The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology

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Sabine Schmidtke
Oxford Handbooks
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     864 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is God knowable? What is the relationship between essence and attribute with reference to God? Is the Qur’an created or uncreated? Can human reason determine good and evil without the aid of divine revelation? Do people act by themselves, or does God create their actions? Does mere faith suffice for securing salvation?

Questions such as these have preoccupied countless Muslims since the early days of Islam. These are distinctly theological questions: they seek the meaning of human life in relation to divine transcendence. Muslims answered, and continue to answer, these questions in diverse ways. We find varied theological echoes in the Islamic past, and multiple theological voices in the Muslim present. In fact, Islamic theology is predominantly a science of speech, involving the speech of God (kalam Allah) as understood and debated in dialectical theology (kalam al-din). This science was sometimes spoken with a philosophical accent (kalam al-falsafa) and sometimes enunciated by recourse to the Prophet Muhammad’s speech (kalam al-rasul or hadith). Yet, at other times both reason and revelation were given airtime (for a brief exposition of the dyad, kalam al-din and kalam al-falsafa, see Patricia Crone’s excellent essay in this volume).

The story of Islamic theology as a discursive activity revolves around two axes: intertextuality and politics. The story begins with the Muslim exposure to a diverse set of contemplative and cultic traditions. Islamic theology was born in an incredibly rich intellectual context. It gained self-consciousness precisely by interacting with the Near East’s extant traditions of learning and piety, including those of Judaism and Christianity, but also those of Platonism, Aristotelianism, neo-Platonism, and what Crone has nimbly termed “ungodly cosmologies” (to mention only the most prominent theological and philosophical traditions extant in the Nile-to-Oxus region in the eighth and ninth centuries). For many Muslims, these bodies of knowledge were challenging, for they elaborated metaphysical and ethical positions opposed to the literality of numerous scriptural doctrines and prophetic teachings. Early and classical Islamic theology also developed and blossomed in the shadow of a caliph-centric empire: theological positions went hand-in-hand with political ones, and regnant caliphs promoted some theologians and persecuted others.

Any serious of study of formative Islamic theology, then, involves dual descriptive tasks: elaborating Islamic theology’s intertextuality and discussing its political implications (and motives). These tasks are complicated by questions of method and sources. Here, the historian of early Islamic theology faces numerous challenges, including issues of provenance and authorship, the absence or scarcity of original sources, and the unreliability of available sources. Thanks to the painstaking research of numerous pioneers in the field of Islamic theology, the field’s source criticism has paved the way for scholars and students to approach this subject matter with due care and caution. Yet, for the most part, these important contributions remain inaccessible for Islamicists working on areas other than the study of Islamic theology. This is no longer the case with the publication of The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology, a bulky compendium that has the potential to bridge the gap between the specialized study of Islamic theology and the broader world of Islamic studies.

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology is one of those indispensable books that organizes and disseminates the most rigorous research in a field of study. It consists of forty-one erudite essays penned by some of the leading Islamicists of our generation. The vast volume is not a handbook per se, as it presupposes an audience familiar with the history of early and middle Islam, and a readership learned in the technical lexicon of Islamic theology. Read from cover to cover, the volume yields several dividends to its readers: a thorough thematic and chronological overview of early, classical, and medieval Muslim sects and theologians; a brief introduction to the major scholarly debates of Islamic theology in the Western academy; and an up-to-date report on sources. Introduced and edited by Sabine Schmidtke, this tome is the most extensive assessment of the field of Islamic theology in the English language. Of course, a volume covering such a vast topic is doomed to be marred by limitations. A key limitation of this volume is its minimal coverage of modern Islamic theology as well as some very crucial theological developments in contemporary Islam, such as Islamic feminist thought, Muslim liberation theology, and critical traditionalism.

While The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology will be a resource best suited to graduate pedagogical settings, some of its more accessible essays treat the broader themes of Islamic theology, and will therefore be useful for advanced undergraduate seminars in Islamic studies. These essays include Alexander Treiger’s clearly written and solidly argued piece “Origins of Kalam”; Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi’s excellent account of pre-Buyid Shi‘i theology; Crone’s “Ungoldy Cosmologies,” which showcases her nonpareil nuance and a staggering set of distinctions; Racha El-Omari’s clear account of the formation of the Mu‘tazila movement; Binyamin Abrahamov’s “Scripturalist and Traditionalist Theology”; Peter Adamson’s account of the theological ideas of al-Kindi, Farabi, and Avicenna in “Philosophical Theology”; Martin Nguyen’s “Sufi Theological Though,”; and Rotraud Wielandt’s wide-ranging essay on Islamic theology in the last 150 years.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ali Altaf Mian is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Seattle University.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sabine Schmidtke is Professor of Islamic Intellectual History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She has published extensively on Islamic and Jewish intellectual history.


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