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When Islam Started its Theology

It is often repeated, and with fair approximation, that in Islam orthopraxis, acting correctly, is more important than orthodoxy, the right opinion on the subject of faith. Moreover this focalisation on the believer’s visible action, far from authorising him to exercise “creative freedom” towards truth, descends from the acknowledgment of the limits of human knowledge: it is much easier to judge the rectitude of exterior behaviour than the sincerity of interior belief. To this is added the fact that Islam sets out to be, at least in the most widespread version, a religion without mysteries, entirely acted out at the level of nature and suspicious of overly subtle lucubrations around a Divinity that in its intimate life remains beyond any possible analogy.



However, these necessary limitations do not mean that the Muslim world has not developed a theological thought. It did in fact and extensively so, above all in the first centuries, in reply to two distinct needs: on the one hand, to define who is Muslim – a definition which, as can be imagined, had significant practical consequences – and on the other, to defend the new faith from the followers of the other religions which were initially majority in the conquered lands: not only Christians and Jews, but also Manicheans, Buddhists and pagans.



In the six volumes of Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra, Joseph Van Ess has revolutionised our knowledge of the beginnings of Islamic theology. Intended for a public of scholars, with its agility this volume can be considered at the same time a synthesis and an introduction to this scientific work, also thanks to the rich background of explanatory notes. Above all the decisive controversy on the nature of heresy (and of orthodoxy) in Islam. Who is a believer? Who is an unbeliever? In the Muslim community, afflicted by internal schisms, the idea is gradually gaining ground that the simple acceptance of a divine uniqueness is sufficient to obtain salvation, if necessary after a sort of purgatory. At the same time a more rigorist inspiration finds new expression in today’s terrorist movements which justify their actions with an accusation of generalised takfîr (unbelief).



Apparently further away from contemporaneousness is the debate concerning the Prophet Mohammed’s night journey, to which the second chapter is dedicated. According to the oldest sources, Mohammed saw God sitting on the throne, an anthropomorphism which was later resolved in favour of a more definite transcendentalism. The believer will see God in Paradise, according to the Sunnites, but before the end the vision remains a privilege of the Prophet, variously formulated in pious legends.



During the first decades of the Abbasid Caliphate, science and faith were debated in Baghdad too: as the third chapter shows, the atomism inherited more from Iranian cosmology than Greek thought left no room for divine Volunteerism which is so strongly asserted in the Koran. Some Mu’tazili theologians take the credit for having transformed a materialist model into an instrument of monotheism: it is God in fact – concluded those thinkers – who composes and recomposes, instant after instant, the atoms that make up bodies. Even though atomism was later abandoned by the majority, a certain degree of occasionalism is still to be found in posterior theology.



The caliphate and the organisation of the political community are at the centre of the fourth chapter: having listed the different solutions proposed to the problem of legitimacy, also giving parallels with the present situation, Van Ess concludes with an enlightening observation: ‘Islam began with enormous political success, and it will remain bound to this success for ever’ (p. 103).



With the aim of reviewing the sources of Muslim theology, the last chapter indirectly offers almost a history of the Mu’tazili movement, from its hopeful beginnings to the arrogant rationalism which lead to presumption and fanaticism. ‘If all the elements of faith could be discovered by human reflection, why ever should God have spoken?’ (p. 133). And in final analysis this is the surprising question from which a religion without mysteries cannot avoid.



Martino Diez