Cultural Creativity in the Cosmopolitan Caliphate: Philosophy and Theology in 3rd-Century Islam

Racha el Omari. The Theology of Abū l-Qāsim al-Balkhī / al-Kaʿbī (d. 319/931). Leiden: Brill. pp 223.  Hardcover. $134.00.

David Bennett on Racha el Omari

A confluence of unusual circumstances allowed for an explosion of original thought in the 9th Century—the 3rd Islamic Century. In Baghdad, the newly established capital of the newly installed Abbasid Caliphate, philosophers and courtiers instigated an unprecedented wave of translations of scientific material chiefly from Greek, taking advantage of the cosmopolitan and polyglot court culture to appropriate centuries of medical and philosophical thought. Rival codifications of Islamic religious principles developed followings and increasingly sophisticated articulations, such that the state and society were obliged to tolerate heterodoxy as a practical reality. Imams emerged and disappeared, diversifying the sectarian landscape. Arabic flourished not just as the language of administration and the Qurʾan, but as the prestigious vehicle of high culture generally. Throughout, the caliphate faced civil strife and even open civil war—yet historians of thought view the century as one of unparalleled intellectual achievement.

Emblematic of this scene was the growth, diffusion, and diversification of a speculative mode of theology known as kalām, which is literally the Arabic term for “discourse.” It wasn’t a school of thought, and as a discipline it wasn’t precisely identical with theology; theology in the Islamic milieu was largely accommodated by a vibrant industry of Qurʾanic exegesis, by the reception of the Prophet’s tradition, and by the jurisprudential frameworks which could be derived from these sources. To be a practitioner of kalām—a mutakallim—was to engage in free-ranging discussions about the nature of the universe, about God, and about the human condition. Two centuries later, al-Ghazālī would complain that the mutakallimūn rashly overstepped their intellectual authority by applying their armchair speculation to the hard sciences, and this unkind impression has stuck. While the rich tradition of philosophy written in Arabic, exemplified in the monumental achievement of Avicenna, continues to exercise the minds of students of philosophy even outside of the Muslim world, few still regard the arcane disputes of kalām—on, say, the properties and endurance of the individual atomic entity, or whether its property of endurance can itself endure—with anything more than bemusement. This is unfortunate, because kalām—and particularly 9th Century kalām, when its practitioners were at their most inventive—is rather interesting.

But it is terribly hard to get to know kalām. For one thing, our sources are in Arabic, and only rarely available in translation; moreover, even scholars with Arabic will be constrained by the scarcity of edited, published material. (A greeting ritual among devoted Arabists is usually characterised by an exchange of PDFs, echoing the ancient practice of hadith collectors.) When it comes to the 9th Century, the difficulty is that virtually all of the many works of the great early mutakallimūn have not survived: we must rely on later, usually hostile, reporters. The diversity of positions related for each of the innumerable topics in kalām is staggering: not only were the practitioners drawn to “angels-on-a-pinhead” issues, but they managed to find an alarming number of stances to take on them. Thus 20th Century Orientalists’ attempts to describe the field, and indeed 10th Century epitomes of kalām, read like histories of telephone directories in which every entry is disputed.

Fifty years ago, the late, great lover of kalām Richard M. Frank issued the call for the next generation of scholars to “elucidate the philosophical and theological meaning of the kalām itself in the individual systems of single authors,” that is, to quit trying to write about kalām as a monolithic enterprise; rather we should consider it as the collective work of individuals, each with their unique temperaments and peculiar fixations. With respect to early kalām, nobody answered this call—except for one major monograph in German, Hans Daiber’s study of Muʿammar (1975). Another exceptional enterprise, Josef van Ess’ monumental six-volume Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra (1991-97), surveyed the entire period, conveniently translating huge chunks of early kalām testimony. But it is only now, with this new contribution by Racha el Omari, that we have our first English-language monograph on a single figure in this brilliant tradition.

El Omari’s subject is a Muʿtazilite working at the later end of the most creative period of kalām: Abū l-Qāsim al-Balkhī (d. 931), known as al-Kaʿbī on account of his (Arab) tribal affiliation. Al-Kaʿbī was a well-connected official in Abbasid Khorasan who became a major figure in Muʿtazilite circles in Baghdad (Muʿtazilites were a species of mutakallimūn known for their championship of reason; their relations with the mainstream religious elite were occasionally testy). Balkh, of course, is well over 1,500 miles from Baghdad, but this sort of engagement of the periphery with the core of the caliphate was typical in this era; al-Kaʿbī rubbed shoulders with Zaydīs, ascetics, philosophers, and courtiers. He became a totemic figure in the doctrinal schisms between Baghdadi and Basran Muʿtazilites—a technical school distinction adopted for convenience by doxographers that had little bearing on geographical realities. And of the dozens of works attributed to al-Kaʿbī, only two have survived (a polemic against traditionists, and a small doxography which has only partially been edited); his philosophical system is preserved only in selected reports.

So how does one explicate the doctrines of a writer whose works are largely lost? —and when the witnesses are ambiguous about the sources they describe, and dogmatically biased to boot? Reconstruction is a fraught procedure: el Omari had to sift through myriad diverse sources and develop a source-critical methodology which could account for discrepancies and fragmented reports. On the proclivities of those who attributed positions to al-Kaʿbī, she is excellent. This is not merely historiographical sleuthing painstakingly documented; it is rather the joy of pursuing kernels of doctrines as they accrue new meanings and significance in rival theological systems, and she is ruthlessly programmatic. El Omari’s analysis of the doctrinal commitments of her sources is systematic and, in itself, a bravura history of early Islamic theological controversies. Her hunt for al-Kaʿbī lore yields a matrix of reported positions which extends, somewhat dauntingly, to 33 pages in the centre of the book.

One may think of these reports (which el Omari idiosyncratically calls “articles”), helpfully arranged by overall topic, as the “meat” of al-Kaʿbī’s philosophical system: in el Omari’s collation, they begin with the divine attributes (the first report is on the distinction between attributes of divine essence and of divine action) and conclude with cosmology generally (the last report in the final appendix of the chart: “the Earth is round”). But even a cursory examination of this material reveals discrepancies, as each school of thought sought to refute or appropriate al-Kaʿbī’s positions. (Each such variation is thoroughly investigated, and usually satisfactorily explained, in the corresponding sections of el Omari’s analysis.)

The non-hermeneutically-minded reader will turn with great interest to the second part of the book, an essay which manages to place al-Kaʿbī in the intellectual history of the 9th Century and to demonstrate his relevance in the 10th century while presenting it as a unique system unto itself, worthy of our attention. El Omari insists that she is dealing with “theological” positions exclusively, but as she frequently acknowledges, these positions relied on philosophical reasoning and, as was so often the case with Muʿtazilite thought, reverberated into discussions of topics with no evident relevance for the practice of religion. She divides the material neatly into five general categories.

The first topic, the attributes by which we might describe God, was of such significance that it nearly got the Muʿtazilites run out of town in the 9th Century. At issue was the relationship of the attributes of God to their Subject (His knowledge, power, etc., but also those quintessentially Qurʾanic attributes such as His “seeing” and “hearing,” or having a “face”). If these are considered as identical with God, logical problems ensue: how could God be eternally knowing, for example, a particular thing before it even comes to exist? If the Qurʾan is meant to be God’s speech, and therefore an eternal attribute, did it exist separately from God forever—in which case God would have a co-eternal partner—or did it emerge one night in Arabia, like any other created thing? Besides the fun such problems naturally elicit among theologians, they are especially conducive to metaphysical claims regarding predication. El Omari shows that although al-Kaʿbī tackles divine predication by insisting on scriptural precedent (rather than rational demonstration), his application of categorical rules for predication established epistemological conditions which could satisfy accounts of any existing thing and its properties.

The second topic isolated by el Omari is divine justice, on account of which Muʿtazilites were doctrinally most distinct from Ashʿarites—that is, the orthodox theologians who followed the example of the ex-Muʿtazilite mutakallim al-Ashʿarī, a contemporary of al-Kaʿbī; al-Ashʿarī’s reports on “Baghdadi Muʿtazilite” positions prove especially valuable for el Omari’s research. Al-Ashʿarī had famously departed from the Muʿtazilites over the question of whether God’s actions must adhere to universal moral principles. Al-Kaʿbī made the “optimum” the key to Baghdadi Muʿtazilite theology: God always does what is absolutely best, even if that means some victims of the trolley problem suffer along the way. This chapter goes into great detail on ethics (divine and human), on our obligation to do what is good, and on the varieties and application of divine grace (luṭf, which el Omari translates as “incentive”): the subtle distinctions between Baghdadi and Basran approaches to the problem are described so carefully that, as a stand-alone essay, this would serve as a primer for students of Islamic thought generally.

Another instance where al-Kaʿbī’s theologically motivated positions had philosophical ramifications is described under the topic heading of “epistemology.” The theory of knowledge benefited from the characteristic kalām concern with the possibility (indeed, the obligation) of knowing God as an object—not to mention God’s knowledge of creatures: “knowledge” is often the first topic in kalām compendia. The relationship of knowledge to sense perception had to be fixed (is God seen?), and the content of any particular instance of knowledge explicated. El Omari shows that one of al-Kaʿbī’s key contributions here was to insist upon the validity of knowledge obtained by means of taqlid—“imitation,” in her translation, but to less sympathetic readers, “blind faith” might be more apt. Although al-Kaʿbī was virtually alone in championing taqlid, his assessment reflected an awareness of the challenge of scepticism, as well as a deliberate attempt to fold epistemology into questions of divine justice: taqlid allows those of us less well-equipped in the brains department to fulfil our moral duty to know God by imitating the practice of our betters.

El-Omari uses two remaining topics, on “nature” and the “imamate,” to demonstrate the peculiar syncretic genius of 9th Century thought: on both subjects, al-Kaʿbī intertwined received Muʿtazilite positions with contemporary intellectual concerns. With respect to nature, al-Kaʿbī was clearly influenced by late ancient physical theories, furthering our impression of the continuity of Islamic cosmology with Greek and Near Eastern antecedents. When it came to the imamate, the defining issue of early Islamic sectarianism, al-Kaʿbī’s involvement with and subsequent disavowal of the Zaydī sect reveals the creative fecundity of the heterodox environment of the era.

El Omari demonstrates that in nearly every aspect of theology, al-Kaʿbī mined previous philosophical and religious arguments to build a synthetic creed, i.e., a system for his brand of Baghdadi Muʿtazilite thought. This is not an easy book to read: disentangling her matrix of received reports on al-Kaʿbī entails some repetition between chapters, Basran Muʿtazilite theology is frequently introduced only as a foil insofar as it is an acknowledged reaction to al-Kaʿbī, and al-Kaʿbī’s own conclusions, often patchworks of previous Muʿtazilite doctrine, are occasionally less thrilling than a reader may hope them to be. But el Omari has accomplished something of great importance: she has opened a window onto the 9th and 10th Centuries. Her eloquent analysis, generous and clear sourcing of material, and concentrated argumentation are representative of the best writing on kalām; it is this sort of work which will install Muʿtazilite thought upon the stage of the history of philosophy.

David Bennett works on early kalām and philosophy in Arabic as part of the Representation and Reality programme at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Follow his tweets on the 9th Century @ZurqanRelates.