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Is There Rationality in Islam?

Joachim Valentin


Theological Backgrounds of the Current Conflicts

German Version

In: Stimmen der Zeit, 2005/2, P. 75-89.

webmaster's own, not authorized translation



The world-political conflicts as well as the internal social controversies make a communication between western and Islamic states an urgent task. JOACHIM VALENTIN, private lecturer of fundamental theology and religion history at the Universities Freiburg and Mannheim, is looking for an approach to Islam that is orientated towards the history of ideas and the term 'rationality'.


Today head-scarf controversy and terror warnings let it appear strangely, yes, almost wrong to associate rationality and Islam closely. Since the Shiite revolution under Ayatolla Khomeini Islam presents itself to the west rather as an irrational and anti-democratic religion.


At the same time many Islamic intellectuals perceive the "west", particularly however the USA, as imperialistic and godless states, the first goal of which is by no means to let Islamic countries participate actually in the achievements of western modernism, such as liberality and democracy, but rather, to rob them their identity by means of economics and war {1}. A look at the much discussed and criticized theses of Samuel Huntington confirms this perception: Huntington sees neither in a democratization of Islamic states, nor in a dialogue between Islam and modern society worthwhile goals of the US-American foreign policy. He is only interested in a pro-American policy of Islamic states. Consistently the USA makes - up to this day - agreements with Islamist and undemocratically governed states, as for example with the emirates Kuwait and Saudi Arabia {2}. But the assassination attempts from September 11th 2001, and the sometimes unconcealed agreement which they found in states of the Near and Middle East, and likewise the recent confrontations in Iraq, prove the necessity for a communication between western and Islamic states. But a real communication presupposes as basis at least some common fundamental assumptions, and above all the respect for the other person as equal vis-à-vis.


Just these basic conditions however seem to be missing. Also on the side of some prominent European intellectuals can be noticed an idealization of the own tradition of Enlightenment, linked with an often striking ignorance of the in the broadest sense liberal Islamic traditions. But the attacks of popular authors, such as Michel Houellebecg {3} and Oriana Fallaci {4}, against Islam suggest the suspicion that here together with Islam the topic 'religion', which seemed settled already, returned to the agenda of the current policy of ideas, and should now finally played out with cheap reproaches of fundamentalism.


But on the other hand is just from the Muslim side in recent time pointed out that Islam and Christianity share over far distances a history of ideas.



Thus for instance the French Islam scientist Mohammed Arkoun asks the Europeans to consider at long last Islam also as part of their own cultural history {5}. The following remarks are to be understood in the sense of a respectful, but therefore not uncritical perception of Islam, and of its ability to join the western history of ideas.


"Rationality" as Category of Religion-Scientific Description

The communication problems between Islam and European modernity which beset us today cannot be described or even solved, if one does not consider the history of the Oriental and Occidental mind. This history however presents itself on the side of Islam in a special way as history of religion and theology. An idea-historical approach to Islam is set about now according to the term 'rationality'. This makes sense, for not only in the European discourse rationality is - on this or that side of theology - of crucial relevance, but first of all because the human mind played, as complementary term to 'divine revelation' from the emergence of Islam there just the same substantial role as in the other religions of divine revelation.


Though, in order to be able to fulfil on the one hand its bridging function, and on the other hand to let become visible a certain continuity in the inner-Islamic debate, the term 'rationality' must remain indefinite up to a certain degree. Hence in the following considerations there will be discussed


the role of the human reason in the Qur'an as well as

the here implicitly demanded theological rationality, and

the Platonic and Aristotelic philosophies adopted by Islam as well as

the scientific-technological rationality of the European colonial states - and

the challenge which it represented for the Islamic intellectuals at the turn to the twentieth century.


My considerations are so far expressly dialogically designed, as they, according to the religion-historical reconstruction, approach the texts only from outside - but at the same time they endeavour to understand the special logic of the Islamic theology. From there also the concentration on the term 'rationality' is justified. While the term 'Enlightenment', that had been suggested as linking concept for the dialogue not only by the German Islam scientist Reinhard Schulze but also by the Egyptian Qur'an exegete Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid in the first edition of the weekly "Die Zeit" in 2004, is generally understood first as paraphrase of a European phenomenon which obviously has no direct counterpart in Islam.


I would like to explain at three characteristic focal points of the Islamic history of theology, how rationality was more exactly determined in each case on the basis of changing subjects and historical circumstances: i.e. firstly in Qur'an itself, secondly in the formative epoch of Islamic theology, and thirdly within the framework of the in the nineteenth century developing reform Islam.



I. Rationality and Qur'an

Islam is generally called that religion which is based on the text of the Qur'an and on the collection of the so-called sayings of the prophet from the early period of the Islamic community ("Hadithe"). The Qur'an sees itself as re-establishment of the genuine revelation, as it was already present in fundamentals in the Torah and in the Gospel. From there it inherited narrative elements and theological problems, but made in substantial points also remarkable corrections of the preceding Holy Scriptures. What does that mean actually?


Core contents of the Qur'an are shortly: the doctrine of God's absolute eminence (42.11 and oftener); God's absolute unity (Tauwhid, 4.36 and oftener) - this particularly in demarcation from the Christian doctrine on the triune God, but also from the old-Iranian dualism and an early Arab polytheism (5,72f. and oftener); and God's merciful love to all human beings (25,48) - this particularly in demarcation from the belief of the Jews to be God's chosen people. Man is to answer this love of God by "Islam" i.e. by the devotion of one's own will to the will of God. Expression of this answer is the keeping of a multiplicity of ethical commandments, which is signalling the love of God and the love of human beings {7}. In accordance with the fulfilment of the commandments the divine Last Judgement has as consequence the eternal dwelling of individual human beings in paradise or hell. It is nonetheless seen as religious virtue to trust in the judgment more in God's mercy than to be afraid of his justice.


For the faithful Muslim the Qur'an's revelation means also still today God's word - unclouded by human conveyance. The revelation was given word by word to Muhammad, in auditions and visions, by God's envoy, the angel Gibril (see 42, 51f.). In its contents it corresponds to the original, which is kept in heaven and has absolute authority {8}. Hence a historical-critical method as means of the Qur'an's interpretation did not come into question, and is also today a possibility for a few Muslims only. Contemporary debates about Islam's ability for modernity do not concentrate in vain around the admission of literature-scientific methods, which are refused up till now. A model of revelation that, like the Islamic one, proceeds from the pure and genuine presence of God's word in the holy text, needs out of its idea no longer human rationality, or needs it only as instrument of an absolutely identical repetition of the divine in the human intention.


But this longing for purity and genuineness of the revelation is on different levels also in Islam partly severely disturbed.



The history of those disturbances is the history of the relationship of revelation and rationality in Islam. These disturbances are firstly the internal inconsistencies of the revealed Suras, secondly the plurality of the in the Qur'an always concomitantly thought writings which are obligatory in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and thirdly the necessity for an reception of the Qur'an by means of the human intellect.


1. The Internal Inconsistency of the Revealed Suras.

In the hundred fourteen Suras of the Qur'an are found not few differing repetitions of the same statements and commandments. Hence also for the traditional Islam the interpretation technique of abrogation is needed: "For each thing which We cancel or consign to oblivion. We bring for it a better or the same one" {9}, is said in Sura 2, 106 (see also 16, 101; 87, 6-7 and oftener). That means: God himself can verses which have been revealed by him before, erase or extinguish, he can replace a verse by some other, or can leave verses to oblivion. For the lawyers of Islam that Sura is the basis for the study of a relative chronology of the Qur'an's verses - with the aim to examine which contents of the revelation are to be understood as cancelling (nasikh), and which as cancelled (mansukh). Already in the Qur'an becomes relevant thus the historical reason for the authority of some statements of the revelation, and the question arises whether the unity of the divine authority comes to harm by the pronouncement and the following cancelling of directions. This inconsistency is to be taken all the more seriously, as the Qur'an stresses in some other place that God's words, its behaviour and its way are unalterable: "And read out what has been revealed to you by the book of your Lord. Nobody will be able to alter his words." (18, 27) In order to come to consistent statements in view of such breaks, theological rationality is inevitably demanded here.


2. The Concomitantly Thought Plurality of the Writings in the Qur'an.

Another difficulty that likewise has already early been noticed in the Islamic reflection is the multiplicity of the books of revelation acknowledged in the Qur'an (Tora, Gospel and Qur'an). There is not any problem as long as one can proceed from an agreement in regard to the contents of those books. For the theological conception of revelation of the Qur'an reads here: There is only one eternal writing with God, the "Original Norm of the Book" (3,7; 19, 39; 43, 4), which was unfolded to different peoples in several empirical revelations. The complete and perfect one however is the Qur'an {10}.


But where the superiority of the Qur'an to the Taurät (Tora) respectively to the Ingîl (Gospel) is emphasized - for instance with the refusal of the Jewish belief to be God's chosen people, and the Christian belief of Christ being God's son - one has recourse traditionally to the thesis of a falsification of those preceding revelations by the followers of the respective religion. But by that thesis on the one hand the uniformity of the presumed original revelation becomes critical, on the other hand emerges also the possibility of a falsification of the contents of the Qur'an.


3. The Necessity For a Reception of the Qur'an By Means of the Human Intellect.

This further disturbance of unity is implicitly discussed in the Qur'an already, and formed historically time and again the argumentative basis for a philosophical reflection. It lies in the reception process of the revealed word: By entering from the pure spirit of God into the material world, it is exposed to scattering and misunderstanding. Here the Qur'an banks on the intellectual ability of the listener. Who takes in the Qur'an with the "right mind", establishes a coherency between the spoken and the heard word.


I mention only some few examples and quote the respective Arab vocabulary: Humans addressed by the Qur'an are "admonished to show insight (taddaebur, 38/29), to reflect (taddaekur, in the same place), to understand (fiq, 6, 98), to ponder (tafaekkur, 19/1) and to understand, i.e. to engage one's intellect (al'aq)" {11}. From a variety of similar argumentation patterns I quote only Sura 3, 190: "See, in the creation of heaven and earth, and in the change of night and day are indeed signs for the intelligent." European Islam scientists agree - just as Mutacilitic and Neo-Mutacilitic schools in Islam - to a large extent that with this appeal to the listener's reason can not only be meant her/his ability to acquire instrumentally the mere wording, but also to distinguish independently between good and bad, true and false - independently of revelation and tradition. But "orthodox" Islamic theologians deny time and again that this ability of decision is given to all human beings - only people who profess the God of Islam can be called rational beings in the strict sense.


For a decision of that question it seems important to me that not only the written, respectively the in the early period verbally passed on text of the revelation, but also the gifts of creation are to be seen as universal signs of the continuing work of creation of a loving God - hence accessible also to the non-Muslims. Ideal typically is to be quoted from Sura 20 (53/54):


"... who (Allah) made the earth for you a camp and made ways on it for you, and let come down water from the skies. And we brought thereby (i.e. by the water) into existence kinds of different plants. Eat (of it) and let your cattle graze (on it)! In them are the signs for people who have understanding." {12}


Who can read the signs of the universe, so the argumentation of the Qur'an, will not remain in polytheism, but will turn to the one God. The question which in many other places urges to a decision, "Have you no understanding?" underlines again the importance of reason for the finding of God.


Not blind faith is demanded, but a reflected one, and then an affirmed agreement to the consequence resulting from God's various signs in nature: the voluntary subjection under his will {13}.


Hence already in the Qur'an, which is thought ideal-typically as pure and uniform revelation of the divine word, are diverse disturbances. They are "cured" by specific processing techniques of the theological tradition. I call these techniques in a broad sense "rational", as far as they guarantee by means of the intellect the uniformity, the universal validity, and the comprehensibility of the revelation. But rationality is already very early, for the first time already under the Caliph dynasty of the Ummayads, attached too closely to the actual revelation text, and to its power-politically sanctioned interpretation, so that the personal 'right guidance' of the individual (igtihãd), and with it his/her free will, are in danger to get lost in favour of a doctrinally defined guidance by God or the religious authority. But the mentioned historical early areas of conflict remain not only as starting point for future hermeneutical debates, also new ones are added yet.


II. Rationality in the Formative Epoch of Islam 700-1100 A.D.

The Sunna (tradition) can be understood as a further level of rational reflection. The term Sunna means the in the first two centuries after the death of the Prophet (632 A.D.) canonized collections of commented traditions of his normative sayings. They deviated from each other and were named "Hadithe". Though in these texts, the normative demands of which equals almost that of the Qur'an, rationality in the deductive or in the technical-economical sense is hardly found, yet there is a "narrative rationality" - similar to the parables of Jesus or to the doctrinal narratives of the Talmud.


The four Sunni law schools of the Malicits, Hanafits, Schafiits and Hanbalits, which consolidated up to approximately 850 A.D., form a further level of reflection on the Qur'an's. It had been planned from the beginning as plural: Their pragmatic interpretations of the Qur'an and of the Sunna in the sense of a topical jurisdiction (Schari'a) are from now on equally valid.


And there is still to be pointed to a third stage of - now in a narrower sense - rational reflection on the Islamic revelation: the early, strongly by an Aristotelic model of rationality orientated movement of the Mutacilits, i.e. people who "part company". In their classical-theological realization they were also called (contemptuously) Mutäkallimuns, literally from kalàm, (=talking) "those who are always talking". By the simultaneous confrontation of the rapidly spreading Islam with Judaism, Christianity and thus also concomitantly with Greek philosophy, the necessity arose to state the message of Islam not only in a universal language, but to prove it also on the level of the Greek-Christian speculation.


But the equipment of Greek science and dialectic, which had been newly developed under the rule of the Abbasids (750-1248) in Baghdad, and was power-politically used against the young Sunni "Orthodoxy" and enforced upon it, generated soon also dangerous side effects. The use of Aristotelic metaphysics in Bagdad and Basra between 750 and 1000 A.D. confronted the Qur'an and the Sunna with the judgement of critical reason, and revealed so the logical contradictions of the revealed text. In my view there are to be mentioned above all the following two times three antinomies, which provoked a decision. Since Ghazali three of them must be seen as settled. He decided in his polemical document "Tahãfut al falãsifa" (Incoherence of Philosophy) - in each case by referring to the Qur'an -


against the pre-eternity of the world,

against an only universal omniscience of Allah, and

for the bodily resurrection.

Now a look has to be taken at the three remaining antinomies, and the Islamic debates about them. Concerned are the conflict areas between predestination and human freedom, between the 'not created' and 'created' status of the Qur'an text, and between the anthropomorphic talking about God and the negative theology.


1. Predestination and Human Freedom. Already in the Qur'an Allah's omnipotence, which determines also all human acts in detail, faces the demand to render account in the (Last) Judgment. Only from an individual that is supposed to be free you can expect that it accepts the responsibility for its acts in an in Islam expressly eternally thought paradise or hell. The religion historical tension between the Pre-Islamic-Arab faith in the predestination of the fate of each individual and its responsibility in the Judgment, as we know it also from the two other large monotheistic religions, is not solved in the Qur'an {14}. Besides the statement, "God has created you and the things which you make" (37,96; see 76, 30), suggesting a predestination, there are many others that presuppose the responsibility of each individual in the Judgment, and thus its at least partial free will.


This openness to interpretation led in the classical Islam to polarizing theological schools: On the one hand we see in the radical "Kadarija" and the so-called "Ibadija" as well as in many up to this day existing schools of the Sunni Islam - for instance in Libya and Algeria, a pronounced belief in predestination. But perhaps this belief owes its power-political sanctioning to the fact that predestination was understood by most of the ruling Caliphs as laid into their hands, and was therefore endorsed by them. It might have reached its culmination in the supra-naturalistic conception of Ibnal Baqillanis (10th century), who believed that the human person had not any substantiality, but was, like the entire creation, something accidental, hence a mere instrument for the implementation of Allah's will.


On the other hand there is found at the side of the Mutacilits, and in the later philosophically coined theology (falãsifa) such a strong emphasis on the human freedom of action, that its theory was rejected in the eleventh century. But it had been the actual goal of those theologian schools to develop a harmonious and comprehensive systematization of the Prophet's message, for instance to get together intellectually the "inner-worldly causality and the individual's responsibility for its doings with the one creator's omnipotence that is continuously actualizing itself" {15}.


The up to this day most powerful and generally as "orthodox" regarded movement of the As c ari'ya, which is named after its founder, Abu 1-Hassan al-Ascari (873-935, Basra/Bagdad), did much for the further existence of the ostracized schools. It took in each case the middle course between Sunni and Mutacilitic theology, but accepted and handed down in principle the philosophically inspired logic. Also in the question of the free will it tries to connect philosophy and Sunni Orthodoxy, hence it proceeds from God's co-operation with man's acting: The things given by God to man must be accepted by it in a free act (kasb theory). Those who refuse to accept the action demanded by the Qur'an and the Sunna have to expect otherworldly punishment.


Since only God but no human being can over-look the complex conditions and consequences of its act, it is at the same time impossibly to foresee from the acts of man - in the sense of a clear causality - whether they will lead it into paradise or hell. The judgment is only God's authority. This idea - taken up by the Ascharits - to postpone (Murgija) the decision between 'pure predestination' or 'perfect freedom of action' up to the other world, represents until today the generally as orthodox regarded Islamic compromise (position) in this question.


With the theologian Fakr ad-Din al-Razi († 1209), whose work shows up to the modern time in Islam an important history of impact {16}, there is found a solution of the problem, which in my opinion can even be connected with the contemporary theological and philosophical debates on a pre-reflexive self certainty of the subject {17}. The Islam scientist Tilmann Nagel speaks probably rightly of a "turn to the Self, to self-awareness" {18}, but al-Razi ironically deduces from the rather anti-rationalistic philosopher al-Ghazali. On the basis of Sura 17, 85 he says: "The thing that differentiates man from mere particles of matter, is its self-awareness which as continuum withstands also physical changes." This assumption explains the procedures of memory formation and independent thinking actually more meaningfully than the outlined doctrine of substance and accidence.

The truth would be met by those philosophers who see the nature of man in its soul, the individualized manifestation of 'ruh' (God's outgoing spirit), and who see the human being as an organism made of body and soul (which will disintegrate after death).




2. Not created and created status of the Qur'an text. A further theological problem complex is hidden behind the question about the theological status of the revealed Qur'an text. Together with the teachings of the Mutacilits was also rejected their thesis that the Qur'an was a created work, and therefore a literary text that could be interpreted. In the by the majority acknowledged tradition of As c ari is made a distinction between the not created original Qur'an and its created, in each case concrete materialization in a printed book or in a recitation. On the other hand the doubting of its not created and thus infallible status was time and again sufficient to exclude the doubter from the Umma al Islamiya. In the twentieth century the question became again explosive by the confrontation of Islamic scholars with western literature-critical methods.


The tension which accompanied the question about the status of the Qur'an, when the various theological schools and law schools came to different interpretations of unclear passages, and the question about their mediation among those schools, was up to the eleventh century usually solved by an allegorical interpretation of the discrepancy between the revealed matter and the human understanding, or one decided in favour of understanding. But after the death of the theologian Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in 1198, which marks the end of the Islamic reception of Aristotle, one solved those tensions increasingly with the help of Sufism, a Platonic shaped mysticism. By various ascetic and ecstatic techniques, but also by popular rites, and a pronounced veneration of the saints one hoped to achieve a direct approach to God's nature and will, and so to be able to dispense with the confusing and diverging reflections of theologians.


The up to this day extremely influential Andalusian mystic Ibn Arabi {19} wrote his spiritual texts, it is true, not without a philosophical-theological background. The distinction between esoteric and everyday life knowledge, which is substantial for most mystics, has been set up already by the Mutacilits, and before them already by Platonism. Besides Ibn Arabi had close contact to Ibn Rushd. But under Sufi influence the revealed text of the Qur'an as well as the theological reflection cease to be the focus of interest.


3. Anthropomorphic Talking About God And Negative Theology. A last theological area of conflict opens between the affirmation of the anthropomorphic pictures of God in the Qur'an on the one hand, and a radical negative theology on the other hand. It threatens to let become impossible any talking about God, yes, even a revelation like the Qur'an. Here too the basis for both opinions is already laid in the Qur'an.


I mention that problem however only briefly, for it can hardly be any longer the subject of a debate today. It was solved either by a metaphorical interpretation of the anthropomorphic passages, or by the distinction between essential and active attributes of God.


III. Rationality and Reform Islam

After the final decay of the Abbasid kingdom and the banishment of Ibn Rushd by the Spanish Almohads in the thirteenth century there followed - with the end of the Islamic classical period - a time of stagnation at least in the Sunni theology. Thus the Ulamã, the teachers who came from the law schools, won the religious power. In place of the universities (bayt al-hikma, house of wisdom) where the theological dispute was the dominant form of discourse, developed the Qur'an schools, the madrasas. They form from now on the "religious, and of course also the political instrument of the orthodox leadership" {20}.


This structure of the religious instruction was maintained and radicalized under changing political and historical leadership up to this day - for instance in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan - up to the training camps of the Taliban fighters of our days. Consistently today deliberate social reforms that want to fight fundamentalism, have to begin with the education system {21}. Fatima Mernissi describes the Internet and the satellite-to-receiver telecasting as subversive education instances, which could soon introduce the end of undemocratic Islamic regimes {22}.


But it would be too simple to regret the outlined break of the - in a narrow sense - rational reflection with a shake of the head. For at least psychologically the consolidating development of the Sunna in the eighth century, but also its later defence against the theologically, economically and culturally so extraordinarily fruitful reception of Aristotle can be well duplicated. The first centuries of Islam were altogether characterized by irreconcilable struggles for power: first between the parties of the four so-called rightly-guided Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali), who were murdered all together except the first {23}, then between Sunnis and Schiites, and between the Sunni orthodoxy and the Mutacilits {24} in the ninth and tenth century. These early and lasting dissipations of the Umma al islamiya produced a deep-rooted fear of splitting and religiously motivated violence - a fear which at the end of the so-called formative phase finally - not least under the attack of the Reconquista in Spain - established the Sunni orthodoxy which is working up to this day: Since it is lacking the peace making protection of a central doctrinal office, it tries - with reference to Qur'an, Sunna and the four law schools - to avoid large theological speculations, which are now usually denounced as Bida', as dangerous innovation.


Reforms in Islamic theology developed only since the eighteenth century again. True, their origin lies in the continuing struggle for orthodoxy in the Middle Ages; but they were triggered and radicalized by the inevitable confrontation of the to a large extent ruined Ottoman Empire with the Christian European culture since Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798. One answered this modernization shock again on the one hand with a broad reform version striving for an organic integration of the European modern age, and on the other hand with a narrow version that thought only it was conform to tradition.


That rather narrow, sometimes rigorist reform tradition is today world-wide most powerful, and goes essentially back to the Hanbalit Ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703-1791). Al-Wahab was broadly educated{25} and got his idea-historical effectiveness by a close connection to Ibn Sa'ud, an ancestor of the dynasty of the Saudi princes. Already 1744 the two planned to develop a realm in which only God's genuine word should apply. But after the successful conquest of Mecca and Medina at the beginning of the nineteenth century their conquest campaign came to a standstill. Only in 1924 the Saudis had finally conquered the entire Arab peninsula, except of Yemen. Abd al Wahab can be considered today as the ancestor of the typical Saudi Islamism, which exerts meanwhile an immense religious-political influence - particularly by the world-wide distribution of the wealth attained by the oil extraction.


Seemingly paradox, but also understandable after the up till now told things, Abd al Wahab claimed in all theological questions a position of the golden mean. So he stated to stand between the anthropomorphic talking about God and the emptying talking of negative theology. The same applied to the theological poles predestination - free will. Even in the question about the normative demands of the Prophet's companions and relatives he placed himself at a middle position between Shiites and Sunnis. Such a positioning marked however by no means liberality, but only the avoidance of unorthodox innovations, 'Bida', and enabled a broad agreement of simple people. Hence Wahab was already early criticized that he denied the entire history of Islamic faith, but above all the integration of rationalism by the Ascharits, and that he postulated only and alone for himself an authentic and direct access to Qur'an and Sunna. But Wahab protested that - according to his teachings - faith und reason would always correspond, so that the areas of conflict described above could not at all develop. Of course, he confirmed thus his critics, for in this way rationality is defined only according to revelation and Schari'a - hence it is paralyzed. Sayyid Qutb, brain of the by Hassan al Banna 1928 in Egypt founded Muslim Brothers, radicalized al Wahab's ideas in the sense of a dualistic vis-à-vis of 'dar of al harb' (house of war) and 'dar al Islam' (house of Islam) - with the only possible consequence of armed djihãd.


 Mohammed Abduh however (1849-1905) {26} is up to this day the most influential figure of a liberal reform Islam; a tendency which - after its broad acknowledgment and promotion - is today unfortunately scarcely any longer noticed in the west after the arising of Islamism. In view of the convincing successes of western science Abduh demanded a general modernization of Islam. That meant actually for him and for his predecessor Muhammad ibn Ali as-Sanusi (1787-1859) to grant any theologian (independently of one of the four dominant law schools) direct access again to the roots of Islam: Qur'an and Sunna. At the same time he advocated to introduce western teaching methods at the Cairo Al Azhar University (where he taught) - in the context of a comprehensive education program for Egypt.


Abduh, like many of his contemporaries and like the followers of the reform-Islamic Salaffíya Movement, regarded the technical achievements of the west not as something foreign to Islam. Indeed, here the scientific knowledge, which Islam had brought to Europe in the early Middle Ages, began to blossom again. Hence for Abduh natural science and technology were the result of an originally Islamic rationality. They have their origin in a comprehensive treasure of knowledge ('ilm) which had once been given to Adam. In a defence (which is not completely free of racist basic assumptions) of Islam against Christianity - according to Abduh's view Christians are polytheists -, he held even the thesis that only in Islam the intellect is the standard for the truth of the faith tradition:


"Save a few exceptions ... Muslims agree that in the case of a contradiction between reason and tradition that matters to which reason refers. Then two possibilities remain:


One admits that tradition is true but concedes that one does not understand it - and leaves its contents to God.

One interprets its contents according to the linguistic rules in such a way that finally their sense is in agreement with the things which the intellect can affirm. ...

Which free area could embrace all speculative philosophers and all those who devote themselves to sciences if not this?" {27}.


The mentioned totality of revealed knowledge (`ilm) is extended however not only in the liberal, but also in the traditionalistic reform tradition to the European science. Also Wahabism solves a serious logical problem, which has been created by it, with the assistance of the following logical step: Since only the Sunni Islam can be in possession of God's authentic revelation, and thus in possession of the comprehensive knowledge of worldly things such as technology and science, the solution of the substantial problems of mankind can be expected from it only.


Just Mohammed Abduh's universalism, which should open the Islamic world for Europe's intellectual and technical innovations without alienating it from its own traditions, has been reinterpreted by Islamists in the sense of an exclusive Islamic claim to salvation.


Abd al Wahab's followers but also the Egyptian Muslim Brothers regard the ideal Islamic society, as it is found in the legal form of the first community in Medina, as superior to all other models. It will unite - after the revolutionary victory over the west for which they are striving - even the advantages both of capitalism and socialism {28}. Up to this day the intellectuals in Islamic states are confronted with this fundamental alternative: on the one hand the Islamizing of modern knowledge, on the one hand an actual modernization of Islamic thinking.


IV. Result

Western modernism is defined in its self-perception by the ideal of individual freedom and tolerance toward those who think differently. This orientation, which is based not least on Biblical ground, has been justified against other traditions by rational arguments and finally politically realized. It has been demonstrated that also in Islam already early such schools of Islamic theology existed that were devoted to the self-sufficiency of the human intellect, but also others which rejected it as means of individual right guidance.


In the nineteenth century one answered the urgent necessity of reforms again both with liberal and with rigorist variants. As already in the twelfth century the more rigorist or narrow version of rationality seems finally to gain the victory - by the vehement support of political powers which privileged massively simpler theological solutions, solutions that are outwardly unifying and power-politically more practicable {29}. Here is not simply egoism of the high and mighty at work, but an understandable will for self-preservation against concrete military and economic threats (reconquista / colonization / globalization).


Despite all that at least an Islam that wants to have a future in Europe - and that wants to be world-wide more and something else than a projection screen of fears which are partly justified - such an Islam is to approach 'thought models' which are compatible with modernity and human rights. A substantial role might play thereby the in Europe established separation between state and religion, which could bring back also to Islamic theology the urgently needed freedom. This separation however is nothing that Islam had to learn yet from Europe today. Abdelwahab Meddeb points out that the peaceful golden days of Mamluck Cairo in the thirteenth century was due to the wise separation between (lay) sultanate and (religious) caliphate, yes, that Frederic Barbarossa had imported "monarchy" only from there to Europe, and had so decided the investiture struggle {30}.


Thereby representatives of such an Islam had not to adopt in any point a foreign tradition, or even to be converted to it by force.

No, they could draw from their own sources, and so at least theologically come to their own version of modernity. But that presupposes a decided will to reform by leading Sunni instances, which at present cannot be seen - much as one should like it. Who are struggling with the question of a modern Islam capable of science and democracy, are above all the already cited theologians who are exiled, ostracized or at least isolated.


The obvious question, how such marginalized currents could be strengthened today, is not primarily a theological or philosophical question, but first a question of world politics, and especially of the balance of power in North Africa, Near East, and Middle East. But nevertheless from the realization of the here described models of thinking can be drawn consequences also for a theologically valuable dialogue between Christianity and Islam. In order to open such a dialogue on a broad basis - without removing thereby the modernity-critical prick of Islam, or to surrender it even to its dissolution in the acid bath of laity - there had to happen in the above mentioned regions an economic and political relaxation, and an end of the unjust dictatorships, which impart only a perverted picture of human rights and democracy.


On the side of Islam a "reopening" would be necessary of the in the twelfth century closed "gate of igtihãd". Thus the old tradition of a controversial theological discourse would get again its due place at Islamic universities. But at the same time everywhere in the world Muslims have to be met with respect for their personal dignity and for their old intellectual and cultural inheritance - one has to discuss with them at the same eyelevel; a task that might not become easier - in view of the growing distrust on all sides by the terror danger.


But also western intellectuals have to do some rethinking in the future, if they no longer want to watch idly politics which argues complexly and acts sometimes awfully, but want to offer alternative approaches. That means above all to approach an inevitable focus of conflict in the way of dialogue. Whether they will, at least partially, succeed in saying good-bye to the irreligious conception of rationality in French Enlightenment is at present still an open question. But first beginnings of such a rethinking can clearly be seen with until now secularly oriented philosophers who begin here and there to include the phenomenon 'religion' affirmatively into their thinking.




{1}F. Mernissi, Islam u. Demokratie. Die Angst vor der Moderne (Freiburg 2002).


{2} S. Huntington, Kampf der Kulturen (München 1997) 345ff.


{3} M. Houellebecq, Plattform (Köln 2002) 238f. Houellebecg's statements became politially virulent when he published them in an interview with the magazine 'Lire' in August 2001.


{4} O. Fallaci, Die Wut u. der Stolz (München 2002).


{5} M. Arkoun, Der Islam. Annäherung an eine Religion (Heidelberg 1999).


{6} Note 6 is missing in the original text and is skipped.


{7} The preceding characterizing remarks are oriented towards: B. Uhde, Zur wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Stellung des Faches Religionswissenschaft / Religionsgeschichte u. zum Begriff "Religion" sowie zu den Profilen der Weltreligionen, II. 3. Islam. Unpublished manuscript (Freiburg 2002).


{8} Art. Offenbarung, in: Lexikon des Islam, published by A. Th. Khoury and others, volume 3 (Freiburg 2001) 602-603.


{9} The quatations from the Qur'an are taken from the German translation of R. Paret, Der Koran (Berlin 2001).


{10} In the same place 602.


{11} A. Falaturi, Die islamischen Glaubensrichtungen aus religionsphilosophischer Sicht; in: Religionsphilosophie heute. Chancen u. Bedeutung in Philosophie und Theologie, published by A. Halder and others (Düsseldorf 1988) 195-224, 196.


{12} Der Koran (A. 9) 572; T. Nagel, Geschichte der islamischen Theologie. Von Mohammed bis zur Gegenwart (München 1994) especially emphasizes Sura 16.


{13} Art. Offenbarung (A. 8) 601 f.


{14} Cf. fundamentally to this problem: W. Montmomery Watt, Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam (London 1948).


{15} Nagel (A. 12) 94. Cf. as source for hadithe and kalãm: J. Schacht, Der Islam mit Ausschluß des Quor'ans. (Tübingen 1931).


{16} The German Islam scientist Max Horten examined this philosopher in detail: Die philosophischen Ansichten von Razi u. Tusi (t 1209 und t 1273). With an appendix: Die griechischen Philosophen in der Vorstellungswelt von Razi u. Tusi (Bonn 1910). Newer writings come from R. Arnaldez, Fakhral-Din al-Râzî. Commentateur du Coran et philosophe (Paris 2002) und M. Lagarde, Index du Grand Commentaire de Fahr al-Din al-Razi (Leiden 1996).


{17} Cf. exemplary K. Müller, Subjektivität u. Theologie. Eine hartnäckige Rückfrage, in: ThPh 70 (1995) 161-186.


{18} Nagel (A. 12) 189f.


{19} Cf. recently the deserving translation of parts of his most important works by Alma Giese, Ibn Arabi, Urwolke u. Welt. Mystische Texte des Größten Meisters (München 2002). In front of the translation is placed a helpful introduction to life and work of the mystic.


{20} G. Endress, Der Islam. Eine Einführung in seine Geschichte (München 31997) 86.


{21} Cf. exemplary: M. Charfi, Islam et liberté. La malentendu historique (Paris 1999) 137f.


{22} Cf. Mernissi (A. 1).


{23} Cf. Meddeb, Die Krankheit des Islam (Heidelberg 2002) 59 ff.


{24} Cf. Nagel (A. 12) 100ff. sowie Meddeb (A. 23) 24ff.


{25} The for him crucial 'spiritus rector' was Ibn Taymiyya, a theologian from Syria († 1328), and radical pupil of Ibn Hanbals, who - before the background of the Mongol threat which was seen as an apocalyptic one - represented a rigoristic understanding of the law. Cf. Meddeb (A. 23) 59-65.


{26} Cf. M. H. Kerr, Islamit Reform. The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashî Ridâ. (Berkeley 1966) 103-152.


{27} Nagel (A. 12) 253f.


{28} T. Nagel, Theologie u. Ideologie im modernen Islam, in: Der Islam III, published by P. Antes u.a. (Stuttgart 1991). 52ff. Cf. to the topic: M. Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1877; Neuauflage Dehli 1985).


{29} The Tunisian intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb teaching in Paris speaks about the twentieth century even of a "liquidation of the theological (ideas) by political ones": Cf. Meddeb (A. 23) 101.


{30} In the same place 111-131.



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