Theology In Society

There are few direct sources which shed light on the reception of theology by ordinary believers in the pre-modern period. Most of what can be discovered on this subject must be gleaned from the writings of scholars; these, however, had little interest in popular religion and generally mention the beliefs of the common people only in the context of bemoaning ignorance and superstition among the masses. Consequently, not much is known about how ordinary Muslims received, understood and contributed to theological orthodoxy, and this section is thus inevitably little more than a sketch.

What we do know is that the discourse of the hadith folk enjoyed immense legitimacy and popularity among ordinary people from its very beginning. The traditionists were perceived as safeguards of the information through which the model embodied by the life of the Prophet (sunna) could be accessed. Recitations of prophetic traditions, covering a wide variety of subjects including theological issues, were often attended by thousands if not tens of thousands of listeners. In contrast, the public generally shunned the debates of the early mutakallimun. The latter's elitist discourse and their acerbic public exchanges which easily turned to polemics and sophistry alienated ordinary believers, who, it seems, often considered such bold speculation regarding the nature of God to border on the impious and thus viewed the theories of the theologians with suspicion.10

With the gradual development of the Sunni consensus, the public confrontations of the kalam experts died down, and basic Ash'ari and Maturidi doctrines were eventually absorbed into the evolving Sunnism of the ordinary Muslims. There was, however, a period of transition as the scholars negotiated the contours of a common ground, and the differing doctrinal orientations of social groupings such as neighbourhoods could turn into civic conflict. In a number of instances, the power of communal religious identity was harnessed by members of the 'ulamaa' to draw support from the masses for their campaigns against perceived heresy or immorality in society. An illustration is provided by the events following the arrival of Abu Nasr al-Qushayri, an avid Ash'arite, in Baghdad in 1067. Qushayr! used his public lectures to extol Ash'arite teachings and to castigate the dominant Hanbali theology, which was highly critical of Ash'arism, as anthropomorphic. In response, a large number of residents from the Hanbalite quarters of Baghdad - a significant force in Baghdaadai politics - took to the streets under the leadership of the Hanbali scholar al-Sharif Abu Ja'far. They were met by a mob of adherents of the Shafi'i school of law, who had come to the defence of their fellow Shaafi'ai Qushayrai. In the ensuing street battle, several people were killed, and order was restored only through the intervention of vizier Nizam al-Mulk, who briefly imprisoned Abu Ja'far and persuaded Qushayri to return to his native Nishapur. Such clashes between rival schools were also not uncommon in other urban centres. There is a heated but as yet inconclusive debate among historians regarding whether these sprang primarily from the public's will to defend its notion of orthodoxy, or whether religious claims were in fact deployed to mask social and ethnic divisions that were the true root causes of these conflicts.11

Outside the sphere of scholarly discourse, lay Muslims developed their own religious practices and convictions, giving rise to localised forms of popular religion that at times were at odds with the sober orthodoxies of the 'ulama'. A prominent example is the longstanding Cairene tradition of visiting the graves of saintly individuals buried in al-Qarafa, the ''City of the Dead'', located next to the old city. Such visits were fuelled by the belief that the baraka, special grace bestowed by God on certain individuals during their lifetimes, lingered at the sites of their interment. Prayers performed at these sites (for example for recovery from an illness or for success in conceiving a child) were thus believed to be particularly potent. Over time, grave visits developed into an established form of pilgrimage, with prescribed rituals to be performed at set days of the week.

The majority of the 'ulama' reacted to the popularity of grave visitation by seeking to impose ''orthodox'' limits on the rituals through their sermons and through the composition of written manuals for grave visits. A vocal minority of scholars insisted that the visitation of graves was a reprehensible religious innovation and should be shunned altogether. However, the fact that grave visits had become such an integral part of popular religion and were based on such entrenched beliefs meant that the practice continues to the present day.12

Ordinary believers also played a role in the social definition of the boundaries of orthodoxy through their perception and treatment of marginal elements of society, such as certain controversial Sufi groups who were frequently viewed with suspicion or even condemned by the 'ulaml' and, in some cases, also by other Sufis. Being oriented towards the goal of direct experience of the divine, Sufism could allow for a high degree of subjectivity and idiosyncrasy in the definition of individual ''orthodoxy''. Overcome by his experience, the Sufi could even utter apparent blasphemies in his inability to express his experience in ordinary language. By and large, Islamic societies acknowledged the validity of these experiences and expanded the realm of the socially acceptable to accommodate such anomalies. This created an inclusive social space in which even the marginalised and the antisocial were tolerated in an act of suspended judgment. Even if the behaviour of people such as the Qalandars, wandering dervishes with hedonistic tendencies, appeared scandalous, they were usually given the benefit of the doubt.13

the government and orthodoxy

The scholarly discourses generated the content of theological orthodoxy: only the 'ulaml' were recognised as possessing the competence to make authoritative statements about matters of religion. Attempts by rulers to overrule the consensus of the majority of scholars and to impose a minority theological position by force - such as Ma'mun's infamous Inquisition (mihna) - were generally unsuccessful when confronted by determined opposition from the scholarly establishment. However, executive power played a crucial role in promoting and enforcing favoured theological ideas, and in suppressing rival doctrines.

A crucial vehicle for this influence was the government's right to appoint judges and other public officials who could wield considerable power. Beyond the basic requirement that appointees be recognised scholars and meet the minimum qualifications for office, rulers could select officials based on their school and doctrinal affiliations, and personal beliefs and characteristics, as well as social connections. For instance, the ninth-century governor of Egypt, Ahmad ibn Tulun, chose to appoint a Shafi'l scholar - a representative of a minority school - as the first teacher in the central mosque of his newly built capital city, even granting him the unprecedented support of an annual stipend.

As the Shafi'is were linked neither with the central Abbasid government nor with the indigenous Egyptian aristocracy, this appointment served to bolster Ibn TUlUn's drive for greater independence from the Abbasid empire.

Similar considerations applied in the appointment of teachers for madrasas that were sponsored by state officials in a nominally private capacity. The eleventh-century Abbasid vizier Nizam al-Mulk founded the prestigious network of Nizamiyya madrasas at a time when Ash'arite theology was struggling to establish itself. In a successful effort to support the spread of Ash'arism, he staffed the new institutions only with scholars who were favourably inclined towards its doctrines. In general, any waqf benefactor was entitled to select the personnel for the new institution. Thus, the setting up of awqaf for the purpose of founding and financing madrasas and, to a lesser extent, Sufi lodges permitted government officials to exercise significant but indirect influence on the composition and fortunes of the scholarly class.

Going beyond the fulfilment of individual judiciary and teaching appointments, the Ottoman government exerted an unprecedented degree of control over the scholarly establishment via the creation of the centralised madrasa network described earlier and via the position of the seyhülislam (from the Arabic shaykh al-islam). The seyhülislam was the highest religious authority in the empire; he was appointed by the government and his edicts were backed up by state power. Like the government-controlled madrasa system, this post was an Ottoman invention. The seyhülislam was a mufti, that is, he could respond authoritatively to legal questions, whether asked by the ordinary man or woman on the street or by the sultan, by issuing a fatwa, a legal opinion. These questions were collected from around the empire, rephrased, and brought to the seyhülislam by an army of assistants, who also collated his replies for later reference. What in the early centuries of Islam had been an informal phenomenon, consisting simply of a questioner submitting a legal dilemma to someone whom he considered knowledgeable, had under the influence of the centralising Ottoman state become a formal state institution.

On occasion, the state employed violence in the enforcement of acceptable limits on heterodoxy. The state held the sole authority to carry out executions of heretics, though the sentence itself had to be handed down by a qualified judge. The ruler could ban the public airing of certain ideas, and - through the government-appointed judiciary -persecute those who violated the ban. A dramatic illustration of such state action is the Abbasids' ninth-century mihna, which sought to impose by force the minority theological doctrine of the createdness of the Qur'an throughout the judicial system. In Egypt, for example, the Abbasid-appointed chief judge of Egypt banned scholars of the Maliki and Shaafi'ai schools who refused to endorse the doctrine from teaching in the central mosque. The judge had the text of the doctrine inscribed over the entrance of the mosque and sentenced those who dared show their disagreement to public whipping and humiliation.

The mihna eventually foundered due to sustained resistance by the majority of the 'ulama'. However, the much more radical project of the sixteenth-century ruler of the Safavid empire, Shaah Ismaa'ail, to force the overwhelmingly Sunni population of Iran to embrace Shi'ism was successful. This was in part due to the determination and military strength of Shaah Ismaa'ail, who imported a contingent of prominent Twelver scholars from Lebanon, equipped his army with firearms, and declared adherence to Sunnism within his realm a capital offence. A second crucial factor in this momentous development lay in the lack of effective opposition from the Sunni 'ulama', whose numbers and vigour had not recovered from the severe social dislocation and depopulation that followed the Mongol invasion of the region in the thirteenth century.

The motive for the state's intervention in the arena of theological scholarship was often the need to defuse perceived political threats. This need was underpinned by the frequent intertwining of state legitimacy with religious authority: the state bolstered its domestic sovereignty by portraying itself as the guardian of orthodoxy. As a result, political opposition to the ruling regime easily acquired an air of heresy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, political rebellions often appeared in alliance with heterodox movements. An example is the revolt led by the tribal chief Muhammad ibn Sa'uad and the religious scholar Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab against the Ottomans in the Arabian region of Najd in the eighteenth century. Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab contested the status of the Ottomans as defenders of Sunnai Islam, claiming that the Ottomans' principle of religious tolerance had allowed heresy to flourish in the empire. This theological challenge was harnessed by Ibn Sa'uad to legitimise his plans of territorial expansion, and it infused his fighters with the iconoclastic zeal that led to the wholesale destruction of Sufi shrines, the bloody sacking of the Shi'ite town of Karbala' in 1801, and the occupation of Mecca from 1803 to 1812.14 The Ottomans succeeded in countering the politico-religious threat posed by Ibn Sa'uad and Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's movement. Only after the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War could Ibn Sa'uad's descendants, still armed with Wahhaabai ideology, make a successful bid for power on the peninsula, leading to the eventual establishment of modern Saudi Arabia.

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