Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Divine Voluntarism: Ibn Hazm Not Normative for Islam?

Against divine voluntarism?
(Image from al-Ghazali Website)

Time is short, but scholarship is long.

I'd have more to say, but I have to prepare for my day, so let me just cite a few sources for us all to chew on.

I received a courteous rejoinder from a certain JDsg, who took issue with the view that Ibn Hazm's opinion is the normative one in Islam:
No, in fact, it's the other way around. One of the things that irritated Muslims about the Pope's speech was that he was using the position of a very marginal scholar to represent Islam as a whole. As the open letter to the Pope, signed by 38 Muslim scholars, points out:
"In the Islamic spiritual, theological and philosophical tradition, the thinker you mention, Ibn Hazm (d. 1069 CE), is a worthy but very marginal figure, who belonged to the Zahiri school of jurisprudence which is followed by no one in the Islamic world today. If one is looking for classical formulations of the doctrine of transcendence, much more important to Muslims are figures such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) and many others who are far more influential and more representative of Islamic belief than Ibn Hazm."
Which is why I was a little surprised by this post and the other, where you were relying fairly heavily on Ibn Hazm for your argument.
To this, I replied:
Thanks, JDSG, for the comment. I relied on Ibn Hazm because he was cited in the articles and because Aref Ali Nayed seems to have accepted Ibn Hazm's view on the 'nature' of Allah as correct.

Nayed doesn't dispute Ibn Hazm's views (not in what I've read), but argues instead that the Christian view of God is also just as voluntarist as the Muslim view of Allah.

On this point, I think that Nayed is wrong -- but he's right that one also finds these voluntarist strains in Christianity. That's the danger inherent in what the Pope referred to as 'dehellenization'.

I'll continue looking into this issue. You mention al-Ghazali. Is al-Ghazali's view actually less voluntarist than Ibn Hazm's? Or does he simply prefer not to express himself so radically as Ibn Hazm does?

Aside from the extreme manner in which Ibn Hazm expressed himself, are Muslim views on theology any less voluntarist?

Can you cite a specific statement by al-Ghazali to clarify this?
I've not had much time to look into al-Ghazali's position on divine voluntarism, but I've located some tantilizing passages by scholars.

I've found a quote attributed to Daniel Brown, "Islamic Ethics in Comparative Perspective," The Muslim World, 89 (2) (1999), 181–192, which states:
"Ibn Hazm and al-Ghaziili ... did not shy away from the most extreme consequences of voluntarism: Should God have commanded theft and idolatry it would have been right for humans to commit them."
I will have to locate the precise context of this quote and see what Brown says more generally about this issue, but it certainly appears to narrow the difference between Ibn Hazm and al-Ghazali (assuming that al-Ghaziili is not a different figure).

I have also located a passage from a different scholar, Anver M. Emon, "Natural Law and Natural Rights in Islamic Law," that provides more context and notes that al-Ghazali interests himself in the normative value of nature but nevertheless affirms a voluntarist view of Allah:
The normativity of nature is established in the light of a voluntarism that maintains the willfulness of God, denies any obligations on God, yet upholds a teleology linked to a normative nature whose normativity is the product of a willful divine grace. Maslaha [i.e., Arabic مصلحة, 'public interest'] thereby fuses both the empiricism of nature and normative value without indulging in a natural teleology that has the theological implications of imposing on God obligations to do the good. Under al-Ghazali's version of nature, God is not bound to do the good. But He does so out of His choice and will. We as humans can rely on the constancy that is elemental to God's grace, and fuse fact and value to create legal norms through a rational assessment of empirical reality. But we are also aware that God can alter His grace if He chooses. (Anver M. Emon, "Natural Law and Natural Rights in Islamic Law" (pdf), Journal of Law and Religion, Volume 20, Number 2 (2004-2005) 378-379)
I'll have to return to these fascinating passages when I have more time, and I'll also want to address their significance for something that my friend Bill Vallicella has written on this issue over at his blog, Maverick Philosopher.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,


At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I assumed (possibly with excessive charity -- but I doubt it) that the Pope's remarks were intended to be provocative without being insulting. I thought the Pope's remarks were set up in such a way as to make it very easy for Muslims to directly engage -- with contemporary opinions/arguments -- the issue of extreme voluntarism. Instead, responses such as that of the October 12, 2006, "open letter ... signed [at that time] by 38 leading Islamic scholars" amount to nothing more than a history lesson which in no way addresses the voluntarism matter.

In A History of Islamic Philosophy, Majid Fakhry says that according to Ibn Hazm:

"We must affirm justice and goodness of God and deny injustice and wickedness of Him, not on the rational ground ... that this is what His perfection logically requires, but simply on the ground that justice and goodness are predicated of God, and unjustness and wickedness not predicated of Him in the Koran."

In itself, such a position is hardly objectionable (so long as we understand a context that is not restricted merely to the Koran). It is not objectionable to admit that we are thus far incapable of grasping how it is that a purportedly necessary being has a free will (which is to say that this will is/was not forced upon that being by anything other than that being). Accordingly, it is reasonable to modally confine discussion to what is actual. But, doing so puts aside the matter of whether extreme voluntarism describes God truly; doing so effectively removes any justification for asserting extreme voluntarism, especially when it is also maintained that God is consistent.

Unfortunately, it is now most often the case that the term "Islamic scholars" is used to indicate an acknowledged expertise in particular types of Islamic jurisprudence, and that type of scholar is more historian than philosopher. So long as this is the case, there is very little dialogue to be had. The dialogue will occur, but it will happen with Islamic philosophers, not with Islamic scholars.


At 3:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I think that you're right. Many responses demonstrate that the Muslim scholars have missed Pope Benedict's point. They lack philosophical acuity. As you note, they give history lessons -- or, as I suggest, they give legal explanations . . . or simply a fatwa!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mostly argee with michael s pearl about the reasons why Ibn Hazm was chosen ("make it easy for muslims to directly engage..."), but I disagree with the the ".. the issue of extreme voluntarism" part.

I don't think this was about voluntarism; it was about literalism, this being Ibn Hazms "core competence".

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
[Ibn Hazm] became one of the leading exponents of the Zahiri school of jurisprudence. The Zahiri principle of legal theory relies exclusively on the literal (zahir) meaning of the Quran and Tradition. Though his legal theories never won him many followers, he creatively extended the Zahiri principle to the field of theology

Let's review the Regensburg speech:
After the infammatory part of the speech, Khoury/Manuel/Ibn Hazm, there's this section that immediatety caught my eye (and probably that of many a Muslim, though I'm not aware that it has been commented on), but is easily overlooked by Christians:

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature ... always and intrinsically true? [...] Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the λόγος" [...] The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10)

Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible...!!?? That's a total shocker! And the "roads to Asia" can go in both ways...

At 2:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

erdal is correct inasmuch as extreme voluntarism is not the only issue. After all, the voluntarist position is what supports Ibn Hazm's repudiation of both the Mu'tazilites and Ash'arites and "justifies" scriptural revelation as the only authority. If this eschewing of theological/philosophical method is asserted as "literalism", then one problem regards just how sensible is the notion of "literal meaning", and, if there is ever such a thing, how common is it? Then there is also the question of whether information revealed scripturally can be comprehended without interpretation, and if human comprehension obtains most commonly only with interpretation, then why would it necessarily be wrong to express an interpretation with other terms? Related to these issues is whether God's revelation as the Koran is very context specific or whether all of it is intended as ubiquitously, necessarily true regardless of context. The common Muslim position, that of jurisprudence, seems to rely on the idea that long established/accepted schools of thought are the most (if not the only) valid interpretations for at least the application of God's revelation, but any position which allows for interpretation is arguably non-literalist. Therefore, the cited supposed shock does not seem sufficiently thought-through. One of the most (potentially) useful emphases in Islam is the warning against idolatry, but idolatry comes in may forms -- including the notion that words, even those believed to have been used by God cannot be expressed alternatively, which is to say interpreted.


At 4:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, that is interesting, and you are right that no one commented on it.

Just one question, though.

The Pope was referring to the evangelist John modifying the first verse of Genesis to begin his gospel: "In the beginning was the Logos."

The Christian assumption is that John was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- although Muslims might suggest that he was doing no such thing but, rather, corrupting the pure gospel message.

Be that as it may, is the Christian perspective on God 'modifying' his revelation (via the Holy Spirit guiding the evangelist John) so different, in principle, from the Muslim view of Allah abrogating some prior revelation?

Anyway, good to see you here again.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, thanks for the interesting thoughts.

Just one question, though (a phrasing that sounds familiar somehow...)

You say: "the voluntarist position is what supports Ibn Hazm's repudiation of both the Mu'tazilites and Ash'arites."

I agree with you on the Mu'tazilites, but is this correct about the Ash'arites?

From the evidence presented in my blog post for today (November 8, 2007), Ibn Hazm's voluntarism would seem to be consistent with Ash'arite views, and with Islamic theology generally. Take a look and see what you think.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe that a literalist would be open to the suggestion that the "notion that words, even those believed to have been used by God cannot be expressed alternatively" may constitute a form of idolatry.

Anyway, I can't and won't second-guess Ibn Hazm's intentions (ok, I will: it's pragmatic apologetics against harmful fragmentation of worldly power that was about to result at his times, among other things, from the fragmentation of dogma. Same thing as with Ghazali, really).

But second-guessing the pope, as to why he chose to mention the relatively obscure Ibn Hazm, is probably possible:

The one possibility I hinted at above: It's about literalism, not voluntarism. After all, god spake, and the text is fixed. The question weather He could have said something else altogether is, practically speaking, moot. "...modally confine discussion to what is actual", as you say, and I envy your English. Literalism is a present and urgent problem. This implies of course, that the pope is intent on making the point that the Koran is misread by the literalists (or - a somewhat stronger statement - even read correctly, but only because it was garbled by transmission in time and place since its revelation. This is what the bit about John may hint at).

Rethorically, Ibn Hazm would be a figure that the pope invited his dialogue-partners to knock down for his literalism - an invitation that was readily accepted, and then half-spoiled by the 38 imams introducing Ghazali instead of a more malleable eminent thinker.

The second possibility would be that the pope was indeed after voluntarism first and foremost, and rethorically used Manuel as the knock-down strawmen for his repliers. After these had had the opportunity to loudly defend Islam and Mohammed in general, the "real" discussion about voluntarism could have proceeded in the shades of their strong straw-man rebuke. This road was not taken, obviously, nor do I think it was intended.

At 5:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal -- not to interrupt your response to Michael Pearl, but just to add a point -- you may very well be onto something about this literalism issue, for I've previously seen a remark by the Pope about the problem on literalism in Islam.

I believe that his point was that the Qur'an cannot be dealt with as flexibly as the Bible, for the belief that the Qur'an is the literal word of God erects a barrier to interpretation.

Unfortunately, I don't recall precisely where I read this remark, but I think that I read it prior to his Regensberg talk.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think that Ibn Hazm was dismissing the argumentative methods, the (excessive?) rationalism as he saw it.

With regards to the Ash'arite volunteerism to which you refer in your November 8 entry, and assuming that Ash'arite theology is as readily compatible with and reinforcing of extreme voluntarism as it sometimes seems, I really get the impression - especially since we are dealing with jurisprudence - that to the extent that Ash'arite theology is genuinely voluntaristic it is so for political purposes, for the sake of maintaining human power as much as Divine sovereignty.

But, then, I expect the arbitrariness associated with voluntarism to be found in all versions of legalism, particularly when legality is confused with morality.

I think this ties in with erdal's reference to "pragmatic apologetics", and by the way, erdal, I, too, doubt that a literalist would be open to recognizing how literalism might easily become idolatry. But, I also doubt that many self-proclaimed literalists would have the slightest interest in dialogue.


At 5:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael Pearl, you may be correct about the 'political' aspect. I don't know much about schools of Islamic thought and am just picking up threads as I go along.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you remember this remark?

At 6:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, that's exactly right. Thanks for linking to it.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home