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 The Oxford Handbook Of Islamic Theology
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Sabine Schmidtke
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THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF ISLAMIC THEOLOGY – Book Sample

Introduction – THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF ISLAMIC THEOLOGY

This book explores the history of Islamic theology, with particular emphasis on the doctrinal thought of all the various intellectual strands of Islam that were concerned with theological issues—including groups such as the Ismāʿīlīs and philosophers.

 It also discusses the inter-communal exchanges between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish thinkers over the course of the centuries to show how the theological thought of Jews and Christians intertwined with that of Muslims, and how Muslim theological thinking was influenced by Christian methodologies of speculative reasoning and doctrinal concepts.

The rest of the book considers the impact of political and social history on Islamic theology. This introduction provides an overview of the foundations of Islamic theology and the advances that have been made in the scholarly study of Islamic theology.

Keywords: Islamic theology, kalām, rational theology, scripturalist theology, speculative reasoning, political history, social history

THE present volume provides a comprehensive overview of theological thought within Islam, from the earliest manifestations that have come down to us up until the present.1 Given the numerous desiderata in the study of Islamic theology, the overall picture that evolves is inevitably incomplete, and in many ways the volume is intended to serve as an encouragement and a guide for scholars who wish to engage with this field of study.

 The approach in the preparation of this volume has been an inclusive one—rather than defining ‘theology’ in a narrow way or preferring one interpretation of what ‘orthodox’ belief consists of over another, an attempt has been made to cover the doctrinal thought of all the various intellectual strands of Islam that were engaged with theological concerns—including groups such as the philosophers and Ismāʿīlīs, whom theologians of different shades condemned as heretics.

Moreover, this volume also acknowledges the significance of inter-communal exchanges between Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish thinkers over the course of the centuries.

The theological thought of Jews and Christians not only mirrored at times that of Muslims, Christian methodologies of speculative reasoning and, at times, doctrinal notions contributed to its shaping.

 While the Jewish reception of kalām methods and the doctrines of the Muʿtazilite school in particular are touched upon in Chapter 9, the interplay between Muslim and Christian doctrinal thought at various points in time is discussed in detail in Chapters 1, 5, and 31.

The overall arrangement of the chapters is primarily diachronic. The unevenness of the three parts reflects, on the one hand, the robust scholarship that has developed in the study of Islamic intellectual history from early Islam to the classical period, contrasted with, on the other hand, the deplorable paucity of scholarship on the post-classical period.

Part I, by far the most detailed, comprises chapters discussing forms of Islamic theology during the formative and the early middle period; Part III focuses on the later middle and early modern periods; and Part V addresses Islamic theological thought from the end of the early modern period to the modern period. Wedged between the (p. 2)

three diachronic blocs are two parts that address thematic issues. Part II comprises four case studies that explore intellectual interactions of Islamic theology(ies), while Part IV, also comprising four case studies, focuses on the impact of political and social history on Islamic theology.

The Foundations of Islamic Theology

The thematic range of theology is, to a large extent, in the eye of the beholder. Over the centuries, Muslim theologians were preoccupied in their deliberations with two principal concerns: first, God, His existence, and nature, and, secondly, God’s actions vis-à-vis His creation, specifically humankind.

Both thematic concerns touch upon numerous related issues, such as anthropomorphism and the conceptualization of the divine attributes and their ontological foundation; and the thorny related questions of theodicy and human freedom versus determination.

In their attempts to systematize doctrinal thinking, the various theological schools in Islam have provided an abundance of often contradictory answers to those questions. Moreover, in terms of methodology, Muslim theologians championed two different, contradictory approaches—while rationally minded  theologians employed the methods and techniques of speculative theology, ‘kalām’ or  ‘ʿilm al-kalām’, as it is typically called, traditionists categorically rejected the use of reason and instead restricted themselves to collecting the relevant doctrinal statements they found in the Qurʾān and the prophetic tradition (sunna).

These statements are in their view the ‘principles of religion’ (uūl al-dīn), the second term used among Muslims for theology, alongside the above-mentioned term ‘kalām’, which came to mean ‘theology’ for the rational theologians.

Those who engaged in kalām, the mutakallimūn, went beyond the two basic doctrinal concerns, namely God’s nature and His actions, by adding to the thematic spectrum of theology other concerns such as natural philosophy—encompassing the created universe, which comprises everything other than God.

The factors that have contributed to how Islamic theology has been shaped and developed in its variegated forms over the course of history are multiple and various. Although the Qurʾān, the founding text of Islam, is not a theological disquisition, it is still the most hallowed authoritative source for Muslims engaged with doctrinal concerns.

 It lays down some of the fundamental doctrinal conceptions that characterize Islamic theological thought and have been shared in one way or another by most if not all Muslim thinkers throughout the centuries. Beyond the revelatory text, there is the larger historical, religious, and theological context in which doctrinal thought in Islam evolved and developed over time.

This doctrinal development is apparent in the treatment of issues on which the Qurʾān either remains silent or mentions, but with largely ambiguous statements, issues which Muslim theologians considered—and continue to consider— controversial.

These include topics such as man’s freedom to act versus determinism, which was hotly debated during the first and second centuries of Islam, (p. 3) as well as complex topics such as anthropology, ontology, epistemology, and cosmology, discussion of which was largely inspired by the wider intellectual-cultural environment of early Islam.

These influences include religious notions that were prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia, concepts originating in other local traditions, and the religio-philosophical heritage of late antiquity, pre-Islamic Iran, and, to some extent, India. Moreover, the political schisms in the early Islamic community following the death of the Prophet Muḥammad made questions such as the validity of the imamate, the nature of faith (īmān), and the conditions for salvation relevant for consideration among theologians.

The central tenet in the Qurʾānic revelation is the belief in God, and it is the notion of God as the creator and sovereign ruler of the world that is the dominant motif throughout the revealed text. He is described as ‘the master of the worlds’ (rabb al-ʿālamīn), as being ‘mighty and glorious’ (dhū l-jalāl wa-l-ikrām) (Qurʾān 55: 78), ‘the sovereign Lord’ (al- malik al-quddūs) (Qurʾān 59: 23), and ‘owner of sovereignty’ (mālik al-mulk) (Qurʾān 3: 26). He is said to be ‘the high and the great’ (al-ʿalīy al-kabīr) (Qurʾān 22: 62), and that ‘in His hand is the dominion over all things’ (alladhī bi-yadihi malakūt kull shayʾ) (Qurʾān 36: 83). God is ‘the creator and the one who shapes’ (al-khāliq al-bāriʾ al-muawwir) (Qurʾān 59: 24) and ‘He who created the heavens and the earth’ (alladhī khalaqa l-samawāt wa-l- ar) (Qurʾān 36: 81).

In accordance with the idea of God as a sovereign ruler, readers of the Qurʾān are constantly reminded of God’s oneness and admonished to refrain from any kind of polytheism (shirk)—‘God, there is no God but He’ (Allāhu lā ilāha illā huwa) (Qurʾān 2: 255 etc.). The locus classicus is sūra 112 (entitled ‘Sincere Religion’, al-ikhlā), which, in the translation of A. Arberry, reads ‘Say: ‘He is God, One. God, the Everlasting Refuge, who has not begotten, and has not been begotten, and equal to Him is not any one’. While initially intended apparently as a refutation of pre-Islamic polytheism in Arabia, the text was later interpreted as primarily directed against the Christians. The (post-Qurʾānic) Arabic term for monotheism is tawīd.

The frequent use of the root w--d in the self-appellation of numerous Islamic groups throughout history up until the modern period indicates the central position the concept occupies in the self-perception of  Muslim believers. Monotheism is thus one of the central doctrines of Islam, although the interpretations and conceptualizations of tawīd are manifold.

God’s sovereignty sharply contrasts with the way humans—who are invariably described as His servants—are depicted in the Qurʾān. As to the question of whether man’s actions and destiny are ordained by God’s decree, deterministic and non-deterministic sayings stand side by side in the Qurʾān.

The Qurʾānic concept of the last judgement, when God will demand individual reckoning from each human being, presupposes that human beings exercise individual liberty with respect to what they do in this world and thus are responsible for their destiny in the hereafter.

Free choice is also expressly stated in those passages where God is said not to lead the human being astray, unless he or she chooses to disobey. Other passages of the Qurʾān emphasize God’s omnipotence and omniscience, to an extent that human responsibility appears completely eclipsed.

Here, human destiny is said to depend on the will of God. He is the originator of belief and unbelief and He guides or leads astray as He pleases. ‘Whomsoever (p. 4) God desires to guide, He opens his heart to Islam; whomsoever He desires to lead astray, he hardens his heart, narrow, tight, as if forced to climb to heaven unaided. So God lays abomination upon those who believe not’ (Qurʾān 6: 125).

The Qurʾān contains numerous descriptions of God, which later gave rise to the conceptualization, in a variety of ways, of the divine attributes, their ontological foundation, and how they compare with the attributes of human beings.

He is described as being ‘alive’ (ayy), ‘eternal’ (qayyūm) (Qurʾān 2: 255), ‘self-sufficient’ (ghanī) (Qurʾān 2: 263), ‘all-embracing’ (wāsiʿ), ‘knowing’ (ʿalīm) (Qurʾān 2: 247), and ‘wise’ (akīm) (Qurʾān 2: 32), as the one who ‘hears and sees’ (al-samīʿ al-baīr) (Qurʾān 17: 1), is ‘able to do all things’ (ʿalā kull shayʾ qadīr) (Qurʾān 2: 20), and He is ‘the strong and the mighty’ (al-qawī al-ʿazīz) (Qurʾān 11: 66). At the same time, God is said to have ‘knowledge’ (al-ʿilm ʿinda Llāh) (Qurʾān 67: 26) and to possess ‘might’ (al-qūwa) (Qurʾān 51: 58).

Moreover, the Qurʾān contains passages that stress God’s transcendence (Qurʾān 19: 65; 42: 11) as against those which emphasize His immanence (Qurʾān 50: 16), two contrasting notions that are also expressed in Qurʾān 57: 3, ‘He is the Outward and the Inward’ (huwa l-āhir wa-l-bāin). Also disputed were references in the Qurʾān that suggest that God has a human form. God’s ‘countenance’ (wajh) is mentioned (Qurʾān 2: 115 and passim), as are His ‘eyes’ (aʿyān) (Qurʾān 11: 37; 23: 27; 52: 48; 54: 14), His ‘hand/hands’ (Qurʾān 3: 72f.; 5: 64; 38: 75f.; 48: 10; 57: 29), and His ‘leg’ (sāq) (Qurʾān

68: 42), and He is said to be seated on a ‘throne’ (ʿarsh) (Qurʾān 7: 54 and passim). Descriptions which may suggest deficiencies in God also gave rise to speculative thinking, such as God being ‘the best of schemers’ (wa-Llāh khayr al-mākirīn) (Qurʾān 3: 54), that He mocks (yastahziʾ) (Qurʾān 2: 15), derides (sakhira) (Qurʾān 9: 79), or forgets (Qurʾān 9: 67). Moreover, the attributes and qualifications ascribed to God that have equivalents in humans prompted speculation about the ontological foundations of God’s attributes as against those of human beings, for the Qurʾān also states that ‘like Him there is naught’ (laysa ka-mithlihi shayʾ) (Qurʾān 42: 11).

The amalgam of the Qurʾānic data, doctrinal concepts, and concerns originating in the wider cultural environment of early Islam, as well as the political controversies and schisms of the early Islamic community, gave rise to a highly variegated spectrum of Muslim theological thought, with respect to both doctrinal positions and methodological approaches.

Religious dissension was and is considered to be a deplorable departure from the initial ideal of unity; and what would constitute the right, ‘orthodox’ belief, as opposed to heresy, was typically decided by the winning power, post factum.

Controversy and diversity as characteristics of Islamic theology are reflected in some of the characteristic literary genres of Islamic theology, namely professions of faith (ʿaqīda), the preferred genre among the traditionalists, which served to encapsulate the faith of the community and to refute ‘heterodox’ doctrines; heresiographies, compiled on the basis of the prophetic adīth according to which the Muslim community will be divided into seventy-three groups, only one of which will merit paradise (al-firqa al-nājiya); works that display the dialectical technique of kalām, which was the prevalent genre among representatives of rational theology, be it in the form of refutations or, as was increasingly the case during the scholastic phase, in the form of theological (p. 5) summae.

The variegations in doctrine and methodology notwithstanding, the historical development of Islamic theological thought is characterized by complex interdependence among the various strands.

II The State of the Art

Between 1842 and 1846, W. Cureton published his edition of the heresiographical Kitāb al-Milal wa-l-nial, by the sixth/twelfth-century Ashʿarite author Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al- Karīm al-Shahrastānī (d. 548/1153) For a long time, this text was the single available source for modern scholars on the history of Islamic theology.

Since then, over the course of the last century and a half, there has been a steady flow of discoveries of new textual sources. Nevertheless, contemporary scholarship on Islamic theology is still in an age of discovery, and the production of critical editions of key texts, many of which up until recently were believed to be lost, remains a major occupation for any scholar engaged in this field of research.

One of the reasons for the relatively slow progress in the study of Islamic theology is that the place of reflection on doctrinal issues within the intellectual life of Muslim thinkers has for a long time been (and often continues to be) underestimated.

Theology can rightly be described as one of the most neglected subdisciplines within Islamic studies, a subdiscipline which up to today attracts far fewer scholars than, for example, Islamic law, adīth, or Qurʾānic studies.

A telling indication that the discipline is still in an early stage is the numerous recent discoveries and first- time publications of works that were long believed to be lost. Surprisingly many among them date from the very first centuries of Islam, thus contradicting the commonly held assumption that the earliest literary sources of Islam are by now all well known and taken into account in scholarship.

Many of these discoveries are bound to bring about revisions of long-held views about the history of Islamic theology.

By way of example, mention should be made of several doctrinal texts by second/eighth and third/ninth-century Ibāḍī authors—the Ibāḍiyya being one of the earliest opposition movements under the Umayyads, with a distinct kalām tradition and with close interaction with the Muʿtazila, the other early religio-political opposition movement during that time.

 The new finds comprise six kalām treatises, or fragments thereof, by the second/eighth-century Kufan scholar ʿAbd Allāh b. Yazīd al-Fazārī, discovered in two twelfth/eighteenth-century manuscripts in Mzāb, in Algeria.3

If we can assume their authenticity, Fazārī is thus the earliest kalām theologian whose doctrines can be studied on the basis of his own extant works. His sophisticated treatment of the divine attributes suggests that this was an issue discussed among Muslim theologians much earlier than has so far been (p. 6) assumed

(Madelung in press; Chapter 14). Several doctrinal texts by the ʿUmānī Ibāḍī scholar Abū l-Mundhir Bashīr b. Muḥammad b. Maḥbūb (d. c.290/908) were recently found in some of the private libraries in Oman and are now available in critical edition.4

Other important discoveries in recent years include the Kitāb al-Tarīsh of Ḍirār b. ʿAmr, who had started out as a Muʿtazilī (Ansari 2004–5; Ansari 2007: 23–4; van Ess 2011: i. 132–40; see also Chapter 3),5 and a substantial fragment of the Kitāb al-Maqālāt by Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʾī (d. 303/915), the earliest representative of the Basran school of the Muʿtazila during the scholastic era (Ansari 2007; van Ess 2011, i. 156–61).6

Mention should also be made of the ever-growing number of quotations from the important early doxographical work Kitāb al-Ārāʾ wa-l-diyānāt, by the Twelver Shīʿī author al-Ḥasan b. Mūsā al-Nawbakhtī, who flourished at the turn of the fourth/tenth century (van Ess 2011: 219–60, esp. 224– 30; Madelung 2013).7

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