Islamic philosophy flowered as a later development of Islamic thought. It was preceded by the kalam (disputation) science, the discipline of confirming the Muslim creed and defending it against subversive factions. It originated in the theological controversies of the eighth century over God's unity and attributes. Like the Jewish scripture, the Koran also emphasizes the unity of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the accountability of man. But it is the first article—the unity of God—that has come to occupy a central place in Muslim philosophical and theological thinking.
The earliest problematic question dealt with the relationship between God and his attributes, that is, whether God is one without division or quality, or one in essence but multiple in attributes. Debating this issue brought in some of the centuries-old ontological and epistemological questions, such as: What is the nature of God's existence? Does God, for instance, exist as a concept in one's mind, or does he also exist in an extra-mental (or supernatural) reality? And in any case, what is the relationship between God and man, and between God and the world, and how can a human being know him and understand his commands?
The debate could have continued peacefully had not the Mu'tazilites, who took an extreme rationalist position, resorted to force. Converting the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun to their cause, they gained a hold on the highest positions in the caliphate and used that power to impose their views. The Islamic world at large was shocked by the way they treated their opponents, especially Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855), an eminent scholar and founder of one of the four schools of Islamic law, who was subjected to flogging and imprisonment because of his opposition to the Mu'tazilites' views on the nature of God's speech.
Distancing themselves from the repulsive Mu'tazilite politics and extreme interpretations, most jurists took a middle position, making an honest effort to keep close to the Koranic and Sunna texts bila kaifa, that is, without asking a "how" question. Their aim was to shift the debate from theology to jurisprudence and law. Rather than focusing on God's attributes and essence, attention should be directed, they argued, to man's behavior and actions in compliance (or lack thereof) with God's law. But when al-Ash'ari (c. 873–935) dramatically broke away from the Mu'tazilites, returned to the moderate position of the people of the Sunna, and, thus, dealt the death blow to Mu'tazilism, followers of the orthodox schools of law lent him their support. The Ash'arite school became the theological representative of the mainstream Sunni Muslims.
With the rise of Ash'arism some theological issues lost their appeal, though new ones have emerged, for instance, concerning the question of perception as an independent source of knowledge in contrast to revelation. Like the Mu'tazilites before them, most of the Ash'arite scholars argued that perception is a source of knowledge. None of them, however, maintained (as did the ancient Geek materialists and modern crude Western empiricists) that perception is the only source of knowledge. According to Ash'arism, knowledge that is derived from the senses is legitimate, but it must be subordinated to the revealed truth, if certainty is to be attained.
In this view, revelation has an epistemological as well as a social function. In addition to illuminating the wider picture of oneself, the world, human existence, and ultimate human ends, it also serves to free the individual from irrational fear of natural forces, and instills in him a tendency to attempt a systematic understanding of these forces and their impact on human life. The revealed vision, moreover, liberates the individual from subordination to the ego and ethnocentrism and the dehumanization of the other that hinders rational argument and understanding.
But this balance between the revealed vision and the inquisitive mind has not always been maintained. In contrast to the Sunnis, who struggle to maintain a distinction between God and humans, the Shia contend that the distance that separates God from human souls is the source of all evil. Engulfed in matter, and cut off from their origins, human souls have no hope of being saved except through knowledge (irfan). But the redeeming knowledge, wherein God reveals himself and his divine designs, is attainable only through the guardians whom God assigns to accompany the prophets. Prophets bring the outer (zahir) divine command, whereas the guardians initiate people into the batin, or inner commands.
Borrowing this element of batin, the Sufis, on the other hand, developed a slightly different theory of knowledge. For them, understanding the divine sources of Islam rests neither in holy guardians nor in language, but on the "people of reality" (ahl al-haqiqa). They maintained that the Koran includes certain divine secrets and subtleties (asrar wa lata'if) that only the people of reality—Sufis—are capable of understanding.
It was mainly due to such tendencies of batini (esoteric) interpretations that a barrier of mistrust developed among Shia, Sufi, and Sunni jurists in Islamic history. Instead of debating the nature of God's attributes, the new questions for debate asked what it means for a term to have a specific meaning, and how one can know that a statement is true. These questions led eventually to the evolution of the philosophy of language, mysticism, logic, and jurisprudence as new Islamic disciplines. Opposing these Shia and Sufi trends of interpretation, most Sunni jurists resorted to the tradition of the Prophet and classic Arabic usage of language, employing the first as an explicit code of conduct and the second as an objective code of meaning. Both were meant to restrict extreme tendencies of interpretation.
Closely related to these debates was the issue of the source of moral knowledge and obligation. Conceiving God as the ultimately wise and just Being, the Mu'tazilites refused to establish a relation between God and evil. Endowed with a free will, they argued, humans are the authors of their own actions and ought to be rewarded or punished accordingly. Moral judgment and knowledge, in their view, stems from human reason, which can independently distinguish between good and bad.
For Sunni scholars, it was all very well to emphasize a person's capacity to reason. What they found objectionable, however, was the assertion that human reason is the sole criterion of truth and behavior, or that by following the dictates of reason alone one can be virtuous and attain happiness. This tinge of Aristotelian rationalism was thought to be irreconcilable with Islam's sources of guidance, reason, and revelation.
It is curious, however, that the Mu'tazilites' philosophical method, as well as some of the unresolved problems they left behind, have become, despite their political defeat, an important source of intellectual ferment in Muslim thought. Some of the issues they raised persisted and were pursued, with more moderation, by other eminent linguists, commentators, and philosophers. And most of those—Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun, among others—appeared in the Muslim West (North Africa and medieval Spain) and not in the East, as might be assumed.
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