Theses Doctoral

Between God and Society: Divine Speech and Norm-Construction in Islamic Theology and Jurisprudence

Farahat, Omar Mohamed Nour

The role of divine Revelation in the process of construction of normative judgments has long occupied scholars of religion in general, and Islam in particular. In the area of Islamic studies, numerous works were dedicated to the elucidation of various trends of thought on the question of the methods of formulation of norms and values. Many of those studies suppose a distinction between textualist and rationalist theories, and use this framework to explain the most influential Muslim views on this issue. In contemporary philosophical theology and the philosophy of religion, theorists of religious meta-ethics draw upon the medieval and early modern Christian debates almost exclusively. Reconstructing the philosophical foundations of classical Islamic models of norm-construction, which arise within both theological and jurisprudential works, has not received sufficient attention in either discipline.
In this study, I explore eleventh century debates on the place of divine Revelation in the formulation of normative judgments in Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and bring this analysis in dialogue with current questions in philosophical theology. By reconstructing the epistemological, metaphysical and semantic foundations of those debates, I show that two general trends emerge on the question of the depth with which Revelation interferes in human moral reasoning, which generally correspond to recent debates between natural reason and divine command theorists in contemporary philosophical theology. I argue that those tensions were the result of a number of philosophical disagreements, not mere reflections of a commitment to “rationalism” or “textualism.”
This study is based on an analysis of texts attributed to prominent eleventh century jurist-theologians, including Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī (d.1013), Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), al-Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1024) and Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Bāṣrī (d. 1044). I maintain that abstract normative considerations animating those theories are of trans-historical philosophical value, and can be “appropriated” to provide new insights when introduced into current debates in religious ethics. Whereas, following post-colonial studies that held the inadequacy of treating non-Western thought through the lens of modern Western theories, many recent works emphasized the historicity of Islamic thought, I consider the abstract claims in both Islamic and modern thought in order to generate a philosophical dialogue across traditions.
In conclusion, I argue that disagreements between prominent eleventh century Muslim jurist-theologians on the place of Revelation in the formulation of normative judgments is best understood as part of broader debates on theology, metaphysics and epistemology. To do that, we must treat theology and jurisprudence as an integrated meta-ethical project that inserts itself between the text of Revelation and the process of norm-production. Reconstructing those theories of divine speech and command shows us that the Muʿtazilīs combined a naturalist view of ethics with a dualistic metaphysic to hold that Revelation is a sufficient but not necessary condition for moral knowledge. Ashʿarīs, by contrast, insisted on the indispensability of Revelation on the basis of a combination of epistemological skepticism with a metaphysic that prioritized skeptical theism.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Hallaq, Wael
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 14, 2016