Speaking about his personal hopes and endeavours, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah once shared these following remarks:
وَالنَّاسُ يَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ كَانَ بَيْنَ الْحَنْبَلِيَّةِ وَالْأَشْعَرِيَّةِ وَحْشَةٌ وَمُنَافَرَةٌ. وَأَنَا كُنْت مِنْ أَعْظَمِ النَّاسِ تَأْلِيفًا لِقُلُوبِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَطَلَبًا لِاتِّفَاقِ كَلِمَتِهِمْ وَاتِّبَاعًا لِمَا أُمِرْنَا بِهِ مِنْ الِاعْتِصَامِ بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ وَأَزَلْت عَامَّةَ مَا كَانَ فِي النُّفُوسِ مِنْ الْوَحْشَةِ، وَبَيَّنْت لَهُمْ أَنَّ الْأَشْعَرِيَّ كَانَ مِنْ أَجَلِّ الْمُتَكَلِّمِينَ الْمُنْتَسِبِينَ إلَى الْإِمَامِ أَحْمَدَ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ وَنَحْوِهِ الْمُنْتَصِرِينَ لِطَرِيقِهِ كَمَا يَذْكُرُ الْأَشْعَرِيُّ ذَلِكَ فِي كُتُبِه
‘People know that there has been, between the Hanbalis and Ash‘aris, much alienation and animosity. I was of those who strove my utmost to reconcile the hearts of the Muslims and sought to unify their ranks, in emulation of the [divine] command to hold fast to the Rope of Allah. I removed much of the alienation which existed in the hearts and clarified that al-Ash‘ari was one of the noblest of the discursive theologians (mutakallimun) to have ascribed themselves to Imam Ahmad, may Allah have mercy on him, as well as those like him who supported his way – as al-Ash‘ari himself mentioned in his works.’1
Those who know something of the historical context in which Ibn Taymiyyah was writing the above sentiment will not fail to see something of an irony in this. For although, for a variety of reasons (including his scathing rebuttals against some of his Ash’ari opponents) Ibn Taymiyyah didn’t bring about the outcome he perhaps hoped for, the spirit of uniting hearts and lessening the schisms between Muslims must be the concern of us all.
Those who are qualified and versed to thoroughly and meticulously investigate the Athari-Ash‘ari [Salafi-Ash’ari] theological controversies should follow whatever conclusions their research necessitates – regardless of whether that makes them uncompromising or not. What is also required of such people is that they be wise about how and how much they push such abstruse, theoretical controversies into the public domain, thus sowing further divisions, discord or enmity among this already vulnerable yet blessed ummah. It should also be expected of such seasoned theologians that although they may be fiercely critical of theological positions which contravene their own; and even take it upon themselves to write scathing rebuttals of beliefs they see to be unorthodox, yet let them be respectful as possible to their Salafi or Ash‘ari opponents and not attack or insult actual personalities; many of whom might well be known for their great piety, sincerity, devotional worship, worldly detachment, long service to knowledge, and love for the prophetic Sunnah and the sahabah – regardless of theological mistakes or blunders.
As for those who simply do not have the necessary theological grounding or intellectual prowess to justly and thoroughly evaluate both sides of the highly complex polemics, with what right – and with what knowledge – do they feel they can be unyielding or dogmatic about such matters? For they have no real grasp of these issues. They are just followers of their scholars; many of them bigoted, blind followers at that.
So let repentance be made and schism-mongering be stayed; and perhaps the Generous Lord will look kindly upon us so that we may all be saved.
Of course, one needs to ask how relevant many of these classical theological conundrums are to the current Muslim predicament? How useful are these matters in respect of helping Muslims grapple with perhaps more pressing contemporary theological concerns? While it would be a fool’s errand to imagine we could formulate robust critiques or responses to such challenges by ignoring the principles and insights classical Muslim theology has to offer, there is a growing sense that we are stuck in a phase of fossilised theology. These classical insights haven’t significantly engaged the theological, philosophical and ethical challenges of our time; they have yet to meaningfully deconstruct modernity’s wholesale reinvention of the human story. And whilst some headway is being made by a few Muslim theologians and public intellectuals, we are far from offering any robust responsa to the theological challenges of modernity or the post-modern world.
What are some of these challenges? Well they include, amongst other questions, issues of theology as they relate to science: Does science point towards atheism or theism, is one such question? Another is whether science is intrinsically naturalistic, or is naturalism a philosophy imposed upon the scientific method? Then there is the question of Quantum physics with its principle of indeterminacy and how that bears upon the understanding of causality or occasionalism. Quantum theory also makes itself felt in the question on the actual nature of time, and even the ideas of the soul and [Quantum] consciousness. And then, of course, there is Islam’s evolution question: less about fossils and palaeontology, and more about genetics and genomes. Does, for instance, the idea of ‘Theistic Evolution’ actually square with the Adamic saga or God’s omnipotence, as taught in the Qur’an? And how do we square the evolving fossil records of bipeds over two hundred-thousand years old that, for all intents and purposes, look very similar to us in terms of skeletal structure and cranium capacity, and who seem to be the very first hominids to hunt; use fire; make complex tools; look after their weak and frail; as well as ritually bury their dead, with the explicit Quranic passages speaking about Adam as being the very first Man, and not born of any creature or parent?
As for theology when it is compelled to rub-up against philosophy, there is the question of epistemology: What is knowledge and its nature, and how do they relate to concepts like religious [or revealed] truths, beliefs and justifications? Or to put it in simpler terms: How do we know Islam is the truth? Theodicy; the question of evil, desperately needs stating in a more coherent and convincing manner for modern minds, as does the status of reason or rationality in religious doctrine. Also, secularism’s alleged neutrality towards religious freedom needs to be interrogated, not only in light of its own claims, but also in regards to whether it helps religious practitioners deepen their awareness of the Divine Presence or weaken their sense of it?
Theology as it engages the question of ethics and ultimate values raises all sorts of issues (some which may be better dealt with by our fiqh tradition than our theology one). There are issues starting to grow around AI: Artificial Intelligence, and its benefits to mankind. Theological ethics in this regard will have to focus on matters such as robot rights (which is not an issue if robots are little more than advanced washing machines or dish-washers; but not so clear if they are able to have, or to mimic, emotions and feelings). It will have to work hard to avoid discrimination and bias when developing algorithms for AI. It needs to address the concerns of AI as military robots, or as autonomous weapons without human intervention, in order to avoid the spectre of an AI global arms race or war. It must also confront the existential dilemma posed by AI as superintelligence: where robots begin to recursively self-improve themselves, to the point where they surpass human intelligence by leaps and bounds. We may also discern the growing relevancy of such inquiries if we recall that in 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first ever country to grant actual citizenship to a robot! The robot, called Sophia, now has more rights and entitlements – or at least, on paper – than many foreign workers or expats working in the oil-rich kingdom?
Muslim theological ethics also has more immediate concerns: the issue of gender fluidity, currently being championed by liquid modernity, and how it tallies with Quranic norms of celebrating gender in a gendered created cosmos? Then there are the strident demands of feminism (perhaps one of the greatest challenges to normative scriptural reading in our time). Not in the sense of whether women should be empowered, or accorded their rights and entitlements. Rather, in terms of comparing feminism’s narrative of equality and of its central belief of dismantling all forms of patriarchy, with the Qur‘an’s language of justice (and not equality) and honouring gender distinctions (prescriptively, not descriptively). In fact, ethics must ask an even more fundamental question: By what ethical standard does Western feminism; in particular, or Western liberalism; in general, have a unilateral right to impose its values on other peoples and societies? The crux of such an imposition is the belief in a secular modern trinity: autonomy, equality and rights. To claim, as Islam does, that there are obligations which could constrain our choices, or duties that puts a limit on our desires, is to utter nothing less than a monsterous modern blasphemy!
Theology as it refracts the concept of shari‘ah governance is an area inadequately handled over the past century or more. Here we must ask if the modern nation state, in its secular-liberal matrix, can accept religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould? Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right, indeed the duty, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life: from the personal to the political – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated and made into toothless tigers, or swiftly branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order?
A more foundational question is: Can shari‘ah governance and the modern nation-state actually go hand in hand? For a modern ‘Islamic’ ‘state’ is something of a contradiction in terms. For while an all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, a classical Muslim state doesn’t legislate at all. Traditionally, legislation belongs to Allah; as understood and deciphered by the ‘ulema. How that may be squared with the modern state – in which to practice law making; to be part of the legislature, is to be an agent of the state – has not been adequately tackled by Muslim theologians or Islamists. For there is no modern state sovereignty without state-manufactured law, which the state alone then wields so as to reengineer the social order. To make the state ‘Islamic’, then, we need to search for ways where law is not contaminated by state involvement. Yet ever since the Ottoman reforms of 1856, when the modern Muslim ‘state’ began to become sole master and legitimiser of legislation, the shari‘ah and its fiqh became subjected to a great deal of aberration and to a huge process of politicisation. The question then is, can Islamic governance – whose moral, legal, social, political and metaphysical foundations are radically different to that of the modern state; and whose law is primarily a set of theological principles and moral precepts underscored by legal principles – function independently of the state? Can there be a model of a modern state which divests itself of legislation? Is such an arrangement even possible as an integral facet in the modern patchwork of nation states? Such are the questions that need serious depth of thought – beyond the usual clichés; and beyond our current Western-inspired Islamist or state totalitarianism solutions.
The above, then, are some of the pressing issues Islam’s orthodox theological tradition[s] needs to engage if it is to reflect its truth-claims of being God’s final revelation, and if it wishes to retain its relevancy and vocation as being guide and healer to humanity. For a while now, our post-modern world has been in a crisis. Whatever good the Enlightenment birthed continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism, eating away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; and its Christian heritage seems long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. Islam, more than ever, seems called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its monotheistic message of hope, healing and happiness through God’s oneness can only truly illuminate times if its theological concerns are in tune with the needs of the time; when it is able to offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and is successful in delivering liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. Between now and then there is much to deliberate over, and much work to be done. Here’s to rolling up our spiritual and intellectual sleeves.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:227-8.