Academic journal article Islamic Studies

On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali's Faysal Al-Tafriqa Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqa

Academic journal article Islamic Studies

On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali's Faysal Al-Tafriqa Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqa

Article excerpt

Sherman A. Jackson. On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali's Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. 156. Hardback. ISBN 0- 19-579791-4. Price: Rs. 295.00.

Rightly pointed out by Dr Jackson, theologians' especially Muslim theologians' primary concern has always been protecting the faith from errors, deviations and dilutions rather than tolerating the 'other,' (pp. 4-5) as liberals would have it! Thus far, however, this perpetual and crucial task of protecting the faith in an ever changing intellectual and social milieu has never been as daunting as it is today. With the advent of the modern period for Islamic societies, much has changed in their intellectual, social, cultural and religious texture. Among the numerous challenges that have surfaced is the setting in of the multicultural milieu which has made the question of pluralism more than simply a hypothetical theological puzzle for Muslim thinkers; today, it is one with real communal implications. The proposals made for pluralism reflect intense ponderings from theoretical and theological points of view and in practical and pragmatic terms as well.1

Equally pressing - though not unrelated to the factors that underlie pluralism - has been an internal challenge to the Islamic tradition, one that has been called extremism or fundamentalism, or by other similar titles. Yet takfir (the practice of declaring heretic or unbeliever) is not something unique about these groups, or even to Islam, as much of scholarship and popular literature would have us believe. Jackson clarifies that takfir, which often goes hand in hand with harsh judgment, even tragic consequences, is neither something distinctive to so-called Muslim fundamentalists, or to any religion. It is rather inherent to the task of theology itself, whereby it is destined to draw communal and doctrinal boundaries, and inevitably so, a task it has sometimes performed a bit too forcefully. One should also not forget that even "heretics are often just as strident in their judgments, just as swift in calling for sanctions against the adversaries, and even more convinced of the superiority of their own theological views" (p. 4).

What is unique about extremist groups is simply that their hermeneutics lend these boundaries to be drawn quite narrowly, and this results in sweepingly labelling heretic all those whose theological positions are simply different from theirs, even in the minutest details. This is as true today as it was during Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali's time. Jackson's description of the cultural milieu of al-Ghazali and al-Ghazali's own words about the Ash'arite-Hanbalite takfirism are much revealing in regards to how prevalent takfir was in those days (Introduction, pp. 36-40). Though similar in this respect, the amount and extent of violence that accompanies takfirism today certainly and enormously separates the two worlds. In sum, theological exclusivism is unavoidable on the one hand, and is replete with huge religious and political consequences on the other.

On the question of orthodoxy and heresy, the theological task would inevitably call for a rigorous criterion to determine the limits of how much could be accommodated from one's truth vantage-point. Much to the distaste of liberal humanism, not everything could go and heresy is a category that can hardly be dispensed with. Defining the correct doctrine is excluding those who do not adhere to this doctrine, but not necessarily or not always with an intent to shuttle them to Hell. It is, of course, understandable that lay piety would equate deviation from the correct belief with heresy (kufr). But theologians' inability to see insistence on the issue any differently is simply not. For al-Ghazali, the theologians' enterprise must lead them to a more nuanced judgment. In any case, clearly tied to humanistic concerns; still, the task of defining the theological boundaries of tolerance qua theological cannot be simplified into finding easy and shortcut ways to heaven for all humanity. …

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