Their aim was to shift the debate from theology to jurisprudence and law. Rather than focusing on God's attributes and essence, attention should be directed, they argued, to man's behavior and actions in compliance or lack thereof with God's law. But when al-Ash'ari c. The Ash'arite school became the theological representative of the mainstream Sunni Muslims. With the rise of Ash'arism some theological issues lost their appeal, though new ones have emerged, for instance, concerning the question of perception as an independent source of knowledge in contrast to revelation.
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Like the Mu'tazilites before them, most of the Ash'arite scholars argued that perception is a source of knowledge. None of them, however, maintained as did the ancient Geek materialists and modern crude Western empiricists that perception is the only source of knowledge. According to Ash'arism, knowledge that is derived from the senses is legitimate, but it must be subordinated to the revealed truth, if certainty is to be attained.
In this view, revelation has an epistemological as well as a social function. In addition to illuminating the wider picture of oneself, the world, human existence, and ultimate human ends, it also serves to free the individual from irrational fear of natural forces, and instills in him a tendency to attempt a systematic understanding of these forces and their impact on human life. The revealed vision, moreover, liberates the individual from subordination to the ego and ethnocentrism and the dehumanization of the other that hinders rational argument and understanding. But this balance between the revealed vision and the inquisitive mind has not always been maintained.
In contrast to the Sunnis, who struggle to maintain a distinction between God and humans, the Shia contend that the distance that separates God from human souls is the source of all evil. Engulfed in matter, and cut off from their origins, human souls have no hope of being saved except through knowledge irfan. But the redeeming knowledge, wherein God reveals himself and his divine designs, is attainable only through the guardians whom God assigns to accompany the prophets. Prophets bring the outer zahir divine command, whereas the guardians initiate people into the batin, or inner commands.
Borrowing this element of batin, the Sufis, on the other hand, developed a slightly different theory of knowledge.
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For them, understanding the divine sources of Islam rests neither in holy guardians nor in language, but on the "people of reality" ahl al-haqiqa. They maintained that the Koran includes certain divine secrets and subtleties asrar wa lata'if that only the people of reality — Sufis — are capable of understanding. It was mainly due to such tendencies of batini esoteric interpretations that a barrier of mistrust developed among Shia, Sufi, and Sunni jurists in Islamic history.
Instead of debating the nature of God's attributes, the new questions for debate asked what it means for a term to have a specific meaning, and how one can know that a statement is true.
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These questions led eventually to the evolution of the philosophy of language, mysticism, logic, and jurisprudence as new Islamic disciplines. Opposing these Shia and Sufi trends of interpretation, most Sunni jurists resorted to the tradition of the Prophet and classic Arabic usage of language, employing the first as an explicit code of conduct and the second as an objective code of meaning.
Both were meant to restrict extreme tendencies of interpretation. Closely related to these debates was the issue of the source of moral knowledge and obligation. Conceiving God as the ultimately wise and just Being, the Mu'tazilites refused to establish a relation between God and evil. Endowed with a free will , they argued, humans are the authors of their own actions and ought to be rewarded or punished accordingly.
Moral judgment and knowledge, in their view, stems from human reason, which can independently distinguish between good and bad. For Sunni scholars, it was all very well to emphasize a person's capacity to reason. What they found objectionable, however, was the assertion that human reason is the sole criterion of truth and behavior, or that by following the dictates of reason alone one can be virtuous and attain happiness.
This tinge of Aristotelian rationalism was thought to be irreconcilable with Islam's sources of guidance, reason, and revelation.
It is curious, however, that the Mu'tazilites' philosophical method, as well as some of the unresolved problems they left behind, have become, despite their political defeat, an important source of intellectual ferment in Muslim thought. Some of the issues they raised persisted and were pursued, with more moderation, by other eminent linguists, commentators, and philosophers. The political movements and philosophical trends that prevailed in the older Islamic world did not immediately sway African Muslims.
Even the process of linguistic and ethnic Arabization, in which the indigenous peoples acquired Arabic as their language and connected themselves in the Arab tribal system, did not take hold immediately, nor did it proceed equally in all regions. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that the level of Arabization that took place had a huge impact in transmitting the new Islamic outlook — words, ideas, and behavior usually being interconnected. Similar to the performance of hajj that we have mentioned earlier, learning the Arabic language and writing in it had also become an important instrument for linking the fledgling African religious elites, especially in the relatively stable mosque-colleges that emerged in the western, eastern, and central regions of the continent, enriching and authenticating a genuine Islamic civilization.
In some of these mosque-colleges, works of al-Muhasibi, the famous Sufi of Baghdad c. It should also be noted that the traditional rift between the ulama doctors of law and the Sufis, which prevailed in the older Muslim regions, had been mitigated in these new African centers of learning. Along the eastern coast and the Nile, the Arabized and Islamized Nubians, Beja, and Somalis developed, since the fourteenth century, indigenous Sufi brotherhoods that succeeded in blending law with Sufism. Maliki and Shafi'i jurists did, in some cases, embrace Sufism.
The traditional Islamic principle affirming that the ulama are the heirs of the prophets had nearly been actualized in the African situation. African Muslim ulama had truly become the points of intersection of religious and political ideas, activism, ethnicity, and intellectualism.
The groups that coalesced around the ulama would usually become the indigenous vehicles through which Islam acquired its significance as a basis of political power and resource mobilization. The reasons for this are not hard to find. The scholar serves mainly as a spiritual mentor who helps the people, through sessions of recitation and meditation, to relate to God. Demands for spiritual help necessitate close contact and regular sessions with the scholar during which certain litanies dhikr are chanted, thus sharing in the blessing of the Koran and the Prophet.
In these ways the scholar shapes individual behavior.
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Moreover, the ulama would naturally, as scholars, investigate, describe, analyze, and explain, but as citizens most of them would be deeply embedded in the social and political structures of their communities. Their scholarship would not be disconnected from their social and political activities and commitments. This is what gave some of them particular force, encouraging political groups and movements to identify with them and with their ideas.
To make this clearer we may take the example of Muhammad ibn Sahnun, of the Qairawan mosque-college, who was responsible for the promotion of Malikism in Africa. The Qairawan, where he and his disciples taught, became the citadel of Sunnism. Some of their works for example, the Mudawana, the Risala, and the Mukhtasar have become important sources of Islamic thought and have had the greatest influence on African Muslim communities.
The Maliki trend took a more serious turn when Ibn Tumart c. It is therefore reasonable to contend that most Islamic social and political movements that had a significant impact on African communities were the outgrowth of a type of ulama -tribal alliance. The rise of Shiism in North and West Africa; the expansion of Malikism and the Sufi brotherhoods; and the revolutionary jihadist movements are prominent examples of the crucial role of the ulama -tribal alliances. African Islam features local and international dimensions. African Muslims, on the one hand, observe their faith with relative independence as there is no internal body which regulates their religious activities.
There are thus notable varieties and distinctions with the Islamic practices observed across the continent. African Muslims, on the other hand, participate in the ummah and they keep up with the current events and global concerns. Muslims residing in Africa maintain close links with the larger Muslim world. Most African Muslim republics have their legal codes influenced by Sharia law.
Most States observe the law in such matters as divorce, child custody, marriage, and inheritance. Secularism is seen as a threat only in northern Nigeria while in other parts of the continent, Muslims and non-Muslims co-exist peacefully. African Muslims mainly subscribe to the Sunni denomination, but there are populations of Ibadi observers and Shias.
Sufism has adherents in Sudan and West Africa, most of whom are syncretic and include traditional folklore beliefs in their Sufism practices.
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This page was last updated on September 21, By Benjamin Elisha Sawe. Your Chicago Citation Copy to Clipboard. Your Harvard Citation Remember to italicize the title of this article in your Harvard citation. As we have pointed out in earlier chapters Madina was the center for the Maliki School of Fiqh. It was natural that Maliki scholars, attracted by the prosperity of Kairouan and of the Spanish cities, moved to North Africa.
Some of these scholars accompanied the trade caravans south of the Sahara to the Sudan belt.
For the last thousand years, Islamic jurisprudence of the Maliki School, together with the institution of Hajj, has provided a vital civilizational link between West Africa and the rest of the Muslim world. Mutual trade interests between the Umayyads who controlled the Maghrib and the kingdom of Ghana not to be confused with the modern state of Ghana, the ancient kingdom of Ghana was centered around southern Mali helped the flow of merchants and merchandise.
Ghana controlled the gold mines to the south and as trade increased, it required an increasing supply of gold. The Omayyads, as well as successor kingdoms in the Maghrib, saw to it that trade routes were protected. They established trade centers along the caravan routes to enhance the flow of goods and ensure the safety of merchants. The primary export of West Africa was gold.
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