Friday, November 23, 2007

Paths to God in Mediaeval Islam - A Recent Published Dissertation

Although the title suggests a broad topic, Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth's Gods and Humans in Islamic Thought: 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali, a published doctoral dissertation originally submitted at the University of Birmingham, is quite narrowly focused upon the methods that three pivotal medieval Islamic thinkers propose for an understanding of the God-human relationship. The juxtaposition of these three thinkers could potentially yield interesting results and demonstrate the interconnected nature of intellectual inquiry in Islam. 'Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1024) is taken as a representative of the kalam tradition, Avicenna (d. 1037) of the philosophical and al-Ghazali (d. 1111) the Sufi tradition. The work comprises five chapters: a contextualising introduction, a chapter on 'Abd al-Jabbar’s concept of lutf (rendered here as ‘divine assistance’, perhaps in taqlid of Abrahamov; Madelung and Schmidtke tend to favour ‘facilitating grace’), Avicenna’s concept of 'ishq or the Neoplatonic eros, al-Ghazali’s proposition of fana' (self-annihilation), and a final chapter that compares these three in search of evaluating the approaches to the God-human relationship in medieval Islam.

In the introduction, the author explains her intentions. Religion is concerned primarily with a deep analysis of the relationship between a principle or God and its effects or humans. Religion teaches humans to make sense of their reality and suggests ways of approaching the divine. In this book, she sets out to examine three approaches, Mu'tazili kalam, falsafa and mysticism, whose common foundations lie in their use of Hellenic modes of thought and discourse. By comparing these approaches, the author at a basic level wishes to demonstrate the diversity in medieval Islam with respect to the question of the human relationship with God. Finally, a comparative analysis of these three approaches reveals their differing conceptions of the nature of humans that underlies them. While a study of Avicenna and al-Ghazali in this context is not particularly innovative, a focus on the notion of lutf in 'Abd al-Jabbar is an important contribution especially as one could argue that it is the significant concept in kalam. The choice of these three thinkers is also obviated by a focus on the tenth and eleventh centuries that the author argues was central to the development of learned culture in Islam.

Chapter one on the historical and cultural context is divided into three parts: a historical preamble on the political context focused on Buyid and Saljuq Iran with a brief description of theological schools, an introduction to the three thinkers, and finally an introduction to the three approaches. The historical sketch is broadly competent, although one wonders what it contributes; the all too brief description of the Shi'a and the Sunnis in the period is far too simplistic and questionable (e.g. the Ismailis are not those who accept seven Imams, stated in a normative manner – the early Ismaili mission was predicated on the call to the imamate of the seventh successor to the Prophet in their conception but this was no longer the case in the eleventh century). The sketch of Mu'tazili history is not useful; Heemskerk is far better (or even the Encyclopaedia of Islam entry). The school of Abu Hashim al-Jubba'i is commonly called the Bahshamiyya and not the Buhashimiyya. The introduction to 'Abd al-Jabbar is adequate but again Reynolds’s recent work is far more critical and reliable. The presentation of his ideas is based on al-Mughni but also the Ta'liq Sharh Usul al-khamsa of his follower Mankdim and al-Majmu' fi-l-muhit of his student Ibn Mattawayh. Such a method was previously utilised by Peters and Heemskerk.

The three core chapters on the thinkers have a similar structure. The author begins with an explanation of the thinker’s vision of the nature of God, His attributes and human nature, and then progresses to an analysis of the connection between them as effected by the particular idea upon which she focuses. The chapter on 'Abd al-Jabbar begins with centrality of the notion of divine justice in Mu'tazili theology and its understanding of what constitutes an ‘attribute of the essence’. God morally obligates believers and provides them with two types of ‘assistance’: the provision of physical and intellectual abilities, and lutf which guides believers to fulfil their obligation (taklif) by a series of instruments such as inner warnings or khawatir, causing pain or confirming knowledge through ‘tranquillity of the soul’. This represents a useful analysis of a key concept. Perhaps the main weakness of the chapter is that the author does not demonstrate the link between different aspects of lutf, in particular how revelation and guidance through prophets facilitates the fulfilment of one’s moral obligation.

The next chapter on love in Avicenna is rather odd. The author seems to assume that Avicenna was a straightforward mystically-inclined Neoplatonist. While the Risala fi-l-'ishq takes up the theme of the divine eros and how love is the mechanism of God’s creation and the means through which humans revert back to God, it is questionable whether this is the central theme of Avicenna’s account of the God-human relationship. Yahya Michot’s study of al-Mabda' wa-l-ma'ad is a clearer explanation of Avicenna’s postulation of an ‘Islamic philosophy’, an account of how God creates humans and how humans revert to their principle. The author’s attempt to link the concept of love with central issues in Avicenna’s philosophy such as his theory of the intellect, of intuition (which she calls ‘inspiration’), and the problem of God’s knowledge of particulars is not entirely satisfactory. A more sensible theme and mechanism for focus would have been Avicenna’s concept of the intellect as process of originating from God and reverting back to him.

The concept of fana' is indeed central to al-Ghazali’s mystical theology. The author continues a recent trend in focusing upon the Ihya' as a key vehicle for the dissemination of his thought. There is little in this chapter that pursues a new line of research. The final chapter begins the process of comparison and stresses the significance of the period in which these thinkers were writing and producing. One might also at this stage ask whether there are other paths, other disciplines and approaches to the God-human relationship that the author may have considered; some Shi'i traditions, for example, come to mind as possibilities.

Gods and Humans in Islamic Thought is fairly interesting as an approach to a central issue in theology in classical Islam. A thematic approach and a more integrated mode of comparison would make for a more readable and useful book and allow for a solid dissertation to make the transition to a book that makes a contribution.

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