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The Eclipse of Theological Rationalism

Chapter Seven

The Interaction of Philosophy and Dogma

I The Eclipse of Theological Rationalism

As we mentioned earlier, the rise of Scholastic theology in the middle of the eighth century was the outcome of a new spirit of inquiry, which the introduction of Greek philosophy in the Muslim world had sparked. In some cases, however, the interaction of philosophy and dogma resulted in a gradual cleavage between the two. The systematic philosophers, like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, tried hard to lessen the effect of such cleavage by emphasizing the areas of agreement and the common concerns of philosophy and dogma. Some, such as al-Kindi, went so far as to espouse the

cause of dogma almost unconditionally and sought to erect a compact intellectual edifice on the foundation of dogma.

A gradual reaction to rationalism in theology, championed originally by the Mutazilah, was to set in less than a century after the death of the founder of that school, Wasil b. Ata'. We have already discussed the role which the great theologian and jurist Ahmad b. Hanbal, as well as the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil, played in the reversal of the pro-Mutazilite policies of al-Ma'mun in the middle of the ninth century.[1] However, the theological influence of the Mu'tazilah did not cease altogether as a result of al-Mutawakkil's policy of repression. Despite the virtual triumph of the Hanbali and Traditionist party, the spirit of theological inquiry was not completely snuffed out. In its pure form, the primitive traditionalism of the early jurists and exegetes was gone forever. The new Traditionism or orthodoxy was a qualified one that stemmed from the Mutazilite movement itself. Its rise is associated with the name of Abu'l Hasan al-Ashari (d.935), who, according to the traditional account, studied theology with al-Juba'i, head of the Basra branch of the Mutazilite school but broke away from that school at the age of forty.[2] The Prophet appeared to him in a dream and urged him to "take charge" of the Muslim community, whereupon al-Ashari ascended the pulpit at the mosque of Basra and proclaimed his recantation and his determination to make public "the scandals and follies" of the Mutazilah.

A debate with his master, al-juba'i, concerning God's justice and man's worthiness brings out vividly his original anti-Mutazilite sympathies.[3] Whether historical or not, this debate is significant in so far as it illustrates one of the cardinal issues on which al-Ashari broke with the Mutazilah. The pupil asks his master: What will be the fate in the after-life of three brothers, one of whom dies in a state of grace, one in a state of sin, and one in a state of innocence (i.e., before he comes of age)? The righteous brother, answers al-juba'i, will be consigned to paradise, the sinner to hell, and the third to an intermediate position.[4] Al-Ashari then asks: What if the third brother were to ask to be allowed to join his more fortunate brother? This privilege, replies al-juba'i, would be denied him on the ground that the first brother was admitted to paradise on the strength of his good works. If the third brother were to protest that if he had been given a long life he would have lived righteously, God would have replied: I foresaw that you would not and therefore chose to spare you everlasting damnation in hell. At this, the brother Who had died in sin exclaims: Surely, Lord, you foresaw my own plight, as well. Why, then, did you not deal with me as mercifully as you have dealt with my other brother?

We are told that al-juba'i was unable to say what God's possible answer to such protestations might be, on the Mutazilite assumption of the unqualified justice of God. The corollaries drawn by al-Ashari constitute the substance of his view of God's absolute omnipotence and sovereignty in the world and the finality of his moral and religious decrees. These decrees are entirely independent of any conditions, moral or other, apart from God's absolute fiat. To Him it belongs to order human life as He pleases, and to the "servant" to obey without question. Contrary to the contention of the Mutazilah, the human agent plays no part in the drama of choosing or doing and reaps none of the moral or religious fruits accruing from such initiative. In their desire to stress man's moral freedom and responsibility, the Mutazilah had described him, somewhat extravagantly, as "the creator of his deeds." To al-Ashari, such blasphemous language was tantamount to the denial of God's uniqueness as the sole Creator and Sovereign of the world, and consequently implied the recognition of two creators, in the manner of the Manichaeans (Majus).[5]

The vindication of God's absolute power and sovereignty in the world had certain moral implications, which al-Ashari was quick to draw. To deny man's role in the drama of moral action and decision and to impute the responsibility for his deeds and volitions to God involved the repudiation of God's justice. However, the claim that man's deeds are the result of God's "decree and preordination" did not necessarily imply, according to him, the nullification of His justice. Injustice can only denote the transgression of what has been prescribed by a superior, or the perpetration of what falls outside the domain of the doer. In both cases, injustice cannot be imputed to God, Who is the undisputed master and lawgiver of the universe and Who owes no allegiance to anyone whatsoever.[6]

On the question of the attributes of God and the creation of the Qur'an, the position of al-Ashari was equally at variance with that of his Mutazilite master, on the one hand, and that of the crude anthropomorphists or literalists, on the other. Moved by the desire to retain the Concept of the full-blooded Creator-God of the Qur'an, he opposed the Mutazilite tendency to divest God of His positive attributes, and argued, according to a twelfth-century historiographer and fellow-Asharite, al-Shahrastani, that the essential divine attributes of knowledge, power, and life are eternal and subsist in God's essence.[7] They cannot, however, be said to be either identical with this essence, as the Mutazilah claimed, or not identical with it. For this would mean that God's knowledge, power, or life is the same as God, So that one could address one's petitions to God's knowledge, power, or life instead of to God Himself,[8] which is absurd.

The rationalization of the inherence of the attributes in God which the Mutazilah attempted is not fully worked out by al-Ash'ari or his followers. How these attributes are to be distinguished from God's essence, in which they inhere and yet introduce no plurality into it, al-Ash'ari just refused to say. In this respect he is content to revert to the position of the early Traditionists, such as Malik b. Anas, who is reported to have argued, in the matter of God's "sitting upon the throne," that the "sitting is known, whereas its mode is unknown. Belief in its truth is a duty, and its questioning a heresy ."[9]

In his polemical works, however, al-Ash'ari is as concerned to refute the views of the "negators of the attributes," i.e., the Mutazilah, as he is to refute the position of the literalists and anthropomorphists. In their deference to Scripture, the latter had gone so far as to attribute corporeity to God, chiefly on the grounds that the text of the Qur'an undeniably stipulated it. Thus Qur'an 75:22-23 speak of the ability of the faithful to perceive God on the Last Day, and 7:54, and 20:5 speak of His sitting upon the throne. The anthropomorphists, such as Hisham b. al-Hakam, Abdullah b. Karram, and their followers in the ninth century, had not hesitated to draw from such Qur'anic passages their full logical consequences and to conceive of God, as Ibn Rushd will say later, simply as an "eternal man" endowed with gross corporeal qualities.

The use of logical argument in matters of theology , and its permissibility, Should first be justified satisfactorily, however. Al-Ashari's position, though reactionary by the standards of the philosophers and thoroughgoing rationalists, is certainly nuanc. Against the literalists and Traditionists, who questioned the permissibility of deduction or analogy, al-Ash'ari invokes the authority of the Qur'an, which recognizes the principle of analogy and employs it effectively in numerous passages.[10] In a tract devoted to the systematic discussion of this question and entitled Vindication of the Use of Theological Proof (Kalam), this ex-Mutazilite doctor's anti-Traditionist views on an issue which split the ranks of tenth-century theologians are clearly exhibited. The use of analogy, as indeed the whole method of dialectic or deduction, is repudiated by the Traditionists on the ground that the Prophet, who had dealt with every aspect of religion or morals essential to salvation, has not touched on the question of dialectic (Kalam) at all. Hence recourse to it constitutes an heretical departure (bidah) from what is traditionally and authoritatively received.

This argument from silence is artfully turned by al-Ashari against the Traditionists, who, by the same token, are just as heretical themselves, since their claim has no basis in the pronouncements or sayings of the Prophet either. More important still is the fact that the Prophet was fully conversant with the questions of motion and rest, accident and body, divine attributes, and so on, with which theology is concerned. However, they are referred to in the Traditions and the Qur'an in general terms only, and it is on such references that the whole of theology is based.[11]

Finally, the silence of the Qur'an and the Traditions on those questions that were subsequently dealt with by the theologians or the jurists is easily justified. The Muslim community was not faced with the difficulties or doubts which eventually led to them, or else the Prophet would have laid down explicitly the principles for solving them. As a result, the jurists and theologians in attempting to solve them had no other recourse than to draw analogies with what was explicitly laid down in Scripture. For it is the duty of every "reasonable Muslim" in such matters, al-Ashari argues, "to refer them to the body of principles consecrated by reason, sense-experience, and common sense."[12]

In applying this qualified rationalism to the cardinal questions debated in theological circles at the time, al-Ashari, though in fundamental disagreement with the Mutazilah, is nonetheless anxious to justify his opposition to them on rational grounds. The result is that his method is analogous to that of the Mutazilah, whereas his doctrine is substantially a restatement of Traditionist or Hanbali theses.

If we take the Mutazilite concept of free will as an instance, this dichotomy is clearly brought out. In the Ibanah, al-Ashari describes the arbitrary power of God in terms that leave hardly any scope for human initiative:

We believe that Allah has created everything, by simply bidding it: Be, as He says [in Qur'an 16:42]: "Verily, when we will a thing, our only utterance is: Be' and it is"; and that there is nothing good or evil on earth, except what Allah has preordained. We hold that everything is through Allah's will and that no one can do a thing before he actually does it, or do it without Allah's assistance, or escape Allah's knowledge. We hold that there is no Creator but Allah, and that the deeds of the creature are created and preordained by Allah, as He said [in Qur'an 37:94]: "He has created you and what you make" ...we hold that Allah helps the faithful to obey Him, favours them, is gracious to them, reforms and guides them; whereas He has led the unfaithful astray, did not guide or favor them with signs, as the impious heretics claim. However, were He to favor and reform them, they would have been righteous, and had He guided them they would have been rightly guided. ...But it was His will that they should be ungodly [singular: kafir], as He foresaw. Accordingly He abandoned them and sealed their hearts. We believe that good and evil are the outcome of Allah's decree and preordination [qada' wa qadar]: good or evil, sweet or bitter, and we know that what has missed us could not have hit us, or what has hit us could not have missed us, and that creatures are unable to profit or injure themselves, without Allah.[13]

In this vindication of the omnipotence of God and the powerlessness of the creatures al-Ashari simply reaffirms the Qur'anic Concept of the God-Despot, whose decrees are both irreversible and inscrutable. At the back of this polemic, however, is the view of the Mutazilah that man is the "creator of his deeds," and consequently a fully free and responsible agent. The Concept of a co-creator with God, according to al-Ashari, amounts to polytheism and involves a radical curtailing of God's absolute power. Despite these strictures, he does not concur with the Traditionists in their claim that man does not play any part whatsoever in the drama of moral activity. In his doctrine: of al-kasb, or acquisition of the merit or demerit for the deed done, al-Ashari seeks a way out of the moral dilemma of responsibility, without sacrificing the omnipotence of God. Voluntary actions, in his view, are created by God, but acquired by the human agent or imputed to him. Creation differs from acquisition in that the former is the outcome of "eternal power," whereas the latter is the outcome of the "created power" of the agent, So that the same action is said to be created by the one and acquired by the other. Stated differently, man acquires the credit or discredit for the deed created by God, since it is impossible that God should acquire it in time, while He is its author eternally.[14] In this subtle verbal distinction between what is acquired in time and what is created or predestined eternally, lies according to al-Ashari, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary action, and also that between the merit or demerit which attaches to the latter. Man, as the locus or bearer of "acquired" action, becomes responsible for such action, whereas for involuntary action, such as trembling or falling, etc., he is totally irresponsible. The fundamental relation between the two forms of action, according to al-Ashari and his followers, is that man is intuitively conscious of the difference between the one action and the other.Thus, rather than restore to man the freedom of which the extreme determinists (al-Jabriyah) had robbed him, al-Ashari is content restore to him the consciousness of his subjection to the "eternal power." Through this subtle distinction, the predestinarian presuppositions of the Traditionists and determinists are not repudiated, but their linguistic sting is removed without surrendering the substance of the predestinarian thesis. The elaboration of this peculiar ethical position, as well as the occasionalist world-view on which it rested, should perhaps be left to a subsequent section, because of the part which the successors of al-Ashari played in developing or refining it.

The historical significance of al-Ashari's "reform" lies not in the elaborateness of his solutions of the theological problems raised by the Mutazilah, but rather in his willingness to exploit their dialectical method, and, ipso facto, to moderate the claims of the Traditionists and antirationalists to whom he was temperamentally drawn. If his theological position, expressed in the classic formula of bila kaifa (ask not how) must be described as agnostic, it is nonetheless to be clearly distinguished from the blind agnosticism of the religious bigot who will entertain no questions whatsoever. For his was the qualified agnosticism of the earnest seeker who ends up by asserting, rightly or wrongly, the inability of reason to plumb the mystery of man in relation to God, or of God in relation to man.

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