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Feb 6, 2020

After Revelation, Where Does Reason Lead?

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Mohammad Fadel

University of Toronto

Mohammad Fadel is a professor at the faculty of law at the University of Toronto.

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After Revelation, Where Does Reason Lead?


Depiction of an Ottoman mosque built in the ruins of the Parthenon after 1715, Pierre Peytier, circa 1835

Is it possible to speak from an Islamic perspective of God as being silent? That might be one conclusion to draw from the idea of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ as the “seal of the Prophets.” However, various reports attributed to the Prophet ﷺ suggest that truthful dreams or dreams of the pious are a form of prophecy, and these did not cease after the Prophet’s death.

Whatever the case may be, jurists have never accepted the idea that they may use dreams—even if they might constitute a potential source of post-prophetic revelation— as evidence for the content of Islamic law, or that dreams are capable of abrogating or even qualifying the universal indicants (al-adillah al-¢āmmah) of the shariah, as set out in the Qur’an; authentic prophetic teachings; and consensus. The Egyptian polymath Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūţī reported, in Tanwīr al-ĥawālik, his commentary on Imam Mālik’s work of fiqh and compilation of prophetic traditions, Al-Muwaţţa’, that a case took place in Egypt (probably in the late Ayyūbid period, or the early thirteenth century) in which a man who had found a cache of pre-Islamic treasure, known as rikāz in Islamic law, claimed that the Prophet ﷺ himself had led him to the location of the treasure, and that the Prophet ﷺ exempted him from the 20 percent tax levied on pre-Islamic treasures. The judge hearing the case sought the counsel of the scholars of the day, and according to al-Suyūţī, he was told, most likely by ¢Izz al-Dīn b. ¢Abd al-Salām, who was known as sulţān al-¢ulamā (the sultan of scholars), to deny the man’s claim. Ibn ¢Abd al-Salām reasoned that even if one were to accept the man’s sincerity, his report was outweighed by the texts jurists relied on to impose the 20 percent tax on all treasures found in Islamic territory but buried during pre-Islamic days.

The unwillingness to consider post-prophetic claims, such as that of this reluctant taxpayer, reflects the universal conviction among legal scholars that with the death of the Prophet ﷺ, revelation, at least for the purpose of rule-making, had come to a definitive end. Just as the possibility of post-prophetic text, speech, or other indicants that could serve as the basis for new rules of Islamic law was rejected out of hand, so too was the possibility that they could abrogate rules established by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Revelation, scholars argued, was both complete and perfect with the death of the Prophet ﷺ. In support of this conclusion, jurists sometimes cited surah al-Māidah, which, among other things, states, “Today, I have completed for you your religion (al-yawma akmaltu lakum dīnakum), perfected My favor unto you (atmamtu ¢alaykum ni¢matī), and am satisfied with Islam as your religion (rađītu lakum al-islāma dīnan)” (5:3).

Exegetes report two different opinions regarding the meaning of this verse. The first takes its cue from the assertion that the verse was revealed while the Prophet ﷺ was standing at ¢Arafāt during the farewell pilgrimage. The verse therefore refers to the triumph of the Muslims over their Arab pagan adversaries, as manifested in the Muslims’ ability to perform the rites of pilgrimage in accordance with the norms of pure Islamic monotheism, without the taint of Arabian polytheism. The second opinion understands this verse as indicating the Qur’an’s announcement to the Muslims that all Qur’anic legislation had now ended, and accordingly, this verse represented the last legislative verse the Prophet ﷺ received before he died, reportedly only eighty-one days after this verse was revealed.

One troubling implication of this second reading of the verse was the suggestion that Islam had not been complete or perfect until the very end of the Prophet’s mission. The response to this objection was that Islam was always perfect, but its perfection was relative to the time in which it existed. One could thus speak of an idea of relative perfection, the implication being that perfection is not absolute in a timeless fashion but instead is more akin to the idea of the best of all possible worlds at any given time.

The idea of perfection as contextual is also implicit in the debate over ijtihād (independent legal reasoning) between Sunni jurists and the Żāhirīs, an early school of Islamic jurisprudence that emphasized the outward meaning of scripture. Sunni jurists affirmed the obligation of ijtihād, but the Żāhirīs interpreted 5:3 as indicating that the revealed law was complete with the Prophet ﷺ, and accordingly that ijtihād was impermissible.

The Qur’an is both closed, insofar as it is the written record of the revelation given to the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ, and also continuous, insofar as it allows us the means to understand God’s eternal speech.

Given that the apparent sense of 5:3 seemed to support the Żāhirī position, what was the Sunni response? The twelfth-century philosopher and theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī agreed with the Żāhirī position that revelation was complete in the sense that it covered every conceivable event (jamī¢ al-waqā), but that it did so in two ways: first, by an express rule (naśś), and second, by revealing how one can arrive at a rule through analogy (qiyās) or other means of ijtihād.1 Accordingly, “insofar as God most High commanded analogy (amara bi al-qiyās) and subjected all those under the command of the law to use it (ta¢abbada al-mukallafīna bihi), that in reality constitutes a communication of all the rules of the law.” It is in this way, according to al-Rāzī, that the law is complete. When the Żāhirī objects that this claim results in the conflation of the speculative conclusions (żunūn) of the jurists with God’s law without proof, Rāzī replies that, insofar as the obligation of jurists is to follow the results of their ijtihād, there can be no doubt that this amounts to a complete articulation of the law, and that every jurist is in a position to know with certainty that he is following the rule that his own ijtihād led him to. Accordingly, every jurist knows with certainty that he or she is following the appropriate rule for him or her. Despite the Qur’an’s declaration that religion was completed and perfected during the Prophet’s lifetime, then, God still communicates to jurists indirectly through the practice of ijtihād, which amounts to a form of ongoing divine speech to the jurists in the post-prophetic period.

Rāzī’s response—and by implication, that of all the Sunni tradition that affirms ijtihād despite maintaining the completeness of revelation—to the Żāhirīs is at best equivocal. After all, the claim of Shāfi¢ī and successive generations of scholars that God commanded us to perform ijtihād universally derives from a questionable inference from the verse in which God expressly commands Muslims to face the Ka¢bah wherever they might be (al-Baqarah, 2:144). One might very well wonder why God would command humans to exercise practical reason in the form of ijtihād in order to make His law and revelation perfect and complete. It is not hard, therefore, to see the strength of the fideist motivations behind Żāhirism and other rigorist approaches to Islamic law: given that God declares His book to be perfect and complete, why should jurists use ijtihād either to expand the reach of God’s words or to narrow their scope?

But perhaps the Qur’an itself gives us an answer in the surah Kahf, where God says, “Say [O Muĥammad]: ‘Were the ocean ink for the words (kalimāt) of my Lord, the ocean would have been exhausted before the words of my Lord would be [exhausted], even if we were to bring its like [i.e., another ocean of ink]’” (18:109).

Although it does not necessarily undermine the thesis of the historical closure of divine speech implied in at least one reading of 5:3, this verse does pose theological problems for the later Ash¢arī conception of divine speech. Ash¢arīs affirmed that God’s speech was uncreated, and that it existed eternally as part of God’s essence. The plain sense of this verse, however, as suggested by their Mu¢tazilī opponents, was that God’s speech was expressed in words (kalimāt) created in time (muĥdath). Al-Rāzī reported that the Ash¢arī response to this argument was that kalimāt in the verse does not refer to words as such but instead to the objects of God’s knowledge (muta¢alliqāt ¢ilm Allāh).

How can we understand the Ash¢arī claim regarding the eternal nature of divine speech, the historical closure of revelation, and the ongoing and continual obligation to engage in ijtihād for the purpose of determining God’s law in historical, secular time? While we know that the words of revelation (alfāż) are limited and finite, the objects of divine knowledge are infinite. It follows that if God’s speech were limited to express Qur’anic statements, as the Żāhirīs would have it, there could not have been closure of revelation. As Rāzī explains, “The oceans, no matter what we assume regarding their vastness and expanse, are finite, but God’s knowledge is infinite, and it is impossible for the finite to encompass the infinite.” Rather, the intent of this verse is to establish that what has been revealed is sufficient to indicate the content of the particular objects of God’s eternal speech (al-murād minhu al-alfāż al-dāllah ¢alā ta¢alluqāt tilka al-śifah al-azaliyyah). Again, we are required to resort to rational inference in order to understand the relationship of divine speech to particulars.


Detail of a door in Tunisia

From an Ash¢arī perspective, the Qur’an is both closed, insofar as it is the written record of the revelation given to the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ, and also continuous, insofar as it allows us the means to understand God’s eternal speech and its relationship to the particulars of human history. From one perspective, God becomes “silent” after the Prophet’s death, but from another, given the miraculous nature of the Qur’an, God is still speaking because the Qur’an’s words are effective indicants of God’s eternal speech that encompasses all things. This conception of divine speech provides a firmer ground for the duty of ijtihād than does the specific command to seek the direction of the qiblah that Shāfi¢ī cited. To understand how God is not silent, despite the closure of historical revelation, however, requires us to understand what ijtihād entails and the different positions the jurists have taken with respect to the nature of ijtihād.

Jurists long debated the status of rules derived from ijtihād and whether they can properly be attributed to God, using the rubric of whether God has a rule for every case (hal li Allāh ĥukm fī kull nāzilah). According to al-Ghazālī, the majority of jurists (fuqahā) argued that God does indeed have a rule for every case, a position that entails the conclusion that for every case, only one of the potentially many views expressed about it could be correct. Because only one opinion can be right and the rest must be wrong, the group that expressed this view was called “the people who declare one view correct and the rest wrong” (al-mukhaţţi’ah). Others argued that in all cases where revelation did not provide an express and unambiguous rule (naśś), the conclusion reached by a qualified legal interpreter (mujtahid) was the rule of God that applied to him and those who followed him. In this view, there could be numerous rules that applied to a particular case, and all of them would be correct insofar as they were the product of legitimate ijtihād. This school of thought was known as the muśawwibah, because its followers declared that each opinion expressed by a qualified scholar was correct. According to al-Ghazālī, this view was held by most theologians (mutakallimūn), as opposed to most jurists. Al-Ghazālī dismissed the position of the mukhaţţi’ah on the grounds that it is incompatible with the Ash¢arī definition of a legal rule (ĥukm). Insofar as Ash¢arīs defined the legal rule as God’s address (khiţāb) to someone subject to the law’s commands (mukallaf), a jurist’s conclusion derived from legal reasoning could in no way be described as God’s rule because, by definition, a jurist exercises legal reason only in the absence of a divine address. The only divine address, therefore, aside from cases of express texts (naśś), is the divine command to exercise ijtihād in circumstances where no address (khiţāb) exists.

[The] Ash¢arī philosophy of language ... establishes a framework in which human beings are capable of hearing God’s voice even after revelation has closed.

One difficulty with al-Ghazālī’s analysis, however, is that it implies that the mujtahid’s reasoning lacks an external referent (hadaf) to which it must orient itself and, as a result, is a purely subjective form of reasoning. Indeed, al-Ghazālī does not hesitate to embrace the consequences of this implication and goes so far as to suggest that in the context of ijtihād, precisely because there is no conclusive indicant, the conclusions of jurists are purely subjective. This is because, in the absence of apodictic (logically certain or self-evident) proofs, the evidence the jurist relies on is equivocal (amārāt). According to al-Ghazālī, these are signs, not actual proof in the technical sense, and accordingly, the meaning assigned to these signs originates in the mind of the jurist who observes them, not in the sign itself. Where a jurist lacks conclusive proof and relies only on these signs, al-Ghazālī compares the jurist to a magnet, such that he is attracted to some signs instead of others only on account of his subjective constitution.

Rāzī rejected al-Ghazālī’s wholly subjective account of legal reasoning while accepting his argument that it is logically absurd to believe that the goal of ijtihād is to discover an ontologically “real” divine command. He did so on the grounds that it is not an accurate account of legal reasoning itself. The mujtahid approaches his task with a goal in mind. The fact that the jurist’s reasoning is directed toward that goal is what gives legal reasoning its own coherence, and if the jurist fails to posit a target for his or her reasoning, that would not amount to sustained reasoning at all. But if the goal of legal reasoning is not an ontologically “real” command of God, what is it? Rāzī posits the notion that the jurist imagines the existence of a divine rule—what Rāzī terms “the most appropriate” (al-ashbah). The ashbah is a rule the jurist recognizes as being the most appropriate for God to have commanded, had God in fact issued a command on the question posed to the jurist. Positing the idea of “the most appropriate rule” thus serves to structure the jurist’s reasoning and discipline it, while preventing the jurist from falling into the fallacy that his conclusion represents God’s actual rule as a matter of moral ontology.

Rāzī’s intermediate position between the moral realism of the mukhaţţi’ah and the radical subjectivism of the muśawwibah creates space for the jurist to hear God in the process of legal interpretation. This is in contrast with the position of the mukhaţţi’ah, whose view of language and the legal rule turns the jurist into the equivalent of a linguistic archeologist, whose task is to determine the true meaning of artifacts formed at some time in the past, and that of the muśawwibah, who according to al-Ghazālī’s account, are engaged in acts of interpretation in the present, but in so doing, only hear themselves. Rāzī’s account of ijtihād, by contrast, requires the jurist to listen to God not as an archaeologist would but in the present moment, in order to structure his attempt to understand God’s eternal speech and its applicability to the problem at hand.

Although the Qur’an is a closed corpus, Ash¢arī philosophy of language, particularly as expounded by later representatives of the school, such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, establishes a framework in which human beings are capable of hearing God’s voice even after revelation has closed. Because the words (alfāż) of the Qur’an are understood to point to the reality of God’s eternal speech, the objects of which are infinite in conformity with the infinite nature of divine knowledge, the juristic enterprise is neither a simple archaeological task of uncovering historical meaning—as a fideist approach might require—nor a purely subjective task of free interpretation. Rather, it is a task that entails “listening” to the particular indicants of revelation as evidence of what the eternal speech of God says about an infinity of particulars—speech that an infinite ocean of ink would fail in recording, but that is continually accessible to us through the good faith exercise of deliberation known as ijtihād.


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