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.


My very first publication was an encyclopedia article on the early Muslim theologian Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Sayyar al-Nazzam (782–836), whose thought I encountered in writing my dissertation.

David R. Vishanoff. “Naẓẓām, al‑.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones, vol. 9, 6444-6446. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

The article can be accessed directly in the Gale Virtual Reference Library.