Orthodox Penchant for Medieval Heresiography: Biased Readings of Ghazali—Averroes Dispute

This comment is in reference to the essay by Muhammad Abdullah Shariq titled
غزالی اورابن رشد  کا  قضیہ in last two issues of Al-Shariah magazine. Both episodes can be read here and here, and my comment is already published here. The version posted on this blog includes some corrections for language.


The premise of the essay is flimsy, since the author aims to defend Ghazali against a hypothetical attack without caring to cite even one source. In fact, there is more than one way in which criticisms have been extended on Ghazali from variety of perspectives such as scientific, philosophical or religious, some of which may are given as,

  1. Less informed and reductionist criticisms by the so-called Muslim rationalists or modernists.
  2. Minimalist critical attempts by Non-Muslims (including atheists) who kind of see Ghazali-Averroes tussle as a manifestation of struggle between dogma and rationalism.
  3. Nuanced criticisms waged from the point of view of extending critique on Asharite cosmology and the nature of its causal underpinnings.
  4. Formal all-encompassing criticisms from epistemological point of views where Ghazali and Averroes seem to be coming from different paradigms as far as theory of knowledge is concerned; of course, there are also far reaching sociological implications as different Weltanschauungs are seem to be purported.

In my humble view, the author is only defending Ghazali against the first kind of criticisms but that too remains elusive to a reader who is already aware about this classical historical debate. As far as the less informed lay-reader is concerned, the whole exposition besides being misleading, presents a simplistic and distorted picture of Muslim intellectual activity in medieval period, as well as history of philosophy and science as well.

Consequently, these Muslim intellectuals are shown by the author to belong to two distinct camps, that is, those who didn’t involve themselves with ultimate metaphysical questions and those who did. Of course, this is certainly his authorial discretion; however the division presented by the author is generally superfluous. It is merely a matter of fact and interest that some of them cared to indulge in metaphysics while others restricted themselves to pure empirical disciplines. The author does not care to note the fact that it was primarily the Greek science that was passed to Arabs through the translation movement; and because the complete medieval scientific tradition was deeply rooted in Hellenistic philosophy, its metaphysical foundation could not be just overlooked. Moreover, if it is not entirely erroneous, it is at least remarkably arguable and simplistic to attribute an original compartmentalization of knowledge in physics and metaphysics within the Greek paradigm.

Therefore, when we analyse the whole intellectual tradition of medieval era, it is merely a matter of interest that Al-Farabi, Al-Jahiz, Al-Kindi, Ibn Tufail, Avicenna or Averroes indulged in humanistic disciplines and others (some of which the author mentioned) indulged in empirical disciplines. In fact, all of them were polymaths in varying degrees and were essentially multidisciplinary.

Considering for instance the case of Muhammad Bin Zakariah Razi — whom the author chooses to introduce as an example of his contributions in Chemistry — which student of Muslim medieval philosophical tradition is not aware of the infamous Rhazes, the so-called free-thinker? Hasn’t he written scores of works on metaphysical questions? Wasn’t he declared a heretic and a free-thinker by the religious zealots of his time? Or if Abbas Ibn Farnas — whom the author erroneously mentions as Muslim Ibn Faras — is better known as the first aviator (arguably), he was also a physician and musician; and if the author chooses to present Albeiruni as a representative indulgence in Geometry, he is far better known as an Indologist too.

A more realistic and plausible contention, therefore, is that all of these myriad intellectuals were multidisciplinary polymaths. As unbiased readers of Muslim tradition we must be able to rise above the medieval heresiography, try to get into the shoes of Avicenna, Averroes or Ibn Tufail, and empathetically view  them struggling with the onslaught of the challenge of Hellenistic tradition.

Considering that the author himself acknowledges the historical convergence of science and philosophy as a single Ghazali-Teachingacademic discipline, his subsequent insistence on division between utilitarian-empirical and metaphysical-philosophical seems superfluous. Of course, he is right in contending that Ghazali is targeting the arguments which affect the religious side of truth; however, he refuses to acknowledge that inquisitive human minds are seldom able to compartmentalize truth in this vulgar fashion to keep its higher dimensions and purely utilitarian sides separately. It is a feat only achieved by ordinary masses or exceptionally extraordinary minds such as Ghazali himself. It is no wonder, then, that his immediate detractors, for instance Averroes, find it hard to interweave all threads of his thought into a common fabric. Hence, it is not merely an acerbic disparaging comment, when Averroes contends that,

He was an Asharite with the Asharites, a sufi with the sufis, and a philosopher with the philosophers, so that he was like a man in the following verse:

One day you are a Yamanite, when you meet a man of Yaman

But when you meet a man of Ma´add, you assert you are from Adnan

Moreover, if Muslim culture and civilization ended up being compartmentalized and atomistic in terms of knowledge and thought, and being ostensibly proud of it too, Ghazali deserves to take a large part of the blame. That however, is fortunately arguable and in recent few decades, it has been extensively shown that there is a lot more unification of thought in Ghazali then classically perceived.

More remarkably, when seen from a philosophical and scientific standpoint, the present classical review of Ghazali – Averroes dispute ends up making a case against any possibility of finding a holistic unified trend of Ghazalian scheme. Taking for instance the author’s claim that Ghazali is not refuting ‘science‘. Can such a claim be warranted without any objective definition of science?  Authors bent on classical discourse must realize that those who criticize Ghazali are basically coming with their own definitions of science and how it attempts to answer the questions related to higher reality and ultimate fabric of the universe, its origin as well as its destiny.

Any reading of Ghazali-Averroes dispute disregarding these intricate issues, not attempting to disentangle them neatly and bordering on polemics through boisterous ridicule against supposed philosophers and scientists would prove to be simply reductionist, just like its counterparts in radical scientism and New Age militant atheism.

At the same time, it is pertinent to argue that among the two, Ghazali is perhaps more novel even in his system of natural philosophy — whatever than can be deduced from his writings such as Tahafah or Iqtisad fi al-Aitiqaad — as compared to Averroes who is primarily an interpreter indulged in Aristotelian exegesis. The comparison, however, is incomplete and unfair to both Averroes and Ghazali unless we try to see the so-called dispute from their respective standpoints.

If Ghazali, who is primarily speaking from the position of a theological defence, aims to safeguard religious belief from speculative contamination of philosophers — specifically targeting Al-Farabi and Avicenna —, Averroes takes it as an attack on the whole Peripatetic tradition and appropriately rises to its defence.

While Ghazali is justified in his objection to the notion of eternality of world as it conflicts with the omnipotent agency of God, Averroes is not entirely wrong in his notion of differentiation between temporal and eternal agents. Can we speak of qualitative aspect of time, or for that matter time itself, when ascribing action to God? Is it temporally sensible at all to utter that God suddenly created the world? Does God differentiate between this hour and next hour in terms of quality, since he is beyond a notion of temporality at first place?

averroesWhen Ghazali extends the analogy of a hungry man, sitting ambivalent in front of two similar dates, confronted with the choice, Averroes questions whether it’s truly a choice between dates or between eating and not eating since there is nothing in the qualitative domain that differentiates one date from the other; as soon as we are forced to make a qualitative difference, it would not remain a choice between two similar options. While Ghazali is creating a space in natural philosophy for God as an active agent, Averroes keeps falling back to the problem of differentiating between God’s will and His knowledge.

In the same manner, through juxtaposing their rich and intricate texts, we can visualize them debating complex issues related to agency, nominalism, contingency, causation, the nature of soul and cosmology. It is also important to note for the sake of completion that their exchange is not restricted to these two books but Averroes extensively quotes Al-Ghazali in his other works as well, sometimes questioning his theories and at other times presenting them in support of some contention. As a recent commentator on their interaction aptly notes, Ghazali gave birth to a new philosophy while criticizing philosophies of his predecessors.

Averroes, on the other hand, never projects himself as someone too sure on his convictions. If all his literature is reduced to a singular contention, it would be an unassailable belief that divinely revealed knowledge cannot be in contradiction with acquired knowledge through reflection and reason.

Lastly, in my humble opinion, if the underlying contention by religious intelligentsia is to call for submission of scientific discourse to a so-called Shar’i limits, it is not warranted, may it be through rational or theological justifications. On both these grounds, such a demand would remain questionable unless a curious soul is forced to submit in front of an ecclesiastical order, as in medieval Christianity. Quran incessantly calls man to search for truth within himself and outside in the universe. As Iqbal notes in the start of his celebrated lectures, the ultimate nature of this world, its permanence or extinction, our relationship to it and our conduct are important questions equally belonging to the domains of religion, philosophy and higher-poetry. And even though science can afford to ignore or forget the underlying metaphysics, religion can hardly function without an ultimate reconciliation of human experience with his environment.

Since the advent of modernity, most of these questions are now being increasingly thrown into the domain of science, or at least being equally commented upon from a scientific standpoint. In this respect, while a post-modern inclination towards scientism and the so-called new-age Atheism is unwarranted on purely intellectual grounds, arguing for a regulated or coerced compartmentalization of knowledge for theological considerations is equally unjustifiable.

Science does have its metaphysical foundations, and inherent in its spirit of enquiry is the resolve that it cannot simply remain indifferent to higher aspects of reality, thereby restricting itself strictly to the questions of utilitarian domains. One thing we learn from Averroes, Ghazali and other Muslim philosophers is the spirit of enquiry and the resolve to defend their faith in an unseen higher reality when challenged by science or philosophy. Liberals as well as conservatives in Muslim societies must learn to look beyond the heresiographic aspects of medieval disputes and instead of extrapolating them to our times must rephrase those questions in accordance with contemporary relevance.

Is Shariah Possible (III): Tennessee Bill, Objective Resolution and Ibn Qayyim

I had almost forgotten about this ongoing series until coming across this recent piece by John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani discussing fear of Shariah in the state of Tennessee.

That the bill introduced by Senator Bill Ketron exemplifies the irrational fear of Islam is a fact that cannot be denied by anyone generally aware of political, social and philosophical nuances of Islamic law. It is also true that the language and dictates of the bill are prejudiced and outright Islamophobic, likely to cause disturbance among US Muslims. However, even a somewhat perfunctory analysis of the language of the bill shows that it thrives upon more or less similar kind of sensibilities which are prevalent in many Muslim societies as well. These sensibilities are not only popular among masses (educated as well as uneducated) of these societies but also provide intellectual foundations for some famous contemporary religious reform movements. Interestingly though, both the discourses differ in terms of transposition of political realities, i.e., the discourse presented in the Tennessee bill arguably fears the encroachment of Islamic law in the American society led otherwise by a secular constitutional ideal; whereas in many Muslim states the popular political discourse in various manners assumes supremacy of some kind of a higher Islamic ideal.

Lets take, for example, the notion of Shariah being a supreme political doctrine governing affairs of a majority Muslim state like Pakistan. Since moving on from the status of dominion to republic in 1956, Islamic character has officially been an essential part of governing political philosophy of the state, best described by the Objective Resolution of 1949, which states that:

Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust.

The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan prolifically manifests that no law repugnant to Quran and Sunnah can be legislated by the parliament, which may also take advice from a Counsel of Islamic Ideology. In fact, Pakistan is perhaps the only Muslim country besides Iran which finds it necessary to literally interject the Islamic character in its official state title. However, in spite of all these statutory vehicles and guiding principles in place, many political parties in Pakistan choose to jump in public arena with an overriding religious disposition. True that they differ considerably in their political and religious outlook and objectives, all of them, in one way or another, thrive upon the promise of religious reform and Shariah based Islamic society without giving a slightest hint as to what that promise objectively means. Besides successful equivocation of religious semantics, this kind of attitude ends up lumping technically distinct categories of religious discourse into one large basket.

In this backdrop, it is hardly shocking that Tennessee Bill defines Shariah as a legal-political-military doctrinal system combined with certain religious beliefs. For instance, when the bill states that,

Sharia as a political doctrine requires all its adherents to actively support the establishment of a political society based upon sharia as foundational or supreme law and the replacement of any political entity not governed by sharia with a sharia political order; […] Sharia requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of America’s constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharia…

it is not very different in its outlook from the manifesto of any ‘Islamic’ political party or a puritanical religious reform movement of a Muslim state like Pakistan, Egypt or Malaysia. What is common in the language of the bill and the prevailing jargon of these Islamist parties is the underlying Orwellian structures in which words are deformed, twisted and intentionally mis-joined to render ideas which are not permitted commonly by the associated communities of meanings. No wonder how, in Pakistan, the concept of Shariah is usually misconstrued with punishments of various crimes prescribed by Quran, prohibition of economic indulgences like bank interest and interest-based loans, or ban on various cultural activities and behaviors not perceived in conformance with popular religious understanding.

In order to have a fair idea of these misapprehended subtleties, it is useful to juxtapose the above understanding of Shariah (as contended in the Tennessee Bill) with the one provided by 14th century Hanbali jurist, Ibn Qayyim

The Shariah is God’s justice among His servants, and His mercy among his creatures. It is God’s shadow on this earth. It is His wisdom which leads to Him in the most exact way and the most exact affirmation of the truthfulness of His Prophet. It is His light which enlightens the seekers and His guidance for the rightly guided. It is the absolute cure of all ills and the straight path which if followed would lead to righteousness. It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it, and every deficiency in existence results from its dissipation. […] If God would wish to destroy the world and dissolve existence, He would void whatever remains of its injunctions. For the Shariah which was sent to His Prophet is the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world and the Hereafter.

The above description, albeit quixotically poetic, aptly conveys the most important conceptual nuance: Shariah is a linguistic abstraction employed to point towards the perpetually emanating will of the God; an ideal, that one who submits to it, should incessantly strive to achieve but without the ultimate notion of reaching the terminus. The actual will of the God, consequently, stands distinctly separate from the understanding or implementation of that will; the latter being a totally human dominion and therefore subject to all the usual human failings.

This distinction between the understanding and implementation of Shariah, and the Shariah proper needs to be adequately understood by the predominantly Muslim societies as well as those in which Muslims are in minority. Shariah is not a political or legal doctrine which is always in need of implementation through internal or external formal mechanisms. The concept of its implementation effectively entails that a moral life should always be guided by the Divine will; a search which should naturally encompass all dimensions of individual and collective life without trying slightly to evade the inherent burden of contemporary subjectivities.

Discoursing Blasphemy (I): Deconstructing the Contemporary Authoritarian Context

The materials could be used to construct either the authoritative or the authoritarian. If the authoritarian is constructed, the text is rendered subservient and submerged into its representer and reader. If authoritative is constructed, the text survives unencumbered and unlimited by its representer and reader. – Khaled Abou El Fadl in Conference of the Books

Imagine your were born into a middle or lower-middle class Christian family in Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This ironic accident of nature would automatically grant you the deplorable status among approximately one percent ignorant, disbelieving and impure inhabitants of the otherwise land of the pure. Stretch your imagination a little further and assume being grown up to become an individual with religious conviction in line with any of the mainstream Christian denominations. Needless to add that you would strongly believe in fundamentals of your religion; fundamentals, which unlike Islam, do not necessitate belief in other Prophets and the truthfulness of their message. Obviously, you would not have a smidge of reverence for Prophet Muhammad or Quran in your heart.

At this point, a number of hypothesis can be proffered; however, among worst-case scenarios, lets just assume that you truly happen to doubt the historicity of Islam and its venerated Prophet, who erroneously – or with the sheer intent of deceit – pretended to be the last Messenger of God [1]. With truthful compassion and deep sincerity, you do not, for a moment, regard Quran as a piece of literature on which “a society can be safely of sensibly based”. Furthermore, you might consider it a “crude, endless iteration” faked as God’s word, and whose reading, would be a “toilsome experience” [2].

Now, would you reckon pronouncing your belief publicly in a decent, truthful and academic manner without facing charges for the crime of blasphemy and instigating Islamist upheavals demanding your death? And if the sheer simplicity of this hypothetical proposition is not enough to demonstrate the hidden strata of ironies, lets put it this way: the accident of your birth (and what you come to believe subsequently) might leave you with a strict binary choice in the land of the pure, i.e., live dishonorably as an infidel hypocrite or die ignominiously as a profane blasphemer.

There has been plenty of discussion in print and electronic media regarding the infamous blasphemy law of Pakistan. A common supporting argument, usually initiated to evade the real question regarding the actual religious basis of the law, goes like this: there is nothing wrong with the law itself, and therefore the soundness of religious injunctive value attached to it; however, there may be flaws in its procedural implementations – as there in almost all other clauses of Pakistan Penal Code – which can be exploited to prosecute people unjustly.

I want to argue here that the above proposition is flawed for two distinct but often interactive reasons: 1) it overlooks an important lingual nuance in the framing of the law itself and 2) it supplies us with a presumably monolithic, homogeneous and historically connected Islamic definition and character of blasphemy.

Coming first to textual ambiguity in framing the language of the law (295-C), which is hard to miss even by a careless reader. It is not too difficult to understand that terms like “derogatory remarks, etc.”, “imputation”, “innuendo”, “insinuation” and “defiles the sacred name” can be misconstrued and misused easily. In fact it is so easy that a mere refusal to insert the common salutations after the name of the Prophet due to simple academic and publishing requirements can be easily misconstrued as blasphemy and can be portrayed socially to incite dangerous reactions. This mostly ignorant and reactive social milieu is tragically ironic to an extent that prestigious publishers in Pakistan, e.g., Oxford University Press, insert ‘PBUH’ after the name of the Prophet as an ‘in-house policy’ to avoid unnecessary hue and cry [3].

What is more troubling, however, is the ease with which the question regarding real definition and character of blasphemy is circumvented by the street mullahs, facebook zealots and common people who enthusiastically – and at times, inadvertently – support murderers.

Starting from the time of Greek Sophists, blasphemy has a long and vicious history in all canonical religions, especially Christianity [4]. In more than one way, Islam emphatically redefined the sacred in relation to an individual and society and placed it in its correct metaphysical and eschatological perspective. While the divine message was repetitively explained with exceptional clarity and forceful persuasion (3:85; 4:125), submission of an individual was eventually came about in Islamic theology as a matter of personal preference without any compulsions (2:256) by the society or Muslim polity; and as a human psychological condition which may have immediate and distant repercussions in this world but will be judged ultimately in hereafter. Moreover, the assertive statement in Quran (18:29) that

Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it)…

tends to establish a clear contrast with the Christian dogma that thoughts can blaspheme too and therefore subject to confession [5]. Ultimately, in Islamic theological doctrine, sacredness and sanctity of the symbols of God is contingent upon submission of the individual in first place (5:2).

In this backdrop, classical Islamic jurists always considered an individual’s personal religious conviction to be a matter between him and his Creator (baynahu wa bayna rabbiy). Some of them theorized further, discussing extensively the underlying theological intricacies, and argued that the Islamic doctrine of kufr simply means non-belief in the truthfulness of the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh) – a psychological condition which should not be considered immoral for all worldly purposes [6].  Thus, regardless of its rare practical implementation, the classical advocacy of capital punishment for apostasy is not because of a Muslim’s intellectual subjection to a false doctrine but due to its direct and indirect sociopolitical consequences – a sense which is more in line with the modern concept of high treason against one’s government.

It is also pertinent to note that all convictions of presumed blasphemy – or heresy which is an often interrelated and sometimes indistinguishable thread – recorded in classical as well as modern Islamic heresiography had always been nuanced sociopolitically; some examples are Ibn Taymiah’s trials for his alleged anthropomorphic views [7], Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s condemnation for his views on nature of Quran [8], conviction of Mansoor Al-Hallaj for his claims of extreme mystical universalism, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid’s exile from Egypt to Netherlands in 1994, and Hashem Aghajari’s trial and subsequent conviction in Iran in 2003.

It can be ultimately contended that the contemporary debate of blasphemy (as seen in Pakistan these days) thrives upon postmodern sensibilities of the sacred which are theologically inaccurate as well as morally ambiguous. While successfully carrying the burden of far-right Islamist politics, these sensibilities also appeal to the popular, mostly apolitical and semi-religious mindset which is easily provoked by complexity and naturally adores a simple and perfect causality. However, what still remains to be shown is that this dangerously simplistic discourse is based upon strictly radical and authoritarian readings of the scripture (both Quran and Hadith).                                                                             __________________________________________

  1. The aim is not to instigate the expected emotional response but just to bring about the moral ambiguity of the popular religious discourse insinuating complete homogeneity. For specific remarks see various publications by Ibn Warraq and Patricia Crone, for instance.
  2. For first remark see Sacred Cows by Britain’s foremost feminist Fay Weldon; for second see On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle.
  3. For the description of actual event see Riaz Hassan, Expressions of Religiosity and Blasphemy in Modern Societies, Asian Journal of Social Science, 2007 – Springer.
  4. Two very important texts in this regard are A Brief History of Blasphemy by Richard Webster and Genealogies of Religion by Talal Asad.
  5. For details and discussion on related issues see Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion and his essay Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism in Religion: Beyond a Concept.
  6. Sherman Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s Faysal al Tafriqa.
  7. Sherman Jackson, Ibn Taymiyyah on Trial in Damascus, Journal of Semitic Studies, 1994.
  8. See for instance, Abu Zuhra’s work on Imam Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s life, work and fiqh.

Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

Socrates: If that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. […] But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not and what is impiety?
Euthyphro: I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us. (Euthyphro, Plato’s Dialogues)

But you will not unless God wills; surely God is ever All-knowing, All-wise. (Al-Quran, 76:30)

So they departed; until, when they met a lad, he slew him. He said, ‘What, hast thou slain a soul innocent, and that not to retaliate for a soul slain? Thou hast indeed done a horrible thing. (Al-Quran, 18:74)

Moses and KhidrThe story of Moses and the wise man (known as Khidr in Islamic tradition), related in 18th chapter of Quran, invites our attention towards a classical moral dilemma: Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will? As he holes the boat about to take passengers, slays an innocent lad and responds to a town’s inhospitality by setting up their tumbling down wall, Khidr repeatedly disturbs Moses’ preconceived notion of morality as well as ours. An unbiased and careful reader of Quran is therefore justified in asking whether an all benevolent and sovereign God can make it just and good to kill an innocent boy for crimes he had not committed hitherto. Putting it in perspective, If something is good only because God wills it so (as entailed by God’s sovereignty) then there is nothing that can be called intrinsically good or bad and mankind is oblivious regarding ultimate nature of morality. Furthermore, the idea of Godly benevolence would seem empty and problematic; perhaps, best described in the words of C.S. Lewis

…if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘Righteous Lord’

This kind of moral dilemma, though not discussed by Islamic philosophers explicitly, is indirectly an important part of traditional as well as modernists Islamic discourse regarding nature and concept of God. Theologically speaking, the question of ultimate nature of morality is understandably inseparable from the nature of God; and interestingly, the more concrete and rigorous your concept of God, the more apt you are to run into difficulties as to what are the actual origins of moral standards.

There seems to be two possible reasons for this conflict. Firstly, the academic classification of epistemology, theology and ethics are fairly modern and classical Islamic philosophy of the tradition of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes is virtually non-existent since well before Descartes; hence, it is not easy (if not impossible) to fill this gap of at least three centuries. Secondly, a conventional religious mind, unaware of logical tensions in his belief, necessarily speculates about the nature of God (and thus morality) by way of revelation, thus garbing a primarily epistemological question into a theological one.

Albeit academically necessary, it is not of immediate importance (perhaps too difficult) to comment upon the complete tradition of Islamic ethics. Suffice it to say that with the exception of Mutazilites and initial Muslim philosophers of Peripatetic tradition, most of the scholars believed that humanity is always in need of Divine guidance to settle the ultimate moral questions. Some of them, for instance Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Bajjah, linked the moral question with original unaltered nature of human being but failed to satisfactorily incorporate revelation into the model. Others circumvented the question altogether. But literalists among them, like Ibn Hazm, went so far as to claim that categories of good and bad are not something existing per se, and if God so desires, he can punish good and reward evil.

In the modern times, Shah Wali Allah has explained God’s customary way of acting in some detail in his magnum opus Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (Conclusive Argument from God), regarding which Quran mentions at several places (e.g., 33:62 and 35:43):

…and never wilt thou find any change in God’s way.

According to him, God’s perpetual creativity always moves all the causes in the universe to attain absolute good; and the knowledge of mankind, though well aware of the immediate action proceeding from an obvious cause, cannot encompass the complete causal structure in the universe and is thus liable to face conflicts. How Shah Wali Allah further explains the nature of Divine creativity is beyond the context of present discourse, but it can be safely assumed that he is trying to access the moral problem through theory of knowledge besides employing the usual theological operators from revelation. In a nutshell, I would dare say that if Shah Wali Allah would try to resolve our present dilemma he would argue that even though God can reward evil and punish good if He desires so, it is against His customary way of acting; a kind of Divine resolve which He never violates.

This brings us back to the narrative of Moses and Khidr. Interestingly in the verse immediately preceding the narrative (18:65), Quran points towards the nature of knowledge possessed by Khidr: we had taught him knowledge proceeding from Ourselves; thus supplying enough epistemic grounds within the revelation to resolve the so called Euthyphro’s dilemma.

But moving further from here onwards on a different note, questions may be asked as to how revelation is justified as a universal tool for comprehending morality, and for that matter, the ultimate nature of truth? Are there any pure philosophical means using which one can proceed testing the character and medium of revelation (I assume there may exist some scattered pointers in critical and post critical theories of text)? or should we instead try to metaphysically vindicate the religious experience itself, like Ghazali or Iqbal?

PS: Euthyphro’s dilemma is elegantly presented by the guys at philosophyexperiments.com where they let us talk with God and help us reveal the tensions inherent in our belief which we might not be aware of.

Is Shariah Possible (II): Origins of a Cosmopolitan Venture

A moral philosophy characteristically presupposes a sociology. For every moral philosophy offers explicitly or implicitly at least a partial conceptual analysis of the relationship of an agent to his or her reasons, motives, intentions and actions, and in so doing generally presupposes some claim that these concepts are embodied or at least can be in the real social world. [Alasdair Macintyre]

shariahAny study of Muslim civilization – with the purpose of exploring the roots of law – cannot remain unaffected by a certain kind of arbitrariness as far as specific time spans concerning various formative and post formative legal developments are concerned. However, it can be said with certainty that during the time of pious caliphate, there was no formal body of religious law that can be understood as binding on all Muslims. The community, being a direct recipient of revealed word of God, had no need to indulge in formal interpretation as the text (being characteristically a recitation-text as indicated by the word Quran itself and the first revelation Iqra’a) naturally exercised authority through immediate oral methods. A striking example of this spontaneous textual authority is Abu Bakr’s admonition to Umar at the time of Prophet’s demise which automatically brought the latter out from a state of denial.

This spontaneity, however, does not imply normative singularity (as we shall see later in the detailed examination of the Quran as a source of Sharia’h) and there were differences of opinions among companions regarding meaning of various verses.

Similarly, the concept Sunnah was not understood to be taken as a authoritative binding source in a proper and well defined framework. It was a kind of exemplary Prophetic practice – not yet formally situated in history – having a quasi-authoritative character; a disposition, which has to be necessarily distinguished from a relatively formal framework developed by later scholars especially Shafii.

It is difficult to identify the triggering point in history where Islamic tradition began to transform itself into a coherent, encompassing and self-assertive social order from a crudely authoritative moral philosophy . In this regard, one of the best studies of historical development of Islamic civilization has been carried out by Marshall Hodgson.

In his majestically detailed work, Hodgson goes on to explain the early  origins of a certain piously conscious class within Muslim societies supporting a faith-based egalitarianism in contrast to ruling absolutism of Marwani caliphate. A striking characteristic of this class – which was later specialized to be accepted as Ul’ema – was the pronouncement of this expectation that Islam has to have its own system of law, ethics, education and set of governing principles for public as well as private life.

With regards to Muslim civilization as a whole, the most profound cultural implication of this universalistic phenomenon was the emergence of a global social concern. In the words of Hodgson:

[…] the Muslims, unlike the Jews, did not regard their own community as a unique and (in principle) hereditary body selected out from a world left otherwise without direct divine guidance. The Muslim community was thought of as one among many divinely guided communities such as the Jewish or Christian, all (at their origin) equally blessed. Thus far, Islam took explicitly the form that various Christian and Jewish bodies had implicitly been assuming under the confessional empires […]. The difference between Islam and the other communities was that Islam was first to rule over and then to supersede all others. Islam was to bring the true and uncorrupted divine guidance to all mankind, creating a world-wide society in which the true revelation would be the everyday norm of all the nations. It must not guide an autonomous community like the Jewish; it must guide the practical policies of a cosmopolitan world.

This indeed was the aspiration which can be termed as the cornerstone of that sacred socio-moral vision we call Sharia’h or Islamic Canon. It is important to note that this sacred vision was as much informed by a will to act in opposition to the political reality of pre-Abbasid period as it was by the resolve to bring the whole ambit of individual life in accordance with divine will; or more specifically, to act as ordained by the Quran and Sunnah.

Talibanization: Nemesis of a Betrayed Idea

In order for Islamic idea to stand up to the efficacious ideas of twentieth century dynamic societies, it has to recover its original efficacy, that is to say, to resume its position among the ideas that make history -Malik Bennabi

This Sunday, as I was surfing through Malik Bennabi’s ‘Islam in History and Society‘ at my car mechanic’s workshop, a 15 year illiterate boy who was working there asked me about the ‘Sabaq‘ (lesson) I was reading. I told him that it was not a ‘Sabaq‘ in the classical sense; rather, a book about history, society and religion. Perhaps deceived by the beard on my face and the title of the book, the kid spontaneously shared with me his own one-second sociological percept. “The establishment of Islamic law is better than the current system“, the boy remarked as if he was insinuating agreement with my presumable stand, “we will have quick justice and everybody will be equal.” I engaged with him for some time and by the end of our brief conversation, I realized how the kid’s perception was shaped by the complex matrix of economic deprivation, sense of injustice and a belief in an almost superficial Islamic ideal. While driving back, I kept wondering whether the boy would have any qualms accepting Taliban’s brand of Islam in exchange of justice as a starting point; would he doubt the authenticity of their religious pronouncements – unmarried women as war booty, the Jizya, dhimmi status of non-muslims, black turbans, long beards and 15th century school syllabi – if they promise to get his illegally detained cousin released from jail.

The phenomenon of Talibanization has been increasingly symbolized to depict all kinds of religious extremism in Pakistani society – “a response to modernity“, a recent analyst calls it. Even beyond a cursory judicial institutionalization and entirely ahistorical in nature, Taliban’s version of Sharia is understood to be dangerously myopic and repressive in character. Coalesced with a tribal outlook, Taliban’s rudimentary religious and political philosophy is seen to radiate a certain savage medieval character; a disposition which can be attributed to its proclivity for anti-westernization and thus against all kinds of modernity and enlightenment. The intellectual deficit is visible as unlike bimodal Islamic reform movements of first half of last century – where they had separate militant and scholarly wings – these radical militant groups under the umbrella of Taliban are totally deprived of any strong ideological backbone. Yet, with its radical physiognomy and onionskin ideological structure, Taliban movement is successfully endangering a nation’s existence which was built on a so-called strong and modern Islamic ideal just 60 years ago. Therefore, on an intellectual front, we should engage more with the phenomenological principles that are at work since the creation of Pakistan in the realm of ideas rather than actual happenings in the realm of persons and objects.

As much as I contemplate about the ideological foundation of Pakistan, I am forced to believe that the underlying idea was the triggering of a new cultural universe which can grow on its own, thereby transforming, reforming and keep enriching itself according to Islamic ideals. Due to its arguable historical reawakening, it was idealized that a socio-political future of Islam is possible in the subcontinent due to a presumable shift of centre of ideological gravity from the Mediterranean. A separate state for Muslims – which may not be an Islamic state per se – was understood to present a direct opportunity for Islam; “…an opportunity to rid itself of the stamp that Arabian imperialism was forced to give it, to mobilize its laws, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contact with its own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times“, as articulated by Iqbal in his historical address of 1930.

In his philosophy of ideas, Malik Bennabi states that all the “ideas governing the moral and material order have their moment of grace“. “Archimedean moment“, he specifically terms it; but whether this moment successfully shapes the objective reality depends upon the sustenance of logical relationships between the idea and its archetypes. It still may be a genuine idea, even if it fails to do so, but it will not be an efficacious one, i.e., an impressed idea, it is; but not an expressed one.

When expressed ideas incessantly betray the impressed ideas – as it is happening in the land of pure for more than half a century – the latter eventually become dead, trigger a sociological metamorphosis and shape up new deadly ideas. Deadly ideas, which take vengeance and bring forth new crises which are never heard of hitherto. Modernity, justice, tolerance, religious harmony, revival and reformation – each great ideal falls one by one.

The mother of all crises, however, is the one related to identity. With all the statistical limitations of sample size, choice and demographics, figures reported by world value survey indicate few dimensions of this crisis: 83.5 percent of the subjects would like to identify themselves as Pakistanis first, in contrast to 14.2 percent who would like to be described as Muslims first. What is strange, however, is that 71.8 percent believe nationalism is incompatible with Islam in contrast to 2.2 percent who believe otherwise; 26 percent remain dithery. Large groups of people remain oblivious regarding most fundamental Islamic questions related to modernity; 50.8 percent do not know whether democracy is compatible with Islam; 63.4 percent remain clueless whether Islam permits killing of civilians if a country pursues laws harmful to Muslims and 74.2 percent cannot decide whether a true Islamic country should have a parliament with the right to pass laws. The only concrete deduction that can be successfully made out of these figures is the extent up to which an average Pakistani’s mind is plagued with atomism – a mind that is totally incapable of making systematic generalizations. Not surprisingly, therefore, 61.5 percent want implementations of Sharia law in contrast to 7.5 percent who disagree. The rest (30.9 percent), obviously, are still thinking.

With my mind drifting and meandering, I kept driving back home with a whole lot of ‘Sabaq’ in my mind – Bennabi, Iqbal, Jinnah and the philosophies they proposed and stood for in their own respective ways. But the strongest voice that kept tearing me apart was of Abul Kalam Azad. Almost prophetically with a pinch of well-placed acerbity, he wrote as he finished his own account of partition of India:

It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different. It is true that Islam sought to establish a society which transcends racial, linguistic, economic and political frontiers. History has however proved that after the first few decades or at the most after the first century, Islam was not able to unite all the Muslims countries on the basis of Islam alone.

Unlike Mukhtar Masood, the proverbial cat within me does not walk away hearing this; yet, my heart is unable to sync with the first part of the contention. I am not ready to believe that the whole idea was nothing more than a hoax. Believing that would mean suicidal self destruction. At the same time, however, I do believe that an idea is true as long as it brings success. There is no question defending it indefatigably without trying to restore its efficacy.

Is Sharia’h Possible? (I): Definition and Scope

The Shari’a is all justice, kindness, common good and wisdom. Any rule that departs from justice to injustice […] or departs from common good (maslaha) to harm (mafsada) […] is not part of Sharia’h, even if it is arrived at by literal interpretation. [Ibn Qayyim]

“Just what is Shari’ah“, asks Zakintosh on his blog as he invites “unemotional” responses which are aimed towards understanding and clarifying things. In a series of posts, I would try to limn my understanding of the concept as well as sundry issues which do inform the current socio-religious and political discourse.

As far as it serves in drawing parallels, Iqbal’s famous enquiry: Is religion possible? (his lecture to fifty fourth session of Aristotelian Society, London in 1932) can be used as a starting point in examining the problematic of Sharia’h. Proposing three periods of religious life, i.e. faith, thought and discovery, Iqbal asserts that in the period of faith an individual or society must submit unconditionally without grasping completely the ultimate rationality behind religious demand. Similarly, before considering Sharia’h as a viable vocation, we should probably come in terms with the concept that Islam – during its present sojourn into modernity – can be seen beyond the duality of temporal and spiritual, i.e., as a unified dynamic experience which can enrich and facilitate all the modern aspects of life. It is only after grappling with the sociological possibility of Sharia’h that a modern muslim mind can overcome its proclivity for atomism and its incapability for generalization. In this sense, it is the only right premise that can mother the possibility for right conclusions.

Moving forward beyond the usual etymological distinctions, the concept Sharia’h has been traditionally used to refer to a wide range of philosophical and legal connotations. In an epistemological sense, the arabic terms aq’l (the reason) and hawa (desire) have been often used in contrast with Shara’a in traditional texts (for instance in Shatibi’s Al-Muwafiqaat or Ibn Qayyim’s Ailaam al-Muwaqaeen). At this level, Sharia’h has been essentially understood as a knowledge producing category emanating from the realm of Divine. From an ontological perspective, it has been understood as the expression of legislative aspects of Divine Will whose compliance is not immediate; rather, it is conditional to be exercised by the society itself. This is in clear distinction to His creative Will which is immediately complied for automatically achieving the intended end.

Probably for utilitarian reasons, Sharia’h has often been seen as synonymous to wahy (revelation), especially in the domain of law. True, that revelation is also a knowledge producing function; yet, the contention of equating Sharia’h with revelation historically gave birth to two major ambiguities. Foremost being that revelation is a process which brings the intent of the Divine to the creation, i.e., a medium for expression and not the intended meaning of the expression itself; hence, goes the famous adage by Ali that Quran is but ink and paper, it is the human being that interprets. Secondly, due to an additional understanding of the nature of revelation as a law producing function – albeit indirectly – the terms Sharia’h and Fiqh have been used interchangeably in much of the medieval religious discourse. Right up to the modern times, this usage has added considerable complexity to the discourse. No wonder, the most famous shibboleth of our times: whose Sharia’h? is a by product of same confused usage. What is generally understood as Sharia’h is actually its understanding or explanation, i.e., Fiqh.

But perhaps the most serious historical problem associated with this arguably confused equation was the question of immutability or adaptability of Sharia’h. The upholders of immutability-view claimed that rulings of Sharia’h are absolutely final and unalterable; the premise being that revelation is complete and final. Whereas, the proponents of adaptability-view upheld that the contents of Sharia’h are constantly expanding and undergoing change with varying sociological conditions. As we shall see later, both the views are historically significant because of their direct effect on respective choice and handling of sources of Sharia’h and therefore its ultimate scope.

A final point having great contemporary relevance is whether the Sharia’h can be termed as law in modern sense. The modern notion of law entails in itself the concept of an imposing authority. If Sharia’h or a particular set of its substantive interpretations (i.e. Fiqh) may understood to have the same import as modern law, the nature of ritual, worship and various other moral injunctions (included in the corpus of Sharia’h) will become questionable as far as their respective relationship with individual and society is concerned. This is why it is interesting to note that the practice of Islamic moral brigades forcing individuals to keep beards and imposing particular dress codes is intrinsically modern. The phenomenon will be explored further during the analysis of socio-moral dynamics of Sharia’h. At this point it is sufficient to mention that in Islamic legal tradition, the idea of formally separating legal obligation from theology and morality has its origins in 13th century Spain.

With this introduction, it now seems imperative to dwell into the purposes of Sharia’h, what constitutes it and the major disagreements regarding the nature of various sources.