al-Juwayni, Abu'l Ma'ali (1028-85)

Al-Juwayni rose to great prominence as a theologian in the Islamic world, and his theoretical discussions of philosophical issues played a significant role in the development of Islamic philosophy. He provided a stout defence of the Ash'arite theory that emphasizes the power of God and the insignificance of human beings. His work on the meaning of scriptural texts provided Muslims with a sophisticated and productive series of concepts with which to discuss issues of interpretation.

  1. Life and works
  2. Ethics

1. Life and works

Born in Juwayn in Persia, al-Juwayni spent his life defending the principles of Ash'arism (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila). By the time of his death he was widely known as the Imam al-Haramayn, the imam of the two great mosques of Mecca and Medina. This gives some indication of the influence of his thinking in the Islamic world. He worked in an interesting time of transition between the original Ash'arite kalam (theology) (see Islamic theology) and the more radical developments which were to be undertaken by al-Ghazali.

Al-Juwayni argued that there are some forms of knowledge which are available to contingent beings such as ourselves, yet this knowledge is itself irretrievably contingent and should be distinguished from the sort of knowledge which God has. Although God is not a body and is neither a spatial nor temporal being, it is nonetheless possible for him to be seen, in the next life, through beatific vision. God is completely free, acting for no reason other than that which he gives himself. There is nothing necessary about causality, and the possibility of miracles is based upon the fact that there is nothing fixed about nature. God is not only the creator of the universe in the sense of being the first cause, but he is also the agent who is the cause of its continuous existence. The existence of the world at every moment depends upon God's will. God is the sole creator, and even our actions do not really originate with us but are acquired from God.

The route to an understanding of the Qur'an is through a thorough grounding in the Arabic language. Al-Juwayni distinguishes between different kinds of text. Some texts are obvious and clear, some are accurate, some are concealed and yet others are obscure. Texts which are clear do not change their sense, whatever context they appear in. Those which are accurate have a sense which is clearly linked to a particular state of affairs which the text describes, and present no difficulties. Concealed texts have two sorts of meaning, one which requires interpretation by a prophet and his followers, or one which is capable of explanation by a body of readers who really understand the difficulties of what is before them. Obscure texts require ta'wil or analogical interpretation, in accordance with which the correct meaning will be carefully extended from the actual forms of words which are used. This form of interpretation should only be used as a last resort, and it is replete with dangers in that it can lead to a loose and undisciplined approach to understanding the meaning of scripture. Al-Juwayni presents in his work a highly organized system of hermeneutics designed to make scripture accessible and yet also restricted within particular theological boundaries.

2. Ethics

Al-Juwayni was a staunch defender of the Ash'arite view of the basis of value judgments, which is entirely scriptural. What is good is what is said to be good in scripture, and what is bad is what scripture condemns, and there is no other basis to such judgments. Any attempt at finding a rational foundation is flawed, and it can be assumed that here he had the Mu'tazilites in mind. He suggests that the Mu'tazilites are wrong in thinking that there are basic rational moral truths, since if this were the case there would be no possibility of widespread moral disagreement, something which quite clearly does arise. Similarly, the idea that particular forms of behaviour are absolutely right or wrong is difficult to establish, given that we often base our judgments here on the context surrounding those actions and the precise nature of the agent (see Ethics in Islamic philosophy). For example, an adult and a child may perform a similar action; the former action may be called evil, but this is not appropriate as a description of the child's action.

In his account of what it means for God to be obliged to act in certain ways, al-Juwayni totally rejects such language. He argues that it is mistaken to talk about God being under any obligation to his creatures at all. He often pokes fun at the very idea of explaining the sometimes tragic events of this world as part of an objective divine plan. God does not need to operate in accordance with such a plan; this would be to deny the uniqueness of God and his radical separation from his creatures. Al-Juwayni argues that his thesis has the advantage of not needing to provide implausible explanations of why things are as they are in the world. The world is as it is because of the decisions of the deity, but we cannot fathom his reasons for those decisions and it is entirely inappropriate to hold him liable to adhere to an essentially human system of justice.

See also: Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila; Omnipotence

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

al-Juwayni (1028-85) Kitab al-irshad ila qawati 'al-adilla fi usul al-i'tiqad (The Guide to the Cogent Proofs of the Principles of Faith), ed. M. Musa and A. 'Abd al-Hamid, Cairo, 1950. (A detailed account of al-Juwayni's theological principles.)

l-Juwayni (1028-85) al-Burhan fi usul al-fiqh (The Proofs of Jurisprudence), ed. A. al-Dib, Cairo: Dar al-Ansar, 1980. (Al-Juwayni's doctrine of legal judgement.)

References and further reading

Allard, M. (1965) Le problème des attributs divins dans la doctrine d'al-Ash'ari et de ses premiers grands disciples (The Problem of Divine Attributes in the Doctrine of al-Ash'ari and His First Major Disciples), Beirut: Recherches publiées sous la direction de l'Institut de Lettres Orientales de Beyrouth. (A classic introduction to Ash'arite thought.)

Gardet, L. and Anawati, G. (1948) Introduction à la théologie musulmane (Introduction to Muslim Theology), Paris: Études de philosophie médiévale. (Excellent account of al-Juwayni's place in Ash'arite thought.)

Hourani, G. (1985) 'Juwayni's criticisms of Mu'tazilite ethics', in G. Hourani (ed.) Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 124-34. (Al-Juwayni's critique of Mu'tazilite ethics.)

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