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  • The Crisis of Knowledge in Islam (I):The Case of Al-'ĀMirī
  • Paul L. Heck

Skepticism as doubts about religious knowledge played a significant role in the intellectual reflection of the fourth and fifth Islamic centuries (tenth and eleventh centuries c.e.), a period of considerable plurality within Islam on many levels. Such skepticism was directed at revealed knowledge that spelled out the customs and norms (i.e., laws) particular to the Islamic way of life (religio-moral knowledge). Doubts were pushed by (1) theologians who, themselves caught within a web of "parity of evidence" between the various schools of Islam, saw little hope of verifying the superiority of Muslim ways over those of other communities, and (2) Muslim intellectuals who viewed the particular religio-moral practices of Islam as shamefully atavistic and primitive, seeking instead to table "visible" religion for an esoterically conceived one. Against such detractors, a significant scholar of the period, Abū l-Hasan al-'Āmirī (d. 381/992), constructed a philosophical (and therefore theologically "neutral") defense of exoteric Islam, arguing in Aristotelian terms for (1) the superiority of religio-moral knowledge (the particular) over philosophical knowledge (the universal) in light of the greater benefit of the former to the welfare of society and (2) the superiority of Islamic religio-moral knowledge, since, he claims, it squares with logic more than any other communal way of life. The argument, one of many seeking to come to terms with the intellectual vagaries of the day, demonstrates how skepticism pushed scholars to explore more profoundly the nature of religion. In al-'Āmirī's case, his argument, metaphysically based with mystical inclinations, set the stage for later articulations of Islamic religiosity that integrated the human mind into the arena of Islam's revealed way of life.

Skepticism as doubts about true knowledge is a universal phenomenon shaped by the intellectual concerns and social configurations of the local context. Doubts, also at play in Islam, became a marked concern in the fourth and fifth Islamic centuries (tenth and eleventh centuries C.E.).1 There were many reasons for this. The translation of corpuses of non-revealed knowledge beginning in the second AH/eighth CE century at the latest, particularly of Greco-Hellenistic philosophy, announced epistemological plurality. The regional diversification within the abode of Islam, where caliph existed alongside and in competition with political and military commanders without a claim to prophetic succession, established a plurality of authority. Confessional sectarianism, the tangible counterpart to theological disputation, pointed to the religious plurality within Islam, not to mention the existence of other religious communities to be found within the domain of Islam, such as Jews and Christians. With the rise of a cosmopolitan Islam, and an awareness of the far reaches of the globe to which Muslim travelers, traders, and emissaries ventured, there was, finally, an appreciation of a socio-ethnic plurality, that is, different peoples with different customs and laws that were more or less effective in maintaining social well-being even if not divine in origin.

This article treats one response, made by a Muslim philosopher of the fourth/ tenth century, to the crisis of knowledge engendered by this far-reaching diversity. Subsequent articles, to appear elsewhere, will take up three other responses, an overview of a period that struggled to come to terms with defensible Islamic knowledge. Certainly, every age is faced with its own crisis of knowledge, and it would be stretching things to claim that only two centuries of Islam were beset with the question of knowledge apart from other periods. Rather, in contrast to works that show the consolidation and even triumph of knowledge in Islam, our goal is to treat a more neglected but arguably equally important aspect of religious history, the challenge of doubts, by focusing on a particular period in which they were embarrassingly apparent (a similar project could be undertaken in the case of contemporary Islam). Here, we shall consider the work of Abū l-Ḥasan al-'Ā mirī (d. 381/992), with a focus on his two major works, The Scope of Eternity and The Announcement of the Virtues of Islam. His response was not aimed at dogmatic skepticism, that is, doubts about...


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pp. 106-135
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