Introducing Transcendent God, Rational World: A Māturīdī Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021)
In Islam, belief is a simple affair: at its heart is a commitment to the truth of the oneness of God and the messengership of the Prophet Muḥammad. Islamic theology, which can be defined as the rational clarification and justification of all that flows from this belief, is more complex. Differences in the interpretation of revelation, along with varied intellectual tools and views on what is reasonable, have led to a plethora of theological schools. Though the most famous split in Islamic history is the one between Sunnīs and Shīʿīs, these labels only loosely bundle together an internally diverse collection of traditions, each with its own trajectory of development.
By pointing out this multiplicity I do not intend to denigrate any given school’s claim to solely, or best, articulate truth. The mere fact of a tradition’s survival into the fifteenth/twenty-first century highlights that it has been able to successfully perpetuate such a claim – at least among its own adherents. Islamic theological schools usually need to meet two criteria to fulfil this function: (1) Authenticity: to link believers today to the creed of a specific early figure or group; (2) Credibility: to be able to articulate theological positions that can be considered justifiable in the light of contemporary philosophical debate.
“… First, the subtitle should alert the reader that this book can be located in the Ḥanafī-Māturīdī tradition of kalām. Second, it should be clear that I have not just written a historical work about this tradition and its representatives, but also seek to actively intervene in contemporary theological questions through it.”
With respect to point (1), the doctrines upheld by a contemporary school need not be identical to those held by earlier representatives – several doctrines may have changed over the centuries, sometimes to the embarrassment of the latecomers! The point is that there is enough of a pedigree available so that the example of the figure(s) can be invoked. Point (2) reflects an ideal that a school will meet to the extent that it is dynamically engaged with the intellectual currents of its time. In practice, it is possible that a school will remain fixated on past glories and not come to grips with current concerns.
My remarks up to this point frame the historical topography of Islamic theology in a way that I deem helpful for explaining the intended contribution of my new book, Transcendent God, Rational World: A Māturīdī Theology. First, the subtitle should alert the reader that this book can be located in the Ḥanafī-Māturīdī tradition of kalām. Second, it should be clear that I have not just written a historical work about this tradition and its representatives, but also seek to actively intervene in contemporary theological questions through it. In other words, this is a work of kalām jadīd (renewed theology). Third, the main title points to a key aspect of this Sunnī tradition: a commitment to both divine transcendence and the inherent rationality of the created world. It also highlights my attention to theocentric questions, the so-called ilāhiyāt. In what follows, I will expand on these three observations to introduce my book.
The Ḥanafī-Māturīdī Tradition
This tradition is named after two hugely significant theologians (they were also active in other fields of knowledge, but their theological impact is my focus here): Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān b. Thābit (d. 150/767) from Kufa and Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/944) from Samarqand. Abū Ḥanīfa needs little introduction due to the major school of jurisprudence named after him. A great many (albeit not all) of those who have followed his legal tradition over the centuries have adopted theological doctrines originating in his teaching. Though several works have been ascribed to him, it is likely that only a single public letter (risāla) reflects his personal composition. The main theological texts that record his views were written by his students, one from Balkh and the other from Samarqand. He is said to have later refrained from teaching theology, a decision that led to an alternative traditionalist Ḥanafism, most famously associated with the creed of Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321/933).
The early development of Samarqandī Ḥanafī theology is characterised by the following features: a general orientation towards the theological positions acceptable to Abū Ḥanīfa and his immediate followers from Transoxiana; a strict opposition to key doctrines of the Muʿtazilī school of thought, which was centred in Iraq; and an openness to adapting the rational tools used by a wide range of thinkers active in the eastern lands. In the case of al-Māturīdī himself, this notably included ideas from the philosophical circle around Abū Yūsuf al-Kindī (d. ca. 259/873).
“Though much of the theology produced by al-Māturīdī’s immediate successors is lost, enough material survives from mid-late fourth/tenth century figures such as Abū al-Ḥasan al-Rustughfanī, Abū Salama al-Samarqandī and Ibn Yaḥyā al-Bashāgharī to trace the outline of a vibrant early school of Sunnī theology that developed in independence from its eventual main interlocutor, Ashʿarism.”
Yet al-Māturīdī was able to fashion these raw materials into a distinctive theological system. In Kitāb al-tawḥīd, his only surviving theological work, he proposes original solutions to both perennial theological questions and local doctrinal debates – despite writing in a complex and obscure style of Arabic. Though much of the theology produced by al-Māturīdī’s immediate successors is lost, enough material survives from mid-late fourth/tenth century figures such as Abū al-Ḥasan al-Rustughfanī, Abū Salama al-Samarqandī and Ibn Yaḥyā al-Bashāgharī to trace the outline of a vibrant early school of Sunnī theology that developed in independence from its eventual main interlocutor, Ashʿarism. Later and better known Transoxianan Ḥanafīs, including Abū Shakūr al-Sālimī (d. mid-fifth/eleventh century), Abū al-Yusr al-Bazdawī (d. 493/1099) and Abū al-Muʿīn al-Nasafī (d. 508/1114) brought the school into dialogue with the Ashʿarī tradition, encouraging both adaptation from and polemical attacks against the new rival. Subsequent generations of scholars increasingly sought to harmonise between the two schools and to present a unified formulation of the Ashʿarī-Māturīdī tradition that remains to this day.
“In my book, I pay special attention to the pioneering work of al-Māturīdī and his erstwhile following in Samarqand. I show that the kalām produced in this period is worthy of study in its own right and that it can provide significant theological resources for contemporary Islamic theology.”
In my book, I pay special attention to the pioneering work of al-Māturīdī and his erstwhile following in Samarqand. I show that the kalām produced in this period is worthy of study in its own right and that it can provide significant theological resources for contemporary Islamic theology. Drawing this distinction between the early and classical schools opens a significant alternative perspective on the Māturīdī tradition. It also means that when I look to the positions held by classical-era scholars, like those mentioned in the previous paragraph, I judge to what extent their views were shaped by their own intellectual context, especially in their debates with Ashʿarīs. Though I remain open to the changes and refinements introduced in the classical period and afterwards, I argue that the earlier tradition articulates a more consistent theology of the divine attributes. This means that my reconstruction of the Samarqandī Ḥanafism of al-Māturīdī and his circle is the primary basis for my own systematic ambitions.
Sunnī kalām jadīḍ in the Academy
Since the late nineteenth century there has been an awareness in Muslim theological circles that modernity, particularly the rise of the West as intellectual hegemon, poses serious challenges to traditional models of kalām. The term kalām jadīd captures a widespread sense that there is a need for Islamic thought to adequately address the modern era of philosophical and scientific knowledge. Despite this, Sunnism has not produced a strong new tradition of constructive theology (Shīʿism has been more active in this regard). Instead, it seems that two main approaches have gained ground: (1) Salafism, which emphasises traditionalist affirmation of the Qur’an and Hadith (often supplemented with theological ideas from Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) and his school); and (2) modernism, which uses a range of hermeneutic techniques to reinterpret scripture (especially focusing on the Qur’an).
“My approach in the book to kalām jadīd is to work squarely from the Māturīdī tradition (in the way explained in the previous section) and to seek conversation partners within contemporary philosophy and theology that I feel can usefully extend this tradition.”
There has also been continuation of the late classical Sunnī approach to theology, often drawing on the Ottoman tradition that largely treats the Ashʿarī and Māturīdī schools as a shared repository of kalām materials. According to representatives of this trend, key philosophical missteps were made during the European Enlightenment and in the transition to modernity, placing all subsequent thought on shaky foundations. This contention, if granted, leaves little to be gained by genuine encounter or synthesis with recent philosophy and theology. Instead, there is a focus on building conceptual bridges from late classical Islamic kalām to the present day and on rebutting the elements of modern thought that diverge from their premodern equivalents.
My approach in the book to kalām jadīd is to work squarely from the Māturīdī tradition (in the way explained in the previous section) and to seek conversation partners within contemporary philosophy and theology that I feel can usefully extend this tradition. Though I refer to a wide range of sources, I will single out two main kinds here. On the one hand, I have found it extremely useful to bring the phenomenological insights of Edmund Husserl and his successors into my theological work. Husserl is in my judgement an epochal philosopher – someone of the stature of Aristotle or Kant. His restatement of fundamental philosophical questioning through an interrogation of the ideal structure of human consciousness is too important to be ignored. On the other hand, I have found much of benefit in the field of analytic philosophy and the related Christian-led programme in philosophy of religion, exemplified by scholars such as Alvin Plantinga, Brian Leftow, Richard Swinburne and Nicholas Wolterstorff. These figures have provided important intellectual tools and methods that I have adapted for use in my own Māturīdī-framed project. I thus propose something that I think is genuinely new: kalām jadīd, or contemporary Islamic philosophical theology, as a systematic academic practice.
My Māturīdī point of departure and integrative programme with contemporary philosophy has led to distinctive theological results. But the list of ingredients and methods in a recipe little captures the flavour of the cooked dish. For that, one will have to read my book. To whet the appetite, I will discuss some of the theological moves pertaining to divine transcendence that I make in the second chapter.
In the view of al-Māturīdī, what God is ‘like’ cannot be known, as the properties that human beings can list under the category of ‘whatness’ are all characteristics of created, temporal existence. Nevertheless, we are able to reason that God possesses substantive attributes, albeit not ones like ours. They are mentioned in the Qur’an and can be inferred by analogy from our experience of the world – which is what makes the language of scripture meaningful to us in the first place. So, God is transcendent, but not utterly unknowable. What guarantees to us the possibility of knowledge about the divine?
According to al-Māturīdī, the rationality of the human being (microcosm) mirrors the world (macrocosm). This means both that reason is a foundational aspect of reality and that God, in His eternal wisdom, has created a secure relationship between the human mind and the world. It may be logically possible that mind or world is so chaotic that this connection is lost, but it is not metaphysically conceivable. For Husserl, the phenomenal world must be parsed according to the intentionality, or ideal directedness, of consciousness. Phenomenology is in the business of analysing the way that consciousness works as the precondition for the appearance of worldly phenomena. But there is nothing in the pure realm of ideas that determines the order of the world as encountered; rather, the facts of the world are met in experience. This ultimately leads Husserl to reason towards God as the world’s transcendent creator. Throughout my book, I suggest that key insights from Husserl’s philosophy can help articulate al-Māturīdī’s emphasis on the link between the human mind and the world. To put this point in another way: the very nature of our consciousness as it reaches out to the world can vouchsafe for us reliable inferences about God and the meaning of revealed scripture.
“Throughout my book, I suggest that key insights from Husserl’s philosophy can help articulate al-Māturīdī’s emphasis on the link between the human mind and the world.”
In Transcendent God, Rational World, I start with foundational epistemological and metaphysical questions and then turn to discuss arguments for God’s existence and to elaborate a theology of His nature, His knowledge and wisdom, His creative activity, and His speech and its relation to the Qur’an. Along the way, I touch on characteristically modern topics, such as set theory, possible world semantics and quantum mechanics. Māturīdism becomes the basis to tackle some of the recurrent questions of theology in contemporary guise. This, I think, is the proper role for a school of kalām today. If al-Māturīdī, and before him Abū Ḥanīfa, provide a degree of authenticity to my project, it is up to me to justify its credibility. On that score, the reader is invited to act as a judge.
Ramon Harvey is Aziz Foundation Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge Muslim College. He is the author of Transcendent God, Rational World: A Māturīdī Theology (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), The Qur’an and the Just Society (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) and series editor of Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Scripture and Theology.