Ma Turidism

To give another example of how misleading the nomenclature often used in theology can be, let us examine briefly the controversy over irja' or ''postponement''.13 As Khalid Blankinship has outlined in chapter 2 of the present volume, a central controversy in early Islam had evolved over the nature of belief (aman): was it primarily a matter of belief and acts, or of beliefs alone? Could one be a sinner and yet at the same time remain a sincere Muslim? An important school which was initiated by Abu Hanifa (d. 767) and provided with a solid intellectual foundation by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 944) argued that even the worst sinner cannot be treated as an unbeliever, and that the decision as to whether he is really a believer should be left to God (compare Qur'an 9:106). Hanafi jurists, basing themselves largely on Maturidi's work, argued that iman does not genuinely increase or decrease, unlike taqwa or piety, which does fluctuate. The Ash'arites took the opposite view on aman, arguing also that we are strictly limited in what we can work out by ourselves using reason alone. For the Maturadas, by contrast, even without religious instruction or revelation we can know that some things are just wrong. This has interesting implications for the fate of those who do not receive the message of Islam and then die. The Maturadas argued that how one ought to live is broadly so obvious that those who do not live appropriately will be sent to hell, despite their lack of access to revelation. The Ash'arites would assign them elsewhere, perhaps to a kind of limbo, since they cannot be blamed for their actions.14 The Maturada strategy was strongly opposed by the Hanbalites, who cited hadith statements against the Murji'a hesitancy to define belief. In particular, the Qur'anic idea that ''judgement is God's alone'' (6:57; 12:40, 67) does rather suggest that scripture monopolises the answer to all such controversies. Whatever the purport of the scriptures, however, it is worth pointing to a feature of the Murji'a which is interesting. At the end of most accounts of Uman which are sympathetic to the Murji'ai perspective comes a political chapter, and this tends to argue for a quietist approach to an evil ruler. The Hanbalite position is more revolutionary, often arguing that the believer does not owe allegiance to a sinful ruler if the latter can be classified as kafir (unbeliever); on the contrary, the Muslim may well have a duty of disobedience. It is perhaps not surprising that the Hanafai, and so largely Murji'a, climate of the Ottoman Empire was much better able to incorporate diversity within its borders than other Muslim regimes which emphasised the significance of the ruler being a particular kind of believer. A regime is likely to tolerate more diversity if it leaves the decision as to precisely who is a believer and who is not to the Almighty, refusing to claim the ability to decide on such issues on the basis of the actions of the agent himself. Only God can look into the heart of the individual, and even the Almighty will wait until his death before deciding the issue. How much more incumbent it is on us, the Murji'ites and their successors would say, to postpone the decision also. Yet many Hanbalai rigorists, harking back to the Khaarijites, had good arguments for deducing character from actions; and we are helped by scripture in making our judgement on that character rational and just. If the only thing of importance is the intention of the agent, then it would not matter, they argue, whether Muslims who pray are actually praying in the right direction or whether they are praying behind a just imam. One could abandon all ritual and good works if the only thing of significance was intention (as some ridiculed the Maaturaidai doctrine, it would not matter if one bowed down in front of a shoe, provided that one had the right intention!);and there are many sayings of the Prophet and his Companions which emphasise the importance of correct action in any definition of being a Muslim. What needs to be noted about this fascinating debate is that it is far from obvious which protagonist is the more ''rational'' and which the more ''traditional''. Both positions take themselves to be both reasonable and grounded in revelation.

The iman controversy shows how Maturidism may broadly be considered a natural derivation from the Murji'i position. Maturidi had provided a secure intellectual basis for the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which made much space for reason and individual judgement.15 He played an active role in the theological controversies of his time, and in particular argued with the Mu'tazilites who were then well ensconced in Basra. However, while he often agreed with Ash'arai, he was by no means a slavish follower, and sought to establish something of a middle ground between the Mu'tazila and the Ash'arites. This middle ground turned out to be the source of fertile conceptual work for many of the next centuries of Islamic theology, and it is worth looking at the structure of Maaturaidism to understand how it was able to establish such a presence in the intellectual world of the time, and indeed ever since.

The principles of evolved Maaturaidite theology are quite simple. First, knowledge can be acquired by using our senses, accepting reports and, most importantly, through the use of reason. This is why the Qur'an itself places such reliance on reason, and constantly calls on its hearers and readers to think rationally about what is set before them. Reason alone is not enough, though, since it needs to be combined with revelation, and this leads to a very productive form of tafsir or exegesis (Maturidi himself wrote a pioneering work of theological commentary on the Qur'an). Where a passage in the Qur'an is clear, it must be accepted as it stands. Where it seems to run foul of another clear verse, something has to be done: at least one of the verses needs to be reinterpreted. This may mean that we are constrained to admit that we do not fully understand it, but it could also be that there exists an interpretation that would reconcile the two verses, even if this is not the most obvious one. As in the case of the Mu'tazilites, a good deal of reliance is placed on reason, but unlike them this is not allowed complete sway over the process of interpretation. Reason and revelation working in tandem resolve theological difficulties, and it is important to get the balance right between the two.

What is the problem with clinging only to literal and clear meanings? This is very much the demand of those of Ibn Taymiyya's persuasion who see the Book as perfectly easy to understand and in no need of the importation of any specific rational methods of interpretation. But the Maturidis point out that reason is something that God has given us, since it is conformable to his nature; and he expects us to use it. Some of the anthropomorphic passages in the Book cannot be taken literally unless we think that God has a body, and this cannot be what we are supposed to believe. So exegesis has to be used to make sense of such passages, unless we will merely say that they have to be taken bi-la kayfa, without knowing how they are to be taken, which does not advance us at all, although sometimes this is something that just has to be accepted. This traditionalist response to difficult passages is, in Maaturaidai eyes, just as generally unsatisfactory as the Mu'tazilite principle that ascribing names to God as though this were to describe Him is to damage the idea of the unity of the divine. Where they both go wrong, the Maaturaidais argue, is in not providing an appropriate balance between reason and revelation. Those theologians who want to emphasise the significance of tradition tend to downgrade reason because they suggest that only revelation can help us to know how we should act and what we can know. After all, if reason were sufficient to acquire such information, we would hardly need revelation to guide us through life. However, the idea that reason alone might provide the knowledge we require is vacuous, since we live in a divinely created world and require information about and from our creator in order to make sense of it. We can certainly use reason in that enterprise - God did after all create us with it for a purpose - yet by itself it is insufficient to provide a route through life. Like the Murji' Is, the Maturidis think that iman does not increase or decrease, does not depend on action and can survive sin. It is worth pointing out how this strategy, which suggests a clear division between faith and works, provides an effective arena for further debate, since on this rather relaxed criterion for membership of the religious community a good deal of backsliding can be tolerated.

This is the Maaturaidai strategy that helped the doctrine to become so dominant in the Sunnai world. It is a strategy of balance and practicality. Although the Maturidis are undoubtedly closer to the Ash'arites than to the Mu'tazilites, they differentiate themselves from the extremes of both sides, seeing in their doctrine a faithful but rational response to the Qur'an's description of the desirability of being in the middle (2:143). Mituridism came to dominate Turkey, and through the Ottoman Empire much of the Islamic world.

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