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.
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