Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader.
John Renard has produced a series of readers on Islamic themes in recent years, among them Windows on the House of Islam: Muslim Sources on Spirituality and Religious Life (1998) and Tales of God's Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation (2009). These books have been constructed with pedagogical aims in mind and, as such, they make a considerable contribution to the resources available in our discipline. It can also not be denied that such volumes are functional for many of us already in the profession, providing ready access to material with which we might not yet be fully familiar and supplying fluent translations of sometimes challenging material from which we can benefit.
This latest reader is of substantial interest, in part because it develops the idea of theological themes much further than one might expect in such a context. Structured in five sections, the book commences in part one with the Quran and hadith and their interpretation, just as one might well anticipate. Themes of transcendence, immanence, revelation, freedom, and responsibility are highlighted in the scriptural sources. Exegetical treatments are provided of the "throne verse" (Q 2:255) in summary form and of the "light verse" (Q 24:35) in fuller form with texts from Avicenna, al-Ghazali, al-Tabrisi, and Mawdudi, followed by statements related to the principles of exegesis from 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Suyuti, and Khu'i. From this beginning the character of the work starts to become clear: the coverage is broad confessionally, geographically, and historically. Parts two and three of the work likewise incorporate standard material following theological themes that are often portrayed as the core of Islamic theology. These deal, in part two, "Mapping the Boundaries," with "the boundaries of true belief"--through creedal statements, expositions of attitudes to other religions, and highlights of intra-Muslim polemic (on heresy); and in part three, "The Science of Divine Unity," with attention to miracles, divine perpetual creativity, divine speech, and the vision of God. Again, the translated sources range widely so as to include Sunni (broadly conceived), Sufi, Twelver Shi'i, Isma'ili, and Ibadi perspectives with representatives from the central Islamic lands as well as Java and China, and highlights from the formative period down to modern times.
The remainder of the book, however, follows an explicit goal that wishes to "broaden conceptions ... beyond the confines of traditional 'philosophical theology'." This results in attention being given to theological themes related to the spiritual quest and its literary expression (in part four), and ethics and governance (in part five). The selections maintain their catholic character, ranging broadly to include al-Hujwiri, Ibn al-'Arabi, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Ibn Tufayl, Shaykh al-Mufid, Ibn Hazm, Muhammad 'Abduh, and Muhammad Iqbal, among many others. A result of this breadth of the definition of theological themes, however, is the lack of depth in individual pieces of literature that are provided. Selections tend to be brief and often they have been edited with an eye for readability. The book is composed of seventy-one segments of translated texts (plus one for Quran) overall and they vary in length from two to nine pages, with an average of about four. The disadvantage of this approach is that readers do not always get a full sense of the literary context in which these pieces were originally situated: no sense of the construction of an author's overall argument can possibly emerge. This problem is, of course, endemic to the genre of "reader" and it is the responsibility of the instructor using such a text to contextualize the material appropriately and help students appreciate the larger framework within which these extracted texts operate.
The translations that Renard has provided come from a variety of sources. Some were published by other scholars previously and are presented here as selected extracts; these sections have frequently been updated ("freshened up" in Renard's words). Some sources have been specifically translated by Renard and others for this volume. One source was previously translated but had remained unpublished until now: Richard McCarthy's 1951 Oxford Ph.D. thesis containing translations of al-Baqillani, from which three extracts are provided. While all the translations are documented with the source from which they come, neither the name nor the edition of the primary text from which the translation is derived is generally cited. Further, all translations have been edited with an eye to their pedagogical purpose and thus scholarly footnotes and clarification of the original terms being translated are generally not present even if they were in the original. While these factors limit the functionality of the book for scholarly purposes, some students may well be thankful for this absence of confusing technicalities.
Having tried my hand at two volumes for students in the "reader in Islamic texts" genre, I know well the challenges of putting together such works. Renard is to be congratulated for this unique contribution that will, I hope, entice a new generation of students to take an interest in advanced studies in Islamic theology in its many manifestations.
University of Victoria; Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
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|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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