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 The older volumes by Tritton, Anawati and Gardet, Watt and others are rather outdated and tend to focus on the narrow 'formative' period.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? 

No comments: