Friday, June 25, 2010

Islam: An Irrational Legalism?

Tim Winter (Abdul Hakim Murad)

Muslim commentators often wish to champion the revelation as a supreme advocate of reason.

God’s word, the Book, as speech (nu~q), is the very ground and guarantor of logic (man~iq), and the Book is itself a set of arguments accessible to the mind (although definitions of ‘mind’ have, as we will see, widely diverged). Nineteenth and twentieth-century apologists were especially concerned to show the Qur’an as the quintessence of aql, or intellect.

Such polemics were reactive against a European belief in ‘Oriental unreason’. Although in the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for Europeans to compare Islam favourably with Catholic ‘superstition and obscurantism’, the racial and imperial confidences of the nineteenth century inverted the image. Ernest Rénan, riding the warhorse of European triumphalism, had attacked Islam as a kind of intensified Judaism, an irrational legalism which rejected the spirit of reason and needed to be fought without mercy. Hence the Muslim apologist’s retort that Islam is quintessentially reasonable, a view which also drew strength from the growing polemic against Sufism, understood in Suhrawardi’s sense as an escape from the city of reason to the wilderness where God can be found.

Bulaç has documented the recurrence of this Islam/rationality trope as perhaps the most characteristic apologetic theme in modern Islam, in Turkey and elsewhere. In the Western milieu, many converts to Islam claim that they are attracted to what they regard as its clear, rationally-accessible teachings, unobscured by elaborate mysteries.

Non-Muslim academic accounts, now frequently draw attention to the central role of reason in Islamic theology.  Josef Van Ess: All these attempts, Muslim and non-Muslim, to portray Islam as the reasonable religion par excellence root themselves in the Qur’anic text. ‘The Qur’an does indeed,’ says Leaman, ‘display an unusual commitment to argument and logic in its self-explanation,’ and a systematic exploration of this has very recently been offered by Rosalind Gwynne. Here, however, lies the great fault-line in modern Islam, whose origins are ancient, pre-dating in some respects the religion itself.

Modern fundamentalist tendencies, emanating frequently from Saudi Arabia and tracing their
ancestry to the scriptures via Ibn Taymiya (d.1328), reject formal dialectics, while not accepting a self-definition as ‘irrationalist’. For such thinkers, all important truth, which is to say, truth which saves, is necessarily explicit in the Book, from which ‘We have omitted nothing’ (6:38).  Scripture is ‘clear’ (mubÏn), and God has not burdened humanity with the demand to evolve elaborate metaphysical interpretations either of His evidences in nature, or in the specific revelation of the Qur’an. Those who do so are guilty of underestimating both the clarity of the Book, and the benign intentions of a God who wishes all to be saved, including those incapable of following a syllogism.

Both advocates and enemies of reason base their positions in scripture. Who is normative? One way of answering might be to point to the unpopularity of Ibn Taymiya’s  Hanbalite fideism, and to the centrality of sophisticated philosophical theology in the medieval madrasa curriculum. Most scholars voted with their feet, and welcomed the logic-based theologies which, finally schematised by Razi, traced their roots back to early Islam’s need to deploy reason against schismatics.

Yet the recent revival of  Hanbalite and Taymiyan fortunes, rooted in an understanding of the intentions of scripture, cannot be dismissed so easily as un-Qur’anic. Any attempt at an arbitration must consider the texts themselves.

The Qur’an is, like any prophetic deliverance, a staccato, ecstatic, collocation of insights. Famously, but not uniquely (one thinks of the Psalms, for instance, or Oriental lectionaries, or most collections of poetry), it does not respect any thematic sequence. Despite Gwynne’s insights, most Muslims experience it not as a set of arguments, but as a dithyramb which irresistibly transforms the soul.

The  account, describing an illiterate woman in India, gives an excellent sense of this. Scripture (kitab) seems to imply writing, and there is a way in which its writing’s form unveils reality in a way that transcends reason. But even more significant has been aurality and a receptivity to the mantic voice of the Unlimited. The illiterate woman of Delhi, finding truth in the Arabic cursive mysteries, is wholly Islamic, but is less representative than the auditor of Qur’anic cantillation, the Islamic art, that is to say, mediator of the sacred, par excellence. Here is Isabelle Eberhardt, in Algiers.

This is the Qur’an as healing (17:82), a balm for hearts. The scripture seems to imply that our tragedy is an ignorant alienation from the Real, wherein lies all wholeness and appropriateness, and that only Heaven can send down the rain which revives the hearts.

Whether it saves through its calligraphy or its cantillation, the Book does not seem to be saving through reason; it does not deny it, but it insists on ‘descending upon your heart’ (2:97), for its Author is not reached by the faculties of perception (6:103).

Islam has a historic hospitality to Platonism, regretted by modernist advocates of a supposed Averroist rationalism, but noted in detail by Henry Corbin and others; and this is to be attributed not only to the Platonic resolution of all diversity to the One Source, so congenial to Islam’s rejection of a triune or other differentiation within the Godhead; but also to the sense that, as in the Timaeus, the One is manifest aesthetically and, particularly, musically, in the ground of creation. Ion, in the early dialogue with Socrates, acknowledges that as a singer of poems he is an instrument played upon by a supernatural power. And the Prophet Muhammmad, like him, is an Aeolian harp: the wind plays him, while his personhood contributes nothing; the Voice is therefore the pure sound of the Unseen. The Qur’an, a web of ‘signs’, is in this rather Platonic sense understood as the voice of the divine substrate of creation; it is the true music of the spheres. The ascent to the One, therefore, is not through the logic-chopping powers of our ‘dingy clay’, but through acquiring a true and loving ear that can properly hear this music. Could it be that the very existence of prophecy, which the scripture proclaims as necessary to man’s salvation, indicates that human reason, unaided, cannot reach truth? Is this the crux of the argument not only between Plato and Aristotle, but between Athens and Jerusalem?

The Qur’an is so replete that Ibn Rushd, the iconic Arab ‘rationalist’, can use its verses as examples of rational induction; and modern Muslim advocates of reason can and do use it to dispel mystical fancies. But the fact of its origin in the empyrean has made it also the religion’s theophany of theophanies, a mystic fact, whose very shape or sound inspires an ecstasy that seems to show God more fully than any logical inference ever could.

The Qur’an, then, seems to be the authentic root of two disciplines whose mutual relations are controversial: formal systematic theology (kal¥m), and Sufism (tasawwuf). Sufism is typically absent from the madrasa curriculum, which gives pride of place to kal'am. And kal'am presents itself as a fiercely rationalistic discipline, according to some more so even than Islamic philosophy (falsafa). A standard kalam text such as Taft¥z¥nÏ’s (d.1390) Shar^ al-¢Aq¥’id devotes three quarters of its length to systematic metaphysics (il¥hiyy¥t), with the remainder dedicated to issues of prophecy and the afterlife which can only be demonstrated through revelation. Such texts defined orthodoxy; yet they seem to have been less influential upon the minds of most Muslims than the passionate Sufism of the likes of Rumi, whose pessimism about kalam is evident.

Here we are faced with an evolving tension within classical Islamic intellectual life and society of a kind which required – and occasionally delivered – brilliant reformers. It is striking that only in a few texts do we observe an attempt to provide a grand synthesis of the two approaches, which we might, to borrow European terminology, describe as the logical and the passional. Ghazali (d.1111) is the most obvious, and successful, example. Other claimants would include Ibn ArabÏ (d.1240), Ibn Kemal (d. 1534), Shah Wali Allah al-Dihlawi (d.1762), and Sait Nursi (d. 1960), before we enter the purely modern period, where such synthetic theologies have been challenged by modernists and fundamentalists, both of whom, for different reasons, are uneasy with mysticism and kalam.

This synthetic renewal, which often draws in individuals acclaimed as the ‘renewers’ (mujaddid) of their centuries, is a key dynamic in Islamic religion and history. Hence tendencies perceived as erroneous, or even heretical, may be helpfully understood as the result of an imbalance towards one type of epistemology at the expense of the other.

Sachiko Murata and William Chittick have reflected extensively on this inner Islamic metabolism, identifying kalam with the principle of drawing inferences about God as Transcendence (tanzih); and Sufism with the principle of experiencing God as Immanence (tashbih); the dyadic categorisation of divine names as Names of Rigour and Names of Beauty is one outcome. Their conclusion is that these two inexorable consequences of the postulate of monotheism run like twin constants through Islamic religious history. Each is allocated its own realm, form of discourse, and even, on occasion, ritual life and structured authority.

To assess the case we have been making about Islam, we need to set aside as unnecessarily complicated any consideration of the debates in classical Islam about the role of reason and inspiration in metaphysics, and focus on the early period, when this tension did not exist.

Before the third century, it was not customary to record inner experiences and ‘unveilings’, and it is therefore not always easy to discern how these interacted with other registers of religious discourse. However it is likely that a close integration was normal. This was certainly the case with regard to the balance between ‘reason and revelation’, which, again, were not experienced as dichotomous in the first two centuries. The Mu'tazilite theologians who emerged towards the end of this period seem to have been the first to have proposed such a tension ('aql against naql, or tradition), and although the theologians decided against Mu'tazilism on the grounds of its tendency to expand human freedom in a way which radically curtailed the power of God, this Mu'tazilite polarity remained a theme, proving its worth in several autonomously Sunni contexts. In primal Islam, the word 'aql thus had a supple, comprehensive meaning.

In a hadith, the Holy Prophet provides a principle that later underlay juridical definitions of human accountability (taklif): ‘The Pen does not record the works of three people: one sleeping until he awakes, the one who is mentally unsound until he regains his sanity (hatt¥ ya'qil), and the child before maturity.’ In a similar hadith we read: ‘Four [types shall be excused] on the Day of Resurrection: a deaf man who could hear nothing, a stupid person [a^maq], a senile man, and someone who died in the period [fatra] between the decline of one religion and the arrival of the next.’ Here the prophetic voice explains that consciousness is what defines our status as human beings. 'aql is what makes us human, and distinguishes us from other orders of creation for which there will be no judgement. The implication is clear that the unreached, who had no access to prophecy, still possess 'aql, but may still be saved: what is required is a full assent based on knowledge.

Prophetic teaching also insists that 'aql survives death, and this became a feature of Muslim belief concerning consciousness before resurrection while remaining in the grave. ‘God’s Messenger, may God bless him and grant him peace, once mentioned the angel that asks questions of the dead, and Umar asked: “O Messenger of God, shall our minds [¢uq‰l] be restored to us?”, to which he replied, “Yes, they shall be just as they are today.”’

A further meaning of intelligence comes in a hadith in which the Companions are instructed on the correct position of the body during worship. ‘God’s Messenger, may God bless him and grant him peace, used to touch our shoulders before the Prayer, saying: “Form straight lines! Do not stand unevenly, lest your hearts be at odds! Let those of you who have minds and intelligence [ulu’l-a^l¥m wa’l-nuh¥] follow me.”’

In other hadiths, a more abstract portrayal of the aql is evident. ‘When God created the aql, he commanded it to come – and it came. Then He commanded it to move away – and it moved away. Then he declared: “I have created nothing nobler than you. It is through you that I take, and through you that I give.”

However such confidences, rooted in the judgement that Islam’s immutable liturgy and values coupled with an uncomplicated and reasonable monotheism, must eventually allow it to prevail over its rivals in the post- Christian battle for hearts and minds, must be moderated by an awareness of the continued strength of literalist radicalism and other unmistakeable signs of Muslim decadence.

The contemporary turn away from kalam and spirituality, and of the great synthetic renewals which reintegrated Islam’s various disciplines, has produced a fragmented and impoverished Muslim intellectuality and spiritual style which, one may foretell, will not long resist the same secularising tendencies which have caused the atrophy of European Christianity.

Islam, which seems called to be Europe’s spiritual and intellectual deliverance following the postmodern collapse of Enlightenment reason and the rise of the new barbarian principle of hedonistic individualism and predatory capitalism, must overcome this internal degeneration as a matter of urgency. Providentially, with a Sunni revival evident on all sides, the atmosphere currently gives reason to believe that the normative will prevail.

Tim Winter, University Lecturer in Islamic Studies, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge

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