of free choice. For the Sunnis, however, all power belongs to God. Because God is the Creator of the universe, divine power is unlimited. As the Creator of all things, God has no limit to the extent of His power and ability. If God granted people the power of free choice, then He must have relinquished the power to determine the fate of His creatures. For Sunni theologians such as al-Ash’ari, it was absurd to imagine that God would give up any of His power. Al-Ash’ari states this problem as a question of “whether God has power over that concerning which He has endowed people with power.”
The Mu’tazilite View . For the Mu’tazila, God endowed human beings with the power of free choice because of their unique place in the hierarchy of creation. Of all creatures, only humans possess the faculty of reason. Since God endowed people with reason, He could not prevent them from using reason to make their own decisions. It would be unjust and absurd for God to give people reason and then prevent them from using it. For al-Ash’ari, it was absurd to consider anything impossible for God. If God’s power were truly infinite, then even theoretical limitations on divine power were unacceptable. In his theological writings, al-Ash’ari tried to reconcile the issues of divine power and freedom of choice by using the concept of acquisition (kasb).
The Qadarite View of Acquisition . The concept of acquisition originally came from the Qadarites. In its original form, the term was used to describe the moral accountability of human beings. Wasil ibn ‘Ata’, the “founder” of the Mu’tazila, said that “goodness and evil, nobility and baseness” are the “acquisitions” of human beings. This use of the term acquisition in the sense of “earnings” or “consequences” follows the Qur’an, which states, “Every person is a hostage to what he has earned (bi-ma kasaba)” (52: 21). For most Qadarites, such verses meant that the consequences of a person’s actions are his acquisitions. Later, some of the Mu’tazila, such as the theologians of the Baghdad school, changed the meaning of the term so that it signified the powers granted by God to humanity. In this formulation, God endows human beings with the power to act and then allows them to “acquire” responsibility for their actions. People create their own actions and bear responsibility for them. But the freedom with which they carry out their actions is a gift from God, who chooses not to exercise His omnipotence so that people may be judged by their deeds. In this way, the “acquisition” of human responsibility is conceived as an aspect of divine justice.
Necessary and Acquired Actions . Al-Ash’ari agreed with the Baghdad Mu’tazila that the “acquisition” of human responsibility is a divine gift, but he denied that human beings have the power to act independently. For al-Ash’ari, God not only grants people the freedom to act, but He also creates their actions. According to al-Ash’ari, the Qur’anic verse “[God is the] Doer of what He wills” (11: 109) means that God is the Creator of everything, including the actions of human beings. Al-Ash’ari distinguished between “necessary” actions and “acquired” actions. Necessary actions are those that occur involuntarily, such as shivering from a fever or trembling from palsy. Acquired actions are those that involve voluntary movements, such as walking in a certain direction, choosing which food to eat, or making moral choices between right and wrong. In all cases, God is both the creator and the agent of human actions; the human being acquires only the capacity to carry them out. Al-Ash’ari stated that this capacity, which is created at the time of the act itself, “includes both the power to act and its contrary.” In other words, the human being acquires the capacity to make one of two choices. Like binary switches on a computer chip, these choices are limited to the simplest questions, such as “stop?” or “go?”—or “yes?” or “no?” Even these limited choices are not really the human being’s to make. For al-Ash’ari, “acquiring the power to do something” means only the power to do what God has created one to do; the human being cannot produce anything for which he was not created. As the Qur’an states, “God created you and that which you do” (37: 96).
Response . The response of the Mu’tazila and the Islamic philosophers to al-Ash’ari’s doctrine of acquisition was that he had merely revived the long-discredited doctrines of the Compulsionists (Jabriyyati), who believed that the human being had no freedom of choice whatsoever. To the Mu’tazila, al-Ash’ari’s attempt to reconcile divine power and human freedom was “unintelligible.” The philosopher Ibn Rushd of Cordoba (1126-1198) also refuted al-Ash’ari’s doctrine as illogical: “if both the acquisition and that which is acquired are created by God, then the human being is compelled in his acquisition.” If the “acquisition” of an act created by God enables a person neither to own the act nor to create it, the act cannot in any sense be described as a “power” possessed by the human being. It would therefore be unjust for a person to be judged by God for committing a sin that did not, in reality, belong to him. As a way of countering such arguments, the Ash’arite theologian Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (died 1013) revised the doctrine of acquisition so that people could take personal responsibility for their actions. For al-Baqillani, God creates the generic “subject” of each act, whereas the human being acquires its “mode” or “context” (hat). For example, if God creates in a person the “subject” of motion, it is up to the person to decide in which “mode”—such as sitting down, standing up, or walking—this motion will occur. In such a way, it can be said that the person owns his acts. The context of an action is most important when moral alternatives are involved: if God wills that a person seek a livelihood (the “subject” of an act), it is up to the individual to choose whether the context or “mode” in which he earns his livelihood will be lawful or unlawful.
The Place of Revelation . Ash’arite theology became dominant in Islam partly because it provided a simple and consistent solution to the problems associated with creation, divine knowledge, and revelation. By basing their arguments on the concepts of divine power and omnipotence, al-Ash’ari and his successors were able to formulate a Qur’an-centered theology more successfully than their opponents. By relying too heavily on Greek philosophical theories that were alien to Islam, the Greek-inspired Muslim philosophers (falasifati) risked making the Qur’an irrelevant in their theological formulations. The same was true for the Mu’tazila. Although Mu’tazilite theology was more clearly based on the Qur’an, its emphasis on the independent use of reason in attaining knowledge of God led to the criticism that divine revelation was either unnecessary or was reserved for those who were too simpleminded or uneducated to think for themselves. Although most Ash’arites continued to stress the importance of human reason in the study of religion, revelation was seen as fundamental because it provided the divine guidance necessary for reason to function properly. Ash’arite theologians saw themselves as taking a middle path between revelation and reason. In the words of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1059-1111), “Revelation is understood through tradition, but its underlying truth is understood through reason.”
Atomism . A centerpiece of Ash’arite Kalam was the theory of atomism. According to this theory, the universe is divided into atoms of matter, qualities, space, and time. Every action or event may be broken down into a series of separate and unconnected moments, which are completely independent of each other. Such moments are joined together solely through the agency of the divine will. No logical continuity or order connects a series of events. For Kalam atomists, the act of hitting a nail with a hammer was not perceived as a single motion. Instead, the act of bringing down the hammer and striking the nail was conceptualized as a series of discrete events, in which the hammer is brought closer and closer to the nail until it finally strikes it. This view of action can be compared to a movie, in which what appears to be a single moving picture is in reality a series of still pictures of different events, which appear continuous because of the speed at which the individual pictures are run through the projector. In Kalam atomic theory, objects, actions, and events exist for only a single instant. They continue to exist by being created again and again by God in a series of creations (khalqfi kull waqf) that appear to have continuity but in reality do not. Implicit in
this theory is the rejection of any idea of “Nature” or even a natural order. Everything is possible for God, who can change reality at any moment. The only impossibilities are logical impossibilities: no natural limitations on divine power are allowed to exist.
Atoms . The two most common Arabic terms for atom were juz (part) znd jawhar (substance or element). Kalam texts often referred to atoms as “unique elements” or “indivisible parts.” Modern atomic theory is based on the atomism of the Greek philosopher Democritus (died 370 B.C.E.), who taught that atoms were the primary, indivisible units of matter. These units came in various forms and sizes, and their shapes and combinations determined the properties of bodies (an early form of molecular theory). Democritus also taught that the space between atoms is occupied by a void, an idea that provided the basis for the modern concept of empty space. While the doctrines of Democritus were translated into Arabic by the tenth century, the atomism of the Kalam differed in many respects from the atomism of Democritus. For example, certain Kalam atomists and Indian atomists of the Vaisesika school of Brahmanism shared the theory that atoms, unlike bodies, had no dimension. This theory was not found among the Greek atomists or the Islamic philosophers. However, this fact alone does not prove that Kalam atomism was derived from Indian atomism. While Islamic scholars were aware of some of the philosophical doctrines of Brahman-ism, no specific link between Kalam atomism and Indian atomism can be proved conclusively.
Atomism and Theology . It is easy to understand the attraction that atomism held for the Ash’arites. Because their theology stressed the omnipotence and unlimited power of God, a theory of existence that depended entirely on the divine will was irresistible. It is surprising that the atomic theories of the Kalam did not originate with the Ash’arites but were first formulated by the Mu’tazila, whose belief in free choice and human agency seems more suited to a theory of existence that postulates the continuity of actions in time. If a person had the power to make free choices and determine the course of his or her life, his or her plans would depend on the law of cause and effect: if he or she did x over a certain period of time, y would be the result. As long as he or she continued to perform the same actions, the result of these actions would be the same. But Kalam atomic theory accepts neither continuity nor the law of cause and effect. Instead, the regularity of natural occurrences is explained by means of a “habit” or “custom” (adati), which God may interrupt at any moment. Among the Ash’arites, a miracle was called a “rupture of habit” (kharq al-’adah), literally, a “ripping” of the fabric of custom. To the average person, a miracle is an “impossible” event because it goes against normal expectations, but from the point of view of Ash’arism, a miracle is completely “normal.” Because God creates everything at every moment, all creation is a miracle. What people think of as a “miracle” is simply an example of God changing His customary way of doing things (Sunnat Allah}. Sufi mystics adopted the Ash’arite concept of a “rupture of habit” to explain their doctrine of the miracles of saints. From the time of al-Ash’ari to 1500, most Sufis were followers of Ash’arite theology and most Ash’arite theologians accepted Sufism as a legitimate expression of Islam.
The Theology of al-Maturidi . The most successful theological alternative to Ash’arism in Sunni Islam was formulated by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (died 944). A contemporary of al-Ash’ari, al-Maturidi was born near the city of Samarqand in present-day Uzbekistan and spent most of his life in Central Asia. He developed a theology that was similar to Ash’arism in many respects, but its main points were developed independently and were a response to Mu’tazilite, Shi’ite, and non-Islamic Persian theologies that were widely held in Central Asia. Although there is no direct relationship between schools of theology and schools of law in Sunni Islam, Maturidi theology eventually became associated with the Hanafi legal tradition, whereas Ash’arism became the theological counterpart of the Shafi’i legal tradition. Al-Maturidi’s theology became known in the western Islamic lands under the Ottoman Empire, which officially practiced Hanafi jurisprudence.
Al-Maturidi versus al-Ash’ari . The most important difference between the theologies of al-Maturidi and al-Ash’ari lay in their views of human freedom and responsibility. According to al-Maturidi, action is divided between God and the human being. When an action is attributed to God, it is called creation (khalq), and when an action is attributed to the human being, it is called acquisition (kasb}. Actions that belong entirely to God are those that the human mind cannot fully comprehend, such as how God makes things come to be from nonexistence. Actions such as movement or rest and obeying or disobeying divine commands belong to the human being, who “acquires” responsibility for his or her actions from God. Unlike al-Ash’ari, al-Maturidi believed that human beings were fully responsible for their acquired actions. Before the human being acts, God creates in the person both the capacity and the means to carry out an action. Then the human being decides whether or not to perform the action. This decision or intention (niyyah) to act in a certain way earns the person reward or punishment. Since al-Maturidi conceived of the human being as a semi-independent actor who acquires the ability to choose his actions freely, he was better able than al-Ash’ari to account for paradoxes in human behavior, such as when a person who has the capacity for evil acts in a way that is good, or when an otherwise good person inexplicably commits a crime. Al-Ash’ari was less able to resolve such paradoxes because he denied the human being the capacity for making truly independent decisions.
Al-Maturidi’s Theory of Knowledge . Another important contribution of al-Maturidi to the development of Islamic thought was his theory of knowledge. Before al-Maturidi, it was rare for a Muslim theologian to begin his treatise with a discussion of knowledge; after al-Maturidi, hardly any theologian could neglect such a discussion. Like the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites, Al-Maturidi strongly condemned the unquestioning acceptance of another’s teachings (taqlid). This stress on reason was particularly important with respect to conceptions of God because the Qur’an admonishes believers not to follow blindly in the footsteps of their forefathers (43: 23). Al-Maturidi felt that it was the responsibility of every Muslim to use the faculty of reason that God had created in him. As the Hanbali theologian Ibn al-Jawzi (1126-1200) remarked, “How abominable it is that one who is given a candle with which to light his way should extinguish it and walk in darkness!”
Three Kinds of Knowledge . According to al-Maturidi, there are three kinds of knowledge: that derived from the senses, that derived from testimony, and that derived from reason. The knowledge of the senses includes knowledge derived from experience, which today would be called empirical. Empirical knowledge tells people what causes pleasure or pain and what preserves or harms them. Someone who denies empirical knowledge, says al-Maturidi, is willful and obstinate because he denies “what he sees with his own eyes.” Knowledge derived from testimony includes what today would be called history. It is the means of knowing about past events, distant countries, what is useful and harmful, and all that people cannot witness for themselves. A special kind of historical knowledge is the testimony of prophets, which includes scriptural sources such as the Qur’an and Sunnah and is believable “because of the signs the prophets have which demonstrate the truth.” The most important form of knowledge is reason. Reason provides the critical faculty by which people assess the empirical and historical forms of knowledge. By means of reason, says al-Maturidi, it is possible to understand the divine wisdom in creation, and from the evidence of the world one can infer the existence of God. Reason is the faculty that mediates between the knowledge of experience and the knowledge of testimony. Without submitting testimony to reason and experience, the human being falls into the trap of blind traditionalism. Without submitting the knowledge of experience to reason and revelation, the human being falls into the trap of materialism (ilhad) .
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