The Stagnation Of Philosophical Theology

The European historian is horrified at the thought that the Middle Ages might be regarded as lasting until the nineteenth century, but the idea is appropriate in an Islamic context. Little had changed there for three or four hundred years, and it was only in the nineteenth century that the intellectual and cultural reactions to the impact of Europe and the West came to be of primary importance. Otherwise it is difficult to characterize the period. It may be called a period of darkness or of stagnation, but this fails to do justice to some aspects of its life, as will become apparent in what follows.

In the earlier part of the period, until about 1500, there was a strong state in Egypt under the Mamluks, and this usually controlled Syria as well. In the East the Mongols continued to rule Transoxiana, and under Timur-Lenk (Tamerlane) spread westwards once more, occupying Persia and temporarily invading Iraq, Syria and Anatolia. Between Egypt-Syria and Transoxiana various lesser dynasties maintained peace over smaller or larger areas. With the liquidation of the 'Abbasid caliphate in 1258 Baghdad had become a provincial city— Iraq was a province of Persia—but something of its old cultural life continued until the invasions of Timur when it was practically destroyed. By this time, however, centres of Islamic learning had developed in Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and India. Thus the vast political upheavals produced less dislocation in intellectual life and social structure than might have been expected. There were indeed great changes, but surprisingly much managed to survive the storm.

The pattern of the four centuries from 1450 or 1500 to 1850 is much simpler. Three empires developed. That of the Ottoman Turks, with its capital at Constantinople (Istanbul) from 1453, eventually spread its rule over Syria and Egypt, much of Iraq and the Arabian peninsula, and most of North Africa—and indeed also for a time over large regions of Europe. By 1800 its power was in decline, but it continued in existence until after the First World War. Persia was united by the Safavid dynasty founded by Shah Isma'il 11501-24), and sometimes had parts of Iraq added to it. It has continued a single state, though with several changes of rulers. The third empire was that of the Moguls in India, whose real founder was Akbar (1556-1605). It was shorter-lived than the other two empires, and was declining before other Indian states by about 1700, and then receding as the British East India Company advanced, until it was extinguished in 1857. These empires gave a certain stability to the Islamic world.

During the period from 1250 to 1850 Islam was also spreading in lands which had never been included in the caliphates of Damascus, Baghdad or Istanbul. Communities of Muslims were gradually forming in East and West Africa, in Malaya and Indonesia, and in other peripheral areas. Colleges were founded—in Timbuctoo and Kano, for example—for the study of Islamic jurisprudence and theology, and a slow islamization of the local cultures began. Before this process of islamization was complete, however, these lands began to feel the impact of Europe, and the Islamic Middle Ages were at an end.

With the appearance of many new centres of Islamic learning the volume of theological thought probably increased, but its quality is usually held to have declined, especially in the field of Kalam. Little originality was shown, and the chief effort of theologians went into the production of commentaries, super-commentaries and glosses on earlier works. Thus for the short creed of Najm-ad-din an-Nasafi (mentioned above) about a dozen commentaries are listed, about thirty glosses (on the commentary by at-Taftazani), and about twenty super-glosses on one of these. Most such works were in Arabic, which remained the language of scholarship throughout the Islamic world (as Latin was for long in western Europe); but an Islamic religious literature was also springing up in Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages. A few original works were still composed, mainly in the form of creeds of varying length, probably designed as a basis for commentaries. The writing of commentaries may have been encouraged by the fact that lectures normally consisted of comments on texts.

The lack of originality and the general rigidity and conservatism in theology accompanied a low level of cultural achievement in other respects, and many scholars, both Muslim and Western, have suggested reasons. One view is that the cause is to be looked for in the Mongol invasions and the devastation they occasioned. This may help to explain the relative decline of Baghdad, for example; but Egypt, on the other hand, was never invaded by the Mongols, so that they cannot be the sole cause. Another suggestion is Ottoman domination, and this tends to find favour with writers of Arab nationality. For the Arabic-speaking regions which came under the Ottomans there may be some truth in this,- but even in these regions it is doubtful if it can be the whole truth since cultural decline is found also in lands which were never under Ottoman sway. The further suggestion that the seeds of decay were present in the Islamic religion from the beginning seems to be an expression of anti-Islamic prejudice and not worthy of serious consideration. It is best to leave the problem unsolved, realizing that mysterious changes of various kinds occur in the case of most religions.

Theological rigidity, of course, is not to be condemned outright, since it may often have a social function. The Christian creeds attained a degree of fixity after some five centuries of Christianity, and there may be a subtle reason for the appearance of a comparable fixity in Islam after the elapse of about the same time. A distinction can be made, however, between the formulation of a definitive creed and the theological discussion of articles of belief. A fixed creed helps to give stability to a religious community; and in the disturbed circumstances of the Islamic world for some of the centuries in question rigidity in theology may have helped to stabilize the social structure and even to compensate for the loss of political unity. It is possible, too, that to the Western scholar the rigidity appears to be greater than it really is, since it is easy for him, bored with the repetition of nearly identical arguments whose point he does not appreciate, to transform his own boredom into a characteristic of the material.

The dependence of the ulema on governments or rulers should also be taken into consideration. The Inquisition begun under the caliph al-Ma'mun had made it clear that the class of ulema was under the power of the government. It was not the brave endurance of Ahmad ibn-Hanbal that brought the Inquisition to an end, but reasons of state unconnected with the attitude and conduct of the ulema. Advancement in the scholarly career was in the hand of governments, and most scholars were too worldly to give up the prospect of a good salary for the sake of religious principle. There were exceptions, such as al-Ghazali and Ibn-Taymiyya, but the general attitude towards the rulers was one of subservience. On the other hand, there was a large field within which the ulema resisted the encroachments of the rulers. Rigidity strengthened the hands of individuals who were prepared to hold out against pressure to 'bend' the rules in the interests of the government, and prevented a betrayal of the rights of the ulema in general by a weak individual who had succumbed to governmental inducements. The rigid intellectual structure reduced individual discretion and made it possible to refuse illegal requests from those in authority; but, if in this way it had a positive function, in other circumstances it had disadvantages. This is notably so in adapting jurisprudence and theology to the contemporary world.

Also relevant is another feature of the outlook of the ulema, which may be called 'the discouragement of contemporary argument'.

There is a deep-seated Arab dislike of paying attention to what one considers false. Rather than study false views in order the better to refute them, the Arab prefers to pass them over in silence. When al-Muhâsibî wrote a Refutation of the Mu'tazilites, his master Ahmad ibn-Hanbal objected to his giving a full statement of their views before refuting them, on the ground that someone might read the statement of Mu'tazilite views and not the refutation. In most of the theological works mentioned in the previous pages opposing views are stated very briefly. In the later writers, too, there are no discussions of the views of contemporary Mu'tazilite writers, for example, but only of those of the 'classical' period. In the first 'Abbâs-id century caliphs and viziers arranged theological debates in their salons, and Nizâm-al-mulk may have done the same, at least for scholars of certain groups,- but al-Ghazâlï was apparently unable to have live arguments with philosophers. Perhaps one did not argue against contemporary opponents, since this would have helped to spread their false views. It may also be that the Hadith about the seventy-three sects prevented contemporaries from being regarded as a new sect, since the seventy-two heretical sects had already been described by the heresiographers. Whatever the reason for it, this avoidance of arguments with contemporary heretics and deviants must have helped to make theology 'academic' in the bad sense and so contributed to its stagnation.

It must also be asked whether during the centuries being considered the ulema were tending to become cut off from the common people. In the thirteenth century dervish orders began to make their appearance, and many ordinary men came to find their spiritual needs more fully met by the dhikr or worship of the orders than by the official salât, 'prayers', presided over by the ulema. Before it can be asserted, however, that this led to a cleavage, there are many questions to be answered. In practice did the worship of the orders replace the salât, or did it complement it ? Had the Hanbalite theologians a closer relation to the common people than the philosophical theologians? The latter, whether calling themselves Ash'arites or not, seem by their interest in philosophy and their rational arguments to have been largely cut off from the springs of spiritual life. Yet the philosophical theologians, despite this weakness, deserve much of the credit for an important positive achievement of the ulema as a whole, namely, the preservation of a framework of outward conduct and intellectual dogma within which it was possible for Muslims to live lives of moral uprightness and true religious devotion.

Since little attention has so far been paid by scholars, either Muslim or Western, to the history of theology during the six centuries after 1250, and since there is a vast amount of material, mostly still in manuscript, it is impracticable in a survey such as the present to give an adequate account of the various trends. In lieu of such an account brief notes are offered on the best-known theologians.

(1) Al-Baydawi was bom at Bayda near Shiraz, occupied the position of qadi in various places, including briefly in Shiraz, and finally lived in retirement in Tabriz. His death probably occurred in 13 08 or 1316, though earlier dates are mentioned. He had a reputation for piety and asceticism, but his outstanding gift was his ability to select what was best in the works of previous scholars and to summarize it acceptably. His greatest work was his commentary on the Quran which is still regarded as authoritative. It was based mainly on that of az-Zamakhshari, but amended that author's Mu'tazilite interpretations. Al-Baydawi also wrote books in various other religious disciplines, including a comprehensive statement of his views on Kalam. In this he follows roughly the order of topics in the Muhassal of Fakhr-ad-din ar-Razi, but is somewhat more philosophical.1

(2) Hafiz-ad-din Abu-l-Barakat an-Nasafi (d.1301 or 1310) was bom in Bukhara and apparently studied there under a teacher who died in 1244. He himself became a teacher, mainly of jurisprudence according to the Hanafite school, in Kirman in southern Iran. He is said to have died on his way back from a visit to Baghdad (which at this period had recovered from the first Mongol invasion). His legal works were widely used and much commented on. Among his lesser writings is Al-Umda fi usul ad-din, 'The Pillar of the Creed', together with his own commentary on it. Its doctrines are similar to those of the creed of Najm-ad-din an-Nasafi, but it is about four times the length. It is noteworthy, however, in it that it says less about epi-stemology than the shorter creed, perhaps because the author felt that philosophical discussions were out of place in a creed.2

(3) Al-Iji, with the honorific title of 'Adud-ad-din (c. 1281-1355) was educated in Shiraz under the pupil of a pupil of al-Baydawi. This gives some evidence for the continuity of Shaft'ite and Ash'arite teaching in Shiraz. Most of his life is said to have been spent as a qadi in the recently-built capital of the Il-Khan dynasty, Sultaniyya; but in his later years he was again in the neighbourhood of Shiraz and is spoken of as qadi there. As ail important man he was involved in the troubled and confused politics of the period, and is said to have died in prison in 13 5 5 in his native Ij, east of Shiraz. In theology he is known chiefly for two works. One is the short creed known as the 'Adudiyya, which has no philosophical articles. The other is the Mawaqif, a comprehensive work designed as a systematic handbook for use in lecturing. It is arranged in roughly the same way as the Muhassal of ar-Razi hut devotes more space to the philosophical preliminaries— two-thirds as against a half.3

(4) At-Taftazani (1322-1389 or 1390) was bom in Khorasan and is said to have been a pupil of al-Iji. He is heard of at Herat and also at one of the minor Mongol courts. When this whole region came under Timur-Lenk, at-Taftazani was stationed for a time at Sarakhs in the centre of Khorasan, and then moved to the court at Samarqand. He is the author of a theological treatise not unlike the Mawaqif of al-Iji, but he is best known for his commentary on the creed of Najm-ad-din an-Nasafi, which for centuries was one of the chief textbooks of theology. Although the creed is Maturidite, at-Taftazani is usually said to have been an Ash'arite, but the point is by no means certain. His choice of a text could be due to the fact that he was teaching in a region where Maturidite views were dominant. He expresses himself carefully, but there are a number of points where it is clear that he disagreed with the text he was commenting on.4

(5 ) Ibn-Khaldun (1332—1406) was bom and educated in Tunis. His family claimed Arab descent and had moved from Spain in the early thirteenth century before Seville fell to the Christians. The men had occupied high government posts or had beeen engaged in scholarship. Between the ages of 20 and 46 Ibn-Khaldun himself was mainly involved in governmental administration in Fez, Tunis, Granada and other places, though he also found time to study and write. In 13 7 8 he went to Egypt and was sometimes a professor, sometimes a qadi. Though he suffered much from the disturbed political conditions of the time, he managed to compose a history of the world in many volumes. His fame rests chiefly on the muqaddima, 'Introduction', to this history, which itself occupies three large volumes in translation and is a highly original investigation in the fields of philosophy, of history and of sociology. The Muqaddima contains a perceptive chapter on the development of philosophical theology in Islam; and after this it is not surprising to find that his competence in Ash'arite theology was such that as a young man he wrote a book in the field. This book is essentially a summary of the Muhassal of ar-Razi. In jurisprudence he was a Malikite.5

(6) Al-Jurjani, known as as-Sayyid ash-Sharif (1340—1413), was bom near the south-east comer of the Caspian Sea, and studied in Herat, in Kirman (in southern Iran) and in Egypt, besides visiting Constantinople. About 1377 he obtained a professorship at Shiraz through his friend at-Taftazani. After the conquest of Shiraz he went to Timur-Lenk's court at Samarqand, and in a celebrated debate showed himself superior to at-Taftazani, at least according to the majority view. Returning to Shiraz after Timur's death in 1405, he produced many works in many fields of study. Theologically most important was his commentary on the Mawaqif of al-Iji, where his interest in theological questions was given full scope.6

(7) As-Sanusi (d. i486 or 1490 aged 63) was bom at Tlemsen in the west of Algeria, and spent most of his life there. Among his teachers was at least one who had studied and taught in Granada, and who abandoned it as the prospects for the Muslims there became gloomy. He was a sufl and had such a reputation for piety and asceticism that some regarded him as the 'renewer' (mujaddid) of Islam for the tenth Islamic century ¡which began in 1494). In jurisprudence he is a Malikite, and in theology is reckoned an Ash'arite, though he was also very interested in philosophy. He wrote several works on Kalam, but more attention has been paid to his short creed, the Sanusiyya. This has been popular with Muslims in North and West Africa, and has been translated into French and German. It is much more philosophical than the 'Adudiyya, and begins, for example, by asserting that every believer must know twenty attributes necessary in respect of God and twenty attributes impossible for him. Since among the twenty attributes necessary for God are seven 'attributes of forms' which have to be distinguished from seven very similar 'attributes pertaining to forms', it is clear that the average believer is expected to be a philosopher! It is strange that one who was both pious and widely respected should have laid so much emphasis on abstract philosophy.7

(8) Ad-DawanI (or ad-Dawwani), with the honorific name of Jalal-ad-din, and also called as-Siddlql as claiming descent from the first caliph Abu-Bakr as-Siddiq (1427-1502), came from a district some 80 km west of Shiraz. He later completed his studies in Shiraz and became a professor and qadi there. Just before his death a political upheaval caused him to flee from Shiraz towards his native district. He produced a vast number of books, chiefly in the fields of sufism, philosophy and theology. His best-known work, written in Persian and commonly called Akhlaq-i Jalali, was translated into English in the early nineteenth century under the title of The Practical Philosophy of the Muhammadan People'. This was an adaptation of Akhlaq-i Nasiri by the Imamite Nasir-ad-din at-Tusi, a work dealing with ethics, economics and politics, and brought the ideas expressed there more into accord with the outlook of Sunnite Islam. In particular ad-Dawanl insisted that the titles 'caliph' and 'imam' could properly be given only to a righteous ruler who governed in accordance with the Shari'a. In theology ad-Dawani was an Ash'arite and wrote commentaries on the 'Adudiyya and on al-Jurjani's commentary on the Mawaqif of al-Iji, thus continuing what might be called the school of Shiraz. The statement of Brockelmann that he was an Imamite must be mistaken; it is at variance with what is found in his works, since in his commentary on the 'Adudiyya, for example, he accepts without criticism the article on the imamate of Abu-Bakr.8

(9) Birgevi or Birgili (1522-73) was a Turkish scholar from south-west Anatolia. He completed his education in Istanbul, and eventually taught in a college in the little town of Birgi in the province of Smyrna. He stood boldly for the strict and faithful observance of the Shari'a, and considered, for example, that it was wrong to teach the Qur'an for money. His unswerving rectitude and the popularity of his preaching gained him a numerous following among the common people, but some leading scholars of the time were bitterly opposed to him. Many works of his in Arabic have been preserved, including textbooks and pamphlets on points of conduct. His best-known work is a Turkish creed or statement of the principles of religion, which has achieved a wide circulation and has had many commentaries written on it. Because of this creed (and because his legal school was Hanaf-ite) he is included here, although his outlook was closer to the Hanbalites than to the philosophical theologians.9

(10) Al-Laqani (Ibrahim Burhan-ad-din) was a professor at the university of al-Azhar in Cairo, and belonged to the Malikite legal school. He is remembered for a creed in verse called Al-fawhaia, which has been the basis of some well-known commentaries, and is similar in form to the short creed of as-Sanusi. He died in 1631 on his return from the pilgrimage to Mecca, and was succeeded as professor by his son 'Abd-as-Salam al-Laqani (d.1668), who wrote a commentary on Al-Jawhdta.10

(n) As-Siyalkuti ('Abd-al-Hakim) (d. 16 5 7) was an adviser at the court of the Mogul emperor Shah-Jehan (regnabat 1628-58). He wrote commentaries and glosses on some of the theological works regularly studied in Iran and Egypt, such as at-Taftazani's commentary on the creed of an-Nasaf i. His writings were so highly thought of that they themselves came to be used as textbooks.11

(12) Al-Fadali (or -Fudali or -Faddali) was an Egyptian from the Delta and a professor at al-Azhar in Cairo, who died in 1821. He wrote an exposition of Islamic belief of medium length with the short title Kifayat al-'awamm, 'The Sufficiency of the Common People'. Of its fifty articles forty-one deal with attributes necessary, impossible and possible in respect of God, and nine in respect of prophets. It is similar in content to the Sanusiyya but much longer. The author expects the ordinary Muslim to know the fifty articles and a general proof for each.12

(13) Al-Bajuri or -Bayjuri (1783-1860), from the Egyptian province of Menouf, became a professor at the Azhar and latterly rector (shaykh al-azhai). Like al-Fadali, who was one of his teachers, he was a Shafi'ite in law. He was reckoned outstanding in his day, but his work consisted mainly of commentaries and glosses, including commentaries on the Sanusiyya and on the Kifayat al-'awamm of his teacher, and a gloss of a commentary on the fawhaia of al-Laqani.13

These notes on individual theologians are far from being an adequate history of the theology of the period, but they give a provisional indication of certain trends.14 The study of Kalam clearly retained its 'international' character, but one or two centres, such as Shiraz and Cairo, were specially important, at least at certain periods.

After 1258 scholars still travelled, though less extensively, it would seem, than before that date ; but the chief books were widely known throughout the Islamic world, even to some extent among Shi'ites. Most of the men named here seem to have regarded themselves as Ash'antes, but after the fifteenth century philosophy invaded even some of the short credal statements. The only Mâturîdite is Hàfiz-ad-din an-Nasafi ( 2 ), and it is difficult to know what happened to the Mâturîdite school after him. It presumably continued to exist in association with Hanafite jurisprudence, which was the official school of the Ottoman empire. In his creed al-Fadàlï mentions the Mâturîdite view that one of the attributes of God was takwin, 'making to exist'. Mâturîdite theologians probably contented themselves with writing commentaries and glosses, and produced no fresh theological work of any significance.

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