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-Qushayn, an avid Ash'arite, in Baghdad in 1067. Qushayn used his public lectures to extol Ash'arite teachings and to castigate the dominant Hanbala 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 Baghdada politics - took to the streets under the leadership of the Hanball scholar al-Sharif Abu Ja'far. They were met by a mob of adherents of the Shafi'a school of law, who had come to the defence of their fellow Shafi'a Qushayra 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 Qushayn to return to his native Nashapur. 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 'ulamaa' 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

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