Why Māturīdism?

Why Māturīdism?

“The principal position of the Ashʿarī is that whoever dies, and the message [of Islam] has not reached him (tablughuhu al-daʿwah), dies saved. However, the Māturīdī say, whoever dies before he has time to contemplate (al-tāʾmmul), and does not have faith or disbelief (i.e., is agnostic), then no punishment is on him.”

In the last millennia, Islamic thought has been defined by the two main strands, the Sunnī and the Shīʿī. Within these strands there are multiple schools of thought representing overlapping and diverging disciplines, but the central defining discipline is that of philosophical or scholastic theology, ʿilm al-kalām. There are generally three theological schools accepted as representative of post-classical Sunnism (post-11th century CE), the Ashʿarī, the Māturīdī, and the Atharī. The Atharīs are technically creedal fideists who for the majority reject rational speculation in relation to God, prophecy, eschatology, or any other subject of metaphysical import. The Ashʿarī and the Māturīdī, who dominated Sunnī thought until the 20th century, were scriptural rationalists on certain subjects like divine immanence, creatio ex-nihilo, miracles, and eschatology, and developed later into philosophical rationalists on subjects like divine transcendence, physics, the soul, ethics, and the need for prophethood.

The Māturīdī are named after their founder namesake, the 10thcentury Ḥanafī scholar Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/944) from Samarqand, modern-day Uzbekistan, where his tomb still lies today. Māturīdīsm became the theological representative of the Ḥanafī, the legal school of the majority of Muslims throughout medieval times until today. Even with this dominant historical status al-Māturīdī and his school have been highly understudied, but in the last decade this has all changed. This can be partially explained by a convergence of several factors. Within the 19th-20th century Western and Arabic studies, the main focus was on the Ashʿarī and their differences with the Muʿtazilah. These same studies viewed Māturīdīsm as not truly distinct from the Ashʿarī as Māturīdīsm integrated much of the Ashʿarī adaptations of Avicennan philosophy into their own works, whereby its distinct theological positions and contributions were difficult to identify. And where it diverged from Ashʿarīsm it was seen as representing a form of semi-Muʿtazilism and was therefore viewed as a heterodox orthodoxy i.e., accepted as falling under Sunnī orthodoxy but not a pure representative of Sunnī theology. But with the publication of al-Māturīdī’s works on theology and exegesis in the 1970’s and early 2000’s respectfully, and the recent efforts, especially coming from Turkish scholarship, to publish new critical editions of the classics of the Māturīdī school, this mistaken image is being corrected. There are even numerous recent writings applying Māturīdī theology such as Al-Naẓariyyat al-Maʿrifat ʿinda Ahl al-Sunnat wa-l-Jamā ͑ah by Aḥmad al-Damanhūrī, Transcendent God, Rational World: A Maturidi Theology by Ramon Harvey, and Islamic Theology and the Problem of Evil by Safaruk Chowdhury. And there is now also a growing body of translations and readers of primary Māturīdī texts.

21st century Islamic studies is rediscovering Māturīdīsm in its distinct theology, anthropology, cosmology, ethics, and epistemology, and how al-Māturīdī and his foundational works defined later Sunnī theology and exegesis after. According to Ulrich Rudolph in his seminal study Al-Māturīdī and the Development of Sunnī Theology in Samarqand (German edition 1997, English edition 2014), many of al-Māturīdī’s novel argumentations were adopted and adapted by Sunnī theologians after him, and according to Walid Saleh in his article Rereading al-Ṭabarī through al-Māturīdī, it is clear that al-Māturīdī’s exegesis not only provides important insights for the development of exegesis in the formative period, but also defined much of the science after him. He is cited throughout multiple disciplines such as legal theory (uṣūl al-Fiqh), but mainly in the sciences of theology and exegesis, of which we have also his only two main extant works:

  • His ‘Book on Divine Unicity’, Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, of which a unicum manuscript exists. It was only rediscovered in the 20th century.
  • His multivolume (ten plus volumes) exegesis of the Qurʾān, mainly known under the title ‘Interpretations of the People of the Sunnah’, Tāʾwīlāt Ahl al-Sunnah, of which there are numerous manuscripts as it was read and copied profusely throughout medieval Islam.

Through his literature and prolific students, within a century his thought came to dominate the Ḥanafī school. The Māturīdī were viewed as a middle path between the more scriptural inclined Ashʿarī and the more rationalist inclined Muʿtazila. But the Māturīdī identified themselves as adhering to a theological tradition which goes back to the early founders of the Ḥanafī school, and not as simply as a median between two extremes. For many early Ashʿarī, the science of Kalām was a science of innovation one was reluctantly forced to engage in to protect against arising heresies and invading foreign philosophies. For the Māturīdī the science of Kalām was a truthful component and extension of what it means to be a Ḥanafī.

Māturīdī Epistemology and Soteriology

The main differences between the Māturīdī and Ashʿarī were according to some as low as five or as high as fifty conflicting issues. But two of the central defining differences revolved around rational knowledge and how this relates to the nature of God. The issue of epistemology has for example important implications for the concept of salvation of non-Muslims. The majority of Sunnī theologians believed that people who died before any prophet or revelation reached them were not (fully) responsible for their beliefs and works:

“The principal position of the Ashʿarī is that whoever dies, and the message [of Islam] has not reached him (tablughuhu al-daʿwah), dies saved. However, the Māturīdī say, whoever dies before he has time to contemplate (al-tāʾmmul), and does not have faith or disbelief (i.e., is agnostic), then no punishment is on him.” (Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār ʿalā al-durr al-mukhtār).

The question of course is what is beyond someone’s responsibilities, and what defines the sending of a messenger? The main position among the Ashʿarī, which goes back to their founding namesake, Abū Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 324/936), is that reason can only provide possible knowledge about God and ethics, therefore worldly and eschatological responsibility is only acquired through revelation. They base their position on Qurʾān verse 17.15 which states: {we do not punish until we sent a messenger}. The Ashʿarī position can therefore be defined as theological voluntarism. The Māturīdī on the other hand, like the Muʿtazilah, follow the opinion that people can know the existence of God through reason. Al-Māturīdī explains that the messenger in Qurʾan 17.15 is preceded by human reason:

“And in the verse is proof that monotheism is required for them by reason (bi-l-ʿaql). [...] If it was not required, then when messengers are sent to call them towards [monotheism], they would say, ‘Who are you, who sent you to us?’[...] but God from His grace wanted to remove doubts from them, and eliminate any excuse, by sending them a messenger.” (al-Māturīdī, Tāʾwīlāt ahl al-sunnah).

The people who can reason are therefore obliged to inquire about the origins of existence within their mental capabilities. And through the same signs in the world by which humans can interfere God’s existence they can also discern the main differences between good and evil. The Māturīdī therefore adhere to a form of theological objectivism and hold people responsible for their general beliefs and works apart from revealed religion. But there is an important difference between the Muʿtazila and the Māturīdī in how reason obligates. Al-Māturīdī articulated a unique tripart epistemology:

“For there are three causes of knowledge (asbāb al-ʿilm): (1) what they [humans] learn through the apparent senses together with intuition, (2) and some also add understanding through contemplation and reflection (bi-l-tāʾmmul wa-l-naẓar), (3) while others do not learn except through teachings and warnings.” (Al-Māturīdī, Tāʾwīlāt ahl al-sunnah).

Al-Māturīdī provides here a philosophical anthropology wherein basic reasoning and experience (1) and philosophical reasoning (2) are presented as justified sources of epistemology, but also that part of mankind will only learn by adhering to fideistic traditions (3). Al-Māturīdī, through this, incorporates into Islamic theology the Farabian distinction between the philosophical elite and the religious laity. For the Māturīdī, reason only obligates after both sanity and maturity are fully attained so a person has the ability to know his obligations (kamāl al-ʿaql maʿrafat li-l-wujūb), and even then people, both believers and unbelievers, can be excused for matters which are unclear, leaving room for justified doubt and agnosticism. An almost similar position was promoted by the Muʿtazilah and they were vehemently opposed by the Ashʿarī on this very issue, but through Māturīdīsm theological and ethical objectivism found its way into Sunnī theology.

Why Māturīdīsm?

Māturīdīsm therefore provides an exciting field of study for both Islamic intellectual history and for contemporary application of its philosophy in comparative religion, ethics, hermeneutics, and philosophy of religion. Several of my earlier publications discussed Māturīdīsm’s theories on revelation and time and space, and comparative ethics and the philosophy of religion concerns of soteriology and divine intervention and divine silence. My current research is expanding on these themes in relation to the Avicennian turn in Māturīdī exegesis, issues in theodicy, moral hermeneutics, and my doctoral thesis focuses on the theological and philosophical anthropology of al-Māturīdī. The discipline of Islamic intellectual history and philosophy has been plagued by the fact that Muslim thinkers, past and present, are mainly viewed as being voices of Muslimness. Islamic thought is reduced to Muslim thought, whereby Muslims can only explain what it means to be Muslim. While there are dozens of studies on Christian and Eastern thinkers and how they contribute to understanding what it means to be human, rare is the case where a Muslim voice is allowed to speak beyond its religious identity. And in the cases where a Muslim voice is allowed to speak beyond its Orientalist void, such as Rumi, it is rendered neutral of its Muslimness. My own research and that of many of my fellow colleagues are trying to break this unintellectual and dehumanizing cycle by showing that Muslim thinkers throughout the ages have taught us what it means to be human, such as the Islamic influences on the Renaissance, Western Scholasticism and Enlightenment, but that it can also teach it to us in new ways today. The scholars of Kalām provide a treasure trove for theological and philosophical anthropology and deserve to have it designated as Kalāmic anthropology, similarly to fields of Patristic and Rabbinic anthropology. Māturīdīsm, with its unique approaches to epistemology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy, provides an important source for the remapping of Islamic intellectual history, but also as an important voice for the insightful and contributing perspectives which Kalāmic anthropology can bring to the modern world.

Arnold Mol, Leiden University