December 19, 2012

The Createdness or Uncreatedness of the Quran


I was inspired to finally release this piece, although I think it is incredibly flawed in many ways, and will likely confuse those unfamiliar with the debate and anger those erudite enough to follow it. I was also inspired by Valerie Hoffman's excellent translation of the Ibadhi scholar Nasser bin Salim al-Rawahi's classic text of Ibadhi fiqh: "al-Aqeeda al-Wahbiyya". Inshallah, I will review Dr. Hoffman's efforts in a later post. The text was inspiring because traditionally Ibadhis argued (I believe correctly) for the createdness of the Quran. At a time, when Sunni lecturers and theologians frequently equate this view with unbelief, it is refreshing to see a scholarly non-Sunni take on the subject. My own views are neither Ibadhi nor Sunni. I hope you learn something from them, nevertheless.


In seeking the truth, the believer in most Abrahamic religions is forced to reckon with the authority of a canon or urtext which purports to be the final moral authority for the conduct and direction of the believer.

Islam is no exception and is indeed the first revelation to be "canonized" so quickly after the inception of the original revelation. By canonized I mean, both actually written down, and preserved in the disposition of the righteous Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The congealing of reverence for this revelation and the consistency by which it was preserved is remarkable. It also makes the Qur'an unique among Abrahamic spiritual revelations in having to wrestle quite early on in the tradition's history with the issue of whether the Qur'an was created or eternal and thus uncreated.

Indeed this is a difficult question! It is made even more difficult by the triumph of so-called orthodoxy on the matter, to the point where people frequently dismiss the opposing view without wrestling with its theological implications. Since the Abbasid caliphs who were Mutazilite and believed in a created Qur'an were at one point implicated in a rather nasty coercive project against the "Traditionalists" (forcing them on pain of death to recant their belief in the Qur'an's eternity), it is often enough to dismiss them by questioning their sincerity as believers. This is unfortunate as it short-circuits the brain cells of many a contemporary believer and leads to unproblematic acceptance of a very problematic concept.

The traditional Sunni view on this difficult philosophical problem is that the Qur'an is an uncreated document. It is eternal and co-existent. Although I disagree with this view, both from the point of view of tawhid and human reason (which I will explore shortly) it is worth exploring why Imam Shafi'i, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Ahmad, Imam Malik, to say nothing of the many scholars before and after them AGGRESSIVELY insisted on the UNCREATEDNESS of the Quran. As imam al-Ghazzali said in his "Foundations of Islamic Belief" (Qawa`id al-`Aqa'id):

    "The Qur'an is read by tongues, written in books, and remembered in the heart, yet it is, nevertheless, uncreated and without beginning, subsisting in the Essence of Allah, not subject to division and or separation through its transmission to the heart and paper. Musa - upon him peace - heard the Speech of Allah without sound and without letter, just as the righteous see the Essence of Allah Most High in the Hereafter, without substance or its quality."

Although I disagree with al-Ghazali, he has illuminated the issue with characteristic subtlety and grace, touching on the Qur'an's Existence vs. its Essence. (We shall return to this point).

Understandably, the average believer is loath to disagree with leading lights of the deen, whose personal adhab was impeccable and whose scholarship was massively important in providing guidance down through the generations. Nevertheless, it is worth noting two things: 1) There was an important (and NOT marginal) group of Muslims in the past who believed the Qur'an WAS created. 2) One could in the past debate this issue and still be considered a believer.

The original doctrine of the 'createdness' of the Qur'an was propagated by several of the Abbasid caliphs and the 'ulama surrounding them from their Baghdad capital. Islam in the one hundred years after the Prophet had developed into a global cosmopolitan civilization of enormous diversity and tremendous wealth. It was a long way (materially, if not necessarily theologically) away from its origins in the desert community of Medina. Its encounter with the plural religious environment of the Near East inspired the development of kalam (speculative theology) in which Muslim philosophers debated their Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian counterparts. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) focused his energies on expanding and strengthening the religion in its material aspect, as well as increasing the unity of all Muslims in the early community and breaking down status barriers. For The Prophet, the strength and power of the Revelation he had received directly from Allah was self evident! There was little need to engage in elaborate cross-cultural translation, dialogue, or theological polemic. This was patently NOT the case at the Abbasid court.

The createdness of the Qur'an was especially a response by the Mutazilites to charges by the Christians that making the Qur'an eternal meant that it was co-existent with God. This meant that the Qur'an was similar to the person of Jesus Christ. If the word of God is eternal and Jesus is the word of God, then Jesus is also eternal. A fictional exchange from Hanging Nodes blog captures it well:

    Arab Muslim: What is your belief regarding Jesus Christ?
    Christian Missionary: He is the word of God. What does your Quran states about him?
    Arab Muslim: [hesitates for a moment and after thinking a lot recites a part of this verse]… “Christ Jesus the son of Mary was a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him…” [al-Quran 4: 171]
    Christian Missionary: What is the word of Allah, and what is ‘spirit’ and are these created or not created?

If all these are uncreated, we now have not one, but three eternally co-existent 'ideas': Allah, the Qur'an, and Jesus. From a strict tawhid perspective, this is totally unacceptable. There can be only one thing that is eternally existent and that is Allah; all else is contingent on the existence of Allah.

On the other hand, those who asserted the eternity of the Qur'an believed that denying its eternity meant denying the divinity of the revelation and thus its eternal validity. If the Qur'an was a created revelation, this meant that it was contingent upon the cultural matrix it emerged into, and if that cultural matrix disappeared, it would lose its validity. They thus saw the doctrine of Qur'an-createdness as undermining the foundation for a sound aqeedah among the believers and eroding the authority of the Revelation that had elevated Islam to the forefront of world civilization in such a short time.

Contemporary critics of this doctrine typically invoke the argument of the slippery slope when it comes to the Qur'an's created-ness. If the Qur'an is created then Allah can change his mind, which is a denial of Allah's divinity. If you deny Allah's divinity then you are not only a heretic, you are an atheist. The "uncreated-ness-crowd" believed that those who believed in the Qur'an as a created document were denying the special quality of the revelation and instead relying on human reason. It is true that the Mutazilites trusted human reason, partly because it was a reflection of the Divine Creation. Yet contrary to the polemical distortions of their opponents, the Mutazilites in their actual writings actually stress that reason alone is insufficient to grasp the Truth.

Now in a religious environment as polarized as the modern world, where - state projects devoted to demonizing these views are all too common (ahem, France, ahem Turkey, ahem, Sudan), I believe the above argument is an obvious case of not believing the best about the arguments of your opponent. Clearly one can live a moral and God-centered life while believing in the created-ness of the Qur'an. One can even uphold the Islamic tradition while doing so.

These statements have important implications we should explore, especially as it relates to an unwillingness by most Muslim traditionalists to question the viability of aspects of their tradition in the modern world. Muslims have a right to be upset over Western Orientalist critiques of certain theoretically acceptable fiqh practices in Islam (such as the permissibility of slavery, the permissibility of sex with slave girls without their consent, or the punishment of stoning for adultery), since these practices do not define Muslim identity. There is no "Muslim mind" and Islam (as much as the Wahhabis would like it to be) is not a Borg-like belief system.  It is entirely possible for someone to be a good moral and upright person, and indeed to never practice slavery, while believing that slavery is theoretically permissible according to God's law. And certainly people have a right to practice their religion as they see fit. But it would help the larger umma's moral authenticity to acknowledge that these and other fiqh issues I mentioned are both morally problematic from the standpoint of human ethics and human reason AND a part of what constitutes acceptable practice in the theoretical structure of sharia. Acknowledging this gap would help us eliminate double-think from our core-belief system.

My point is this: Billions of people in this world, indeed the majority of people on the planet today engage in some form of double-think. I define double-think as the ability to pledge a specific creed, without full knowledge of its logical specifics, and live according to its wisdom while glossing over its inconsistencies. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, even atheists all do it. Here I am specifically addressing the kinds of double-think that pervade the mind of the Muslim believer. Keep in mind this is not necessarily a moral accusation. It is an observation based on a preference (rooted in tawhid) for struggling to eliminate forms of double-think. One can have logically inconsistent beliefs and still lead a righteous life. And the modern Wahhabi movement has shown us the opposite is true: one can take beliefs to their logical conclusion in an attempt to recover a pristine essence of Truth, and end up reproducing a kind of violent religious fascism characterized by incredible hypocrisy. Nevertheless, a true pursuit of tawhid demands we take up the ontological challenge of ongoing interpretation of revelation (both in the sense of ijtihad and in the sense of wujub al-nazar—the obligation of reason), and not merely dismiss it with such platitudes as "Islam is the answer to every human problem" and "all we need is Quran and Sunna." Such statements, although intended to steer the believer away from problematic and distracting ideas, actually encourage an intensification of double-think.

The idea of double-think helps us to think about why the question of whether the Qur'an is created or uncreated is so complicated. In some sense, the argument I am about to present is incredibly reductive. For a deeper theological viewpoint, I would recommend that anyone pick up two books by Sherman Jackson: Islam and the BlackAmerican and Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering, for an extremely erudite, yet easy to understand introduction to the problems of speculative theology in the Islamic tradition.

What is the Qur'an? It has simultaneously an empirical/historical existence and an eternal reality. The Qur'an itself, insofar as its empirical existence is concerned, is created. It is made from paper or parchment and reproduced in modern times between pieces of leather, wood, cardboard, or more paper. What about the recitation of the Qur'an? Again, from an empirical perspective, the sounds produced during recitation are human creations, emanating from someone's vocal chords. They last for a given duration of time. Even if one believes Allah is the ultimate originator of human speech, it still does not negate the Qur'an's createdness, since the Allah (in a way unknown to us) also spoke the Qur'an and thus gave it existence. Even if the Qur'an refers to the actual auditory/sensory experience that the Prophet Muhammad had in the years in which he received the revelation, then I am still forced to conclude that the rational empirical evidence suggests that the Quran is created and occurred to a finite person in a finite time.

But if we leave the empirical plane of existence, I believe that there was and is an eternal dimension to the Quranic revelation, expressed in the spiritual quality of its audition, which is able to transport the mind of a believer to a higher, eternal spiritual plane, the plane of Allah. This is what happened to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) during his revelations. But it is not the mere audition of the Quran itself that is eternal, but the station to which it elevates the true believer through that experience of recitation. And Allahu 'alim. May Allah forgive me for any errors into which I have fallen.
by Nate Mathews 2010

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