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Islamic Speculative Theology: From Classic To Modern – OpEd

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Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazali in one of his famous works Al-Iqtisad  Fil Ittiqad elucidated at length the role of systematic theology in Islamic scholasticism. He maintained that theologians were responsible for responding to religious innovations, combatting the insidious heresies, and presenting the creedal formulations of Islam in a philosophic idiom. To this end, Ghazali himself contributed his masterpiece Tahafa-tul-Falasafa. An expert of Ghazali, Frank Griffel in his book Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology held that the Tahafat of Ghazali was a work of systematic theology couched in a philosophical idiom with an aim to defend the creedal formulation(s) of Islam. 

Three centuries later, Ibn-e-Khaldun in his famous Muqaddimah argued that theology as an independent stream of thought had outlived its utility. He held that philosophical reasoning and illuminative epistemology had replaced the role of theology in developing rational Islamic discourse. In agreement with the assessment of Ibn-e-Khaldun, Halverson in his book Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam proceeded further and held that theology as a creative discipline had already died by 12th century and was replaced by a series of doctrinaire creedal formulations. Did Islamic speculative theology cease to continue as a thriving intellectual force by 12th century? 

The answer to this intriguing question lies in the origins of theology as an independent strand of rigorous scholarship. Muslim scholars after their encounter with the Hellenic philosophical literature, Judeo-Christian religious corpus, and the Iranian gnostic illumination felt the urge to explain their religious rituals, norms, and doctrines in a scholarly language in line with the contemporary systems of epistemology. Their attempt at elucidating the religious doctrinal system of Islam in an idiom of contemporary epistemologies led to a wide range of disagreements and paved the way for the crystallization of guilds. These guilds came into being and transformed into different independent schools by late 9th century. The emergence of theology as a stream of organized scholarly tradition can be attributed to the intellectually vibrant environment of intellectual exchange between Islam and other civilizations. 

These schools or guilds of theology based their argumentative reasoning on different epistemologies. On the far right were the Hanbalites. They held that the only source of Truth was the repository of the scriptural text and the Prophetic normative practice. Closer to them were the Asharites and the Maturidites. They maintained that reason could also be invoked in the formulation of religious discourse. Even though the Quran and normative practice of the Prophet were the main sources for the guidance, the exercise of reason could only be granted as an accessory toolkit. Reason was always subservient to the tradition, according to them. On the far left were the Mutazilites. Contrary to the Hanbalites, Asharites, and Maturidites, Mutazilites postulated that the sole exercise of reason was enough for the systemization of religious doctrinal system. They held that only reason as an epistemological tool could be used in order to ascertain the validity of the Truth. 

The Mutazilites laid down the foundations of rationalism in Islam, according to Abdul Karem Soroush. Central to their intellectual outlook was the exercise of reason. They maintained that tradition should be interpreted against the yardstick of rational tools. The Mutazilites eclectically summoned into use the Greek syllogism, Alexandrian sapiential disciplines, and Syriac noetic rationalism to demonstrate that a fortified Islamic edifice of rational sciences could be erected on the foundations of rationalism. The school of Mutazilites was rooted firmly in the rational grounds and was committed to the cause of rational interpretation of Islam. Islam was a rational religion with its own sense of philosophy and world-view, according to the school of Mutazilites. 

Unfortunately, the school of Mutazilites lost its constituency and ceased to exist by 11th century. Even worse, the Asharites and Maturidites lost their earlier rigor and absorbed the illuminative gnosticism. Philosophy as a creative strand of intellectual inquiry soon after Ibn-e-Tufayl and Ibn-e-Rushd had already died out. Islamic theology after 12th century expressed itself either in traditionalist idiom by producing formulaic tracts on creed or in theosophic treatises geared towards spiritual illumination, Dr Fazlur Rehman reflected in his work Islam and Modernity.

In sum, Islamic theology was a rigorous exercise of reason and intellect for three centuries in the writings of Mutazilites. This particular form of theology rooted firmly in reason and sapiential systems of knowledge was characterized as “speculative theology” for it explored new intellectual horizons. On the contrary, the theology that came into being after the 12th century was called “dialectical theology” for it was nothing but a regurgitation of creeds, doctrines, and theosophic disclosures articulated in unoriginal tracts either for the defense of religion or for spiritual illumination. 

This “dialectical theology” dominated the intellectual landscape of Islamic scholasticism for more than five centuries. Even scholars as eminent as Ibn-e- Taymiyah, Ibn-e-Qayyim, Shatibi, and Ibn-e-Khaldun were the exponents of “dialectical theology”. The great Iranian scholars like Mir Fendereski, Mulla Sadra, and Baqir al-Majlisi were also of the same opinion. The first scholar to have revived reason in Islamic theology was Shah Wali-ullah in the 18th century. His magnum opus The Conclusive Argument from God was the first liberal attempt at erecting the edifice of Islamic theology on rationalist grounds, Charles Kurzman argued in Liberal Islam. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan continued in the footsteps of Shah Wali-ullah and granted more room for the exercise of reason.

But it was the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by Allama Muhammad Iqbal that gave a definitive shape to Modern Islamic Speculative Theology. Iqbal in this classic work employed the epistemology of reason to elucidate the rationale of Islamic principles. Like the Mutazilites of medieval times, Iqbal used the modern philosophical reasoning of the West to construct a modernist interpretation of Islam. The intuitive theosophy, normative traditionalism, and gnostic illumination were subservient to reason, according to Iqbalian interpretive system of thought. 

Bringing into use his innovative model(s) of reasoning, Iqbal reinterpreted the classic concepts of “Ijtihad”, “Ijma”, “ahya”, and “Islah” with an aim to invest them with modern notions of progression, continuity, and authenticity. This analytic framework, reminiscent of Mutazilite school, established a firm foundation for the school of rationalism as an epistemological source to revive and thrive. Reason, in this reconceptualization of theology and formulation of scholasticism, is not only a source, but the main source of exploratory endeavours. Hence, Iqbal in his quest for the rediscovery of innovative models of reasoning transformed the “dialectical theology” bereft of any creative impulse into “speculative theology” that was once the telltale feature of classic Islamic theology in its heydays.

In philosophical parlance, this speculative theology is a modern manifestation of medieval Mutazilism. Is Iqbal the founder of “Neo-mutazilism in Islam”? On perusing the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, one gets convinced that the emergence of Neo-Mutazilism is attributable to the intellectual oeuvre of Allama Muhammad Iqbal.

*Rehan Khan is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan is a Graduate of New York University (Majored in History and Philosophy) and in addition, is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

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