The Muʿtazila of Baghdād and the Eastern Ẓāhiriyya: A Scripturalist Alternative…

In the wonderfully engaged and supportive environment of the 2008 American Oriental Society meeting in Chicago, I presented the progress I had been making toward Chapter 3 of The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics:

“The Muʿtazila of Baghdād and the Eastern Ẓāhiriyya: A Scripturalist Alternative to al‑Shāfiʿī’s Vision of Islamic Law.” American Oriental Society, Chicago, March 16, 2008.

Here is a pdf of the paper.

Here is the abstract:

Most Sunnī legal theory pursues al‑Shāfiʿī’s project of establishing a correlation between law and revelation.  This paper reconstructs the history of an alternative program usually identified with the Ẓāhiriyya:  law should be grounded in revelation, but it should be reinvented from scratch by applying revelation directly to each new legal problem, without extending revelation’s reach through analogical reasoning, and without exploiting its ambiguity to justify existing laws.  This alternative was formulated in Baghdād by a network of literalist, scripturalist, rationalist Muʿtazila.  al‑Naẓẓām (d. 221/836), for example, finding no consistent moral logic behind God’s commands, argued that if law was to be considered revealed at all, one would have to be content with following the Qurʾān to the letter, without any attempt to reinterpret it or apply it to problems it did not explicitly address.  Others developed this idea into a constructive legal project, arguing that any rational being can apply scripture directly and without uncertainty to particular legal cases.  Jaʿfar ibn Mubashshir (d. 234/848) took the important step of broadening his scripturalism to include some Prophetic traditions.  The main tenets of his legal theory were then replicated, without their rationalist underpinnings, by Dāʾūd al‑Ẓāhirī (d. 270/884), and later elaborated into a philosophically sophisticated hermeneutic by Dāʾūd’s followers Nifṭawayh (d. 323/935) and Ibn Dāʾūd (d. 297/910).  This scripturalist challenge to existing legal systems proved unsustainable, however, and subsequent generations of Ẓāhiriyya, finding themselves increasingly marginalized, unsuccessfully sought to mitigate their unorthodoxy by letting analogical reasoning in through the back door.  When Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064) attempted a Ẓāhirī revival in Andalusia, he adopted many aspects of mainstream interpretive theory, and placed a new emphasis on traditions.  This is why the Ẓāhiriyya have sometimes been associated with traditionists, rather than with their fellow scripturalists among the Muʿtazila of Baghdād.

A Muslim Rewriting of Psalm 2

In 2007 the Qur’an and Biblical Literature section of the Society of Biblical Literature hosted a panel I had organized on “Muslim Biblical Studies,” at which I presented a paper analyzing in detail the relationship between the Biblical Psalm 2 and its counterpart in an Islamic text that purports to be the authentic Psalms that God revealed to David:

David R. Vishanoff. “A Muslim Rewriting of Psalm 2: Interreligious Resistance and Intrareligious Critique.” Society of Biblical Literature, San Diego, November 18, 2007.

I will not post the presentation here, since it has been entirely superseded by my published article “Why Do the Nations Rage? Boundaries of Canon and Community in a Muslim’s Rewriting of Psalm 2.

The Paradoxical Hermeneutic of Sunni Jurisprudence: Its Emergence and Triumph from al-Muzanī to Ibn Ḥazm

At the 2007 American Oriental Society meeting I presented the progress I had been making on Chapter 6 of The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics:

“The Paradoxical Hermeneutic of Sunni Jurisprudence: Its Emergence and Triumph from al‑Muzanī to Ibn Ḥazm.” American Oriental Society, San Antonio, March 16, 2007.

Here is a pdf of the paper, and here is the handout that accompanied the presentation.

Here is the abstract:

During the two and a half centuries following al‑Shāfiʿī’s attempt to correlate Islamic law with a canon of revealed texts, jurists and theologians developed competing hermeneutical theories to explain how such a correlation might be possible.  As each Sunni school of law embraced al‑Shāfiʿī’s legal project, and became institutionalized as a legal guild, its members formulated comprehensive systems of interpretive rules.  Some within each school were drawn to the theoretically consistent hermeneutical models developed by Ashʿarī and Muʿtazilī theologians, while others developed a more pragmatic but paradoxical “jurists’ hermeneutic” that pursued two seemingly opposite aims:  power to derive as much definite legal meaning as possible from revealed language, and flexibility to modify that meaning as needed to correlate it with a coherent legal system.  By the middle of the 5th/10th century, this jurists’ hermeneutic was so dominant that theologically-inclined legal theorists of all legal and theological affiliations felt it necessary to reconcile their theoretical principles with the interpretive rules of the jurists’ paradigm.  This paper reconstructs the history of this development within each of the Sunni schools of law, identifying key contributions of specific figures:  the Shāfiʿiyya al‑Muzanī, Ibn Surayj, al‑Ṣayrafī, Ibn Abī Hurayra, Ibn Fūrak, and Abū Isḥāq al‑Isfarāyīnī; the Ḥanafiyya ʿĪsā Ibn Abān, Ibn al‑Thaljī, al‑Māturīdī, al‑Karkhī, al‑Jaṣṣāṣ, al‑Dabbūsī, and Abū al‑Ḥusayn al‑Baṣrī; the Mālikiyya Ibn Khuwayzmindād, al‑Abharī, al‑Bāqillānī, and Ibn al‑Qaṣṣār; the Ḥanbaliyya Ghulām al‑Khallāl, Abū al‑Ḥasan al‑Tamīmī, and Abū Yaʿlā; as well as the Ẓāhirī Ibn Ḥazm.  The paper concludes that the triumph of the paradoxical jurists’ hermeneutic was due to the widespread adoption of al‑Shāfiʿī’s legal project and the marginalization of the discipline of theology.

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.

Medieval Islamic Models of Revelation: Hermeneutical Consequences Then and Now.

At the 2005 American Academy of Religion meeting, while interviewing for jobs, I finally found a way to present the gist of my main research project, The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics, in a way that would engage a general religious studies audience (with the help of a few props).

“Medieval Islamic Models of Revelation: Hermeneutical Consequences Then and Now.” American Academy of Religion, Philadelphia, November 21, 2005.

Here is a pdf of the paper.

Here is the abstract:

Medieval Muslim jurists’ competing interpretive theories embodied profoundly different visions of law, revelation, and the relationship between them.  The Zahiri Ibn Hazm envisioned law as a language game, in which the details of the law unfold like theorems from God’s axiomatic utterances.  The Mu`tazili `Abd al-Jabbar pictured revelation as a signpost erected by God in the midst of creation, indicating the consequences of human actions in plain speech.  The Ash`ari al-Baqillani regarded the words of revelation as dim and partial indicators from which human beings may infer the content of God’s eternal, inscrutable command.  The Hanbali Abu Ya`la portrayed revelation anthropomorphically, likening it to a human ruler’s speech that brings about obligations performatively.  Many of the fundamental questions about language and meaning addressed by these medieval models remain contested in contemporary Islamic hermeneutical discourse, where they now have the potential to generate dramatic changes in interpretation and law.