Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Mullā Ṣadrā on the esoteric

Not surprisingly, Mullā Ṣadrā has plenty to say about the practice of esotericism, about taʾwīl and the proper attitude one needs to take on the Qurʾan and how one ought to use one's sense perception and intellect to grasp realities. Consider the following:

Know that the Qurʾan like the human is divided into what is enunciated (ʿalan) and what is held secret (sirr), and all of it has an exoteric and an esoteric aspect and the esoteric has a further esoteric aspect and so forth until the point where only God knows: ‘no one knows its meaning (taʾwīl) except God’ (Q. III.7. It is also related in the ḥādīth that ‘the Qurʾan has an exoteric and an esoteric aspect and its esoteric has another seven levels of esotericism’, which are like the levels that are esoteric in the human such as the soul (al-nafs), the heart (al-qalb), the intellect (al-ʿaql), the spirit (al-rūḥ), the secret (al-sirr), the hidden (al-khafī) and the most hidden (al-akhfā). 

What is manifest from what is enunciated (ẓāhir ʿalanihi) is the sensible and tactile artifact and the rolled up scroll that is held, but what is hidden from what is enunciated is what the esoteric sense (al-ḥiss al-bāṭin) perceives and resembles what the reciters and the memorisers store from their perceptions in their imagination and its like. The inner sense cannot perceive the pure meaning but as it is mixed with corporeal accidents even if it seems to be devoid of the sensible. Estimation and imagination like the exoteric sense are not present in the absolutely pure esoteric meaning such as the absolute meaning of humanity but rather in a sense that is mixed in extra-mental reality with accretions and veils such as [the categories] of quantity and quality and place and position. If either of the two [estimation and imagination] attempted to picture the absolute meaning of humanity without an extrinsic element, they would not be able to do so but rather all they could do is affirm a limited form with attachments drawn from the external senses…

These two levels of the Qurʾan are earthly and evident to every human that perceives. However, its esoteric aspect and its secret are two levels for the afterlife and each of them has degrees:

The first of the two is what the human spirit perceives through constituting it from the conception of meaning through definition and its essence, shorn of extrinsic properties, grasped by intelligible principles, such that it may be true of many, uniting in it opposites in unity. An example of this is that the human spirit cannot perceive what has not been stripped away from the stage of creation and shorn away the dust of the senses and not ascended to the stage of the command, since it is not a property of the sensible insofar as it is sensible to intellect just as it is not the property of the intellect to sense through a corporeal instrument. What is pictured through the senses is limited and specific to a place and a space and a time and a quantity and a quality. The intelligible essence cannot rest in what is discerned through the senses. The human spirit, rather, encounters true knowledge through an intelligible substance located in the world of the command, not located in a body, nor pictured through something internal to a sense or through estimation. 

The senses and what pertains to them deploy themselves in the world of creation (ʿālam al-khalq) and the intellect deploys what is in it in the world of command (ʿālam al-amr) and what is above both creation and command is most beloved to them both. God the exalted said: It is a dignifying Qurʾan in a hidden book that none may touch save the purified, a revelation from the Lord of the worlds’ (Q. LVI.77–80). Remember that it has properties that have stages and stations, the highest of which is dignity with God, and the lowest is descended in the world. There is no doubt that the word of God qua his word before its descent to the world of command, that is the preserved table (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ) and before its descent to the world of the heavens of the earth, and that is the tablet of effacement and affirmation (lawḥ al-maḥw wa-l-ithbāt) and the world of creation and determination (ʿālam al-khalq wa-l-taqdīr), has a degree that is above all stages that none of the prophets may perceive except in the station of union, by forgoing these two states of being and by reaching the ‘two bows length or less’ and setting aside the two worlds of creation and command. As the most excellent of the prophets, peace be with him and his progeny: I have a moment with my Lord to which none can attain, neither an angel brought close (malak muqarrab) nor a messenger commissioned (nabī mursal). 

The possessors of this stage is chosen to encounter the Qurʾan with respect to this stage, alluding to this stage in His word, the exalted: None knows its meaning save God and those rooted in knowledge (Q. III.7), and his saying: As for one whose heart God has expanded for submission, such that he is a light from his Lord (Q. XXXIX.22). And in the narration: There is a form of knowledge that is like a hidden thing that none know except the knowers of God. God alluded to the station of the heart and of the esoteric sense in his saying: Verily in that is a reminder to one who possesses a heart or harkens while he witnesses (Q. L.37), and in his saying: Had we listened or had we thought we would not be of the people of the blazing fire (Q. LXVII.10), and in his saying: Shelter him until he hears the word of God (Q. IX.6), and in his saying: There is none among us save that he has a known station (Q. XXXVII.164), alluding to the stations of knowers in the degrees of knowledge, as he said: We raise in degrees whom we will and above every possessor of knowledge is a knower (Q. XII.76), and his saying: Those are the messengers, we favoured some over others (Q. II.253), and his saying: God privileged some of you over others in sustenance (Q. XVI.71).

In sum, the Qurʾan has degrees and levels just as the human has stages and stations. The lowest stage of the Qurʾan like the lowest stage for the human lies in its binding and cover just as the lowest degree of the human lies in its being a creature and passive. Every degree of it (the Qurʾan) has its bearers who memorise it and write it and they do not touch it except after purifying themselves from filth or from their incipience (ḥadathihim aw ḥudūthihim) and they sanctify it above attachment to their location or to their contingency (makānihim aw imkānihim). The husk of the human only pertains to the ink of the Qurʾan and its sensible form. The human of the exoteric husk cannot perceive but the outer meanings of the husk. 

The spirit of the Qurʾan and its core and its secret can only be discerned by those who discern, and it cannot be grasped by knowledge acquired by learning and reflecting, but rather by knowledge from him (al-ʿulūm al-ladunnīya), and we aim to explain these forms of knowledge and establish them by demonstrations God willing.

The reality of wisdom can only come from knowledge that is from him, and if the soul does not reach that stage it cannot be wise since wisdom is a gift from God the exalted: ‘he gives wisdom to whom he wills and whoever has been given wisdom has been given a great good’ (Q. II.269), and they are the ones who have arrived at this stage.

Know that since revelation (waḥī) has come to an end and the gate of messengership been closed, people no longer need messengers and the promulgation of the mission after the confirmation of the proof and the completion of the religion as God the exalted said: This day have I perfected for you your religion’ (Q. V.3).

The gate to inspiration is not closed and the support by the light of guidance has not been cut off since people – drowning as they are in these devilish whisperings – need warning and reminding but God has closed the gate to revelation (waḥī) and opened the gate to inspiration (ilhām) as a mercy from him to his creatures.

Mullā Ṣadrā, Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, I, 65-69.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Conceptualising Theology in Islam: Beyond kalām

There is little doubt that Islamic intellectual history is enjoying quite a vogue at the moment and areas such as the historical study of Qurʾanic exegesis, philosophical traditions, mysticisms and even theological traditions are flourishing in academia. Recent and contemporary interest in what exactly Islam is (partly inspired by Shahab Ahmed's posthumous monograph What is Islam?), its diverse historical and contemporary manifestations and the problem of understanding what sort of category Islam is and how meaningful the notion of the islamic is, are all central to academic concerns of those in the study of religion and contemporary thought. There is a sense in which the study of Islam is being dragged into a number of important current debates in method in various disciplines, and it is no longer the cases that articles and works on Islam are confined to the ghetto of Islamic studies or area studies journals and publication series alone. 

The appetite for students to consume some of these ideas - partly no doubt intrigued by the ubiquity of Islam-talk in the public sphere - has also led to the need to provide materials that will provide nourishment for that curiosity. There is a perennial need for textbooks and aids for the the ubiquitous Introduction to Islam classes in metropolitan academia. Hence the recent proliferation of handbooks, companions, encyclopaedias and other sourcebooks that can be profitably used in the classroom. 

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology is precisely one of these aids for the student available on the market - and in most cases probably accessible in e-book format through university libraries. Thinking in terms of possible rivals, it is difficult to come up with a comparable volume. Despite the recent flourishing on studies on kalām, especially on particular thinkers and sub-traditions, and the many texts now available to us, there is no decent single volume introduction to Islamic theology on the market. The older volumes by Tritton, Anawati and Gardet, Watt and others are rather outdated and tend to focus on the narrow 'formative' period. The formidable achievement of Josef van Ess' Theologie und Gessellschaft I'm 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra, now appearing in English translation with Brill with three volumes published so far, is focused on the early period and far too specialised for that sort of readership. 

There is also plenty of new material on contemporary thought - with an emphasis often on violence, politics (Islamisms in particular) and gender - but little that is joined up to provide us with a useful textbook for the classroom. Notable volumes on contemporary theology including the pioneering Progressive Islam volume edited by Omid Safi and the recent volume Men in Charge which is a significant contribution on the range of feminist theology (there are of course many other monographs including the influential earlier one by Amina Wadud and more recently Kecia Ali). What some of these contemporary studies demonstrate is that the line between legal, ethical and theological reasoning is at times difficult to discern as the three fields often explicitly overlap - the legal renders the ethical and expresses the theological to put it in one way. 

Having taught an undergraduate module on Islamic theological traditions for well over a decade, I have always struggled to find a singular work that I could set for my students as an introductory text. My interest - and that of my students - is not merely historical but also theological in itself trying to make sense of what we understand as theological reasoning in Islam and to what end such discourses are articulated. From next year, this handbook will become a core element of the reading list for that class.

Handbooks of this type tend to be either fêted or damned, the former through affiliations and excessive praise, and the latter through picking on lacunae and the choice of selections. The former can also be somewhat tedious - one thinks of other recent volumes which are praised beyond reason to stress the paradigm shifting nature of the questions asked, although on closer scrutiny neither the questions asked nor the insights offered are actually that exciting. What cannot be denied is that this handbook is a very solid volume that brings together the various research interests of people working on kalām in Islamic thought, primarily from the perspective of intellectual history with a singular nod or two to the modern and contemporary period. Rich in detail and historically organized, the volume is divided into five sections: Islamic theologies in the early periods concerned with the formation of schools, four case studies of interactions with pre-Islamic thought and different disciplines such as logic, Islamic theologies in the middle and early modern periods or the scholastic age, the interaction of political and social history with theology (partly a study in types of contextualism), and Islamic theological thought in the modern period. If you want to know who is working on what in Islamic intellectual history focused on theology, this is the place to check – and if you’re looking for an excellent bibliography of kalām, you need go nowhere else. However, this may also be a significant weakness as it does point to the rather indexical nature of much of the content.

The introduction is divided into two sections – the former attempts a rather vague and somewhat inadequate definition of theology in Islam that is reduced to ʿilm al-kalām, and the latter presents a useful historical overview of the historiography on that field of inquiry. If you ever wanted to teach a history of the academic study of kalām, the bibliography is here in that section. The first section narrows onto two particular concerns of kalām: the nature of God and the nature of her agency and begins with a consideration of a normative set of statements about the central belief in God and her attributes in the Qurʾan. Historically - and a diachronic study of elements of kalām discourse - may well demonstrate the sound nature of such an approach. But does this render what one might mean when one asks the historical and normative questions about the nature of theologies in Islam? What is also conceded is that the Qurʾanic approach to the presentation of divine agency brings into detail the fallibility of creation and in particular the human. The Qurʾan in that sense is as much the story of humanity, its whence, where and whither. But that of course is also true of theology that historically and certainly through a presentist prism of inquiry focuses upon the inter-subjectivity of humans with respect to God and the cosmos. 

The introduction does not take up issues of theoretical approach: it does not address the central question of hermeneutics, the exoteric and esoteric approaches to texts, the kataphatic and apophatic discourses of the nature of the divine, or the relationship between kalām and other disciplines such as Qurʾanic exegesis, philosophy, and mysticism. Some of these interdisciplinary concerns find their way into chapters by Pink, El-Rouayheb and Nguyen – at least there is recognition that mystical reasoning in Islam constitutes a form of theology but even here there is all too brief mention of the school of Ibn ʿArabī and no systematic consideration of apophasis (the subject incidentally of an excellent forthcoming monograph by Aydogan Kars). Nevertheless, there is a sense that the basic dichotomy of considering theology through the lens of rationalism and traditionalism remains a paramount organizing principle. The absence of a more engaged consideration of what we mean by kalām and theology means that the bounds of the discourses are not clear – nor is the very notion of theology problematized; after all, far too much of our language of the study of religion and especially one such as Islam arises from the desire to apply comparative language and categories that are usually derived and defined from the normative case of the study of the Church. Thus we tend to talk of theology, of orthodoxy, of creeds, of clashes between reason and revelation, of the structure and ecclesiology of authority, of magisteria and political theology.

Are the generic boundaries heuristically useful? We notice that the lines between the issues discussed in philosophy (ḥikma), kalām, exegesis and mystical texts seems to blur in the later period – and one way of lumping them together is to consider them to be a unity that we might call the rational humanities or the maʿqūlāt. But does that mean that the practitioners themselves felt that the generic boundaries were meaningless? Consider two historically divergent definitions, one that distinguishes kalām from philosophy and the other that distinguishes philosophy from kalām and mysticism. The Avicennian philosopher and (soft) Ashʿarī theologian Mīr Ḥusayn Maybudī (d. 1504) in his widely glossed commentary on the Hidāyat al-ḥikma of al-Abharī (d. 1265) examines the definition of philosophy and at one point discusses whether philosophy and kalām are the same ‘science’ because so many of the issues overlap but then decides that there is a meaningful distinction: kalām discusses no doubt ontological, epistemological and cosmological views alongside the nature of God but it does so within the parameters of the law and ethos of Islam (qānūn al-islām). Strictly speaking, philosophy is not so constrained. But one wonders about that in practice: Avicenna famously postulated an onto-cosmological proof for the existence of God and tied it – in a self-described philosophical work – to an exegesis of a verse of the Qurʾan, and elsewhere in his psychology he linked his theory of the stages of the rational soul with an exegesis on the light verse in the Qurʾan. In the later period, especially from the Safavid, the concept of ḥikma takes on a life of its own and cannot be divorced from onto-theology even if the claim is that the metaphysical study of being qua being or of the absolute mode of being is not reducible to God as its primary referent. The modern Iranian Shiʿi mystically inclined political theologian Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) in a number of his early works on the school of Ibn ʿArabī similarly tried to differentiate philosophy from mysticism and kalām by considering the subject matter, a classic way of defining and bounding a ‘science’. From the classical period, a science was defined as an inquiry that studied the essential accidents of its subject matter and within that, philosophy studied the essential accidents of being qua being (namely, issues such as modalities, unity and multiplicity, causality and other issues that pertained to things that obtain in extra-mental reality but are not considered insofar as they are physical objects or creatures of a God). Khomeini opined that the absolute mode of being (al-wujūd al-muṭlaq) when considered in philosophy was abstract and included a study of God, but for the theologian, it was precisely how God was understood, and for the mystic, the absolute mode of being was exclusively for God because nothing exists save God.

Perhaps such distinctions are somewhat scholastic – but there is little doubting that their articulators took them seriously. Another sense in which the definition of theology postulated in this volume is perhaps too narrow is to take more seriously other disciplines in Islamic learned culture that rendered theological reasoning. The most obvious broad lacuna in the volume is the theology of the legal theorists and hermeneuts who engaged with scriptural texts and the dictates of reason in order to derive the law and effect moral agency. On the more practical side, the narrowing of theology to kalām misses a whole area of practical, applied and pastoral theologies that are highly pertinent today in which, while the older forms of rational and natural theology relating to proving the existence of God and the possibility of the immaterial as well as justifying beliefs in revelation and so forth still hold, contemporary thinkers are far more focused on theology as a set of inter-subjective relations and perspectives that arise in the human sphere and within the cosmos as sacralised, enchanted faces of the divine – as one set of theological engagements in the present put it, one does not need to defend God but rather one ough to focus on issues of justice, diversity, equality and ethics among humans and others in the cosmos. Even the life cycle of the Muslim experience, the range of ritual practices, the texture of life in quotidian living as well as extraordinary acts of pilgrimage, is largely unconsidered. A further lacuna relates to the occult and the link between kalām and science that was central to the middle period. 

This points to the second organizational principle of the volume – it is a collectivity of schools and school positions. It is not a thematic or problem based approach to the study of theology that could be highly useful, drawing upon the range of persuasions and confessional affiliations that defined themselves as within Islam to address issues. In that way, the stark distinction between the pre-modern and the modern could be resolved. Thus we have a historical survey, beginning with the Qadariyya and the Jahmiyya, moving onto the Muʿtazila and the Ashāʿira, continuing into their scholastic periods and their later manifestations in Sunni and Shiʿi schools as well as alternative trajectories with the Ibāḍiyya and the Ismailis, then the geographical spread of these schools followed by a final consideration albeit too brief on modern developments. Themes are raised within chapters and if one wishes to trace how ideas on free will and determinism developed, one would select a certain path of reading through the volume. The emphasis on thinkers and texts tends to obscure that or even miss the larger trends; for example, within the study of Imāmī theology, if one wished to see how sets of doctrinal positions and arguments that were often condemned in the formative rationalising period as 'extremist' (ghulūw) became normalised certainly by the Safavid period as core to Imāmī theology, how would one set about understanding that process? If the Safavid period was indeed formative for Imāmī (political) theology in the present, then without simply following a whiggish method, how might one interrogate that? How diachronically did the notions of walāya develop, and can one discern distinct traditions overlapping, debating and opposing each other into the present? Perhaps a short reading guide at the end, or even at the beginning, could help readers negotiate that. 

Along the way, there are two sections of case studies: one on some intriguing theological concepts such as occasionalism, the theory of ‘states’, ethical value and the relationship of theology and law, and the other on historical events such as the miḥna, the rivalry of Sunni theologies in the middle period, and the religious policy of the Almohads. In the latter section of cases studies, I do not see why these discussions could not have been subsumed into other chapters – but then with handbooks often it is not a simple case of rational organisation. Whenever we put together a collected volume, we often have the ideal structure and arrangement in mind, but that ideal cannot always be mapped onto the possible or even the practicable. In the former section, one wonders what happened to these debates or are they merely mentioned for antiquarian reasons? For example, Rudolph’s masterful piece on occasionalism is an excellent entry to the topic but various questions come to mind: what is the relationship between atomism and occasionalism, did not Avicennism render occasionalism obsolete, what do we make of the neo-Ashʿarī, neo-occasionalists of today in the Arab and Turkish Sunni world? Similarly the piece on states by Thiele is a solid analysis of the reception of Abū Hāshim in Ashʿarī circles, and as such an interesting case study of doctrines and positions in schools that bleed across boundaries, but it does not say anything about the later Muʿtazilī reception of the theory and why it failed to provide a solution to the nominalist and eternalist problems of the divine attributes. The only contribution in that section that brings us close to our time is El-Rouayheb on logic but even then the question of the permissibility and use of logic within theology remains a live debate in various circles today.

There is still plenty in the volume that demonstrates the best in research on kalām and why we should take theology in Islam seriously in any study. Treiger’s piece on the origins of kalām is a good mix of the state of research on the Christian dialectical context and the early debates on the nature of the Qurʾan. The two excurses of the first part are similarly important: Griffith on the early development of what we call Christian kalām – and one cannot help but think that the language of Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī and Ḥunayn and others in Baghdad was central to the development of arguments on tawḥīd in early Islam – and Crone on why we should not take the march of monotheism to have been uncontested by dualists and others. In fact, taken together they represent a good way of problematizing tawḥīd – both from Christians and especially from dualists. It was precisely the commonality and divergence on the issue of monotheism that one could see as a central theme in early Islamic theologies. However, and not without some irony, I am more skeptical about taking the sources at face value on these forms of alternative cosmologies in early Islam and certainly I would question attempts to project atheisms in particular back to this period. And one small quibble – it might seem neat to translate khulliṭa as ‘became unhinged’ (page 123) but surely the more literal is more accurate. The Imāmī sources used it to describe people who became ‘confused’ through their debates with the zanādiqa and hence mixed up correct with incorrect beliefs. The third excursus by Schwarb is a further excellent example of how the boundaries of kalām are not so straightforward and we should consider it to be a type of discourse that could be tied to the defence or postulation of different theological confessions.

To my mind, the very best contributions are in fact the last two by Wielandt and Pink on modern developments. The Wielandt chapter is certainly something that could be profitably set for a course – a dizzingly diverse approach to modes of modernist thought that takes into consideration different genealogies of the present, across Sunni and Shiʿi contexts from the 19th century to the current Iranian reformers. It raises the critical question of what theology is and can mean today. Pink similarly shows the continuities and discontinuities of current Qurʾanic exegeses. She briefly discusses feminist approaches within the category of purposive exegesis. But this signals perhaps the last major lacuna of the volume that I wish to highlight: the complete absence of feminist and other types of intersectional critique in contemporary Islamic theologies. Given that this is becoming a rich area of research and activism with numerous publications and some of the most vivid and virulent debates in the contemporary study of Islam and in Islamic studies, it is somewhat surprising that it is absent from the volume. Some of the other Oxford handbooks relating to Islam do have a greater assessment of feminisms. But the absence here is disappointing because for too long, feminist approaches have been dismissed as ‘inadequately theological’ but it is difficult to justify such a position on the work of Barlas, Wadud, Chaudhury, Ali, Mir-Hosseini and many others. Similarly there are other geographical absences – Africa, especially West Africa, and South East Asia in particular come to mind: if a study on Ashʿarī theology in the Islamic West, then why not in South-East Asia where it arguably was a more lasting and significant influence? And what of the growing forms of Islamic theologies in North America and Europe, not least through strange experiments with governmental interventions in social policy and religious engineering? It is perhaps unfair to focus on these lacunae - one is after all disappointed with not finding the volume one would have liked to see in print. Ultimately it is the choice of the editor and that is where the questions need to be posed. The historiographical health of the field depends on rigorous debate and disagreement based on methods, approaches, textual rigour, and creative readings and misreadings of texts. 

One can see how students and those interested in theology in Islam can use the volume profitably and it will certainly become the main resource for that. As I said before, it cannot see it being absent for reading lists on courses on Islamic theology. But perhaps because of that utility, that comprehensive survey and that indexicality, it is unlikely to enthuse readers with a desire to study theology in Islam. But to be fair, that was not the remit.

But then I should say something about what I would like a volume on Islamic theology to do (thinking quickly off the top of my head):

1) An introduction that explains what one means, normatively speaking, by theologies in Islam and how one might define them, study them, and relate them to their historical contexts and to their intellectual contexts by examining the other related disciplines and humanities associated with them

2) An analysis of initial issues and themes of debate - the origins question but also about the formulation of a theological language and its possibilities and the nature of that form of communication as a sets of terms exchanged within a certain language game bounded by reference to Islam or beyond as well

3) An examination of the sources that one would use to study theologies and their generic manifestations and the porous nature at times of the boundaries of these genres; the importance of the post-classical compendia would be critical here 

4) Diachronic studies of particular themes in their different contexts such as the reality of divine attributes, the problem of free will, the presence of evils, the possibilities of theology, the status of the Qurʾan, reward and punishment, authority and sovereign and so forth

5) Tracing in broad terms how particular theological confessions have developed since the classical period and their trajectories in the present

6) The nature of the epistemological shifts ushered with modernity and the new assumptions about the reality that we inhabit - whither theologies in Islam in a post-Kantian, post-Einstein/Heisenberg, post-Derridean, post-analytical, post-Beauvoir/Butler/Irigaray/Jantzen world? 

This is a tough ask - and perhaps can only be done through a rigorous and massively collaborative new set of historically informed systematic theological accounts in the present. Nevertheless, there remains a distinction between academically informed systematic theologies and the historical critical study of theologies and their intellectual development in contexts. Is the exigency of the age a new kalām or a new way of conceptualising theology?