Arabic Thought and its Place in History, by De Lacy O'Leary, , at sacred-texts.com
The formation of an orthodox scholasticism within the Muslim church appears as a development spread over the 4th-5th centuries of the Hijra (10-11 cent. A.D.), and is in three strata associated with the three leaders, al-Ashari, al-Baqilani, and al-Ghazali. Such a development, of course, is principally of interest for the internal history of Islam and the evolution of Muslim theology, but it had its influence also on the transmission of Arabic thought to Latin Christendom in two ways: (i.) directly, in that al-Ghazali was established as one of the great Arabic authorities when the Latins began to study the interpreters of Aristotle, and his teaching is quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic writers; and (ii.) indirectly, because a considerable part of the work of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) takes the form of controversy against the followers of al-Ghazali; his Destruction of the Destruction, for example, is a refutation of al-Ghazali's Destruction of the Philosophers. It thus becomes imperative to know something about the position and teaching of al-Ghazali and the influences which prepared the way for his work.
Such a movement as orthodox scholasticism was inevitable. The position at the end of the third century was quite impossible. The orthodox Muslim adhered strictly to tradition, and entirely refused to admit "innovation" (bida): he had been forced into this position as a reaction against his earlier ready acceptance of Plato and Aristotle as inspired teachers, for the later errors of the Mutazilites showed what extremely dangerous conclusions could be drawn by those who came under Hellenistic influence, and the more accurately the Greek philosophers were studied the worse the heresies gathered from them. Orthodox thought held itself carefully aloof from the Mutazilites and philosophers on the one side, and from the Shiites and Sufis on the other, confining itself to the safe studies of Quran exegesis, tradition, and the canon law in which at Baghdad the reactionary influence of Ibn Hanbal was predominant. The whole of the third century had been a time of reaction on the part of the orthodox, very largely due to the unfortunate attempt of al-Mamun to force rationalism on his subjects. Al-Ghazali tells us in his "Confessions" that some sincere Muslims felt themselves bound to reject all the exact sciences as of dangerous tendency, and so repudiated scientific theories as to eclipses of the sun and moon. All speculation lay under a ban, because it led to "innovation" in belief or in practice; it was contrary to orthodoxy to use the methods of Greek philosophy to prove revealed doctrine as much as it was to impugn it, for both alike were innovations
on the traditional usage; nothing was known of spiritual matters save what is actually stated in the Quran and tradition, and from this nothing could be deduced by the use of argument, for logic itself was a Greek innovation, at least as applied to theology: only that was known which was actually stated, and no explanation of the statement was lawful. Thus, when Ahmad ibn Hanbal was examined by the inquisitors of al-Mamun he replied only by quoting the words of the Quran or tradition, refusing to draw any conclusions from these statements and admitting no conclusions drawn, keeping silence when arguments were proposed to him, and protesting that such examination as to religious belief was itself an innovation.
This position was hardly satisfactory to those who had inherited any part of the Hellenic tradition, and it ultimately became impossible. An organic body which cannot adapt itself to its surroundings is doomed to decay. The Islamic state had sufficient vitality to meet the new conditions introduced by its expansion to Syria and Persia, and now the time had come for Islamic theology to adapt itself to the new thought that was invading it. As we have seen, the philosophers al-Kindi and al-Farabi were loyal Muslims, and had no suspicion that their investigations were leading to heretical conclusions, and such was undoubtedly the case with the earlier Mutazilites also, but results had justified the orthodox in a suspicious attitude towards "argument" (kalam). Now, towards the close of the third century the attempt to find an
orthodox kalam appears as a movement which originates with the Mutazilites, of whom a section of the more conservative sought to return to an orthodox stand-point, and to use kalam in theology in defence of the traditional beliefs as against the heretical conclusions which were in circulation. Following a somewhat later usage we may employ this term kalam to denote an orthodox philosophical theology, that is to say, one in which the methods of philosophy were used, but the primary material was obtained from revelation, and thus one which was closely parallel with the scholastic theology of Latin Christendom.
We have cited the name of al-Ashari as representative of the first stage of this movement, but it is equally represented by the contemporary al-Mataradi in Samarqand and by at-Tahawi in Egypt. Of these, however, at-Tahawi has quite passed into oblivion. For long the Asharites and the Mataridites formed rival orthodox schools of kalam, and al-Mataridi's system still has a certain vogue amongst Turkish Muslims, but the Asharite system is that which commands the widest assent. Theologians reckon thirteen points of difference between the two schools, all of purely theoretical importance.
Al-Ashari was born at Basra in 260 or 270, and died at Baghdad about 330 or 340. At first he was an adherent of the Mutazilites, but one Friday in A.H. 300 he made a public renunciation of the views of that party, and took up a definitely orthodox position; in the pulpit of the great mosque at Basra
he said, "They who know me know who I am; as for those who do not know me, I am Ali b. Ismail al-Ashari, and I used to hold that the Quran was created, that the eyes of men shall not see God, and that we ourselves are the authors of our evil deeds; now I have returned to the truth; I renounce these opinions, and I take the engagement to refute the Mutazilites and expose their infamy and turpitude" (Ibn Khallikan, ii. 228). From this it will be perceived that the doctrines then regarded as characteristic of the Mutazilites were (i.) that the Quran was created, (ii.) the denial of the possibility of the beatific vision, and (iii.) the freedom of the will.
In the period after this change al-Ashari wrote a controversial work against the Mutazilites, which bears the name Kitab ash-Sharh wa-t-Tafsil, "the book of explanation and exposition"; he was the author also of religious treatises called Luma "flashes," Mujaz "abridgment," Idah al-Burhan "elucidation of the Burhan," and Tabiyin "illustrations." His real importance, however, lay in founding a school of orthodox scholasticism, afterwards more fully developed by al-Baqilani, and gradually spreading through the Muslim world, although strongly opposed on the one side by the falasifah, who saw in its teaching the introduction of traditional beliefs limiting and restricting the Aristotelian doctrine, and on the other side by the more reactionary orthodox, who disapproved the use of philosophical methods as applied to theological subjects. This use of philosophy
in the explanation and defence of religion came to be known as kalam, and those who employed it were called mutakallamin.
In dealing with the old problems of Muslim theology, such as the eternity of the Quran, the freedom of the will, etc., the Asharites do seem to have produced a reasonable statement of doctrine, which yet safeguarded the main demands of orthodoxy.
(a) As to the Quran, they held that it was eternal in God, but its expression in words and syllables was created in time. This does not of course mean that the expression was due to the Prophet to whom it was revealed, but to God, so that the doctrine of literal inspiration was asserted in the strictest form. Nor was it thus created when it was revealed, but long before in remote ages when it was first uttered to the angels and "august beings," and was afterwards disclosed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. This, which is now the orthodox belief, has furnished an opportunity for controversy to Christians and modern rationalists, who have fixed upon the use of particular words, introduced into Arabic as loan words from Syriac, Persian, and Greek, and appear in the Quran: how, they ask, can it be explained that words revealed at a remote period of past eternity, long before the creation of the world, as it is commonly asserted, show the influence of foreign languages which were brought to bear upon Arabic in the 7th cent. A.D.? and Muslim apologists, who have always maintained the absolute
purity of Quranic Arabic as one of the evidences of Divine origin, seem to regard this as a serious difficulty. The view that the Quran is eternal in substance, and thus in substance revealed to the Prophet, who was left to express it in his own words, which would thereby show the limitations of his time, is not admitted by the orthodox. It will be noted also that the Asharite teaching evades and does not answer an old difficulty: if the substance of the Quran is the wisdom of God and is co-eternal with Him, even though emanating from Him, we have something other than God, namely, His wisdom, eternally existing with Him, and this can be represented as parallel with the persons of the Christian Trinity, so as to be inconsistent with the absolute unity of God.
(b) This brings us to the attributes of God generally. The Asharites in this controversy side with the traditional school against the philosophers. Of the ten Aristotelian categories they regard only twoexistence, i.e., ens, and quality as objectively real; the other eight are merely relative characteristics (itibar) subjective in the mind of the knower, and having no objective reality. God has qualitiesindeed, no less than twenty are enumerated, but amongst these is mukhalafa, which is the quality of uniqueness in qualification, so that the qualities and attributes ascribed to God must either be such as cannot be applied to men, or else, if the terms can be used of created beings, they must have quite
different meanings when applied to God, and these qualities thus signified must be such as could not be predicated of men or of any other created being. Thus, that God has power and wisdom means that He is almighty and omniscient in a way which could not possibly be stated of any men. In practice this works so that no attribute can be applied to God unless it is expressly so applied in the text of the Quran; if it occurs there it may be used, but must be understood as having a meaning other than such a term would have when used in the normal way of men. It cannot be that God's attributes differ from those of men only in degree, as that He is wiser and more powerful than man, but they differ in their whole nature. It is noted also that God is qiyam bi-n-nafs, or "subsisting in Himself, "that is to say, independent of any other than Himself, and so God's knowledge does not depend on the existence or nature of the thing known.
(c) As to freedom of the will. God creates power in the man and creates also the choice, and He then creates the act corresponding to this power and choice. Thus the action is "acquired" by the creature.
Of the categories existence is the first substratum, and to this the other predicatables [?JBH] are added: none of these others are separable or per se, they can only exist in the essence. It is admitted that such qualities exist in the ens, but they are only adjuncts which come into being with the ens and go out of existence
with it. Therefore the world consists of entia or substances on which the mind reflects the qualities which are not in the thing itself but only in the mind. Against the Aristotelian theory that matter suffers the impress of form, he argues that all impress is subjective in the mind: if all qualities fall out substance itself ceases to exist, and so substance is not permanent but transitory, which opposes the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter.
The substances perceived by us are atoms which come into existence from vacuity and drop out of existence again. Thus, when a body moves from one position to another the atoms in the first position cease to be, and a group of new similar atoms come into existence in the second position, so that movement involves a series of annihilations and creations.
The cause of these changes is God, the only permanent and absolute reality. There is no secondary cause, as there are no laws of nature; in every case God acts directly upon each atom. Thus, fire does not cause burning, but God creates a being burned when fire touches a body, and the burning is directly His work. So in the freedom of the will, as, for example, when a man writes, God gives the will to write and causes the apparent motion of the pen and of the hand, and also directly creates the writing which seems to proceed from the pen.
Existence is the very self of the thing. This is peculiar to al-Ashari and his followers: all others hold existence to he the state (hāl) necessary to the
essence, but in al-Ashari it is the essence. So God exists, and His existence is the self (ayn) of His essence.
Such a system involves ethical difficulties; it appears that there can be no responsibility if there is no connection between action and the act done. Al-Ashari replied that there is a unity in the will of God, so that cause and effect are not isolated as though independent atoms, but all is disposed according to a Divine plan. This answer, however, can hardly be regarded as adequate.
This system is an attempt to deal with the difficulties raised by philosophy, but al-Ashari considers it preferable that the difficulties should never be raised, and so strongly urges that the mysteries of philosophy should never be discussed with the multitude. We shall see the same conclusion set forth by the later philosopher of the West, but on a somewhat different ground; they regarded the mysteries of philosophy as containing the supreme truth, for which the multitude was not ripe, and so they should not be discussed publicly, as the people were not able to understand; but al-Ashari seems rather to regard these mysteries as likely to be not edifying, as introducing questions which are of small importance compared with the great truths of revelation.
The Asharite system thus described was completed by al-Baqilani (d. 403), but it did not become general until it was popularised by al-Ghazali in the East and by Ibn Tumart in the West.
Al-Mataridi, of Samarqand was a contemporary of al-Ashari, and reached very similar results. Amongst the points peculiar to al-Mataridi we may note (a) the attribute of creating has been an attribute of God from all eternity, but this attribute is distinct from the thing created; (b) Creatures have certain choice of action, and for the things done by this choice they are rewarded or punished; good actions are only done by the pleasure (rida) of God, but bad actions are not always by His pleasure; (c) Ability to do the action goes with the will and the act, so that the creature cannot have an action imposed on him as a task which is not in his power.
He agrees with al-Ashari in holding that the world and all it contains have been created by God from nothing: it consists of substances and attributes. The substances exist in themselves, either as compounds, such as bodies, or as non-compounds, as essences which are indivisible. Attributes have no separate existence, but depend for their existence on bodies or essences. God is not essence, nor attribute, nor body, nor anything formed, bounded, numbered, limited, nor compounded. He cannot be described by mahiya (quiddity), nor kayfiya (modality); He does not exist in time or place, and nothing resembles Him or is outside His knowledge or power. He has qualities from all eternity existing in His essence; they are not He nor is He other than they.
For some time the Asharites had to meet keen opposition and even persecution, and it was not until
the middle of the 5th cent. that they came to be admitted generally as orthodox Muslims. Their triumph was assured in 459 A.H., when Nizam al-Mulk, the wazir of Alp Arslan, founded at Baghdad the Nizamite academy as a theological college of Asharite teaching. Still the Hanbalites raised occasional riots, and demonstrated against those whom they regarded as free thinkers; but these were put down by authority, and in 516 the Khalif himself attended the Asharite lectures. The Mutazilites were now merely a survival; as broad church theologians they had fallen into general disrepute in the eyes of the orthodox, and they were equally disliked by the philosophers as defective in their adherence to the Aristotelian system. The educated fell now into three broad groups: on the one hand were the orthodox, who came under the influence of al-Ashari or al-Mataridi; on the other were those who accepted the doctrines of the philosophers, and in the third place were those who rejected all philosophy, and confined their attention solely to Quran tradition and the canon law, and who should not be excluded from the ranks of the educated, although their studies ran in somewhat narrow lines.
The final triumph of the Asharite theology was the work of al-Ghazali (d. 505). He was born at Tus in 450 (= 1058 A.D.); early left an orphan he was educated by a Sufi friend, and then attended the school at Naisabur. As his education progressed he cut loose from Sufi influence and became an Asharite,
and in 484 he was appointed president of the Nazimite Academy at Baghdad. Gradually, however, he became a prey to spiritual unrest, and in 488 resigned his post and retired to Syria, where he spent some years in study and the practices of devotion. In 499 he returned to active work as a teacher in the Nazimite Academy at Naisabur, where he became the leader of a modified Asharite system strongly leavened by mysticism, which we may regard as the final evolution of orthodox Muslim theology.
Al-Ghazali, following al-Ashari, taught that philosophical theory cannot form the basis of religious thought, thus opposing the position of the philosophers. By revelation only can the primary essentials of truth be attained. Philosophy itself is no equal or rival of revelation: it is no more than common sense and regulated thinking, which may be employed by men about religion or any other subject; at best it acts as a preservative against error in deduction and argument, the primary material for which, so far as religion is concerned, can be furnished only by revelation. But against this he appears also as the transmitter of the teaching already given, by al-Qushayri, which introduced the mysticism of the Sufis into orthodox Islam. Revelation indeed is given by means of the Quran and tradition, and it is sufficient to accept what is thus revealed, but the ultimate truth of revelation can be tested and proved only by the experience of the individual. So far as men are concerned this is possible by means
of ecstasy whereby one becomes a knower (arif), and receives assurance and enlightenment by direct communication from God. The soul of man differs from all other created things; it is essentially spiritual, and so outside the categories which are applicable only to material things. The soul has been breathed into man by God (Qur. 15, 29; 38, 72), and this is comparable to the way in which the sun sends out its rays and gives warmth to those things on which its rays rest. The soul, which has no dimension, shape, or locus, rules the body in the same way as God rules the world, so that the body is a microcosm reproducing the conditions of the world. The essential element of this soul is not the intelligence which is concerned with the bodily frame, but the will: just as God is primarily known not as thought or intelligence, but as the volition which is the cause of creation. Thus God cannot be considered as the spirit animating the world, which is the pantheistic position, but as volition outside the world which has willed it to be.
The aim of scholastic theology is to preserve the purity of orthodox belief from heretical innovation: "God raised up a school of theologians and inspired them with the desire to defend orthodoxy by means of a system of proofs adapted to unveil the devices of the heretics and to foil the attacks which they made on the doctrines established by tradition" (Al-Ghazali: Confessions). Aristotle himself was an unbeliever using arguments he should not, but, in
spite of his errors, his teaching as expounded by al-Farabi and Ibn Sina is the system of thought which comes nearest to Islam (id.). Because of its unavoidable difficulties and the grave errors contained in Aristotle and his Arabic commentators men are not to be encouraged to read philosophy (id.).
There are three different worlds or planes of existence (i.) the alam al-mulk is that in which existence is apparent to the senses, the world made known by perception, and this is in a state of constant change; (ii.) the alam al-malakut, the changeless and eternal world of reality established by God's decree, of which the world of perception is but the reflexion; (iii.) and the alam al-jarabut or intermediate state, which properly belongs to the world of reality, but seems to be in the plane of perception. In this intermediate state is the human soul, which belongs to the plane of reality, though apparently projected into the perceptible plane to which it does not belong, and then returns to reality. The pen, tablet, etc., mentioned in the Quran are not mere allegories; they belong to the world of reality, and so are something other than what we see in this world of perception. These three worlds or planes are not separate in time or space, they are rather to be considered as modes of existence
The theories of the astronomers as to movements of the heavenly bodies are to be acceptedal-Ghazali adhered, of course, to the Ptolemaic systembut these deal only with the lowest plane, the world of sense.
[paragraph continues] Behind all nature is God, who is on the plane of reality. This higher plane cannot be reached by reason or intellect, whose operations must rely on the evidence of sense perception. To reach the plane of reality man must be raised by a spiritual faculty, "by which he perceives invisible things, the secrets of the future and other concepts as inaccessible to reason as the concepts of reason are inaccessible to mere discrimination and what is perceived by discrimination of the senses" (op. cit.). Inspiration means the disclosing of realities to the prophets or saints, and these realities can only be known by such revelation or by the personal experience of ecstasy by which the soul is raised to the plane of reality. Not only are the religious truths in the Quran revealed, but all ideas of good and evil are similarly revealed, and could not be attained by the unaided use of reason, a view which is obviously intended to refute the Mutazilite claim that moral differences can be perceived by reason. The philosophers also have attained truths by revelation, and the main substance of medicine and astronomy is based on such revelation (op. cit.).
Unlike Ibn Rushd, al-Ghazali thus emphasizes supra-rational intuition attained in a state of ecstasy, whereby the soul is raised above the world of shadow and reflection to the plane of reality. This was pure mysticism, and thus al-Ghazali introduces a Sufi element into orthodox Islam. At the same time he reduced Sufism to a scientific form, and endorsed
the Plotinian terminology. Macdonald summarises his work under four heads: (i.) he established an orthodox mysticism: (ii.) he popularised the use of philosophy; (iii.) he rendered philosophy subordinate to theology, and (iv.) he restored the fear of God when the element of fear was tending to be thrust into the background, at least by the educated. From this time on the term kalam was usually applied to philosophy adapted to the use of theologians.
The chief works left by al-Ghazali are the Ihya Ulum ad-Din, of which it is understood that a translation by H. Bauer is in preparation, and the Miyar al-Ilm, a treatise on logic. To posterity, however, he is best known by his Confessions, an autobiographical account of his spiritual life and development, which may not unfitly be placed beside the Confessions of St. Augustine.
Al-Ghazali completes the development of orthodox Muslim. theology. From this time forth it ceased to have any originality, and for the most part showed signs of decadence. Here and there we find Sufi revivals; indeed, Sufism is the only phase of Islam which kept free from the rigid conservatism which has laid its iron hand of repression upon Muslim life and thought generally. In Yemen the system of al-Ghazali was kept alive by generations of Sufis, but for the most part Sufism preferred less orthodox paths. Against these Sufi movements we see from time to time others of a distinctly reactionary character, such as that of the Wahabis, who opposed
the theology of al-Ghazali when it was generally recognised as the orthodox teaching at Mecca, and in this they were followed by the Sanusi.
Sayyid Murtada (d. 1205 A.H. = 1788 A.D.), a native of Zabid in Yihama, wrote a commentary on al-Ghazali's Ihya Ulum ad-Din, and thus revived the study of the great scholastic theologian. From that time the Islamic community has not lacked neo-Ghazalian students, and many consider that that school contains the best promise for modern Islam.