“All peoples philosophize to greater or lesser degrees; those who don’t either look to others knowingly to philosophize for them, or unwittingly imbibe the philosophies of others.”
In a recent article on philosophy, faith, and civilization, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf presents a compelling case to reinvigorate the study of metaphysics on account of the critical role it can play in establishing reasoned faith and a more ethical society. Unreasoned alternatives can yield only blind, brittle faith, or fanaticism. If given its proper place, philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, can fortify faith and also provide a means to articulate that faith to others in a comprehensible, reasoned manner. This is especially important at a time when many western Muslim preachers, knowingly or not, are either advocating the problematic view that faith is independent of knowledge and reason, or that Islam is so simple that it does not require any philosophizing.
“…Yusuf paints a bleak picture of Islam’s intellectual heritage, especially its Sunni heritage, that simply does not correspond to reality. This article will draw attention to some of the theses which I think need to be criticized.”
Nevertheless, Yusuf paints a bleak picture of Islam’s intellectual heritage, especially its Sunni heritage, that simply does not correspond to reality. This article will draw attention to some of the theses which I think need to be criticized: (1) the thesis of intellectual decline, which assumes that after Ghazali there was a sudden or steady decline in the study of the rational sciences in the Islamic world; (2) a persistent ambiguity regarding the terms philosophy, metaphysics, and theology combined with a reluctance to discuss the science of kalam. In the following sections of this essay, I will discuss Ibn Khaldun’s perspectives on kalam and philosophy and the question of nominalism and Ibn Taymiyya, respectively.
– Part I –
The Myth of Intellectual Decline
“Western Christians embraced Averroes’ thought, but Eastern Muslims rejected his philosophical vision and instead adopted a superficial version of al-Ghazālī’s critique without his highly nuanced approach to philosophy and its place in Islam.”
Yusuf’s narrative of Islamic intellectual history is a dated one that finds its origins in orientalist and modernist narratives. Take for example R. Nicholson, writing nearly a hundred years ago on the state of Islam after the Mongol invasions:
But with one or two conspicuous exceptions – e.g. the historian Ibn Khaldun and the mystic Sha’rani – we cannot point to any new departure, any fruitful ideas, any trace of original and illuminating thought. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries “witnessed the rise and triumph of that wonderful movement known as the Renaissance,…but no ripple of this great upheaval, which changed the whole current of intellectual and moral life in the West, reached the shores of Islam.”
In the past decade, orientalist literature has thankfully begun to distance itself from this view. Beyond what this narrative leaves out, it is equally unjustified in its emphasis on who it deems important. The reality is that for the greater part of Islam’s history, figures like Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Khaldun were not significant to the philosophical or kalam traditions. Ghazali no doubt looms large in the Islamic tradition and contributed to many sciences. But perhaps because these writers are unfamiliar with others in the tradition, Ghazali is often viewed as if he were the beginning and end of Islamic thought.
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, one of the greatest minds in human history, is mentioned as an afterthought to Ghazali. If Ghazali is to be praised for two works on Ibn Sina’s philosophy, i.e. the Maqasid al-Falasifa and Tahafut al-Falasifa, then what ought to be said of Razi, whose works in kalam and falsafa are much more significant and go into far more depth? Furthermore, many of the central figures and texts of the Sunni scholarly tradition are not mentioned at all. All of these authors wrote on a wide array of subjects such as kalam, logic, astronomy, physics, mathematics, and rhetoric that demonstrate that the rational sciences were only increasing in importance. Indeed, the true philosophical battle was not between Ghazali and Ibn Rushd as many uncritically repeat, but rather between the schools of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, both of which evolved further along subtler lines into sub-schools. “
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, one of the greatest minds in human history, is mentioned as an afterthought to Ghazali. If Ghazali is to be praised for two works on Ibn Sina’s philosophy, i.e. the Maqasid al-Falasifa and Tahafut al-Falasifa, then what ought to be said of Razi, whose works in kalam and falsafa are much more significant and go into far more depth?”
The Ash’ari-Sunni tradition continued to produce scholarship right through the nineteenth century as well. Despite Yusuf’s dismissive remarks regarding scholarship in Egypt, the nineteenth century was one of great scholarly activity. Some of these scholars include Hasan al-‘Attār (d. 1250 AH/ 1835 CE), Muhammad b. ‘Arafa al-Dusuqi (d. 1230 AH/ 1813 CE), Isma’il al-Hāmdi (d. 1316 AH/ 1898 CE), Ibrahim al-Bajuri (d. 1276 AH/1860 CE) and Muhammad ‘Ileysh (d. 1299 AH/ 1882 CE). Other scholars authoring works in kalam and logic were Abdul-Qadir al-Sanandji (d. 1304 AH/1886 CE), famous for his extensive commentary on Taftāzāni’s Tahdhib al-Kalam, Abdurrahman al-Panjiyuni (d. 1319 AH/1901 CE), and Umar b. Muhammad Amin al-Qaradaghi (d. 1936 CE).
Other notable authors from the twentieth century include Mahmud Abu-Daqiqa, whose three-volume work on kalam, al-Qawl a-Sadid (c. 1930), was a standard teaching text at al-Azhar for undergraduate students, and yet today it cannot be understood by many scholars speaking about metaphysics. It contains a relatively concise and readable summary of the central questions taken from the main kalam canon, works like Sharh al-Maqasid, Sharh al-Mawaqif, Sharh al-‘Aqaid al-Nasafiya, Sharh al-‘Aqaid al-‘Adudiya, Tawali’ al-Anwar, and their commentaries.
Other scholars of the twentieth century who engaged deeply with the rational tradition were the likes of Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari and the last Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Sabri Efendi. The latter’s four-volume work on kalam, Mawqif al-‘Aql completed circa 1950, is one of the great intellectual feats of the age which critically engaged with the Islamic and Western philosophical traditions.
Philosophy, Metaphysics, Theology, and Kalam
“By the nineteenth century, students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and other institutions were being handed highly reductive summaries of profoundly complex theological works; most did not have the requisite background to understand the content of such works.”
The first three terms, philosophy, metaphysics, and theology, are applied loosely in Yusuf’s paper. The term kalam is not even mentioned, even when he is translating the term kalam/mutakallim from the Arabic, which he renders as theology and theologian. This hesitation espoused throughout the article obfuscates matters further, giving readers a skewed vision of the nature of philosophical thought in Islam, especially in the Sunni tradition. I will try to clarify some of these terms in what follows.
“The first three terms, philosophy, metaphysics, and theology, are applied loosely in Yusuf’s paper. The term kalam is not even mentioned, even when he is translating the term kalam/mutakallim from the Arabic, which he renders as theology and theologian…”
Philosophy in the sense it is used today is much broader than what was meant by the pre-modern Islamic tradition. There is an amount of overlap between the two, but the correspondence is not one-to-one. Indeed, the subjects covered in modern philosophy cannot be found in a single corresponding subject in the Islamic tradition, whether it is philosophy or kalam. One would have to examine the kalam tradition for answers on epistemology, metaphysics, God, prophethood, the self, good and evil, and eschatology. For more specific epistemological subjects, philosophy of language, and the very pressing questions of interpretation and hermeneutics, one would have to consult the science of usūl fiqh, which is a methodological science that deals with logic, language, and the interpretation of texts. Usūl fiqh, while it has practical applications, is primarily a type of philosophy of interpretation and a philosophy of law. It is also an unparalleled philosophical discipline that is entirely indebted to Sunni and Mu’tazili thought. One would also have to study the science of rhetoric, which likewise parallels important questions in philosophy today that have no equivalent in kalam or peripatetic philosophy as such. For questions that relate to ethics and psychology, and other ways of understanding existence, one would need to consult the literature of sufism.
“Philosophy in the sense it is used today is much broader than what was meant by the pre-modern Islamic tradition. There is an amount of overlap between the two, but the correspondence is not one-to-one.”
As far as the study of philosophy in the general sense mentioned above, then, no such decline had ever taken place, as evidenced by the massive amount of literature written by Sunni authors in the subjects of kalam, usūl fiqh, tasawwuf, logic, rhetoric, argumentation theory, and supposition theory up to the modern period. Anyone who is familiar with this tradition, and the main texts that were studied, knows full well that it went far beyond anything that Ghazali had written.
As for philosophy in the peripatetic sense, which is what pre-modern Muslim authors meant when they said “falsafa,” or “ḥikma” it refers not to philosophy in general, but the peripatetic school, or the school of illumination (ishraq). So, what they meant when they rejected philosophy (i.e. falsafa) were certain aspects of peripatetic philosophy. We need to illustrate two matters: (1) what philosophy actually meant in the Islamic tradition, and thereby resolving the conflation found in Yusuf’s article; (2) the position of Sunni scholarship towards philosophy.
“…what they meant when they rejected philosophy (i.e. falsafa) were certain aspects of peripatetic philosophy.”To reiterate the point against intellectual decline, especially in Egypt during the nineteenth century, I will cite the Shaykh al-Azhar, Hasan al-‘Attar (d.1835 CE), in his gloss on Sujai’s treatise on the Categories:
If you seek to understand what exactly is being disputed, then heed what is being said to you: the position that states all philosophy [ḥikma] is impermissible is an exaggeration, and that is because philosophy divides into two primary areas: theoretical and practical. Practical philosophy then subdivides into household economics, politics, and ethics; and these three subjects were not given any importance in Islamic scholarship, as each of these pertains to practical life, and the Shari’a has rendered them to be redundant. As for theoretical philosophy, it also has 3 divisions: metaphysics (ilahiyat), mathematics (riyadiyat), and natural philosophy (tabi’iyat). Likewise, each one of these divisions has questions which are fundamental or primary, and others which are secondary or derivative. So under mathematics fall the subjects of arithmetic and all its branches, and geometry, etc., and what kind of rational person would say such subjects are prohibited knowing that much of the laws of the Shari’a are clearly dependent on them? …. As for natural philosophy, it includes medicine and surgery, which are two of the most important and beneficial sciences that no one can dispense with, so all of these sciences are communal obligations (furudh kifaya)…
As for metaphysics, that is where the problem lies, and it is the source of their heresies; and even then, to state that to delve into it is impermissible is also an exaggeration, and truth is in a more nuanced view. For if the person is equipped with knowledge of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, is intelligent, and seeks through his study of it to empower himself in responding to objections, and to refute the claims of heretics, and to learn the terminology invented by the later era kalam scholars (mutakallimun), then this is something that no one at all prohibits, indeed it is likely to be a communal obligation as well. So the argument that the science of poetic metre (‘arudh) is a communal obligation because of the necessity to distinguish between miraculous speech and poetry is no better than this science (kalam), through which one acquires the capacity to respond to others and articulate true belief (i.e., Islam). This is how the study of falsafa must be understood when it was undertaken by some early scholars like Fakhr al-Razi and Hujjat al-Islam al-Ghazali, and countless other brilliant minds. As for the dull minded and naïve, without guidance from the Islamic sciences to navigate the dark depths of doubts and objections, then such studies are not permissible.
This is how Sunni scholarship understood “falsafa,” which should be clear to anyone well versed in the tradition. As ‘Attar stated, peripatetic philosophy is divided into the theoretical and the practical. Practical philosophy was not important, because the Shari’a has its own sciences that deal with that: namely fiqh (law), usul-fiqh (legal method and philosophy), tasawwuf (on ethics, psychology, etc.), and kalam (as it touches on politics). The problematic divisions were part of their theoretical philosophy, which included physics and metaphysics. Nevertheless, ‘Attar conceives of its study as a communal obligation in order to respond to it and enrich the kalam tradition, which undertook to study the same subjects of epistemology and metaphysics, but from a perspective anchored in revelation.
Thus the kalam tradition is philosophy as well, but in the general sense of the term, not in the specific sense captured by the terms hikma or falsafa in traditional nomenclature. Kalam was led by the Sunni schools of Ash’arism and Maturidism, and are contrasted against falsafa. This rivalry is best captured by Sa’d al-Din Mas’ud b. ‘Umar al-Taftazani, one of the greatest scholars in Islam, in his major work on kalam, Sharh al-Maqasid:
For just as the philosophers [al-ḥukama] wrote books in practical and theoretical philosophy [ḥikma] in order to guide the laity towards the two dimensions of human perfection (i.e., practical and theoretical), the great minds of Islam, the scholars of the Islamic community, wrote books in kalam and the legal sciences (i.e., fiqh and usul fiqh). So kalam is juxtaposed against theoretical philosophy [al-ḥikma al-nadhariyya].
In other words, since kalam and philosophy performed the same functions, they were by definition in competition with one another. There was never a problem with philosophy in the general sense, but with a specific set of metaphysical positions. One of the most central of these questions was the understanding of God: is he a free creative agent (fa’il mukhtar) or a being who necessarily creates, such that he has no will? What is the nature of causation? Is the world eternal or created ex-nihilo? How do we explain the relationship between God and the World? It was the answers provided by the peripatetic tradition that disturbed the kalam tradition, and not the fact that they exercised rational investigations into these questions.
“In other words, since kalam and philosophy performed the same functions, they were by definition in competition with one another. There was never a problem with philosophy in the general sense, but with a specific set of metaphysical positions.”
In light of the last passage, it should be clear that the relationship between philosophy and kalam is that they are two mutually independent schools of thought, that both seek to arrive at truth using rational methods. It is not the case that philosophy is ‘the honored servant of theology,’ as described by Yusuf, which is a distinctly scholastic conception of philosophy. It was not a training in philosophy that Muslim scholars felt was necessary to sharpen the intellect, it was instead an education in the discipline of logic, argumentation, the linguistic sciences, and above all: kalam.
“It is a common trope among Muslim scholars to always bemoan their time, so one must not be so quick to take their statements so literally, nor should one take their statements uncritically. This points to a larger question: was Ibn Khaldun equally opposed to the study of metaphysics and philosophy?”A cursory examination of Sunni Islam’s intellectual tradition after Ghazali indicates that there is no evidence for decline. At a time when this perspective is finally giving way, it is unfortunate that many Muslim scholars like Hamza Yusuf continue to perpetuate this myth. It seems a bit odd, in fact, that one bemoans uncritical attitudes and so forth, while accepting the testimony of a single person on the state of a civilization. I mean of course, the reference to Ibn Khaldun’s claim regarding ossification. It is a common trope among Muslim scholars to always bemoan their time, so one must not be so quick to take their statements so literally, nor should one take their statements uncritically. This points to a larger question: was Ibn Khaldun equally opposed to the study of metaphysics and philosophy? In the following article, we will take a closer look at his positions in light of what we have clarified on the distinctions between philosophy and kalam.
In the previous part, I discussed the presentation of the post-classical Sunni tradition in Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s article regarding metaphysics. This following will briefly analyze Ibn Khaldun’s position on kalam and falsafa, which should be clearer now that the terms have been parsed out. I will argue that Ibn Khaldun’s position on the variants of Aristotelian philosophy in Islam was not any different than that of Hujjat al-Islam al-Ghazali’s position, as Yusuf implied. Indeed, a rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics does not equate to a rejection of metaphysics. On the contrary, the Ash’aris are perhaps the only school in Islamic history to have successfully broken the spell of Aristotelianism in the world.
“I will argue that Ibn Khaldun’s position on the variants of Aristotelian philosophy in Islam was not any different than that of Hujjat al-Islam al-Ghazali’s position, as Yusuf implied.”Ibn Khaldun was acutely aware of this, as his project in the Kitab al-‘Ibar was to usher in a new, empirical approach to history, strongly rooted in Ash’ari thought.
Ibn Khaldun on Philosophy
After clarifying what was meant precisely by philosophy in the Islamic tradition, namely the various schools of peripatetic philosophy represented either by Ibn Rushd or Ibn Sina, it should be clear why Ibn Khaldun was opposed to them. He is not, as Yusuf tends to imply, opposed to philosophy in the broad sense. His critique of philosophy is an Ash’ari critique, completely in line with the Ash’aris before him, including Ghazali and Fakhr al-din al-Razi, both of whom Ibn Khaldun recommends for those who wish to learn how to refute the philosophers. Yusuf writes:
Ibn Khaldūn, arguably the first philosopher of history, does not deem speculative philosophy of great use other than in its method of inquiry. Unlike al-Ghazālī, he does not recognize the importance of the metaphysics that not only produced that method but ultimately both grounds it and determines whether it is valid or not. It is Ibn Khaldūn, though, who identifies the ossification of tradition and the intellectual stagnation that stifled the Muslim world; during his time, philosophy, at least in the Sunni world, is in major decline.
“Yusuf claims that Ibn Khaldun writes off philosophy as bearing no benefit, as opposed to Ghazali, who considers metaphysics to be of utmost importance. This is an unfair depiction of Ibn Khaldun’s critique of peripatetic philosophy.”Yusuf claims that Ibn Khaldun writes off philosophy as bearing no benefit, as opposed to Ghazali, who considers metaphysics to be of utmost importance. This is an unfair depiction of Ibn Khaldun’s critique of peripatetic philosophy. Ibn Khaldun did not, as Yusuf claims, write off the whole of metaphysics. What he did write off were the schools of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina. Ibn Khaldun had very good grounds for this, which we can summarize as follows:
(1) the metaphysical system of the philosophers has very little empirical and rational basis. On both counts Ibn Khaldun was correct, just as the Ash’aris before and after him were correct. Much to the dismay of their supporters, it turns out, for example, that the Celestial Spheres [i.e. the planets] are not eternal, simple, abstract objects with an intellect whose perpetual motion control the affairs of the universe. They are, as the mutakallimun said, merely composite physical objects that have a beginning in time. Somehow on Yusuf’s reckoning, the path of the mutakallimun is an unenlightened imitation of Ghazali, and yet believing that the Sun was an eternal, simple, abstract object that undergoes no real change (as Ibn Rushd believed) is the path to enlightenment. Indeed, much of what the philosophers held to be true in their physics and metaphysics is closer to mythology than truth. Meanwhile, Ash’arism opened the path for an empirical approach to science, just as the nominalism of William of Ockham would later, himself under Ash’ari influence.
(2) Ibn Khaldun states that the philosophers were unrealistically ambitious. First, they claimed that felicity for man is to be found in attaining knowledge [tasawwur] of all things as they truly are. Their system of philosophy was totalistic, and attempted to provide an account for everything. Ibn Khaldun points out that their limited experiences, and man’s limited tools, are not nearly enough to apprehend the whole of existence. The world is infinitely greater than what they thought it to be. Secondly, felicity is not to be achieved through Aristotle’s theoria, but rather through believing in and acting on the truths of revelation. Establishing those truths is the objective of kalam; and which he states in line with Ghazali, is to study existence in relation to establishing those truths. The assent to these doctrines [tasdiq] does not require having attained full knowledge of their reality [tasawwur]. Once faith at this basic level is established, felicity is to be found in acting upon them through emulation of the Prophet, and building human civilization.
The following sheds light on Ibn Khaldun’s assessment of peripatetic philosophy with respect to kalam, indicating clearly enough that he did not reject the study of metaphysics, but only the peripatetic study of metaphysics:
Know that the mutakallimun generally argued from the existence of contingent beings to the existence of God, and therefore the physical objects which are examined by the philosophers in their physics form a part of contingent being. But the philosopher’s perspective is different from that of the mutakallim; the former observes the physical object with respect to motion and stillness, while the mutakallim observes it with respect to its need for an efficient cause [fa’il]. Likewise, the philosopher in metaphysics observes existence as such with a view for what it entails, while the mutakallim examines existence in so far as it points to a creator. So in general, the subject matter of kalam is religious doctrine, after presupposing their truth and then seeking rational proof for them, so that heresies, doubts, and objections are eliminated.
Ibn Khaldun is clear, while the subject matter of kalam and philosophy are very similar, the mutakallim looked at existence with a different eye. They examined being not as such, nor did they claim they were undertaking a project to apprehend the realities of things as they were, but only in so far as they demonstrated the veracity of Islam’s truth claims. What this meant was a much tighter epistemological approach, with much humbler aims. The only irony in the approach of the Ash’ari school is that despite their much humbler aims, they came to conclusions about existence and the physical universe that proved to be far more accurate than that of the philosophers.
“The only irony in the approach of the Ash’ari school is that despite their much humbler aims, they came to conclusions about existence and the physical universe that proved to be far more accurate than that of the philosophers.”
In fact, Ibn Khaldun was fully aware of the project he was undertaking, which was to establish the philosophy of history and the social sciences on Ash’ari grounds. He states explicitly that this undertaking is distinct from the politics of the philosophers, and other elements of practical philosophy like household economics. Throughout his work, he uses the Ash’ari typology of judgments: rational (‘aqli) and empirical (‘adi), along with the principles of hadith science (another empirical science), in order to properly ascertain and interpret historical events. It is on this empirical basis that he claims this new science is reliable. Indeed, the Ash’ari metaphysics of a contingent universe necessitated the re-examination of history and the social sciences, because up until that point the philosophers had taken the eternality of the world as a given. They had no interest in explaining the emergence of human civilization for they believed that the human species had always existed. An eternal world meant there was no beginning to anything, not even human civilization; there were only repetitions of the same.
“…the Ash’ari metaphysics of a contingent universe necessitated the re-examination of history and the social sciences, because up until that point the philosophers had taken the eternality of the world as a given.”
As we have seen, Ibn Khaldun does not reject metaphysics, but only Aristotelian metaphysics. While it is true that in the Muqaddima, he generally believes that it is not necessary for the average student to dedicate too much energy in the study of kalam, that is because he believed that there no longer any heretics left to refute. Nevertheless, he still opines that some people certainly should study kalam; and one should study Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali if they want to read an in-depth refutation of Aristotelian philosophy. It is therefore not true what Yusuf argues about Ibn Khaldun, who at the same time, accepts Ibn Khaldun’s theory of ossification, which we saw to be false from the previous part of this essay. Indeed, even if we were to accept Ibn Khaldun’s thesis, we can only reasonably hold it to be true for the fourteenth century, and independent research on the ossification of the Islamic sciences would need to be conducting for the ensuing six centuries.
In this final installment, I would like to briefly discuss the question of nominalism in relation to various schools of Islamic thought. Current historical research has shown that there is a strong relationship between the emergence of nominalism in the western philosophical tradition and Ash’arism, the premiere school of Sunni kalam. At the same time, there is also a certain historiography that emerges from Catholic circles that pins the rise of modernity on nominalist thought. Nominalism, it is believed, destroyed the old Aristotelian-Thomist worldview that espoused a rational, coherent universe, subject to the precepts of reason. Hamza Yusuf also promotes this thesis in his Renovatio article. Similarly, there is the question of Ibn Taymiyya, who Yusuf presents as a nominalist. It would be quite convenient for someone opposed to Ibn Taymiyya if indeed it was true that (1) nominalism was to blame for ills of modernity and (2) Ibn Taymiyya was a nominalist; but neither is true.
“Current historical research has shown that there is a strong relationship between the emergence of nominalism in the western philosophical tradition and Ash’arism, the premiere school of Sunni kalam. At the same time, there is also a certain historiography that emerges from Catholic circles that pins the rise of modernity on nominalist thought.”
A Thomist Narrative of Modernity
In his lamentation on the loss of ‘metaphysics,’ Yusuf adopts a quasi-Thomist assessment on the emergence of modernity, which holds that it was ultimately caused by the introduction of nominalism by the likes of William of Ockham:
At the heart of the matter is the ancient debate about universals themselves, a conflict between the essentialist approach of the “realists” or “moderate realists” committed to what became known as the via antigua (the “old path”), and the nominalist approach committed to the via moderna (the “modern path”), championed by William of Ockham (d. 1347) in the Christian world, and arguably by Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728/1328) in the Muslim world.
As we shall see, nominalism came to the medieval west from Islam, and it was not through the works of anyone but the Ash’aris. It was the Ash’ari school, in its attack on Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, that paved the way for nominalism and empirical science. They were moderate nominalists whose work was readily taken up by opponents of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle.
To reiterate what we stated earlier, Yusuf’s narrative is hinged on a quasi-Catholic reading of modernity and philosophy, especially on the question of nominalism, which runs contrary to the position of the Sunni tradition. The proponents of this view, also believe that Ash’arism is equally to blame for belief in an irrational, omnipotent God, which did not recognize any intrinsic good or evil. One author, Michael Allen Gillespie, goes as far to say that Wahhabism has its roots in the Ash’arism espoused by Ghazali. The Catholics, who saw their Aristotelian-Thomist worldview obliterated, laid the blame on philosophical nominalism and especially William of Ockham. It is not clear if Yusuf disagrees with the Thomists on the Ash’ari connection to nominalism, but either way, “
The Catholics, who saw their Aristotelian-Thomist worldview obliterated, laid the blame on philosophical nominalism and especially William of Ockham. It is not clear if Yusuf disagrees with the Thomists on the Ash’ari connection to nominalism…”contemporary philosophy has caught on:
The voluntaristic God of the Asharite and then nominalistic teaching constitutes the farthest possible development of the logic of power: he does what he pleases and there is no other explanation for what he does apart from what ‘He pleases’ (quod libet), or the famous Ockhamian quia voluit [because He wanted it that way].
This narrative goes yet further, stating the following:
With this one revolutionary move, potentiality, so far characteristic of the lowest forms of existence, got translated into an infinite power/potency, which became so suggestive that no Thomistic attempt to return God back to the highest form of actuality could ever succeed – which is best exemplified by Heidegger’s dismissive treatment of the whole classical Aristotelian tradition as merely a blunder of onto-theology. The Asharite reversal, then fully confirmed in the nominalistic tradition, reverberates through the whole of modern metaphysics.
So it was not really Ibn Rushd nor Ibn Sina who would have the greatest influence on the rise of modern thought and the achievements of modern science made possible by the empiricist turn, but Ash’arism. The World was no longer representative of God’s plenitude, the assumption of which gives rise to a whole set of theological problems, including theodicy.
The question of nominalism is a difficult one to approach. There is a famous debate in kalam on whether or not essences are true in themselves, or if they are posited by God. The position of Sunni kalam is that they are posited, while some of the Mu’tazila and the Peripatetics stated that composite essences (like human) are posited, while simple essences (like substance) are not. A third group, mostly Peripatetics, claimed that none were posited. They all agreed, however, that particular instantiations of these universal essences needed a cause.
“As for the idea that nominalism gave rise to the relativism prevalent in certain strands of modern and post-modern thought, this is merely an exaggeration. Indeed, in its assault on peripatetic philosophy Ash’ari empiricism seriously undermined their project of constructing an exhaustive account of reality.”As for the idea that nominalism gave rise to the relativism prevalent in certain strands of modern and post-modern thought, this is merely an exaggeration. Indeed, in its assault on peripatetic philosophy Ash’ari empiricism seriously undermined their project of constructing an exhaustive account of reality. But at the same time, it opened a space for empirical investigations of reality without making physical reality an end itself, nor did it allow physical phenomena to be the primary object of human inquiry, to where it has now become the only object of human inquiry. This is because the Ash’ari’s main principles and goals, found in Muhammadan revelation, remained intact and did not depend on a particular notion of physics. This also did not mean that the world was incomprehensible in itself, but simply that such a project is quite difficult and it must be conducted empirically. This was at odds with the philosophers, who as we saw in Ibn Khaldun earlier, sought to provide a totalizing explanation for everything. But as Ibn Khaldun states, such a project is not possible, “And He creates what you do not know” (16:8).
This view on philosophy is far humbler, but also far less susceptible to error. It is based on a far more rigorous methodology, that was combined with a humility before God, such that they did not venture to make universal judgments on physical phenomena without empirical evidence. This is over and above the fact that they remained faithful to what was immediately known to be true from revelation.
An Overview of Ibn Taymiyya’s Philosophy
Contrary to what Gillespie holds, Ibn Abdul-Wahhab was not under the influence of Ash’arism. He was, however, under the influence of Ibn Taymiyya. Ibn Taymiyya represents a particular strand of a reduced Hanbalism, which went through another reduction with Ibn Abdul-Wahhab. Ibn Taymiyya devoted the bulk of his energy to attacking Ash’arism, and because the strongest opposition to Sunni kalam was in peripatetic philosophy, Ibn Taymiyya borrowed many of his main arguments and theses from them. It is not, as alleged by Yusuf, that he was primarily challenging philosophy.
Nevertheless, Yusuf is right to say that Ibn Taymiyya was “steeped in it,” for while Ibn Taymiyya incessantly claims that he says nothing about God except that which is in the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the sayings of the early generations, we often find him and his loyal student Ibn Qayyim quoting philosophers like Ibn Rushd and Ibn Malka to drive their points home. Nor can we consider Ibn Taymiyya a “major scholar” whose thought had any impact after him, unless one means the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So, even if we accept him as a nominalist, which I think is doubtful, he was ultimately irrelevant to the development of kalam and philosophy in the Islamic world.
“From a bird’s eye view, Ibn Taymiyya’s philosophy was empirical in epistemology and physicalist in ontology, and corporealist in theology.”From a bird’s eye view, Ibn Taymiyya’s philosophy was empirical in epistemology and physicalist in ontology, and corporealist in theology. Unlike some earlier adherents of the Hanbali and Karramiyah schools, however, Ibn Taymiyya reconstructed corporealism using a number of critical theses and arguments borrowed from Aristotelian philosophy. Yet other positions are taken from the Mu’tazilites, and the Ash’arites. Nevertheless, in his erratic and notoriously disorganized works, we do not find nominalism. His worldview was one where “reason” and revelation are in harmony, just as the physical universe is in harmony with natural ethics.
In epistemology, he was an empiricist. His ontological assumption was that everything that exists is a physical object or the property of a physical object. In fact, if it is not possible to empirically observe something with one of the five senses, then it simply does not exist. It follows then, that sense perception is sufficient in its capacity to perceive everything. All one must do is observe things around him, generate observations from these observations, and then draw analogies to things out of one’s empirical reach. One may describe Ibn Taymiyya’s theology as something akin to Aristotelian physics, with the caveat that his epistemology is akin to that of Sextus Empiricus.
“One may describe Ibn Taymiyya’s theology as something akin to Aristotelian physics, with the caveat that his epistemology is akin to that of Sextus Empiricus.”The principal argument for God’s existence by the Ash’ari school was the kalam cosmological argument. They argue that since the world is composed of physical objects and their properties, and every physical object must have a beginning to its existence, then the World must have a cause for its existence. Taken with the impossibility of infinite regress, then, the totality of the world must have a beginning to its existence. Now, that cause cannot of course be a physical object, so Ibn Taymiyya had to reject the soundness of this argument. This is so, because for Ibn Taymiyya, God is a physical object with physical extension and physical limits. Six limits, to be precise, which follows from the notion in Aristotelian physics that it is impossible for a physical object to have infinite extension, contrary to some non-Aristotelian Hanbalis before Ibn Taymiyya.
To reject the cosmological argument, Ibn Taymiyya employs the philosophers’ analysis of infinite regress. The mutakallimun held that the world began to exist after not existing, and that it came into existence from nothing (ex nihilo). But Ibn Taymiyya conceived of the World as an eternally changing entity that God has been endlessly creating since pre-eternity, so just as God has always been creating, the species of the world has always been existing. It is on this basis that Ibn Taymiyya can hold that not every physical object is created, which is a main premise in the kalam cosmological argument. So how do we know God? Ibn Taymiyya argues that its intuitively known by everyone, through what he calls the fitra. No rational basis is needed.
“Ibn Taymiyya conceived of the World as an eternally changing entity that God has been endlessly creating since pre-eternity, so just as God has always been creating, the species of the world has always been existing. It is on this basis that Ibn Taymiyya can hold that not every physical object is created, which is a main premise in the kalam cosmological argument.”
Add to this Ibn Taymiyya’s conception of causation, which was also taken from the philosophers: namely that every contingent being must have a contingent cause. But the philosophers held that it was impossible for the Necessary Being (God) to be subject to change, so they envisioned a set of eternal intermediaries that would be subject to those contingencies, which they held to be motion. These were the 10 intellects that corresponded to the celestial realm. Thus, every time a contingency came into existence in the sub-lunar world, it was caused to exist by the perpetual motion of the Active Intellect.
Ibn Taymiyya eliminates these intermediaries, but because he accepts the philosophers’ notion of causation, he instead holds that the contingent causes come into existence in the Divine Essence. In other words, God is perpetually changing with the world, in some kind of system that resembles the process theology of Whitehead. With the infinite chain of contingent events in the World, there is a parallel chain of contingent events in the Divine Essence. To spell it out: God is always in a state of becoming, and is never perfect in the absolute sense, for with every creative act, He becomes more perfect. God’s limited perfection is thus dependent upon the existence of His creatures.
In order to justify his conviction that the world is eternal in its species, and only contingent in its individual elements, Ibn Taymiyya had to make an appeal to perfect being theology. So, he states that an actually creating God is superior to that of a potentially creating God.
“In order to justify his conviction that the world is eternal in its species, and only contingent in its individual elements, Ibn Taymiyya had to make an appeal to perfect being theology.”In other words: God must be perfect; actually creating is more perfect than potentially creating; God must always be actually creating. In other words, despite the lip service that Ibn Taymiyya gave to the Sunni doctrine that God is a free creative agent (fa’il mukhtar), he ultimately denies that God has any choice whether to create or not. This will now allow us to understand more clearly if Ibn Taymiyya was a nominalist.
Is Ibn Taymiyya a Nominalist?
If God has no choice whether to create or not, does He have a choice of what to create? Here Ibn Taymiyya takes another critically important thesis from the philosophers in rejecting a famous Ash’ari (and Ockhamian) principle, namely: arbitrary selection is possible by a willing agent (al-tarjih bi-la murajjih). What this means is that the Ash’aris held that given two identical choices, the will of the agent was sufficient in selecting one over the other. Since here we have posited no difference between the two choices, that choice is ‘arbitrary’. This is perfectly in line with Ash’ari occasionalism, because God does not need secondary causes to bring about the effects He chooses. Rather, any contingent being can be brought into existence without any intermediary, nor any preceding matter, nor any contingency in the Divine Essence. Again, this occasionalist conception of creation is rejected by Ibn Taymiyya, who attributes real yet dependent causal powers to contingent beings, with the caveat that God can prevent their effects from coming into existing through something else, without actually depriving them of their causal powers.
“…any contingent being can be brought into existence without any intermediary, nor any preceding matter, nor any contingency in the Divine Essence. Again, this occasionalist conception of creation is rejected by Ibn Taymiyya, who attributes real yet dependent causal powers to contingent beings…”
Following the philosophers, Ibn Taymiyya rejects this principle, and therefore, he holds that there must exist a determining factor that enables the agent to make a choice. What is this determining factor? It must either arise from the essence of God, an attribute of God, or something external to God. It cannot be the essence of God because It is eternal, and Ibn Taymiyya holds that every contingent being needs a contingent (i.e non-eternal) cause. Likewise, following Ibn Rushd, he rejects the idea of an eternal will. But he also cannot make an appeal to the contingent will of God, because that would lead to an infinite regress of contingent wills, preventing that choice from ever happening. So, Ibn Taymiyya makes an appeal to what he calls hikma (wisdom). Hikma is something external to God, and God’s choices are dictated by it. Then, even though Ibn Taymiyya claims that the universal essences of things are posited by God, he would have to hold that a set of necessary relations hold between these contingent essences in order for there to be a wisdom that determines God’s creative acts. Otherwise, why would God need to bring one thing into existence as opposed to another, if no necessary relations held between them?
“The only way to make sense of Ibn Taymiyya’s position on creation is to understand his notion of hikma as being the totality of universal essences and their relations.”The only way to make sense of Ibn Taymiyya’s position on creation is to understand his notion of hikma as being the totality of universal essences and their relations. Hikma (lit. wisdom) drives all of God’s acts, and therefore, it must causally precede and be independent of God’s acts. What you have then is an ordered, necessary universe, that God creates not according to will, but according to an independent set of entities known as “wisdom”; the very same universe which is sought by the realists of Peripatetic philosophy, and the very same conception which the Ash’aris fought so hard dismantle.
In conclusion, what we find in Ibn Taymiyya is a strange amalgam of positions collected from various strands of thought. What we do not have, however, is a nominalist picture of the universe. Ibn Taymiyya’s rejection of occasionalism means that necessary relations obtain between the constituent elements of the universe. Likewise, God’s perpetual creation of the universe is directed by wisdom, which must precede and be independent of His will. Indeed, for Ibn Taymiyya, God does not possess an eternal will, but rather an infinite series of contingent wills. So while the set of God’s volitions is eternal, each particular volition is contingent. This translates into a perfectly comprehensible universe, harmonious with what he believes is human intuition and universal wisdom
“…what we find in Ibn Taymiyya is a strange amalgam of positions collected from various strands of thought. What we do not have, however, is a nominalist picture of the universe. Ibn Taymiyya’s rejection of occasionalism means that necessary relations obtain between the constituent elements of the universe.”
It was my hope in this final section to clarify Ibn Taymiyya’s position with respect to nominalism, while at the same time trying to highlight the very important distinction between the rhetoric of Ibn Taymiyya vis-à-vis philosophy. It is critically important to understand that Ibn Taymiyya’s primary enemy was not Aristotelian philosophy, but Ash’arism, and by extension, nominalist understandings of the universe. Ash’arism was the only system, despite the rhetoric regarding “greek” logic and modal notions, to actually deliver a critical blow to peripatetic philosophy. All other schools of Islamic thought to various degrees could not escape its orbit, be it Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Rushd, Ibn ‘Arabi, or the Mu’tazila.
 Hamza Yusuf “Is the Matter of Metaphysics Immaterial? Yes and No,” Renovatio, 10 May 2017.
 See for example, Robert Wisnovsky, “The Nature and Scope of Arabic Philosophical Commentary in Post-Classical (CA. 1100-1900 AD) Islamic Intellectual History: Some Preliminary Observations” in Philosophy, Science and Exeegesis in Greek, Arabic and Latin commentaries, edited by P. Adamson, H. Balthussen, and M. W. F. Stone, II, 149-191 ; Khaled Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
 These include his works in Ash’ari kalam: al-Khamsun, al-Isharah, Ta’sis al-Taqdis, al-Arba’un, al-Muhassal, and Nihayat al-‘Uqul; and in philosophy his works include al-Mabahith al-Mashriqiyah, Sharh ‘Uyun al-Hikmah, Sharh al-Isharat wal-Tanbihat, al-Mulakhass, and al-Matalib al-‘Aliyah, with each one of these works going into much more detail than any of Ghazali’s works on falsafa. Suffice it to say that when one referenced Razi in the post-classical tradition, it was enough to say “al–Imam.”
 Examples of these include Qadhi al-Baydawi (d. 716/1316 CE), Qadhi ‘Adud al-Din al-Iji (d. 756 AH/1355 CE), Shams al-Din al-Asfahani (d.749 AH/1349 CE), Najm al-Din al-Katibi (d. 675 AH/1277 CE), Qutb al-Din al-Razi (d. 710 AH/1311 CE), Sadrul-Shari’a (d. 747 AH/ 1346 CE), Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani (d.791 AH/1390 CE), Sayyid Sharif al-Jurjani (d.813 AH/1413 CE), Ali al-Qushji (d. 879 AH/ 1474 CE), Jalal al-Din al-Dawwani (d.908 AH/1502 CE), Muhammad b. Yusuf al-Sanusi (d. 895 AH/1490 CE), al-Hasan al-Yusi (d. 1106 AH/1691 CE), and Ismail Gelenbevi (d.1205 AH/1791 CE).
 This is not to ignore the lasting contributions of the kalam tradition before Ghazali as well, such as Abul-Ma’ali al-Juwayni (d.478 AH), al-Baqillani (d.403 AH), Ibn Fourek (d.406 AH), Isfarayini (d. 437 AH), and of course Imam al-Ash’ari (d.324 AH) himself. This is important to note because many positions in kalam were standard fare Ash’ari positions, and yet in the modern period have been thought to be introduced by Ghazali, such as the famous example of causation. Indeed, most of what Ghazali presents in the Iqtisad fil I’tiqad and the Mustasfa can be found in the works of his teacher al-Juwayni.
 Hamza Yusuf, “Is the Matter of Metaphysics Immaterial? Yes and No”
 This is a generalization by ‘Attar, but it nevertheless is sufficient in undermining Hamza Yusuf’s claim that Islamic ethics were based on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, which is simply not true.
 Hashiyat al-‘Attar al-Uwla ‘ala al-Sujai, 7-8. Translations are mine.
 Ibn Khaldun’s description of Taftazani is the following: In Egypt, I became privy to the rational works of a man among the masters of Herat, from the country of Khorasan, who is famous by the name of Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani. Some [of these works] are in kalam, usul-fiqh, and rhetoric, which testify to the fact that he has a mastery over these sciences, throughout which we discern that he has a mastery over philosophy as well, and deep knowledge of all the rational sciences. And God aids whoever He wills with success. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima, “al-fasl al-tasi’ ‘ashar fil-‘ulum al-aqliya,’ 633 (electronic copy). A weak rendition in english can be seen in Rosenthal’s translation, 630.
 Ibid., 92.
 Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008),292. Gillespie’s characterization of Ghazali is patently false, and his description of Ash’arism is overly simplistic. The fact that he draws a connection between Ghazali and Ibn Abdul-Wahhab is reason enough for those acquainted with these authors to know that there is a serious problem in Gillespie’s understanding of Islam.
 Agata Robson, “Beyond Sovereignty,” 298.
 Philosophical skepticism, on the other hand, whether it be ontological or epistemological, is endemic to certain threads of modern thought. Nominalism should not be equated to any kind of skepticism or relativism, both of which are rejected in the Islamic tradition.
 Ibn Taymiyya, Naqdh Ta’sis al-Jahmiya, (Makkah: Matbaa al-Hukuma, 1971) vol.1, 9.
 Ibid., 325. Ibn Taymiyya as always states that this is the position of Ahlussunnah wal-Jama’ah, which is a patent fabrication to which he cites no source.
 Ibid., 116-7.
 Ibn Taymiyya, Naqdh Ta’sis al-Jahmiya, (Makkah: Matbaa al-Hukuma, 1971) vol.2, 174.
 Ibn Taymiyya, Naqdh Ta’sis al-Jahmiya, (Makkah: Matbaa al-Hukuma, 1971) vol.1, 285.
 This is a common theme in many of Ibn Taymiyya’s works, see for example: Ibn Taymiyya, Dar’ Ta’arudh al-‘aql wal-naql, (Riyadh: Muhammad ibn Sa’ud University, 1991), 368-9; Ibn Taymiyya, Mas’alat Huduth al-‘Alam, (Beirut: Dar al-Bashair al-Islamiyyah, 2012), 132-3.
 Ibn Taymiyya, Mas’alat Huduth al-‘alam (Beirut: Dar al-Bashair al-Islamiyyah, 2012), 68-9.
 Ibid., 143-4.
 Ibn Taymiyya, Mas’alat Huduth al-‘Alam,86-7.
 Ibn Rushd, al-Kashf ‘an Manahij al-Adillah fi ‘Aqaid al-Millah, (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyyah), 130.
 Ibn Taymıyya, Minhaj al-Sunnah al-Nabawwiyah, (Riyadh: Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud University, 1986) vol.1, 141-4.
 Ibid, vol.1, 141.