The Response Of The Philosophers

The philosophers tended to argue that where there was an apparent conflict between Islam and falsafa this conflict was only apparent, and that a correct understanding of philosophy would resolve the tension. It is the theologians, in particular those labelled by Averroes the people of kalam (for him definitely a derogatory term), who unnecessarily complicate the matter by their analyses of particular theological doctrines. It is the philosophers who should be left to sort out these doctrines, since only the philosophers have the ability and the training to resolve them once and for all in a demonstrative fashion. The theologians with their dialectical (jadali) methodology are unable to resolve issues comprehensively, and leave an abundance of loose ends. This not only results in a lack of closure, but also threatens to provoke doubts in the mind of the hearer about the truth of Islam itself, since questions which cannot be settled appear to have been raised. One might think Averroes was trying to evade the issue by making this point, but he does point to a characteristic feature of kalam, the fact that it tends to be directed against some other position, and so is dialectical in form. The trouble with such arguments is that they are only as strong as their premises, and since these may be vulnerable, theological arguments are not always impressive in their analytical depth.7

It is important to bear in mind that many of the arguments which appear to be theological in Islamic culture operate at a number of levels (no doubt this is true of theology in general). The debate between Ghazali and Averroes on, say, the nature of prophecy (nubuwwa) is not just philosophical and theological, but also legal and political. According to Ghazali, God chooses who will prophesy, and He provides that person with the information he requires in order to set out on his task. According to Averroes and most of the falasifa, the prophet is the sort of person who through self-perfection is fit to receive prophecy, and so receives it automatically, in the same way that I will receive a cold if I am in a fit state to catch one and the appropriate germs are in my vicinity. Prophecy is always available to those who are capable of reaching out to it intellectually. Ghazali insists that this is far from the Islamic view, since it implies that God has no choice of prophetic recipients, and this conflicts with the way in which the scriptural texts describe the process. But then, as Averroes suggests, perhaps these texts need to be interpreted in different ways for different audiences. Those who are able to understand the real basis of prophecy will not object if the community at large is given an account of the process which it can understand and which has within it the important features of what is true, but which otherwise they would not comprehend.


What was the Arabic for "theology"? The obvious answer is kalam, or speech, which represents well the scope of early theology, which was to confront the arguments of non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to deal with the early polemics between the Ash'arites, the Mu'tazilites and the Qadarites over the nature of the basic concepts of Islam itself. This was taken in two directions, the first allowing the use of reason, as in the case of the followers of Shafi'a and Abu Hanifa, and the second based on a literal reading of hadith, as with the supporters of Ibn Hanbal. It is worth pointing out that both approaches were rational, in that they both relied on the rational resolution of theoretical issues, but they applied reason to different sets of issues. For the Hanbalais it is primarily to be applied to the issue of hadith verification and the precise relationship between the Traditions as bequeathed by the Prophet, his Companions and their Successors.

In Western accounts these two groups of thinkers are sometimes called Rationalists and Traditionalists (terms commended by Abrahamov and Makdisi, among others), but these labels are not always helpful. It is not that some scholars known as Traditionalists favoured irrationality, or that "Rationalists" did not use the hadith;it was more a matter of emphasis than a difference in kind. The way in which these two approaches developed came to be subsumed under usUl al-din, the "roots of religion'', which until the eleventh century tended to be rather thin philosophically but placed the emphasis on understanding the structure of religion and how its different areas of discourse were related.

As theology evolved, the early years of kalaam came to be seen as a very free period of thought indeed, as evidenced by the popular slogan man talaba al-din bi'lkalam tazandaqa (whoever seeks religion through kalam becomes a heretic). What this referred to was not the whole project of theology itself as represented by usual al-din, but the investigation of basic features of the nature of God which some early Muslim thinkers engaged in, something which later generations often felt to be presuming too much about the accessibility of the divine nature. Despite the increasing incorporation of falsafa topics and methods into later kalaam, the institutionalisation of forms of Ash'arism and even more "traditionalist" approaches such as that of Ibn Hanbal has led some recent commentators on Islamic theology like Muhammad Iqbal to contrast the relative freedom of discussion of the early years with a kalaam equivalent of the "closure of the door of ijtihad'', or interpretation, a move which allegedly ended juridical innovation approximately a thousand years ago.8

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