What is “Negative Theology”? Lessons from the Encounter of Two Sufis

What is “Negative Theology”? Lessons from the Encounter of Two Sufis Abstract This article introduces the debate of two Andalusian Sufis to address a major theoretical difficulty regarding the concept of “negative theology.” It analyzes the encounter of Ibn ʿArabī with a Muʿtazilite Sufi master, al-Qabrafīqī, at the end of the twelfth century in Seville, and delineates the rich intellectual atmosphere of their debate on human ability to emulate divine attributes, which is the very definition of Sufism for Ibn ʿArabī, but impossible and forbidden for al-Qabrafīqī. Careful contextualization not only questions the apparent negative theology of al-Qabrafīqī, but also demonstrates that the trendy term “negative theology” cannot distinguish between the varieties of questions that these scholars asked about the nature of God. Ibn ʿArabī’s encounter with al-Qabrafīqī illuminates the medieval Islamic theological context, and shows that “negative theology,” if a specific theological problem is not well-defined, is a generic concept with limited, if any, explanatory power. WHO WERE THE NEGATIVE THEOLOGIANS among medieval Muslims? Until recently, scholars of religion associated negative theology or negativist forms of theology in Islam particularly with a group of speculative theologians who emerged in eighth-century Iraq: the Muʿtazilites. “Muʿtazilites” refers to a nonhomogeneous group of theologians who dissented from each other on almost every issue, including their famous “five principles” (uṣūl al-khamsah). When narrating the unconventional sharpness of disagreements among Muʿtazilite masters, Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī (d. 1023) did not hide his disapproval. He reported that Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʿi (d. 916) and his son Abū Hāshim (d. 933) aggressively called each other disbelievers, while Abū Hāshim’s sister, who headed a women’s Muʿtazilite organization, anathematized both her father and her brother (Van Ess 2006, 9–10; also see al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm 1990, 13–15). Indeed, Muʿtazilites were probably the most famous (or rather infamous) “negators” according to the Muslim sources. Doxographers of other theological schools usually called them “the negators,” or “deniers” of God’s attributes. When al-Ashʿarī (d. 936) introduced the Muʿtazilite view on divine unity (tawḥīd) in a few sentences, he employed the Arabic negations seventy-some times in a dizzying one-page “description,” if it can be called that. View largeDownload slide Key Muʿtazilite teachings on the divine nature according to al-Ashʿarī (1950, 1:216). Each of the boxes on the page is an Arabic negative particle. This passage has been called the “credo of Muʿtazilism … and a declaration of negative theology” (Alami in Bennett 2016, 152). View largeDownload slide Key Muʿtazilite teachings on the divine nature according to al-Ashʿarī (1950, 1:216). Each of the boxes on the page is an Arabic negative particle. This passage has been called the “credo of Muʿtazilism … and a declaration of negative theology” (Alami in Bennett 2016, 152). “Muʿtazilites are the upholders of negative theology in Islam” was a widespread theme in Western scholarship until the 1970s. Western representations of Muʿtazilite negative theology were fundamentally shaped by the sustained image of Islam as a Semitic monotheistic religion that overemphasizes divine transcendence. Translations of the Ashʿarite and other hostile doxographical works since the first half of the nineteenth century corroborated the descriptions of Muʿtazilites as the foremost Muslim negative theologians.1 John Mühleisen Arnold (d. 1881), for example, mentioned the Muʿtazilites and its sects, all of whom, he said, “denied the divine attributes, asserting that to ascribe eternal attributes to Allāh is to assume so many personalities. … Thus the Koranic dogma of the abstract unity led to an utter negation of the Divine perfections!” (1874, 224–25; emphasis added). In more friendly terms, Ignác Goldziher’s (d. 1921) Vorlesungen ([1910] 1981) also discussed the “rigid negation” of the rationalist Muʿtazilites, who followed a monotheistic purism, and saw in the addition of attributes to God “nothing less than the negation of the unity of the divine being” ([1910] 1981, 96; 1917, 119–20). Similar views on the Muʿtazilites were widely shared by Muslim thinkers of the time. In his monumental lectures, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, the influential Muslim intellectual Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) bemoaned that the Muʿtazilites followed a “purely negative attitude” in theology ([1930] 2013, 4; 1908, 51, 66). Thus, the Western inclination to see Muʿtazilites as the foremost negators among Muslims mirrored a dominant view that was not only represented in precolonial Muslim sources, but also circulated among contemporary Muslim intellectuals. After the 1970s, a new, ethicalized divine transcendence associated with Sufism emerged with the rise of the concept “apophasis,” commonly translated as “negative speech,” or “unsaying.” Prominent religionists writing during this period such as Henry Corbin and Annemarie Schimmel primarily cited thirteenth-century Sufi masters, Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) and Rūmī (d. 1273) as the foremost representatives of Islamic apophasis or negative theology. A large body of recent works on Sufism follows this trajectory (Corbin 1977; 1981; Schimmel 1975, 49; 1976, 63; 1982, 79; [1980] 1993, 10; Sells 1994; Franke 2007; Harmless 2008, 237; Almond 2004; Huntington 1995, 283; Katz 1992, 3–32). On the other hand, many recent studies employ “negative theology” in Islam exclusively with reference to the Muʿtazilites (Stepaniants 2002, 22–23; DʾOnofrio 2008, 259; Colish 1997, 138; Bahrawi 2013, 55; Fontaine 1990, 100). Is it Ibn ʿArabī and Sufis or the Muʿtazilites or both who embody the negative theological tradition in Islam? While what is meant by “negative theology” is rarely explained, scholarly works advocating each of these schools of Muslim theology as “negative” are abundant. In this paper I propose a terminological modification, and argue that “negative theology” is a blanket term that cannot distinguish between the varieties of questions that Islamicate scholars asked. I will differentiate negative theologies of the divine essence from negative theologies of divine attributes, and discourage the unqualified application of the term “negative theology” in the study of religion at large. This conceptual corrective emerges through a comparison of the overlapping Muʿtazilite and Sufi approaches to the divine nature in the thirteenth century. To shed light on negative theologies in Islam, and particularly Sufism’s relationship with negative theology, I ask whether Muʿtazilism survived Ibn ʿArabī and Rūmī’s time, and elaborate on the direct and indirect connections between Muʿtazilites and Sufis of the period. It is a case study narrated to us through Ibn ʿArabī himself that not only disentangles the knot of theology in relation to Sufis and Muʿtazilites, but also displays the complex nature of what was negative in the medieval Islamic intellectual context. While the theoretical conclusions of the study emerge through an analysis of medieval Islamic texts, con-texts, and pre-texts, I venture that they are general enough to appy to the study of Jewish and Christian negative theologies. MUʿTAZILISM AND SUFISM IN THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY Muʿtazilism and Sufism were intersecting movements from early on as the Muʿtazilite Sufi theologians as well as the ninth-century theological current Ṣūfiyyat al-Muʿtazilah in Iraq both demonstrate. The latter was an urban movement in Bishr ibn al-Muʿtamir’s (d. 825) Muʿtazilite School that denied the worldly authorities so strongly that its only future, if any, would be among the antinomian itinerant darvishes, the Qalandars (Van Ess 1993, 5:329–30; Van Ess 2006, 148–52; Sviri 2012, 23–28). But to go even further back, it is well known that both Muʿtazilite theology and Sufism trace their origins as distinct schools to the figure of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728). “The two men held up as the founder figures of Muʿtazilite theology, Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭāʾ (d. 748) and ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd (d. 769) were both associated with al-Baṣrī’s circle.” At the same time, not only some key Sufi concepts and practices but also “a phalanx of ‘proto-Sufis’ such as Ibn Wāsiʿ, Farqad, Abān, Yazīd al-Raqqāshī, Ibn Dīnār, Bunānī and Ḥabīb al-ʿAjamī emerged from al-Baṣrī’s circle” (Mayer 2008, 260). While Sufism flourished after the ninth century, the school of Muʿtazilism, outside the heterogeneous umbrella of Shīʿism, had largely decayed by the twelfth century, except in some small circles in Khuwarazm in northeastern Persia. Muʿtazilism was reinvigorated in the region through Abū Muḍar al-Ḍabbī (d. 1113), a theologian who had emigrated to Khuwarazm from Isfahan. Following al-Ḍabbī, prominent scholars like Ibn al-Malāḥimī (d. 1141) and his student al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) kept Muʿtazilism alive in Khuwarazm, where Ḥanafīs adhered to Muʿtazilism at least until the beginning of the fifteenth century. The prominence of Muʿtazilite material in Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s (d. 1210) work, and his oral debates with the Muʿtazilites that led to his exile from the region witness this reinvigoration.2 ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Khuwārazmī (d. after 1401), who accompanied the emperor Timūr (r. 1370–1405) to Syria and acted as an interpreter between him and Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406), was a Muʿtazilite scholar. Apart from these circles and the better known individual Khuwarazmian representatives such as al-Muṭarrizī (d. 1213) and al-Sakkākī (d. 1229), Muʿtazilism dissolved into later Ashʿarī, Ḥanafī-Māturīdī, Peripatetic, and most significantly, Shīʿī approaches to theology. In the field of theology, however, later schools or movements were not the only channels between the Muʿtazilites and the Sufis of the thirteenth century. In the twelfth century, Sufis still had direct access to Muʿtazilite works. In a miraculous instance of mind-reading, Aḥmad-i Jām (d. 1141) of Khurasan surprisingly declared to his disciples that it is ethically forbidden (ḥarām) to read books that vilify the Muʿtazilites (Aḥmad-i Jām 2004, 293–94). Furthermore, it seems that Muʿtazilism indeed survived into the thirteenth century and maintained direct contact with the Sufis of the time. The most important Persian hagiographical source produced in the Yasavī tradition, Ālim Shaykh’s (d. 1632) Gleams (Lamaḥāt), narrates a possible thirteenth-century Sufi-Muʿtazilite confrontation between Ḥakīm ʿAṭā’ and the theologians, unsurprisingly in Khuwarazm (DeWeese 2012, 9:390, 408). The Ẓāhirite Sufi Ibn ʿArabī’s four parallel accounts on his encounter with the Muʿtazilite Sufi master al-Qabrafīqī (fl. late twelfth century CE) of Andalusia provide another striking example from the far west.3 Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064) spoke of “Andalusī Muʿtazilīs” as a school, but the presence of Muʿtazilism in Andalusia was rather meager. Especially after the fall of the Idrīsīs and the dominance of the theological literalism of the Mālikī scholars by the ninth century, the Muʿtazilīs lost their power in the region. Later, Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) claimed that none of the Muʿtazilite writings reached the Iberian peninsula; thus he could not learn the methods they adopted in discussing the divine existence from their own sources. The founding figure of the Almohadī revolution, Muḥammad Ibn Tūmart (d. 1130), criticized the Muʿtazilites harshly but also so superficially that his shallow caricature of Muʿtazilism can rather support Ibn Rushd’s claim (Ibn Tūmart 1993, 15–17; see also Stroumsa 2014, 80–81). Ibn ʿArabī’s debate with a Muʿtazilite Sufi master has important theological dimensions that shed light on Muʿtazilite as well as Sufi ideas circulating in thirteenth-century Andalusia, including negative theologies. Ibn ʿArabī narrates the encounter as follows: This is the station of Self-Subsistence [Maqām al-Qayyūmiyyah]…. Our companions disagreed on emulating this attribute [yatakhkhallaqu bihi]. I met Abū ʿAbd Allāh ibn Junayd al-Qabrafīqī among the masters of the (Sufi) path—originally from Ronda and of the Muʿtazilite school [madhhab]. I saw that he denied [yamnaʿ] the emulation of Self-Subsistence, thus he rejected [raddada] this from his school. (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 3:212; Addas 1993, 104)4The three accounts in the Meccan Openings (al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyyah) and the account in his Adornment of the Spiritually Transformed (Ḥilyat al-Abdāl) strongly cohere with each other, and inform us of al-Qabrafīqī and his Muʿtazilite Sufi circle in Cabrafigo, a town in a mountainous region of Andalusia to the southeast of Cordoba (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 5:53; 2004, 7:204; 2007a, 392; 2008, 38). Ibn ʿArabī describes him as “among the greatest Sufi masters of Andalusia” (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 5:53). These honorifics should be approached with caution, because Ibn ʿArabī does not mention al-Qabrafīqī anywhere else, including in his biographical dictionary on the Sufis of Andalusia. We also know that Ibn ʿArabī used to travel long distances to meet known male and female Sufi masters, but it is al-Qabrafīqī who comes to Seville and finds the young Ibn ʿArabī in this case (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 3:212; 7:204). It is clear that al-Qabrafīqī had a good following, and the topic at stake in the encounter was important enough for Ibn ʿArabī to repeatedly narrate in his works. He would challenge al-Qabrafīqī’s theological “denial” that made Self-Subsistence inaccessible to human experience. But what exactly was Ibn ʿArabī defending to be accessible, and al-Qabrafīqī inaccessible? EMULATING DIVINE SELF-SUBSISTENCE IN MEDIEVAL SUFISM In accordance with his Muʿtazilite affiliation, al-Qabrafīqī precluded the possibility of the divine attribute of Self-Subsistence extending to human emulation. But this was somewhat unusual among medieval Sufis, most of whom not only allowed embodied access to the divine names, but also stipulated emulating them as pivotal to human perfection. Ibn ʿArabī indicates in various occasions in the Meccan Openings that when Sufis mention “emulation” (takhalluq) they intend what the Aristotelian philosophers mean when they speak of imitatio Dei, “attaining the likeness of God” (tashabbuh bi Allāh), and identifies this process with achieving human perfection (Chittick 1989, 283). Ibn ʿArabī himself saw the divine names as veils of the divine essence, which remained unknowable, yet the divine names were to be emulated to proceed on the endless path of self-purification. Indeed, assuming the character traits of the divine names is the very definition of Sufism for Ibn ʿArabī. For “Sufis,” that is, those at the beginning level, emulating divine attributes is a duty in the path of becoming advanced “Verifiers” (Muḥaqqiqūn) who are freed from such concerns (Addas 1994; Ibn ʿArabī 2007b, 417; Chittick 1992, 177; Chittick 1989, 43; Ernst 1993).5 In his very encounter with al-Qabrafīqī, Ibn ʿArabī makes it clear again that for him “it is permissible to emulate Self-Subsistence like all divine names” (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 3:212; Ibn ʿArabī 2007a, 392). A consistent position is observed in his book devoted to the divine names and attributes, Unveiling of the Meaning of the Secrets of the Beautiful Names (Kashf al-Maʿnā ʿan Sirr Asmāʾ al-Ḥusnā). Not just for the name “the Self-Subsistent,” but for each divine name, Ibn ʿArabī devotes three sections of his book to exploring how that name is connected (taʾalluq), realized (taḥaqquq), and emulated (takhalluq) by the wayfarers.6 Ibn ʿArabī’s approach to the emulation of divine Self-Subsistence mirrors Andalusian Sufism and the mysticism of his time. An aphorism from the Intimacy of the Recluse (Uns al-Wāḥid) attributed to Abū Madyan (d. 1198), whom Ibn ʿArabī calls “the voice of this way and its reviver in the lands of the west” and “one of the Poles,” indicates that Abū Madyan also affirmed that all names can be emulated by the wayfarer. Accordingly, the meaning of a divine name can even subsist in the wayfarer until she reaches the next step, where she will be annihilated in the meaning of the name (Abū Madyan 1996, 109).7 Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185) went even further and argued that not only all divine attributes, but even the divine essence can be emulated. In the same vein, another Andalusian Sufi, Shushtarī (d. 1269), maintained that “attributes” (ṣifāt) in Sufi terminology mean the qualities of the Self-Subsistent God (nuʾut al-Qayyūm), while all of them are open to emulation through Sufi practices. Only “Allāh” is exclusively “the interpreter of the divine ipseity” that is the gatherer of the meanings of all names (Shushtarī 2004, 157, 162, 167). Indeed, this approach follows the position that Ibn ʿArabī laid out in his Unveiling of the Meaning (Ibn ʿArabī 1996, 18–20). Another Western Sufi, ʿAfīf al-Dīn al-Tilimsānī (d. 1291), in his commentary on ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī’s (d. 1089) Stations of the Wayfarer (Manāzil al-Sāʾirīn), claims that the divine name “Self-Subsistence” indicates the transcendence of divine oneness and the unity of all divine names. Yet, as the discussion on “Self-Sufficiency” in al-Tilimsānī’s commentary on al-Niffarī’s (d. after 977) Stations (Mawāqif) indicates, he shares the theological approach of Ibn ʿArabī that makes the emulation of all names possible (al-Tilimsānī et al. 1989, 47–48; 1997, 58). Sufis of earlier periods and non-Western Sufis of the same century adopt similar positions on emulating divine Self-Sufficiency. Examples abound.8 Even Sufis who defined Self-Subsistence as a negative attribute of God did not deny human beings its emulation. Most famously Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) defines Self-Subsistence as a negation indicating divine independence from an external subject, very much like the “necessary being” (wājib al-wujūd) of the Peripatetic philosophers, as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī aptly recognizes. In this sense, only God is Self-Subsistent, while creation is in constant poverty, dependence, and need for His governance. It is one of the few names that truly applies only to God (Shehadi 1964, 19). Nevertheless, al-Ghazālī clarifies that Self-Subsistence is accessible to emulation: “humans’ access to this attribute is proportionate with their self-sufficiency [istighnāʾ] from everything except God” (al-Ghazālī 1999, 110; 2007, 130). This is very much in line with al-Qushayrī’s (d. 1072) description. Self-Subsistence, like all positive and negative names of God, as al-Ghazālī underlines in the afterword, is applicable exclusively and eminently to God, but human beings attain a similitude (mithl) of them. The attributes are names that describe God in human terms. Though they can be emulated, only God knows the real meanings of His attributes (cf. Baqlī 2008, 1:16). Al-Ghazālī cites prophetic sayings including the famous imperative “emulate the characteristics of God” indicating its ethical necessity (al-Ghazālī 1999, 126; 2007, 150; Abrahamov 2002, 208–10). He also discusses the influential Khurasanian Sufi master Kurragānī’s (d. 1076) words on emulating the divine attributes, reported by his own master al-Fārmadhī (d. 1084). Al-Ghazālī’s discussion aims to qualify Kurragānī’s words on attaining divine attributes, and to ensure that their emulation is not misunderstood as actually sharing them with God (al-Ghazālī 1999, 126; 2007, 150; al-Suyūṭī 1934, 78). Later Sufis, ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī (d. 1234) and his jurist student Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 1262), for example, quoted the same report of al-Fārmadhī on Kurragānī’s reference to emulating the divine attributes that al-Ghazālī had mentioned. Unlike al-Ghazālī, they permit it unconditionally (Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām 2002, 40). They do not even question the possibility of emulating all divine attributes, or the possible theological fallacies and dangers that might accompany a misinterpreted approach to emulation. Hence al-Qabrafīqī’s gap between divine Self-Subsistence and creation was less of a Sufi theme than a typical negativist Muʿtazilite approach to the divine attributes. It did not endure for long in a heavily adversarial Sufi theological context. Ibn ʿArabī narrates that he cited a Qurʾānic verse where a different form of the triliteral Arabic root of Self-Subsistence is applied to human beings. Not only al-Qabrafīqī but also his followers were impressed by this scriptural linguistic proof, and, we are told, they all abandoned their doctrinal opposition to the emulation of Self-Subsistence (Ibn ʿArabī 2008, 38 n. 27; Addas 1993, 104; Q.4:34). In other words, the popular Sufi claim for divine accessibility won over the Muʿtazilite negativity in the encounter between the two. DIVINE ATTRIBUTES AND ACTIONS IN MEDIEVAL ISLAMIC THEOLOGY In his argument, al-Qabrafīqī was relying on Muʿtazilite principles that are not otherwise found among Sufis. He maintained that human beings are independent agents who create their own actions (khalq al-afʿāl), and that God’s justice demands the execution of otherwordly divine punishment (infādh al-waʿīd) for grave sinners unless they repent. Both were among the famous five fundamental principles of the Muʿtazilites, which are said to go back to Abū al-Hudhayl (d. 841) (al-ʿImrānī 1999, 69; El-Omari 2016, 130–38; Bennett 2016, 146–47). In addition, Ibn ʿArabī implies that the Muʿtazilite Sufi was making an unwelcome sharp separation among divine attributes. It appears that al-Qabrafīqī was making a distinction not only between different divine attributes, but also between attributes and actions, leaving only the divine actions accessible to emulation.9 This categorization of the divine attributes indeed perpetuates the early Muʿtazilite position that was developed by the later Muʿtazilites, as well as philosophers, theologians, and jurists from different backgrounds. The early Ibādī scholars, such as the prominent Kufan theologian al-Fazārī (eighth century CE), were probably among the first to articulate this distinction between God’s essential attributes and the attributes of action (al-Fazārī 2014, 177–85). Early Baghdadian Muʿtazilites as well as Basrans led by Abū al-Hudhayl, his nephew al-Naẓẓām (d. 846), and Abū al-Hudhayl’s pupil al-Shaḥḥām (d. 847), adopted the distinction, while they differed on the content of the categories as well as their theological interpretations: they denied [ankarū] … [various attributes] from the Glorious, Eternal Producer [al-Bāriʾ], and argued that all of them were attributes of action [sifāt al-afʿāl]. They alleged that attributes were of kinds: some of the attributes described the ipseity of the Producer. … The others described His actions, such as “the Creator,” “the Sustainer” … (al-Ashʿarī 1950, 2:171; also see al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm 1990, 21)10The distinction that the early Muʿtazilites, in line with early Ibādī theologians, made between the essential attributes and the attributes of action had parallels in Christianity with the via negativa of the Church Fathers such as John of Damascus (d. 748) (Wolfson 1976, 219). The initial distinction popularized by the Muʿtazilites eventually became decisive not only for Peripatetic philosophers like al-Kindī (d. 873) and Imāmī theologians like Ibn Bābawayh (d. 991), but also for the fiercest enemies of the Muʿtazilites (Adamson 2003, 52–53; Ibn Bābawayh 1993, 27). Ibn Karrām (d. 869), the leader of an anti-Muʿtazilite, pietist, attributist movement, opposed the Muʿtazilite negation of attributes from God, but he worked in Muʿtazilite terms and kept the distinction, claiming to affirm all attributes, including the attributes of action.11 Ibn Karrām’s affirmation of actions to the divine essence was objectionable insofar as it effectively “undermined the immutability of God and in so doing made the God beyond time temporal” (Zysow 2016). In other words, this position meant attributing incidents that would subsist in the essence of God. Later Karrāmīs were not able to reconcile the problematic idea of God being a substratum for incidents (qiyām al-ḥawādith), which amounted to one of the most ridiculous of absurdities for doxographers al-Shahrastānī (d. 1153), al-Rāzī, the jurist al-Bayḍāwī (d. ca. 1286), philosophers like Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 1311), and Sufis such as Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (fl. 1269), who had no sympathy for the Muʿtazilite negation of divine attributes.12 Another Ashʿarite doxographer, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 1038), who explicitly abhors Muʿtazilism, puts a version of their distinction at the heart of the way of the pious ancestors (ahl al-sunnah) following al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013). According to these scholars, divine names were threefold: the names that indicate God’s ipseity, the names that were nonessential but coeternal with God’s essence, and the names that derive from divine actions (al-Baghdādī 1988, 291; al-Bāqillānī 1987, 298–99). Ashʿarism thus inherited a refined nuance regarding God’s attributes that we find in al-Bayhaqī (d. 1066), al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), his student al-Ghazālī, and their later critic Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. When we arrive at the thirteenth century, it should not surprise us to find that the same threefold approach to the divine names has become ubiquitous (al-Bayhaqī 1939, 112; al-Ṭūsī 2010, 392–93; Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām 2002, 21; al-Farghānī 2007, 1:44; El-Bizri 2008, 128). The attribute that al-Qabrafīqī disallows for emulation, however, is not one of the classical negative names of God from an early Muʿtazilite perspective. Only a few early theologians, such as Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭāʾ, Ḍirār (d. 815), al-Najjār, al-Naẓẓām (d. 846), and the Ibādīs are known to have considered all attributes of God indiscriminately negative and inaccessible to human emulation. Al-Qabrafīqī is not following them: Ibn ʿArabī’s insistence on human ability to emulate all attributes suggests that al-Qabrafīqī is making a distinction between various names and still considering Self-Subsistence in particular inaccessible to human emulation. In this categorization, al-Qabrafīqī is closer to the later Muʿtazilites than these early predecessors. Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), for example, claimed that God’s unity, one of the five Muʿtazilite principles, meant that God did not share any positive or negative attributes with creation. ʿAbd al-Jabbār also makes the distinction between the essential attributes and actions of God, putting speech, justice, and will into the latter category. The divine actions beg relations with creation, while the essential attributes are free from any such relationality and are thus inaccessible to human emulation. God’s nondelimitedness and independence [ghināʾ] is one of His essential attributes, though a negative one that He does not share with creation (ʿAbd al-Jabbār 1996, 129–30; Martin et al. 1997, 92; Heemskerk 2014; cf. Sahl ibn Faḍl al-Tustarī in Schwarb 2006, 83; al-Baghdādī 1988, 291). It is safe to conclude that the Muʿtazilite master considered Self-Subsistence, a divine name very close to Self-Sufficiency, a nonrelational, negative name of God, exclusively defining God’s transcendence. The distinction among divine attributes that al-Qabrafīqī makes and the attribute that he disallows for emulation reflect the later Muʿtazilite theological position, in stark opposition to widespread Sufi positions on the divine attributes and their accessibility. MUʿTAZILITES AND “NEGATIVE THEOLOGY”: THE CONCEPTUAL PROBLEM Al-Qabrafīqī’s brief appearance in this theological context could embody a convincing case of an apophatic Muʿtazilite who considers Self-Subsistence an essential negative attribute of an unknowable, inaccessible God, as opposed to the kataphatic, accessible one in Ibn ʿArabī’s Sufism. Both of these purportedly apophatic and kataphatic theological stances, however, present real problems if analyzed in context. Our travel from al-Qabrafīqī’s Andalusia to ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s Baghdad and Rayy displays a larger theoretical difficulty in the association of Muʿtazilism with “negative theology” as such. It is correct that ʿAbd al-Jabbār defined specific positive and negative names as exclusively divine, independent from relations with creation that define divine actions. ʿAbd al-Jabbār, and the Muʿtazilites at large, however, maintained that God’s essence, or the truth of God’s ipseity, was indeed knowable (maʿlūm). Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s observation is perceptive: Ḍirār among the theologians, and al-Ghazālī among the later ones argued that we do not know the truth of the ipseity of God—which is the claim of the philosophers. The majority of the theologians among us (i.e., the Ashʿarites) and among the Muʿtazilites have argued that it is, indeed, knowable. (al-Rāzī and al-Ṭūsī 1978, 188; see also Jaffer 2012, 520) Al-Rāzī’s point on the essential accessibility of God to human intellect is supported by prominent Muʿtazilite as well as Ashʿarite sources. Hence there is an unjustified leap from the negation of attributes to the divine unknowability and inaccessibility in calling al-Qabrafīqī a negative theologian. Medieval scholars were keenly aware of the difference between the two questions, and the Muʿtazilites embodied a reference point for them to clarify their own positions. In his correspondence with Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274), the philosopher, Sufi master, and Ibn ʿArabī’s stepson, Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274), argued that “everybody who ponders seriously agrees that the divine reality is unknowable [majhūlah].” In his response, al-Ṭūsī felt obliged to correct al-Qūnawī’s generic statement, clarifying the philosophical stance that he followed: it was necessary for al-Qūnawī rather to say: “the philosophers have agreed upon this (unknowability).” For, the Muʿtazilite masters among the theologians assert that the divine reality is rather knowable to human beings in its essence. (al-Ṭūsī and al-Qūnawī 1995, 50, 100; also see Madelung 2013, 11:7)In turn, al-Qūnawī indeed agrees with the refinement that al-Ṭūsī brings to divine unknowability. In his response to al-Ṭūsī’s correction, al-Qūnawī indicates that he actually meant the Aristotelian philosophers and the verifier Sufis, and not theologians, by the phrase “everybody who ponders seriously” (al-Ṭūsī and al-Qūnawī 1995, 165–66). While Sufis and philosophers agree on divine unknowability, the Muʿtazilites state the opposite, both for al-Ṭūsī and al-Qūnawī. Observers like Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) and al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), however dissident they were towards these traditions, confirmed their schema.13 According to the later Muʿtazilism with whom al-Qabrafīqī was associated, the essential knowledge of God is the basis on which they negate some attributes and affirm others. This knowledge of the essential nature of God precedes not only knowledge of God’s attributes, but also that of the veracity of revelation. The Ismāʿīlī scholar Nāṣir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) succinctly explains the importance of divine knowability for Muʿtazilite ethics: for theologians of the Muʿtazilite school, the doctrine of unity [tawḥīd] means that the first thing that is incumbent on man is to know God. Through knowledge of God, man derives the impulse to perform laudable actions and to refrain from those which are bad and blameworthy. (Khusraw 2012, 56)The knowledge of the ipseity of God, accordingly, is the most “primary” (awwal) duty of all for the Muʿtazilites. One can know God without the support of the scripture, and even without a teacher, by means of theoretical reflection only (naẓar). Al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm (d. 860), for example, “follows a later Muʿtazilite doctrine of belief which considers the intellectual knowledge of God the first act of obedience” (al-Qāsim 1990, 52; Abrahamov 1998, 32). In the Book of Divine Unity (Kitāb al-Tawḥīd) al-Qāsim argues as follows: it is impossible … to obey God without knowing Him. Man’s certain knowledge of God brings him to obey Him and to perform good actions. Thus … the gravest sin in the eyes of God and the righteous people is to deny God or to doubt His existence or doubt man’s knowledge of God [al-irtiyāb fī maʿrifat Allāh]. This is one kind of unbelief (al-Qāsim 1990, 49–50)The claim that “God is known” (in both cases, maʿlūm and maʿrūf) is repeated and underscored in other works by al-Qāsim as well. In the Epistle of Whoever Seeks Guidance (Kitāb al-Mustarshid), al-Qāsim employs both Arabic verbs to emphasize that God is knowable: “people know that things can be perceived as they really are and certainly known even if they are absent from us, for God is cognized and known” [fa-Allāhu yuʿlam wa yuʿraf] (al-Qāsim 1996, 66–67; see also Abrahamov 1998, 64). The head of the Basran Muʿtazilites, Abū Rashīd al-Nīsabūrī (d. ca. 1068) also criticizes the defenders of divine unknowability, such as Ḍirār. His Book of Debates (Masāʾil al-Khilāf) follows the more celebrated summa the Sufficient (al-Mughnī) of ʿAbd al-Jabbār, defending God’s essential knowability by human reason, and goes so far as discussing whether children can attain it.14 The later Muʿtazilite theologian al-Najrānī (fl. twelfth to thirteenth century CE) also penned a long chapter devoted to the refutation of various possible arguments for divine unknowability (al-Najrānī 1999, 325–34). According to popular Muʿtazilite doctrine, essential knowledge of God grounds knowledge of divine attributes, the truth of scripture, and ethical judgments. As opposed to the Ḥanbalīs, Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār, for example, claimed that one cannot justify the veracity of the revelation with reference to revelation itself. As Mānkdīm (d. 1034) repeats, the Qurʾān “is approved as a proof only when one proves that it is just and wise speech, and this derives from the knowledge of God, His unity and justice” (Abrahamov 1998, 33). That revelation is sent by a divine source to guide creation: that is, divine essence and divine intention should already be known with certainty. Creation, including the human self and nature, is full of immediate proofs that can logically demonstrate to every rational person that they are created by an essentially good, omnipotent, self-sufficient, all-knowing, and just creator. In ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s words, “everything is evidence for Him” (ʿAbd al-Jabbār in Shihadeh 2008, 208; ʿAbd al-Jabbār in Renard 2014, 63–65; cf. Q.41:53). Once this fundamental epistemological principle is logically proven, and the divine essence is known, one can be sure that the scriptures, as well as the ethico-legal systems explained through them, are revealed in order to sustain justice and to help creation flourish. Otherwise, even miracles will prove nothing. Similarly, only after knowing the divine essence with its necessary positive and negative attributes can we derive other, nonessential attributes of God. The claim that God has further nonessential, relational attributes, again, will be provable from this firm deductive basis. The approaches of later Muʿtazilites at this point, such as Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d.1044), Mānakdīm, and Ibn al-Malāḥimī, closely follow that of ʿAbd al-Jabbār (ʿAbd al-Jabbār in Renard 2014, 62–63; Ibn al-Malāḥimī 2008, 60, 106; see also Shihadeh 2008, 199–200; Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī in Abrahamov 1998, 61–62; Van Ess 2006, 182–83). If the Muʿtazilites negate the attributes of God, it is exactly because they have apodictic knowledge about the divine nature. As Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī—himself a post-Ghazālīan, self-declared “new-generation” (mutaʾakhkhir) Ashʿarite—argued, Muʿtazilites shared this essential knowability with their fierce opponents, the Ashʿarites, among others.15 The reductio ad absurdum argument he presents relies on the philosophical definition of God as the “necessary being”: The reality of the divine essence is knowable.… The proof of the theologians among us and the Muʿtazilites: “we know His being, and His being is His very ipseity [ʿayn dhātihi]. So we must know His ipseity. Else the same thing would become known-unknown from the same aspect.” (1978, 188)Ashʿarite manuals of theology typically began with a chapter on the sources of knowledge, then specifically addressed knowledge of the divine essence. Their pivotal difference with the Muʿtazilites lay in the source of this knowledge. Al-Ashʿarī derived the obligation to know God from revelation, while Muʿtazilites, and even some early Ashʿarites like al-Qalānisī (d. 970), regard this obligation as stemming from reason (Abrahamov 1998, 33–34). Ibn ʿArabī himself testifies to such a description of the Ashʿarites in the Meccan Openings. He narrates how a group of Ashʿarite theologians attacked the legacy of the Sufi masters al-Kharrāz (d. 899) and al-Ghazālī on the basis of their defense of divine unknowability. Al-Kharrāz and al-Ghazālī were holding that “only God knows God”—a principle of divine unknowability popular among Sufis from early on.16 Yet the Ashʿarite theologians, whom Ibn ʿArabī knew in person, believed that God has essential attributes that are known to human beings. Repeating that the essential attributes of God, let alone his ipseity, are necessarily unknowable (majhūlah), Ibn ʿArabī wrote as follows against such Ashʿarite theologians: “Whoever claims that they have knowledge of any positive attribute of God’s ipseity, their claim is false. For, that would delimit Him; but His essence cannot be delimited” (Elmore 1995, 149). Sufis did not, on the other hand, unequivocally defend the unknowability of the divine essence. Some Sufis who were also Muʿtazilites or Ashʿarites, or had close connections with these schools, defended the position that God’s essence can actually be known. ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī mentions such a disagreement among Sufis on divine knowability. His disciple, the Sufi exegete al-Maybudī (fl. 1150) reports that this disagreement occurred between Shah al-Kirmānī (fl. late ninth century CE) and the later generation’s foremost Khurasanian master, al-Naṣrābādhī (d. ca. 977), who was fundamentally influenced by Ashʿarite theologians like al-Isfarāʾīnī (d. 1027). Accordingly, the two Sufi masters, probably when both were in Nishapur, disagreed on whether the divine essence can be known (Farhadi 1996, 102; al-Qushayrī 1989, 33; al-Qushayrī 2007, 11; al-Maybudī 2015, Q.17:53, 377; cf. al-Qushayrī 2007, 87–88, 397). While al-Maybudī’s narrative is historically unlikely, it remains telling of the complex, equivocal positions that early Sufis took, or at least discussed, on divine knowability.17 Later, the prominent jurist of Damascus and a Sufi disciple of ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī, Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām would also problematize the popular principle of divine unknowability. Accordingly, abandonment of all religious precepts and practices were only the natural, logical result of the principle “only God knows God” (Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām 1995, 163). Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s argument was nothing but a Sufi-Ashʿarite restatement of a common Muʿtazilite proof for divine knowability. Unlike the Muʿtazilites, the depictions of Ashʿarites were not univocal on divine knowability either. Dramatically, the Moroccan Sufi Aḥmad Zarrūq (d. 1493) would later depict al-Ghazālī in an Ashʿarite light as a proponent of divine knowability, in opposition to Ibn ʿArabī and al-Rāzī’s description. According to Zarrūq, al-Ghazālī claimed that “in His ipseity, God’s being is known to intellects [wa annahu fī dhātihi maʿlūm al-wujūd bi al-ʿuqūl].” Indeed, Zarrūq is absolutely right: al-Ghazālī penned these exact words in the deeply Ashʿarite creed he presented in his monumental Revivification of the Religious Sciences (Iḥyāʾ al-ʿUlūm al-Dīn) (al-Ghazālī 1957, 1:89; Karimullah 2007, 94). To complicate the picture even more, Zarrūq challenged this knowability of divine essence with reference to al-Rāzī, who actually claimed that al-Ghazālī defends divine unknowability. Here again Zarrūq has textual evidence. He quotes al-Rāzī from the Oriental Investigations (Mabāhith al-Mashrīqiyyah) where the latter forcefully declares that “perception of the reality of Necessary Being [ḥaqīqatu wājib al-wujūd] and what He, of necessity, possesses of attributes of beauty and descriptions of perfection does not occur to our souls” (Karimullah 2007, 94). In addition to this famous philosophical work, al-Rāzī’s late work on theology, which gained immense popularity in the later tradition, further supports Zarrūq’s reading. Here al-Rāzī defends the unknowability of the divine nature in a brief section titled, “the knowledge of the profundity of God does not occur to human beings” (al-Kātibī, al-Rāzī, and Ibn Kammūnah 2007, 82). Hence the issue of knowing the divine ipseity was a more knotty issue on the later Ashʿarite side than the clearer, more homogeneous Muʿtazilite position. Still, well-known Ashʿarite masters of the time supported divine accessibility via apodictic knowledge attained either by reasoning or through the sacred sources. The Ashʿarite Qāḍī al-Bayḍāwī (d. ca. 1286)’s Rising Lights (Ṭawālīʿ al-Anwār) buttresses the description provided by al-Ṭūsī, Ṣadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī, and al-Rāzī; he defines the philosophers as the champions of divine unknowability, and “theologians” as those who defend divine ipseity as knowable (al-Bayḍāwī 2014, 168–69). Al-Bāqillānī, the greatest of the Ashʿarites according to Ibn Ḥazm, claims that God can actually be known, and perfectly apprehended [idrāk] (al-Bāqillānī 1987, 304–309). Later, the Ashʿarite theologian al-Juwaynī cites his master al-Isfarāʾīnī when he demonstrates that it is a logical necessity for God to be essentially Self-Subsistent (qāʾim bi-dhātihi) (al-Juwaynī 1950, 33–34). God’s Self-Subsistence cannot be shared with human beings, but they can certainly and demonstrably know and also discursively prove that God is essentially Self-Subsistent. The Sufi philosopher in the Ashʿarite line, Quṭb al-Dīn al-Aharī (d. 1260) follows the same notion.18 Scholars of an Ashʿarite bent vocally defending the essential knowability of God had been present also in Andalusia from the late tenth century. Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn Tūmart al-Andalusī (d. 1001), a scientist about whose life we know little, made a distinction between divine attributes and the divine actions, and adopted a reading of divine self-sufficiency in line with his contemporary Ashʿarites. The Andalusian scholar argued that the ipseity of God, transcendent as it is, was innately knowable to everybody, Muslim or not: He is, of course, elevated [munazzah] from creation in His ipseity, attributes, and actions. Of course, He is not comparable to anything: He is the First without a beginning, the Last without an ending; He is a thing known in His very existence as He is [huwa shayʾ maʿlūm al-wujūd bi al-dhāt min ḥaythu huwa]. (Ibn Tūmart al-Andalusī 1999, 37; also see al-Bayhaqī 1939, 53–54; Muḥammad Ibn Tūmart 1993, 11)Now it has become clear that the inaccessibility of the divine attribute of Self-Subsistence to human emulation did not mean that God is unknowable from al-Qabrafīqī’s Muʿtazilite perspective. On the contrary, the divine essence, with its positive and negative attributes, was necessarily knowable and logically demonstrable for the later Muʿtazilites.19 In the encounter of the two Sufis in Seville, it is not al-Qabrafīqī but Ibn ʿArabī who would insist that God is essentially unknowable, while all of His attributes are accessible to human experience. Ibn ʿArabī consistently and repeatedly negated the knowability of the divine essence. In his Fabulous Gryphon (ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib), just to give an example, he explains that the divine essence is utterly unknowable, and will remain so forever: What! What do they want? And what are they seeking so far away? By God, surely no one can attain it! No soul can comprehend His gnosis, and no body can contain it. He is the Most-Precious, Who cannot be comprehended, and the Existent, Who takes possession but is not possessed. Hence, in learning of His attributes, intellects become perplexed and hearts confused—so how could they ever attain unto His Essence? … As for the gnosis of the divine ipseity [maʿrifat al-dhāt], it embraces the most-radiant light in a blindness, concealed by the veil of protecting-might, preserved in the divine attributes and names. … The utmost of seekers is to remain behind that veil—here and in the Hereafter. … But he who is among the people of insights and intuitions, disciplined in the requisite refinements [ādāb]—if he arrives only at the veil which He (Praised be He!) never lifts from His face, he (nevertheless) shall be given to understand His essence, even though actual knowledge of the divine essence is impossible, for there is no way to raise that veil as such. (Elmore 1995, 131–35)Here Ibn ʿArabī is making two significant moves. First, he is quite iconoclastic toward his stereotypical representations, insofar as he describes the ultimate knowledge and experience of the most advanced wayfarers as still limited and doomed to failure concerning the divine essence. Second, and unusual for his times, Ibn ʿArabī claims that God will remain veiled not only in this world, but also in the afterlife. While the theological discussions on the possibility of the vision of God [rūʾyah] focused primarily on this world, the vast majority of Muslim scholars from diverse schools, orientations, and backgrounds affirmed that God would somehow, or without “how” (bilā kayf), unveil His reality at least in the afterlife. Ibn ʿArabī rather argues for the essential unknowability of God, and the presence of the veils of majesty even in the soteriological encounter, and reunion, after death. Simultaneously, he was also quite consistent in insisting on the full accessibility of the divine attributes to human emulation. After introducing the negative, essential, and operational divine attributes in the same work, the Fabulous Gryphon, he boldly celebrates their accessibility: “Praise be God! There is no attribute thereamong in which we do not participate and to which we do not have a direct path!” (Elmore 1995, 156). CAN WE STILL SPEAK OF NEGATIVE THEOLOGY TOUT COURT? A person who does not answer a question is not blamed if it is evident that the questioner has to refine the question first. The refinement of the question is the path forward, and the fountainhead of, a refined answer. —Aristotle in Ibn Fātik 2013, 390–91 It was not the Muʿtazilī Sufi of Cabrafigo, but the Ẓāhirī Ibn ʿArabī who made all divine attributes accessible to human emulation, but kept God’s essence unknowable, immanently transcendent, and inaccessible to discourse or vision. Unlike al-Qabrafīqī, Ibn ʿArabī’s discursive formations on the divine nature performed the unsayability and unknowability of the saturated theme of theology by negating his own act of saying on knowing. It can be argued that the Muʿtazilites adopted a negative theological approach to the nature of divine attributes; yet most of them were far from being negative theologians on the question of the knowability of the divine essence. These two questions were held by Muslim theologians to be closely related, yet distinct and different (Abrahamov 1995). Many contemporary studies, failing to recognize the distinction that was made in medieval intellectual landscapes, run the risk of confusing different positions on the divine attributes and divine essence as in the case of al-Qabrafīqī and Ibn ʿArabī. Indeed, the widespread contemporary appeal to the designation “negative theologian,” or “apophatic thinker,” in addressing Ibn ʿArabī, Muʿtazilites, Ismāʿīlīs, Rūmī, al-Ghazālī, or the Jewish scholar Maimonides (d. 1204), hides more than it reveals. First, negating all attributes from God, as many Muʿtazilites and Aristotelian philosophers did, does not support the overly hasty leap to an unknowable, ineffable divine essence. Also, an emphasis on an apophatic divine essence, as Ibn ʿArabī pursued, does not automatically mean that all attributes are to be negated from God (Kars 2013). The singular, generic term “negative theology” ignores not only the plurality of negative paths concerning a specific theological question, but also the more elusive yet fundamental distinction between diverse theological questions, such as the nature of divine attributes and the divine essence. Second, in a broader sense, “negative theology” inevitably assumes that one is adopting a negativist position in the entire field of theology. Yet it inescapably fails to define what a negativist position is in terms of a broad variety of questions that are widely considered “theological”: issues including religious leadership, anthropomorphism, predestination and free will, theodicy, eschatology, the status of prophecy, the nature of the divine word, and divine love. “Negative theology” not only fails to identify the specific question and its terms, but it also reduces the rich field of theology down to a single issue—that is, God’s nature—into theomania, and its supposedly triumphant negation. What would a negative theology of theodicy, or of religious leadership look like? We are yet to conceptualize and explore them, exactly because the blanket term “negative theology” monopolizes the broad field of theology with its theomaniac emphasis on the divine essence and inhibits the analysis of other theological questions. The very fact that precolonial Arabic scholars applied the terms for negation to diverse theological questions indicates that their conception of theological negativity was much broader, and probably less theomaniac than ours. Who, then, were the negative theologians among medieval Muslims? I have argued that the question does not have a proper answer, mainly because “negative theology” is too broad and vague a term if we survey the theological questions that they asked, and recall the vast dimensions of theology. The encounter of two Sufis, the Ẓāhirite Ibn ʿArabī and the Muʿtazilite al-Qabrafīqī, shows that “negative theology,” when the specific theological problem is not defined, is a generic concept with limited, if any, explanatory power. Do we mean a negative theology of the divine essence, divine attributes, theodicy, divine will, religious leadership, free will, or divine love? One can adopt a negative theology on one of these questions, but this does not make one negativist in all these other fields of theology. The Muʿtazilites had a negative theology of divine attributes, but the majority of them were far from adopting a negative theology of divine essence. If the question for negative theology is about the discursive or visionary accessibility of the divine nature, Muʿtazilites do not qualify as negative theologians even though their long series of negations inundate many pages. Sufis in Ibn ʿArabī’s line, on the other hand, largely followed a negative theology of divine essence, yet their approach to the divine attributes was far from, and rather sharply critical of, being purely negativist. “Negative theology” is contextual, at least in the sense that an apophatic approach to a specific theological question does not automatically entail apophaticism on another theological question even if they are closely related. The unqualified employment of the term “negative theology” in the study of religion indicates that its content is already presumed, generally betraying our contemporary interests, at the expense of a better understanding of what is really negative or positive in different theological positions in historical context. Footnotes 1 For example, see Hughes [1875] 1885, 425, 428; Sell 1907, 194–98. Both Hughes and Sell use al-Shahrastānī’s Sects and Divisions (al-Milal wa al-Niḥal), which was published in English in 1842 and 1846; the German translation of Haarbrücker appeared in 1850 and 1851 (Rudolph 2015, 3). For a succinct history of the Western scholarship on the Muʿtazilites, see Schmidtke 2008. 2 Ibn Taymiyyah already recognized the significant influence of Muʿtazilism on al-Rāzī (Jaffer 2012, 511–12). For al-Rāzī’s reliance on al-Zamakhsharīs famous Qurʾān commentary in his own exegesis, see Mourad 2010, 86–88. 3 For an introduction to Ibn ʿArabī’s affiliation with the Ẓāhirī legal school, see Mayer 2008, 282. 4 For a discussion on various English translations of the divine name “al-Qayyūm,” see Hamza et al. 2008, 127–29. 5 On takhalluq in Ibn ʿArabī, see Chittick 1989, 21–22, 283–88, 369–72. Ibn ʿArabī’s placement of takhalluq in a low rank of spirituality resonates with the Sijillian Questions (al-Masāʾil al-Ṣiqillīyah) of Ibn Sabʿīn (d. 1269). Goldziher (1981, 138) already intuited this dimension in Ibn Sabʿīn’s mysticism. For takhalluq in medieval Sufism, see al-Suyūṭī 1934, 78. 6 For the takhalluq of the name al-Qayyūm in Ibn ʿArabī, see 1996, 140. This very tripartite approach, with the exact same titles, appears in the sayings attributed to Ibn ʿArabī’s master ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī (d. 1221), and in turn, his master, Abū Madyan. See Abū Madyan 1996, 148–49; Elmore 2001, 608–9; see also Ibn Barrajān 2010. 7 Theological works, such as the Blessed Creed (al-ʿAqīdah al-Mubārakah) attributed to Abū Madyan were actually penned by a much later Sufi of Fez, Abū Madyan ibn Muḥammad al-Fāsī (d. 1768). V. Cornell’s edition of the works attributed to Abū Madyan (1996) should be evaluated in the light of Gril’s (2016) caveat. 8 See al-Tustarī 2011, 126 (Q.20:111); Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī 1996, 35, 96–98; al-Sulamī 2001, Q.20:111, 449; al-Sarrāj 1914, 88–89; ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī in Farhadi 1996, 67; al-Sulamī 2009, 129–30; al-Qushayrī 1969, 209–11; Samʿānī 1989, 495; Chittick 1999; Rūzbihān Baqlī in Ernst 1996, 41, 104, 162; Baqlī 2008, 2:503; Dāya Rāzī 1982, 71; Kubrā and al-Simnānī 2009, 1:327–28; Hamza et al. 2008, 127–297; Mayer 2008, 267. 9 Austin’s edition of the Sufis of Andalusia briefly mentions the encounter, but it misrepresents the debate as related to “the knowledge of the divine Name the (necessarily) Self-subsistent” (Ibn ʿArabī 1971, 26). However, all accounts in the two works of Ibn ʿArabī coherently and clearly explain that the disagreement is rather on the experiential accessibility of the divine name “Self-Subsistent” to human emulation (takhallūq). 10 Al-Māturīdī (d. 944) ascribes the same distinction to the Muʿtazilite Abū al-Qāsim al-Balkhī, known as al-Kaʿbī (d. 931) (al-Māturīdī 2003, 113; also see Cerić 1995, 178–79). Compare Abū Ḥanīfah in Wensinck [1932] 2008, 188; Elias 1995, 65. 11 Ḥanafī-Karrāmī theologian Abū Muṭīʿ Makḥūl al-Nasafī’s (d. 930) Book of Widest Insight (Kitāb al-Fiqh al-Absaṭ) was the earliest work in Transoxania (modern-day Uzbekistan) to discuss the divine attributes in detail. Both Makḥūl al-Nasafī and later al-Māturīdī seem to adopt this distinction from Jahm ibn Ṣafwān, of whose thought Makḥūl al-Nasafī even wrote a refutation (Rudolph 2015, 279–80). 12 For example, see al-Rāzī and al-Ṭūsī 1978, 158; al-Kātibī, al-Rāzī, and Ibn Kammūnah 2007, 51; al-Bayḍāwī 2014, 174–77; Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī in Chittick 1992, 72; Madelung 1988, 41–42; Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī in Walbridge 1992, 265–66 (Arabic text), 227–28 (English translation). Al-Māturīdī’s unequivocal critique of this doctrine was key for the later Ḥanafīsm in Transoxania, as earlier representatives were sympathetic to Ibn al-Karrām’s ideas (al-Māturīdī 2003, 114). 13 David Burrell’s monumental comparative study has already demonstrated the unknowability of the divine essence among the major representatives of medieval philosophy in Abrahamic religions. Accordingly, God’s being the creator is a form of connecting Him to creation that also disconnects Him from it. Burrell traced the thread of this simultaneous “distinction” and “connection” across the works of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), Moses Maimonides (d. 1204), and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1225) (Burrell 1986, 1–32). 14 The titles of the relevant three sections of the book are as follows: Discussion of the claim that God cannot be apprehended by a sixth sense, as reported from Ḍirār (Masʾala fī anna llāh lā yajūzu an yudraka bi-ḥāssa sādisa ʿalā mā yuḥkā ʿan Ḍirār); Discussion on the invalidation of Ḍirār’s claim that God has an essence that only He can know (Masʾala fī ibṭāl mā dhahaba ilayhi Ḍirār anna li-llāh taʿālā māʾiyya lā yaʿlimuhā illā huwa); Discussion of the claim that God cannot be known by children unless they are granted by God otherwise (Masʾala fī anna-llāh taʿālā lā yajūzu an yuʿlima al-aṭfāl illā wa-yuḍamminu al-ʿiwaḍ ʿalayhi) (Abū Rashīd al-Nīsabūrī in Ansari and Schmidtke 2010, 248–49). 15 Diverse claims for divine knowability appear in the earliest doxographies. Abū ʿĀṣim Khushaysh ibn Asram al-Naṣāʾī (d. 867), for example, mentions an early antinomian group called the “pneumatics” (rūḥāniyyah), who claimed direct vision of and communication with God (al-Naṣāʾī in Karamustafa 2014, 102). 16 See Abrahamov 2014, 63. A variant of the principle is attributed, surprisingly, to Muqātil Ibn Sulaymān (d. 767) by Ibn Taymiyyah. Accordingly, Muqātil stated that “only God knows the truth of His situation [fa Allāh aʿlam bi ḥaqīqati ḥālihī]” (Sirry 2012, 79). While the doxographies of al-Ashʿarī, Ibn Ḥazm, and others depicted him as an “extreme anthropomorphist,” recent studies and his own extant Qurʾān commentary have shown that Muqātil’s approach to anthropomorphic verses was in fact very close to that of the traditionist scholars of his time. 17 Al-Qushayrī says that Shah al-Kirmānī died before 300 AH/912 CE (Al-Qushayrī 2007, 52). 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Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Karimullah K. 2007. “Aḥmad Zarrūq and the Ashʿarite School.” PhD diss., McGill University. Kars Aydogan. 2013. “ Two Modes of Unsaying in Early Thirteenth Century Islamic West: Theorizing Apophasis through Maimonides and Ibn ‘Arabī.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion  74 ( 3): 261– 78. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Katz Steven. 1992. “Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning.” In Mysticism and Language , edited by Katz Steven, 3– 41. New York: Oxford University Press. Kubrā Najm al-Dīn, al-Simnānī ʿAlāʾuddawlah. 2009. al-Taʾwīlāt al-Najmīyyah fī al-Tafsīr al-Ishārī al-Ṣūfī; Wa-Yalīhi Tatimmatuhu ʿAyn al-ḥayāh . 6 vols. Edited by Farīd al-Mazīdī Aḥmad. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah. Madelung Wilferd. 1988. Religious Trends in Early Islamic Iran . Bibliotheca Persica, Albany, NY: Persian Heritage Foundation. Madelung Wilferd. 2013. Studies in Medieval Muslim Thought . Edited by Schmidtke Sabine. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Variorum. Martin R., Woodward M., Atmaja D.. 1997. Defenders of Reason in Islam, Muʿtazilism and Rational Theology from Medieval School to Modern Symbol.  Oxford: Oneworld. Mayer Toby. 2008. “Theology and Sufism.” In Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology , edited by Winter Tim, 258– 87. New York: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Mourad S. 2010. “ The Survival of the Muʿtazila Tradition of Qurʾānic Exegesis in Shīʿī and Sunnī Tafāsīr.” Journal of Qurʾānic Studies  12: 83– 108. Mühleisen Arnold John. 1874. Islam: Its History, Character, and Relation to Christianity . London: Longmans, Green. Nāṣir-i Khusraw. 2012. Between Reason and Revelation: Twin Wisdoms Reconciled.  Translated by Ormsby Eric. London: I. B. Tauris. Renard J., ed., trans. 2014. Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader . Berkeley: University of California Press. Rudolph Ulrich. 2015. 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Zysow Aron 2016. “Karrāmiyya.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology , edited by Schmidtke Sabine, 252– 63. New York: Oxford University Press. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of the American Academy of Religion Oxford University Press

What is “Negative Theology”? Lessons from the Encounter of Two Sufis

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Abstract This article introduces the debate of two Andalusian Sufis to address a major theoretical difficulty regarding the concept of “negative theology.” It analyzes the encounter of Ibn ʿArabī with a Muʿtazilite Sufi master, al-Qabrafīqī, at the end of the twelfth century in Seville, and delineates the rich intellectual atmosphere of their debate on human ability to emulate divine attributes, which is the very definition of Sufism for Ibn ʿArabī, but impossible and forbidden for al-Qabrafīqī. Careful contextualization not only questions the apparent negative theology of al-Qabrafīqī, but also demonstrates that the trendy term “negative theology” cannot distinguish between the varieties of questions that these scholars asked about the nature of God. Ibn ʿArabī’s encounter with al-Qabrafīqī illuminates the medieval Islamic theological context, and shows that “negative theology,” if a specific theological problem is not well-defined, is a generic concept with limited, if any, explanatory power. WHO WERE THE NEGATIVE THEOLOGIANS among medieval Muslims? Until recently, scholars of religion associated negative theology or negativist forms of theology in Islam particularly with a group of speculative theologians who emerged in eighth-century Iraq: the Muʿtazilites. “Muʿtazilites” refers to a nonhomogeneous group of theologians who dissented from each other on almost every issue, including their famous “five principles” (uṣūl al-khamsah). When narrating the unconventional sharpness of disagreements among Muʿtazilite masters, Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī (d. 1023) did not hide his disapproval. He reported that Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʿi (d. 916) and his son Abū Hāshim (d. 933) aggressively called each other disbelievers, while Abū Hāshim’s sister, who headed a women’s Muʿtazilite organization, anathematized both her father and her brother (Van Ess 2006, 9–10; also see al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm 1990, 13–15). Indeed, Muʿtazilites were probably the most famous (or rather infamous) “negators” according to the Muslim sources. Doxographers of other theological schools usually called them “the negators,” or “deniers” of God’s attributes. When al-Ashʿarī (d. 936) introduced the Muʿtazilite view on divine unity (tawḥīd) in a few sentences, he employed the Arabic negations seventy-some times in a dizzying one-page “description,” if it can be called that. View largeDownload slide Key Muʿtazilite teachings on the divine nature according to al-Ashʿarī (1950, 1:216). Each of the boxes on the page is an Arabic negative particle. This passage has been called the “credo of Muʿtazilism … and a declaration of negative theology” (Alami in Bennett 2016, 152). View largeDownload slide Key Muʿtazilite teachings on the divine nature according to al-Ashʿarī (1950, 1:216). Each of the boxes on the page is an Arabic negative particle. This passage has been called the “credo of Muʿtazilism … and a declaration of negative theology” (Alami in Bennett 2016, 152). “Muʿtazilites are the upholders of negative theology in Islam” was a widespread theme in Western scholarship until the 1970s. Western representations of Muʿtazilite negative theology were fundamentally shaped by the sustained image of Islam as a Semitic monotheistic religion that overemphasizes divine transcendence. Translations of the Ashʿarite and other hostile doxographical works since the first half of the nineteenth century corroborated the descriptions of Muʿtazilites as the foremost Muslim negative theologians.1 John Mühleisen Arnold (d. 1881), for example, mentioned the Muʿtazilites and its sects, all of whom, he said, “denied the divine attributes, asserting that to ascribe eternal attributes to Allāh is to assume so many personalities. … Thus the Koranic dogma of the abstract unity led to an utter negation of the Divine perfections!” (1874, 224–25; emphasis added). In more friendly terms, Ignác Goldziher’s (d. 1921) Vorlesungen ([1910] 1981) also discussed the “rigid negation” of the rationalist Muʿtazilites, who followed a monotheistic purism, and saw in the addition of attributes to God “nothing less than the negation of the unity of the divine being” ([1910] 1981, 96; 1917, 119–20). Similar views on the Muʿtazilites were widely shared by Muslim thinkers of the time. In his monumental lectures, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, the influential Muslim intellectual Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) bemoaned that the Muʿtazilites followed a “purely negative attitude” in theology ([1930] 2013, 4; 1908, 51, 66). Thus, the Western inclination to see Muʿtazilites as the foremost negators among Muslims mirrored a dominant view that was not only represented in precolonial Muslim sources, but also circulated among contemporary Muslim intellectuals. After the 1970s, a new, ethicalized divine transcendence associated with Sufism emerged with the rise of the concept “apophasis,” commonly translated as “negative speech,” or “unsaying.” Prominent religionists writing during this period such as Henry Corbin and Annemarie Schimmel primarily cited thirteenth-century Sufi masters, Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) and Rūmī (d. 1273) as the foremost representatives of Islamic apophasis or negative theology. A large body of recent works on Sufism follows this trajectory (Corbin 1977; 1981; Schimmel 1975, 49; 1976, 63; 1982, 79; [1980] 1993, 10; Sells 1994; Franke 2007; Harmless 2008, 237; Almond 2004; Huntington 1995, 283; Katz 1992, 3–32). On the other hand, many recent studies employ “negative theology” in Islam exclusively with reference to the Muʿtazilites (Stepaniants 2002, 22–23; DʾOnofrio 2008, 259; Colish 1997, 138; Bahrawi 2013, 55; Fontaine 1990, 100). Is it Ibn ʿArabī and Sufis or the Muʿtazilites or both who embody the negative theological tradition in Islam? While what is meant by “negative theology” is rarely explained, scholarly works advocating each of these schools of Muslim theology as “negative” are abundant. In this paper I propose a terminological modification, and argue that “negative theology” is a blanket term that cannot distinguish between the varieties of questions that Islamicate scholars asked. I will differentiate negative theologies of the divine essence from negative theologies of divine attributes, and discourage the unqualified application of the term “negative theology” in the study of religion at large. This conceptual corrective emerges through a comparison of the overlapping Muʿtazilite and Sufi approaches to the divine nature in the thirteenth century. To shed light on negative theologies in Islam, and particularly Sufism’s relationship with negative theology, I ask whether Muʿtazilism survived Ibn ʿArabī and Rūmī’s time, and elaborate on the direct and indirect connections between Muʿtazilites and Sufis of the period. It is a case study narrated to us through Ibn ʿArabī himself that not only disentangles the knot of theology in relation to Sufis and Muʿtazilites, but also displays the complex nature of what was negative in the medieval Islamic intellectual context. While the theoretical conclusions of the study emerge through an analysis of medieval Islamic texts, con-texts, and pre-texts, I venture that they are general enough to appy to the study of Jewish and Christian negative theologies. MUʿTAZILISM AND SUFISM IN THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY Muʿtazilism and Sufism were intersecting movements from early on as the Muʿtazilite Sufi theologians as well as the ninth-century theological current Ṣūfiyyat al-Muʿtazilah in Iraq both demonstrate. The latter was an urban movement in Bishr ibn al-Muʿtamir’s (d. 825) Muʿtazilite School that denied the worldly authorities so strongly that its only future, if any, would be among the antinomian itinerant darvishes, the Qalandars (Van Ess 1993, 5:329–30; Van Ess 2006, 148–52; Sviri 2012, 23–28). But to go even further back, it is well known that both Muʿtazilite theology and Sufism trace their origins as distinct schools to the figure of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728). “The two men held up as the founder figures of Muʿtazilite theology, Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭāʾ (d. 748) and ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd (d. 769) were both associated with al-Baṣrī’s circle.” At the same time, not only some key Sufi concepts and practices but also “a phalanx of ‘proto-Sufis’ such as Ibn Wāsiʿ, Farqad, Abān, Yazīd al-Raqqāshī, Ibn Dīnār, Bunānī and Ḥabīb al-ʿAjamī emerged from al-Baṣrī’s circle” (Mayer 2008, 260). While Sufism flourished after the ninth century, the school of Muʿtazilism, outside the heterogeneous umbrella of Shīʿism, had largely decayed by the twelfth century, except in some small circles in Khuwarazm in northeastern Persia. Muʿtazilism was reinvigorated in the region through Abū Muḍar al-Ḍabbī (d. 1113), a theologian who had emigrated to Khuwarazm from Isfahan. Following al-Ḍabbī, prominent scholars like Ibn al-Malāḥimī (d. 1141) and his student al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) kept Muʿtazilism alive in Khuwarazm, where Ḥanafīs adhered to Muʿtazilism at least until the beginning of the fifteenth century. The prominence of Muʿtazilite material in Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s (d. 1210) work, and his oral debates with the Muʿtazilites that led to his exile from the region witness this reinvigoration.2 ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Khuwārazmī (d. after 1401), who accompanied the emperor Timūr (r. 1370–1405) to Syria and acted as an interpreter between him and Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406), was a Muʿtazilite scholar. Apart from these circles and the better known individual Khuwarazmian representatives such as al-Muṭarrizī (d. 1213) and al-Sakkākī (d. 1229), Muʿtazilism dissolved into later Ashʿarī, Ḥanafī-Māturīdī, Peripatetic, and most significantly, Shīʿī approaches to theology. In the field of theology, however, later schools or movements were not the only channels between the Muʿtazilites and the Sufis of the thirteenth century. In the twelfth century, Sufis still had direct access to Muʿtazilite works. In a miraculous instance of mind-reading, Aḥmad-i Jām (d. 1141) of Khurasan surprisingly declared to his disciples that it is ethically forbidden (ḥarām) to read books that vilify the Muʿtazilites (Aḥmad-i Jām 2004, 293–94). Furthermore, it seems that Muʿtazilism indeed survived into the thirteenth century and maintained direct contact with the Sufis of the time. The most important Persian hagiographical source produced in the Yasavī tradition, Ālim Shaykh’s (d. 1632) Gleams (Lamaḥāt), narrates a possible thirteenth-century Sufi-Muʿtazilite confrontation between Ḥakīm ʿAṭā’ and the theologians, unsurprisingly in Khuwarazm (DeWeese 2012, 9:390, 408). The Ẓāhirite Sufi Ibn ʿArabī’s four parallel accounts on his encounter with the Muʿtazilite Sufi master al-Qabrafīqī (fl. late twelfth century CE) of Andalusia provide another striking example from the far west.3 Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064) spoke of “Andalusī Muʿtazilīs” as a school, but the presence of Muʿtazilism in Andalusia was rather meager. Especially after the fall of the Idrīsīs and the dominance of the theological literalism of the Mālikī scholars by the ninth century, the Muʿtazilīs lost their power in the region. Later, Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) claimed that none of the Muʿtazilite writings reached the Iberian peninsula; thus he could not learn the methods they adopted in discussing the divine existence from their own sources. The founding figure of the Almohadī revolution, Muḥammad Ibn Tūmart (d. 1130), criticized the Muʿtazilites harshly but also so superficially that his shallow caricature of Muʿtazilism can rather support Ibn Rushd’s claim (Ibn Tūmart 1993, 15–17; see also Stroumsa 2014, 80–81). Ibn ʿArabī’s debate with a Muʿtazilite Sufi master has important theological dimensions that shed light on Muʿtazilite as well as Sufi ideas circulating in thirteenth-century Andalusia, including negative theologies. Ibn ʿArabī narrates the encounter as follows: This is the station of Self-Subsistence [Maqām al-Qayyūmiyyah]…. Our companions disagreed on emulating this attribute [yatakhkhallaqu bihi]. I met Abū ʿAbd Allāh ibn Junayd al-Qabrafīqī among the masters of the (Sufi) path—originally from Ronda and of the Muʿtazilite school [madhhab]. I saw that he denied [yamnaʿ] the emulation of Self-Subsistence, thus he rejected [raddada] this from his school. (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 3:212; Addas 1993, 104)4The three accounts in the Meccan Openings (al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyyah) and the account in his Adornment of the Spiritually Transformed (Ḥilyat al-Abdāl) strongly cohere with each other, and inform us of al-Qabrafīqī and his Muʿtazilite Sufi circle in Cabrafigo, a town in a mountainous region of Andalusia to the southeast of Cordoba (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 5:53; 2004, 7:204; 2007a, 392; 2008, 38). Ibn ʿArabī describes him as “among the greatest Sufi masters of Andalusia” (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 5:53). These honorifics should be approached with caution, because Ibn ʿArabī does not mention al-Qabrafīqī anywhere else, including in his biographical dictionary on the Sufis of Andalusia. We also know that Ibn ʿArabī used to travel long distances to meet known male and female Sufi masters, but it is al-Qabrafīqī who comes to Seville and finds the young Ibn ʿArabī in this case (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 3:212; 7:204). It is clear that al-Qabrafīqī had a good following, and the topic at stake in the encounter was important enough for Ibn ʿArabī to repeatedly narrate in his works. He would challenge al-Qabrafīqī’s theological “denial” that made Self-Subsistence inaccessible to human experience. But what exactly was Ibn ʿArabī defending to be accessible, and al-Qabrafīqī inaccessible? EMULATING DIVINE SELF-SUBSISTENCE IN MEDIEVAL SUFISM In accordance with his Muʿtazilite affiliation, al-Qabrafīqī precluded the possibility of the divine attribute of Self-Subsistence extending to human emulation. But this was somewhat unusual among medieval Sufis, most of whom not only allowed embodied access to the divine names, but also stipulated emulating them as pivotal to human perfection. Ibn ʿArabī indicates in various occasions in the Meccan Openings that when Sufis mention “emulation” (takhalluq) they intend what the Aristotelian philosophers mean when they speak of imitatio Dei, “attaining the likeness of God” (tashabbuh bi Allāh), and identifies this process with achieving human perfection (Chittick 1989, 283). Ibn ʿArabī himself saw the divine names as veils of the divine essence, which remained unknowable, yet the divine names were to be emulated to proceed on the endless path of self-purification. Indeed, assuming the character traits of the divine names is the very definition of Sufism for Ibn ʿArabī. For “Sufis,” that is, those at the beginning level, emulating divine attributes is a duty in the path of becoming advanced “Verifiers” (Muḥaqqiqūn) who are freed from such concerns (Addas 1994; Ibn ʿArabī 2007b, 417; Chittick 1992, 177; Chittick 1989, 43; Ernst 1993).5 In his very encounter with al-Qabrafīqī, Ibn ʿArabī makes it clear again that for him “it is permissible to emulate Self-Subsistence like all divine names” (Ibn ʿArabī 2004, 3:212; Ibn ʿArabī 2007a, 392). A consistent position is observed in his book devoted to the divine names and attributes, Unveiling of the Meaning of the Secrets of the Beautiful Names (Kashf al-Maʿnā ʿan Sirr Asmāʾ al-Ḥusnā). Not just for the name “the Self-Subsistent,” but for each divine name, Ibn ʿArabī devotes three sections of his book to exploring how that name is connected (taʾalluq), realized (taḥaqquq), and emulated (takhalluq) by the wayfarers.6 Ibn ʿArabī’s approach to the emulation of divine Self-Subsistence mirrors Andalusian Sufism and the mysticism of his time. An aphorism from the Intimacy of the Recluse (Uns al-Wāḥid) attributed to Abū Madyan (d. 1198), whom Ibn ʿArabī calls “the voice of this way and its reviver in the lands of the west” and “one of the Poles,” indicates that Abū Madyan also affirmed that all names can be emulated by the wayfarer. Accordingly, the meaning of a divine name can even subsist in the wayfarer until she reaches the next step, where she will be annihilated in the meaning of the name (Abū Madyan 1996, 109).7 Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185) went even further and argued that not only all divine attributes, but even the divine essence can be emulated. In the same vein, another Andalusian Sufi, Shushtarī (d. 1269), maintained that “attributes” (ṣifāt) in Sufi terminology mean the qualities of the Self-Subsistent God (nuʾut al-Qayyūm), while all of them are open to emulation through Sufi practices. Only “Allāh” is exclusively “the interpreter of the divine ipseity” that is the gatherer of the meanings of all names (Shushtarī 2004, 157, 162, 167). Indeed, this approach follows the position that Ibn ʿArabī laid out in his Unveiling of the Meaning (Ibn ʿArabī 1996, 18–20). Another Western Sufi, ʿAfīf al-Dīn al-Tilimsānī (d. 1291), in his commentary on ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī’s (d. 1089) Stations of the Wayfarer (Manāzil al-Sāʾirīn), claims that the divine name “Self-Subsistence” indicates the transcendence of divine oneness and the unity of all divine names. Yet, as the discussion on “Self-Sufficiency” in al-Tilimsānī’s commentary on al-Niffarī’s (d. after 977) Stations (Mawāqif) indicates, he shares the theological approach of Ibn ʿArabī that makes the emulation of all names possible (al-Tilimsānī et al. 1989, 47–48; 1997, 58). Sufis of earlier periods and non-Western Sufis of the same century adopt similar positions on emulating divine Self-Sufficiency. Examples abound.8 Even Sufis who defined Self-Subsistence as a negative attribute of God did not deny human beings its emulation. Most famously Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) defines Self-Subsistence as a negation indicating divine independence from an external subject, very much like the “necessary being” (wājib al-wujūd) of the Peripatetic philosophers, as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī aptly recognizes. In this sense, only God is Self-Subsistent, while creation is in constant poverty, dependence, and need for His governance. It is one of the few names that truly applies only to God (Shehadi 1964, 19). Nevertheless, al-Ghazālī clarifies that Self-Subsistence is accessible to emulation: “humans’ access to this attribute is proportionate with their self-sufficiency [istighnāʾ] from everything except God” (al-Ghazālī 1999, 110; 2007, 130). This is very much in line with al-Qushayrī’s (d. 1072) description. Self-Subsistence, like all positive and negative names of God, as al-Ghazālī underlines in the afterword, is applicable exclusively and eminently to God, but human beings attain a similitude (mithl) of them. The attributes are names that describe God in human terms. Though they can be emulated, only God knows the real meanings of His attributes (cf. Baqlī 2008, 1:16). Al-Ghazālī cites prophetic sayings including the famous imperative “emulate the characteristics of God” indicating its ethical necessity (al-Ghazālī 1999, 126; 2007, 150; Abrahamov 2002, 208–10). He also discusses the influential Khurasanian Sufi master Kurragānī’s (d. 1076) words on emulating the divine attributes, reported by his own master al-Fārmadhī (d. 1084). Al-Ghazālī’s discussion aims to qualify Kurragānī’s words on attaining divine attributes, and to ensure that their emulation is not misunderstood as actually sharing them with God (al-Ghazālī 1999, 126; 2007, 150; al-Suyūṭī 1934, 78). Later Sufis, ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī (d. 1234) and his jurist student Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 1262), for example, quoted the same report of al-Fārmadhī on Kurragānī’s reference to emulating the divine attributes that al-Ghazālī had mentioned. Unlike al-Ghazālī, they permit it unconditionally (Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām 2002, 40). They do not even question the possibility of emulating all divine attributes, or the possible theological fallacies and dangers that might accompany a misinterpreted approach to emulation. Hence al-Qabrafīqī’s gap between divine Self-Subsistence and creation was less of a Sufi theme than a typical negativist Muʿtazilite approach to the divine attributes. It did not endure for long in a heavily adversarial Sufi theological context. Ibn ʿArabī narrates that he cited a Qurʾānic verse where a different form of the triliteral Arabic root of Self-Subsistence is applied to human beings. Not only al-Qabrafīqī but also his followers were impressed by this scriptural linguistic proof, and, we are told, they all abandoned their doctrinal opposition to the emulation of Self-Subsistence (Ibn ʿArabī 2008, 38 n. 27; Addas 1993, 104; Q.4:34). In other words, the popular Sufi claim for divine accessibility won over the Muʿtazilite negativity in the encounter between the two. DIVINE ATTRIBUTES AND ACTIONS IN MEDIEVAL ISLAMIC THEOLOGY In his argument, al-Qabrafīqī was relying on Muʿtazilite principles that are not otherwise found among Sufis. He maintained that human beings are independent agents who create their own actions (khalq al-afʿāl), and that God’s justice demands the execution of otherwordly divine punishment (infādh al-waʿīd) for grave sinners unless they repent. Both were among the famous five fundamental principles of the Muʿtazilites, which are said to go back to Abū al-Hudhayl (d. 841) (al-ʿImrānī 1999, 69; El-Omari 2016, 130–38; Bennett 2016, 146–47). In addition, Ibn ʿArabī implies that the Muʿtazilite Sufi was making an unwelcome sharp separation among divine attributes. It appears that al-Qabrafīqī was making a distinction not only between different divine attributes, but also between attributes and actions, leaving only the divine actions accessible to emulation.9 This categorization of the divine attributes indeed perpetuates the early Muʿtazilite position that was developed by the later Muʿtazilites, as well as philosophers, theologians, and jurists from different backgrounds. The early Ibādī scholars, such as the prominent Kufan theologian al-Fazārī (eighth century CE), were probably among the first to articulate this distinction between God’s essential attributes and the attributes of action (al-Fazārī 2014, 177–85). Early Baghdadian Muʿtazilites as well as Basrans led by Abū al-Hudhayl, his nephew al-Naẓẓām (d. 846), and Abū al-Hudhayl’s pupil al-Shaḥḥām (d. 847), adopted the distinction, while they differed on the content of the categories as well as their theological interpretations: they denied [ankarū] … [various attributes] from the Glorious, Eternal Producer [al-Bāriʾ], and argued that all of them were attributes of action [sifāt al-afʿāl]. They alleged that attributes were of kinds: some of the attributes described the ipseity of the Producer. … The others described His actions, such as “the Creator,” “the Sustainer” … (al-Ashʿarī 1950, 2:171; also see al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm 1990, 21)10The distinction that the early Muʿtazilites, in line with early Ibādī theologians, made between the essential attributes and the attributes of action had parallels in Christianity with the via negativa of the Church Fathers such as John of Damascus (d. 748) (Wolfson 1976, 219). The initial distinction popularized by the Muʿtazilites eventually became decisive not only for Peripatetic philosophers like al-Kindī (d. 873) and Imāmī theologians like Ibn Bābawayh (d. 991), but also for the fiercest enemies of the Muʿtazilites (Adamson 2003, 52–53; Ibn Bābawayh 1993, 27). Ibn Karrām (d. 869), the leader of an anti-Muʿtazilite, pietist, attributist movement, opposed the Muʿtazilite negation of attributes from God, but he worked in Muʿtazilite terms and kept the distinction, claiming to affirm all attributes, including the attributes of action.11 Ibn Karrām’s affirmation of actions to the divine essence was objectionable insofar as it effectively “undermined the immutability of God and in so doing made the God beyond time temporal” (Zysow 2016). In other words, this position meant attributing incidents that would subsist in the essence of God. Later Karrāmīs were not able to reconcile the problematic idea of God being a substratum for incidents (qiyām al-ḥawādith), which amounted to one of the most ridiculous of absurdities for doxographers al-Shahrastānī (d. 1153), al-Rāzī, the jurist al-Bayḍāwī (d. ca. 1286), philosophers like Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 1311), and Sufis such as Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (fl. 1269), who had no sympathy for the Muʿtazilite negation of divine attributes.12 Another Ashʿarite doxographer, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 1038), who explicitly abhors Muʿtazilism, puts a version of their distinction at the heart of the way of the pious ancestors (ahl al-sunnah) following al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013). According to these scholars, divine names were threefold: the names that indicate God’s ipseity, the names that were nonessential but coeternal with God’s essence, and the names that derive from divine actions (al-Baghdādī 1988, 291; al-Bāqillānī 1987, 298–99). Ashʿarism thus inherited a refined nuance regarding God’s attributes that we find in al-Bayhaqī (d. 1066), al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), his student al-Ghazālī, and their later critic Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. When we arrive at the thirteenth century, it should not surprise us to find that the same threefold approach to the divine names has become ubiquitous (al-Bayhaqī 1939, 112; al-Ṭūsī 2010, 392–93; Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām 2002, 21; al-Farghānī 2007, 1:44; El-Bizri 2008, 128). The attribute that al-Qabrafīqī disallows for emulation, however, is not one of the classical negative names of God from an early Muʿtazilite perspective. Only a few early theologians, such as Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭāʾ, Ḍirār (d. 815), al-Najjār, al-Naẓẓām (d. 846), and the Ibādīs are known to have considered all attributes of God indiscriminately negative and inaccessible to human emulation. Al-Qabrafīqī is not following them: Ibn ʿArabī’s insistence on human ability to emulate all attributes suggests that al-Qabrafīqī is making a distinction between various names and still considering Self-Subsistence in particular inaccessible to human emulation. In this categorization, al-Qabrafīqī is closer to the later Muʿtazilites than these early predecessors. Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), for example, claimed that God’s unity, one of the five Muʿtazilite principles, meant that God did not share any positive or negative attributes with creation. ʿAbd al-Jabbār also makes the distinction between the essential attributes and actions of God, putting speech, justice, and will into the latter category. The divine actions beg relations with creation, while the essential attributes are free from any such relationality and are thus inaccessible to human emulation. God’s nondelimitedness and independence [ghināʾ] is one of His essential attributes, though a negative one that He does not share with creation (ʿAbd al-Jabbār 1996, 129–30; Martin et al. 1997, 92; Heemskerk 2014; cf. Sahl ibn Faḍl al-Tustarī in Schwarb 2006, 83; al-Baghdādī 1988, 291). It is safe to conclude that the Muʿtazilite master considered Self-Subsistence, a divine name very close to Self-Sufficiency, a nonrelational, negative name of God, exclusively defining God’s transcendence. The distinction among divine attributes that al-Qabrafīqī makes and the attribute that he disallows for emulation reflect the later Muʿtazilite theological position, in stark opposition to widespread Sufi positions on the divine attributes and their accessibility. MUʿTAZILITES AND “NEGATIVE THEOLOGY”: THE CONCEPTUAL PROBLEM Al-Qabrafīqī’s brief appearance in this theological context could embody a convincing case of an apophatic Muʿtazilite who considers Self-Subsistence an essential negative attribute of an unknowable, inaccessible God, as opposed to the kataphatic, accessible one in Ibn ʿArabī’s Sufism. Both of these purportedly apophatic and kataphatic theological stances, however, present real problems if analyzed in context. Our travel from al-Qabrafīqī’s Andalusia to ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s Baghdad and Rayy displays a larger theoretical difficulty in the association of Muʿtazilism with “negative theology” as such. It is correct that ʿAbd al-Jabbār defined specific positive and negative names as exclusively divine, independent from relations with creation that define divine actions. ʿAbd al-Jabbār, and the Muʿtazilites at large, however, maintained that God’s essence, or the truth of God’s ipseity, was indeed knowable (maʿlūm). Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s observation is perceptive: Ḍirār among the theologians, and al-Ghazālī among the later ones argued that we do not know the truth of the ipseity of God—which is the claim of the philosophers. The majority of the theologians among us (i.e., the Ashʿarites) and among the Muʿtazilites have argued that it is, indeed, knowable. (al-Rāzī and al-Ṭūsī 1978, 188; see also Jaffer 2012, 520) Al-Rāzī’s point on the essential accessibility of God to human intellect is supported by prominent Muʿtazilite as well as Ashʿarite sources. Hence there is an unjustified leap from the negation of attributes to the divine unknowability and inaccessibility in calling al-Qabrafīqī a negative theologian. Medieval scholars were keenly aware of the difference between the two questions, and the Muʿtazilites embodied a reference point for them to clarify their own positions. In his correspondence with Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274), the philosopher, Sufi master, and Ibn ʿArabī’s stepson, Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274), argued that “everybody who ponders seriously agrees that the divine reality is unknowable [majhūlah].” In his response, al-Ṭūsī felt obliged to correct al-Qūnawī’s generic statement, clarifying the philosophical stance that he followed: it was necessary for al-Qūnawī rather to say: “the philosophers have agreed upon this (unknowability).” For, the Muʿtazilite masters among the theologians assert that the divine reality is rather knowable to human beings in its essence. (al-Ṭūsī and al-Qūnawī 1995, 50, 100; also see Madelung 2013, 11:7)In turn, al-Qūnawī indeed agrees with the refinement that al-Ṭūsī brings to divine unknowability. In his response to al-Ṭūsī’s correction, al-Qūnawī indicates that he actually meant the Aristotelian philosophers and the verifier Sufis, and not theologians, by the phrase “everybody who ponders seriously” (al-Ṭūsī and al-Qūnawī 1995, 165–66). While Sufis and philosophers agree on divine unknowability, the Muʿtazilites state the opposite, both for al-Ṭūsī and al-Qūnawī. Observers like Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) and al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), however dissident they were towards these traditions, confirmed their schema.13 According to the later Muʿtazilism with whom al-Qabrafīqī was associated, the essential knowledge of God is the basis on which they negate some attributes and affirm others. This knowledge of the essential nature of God precedes not only knowledge of God’s attributes, but also that of the veracity of revelation. The Ismāʿīlī scholar Nāṣir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) succinctly explains the importance of divine knowability for Muʿtazilite ethics: for theologians of the Muʿtazilite school, the doctrine of unity [tawḥīd] means that the first thing that is incumbent on man is to know God. Through knowledge of God, man derives the impulse to perform laudable actions and to refrain from those which are bad and blameworthy. (Khusraw 2012, 56)The knowledge of the ipseity of God, accordingly, is the most “primary” (awwal) duty of all for the Muʿtazilites. One can know God without the support of the scripture, and even without a teacher, by means of theoretical reflection only (naẓar). Al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm (d. 860), for example, “follows a later Muʿtazilite doctrine of belief which considers the intellectual knowledge of God the first act of obedience” (al-Qāsim 1990, 52; Abrahamov 1998, 32). In the Book of Divine Unity (Kitāb al-Tawḥīd) al-Qāsim argues as follows: it is impossible … to obey God without knowing Him. Man’s certain knowledge of God brings him to obey Him and to perform good actions. Thus … the gravest sin in the eyes of God and the righteous people is to deny God or to doubt His existence or doubt man’s knowledge of God [al-irtiyāb fī maʿrifat Allāh]. This is one kind of unbelief (al-Qāsim 1990, 49–50)The claim that “God is known” (in both cases, maʿlūm and maʿrūf) is repeated and underscored in other works by al-Qāsim as well. In the Epistle of Whoever Seeks Guidance (Kitāb al-Mustarshid), al-Qāsim employs both Arabic verbs to emphasize that God is knowable: “people know that things can be perceived as they really are and certainly known even if they are absent from us, for God is cognized and known” [fa-Allāhu yuʿlam wa yuʿraf] (al-Qāsim 1996, 66–67; see also Abrahamov 1998, 64). The head of the Basran Muʿtazilites, Abū Rashīd al-Nīsabūrī (d. ca. 1068) also criticizes the defenders of divine unknowability, such as Ḍirār. His Book of Debates (Masāʾil al-Khilāf) follows the more celebrated summa the Sufficient (al-Mughnī) of ʿAbd al-Jabbār, defending God’s essential knowability by human reason, and goes so far as discussing whether children can attain it.14 The later Muʿtazilite theologian al-Najrānī (fl. twelfth to thirteenth century CE) also penned a long chapter devoted to the refutation of various possible arguments for divine unknowability (al-Najrānī 1999, 325–34). According to popular Muʿtazilite doctrine, essential knowledge of God grounds knowledge of divine attributes, the truth of scripture, and ethical judgments. As opposed to the Ḥanbalīs, Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār, for example, claimed that one cannot justify the veracity of the revelation with reference to revelation itself. As Mānkdīm (d. 1034) repeats, the Qurʾān “is approved as a proof only when one proves that it is just and wise speech, and this derives from the knowledge of God, His unity and justice” (Abrahamov 1998, 33). That revelation is sent by a divine source to guide creation: that is, divine essence and divine intention should already be known with certainty. Creation, including the human self and nature, is full of immediate proofs that can logically demonstrate to every rational person that they are created by an essentially good, omnipotent, self-sufficient, all-knowing, and just creator. In ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s words, “everything is evidence for Him” (ʿAbd al-Jabbār in Shihadeh 2008, 208; ʿAbd al-Jabbār in Renard 2014, 63–65; cf. Q.41:53). Once this fundamental epistemological principle is logically proven, and the divine essence is known, one can be sure that the scriptures, as well as the ethico-legal systems explained through them, are revealed in order to sustain justice and to help creation flourish. Otherwise, even miracles will prove nothing. Similarly, only after knowing the divine essence with its necessary positive and negative attributes can we derive other, nonessential attributes of God. The claim that God has further nonessential, relational attributes, again, will be provable from this firm deductive basis. The approaches of later Muʿtazilites at this point, such as Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d.1044), Mānakdīm, and Ibn al-Malāḥimī, closely follow that of ʿAbd al-Jabbār (ʿAbd al-Jabbār in Renard 2014, 62–63; Ibn al-Malāḥimī 2008, 60, 106; see also Shihadeh 2008, 199–200; Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī in Abrahamov 1998, 61–62; Van Ess 2006, 182–83). If the Muʿtazilites negate the attributes of God, it is exactly because they have apodictic knowledge about the divine nature. As Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī—himself a post-Ghazālīan, self-declared “new-generation” (mutaʾakhkhir) Ashʿarite—argued, Muʿtazilites shared this essential knowability with their fierce opponents, the Ashʿarites, among others.15 The reductio ad absurdum argument he presents relies on the philosophical definition of God as the “necessary being”: The reality of the divine essence is knowable.… The proof of the theologians among us and the Muʿtazilites: “we know His being, and His being is His very ipseity [ʿayn dhātihi]. So we must know His ipseity. Else the same thing would become known-unknown from the same aspect.” (1978, 188)Ashʿarite manuals of theology typically began with a chapter on the sources of knowledge, then specifically addressed knowledge of the divine essence. Their pivotal difference with the Muʿtazilites lay in the source of this knowledge. Al-Ashʿarī derived the obligation to know God from revelation, while Muʿtazilites, and even some early Ashʿarites like al-Qalānisī (d. 970), regard this obligation as stemming from reason (Abrahamov 1998, 33–34). Ibn ʿArabī himself testifies to such a description of the Ashʿarites in the Meccan Openings. He narrates how a group of Ashʿarite theologians attacked the legacy of the Sufi masters al-Kharrāz (d. 899) and al-Ghazālī on the basis of their defense of divine unknowability. Al-Kharrāz and al-Ghazālī were holding that “only God knows God”—a principle of divine unknowability popular among Sufis from early on.16 Yet the Ashʿarite theologians, whom Ibn ʿArabī knew in person, believed that God has essential attributes that are known to human beings. Repeating that the essential attributes of God, let alone his ipseity, are necessarily unknowable (majhūlah), Ibn ʿArabī wrote as follows against such Ashʿarite theologians: “Whoever claims that they have knowledge of any positive attribute of God’s ipseity, their claim is false. For, that would delimit Him; but His essence cannot be delimited” (Elmore 1995, 149). Sufis did not, on the other hand, unequivocally defend the unknowability of the divine essence. Some Sufis who were also Muʿtazilites or Ashʿarites, or had close connections with these schools, defended the position that God’s essence can actually be known. ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī mentions such a disagreement among Sufis on divine knowability. His disciple, the Sufi exegete al-Maybudī (fl. 1150) reports that this disagreement occurred between Shah al-Kirmānī (fl. late ninth century CE) and the later generation’s foremost Khurasanian master, al-Naṣrābādhī (d. ca. 977), who was fundamentally influenced by Ashʿarite theologians like al-Isfarāʾīnī (d. 1027). Accordingly, the two Sufi masters, probably when both were in Nishapur, disagreed on whether the divine essence can be known (Farhadi 1996, 102; al-Qushayrī 1989, 33; al-Qushayrī 2007, 11; al-Maybudī 2015, Q.17:53, 377; cf. al-Qushayrī 2007, 87–88, 397). While al-Maybudī’s narrative is historically unlikely, it remains telling of the complex, equivocal positions that early Sufis took, or at least discussed, on divine knowability.17 Later, the prominent jurist of Damascus and a Sufi disciple of ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī, Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām would also problematize the popular principle of divine unknowability. Accordingly, abandonment of all religious precepts and practices were only the natural, logical result of the principle “only God knows God” (Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām 1995, 163). Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s argument was nothing but a Sufi-Ashʿarite restatement of a common Muʿtazilite proof for divine knowability. Unlike the Muʿtazilites, the depictions of Ashʿarites were not univocal on divine knowability either. Dramatically, the Moroccan Sufi Aḥmad Zarrūq (d. 1493) would later depict al-Ghazālī in an Ashʿarite light as a proponent of divine knowability, in opposition to Ibn ʿArabī and al-Rāzī’s description. According to Zarrūq, al-Ghazālī claimed that “in His ipseity, God’s being is known to intellects [wa annahu fī dhātihi maʿlūm al-wujūd bi al-ʿuqūl].” Indeed, Zarrūq is absolutely right: al-Ghazālī penned these exact words in the deeply Ashʿarite creed he presented in his monumental Revivification of the Religious Sciences (Iḥyāʾ al-ʿUlūm al-Dīn) (al-Ghazālī 1957, 1:89; Karimullah 2007, 94). To complicate the picture even more, Zarrūq challenged this knowability of divine essence with reference to al-Rāzī, who actually claimed that al-Ghazālī defends divine unknowability. Here again Zarrūq has textual evidence. He quotes al-Rāzī from the Oriental Investigations (Mabāhith al-Mashrīqiyyah) where the latter forcefully declares that “perception of the reality of Necessary Being [ḥaqīqatu wājib al-wujūd] and what He, of necessity, possesses of attributes of beauty and descriptions of perfection does not occur to our souls” (Karimullah 2007, 94). In addition to this famous philosophical work, al-Rāzī’s late work on theology, which gained immense popularity in the later tradition, further supports Zarrūq’s reading. Here al-Rāzī defends the unknowability of the divine nature in a brief section titled, “the knowledge of the profundity of God does not occur to human beings” (al-Kātibī, al-Rāzī, and Ibn Kammūnah 2007, 82). Hence the issue of knowing the divine ipseity was a more knotty issue on the later Ashʿarite side than the clearer, more homogeneous Muʿtazilite position. Still, well-known Ashʿarite masters of the time supported divine accessibility via apodictic knowledge attained either by reasoning or through the sacred sources. The Ashʿarite Qāḍī al-Bayḍāwī (d. ca. 1286)’s Rising Lights (Ṭawālīʿ al-Anwār) buttresses the description provided by al-Ṭūsī, Ṣadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī, and al-Rāzī; he defines the philosophers as the champions of divine unknowability, and “theologians” as those who defend divine ipseity as knowable (al-Bayḍāwī 2014, 168–69). Al-Bāqillānī, the greatest of the Ashʿarites according to Ibn Ḥazm, claims that God can actually be known, and perfectly apprehended [idrāk] (al-Bāqillānī 1987, 304–309). Later, the Ashʿarite theologian al-Juwaynī cites his master al-Isfarāʾīnī when he demonstrates that it is a logical necessity for God to be essentially Self-Subsistent (qāʾim bi-dhātihi) (al-Juwaynī 1950, 33–34). God’s Self-Subsistence cannot be shared with human beings, but they can certainly and demonstrably know and also discursively prove that God is essentially Self-Subsistent. The Sufi philosopher in the Ashʿarite line, Quṭb al-Dīn al-Aharī (d. 1260) follows the same notion.18 Scholars of an Ashʿarite bent vocally defending the essential knowability of God had been present also in Andalusia from the late tenth century. Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn Tūmart al-Andalusī (d. 1001), a scientist about whose life we know little, made a distinction between divine attributes and the divine actions, and adopted a reading of divine self-sufficiency in line with his contemporary Ashʿarites. The Andalusian scholar argued that the ipseity of God, transcendent as it is, was innately knowable to everybody, Muslim or not: He is, of course, elevated [munazzah] from creation in His ipseity, attributes, and actions. Of course, He is not comparable to anything: He is the First without a beginning, the Last without an ending; He is a thing known in His very existence as He is [huwa shayʾ maʿlūm al-wujūd bi al-dhāt min ḥaythu huwa]. (Ibn Tūmart al-Andalusī 1999, 37; also see al-Bayhaqī 1939, 53–54; Muḥammad Ibn Tūmart 1993, 11)Now it has become clear that the inaccessibility of the divine attribute of Self-Subsistence to human emulation did not mean that God is unknowable from al-Qabrafīqī’s Muʿtazilite perspective. On the contrary, the divine essence, with its positive and negative attributes, was necessarily knowable and logically demonstrable for the later Muʿtazilites.19 In the encounter of the two Sufis in Seville, it is not al-Qabrafīqī but Ibn ʿArabī who would insist that God is essentially unknowable, while all of His attributes are accessible to human experience. Ibn ʿArabī consistently and repeatedly negated the knowability of the divine essence. In his Fabulous Gryphon (ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib), just to give an example, he explains that the divine essence is utterly unknowable, and will remain so forever: What! What do they want? And what are they seeking so far away? By God, surely no one can attain it! No soul can comprehend His gnosis, and no body can contain it. He is the Most-Precious, Who cannot be comprehended, and the Existent, Who takes possession but is not possessed. Hence, in learning of His attributes, intellects become perplexed and hearts confused—so how could they ever attain unto His Essence? … As for the gnosis of the divine ipseity [maʿrifat al-dhāt], it embraces the most-radiant light in a blindness, concealed by the veil of protecting-might, preserved in the divine attributes and names. … The utmost of seekers is to remain behind that veil—here and in the Hereafter. … But he who is among the people of insights and intuitions, disciplined in the requisite refinements [ādāb]—if he arrives only at the veil which He (Praised be He!) never lifts from His face, he (nevertheless) shall be given to understand His essence, even though actual knowledge of the divine essence is impossible, for there is no way to raise that veil as such. (Elmore 1995, 131–35)Here Ibn ʿArabī is making two significant moves. First, he is quite iconoclastic toward his stereotypical representations, insofar as he describes the ultimate knowledge and experience of the most advanced wayfarers as still limited and doomed to failure concerning the divine essence. Second, and unusual for his times, Ibn ʿArabī claims that God will remain veiled not only in this world, but also in the afterlife. While the theological discussions on the possibility of the vision of God [rūʾyah] focused primarily on this world, the vast majority of Muslim scholars from diverse schools, orientations, and backgrounds affirmed that God would somehow, or without “how” (bilā kayf), unveil His reality at least in the afterlife. Ibn ʿArabī rather argues for the essential unknowability of God, and the presence of the veils of majesty even in the soteriological encounter, and reunion, after death. Simultaneously, he was also quite consistent in insisting on the full accessibility of the divine attributes to human emulation. After introducing the negative, essential, and operational divine attributes in the same work, the Fabulous Gryphon, he boldly celebrates their accessibility: “Praise be God! There is no attribute thereamong in which we do not participate and to which we do not have a direct path!” (Elmore 1995, 156). CAN WE STILL SPEAK OF NEGATIVE THEOLOGY TOUT COURT? A person who does not answer a question is not blamed if it is evident that the questioner has to refine the question first. The refinement of the question is the path forward, and the fountainhead of, a refined answer. —Aristotle in Ibn Fātik 2013, 390–91 It was not the Muʿtazilī Sufi of Cabrafigo, but the Ẓāhirī Ibn ʿArabī who made all divine attributes accessible to human emulation, but kept God’s essence unknowable, immanently transcendent, and inaccessible to discourse or vision. Unlike al-Qabrafīqī, Ibn ʿArabī’s discursive formations on the divine nature performed the unsayability and unknowability of the saturated theme of theology by negating his own act of saying on knowing. It can be argued that the Muʿtazilites adopted a negative theological approach to the nature of divine attributes; yet most of them were far from being negative theologians on the question of the knowability of the divine essence. These two questions were held by Muslim theologians to be closely related, yet distinct and different (Abrahamov 1995). Many contemporary studies, failing to recognize the distinction that was made in medieval intellectual landscapes, run the risk of confusing different positions on the divine attributes and divine essence as in the case of al-Qabrafīqī and Ibn ʿArabī. Indeed, the widespread contemporary appeal to the designation “negative theologian,” or “apophatic thinker,” in addressing Ibn ʿArabī, Muʿtazilites, Ismāʿīlīs, Rūmī, al-Ghazālī, or the Jewish scholar Maimonides (d. 1204), hides more than it reveals. First, negating all attributes from God, as many Muʿtazilites and Aristotelian philosophers did, does not support the overly hasty leap to an unknowable, ineffable divine essence. Also, an emphasis on an apophatic divine essence, as Ibn ʿArabī pursued, does not automatically mean that all attributes are to be negated from God (Kars 2013). The singular, generic term “negative theology” ignores not only the plurality of negative paths concerning a specific theological question, but also the more elusive yet fundamental distinction between diverse theological questions, such as the nature of divine attributes and the divine essence. Second, in a broader sense, “negative theology” inevitably assumes that one is adopting a negativist position in the entire field of theology. Yet it inescapably fails to define what a negativist position is in terms of a broad variety of questions that are widely considered “theological”: issues including religious leadership, anthropomorphism, predestination and free will, theodicy, eschatology, the status of prophecy, the nature of the divine word, and divine love. “Negative theology” not only fails to identify the specific question and its terms, but it also reduces the rich field of theology down to a single issue—that is, God’s nature—into theomania, and its supposedly triumphant negation. What would a negative theology of theodicy, or of religious leadership look like? We are yet to conceptualize and explore them, exactly because the blanket term “negative theology” monopolizes the broad field of theology with its theomaniac emphasis on the divine essence and inhibits the analysis of other theological questions. The very fact that precolonial Arabic scholars applied the terms for negation to diverse theological questions indicates that their conception of theological negativity was much broader, and probably less theomaniac than ours. Who, then, were the negative theologians among medieval Muslims? I have argued that the question does not have a proper answer, mainly because “negative theology” is too broad and vague a term if we survey the theological questions that they asked, and recall the vast dimensions of theology. The encounter of two Sufis, the Ẓāhirite Ibn ʿArabī and the Muʿtazilite al-Qabrafīqī, shows that “negative theology,” when the specific theological problem is not defined, is a generic concept with limited, if any, explanatory power. Do we mean a negative theology of the divine essence, divine attributes, theodicy, divine will, religious leadership, free will, or divine love? One can adopt a negative theology on one of these questions, but this does not make one negativist in all these other fields of theology. The Muʿtazilites had a negative theology of divine attributes, but the majority of them were far from adopting a negative theology of divine essence. If the question for negative theology is about the discursive or visionary accessibility of the divine nature, Muʿtazilites do not qualify as negative theologians even though their long series of negations inundate many pages. Sufis in Ibn ʿArabī’s line, on the other hand, largely followed a negative theology of divine essence, yet their approach to the divine attributes was far from, and rather sharply critical of, being purely negativist. “Negative theology” is contextual, at least in the sense that an apophatic approach to a specific theological question does not automatically entail apophaticism on another theological question even if they are closely related. The unqualified employment of the term “negative theology” in the study of religion indicates that its content is already presumed, generally betraying our contemporary interests, at the expense of a better understanding of what is really negative or positive in different theological positions in historical context. Footnotes 1 For example, see Hughes [1875] 1885, 425, 428; Sell 1907, 194–98. Both Hughes and Sell use al-Shahrastānī’s Sects and Divisions (al-Milal wa al-Niḥal), which was published in English in 1842 and 1846; the German translation of Haarbrücker appeared in 1850 and 1851 (Rudolph 2015, 3). For a succinct history of the Western scholarship on the Muʿtazilites, see Schmidtke 2008. 2 Ibn Taymiyyah already recognized the significant influence of Muʿtazilism on al-Rāzī (Jaffer 2012, 511–12). For al-Rāzī’s reliance on al-Zamakhsharīs famous Qurʾān commentary in his own exegesis, see Mourad 2010, 86–88. 3 For an introduction to Ibn ʿArabī’s affiliation with the Ẓāhirī legal school, see Mayer 2008, 282. 4 For a discussion on various English translations of the divine name “al-Qayyūm,” see Hamza et al. 2008, 127–29. 5 On takhalluq in Ibn ʿArabī, see Chittick 1989, 21–22, 283–88, 369–72. Ibn ʿArabī’s placement of takhalluq in a low rank of spirituality resonates with the Sijillian Questions (al-Masāʾil al-Ṣiqillīyah) of Ibn Sabʿīn (d. 1269). Goldziher (1981, 138) already intuited this dimension in Ibn Sabʿīn’s mysticism. For takhalluq in medieval Sufism, see al-Suyūṭī 1934, 78. 6 For the takhalluq of the name al-Qayyūm in Ibn ʿArabī, see 1996, 140. This very tripartite approach, with the exact same titles, appears in the sayings attributed to Ibn ʿArabī’s master ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī (d. 1221), and in turn, his master, Abū Madyan. See Abū Madyan 1996, 148–49; Elmore 2001, 608–9; see also Ibn Barrajān 2010. 7 Theological works, such as the Blessed Creed (al-ʿAqīdah al-Mubārakah) attributed to Abū Madyan were actually penned by a much later Sufi of Fez, Abū Madyan ibn Muḥammad al-Fāsī (d. 1768). V. Cornell’s edition of the works attributed to Abū Madyan (1996) should be evaluated in the light of Gril’s (2016) caveat. 8 See al-Tustarī 2011, 126 (Q.20:111); Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī 1996, 35, 96–98; al-Sulamī 2001, Q.20:111, 449; al-Sarrāj 1914, 88–89; ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī in Farhadi 1996, 67; al-Sulamī 2009, 129–30; al-Qushayrī 1969, 209–11; Samʿānī 1989, 495; Chittick 1999; Rūzbihān Baqlī in Ernst 1996, 41, 104, 162; Baqlī 2008, 2:503; Dāya Rāzī 1982, 71; Kubrā and al-Simnānī 2009, 1:327–28; Hamza et al. 2008, 127–297; Mayer 2008, 267. 9 Austin’s edition of the Sufis of Andalusia briefly mentions the encounter, but it misrepresents the debate as related to “the knowledge of the divine Name the (necessarily) Self-subsistent” (Ibn ʿArabī 1971, 26). However, all accounts in the two works of Ibn ʿArabī coherently and clearly explain that the disagreement is rather on the experiential accessibility of the divine name “Self-Subsistent” to human emulation (takhallūq). 10 Al-Māturīdī (d. 944) ascribes the same distinction to the Muʿtazilite Abū al-Qāsim al-Balkhī, known as al-Kaʿbī (d. 931) (al-Māturīdī 2003, 113; also see Cerić 1995, 178–79). Compare Abū Ḥanīfah in Wensinck [1932] 2008, 188; Elias 1995, 65. 11 Ḥanafī-Karrāmī theologian Abū Muṭīʿ Makḥūl al-Nasafī’s (d. 930) Book of Widest Insight (Kitāb al-Fiqh al-Absaṭ) was the earliest work in Transoxania (modern-day Uzbekistan) to discuss the divine attributes in detail. Both Makḥūl al-Nasafī and later al-Māturīdī seem to adopt this distinction from Jahm ibn Ṣafwān, of whose thought Makḥūl al-Nasafī even wrote a refutation (Rudolph 2015, 279–80). 12 For example, see al-Rāzī and al-Ṭūsī 1978, 158; al-Kātibī, al-Rāzī, and Ibn Kammūnah 2007, 51; al-Bayḍāwī 2014, 174–77; Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī in Chittick 1992, 72; Madelung 1988, 41–42; Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī in Walbridge 1992, 265–66 (Arabic text), 227–28 (English translation). Al-Māturīdī’s unequivocal critique of this doctrine was key for the later Ḥanafīsm in Transoxania, as earlier representatives were sympathetic to Ibn al-Karrām’s ideas (al-Māturīdī 2003, 114). 13 David Burrell’s monumental comparative study has already demonstrated the unknowability of the divine essence among the major representatives of medieval philosophy in Abrahamic religions. Accordingly, God’s being the creator is a form of connecting Him to creation that also disconnects Him from it. Burrell traced the thread of this simultaneous “distinction” and “connection” across the works of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), Moses Maimonides (d. 1204), and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1225) (Burrell 1986, 1–32). 14 The titles of the relevant three sections of the book are as follows: Discussion of the claim that God cannot be apprehended by a sixth sense, as reported from Ḍirār (Masʾala fī anna llāh lā yajūzu an yudraka bi-ḥāssa sādisa ʿalā mā yuḥkā ʿan Ḍirār); Discussion on the invalidation of Ḍirār’s claim that God has an essence that only He can know (Masʾala fī ibṭāl mā dhahaba ilayhi Ḍirār anna li-llāh taʿālā māʾiyya lā yaʿlimuhā illā huwa); Discussion of the claim that God cannot be known by children unless they are granted by God otherwise (Masʾala fī anna-llāh taʿālā lā yajūzu an yuʿlima al-aṭfāl illā wa-yuḍamminu al-ʿiwaḍ ʿalayhi) (Abū Rashīd al-Nīsabūrī in Ansari and Schmidtke 2010, 248–49). 15 Diverse claims for divine knowability appear in the earliest doxographies. Abū ʿĀṣim Khushaysh ibn Asram al-Naṣāʾī (d. 867), for example, mentions an early antinomian group called the “pneumatics” (rūḥāniyyah), who claimed direct vision of and communication with God (al-Naṣāʾī in Karamustafa 2014, 102). 16 See Abrahamov 2014, 63. A variant of the principle is attributed, surprisingly, to Muqātil Ibn Sulaymān (d. 767) by Ibn Taymiyyah. Accordingly, Muqātil stated that “only God knows the truth of His situation [fa Allāh aʿlam bi ḥaqīqati ḥālihī]” (Sirry 2012, 79). While the doxographies of al-Ashʿarī, Ibn Ḥazm, and others depicted him as an “extreme anthropomorphist,” recent studies and his own extant Qurʾān commentary have shown that Muqātil’s approach to anthropomorphic verses was in fact very close to that of the traditionist scholars of his time. 17 Al-Qushayrī says that Shah al-Kirmānī died before 300 AH/912 CE (Al-Qushayrī 2007, 52). Yet in another occasion in his Epistle [Risālah], we learn that Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 896) was actually alive when Shah al-Kirmānī died (Al-Qushayrī 2007, 246–47). In any case, al-Naṣrābādhī should have had an unusually long life to have a theological debate with al-Kirmānī. 18 Interestingly, however, al-Aharī argues that “Self-Sufficiency” is applicable only to God, unknowable to human beings. Al-Aharī argues that God’s essential Self-Sufficiency has two dimensions: one His being in need of nothing for existence, the other His being the source of the existence of everything else. In both meanings, argues al-Aharī, “Self-Sufficiency” is a name “peculiar to God, and nobody has entrance to it by no means, neither literally not metaphorically” (al-Aharī 1979, 123–24). 19 One should not forget that it was indeed the Muʿtazilites who provided the first proofs of God’s existence (Van Ess 2006, 87–89). References ʿAbd al-Jabbār Ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādī. 1996. Sharḥ al-Uṣūl al-Khamsah.  3rd ed. 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