Stephen Chan: At the very very first lec­ture, we had a dis­qui­si­tion about what it meant to imag­ine God as a first prin­ci­ple. We used a famous text from the begin­ning of The Gospel According to St. John, In the begin­ning was the word. The Word was with God. And the Word was God.” In oth­er words, there was a com­bi­na­tion of God and his enun­ci­a­tion, God’s own artic­u­la­tion and God’s own text, so that God as a divine crea­ture and the Bible as a divine artic­u­la­tion togeth­er com­posed a first prin­ci­ple.

In the hey­day of Islamic thought, of Islamic phi­los­o­phy, of dis­qui­si­tions about the mean­ing of Islam and its place in the world of knowl­edge, in the 13th cen­tu­ry, the thought of great Islamic thinkers also was that God and his text con­sti­tut­ed a first prin­ci­ple. All else was con­tin­gent upon this first prin­ci­ple. Second, third, prin­ci­ples, etc. were con­tin­gent. So that in the devel­op­ment of tra­di­tions of Islamic learn­ing, the devel­op­ment of Islamic texts, the devel­op­ment of Islamic law, what should prop­er­ly be regard­ed as the hadith, the record­ed and report­ed say­ings of Muhammad (which were not divine in the sense that they were not giv­en by rev­e­la­tion; they were reports of the life and of the speech of the prophet), these con­sti­tute a sec­ond prin­ci­ple. They refer direct­ly to the first prin­ci­ple text, the Koran, but are not them­selves first prin­ci­ple.

Sharia law, the con­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the teach­ings of both God and Muhammad, con­sti­tute again a fur­ther con­tin­gency. So they can be described as a third prin­ci­ple.

And a fourth prin­ci­ple are the debates, the teach­ings, the expo­si­tions, and the inter­pre­ta­tions of wise men. Their pro­pound­ing and expound­ing of hid­den mean­ings, of applied mean­ings from the Sharia, the hadith, and from the Koran itself. And doing so by method­olo­gies that demon­strat­ed prop­er learn­ing, prop­er regard to author­i­ty and prece­dent. All of these things con­sti­tute today’s received vol­umes of Islamic learn­ing.

And they are con­test­ed learn­ings. The split between Sunni and Shia for instance, hap­pened at a very very ear­ly stage of Islamic devel­op­ment. It con­cerned very very much, of course, who was going to be regard­ed as the prop­er suc­ces­sor to Muhammad. But it also involved all kinds of doc­tri­nal issues such as the Second Coming, whether or not a hid­den imam exist­ed, or whether he was yet to come. These doc­tri­nal dif­fer­ences mul­ti­plied as years went by. And it’s almost as if a reac­tion to this could be found in the Sufi expres­sion of Islamic thought. That is, the search for a charis­mat­ic means of per­son­al con­nec­tion to God, a tran­scen­den­tal­ism which in fact tran­scend­ed all the schools of thought and made it a per­son­al­ized spir­i­tu­al rela­tion­ship with the first prin­ci­ple.

Now, this can eas­i­ly be regard­ed as hereti­cal. It means bypass­ing a very great deal. It means even bypass­ing the first prin­ci­ple of God as con­tained in his text, in the Koran. Because one estab­lish­es a rela­tion­ship which is even more pow­er­ful than the word of God. One estab­lish­es a rela­tion­ship with God him­self. And yet the expe­ri­ence of Sufism is not unlike the con­di­tion of Muhammad him­self when he received the scrip­tures over a peri­od of time, over a num­ber of dif­fer­ent episodes, cer­tain­ly in the first instances of his receiv­ing divine rev­e­la­tion. The tor­ture, the suf­fer­ing, the immense dif­fi­cul­ty that Muhammad expe­ri­enced in receiv­ing the word of God spoke to a divine rela­tion­ship. It spoke to a con­nec­tion to heav­en which lat­er schol­ars were actu­al­ly at pains to min­i­mize.

Great philoso­phers like [Ibn al-Khaldun?] tried to mate­ri­al­ize the expe­ri­ence of Muhammad. And this gave rise to a whole range of dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions, even with­in the Sunni per­sua­sion, as to how spir­i­tu­al, how mate­r­i­al, and if mate­r­i­al how legal­ly bound could be the inter­pre­ta­tions of one’s rela­tion­ship as a per­son or as a peo­ple, with God. Several schools of thought devel­oped over the years with­in the Sunni per­sua­sion, some more spir­i­tu­al, some far more mate­r­i­al.

And in fact as we’ve dis­cussed in pre­vi­ous lec­tures, the exces­sive mate­ri­al­i­ty of cer­tain thinkers try­ing to make God almost a crea­ture with human char­ac­ter­is­tics, human qual­i­ties iden­ti­fi­able with the human realm—not unlike the ancient Greek gods, for instance, able to par­take in human quar­rels and have human reac­tions to the behav­ior of human beings—all of this was itself regard­ed as near­ing apos­ta­sy and heresy, remov­ing the spir­i­tu­al almost entire­ly from the con­cept of God. 

But the idea of the mate­r­i­al and the idea of the lit­er­al, the asso­ci­a­tion of lit­er­al­ness with mate­ri­al­ness, the cohab­i­ta­tion of lit­er­al­i­ty with things that could be observed almost in a pos­i­tivist fashion—that is they are a pos­i­tivist inter­pre­ta­tion of God and what he required of humanity—found its way by descent through one of the schools into what we now know as Wahhabism. 

The Wahhabism of today, which is caus­ing such con­ster­na­tion in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the same Wahhabism of Wahhab when he rode out of the desert with the fore­bears of the House of Saud. The world as we know it today didn’t exist then. Even Saudi Arabia as we know it today did not exist then. The con­cept of Saudi Arabia as a very very rich coun­try did not exist then. Oil had not yet been dis­cov­ered then. It was a desert coun­try; the con­tes­ta­tion was among desert soci­eties.

So that the appli­ca­tion of a lit­er­al­ness to a wider, more com­plex soci­ety, to a wider more com­plex world, the human­iz­ing and the mate­ri­al­iza­tion of God’s rela­tion­ship with human­i­ty, becomes one of these things that is tak­en from a desert con­text of the bloody fight­ing that took place in the con­struc­tion of Saudi Arabia, the con­dem­na­tion of peo­ple for apos­ta­sy and their exe­cu­tion so that there could be polit­i­cal vic­to­ry, all of that is part of a Saudi his­to­ry which is trans­ferred into a mod­ern inter­na­tion­al rela­tions.

Wahabism and its man­i­fes­ta­tion in groups like ISIS, for instance, caught Western intel­li­gence, Western intel­lec­tu­al thought, Western reac­tion in gen­er­al by sur­prise. As late as March 2015, there was one arti­cle in the Western press that tried to treat ISIS and its Wahabi back­ground seri­ous­ly. Since then, in the months and years since then, one year and a few months since then, there’ve been a wel­ter or arti­cles, books (most of them bad), and only very very recent­ly has there been a gen­uine attempt try to inter­ro­gate the doc­trine of Wahabi as applied to mod­ern days by ISIS in a seri­ous fash­ion, and to see it as some­thing which is com­plex, some­thing which is thought­ful, even if we might regard it as atro­cious­ly thought­ful.

Hugh Kennedy, a pro­fes­sor at SOAS, has writ­ten a very fine book on the con­struc­tion of thought behind the enun­ci­a­tions of today’s ISIS thinkers and of their very very con­cert­ed and to a large extent suc­cess­ful effort to cap­ture a the­o­log­i­cal high ground by the inter­pre­ta­tion of text, ear­ly text, to try to say that they are rep­re­sent­ing the orig­i­nal fore­bears of today, those orig­i­nal fore­bears of Islam, that were close to the time of the prophet. And the more arcane the author­i­ty, the more arcane the inter­pre­ta­tion, and the more direct the appli­ca­tion in the mate­r­i­al and lit­er­al sense to today’s con­di­tions, the more per­sua­sive these peo­ple seem to be.

But what you have in the inter­pre­ta­tion of the great author­i­ties of Islam is the inter­pre­ta­tion of what I’ve described as a fourth prin­ci­ple. Trying to inter­pret a third prin­ci­ple based on Sharia, try­ing to base an inter­pre­ta­tion of what I’ve called the sec­ond principle—that is the hadith—finally get­ting back to an inter­pre­ta­tion of a first prin­ci­ple doc­trine, a doc­trine anal­o­gous to God him­self (that is the artic­u­la­tion of his word in the Koran), one notices that in the enun­ci­a­tions and in the intel­lec­tu­al attempt to cloak ISIS with intel­lec­tu­al integri­ty and respectabil­i­ty, there is an absence of ref­er­ence to the Koran itself but very very much an inter­ro­ga­tion and a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of them­selves as the heirs of the learned fathers, the fourth prin­ci­ple of the teach­ings of Islam.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information

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