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Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam: The Muslim Brotherhood, Ash'arism, and Political Sunnism

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The history of Sunni theology is little known, but the impact of its demise has profoundly shaped modern Islam. This book explores the correlation between anti-theological thought and the rise of Islamism in the twentieth century by examining Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership of Umar al-Tilmisani (d. 1986). The sociopolitical implications of anti-theological cr The history of Sunni theology is little known, but the impact of its demise has profoundly shaped modern Islam. This book explores the correlation between anti-theological thought and the rise of Islamism in the twentieth century by examining Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership of Umar al-Tilmisani (d. 1986). The sociopolitical implications of anti-theological creedalism and its postcolonial intermarriage with the modern nation-state are also analyzed. Ultimately, this study seeks to know whether a revival of Sunni theology, as a rational discourse on religion, can dilute the absolutism of increasingly pervasive Islamist thought in the contemporary Muslim world.


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The history of Sunni theology is little known, but the impact of its demise has profoundly shaped modern Islam. This book explores the correlation between anti-theological thought and the rise of Islamism in the twentieth century by examining Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership of Umar al-Tilmisani (d. 1986). The sociopolitical implications of anti-theological cr The history of Sunni theology is little known, but the impact of its demise has profoundly shaped modern Islam. This book explores the correlation between anti-theological thought and the rise of Islamism in the twentieth century by examining Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership of Umar al-Tilmisani (d. 1986). The sociopolitical implications of anti-theological creedalism and its postcolonial intermarriage with the modern nation-state are also analyzed. Ultimately, this study seeks to know whether a revival of Sunni theology, as a rational discourse on religion, can dilute the absolutism of increasingly pervasive Islamist thought in the contemporary Muslim world.

33 review for Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam: The Muslim Brotherhood, Ash'arism, and Political Sunnism

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tahir Hussain

    The introduction lays out the thesis of the book which is the claim that ilm al-kalām (the science of discourse in theology) as a discipline has not only declined but is now extinct from Islamic thought. It has been replaced by a creedal (ʿaqīdah or uṣūl al-dīn) enterprise (the difference is that theological works (kalām) contain proofs, expositions, and refutations of opponents whilst creeds (ʿaqāʾid) are simply statements of the correct articles of belief, i.e. They tell you what to believe no The introduction lays out the thesis of the book which is the claim that ilm al-kalām (the science of discourse in theology) as a discipline has not only declined but is now extinct from Islamic thought. It has been replaced by a creedal (ʿaqīdah or uṣūl al-dīn) enterprise (the difference is that theological works (kalām) contain proofs, expositions, and refutations of opponents whilst creeds (ʿaqāʾid) are simply statements of the correct articles of belief, i.e. They tell you what to believe not how or why). The author postulates that the cause for the demise was the anti-theological Atharī school as opposed to the rational Ash'arī school who “with their rich doctrines are the greatest reservoir for reform and renewal". The aim of the author is to investigate the theological renewal (or lack thereof) of contemporary political reformists groups of modern times such as the Muslim Brotherhood in contrast to the classical Sunnī theology of the Māturīdī and Ash'arī schools. The claim is that in modern Islamic and political thought, legal and scriptural-hermeneutics have remained to the exclusion of theology. The author points out that "it appears that along with the decline of kalām came considerable ignorance of its principles and doctrines, even among Muslim intellectuals who pride themselves on their knowledge of Islam's rich history of scholarship". How true is this statement? The author's perspective is found in the chapters that follow the introduction. The first chapter discusses the doctrines of Sunnī theology, i.e. The Ash'arī and Māturīdī Schools. We begin with the Ash'arī school. This section is well written and the author points out that there may be creedal parallels between the Ash'arī and Atharī doctrines but only on a superficial level. For example, both agree that the Qur'ān is the uncreated Speech of God. However, the Ash'arīs depart from the Atharī view and say (like the Māturīdīs) that the written/spoken Qur'ān is created. The Atharīs on the other hand, hold it as the uncreated Attribute of God. The author does a good job of expounding Ash'arī theology from the nature of the Qu'rān, Freewill/Predestination to Faith and the Attributes of God. On the Māturīdī section I found myself differing with the author on a couple of points. Though I agree that little study and attention has been given to the Māturīdī school, I disagree that the school only appears to be more rational (implying it isn't) than the Ash'arī school. Shaykh Abū Mansūr al-Māturīdī (d. 944) was actually the first theologian in the Islamic Tradition to preface his work with the theory of knowledge (epistemology). The author also states that the Māturīdītes held that humans can attain knowledge of God, as well as their obligations to Him through reason alone, i.e. without the aid of revelation. This is slightly misleading, depending on what the author actually meant. Māturīdīs do not hold that your obligations to God such as praying five times a day can be known through reason. Rather, they hold reason can ascertain that actions such as murder are innately evil and thus reason can determine whether things are intrinsically good or evil and right from wrong without the need for revelation but the basis for religious duties is prophetic revelation, not reason. The final point I disagree with is that the Māturīdīs advocated ṭa'wīl, or metaphorical interpretation of any seemingly anthropomorphic verses of the Qur’ān, as well as following them with “bila kayf” (without asking how/why). I disagree, in that the dominant Māturīdī opinion is that these verses are ambiguous and therefore they give them no ṭa'wīl, saying that they can't be understood, that they are mutashābih (ambiguous) thus accepted without interpretation. It is the actually the Ash'arīs who employed metaphors in explaining them. The author does however make it clear that Shaykh Abū Mansūr al-Māturīdī refrained from ṭa'wīl (though one has to concede that some Māturīdī Mutakallimūn did resort to ṭa'wīl). The rest of the section explores the same doctrines expounded in the Ash'arī section. Ultimately, the conclusion is that "the differences between the two are significant" and blurring this reality was for solidarity purposes. The vital significance here is that one may find agreement in creedal from but disagreement in theological form. This is often overlooked in our day and age and downplayed claiming there are no differences or they have twelve minor difference between them (consider that these two groups - Māturīdīs and Ash'arīs - have not had pleasant exchnages in the past, going so far as to label each other innovators and disbelievers for holding certain positions). The second chapter details the Atharī School, asserting that they are erroneously put under the umbrella of the Hanbalīs. It is argued that a minority within the Hanbalī School accepted the validity of kalām (the like of Ibn 'Aqīl (d. 1119) and Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201) who are Hanbalī but not Atharī). The majority (among the likes of Ibn Qudāmah (d. 1223) and Ibn Taymīyya (d. 1328)) who are Hanbalīs, however, fall under the Atharī camp (as do some Shafi'īte, demonstrated through the plea of a Shafi'īte to Ibn Taymīyya to write what became 'Aqidah al-Wāsitiyyah). I would argue that this is due to the many statements of Ahmad ibn Hanbāl (d. 855) which go hand in hand with the Atharī stance. The author then discusses the Atharī creed and their reasoning behind their "anti-theological" positions as well as their literal interpretations of the Qu'rān and the Traditions. This section is well written, concise and lucid. It reminded me of the many arguments used by modern day Atharī/Salafis and why the charge of anthropomorphism is made against them. In turn, those that oppose their view in their perspective have fallen in to heresy and even kufr (disbelief). The second half of the chapter discusses four factors that contributed to the decline of kalām; the popular influence of the anti-theological textual Atharī School, the blurring/intertwining of philosophy and kalām, the growth of Sufism and finally the solidarity movement under the Mamluk era (1250–1517). These are explored briefly and arguments are put forward by the author for each of these aspects contributing to the eventual demise of kalām. The summation of these factors is brief but to and one can argue that it is outside the scope of this work to cover several centuries of the gradual elimination of Mu'tazalism from Sunnī Islam. However, this was the crux of the argument - that kalām has disappeared - so this section does require more information. There are details provided to build upon further reading, e.g. The Atharī scholar 'Abdullah al-Ansārī al-Harāwī (d. 1088) branding the Ash'arites as heretics and disbelievers for their rationalist methods, but this section requires more emphasis. The conclusion closes by summing up the failed attempts to revive kalām. The author states that for the most part, the approach to the revival effort has been narrow and "thoroughly modernist in nature" with some even confusing philosophy and theology hence failing to have an impact on the revival. It was surprising to learn that in the last five centuries, the Māturīdītes have almost no creeds or commentaries. Mustafa Ceric argues in his “Roots of Synthetic Theology” that this is because Shaykh Abū Mansūr al-Māturīdī had perfected a definite methodological system. I think Abū al-Mu'īn al-Nasafī (d. 1114) deserves credit for bringing out Imām Māturīdī's system. The following chapter is an analysis of the "vital relationship between Atharī imposed creedalism and the emergence of Islamism in the twentieth century", taking the writings of 'Umar al-Tilmisani (d. 1986) of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as the primary subject. He briefly looks at Hasan al-Bannā (d. 1949) and how he took to Sufism or "Neo-Sufism", as the author labels it, and how he moved further away from his Sufi roots as the Muslim Brotherhood developed. This advancement expands to ‘Umar al-Tilmisani and his theological leanings in governance. The author dismisses his championing of the Rāshidūn Caliphs as models to follow in governance due to the problems they faced and the fact that three of the four were assassinated. This in my opinion was an unfair evaluation in a brief couple of sentences. There is not a single ruler of government that didn't or hasn't encountered problems. The assessment should be based on their aims, goals, lifestyle, achievements and treatment of their people, not the unfortunate circumstances of the political landscape which they inherited (especially with regard to 'Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 661)) or how they died. The summation of ‘Umar al-Tilmisani's theology are "one part Egyptian Salafi and another part Neo-Sufi" but arguably indicating an adherence to the Ash'arī 'aqidah in creedal form. The next part of the chapter examines Muhammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1996) and Yusuf al-Qaradāwī as the Shaykhs of the Muslim Brotherhood who both professed to be adherents of Ash'arism. Al-Ghazālī was clear that the "Islamic government is not against reason", adding his discontent of those utilising hadīth that contradict the Qu'rān saying such people "have hardly any knowledge at all of Qu'ranic provisions." Al- Qaradāwī also condemned Atharī extremism, including their practice of takfir (declaring other Muslims as infidels). How do they then compare to those that hold Atharī views? Enter Ayman al-Zawahiri (b. 1951); a critic of the Muslim Brotherhood. The entry on him is a quick overview of his views followed by a conclusion of the chapter as a whole. The next chapter turns to the events in the life of ‘Umar al-Tilmisani so that we can contextualise his views. The first section is an overview of the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups that existed during this period intertwined with the political landscape of Egypt and the rise and fall of various groups, leaders and presidents. The remainder of the chapter traces the life of ‘Umar al-Tilmisani, split in to three sections; "The Early Years: 1904-1933", "Among the Muslim Brothers: 1933-1973" and "The Supreme Guide: 1974-1986". It flows well and each section is linked naturally portraying a life story with milestone events. It is an historical outlook which captures the context and ideas over decades of turmoil in Egypt. It shows that "Islamism" is quite diverse and theology has an obvious impact on the perspectives of the characters in this story. The previous chapter uncovered "Islamism" shrouded in an Ash'arī and Atharī cloak; we now move on to the Māturīdītes in the form of the Taliban. Their origins, though complex, are traced to madrasas in western Pakistan where the dominant school of law is the Ḥanafī maddhab (school). The Taliban are traced through the Deoband School (affiliated with Hanafism) which one would then naturally associate to Māturīdīte theology as the majority of Ḥanafīs (as a school of jursiprudence) follow the Māturīdī creed in theology. However, after giving you a history of their origins; the question is asked, are the Taliban and its affiliates Māturīdīte in origin? The lack of scholarly texts originating from the Taliban make it difficult to judge their theological ideology. The author therefore resorts to the rulings of the Taliban such as the obligatory demand to grow a full beard, the lack thereof resulting in punishment (which is a very unusual ruling) in ascertaining their creed. This shows that the Taliban are far from the Māturīdī School as their rulings demonstrate a very textual methodology. It should be noted that according to the Atharī School, imān (belief) is found in actions, which is contrary to the Ḥanafī/Māturīdī School. The punishment given for an outward action by the Taliban is one of the reasons the author concludes that their orientation is clearly Atharī. The final chapter prior to the conclusion is the authors take on what could happen if a renewed Ash'arī theological discourse took place. This chapter was a refreshing look at such a possibility but one that wouldn't happen overnight or be easy to swallow, especially his thoughts on higher criticism and religious liberalism (e.g. if history proves prophetic narratives of previous prophets to be incorrect it wouldn't threaten the integrity of the Qu'rān). It was invigorating to see the author point out the erroneous perception of past potential revivers/thinkers with regard to their views on Ash'arīsm and his defence of the founder of the School as well as its notable luminaries such as Abū Ḥamid Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). This is also the reason that these previous failed revivers resorted to Mu'tazilite theology as many of them made the error of perceiving Ash'arīsm and Atharīsm as one and the same entity. The author further adds to clearing this misconception with an exposition of the nature of the Qu'rān which I thought was an excellent presentation of the creed of the createdness of the Qu'rān. The conclusion entitled "The Revival of Kalām?" is best summed up through the following nail on the head, "any attempt at a revival of theology must be pursued through one of the two existing Sunnī schools... Otherwise such efforts are almost certainly doomed to failure." He briefly mentions the collapse of prior attempts due to their interlocutors attempting to unnecessarily import outside theological traditions in to Islam. One of the reasons for this approach is their constant Ash'arī bashing due to incorrectly conflating them with the Atharīs. He also points out that the most notable leaders/activists have not come from among the ulema (scholars) hence their lack of education in usul al-fiqh, 'ilm al-hadīth and usul al-dīn is a barrier for revival. A call for a resurgence of kalām is suggested through different platforms such as televised theological debates, Internet etc. The author then makes mention of those that are heading toward this direction (Marifah.net, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Yahya an-Ninowy and Shaykh Sa'id ibn 'Abdul Latif Foudah) and their approach which gives hope to a revival of kalām in the coming years but only time will tell if their “modest efforts bear fruit in the years to come”. I would recommend purchasing this work for the central thesis though the book itself is not flawless. It should have emphasised the link between theology and practice by producing numerous examples which it fails to do. The author touches upon the correlation of kalām/aqida and practice but not thoroughly. It is well written but more importantly it brings to attention a subject that so many have overlooked or misrepresented. It is a foundational book upon which you can further investigate and build your knowledge of the Māturīdī, Ash'arī and Atharī creeds and how they effect ideas and from this you will conclude whether there is a need for a revival in kalām.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Hanafi Student

    Much was said and done; however the author falls short on many grounds, the arguments are neither thorough nor convincing enough, I feel the central thesis remains outstanding. Having said that this is a well written piece, reads well and is not completely devoid of good passages and insights. However, it remains incomplete, a better job could have been made in linking theological schools to practical implications ... the reader is left to grapple with these ideas and make the final connections.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Martin

    I've completely revised this review because frankly the harshness of my original review wasn't worth it, not here. I also made a mistake (as was brought to my attention) and would like to remove it. I'll leave it at this: I find great fault with any analysis of Ash'ari and Maturidi theology built primarily (almost exclusively) from theological works in translation, which is severely limiting, (that's Chapter 1) and I strongly disagree with his idea of "the demise of 'Ilm al-Kalam" (the thesis of I've completely revised this review because frankly the harshness of my original review wasn't worth it, not here. I also made a mistake (as was brought to my attention) and would like to remove it. I'll leave it at this: I find great fault with any analysis of Ash'ari and Maturidi theology built primarily (almost exclusively) from theological works in translation, which is severely limiting, (that's Chapter 1) and I strongly disagree with his idea of "the demise of 'Ilm al-Kalam" (the thesis of Chapter 2). In the end I did not find the book convincing despite its bold claims, interesting as they may haven been.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Arnold Yasin

  5. 4 out of 5

    Richard Carr

  6. 5 out of 5

    Wayfarer

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mohamad Ballan

  8. 5 out of 5

    Alessandra

  9. 5 out of 5

    Will Mccants

  10. 5 out of 5

    Aaron

  11. 5 out of 5

    Daniel J Ebert IV

  12. 5 out of 5

    Martin

  13. 4 out of 5

    Anarm

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mirsaad

  15. 4 out of 5

    Toma G

  16. 5 out of 5

    Aboobacker Sidheeq

  17. 5 out of 5

    Hamza

  18. 5 out of 5

    Hany

  19. 5 out of 5

    Aidan Griff

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rihana Said

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rob Squires

  22. 5 out of 5

    أميرة

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ali

  24. 5 out of 5

    Adeel Qureshi

  25. 4 out of 5

    Hamza Fazeel

  26. 4 out of 5

    Faz

  27. 4 out of 5

    Yusuf Shah Masud

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mohamed Farah

  29. 4 out of 5

    Yoko

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dina

  31. 5 out of 5

    Umer Yousuf

  32. 5 out of 5

    Asad

  33. 4 out of 5

    Fatemeh M

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