Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Islām's first theological controversy

The first major theological controversy within Islām came during the Umayyad dynasty's rule. It gave rise to the Qadarīya, who took positions on the key theological questions that differed from those preferred by the caliph's court.

Christians have had their own differences over the questions of predestination and free will.  Although the issue at first glance seems very similar to that which occurred during this Islamic controversy, I always hesitate to assume that surface similarities between religions are necessarily reflective of deeper ones.  The content and particular understanding of an issue can be very different and often can't be understood well without that broader religious context.

In this case, the question was closely bound up with the issues of right conduct by the rulers.  Mu‛āwiya and Abd al-Malik held to a strong deterministic position which justified the actions and decisions of the caliph as representing the will of God.  Yazīd II (caliph 720-724) held a particularly clear form of the idea, which in Hans Küng's description in Der Islam (2004) said that "a caliph is not required to give an account of himself before God, because everything the 'rightly guided deputy' of God [the caliph] does, is by definition right."

Küng observes drily that this doctrine proved especially convenient to the "life-loving" al-Walīd II and his life of "wine, women and song."

But there was a dissenting view which developed into the beliefs of the Qadarīya.  It held that while God is responsible for the good deeds of the caliph, the bad deeds were due to the less-than-infallible decisions of the human rulers.  The word "qadar" is used for both the will of God and for the responsibility of people.  But it was those who emphasized the latter who became identified as Qadarīya.

Küng describes how such a view could become especially undesirable from the rulers' point of view in certain circumstances:

For evil, humans are responsible; it cannot simply be attributed to God.  Every person is created by God for good, but  is nevertheless free to do evil, as well.  As an individual, he is [angesprochen] and so has his own qadar, his own self-determination and responsibility.  One immediately recognizes the political brisance [sp?] of such an apparently purely theological controversy: If a person is responsible for his evil deeds, he can also be held responsible for them before God - whether subject or caliph!

It comes as no surprise, then, that leading Qadarīya found themselves in rough political waters at various times.  ‛Abd al-Malik inquired of al-Hasan al-Basrī (642-728) about his ideas, which held that the strong predestinarian view favored by the caliph was an innovation - and not an altogether good one - in the Islamic religious tradition.

Karen Armstrong in Islam (2001) writes that the Qadarīya supported the Ummayad dynasty as being the best way to preserve the unity of the ummah (Muslim community).  But they were also willing to criticize its faults - sometimes at great risk to themselves (see below).  And she writes of Hasan (her spelling conventions are somewhat different than what I use):

He had opted for a theology known as the Qadariyyah, because it studied the decrees (qadar) of God.  Human beings had free will and were responsible for their actions; they were not predestined to act in a certain way, since God was just and would not command them to live virtuously if it was not in their power.  Therefore, the caliphs must be accountable for their deeds, and must be taken to task if they disobeyed God's clear teaching.  When Caliph Abd al-Malik heard that Hasan had been spreading this potentially rebellious doctrine, he summoned him to court, but Hasan was so popular that the caliph dared not punish him.  Hasan had begun the strong Mulsim tradition of combining a disciplined interior life with political opposition to the government.

In his article for Britannica on Hasan, David Ede writes ( "Hasan al-Basri, al-."Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD .[Accessed  September 20, 2005]):

The enemy of Islām, for Hasan, was not the infidel but the hypocrite (munāfiq), who took his religion lightly and “is here with us in the rooms and streets and markets.” In the important freedom-determinism debate, he took the position that man is totally responsible for his actions, and he systematically argued this position in an important letter written to the Umayyad caliph ‛Abd al-Malik. His letter, which is the earliest extant theological treatise in Islām, attacks the widely held view that God is the sole creator of man's actions. The document bears political overtones and shows that in early Islām theological disputes emerged from the politico-religious controversies of the day. His political opinions, which were extensions of his religious views, often placed him in precarious situations. During the years 705–714, Hasan was forced into hiding because of the stance he took regarding the policies of the powerful governor of Iraq, al-Hajjāj. After the governor's death, Hasan came out of hiding and continued to live in Basra until he died. It is said that the people of Basra were so involved with the observance of his funeral that no afternoon prayer was said in the mosque because no one was there to pray.

Another notable Qadarite was the Syrian Gailān ad-Dimašqī (died 732).  He was an official responsible for coinage under Caliph Umar II.  Küng summarizes his view as follows:

The rulers should not look upon their power as simply "a gift from God," with which they can do as they please.  They should rather be much more conscious of their responsibility before God for their people.

Gailān would later be cited as an authority by Muslims who challenged what they saw as illegitimate authority.  Gailān himself was executed as a conspirator against Caliph Hišām (caliph 724-743).

Another Syrian Abū ‛Abd-Allāh Makhūl, became known as a kind of father figure for the Qadarite movement.  He barely escaped execution himself under Hišām.

See also Index to Posts on Hans Küng's Der Islam

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