Informative and Performative Theories of Divine Speech in Classical Islamic Legal Theory

This paper, delivered in 2017 at the conference on “Intention and Signification: Philosophy of Language Across Islamic Disciplines, 800-1200” organized by Nadja Germann at the University of Freiburg, has been published in the conference volume:

David R. Vishanoff. “Informative and Performative Theories of Divine Speech in Classical Islamic Legal Theory.” In Philosophy and Language in the Islamic World, ed. Nadja Germann and Mostafa Najafi, 183–208. Philosophy in the Islamic World in Context, ed. Peter Adamson, et al., no. 2. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021.

The volume is available from De Gruyter beginning November 23, 2020.

Abstract: The Qurʾān describes God’s speech as powerful and creative: “When he decrees something he merely says to it ‘Be!’ and it is.” Just as impressively, when he desires to make an action obligatory he merely says “I oblige you to do it,” or even just “do it!” This is an example of what some modern theorists of language call performative speech, which brings about a new state of affairs rather than just conveying information about what is already the case. This essay considers the emergence of the concept of performative speech in classical Islamic legal theory, presenting the debate over whether to regard God’s speech as informative or performative as part of an ongoing argument over the nature of law, the nature of God’s speech, and the relationship between them. After a brief discussion of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820), the essay presents the views of four contrasting thinkers of the late 4th/10th and early 5th/11th centuries: the Shāfiʿī jurist and Muʿtazilī theologian ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), who treated God’s speech as a purely informative description from which human beings may deduce the details of an ontologically and epistemologically prior moral order; the Ḥanbalī Abū Yaʿlā Ibn al-Farrāʾ (d. 458/1066), who took the opposite tack, treating God’s speech as a performative speech act that brings about obligations with the immediacy of a master’s face–to–face orders to a slave; the Mālikī jurist and Ashʿarī theologian Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013), who sought to have it both ways; and the Ḥanafī Abū Zayd al-Dabūsī (d. ca. 430/1038), who appears to have introduced the term inshāʾ into Sunni legal theory. These last two thinkers sought, in very different ways, to affirm that legal obligations are brought about by God’s speech; yet they treated the language of revelation as a source of information and indicative evidence from which human interpreters could reconstruct the law through a flexible interpretive process.

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