Skip to main content

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 6, “Divine Command in Some Medieval Islamic Thinkers,” Introduction

Summary by David Baggett:

This chapter is about the concept of divine command theory (DCT) in three medieval Islamic thinkers: al-Ash’ari, al-Maturidi, and ‘Abd al-Jabbar. Hare will argue that al-Maturidi takes a plausible mediating position between an extreme form of DCT (in al-Ash’ari) and an extreme form of natural-reason theory (in the Mu’tazilites, especially ‘Abd al-Jabbar). Despite reservations, Hare took up this part of the book because the concept of DCT is central outside the Christian tradition as well as within it, and there is a great deal to be learned from the comparison. Within medieval Islam, and within contemporary Jewish appropriations of medieval Judaism, there is very much the same range of options in understanding the relation between a sovereign God who gives us commands and our own reason, as we try to determine how to live our lives.

Hare is assuming, without arguing for it, that the three Abrahamic faiths worship the same God, though they say very different things about this God. He additionally argues that a useful side effect for a Christian of examining DCT in Judaism and Islam is that new light gets shed on areas of the Christian’s own faith that had tended to get obscured. Psalm 119, for example, acquires fresh meaning, and likewise doctrines of divine concurrence.

The chapter covers just three thinkers, and has no pretension to be talking about Islamic ethics as a whole. The scope is relatively modest, and Hare admits he’s on a big learning curve in this area. But he thinks there’s an obligation, if one thinks one has something useful to say about divine command, to relate this to the faith of over a billion people for whom divine command is a central concern. It is the confinement to a discussion of Christianity that requires justification, not the inclusion of a discussion of Islam.

This chapter locates al-Maturidi against the background of a dispute between Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites about three questions. The first is whether acts and persons have intrinsic value (or whether that value is to be understood only as a divine willing or commanding), and what kind of access we have to that value. The second question is whether human beings have freedom of choice in what they do, or whether our actions are only the product of divine causation. The third question is whether there is any proper use of human reason independent of divine revelation, or whether the proper use is only derivative from what we are given in the Qur’an and the Traditions.

There are many differences between Mu’tazilites (especially between the schools from Baghdad and from Basra), and this chapter relies mainly on the texts of ‘Abd al-Jabbar (from Basra, d. 1025), who gives the fullest account. Al-Ash’ari (d. 935) and al-Maturidi are roughly contemporaries, though there is no evidence that they met. They are both responding to Mu’tazilites, and indeed al-Ash’ari started off as a Mu’tazilite under the tutelage of al-Jubba’i of Basra (d. 915). ‘Abd al-Jabbar lived almost a hundred years after them, and they are therefore not responding to his version of the arguments (which is, in many cases, a refinement of them). Hare will start with the Mu’tazilite position, and continue with the Ash’arite response. He then locates al-Maturidi between the two, taking something from each side. But both al-Ash’ari and ‘Abd al-Jabbar also see themselves as taking middle positions, and indeed we should expect this because the Qur’an itself recommends this strategy [“Thus We have made you to be a community of the middle [road]” (2: 143).] Middle-ness is not itself truth-marking; everything depends on what the extremes are between which middle ground is being claimed. But Hare thinks it’s instructive to compare al-Maturidi’s middle ground with that of Duns Scotus.

Two other general comments will be helpful in what follows. First, understanding and interpreting law is chronologically antecedent in Islam to questions in theology (kalam) about the relation between divine command and human reason. Of the four main Sunni traditions or schools of jurisprudence (Hanafite, Shafi’ite, Hanbalite, and Malikite), al-Ash’ari comes out of the Shafi’ite school and al-Maturidi from the Hanafite school. The last of these is the school that gives the most leeway of the four to legal reasoning that is not itself derived from the Qur’an and the Traditions. The Hanbalite school, by contrast, is the most conservative in terms of the attempt to confine legal reasoning to what can be derived from the Qur’an and the Traditions. Al-Ash’ari constructs his own “middle” position as being between the Hanbalites and the Mu’tazilites.

hare god's commandThe second general point before we get to the three questions is that some influential secondary sources associate DCT in Islam with fundamentalism, and oppose it to enlightenment. The project of defending the Mu’tazilites within Islam is correspondingly seen as rescuing Islam from obscurantism and hostility to the modern world. But so far as the thesis of Hare’s book is correct, there is no conceptual requirement to connect DCT with fundamentalism, Christian or Muslim or Jewish. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is itself prejudicial here, but DCT can give us an account of the ground of human dignity in a way that simply making human dignity “a truth of reason” can’t. As a meta-ethical theory, DCT doesn’t tell us what the commands of God in fact are. But it gives no grounds for inferring that these commands will be any less or any more liberal than the prescriptions generated by the various versions of natural law. Having said that, Hare notes that it’s also true that a theory that has an honored place for both revelation and reason will find conversation with other traditions easier to sustain.

Leave a Reply