The Late Period

Later Ash'arism was dominated by creeds and their commentaries. The Ash'ari thinker al-Taftazani (d. 1389 or 1390) is particularly worth mentioning for his commentary on Nasafi's famous 'Aqida or creed, a broadly Maturidi work. Al-Iji's work The Stations (al-Mawaqif) was the subject of many commentaries, of which perhaps the most widely used was the Ash'arite commentary by al-Sharif al-Jurjani (d. 1413), which made extensive use of falsafa. Like many other works of the late period, Jurjani's text is marked by the systematic and detailed use of logic, drawing in particular on a logic manual which was to become standard in the madrasa curriculum, al-Risala al-Shamsiyya by Najm al-Din al-Katibi (d. 1276).12 The late thirteenth-century Ash'ari theologian, al-Iji's teacher 'Abdallah al-Baydawl, wrote a handbook entitled Rising Lights (Tawali' al-anwar), which again attracted several commentaries. Abu 'All al-Sanus! (d. 1490) and Ibrahim al-Laqani (d. 1641) also authored influential creeds. Such creeds and their commentaries, studied intensively in the madrasas until the present day and the subject of innumerable supercommentaries, established a tradition of the production of creeds which laid out the basic principles of Islam in a way which reflects earlier polemics, particularly against Mu'tazilism, and which provided the commentator and the teacher with the opportunity to display Sunnism as the final resolution of the divisions which rent the early community.

The development of broadly Ash'arite theories still continues today, something which commentators sometimes see as a victory for an anti-rationalism which has retarded Islam's development. This, however, is an entirely misleading view. For one thing, even the critics of kalaam defended their arguments rationally. Even today those who advocate a return to the salaf, to the ancestors, argue for this. They argue against alternative views, and defend their approach to the understanding of the Qur'an, in such a way as to make it difficult straightforwardly to identify one side of the debate as ''rationalist'' and the other as ''traditionalist'' or ''fundamentalist''. It might even be argued that it is those who are not normally seen as rationalists who are in fact the most concerned with reason, since they are prepared to be critical of reason and argue (but note the term here, argue) that we should acknowledge its severe limitations. So the ''traditionalists'' are able to view the use of reason critically, unlike their ''rationalist'' opponents, something which might be considered an even more rational strategy than that of their adversaries, who evince an uncritical enthusiasm for rationality itself.

A good example of this ability to couple a scepticism about the range of reason metaphysically with its acceptability in other areas of intellectual inquiry can be found in the work of the Ash'arai thinker Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406). Ibn Khaldun is best known as a highly innovative social historian and philosopher of history, but he also served as a distinguished judge, and in that capacity wrote extensively on theology. He was critical of the unbridled use of reason, and offered perfectly rational arguments for his critique. Logical techniques, he tells us, are important if we are to secure clarity on the nature of any subject of discussion, but it does not follow that we must have confidence in the capacity of reason to unveil to us the ultimate truths which are accessible to us only through religion. Often called an anti-rationalist position, this view is in fact something quite different. It is a rational position based on concerns about the range of reason when this is used by itself to come to conclusions. To argue that there are limits to reason is not to attack reason but is rather to suggest that it be employed in tandem with something else, perhaps religious knowledge, and most importantly that it be employed critically.


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