:: Muwaṭṭaʾ Roundtable :: Debates on free will and predestination in the 12th century Islamic West: Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī’s (468/1076- 542/1147 or 543/1148) Kitāb al-Qabas fī Sharḥ Muwaṭṭaʾ Mālik Ibn Anas

By Delfina Serrano-Ruano (National High Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), Spain)

Reading the Muwaṭṭa’ on the eve of the Almohad invasion of the Far Maghrib and Al-Andalus: The interplay of law and theology in the Muwaṭṭaʾ’s literary tradition.

  1. Introduction

At the moment, I am particularly interested in observing the relationship between law and theology in Andalusian legal literature. Discussions about human agency vis-à-vis theological predeterminism, and believers’ responsibility for their actions in this world and the Hereafter, are common place of the interaction between Islamic law and theology. Two major intellectual trends were the principal protagonists: the “radical” theological rationalists (referred at as the Muʿtazilīs), and the Ashʿarīs or “moderate” rationalists. The Muʿtazilīs held that humans are the authors of their own actions and act out of free will. For them, grave sinners who die unrepentant are not genuine believers and are condemned to Hell. The Ashʿarīs, on the other hand, refuse to anathematize grave sinners and take an agnostic position with respect to their status in the next life by affirming the possibility that God could forgive them. The Ashʿarīs also assert God’s absolute power to determine human actions, but try to preserve human responsibility for their actions by proposing a solution that mediates between absolute pre-determinism (al-jabr) and absolute free-will (qadar).  This doctrine, known by the Arabic term kasb or iktisāb (acquisition), posits that while God creates human actions, believers can choose or “acquire” them.

The availability of the first English academic translation has now encouraged me to approach the sections on free will and predestination in Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ. I will explore this topic through a remarkable sample of the commentary tradition to which the Muwaṭṭaʾ gave rise in Andalusia and the Maghreb: Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Kitāb al-Qabas fī Sharḥ Muwaṭṭaʾ Mālik Ibn Anas.[1]

  1. The place of Ibn al-ʿArabī in Andalusian juridical and theological life and our relative ignorance of the history of the spread of theological ideas in Andalusia.

Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī was a prominent Andalusian Mālikī jurist and one of its first Ashʿarī theologians. He was a prolific author, who wrote numerous juridical and theological treatises and commentaries on the Quran and works of hadith. He was one of the most sought-after masters of his time, and in fact, he addressed the Qabas to his own students. The Qabas was finished in 532/1137-8 in Cordoba after Ibn al-ʿArabī resigned as Qāḍī (judge) of Seville. Almoravid rule in Andalusia was at that time under the strain of a series of external and internal, military, and ideological pressures. The Christians and the nascent Almohad movement were threatening the northern and southern frontiers of the empire respectively, while various local powers and groups of mystics posed a serious though still undefined internal challenge.

Kalām (rational theology) arrived to Andalusia at the end of the 10th century CE, but it remained at the margins of scholarly life for some time thereafter. Yet, by the time of Ibn al-ʿArabī—and mainly thanks to the efforts of scholars from the preceding two generations, like Abū al-Walīd al-Bājī (d. 1081 CE) and Ibn Rushd the Grandfather (d. 1126 CE)—it had been normalized as part of the curriculum of elite religious scholars. The overwhelming majority of the Andalusian Mālikīs who cultivated kalām were Ashʿarīs, with scarcely any presence of Muʿtazilism in Andalusia. Yet in North Africa Muʿtazilism was represented in the Ibāḍī strongholds and though more scattered, among certain Berber groups of Southern Morocco.

Much work remains to be done to expand our present knowledge about rational theology in Andalusia. Ibn al-ʿArabī’s works provide a convenient starting point from which we can continue exploring the history of theological controversies in Andalusia, including the contentious question of free will and predestination, and the symbolic, if not direct and explicit impact of Muʿtazilī ideas in the formation of Western Ashʿarism. My short essay here is a step further toward filling this lacuna in contemporary scholarship.

  1. Ibn al-ʿArabī’s approach to the problem of free will in the Qabas

Despite its potential, scholars have seldom exploited the Qabas to expand our knowledge of Mālikism or Ashʿarism in the medieval Islamic West. Here, I am focusing on Ibn al-ʿArabī’s commentary to Chapters 8: “The Prohibition of the Doctrine of Free Will (Qadar)” and 9: “Miscellaneous Reports that Have Come Down regarding People Who Uphold the Doctrine of Free Will,” of  Book 45 of Miscellaneous Matters, report nos. 2571 to 2580 of the Muwaṭṭaʾ.[2]

Ibn al-ʿArabī’s commentary on qadar has three important features. First, while he shares Mālik’s outright rejection of the Qadarīs, he is critical of Mālik’s treatment of qadar. Ibn al-ʿArabī declares that Mālik’s use of the heading “The prohibition of the doctrine of free will” is problematic because it appears to conflict with another well-established Prophetic dictum – “to believe in qadar with its good, evil, sweet and bitter aspects.” How then is it possible to subject qadar to an absolute proscription? To explain this contradiction Ibn al-ʿArabī suggests that the term “prohibition” might reflect the Companions’ reticence towards free will because the Prophet had previously prohibited them from debating it. Second, he shows his skepticism that there is a rational way to reconcile the arguments for free will and predetermination, each of which has a reasonable basis in both reason and revelation. This skepticism concerns Muslim rational theologians and the Prophet himself. Explaining why the Prophet forbade speculative debate regarding free will, Ibn al-ʿArabī asserts that because rational investigation (naẓar) cannot yield a clear and unequivocal understanding of the issue, discussion of this problem only yields more confusion, confusion that not even the Prophet could conclusively resolve (al-khawḍ lā yaʾūl fīhi ilā bayān li-anna al-nabiyya idhā taʿarraḍa li-bayānihi fasada wa-kharaja ʿan ḥaddihi).” Third, he omits any reference to the distinctively Ashʿarī doctrine of kasb, which the Ashʿarīs offered as a medial solution to the problem of free will and predestination. His silence regarding kasb is surprising for an Ashʿarī theologian of his stature who, based on our knowledge of his other works, upheld that doctrine.[3] In fact, he says that he exhaustively reviewed the relevant Prophetic evidence in another – unfortunately non extant – work by him, namely the Kitāb al-Mushkilayn,[Mushkil al-Qurʾān wa-Mushkil al-Sunna] [The Book on the Problematic Issues Encountered in the Two Foundations, the Qurʾān and the Sunna]. Perhaps he thought that a commentary on a legal text like the Muwaṭṭaʾ was not an appropriate context in which to raise one of the most difficult and contentious issues in Islamic theology.

In the Qabas, Ibn al-ʿArabī provides his disciples with a few simple instructions: Qadarism is evil and the Qadarīs are wrong. He does not address how Qadarīs should be treated. He is more interested in emphasizing that God is eternal, has no progenitor, and determines His creatures’ actions in a way that preserves their responsibility for those actions, even if humans cannot understand how. Believers should follow the Prophet’s example when a man asked him, if God had foreordained everything, “What point is there, then, in man’s actions?”, and the Prophet replied, “Act, for everyone’s path in life is paved in accordance with the end for which s/he was created.” Ibn al-ʿArabī willingly concedes some agency to created beings but not at the cost of questioning God’s omnipotence or limiting it.

Despite the omission of kasb, he tries to mediate between extreme predestination and free will by commenting on a series of ḥadīths included in report nos. 2571, 2572, 2577, 2579 of Fadel and Monette’s translation. In Ibn al-ʿArabī’s view, these ḥadīths affirm predestination somewhat unqualifiedly and differ as to their level of soundness. Thus, apart from explaining their import in order to reject undesired interpretations, he provides sounder relevant Prophetic evidence in the hope that they may either qualify or solve the contradictions posed by Mālik’s selections.

Ibn al-ʿArabī also displays his erudition in Arabic when he analyzes a segment in report no. 2584 that Fadel and Monette rendered as “the One whose deliberation and design is preceded by no existing thing” (الذي لا يعجل شيئا أناه وقدره). In explaining this segment, he demonstrates that the expression could be read in ten different ways, depending on how a reader chose to vocalize the Arabic text. He argues that the different theological consequences that result from most of these linguistically permissible readings of the text function to contradict the Muʿtazilites’ extreme views on free will:In all these cases, he says, the meaning is that “nothing precedes God – the Almighty – nor did He decide to anticipate or delay any created being for good [or for bad]” (اللّه تعالى لا يقدم شيئا وقته و لا يعجل شيئا قدّره و أخّره من خير). If the verb “anticipate” is read in the active form the segment refers to a created entity to which rashness or anticipation may be attributed only metaphorically. Accordingly, the meaning is “Praise be to God, the One in respect of whom no thing exists before its time which He determines through His knowledge and whose existence He defers until His knowledge determines it to be. He neither hastens it into existence, nor does any thing other than Him cause it to be before its time.”

Yet he can’t help but recognise that some of these readings, however remote, may be wielded in favor of Qadarism: for example the verb يُعْجَل, in the passive form, has the negative connotation that created beings have the capacity to act independently from divine command.

  1. Conclusions

Though Muʿtazilīs did not proliferate in al-Andalus, Ibn al-ʿArabī appears rather concerned that they might. As for the Jabrīs, he does not mention them but is obviously committed to prevent the Muwaṭṭaʾ from being read as a work that fostered extreme pre-determinism.

Ibn al-ʿArabī embodies and advocates a self-confident, self-sufficient Mālikism capable of purging itself of the shortcomings and contradictions that made the school an easy target for its opponents. Who were these opponents? On the one hand we have the Ẓāhirīs, such as Ibn Ḥazm’s (d. 1064 CE) followers who in Ibn al-ʿArabī’s own words made his life in Seville so difficult that he had to move to Cordoba. In the late Almoravid period, the extreme rationalism of the Muʿtazilīs might have been associated with the followers of the Cordoban mystic Ibn Masarra (d. 981 CE), or with the followers of Ibn Tūmart (d. 1128 CE), the ideologue of the Almohad movement. Ibn Masarra was accused of being a Mu`tazilī and more specifically, of holding Qadarism. As to Ibn Tūmart, we know he was not a Qadarī but other aspects of his theological thought show him to be an extreme rationalist. By the time Ibn al-ʿArabī had finished the Qabas, the exact nature of the threat these various doctrines posed to the Mālikī-Ashʿarī synthesis that buttressed Almoravid political legitimacy was not clear yet.

By applying the principles of Islamic legal methodology, which required reading a fundamental text like the Muwaṭṭaʾ from a critical point of view, Ibn al-ʿArabī hoped to solve its inconsistencies and so, strengthen the schools’ doctrine. He was so confident of his command of all the relevant disciplines (Quran, hadith, fiqh, kalām, and Arabic grammar and lexicography) and of his dialectical skills, and so committed to his self-imposed task that he did not fear being misunderstood or accused of holding the very ideas he was trying to reject. A later author counted him among “the Andalusian scholars who professed predeterminism (qāla bi-l-jabr).” Eventually the threat Ibn al-ʿArabī was trying to counter materialized in the uprising of the mystic Ibn Qasī and in the Almohad conquest of the Almoravid empire. The conquest did not only involve military operations but also an ideological war with generic accusations against pro-Almoravid Mālikī scholars like Ibn al-ʿArabī such as opposing legal methodology and rational theology, and fostering theological anthropomorphism. Ibn al-ʿArabī must have turned in his grave at such unfair accusations but his efforts were not in vain. When Almohad power started to collapse, Mālikism reemerged renewed and stronger than ever before.



[1]  Edited by Muḥammad `Abd Allāh Uld Karīm, Beirut, Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1992, 3 vols.

[2] The blue-marked text reproduces Fadel and Monette’s translation. The numbers between slashes correspond to the pages in the Qabas (vol. 3: 1091-1095).

[3] See S. Aʿrāb, Maʿ al-qāḍī Abī Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī, Beirut, Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1987, 177.-

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