God’s Performative Speech: The Traditionalist Legal Hermeneutics of Abū Yaʿlā

At the 2006 American Oriental Society meeting I presented the progress I had been making on Chapter 6 of The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics:

“God’s Performative Speech: The Traditionalist Legal Hermeneutics of Abū Yaʿlā Ibn al‑Farrāʾ (d. 458/1065).” American Oriental Society, Seattle, March 18, 2006.

Here is a pdf of the paper.

Here is the abstract:

In furtherance of al‑Shāfiʿī’s project of grounding the canon of law in the canon of revelation, legal theorists of the 3d/9th and 4th/10th centuries formulated several theoretical models of how divine speech might function as the epistemological basis of law.  The Ashʿarī model seemed to leave meaning underdetermined; the Muʿtazilī model was minimalist and surprisingly literalist; and both models treated God’s speech as indicative evidence from which God’s law must be deduced through a rational process.  In opposition to these theologically inspired hermeneutical theories, jurists from across the major schools formulated a more pragmatic set of interpretive principles that was at once powerful and flexible.  Their interpretive rules tended to maximize the legal significance of revelation by ascribing maximum force to commands, by giving wide scope to general expressions, and by discerning as much implicit meaning as they reasonably could behind the explicit dictates of revelation.  At the same time, they sought to maintain the flexibility needed for resolving contradictions by refusing to restrict which texts could be used to clarify which other texts, and by formulating a classification of ambiguity that justified the practice of substituting alternative literal meanings for the default interpretations prescribed by their own rules.  This approach was epitomized in the legal hermeneutics of the Ḥanbalī Abū Yaʿlā, who justified it in terms of his traditionalist, almost anthropomorphic theory of God’s eternal yet immanent speech:  God’s speech is an eternal and universal speech act, addressed to all humanity through both the Qurʾān and the Prophet’s Sunna, bringing about obligations in the hearts of God’s servants immediately and performatively, without the intermediary process of ratiocination required by the theologians’ models.  This conflation of law with revelation paved the way for the intuitivism of Ibn Taymiyya, and for those modern legal interpretations that are often mislabeled as literalist.