Islamic Theology, Philosophy, and Theodicy

Within the context of Western philosophy, Islamic philosophy is generally added to replace “Orthodox” philosophy in the geographic sense. For various reasons I don’t want to get into, students of Western philosophy generally study Islamic philosophy ca. 8th century-Reformation, or at the very least, are given some familiarity with the most important Islamic philosophers during the Medieval period before the Reformation. After the Reformation, Islamic philosophy is generally not taught within the tradition of Western philosophy. Nevertheless, most students of Western philosophy will study the most important philosophers in the Islamic tradition, and some names may already be familiar to some: Al-Kindi, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Sohrevardi, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhalzen), Al-Biruni, and Ibn Khaldun (whom we already looked at in some detail here). I do not plan to dwell on the specificities of these specific philosophers unless it is desired by the group (although all of these names are very important to the history of philosophy). Instead, we will, like the thread on understanding Christian philosophy, give a general synopsis and tour of the major common aspects that all Islamic philosophers deal with.

LAW, “THE FALL,” AND SUBMISSION

While traditional Christianity asserts that the world was created in eros and agape, and that humans have an instinctive eros for love that brings about union with all created things and the source of that love, beauty, and happiness, Islam teaches that humans desire law and fidelity to eternal law. In Islam, Law simply means “Sharia.” Sharia is a comprehensive Legal Code that is meant to address everything that Law is meant to address.

This is why many Islamic philosophers have proclaimed Islam to equally be “a way of life.” We will soon find out the heavy importance of law in Islamic philosophy and why some see the rise of Islam as a transformative event and the “first modern movement” (due to its emphasis on law and law as leading to human flourishing, a concept that is generally rejected in classical Western philosophy and doesn’t appear until the State of Nature philosophers of the Enlightenment.)

The Fall

In traditional Islamic theology Adam (man) was created to be in fidelity to the eternal law of God (or submission) which would lead to the flourishing of life. Indeed, the Fall of Satan (called Eblis) is one in which Satan refused to obey the laws of God and the “Fall of Man” in Islam mirrors the same pattern as the Fall of Satan. This establishes the importance of Law in Islamic philosophy. “And when We said to the angels, “Bow down and worship Adam,” then worshipped they all, save Eblis (Satan). He refused and swelled with pride, and became one of the unbelievers” (Sura II). Humanity’s “Fall” according to Islam occurs in much the same way, disobedience to the Law. “But Satan made them slip from it [(the Law)], and caused their banishment from the place in which they were” (Sura II).

The world and humanity are created in submission to Law in the Islamic outlook. (Contra eros in Christianity.) Disobedience to the Law is sin. This is not inherited by anyone and is purely individual. What the Fall represents in Islamic theology is that humans, in free will, are tempted to either remain in fidelity to God’s Law or tempted to rebel against God’s Law. To remain true to the Law is the fount of holy living. To stray from the Law is to be living in sin. Therefore, sin is not a state of being but a state of action that is always ongoing. No one is born in sin. But one can “fall” into sin through disobedience.

The Fall of humanity in the Islamic tradition corresponds with the rupture of human ability to conform to the Eternal Law. Since humans no longer desire happiness from the eternal law, it was necessary for Prophets to recreate law that closely reflected eternal law to restore happiness to humanity. In the Qur’an, the great Prophets of the Jewish tradition, Moses, was SENT AS A LAWGIVER to the Jewish people. The Prophet to the Greeks and Romans, Jesus, was SENT AS A LAWGIVER to the Greeks and Romans. Muhammad, the final prophet, was SENT AS A LAWGIVER to the Arabs (and in traditional interpretation, to the rest of the people of the world as well). The Law is sent to humans to help them submit, or conform, back to the ways of God. Those in disobedience to the law are “sinners.” Fidelity to the Law is what makes a person righteous and good in the eyes of traditional Islamic teaching. This is why legal interpretation is a major focus in Islamic culture and philosophy. There are five primary schools of legal interpretations (this is called Fiqh): Hanafi (Sunni), Maliki (Sunni), Shafi’i (Sunni), and Hanbali/Wahhabism (Sunni), and Ja’fari (Shi’a). There are other schools, but these are the most important and widespread schools of jurisprudence in the Islamic tradition.

In Islam, Adam’s sin of disobedience did not lead to a loss of immortality. Like traditional Christianity, humans are created mortal is Islamic philosophy. There was also no Original Sin. Instead, Adam, feeling guilty, prays to God for forgiveness and God forgives him, and tells him how to remain faithful and righteous, “And words of prayer learned Adam from his Lord: and God turned to him; for He loveth to turn, the Merciful…whoso shall follow My guidance [(the Law)], on them shall come no fear, neither shall they be grieved” (Sura II).

Therefore, we see that in Islam, the equivalent to “The Fall” as it is in Christianity is the falling away from submission to God’s eternal law. This leads to unhappiness. (Happiness is also a major theme in Islamic philosophy, and Law has a major role to play in the attainment of happiness in Islamic thought.) So as you can already tell, happiness is a central concern in Islamic philosophy, but unlike in Christianity, happiness is found in Law.

Submission

As such, Islam teaches that submission (that is what it means to be Muslim, to submit to the holy law of God) is the righteous and responsible response to the Prophets who bring the Law and to one’s shortcomings. Historically, this was interpreted that Jews and Christians, as long as they followed the law brought to them by Moses and Jesus, did not need to be “converted” (submit) to the Law of Muhammad. They were regarded as Dhimmi (or, “protected people”).

This has led to complicated relations, historically, between Muslims and Jews and Christians. Those who maintain that Jews and Christians are still being obedient to the Law brought to them by Moses and Jesus are to remain protected. (This is the main reason why most Christians in Syria support the Assad Government.) The Ottomans, for instance, generally maintained that Jews and Christians living under their rule were faithful to their Law and therefore were left to do as they pleased. However, Islamists generally argue that Jews and Christians have fallen astray from their Law, hence they are no longer protected since they are not submitting to their Laws. (We might say that’s a convenient argument to make.)

Thus, we see the concept of “The Fall” in Islam is one of obedience and temptation: obedience to the Law of God, and temptation to deviate the Law from Satan. In Islam, Satan plays a more prominent role than in traditional Christianity, although Satan is also very prominent in the Gnostic sects of early Christianity. By submission to Law, one will find happiness according to Islamic philosophy.

SIN AND “EVIL” IN ISLAM

Islam, unlike Christianity, has no concept of Original Sin, and no disordering of loves and inability to express, experience, and come into union with love. (Again, evil and sin in traditional Christianity is wrapped up in misdirected love, privation of goodness, which stems from a privation of proper rationality in understanding the ordering of love and goodness.) As such, there is an inherent perfectionism, of sorts, within Islamic thought. Rather than being limited as in Christianity, humans possess an innate perfectionist quality due to their freeness from Original Sin. “Sin” is merely the state of engaged actions that deviate from Sharia and nothing more than that.

Islam follows a similar outlook with its importance given to the Law. Evil is a privation of, gradation away from, or manipulation, of Law. To return to the story of Adam and Eve in Paradise, Eblis manipulates them to depart from fidelity to the Law. This is what “sin” is in Islam. It is not “misdirected love” as it is understand in traditional Christianity. Those who abuse law, distort law, and fall away from law, are prone to engage in, or are engaging in, otherwise “evil” and “sinful” acts.

(On an interesting note, in Islamic Mysticism, Eblis is considered “a true monotheist” because Satan’s (Eblis) refusal to prostrate before man (Adam) highlighted his fidelity to God alone; however, the problem is that God commanded Eblis to submit before man and in his refusal he broke submission to God. Eblis’s love for God alone paradoxically led him to fall away from God. Eblis is viewed as a more “benevolent” figure who, in his tempting of the believer, is actually helping the true believer be faithful to God while exposing the unbeliever as unfaithful.)

As such, in Islam, sin is simply a state of acting as mentioned above. Traditionally, Islam understands the desire to establish one’s own law (as opposed to accepting the Law of God) as the root of the worst sins. (You can read into that as you want for contemporary issues.) Repentance is the act of returning to God’s Law in Islam and restores human relationship to God through the Law.

SHARIA LAW, HAPPINESS, & SALVATION

Islam has the most unique account of happiness among religious or philosophical traditions. Islam, nominally speaking, agrees with classical natural law theory that humans exist in, and for, happiness. Islam departs from Judaism, Christianity, and Greco-Roman philosophy more generally, in how it approaches this issue. (As we covered in our post on Classical Natural Law, Classical Natural Law as established in the Hebrew Bible, through Greek philosophy, through Christianity, maintains reason is sufficient to understand happiness, and in rational cultivation, one acts in accord with reason and experiences happiness.) Unlike Western notions of classical natural law, Islam maintains reason is insufficient. What is sufficient? Law (which is the Sharia).

Thus, in Islam, what we would call “positive law” today in philosophy of law is what Sharia is (in Islamic form), and from Sharia—submission and acting in accord to law—one finds happiness. We see, then, a contentious break with classical Western understanding of natural law. We also see how legal positivism plays an instrumental role in achieving happiness in Islam. (This gives Islam its reputation of being “legalistic.”)

Most scholars note the awkward approach Islam then takes toward modern liberalism, which equally maintains through Law (the Social Contract) and State that human life flourishes (through conatus). But Islam has a vastly different account of what the purpose of Law and State is for: to promote the Sharia, and in its promulgation and submission to, one finds happiness.

Thus, Law and State (in promotion of the Sharia) has the most integral and crucial role to play in the salvation of humanity in Islam since it is through Law and civil society’s promulgation of Law that humans are happy. Law, in Islam, aims to achieve happiness through positive behavioral cultivation through its precepts and commands. Like in traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism, it is understood that teleological and ontological happiness that is understood as salvation in Islam. (I.e., the flourishing person, who is the happy person, is the person who has fully submitted to the Sharia and in doing so, grows in happiness and is therefore flourishing.) Since, in Islam, Law has a fundamental disposition in achieving happiness; Law has an instrumental and essential role in the nature of salvation in Islamic theology. (This strongly differs from traditional Jewish and Christian understandings, despite all three religions nominally being rooted in the “Abrahamic Faiths.” As we noted in Christian philosophy, no law or State can produce happiness for us, only we can derive happiness for ourselves through the proper ordering of desire through reason in traditional Christian and Jewish philosophy.)

We should immediately see how the two traditions split radically in how this achieved (desire being ordered by reason and coming into union with the source of happiness as in Christianity, or the desire for happiness emerging through full submission to Law as in Islam). Islam, then, takes on a universal attitude whereas Christianity, through its subjectivity consciousness which establishes particularity, takes on an “individualist” attitude. Like all classical traditions, Islam, nevertheless, maintains happiness to be the purpose of human life and existence. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, especially Christianity, Islam maintains that the happiness that humans desire is not by a union with the source of happiness, beauty, and serenity, etc. (though God is the source of these things), but through submission and obedience to the Law (Sharia) which brings happiness. Any Muslim who asserts that one could achieve happiness apart from Sharia, would technically be heretical.

So while some aspect of positivistic law features far more prominently in Islam, like Judaism and Christianity in the nominal sense, Islamic theology and philosophy maintains salvation (soteriology) as the manifestation of eudemonia, or happiness, in life. This is achieved through obedience to the law, where the good (the happy) exceeds the bad (disobedience). Much like positivism in modern contractarian philosophy, law is what guides and shapes humans to their end. We should note, again, how this differs from the conception understood of ordering rationality directing eros to its end. As such, Islam developed comprehensive philosophies of jurisprudence, which is Fiqh. This is the most important aspect to Islamic philosophy, which we turn to next.

FIQH AND JURISPRUDENCE

We already brought up the notion of Fiqh in Islamic philosophy. This means legal understanding or understanding jurisprudence. Fiqh is one of the most important concepts to be found in Islamic philosophy. It is a central feature in the writings of most Islamic philosophers. We also noted how there are five common schools of Fiqh. We shall explore each in a little detail here.

(1) HANAFI

The Hanafi School of Fiqh is named after the Islamic philosopher and jurist Abu Hanafi. Hanafi School is the most common school of Fiqh and is part of the Sunni tradition today. The most important idea of the Hanafi school is Istihsan (or “Preference”). This, however, has created a complicated breakdown of the Hanafi School between Textual (Nass), Consensus (Ijma), Moral (Maruf), Necessity (Darurah), and Personal or Collective Benefit (Maslahah) Preferences. Properly speaking, Abu Hanafi advocated all of the above as a form of Casuist interpretation that fit the circumstances. However, as time has passed, the school itself has splintered into factional groups with their own preference for one of the five major preferences established by Abu Hanafi. Nominally speaking, Hanafi “Islamists” favor the Textual Preference while the Hanafi reformists favor the Consensus preference (seeing that it is “compatible with democracy”), and the Muslim Brotherhood historically favored the Collective Benefit model, though I’m not acquainted with what changes may have occurred since its inception.

Today’s Islamist movements, which we explored in this post, are also rooted in the stronger Textual tradition of Hanafism mixed with a unique strand of Romantic Historicism to them (which causes controversy among the non-Islamist strands of Textual Hanafism).

(2) SHAFI’I

The Shafi’i School is the second larger Sunni School of Fiqh named after Al-Shafi’i. It is generally seen as standing in opposition to Hanafi Fiqh, and is the common school of jurisprudence in the Far East: India, Indonesia, and Singapore. The Shafi’i School relies on the Textual (Nass) interpretative method from the Qur’an and Hadith. However, where there is ambiguity, it relies on Ijtihad (individual reasoning) on the subject matter. As such, the Shafi’i school is considered—perhaps paradoxically to Western readers—as fundamentalist and individualist (and the two are not in contradiction with each other). The Shafi’i School considers the Hanafi School to be quiestically heretical for reliance on alternative means of interpretation apart from Texts or individual interpretation of the text. In many ways, the Shafi’i school of Fiqh mirrors Protestantism in Christianity, where each individual is the judge and interpreter of Scripture. As such, the Shafi’i school is diverse in the regions it is practiced based on local and custom individualist interpretations that could vary from region to region based on individual reasoning. It was also an outgrowth of the Malaki School, since Al-Shafi’i was a student of Malik ibn Anas. Historically, the Shafi’i School was the most common method of Fiqh until the rise of the Ottoman Empire which privileged the Hanafi interpretation. (Many see this shift from the Ottomans as an attempt to establish uniformity throughout the empire.)

(3) MALAKI

The Malaki School is another Sunni School of Fiqh, and was founded by Malik ibn Anas. The Malaki School was common in Islamic Iberia and Sicily, and today it is commonly found in Western North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). The Malaki School is commonly believed to have emerged in opposition to Hanafi School, and like the Shafi’i School it gave birth to, privileged the primacy of the Qur’an and Hadith alone. In matters of ambiguity, whereas the child outgrowth Shafi’i relied on individual reasoning, the Malaki School relied on ancestral and common customs and traditions, this is called the ‘Amal interpretative method. The Malaki School is considered traditionalist because of its close attachment to established jurisprudence from ancestral and customary establishment. Where there are no established customs to build off on, it follows the Ijtihad method, which is more prominent in the aforementioned Shafi’i school (and you can see how the Shafi’i school grew out of Malaki School). In this manner, its closest equivalent in Western legal philosophy would be English Common Law. As stated, it was the main form of Fiqh for the Umayyad Caliphate and its successors in Iberia the Caliphate of Cordoba.

(4) HANBALI

The last major school of Sunni Fiqh is Hanbali (or Wahhabi). It is commonly found only in Saudi Arabia. Its founder was Ahmad ibn Hanbal. The Hanbali school of jurisprudence accepts only two forms of Fiqh: (1) the Textual, and where the Textual is considered insufficient, it follows (2) the decrees of Mohammad’s closest companions (this is called the Sahabah interpretation). No other means of interpretation are considered valid in the Hanbali School. So where the textual jurisprudence is fuzzy, one turns to decrees of Mohammad’s closest followers and companions. The Hanafi school combines elements of the Nass (textual) tradition as found prominently in Hanafi traditions, but Hanbali is predominately dominated by the Sahabah tradition: the decrees of Mohammad’s closest companions.

(5) JA’FARI

The last major school of Fiqh is associated with Shi’a Islam. This is the Ja’fari School, named after Ja’far al-Sadiq, who was the sixth and greatest Imam in Shi’a tradition, who was a descendent of Ali. The Ja’fari School relies on the inherited rulings of Ja’far when he was alive, and on the Ijtihad means of interpretation. This makes the Ja’fari School the most time-bound of the schools of Fiqh in the sense that it often changes in ruling and interpretations based on the interpreters in a given time. The Ja’fari School, as such, stresses the importance of subjective individual reasoning to interpret case matters. The Ijtihad is considered the proper means of Textual interpretation, since all texts need to be interpreted. The subjective nature of the Ja’fari School carries with it a strong and rich mystical element to it. The subjective element makes it the most changing, due to different individual interpretations all the time, as stated already.

There are other schools of Fiqh, but due to their small size and influence, they are not that important for our sake. The aforementioned five schools above are the most common, with Hanbali being the largest among the Sunni variants, with further preferences given to the various diverse methods pending the Sunni groups.

CONCLUSION

This is a brief and concise overview of the most important precepts of Islamic theology and philosophy. It is befitting of us to be aware of this and to see the stark contrasts with Christianity and Islam. While they do share the same historical lineage, one should be able to see the glaring differences between the two religions. It is otherwise naïve and ignorant to think “all religions are the same.”

More importantly, however, we see the importance of Law in Islamic theology and philosophy. Most of the great Islamic philosophers have been pioneers in philosophy of law and legal jurisprudence. For instance, the Islamic philosopher Averroes (or Ibn Rushd) is one of the most important legal philosophers of the medieval era. The Islamic concept of Fiqh, which we briefly explored, was associated with the legal interpretation in early Islam that established the various schools of jurisprudence that we briefly mentioned at the beginning of this post. The importance of jurisprudence and legal interpretation in Islam is what established the multitude of Islamic schools of jurisprudence in the first place. As such, we should see the primacy of Law in Islamic philosophy and theology.

Law is paramount, and the most important aspect of Islamic philosophy and society. This is true in Islam’s understanding and revision of happiness and its place in human teleology and ontology. Unlike classical natural law in the Greco-Christian tradition, which maintains through natural eros (desire) and rationality one knows and can experience happiness, Islam maintains this to be insufficient for experiencing happiness. Instead, what we would call “positive law” (the social construction and enforcement of law in society for society’s purposeful benefit) has a much stronger role in achieving happiness. This is why Sharia is such a big deal in Islam. It is through Sharia that one, when one submits, experiences happiness. And in happiness, one is flourishing. And in that flourishing, one achieves salvation.

(Again, the astute readers of the this group will be able to read between the lines and see what the whole fuss about “Islam vs. West” is really about, especially since the modern West has generally embraced the State of Nature to Social Contract philosophical tradition, and we’ve been over how important the classical liberal philosophers elevate the role of civil and political law as the source of societal flourishing. But like the critics of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza in the 17th century arguing that true happiness could never be had from their philosophies, many Islamic philosophers have levied the same charge against the encroaching universalism and nihilism of contemporary liberalism. Many commentators note that the concept of Sharia as found in Islam mirrors what would become “positivism” in later Western thought post-Hobbes.)

Earlier we also looked at Classical Islamic political philosophy, principally examining the influences of Plato’s political theory mixed with Aristotelian ethics here, and also the Romanticist roots of Pan-Arabism and Islamism here.

These are the basics of understanding Islamic philosophy. One can probably understand the oft-repeated witticism that there are two things you don’t debate a Muslim scholar on: arithmetic and legal jurisprudence. Law, that is legal interpretation, is the heart of Islamic philosophy.

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