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Islamic Theology and Philosophy Essay

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Updated: Apr 24th, 2021

Establishing an equilibrium between the Islam of truth and Islam as an identity is one of the most difficult tasks of religious intellectuals”.

Abdolkarim Soroush

Introduction

There are several most ancient religions with long-standing traditions and centuries of interaction, rivalry, and opposition in the world; they are Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. These religions have fundamental differences in their approach to Allah, to the destiny of man, and the position of man in the world, to the sin, good, and evil, to the Judgment day and the code of virtuous, religious behavior. All these religions have delineated areas of influence and geographical regions of domination. However, one can see a clear distinction between the sub-disciplines within every single religion as well, marking their varied and complex development, and their overall complex entity within the scope of human inquiry.

An illustrative example of this case can be Islam; there are two distinct scholarly traditions within the framework of the Muslim religion – Islamic theology and philosophy. As researchers repeatedly note, these two disciplines, though being very closely connected and indispensably tied to the concept of Qura’n, have been largely isolated from each other throughout the history of the Muslim world’s evolution and formation. The disciplines were juxtaposed, and the followers of these two trends in Muslim thought were educated in different educational institutions, were brought up based on different traditions, etc. The influence of one field on the other (which was typically observed from the side of philosophy towards theology) was through polemics (Watt, 2008).

However, the evolutionary processes of historical development have made the Islamic philosophy field mostly obsolete. Though being opposing disciplines, theology and philosophy were gradually merged in the framework of Islamic religion, and some activists such as al-Ghazali contributed to the incorporation of Islamic philosophical principles in Islamic theology. Nowadays the status of Islamic philosophy is gradually revived, mostly due to the activity of a prominent Pakistani philosopher, thinker, and poet Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) who revived the meaning of Islamic philosophy in the 20th century and worked profoundly on the re-introduction thereof to the scientific insight of Islam (Runner & Runner, n.d.).

Even though there have been so many diverse relationships between the Islamic theology and philosophy field, one should pay much more attention both to the historical roots and the fundamental principles of both to identify the modern state of relationships between the two areas of research. To do this, Islamic theology and philosophy will be at first considered separately to identify the key characteristic features of each area. Ultimately, the two will be compared and contrasted to identify the nature of differences between Islamic philosophy and theology and to identify the touching points of both as well.

Islamic Theology – History, Fundamentals, and Modernity

The nature of Islamic culture is highly diverse, but its core remains stable – it is deeply philosophical, theological, and metaphysical (Tymieniecka & Muhtaroglu, 2010). The basic features of Islamic theology are derived from the supreme holy writing – the Qura’n, and the prophetic traditions – Hadiths (Runner & Runner, n.d.). Though there has been much debate over whether the Islamic religion propagates orthodoxy (the unified dogma) or the orthopraxy (right practice), there is little agreement on the issue, since the basis of Islam is the teaching of right conduct, while the existence of a single, omnipotent Allah is also not doubted (Brown, 2009).

Since ancient times, teaching, discussion, and writing about Qura’n has been conducted in Arabic, the authentic language of the writing, only, and the enlightenment centers were Iraq and Iran (Hourani, 2007). The first religious group that undertook the responsibility of interpreting the writings of Muhammad was the Mu’tazilites – the ‘party of unity and justice’, as they claimed1. They emerged one century after Muhammad’s death and practiced very strict adherence to the Qura’n writings. The polytheism (on the example of the Christian trinity) was fully rejected, and the Qura’n was considered created by one eternal being – the Allah. Mu’tazilites claimed that man would be treated by Allah with intelligible justice, and would be punished by Allah on the Judgment day only in case he committed sins. Thus, Mu’tazilites gave the power and freedom of will to the hands of believers, stating that it was the decision of man whether to sin or not (Hourani, 2007).

However, the group of Mu’tazilities faced much opposition; in particular, Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) accused them of transforming the Qura’n truths through the prism of human ideas, thus distorting the messages incorporated in Qura’n. More than that, theology was considered idle speculation, and having no practical use for believers, being capable of only casting doubts in their souls (Hourani, 2007). Therefore, a major breakdown in the development of Islamic theology was observed until the emergence of Shi’ite tradition.

Shi’ites disagreed with the fundamentals of Mu’tazilites’ theology, debating their transcendental doctrine.2 They interpreted Qura’n more literally and insisted on the movement of Allah in space and the changeability of His knowledge with the changeability of things. However, they soon adopted some basic postulates of Mu’tazilites such as the freedom of will and choice of men, as well as Allah’s objective justice (Hourani, 2007).

Finally, the development of Islamic theology witnessed the emergence of the Sunnite tradition; they represented the traditionalist trend in interpreting Qura’n and were very careful interpreters, insisting on Allah’s omnipotence and unity as the basic attributes of Allah according to Qura’n. They rejected the values of justice and truth in the human understanding since what was wished by Allah could not be wrong, and the laws of Allah were considered the only justice possible (Hourani, 2007). Since then, the only profound change in the development of Islamic theology was the contribution of Ash’ari of Basra who generated a subtler theory of justice and included the argument of man’s responsibility for his actions and culpability for sins, and of Maturidi of Samarquand who secured the role of creating deeds to Allah, while leaving the choice of how to act to Allah (Hourani, 2007).

Islamic Philosophy: Roots, Focus of Scientific Attention, Prominent Representatives

The Islamic philosophy has a considerably shorter period of development in comparison with Islamic theology, as it emerged only in the 9th century with the translations into Arabic made by Syriac Christian scholars. They translated the works of Plato, Aristotle, parts of “Enneads” of Plotinus, Galen’s medicine, Ptolemy’s astronomy, and geography, Euclid’s geometry, etc. (Hourani, 2007). Therefore, there are only two sources for Islamic philosophy – Greek philosophical teachings, and the Qura’n. There have been two distinct traditions in Islamic philosophy: Kalam and Falsafa (Runner & Runner, n.d.). The first Islamic philosopher was Kindi (d. 870) who wrote much on philosophy but retained considerable autonomy from the ideas of Greeks due to the idea of the world as not everlasting but created in time.

One more prominent philosopher was Farabi (873-950); he wrote much on Aristotle but followed the Neoplatonic philosophy. He stated that the emanation of the world should occur in successive steps from Allah and other higher intellectual beings; the rules for living encompass reaching happiness by improving the intellectual discipline in the pursuit of unity with the Intellectual soul, the world’s active intellect. The ideal community as seen by Farabi was the caliphate, with a philosophical prophet educating people about Islam and interpreting the Qura’n for them (Hourani, 2007).

Ibn Sina is considered one of the brightest philosophers in the Islamic tradition; he has written much on the metaphysics of the efficient causality, single expressions, and subject-matter of metaphysics (Marmura, 1984). Ibn Sina founded the school of Avicennism and introduced philosophy to Persians and Arabs in the 9th century. He combined Aristotelianism with Neoplatonism and thoroughly recorded the ideas so that to present the unified philosophy of Islamic religion to the Christian world later (Runner & Runner, n.d.).

Another significant thinker and contributor to the field of Islamic philosophy were Ibn Rushd – he defended philosophy against the attacks of theologians, especially al-Ghazali, and claimed that Islam allowed latitude for interpreters to explore the truths of Qura’n, and philosophers were the most suitable personas for doing this due to their background knowledge of sciences, high education status, knowle4dgeabiltiy, and competence (Hourani, 2007). Ibn Rashd was sure that science and philosophy should not contradict each other, since they both explored the single truth, while religion and philosophy could contradict due to the different angle of approaching the divine (Hourani, 2007). However, Ibn Rashd’s serious attacks at theologians made him fall in disgrace with the authorities of the Muslim world, which led to his legal condemnation and exile.

As it has already been mentioned, the destiny of the modern philosophy of Islamic religion is very vague, since it was incorporated in theology without any evident need to sustain two separate disciplines. However, due to the basic differences distinguishing these fields of scholarly inquiry in Islam, the modern philosophical tradition is emerging, and it was revived by Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal in the form of Hikmat (“wisdom”) (Runner & Runner, n.d.). There is much hope that the modern philosophical tradition will not be lost, and its authenticity will be preserved.

Conclusion: Similarities and Differences in Islamic Theology and Philosophy

There is a clear conclusion seen from the present review of the historical and modern relationships between Islamic theology and philosophy – both disciplines have very much in common, and they both attempt to clarify, explain, and expand the understanding of believers related to the writings of Qura’n. Since the Islamic tradition has a great number of regulations, laws, and restrictions about the true Islamic conduct, virtuous life, and non-sinning, Muslims have to understand what they believe in, and they have to have a clear idea of Allah, the world, truth, good and evil. Hence, both Islamic philosophy and theology address the same issues.

However, there are clear distinctions as well recorded in the approach taken by philosophers and theologians towards the Islamic religion. The Islamic philosophy is not philosophy as such, as it relies purely on Islam, so it is better to call it the philosophy of religion (Landolt, Lawson, & Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2005). It relies on the models of practical reasoning cultivated by the ancient Greek philosophers from which much of the Islamic philosophy has been borrowed; however, religion in itself is irrational, and some concepts related to Allah cannot be subject to reason and common sense – they have to be believed in simply and blindly. There is always an element of trust in religion – while some issues go beyond the scope of practical reasoning, but they are taken for granted in a religion, it is clear that people have to choose whether to look for proofs and practical evidence or to believe. Muslims are choosing the second variant since the influence of Islam is incomparably higher in Muslim countries.

Hence, the role of philosophy is not as high as the one of theology. Islamic theology, in its turn, has emerged as a natural response to the appearance of many opposing trends in interpreting the Qura’n, and it serves as a clarification for believers. The need to distinguish truth from error is essential in delineating the guidelines for the right behavior of Muslims; this is the function of theology – to study the Qura’n and to offer reasonable interpretations, thus leveling the impact of various doubtable schools, trends, and teachings that distort the teachings of Allah, mislead the believers, and may even bring them to sin.

There are many overlaps in the Islamic theology and philosophy, both teaching people to live virtuously, both exploring the place and essence of Allah, the nature of the world, the significance of the single truth existing in the world. Philosophy supports the need for and the existence of prophets and expands the boundaries of knowledge by referral to natural knowledge (Hourani, 2007). Both Islamic theology and Islamic philosophy have been considered unnecessary and redundant in the framework of Islam at certain periods of their development; nonetheless, they explore the intricacies of Islam and add validity and reliability to the interpretations existing nowadays. Through thorough research, debate, and discussion the truth is revealed, which makes the Islamic practices more reasoned, unified, and clear for believers, which is clear religious progress and transparency so essential in the modern changing attitudes to religion, and ambiguity in interpretation contaminating religious awareness.

References

Brown, D.W. (2009). A New Introduction to Islam. (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons.

Hourani, G.F. (2007). Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Landolt, H., Lawson, T., & Institute of Ismaili Studies. (2005). Reason and inspiration in Islam: theology, philosophy, and mysticism in Muslim thought : essays in honour of Hermann Landolt. New York, NY: I.B.Tauris.

Marmura, M.E. (1984). Islamic theology and philosophy: studies in honor of George F. Hourani. New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Runner, J., & Runner, J. (n.d.). Islamic Theology and Philosophy. Web.

Tymieniecka, A.-T., & Muhtaroglu, N. (2010). Classic Issues in Islamic Philosophy and Theology Today. New York, NY: Springer.

Watt, W.M. (2008). Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Footnotes

  1. Mu’tazilites are known as ‘people of justice and unity’, condemned as “Zoroastrians of the community”. (Brown, 2009).
  2. The transcendental doctrine of Mu’tazilites claimed that Allah’s oneness is absolute, that nothing else but God is eternal (thus rejecting the eternal force of Qura’n); that Allah’s justice is exercised according to each person’s acts. Some other points in their doctrine were “the promise and the threat”, the intermediate position of a grave sinner, and the necessity to oppose injustice (Brown, 2009).
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