Islamic Perspectives

Islam does have epochal theologians

Sumit Paul

I was appalled at the ignorance of an American ‘scholar’, who wrote that, “Islam never had very great and epochal theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and the other great Christian thinkers.” This shows a completely biased Christian perspective of western “scholars”.

Interest in theological questions developed very early in Islamic history. Though it’s true that the interest arose out of concerns more practical than theoretical, the questions early Muslim theologians addressed nevertheless have genuinely theological implications. The oft-repeated criticism that classical and medieval Muslim religious writers were limited to a defensive rehashing of the same old questions, unable to break free of the trammels of traditionalism, is on the whole no more true of the great Muslim thinkers than of their Christian counterparts.

One needs always to consider the tenor of the age in question. As Christian tradition owes a great deal to its great teachers, such as Augustine and Acquinas, Islamic tradition also rests on the massive achievements of its outstanding intellectual figures. A closer look at figures like Al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi and Ibn Taymiya, for example, three figures every bit as important for Muslim thought as Augustine, Acquinas and Luther for Christian, reveals a great deal of creative thinking.

Without suggesting that one can see explicit parallels between any of these Muslim and Christian figures, let me all too briefly describe why these three Muslims are important. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) was born in northeastern Iran and showing early signs of intellectual ability, he received the best education available. His reputation for learning spread quickly and the prime minister of the Saljuqid Sultan in Baghdad invited Al-Ghazali to head his new college (madrasa). After some years of considerable success teaching religious studies, Al-Ghazali had a sort of midlife crisis that left him experiencing considerable doubt and confusion. In a short autobiography, often compared to Augustine’s Confessions, he describes how he embarked on a spiritual journey that led him to refocus his life. One important result was his manual of pastoral theology called the Revitalization of the Sciences of Religion, an itinerary of spiritual wisdom in forty sections that stretch from repentance to intimate knowledge of God.

Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240 CE) was born in the southern Iberian city of Murcia and was educated in Seville. In his twenties and thirties, he travelled in North Africa to study with spiritual teachers, and at thirty-five, headed for Mecca. There he began his Meccan Revelations, an encyclopedic and original systematic treatise of spiritual theology. Virtually every serious religious author since his time has either embraced or condemned Ibn ‘Arabi, but almost no one has been able to ignore him.

Finally, Taqi ad-Din Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328 CE) was a noted jurist and theologian and a reformer of sorts. Like Ibn ‘Arabi, he generated his share of controversy, but for very different reasons; he was among those who condemned Ibn ‘Arabi. During a career spent largely in Damascus and Cairo, he sought to integrate tradition, reason, and free-will in a theological synthesis, much of which he composed while in prison for views political authorities found unacceptable. Because of his posthumous association with the Wahabi movement that supplied modern Saudi Arabia with its very strict religious ideology, Ibn Taymiya has been unfairly written off as a reactionary. He was in fact, a gifted man who took his theology seriously enough to suffer for it and whose influence and originality have yet to be fully appreciated.

MG comment: This problem is specific to Sunni Islam in which Fiqh [theology or religious jurisprudence] was compiled by venerable imams towards the end of the first and early second centuries of Islam by venerable scholars. Their followers at the time were not rigid and even the pupils of these imams and pupils of pupils were respected and at times given preference over the opinion(s) of the original imam. But with mounting Persian influence and the Mongol/Tatar/Crusaders’ onslaught, scholars felt that “the doors of ijtihad” (independent thinking in fiqh issues) should be closed. Hence the rigidness in the Sunni position. On the other hand, Shia scholars did not close the doors of ijtihad and even today every new Ayatullah Uzma [Grand Ayatullah] is not accepted until and unless he writes his own book of theology which means that every new generation of Shi’is has several new fiqh books to follow since every Shi’i follows a certain Grand Ayatullah who are limited in number at any given time (about 5-6 at a time). This arrangement ensures that newer challenges are met in time. Some Sunni scholars, on the other hand, try these days to do some ijtihad individually and through fiqh academies but these are not received with general acceptance as both Sunni scholars and laymen continue to consult tomes written centuries ago. This can be overcome by political power like Emperor Aurangzeb getting Al-Fatawa al-Hindiya compiled or the Ottoman State issuing Majalla al-Ahkam al-’Adliya but such endeavors are limited to a particular sphere and time of a certain ruler or state and do not get universal acceptance. (Zafarul-Islam Khan)