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Al-Juwaynī’s Life and Thought

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Al-Juwaynī was a scholar. This was not just his day job; it was his very identity, in the eyes of the rulers who patronized or persecuted him, in the eyes of his teachers and students and intellectual adversaries, in the eyes of the common people whose faith he both scorned and defended, and in his own eyes as well: scholarship was his quest for salvation, and his way of being a Muslim.

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This identity was his from birth. His father, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh al-Juwaynī, was a teacher in the Shāfiʿī tradition of law, who also had to copy books to make a living. He was reputed to be so scrupulously pious that he would not even lean against the wall separating his own house from an adjoining house, because he did not want to make use of his neighbor’s property without permission. He paid his annual alms tax twice each year, just in case he might have made some error that rendered the first payment invalid. He was not overly rich, but he had a strong sense of the elite status conferred upon him by his scholarly credentials, and he saw in his son ʿAbd al-Malik al-Juwaynī a young prodigy whose pedigree he desired to preserve at all costs. He insisted that his infant son be nursed only by his mother, and when one day he found him being suckled by a neighbor woman, he tried to make him spit up what he had drunk, declaring that he would rather see his son die than see him contaminated so. Knowledge, in his society, was regarded as the product not only of acumen and hard work, but also of family lineage. The boy grew up to share that elitist mentality: one day, when he was smitten with fatigue during a debate, he blamed it on a remnant of that stranger’s milk that must have stayed in his stomach.

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Abū al-Maʿālī ʿAbd al-Malik al-Juwaynī was born on February 17, 1028, in the city of Nishapur in the region of Khurāsān, just where the mountains of northern Iran met a fertile plain, watered by aqueducts and subterranean canals that reached out like fingers from the mountainsides. It was a city divided, at the upper echelons of society, between families tied to both the Muʿtazilī school of theology and the Ḥanafī school of law, on the one hand, and families like al-Juwaynī’s, loyal to Ashʿarī theology and Shāfiʿī law, on the other. This conflict was doctrinal, legal, and social all at once. Doctrinally the Muʿtazila were heirs of the first systematic Islamic theology, developed by Muslims to give their faith a rational foundation that could hold up in debates with non-Muslims, whereas Ashʿarī theology was geared toward an internal Muslim debate, using the kinds of rational argument originally developed by the Muʿtazila to refute the Muʿtazila themselves and defend a more traditionalist reading of the revelations brought by the Prophet Muḥammad. The legal dispute was similar: Ḥanafī law had been developed in the 8th century on the basis of pragmatic considerations and rational argument, to which the Shāfiʿiyya had responded that all law ought to be based on revelation alone. The Ḥanafiyya were eventually won over to this idea of revealed law, but they continued to adapt and defend their own school tradition, which still dominated the Eastern reaches of the Muslim world. The Ashʿarī Shāfiʿī movement was still a relative newcomer to Khurāsān, but by the time al-Juwaynī came of age it had gained the upper hand socially and politically. Thus when the elder Juwaynī died in 1046, the teaching position that his son and pupil ʿAbd al-Malik inherited (before he was even twenty years old) was a very prestigious position indeed. Yet it was far from secure.

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For one thing, the political situation was unpredictable. No longer was the Muslim world controlled by a powerful central government, as it had been under the first Abbasid caliphs during the late eighth century. Their monopoly of tax revenues, and hence of military might and social control, had dwindled steadily as one caliph after another found it necessary to buy military support by granting tax-collecting privileges to underlings, who thus became increasingly independent and began to vie for control over portions of the empire. At the time of al-Juwaynī’s birth a family known as the Buyids controlled Iraq and some portions of Iran, but in regions further east, including Nishapur, the Ghaznavids held sway, even while professing allegiance to the Abbasid caliph who held nominal authority in Baghdad. Both the Buyids and the Ghaznavids soon succumbed to the Seljuq Turks, who swept into Muslim lands from Central Asia, seizing control of Nishapur in 1038 and Baghdad in 1055.

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The decline of the caliphate was important not only politically, but also religiously. Tilman Nagel, a German scholar whose comprehensive and insightful study Die Festung des Glaubens (The Fortress of Belief) is by far the most important piece of Western scholarship on al-Juwaynī, presents his whole intellectual enterprise as a response to the decline of the caliphate, and of the view of salvation that the caliphate had represented. Nagel contrasts the Muʿtazilī view of salvation, in which the individual exercise of human reason leads inevitably to faith and individual human effort leads necessarily to eternal reward, with a more collective model of salvation, widely shared by the Sunnī masses, in which salvation is guaranteed by one’s membership in a community whose faith and practice are established and preserved by God’s vice-regent, or caliph, who stands at the head of the community to lead the Friday prayer, leads the way in warfare and pilgrimage alike, and ensures the community’s adherence to divine law. As people lost confidence in the Abbasid caliphs’ theological authority through incidents such as the miḥna (in which a string of caliphs tried unsuccessfully to impose the Muʿtazilī doctrine that the Qurʾān is created rather than eternal), as the caliphs’ inability to ensure social order became more and more apparent, and as their actual leadership was usurped more and more by rulers with no claim to power but power itself, this model of salvation lost its plausibility, and no longer offered the least assurance of salvation for the average believer. A new model of salvation was needed, and was provided by what Nagel calls the “new piety:” a combination of rational Ashʿarī theology, mystical Ṣūfī experience, and diligent observance of Shāfiʿī law. According to this model, which Nagel finds rooted in the theology of al-Ashʿarī and the Ṣūfism of al-Junayd, the only way to experience certainty about one’s own salvation is to live out a personal quest for intellectual certainty and moral perfection, not because one can earn one’s salvation that way, but because the experience of that relentless quest will give one the assurance that one has been chosen and destined for salvation by God. This personal quest for assurance was epitomized by the strict, heartfelt, intellectual, and distinctly elitist piety that al-Juwaynī inherited from his father and pursued through his own scholarship.

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This “new piety” was not for the faint of heart, nor for the uneducated. Saving faith, according to al-Juwaynī, can only be a conviction based on one’s personal understanding of the rational proofs that lead ineluctably from one’s experience of the world to unshakeable certainty about the existence and attributes of God and the veracity of Prophetic revelation. Simply to affirm what one has been taught by one’s parents or teachers is not enough. One must be able to prove the truth of one’s beliefs, without appealing to revelation until its veracity has been established, starting instead from purely rational premises and proceeding by means of rational arguments that in principle should be able to convince any rational person and refute any opponent. This is what al-Juwaynī set out to do in his major theological treatises, al-Shāmil (“a comprehensive treatise on the principles of religion”) and al-Irshād (“a guide to conclusive proofs for the principles of belief,” one of the very few works of Islamic disputational theology ever translated into English, for which we are deeply indebted to Paul Walker). In these treatises al-Juwaynī was not arguing against non-Muslims, as the early Muʿtazila had done; he was arguing primarily against the Muʿtazila, insisting on point after point that his own version of Ashʿarī doctrine enabled him to achieve certainty where Muʿtazilī theology did not.

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As the text translated below will reveal, al-Juwaynī also made the law a product of human reasoning. As a Shāfiʿī, he was particularly concerned to state that all law stems ultimately from revelation: human reason cannot itself declare any action good or bad, obligatory or permitted or forbidden. Hence knowledge of the law cannot begin with purely rational premises, as knowledge of God does. Yet al-Juwaynī defines knowledge of the law as a human construct, arrived at through rational inquiry (naẓar) that investigates the meaning and implications of revelation. It is not enough to apply the words of revelation directly to life, or to accept as binding the legal decisions of prior generations. That is what the uneducated masses must do, but that is not sufficient for certainty of salvation, which al-Juwaynī’s demanding piety put entirely beyond the reach of the common people. Each interpreter of revelation must reach his own conclusions (“his” because al-Juwaynī, like his contemporaries, spoke and thought of jurists only as men). Al-Juwaynī’s monumental work on law, al-Nihāya, emphasized the disagreements among prior generations of Shāfiʿī jurists. It was not enough to report what he felt was the correct Shāfiʿī view, because he did not intend for anyone to take his word for it, but rather to investigate all the options for themselves. Not that all options were correct; at the end of his Waraqāt he argues that some interpretations are correct and others erroneous, and several of his smaller legal works (al-Asālīb, al-Durra al-muḍīʿa, Ghunyat al-mustarshidīn, Mughīth al-khalq) show that he was particularly concerned to refute the errors of other legal schools, especially the Ḥanafiyya. But he was convinced that as long as one followed the proper method of reasoning, the human construct that resulted would be a fully adequate articulation of God’s requirements. The intense and personal effort of legal reasoning was the only way to have certainty that one was on the path of obedience and salvation.

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This elitist claim—that assurance of salvation depends on a life of intellectual and moral exertion—met with fierce resistance. In 1018 and again in 1029 the Abbasid caliph al-Qādir (r. 991–1031) had attempted to reassert the old model of salvation, in which the caliph guarantees the doctrine and practice of the community, by issuing an official creed. It was highly traditionalist, reflecting popular Sunnī beliefs such as the eternity of the Qurʾān, and reviling as sheer unbelief Muʿtazilī doctrines such as the createdness of the Qurʾān, which had been the official doctrine of several caliphs a century before. Subsequently, during the reign of the caliph al-Qāʾim (r. 1031-1075), the first of the ascendant Seljuq Sultans, Togrilbeg, lent his support to this new Sunnī orthodoxy by ordering, in 1053, that preachers curse the “Rāfiḍa” in their Friday sermons. This vague term is usually taken to designate groups of Shīʿa, but could also be applied to the Muʿtazila and other exponents of rational theology, including the Ashʿariyya. Somehow (just how and why this happened is still debated) the proclamation was seized upon by the Ḥanafī Muʿtazilī faction in Nishapur as an opportunity to dislodge the Shāfiʿī Ashʿariyya from their dominant social position. The Ashʿariyya were made out to be the principal targets of the proclamation, and Togrilbeg ordered the arrest of four prominent Ashʿarī leaders, including al-Juwaynī. Two were arrested, but al-Juwaynī fled the city, and took refuge in Togrilbeg’s own military encampment, under the protection of his vizier al-Kundurī. When the army moved on to Baghdad, some four hundred Ashʿarī refugees went along, and al-Juwaynī took the opportunity to study and debate with major scholars there. He then joined a pilgrimage caravan to Arabia, but instead of coming right back to Baghdad, he stayed for four years, studying and establishing his own reputation in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That is what earned him the honorific title Imām al-Ḥaramayn, “leading scholar of the two holy precincts.” He had lost his prestigious position in Nishapur, but he had finally gained the personal scholarly prestige and pedigree his father had desired for him.

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Ironically, the Ashʿariyya were not really opposed to traditionalist doctrines. When al-Juwaynī was still young, his father, along with the Ashʿarī Ṣūfī al-Qushayrī, had been forced to defend themselves against suspicions of heresy by arguing that their theology was in accord with traditionalist doctrines, and that they used the methods of rational theology only to defend those beliefs. Al-Juwaynī likewise emphasized his agreement with traditionalist Sunnī orthodoxy in his shorter theological statements such as al-ʿAqīda al-Niẓāmiyya (a creed dedicated to the vizier Niẓām al-Mulk). What separated al-Juwaynī from popular traditionalist theology was not so much the content of his doctrine as the intellectual nature of his piety, and his heavy use of rational argument in his major theological writings such as al-Shāmil and al-Irshād.

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Reason played a different role for al-Juwaynī than for the Muʿtazila. Tilman Nagel has argued that al-Juwaynī used human reasoning to build up a theology in which knowledge turns out not to be a product of the human intellect at all; instead knowledge is produced by God in the knowing subject, if and when God wills. Rational inquiry cannot lead to or produce knowledge; its only role is to provide certainty about a system of doctrine and law that one inherits from previous generations of Muslims, and comes to believe by divine grace. Reasoning is itself just an act of obedience to a requirement one accepts on faith. In Nagel’s words, al-Juwaynī used reason to build a fortress around an unquestioned and unquestioning orthodoxy.

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This is most evident in al-Juwaynī’s ontology, which is profoundly occasionalist: the only things that endure are individual atoms; the qualities that distinguish those atoms from each other, and make things what they are, exist only moment by moment, as God recreates them anew each instant. There is no necessary continuity between the world as it exists at one point in time and the world as it exists an instant later; one state of affairs does not necessarily lead to another; the regularity that we call cause and effect reflects God’s habit of creating things in certain sequences, but God can depart from that habit at will, as when he produces miracles to validate the claims of his prophets. Even knowledge is not the result of human activity; it is a state that God chooses to create in certain humans at certain times in accordance with his inexorable decree and power, just as he creates ignorance in others. Indeed this is true of all human actions: the Ashʿariyya rejected the Muʿtazilī belief that humans freely create their own actions, and argued that every act is produced by God alone, and humans acquire responsibility for their acts only because God produces in them, at the same moment as he creates an act, an attribute of “ability to perform” that act (and no other).

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This “occasionalism” gives al-Juwaynī’s intellectual and moral pursuits an entirely different character from the intellectual and moral pursuits of the Muʿtazila. The Muʿtazila believed that rational inquiry actually generated the knowledge of God that was necessary for salvation, and that individual human effort actually created the actions that God was bound (by his own justice and his own promises) to reward or punish. This form of piety made salvation, and assurance thereof, entirely dependent on human intellectual and moral effort. Al-Juwaynī’s “new piety” was equally individualistic, intellectual, and morally demanding; but al-Juwaynī could not attribute to individual effort the same role in producing belief, action, or salvation. The beliefs and actions with which God has chosen to correlate salvation are created in humans at God’s sole discretion and by his power alone. Humans have no power over their own destiny. Yet, through intellectual and moral striving, they can experience certainty about God’s choice to save them, because God produces such striving only in those he has chosen to save. To experience a state of complete submission to God’s inscrutable will that one believe and do certain things is itself to experience God’s decree of salvation. The more perfect one’s submission to God’s intellectual and moral demands, the more perfect one’s certainty of being saved, even though one does not regard that salvation as resulting from that pious submission. Rather like those Protestant Christian Calvinists who, according to Max Weber, looked to their own diligent piety and the material blessings with which it was rewarded as a form of reassurance that God had indeed chosen them for salvation, so al-Juwaynī and other advocates of the “new piety” argued that salvation was fully decreed by and dependent upon God, yet could be confidently expected and experienced by those to whom God granted a life of diligent intellectual and moral labor. As with Calvinists, the doctrine of predestination did not lead to moral laxity or to taking salvation for granted; on the contrary, it led to a feverish quest to experience certainty about one’s salvation by seeking every possible assurance of one’s salvation through intellectual proofs of the indubitable truth of one’s beliefs, and never-ending striving to know and obey God’s commands.

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The goal of losing one’s own agency in self-identification with the divine will is characteristic of Ṣūfī mysticism, and al-Juwaynī himself understood his quest to be a pursuit of mystical certainty, albeit one that proceeded through the disciplines of theology and law. In this respect he was very much a follower of the “orthodox” Ṣūfī mysticism of al-Junayd, a Baghdad Shāfiʿī of the late 9th century. Al-Juwaynī’s piety was not only intellectual and legalistic, but also emotive and mystical; his lectures on Sufism reportedly used to move people to tears.

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More important for our present purpose, however, is the impact al-Juwaynī’s occasionalism had on his view of law. In the text below, he identifies legal science (fiqh) as knowledge of the legal values of acts. It must be understood that these are not inherent properties of human actions, or assessments of the harmful or beneficial consequences of acts, as the Muʿtazila supposed. To say that an act has the legal value of “obligatory” is not to say anything about the act itself; it is simply to say that God has commanded it, and has promised to reward its performance and punish its omission. Yet those promises do not bind God in any way, so obedience to the law cannot be a means of ensuring one’s own salvation. Al-Juwaynī does appear to affirm that the law has a coherent underlying rationale, because he says that if one determines the rationale or underlying characteristic of the legal value of one action, one can extrapolate “by analogy” that other actions about which revelation is silent have the same legal value if they share the common characteristic. Taking into account al-Juwaynī’s occasionalism, however, it is clear that he does not think of the law as resulting from or reflecting the inherent characteristics of actions; law is not a truth about actions at all, but only a statement of God’s arbitrary commands, and analogical reasoning is valid in law only because God has deigned to use it as a means of communicating his commands, and has required such reasoning as a means of interpreting revelation. Al-Juwaynī defines law as a kind of knowledge arrived at by human reasoning, and knowledge for him means certainty; but at the end of the Waraqāt it becomes clear that he does not believe one can ever have certainty about the content of the law. It is always possible that one’s interpretations are wrong. As al-Juwaynī makes even more clear in his larger legal theory work al-Burhān (“the compelling proof”), the certainty of a jurist is never the certainty that he actually knows what God has commanded, it is only the certainty that in following the interpretive method prescribed in the Waraqāt he is fully in submission to God’s decree and will that he should engage in such reasoning and act in keeping with the conclusions he reaches. Once again, it is not the jurist’s reasoning or his obedience that ensures his salvation, but only his experience of living out God’s salvific decree that he, of all people, should be one of those fortunate ones who do in fact reason and obey. Knowledge of the law is arrived at by human reasoning based on revelation, and we will see that al-Juwaynī’s legal theory gives scholars considerable leeway to construct and reconstruct the law in keeping with their own moral intuitions, but he does not call for a deliberate act of reconstruction. In fact he believes that the law’s content was already settled early in the history of the Shāfiʿī school, and is now fixed and unchanging. Jurists have only to determine how to subsume each new case presented to them under the system of rules they have inherited. The strenuous practice of legal reasoning is the jurist’s path to knowledge of the law, but it does not bring about the law itself, or even the jurist’s knowledge of it; only God creates knowledge, and all legal reasoning really does is provide an experience of being in submission to God’s will.

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The upshot of al-Juwaynī’s rationalism, therefore, was simply to reassure Muslims that by participating in the system of beliefs and practices they had inherited, they were in fact experiencing God’s decision to count them among the saved rather than the damned. Such assurance required strenuous individual effort, both intellectually and behaviorally, and in this respect al-Juwaynī’s piety was accessible only to an educated elite. But it also offered a kind of second-hand assurance to those who did not plumb the depths of theological argument or climb the heights of supererogatory piety: it offered the reassurance of knowing that someone much smarter than oneself had done so, and had found the traditionalist beliefs of Sunnī orthodoxy to be rationally provable and defensible against all challenges. This is doubtless why his achievement eventually found political support, and even a degree of popular acceptance and admiration. Under the next Seljuq ruler of Nishapur, Alp Arslan, the vizier Niẓām al-Mulk welcomed al-Juwaynī back to his hometown, and founded for him there an endowed college (madrasa) of which al-Juwaynī served as undisputed leader to the end of his days. In return al-Juwaynī extolled him as the indispensable protector of faith and law—yet not as the divinely commissioned guarantor of truth and salvation, as the caliphs had once been viewed, but only as a necessary support for a stable society in which individuals could pursue their own piety.

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Al-Juwaynī’s most famous student during those crowning years of his career was al-Ghazālī, who did much to gain widespread recognition of the legitimacy of al-Juwaynī’s rational defense of the faith, but at the same time demoted such theological reasoning from the status of an essential discipline in the quest for assurance of salvation, to the status of a remedy, a medicine, which should not be used except by those struggling with doubt. When al-Juwaynī fell sick and died in 1085, it is said that his students, out of respect, broke their quills and smashed their inkwells, and did not resume studies for a full year. In a sense we might say that they never resumed them, at least not in the way al-Juwaynī had lived the life of scholarship. He had established for them, and for future generations, a sense of certainty in their theology and law that could make further inquiry seem unnecessary. He had regarded the work of achieving that certainty as the indispensable labor by which each individual must seek assurance for himself; but many Sunnī Muslims after him accepted his certainty as established once for all. He had defeated the Muʿtazila, but his own method of argumentation, which had come from the Muʿtazila in the first place, became less and less common. Theology as a discipline and form of argument declined, and the curriculum of colleges such as al-Juwaynī’s own madrasa came to focus more on the legal tradition handed down from prior generations.

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Al-Juwaynī had provided rational justifications for both traditionalist Sunnī doctrine and Shāfiʿī law, but had ended up demonstrating that neither can actually be known through reason. There are even reports that on his deathbed al-Juwaynī himself renounced the rationalism that had enabled him to put orthodoxy beyond the reach of reason. Tilman Nagel, whose interpretation of al-Juwaynī I have largely followed in this brief portrait, was inclined to accept these reports as an accurate depiction of the logical outcome of al-Juwaynī’s thought.

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If this portrait of al-Juwaynī has any truth to it, it poses an important question that could fruitfully be pursued in the study of the Waraqāt. Is law a human construct, created through human reasoning on the basis of revealed texts by the application of the interpretive methods of legal theory, as the Waraqāt seems to assert? Or is law an arbitrary and fixed divine command, which the jurist inherits from previous generations, and which legal theory serves not to create but merely to justify? There has been considerable debate about this point among western historians of legal theory. If Nagel is correct, we should see al-Juwaynī’s legal theory not as a method of constructing law, but as an exercise in reassuring Muslims that by accepting and obeying the law handed down to them, they are in fact submitting to God’s commands, and therefore may be confident that God has chosen them for salvation. In this case, we should not expect the method of reasoning laid out in the pages that follow to have any effect on the content of the law; instead it is intended as a comforting proof that the law Muslims inherit and submit to was, once upon a time, established by careful interpretation of and submission to revelation, and therefore can be accepted today as a timeless, closed, and self-authenticating codification of God’s commands. As you read the Waraqāt, I encourage you to test Nagel’s thesis, and ask whether al-Juwaynī’s legal theory is an exercise in self-justification, or whether it makes law a genuinely human construct—a kind of genuine knowledge about human actions, arrived at by human beings through their own methodical and rational inquiry into the meaning of God’s commands, and thus always subject to further critique and debate by new generations of rational human beings.

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Source: https://waraqat.vishanoff.com/i/i-life/