Classical theology a definition

A word about the title of our collection. The term ''classical'' is used to cover the era which stretches between the qur'anic revelation and the eighteenth century, with the accent falling on the period between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. For most of this ''classical'' period the kalam, literally ''discourse'', that is to say, the formal academic discipline which one scholar aptly calls ''Islamic doctrinal theology'',2 stood at or very near the apex of the academic curriculum. However, this book does not identify ''theology'' as coterminous with this kalaam tradition. Instead, it acknowledges that many issues which most readers will recognise as theological were treated by Muslim civilisation in a wide range of disciplines. As William Chittick defines it in his chapter, theology is ''God-talk in all its forms''.

The most obvious of these disciplines was Sufism, a category of esoteric and ascetical traditions rather larger than ''mysticism'' as commonly understood, which frequently addressed issues of creation, ethics, pastoral care, providence, inspiration, miracle and other topics which in medieval Latin cultures would more usually have been dealt with under a theological rubric. Sufism quickly developed to provide a mystical tradition more fully recognised by mainstream thought than was the case with the other monotheisms. It is not entirely clear why this should have been the case, but we may speculate that the process was facilitated by the Qur'an's radical monotheism, which, by resisting any hint of dualism, thoroughly sacralised the world as a matrix of ''signs''.3 When integrated into kalam through the evolution of doctrines of occasionalism, this resistance in turn gave mainstream theology a natural hospitality to often quite radical mystical concerns.4

In this way, and despite their programmatic rationalism, many leading kalaam thinkers tended to be explicit about their respect for Sufism as a path to knowledge; as David Burrell shows in this volume, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) was destined to be the iconic example of this, but his great Ash'arite successor Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210), perhaps Islam's greatest philosophical theologian, also showed increasing respect for Sufi approaches to knowledge in his later works.5 Recognising that the field now acknowledges the validity and even the centrality of Sufism in constructions of Muslim "orthodoxy", regular references will be made to Sufi discussions, particularly in the chapters on worship and epistemology, and in the long chapter by Toby Mayer which directly addresses kalam's relationship with Sufism, focusing in a particularly helpful way on the Avicennian component of later Sufi thought. Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240), the Andalusian polymath and esoterist, merits a number of titles, but he is certainly a theologian, despite his regular habit of soaring well beyond the reach of reason. William Chittick, in his chapter, suggests that Ibn 'Arabi may even be viewed as the final summation of Islamic intellectuality. Although Ghazali, in his Revival of the Religious Sciences, had sought to integrate the various exoteric and esoteric disciplines in a way which transcended the boundaries between them, thus claiming a universal coherence for Islamic intellectuality, it was Ibn 'Arabi who brought this ambitious reintegrative initiative to a peak of intricacy, by proposing a detailed mystical theology that seemed to incorporate all the great topics of kalaam, philosophy, law and Sufism into a vast, brilliant (and hugely controversial) synthesis. It has even been suggested, paraphrasing Whitehead's remark about Plato, that ''the history of Islamic thought subsequent to Ibn 'Arabi (at least down to the 18th century and the radically new encounter with the modern West) might largely be construed as a series of endnotes to his works.''6 This view, which is new in the field, is still not universally accepted, and its neglect of later kalaam makes it an overstatement, but it is noticeably gaining ground.

Paralleling this shift in our understanding of the historical relationship of Sufism to kalaam has been a maturing grasp of the revealed law of Islam, the Shari'a. The great lawbooks typically included discussions of issues concerning language and human accountability which were purely theological; indeed, the entire remit of Muslim law could be said to be theological, since it takes the function of the law to be the preparation of society and the individual to receive God's grace. A separate chapter, by Umar F. Abd-Allah, engages with this important dimension of Islam's theological history.

There was still another discipline which incorporated theological concerns. This was falsafa (Arabic philosophy, from Greek philosophia), a tradition substantially borrowed and adapted from late antiquity. Modern scholars take forensic pains to separate falsafa from kalam, and medieval Muslims usually did the same; yet since its great exponents were Muslims who believed in the Qur'an and the Prophet, it can defensibly be seen as a Muslim theology, as well as an intellectual tradition that constantly informed the kalam and, as we are now acknowledging, stood also in its debt.7

Altogether it is clear that by limiting themselves to the disciplinary boundaries imposed by medieval Muslims themselves, Western treatments of Islamic theology have often neglected the wealth of properly theological discussions appearing outside the kalaam in the civilisation's literature. As well as imposing on anglophone readers a division of the sciences which may seem to make little sense in their context, the result has often been a somewhat dry and partial treatment of the great issues of Muslim monotheism, a shortcoming which this volume hopes, in part, to remedy.

the state of the field

Drawing together the core topics of Muslim theology from these historically distinct disciplines has brought into sharp relief the very fragmented and sometimes idiosyncratic nature of Western scholarship of Islam, the tradition sometimes known as ''Orientalism''. Overwhelmingly this discipline has been built up from contributions made by individuals, not by schools. Thinkers and texts are brought to the fore during a scholar's lifetime, and may then quickly sink into undeserved obscurity. Occasionally, cultural prejudices which designate Islam as a ''religion of law'' with no natural metaphysical concerns have been salient, and on occasion, such presumptions have uneasily recalled anti-Semitic parallels.8 Yet the huge contributions made by the small number of persistent leaders in this discipline are impossible to ignore: texts have been rescued from obscurity and expertly edited, and important studies have been published on many leading thinkers, particularly al-Ash'ari, al-Maturidi, al-Ghazali and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, with the pace of publication quickening somewhat in recent years. As this volume demonstrates, many of the younger scholars in the field are Muslims, and the fact that, as in other ''Orientalist'' disciplines such as qur'anic studies, they have adapted so well to the discipline's paradigms, suggests that older ideas of Western Islamic studies as a monolithic and structurally anti-Islamic project now need to be modified, if not discarded altogether.

Yet the field is visibly deficient. Resources and posts in Muslim theology in Western universities remain woefully inadequate, even when compared to the situation in Chinese and Indic studies, and the appeal of the field to students whose initial interest in Islam, in the imperial and modern periods alike, may have been triggered by contemporary political, social, or legal issues, has been limited. This unfortunate situation has been further exacerbated by the sheer immensity of the literature, most of which remains in manuscript. Attention continues to be focused on the central Islamic lands, and although most accept that the kalam curriculum was fairly consistent throughout the ''high'' institutions of the pre-modern Islamic world,9 our detailed knowledge of traditional Muslim metaphysics in regions such as South-East Asia must be described as embryonic. As a result, current Western scholarship cannot, with perfect honesty, present anything like a complete synthetic history of Muslim intellectuality, or even a definitive list of the major thinkers. This is particularly true for the later period. Although, thanks to the efforts of Henry Corbin, Hossein Ziai and others, we are aware of the continuing vitality of Islamic philosophy in the later centuries, and indeed, up to the present day, the history of kalaam after the thirteenth century largely remains terra incognita.


We need to ask: what is Islamic about Islamic theology? Most evidently, it is Islamic to the extent that it may be traced back in some way to the Prophet Muhammad and his distinctive vision of the One God. According to his scripture, he was sent ''as a mercy to the worlds'' (Qur'an 21:107), and one aspect of that mercy, as Muhammad Abdel Haleem suggests in chapter 1, was that he mapped out a religious path of great simplicity. This was to be the simplicity of an Abrahamic and ''primordial'' monotheism (milla ibrahimiyya hanifiyya), marked by an iconoclastic rejection of idolatry, a call to repentance, and an unshake-able trust in the justice and mercy of God. Emerging, as Muslims believed, to restore unity and a holy simplicity to a confessional world complicated by Christian disputes over the Trinity and the Incar-nation,10 the qur'anic intervention seemed to its hearers to promise a new age for the human relationship with God, one so straightforward that in the eyes of a small but persistent margin, there would be no need for a ''theology'' (kalam) at all. Voices are therefore raised against the kalam enterprise through the Islamic centuries;the angry Censure of Speculative Theology by Ibn Qudama (d. 1223) assumes that scripture alone suffices; al-Harawi (d. 1089) agrees, suggesting that kalam is an unreliable substitute for the true gift of mystical illumination. Both men had their passionate supporters.11

Monotheism, however, is never as simple as most of its advocates would wish. Its inbuilt paradoxes, which had already exercised and divided Jews and Christians, ensured that most Muslim thinkers came to recognise the need for a formal discipline of argument and proof which could establish the proper sense of a scripture which turned out to be open to many different interpretations. The trigger, in almost every case, was the need to defeat the whims (ahwa') of heretics and innovators. Khalid Blankinship's chapter provides a survey and assessment of the first such debates. God was indeed One, and Muhammad was His final Prophet: this much was never contested. But were God's names, so abundant in the Qur'an, in existence before the world? If so, was it right to say that they were identical with His essence, or were they in some way distinct? Did the Qur'an pre-date its bearer? Why did God insist on human accountability, when He, as Omnipotent and All-Knowing Creator, is surely not ignorant of what human beings will do? Are good and evil intrinsic, or are they utterly subject to the divine volition? Is faith enough for salvation? In what sense will the Prophet intercede for sinners? What did he envision when he said that God would be seen by the blessed in Paradise?

Many disturbing questions of this kind in turn seemed to be generated by a tension implicit in the Qur'an itself. Some verses spoke of a God who seemed utterly transcendent, so that ''nothing is like him'' (Qur'an 42:11). Such a deity ''is not asked about what he does'' (21:23), and appears to expect only the unquestioning submission (islam) which seemed implicit in the very name of the new religion. But there were many other passages which implied a God who is indeed, in some sense that urgently needed definition, analogous to ourselves: a God who is ethically coherent, and whose qualities are immanent in his creation, so that ''Where-sover you turn, there is God's face'' (2:115). This fundamental tension between transcendence and immanence, or, as Muslims put it, between ''affirming difference'' (tanzih) and ''affirming resemblance'' (tashbih), became intrinsic to the structuring of knowledge in the new civilisation. As one aspect of this it could be said, at the risk of very crude generalisation, that the Qur'an's theology of transcendence was explored by the kalam folk, and its theology of immanence by the Sufis, which is why, perhaps, we should seek for Islam's greatest theologians among those who emphasised the symbiosis of the two disciplines. It may be thus, rather than for any unique originality, that Ghazali came to be called the ''proof of Islam'', and Ibn 'Arabi the ''greatest shaykh''. Their apparent eclecticism was in fact a programmatic attempt to retrieve an original unity, which is why scripture is so central to their respective manifestos.

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