Al-Māturīdī and the Development of Sunnī Theology in Samarqand

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 Al Maturidi And The Development Of Sunni Theology In Samarqand
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Rodrigo AdemUlrich Rudolph
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Salafism in Lebanon



 The Famous Unknown

Abū Manṣūr Muḥammad b. Muḥammad al-Māturīdī (d. 333/944) is among the few Islamic theologians whose significance needs no emphasis nor special reminder.

His reputation as a groundbreaking mutakallim is long undisputed; his influence on later generations, which manifested in its own school of theol- ogy, is acknowledged by all.

 This legacy has raised him to the rank of a leading teacher of the Islamic faith, and al-Māturīdī is still referred to as such to this day in nearly every handbook and survey on Islam.

Yet, despite this high estimation and ubiquitous accolade, a certain uncer- tainty is to be found. With all due respect to the oft-cited mutakallim, one still feels at a loss to describe his theology with precision, and to explain the means by which he distinguished himself from the other representatives of his dis- cipline. Up to this point, what has been said about al-Māturīdī describes his aforementioned historical status considerably more than it does his actual work or personage.

We hear, for instance, that he was, next to al-Jubbāʾī (d. 303/915–6), Abū Hāshim (d. 321/933), al-Kaʿbī (d. 319/931), and al-Ashʿarī (d. 324/935–6), one of the greatest thinkers of the early classical era of kalām.1 Most prominently emphasized after this point is that the second Sunnī school of kalām, the influence of which has lasted over hundreds of years, can be traced back to him.2 Yet, the very basis of this latter achievement, i.e., al-Māturīdī’s specific doctrine itself, is still not known in all of its specifics. One does find publications on his doctrine that are somewhat informative, but the overall picture remains irritatingly vague. Indeed, its contours are so lacking in focus that even in the more recent literature one can still come across such articles as “The Obscurity of al-Māturīdī” or “The Problem of al-Māturīdī.”3

Modern research is not to be blamed for this strange divide between the fame of our theologian and our knowledge of his work. The problem begins much earlier, in the medieval Arabic sources themselves. There we encoun- ter the surprising phenomenon that in a large number of classical representa- tions of the divisions in Islamic theology where one would most expect to see al-Māturīdī prominently mentioned, his name is strikingly absent.

The reason for this was not a conscious disregard, but a certain historical or geographical configuration, so to speak. Al-Māturīdī did not live in Iraq or another central region of the Islamic world, but carried out his scholarly activity in Samarqand, i.e., at the far eastern border of the Oecumene. Ideas from other regions reached that area, but local intellectual developments did not interest anyone further to the west, even in Baghdad. As a consequence, al-Māturīdī was initially unknown, and his influence was restricted for a long time to Samarqand and his Transoxanian homeland.

This changed only in the middle of the fifth/eleventh century, as the Seljuks, coming from the northeast, expanded their rule successfully into the core dominions of Islam.4 As they advanced, they brought with themselves the theology that they had become familiar with in Transoxania, and made sure as well, though not always through the most judicious means, to make this theology known in these central Islamic territories as well.

At first this led to turbulence, especially in Iran, and opened old wounds between the Ḥanafites and Shāfiʿites who consequently faced off anew—this time as followers of al-Māturīdī and al-Ashʿarī, respectively.5 Later however, they came to a recon- ciliation that, significantly, was initiated in Syria. The Zangid ruler Nūr al-Dīn (r. 541–68/1146–74) paved a way by which he would advocate the strengthening of Sunnism as a whole, which meant toleration of the differences between the individual Sunnī schools.6 What he instituted found appeal and a following among the Ayyūbids (from 564/1169), and was upheld most notably in the sub- sequent century, when the Mamlūks came to power (from 648/1250).

Within their territory they established the definitive principle of the equal authority of all the Sunnī legal schools; and if this was initially intended for the four great schools of law, then in principle it could be extended to theology. It is cer- tainly not a coincidence that in Syria of the eighth/fourteenth century, voices could be heard articulating what to us today seems to go without saying: in Sunnī Islam there are two recognized kalām methodologies, one the doctrine of al-Ashʿarī, and the other the Māturīdite doctrine from distant Transoxania.7

Thus did al-Māturīdī finally gain general recognition, and to a degree that only a few Islamic theologians have been similarly granted. But this relatively late acknowledgment had its own share of consequences; such a delay was ultimately responsible for the fact that his teachings are not described or even alluded to in any of the well-known Islamic heresiographies—which almost all originate from before the eighth/fourteenth century.

The fact that al-Ashʿarī fails to mention the man from Samarqand in his Maqālāt al-Islāmīyīn is not surprising if one reflects on its early date of composition (ca. 300/912–3). It is noteworthy, however, that the same observation can be made of consider- ably later heresiographers such as ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 429/1037), Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064), al-Shahrastānī (d. 548/1153) and others. Even Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406), who shows himself to be an expert on kalām in his Muqaddima, mentions numerous thinkers by name without including al-Māturīdī in his presentation.8

This was of direct consequence for the course taken by modern research, since for a long period of time its conception of early Islamic theology was determined by such heresiographical works: Its first important source was the K. al-Milal wa-l-nial of al-Shahrastānī, which was widely accessible by the middle of the nineteenth century.9 Soon thereafter followed other heresiographies that initially attracted great interest because it was believed that early kalām in particular would be objectively and systematically laid out in them.

But, as it would happen, when these sources were silent on a certain theolo- gian, a void arose beyond which it was hardly possible to proceed further. This is precisely what happened in the case of Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī.

He was discovered—only around the turn of the century—through other texts, where one could read how significant he had been as a theologian. But the typical heresiographical “reference books” that an Islamicist could refer to at the time did not offer any further information. And so initially the opportunity to attain more precise information on the teachings and ideas of the highly-praised mutakallim was simply unavailable.

The First Image: al-Māturīdī as Faithful Successor to Abū Ḥanīfa

That the heresiographies remain silent does not necessarily mean that al-Māturīdī was entirely neglected or passed over in the pertinent medieval literature. On the contrary, there are two other genres of sources in which observations on his doctrines are to be culled; these even provide a specific interpretive image to his name.

Yet in order to properly categorize these repre- sentations of al-Māturīdī, one must first consider the geographical and tempo- ral circumstances in which they emerged and were conveyed.

The first remarks on our theologian naturally originate from the region in which he was active, namely, Transoxania. When reflecting on the nature of their theological tradition, scholars of that region from the fifth/eleventh cen- tury held that it had been decidedly imprinted by al-Māturīdī’s contributions. This is the sense of the testimony given by Abū l-Yusr al-Pazdawī (d. 493/1100),10 for  instance,  and  by  his  younger  contemporary  Abū  l-Muʿīn  al-Nasafī  (d. 508/1114), who expressed the same thoughts even more pronouncedly.11 Neither of them, intended to identify al-Māturīdī as the founder of Sunnī theology in Transoxania, however.

To them he was rather an outstanding representative of the same; not as a founder, but as a thinker who masterfully laid out and inter- preted a long-standing theological doctrine. Instead, they were in agreement on placing Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767) at the original genesis of the school. He was remembered as having provided the correct answers to all definitive questions in matters of faith, and what he taught is supposed to have been transmitted and elaborated upon by all his successors in Bukhārā and Samarqand without detectable alteration.

In the writings of al-Pazdawī, this position is expressed in two ways. First, he calls his own school, not the “Māturīdīya,” but deliberately aṣḥāb Abī anīfa.12 Having said this, he repeatedly endeavors to reiterate to the reader that one or another particular doctrine had, of course, already been professed by Abū Ḥanīfa.13 Al-Nasafī’s remarks are even more explicit and systematic.

 He does not merely rely on the fact that the great Kufan is cited by name in northeast- ern Iran every now and then. His goal was to prove that Abū Ḥanīfa’s doctrine had in fact been passed on from generation to generation intact and without interruption.

To that end, he used the topic of God’s attributes as an instructive example, writing what was to be understood as an affirmation of tradition and a program for the future: Al-Nasafī begins this with the statement that in the entirety of Transoxania and Khurāsān, all the leading figures of Abū Ḥanīfa’s companions (inna aʾimmata aṣḥābi Abī anīfa . . . kullahum) that followed his way in the principles (uūl) as well as the branches ( furūʿ), and that stayed away from iʿtizāl (i.e., the doctrine of the Muʿtazilites), had already “in the old days” held the same view (on God’s attributes) as he did.14 In order to prove this, a historical digression follows, in which names of earlier prominent Ḥanafites of Transoxania are listed.

 In this presentation, al-Nasafī describes the history of the Samarqand school, running through a contiguous chain of scholars with apparently equivalent theological perspectives. This chain begins with Abū Ḥanīfa, continues with Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan (al-Shaybānī), and con- tinues through the ranks on to al-Māturīdī and his successors.15 Al-Māturīdī is viewed in this presentation as a member—albeit a prominent one—of a homogenous series of theologians.

His merit is supposed to have come from advocating theological doctrine in a particularly brilliant and astute manner; this was a doctrine, however, that all the other scholars followed in principle as well. Because of this, al-Nasafī repeats in several places that al-Māturīdī always deferred to the statements of the school founder from Kufa,16 and when he praises al-Māturīdī it is with the honorific of “the most knowledgeable person on the views of Abū Ḥanīfa” (aʿraf al-nās bi-madhāhib Abī anīfa).17

It is noteworthy that we can detect an apologetic undertone with al-Pazdawī as well as with al-Nasafī. This was directed at the Ashʿarites of Nishapur, who had apparently censured the Transoxanians for allowing unacceptable innova- tions in their theology. At the focal point of this critique was the doctrine of divine attributes professed in Samarqand and the surrounding areas.

 This was denounced by the Ashʿarites as a heretical innovation of the fifth/eleventh- century that none of the predecessors (salaf ) had adhered to.18 Such a critique, however, was obviously easy to disprove on a historical basis: It was undeni- able that al-Māturīdī had been active at the turn of the fourth Islamic century, contemporaneous with al-Ashʿarī, one might add.19

An even more convincing counter-argument aimed to antedate al-Māturīdī: If Abū Ḥanīfa stood behind the entire Transoxanian theological tradition, then the circumstances could be explained and vindicated from every doubt: in this light, the aṣḥāb Abī anīfa of Samarqand not only adhered to proper doctrine, but could maintain its legitimacy through the important Islamic principle of historical seniority.

Admittedly this apologetic argument did not promulgate any entirely novel view of things, but for this same reason it must have been viewed as cogent and rather plausible, given the established custom which stood behind it. Indeed, Abū Ḥanīfa’s name had been cited in Transoxania in this manner for a long period of time. Already by the third/ninth century, texts named him as the highest authority, and al-Māturīdī, too, did not fail to demonstrate his rever- ence for him in many instances.20 Thus if al-Pazdawī and al-Nasafī pointed to the great Kufan as the actual authority of Transoxanian theology, this was not decisive for Abū Ḥanīfa’s lauded status, but rather against al-Māturīdī’s, or to be more precise, against the conceivable possibility of selecting him as the new leader and eponym of the school. His emergence did not signify a break in the teachings of faith; his doctrine was in no way a new paradigm. What really mattered was the tradition itself, and by paying homage to this tradition arose the image of Abū Ḥanīfa as school founder, with Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī as his brilliant interpreter.

  1. Ibid., vol. 1, 310.8ff.: compare also al-Pazdawī’s reaction, Uūl, 69.10ff. and 70.5ff. On this general theme, see Rudolph, “Das Entstehen der Māturīdīya,” zdmg 147 (1997): 393–404.
  2. The chronological comparison with al-Ashʿarī must have played a role in the polemic, as Tabira, vol. 1, 240.8ff. shows, where it is explicitly stated that al-Māturīdī adhered to a particular doctrine that was only later adopted by the Ashʿarīya.
  3. Cf. Abū Manṣūr Muḥammad b. Muḥammad al-Māturīdī, K. al-Tawīd, ed. Fathalla Kholeif (Beirut, 1970), 303.15, 304.1, 369.21, 382.19 [hereafter cited as Tawīd]; idem, Taʾwīlāt al-Qurʾān, ed. Ahmet Vanlıolu (Istanbul, 2005), vol. 1, 81.8, 105.7, 121.8, 158.10, 193.8, 231.1, 343.11, 354.4, 369.14, 393.2, 408.5 and many others (cf. the indices of the other volumes) [hereafter cited as Taʾwīlāt].

Introduction 7

Once this decision was taken, it gained credency in times to follow. It is thus unsurprising that we commonly read in later literature about the Abū Ḥanīfa-school of northeastern Iran. Ibn al-Dāʿī, for example, a Shīʿite author of the sixth/twelfth century, relates that the theologians of Transoxania of his time are Ḥanafites with determinist leanings.21 Tāj al-Dī ī (d. 771/1370)

described the doctrine of the Māturīdīya two hundred

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