I have featured on this blog a number examples of several different modes of scriptural exegesis in the medieval world (and a couple relating to the ‘early-modern’ era). The following represents yet another ‘mode’ of exegesis, here hailing from the Islamic theological tradition known as Mu’tazilism specifically, from the philosophical-theological tradition of kalam more generally. To make a quite long story short, kalam– literally, ‘speech,’ or perhaps more aptly, ‘talking’- is ‘dialectical theology,’ developed in the Arabic milieu of late formative Islam, but adopted by Christian and Jewish theologians as well. It seems to have initially developed as a way of dealing with theological and politico-theological issues in the early Muslim communities, eventually solidifying into distinct ‘schools’ of theological thought and practice, all more or less committed to a clarification of and defense of Muslim orthodoxy (the definition of which of course varied depending on who you asked) through the use of rational, discursive inquiry and methods. The Mu’tazila represented (or rather, represent, as there are some representatives of the tradition still about) what is sometimes incorrectly regarded as a more ‘liberal’ view of orthodox theology, a view that seems to have arisen among contemporary Western commentators due to the Mu’tazila insistence upon free will, on the one hand, and the createdness of the Qur’an, on the other. While both positions were indeed held by the Mu’tazila, it was not out of some commitment to ‘liberalism,’ a meaningless term in this case. Rather, the Mu’tazila saw themselves as upholders of both proper orthodoxy and of a deeply rational system of thought and doctrine; many of their doctrines, such as the status of the grave sinner, would no doubt strike many contemporary Western observers as ‘harsh.’

But all of that is beside the point of this post, which is rather to highlight the rational-theological commitments and techniques of the Mu’tazila in particular, and of the mutikallimun (dialectical theologians) in general. These commitments are very much on display in the exegesis generated by the dialectical theologians; the theologian I have selected for translation here, ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādi (935-1025), was one of the most productive and astute theologians the Mu’tazila produced. Coming towards the end of the so-called ‘classical period’ of Mu’tazila thought, ʻAbd al-Jabbār both recapitulated previous doctrinal and philosophical developments and formulations in addition to his own creative additions to the tradition. Among his contributions were exegetical works that reflect the concerns and methods of both the tafsir tradition and that of kalam in general. The following excerpt comes his work the Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin, in which ʻAbd al-Jabbār selects particular passages from the Qur’an due to problematic, theologically productive, or ambiguous nature in terms of grammar, arrangement, or vocabulary. For instance, in the following excerpt, dealing with verses from Surah Ta-Ha, ʻAbd al-Jabbār examines a verse that might seem at first to support an anthropomorphist reading of the Qur’an; he presents an interpretation in accordance with Mu’tazila theology. The other passages have to do with difficulties and ambiguities of other sorts; all are solved by ʻAbd al-Jabbār using rational, discursive methods, reflective of the methodological commitments of the Mu’tazila in general.

Finally, for a more in-depth analysis of mutikallimun tafsir, including that of ʻAbd al-Jabbār, the following paper of mine and the bibliographical references contained therein might prove useful: Kalām at the Interstices of Tafsīr: Theology, Contestation, and Exegesis in the Qur’an Commentaries of al-Maturidī and ‘Abd al-Jabbār.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, A revelation from Him Who created the earth and exalted heavens (Q. 20.4)—what is the purpose of His saying after this, The Merciful rises (istiwā) over the throne (Q. 20.5)?

We answer: God magnified the prestige of the Qur’an in that it is a revelation from Him Who created the earth and heavens, then He followed this with His being more magnified than that, saying: The Merciful rises over the throne. The intended meaning is possession and power over it because the throne is among the most magnificent things He created. He makes it clear that He is powerful over it with His magnificence and over the heavens and over the earth, and He rules what is the heavens, the earth, what is between them, and what is under the surface of the earth. So people know the magnificence of the place of the Qur’an through His description of it, and hold fast to its rules of behavior and judgments, for that was sent is from God regarding the overseeing office of the Qur’an.

And we have made clear beforehand the nullity of the doctrine of the anthropomorphists regarding God’s rising over the throne.[1] We said that from accepting that [doctrine] as sound, God is made to be a sensory object, possessing shape. And from this condition it follows that He is temporally originated and dependent upon being in a shape. So, rather, the intended meaning [of istiwā] is possession and power, as we have mentioned.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, If you speak publicly—then behold, He [also] knows the secret and what is more hidden (Q. 20.7): What is the meaning of His saying the more hidden, as there is nothing more hidden that the secret?

We answer: What alights upon the heart and arises in a one’s soul is even more hidden than the secret, so He points out the glory of His rank and knowledge of that, then says: God—no god but He; His are the beautiful names. So He points out by that what is incumbent upon one who remembers His names which inform about the magnificence of His rank, in accordance with His preceding words: A revelation from Him Who created the earth. And there is no avail in remembering the names of God except that one have in mind what they inform about Him—in regards to what His magnificence and glory require.

Question: Perhaps it is said, what is the meaning of His words, Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your sandals (Q.20.12): if it was permissible that he continue wearing the rest of his clothes, why was he forbidden from wearing his sandals while in the Holy Valley?

We answer: Sandals are not worn within the same parameters as other types of clothing. For one does not wear them inside his house, as he wears them [outside] in order to repel injury in places filthy refuse and other things accumulate. It is because of this purpose that in customary usage, when one wishes to honor a place, he takes off his sandals. God wanted to make clear to Moses the magnificence of the site of the Holy Valley, and He desired that the grace (baraka) of that valley adhere to Moses, so Moses touched the valley with his bare feet. God wished for Moses to know the magnificence of his location through that deed. It has also been related about his sandals that they were made from the skin of a donkey not killed in accordance with ritual purity. If that was the case, then it has precedent [as an explanation] in regards to the taking off [of the sandals]; if not, then what we previously discussed is a sound point of view.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, No god except Me—so serve Me and attend rightly to ritual prayer for My remembrance (Q.20.14). What is the meaning of His words for My remembrance, as ritual prayer is not properly carried out unless it is for His remembrance?

We answer: His words for My remembrance are directly related to the ritual prayer and to service to God together. It is as if He had said: Serve Me for My remembrance and attend rightly to the ritual prayer for My remembrance. Neither are sound unless one remembers God and confesses His oneness, because the one heedless of that is not prepared for what he is doing. It is in view of this that one struggles (yajtihad) to be on guard against distracted inattentiveness. So one who remembers God is on the straight path in his performance of his service towards God. God specifies [here] ritual prayer with remembrance, but it applies to all acts of worship, being emphatically important for them.

ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādī. Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin. Al-Ṭabʻah 1. Dirāsāt Ḥawla al-Qurʼān 2. (al-Jīzah: Maktabat al-Nāfidhah, 2006), 278-9.


[1] ‘Anthropomorphists’ interpreted the term istiwā in its most literal fashion, as reference to God corporeally rising above the material throne. At least, such a literalist, rather crude position is attributed to certain opponents by ‘Abd al-Jabbar; whether it was actually held in such a literal fashion by anyone, or more than a few, is another question.

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