Islamic Theology As A System

It is important to see how the ontology of those critical of much Islamic philosophy, mysticism and even logic fits in with this critique. Since the argument is that the world is at root atomistic, and so is kept together in its present fairly stable form only by the constant intervention of the Deity, the reification of concepts is even more inaccurate than treating the material world as though it were independently subsistent and real. The developing line of broadly Ash'arite thinkers defended this view of the world as constituted of atoms and accidents, and so entirely dependent on God's grace for its continuing existence. Ghazali turned these various aspects of the defence of Ash'arism as theology into something of a system, one which was to survive for a long time in the various schools of theology in the Islamic world, and indeed continues to have resonance today.

Most commentators on Islamic theology offer a fairly neat idea of how it developed. First there existed a variety of views, with Mu'tazilism becoming politically dominant, emphasising the significance of reason in discussing religious issues. Then Ash'arl (d. 936) established a critique of Mu'tazilism, not just of its doctrines but also of the implications of those doctrines for the relative significance of reason and tradition ('aql and naql, a familiar binary addressed in the theology texts and discussions), and for a period Ash'arism predominated. This in turn was criticised for being too liberal by a small revival of Hanbali fortunes, in particular through the work of the Zahirite literalist Ibn Hazm of Cordoba (d. 1064)11 and Ibn Taymiyya, both of whom criticised the ability of intellectual argument to resolve deep-seated difficulties in understanding the Qur'an. They rejected the methods of falsafa and Ash'arite theology and advocated in their place a reliance on the ancestors, the salaf, who understood the language of the Qur'an and the practices of the Prophet in ways which we do well to emulate, and who were not troubled by the sorts of issues raised by later sects.

Although in recent times this approach has become important politically due to its acceptance in simplified form by the Wahhabis, who in 1924 achieved control over the holy sites in Arabia (the present-day Saudi Arabia), Ibn Taymiyya was always a marginal figure, and the Ash'arite school proved far more acceptable to the ulema, quickly developing into a complex system at the hands of thinkers such as Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 1013), whose Prolegomena (Kitab al-Tamhid) systematically laid out the basic principles of Ash'arism, a process further refined by 'Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 1037) and probably reaching its completion as an original form of thought in the Guidance (Kitab al-Irshad) of al-Juwayni, to be vigorously defended by al-Shahrastani (d. 1153), Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209), Najm al-Din al-Nasafi (d. 1142) and 'Adud al-Din al-Iji (d. 1355). Al-Ghazali is perhaps too original a thinker to be subsumed completely beneath an Ash'arite or Maaturaidite rubric, but he did a great deal to suggest that it might be possible to integrate kalaam with other approaches to the question of how to be a Muslim, such as Sufism. This project for a spiritual reanimation of kalaam had ramifications for later Sufi metaphysics, but was not much taken up within the schoolbooks of Ash'arism itself.

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