Islamic theology

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology by Sabine Schmidtke

Get it on Amazon

This impressive volume brings together essays by many highly respected Western-educated scholars of Islam. Comparing it to The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (which I shortly reviewed here), this book is far more in-depth and analytical. In fact the Cambridge Companion feels like a preface to this more sophisticated (and much longer) book. This book will likely be a classic of Islamic studies, an achievement that helps take the entire field of Islamic theology forward.

One issue I have with the book is that many of the articles focus far more on history and social backgrounds than on the actual theological ideas. The two most important Islamic theological doctrines, Ashʿarism and Māturīdism, never receive a completely satisfactory exposition.

A number of the articles mislabel Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) as Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148), which could confuse readers. Below I will mention a few highlights from the book.

I was interested to learn about Ḍirār b. ʿAmr (d. 815 CE), an early Muslim theologian who developed the anti-Aristotelian idea that the universe is entirely made up of “accidents” (attributes or properties), rejecting Aristotle’s theory of the existence of “matter” or substance as a separate thing from its properties. Rejecting the concept of matter helps detach Islamic theology from the nature-supremacism of Aristotle (and later Ibn Rushd), who envisioned nature as something of an eternal entity that chained God’s freedom of action.

The Aristotelian theory creates great difficulty for explaining miracles because miracles seem to override nature, which breaks the primacy of matter. Nidhal Guessoum, who subscribes to that worldview, is forced to explain away miracles by reference to ideas like quantum uncertainty and the placebo effect in his book Islam’s Quantum Question (as I discuss in my review of it here). But if the entire universe is made up of attributes so that matter is nothing but a collection of attributes (as Ḍirār b. ʿAmr asserts), then this turns the universe into something of a simulation where everything has no basic reality of its own. Its realness always comes from God who upholds this “simulation”.

That is the key idea in my Ghazali-inspired computational theory of the universe. According to Ḍirār b. ʿAmr, if we translate his ideas into the computational language, everything in this universe is merely information held inside the Divine Register (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūḍ), similar to the way a video game’s universe is entirely information held inside a piece of hardware inside a computer known as RAM.

There is complete equality between one bit of information and another bit. The bits that define matter and the bits that define its attributes are equal so that everything can be considered an attribute. The matter-ness of matter is just another attribute. This means that for God to perform a miracle, all that He has to do is flip bits of information inside the Register. The stick of Moses can turn into a snake because God, who is in charge of the simulation, can easily change the bits of information in the Register that define the stick-ness of the stick so that for a time it becomes a snake. Aristotelians like Ibn Rushd and Guessoum cannot envision this because to them matter is not information in a simulation, it is something that has its own “reality” that is almost separate from God’s control.

In their view, God is unable to perform miracles or is severely limited in His capacity to perform them the way we understand them because the laws of matter do not permit miracles.

But Ḍirār b. ʿAmr’s theology (and orthodox, Ashʿarite Islamic theology) has no such problem with miracles because nature is entirely made up of information controlled by God. This orthodox theology that so many ill-educated science-minded people consider to be irrational and backward is in fact highly futuristic in its outlook if we interpret it in modern terms. It makes solving problems like reconciling Islam and evolutionary theory a rather easy exercise, as I discuss in my essay Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template.

Regarding the issue of free will, the Iranian Imam Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 772 CE, after whom the Ḥanafī school is named), came up with a moderate solution. God creates all things, including everything that takes place in the world. But humans intend, and God either carries out the intention or not. It is for this intention that they are responsible. This fits with the computational theory; the universe is like a simulation that is under God’s absolute control. Nothing happens inside it except when God makes it happen. But humans have been given the power to intend things. They are given a “remote control” to their bodies, they issue commands (intentions) and God either carries it out (by moving their bodies for them and allowing the intention to be carried out) or He does not (by refusing to move their bodies, or by causing the simulation to get in their way). For example a good person who intends to sin may be hindered by God. God can either cause a weakness and fatigue in them that takes away their ability to carry out the sin, or He may bring about causes that prevent the sin from being possible to carry out.

His views were the basis of the development of the Ḥanafī theological tradition that found its full development with the Arab Iranian scholar Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 945 CE).

Abū Ḥanīfa and Māturīdī shared the conviction that humans can tell good from evil based on reason alone (without the guidance of revelation). Ashʿarite scholars like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) developed a highly “Darwinian” view of human ethical reasoning; humans know good from evil due to their empathy for fellow humans and their knowledge of consequences, rather than due to the existence of some absolute ideal of good and evil that humans can appreciate (as the Muʿtazilites claimed). While Muʿtazilites have often been celebrated in Western thoughts as Islam’s arch-rationalists, in this case as in many others, the orthodox Islamic view is actually more “scientific”. It rejects the Muʿtazilite trust in human reason’s philosophical ability to know good and evil with a more naturalistic, Darwinian explanation. According to Rāzī humans develop ethical ideas based on experience, not based on philosophical axioms that exist independently of the world and God.

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology is a great resource for everyone interested in Islamic theology, the history of Islamic thought and some the key issues relating to the interpretation of the Quran.

If God is responsible for guidance, why are humans punished for being misguided?

Assallamualeykum! I was wondering if there is any proper answer for this question I was asked the other day: "If it is God who decides whether the person believes in Him or not, why would He still send people who don't believe in him to hell, isn't that decision made by Himself already?" And then there's an ayat in Quran 10:100 where it says that no person will believe if Allah doesn't wish for it. and that He doesn't like people who don't believe in Him. Jazakallahu khairan.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

There are various Islamic theological theories that tried to answer that question. My favorite so far is Ibn Taymiyya’s who says that guidance is like a conversation between humans and God. God guides the human, and the human responds by accepting this guidance or rejecting it. If they accept it, God guides them further, and if they reject it, God either ignores them or causes them to become even more misguided.

This “conversation” takes place every single day of our lives. The more we choose guidance, the more we are guided by Him, and the more disobey and turn our backs on Him, the more misguided He makes us.

So it is not a case of God forcing total guidance or misguidance on us from the beginning. It is a case of Him guiding us, then ourselves choosing whether we want to be guided further or not.

There are some hadiths that suggest that humans are choiceless in whether they are guided or not, for example:

While the Prophet (ﷺ) was in a funeral procession. he picked up something and started scraping the ground with it, and said, "There is none among you but has his place written for him either in the Hell Fire or in Paradise." They said, "O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)! Shall we not depend upon what has been written for us and give up deeds? He said, "Carry on doing (good) deeds, for everybody will find easy to do such deeds as will lead him to his destined place for which he has been created. So he who is destined to be among the happy (in the Hereafter), will find it easy to do the deeds characteristic of such people, while he who is destined to be among the miserable ones, will find it easy to do the deeds characteristic of such people." Then he recited: 'As for him who gives (in charity) and fears Allah, and believes in the best....' (92.5-10) (Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 474)

While we cannot escape God’s decrees, He guides or misguides us based on our choices. The above hadith therefore has to be re-interpreted through the theory of a dynamic fate; from birth your place in the Hell or Paradise may be “written”, but based on your choices as you grow up, God may change what He has written. So the fate is always written by God and decreed by Him, but our choices change what He decrees for us. There are hadiths that support the idea of a changeable fate, for example:

لَا يَرُدُّ القَضَاءَ إلَّا الدُّعَاءُ، وَلَا يَزِيدُ فِي العُمُرِ إلَّا البِرُّ

Nothing counters God's decree except supplication, and nothing increases lifespan except righteousness. (Narrated in al-Tirmidhi, authenticated by al-Albani in al-Silsila al-Sahiha 154 and in Sahih al-Jami` 7687.

According to this hadith if your fate is to be misguided, all that you need to do is pray for guidance, and this will change your fate.

The Quran itself never suggests that our fate is sealed as soon as we are born, instead supporting the theory of a changeable fate. The Quran says:

God erases whatever He wills, and He affirms. With Him is the Mother Book. (The Quran, verse 13:39)

The above may refer to the Divine Registry (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūḍ) where our fates are written, and it says that God erases and affirms as He wishes.

The Quran’s theology and the above hadith support the idea of a written fate that changes by God’s choice, but in response to our choices. So guidance and misguidance is decreed by God, but He decrees them based on our choices. If we choose guidance, God chooses guidance for us and increases us in guidance. And if turn away from Him, He chooses misguidance for us. While it is always God who guides us and misguides us, it is our own choices that lead to this, so we are held responsible for it.

A misguided person can never say to God, “I asked for guidance but you misguided me!” because that is not how the universe works. God guides constantly everyone who sincerely asks Him for guidance. A misguided person is one who chooses misguidance constantly. God calls them to Himself and places reminders in their path, and but they constantly turn away and based on that choice God punishes them.

... Say, “God leads astray whomever He wills, and He guides to Himself whoever repents.” (The Quran, verse 13:27)

... God chooses to Himself whom He wills, and He guides to Himself whoever returns to Him (with repentance). (The Quran, verse 42:13)

Sources I benefited from: