Ibn Taymiyya’s massive effort to refute the universal rule and his exhaustive deconstruction and reconstruction of reason in his colossal work, Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql, were not just a spur-of-the-moment intellectual exercise. Rather, his efforts were occasioned by centuries of intense theological and intellectual debate that involved scholars of law, theology, and philosophy, as well as Sufis, and expressed a fundamental clash between distinct epistemological approaches. This debate did not simply result from the absorption of Greek philosophy into Muslim thought, as has often been assumed, but manifested itself in nascent form from the earliest days of the Islamic community. The following sections provide an overview of the multi-layered development and interaction between reason and revelation in the Qurʾān and the major Islamic disciplines—with a particular emphasis on theology—up to the time of Ibn Taymiyya in the seventh/thirteenth and eighth/fourteenth centuries.
1 Reason and Revelation, Reason in Revelation
The Qurʾān is a book intensely concerned with knowledge.1 In addition to making various declarative and imperative statements, it repeatedly invites those it addresses to reflect—especially to reflect upon the created order, including man, as a sign of God. In addition, it makes abundant use of arguments to persuade its audience of the truth of its teachings, thus inviting believers, from the very inception of revelation, to an integrated paradigm of reason and revelation. The Qurʾān, moreover, does not present itself as the least bit self-conscious or defensive in the face of a questioning human reason; indeed, it boldly challenges its readers to find within it any fundamental contradiction2 and to inspect the created order with careful scrutiny for any gaps or incongruences.3
The Qurʾān identifies the locus of rational reflection variously as the “ʿaql,” “qalb,” “lubb,” and “fuʾād,” among other, related terms.4 It also makes frequent use of terms connoting mental cognition and reflection, describes itself as bringing knowledge to a humanity that has “been given of knowledge but little,”5 draws stark distinctions between “those who know and those who know not,”6 repeatedly exhorts mankind to ponder and to reflect,7 and, significantly, insists that belief in God and the acceptance of the truth of revelation arise as the natural result of a healthy, properly functioning intellect. It is a remarkable fact that nowhere in the Qurʾān is knowledge (ʿilm) contrasted with faith (īmān), as is typical in modern parlance, but only with lack of knowledge, or ignorance (jahl, jahāla).8 Knowledge and faith, rather, are presented as being fully concomitant and mutually entailing. The distinctly Enlightenment notion that one has “faith” in something of which one does not have, and in principle cannot have, bona fide knowledge, or the related notion that knowing something precludes having “faith” in it, is entirely alien to the Qurʾānic worldview and epistemology.9 At the same time, the Qurʾān squarely admits that human reason, being a faculty of a limited and finite being, is of necessity not boundless—for “of knowledge you have been given but little,”10 and indeed, more soberingly, “God knows and you know not.”11 The Qurʾānic revelation, therefore, actively directs human beings to think and to reflect with their minds, the full and earnest use of which will inexorably bring them not only to God and the truth of religion but also, simultaneously, to the understanding that ultimately God alone is absolute and that all else, including man and his formidable powers of intellect, is relative and limited.
Complementing its insistence on the centrality of knowledge and its persistent encouragement to reflect, the Qurʾān also describes itself variously as an “evincive proof” (burhān),12 a “criterion of judgement” (furqān),13 an “elucidation” (bayān),14 a “clarification of all things” (tibyānan li-kulli shayʾ),15 and as “consummate wisdom” (ḥikma bāligha).16 Indeed, it frequently challenges its readers with a variety of arguments, inferences that are to be drawn, step by step, by the person who reflects with consideration.17 The notable fact that the Qurʾān grounds its teachings not only in raw assertion but also through argumentation and persuasion is often overlooked. Yet this fact is of key importance because it establishes, or at least opens the door to, a complementary and harmonious paradigm of the relationship between reason and revelation in and through the text of revelation itself.18
Further evidence of the argumentative nature of the initial revelatory moment can be found in classical sources of ḥadīth19 and sīra.20 These sources record echoes of discussions during the lifetime of the Prophet, discussions that can comfortably be termed proto-theological by virtue of their subject matter rather than because of any conscious effort to engage in the deliberate, methodical speculation implied in the common use of the term “theological.” The Prophet was naturally questioned by his Companions on numerous occasions regarding matters of the hereafter, God, angels, and a host of other topics directly connected to the creedal content of the new faith. Some ḥadīth reports portray the Prophet as instructing his followers—in a manner similar to that of the Qurʾān—by inviting them to reflect and to draw certain conclusions on their own.21 Other narrations show the Prophet warning his community against the inherent futility of pursuing certain lines of rational inquiry that are necessarily without issue, such as the ḥadīth that states: “Satan shall come to you and say, ‘Who created this?’ and ‘Who created that?’ until he says, ‘Who created your Lord?’ So if anyone of you should reach this point, let him seek refuge in God and desist”22—as if to alert his Companions that the argument of an infinite causal regress cannot, with proper rational justification, be extended to God, the Necessarily and Beginninglessly Existent. Finally, a few ḥadīth reports depict the Companions as occasionally becoming embroiled in controversy over theological topics. In one instance, a group of them were arguing over the divine decree (qadar), whereupon the Prophet, overhearing their altercation, became vexed and obliged them to remain silent concerning such matters that are “but known unto God.”23 The main theme of these instances appears to be that the use of reason is reliable and legitimate in some domains, that it is invalid if based on false or absurd premises, and, finally, that certain matters lie inherently beyond the ken of rational apprehension altogether. The implication would therefore seem to be that we should (1) employ reason to its full extent in areas that are amenable to rational scrutiny, (2) use reason for such matters in a correct and valid manner, and (3) accept that some matters, by their very nature and that of reason itself, are simply not subject to rational apprehension such that trying to “rationalize” them can lead, of necessity, only to their distortion. The Qurʾān and the prophetic Sunna, therefore, appear to urge man to deploy his rational faculties within their proper scope and domain, yet we are ever reminded that, as great as these powers may be, in the larger scheme of reality and from the perspective of divine omniscience, we have indeed “been given of knowledge but little.”24
2 The Early Emergence of Rationalist and Textualist Tendencies: The Case of the Law
In addition to its numerous exhortations to think, reflect, and ponder and its own frequent deployment of rational argumentation in support of its fundamental doctrines, the Qurʾān also contains the germ of theological speculation by virtue of its engagement with questions of ultimate truth and the interpretation of reality. Though the utterances of the Qurʾān were accepted by all Muslims as the authentically preserved and transmitted articulations of divine revelation, such utterances could nevertheless lend themselves to more than one understanding—a fact that was bound to create rifts not only in questions of theology but also in the daily tumble of social and political affairs. Indeed, the first schisms that arose in the early community were expressed, to some degree, in theological terms, though they were unmistakably political in origin.25 This is hardly surprising given that the Qurʾān both specifically addressed and intimately interacted with the socio-political milieu of its original recipients, even as it presented its message in universal ethical and spiritual terms. Concurrent with early political developments and the inchoate proto-theological discussions they engendered, other disciplines were starting to be developed more systematically and deliberately; these were, primarily, Qurʾānic exegesis (tafsīr),26 grammar,27 ḥadīth,28 and law (fiqh). These disciplines represent fully indigenous Islamic sciences pursued (originally) with the tools and methods of reasoning and analysis that came intuitively to the earliest generations of Muslims. These tools and methods, in turn, directly influenced the earliest systematic theological reflections that arose in the first Islamic century. We focus here on the domain of law.
Whereas the enterprise of speculative theology, as we shall see, lays claim by its very nature to being a rational (ʿaqlī) science, the subject matter of the legal sciences was seen to be squarely revelational/transmitted (naqlī). Be that as it may, revealed texts must be understood and interpreted in order to determine their relevance and applicability to a given situation. It is significant that the very term usually translated as “law” is fiqh, the primary meaning of which is simply “to understand.”29 The methodological and hermeneutical principles involved in deriving the law are, therefore, without question based on disciplined and methodical reasoning—reasoning that began as informal raʾy, or reasoned opinion, and became ever more sophisticated and refined as the science of jurisprudence developed. The use of reasoning in legal matters was, however, regarded with suspicion by some, who preferred to resolve legal questions, to the extent possible, solely on the basis of the revealed texts.30 Similar to trends taking place in the emerging sciences of Qurʾānic exegesis and grammar, this methodological bifurcation resulted in two distinct approaches to questions of law. One trend was self-consciously based on a strict adherence to ḥadīth (with as little interpretation of them as possible), while the second accorded freer rein to reasoned opinion (raʾy) when applying revelation to the social and legal realities at hand.31 The opposing methodological tendencies of ahl al-raʾy (the people of reasoned opinion) and ahl al-ḥadīth (the people of ḥadīth) resulted in a tension that was not resolved until the third/ninth century.
It fell to Muḥammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) to sketch what eventually became the outlines of a reconciliation between these opposing tendencies. In his famous treatise al-Risāla, al-Shāfiʿī argued for restricting the notion of sunna exclusively to the Sunna of the Prophet and further mandated that this prophetic Sunna be supported by properly attested ḥadīth reports.32 At the same time, he articulated a theory of legal methodology that reduced the kinds of rational arguments that could be used, but simultaneously confirmed and consecrated those kinds of rational arguments accepted in the theory (primarily analogical reasoning, known as qiyās). The result of al-Shāfiʿī’s effort was thus to defend and normalize the use of qiyās against those who were opposed to it—making it a permanent part of Islamic juristic thought—and to reduce other, less controlled methods of legal reasoning.
Al-Shāfiʿī’s thesis should not be seen as a one-sided triumph of “textualists”33 over “rationalists.” While much of the Risāla is squarely aimed at justifying the preeminence of scriptural sources of the law—especially the prophetic Sunna as expressed in ḥadīth—over “free” rational methods, al-Shāfiʿī’s incorporation of the rational processes of analogical reasoning into legal theory was apparently enough for hard-core textualists to associate him with the (legal) rationalists, and even with the Muʿtazila.34 In tracing a middle path between textualism and rationalism, however, the Risāla aptly represents “the first attempt at synthesizing the disciplined exercise of human reasoning and the complete assimilation of revelation as the basis of the law”35—a synthesis that came to form the foundation of Islamic legal theory as a whole after the late third/ninth century. The tension that al-Shāfiʿī sought to alleviate between rational modes of reasoning and the revealed texts—that is, between reason and revelation—constitutes a reflection on the legal plane of a much broader tension that was occurring in Islamic thought as a whole, including theology, and that would eventually require a synthesis analogous to that of al-Shāfiʿī in law.
3 Early Theological Reflection and Contention
The methodology of early theological reflection initially reflected patterns of thought and methods of reasoning worked out in the indigenous disciplines of Qurʾān exegesis, grammar, ḥadīth, and law. This was because the men engaged in these early theological ruminations were, first and foremost, jurists who were required to know grammar and tafsīr in order to engage in fiqh.36 But the early Muslims who first developed the new Islamic sciences were by no means living in comfortable isolation in the Arabian Peninsula. Just thirty years after the Prophet’s death, the Muslims found themselves at the helm of a vast cosmopolitan empire that stretched from western Libya to the eastern borders of Persia and, less than one hundred years later, from northern Spain in the west to the Indus River in the east. In the year 40/661, following the assassination of the fourth caliph, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, the capital of the new empire was relocated from Medina (and briefly Kufa) to Damascus, an ancient seat of culture most recently heir to a fecund overlay of Hellenistic high culture deposited onto the Syro-Aramaic backdrop of an age-old Near Eastern civilization. The earliest influences of Greek thought came about through contact with the Hellenistic tradition that was still being cultivated in the Christian schools established by the Sassanians in Iraq and Persia and continued by the Muslims who took possession of these territories.37 Most noteworthy of these was the school of Jundishapur in addition to non-Christian schools, particularly that of the Sabians of Harran (Ibn Taymiyya’s hometown, incidentally). The intellectual languages used throughout the region were predominantly Syriac and Greek.38 Thus, the dominant intellectual strand in the area ruled by the early Muslim state was Hellenism in its Syriac expression, admixed with Indic elements transmitted through Old Persian, or Pahlavi.39
The Muslims thus came to rule a vast conglomeration of peoples and cultures teeming with Persian, Indian, Greek, and other philosophies and beliefs that were often radically at odds with Islamic teachings. Such doctrines included Mazdaism, Manichaeism, materialism (dahriyya),40 the doctrines of the Sumaniyya of Central Asia,41 and others. In this early period, as Muslims came into contact with educated non-Muslims who often argued against Islamic teachings, Muslims found themselves in need of tools to defend—in universally acceptable terms—the underlying reasonability and plausibility of their creed. This was true especially with respect to the Christians, who not only formed the majority of the populace, particularly in the region of Greater Syria, but who also represented a rival monotheism with a similarly universalist outlook. Moreover, competing Christian theological claims were couched in a sophisticated intellectual idiom that resulted from over six hundred years during which Christian thought had been infused with Greek philosophy, particularly in the form of a late Hellenic Neoplatonism combined with certain Aristotelian and Stoic elements as well.42 The early Muslims were primed to engage in such debates by virtue of the “dialectical way of thinking”43 that they had learned not only from the Qurʾān and prophetic practice but also from the early, indigenous Islamic disciplines of tafsīr, grammar, ḥadīth, and law mentioned above.44 But these tendencies were now reinforced and supplemented by the new cultural milieu of the lands that the Arabs had come to control (and from which the non-Arab converts originally hailed). The immediate effect of this cultural and intellectual interaction was the adoption by Muslim theologians of certain concepts and methods they deemed necessary to answer their rivals and to present Islam in what was taken to be the neutral canons of a universally shared rational discourse. Greek concepts in particular—as well as Greek methods of argumentation, such as formal disputation45—were powerful tools that could be deployed for the defense of Islam in the context of strident inter-confessional debate. The overall result of this polemical rencontre was that both the methods and, to a considerable extent, even the content and problems of kalām theology as developed by the late second/eighth century bear the distinct imprint of these early exchanges in which Muslim debaters were compelled to adapt themselves to the categories of their opponents.46
It is in the context of this intellectual backdrop that the first full-fledged, properly speculative theological discussions in Islam took place.47 The first such debate revolved around the question of free will and determinism and influenced the manner in which various other questions of dogma were conceived and debated.48 This debate concerned the issue of whether human beings have free choice in their moral action or whether their deeds are inexorably predetermined by God. Advocating for the first position were the Qadarīs (or Qadariyya),49 a group purportedly started by Maʿbad al-Juhanī (executed 80/699), a well-regarded ḥadīth transmitter whose father was a Companion of the Prophet. The single common point of doctrine unifying the Qadariyya seems to have been their assertion of human volition in moral acts (particularly sinful ones). The famous al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728)—a figure universally revered by later schools of law, theology, and Sufism50—likewise spoke forcefully in favor of a person’s ability to choose to sin (or not) and his consequent responsibility for his sin, arguing that God creates only good while evil stems either from man himself or from Satan.51 The early Muʿtazila subsequently developed the Qadarī stress on human volition into a more robust doctrine of free will, one in which human moral responsibility was held to depend on the fact that men not only chose and performed (faʿala) their actions but positively “created” (khalaqa) them as well. This view was widely denounced as compromising the unique status of God as the only Creator (khāliq) and instantiator of all that exists. The Qadarīs, whose doctrine was less formally developed, became embroiled in politics, and their cause was taken up for a brief time on the occasion of a political revolt against the Umayyad caliph al-Walīd b. Yazīd (al-Walīd II) in the year 126/744.52 The Qadarī cause was eclipsed, however, with the eventual political failure of the movement. The opposite, “jabrī” impulse tended towards a strict determinism and categorical denial of human free will. This side of the debate was represented in its most extreme form by Jahm b. Ṣafwān (d. 128/746), whose views on the issue seem to have been supported by the ruling Umayyads. Some have speculated that the Umayyads favored the jabrī doctrine as a way of excusing their actions as simply the result of God’s determinative will and for which they could not be held morally (or politically) accountable.53
The second major debate was the abstruse and perplexing question of God’s relationship to the Qurʾān as His word. Specifically, this question concerned whether the Qurʾān, as God’s speech, was to be considered an “attribute” of the divine essence and therefore eternal (qadīm) or, rather, separate from God’s essence and thus contingent and temporally originated (muḥdath)—or, as it was eventually described, “created” (makhlūq).54 First formulated by al-Jaʿd b. Dirham55 and subsequently propagated by his student, Jahm b. Ṣafwān,56 the notion that the Qurʾān was not eternal but created may have been an attempt to safeguard the notion of God’s exclusive eternity in the face of Christian claims of Jesus’s divinity on the basis of his status as God’s word (kalimat Allāh), or logos.57 Yet the notion of a “created Qurʾān” appears, by all accounts, to have stoked the ire of almost all contemporary Muslim scholars and, in fact, was deemed so pernicious a doctrine that it served to justify the execution of both al-Jaʿd b. Dirham and Jahm b. Ṣafwān. The debate on the nature of the Qurʾān became one of the most pivotal and divisive issues in early Muslim theology, and it formed the crux of a major showdown between theological “rationalists” and “textualists” in the mid-third/ninth century. The question of the Qurʾān is also central to the concerns of this study because it relates directly to the question of the divine attributes—a question that forms the spine of Islamic theology and that lies at the very heart of Ibn Taymiyya’s main preoccupation in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ.
Several comments of a conceptual character are in order here regarding the nature and implications of these early debates, which manifest a distinct progression in terms of their abstraction, their use of a formal philosophical nomenclature, and the degree to which their protagonists explicitly appealed to reason as the arbiter of competing theological claims. The first of these debates, the debate over free will and predestination, involved a crucial aspect of the relationship between man and God and directly implicated revelation inasmuch as it was related to different ways of interpreting scriptural assertions about God. This debate, though initially motivated by political events, involved the nature of God and turned on what was implied by certain discrete statements in revelation concerning that nature. The proponents of free will (Qadarīs) reasoned that since God is just,58 human beings must be acting freely as the authors and creators of their own deeds; this is necessary for their reward or punishment in the hereafter to be just. By contrast, the proponents of determinism (Jabrīs) reasoned that if God is all-powerful,59 then His power must extend—as the Qurʾān so clearly seems to state—to all things, including the actions of human beings. Were it not so, we might reason, then God would not be “powerful over all things.”
The debate over free will is conceptually foundational for two reasons. First, it illustrates the manner in which early theological debate grew out of differing interpretations of the Qurʾān that emerged once questions were raised that had not been posed in the time of the Prophet or addressed explicitly by revelation. These questions left later protagonists to search for answers to new quandaries in the verses of the Qurʾān.60 The second reason for the importance of the debate over free will is largely historical insofar as it discloses—now in the realm of theology—the same emerging fault line between two distinct epistemological approaches to revelation that had appeared earlier in the domains of Qurʾān exegesis, grammar, ḥadīth, and law and that soon pitted faction against faction in a bitter ideological tussle that raged throughout the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. The question of free will is thus foundational because it is the first instance of debate that clearly shows a transposition onto the theological plane of the nascent rationalist–textualist cleavage already operative in the other Islamic disciplines.
The question of freedom and determinism, then, is essentially an exegetical debate cast in moral-ethical terms, both in the sense that it carries implications for human moral responsibility and in the sense that it attempts to account rationally, in human ethical terms, for God’s justice in the face of His unbounded might. This question stands in contrast to the debate concerning the nature of the Qurʾān as the word of God, which involves more abstract considerations of an explicitly metaphysical and ontological order. That is, what was at stake in this debate was not whether God had spoken the Qurʾān and what this might entail for human ethical, moral, and spiritual life but rather the very nature of God’s being, His relationship to His word, and the nuanced ontological questions pertaining to God’s essence, His attributes, and so forth. Furthermore, the terms in which this latter debate was conceived and the conceptual framework on the basis of which the problem itself was defined and discussed—“essence,” “attributes,” and so on—are a direct result of the influence of Greek philosophy and the discussions with Hellenized Christian theologians in Syria and elsewhere. In such discussions, proto-Muʿtazilī, rationalistically inclined theologians appealed directly and explicitly to reason (ʿaql) and sought to adopt a consistent methodological rationalism as their choice method of inquiry. This rationalism was meant not merely to serve the hermeneutic objective of interpreting scriptural passages related to the nature of God but also to further the quasi-philosophical goal of delineating a conception of God’s nature in entirely rational terms and independently of the “constraints” of revelation.
Thus, the debate over the ontological status of the Qurʾān introduced into theological discussion, for the first time, a level of speculative abstraction (supplied by outside sources) that came to form a particular rational optic through which revelation was henceforth to be refracted. With the debate on the status of the Qurʾān, we are no longer grappling with an intertextual, purely hermeneutical enterprise that is fully contained within the textual bounds of revelation. Rather, for the first time, we are witness to a speculative theological venture that makes claims in its own right, and independently of revelation, about how the nature of God “must be” according to the dictates of reason. This venture represented a systematic attempt to mold the understanding of revelation to the contours of a rational framework that would henceforth dictate, on its own authority, the essential terms of analysis.
3.1 The Translation Movement and the Impact of Greek Philosophy
Despite the centrality of personal contact with a living philosophical tradition and with Hellenized Christian theologians in the early Islamic period, the influence of Greek ideas on Muslim thought eventually came primarily—and profusely—in the form of Arabic translations of the Greek philosophical corpus, made directly from Greek originals or from intermediate Syriac translations.61 Although some Greek works—particularly medical and scientific treatises—were translated in late Umayyad times (that is, in the first half of the second/eighth century, before the Abbasid revolution of 132/750), it was not until well after the consolidation of Abbasid rule that the large-scale project of translation came into full swing. The Abbasid revolution brought about far-reaching changes on a number of levels, spelling a new era for kalām as well as for a host of other intellectual disciplines and cultural pursuits. Politically, the capital of the Muslim umma moved from Damascus to Baghdad, whereafter Syria and the Hijaz were no longer centers of innovative theological development.62 Under the new order, religious knowledge and its cultivators received new prominence as the Abbasids explicitly promoted themselves as the defenders of a multiethnic and specifically Islamic order meant to supersede the Umayyad order, which was based on the ethnic favoritism of Arabs.63 Such circumstances inaugurated an unprecedented efflorescence of kalām, the technique of which was developed primarily in Iraq in an atmosphere favorable to theological debate and with the patronage of the Abbasid authorities.64 Indeed, it was primarily at the caliphal court, where thinkers from various regions and intellectual proclivities regularly comingled, that the new theology was most highly refined and developed into a sophisticated arm of intellectual disputation.65
Although kalām as a discrete discipline was already firmly established by the time of the illustrious Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 170–193/786–809) and although the term mutakallim is applied in the literature to some figures even before this period, information about the views of these early theologians is so scant that we cannot draw firm conclusions regarding their individual doctrines. In any case, it was the translation movement—particularly after the founding of the Bayt al-Ḥikma, or “House of Wisdom,” as a public institution in Baghdad by the Abbasid caliph Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Maʾmūn (r. 198–218/813–833)—that seems to have constituted the major impetus for the dramatic political rise of the first theological school proper, that of the Muʿtazila.
Timeline of the development of the reason–revelation dichotomy in Islam before Ibn Taymiyya
610 CE–AH 11/632 CE
The Qurʾān encourages use of reason to arrive at faith; simultaneously declares reason limited.
Beginnings of the sciences of Qurʾānic exegesis, Arabic grammar, law, and ḥadīth.
41/661 and after
Capital of emerging Islamic empire moved to the cosmopolitan environment of Damascus.
Muslims increasingly exposed to Hellenistic, Christian, Persian, and other influences, causing early theologians to adopt some Greek methods and vocabulary to defend Islamic belief.
late first/seventh c.
Rise of the debate over free will and predestination.
early second/eighth c.
Rise of the debate over the createdness of the Qurʾān.
early to mid-second/eighth c.
Some Greek texts, primarily medical and scientific, translated into Arabic.
Emergence of methodological division in law between ahl al-raʾy and ahl al-ḥadīth.
Beginnings of Muʿtazilī school at the hands of Wāṣil b. ʿAṭāʾ and ʿAmr b. ʿUbayd.
Abbasid revolution. Capital of empire moved from Damascus to Baghdad. Theological speculation given new impetus under Abbasid rule.
early third/ninth c.
Bayt al-Ḥikma (“House of Wisdom”) founded in Baghdad by the caliph al-Maʾmūn (r. 198–218/813–833). Massive translation of Greek philosophical texts begins.
Al-Shāfiʿī synthesizes methodologies of ahl al-raʾy and ahl al-ḥadīth by consecrating rational qiyās, along with firm adherence to ḥadīth, as basis of the law.
Flourishing of the major architects of Muʿtazilī theology. Assimilation of numerous Greek concepts and methods of argumentation.
Miḥna instituted by three consecutive Abbasid caliphs in an attempt to impose the Muʿtazilī doctrine of the createdness of the Qurʾān as official doctrine.
early to mid-third/ninth c.
Al-Kindī, first Muslim philosopher, flourishes. Shows clear Islamic doctrinal commitments, especially on the question of the non-eternality of the world, but his method is that of falsafa.
Al-Muḥāsibī and Ibn Kullāb active, both of whom shun Muʿtazilī doctrine but begin using systematic rational methods to defend transmitted Sunnī orthodoxy.
The caliph al-Wāthiq turns on the Muʿtazila, ends the miḥna, and reinstates Sunnī orthodoxy. Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal emerges as a hero for his refusal to capitulate to the inquisition.
second half of third/ninth c.
Influence of the theological style of al-Muḥāsibī and Ibn Kullāb spreads, complemented by the similar work of figures like Ibn Qutayba and al-Qalānisī.
first half of fourth/tenth c.
Emergence of the traditionalist creed of al-Ṭaḥāwī. Active period of other traditionalist voices, such as al-Ṭabarī and Ḥanbalīs like al-Khallāl, al-Barbahārī, and Ibn Khuzayma.
Al-Ashʿarī breaks from the Muʿtazila at age forty but uses their rational method to launch a full-fledged defense of inherited orthodox creed.
Al-Fārābī flourishes. Explicitly theorizes the outward sense of revelation as being for the masses only.
late fourth/tenth to early fifth/eleventh c.
Al-Bāqillānī flourishes in the second generation after al-Ashʿarī, strongly reinforcing the foundations of Ashʿarī thought and bringing the “old doctrine” of the school to its highest point.
early to mid-fifth/eleventh c.
Active period of Ibn Sīnā, whose philosophical system exercises a major impact on kalām and practically all subsequent Islamic thought.
mid- to late fifth/eleventh c.
Flourishing of al-Juwaynī, first Ashʿarī theologian to feel the full force of Ibn Sīnā’s influence. Considered a crossover figure between early and later Ashʿarī school.
late fifth/eleventh to early sixth/twelfth c.
Al-Ghazālī pens scathing attack on the philosophers but incorporates logical methods of falsafa into theology and legal theory. Explicitly endorses taʾwīl. Adopts certain esotericist doctrines as well.
second half of sixth/twelfth c.
Ibn Rushd flourishes. Defends Aristotelianism and responds to al-Ghazālī point for point. Writes Faṣl al-maqāl on the necessity of upholding the literal sense of revelation for the common people while reserving the real truth, gained through reason, for the philosophical elite.
Flourishing of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, seminal figure of the later Ashʿarī school whose work represents a sophisticated philosophical theology. Al-Rāzī further elaborates the universal rule of interpretation articulated by al-Ghazālī and targeted by Ibn Taymiyya in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ.
Active period of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī and rise of the Ishrāqī, or “Illuminationist,” school of philosophy.
first half of seventh/thirteenth c.
Flourishing of Ibn ʿArabī, seminal figure in later Sufi thought, strongly criticized by Ibn Taymiyya for his monistic ontology.
Life and work of Ibn Taymiyya.
4 The Muʿtazila
The first speculations of the Muʿtazila can be traced back to the last decade of the Umayyad dynasty, just prior to the Abbasid revolution.66 The origin of Muʿtazilī thought is normally attributed to Wāṣil b. ʿAṭāʾ (d. 131/748 or 749)—who is said to have separated from (iʿtazala) the circle of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī over the question of the status of the grave sinner67—and to Wāṣil’s contemporary ʿAmr b. ʿUbayd (d. 144/761), though the main architects of the school died several generations later, between 204/820 and 224/840. In terms of methodology, the early Muʿtazila seem to have relied principally on the styles of reasoning and argumentation that had been developed in the indigenous Islamic sciences of Arabic grammar and law,68 as well as Qurʾān exegesis and ḥadīth.69 Eventually, however, the mature Muʿtazilī school reinforced its intellectual armature by adopting numerous aspects of Greek reasoning and methods of argumentation over the course of early Abbasid rule.70
Of the famous so-called five principles (al-uṣūl al-khamsa) of the Muʿtazila71—first articulated, most likely, by Abū al-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d. between 226/840 and 235/850)72—the most important for our topic is the first principle, involving the notion of tawḥīd, since it touches directly on the question of the divine attributes, one of Ibn Taymiyya’s overriding preoccupations in the Darʾ. The three main aspects of the Muʿtazilī notion of tawḥīd are (1) the denial of the distinctiveness of the essential attributes of God, such as knowledge, power, and speech; (2) the denial of the eternality (qidam), or “uncreatedness,” of the Qurʾān; and (3) the radical denial of resemblance between God and any created thing (tanzīh).73 Indeed, the doctrines the Muʿtazila most vehemently opposed were predestination and anthropomorphism,74 the latter of which they regularly sought to neutralize through figurative interpretation, or taʾwīl.
In addition to these five principles, Muʿtazilī thinkers were also united by an apologetic program that was motivated by a common zeal to defend the core doctrines of Islam against the arguments put forth by the adherents of other religions, as well as against groups of their Muslim co-religionists whom they deemed to have compromised God’s unique and incomparable nature by clinging to what they (the Muʿtazila) considered an overly literal and, therefore, overtly anthropomorphic understanding of scripture. Most important to our topic is the way in which Muʿtazilī thinkers sought to realize this defensive project through a shared interpretive methodology that consisted in applying reason (as they conceived of it) as rigorously and consistently as possible to all questions of a theological nature, even if—critically—the conclusions they reached ended up contradicting the plain sense of the Qurʾānic text.
The Muʿtazila, through their theological and polemical engagements, adopted a large number of Greek concepts and methods of reasoning and argumentation, leaving it to later scholars to sift through the spoils to determine which of these were truly assimilable to Islamic thought. As a result of this process, many ideas were retained and absorbed into Sunnī kalām, such that Greek ideas “came to dominate one great wing of Islamic theology, namely, rational or philosophical theology.”75 Yet since the majority of Sunnī scholars generally regarded the Muʿtazila as heretics, Muʿtazilī doctrines and theses could not simply be taken over by mainstream thought, at least not in the same form in which the Muʿtazila had presented them. The result was that such ideas often exercised only an indirect influence—a reality that Ibn Taymiyya sensed acutely and that, in fact, he held responsible for a great deal of what had “gone wrong” in later Islamic theology.76 Thus, although the Muʿtazilī school was eventually defeated, it nevertheless influenced permanently not only the form of, but also the problems dealt with, in all subsequent kalām.
5 Non-speculative Theology and the Legacy of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal
Throughout the third/ninth century, there were a number of figures who upheld conservative doctrinal positions but who nevertheless engaged to some extent, even if by way of refutation and disavowal, with the newly developing science of (Muʿtazilī) kalām. Indeed, the fifth-/eleventh-century Ashʿarī theologian ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 429/1037 or 1038) includes in his Kitāb Uṣūl al-dīn a section on the “mutakallimūn of ahl al-sunna,” among whom some were prominent in the science of ḥadīth.77 For our purposes, then, a “theologian” is not strictly a rationalist theologian in the way of the Muʿtazila but anyone who explicitly and consciously articulated views on the pressing theological matters of the day, regardless of the extent to which he may or may not have relied on or articulated his views in terms of the rationalistic framework of the emerging science of kalām. It is precisely such men who took explicit stands on theological issues, albeit while consciously avoiding or openly opposing the rationalistic program of the Muʿtazila, that I refer to as “non-speculative theologians” and whose style of engagement in theological debates I have labeled “non-speculative theology.”78
The non-speculative approach to theology, which eventually came to be most closely associated with the Ḥanbalī school,79 was, in fact, favored—especially before the triumphant rise of the Ashʿarī and Māturīdī style of kalām in the fifth/eleventh century—by a substantial number of scholars from all the major legal schools. This was particularly true of early Mālikī and Shāfiʿī scholars, but it also holds for a number of prominent early Ḥanafīs, who, in legal matters, tended to accord a greater role to reasoned opinion (raʾy) and other extra-textual methods, such as istiḥsān (juristic preference), that were often disapproved of by other schools. So although a certain strand of Ḥanafīs accepted kalām and the conclusions to which it led and although a number of prominent Muʿtazilīs were also Ḥanafī in legal madhhab (pl. madhāhib), it is by no means the case that the early Ḥanafīs were, as a group, automatically or immediately inclined to theological rationalism.80 Indeed, there is a contrasting, more cautious Ḥanafī attitude that was apprehensive of rationalistic kalām, as evidenced by the famous creed of Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321/933), a prominent Ḥanafī authority and leading scholar of ḥadīth who, in general, insisted on hewing closely to the terms of the Qurʾān and Sunna.81
The final piece of the puzzle on the third-/ninth-century Islamic theological scene is represented by those who opposed the methods and conclusions of (Muʿtazilī) kalām outright but who nevertheless put forward explicit doctrines on controversial issues of theology. In general, such men belonged to the group that the sources designate as ahl al-ḥadīth, the most influential of whom was Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241/855),82 founder of the fourth Sunnī legal school, of which Ibn Taymiyya was a loyal adherent.83 Ibn Taymiyya, as we shall see, has much praise for Ibn Ḥanbal’s keen intellect, a judgement shared by contemporary Western scholars such as Watt, who says of Ibn Ḥanbal that “he was clearly a man of powerful intellect capable of adopting a coherent view in matters of great complexity.”84 On the other hand, Watt’s claim—typical of an earlier generation of Western scholarship—that Ibn Ḥanbal “rejected [altogether] the rational methods of the Mutakallimūn and insisted on deriving religious doctrines and legal rules solely from the Qurʾān and the Traditions”85 must be nuanced in light of more recent studies. Binyamin Abrahamov, for instance, has shown that many in the traditionalist camp indeed used rational arguments—sometimes even kalām-style proofs—in addition to direct appeals to the Qurʾān and ḥadīth in order to establish a given point of theology.86 Ibn Taymiyya, incidentally, makes a very similar point, as we explore further in chapter 2.87
Prominent Ḥanbalīs of this period include Abū Bakr al-Khallāl (d. 311/923), al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī al-Barbahārī (d. 329/941), and Ibn Khuzayma (d. 311/924). Yet not all ḥadīth scholars who took public positions on theological matters were followers of Ibn Ḥanbal. Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889), for instance, who lived about one generation after Ibn Ḥanbal, deemed himself a member of the ahl al-ḥadīth but not necessarily a follower of Ibn Ḥanbal, whom he considered “only one of at least a dozen distinguished scholars of this party.”88 The famous Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), known primarily for his forty-volume historical chronicle89 but who also founded a legal school (which, however, did not survive in the long run), also held theological views that were, by and large, very close to those held by this group of scholars. Nevertheless, al-Ṭabarī is not usually thought of as a Ḥanbalī, and, in fact, he drew the ire of the Ḥanbalīs in the last year or so of his life, apparently for conceding certain Muʿtazilī theses regarding some of the seemingly anthropomorphic passages of the Qurʾān.90 These various names and tendencies serve to demonstrate the extent to which there existed “orthodox,” primarily non-speculative Sunnī (as opposed to Muʿtazilī) theologians even before the time of Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī in the early fourth/tenth century.
6 The Miḥna and Its Aftermath
The clash between Muʿtazilī rationalistic theology, on the one hand, and the non-speculative, or minimally speculative, amodal adherence to the overt meaning of scripture (as propounded by the founders of the main Sunnī legal schools, master ḥadīth critics, and figures like al-Baghdādī’s mutakallimūn of ahl al-sunna), on the other hand, came to a head in the first half of the third/ninth century with the infamous miḥna, or “inquisition.”91 At issue in the miḥna was the highly contentious question encountered above concerning the “createdness” of the Qurʾān. Though remembered primarily as a theological dispute, the miḥna had important political ramifications and was symptomatic of a wider struggle for legitimacy and religious authority between the office of the caliph and the collective body of religious scholars, or ʿulamāʾ.92 During the reign of three successive Abbasid caliphs,93 all religious scholars, judges, and other notables, particularly in Baghdad and its immediate environs, were forced publicly to endorse the Muʿtazilī doctrine that the Qurʾān was “created” (makhlūq) rather than eternal (qadīm).94 Those who refused were imprisoned, beaten, and, in some cases, killed. While the vast majority of ʿulamāʾ relented under such pressing duress, a few stalwart souls held out, braving torment and humiliation to uphold what was widely considered the orthodox position of the early community (salaf) and authoritative scholars (aʾimma) of the first two centuries of Islam: namely, that the Qurʾān was the eternal and uncreated word of God, an intrinsic and inseparable part of His essence and not a creation extrinsic to the divine being and originated in time like the created universe and all that it contains. Among those few who defied the inquisition authorities and refused to flinch under any circumstances was, most prominently, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal.95
In the year 232/847, the tables were turned on the Muʿtazila when the caliph Jaʿfar b. al-Muʿtaṣim al-Mutawakkil (r. 232–247/847–861) succeeded his brother, Abū Jaʿfar al-Wāthiq (r. 227–232/842–847), and deposed the Muʿtazila,96 removing them from their posts and initiating a downhill spiral from which they never fully recovered. Though the Muʿtazila remained a strong theological (and sometimes political) voice in pockets beyond the central Abbasid lands for several centuries, they became increasingly marginalized from mainstream scholarly discourse.97
In the wake of the miḥna, a group of theologians emerged in Baghdad whose doctrinal positions were close to the views of Ibn Ḥanbal and of those Ḥanafīs and others who had remained aloof from Muʿtazilī methods and had refused to debate theological issues on the terms set by kalām.98 One figure in this emerging group was the famous early Sufi al-Ḥārith al-Muḥāsibī (d. 243/857),99 a contemporary of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal who, in spite of his essentially traditionalist orientation, nevertheless incurred Ibn Ḥanbal’s wrath merely for engaging with the discourse of kalām in order to refute it. Ibn Ḥanbal seems to have deemed this engagement in and of itself a dangerous endorsement of the legitimacy of the methods and assumptions of kalām.100 Other figures who engaged in kalām discourse at this time include Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Qalānisī101 and the aforementioned Ibn Qutayba.102 Ibn Qutayba and al-Muḥāsibī can be understood as treading a middle path between the practitioners of kalām as it had developed up to their day and those who refused even to engage with its discourse.103
Another theologian of great influence in the period immediately following the miḥna was ʿAbd Allāh b. Kullāb (d. ca. 241/855),104 who played a central role in the movement for the acceptance of kalām and its methods among mainstream Sunnīs.105 Though Ibn Kullāb largely inclined towards the substantive doctrines of the Ḥanbalī-style traditionalists,106 he is famous for the view—which became standard in subsequent Ashʿarī doctrine—that the divine attributes are neither identical to God nor other than God.107 In sum, al-Muḥāsibī, Ibn Kullāb, and al-Qalānisī can be seen as the immediate forerunners of al-Ashʿarī; they were “semi-rationalists”108 who used some measure of kalām argumentation in defending (more or less) traditionalist theological positions.109
7 Nascent Ashʿarī Thought and the Early Kalām
Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 324/935 or 936),110 a descendent of the famous Companion of the Prophet Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī (d. ca. 42/662),111 hailed from the city of Basra but spent most of his life in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid empire. In Baghdad, he dedicated himself to the religious sciences, eventually emerging as the top student of the leading Muʿtazilī authority of his day, Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʾī (d. 303/915 or 916). Around the age of forty, al-Ashʿarī experienced an abrupt change of heart after a dream in which the Prophet visited him and urged him to defend the Sunna (as transmitted through ḥadīth). Al-Ashʿarī thereupon publicly recanted Muʿtazilī doctrine,112 completely abandoned the pursuit of kalām, and devoted himself exclusively to the study of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth. In a subsequent vision, however, the Prophet reproved al-Ashʿarī, clarifying that while he had commanded him to defend the doctrines reported on his authority, he had not commanded him to give up rational methods of argumentation. Al-Ashʿarī thus dedicated the remainder of his life to working out a methodology for systematically defending revealed doctrines on the basis of rational argumentation.113
Al-Ashʿarī adopted theological positions close to those of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal but sought to support these positions on the basis of reasoned argument.114 The novelty in al-Ashʿarī’s approach can be discerned in the fact that even when, in the course of an argument, he quotes from the Qurʾān, it can be seen that he is building up a “considerable structure of rational argument” around the verses.115 And while it is true that Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal had made some cautious use of rational argumentation, al-Ashʿarī went farther by arguing unapologetically for the legitimacy of systematically defending theological doctrines by means of formal rational argumentation based on the very methods developed and employed by the Muʿtazila, whose substantive theological doctrine he had so resolutely rejected. Al-Ashʿarī even sought to justify this approach by arguing that the Qurʾān itself contained the germ of certain rational methods the Muʿtazila had employed.116 For this reason, most Ḥanbalīs of al-Ashʿarī’s day rejected him and his followers since they, like their leader, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, considered the very use of formalized kalām a dangerous capitulation to methods and assumptions that, in and of themselves, were invalid and without foundation.117
In terms of substantive doctrine, al-Ashʿarī differed from the Ḥanbalīs in that he took an explicit position on the question of the divine attributes, initially raised by the Muʿtazila,118 in contrast to the Ḥanbalīs’ strict amodal (bi-lā kayf) approach. Al-Ashʿarī’s position allows some measure of analogy between the attributes of God and those human attributes designated by the same name, in accordance with an attenuated form of the Muʿtazilī principle of qiyās al-ghāʾib ʿalā al-shāhid (or al-qiyās bi-l-shāhid ʿalā al-ghāʾib), that is, drawing an analogical inference from the “visible” (shāhid) world of our empirical experience to the “invisible” (ghāʾib) world of unseen realities that lie beyond our sense perception.119 By cautiously adopting this principle in a moderated form, al-Ashʿarī tried to steer a middle course between the radical views of the Muʿtazila120 and those of the strictest Ḥanbalīs.121 Thomas Nagel sums up al-Ashʿarī’s position on the divine attributes by explaining that
they [the attributes] were not merely some phantom of the necessarily human language of revelation. To be sure, when the Koran spoke of God’s hands, it meant something that exclusively referred to God’s reality, but it also had a comparable reference point in the realm of human experience. . . . Expressions in the revelation such as hand, face, etc., which God Himself chose, were by no means metaphors! But neither must they be understood in purely human-physical terms. Rather, they were real attributes whose true nature man was not able to recognize.122
Al-Ashʿarī’s theological treatise al-Ibāna ʿan uṣūl al-diyāna123 has been described as a turning point in Islamic theology, a kind of bridge work between the earlier credos (like that of al-Ṭaḥāwī) and the later dogmatic treatises, such as those of al-Ghazālī, al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286 or 691/1292), al-Ījī (d. 756/1355), or al-Sanūsī (d. 895/1490).124 In the Ibāna, which may be his first work after embracing Sunnism,125 al-Ashʿarī shows no compromise with Muʿtazilī doctrines or methods whatsoever. In a later work, Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyīn (Theological doctrines of the Muslims), however, his tone is calmer and his positions are less black and white, as he is freer to “take the spoils from defeated Muʿtazilism and enrich therewith a henceforth orthodox kalām”126 (which, for Ibn Taymiyya, it might be added, is precisely where al-Ashʿarī went wrong).127
When Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī died in 324/935 (or 936), he left behind only three pupils, none of whom are particularly well known to posterity.128 It is not until the second generation after al-Ashʿarī that we encounter three other, prominent figures who took up al-Ashʿarī’s torch and who further developed the thought and formalized the method of their esteemed master. The most important of these figures is Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī.129
Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. al-Ṭayyib al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013), like al-Ashʿarī, hailed from the city of Basra, where he is reported to have studied kalām under two of al-Ashʿarī’s direct students.130 A Mālikī in legal rite,131 al-Bāqillānī spent much of his life in Baghdad with the exception of a period during which he held the office of judge (qāḍī) somewhere outside the capital city.132 Ibn Khaldūn credits al-Bāqillānī with perfecting the early methodology of Ashʿarī kalām,133 and modern scholars have agreed on the pivotal role al-Bāqillānī played in consolidating the school.134 Al-Bāqillānī drew out al-Ashʿarī’s initial insights and positions more fully and refined his method in order to provide the most robust defense of al-Ashʿarī’s original doctrine possible.135 We recall that al-Ashʿarī’s views were, on the whole, rather conservative and close to those of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (though on some issues they tended more towards a middle path between strict Ḥanbalī traditionalism and Muʿtazilī-inspired rationalism). Whereas al-Ashʿarī had set stringent conditions for proofs, al-Bāqillānī laid down even more exacting standards, namely, through his principle of reversibility, which requires that proofs be fully reversible, meaning that the invalidity of a proof necessarily entails the falsity of that which it was meant to prove.136
On the whole, al-Bāqillānī can be considered the greatest systematizer of early Ashʿarī theology (the way of the “mutaqaddimūn”) and, in a sense, the last one since, starting with al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085) in the next generation, fundamental changes began to occur that paved the way for a “new kalām” (that of the “mutaʾakhkhirūn”)—changes that involved a number of conceptual reformulations and methodological renovations of earlier Ashʿarī doctrine. But to gain an adequate understanding of exactly what happened and why, we must divert our attention briefly to the rise and development of an entirely separate discourse that had a major impact on Ashʿarī kalām as of the middle of the fifth/eleventh century: namely, philosophy (falsafa).
Philosophical reflection began early in the intellectual career of Islam.137 As we have seen above, some Greek materials were already in circulation and being used in the Syriac tradition before the rise of Islam in the first/seventh century. Greek logic, along with other categories of Greek philosophy, had been incorporated into Christian theological discourse for several centuries, and elements of it had already begun to appear in early Muslim theological debates.138 But it was the massive movement to translate Greek philosophical and scientific texts, an effort that lasted from the second/eighth to the fourth/tenth century and known simply as the translation movement, that was the major catalyst for the rise of a rationalist Muʿtazilī theology. This movement also catalyzed the development of an independent tradition of philosophical reflection in Arabic, one whose formative and classical stages stretch from early third-/ninth-century Baghdad to late sixth-/twelfth-century Andalusia.139
The genealogy of the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition (also known by its Arabic name falsafa) that arose in the Muslim world as a result of the Greco-Arabic translation movement includes Aristotle and the main Hellenistic commentators on his work—all of whom, with the exception of the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. ca. 200 CE), were Neoplatonists—in addition to original Neoplatonic texts.140 Since even Aristotle’s works were transmitted into Arabic through a distinctly Neoplatonic lens, Neoplatonism was central in setting the tenor of the Muslim philosophical tradition, and many of the ideas that Ibn Taymiyya found most objectionable in the philosophical and theological traditions he inherited were of Neoplatonic inspiration. The most outstanding (earlier) figures of the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition are al-Kindī (d. ca. 252/866), al-Fārābī (d. ca. 339/950), and, especially, their preeminent successor Ibn Sīnā, an independent and original thinker widely hailed as the greatest figure in the Muslim Peripatetic tradition. Ibn Sīnā, in fact, took up many of the questions that had been put forth in kalām, such that philosophy after the classical period had to contend with both Ibn Sīnā and the tradition of kalām.141 As a result, philosophers post-Ibn Sīnā became more consistently concerned with providing solutions anchored in philosophy to the problems set forth by kalām.142 At the same time, and far more significantly for our inquiry, kalām itself was enormously influenced by the thought of Ibn Sīnā, whose categories, ideas, and terminology left a lasting imprint on the works of the later mutakallimūn.143 To gain a just appreciation of al-Ghazālī’s synthesis at the turn of the sixth/twelfth century—and, ultimately, of the nature of the intellectual tradition that Ibn Taymiyya inherited and to which he responded with such vigor two centuries later—we must first understand the challenge philosophy posed to kalām and to Islamic religious belief more generally, as well as the imprint the philosophical tradition left on kalām and its practitioners.
The Kufan-educated Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Kindī (d. ca. 252/866), known as the “philosopher of the Arabs” (faylasūf al-ʿArab), flourished in Baghdad under the patronage of the same three Abbasid caliphs who had executed the miḥna. Al-Kindī endeavored to make philosophy acceptable to his fellow Muslims through a “policy of reconciliation,”144 in part by designating philosophy by the Qurʾānic term ḥikma (wisdom) and in part by attempting to demonstrate that the rational sciences were consistent with true belief, specifically tawḥīd.145 Classical biographers, both supporters and detractors, agree that al-Kindī sought to bridge the gap between philosophy and religion,146 holding that the two could not be truly contradictory since they both served the common end of making accessible to men the knowledge of the True One (al-Ḥaqq), God.147 Indeed, while al-Kindī privileged prophetic over philosophical knowledge with respect to the immediacy of the former (in contrast to the latter, which can be acquired only after years of arduous learning), he did not seem to believe that prophets had access to a categorically different kind of knowledge than what was available to the best philosophers.148
As a philosopher, al-Kindī advocated the application of rational philosophical methods to the texts of revelation. Not surprisingly, his overall positions on theological issues were close to those of the Muʿtazila—although there appears to be no evidence in his writings that he considered himself either a theologian or a Muʿtazilī proper149—and, as a methodological principle, he placed the tools and techniques of philosophy above those of kalām.150 Thus, while the titles of a number of al-Kindī’s works reveal his clear affinities with Muʿtazilī preoccupations, the titles of other treatises show that he also undertook detailed refutations of certain Muʿtazilī theses, such as atomism.151 Significantly, however, al-Kindī—almost uniquely among the philosophers—parted ways with Aristotle on a number of fundamental issues in favor of positions that were in line with Islamic theological postulates. He joined with Muʿtazilī theologians in defending Islamic beliefs against various groups (materialists, Manichaeans, atheists, and rival philosophers), breaking ranks with both Aristotle and the Neoplatonists on touchstone issues like the creation of the world ex nihilo,152 the resurrection of the body, the possibility of miracles and prophetic revelation, and the ultimate destruction of the world—all of which he upheld, in conformity with Islamic teachings but in opposition to the Greek philosophical tradition and to later falsafa.153 Finally, it has been suggested that al-Kindī’s conception of God as the efficient cause of the universe can, in a sense, be seen as an adaptation of the Neoplatonic conception of the One to the theistic concept of God as Creator.154
We can likewise discern the impact of kalām on some of the topics taken up by philosophy even as early as al-Kindī, insofar as he attempted to provide solutions from within philosophy to some of the issues being debated in kalām. In his most important treatise, Fī al-falsafa al-ūlā (On first philosophy, of which only the first of four parts has been preserved),155 al-Kindī discusses the notion of oneness, the crux of which is that nothing about which something can be predicated can be said to be “one.” Since God is the ultimate One and since the ascription of any predicate or concept to an entity automatically entails its multiplicity, it follows that nothing whatsoever can be predicated of God. The radical negative theology that results from this conception of oneness is a standard feature of later falsafa and, as we have seen, a central tenet (albeit in a mitigated form) of the Muʿtazila, self-styled “people of (divine) justice and unicity” (ahl al-ʿadl wa-l-tawḥīd). Even in the case of al-Kindī the philosopher, however, some argue against interpreting his theology as purely negative, contending that the faylasūf al-ʿArab was primarily concerned with “preserving a doctrine of positive divine attribution that can withstand the requirements of simplicity and transcendence.”156 In particular, at the end of Fī al-falsafa al-ūlā, al-Kindī refers to the True One, God, as “ ‘the Giver and Originator, the Powerful, the Supporter,’ ” from which Peter Adamson concludes that, for al-Kindī, “God is not just a principle of oneness; He is an agent.”157 Be that as it may, the philosophers’ starkly abstract conception of divine oneness, with the attendant radical denial of most or all of the divine attributes, is one of the targets Ibn Taymiyya attacks most consistently and relentlessly in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ.
Born in Farab (located in current-day Turkmenistan), Abū Naṣr Muḥammad al-Fārābī (d. ca. 339/950) spent most of his life in Baghdad, where he studied logic under the Nestorian Christian scholars Yūḥannā b. Ḥaylān (fl. early fourth/tenth century)158 and Abū Bishr Mattā b. Yūnus (d. 328/940) and where he taught the Syriac Jacobite Christian translator and logician Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī (d. 363/974).159 Al-Fārābī was universally venerated as an unparalleled master of logic and was also considered the leading expositor of Plato and Aristotle in his day.160 It is primarily his work on logic, however, that earned him the epithet “the Second Teacher” (al-muʿallim al-thānī)161—second only to the First Teacher, Aristotle. Ibn Rushd and Maimonides (d. 601/1204) pay tribute to him for his work on logic,162 and Ibn Sīnā records his debt to al-Fārābī for his understanding of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.163
Al-Fārābī is credited not only with writing the “first systematic exposition of Neo-Platonism in Arabic”164 but also, indeed, with laying the foundations of the mainstream tradition of Islamic philosophy.165 Like al-Kindī, only a small portion of his many works has survived.166 The majority of al-Fārābī’s writings are dedicated to logic and the philosophy of language, specifically the relationship between abstract logic and the philosophical terminology used to express logical relations, on the one hand, and ordinary language and grammar, on the other.167 The issue of logic and language represents a cardinal point of contention in the debate between reason and revelation168 and, in fact, constitutes a major element of Ibn Taymiyya’s attack on abstract philosophical reasoning and of his attempt to reconstitute rationality on more intuitive principles of everyday reasoning.169
Also relevant to the topic of reason and revelation is the fact that al-Fārābī, like al-Kindī before him, dealt explicitly with the relationship between philosophy and religion,170 casting this vital discussion in terms that were later closely echoed by Ibn Sīnā and, especially, Ibn Rushd. Al-Fārābī saw the language of revelation as a popular expression of philosophical truth, employing the tools of rhetoric (khiṭāb) and poetics (shiʿr) to indicate, in figurative terms, truths that the unphilosophical masses are incapable of grasping rationally.171 Though based on Platonic and Hellenistic antecedents, this notion of revelation as a (mere) representation of reality encoded in literary form was fully worked out, it seems, only in the context of the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition.172 In his writings, al-Fārābī articulates a hierarchy of syllogistic arts in which, following Aristotle, demonstration (burhān) is the only apodictic method available in philosophy;173 other modes of discourse, particularly rhetoric and poetics, serve the purposes of non-philosophical communication. As for dialectic (jadal), although it falls short of apodictic demonstration, al-Fārābī nevertheless assigns it a number of important ancillary functions that, taken together, “elevate [it] from the status of a mere handmaiden to a de facto partner with demonstration in philosophical pursuits.”174 Like al-Kindī before him, al-Fārābī explicitly called for the allegorical reinterpretation of scripture in instances in which the literal meaning conflicts with reason.175 In this vein, he outlined a theory in which Aristotle’s poetics is identified as the means of communication employed by revelation, the truths of which are thus communicated to the masses through takhyīl, a kind of “imaginalization” or imaginative evocation meant to stand in as a surrogate for those incapable of philosophical reasoning.176 This notion of revelation’s reliance on poetic language and on the imaginative evocation such language is said to enable went on to become standard doctrines of the philosophers; both ideas were forcefully reasserted two and a half centuries later by Ibn Rushd and come under massive and sustained attack by Ibn Taymiyya in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ. Al-Fārābī’s central relevance to the debate on reason and revelation in Islam thus lies principally in his “interest in types of rationality, in modes of discourse and argumentation, and in the relations between ordinary and philosophical language,” all of which form an “integral part of his answer to [the] historical challenge [of the] need to address seriously the sometimes competing claims between philosophy and religion.”177
8.3 Ibn Sīnā
Born near Bukhara (in current-day Uzbekistan), Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn b. Sīnā (d. 428/1037), known in the medieval and modern West under the Latinized name Avicenna, is without a doubt the central figure in the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition. Before Ibn Sīnā, philosophy and kalām, despite cross-fertilizations, represented two distinct strands of thought. With Ibn Sīnā, the two strands became intertwined to such an extent that post-Avicennian kalām came to represent a synthesis of Ibn Sīnā’s metaphysics and Islamic theological doctrine.178 Ibn Sīnā’s metaphysical theses were taken up and debated by kalām-theologians right up to the dawn of the modern era.179 In short, Ibn Sīnā “straddled two worlds: the world of falsafa and the world of kalām.”180
Ibn Sīnā’s influence, like that of al-Fārābī, was felt most profoundly in the fields of logic and, especially, metaphysics. Our concern here is strictly limited to those aspects of Ibn Sīnā’s thought that were eventually adopted by mainstream mutakallimūn and naturalized into later kalām. One of the most important of these ideas is Ibn Sīnā’s distinction between essence and existence, as well as his distinction (which attracted a considerable amount of criticism) between that which is necessary by virtue of itself (al-wājib bi-dhātihi), namely, God, and that which is necessary but by virtue of another (al-wājib bi-ghayrihi), namely, everything other than God (which is deemed to exist necessarily, albeit by virtue of God and not by virtue of itself). These twin theses exercised an enormous influence in post-classical Islamic intellectual history, both in various strains of later philosophy and in mainstream Sunnī, as well as Shīʿī, kalām.181
Ibn Sīnā viewed logic as the key to philosophy, an indispensable tool that leads to knowledge of the essential natures of things182—a conception of logic that Ibn Taymiyya attacks emphatically.183 Ibn Sīnā is credited with articulating the original notion of God as being “necessarily existent by virtue of Himself” (wājib al-wujūd bi-dhātihi)—the Necessarily Existent from whom the rest of existent things then overflow by necessity (which is why they are classified as necessarily existent, though by virtue not of themselves but of God) in typical Neoplatonic emanationist fashion. Ibn Sīnā’s particular notion of God precluded that He could have any intentional relation to the world184—a major point of variance with Islamic theological doctrine, which insists on God’s fully free and volitional creation of the cosmos. Furthermore, according to Ibn Sīnā, divine providence cannot be understood in terms of God’s direct superintendence of or concern for the world, but only in the far more remote sense of God’s (mere) knowledge of the order of all existence and the manner of its goodness.185
Later critics of Ibn Sīnā, such as the Ashʿarī theologians al-Ghazālī and al-Shahrastānī (d. 548/1153), mostly took issue with Ibn Sīnā’s conception of God and His relationship to the world, his denial of God’s knowledge of particulars as particulars, the doctrine of the eternity of the universe, and his purely spiritualist, non-corporeal conception of the afterlife. Al-Ghazālī, as we shall see, dedicated one of his most famous and influential works, Tahāfut al-falāsifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), to launching a devastating attack on major elements of the Muslim philosophical tradition, primarily as incarnated in Ibn Sīnā’s unique synthesis of Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, and original Avicennian elements. In his attack on philosophy, al-Ghazālī singled out the last three doctrines enumerated above (the eternity of the world, the denial of God’s knowledge of particulars, and the denial of a physical resurrection) as fundamentally irreconcilable with the tenets of Islam, such that anyone who held these views was beyond the pale of the faith. Ibn Taymiyya, too, had many criticisms of Ibn Sīnā, for he “very perspicaciously saw what Avicenna had done: he had incorporated into, and discussed in terms of his own philosophical system, all the intellectual concerns of Islamic society, such as the nature of prophecy, eschatology (maʿād), etc.”186 It was precisely Ibn Sīnā’s discussion and reinterpretation of central Islamic doctrines on the terms of an independent (and, in his eyes, rationally inadequate) philosophical system that Ibn Taymiyya objected to so strongly and that he sought to remedy.
Ultimately, however, the criticisms of al-Ghazālī and others failed to prevent Ibn Sīnā’s thought not only from profoundly affecting the post-Avicennian philosophical tradition (which is to be expected) but also from penetrating the very conceptual core of kalām, leading to a distinction between the early kalām tradition (that of the so-called mutaqaddimūn) and a later, distinctly “post-Avicennian” kalām (that of the so-called mutaʾakhkhirūn) that unmistakably bears the imprint of Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy.187 Even al-Ghazālī himself, who was initially perceived by Western scholars to be categorically opposed to philosophy on all levels, is now understood to have been rather deeply influenced by his arch-rival Persian compatriot.188
9 The New Kalām and Subsequent Developments
Theology in the fifth/eleventh century underwent a fundamental change as it came under the direct influence of the imposing philosophical system of Ibn Sīnā. We recall that philosophy until the middle of the fourth/tenth century was, both methodologically and institutionally, separate from kalām to a considerable degree and that the philosophers as a group, from al-Kindī through al-Fārābī, had a relatively minor impact on theological discourse.189 Indeed, although the theologians had absorbed a number of methodological tools from the philosophers,190 the problems treated in kalām remained essentially the same throughout this nearly three-century period. This remained true until a seismic shift took place with the rise, post-Ibn Sīnā, of the new kalām reflected in the work of al-Juwaynī and, especially, of his famous student, al-Ghazālī. Given the relative isolation in which philosophy had incubated during its initial development and subsequent consolidation—that is, during the period of some two hundred years from al-Kindī through Ibn Sīnā—it must have seemed as if philosophy had come from nowhere to shake the very foundations of theology itself. This shock may well have led to a sense that Ashʿarī kalām, as originally developed by al-Ashʿarī in response to the Muʿtazila, was relatively ill-equipped to deal with philosophy proper and that even after the introduction of what were hoped to be the requisite methodological renovations, such as those of al-Bāqillānī, rational certainty in matters of theology continued to prove elusive, particularly in the face of philosophy’s supreme confidence in its ability to engender certitude.
The first major Ashʿarī theologian to have come under the direct influence of philosophy via Ibn Sīnā seems to be Abū al-Maʿālī (“Imām al-Ḥaramayn”) al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085). Al-Juwaynī sought to rectify the inadequacies that had become apparent when kalām was confronted with philosophy. He did this by adopting certain aspects of the philosophical tradition that he deemed not only compatible with kalām but also, indeed, vital for shoring up the worldview of kalām in the face of Ibn Sīnā’s imposing philosophy. Al-Juwaynī’s changing attitude towards the place of the rational sciences in the overall hierarchy of Islamic religious disciplines is apparent from his view that naẓar (that is, engaging in a deliberate process of rational inquiry regarding the foundations of faith) is an obligation for all Muslims who have reached the age of maturity and must be undertaken in order for their faith to be considered valid.191
Though al-Bāqillānī had harbored reservations about the analogical inference from the seen to the unseen (al-qiyās bi-l-shāhid ʿalā al-ghāʾib) and had tried to reinforce the defensive arsenal of kalām by adding to it his principle of reversibility, with al-Juwaynī this inference from the seen was abandoned altogether.192 But al-Juwaynī went farther and dropped al-Bāqillānī’s reversibility principle as well, replacing it with certain elements selectively incorporated from the new logic, which was becoming more widespread via the work of Ibn Sīnā. Al-Juwaynī incorporated into the logical armor of kalām a number of techniques such as enumeration and division (al-sabr wa-l-taqsīm) and the disjunction between affirmation and negation. Such methods supplemented the two main procedures previously in use, the indirect syllogism (qiyās al-khalf) and the direct, or standard, syllogism (al-qiyās al-mustaqīm).193
In his final theological work, al-ʿAqīda al-Niẓāmiyya,194 al-Juwaynī abandons the earlier kalām’s method of proving the existence of God from the createdness of the world (specifically the argument from the temporal origination of bodies, or ḥudūth al-ajsām) in favor of Ibn Sīnā’s proof, which was based on the dichotomy of ontological necessity (wujūb) and contingency (imkān).195 This change in the argument used for proving the existence of God and the increasing appropriation of logic as a tool for theology represent two fundamental distinctions on the basis of which practically all later thinkers196 differentiate between the “early kalām” of the mutaqaddimūn and the “later kalām” of the mutaʾakhkhirūn. Furthermore, al-Juwaynī seems to have been the first to incorporate the Muʿtazilī doctrine of atomism into Ashʿarī kalām as a normative teaching that, in combination with the argument from contingency, was used to prove the existence of God, His attributes, and the temporality, or “temporal origination” (ḥudūth), of the world.197
Another crucial departure from al-Ashʿarī’s methodology in the work of al-Juwaynī—and one that is of central concern to Ibn Taymiyya—relates to al-Juwaynī’s position on the divine attributes. Both al-Ashʿarī and al-Bāqillānī, as we have seen, upheld a modified version of the bi-lā kayf doctrine of the early Muslim community as a means of preserving both divine transcendence and the literal integrity of the Qurʾān’s assertions regarding the attributes of God. Al-Juwaynī, however, went farther by separating attributes into essential (nafsī) and qualitative (maʿnawī), a move that has been described as a shift towards a more “liberal” Ashʿarī theology, one less attached to a literal understanding of Qurʾānic statements regarding the divine attributes.198 In this, al-Juwaynī was one of the first Ashʿarī theologians to make taʾwīl of—in the sense of interpreting figuratively—the so-called revealed attributes (al-ṣifāt al-khabariyya), such as God’s hands, face, and other such attributes that cannot be known through independent reason and are denoted in revelation by terms that could seem to imply corporeality.199
Similarly, al-Juwaynī was the first theologian to elaborate a juridical methodology on the basis of the principles of the new kalām, an initiative brought to full fruition by his student al-Ghazālī,200 who oversaw the firm and complete incorporation of logic into theology as well. Al-Juwaynī nonetheless represents a critical juncture in the transition from the earlier style of reasoning in kalām to the new, philosophically oriented kalām, being as he was “old-school by virtue of his dialectical method, but an old-schooler who portends the triumph of the new method.”201 According to Ibn Khaldūn, the old way is exemplified by al-Bāqillānī’s reversibility principle (which states that the invalidity of the proof entails the falsity of what is being proved), while the new way, informed by Aristotelian logic, is not bound by this principle. The principle itself seems to be drawn primarily from legal analogy (qiyās) as it was originally used in the domain of fiqh, in which the Aristotelian syllogism had not yet made its appearance.202 In the new logic on the basis of which al-Bāqillānī’s reversibility principle is rejected, however, the Aristotelian syllogism becomes predominant. This “new method”—which incorporates the new logic as well as the new argument for the existence of God, both compliments of Ibn Sīnā—comes fully into its own with al-Ghazālī, after whom the method and terminology of kalām come to resemble that of philosophy more and more with each succeeding generation of Ashʿarīs.203
The “Proof of Islam” (Ḥujjat al-Islām) Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) is a watershed figure in Islamic intellectual history whose thought represents a confluence of jurisprudence, theology, philosophy, and Sufism and who rightfully deserves a separate discussion in relation to each of these fields.204 We treat him here not only because of his superb philosophical education and sharply analytical mind but also because it is his engagement with the Muslim philosophical tradition that is most relevant to the concerns of this study. This relevance stems not only from al-Ghazālī’s refutation of certain central theses of the philosophers on purely philosophical grounds (similar to Ibn Taymiyya’s refutations) but also from his adoption of certain elements of philosophy that he made part and parcel of Islamic orthodoxy (legal and theological, as well as spiritual and mystical). In the pivotal figure of al-Ghazālī, who developed an early interest in the epistemological foundations of knowledge,205 we witness the full crossover in Islamic theology from the way of the early school (ṭarīq al-mutaqaddimīn) to the way of the later school (ṭarīq al-mutaʾakhkhirīn) foreshadowed by al-Juwaynī.206
Born in 450/1058 in the northeastern Iranian city of Tus, al-Ghazālī studied in Nishapur under the eminent Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī. He then taught at the prestigious Niẓāmiyya madrasa in Baghdad for four years. During this period, al-Ghazālī’s intense philosophical studies led him to produce a number of important works,207 including an exposition of logic, Miʿyār al-ʿilm fī fann al-manṭiq (The standard of knowledge in the art of logic),208 and an important work of Ashʿarī theology, al-Iqtiṣād fī al-iʿtiqād (The just mean in belief). He wrote his most celebrated work, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), after a lengthy period of solitary travel dedicated to treading the Sufi path of spiritual purification and mystical realization. Upon returning home from this extended hiatus,209 al-Ghazālī resumed his teaching and other scholarly activities, producing, inter alia, a major work on uṣūl al-fiqh (the aforementioned al-Mustaṣfā),210 an intellectual and spiritual autobiography, two mystical treatises, and, shortly before his death, a small work warning against the pursuit of kalām theology by the common people.
In one of his most famous and influential works, Tahāfut al-falāsifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers),211 al-Ghazālī sharply critiques the philosophical tradition—particularly Ibn Sīnā’s metaphysics and psychology,212 but also aspects of al-Fārābī’s philosophy.213 This attack elicited a strident, line-by-line response by the staunchly Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd, born in the Andalusian city of Cordoba only fifteen years after al-Ghazālī’s death in northeastern Iran. In the Tahāfut, al-Ghazālī charges the philosophers with relying on inherited assumptions that cannot be deduced apodictically214 and sets out to refute twenty of their discrete doctrines, three of which he considered irreconcilable with Islamic belief.215 These three doctrines are (1) the eternity of the world, (2) the idea that God knows only universal concepts and not particular instantiations thereof, and (3) the impossibility of a physical resurrection after death.216
Al-Ghazālī’s was the first, though not the last, attempt in Islam to respond to philosophy on its own grounds, using purely philosophical arguments rather than merely vilifying philosophy as a foreign science, accusing its practitioners of impiety, or arguing against it based solely on the authority of scripture. Yet despite the mordancy of al-Ghazālī’s attack against the philosophers and the longstanding view that his offensive sounded the death knell of (at least a particular brand of) philosophy in the Muslim world, more recent scholarship has revealed the extent to which al-Ghazālī’s own thought was indebted to that of his ideological foes, in particular Ibn Sīnā.217 Indeed, it is well known that while al-Ghazālī rejected many aspects of philosophy entirely, most notably its precarious metaphysics, he nonetheless enthusiastically embraced the Aristotelian logic built on definition and syllogism that forms the core of the entire system.218 Perhaps sensing the vulnerability of kalām arguments supported by earlier forms of logic in the face of Ibn Sīnā’s imposing philosophical edifice, al-Ghazālī made Ibn Sīnā’s logic his own and henceforth incorporated it into kalām (just as he made it part and parcel of legal theory as well). In his enthusiasm for this powerful new tool of logic, al-Ghazālī even believed he could identify in the Qurʾān a prefiguring of the five forms of the Aristotelian syllogism.219 We saw above how, starting with al-Juwaynī, the dialectical and syllogistic methods of argumentation were combined. Al-Ghazālī now fully accepts formal deductive reasoning based on the search for a universal middle term and makes it part and parcel of Islamic theological reasoning.220 Al-Ghazālī thus made important innovations in terms of method, mode of exposition, and style of reasoning,221 and it is this new method of reasoning and arguing that was identified as the “way of the later [school]” (ṭarīq al-mutaʾakhkhirīn) by Ibn Khaldūn and others.222
Regarding the metaphorical interpretation of texts, al-Ghazālī accepted the use of taʾwīl, in the manner of al-Juwaynī, to obviate overtly anthropomorphic readings of the ṣifāt khabariyya, or “revealed attributes” (hands, face, etc.),223 but he insisted that such taʾwīlāt should remain the province of the elite and not be discussed among the general populace for fear of inducing confusion in their minds.224 Yet al-Ghazālī seems willing—at least in some of his writings—to go a step farther than al-Juwaynī. We see an example of this tendency in his Mishkāt al-anwār (Niche of Lights),225 which contains a complete theory of symbolism (in the sense of allegory, or tamthīl) with respect to the sensible and intelligible worlds, as well as multiple examples of symbolic exegesis of the Qurʾān.226
Al-Ghazālī’s attitude towards kalām—and, by extension, the status of discursive knowledge more generally—is critical for an understanding of his potent legacy and the development of Islamic thought that Ibn Taymiyya inherited one and a half centuries later. In the Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, al-Ghazālī exhibits a guarded attitude towards kalām, admitting that it was not practiced by the earliest generations of Muslims but nevertheless conceding a limited use of it as indispensable for combatting heretical innovations (bidaʿ) that risked leading believers away from the path of the Qurʾān and Sunna. Given that such innovations were often put forth in the name of reason, they could only be effectively countered on their own—that is, on rational—terms. Notwithstanding this remedial function of kalām, al-Ghazālī does not seem to accept it as a fully legitimate (or at least not a fully adequate, much less necessary) path for reaching truth.227 The inherent limitations of kalām, as al-Ghazālī instructs us in his work al-Munqidh min al-ḍalāl (Deliverance from Error), lie in the fact that it proceeds on the basis of premises that are not rationally certain in and of themselves since they must be accepted on the basis of revelation or the consensus (ijmāʿ) of the community; for this reason, they are incapable of yielding apodictic certitude (on a purely rational level) as the would-be result of a syllogistic process of inference.228 Yet just as we saw in the case of al-Ashʿarī after his abandonment of the Muʿtazila, al-Ghazālī’s initially critical, if not deprecatory, assessment of kalām yielded, in his later writings, to a more moderate and nuanced tone that accords kalām a legitimate, if duly circumscribed, place in the overall hierarchy of sciences. Thus, in his al-Risāla al-Laduniyya, for instance, al-Ghazālī classifies ʿilm al-tawḥīd—the science of the oneness of God, “also known as kalām”229—as occupying a position of prime importance. And while the sources of the knowledge of tawḥīd, according to the Risāla, are primarily the Qurʾān and the Sunna, he also specifically acknowledges that these sources contain “rational proofs and syllogistic demonstrations” (al-dalāʾil al-ʿaqliyya wa-l-barāhīn al-qiyāsiyya).230
Al-Ghazālī’s guarded acceptance of kalām in some of his writings should not, however, obscure his abiding insistence on the limited nature of all purely discursive thought and related rational discourse, kalām being no exception. For al-Ghazālī, true certainty (yaqīn) can ultimately be gained only through the “witnessing of realities” (mushāhada, or mushāhadat al-ḥaqāʾiq)231 by way of spiritual unveiling (kashf). While kalām may be of initial assistance in helping one move towards this goal, it can also act as a veil insofar as one may unwittingly mistake the means for the end.
10 Kalām and Falsafa in the Wake of al-Ghazālī
10.1 Ashʿarī Theology and the Struggle to Orthodoxy
The immediate reception of the new Ashʿarī kalām in the sixth/twelfth century is illustrative of the larger intellectual mood of the period. While the Ashʿarī method undoubtedly had its enthusiastic supporters, it had many implacable opponents as well. As we may expect, the most vociferous opposition came from Ḥanbalī quarters—an example being ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī al-Harawī (d. 481/1089), a Ḥanbalī and well-known Sufi who attacked the Ashʿarīs vigorously232—but opposition during this period went considerably beyond strictly Ḥanbalī circles. Yet in spite of ongoing polemics against rationalist kalām by Ḥanbalīs and others, the Ashʿarī school boasted a number of enthusiastic and vocal supporters as well, such as the Shāfiʿī ḥadīth master and historian Ibn ʿAsākir (d. 571/1176), who forcefully defended the legitimacy of a rational theological dialectic,233 and even the Ḥanbalī jurist and theologian Ibn ʿAqīl (d. 513/1119).234 In time, Ashʿarī kalām established itself as the dominant school in the central regions of the Islamic world, but not without a struggle.235 It was not until the famous Seljuq vizier Niẓām al-Mulk (active 455–485/1063–1092) established positions in the major madrasas of the empire specifically to teach the new theology that the Ashʿarī school was finally able to triumph over its two rivals: the Muʿtazila, on the one hand, and the strictest of the Ḥanbalīs, on the other.236
By the time Ibn Taymiyya was born some two hundred years later,237 any significant opposition to kalām theology had all but dissipated in most quarters. Ashʿarī kalām had long since been accepted by much of the Sunnī world as the normative, orthodox expression of Islamic belief in rational-theological terms. At the same time, the Mamluk rulers of Syria and Egypt (the two countries where Ibn Taymiyya spent his life) had proved themselves enthusiastic patrons of the now dominant Ashʿarī theology, and also of the many eclectic brands of Sufism—some quite orthodox, others decidedly less so—that had also become widespread. Their patronage meant that conflicts with those who abjured theological speculation and advocated a stricter adherence to the literal text would be unavoidable.238
10.2 Philosophical Theology and the Fate of Falsafa Proper
While al-Ghazālī’s attack on the Muslim Peripatetic tradition was long understood in Western scholarship to have spelled the death of philosophy in the Muslim world, this is only true in one limited sense, namely, that there was no continuation of an independent philosophical tradition pursued along the largely Aristotelian lines of classical falsafa. One notable exception to this was Ibn Rushd, whose work, however consequential it may have been for medieval Europe, had virtually no impact on the Muslim world itself.239 On the one hand, alternative schools of philosophy arose and flourished, most notably the Ishrāqī, or “Illuminationist,” tradition founded by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī “al-Maqtūl” (executed 587/1191). This tradition reached its culmination in the eleventh-/seventeenth-century synthesis represented by the “transcendent theosophy,” or ḥikma mutaʿāliya, of the Persian Shīʿī philosopher, theologian, and mystic Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (Mullā Ṣadrā) (d. 1050/1640)240 and has survived in Iran up to the present day.241 On the other hand, a perusal of later kalām works makes it abundantly clear that mainstream Islamic discourse in a sense co-opted, rather than banished, philosophy, absorbing it into the body of kalām while bending it to the outlook, purposes, and needs of the discipline.242
Contemporary scholars have offered contrasting pictures of the precise nature of the intertwinement of philosophy and theology that took place in the post-Ibn Sīnā / post-Ghazālī period. Earlier scholarship stressed that the philosophers (with the sole exception of al-Kindī) had retained full autonomy in the face of Islamic doctrine,243 underscoring their reluctance to “surrender any aspect of [philosophy], or to attribute any mark of privilege or distinction to [Islamic belief] by virtue of its supernatural or divine origin.”244 More recent studies, however, have brought to light the (formerly unappreciated) extent to which falsafa itself and its practitioners were influenced by kalām, not merely in terms of the topics with which they dealt but also in terms of their conceptual vocabulary, discrete arguments, the examples they used, and sometimes even the substantive positions they adopted.245 Building on the argument that Ibn Sīnā himself had been influenced by kalām in developing certain fundamental notions, including the key distinction between essence and existence so central to his thought,246 it has been suggested that this “theologization” of the philosophical tradition may even help explain why Ibn Sīnā’s thought spread so rapidly among the mutakallimūn and was eventually taken up in so many quarters with such enthusiasm.247 On the ultimate fate of philosophy as an independent pursuit in the Islamic world, Tim Winter concludes that
falsafa as a discipline was progressively overtaken, or perhaps swallowed up, by Sunnī kalām at some point after the twelfth century. Perhaps the reason for this was the same factor which had caused the translation movement to wind down two centuries earlier: the ideas had been successfully transmitted. Falsafa functioned as an intermediary school, a module provisionally and imperfectly integrated into Muslim culture which allowed Muslim thinkers to entertain Greek ideas and choose those which seemed to them persuasive and true. As a system, however, it did not possess the resources to survive indefinitely. Once Muslims found that their need for a sophisticated philosophical theology was satisfied by the kalām, falsafa as an independent discipline naturally withered.248
10.3 Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī
One of the main architects of this new “philosophical theology” in the century immediately after al-Ghazālī was the Persian Shāfiʿī theologian and polymath Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209),249 who has been referred to as “the most outstanding phenomenon in speculative theology in the post-Ghazālī period.”250 He has also been characterized as a “subtle dialectician, possessor of a vast philosophical and theological culture as well as of an intellectual courage rare in his time, [who] is among the leading representatives of Sunnite Islam.”251 More recently, the “breadth of Rāzī’s intellectual ambition” has been described as “unprecedented in the history of Islamic civilization.”252 Born in the city of Rayy (near present-day Tehran) in 543/1149, it is al-Rāzī who, coupled with al-Ghazālī, did the most to incorporate the new philosophical approach into the body of kalām.253 In addition to his studies in history, literature, law, theology, medicine, and the natural sciences,254 al-Rāzī immersed himself in the study of philosophy and was a master of the art of disputation. His thought was profoundly influenced by Ibn Sīnā, but mostly in the way of the philosopher Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī (d. 560/1164 or 1165), a convert from Judaism to Islam whose thought, while steeped in that of Ibn Sīnā, was nevertheless critical of the latter and whose views, on the whole, were closer to orthodox Muslim (and Jewish) theological positions.255 Al-Rāzī wrote an important work on metaphysics, al-Mabāḥith al-mashriqiyya (Oriental investigations), that manifests his clear debt to Ibn Sīnā but also his rejection of certain central aspects of Ibn Sīnā’s system, such as the doctrine of emanation.256 Nevertheless, al-Rāzī’s most important work on theology, Muḥaṣṣal afkār al-mutaqaddimīn wa-l-mutaʾakhkhirīn min al-ʿulamāʾ wa-l-ḥukamāʾ wa-l-mutakallimīn (The harvest of the thought of the ancients and moderns among scholars, philosophers, and theologians), which begins with an extended disquisition on metaphysics, epistemology, and logic, clearly shows the increasing influence of the terms and categories of philosophy in the discourse of kalām. Indeed, al-Rāzī’s inclusion of a metaphysical preamble to the Muḥaṣṣal became standard in subsequent works of Ashʿarī kalām.
Contemporary scholars have brought considerable nuance to our understanding of al-Rāzī’s thought. Ayman Shihadeh traces the crucial developments in sixth-/twelfth-century philosophical theology that led from al-Ghazālī, who died at the beginning of that century, to al-Rāzī, who died almost exactly one hundred years later.257 He elucidates al-Rāzī’s ethical theory, taking up age-old theological questions concerning the ethical nature as well as the ontological instantiation of human acts.258 More relevant to our concerns, Shihadeh deals in depth with al-Rāzī’s apparent late-life skepticism concerning the ability of reason to yield certain knowledge,259 a theme to which we shall return at several junctures in the course of subsequent investigations.
In a volume on the medieval reception of Ibn Sīnā’s metaphysics,260 Heidrun Eichner traces the major role al-Rāzī played in “shaping the reception and interpretation of Avicennian ontology” and identifies his compendium al-Mulakhkhaṣ fī al-ḥikma wa-l-manṭiq (The epitome on philosophy and logic) as “one of the most influential works in the Arabic reception of Avicennian philosophy from the late thirteenth century onwards.”261 Al-Rāzī’s influential presentation of Ibn Sīnā’s positions does not necessarily mean that he always agreed with them. In fact, he often explicates them only to argue an alternative position against them. On some occasions, al-Rāzī does not faithfully represent Ibn Sīnā’s positions; furthermore, he uses a vocabulary that is not always adequate to render Ibn Sīnā’s thought.262 On another note, al-Rāzī has been identified as “the most prominent exponent of the thesis that existence is superadded to quiddity,”263 a view that Ibn Taymiyya ascribes to the Muslim Peripatetic philosophers and that forms a main crux in his attack on their ontology. It is of note that al-Rāzī maintained this view in opposition to al-Ashʿarī himself, albeit with the (from an Ashʿarī perspective) very commendable goal of maintaining God’s willful creation of the world as opposed to His mere, as it were automatic, necessitation of it as conceptualized by Ibn Sīnā.264
Finally, Tariq Jaffer has dedicated a full monograph to al-Rāzī265 in which he elaborates in depth on al-Rāzī’s endeavor to establish Islamic (specifically Ashʿarī) theology on the most solid rational foundations possible. Significantly, al-Rāzī undertakes this ambitious project not merely by means of the received medium of the formal theological or philosophical treatise but even more so through his massive, 32-volume Qurʾānic commentary, Mafātīḥ al-ghayb (Keys of the unseen), also known simply as al-Tafsīr al-kabīr (The grand tafsīr).266 Jaffer argues that “by using the Qurʾān to express his philosophical theology, Rāzī gave his revolutionary agenda an undisputed authority in Sunnī Islam.”267 By bringing about a “grand synthesis of ideas” through his tafsīr, al-Rāzī sought to achieve three overriding objectives,268 one of which was to synthesize Islamic revelation with the rich Aristotelian-Avicennian philosophical tradition that had gained such prominence in the century before al-Rāzī, thereby extending to this tradition the sanctioning mantle of the Qurʾān.
Al-Rāzī’s other two main objectives are, in fact, also central to Ibn Taymiyya’s project in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ. The first of these was to put the science of tafsīr—and thereby of theology more generally—on a firm epistemological footing by grounding it in rigorous rational and logical principles that would act as a control on the possible meanings that could be derived from the revealed texts. It is partly in pursuit of this goal that al-Rāzī (following al-Ghazālī and others) articulated the universal rule of interpretation,269 which explicitly prioritizes reason over revelation when adjudicating any possible conflicts between the two. Ibn Taymiyya cites this rule of interpretation on the first page of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ, then declares that he has dedicated the entirety of the work to refuting it. (We examine this universal rule, and Ibn Taymiyya’s response to it, in detail in chapter 3.)270 After establishing reason as the arbiter in interpreting revelation, al-Rāzī’s final goal is to “demonstrate the Qurʾān’s pre-eminence by disclosing that its method of reasoning coincides with the human intellect’s procedure of discursive reasoning and the conclusions reached by it.”271
These lines could just as easily have been written about Ibn Taymiyya, for whom the natural concord between the deliverances of human reason and the declarations of revelation is, in fact, the principal thesis of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ. But before delving into Ibn Taymiyya’s work, we would do well first to acquaint ourselves with the man himself.