The construction of orthodoxy

If such was the pre-modern culmination of Muslim theology, then its large story, as this volume shows, was that of a white-hot moment of pure revelatory renewal at the hands of a Prophet who, as Hans Kiing puts it, was ''discontinuity in person'',12 which with remarkable speed systematised itself as a set of contesting but seldom fatally divided schools of law, metaphysics and mysticism, which were then woven together again in the eclectic theologies of Ghazali and Ibn 'Arabi. For both thinkers, and for the many lesser minds which attempted the same synthetic project, the proof of reintegration was a retrieval of a moral and spiritual understanding of the Law (fiqh), and a reinvigoration of the art of qur'anic citation. Ghazali's Revival may, within limits, be read as a qur'anic commentary, and in the case of Ibn 'Arabi, as Mayer attests, his ''intensely esoteric hermeneutic of the Qur'an is often strictly in line with the literal sense of the text''.13

The various schools contrived to coexist for centuries, building an intellectual landscape of immense diversity. Ahmed El Shamsy, in his chapter, explains how in the midst of this process of contestation and institution-building an ''orthodoxy'' came to constitute itself. Lacking sacraments and a true hierarchy, Islam possessed no mechanisms for imposing dogmatic conformity on a society that certainly did not recognise Enlightenment-style ''tolerance'', but which nonetheless evolved means of allowing and even legitimising profound differences in law, mysticism and doctrine. Hence the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence came to be seen as equivalently valid, while a less formal attitude presumed the concurrent viability of the major Sufi orders (turuq), and of the three great Sunni theological schools of Ash'arism, Maturidism and Hanbalism. Despite the fury of so much interdenominational polemic, classical Islam knew only two episodes of systematic state-backed inquisition: the Mu'tazilite persecution of their rivals under the Abbasid caliphs between the years 833 and 848, and, in the sixteenth century, the brutal destruction of Iranian Sunnism under the Shi'i revolutionary regime of the Safavids.14 Apart from these two experiences, which generated or intensified a bitterness against Mu'tazilism and Shi'ism which lingered for centuries, the central Islamic lands were as religiously diverse as Latin Christendom was religiously homogeneous. Hard-line Mu'tazilism and Shi'ism, which readily invoked the principle of takfar (the anathematisation of fellow Muslims), the move which had characterised the Kharijite revolts of the Umayyadperiod, were precisely the type of religious extremism (ghuluww) which Ash'arite theorists dreaded.15

In place of ecclesial authority, medieval Islam came to recognise the infinitely more ponderous and difficult principle of ijma': the consensus of believers. True belief, it was thought, would always be the belief of the majority (/umhur);sects (firaq) were necessarily minorities. The large and detailed heresiographical literature which supplies so much of our information about this history everywhere assumes that God is ''with the congregation". His mercy and love for the Muslim community ensure that ''it will never agree on an error'',16 and that ''the individual who departs from the community departs to Hellfire''.17 Although Sunni Muslims never agreed on whether the community (jama'a) in question denoted the mass of believers, or only their scholarly representatives, this attitude clearly calmed the psychological fear that heresy might one day prevail. No doubt this supplies one reason why, as van Ess claims, ''strictly speaking, Islam had no religious wars like those in Europe'',18 and why Sunni states seldom ventured to impose doctrines and practices upon the population (ta'dib al-'amma).19 Given that the Islamic liturgy does not include the recital of a detailed creed, Muslims of various persuasions could and did attend the same mosque services. Keeping one's own counsel was relatively easy.

Given such opportunities, it is curious that Islamic sectarianism did not develop more exuberantly than in fact it did. It is very difficult to discern, from the pages of the Sunni heresiographers, the popularity of the early sects. Yet it is clear that the majority of Muslims favoured a simple median interpretation which appeared to be faithful to the plain sense of scripture, but which allowed some room for the formalising of creeds against which error could be defined. Elite Muslims who sought to develop advanced theologies needed to be mindful of the preferences of the believing masses. Perhaps this was seen as fidelity to the Prophet and the original collective spirit of sancta simplicitas; perhaps, also, it resulted from the fear that a theology which angered the multitudes might lead to disturbances which could provoke the wrath of a sultan. The Mu'tazilite scholars who successfully persuaded the Abbasid caliph to adopt an elitist and abstract theology which seemed equally far from the scriptures and the comprehension of the masses were obliged to use force to compel conformity, and although most scholars complied, popular incredulity ensured their ultimate downfall.

The power of the masses did much to ensure that mainstream Sunnism developed as a set of median positions. Sayings of the Prophet could be found to support the idea that Islam was a middle way (wasat).20 Perhaps even the ''straight path'' which Muslims daily prayed to be shown was a middle path, specifically between what were claimed to be the mirrored distortions of historical Judaism and Christianity.21 So as an awareness grew that there was a tension between the qur'anic verses which saw God as transcendent or immanent, it was thought necessary to chart what Ghazali called the ''just mean in belief'' (al-iqtisad fi'l-i'tiqad), which lay between two forms of ghuluww. Theologians who, like the mysterious Jahm ibn Safwaan, stripped God of all attributes, transcendentalised Him beyond all possibility of knowledge, while extremist Hanbalites who thought that God literally possessed ''dimensions'', ''altitude'', a ''hand'' and a ''face'', seemed to advocate a finite God, by developing a corporealism which looked like the opposite extreme of the same spectrum.

This was not the only key controversy in which the Sunni mainstream liked to define itself as a middle position. Addressing the question of the status of sinners, Blankinship's chapter shows how the early community attempted to negotiate a middle path between the Khaarijites, who rejected sinners as apostates, and other groups, who held that sin has no effect on an individual's status as a believing Muslim, or that one should simply suspend judgement. Nader El-Bizri, in his chapter on the debate over God's attributes, shows how orthodoxy situated itself between the extremes of either negating the attributes, or concretising them in a way that might compromise the divine unity and transcendence. Similarly, on the free will versus determinism debate, Steffen Stelzer, David Burrell and others show that Muslims tended to favour a median position in the form of the doctrine of Acquisition (kasb), and the merits of the via media in this context were explicitly extolled by Ghazali.22 Overall, it is fair to see the popularity of Ash'arism, Maaturaidism and (on a far smaller scale) of moderate Hanbalism as the long-term consequence of the community's instinctive dislike of doctrines that seemed to err on the side of excess. It was only in the context of Shi'ism, with its more hierarchical ordering of authority, that the Mu'tazilite doctrines found a permanent place, and even here, as Sajjad Rizvi shows, some of the more austere Mu'tazilite principles were not maintained.

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