In relation to this history, we might ask, would contemporary IAT be strictly a defense of religious doctrine, or also an inquisitive, philosophical enterprise? This question is raised by the reasonable notion that it would be a contemporary exercise in ‘ilm al-kalam
, along with the fact that the latter has usually been defined as a strictly defensive exercise. This reflects the distinction between the ‘old theological approach’ and the ‘new theological approach’ discussed by Ibn Khaldun, who credits (or blames) Al-Ghazali for initiating the latter.2
Herein lies a possible objection to my construal of the purpose of IAT. If IAT is a contemporary continuation of the kalam
, then its purpose cannot be the genuinely inquisitive, philosophical aim of comprehending God and His relation to Creation, inasmuch as that is possible through analysis. The first proposal I will suggest here is in answer to this question. IAT is indeed contemporary kalam
, but nevertheless, it cannot avoid being an exercise in genuine inquiry, for the same reasons that classical kalam could not remain purely defensive. That is, that in order to meet the intellectual challenges to Islamic belief, posed by the prospect of its carrying rationally absurd ramifications, it was necessary to articulate newly discovered philosophical insights that are not explicitly given in the revealed sources.
To take just one well-known example, the prospect was raised that the doctrine of the world’s creation in time entails the absurd consequence that an infinite period of ‘time before time’ preceded creation, during which God ‘waited around’ for no reason. Since it was impossible to deny that this notion is absurd, it had to be denied that the doctrine of creation in time entails that absurdity. This led to the position that time was created with the world, before which there was no time.3
Now this obviously constitutes a new theory of a sort which is not explicitly part of the basic orthodoxy on creation that a purely defensive discipline would be expected to defend. The position, of course, was not original to Islamic theology—we find versions of it in Augustine (354-430), Boethius (480-524), and Philoponus (490-570).4
But again, we do not determine its status as ‘Islamic’ by means of historical origin, but by its compatibility with, and facilitation of, coherent Islamic belief.
As in Christianity, so in Islam, genuinely philosophical inquiries about the nature of time, eternity, motion, and causation were found to be unavoidable in the effort to defend the coherence of religious belief against intellectual challenges. Therefore, it was—and is—not really possible to circumscribe a ‘purely’ negative, defensive role for either IAT or kalam, which is not ipso facto also the positive and inquisitive role of expanding our understanding of the basic theological pillars by following out their logical consequences in the face of intellectual challenges. The aim of comprehending, as far as is analytically possible, and that of defending religious doctrine about God and His relation to Creation, are not actually distinct purposes but are unified, ultimately, in the effort to understand revealed knowledge as fully as possible.
So we should not think that the defensive and inquisitive are mutually exclusive postures that essentially separate a ‘purely’ theological from a ‘purely’ philosophical or scientific pursuit. Every systematic scientific inquiry operates within some paradigm, in relation to which it normally takes a conservative approach in the face of anomalies—explaining the anomaly away whenever possible, rather than discarding or fundamentally altering the paradigm.5
In that sense, every science is both defensive and inquisitive. It may be argued that the case of theology is distinct in that the religious nature of the paradigm renders it absolutely unfalsifiable, in the sense understood by Karl Popper as distinctive of science.6 Properly understood, this is true in a very limited sense. And this is the subject of my second proposal.
The limited sense in which we can concede that the theological paradigm is unfalsifiable is as follows. Our religion is understood as originating from a transcendent source, and this source is experienced as a Divine Person. This has the consequence that the religious paradigm is not thoroughly analytic in nature. At its root, it is spiritual and personal. This, I think, is at least partially what motivates the traditional wariness about kalam. The analytic should not have hegemony over religious life. Relating to God through the prism of analytic theology alone is like getting to know your prospective spouse by examining his or her DNA (except of course, that God doesn’t have DNA). The ideal Muslim life is more like a conversation with God. We ask of God through prayer, He expresses Himself through revelation, and we have to listen and understand as well as we can.
The falsifiability or modifiability of our understanding of God, then, is one thing; and the falsification of our very relation to God, and/or His very existence is quite another. It would not be surprising for a believer’s faith in this to remain resilient through relatively fundamental modifications in the analytic framework by which he or she intellectually organizes his understanding of this relationship. The very nature of what could falsify a proposition of analytic theology is of a wholly different order from that of the very basis of faith, where the latter is an inner spiritual connection to God Himself, while the former is merely the intellectual architecture of one’s understanding of that connection. The two should not be conflated. The consequence of this, methodologically, is that the epistemic parameters of analysis do not extend to the bases of faith: God’s revelation and the subjective process of hidayah through which He renders one responsive to that message.
What then, are the parameters of theological analysis in Islam? This is really a question of the methodology of IAT, and as such the qualification ‘Islamic’ does pertain because some (not all) of the answers as to what does and does not fall within the parameters of analysis have been drawn historically from Islamic revealed sources. For example, it is understood that God’s Essence is not comprehensible by the human intellect. The vital connection between IAT and Islamic Studies proper lies here. While the Islamic revealed sources and the historical tradition of interpreting them is the proper object of Islamic Studies and not of IAT, it is an indispensable resource for IAT.
My third proposal is that the epistemic parameters of IAT do not extend beyond what the Prophet ﷺ knew and transmitted. The Prophet shared all that was revealed to him, and he understood all that was implicit in what was revealed to him, including all possible valid interpretations and applications of that knowledge, under any possible circumstances. So an expansion of one's understanding of what was revealed, or a change in one’s understanding of revelation, concomitant with changing circumstances (e.g., when advances in natural science illuminate a Qur’anic passage in a way that is new to us), does not necessarily amount to an invalid theological innovation. However, this does not imply that any and every change is valid. There is still a logical difference between what really is an implication of the Sunnah as understood or applied in the circumstances of a particular form of life, and what is not such an implication (though it may appear to be).
This is a logical distinction. The epistemological question of how to draw the distinction in any specific case, though crucial, is another issue. To conflate the two, so as to render a positive argument for relativism, is illegitimate. Thus, when we reach the limits of our knowledge of some issue, we say “Allahu Alim.” We do not indulge in jumping to the conclusion that objective knowledge is in principle impossible because ‘there is no truth,’ simply because we haven’t gotten to the bottom of it; or even if—as well may be the case—we cannot get to the bottom of it, from any absolutely non-perspectival vantage point.
This observation, that our understanding of any issue is inevitably affected by some perspectival vantage point, whether determined by social, historical, or other conditions, has often been misused as a positive justification for any position which diverts from what is often construed as an oppressive ‘mainstream’ or ‘orthodoxy.’ But this is to overlook the fact that sometimes the important question is just what is the most appropriate understanding for one to have, given one’s particular vantage point, and not how to understand things from God’s ‘perspective,’ so to speak. The proper aim of pursuing knowledge is not to become God, but to become close to God by surrendering to God as a servant, in the conditions of life in which one finds oneself.
Our predecessors in Islam found their way, from within their own conditions, by tapping the spring of Prophetic knowledge. If, with God’s grace, we find our way from within our own conditions, however different they may be, it will be by tapping the same source. If it seems that our historical and social conditions demand some radical break from the way things were understood by our predecessors, it just might be that we don’t understand our own conditions well enough. He who knows himself knows his Lord. This pertains to the conditions that change as well as those that do not. Here, again, the line between the purely ‘theological’ and ‘philosophical’ blurs, as it must.