Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Place of Rationality & Intellectual Tradition in Islamic Theology

Malik Muhammad Tariq

It was Islamic philosophy, acting as a cultural relay, which kept alive and ensured the continuity of the Greek philosophical tradition until the Italian Renaissance.

Philosophy and theology were continuing to develop and to produce important works, especially between the seventh and fourteenth centuries. The numerous translations undertaken at the beginning of the Abbasid period (9th century) provoked an expansion of thought which generated new philosophies of religion and law, and a philosophy of mysticism. As a result of this massive classicist movement, comparable only to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the translations of Greek philosophers reached Baghdad through Edessa (Urfa) and Harran, where Islamic philosophical schools were created.

The speculative theology (Ilm al-Kalam) of Islam is the “Science that involves arguing with logical proofs in defense of articles of faith and refuting innovations (non-Sunnahs) who deviate in their dogmas from the early Muslims and Muslim orthodox. Its main concern is the refutation of sectarian beliefs and thoughts.

According to Ibn-Khaldun, the study of Ilm-Kalam was not necessary for his students because the heretics and innovators had been destroyed. This was however not true historically, for the battle of ideologies in Islam is endemic. The different dogmas of main centres of political power, the extension of court patronage to members of their own sect and persecution of their rivals, and the struggle of the competing political groups for dominance by pandering to sectarian fanatism and gullibility have been, and still are, eroding the body-politic of Islam. 

For ideological and political reasons the Sunnis splintered into several sub-groups or sects. Those hostile to the Umayyads evolved into the Quadriya sect. They rejected absolute predestination and advocated that man was the architect of his actions. His Qadr (determination) lay in his own hands. Those who deliberately committed serious sins became heretics. The Qadiriyas rivals were Jabiriyya. They believed that all human actions were subject to divine compulsion (Jabr).10 The extremist amongst the Jabriyya denied the distinct existence of all God’s attributes and was known as Muattila, or “believers in tatil”11 (making God a bare unity). They were called Jahimyya. Pitted against the Jabriyya, Jahmiyya and Qadriyya were Mutazila. The Abbasid Patronage made Mu’tazila the dominant sect.

The Mu’tazila — literally ‘those who withdraw themselves’ — movement was founded by Wasil bin ‘Ata’.13 The Mu’tazila originated in Basra at the beginning of the 2nd century AH (8th century AD.). In the following century it became, for a period of some thirty years, the official doctrine of the caliphate in Baghdad. Mu’tazila’s members were united in their conviction that it was necessary to give a rationally coherent account of Islamic beliefs. Almost all authorities agree that the speculation of the Mu’tazilah centred around the two crucial concepts of divine justice and unity (Tauheed and Adl), of which they claimed to be the exclusive, genuine exponents. Thus, according to a leading Mu’tazilte authority of the end of 9th century, five basic tents make up the strict Mu’tazilite creed: justice and unity, the inevitability of God’s threats and promises, the intermediary position, and injunction of right, and the prohibition of wrong.

Recent historical research revealed, writes Dr. Fazlur Rahman, that the Mu’tazilah were a group of Muslims Intellectuals who in an arena of great ideological conflict in the Middle East in the early centuries of Islam, had successfully defended Islam against Gnosticism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. They were no mere intellectual idlers. One of the weapon with which they defended Islam adds the writer was the doctrine of free-will and responsibility which they sought to formulate in terms of the current stock of philosophical ideas of Greek origin.

 Iqbal says: The period of Umayyad dominance is taken up, with the process of co-mingling and adjustment to new conditions of life; but with the rise of the Abbasid Dynasty and the study of Greek Philosophy, pent-up intellectual force of Persia bursts out again, and exhibits wonderful activity in all the departments of thought and action. The fresh intellectual vigour imparted by the assimilation of Greek Philosophy, which was studied with great avidity, led immediately to critical examination of Islamic Monotheism.

He says that Mu’tazila carried their rationalism so far as to claim parity for reason with revelation in the discovery of religious truth. They were not content only with a declaration of the superiority of reason over revelation, but put it with equal footing the Word of God as a religious guide.

The Abbasid Caliph, al-Mutawakil (232-247/847-861), reversed Mamun’s policy and in the wake of resurgence of orthodoxy Abul Hasan al-Ashari (260/873 — 324-935) founded the Asharite school. It had its origin in the reaction against the excessive rationalism of the Mu’tazila. Its members insisted that reason must be subordinate to revelation. They accepted the cosmology of the Mu’tazilites but put forward a nuanced rejection of their theological principles.

Al-Ash’ari (d. AH 324/AD 935) was a pupil of Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i (d. AH 303/AD 915), the head of the Basran School. A few years before his master’s death, al-Ash’ari announced dramatically that he repented of having been a Mu’tazilite and pledged himself to oppose the Mu’tazila. In taking this step he capitalized on popular discontent with the excessive rationalism of the Mu’tazilites, which had been steadily gaining ground since their loss of official patronage half a century earlier. After his conversion, al-Ash’ari continued to use the dialectic method in theology but insisted that reason must be subservient to revelation.

Abul Hassan defended orthodoxy by rational methods.  Rejecting the Mutazilites view that God has no attributes distinct from his essence, Ashari maintains that God is knowing, seeing, and speaking through his eternal attributes. Although the manner in which God can be seen is not known, the vision of Him in the world to come is a reality. The Qur’ān is God’s speech, an eternal attribute and not created. Everything good and evil is willed by God, and be instigates men’s act by creating the power to do each act in them. According to Ashari, sinners are not unbelievers, but they will be punished in help. Al-Ashari employed reason in the defense of the traditionalist Muslim creed, especially the creed of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), which was based on the Qur’ān and the hadith (traditions). But, while the latter renounced the use of reason or speculative theology (i.e. kalam), al-Ashari justified its use in defending the true faith against external attacks and internal deviators. 

Al-Kindi is notable for his work on philosophical terminology and for developing a vocabulary for philosophical thought in Arabic, although his ideas were superseded by Ibn Sina in the 11th century. The debate about the allow-ability of philosophy in terms of orthodox Islam also began with al-Kindi. Like other innovators, his ideas may no longer appear revolutionary, but in his own day, to push for the supremacy of reason and for the importance of a ‘foreign science’ — philosophy — as opposed to an ‘Arab science’ — grammar, Qur’ānic studies — was quite astonishing.

Al-Ma’mun (d. 218/833) was a patron of learning and founded an academy called the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-hikma) where Greek philosophical and scientific works were translated.

Al-Farabi was an eclectic thinker who was familiar with the works of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Zeno, the systems of Pythagorus, the school of Cyrene and Aristippus, the Stoics, Diogenes, Pyrrhon, and Epicurus. He tried to form a synthesis of the concepts of Plato and Aristotle,53 and to harmonise science with the Qur’ānic law. The primary activity of the Muslim and Christian philosophers still under the influence of Greek thought was an attempt to reconcile the rational side of Hellenistic philosophy with the principles of monotheistic religion. According to Al-Farabi, only philosophers were capable of contemplating naked truth; others needed to be taught through the veil of religious symbolism.

Malik Muhammad Tariq is Assistant Professor at Department of Philosophy,
University of Balochistan, Quetta (Pakistan).

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