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In the Name of God: Debating Divine Attributes in the Post-Classical Islamic East

Panel XI-17, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Until about thirty-five years ago, scholars dismissed Islamic philosophy after the 12th century CE as unoriginal and uninteresting. For example, W. Montgomery Watt famously called this period ‘a stagnation of philosophical theology.’ Al-Ghāzālī’s (d. 1111) scathing critiques of philosophy, coupled with the death of Averroes in 1198 and the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258 were considered as the critical blows to philosophy in the Islamic world. It was not until relatively recently that historians challenged this view by contending that philosophy in the Islamic world actually flourished in the centuries after Avicenna and al-Ghāzālī, albeit in a different form. For example, as opposed to independent treatises, philosophy and theology was increasingly written in the form of commentaries (shurūḥ), supercommentaries, and glosses (ḥawāshī). The sheer quantity of “post-classical” philosophical texts is immense. For example, Robert Wisnvosky points to over 1000 philosophical texts during this period, the vast majority of which remain unexplored. This panel sheds light on some of these postclassical texts and debates. The first paper examines the Asharite views of thinkers such as al-Ghazalī (d. 1111 CE) and Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī (d. 1209 CE ) regarding a contentious theological debate in the centuries following Avicenna: is there any substantive difference between God’s power (qudra) and his knowledge (ʿilm) or will (irāda)? Are any of these dependent on the other? The second paper examines views of Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī (d. 1264 CE) and his Jewish contemporary ʿIzz al-Dawla Ibn Kammūna (d. 1284 CE) concerning the relation of the mutable and finite world to its immutable and infinite Creator. Through a close reading of these authors, this paper shows how post-classical thinkers wrangled with and tweaked features of Avicenna’s causal theory. Our third paper is about metaphysics during the Timurid period, focusing on Jalāl ad-Dīn Dawānī’s (d. 1501/2 CE) radical position that the only really existing being is God. Under such a strong monist reading, no being can be properly said to exist, other than God. The fourth paper concerns the crucial discourse on the nature of God’s knowledge as it unfolded between Dawānī and ʿAbd al-Ḥakīm Siyālkōtī (d. 1656) in Mughal South Asia. How does God’s eternal and unchanging knowledge encompass its finite and changeable objects? This panel will demonstrate that although these thinkers engage issues that emerged in the classical period, they do so with hitherto overlooked originality, innovation, and finesse.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Avicenna (d. 1037) famously held that God’s essence is existence itself. This rather opaque conception of God yielded a set of interpretations among his commentators that both proved decisive for the fields of philosophy and rational theology and opened the door to a striking challenge to God’s unity, one that could not be resolved under available frameworks. New, finer ontological distinctions in post-Avicennian metaphysics, like the distinction between God’s specific existence (wujūd khāṣṣ) and the general, equivocal concept of existence (wujūd ʿāmm) that it instantiates, or the distinction between the quintessence (kunh) of a thing and its aspect (wajh), paved the way for arguments in favor of the possibility of a second God. In this paper, I show how the problem of God’s unity elicited a bold reinterpretation of Avicenna on the part of Jalāl ad-Dīn Dawānī (d. 1501/2), perhaps the most important scholar of the rational sciences in the lead up to the turn of the Islamic millennium. By his lights, Avicenna meant that God is existence itself, such that only he really exists and all other things can only be said to exist metaphorically and insofar as they stand in some connection to him. This idea has antecedents in the works of Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) and his commentators, but I will sketch out how Dawānī motivates it within the discourse of the rational sciences. Honing in on Dawānī’s commentary on Suhrawardī’s (d. 1191) "Temples of Light" and his "New Treatise on the Establishment of the Necessary Existent," I show how he unfolds a new set of concepts out of his rereading of Avicenna in order to disarm arguments for the possibility of a second God, concepts which would frame rational inquiry into God and his attributes from the Ottoman to the Mughal world in the following centuries. By way of conclusion, I point to how Dawānī’s conception of God as existence itself raises a new set of worries concerning the relation between technical and ordinary language. Whether we take him to be a philosopher or a rational theologian, Dawānī stumbles on the age-old problem of how metaphysics might justify its departures from ordinary speech—why we should be convinced that when we say something other than God exists we really only mean existence metaphorically.
  • God’s apprehension of particulars (juzʾiyāt) is often considered a pivotal issue in the history of Arabic philosophy and the development of Islamic thought. Its significance is attested as late as the turn of first Islamic millennium in a Mughal-Safavid debate, which invited a notable response from one of the leading Indian scholars at the time: ʿAbd al-Ḥakīm Siyālkōtī (d. 1656). His treatment of the issue was backdropped by important commentarial engagements on the matter by the likes of Quṭb al-Dīn Rāzī Taḥtānī (d. 1365), Jalāl al-Dīn Dawānī (d. 1501/2), Mīr Ḥusayn Maybūdī (d. 1504), Mīrzajān Bāghnawī (d. 1587). Channeling them in his celebrated treatise, Siyālkōtī’s response served as a conduit for the postclassical development of the controversy over God’s knowledge. In addressing the philosophical, semantic, and theological challenges besetting the matter, Siyālkōtī makes a case for restating the contentious Avicennan posit that God apprehends particulars only in a universal manner (ʿalā wajh al-kull). After supplying the prerequisite account of God’s Knowledge of His own self/essence (dhāt), i.e., from which follows the very fact of His knowledge of particulars (i.e., of entities besides His own self), Siyālkōtī addresses the central question of the manner/state (kayfiyya) of God’s knowledge of particulars and their contingent aspects. He defends the view that while this knowledge is simple/partless (basīṭ) it is also "proactive" (fiʿlī) with respect to all things generated by God. This generative (mabdaʾī) relation allows for God’s presential (ḥuḍūrī) awareness of such entities to be, on the one hand, detailed/analytical (tafṣīlī) with respect to their specific features (ṣifāt; iʿtibārāt) as well as, on the other, based on and ultimately reducible to simple knowledge (ʿilm basīṭ). In this way God knows particulars in a universal manner insofar as the universality applies to the act/mode of knowledge, and not to the known particulars. After offering a resolution of competing views held between falsafa and kalām, Siyālkōtī also challenges Dawānī’s view that Avicenna was indecisive in his treatment of the issue. He concludes by revisiting Ghazālī’s famous “excommunication” of the falāsīfa on this count and offers fresh recourse. The paper in this vein concludes by deliberating on the status of falsafa and its relationship with kalām in the postclassical tradition.
  • The protracted entanglement of divine attributes vis-à-vis divine essence has long exercised the Muslim intellectual milieu. With myriad creedal and theological ramifications, the debate comes to the fore, most notably, in al-Ghazālī’s notorious charge of unbelief against the falāsifa on account of (among other things) the claim that God knows particulars ‘only in a universal way.’ A closely allied contention, in this instance, is the nature of divine volition (al-irādah) and preponderance (tarjīḥ) within a post-Avicennan modal framework—more specifically, whether it is distinct from God’s knowledge and power. With overarching creedal implications, the paper maps the vast complex of problemata which inform the discussion on God’s intention and its philosophical and theological import in the works of three prominent Ashʿarī theologians: Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210). The paper concludes with the curation of said problema in ʿAḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī’s (d.1355) monumental kitāb al-mawāqif fī ʿilm al-kalām, with a view towards the early commentarial activity elicited by the text.