Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Islamic ethics tends toward extreme theological voluntarism."

Qur'an, Ninth Century
إِنَّمَا قَوْلُنَا لِشَيْءٍ إِذَا أَرَدْنَاهُ أَن نَّقُولَ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ
"For to anything which We have willed,
We but say the word, 'Be', and it is."
(Yusuf Ali, translator, Ayah 40, Qur'an)
Small Telyashayakh Mosque, Tashkent
(Image from Wikipedia)

The heading to this day's blog entry comes from an article by Daniel W. Brown.

You may recall that I cited him yesterday on Islamic divine voluntarism. Who, therefore, is Daniel W. Brown, and what are his credentials? According to Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, Dr. Brown has the following credentials:

Dr. Daniel Brown has lived in Egypt and in Pakistan where he was born and spent his first eighteen years. In 1993 he received his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago. He has been a visiting scholar at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, the Institute of Islamic Culture in Lahore, and Cairo University and has taught Islamic Studies at Mount Holyoke, Amherst and Smith Colleges.

Since 1997 he has been Pastor of Stony Brook Community Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts. He is the author of Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought (Cambridge, 1999) and A New Introduction to Islam (Blackwell, 2003).
From this information, I'd say that Dr. Brown appears reputable and trustworthy.

With that in mind, let me return to the passage that I cited yesterday, within the context of the passage in which it occurs:

Islam might be considered the defining case of ethical voluntarism. Among most Sunni Muslim scholars, past and present, voluntarism has been an undisputed assumption of Islamic ethical theory, finding reflection in Islamic credal formulations.
We confess that the decision concerning good and evil wholly depends on Allah. For whoever should say that the decision regarding good and evil depends upon another than Allah would thereby be guilty of unbelief regarding Allah, and his confession of the unity of Allah would become invalid. (Wasiyat Abi Hanifa, art. 6. Cited in A.J. Wensinck, Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1965), 126)
Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) offers the following stark elaboration of the majority position:

If God the Exalted had informed us that he would punish us for the acts of others . . . or for our own obedience, all that would have been right and just, and we should have been obliged to accept it. (Ibn Hazm, al-fisal fi'l-milal wa-l-ahwa' wa-n-nihal, 5 vols. (Cairo, 1890-1903), 3:92. Cited in Hourani, Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 174)
As Ibn Hazm's statement implies, and as Hourani points out, Muslim theologians, including al-Ash'ari (d. 935), Ibn Hazm and al-Ghaziili (d. llll), 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. (Hourani, Reason and Tradition, 59)

Ethical voluntarism reinforces and is reinforced by the general tenor of Ash'arite theology, with its characteristic emphasis on the overwhelming power and sovereignty of God at the expense of human freedom. In the words of a standard credal formulation: "Allah has created the creatures, who are devoid of power because they are weak and impotent, whereas Allah is their creator and their sustenance; as He says: 'It is God who created you, who fed you, who, later, will cause you to die, and then will make you alive'" (Wasiyat Abi Hanifa, art. 12, in Wensinck, Muslim Creed, 126). Voluntarism accords well with such a view of the overwhelming power of the creator and the utter dependence of the creature. Further, voluntarism grants to God complete freedom -- He is unbound by any external standard of good, evil or justice. (Daniel W. Brown, "Islamic Ethics in Comparative Perspective," The Muslim World, Volume 89, Number 2, April 1999, pages 183-4)
Dr. Brown was writing this in 1999, two years prior to September 11, 2001, so he had no obvious axe to grind, and since he seems to have credentials and to be trustworthy, I see no reason to discount his presentation of the standard Sunni Muslim view of Allah's ethical directives as voluntarist and his treatment of Ibn Hazm's view as normative.

Now, this does not mean that a Muslim can do whatever he pleases, so I don't entirely agree with my friend Bill Vallicella's formulation of the problem:

The Muslim view is quite 'chilling' if one thinks about it. If God is not contrained by anything, not logic, not morality, then to use the words but reverse the sense of the famous Karamazov passage, "everything is permitted." In other words, if the Muslim god exists then "everything is permitted" just as surely as "everything is permitted" if the Christian god does not exist. In the latter case, everything is permitted because morality has no foundation. In the former case, everything is permitted because morality's foundation is in Absolute Whim.

To put it in another way, a foundation of morality in unconstrained and unlimited will is no foundation at all.

To 'feel the chill,' couple the Muslim doctrine about God with the Muslim literalist/fundamentalist doctrine that his will is plain to discern in the pages of the Koran. Now murder can easily be justified, the murder of 'infidels' namely, on the ground that it is the will of God. (William F. Vallicella, "Islam and the Euthyphro Problem," Maverick Philosopher, November 5, 2007)
Although one can conclude from Islamic divine voluntarism that 'everything is permitted' to Allah, one cannot infer that 'everything is permitted' to those who submit to Allah. Muslims must follow Allah's ethical directives . . . whatever they happen to be.

As to precisely what Allah's ethical commands entail . . . well, that is the 72-virginal-houri question.

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At 1:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your query about Ibn Hazm's supposed repudiation of the Ash'arites got me to digging through some boxes of books, and I was able to find Defenders of Reason in Islam (1997) by Richard C. Martin and Mark R. Woodward with Dwi S. Atmaja.

The book "traces the origin and development of the traditionalist-rationalist debate in Islamic societies from the early centuries to the modern era." As such, this is largely a book of history, but, clearly, it also has to and does provide some philosophical distinctions.

The authors stress the need not to too strongly identify their use of "rationalist" with the "label for thought systems ... [of] the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western philosophy".

Here are a few passages from the book which might help to show why I think that the previously noted Ibn Hazm repudiation was primarily one against the methods of discourse being employed:

"Islamic tradition locates the beginnings of Mu'tazili kalam in the teaching circle of ... shaykh al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) ... The Mu'tazila would also later defend and refine the doctrine of human freedom. Their opponents, who are labeled the Compulsionists ... argued that all human agency is divinely derived in God's qadar alone [qadar refers here to the power or capacity to perform an autonomous action]. Nearly two centuries after al-Hasan al-Basri ... the Ash'ariya (Ash'arites) refined the position of the [Compulsionists]. They sought a middle position by claiming that humans act autonomously (by their own will) but they acquire (kasb) the power to act from God at the moment the act occurs, thus preserving God's omnipotence [p. 25] ... The classical period of the Basra [Mu'tazila] was established by the father and son team known as the Two Masters ... Abu 'Ali al-Jubba'i (d. 915) and Abu Hashim ibn al-Jubba'i ... Al-Jubba'i's other famous pupil was Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 935), who left the circle of his mentor to found a rival kalam madhhab, the Ash'ariya ... Mu'tazili doctrine more broadly (including such issues as the created Qur'an) was contrary to Islam as interpreted by Hadith scholars such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Indeed, al-Ash'ari's thought has close affinities with traditionalist Sunni Islam. The major difference is that al-Ash'ari and his followers sought to put rational methods of kalam argumentation to the service of defending popular Sunni notions of the eternal, uncreated Qur'an, God's absolute omnipotence over His creatures, and the severe limits of human reason to understand the divine will [pp. 29-32]."


At 4:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael Pearl, thanks for the information and quotes.

It doesn't seem directly pertinant to the issue of divine Voluntarism, but it's a related area and interesting to read.

One would need to know what the Asharites meant by insisting that humans act autonomously, i.e., by their own will. That sounds like it could mean "free will," but there could be a catch.

At any rate, Sunni insistence on Allah's absolute omnipotence over His creatures and the severe limits to human reason suggest a position compatible with divine Voluntarism.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first thought that came to mind while reading about voluntarism is how Muslims determine what has been sanctioned by God. I suppose that fatwas or some kind of blessing from a religious leader is required before carrying out violence against perceived enemies of Islam.

Question for you, Jeffery. President Bush is a born again Christian who makes frequent references to his faith. Do you think he prayed to God for guidance before invading Afghanistan and Iraq? If he did and decided to go ahead, can we surmise that Bush believed he had God's blessing? I wouldn't label either invasion as a holy war, for Bush did not invade for God but for secular interests.

Perhaps this is why I never pray for help or guidance but only for strength. We ought to take full responsibility for our decisions, actions, and outcomes.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, evangelical Christians -- a classification that would seem to include Bush -- generally do pray before undertaking any important endeavor (or even insignificant ones), so I'd suspect that Bush did pray, a suspicion strengthened by my having read reports that he does, indeed, pray about important decisions.

My impression is that evangelicals include meditation, earnest contemplation, and biblical reflection when they refer to "prayer." And they usually don't make decisions solely on the basis of prayer but upon advice, experience, and analysis as well. Evangelicals tend to be very practical, even pragmatic.

That said, I can't see that Bush and the administration that led us into Iraq gave a great deal of thought on how to reconstruct the country -- or even to whether or not the place could even be reconstructed.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:17 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...


I've been following this series of posts with great interest but in unfortunately necessarily cursory fashion, so forgive me if I'm asking a stupid question.

How would the "extreme theological voluntarism" of Islam compare to some of, say, Kierkegaard's ideas about a faith that transcends ethics (a la "Fear and Trembling"). Going back to the Pope's speech, he did seem to be criticizing certain "irrationalist" Christian theologies (like Kierkegaard's) as well as some aspects of Islamic theology.

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, you're right to point to Kierkegaard and even to the larger Protestant movement itself. One finds a tendency there toward a Voluntarist God. Divine Command Theory is one obvious example. Hypercalvinism is another.

You might want to look at this post of mine from a year ago: "The Pope's Critique of Protestantism."

But no Christian is completely off the hook, for what are Christians to make of stories like Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son?

Not that one can't find an answer, but this 'sacrifice' story is a profoundly difficult one and perhaps precisely what drove Kierkegaard to his radical, irrationalist conclusions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1.This theory never lacked adherents among philosophers, religious figures and ordinary people throughout the history, and in all monotheistic religions.
In monotheistic religions DCT was inspired by the notion of an all-powerful God in control of everything. He simply wills things and they become reality. He wills the physical world into existence, He wills human life into existence, and similarly, He wills all moral values into existence. Thus moral values are established by God, and if He willed He could have changed them. Indeed DCT has sparked off a good deal of discussion amongst contemporary professional philosophers.
2. Hebrew kingship, like that of Mesopotamian, was established through divine choice. In the tenth century B.C. the Hebrew God, Yahweh chose David and established the Judean line of rulers. The Torah, which developed between the tenth and the fifth centuries B.C., like Mesopotamian law, provided an identity for worshippers as a chosen people bound to their deity in a binding covenantal and legal relationship. Jewish ethics, strongly echoes motifs found in previous legislations; wherefrom an ethical theory developed, that might be considered the extreme version of what was later called the Divine Command Theory. It considered that “whatever morality might be, its basis is in God’s will.”
3.A contemporary professor of the Hebrew Bible has noticed the dangerous consequences of this theory that exclusively links morality to religion. John Collins noticed that when religious texts are interpreted as commands which can override morality, some most violent actions become sacred and thereby legitimised: 1.“Palestine is legitimately given to Israel by its God, by a command to slaughter the Canaanites”
2. Biblical narratives have been a factor in the Zionist movement in Israel, shaping the imagination even of secular, socialist Zionists and providing powerful precedence for right-wing militant.
3. Biblical analogy also provided the underpinnings for support of Israel among conservative Christians.”
What is called contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, or better contemporary militant Islamic movements appealed to an interpretation of divine commands in justifying their grievances, just as Christian fundamentalism and ‘secular Zionism’ appealed to their interpretation of divine commands in shaping their antagonistic policies.
Collins realised that “when it became clear that the terrorists of September 11, 2001, saw or imagined their grievances in religious terms, any reader of the Bible should have had a flash of recognition.” However, it was rightly pointed out in a UN report that those people imagined their grievances in religious terms, because in the absence of any effective political channels for dealing with injustice, some movements which identified themselves as Islamic adopted extreme interpretations of Islam and violence as a means of political activism.
Although some contemporary philosophers have maintained that in the history of Christian thought, “the dominant theory of ethics is not Divine Command Theory. and that this honour goes to the Theory of Natural Law,” others, tended to interpret most of the Christian thought, including that of Thomas Aquinas, (the greatest of the natural law theorists), as endorsing DCT.
4.Saint Augustine was the first to oppose the classical tendency to define moral concepts of rightness and virtue in terms of individual and social well-being. He interpreted moral right and virtue as obedience to divine authority. He did not look for justice on earth “for justice was essentially supernatural - to give God his due - and therefore beyond human reach.” Thus, Augustine constructed a system of theology, ethics, and theory of knowledge that soon became the authoritative framework of Christian thought, “modified, but not supplanted by subsequent church philosophers.”
The proponents of Divine Command Theory were William of Ockham (d. 1348), John Scotus (d. 1308) and other prominent figures including the Protestant reformers like Martin Luther (d. 1546), Karl Barth (d. 1968) Emile Brunner (d. 1966) and contemporary Divine Command Theorists who became active during the 1970s such as Philip Quinn (d. 2004).
5.Daniel Brown noticed the purposeful nature of divine commands assumed by Muslim scholars, yet still called it voluntarism! He claimed that “Islamic voluntarism is not arbitrary.” He also noticed that “Qiyās reflects the assumptions that God’s commands are purposeful.” Moreover, he noticed that “the voluntarist position seems to have only weak support in the Qur’ān.” Obviously, these remarks contradict his previously quoted assertion that “Islam might be considered the defining case of ethical voluntarism.” If the above three quotations by Brown are true, and they are true, then his view about Islam being the defining case of ethical voluntarism would be completely out of place. (regardless of Brown's academic achievments mentioned by you to support his view.)
Thanks for reading my comment

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for a learned, interesting, and informative comment on Divine Command Theory.

I suspect that the Qur'an, like the Bible, is vague enough about God's nature to leave open both voluntarist and rationalist interpretations.

I don't have much sympathy for DCT and rather side with Pope Benedict XVI on the importance of emphasizing the God has a nature and that this nature is good, rational, and loving.

Otherwise, the 'ethical' limits to action are not bounded by authentic ethics.

As for Brown's views, I don't know enough, but "purposeful" could refer merely to "having aims" and since Islam is more than the Qur'an, then the voluntarist view of Allah might still constitute Islamic theology even if the Qur'an doesn't unambiguously teach it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Jeffery, Thanks for reading my comment.
For the place of ethical voluntarism in the Quran I would like to recommend Kevin Reinhart's article in the Encyclopedia of the Quran and George Hourani's book Islamic Rationalism where he dedicates a chepter for ethical voluntarism which he calls alternatively divine subjectivism and proves that this theory is not supported by the verses of the Quran. Note: George Hourani is also a prominent Christian scholar, of Arab origin. Indeed ethical voluntarism is basically a theory well known in judeo-Christian tradition. It is the main ethical theory followed by the Protestants and is is strongly supported by the bible. My dissertation was about the place of this theory in Islamic thought. When I first started I held the common view which is also expressed by most of the participants of your webpage, however after reading many Arabic Muslim texts, and different books related to the subject I realized that ascribing this theory to Islam is only a part of the American propaganda.

Traditionally, al-Ash‘arī and the Ash’arite scholars favoured the definition that “hasan coincided with the commandments of God, while qabīh referred to what God forbade.” However, the following quotation from a late Ash‘arīte scholar throws some light on the fact that the above stated definition was not really accepted by all the Ash‘arites. It is important to differentiate between those who maintained extreme ethical voluntarism, or Divine Command Theory, and others who adhered to a kind of modified Divine Command Theory or what we called Divine Purpose Theory. The former held that Divine Command determines axiological statuses such as moral goodness and badness, besides epistemological moral statuses such as obligation and prohibition. The latter distinguished between what one might call the ontological aspect of the problem and the epistemological aspects of it. . Extreme voluntarism was held by al-Ash‘arī and by Dā’ūd al-Zāhirī (d.270/882) who were ready to accept the most extreme consequences of voluntarism: that if God had commanded theft and idolatry it would then be right for humans to commit them. The latter position, which we called Divine Purpose Theory was the position of the late Ash‘arite scholars.
The late Ash‘arite scholars, such as al-Rāzī and even al-Ghazālī, cannot be considered the representatives of extreme ethical voluntarism. It is also wrong to consider that most of the fuqahā’ were faithful adherents to Divine Command Theory, especially as Ash‘arism did not become a powerful movement until the late eleventh century. Also ethical voluntarism as articulated by al-Ash‘arī could not have provided the basis for practising ijtihād. This is because if divine command is the ultimate basis for morality, and if (theoretically) God could have commanded anything, and whatever he commands would be good by virtue of its being commanded, then there would be neither reason nor purpose behind his commands. Thus no ground (‘illa) could be derived from His scriptures and no judgment could be derived by analogy (qiyās). If there is no reason or purpose, one might expect His judgments to be different from whatever human reason thinks to be good, even if it is derived by analogy from other commands or instructions. Moreover, the majority of Muslim jurists agreed that the Lawgiver lays down laws in the interests of man. Therefore they agreed that maslaha or the interests of Man may be employed for the derivation of new laws.


At 8:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the additional information. You are obviously an expert, so I am honored that you comment here.

Have you any online articles of your own on this issue of voluntarism?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I am only a poor scholar who sincerely seeks the truth. thank you very much for your kindness.
I will always read this website.

At 9:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for what you've provided. I'll try to look into the sources that you've mentioned already . . . as soon as find some time when the semester is over.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For investigated treatment of the topic see:
Islamic Ethics: The place of divine command theory in Arabo Islamic thought, by Mariam al-Attar

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. That looks like an interesting book.

Jeffery Hodges

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