The Authority of the Text 1 Ibn Hanbal and the Text Transcendent

When one considers the mediaeval group of theologians who sheltered under the umbrella term of Mu'tazila, the great SunnI theologian Ahmad b. Hanbal (ad 780855) and the ninth-century Mihna or Inquisition, one is reminded most vividly of two modern pugilists in a boxing ring. The perception of the nature of the Text - in this case the Holy Qur'an - together with the religious and secular authority derived from that perception was the coveted prize for Caliph and 'ulama' alike. The contest is of particular interest and poignancy here, since one of the five cardinal principles of the Mu'tazila was al-amr bi 'l-ma'ruf wa 'l-nahy 'an al-munkar, a principle about which we have already had much to say.406

Briefly, these Mu'tazilite theologians comprised diverse scholars who were divided on a number of points but united on others. Among those on which many agreed were the doctrine of a created Qur'an, God's absolute Oneness (which they believed the doctrine of a created Qur'an reflected) where God's principal attributes were identical with His divine essence, God's justice and man's free will, and an allegorical attitude towards the physical attributes of God mentioned in the Qur'an.407

The Mu'tazila have been variously discussed and interpreted by mediaeval and modern scholars. Certainly, they were rebutted by mainstream SunnI theologians like Abu 'l-Hasan aI-Ash'arl (873/4-935/6)408 from the Middle Ages onwards. Al-Ash'arl was able to speak with an insider's knowledge, since he had been a Mu'tazilite himself before abandoning their dogmas in 912-13 as the result of a vision of the Prophet Muhammad. Later, he would deploy the logical methods of the Mu'tazila to defend Sunnism.409 W. M. Watt draws attention to the fact that 'in an account of [the Mu'tazila] published in 1865, Heinrich Steiner of Zurich spoke of them as "the free-thinkers of Islam"'.410 Watt goes on to observe that, in the mid-nineteenth century, there was not a great deal known about kalam and its development and that, in consequence, 'the Mu'tazilites were seen as standing for freedom of the will and human responsibility'. There was a tendency to view them through the spectacles of nineteenth-century liberalism.411

George F. Hourani holds that, ethically speaking, the Mu'tazila espoused a theory of 'rationalistic objectivism'.412 J. R. T. M. Peters notes: 'The difference between the Mu'tazila and their opponents is to be found in their theological methods: for the Mu'tazila, theologians who had come to know the Greek philosophical tradition, the human intellect itself was a source of real knowledge'.413 Martin, Woodward and Atmaja underline the 'rigorous devotion' of the early Mu'tazila 'to a rational understanding of divine unity and justice'.414 Earlier, Harry Wolfson had identified two types of Mu'tazilite kalam or scholastic theology: in the first, which he terms 'non-philosophical Mu'tazilite Kalam', lasting for about a century into the first part of the ninth century, there is an emphasis on 'the old Kalam method of analogy', manipulated in various ways. The second type, philosophical Mu'tazilite kalam, was inaugurated with the rise of the translation movement from Greek to Arabic in the early ninth century. It was characterised by new usages of analogy and the deployment of the syllogism.415

Michael Cook provides a final, concise and lucid orientation:

If the bias of Hanbalite thinking was towards the concrete, that of Mu'tazilite thought was towards the abstract . Mu'tazilism tended to represent something between a systematic body of substantive scholastic doctrine and an intellectual technique which . even the Hanbalites were to find irresistible . Mu'tazilism thus tended to become a tradition of socially and politically disembodied intellection.416

After analysing the views of three major classical Mu'tazilite authorities - Mankdlm (died ad 1034), aI-Hakim al-JishumI (died 1101) and Abu 'l-Husayn al-BasrI (died 1044)417 - on the subject of al-amr bi 'l-ma'ruf, Cook identifies three general aspects: their analytical approach, their doctrinal homogeneity and their activism.418 He shows that, for Mankdlm, al-amr bi 'l-ma'ruf is an aspect of 'the business of the state' and, indeed, 'most of what falls under the duty can only be performed by rulerst'.419

In all the above surveys and discussions which have been alluded to above, it is clear that there was a growing strain of intellectualism and emphasis on the role of reason and logic in the historical development of Mu'tazilism. But that intellectualism did not abandon the text. Like the Hanabila, the Mu'tazila were still text-bound, that is, bound to the text of the Qur'an in one form or another. And the two forms were both distinct and significant. Was the Qur'an a Created or an Uncreated Text? The Mu'tazila, as we have noted earlier, adhered to a doctrine of a Created Qur'an.

In two famous credal statements, Abü 'l-Hasan al-Ash'arl proclaimed in no uncertain terms that those who followed the Islamic traditions and the Sunna believed that the Qur'an was the uncreated word of God and that believers in the creation of the Qur'an were to be accounted unbelievers. The actual verbal articulation of the Qur'an was to be accounted as neither created nor uncreated.420 The important point was that the Qur'an itself was uncreated.

Ahmad b. Hanbal (ad 780-855) has the distinction of being one of the most famous theologians and jurists in mediaeval Islam. He gave his name to the Hanbali madhhab, the most rigorous of the four SunnI law schools.421 And, like the great theologian al-Ash'arI, he held to a doctrine of an uncreated Qur'an which brought him persecution, imprisonment and beating. The Encyclopaedia of Islam describes him as 'one of the most vigorous personalities of Islam, which he has profoundly influenced in its historical development and its modern revival'.422 His refusal to follow the adoption by the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mün (reg. 813-33) of the Mu'tazilite doctrine of a created Qur'an led to his being arraigned by al-Ma'mün, summoned in chains to appear before him and then, on al-Ma'mün's death, imprisoned and beaten under the new Caliph al-Mu'tasim (reg. 833-42). It was not until the abandonment of Mu'tazilism by the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (reg. 847-61) that Ibn Hanbal began teaching again, free from fear.423

The historian al-Tabari (839-923) provides a vivid account of the whole affair: he relates how al-Ma'mün sent a long letter to Ishaq b. Ibrahim (died 849/50), the Tahirid governor of Baghdad,424 ordering him to question the judges about their belief, or otherwise, in a created Qur'an,425 and insisting that they should make a public declaration that they held the Qur'an to be created.

This letter was sent in Rabi' al-Awwal 218/March-April 833 and was followed by a second similar letter, after which a variety of jurisprudents, judges and traditionists were summoned to appear before Ishaq.426 Among them was Ahmad b. Hanbal, who refused to affirm specifically that the Qu'an was created:427 'But Ahmad b. Hanbal and Muhammad b. Nüh persisted in their original profession and would not recant. Hence they were both loaded with fetters and sent to Tarsus .. .'428

Al-Ma'mün died in ad 833429 insisting in his last hours on the createdness of the Qur'an.430 But Ahmad b. Hanbal underwent further interrogation and suffering under al-Ma'mün's successor, al-Mu'tasim,431 before whom he preferred to ignore the question as to whether the Qur'an was created and to evince apparent ignorance.432

Michael Cook poignantly concludes:

It was through no choice of Ibn Hanbal's that the state burst into his world and shattered its peace. First came what he called the 'religious ordeal' (fitnat al-din), in which he was imprisoned, interrogated and flogged for refusing to pay lip-service to heresy ... [Yet] Ibn Hanbal stood for unhesitating obedience to the ruler, except in disobedience to God ... He was ready to render unto Caesar the things which were Caesar's; beyond that, what he asked most of all was to be left alone, and in that lies a key to his doctrine of forbidding wrong.433

For a period of three Caliphates - al-Ma'mun's (813-33), al-Mu'tasim's (833-42) and al-Wathiq's (842-7) - 'heterodoxy', became the mandatory 'orthodoxy'. Partisans of the latter, like Ahmad b. Hanbal, suffered grievously. There are analogies here with the rise of Arianism, especially with regard to the issue of authority. For the opponents of Arianism, a major issue was the authority of the Uncreated Logos, Jesus Christ. For Ahmad b. Hanbal, the issue was the authority of Allah himself, whose eternal mind had been made textual in the revelation of the eternal Qur'an. The concept of the eternal nature of the Qur'an invested that text with the highest authority. M. A. Shaban stresses the secular, political dimension of belief in a created Qur'an:

At first [al-Ma'mun] encouraged and took part in elaborate discussions with the intellectual elite about the fundamental principles of Islam and their relation to all the contemporary issues, but always with a constant focus on the political significance of these questions. Finally, his decision was for the official adoption of the Mu'tazilite dogma. However, the only tenet which was particularly emphasised was the Mu'tazilite insistence that the Qur'an, the Word of God, was created and therefore could not be as eternal as God and was certainly less divine. In other words the authority of revelation was not as paramount as the conservative Hanbalites were claiming, and in accordance with the Mu'tazilites, reason should be given its proper place in order to allow religious thinking to develop without undue hindrance. The logical political conclusion of this argument was that change was possible without a divinely guided ruler.434

Ahmad b. Hanbal thus stood for the Text Transcendent, Triumphant and Eternal. It is not, of course, suggested here that the Logos doctrine in Christianity, with Jesus Christ as the eternal Word of God (John 1:1-3), is an exact parallel of the Islamic doctrine of an uncreated Qur'an (even though that is the mind of God made textual), or that the Arian heresy directly mirrors the Mu'tazilite view of the Qur'an as created.435 Where there is, however, a congruence of paradigm is over the issue of authority arising from the multifarious Arian and Mu'tazilite debates. The medieval Islamic dimension was further complicated by the intellectual conflict between those whom R. C. Martin identifies as 'traditionalists' ('reformist religious movements, primarily the Hanbaliya, the followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal') and the 'rationalist' Mu'tazilites.436

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