This lecture argues against the dominant narrative that the debate on ethical theory in classical Islamic thought can be reduced to a conflict between ethical rationalism and ethical anti-rationalism, or more simply put, a conflict between reason and revelation. Focusing on the Ash‘arī and Mu‘tazilī schools of thought, the speaker will analyse the concept of ‘intellect’ (‘aql) and examine its complex theoretical contexts, chronological development, and application in ethical and legal epistemology. He will argue that when earlier theologians and jurists spoke of ethical judgement (al-taḥsīn wa-l-taqbīḥ) as ‘aqlī or non-‘aqlī, they referred primarily to the metaphysical status of ethical value, and that rationality per se was not at stake. It will be shown that the debate was at heart one between ethical realism and ethical anti-realism.
Update: The lecture will be hosted online via Webex:
Webinar password: Qatar1234
On October 11, 2022, the Research Center for Islamic Ethics and Legislation (CILE) held a public lecture titled “What is Ethical Rationalism in Islamic Thought? A New Perspective.” Presented by Dr. Ayman Shihadeh (SOAS University of London), this lecture was moderated by Dr. Mohammed Ghaly (CILE, HBKU), and hosted as part of CILE’s research seminar on “The Conceptual Ground of Good and Evil in Islamic Discourse: A Fecund Domain For Ethical Reflections.” In this lecture, Dr. Shihadeh examined the ethical theories of the Ash‘arites and Mu‘tazilites, arguing against the dominant narrative that Ash‘arites proposed an anti-rationalist ethical theory, and analyzing the concept of “intellect” (‘aql) in the two schools’ ethical theories.
Dr. Shihadeh began his lecture by describing the basic foundations of Islamic theology (kalām) and the motives of Islamic theologians, both Ash‘arites and Mu‘tazilites. He explained that the dominant understanding of these schools is that Mu‘tazilites were rational in all scholarly fields, including ethics, while Ash‘arites were rational in all fields except ethics. Yet, while their ethical theories differ, they each advocated for theological rationalism and approached it in different ways Dr. Shihadeh argued. He demonstrated that the proponents of the two schools each deeply questioned what makes actions good (ḥusn) or bad (qubḥ), addressed metaethical questions and the grounds of ethical obligations, and considered how ethical theories apply towards people and God. He maintained that the view that Ash‘arites’ ethical theory was “anti-rationalist” fits a dominant understanding of a supposed struggle between rationalism and anti-rationalism, and reason and religion, in Islamic thought.
While the Ash‘arites declared that they rejected the Mu‘tazilites’ rational account of ethical value, Dr. Shihadeh argued that this is not an understanding of ethical rationalism versus anti-rationalism, but two distinct rationalist ethical theories, realism and anti-realism, based on their understanding of the term “intellect” (‘aql), which pointed to “immediate knowledge” (‘ilm ḍarūrī). He also explained that later the term ‘aql was applied to other ethical theories besides ethical realism, including subjectivism.
Next, Dr. Shihadeh discussed the Mu‘tazilites’ ethical theory, which is a form of ethical realism. They believed that the ethical value of an act, and its cause, is intrinsic to the act itself, and that humans immediately know some ethical attributes, but others are also gained through knowledge and inference. The Mu‘tazilites differentiated between good, bad, and obligatory acts and argued that an act’s ethical value cannot be based on the attributes or identity of an agent, be they humans or God. For them, a good is a good act, and a bad act is a bad act, the act’s ethical value is not grounded in its consequences. Thus, no act is “good” or “bad” due to its character, as the act of causing harm is not “good” or “bad,” for example, because some perceived “harms” can be beneficial, “good.”
Then, Dr. Shihadeh presented the Ash‘arites’ ethical theory, focusing on classical Ash‘arism (10th/11th centuries CE). George Hourani has previously defined their central positions as concerned with defending a divine command theory of ethics - where “bad” is dictated by what prohibits and “good” is what God commands and permits - and rejecting the Mu‘tazilites’ ethical theory. Yet, according to Dr. Shihadeh, the Ash‘arites’ ethical theory is much more complex than this and can be divided into four main theses grounded in anti-realist, emotivist, and normative ethics. The Ash‘arites’ emotivist ethical theory comes through in their conception of human disposition (ṭab‘), which is inborn and acquired through habituation. This conception of disposition is applied through a meta-ethical view of Mu‘tazilite ethical realism, to counter the Mu‘tazilites. Ash‘arites’ are also explained to have advocated for divine command theory through the normative principle that obligations are not based on divine command.
Dr. Shihadeh then explored the question of why theologians describe Mu‘tazilites as ethical rationalists and Ash‘arites as ethical anti-rationalists. He explained that this has to do with the theologians’ conception of intellect (‘aql), which is based on immediate knowledge (‘ilm ḍarūrī) and differentiates rational beings from non-rational beings, like animals and non-sound-minded humans, with whom we might share “subjective knowledge” like emotions. According to him, the theologians’ classification of one ethical theory as “‘aqlī” and the other as not, does not mean that one is rational and the other is anti-rational because it is grounded in divine command theory. Instead, what the theologians mean is that one of the theories is ethical realism because it proposes that ethical value is real. He further continued that the Ash‘arite ethical theory is an emotivist one because the inner emotions are immediately known but not part of the ‘aql.
Dr. Shihadeh also described later developments in Ash‘arite thought, particularly in the work of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, who claimed the “ethical rationalist” label and rejected the Mu‘tazilites’ ethical realism. He used the word “‘aqli” when describing his ethical theory, which began as a subjectivist ethical conception, and understood “reason” as an innate function that enables an agent to “know” by inferring, thus generating knowledge of ethical value and ethical obligation. Here, Dr. Shihadeh termed al-Rāzī’s theory as an ethical consequentialist one because he related ethical rules to consequences where future outcomes should be favorable to the individual, and denying consequences can enable harm through unfavorable outcomes, thus individuals follow rules because they are aware of the impact of the outcome. Al-Rāzī is also described to reject earlier Ash‘arite definitions of divine command and value terms, explaining that reason enables an agent to follow divine law to avoid the consequence of divine punishment, instead achieving the better outcome of a good life in the hereafter.
Finally, Dr. Shihadeh concluded his lecture by explaining that there is more than one ethical rationalism in theology, asserting that the Ash‘arites were not ethical anti-rationalists, they were anti-realists. He maintained that viewing them as ethical anti-rationalists upholds an unsatisfactory narrative of a struggle between religion and reason.
After the lecture, the audience’s questions began with questions on the concept of ‘aql from the perspectives of Muslim theologians and philosophers. Dr. Shihadeh explained that early Muslim theologians and jurists were concerned with people who fell under the term “‘āqil” (sound-minded), which was central to their conceptions of legal rulings and religious obligations (taklīf). Thus, theological conceptions (kalām) were influenced by juristic (fiqhī) discussions of this term. He also reiterated that not every known thing is of the aql, some of what is known is through emotion, and these scholars differentiated between immediate and introspective knowledge.
Then, questions centered on the Mu‘tazilites’ ethical theory. Here, Dr. Shihadeh problematized their ethical theory due to its vagueness. He stated that, for them, an ethical value was an intrinsic attribute (ṣifa). So they viewed “good” and “bad” as attributes of an act, that are not dependent on an agent, and not a description (waṣf) of the act.
Another question arose regarding the labeling of Ash‘arites as emotivists and Mu‘tazilites as realists. Dr. Shihadeh clarified that the Ash‘arites were metaethical emotivists, in their view, God does not experience emotions or need to provide them to us, so emotions are not the basis of obligation, divine command is. They cannot, however, refute their counterparts, the Mu‘tazilites, without explaining “good” and “bad,” prompting this emotive theory.
Dr. Shihadeh then answered a question on the interpretations of “good” (ḥusn) and “bad” (qubḥ). He explained that there are three major understandings of these concepts. The first is “what is beneficial and harmful.” The second is to see these concepts as attributes of “perfection” (kamāl) and “imperfection” (nuqsān). The third view interprets the concept of good/bad as the classical Ash‘arites did, what God commands and He prohibits. From theological and juristic perspectives, the first two interpretations do not apply to their definitions of good/bad because divine command plays a more important role in those scholarships than emotive quality. Yet, Dr. Shihadeh maintained that Ash‘arites tend to rely on emotivist understandings of good/bad.
The final questions centered on why Dr. Shihadeh proposed this argument, as well as the epistemological and emotive understandings of ḥusn and qubḥ. He explained that he believes that dominant interpretations of the Ash‘arite and Mu‘tazilite schools misread their ethical theories, specifically the concept of “taḥsīn al-ʿaql wa taqbīḥuh.” Reiterating his earlier explanation of seeing this is a simplified narrative of reason versus revelation.