The Foundation of Norms in Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology

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Omar Farahat
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The central question animating Omar Farahat’s study, The Foundation of Norms in Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology, is how norms of human behavior can follow from revelation. Islamic studies, with important and increasingly frequent exceptions, has tended to approach this question as a historically rooted theological and juristic debate between two opposing factions: “rationalists” represented primarily by Muʿtazilī theologians and “textualists” or “traditionists” represented primarily by Ashʿarī theologians. Farahat’s main argument is that classical Muslim positions on how normative behavior can be constructed by revelation is “embedded in elaborate epistemological and metaphysical debates” (198). The main goal of the book is to demonstrate that these early Muslim theological debates, largely preserved in works of kalām, and the subsequent juristic elaboration found in uṣūl al-fiqh texts can productively “engage questions of law and ethics” that are not specific to the historical contexts and cultures that produced those texts (14).

Positioning himself against a tendency he calls “noncritical self-understanding,” which presupposes Western modernity as the “normative universal standard” through which scholars evaluate cultural phenomena, Farahat describes his methodological approach as dialogical, rather than comparative (18–19). By this, he insists that classical Islamic texts must be read according to their own inner logics, but that the analysis that is produced can usefully suggest alternatives or perhaps even resolutions to contemporary issues raised in ethics and legal theory. As Farahat correctly notes, contemporary ethicists and legal theorists frequently engage the works of Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin, yet the expansive Muslim intellectual tradition rarely appears in these modern studies of ethics or law. By putting 11th-century Muslim intellectuals in conversation with modern ethicists and legal theorists, Farahat takes important steps toward correcting this tendency.             

Kalām texts are often concerned with how a human mind can know anything. Farahat identifies two strands of thought about the nature of knowledge represented by Muʿtazilī and Ashʿarī theologians, and then describes these groups as proponents of natural law or divine command theories, respectively. The different epistemologies of these two groups, according to Farahat, ultimately resulted from radically different views on human capacity to know. Farahat argues that one of the most important Muʿtazilī theologians, Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār, based his epistemology on a “view of human nature as uniform and consistent” (38). By contrast, prominent Ashʿarīs, such as Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī, promoted a skeptical view of human capacity to know the moral value of an act. Farahat suggests that this skepticism implies human evaluations of norms are inherently subjective and further represents a view that “moral opinions are necessarily socially constructed” (54). Bringing premodern texts into conversation with modern ethicists and legal theorists inevitably requires translating into language that is intelligible to modern audiences. Some readers may bristle at Farahat’s use of terms such as “natural law,” “divine command,” “theistic skepticism,” “subjectivity,” or “social construction” to characterize these early debates because they are modern terms without clear equivalents in the original sources, but this approach allows him to show his reader how reading classical Islamic texts can positively contribute to modern problems in theistic ethics and legal theory.

Farahat’s analysis of Muʿtazilī and Ashʿarī positions on the nature of divine speech is one of the central features of the book. Where Muʿtazilīs and Ashʿarīs agreed that God, unlike finite beings, was free of accidents and necessarily existed, these groups diverged on the extent to which divine attributes, such as God’s speech and will, are analogous to human characteristics. Farahat explains that Muʿtazilī theologians, generally speaking, envisioned God’s speech as analogous but superior to human speech. In contrast, Ashʿarīs imagined God’s speech and other attributes to be “radically unlike” human attributes (91). The resulting theory is what Farahat identifies as the “natural law model” where divine speech occurs in time as the result of an acting agent’s will to legitimate or alter a pre-existing normative order and attendant understanding of good and evil (99–100). In contrast, the “divine-command model” presents revelation as the miraculous, but human, experience of the divine. Farahat argues this latter model “opens the door for the community, represented by its scholars, to appropriate the system of norm production, and to take responsibility for it” (126). Farahat argues that this collaborative production of norms among the community of scholars, evident in the discursive style and content of uṣul al-fiqh texts, should cause us to rethink the tendency for divine command theories to “shun social agreement as an untenable premise upon which formation of universal norms can be based” (226).        

The Foundation of Norms in Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology offers a useful overview of the broad contours of early Muslim theological debates on the relationship between God and humanity, epistemology, and metaphysics. The book also importantly demonstrates how Muʿtazilī arguments and positions remained influential in uṣul al-fiqh principles and deliberations long after Muʿtazilī theology diminished in prominence historically. Farahat’s commitment to making classical Islamic arguments intelligible to modern ethicists and legal theorists advances an important position that premodern sources are not merely useful to help us understand history, but that they can serve as sources for our intellectual engagement with many of the broader questions asked in the humanities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dale Spicer is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.

Date of Review: 
February 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Omar Farahat is assistant professor of law at McGill University.


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