There has been some discussion surrounding my statement on my reasons for joining the Quilliam Foundation. In particular, my theological statements concerning the relationship between reason and revelation based on the Maturidi school of thought. I would like to respond to some of the points raised from two online posts.

The gist of both criticisms is that in presenting my views I had “misused” the Maturidi position and that my views fall outside of Islamic orthodoxy namely, they are better placed within the Mu’tazilite school of thought.

The first criticism is by Mufti Zameel which can be found here.  Zameel begins by summarising from a text entitled ‘Qamar al-Aqmar (Maktabat al-Bushra)’ and then makes his own colourful conclusions.

Some preliminary comments: I have not read the text in question – nevertheless, I will go on the assumption that the summary is a fair representation of its contents. However, it is important to note that this is a commentary, of a commentary of a ‘usul al fiqh’ (juristic methodology) book, rather than a major textbook on theology, which is the discipline this topic accurately falls under. Also, historically some Ash’ari theologians held the same beliefs of the Maturidi in terms of knowing good and evil through reason, which is not known or simply omitted by Zameel.

Zameel begins to outline that there are three positions regarding morality within the Islamic perspective, Ash’ari, Maturidi and Mu’tazilite. He explains, that there is a “fundamental disagreement”, between the Ash’ari and Maturidi, on one side and with the Mu’tazila School on the other. The Ash’ari and Maturidi agree with one another that “reason is secondary to scripture and reason is subservient to it” and are subsequently in disagreement with the Mu’tazila view that holds reason to be ‘superior’ to scripture and that it can override it. He then attributes the Mu’tazilite view to me and concludes that my views are unorthodox.

Firstly, it is clear that the author is not familiar with philosophical terms and “misuses” them. In particular, he conflates ‘moral absoluteness’ with ‘moral objectiveness’. He writes, “The Ash’aris agree with Māturīdīs on the fundamental point that everything the Sharī‘ah orders is good and everything it forbids is bad. They disagree, however, with Māturīdīs, on the moral absoluteness of the commands and prohibitions.”

‘Moral absoluteness’ is the view there are no exceptions to moral judgments. For example, it is always wrong to lie whatever the situation, without exception. The term that is more apt is ‘moral objectiveness’. Objectivity of moral judgments means that their moral value is a matter of fact, independent of social customs or opinions. In terms of God’s commands, they are not arbitrary, namely not just based on God’s will, but are true independently. In other words, the moral commands for a particular context could not be any other way. Also, his comparison implies that the Mu’tazila do not agree. But, Zameel fails to mention that the Mu’tazila are also in agreement that everything the Shari’ah orders is good and everything it forbids is bad. In fact, the Maturidi and Mu’tazila have more in common with one another in terms of the grounding of God’s commands.  Not only do they agree that God’s commands are good and God’s prohibitions are evil but, they both hold to the view that the bases of the commands are an objective standard, not merely on God’s will as the Asharites believe.

Moreover, there is more of a fundamental difference between Ash’ari and Maturidi schools in that it is inconceivable in the Maturidi position that God could order things untruthful and miserly as being ‘good’ nor anything which is known by the intellect to be wrong. Thus, both schools hold to two diametrically opposing positions. Zameel continues to misrepresent the Mu’tazilite school – he writes, “The Mu‘tazila, on the other hand, disagree with both groups in principle. They state that there is no need for the Sharī‘ah to even reveal to us what is good and bad in certain areas. We know this rationally, independently of the Sharī‘ah.”

It is not clear what Zameel means by “no need for the Sharī‘ah to even reveal to us what is good and bad”. If what is meant here is that you can discover or obtain what is good and bad in certain matters prior to revelation, then this also reflects the Maturidi belief. Thus, Zameel makes a distinction without a difference between the Mu’tazila and Maturidi schools since both Maturidi and Mu’tazila support the same epistemological position. He continues with his own conclusions, “In both schools [Ash’ari and Maturidi], reason is secondary to scripture and subservient to it.”  Again, this characterization of the Maturidi text is incorrect. If a person is subservient to another that implies there are two separate wills and that they can potentially contradict one another. In Zameel’s description, the master’s will must thwart the will of the slave, thus, there exists the potentiality for the slave to contradict the master’s will, but the master thwarts it. But the Maturidi school believes that there cannot ever be a contradiction between sound reason and scripture, since they both operate within the same ethical sphere and are in harmony. If one is subservient to another this means there can be a conflict – but the potentiality of such a conflict does not exist within the Maturidi position. Lastly, he writes, “…they [Mu’tazila]…at least theoretically – consider the Sharī‘ah in some respects secondary or, in extreme cases, redundant”. If by ‘redundant’ it is meant that revelation is not necessary to determine moral judgments, again both Maturidi and the Mu’tazila agree on this. Then what is the point being made here?

Moreover, how Zameel positions the three Schools’ relationship is at odds with how the Maturidi School viewed itself within the spectrum of schools. Early presentations of Maturidis had positioned themselves together with Mu’tazila on one side and Ash’arites on the other. As the Central Asian jurist, ‘Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Abu Ahmad `Ala’ al-Din al-Samarqandi states clearly,

“Good and evil may be known by the intellect according to us and the Mu’tazila, contrary to the Ahl al-Hadith.”   Ala al-Din al-Samarqandi, Mizan al-Usul (p. 167)

Much later presentations of the Maturidi Schools positioned themselves in the middle of the Mu’tazila and Ash’ari Schools. For example, Muhammad Zahid Kawthari al-Hanafi, (1879-1951), who was the adjunct to the last Sheikh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire and a well-known Hanafi jurist, historian, and master of hadith, writes:

“There is no scholastic theologian comparable to al-Ash’ari in terms of the magnitude of his work. Yet, his opinions are not devoid of matters open to criticism, like the occasional remoteness from reason or scripture apparent upon examining his writings. This is seen in a small number of issues such as his views on the nature of good and evil, on whether Divine acts have a ground, on the epistemic standing of scriptural texts and other such issues. [As for]… his contemporary, the Imam of Guidance Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the Shaykh of the Sunna in Transoxiana… he was able to maintain a fully moderate position in his reasoning, giving both scripture and the intellect their due. So the Maturidis are in the centre, between the Asha’ris and the Mu’tazila.” Introduction to Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari by ibn ‘Asakir (p. 26-7)

In summary, Zameel presents a poor depiction of the Maturidi and Mu’tazila positions. In the process, Zameel leaves out the Mu’tazila’s agreements with Maturidi School and misrepresents the Mu’tazila in a caricature fashion to artificially create a chasm between the two schools in order to show a closer relationship between the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools. Moreover, it can be argued that the Maturidi and Ash’ari positions fundamentally disagree with one another more than what they share in terms of their understanding of morality. For these reasons, Zameel’s argument breaks down.

The second criticism comes from an anonymous blogger suffering from a ‘fanboyism’ for Hizb ut Tahrir’s teachings. The ‘nucleus’ of his argument is a quote from Mullah Ali Qari:

“We [the Maturidis] say that some rulings can be known without the aid of a Prophet. … We say, however, that most rulings cannot be known except through the Book and the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him.Al-Qari, M.A., Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar Fi Sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar, Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, pp.306-7.

From this quote he excessively concludes, “In short, the Maturidi position makes reason subservient to the recognition of the rulings already established through the two primary sources of Islam (which constitute the Shari’ah), and explicitly rejects the notion that the Shari’ah is to be contorted to reason.”  Then, like Zameel, claims my theological views are not in line with the Maturidi school, but more in tune with the Mu’tazila and deems my views unorthodox.

It is surprising that al-Qari is used, since al-Qari is not considered a primary source for Maturidi theology and there are primary sources that can be found. Not to mention al-Qari is known to be influenced by ahl-hadith.  But putting that aside, we saw earlier, subservient depictions of reason are simply not consistent and expose a fundamental misunderstanding of the Maturidi School. But importantly, “most” does not mean all. For the author’s conclusion to follow from Ali Qari’s quote, Qari had to have said ‘all’ cannot be known by reason not “most”. One could still argue that the part of the Sharia that can be known without scripture can be “contorted to reason”, which the author wants to avoid. It is important to note that the Shari’ah is a vast area of knowledge; it does not simply consist of ‘laws’. The author does not explain what “some rulings” consists of. Within Islam ‘rulings’ also consist of ritual acts, but I did not argue that ritual acts are subject to reason in the same way laws are. There is big difference between how to make wudu and the ruling on killing someone for simply changing their religion. The latter should obviously be subject to ethical scrutiny. Such details, which are missing, are vital to draw any kind of conclusion. Thus, these important points undermine the premise of the author’s ‘argument’.