The General Religious Movement

Up to this point the discussion has been of 'heretical' sects, and the question naturally arises whether there was at this time a body of 'orthodox' opinion and, if so, whether anything more can be said about it. The form of this question, however, is not altogether satisfactory. The term 'orthodox' applies in the first place to Eastern Christendom, where there was an authority to say what was 'orthodoxy' or 'right belief' and what was 'heresy'. In Islam, however, there was no such authority. There was only the main or central body of opinion in the various schools or sections of the community. In these, too, there was not always the emphasis on the intellectual aspect of religion that there was in Eastern Christendom (though such an emphasis is sometimes found). Thus it is best in Islamic studies to avoid the term 'orthodox' and to ask instead whether there was a central body of moderate opinion.

There is not the same objection to the term 'heresy'. The Arabic term bid'a roughly corresponds to the English in effect, though it has a different connotation. Bid'a properly means 'innovation', and the implication of this term is that the true belief and practice is the original belief and practice—'innovation' is not confined to intellectual matters. This serves to explain why the central body of opinion in Umayyad Islam has not been much studied and why it is difficult to investigate. Muslims of the centre were quite happy to write about the divergent views of the sects, but when it came to the views of their own party they considered that these were in essence identical with those of Muhammad and his Companions, and therefore they tended to hide any changes and developments or pass them over in silence. There is thus no material for the direct study of this central body, but only large masses of semi-relevant material in biographical dictionaries and similar works—and so far only a beginning has been made with the investigation of all this.1

There is evidence to show that there always was a central body of moderate opinion, but some greater precision is desirable. Early in the caliphate of 'Ali there was a body of men in Medina who adopted an attitude of political neutrality; their leader was 'Abd-Allah ibn-TJmar, a son of the caliph Umar. At a later date there was in Medina and elsewhere what modem Western scholars have called a 'pious opposition', though its outlines are somewhat hazy. It appears that in the main centres, and notably in Medina, Damascus, Basra and Kufa, there were numbers of men who met in the mosques to discuss religious questions. These included legal matters, ascetic and mystical practices, the interpretation of the Quran and occasionally theological doctrine. Those most competent in these disciplines gave what amounted to lectures to their disciples.

After about 750 another discipline became of great importance, the study of Hadith or Traditions. The common view among Muslim scholars has been that the Companions—those Muslims who had seen and talked to Muhammad—handed on anecdotes about him during their lifetime, and that the anecdotes were then handed on from generation to generation. It is these anecdotes which are technically known as Hadith (or akhbai), which has commonly been rendered as 'traditions' in English, though because of the ambiguity of this word scholars are now preferring to retain Hadith. In handing on an anecdote a man was expected to give an isnad, that is, to name the chain of transmitters through whom the anecdote had reached him, and this chain was expected to go back without a break to the Companion who had been present when Muhammad uttered the saying or performed the action. Modem European scholarship, however, has criticized this idyllic picture, and has suggested that for much of the Umayyad period the anecdotes were handed on without any isnad, or with an incomplete one, and that at a later date isnads could be forged or conjecturally restored and anecdotes invented. This may be called the Goldziher-Schacht view. At a fairly early date Muslim scholars had indeed recognized the possibility of invention, and had worked out an elaborate critique of the soundness of Hadith; but this was far from satisfying the sceptical Europeans. More recently, however, largely thanks to the work of Fuat Sezgin, the Goldziher-Schacht view has been felt to be too radical.2 Even so, however, it would appear that a complete isnad was not de rigueur until about the year 800.

While the idealized picture of groups of men meticulously handing on Hadith with their isnads has thus to be abandoned, at least in part, there certainly were groups of pious men regularly meeting in the mosques and talking or lecturing. They were intelligent serious Muslims, concerned with the application of their religious principles to social and political life, for in an Islamic environment politics was closely linked with piety. Presumably all these men had adopted some political stance or other. We know that among them, not counting active or moderate Khárijites and active or quiescent Shi'-ites, there were supporters of Ibn-az-Zubayr, who claimed the caliphate in Mecca from 680 to 692 (though most of these were later reconciled with the Umayyads), also whole-hearted supporters of the Umayyads, and again others who accepted their rule but severely criticized it. Since most of these men seem to have taken part in the discussions in the mosques, it seems better not to separate off the opponents and critics of the regime, but to refer to them all as the 'general religious movement'.

Apart from those belonging to clearly heretical sects like the Khárijites, the Shi'ites and the Qadarites (to be described in the next chapter), most of the members of this general religious movement would be regarded by later Sunnites as their own predecessors. Yet it has to be firmly emphasized that at this time there were no 'Sunnites' in the strict sense, though there were individuals and groups whose practice and beliefs were Sunnite, at least to the extent that Sunnism had been defined and standardized during the Umayyad period.

There was no Sunnite self-awareness as such, however, since it had not occurred to anyone to think of himself as a sunnl or as belonging to the 'people of the Sunna' (Ahl as-Sunna). The latter phrase (with some variants) begins to be used in the later ninth century, but was not in common use until the tenth century, and the adjective sunn! seems to be first recorded towards the end of the tenth century.3

The period of twelve years following the death of the caliph Mu awiya in 680 was a time in which the Islamic empire was rent by civil strife, with al-Mukhtar leading a Shi'ite rising in Kufa from 685 to 687, Ibn-az-Zubayr claiming the caliphate in Mecca till 692, and groups of Khárijites maintaining independence in various regions. It was probably in response to these circumstances that a new idea was introduced into the thinking of Muslims, the idea of irja or 'postponement'. It seems to have been first used about 69 5 by a grandson of 'All, al-Hasan ibn-Muhammad ibn-al-Hanafiyya, in a short epistle which is extant and appears to be authentic.4 In this the author expresses his political attitude by saying that 'we' approve of Abü-Bakr and Umar, and 'postpone' the decision about those involved in the first civil conflict, meaning TJthmán, 'All and az-Zubayr (father of the Meccan rebel). By this formulation he tried to heal the rifts in the community. He refused to side with the revolutionary Shi'ites who were asserting the superior claims of 'All and his descendants, and he distanced himself from the Khárijites who denied the legitimacy of the Umayyad caliphs since their claim was based on their being heirs of the 'sinner' TJthmán. In general this political attitude seems to arise mainly from a concern for the unity of the community of Muslims, and this leads not to unwavering support for the Umayyads but to acceptance or toleration of their rule combined with criticism of it. Several of those who believed in 'postponement' joined in risings against the Umayyads, though others thought it wrong to revolt against even a bad ruler. Statements are found to the effect that irja' is 'the religion of the kings', but this cannot mean that it was the religion followed by the Umayyads themselves, only that it discouraged rebellion.5

Though 'postponement' meant in the first place postponing a decision about TJthman and 'All (with or without az-Zubayr), the term was sometimes given other meanings in the course of debate. Some opponents said that it implied asserting that the grave sinner is a believer, not merely that he is to be regarded as one; and in a sense this is indeed an implication of leaving the decision about him to God, and was accepted by the upholders of 'postponement'. Again, there were later writers who said it meant postponing 'All to fourth place, a view which became the standard Sunnite view. It was also noted that ir/d* could come from a different root and mean 'the giving of hope'; and it would then apply to the grave sinner. It has also been noted that 'postponement' together with some associated ideas resembles certain teachings of Hellenistic Sceptics and Empiricists, though there is no evidence of a channel by which such ideas could have reached the Muslims. Even if the idea of 'postponement' was first suggested by some such source, however, it was only adopted because it was appropriate to the internal political situation in the caliphate. Another possible source is the Quranic phrase (9.106) 'some are postponed for the command of God', and this verse was certainly used to justify the doctrine of 'postponement'.

While the original reason for taking up the idea of 'postponement' was probably concern for the unity of all Muslims and the avoidance of sectarianism, a further set of ideas came to be associated with it, namely, ideas about the definition of iman. This word is commonly translated 'faith' but it often refers rather to whatever makes a man a mumin or 'believer'. When grave sin does not exclude a man from the community, it is desirable to have some positive account of what is needed for membership. The terms commonly used by the upholders of 'postponement' are that ¿man consists of the knowledge (ma'rifa) of God and of his Messenger, the counting true (tasdiq) of this knowledge, and the confession (iqiai) of it with the tongue. There were also minor additions and variants,- but it is significant that in keeping with the view that the grave sinner is a believer there is no mention of the performance of religious duties, either ethical or liturgical. In this way something like the Christian conception of 'orthodoxy' is brought into Islam, though the intellectual content is much less complex than that of the ecumenical Christian creeds, and there were always many Muslims who insisted that an element of performance must also be included.

Opponents used the collective term Murji'a for those who held the doctrine of irja or 'postponement', and Murji'ites is employed in English. Though the heresiographers spoke of the Murji'a as a sect, careful examination of the sources shows that there was no such 'sect' in any important sense. Those who believed in 'postponement' differed on other matters, and are often described as belonging to other sects with greater cohesion. The extent of the problem is made clear by the difficulties experienced by the heresiographer ash-Shah-rastánl. He subdivided the Murji'a into Murji'a of the Kharijites, those of the Qadarites, those of the Jabrites and pure Murji'a; but then he had to deal with Abü-Hanífa, whom he could not regard as heretical, and so he suggested that he was a Murji'ite of the Sunna. Apart from Abü-Hanifa, however, and those definitely belonging to other sects, the only Murji'ites described by the heresiographers are people of minor importance. All these facts point to the conclusion that the doctrine of 'postponement' by itself was not sufficient to form the basis of a cohesive group. Rather it was a trend permeating various forms of sectarian thought, and making an important contribution to the development of Sunnism.

The chief figure among the upholders of 'postponement' was undoubtedly Abü-Hanifa. He was a non-Arab, who was bom in Kufa about 700, lived there for most of his life, and died in Baghdad in 767. He was associated with a group of legal scholars in Kufa, of whom some at least had accepted 'postponement'. About 737 on the death of his principal teacher he seems to have been recognized as head of the group, and the vigour and originality of his mind directed their legal thinking along lines which led in the next generation to the formation of the Hanafite legal school, named after him. There was also a Hanafite theological school, which was in part identical with the legal school. The doctrine of 'postponement' had been popular in Kufa long before Abü-Hanifa, but his was presumably the main responsibility for giving it and the definition of imán the intellectual form which made them widely acceptable. The majority of the earliest persons named in the sources as 'Murji'ites' came from Kufa, and this may be because Kufa was a stronghold of early Shi'ism, and 'postponement' was felt to be a satisfactory way of expressing opposition to the undue exaltation of 'All. In Basra there were some upholders of 'postponement', but the majority there may have preferred to express similar political attitudes by the term wuqüf, 'suspension of judgement', as did the Wáqifites and the alleged founder of Mu'ta-zilism, Wásil.

The upholders of 'postponement' are best understood as one current within the main stream of what later became Sunnite Islam. The actual term irja', 'postponement', was not used in later Sun-

nism, but the political and practical attitudes based on it were accepted. The Kharijite doctrine of the exclusion of the grave sinner from the community was firmly rejected; and this also meant that TJth-män was regarded as a lawful caliph. The early Shi'ite doctrine of the superiority of 'Ali was also rejected; and the eventual Sunnite view was that the first four caliphs ranked in merit in their chronological order, so that Uthmän was above 'All. Later Sunnism also accepted to some extent the emphasis given to the content of belief by Abü-Hanifa and others, but the Hanafite leaning towards an 'orthodoxy' which was purely intellectual was not universally accepted, and an element of performance or 'works' was required by other equally Sunnite theological schools.

0 0

Post a comment