Philosophers, Sufis, and Caliphs

Politics and Authority from Cordoba to Cairo and Baghdad

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Ali Humayun Akhtar
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , June
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ali Humayun Akhtar has written a book in which he puts forward the assumption that intense debate between Muslim theologians had political implications in regard to the status of the caliph. He tries to show that the pretension of the Fatimids to be caliphs was discredited by theologians who were in line with the Sunnite doctrine of the Almoravid, Almohad, and Abbasid dynasties. To that end, Akhtar analyzes the works of Ibn Massara, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Barrajan, Ibn Qasi, and Ibn Tufayl to show that the dogmatic and metaphysical divergences  had implications on the representation of the caliph. Almoravids, Almohads, and Abbasids accused the Fatimids of heresy for claiming that the caliph is the Mahdi (or messiah) or the lieutenant of God on Earth (khalifatu Allah fi ardihi). Akhtar tries to place the debates between Sufis and philosophers on one hand and the status of the caliph on the other.

When the book addresses the debate between Sufis and philosophers,the work is substantial thanks to the erudition of the author; however, the part that addresses the caliphate is poor, especially at the historical level. Akhtar overestimates the importance of the theological and philosophical debate on the political process of Muslim dynasties. Of course, all the competitors claim to be faithful to religious dogma; however, the military factor is more decisive. The Fatimids were threatening their rivals,the Almohads and the Abbasids, by claiming that they were the offspring of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet. With this claim, they gained the support of many powerful tribes that served as amilitary force. Since the four enlightened caliphs, there was an enduring dynamic of militarization of the Muslim state that reduced the powers of the caliph. Neither the Almohadsnor the Abbasids, let alone the Fatimids, resisted the surge of the military emirs who founded new dynasties. Being pragmatic, the military emirs Ayoubide, Seljoukide, Turkemene, Hafside, and Merinide found ulemas to legitimize their power. Akhtar underestimates thesedynamics, and fails to frame the rich debates between theologians, philosophers, and Sufis in a theoretical backdrop that can highlight the relationships between these three currents of Muslim thought. 

Unfortunately, there is no satisfactory way to assess the influence of Greek philosophy on Muslim thought. The reader is lost in erudite controversies between theologians, mystics, and philosophers by other theologians, mystics, and philosophers. The confusion does not stem from Akhtar, but from the complexity of the subject. Abrahamic eschatology found in platonic metaphysics its rational discourse. From the outset, Muslim thinkers reached the conclusion that “scripture agrees with the cosmological conclusion of the philosophers” (120). However, they faced the problem of balancing sacred texts and pagan Greek thought. In the case of imbalances, backlash was unavoidable through a fatwa of orthodox ulemas or a decision by the caliph. Akhtar reminds us that Ibn Massara was condemned by the Al-Andalus Caliph Abd al Rahman III (r. 912-961) for having crossed limits imposed by official doctrine. We need to bear in mind that from the beginning of Muslim theology, philosophy and Sufism had enemies among the orthodox theologians. Akhtar points out that “Sufis metaphysicians were subject to criticisms of using language evocative of philosophical doctrines such as incorporeal resurrection” (189). Excepting the period of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma'mun, who protected the Muʽtazilites, the philosophers were at best tolerated and at worst suppressed. From this vantage point, it is surprising that Ibn Hanbal is not cited once. 

Al Ghazali is the thinker who elaborated the compromise in Sunni doctrine between philosophy and Sufism. Akhtar is aware of this, since he talks about the “dual legacy of al Ghazali as an Aristotelian-Avicennan Ash’ari theologian and Platonizing Sufi metaphysician”  (77). In fact, al Ghazali was the Ash’arite theologian who forbade philosophy and who gave legitimacy to Sufism to the extent that it did not contradict the golden rule of the Koran: there is no human intermediary between God and humans. Furthermore, it is not exact to say that al Ghazali is Aristotelian-Avicennan; he refused the natural laws of Aristotle (saying that God is above natural laws), and he wrote Tahafut al falsifa (The Destruction of Philosophy) against al Farabi and Avicenna. To some extent he accepted Sufism, because the Qur’an contains an unavoidable mystical and spiritual dimension. Ibn Taymiyya, who condemned both Sohrawardi and Ibn ‘Arabi, was in line with al Ghazali’s teaching. 

To better understand the evolution of Muslim thought, one must recall what is at stake in these debates between the 9th and 12th centuries and identify the three groups of protagonists. There were the orthodox theologians, called moutakalimoune, who specialized in the Word (Kalam) of God, among them Ibn Hanbal, al Ash’ari, and al Ghazali. The second protagonists were the philosophers, whose initiative started with al-Kindi and al Farabi, who resorted to Greek philosophy to vindicate the veracity and rationality of the quranic message. The third protagonists are the Sufis. Steeped in platonic metaphysics,to the point of caricature or even alienation, they managed to propagate their spiritual sensibility among the mass of believers. Sufism flourished after the 12th century, giving rise to strong and popular grassroots brotherhoods. 

These three currents—Kalam, philosophy, and Sufism—share the same metaphysical source: platonic dualism,or what Akhtar calls the “Graeco-Arab philosophy.” The moutakalimoune are Platonists who are unaware of it; the philosophers are Platonists who claim to be so; and finally, the Sufis pushed Platonism to the state of alienation. Philosophy was defeated and implicitly integrated into the Kalam. Since then, Muslim culture has been trapped in the confrontation between moutakalimounes and Sufis, both platonic metaphysicians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lahouari Addi is Professor of Sociology at L'Institut d'Études Politiques, Lyon University, France. His lastest book is Radical Arab Nationalism and Political Islam (Georgetown University Press, 2017). 

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ali Humayun Akhtar is Associate Professor at Bates College, Maine. He is also the Robert M. Kingdon Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Akhtar holds a PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies from New York University.

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