Strategies Of Revival

There is a well-known hadith in which the Prophet predicts that during each century God will send someone to the community of Islam in order to revive its religion.16 "Reviving" religion involves, first, showing its capacity to achieve something which alternative systems cannot, namely, to provide spiritual guidance to the community. There is also the need to demonstrate that the arguments of those hostile to religion fail to persuade. Finally, it is important that the reviver can express himself in a way which resonates with the umma (community) as a whole, and not only with a part of it. It is a characteristic of many such revivers that they take seriously a system of thought which is apparently opposed to Islam, and do not dismiss it merely as unbelief or blasphemy.

The epitome of this style is Ghazall's Revival of the Sciences of Religion (Ihyi' 'ulUm al-din), an extraordinary work consisting of four parts, each of which comprises ten books. In this encyclopaedic text he deals with every conceivable aspect of Islamic belief and practice. This has been the model for many other works with the same synthetic and totalising purpose, none of which, however, is said to have surpassed it. His work as a whole does not amount to a rejection of the "modernity" of his day, since he showed how aspects of falsafa such as Aristotelian logic and ethics might be profitably employed in theology, and argued that the falaasifa themselves err in their use of the philosophical principles to which they are committed. As such, they could not help to revive a moribund Muslim world. But neither could the 'ulami', many of whom were trapped in formalistic, polemical exercises, both legal and theological. The solution was to be sought in a moral and spiritual rebirth.

There can be little doubt that the dominance of Ash'arism and Maturadasm led to a certain amount of repetition in theology, and to a formalism of the kind that Ghazili deplored. For one thing, the popular form of literary expression was often the haashiya, a kind of super-commentary, which was often itself the subject of further glosses. Often these hermeneutic accretions were lively and innovative;frequently, however, they were not. This stylistic feature was also present in the Shi'ite theological world, where commentary and supercommentary prevailed and defined the curriculum in those colleges and schools that developed a form of theology that fitted in with the Shi'ite view of God and the world.


The development of theology among the Shi'a was a function of the historical and intellectual encounter with Mu'tazilite rational (and philosophical) theology, and later with the falsafa traditions. The key feature of early theology had been the defining feature of Shai'ism itself: the imamate, particularly discussions of its necessity and the identification of the holders of legitimate divinely ordained authority (walaya).

Two (complementary and often mutually nourishing) strands of theological reasoning were inherited from the formative period: the first was a focus on narratives from the Shi'ite Imams on the nature of theology and in particular on the nature of the Imamate, covering issues such as infallibility, the miraculous knowledge of the Imams, their designation and succession both political and spiritual to the Prophet and their relationship to the scripture; the second tendency was born out of inter-sectarian disputations and revolved around rational defences of the logical necessity of the imamate, the nature of human value, ability (istita'a) and responsibility for actions and the afterlife, the nature of God and the possibility of His changing His mind (al-badci'). The earliest theologians were companions of the Imams who engaged in debates (mainly in the Islamic heartlands of Iraq) on these issues using a variety of traditional and rational modes: Mu'min al-Taaq, Hishaam ibn al-Hakam (d. 796), and Muhammad ibn Abi 'Umayr and Yunus ibn 'Abd al-Rahman in the generation after.17 Their presence in polemics began to shape not only Twelver theology but also the identity of the community with respect to the majority and to rival Shai'ite groups such as the Zaydis and the Isma'ilis. The Zaydis rejected the principle of the infallibility of the Imam and argued that any descendant of the Prophet with the requisite knowledge and piety could claim the imamate and ought to establish it by force. (An imam who did not wield political power was not an Imam.) The Zaydis proceeded to establish states in northern Iran and Yemen from the ninth century. The Isma'ilis understood the Imam to be primarily a spiritual leader and shared many of the theological positions of the Twelvers. Although they did in fact establish a Shi'i Fatimid state in North Africa from 909 and thus were not devoid of political ambitions, the failure of that state in the twelfth century and their internal divisions led to a fragmentation of the Isma'ili imamate.18 The key feature of Twelver doctrine in the intra-Shi'i polemic was the belief in the occultation of the twelfth Imam after 874 and his messianic function as a redeemer of the Last Days, expounded in traditionalist fashion by al-Shaykh al-Saduq (d. 991) in his Completion of the Faith (Kamal al-Dm) and revised in a more rational manner by al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 1067) in his work on the Occultation (al-Ghayba).19

Traditionalism and rationalism were not absolute opposing values that expressed, as some have argued, the difference between the parochial tradition of Qum and the rational cosmopolitanism of Baghdad.20

Both agreed on the twin exceptionalist pillars of Twelver doctrine: the imamate and divine justice ('adl). The codification of the Twelver tradition of narrations within the Four Books was concurrent with the development of theology; in fact, the latter two of these hadith compilations were formed by a significant Twelver Mu'tazilite, al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 1067). But it was the adoption of Mu'tazilism, the school par excellence of divine justice, that signalled the true development of Twelver theology. Although the Twelver encounter with the Mu'tazila had begun with the courtly family of scholars, the Banu Nawbakht in the tenth century and the theologian Ibn Qiba al-Razl, who had been Mu'tazilite before he became Twelver, it was the pivotal role of al-Shaykh al-Mufld (d. 1022) that reconciled Twelver theology with this school.21 Al-Mufid had studied with Abu'l-Jaysh al-Muzaffar al-Balkhi (d. 977), a student of Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti (d. 923) and of Abu'l-Qasim al-Ka'bi (d. 931), the leader of the Baghdad Mu'tazila. The teaching of this school is evident in al-Mufid's works such as First Discourses (Awa'il al-maqalat). The traditionalists had acquired a reputation for believing in determinism, literalism and anthropomorphism: al-Mufid's Correction of the Treatise on Beliefs (Tashh al-i'tiqadat) of his teacher al-Saduq is a significant attempt to distance Twelver theology from such forms of irrationalism. Al-Mufid trained a number of students who perpetuated the Mu'tazilite tendency, such as al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 1044), al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 1067) and al-Karajaki (d. 1057). Al-Murtada's own taste was for the Bahshamiyya (Basran Mu'tazilite) school of his other teacher, 'Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025).

The adoption of Mu'tazilite ideas was never wholesale or uncritical. Particular Shi'ite doctrines such as the imamate remained distinctive; different also were teachings relating to prophecy such as miracles and intercession, and wider aspects of eschatology touching on the status of sinners, intercession and the afterlife. Al-Mufid felt strongly about the role of reason in theology but did not allow for the supremacy of unaided reason as a source for discovering truth. He defended the role of the intercession of the Prophet and the Imams as a means for sinners to escape hellfire, in opposition to the Mu'tazilite teaching of the unconditional punishment of the unrepentant sinner. He promoted some distinctively Twelver doctrines rejected by the Mu'tazila such as raj'a, the return to life of the pious at the time of the messianic appearance of the twelfth Imam, and bada', the possibility of God abrogating human history in response to human free will, a doctrine that he explained as a form of ''textual abrogation'' that was similar to the Mu'tazilite notion that God changes human life-spans in accordance with their actions.

Among the Zaydas, the adoption of Mu'tazilite teachings seems to have begun rather earlier. It is questionable whether the early Zayda Imam al-Qasim ibn Ibrahim (d. 860) was a Mu'tazilite, but he was open to rationalising theology.22 His successors aligned themselves closely to the Mu'tazila: al-Hasan ibn Zayd (d. 884), the founder of the Zayda state in northern Iran was associated with the Basran Mu'tazila, and Yahya ibn al-Husayn (d. 911), the founder of the state in Yemen, was influenced by the Mu'tazila of Baghdad. Later, the Zayda Mankdam Shishdev (d. 1034) wrote a famous paraphrase of 'Abd al-Jabbar's exposition of the five central theological principles of the Mu'tazila. Ibn al-Murtadaa (d. 1437), a Zayda imam in the Yemen, wrote extensive Mu'tazilite theological treatises.

Among the Ismaa'ailais, theology took a Neoplatonic philosophical turn from the tenth century onwards.23 God was placed outside the cosmos as the One beyond being, and the Imam became the teacher and god revealed to humanity. Ismaa'ailai theology also proposed an esoteric hermeneutics in which the spiritual significance of doctrine, ritual and event as defined by the imam began to take precedence over the exoteric meaning. This became more acute after the Ismaa'ailais went into schism in 1094 over the succession: the major group were the Nizans, located mainly in Iran, who proclaimed the 'Resurrection' in 1164, meaning that ultimate truth had been revealed and the law was abrogated, as believers now lived in a kingdom of heaven presided over by the Imam.24

Later on, from the twelfth century, the Mu'tazilite teachings of Abu'l-Husayn al-Basn (d. 1044), himself a dissident student of 'Abd al-Jabbaar, became more significant among the Twelvers, partly because of his openness to philosophy, and theologians such as Sadaid al-Dain al-Himmasa al-Raza (d. after 1204), Nasa al-Dm al-Tusa (d. 1274), Maytham al-Bahram (d. 1300), Ibn al-Mutahhar al-Hilla (d. 1325) and later al-Miqdad al-Suyun (d. 1423) were at the forefront of his school.25 This trend ushered in a sophisticated philosophical theology in which the metaphysics of God as a Necessary Existent who produces a contingent world was incorporated into a theology of divine nature and human agency. In particular, al-Tusa's short Epitome of Doctrine (Tajnd al-i'tiqad) had an enormous impact, and Twelver and other scholars, including Sunnais, wrote commentaries upon it up to the modern period. Al-Hillai's commentary on this text was influential, as was his short ''creed'', The Eleventh Chapter (al-Bab al-hada 'ashar). This creed is divided into the five standard divisions of Twelver theological texts: divine unity and attributes, divine justice, prophecy, the imamate and the afterlife. The central relationship between the concepts of the imamate and divine justice is expressed in terms of the dynamic of the Mu'tazilite concept of lutf or facilitating grace. Divine justice demands that humans can be held responsible for, and requited for, only actions that they could be expected to perform. This expectation results from their ability to discern good from evil through their rational faculty and through the guidance bestowed upon them by God through his sending of prophets and imams. Reason and guidance are thus facilitating graces that determine the realisation of human doctrine and agency and the afterlife.

Although Tusl's school was dominant, there were rivals. A group of scholars in al-Hilla associated with the al-'Awdi family were hostile to philosophy, although they accepted the Basran turn in theology.26 Other thinkers, such as 'Abd al-Razzaq Kashani (d. 1336) and Sayyid Haydar Amuli (d. after 1385), sought to reconcile Twelver theology with the Sufi metaphysics of monorealism espoused by Ibn 'Arabi.27 Later, a further synthesis between Sufi metaphysics, theology and philosophy was initiated by Ibn Abi Jumhur al-Ahsa'i (d. 1501 ).28 Finally, traditionalism did not die out but re-emerged with the Akhbaariyya movement in the seventeenth century and its rejection of rational theology and philosophy and other ''alien'' forms of learning in favour of a pristine adherence to the narrations of the imams.29

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