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Religious Beliefs

David R. Vishanoff
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

Religious Beliefs

The carefully cultivated image of a Muslim community united around a simple set of basic beliefs masks a history of vigorous debate about God, creation, humanity, prophethood, ethics, salvation, and the Muslim community itself. In order to understand the religious discourse of Muslims, it is helpful to imagine Islam not as a static and monolithic core of essential beliefs but as a continuing story of inquiry and argument around these seven topics. The terms in which they are discussed have changed over time, but the fundamental questions over which Muslims grapple remain the same.

At each stage in its history the Muslim community can be carved up into named groups that are associated with opposing views on one or more of these topics. Muslims of the first few Islamic centuries are often labeled Murjiʾī, Khārijī, or Qadarī, depending on their answers to certain questions about salvation and the Muslim community. For later periods this division is replaced by the categories of Sunnī and Shīʿī. Since the rise of kalām (a form of theology elaborated through rational argument), its practitioners, the theologians, are distinguished from its opponents, the traditionalists. Theologians are classified principally as Muʿtazilī, Ashʿarī, or Māturīdī. (These Arabic terms ending in -ī should be used only to characterize individuals and ideas, as in “a Muʿtazilī doctrine,” “a Shīʿī thinker,” or simply “a Shīʿī,” i.e., a Shīʿī individual. The corresponding substantives, which often end in -ah or -īyah, should be used only to designate entire groups, e.g., “among the Shīʿah,” “the Ashʿarīyah believed. …” Anglicized forms ending in -ite may be used both ways: “Shiite thought,” “a Shiite thinker,” “the Shiites.”)

Alongside the traditionalists and the several schools of theologians we may distinguish the philosophers, who developed Islamic versions of Neoplatonic thought, as well as laypeople without formal training in religious thought, whose “popular” beliefs sometimes coincide with those of traditionalists, and sometimes depart from them markedly. Many theologians, philosophers, traditionalists, and laypeople are simultaneously Ṣūfīs, meaning that they belong to one of many Islamic traditions of mysticism or spiritual practice. In modern times Muslims are often classified as traditionalist, modernist, Islamist, or secularist; in this classification “traditionalist” has a new sense, designating those who believe classical theology and law are still relevant and adequate for the modern world. There are, of course, many other terms used to make finer distinctions among Muslims, but these are the most common terms for the most prominent groups, whose views will be sketched in what follows.


The Qurʾān calls human beings to worship and serve wholeheartedly the God who created them, who sustains them, and who will someday resurrect and judge them. It presents this God as both powerful and compassionate, vengeful yet forgiving, utterly transcendent but intimately involved in the affairs of his creatures. Above all, the Qurʾān insists that God is one—unique and unrivalled, without peer, partner, or offspring.

On all this Muslims agree. With remarkably little dissent they have worked out long lists of the ninety-nine “most beautiful names” of God, dividing them into “names of beauty” and “names of majesty.” The former include names like Merciful, Peace, Forgiving, Provider, Generous, Gentle, Loving, and Patient; the latter include King, Mighty, Victorious, Powerful, Forceful, Avenger, Judge, Reckoner, and Afflicter. Theologians have developed shorter lists of God's essential attributes, such as eternity, self-subsistence, power, knowledge, life, will, hearing, and sight. These are typically distinguished from God's attributes of action, which include creating, sustaining, justice, and mercy. What is remarkable about all these lists is how much they coincide. Minor differences in how Muslims enumerate or classify God's attributes do not substantially change their portrait of him. What distinguishes Muslims is how they conceive of these attributes—what they think it means for God to be one, powerful, or just. For some Muslims, God's justice is inscrutable, his power is arbitrary, and his oneness makes him incomprehensible. Others imagine God as intimately bound up with his creatures, completely dedicated to their welfare, connected and accessible to them mentally, spiritually, or even physically.

Indeed, some early Muslims claimed that God actually has some kind of physical body. Such views eventually became historical curiosities, remembered only as outlandish heresies, but they were not without scriptural support. The Qurʾān itself refers to God's hand, face, and eyes, and says that he sits upon a throne and will be seen by humans in the afterlife. Some theologians, wishing to protect God's transcendence, developed metaphorical interpretations of these anthropomorphisms: God's hand means his power, his face means his existence, his eyes mean his watchfulness, and so on. Traditionalists and some Ashʿarī theologians, however, felt that the Qurʾān's statements about God should not be reinterpreted so lightly. They insisted that God really does have a face and hands, but qualified this by saying that they are not like a human face and hands. When pressed, they refused to say what those words actually mean when applied to God; they would only affirm them “without explanation” or “without [asking] how” (bi-lā kayf). Opponents of this position labeled it tashbīh—“making God like” created beings—but, in fact, it put God beyond the grasp of human comprehension and language.

For Muʿtazilī theologians, God was necessarily comprehensible, because they started with human concepts such as existence, power, life, and knowledge, and then sought to demonstrate through rational inference which of those attributes God must have. For them God's character was, in effect, a human construct. At the other end of the spectrum, proponents of “negative theology” responded that if God is one and without peer, he cannot be like his creatures in any respect, so even his essential attributes such as power and knowledge must be unlike human power and knowledge. Such words do not express God's nature in terms that humans can understand; they are just names that God has ascribed to himself in revelation, which humans must repeat without really grasping what they mean.

Those who made God incomprehensible were motivated by God's oneness (tawḥīd)—a central doctrine that Muslims have interpreted in many creative and contrasting ways. In the Qurʾān this doctrine was a simple condemnation of Arab polytheism and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but eventually it had to be refined. Muslims were compelled to explain how they could affirm God's eternal attributes of life, knowledge, and power without positing a multiplicity of eternal beings or persons as the Christians did. Some early Muʿtazilīs accomplished this by denying that God has distinct qualities called attributes at all; he is simply God, and his attributes are nothing but his own essence. Ashʿarī theologians responded that the Muʿtazilah had shorn God of his attributes, and insisted instead that God is knowing and powerful because there are entities called knowledge and power that subsist eternally in his essence; but they had to clarify that these entities are neither identical to God nor yet other than God. Another explanation was that some of God's attributes are merely states of his being: God does not have knowledge, he just “is knowingly.”

One especially troublesome attribute was God's speech. The Muʿtazilah argued that God's speech should be defined as a sequence of sounds produced in time by the speaker, just like human speech. This makes the Qurʾān one of God's created acts, thus neatly avoiding the Christian notion that God has an eternal Word. This doctrine was officially adopted by the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn (r. 813–833), but it was widely rejected. Traditionalists felt that it diminished the Qurʾān's status as divine revelation, and affirmed that the Qurʾān must be eternal. The Ashʿarīyah and Māturīdīyah sought to have it both ways: they argued that the words and letters of the written and recited Qurʾān are indeed created, but they are not themselves God's attribute of speech; they are merely an expression of the meanings or ideas that constitute his “inner speech” (kalām nafsī), which is an attribute subsisting eternally in God's essence, neither identical with God nor yet distinct from him.

For the theologians, rightly affirming God's oneness meant figuring out how to talk about God's attributes without positing multiple eternal beings. For Ṣūfīs, rightly affirming God's oneness means recognizing that only God truly exists, and losing all independent sense of selfhood in an experience of union with God. Some Ṣūfīs have emphasized the personal side of this doctrine: the soul's love and longing for God, and its quest to overcome its grievous sense of separation from God. Ṣūfīs with philosophical inclinations developed God's oneness into a more systematic doctrine of “the unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd). Drawing on Islamicized versions of Neoplatonic thought, they argued that the created world is merely a manifestation, at a less abstract and more particular level, of God's eternal being. In this metaphysical system, God is unknowable in and of himself, but his attributes can be grasped by the human mind, not because they are human rational constructs, as in the Muʿtazilī system, but because human categories of thought are reflections of God's attributes. This way of affirming God's oneness made God accessible to his creation both intellectually and experientially, but many Muslim traditionalists and theologians have argued that it undermines God's uniqueness by identifying creation with its creator.

In modern times this Neoplatonic understanding of God's oneness continues to find eloquent exponents among heirs of the Iranian Ishrāqī philosophical tradition, such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The more technical theological debates about God's attributes, however, have been replaced by more modern concerns. At a popular level, the doctrine of God's oneness has been interpreted as a critique of the modern “idolatries” of materialism and consumerism. It has also been interpreted as a social and political doctrine, most strikingly by Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966), who argued that to affirm God's oneness means above all to submit unquestioningly to God alone, which requires eliminating all forms of human legislation in favor of a purely Islamic government. For him, as for many prior thinkers, God's oneness makes him an imperious Other unaccountable to the human intellect.

Another attribute that Muslims affirm unanimously but understand in diverse ways is God's power. The Qurʾān asserts God's unqualified sovereignty over his creatures, yet simultaneously asserts that humans have control of their own choices and will be held responsible for them. Some early Muslims, labeled the Qadarīyah, insisted that humans bring about their own actions freely, while their critics argued that since only God can create things, human actions can only result from God's decree and power. The Qadarī position became a central doctrine of the Muʿtazilah, and remained common among Shīʿī theologians, but among Sunnīs it came to be considered a grave heresy. Traditionalists, the Ashʿarīyah, and (in their own way) the Māturīdīyah affirmed that God determines all events—not only the circumstances of peoples’ lives but also their responses to those circumstances. God even wills and decrees the impiety and unbelief of the infidels and creates their sinful actions and their unbelief, yet commands them to believe, and punishes them for failing to do so. The Ashʿarīyah sought to explain this with their doctrine of acquisition (kasb): human actions are created solely by God, but when God creates a person's action he also simultaneously creates in that person a certain kind of power over that action, so that the person “acquires” it in the sense of taking on moral responsibility for it, even though he or she did not have the power to do otherwise.

Islamic Neoplatonic philosophy likewise entails a strict determinism: nothing could be otherwise than the way it is, because no part of creation has any independent existence; particular historical facts are simply reflections of a single timeless and necessary Truth, which is God himself. For these philosophers, and for the Ṣūfīs who share their vision of the world, determinism is inescapable but not unwelcome; in fact, it can have great spiritual significance. Since the Ṣūfī quest aims at identifying one's own will and attributes with God's will and attributes, an important step along the path is to recognize that what one takes to be one's own actions are in fact God's.

Many Muslims today, however, are wedded to a modern individualism and existentialism that require personal choice and decision as the sine qua non of spiritual and moral life. They may readily affirm that God determines the circumstances of a person's life, but they typically insist that humans have full control over their responses to those circumstances. Lay Muslims seldom recognize how starkly their belief in free will contradicts what was formerly considered orthodox Sunnī doctrine, but some modern thinkers have explicitly acknowledged their agreement with the Muʿtazilah on this issue, arguing that Ashʿarī doctrine encouraged fatalism and contributed to the intellectual and economic stagnation of Muslim societies, and that only a robust doctrine of free will can promote needed social, political, and economic reforms. Like the question of how to interpret God's oneness, the question of whether and how humans share God's attribute of power has become a sociopolitical issue.

A related debate revolves around God's attribute of justice. The most compelling argument for free will is that a just God cannot punish people for sinful actions they have no choice but to perform. This argument holds God accountable to a human conception of justice, which fits the Muʿtazilī view that God's attributes are analogous to human attributes. In this world a wise and just person only does what is good, and since God is necessarily wise and just and self-sufficient (so that he has no need to do anything for his own benefit) he can only do what is in the best interest of his creatures. He cannot cause suffering without ensuring that it results in an even greater blessing in this life or in the hereafter, and he cannot impose obligations without knowing that they are ultimately for the benefit of his servants. The world God has created must be the best of all possible worlds, and any evil in it can only result from the free actions of human beings.

The problem with this view, according to many traditionalists and Ashʿarī theologians, is that it puts a transcendent God in a box constructed by humans. No one denied that God is, in fact, just; they denied that God has to measure up to some human conception of justice. Whatever God does is just, simply because God does it. Whatever God wills people to do they do, whether good or evil, and God rewards or punishes that good or evil as he chooses, and this is justice on his part. This view of justice, which came to be regarded as Sunnī orthodoxy, preserved the transcendent unpredictability and arbitrariness of God's actions and decrees and laws, against those who wanted to make God more accessible to human understanding.

Contemporary Muslim thinkers have raised again the question of God's justice, this time with an eye to its implications for human life and society. While traditionalists continue to view God's justice as inscrutable at least in principle, Islamists and modernists alike have been quick to project their own conceptions of justice onto God, interpreting his commands in keeping with their own diverse visions of social justice. Muslim liberation theologians such as the South African antiapartheid activist Farid Esack have chosen to understand God's justice through the lens of their own experience of struggling against oppression, and have made that very concrete and human conception of God's justice their key to interpreting the Qurʾān. Once again an old discussion of one of God's attributes has been revived as a matter of sociopolitical import, and the old orthodox view of God as an imperious Other imposing his inscrutable will is being challenged by Muslims who imagine God instead as a sympathetic reflection of their own concepts, values, and aspirations.


A similar distinction runs through Muslim conceptions of God's creation: some regard it as a world of independent particulars disconnected from each other and from God; others see it as a seamless whole, connected to God as part of an integrated spiritual and material universe.

The Qurʾān echoes the Bible's account of creation but does not elaborate upon it. It tells the story mainly to define humanity as God's earthly vice-regents, endowed by their creator with a special knowledge and responsibility that were not given to either the angels (heavenly beings important mainly for their role in delivering God's revelations to his prophets) or the jinn (genies, ethereal beings made from fire who inhabit the earth alongside humans as a separate species of rational and religious beings). The Qurʾān points out the goodness of humanity's physical environment, but its main thrust is to get humans to look beyond the horizons of their present experience, to see the natural world in light of the supernatural power that sustains and controls it, and to consider this earthly life (al-dunyā) in light of a future life after death (al-ākhirah) that makes this world pale in significance. The Qurʾān repudiates materialism in every sense, condemning materialistic cupidity, a naturalistic worldview, and the attitude (called dahrīyah) that this life is all there is. While it does not disparage the natural world, the Qurʾān presents it primarily as a set of signs that point to a supernatural reality.

Because the Qurʾān does not articulate a systematic theory of physical and spiritual reality, Muslims have been free to develop their views of the universe in very different directions. Theologians developed integrated metaphysical systems that allowed them to discuss the earthly and supernatural realms using one consistent vocabulary. They used the terminology of the Greek philosophical traditions not only to discuss God and his attributes but also to explore notions of time, space, causality, and the relationship between universal categories and particular things, using words such as substance, atom, essence, attribute, and accident. For a time there was sharp competition between several ways of talking about the material world, but the theory that finally prevailed among theologians was atomistic: all material beings are composed of indivisible units called atoms, which are characterized by properties called accidents. The dominant theory was also occasionalist: each atom and all its properties are created anew by God at every occasion, that is, at every moment in time. This atomistic and occasionalist theory eliminated all direct physical causality: things are the way they are not because of past events but only because God chooses to create them as they are at the present moment. God habitually chooses to create things in predictable patterns and sequences—if he creates a person in the act of dropping a glass at one moment, he usually creates broken shards of glass the next—but he could just as well proceed to create an intact glass floating in the air, or no glass at all. Such unusual events are miracles, which God occasionally creates in order to validate his prophets’ claims of divine revelation; but apart from this special religious significance, miracles are no different from ordinary mundane events, because both are equally possible and depend equally on God's decision to create them. This atomistic natural philosophy, like the doctrine of God's predetermination of events, contributes to the concept of a transcendent, imperious, and inscrutable God who controls his creation without being bound to it in any way.

The most enduring alternative to this atomistic view of the universe was formulated on the basis of Greek Neoplatonic thought by Muslim philosophers and mystics such as al-Fārābī (d. 950), Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1037), and Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240). These thinkers viewed the universe as a great chain of being, of which God is the ultimate cause and the unifying principle. This cosmic chain comprises several levels of being, from intellectual abstractions down to the concreteness of unformed matter; but all these dimensions of reality are actually manifestations of God. In this vision of the universe, God and creation are not different beings, for there is only one Being. In this system, as in the Ashʿarī metaphysic, everything that happens is fully determined by God, but in this case everything is determined by God's necessary and unchanging nature, not by God's inscrutable and unpredictable will. The more radical and philosophical Ṣūfī mystics who adopted this theory of the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) viewed their life in this created realm as a participation in the nature and will of God. Their spiritual struggle was not to change the course of their lives through moral effort but to recognize more clearly that even the most mundane events reflect, in a veiled way, some aspect of God's character.

This integrative metaphysic, which links nature to God and the spiritual world, has gained some popularity in the modern period. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, for example, has argued that the modern natural sciences deal not with what is most real but with what is least real—observable material phenomena that simply mirror what occurs in the spiritual realm. In this view, miracles are not violations of natural law that modern people should dismiss as superstitious fables; they are reflections of spiritual realities that scientists cannot account for because of their materialist presuppositions.

A more common direction in modern Muslim thought has been to adopt the naturalistic discourse of science while asserting that it is compatible with the Qurʾān's claims about both the natural and supernatural realms. The Indian modernist Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (d. 1898), for instance, argued that, although the Qurʾān appears to affirm prescientific beliefs such as a geocentric model of the universe, it can always be reinterpreted from the perspective of each new scientific advance, so that it always turns out to be compatible with, or even to have anticipated, each new discovery about nature. This line of thinking has been developed by fundamentalists who mine the Qurʾān for intimations of scientific discoveries such as the water cycle, embryonic biology, and nuclear energy. By embracing modern science, and by abandoning both the atomistic occasionalism of the theologians and the Neoplatonic cosmology of the philosophers, modernists and fundamentalists alike have lost the ability to talk about God and creation using a single vocabulary, and have split theology and natural philosophy into separate and incommensurate discourses.


The Qurʾān sets human beings within the natural world as God's vice-regents, equipped and authorized to rule creation—not according to their own desires but in obedience to God. The Qurʾān tells how the first man, Adam, and all his descendants (while still “in Adam's loins”) entered into a primordial covenant with God, recognizing his authority over them and their duty to worship, obey, and give him thanks. Adam and his wife broke that covenant by disobeying, and consequently were banished from paradise to dwell on earth for a time, but they were not cursed or cut off from God; on the contrary, God forgave their sin, which the Qurʾān presents as due to their inattentiveness and the temptations of Satan rather than any inherent human rebelliousness. Their descendants still possess a basically sound and upright nature (fiṭrah) and are still just as capable as Adam and Eve of resisting temptation, following God's instructions, and earning his reward. What they fundamentally need, therefore, is not transformation but information: guidance to keep them on the straight path.

Muslims tend to emphasize either the spiritual or the moral dimension of that path. Ṣūfīs seldom deny the importance of outward morality, but they see the most crucial human struggles as inward and psychological. They tend to have a more dramatic sense of the soul's true nature—its primordial state of communion with God, to which it will ultimately return—and also of its present experience of sinfulness and alienation from God. They emphasize the individual's inner struggle, not only against the temptations of Satan but also against the lower part of the human soul, the nafs. They have developed elaborate and subtle theories of the human psyche, and have charted in detail the spiritual practices and stages through which the soul must pass as it struggles to recover its true nature and overcome its illusory sense of separation from God. According to this Ṣūfī vision of the human condition, what people need most is the guidance of a spiritual master who knows his or her disciples intimately and tailors their course of meditative practice to the particular ills of the heart from which they suffer.

The most pervasive emphasis of Islamic thought, however, is the moral path. The whole edifice of Islamic law, or Sharīʿah, is grounded in a vision of God as a lawgiver and humans as his servants. This vision presupposes that humans are by nature capable of fulfilling God's commands, and that what they need most is simply knowledge and awareness of God and his law. Muslims disagree sharply, however, about whether humans are by nature capable of achieving that knowledge on their own, or whether they are utterly dependent on God to grant them that knowledge through revelation.

Neoplatonic philosophers argued that knowledge of God and of the good is an intellectual achievement and that revelation is only an aide for lesser minds. The Muʿtazilah agreed that human reason and experience are sufficient to reach a great deal of truth about God and his requirements. They argued that revelation must be interpreted in conformity with the dictates of reason and that it cannot even be trusted until reason has first established that God exists, that he is wise, that he cannot lie, that he has revealed his will through prophetic books, and that the Qurʾān is one such book.

The Qurʾān itself suggests that reflection upon the evidence of nature and history should be sufficient to teach humans about God and justice, but it also asserts that God has revealed himself through prophets and scriptures, including Muḥammad and the Qurʾān. In the centuries following the Prophet's death, some Muslims (including the Khārijīyah) argued that the Qurʾān should be Muslims’ sole source of guidance. The Shīʿah emphasized the need for living interpreters of revelation who could continue to function as guarantors of truth, just as the Prophet had; they therefore sought authoritative pronouncements on matters of belief and behavior from their imams, descendants of the Prophet whom they regarded as endowed by God with infallible knowledge. Other Muslims appealed to the community itself as an infallible criterion: Muslims should believe and do what the community has always believed and done. This epistemology was formalized as adherence to the sunnah (way or practice or precedent) and ijmāʿ (consensus) of the community—whence their claim to be ahl al-sunnah wa-al-jamāʿah (the people of the way and of the community), from which is derived the label “Sunnī.” Eventually Sunnīs shifted their emphasis to the authority of ḥadīth (reports about the sunnah of the Prophet Muḥammad), especially those selected and compiled by the scholars al-Bukhārī and Muslim. In this way Sunnī Muslims came to view the textual record of prophetic revelation, consisting of both the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, as the principal, or indeed the only, source of religious knowledge.

Traditionalists were most adamant about humanity's complete dependence on revelation, while theologians sought various ways of integrating revelation and reason. Eventually the Muʿtazilah came to accept even ḥadīth as an important supplementary source of legal knowledge. The Māturīdīyah held that human reason could, in principle, lead to knowledge of God, but that in fact humans depended on revelation. The Ashʿarīyah admitted that basic religious truths should be validated and defended through rational argument, but only because this was commanded in revelation. To the great Ashʿarī theologian and mystic al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), rational argument was valid but beside the point; true knowledge was not a human achievement but a divine gift, conveyed through revelation and, for the spiritually advanced, through the mystical experience of “unveiling.”

As Muslims came into contact with Enlightenment thought, however, reliance on revelation was called into question. Some Muslims pointed out that the Qurʾān itself urged reflection on the evidence of nature, and argued that Islam represented a natural and rational religion that Europeans were finally rediscovering. Modernists decried the decline of creative Islamic reasoning, denounced the tradition of reliance on the views of prior generations (taqlīd), and called for fresh interpretive reasoning (ijtihād), still grounded in the revealed scriptures, to apply Islamic principles to modern life. Islamists too called for ijtihād but regarded this as a return to a literal reading of revelation, not a renewed dedication to human reasoning. More recently, postmodern Muslims have begun to assert their right to reinterpret the Qurʾān and reconstruct Islamic knowledge from the perspective of particular identities and experiences: to be an African American Muslim woman, for example, entails a duty to reinterpret the Qurʾān with the explicit aim of overcoming the forms of injustice one has experienced. Although the assumption that knowledge of God's requirements is the most basic human need remains central to Islamic thought, Muslims continue to debate just how much humans can rely on their own reasoning and experiences to guide them, and how closely they must adhere to the words of revelation.


Revelation takes place exclusively, or at least principally, through prophets; but prophets are not merely channels of revelation. The Prophet Muḥammad is an object of affection and devotion for all Muslims, but his significance is multifaceted. For some he is primarily a source of information about God's law, but for others he is the pinnacle of human leadership, and for still others the pinnacle of the created universe.

The Qurʾān characterizes Muḥammad as the continuation of a Near Eastern tradition of prophethood that includes numerous biblical figures from Adam to Jesus, all of whom were sent by God to warn their communities about a coming judgment, to urge them to worship the one true God, and to guide them in the path of righteousness. Some of them brought revealed books (the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel of Jesus) containing God's very own speech, spelling out the same consistent message for each community in its own language, along with the particular laws God has prescribed for that community. The Prophet Muḥammad, therefore, is not presented as founding a new religion; he brings the same message as the previous prophets, in a new divine book, the Qurʾān, in the language of his own people, Arabic.

The Qurʾān hinted, and Muslims soon asserted, that Muḥammad was the final prophet, that the Qurʾān superseded earlier revelations, and that Islam was a religion not only for the Arabs but for all humanity. Theologians therefore sought ways to convince non-Muslims of the truth of Islam. They were able to demonstrate the existence and attributes of God by rational argument, but to prove Muḥammad's prophethood they had to appeal to his miracles. There were numerous reports of minor signs and wonders that they could cite, but the miracle upon which they chiefly rested their case was the Qurʾān itself, whose content, they argued, could never have come from a human mind, and whose elevated style had never been matched by any poet. Such a feat of inimitable eloquence was clearly a miracle confirming Muḥammad's claim to prophethood—all the more so because Muḥammad was said to be illiterate.

One of the Qurʾān's functions, therefore, is to serve as a miraculous sign of its own veracity. It also has ritual and aesthetic functions: it is recited during prayers, chanted in a variety of highly formalized styles, and incorporated into architecture, literature, and everyday speech. One of its functions, however, has overshadowed all the others: its role as a source of law. This function was emphasized most forcefully by the Muʿtazilah, who argued that the only purpose God could possibly have for revealing the Qurʾān is to convey some beneficial information to his servants, and this information can only consist of those legal details humans are unable to discover for themselves, since relying on the Qurʾān presupposes that one already knows God, his attributes, and the nature of good and evil. Few Muslims would have stated this view so starkly, but in practice many came to regard the communication of law as the main point not only of the Qurʾān but of Muḥammad's entire life. His actions and words are a pattern to be imitated by all Muslims, and even his inaction or silence in response to someone else's action is a revealed indication that it is permissible. This view of Muḥammad required that he be regarded as sinless, so theologians developed the doctrine that prophets are protected from sins, or at least from serious sins, though not necessarily from mistakes in nonreligious matters. This view of the Prophet as a source of law fits well with the Qurʾān's depiction of human nature as essentially sound and upright, needing only God's guidance to earn his pleasure and reward.

Some Muslims, however, have given the Prophet a grander role. Neoplatonist philosophers regard prophets as consummate intellectuals who not only grasp the highest all-encompassing Truth but are also capable of expressing it in vivid stories and practical rules that common people can understand, and are able to impose those beneficial rules through skillful leadership. Ṣūfīs have given Muḥammad a cosmic dimension, calling him the ontological origin of the universe, the “Light of Muḥammad” from which all creation proceeds. In Ṣūfī and popular devotion Muḥammad is the perfect human being and the beloved of God, who saves his community from the punishment their sins deserve by interceding on their behalf. He is venerated through song, poetry, and a festival celebrating his birth (mawlid). Similar veneration, albeit on a smaller scale, is extended also to numerous Ṣūfī saints (sing., walī), to whom local shrines are often erected after their death and to whom petitions are addressed for healing, protection, and all manner of concrete assistance.

The Shīʿah extended this exalted view of the Prophet to Muḥammad's daughter Fāṭimah and son-in-law ʿAlī, who, with their descendants, were likewise said to be primordial sources of light from which derive the sun, moon, and stars. The Shīʿah placed special emphasis on the Prophet's role as a political leader, which they refused to separate from his role as bearer of revealed knowledge. Viewing both leadership and revelation as a continuing necessity, they claimed that his authority and infallibility had devolved upon a series of imams—ʿAlī, his sons al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn, the latter's son ʿAlī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, and further descendants whose identity was disputed by different Shīʿī factions. The largest group, known as the Imāmī or Twelver Shīʿah, regard their twelfth imam as still ruling the world in principle, though not visibly, so that actual political leaders are at best temporary substitutes.

The Imāmī Shīʿah expect that the twelfth imam will return shortly before the day of judgment to restore the ideal of life under a charismatic leader who embodies both the political and religious authority of the Prophet. Other Muslims have similar expectations of a coming figure called the Mahdī, whose role is variously imagined, in keeping with their various understandings of prophethood. A paramount expectation of Sunnīs is that the Mahdī will finally perfect and implement the Sharīʿah—which was, after all, the main point of Muḥammad's prophethood in Sunnī thought.

Ethics and Law.

Since the ninth century, almost all Muslims have agreed that the Sharīʿah is an important aspect of the Prophet's legacy, but they have held profoundly different understandings of what that Sharīʿah is. Is it an exhaustive system of detailed rules imposed arbitrarily by God? Or is it just a supplement to natural law? Alternatively, is the Sharīʿah just a set of basic moral principles that can be applied differently in different contexts? Or is it not a set of rules or principles at all, but an ongoing personal quest for a moral life?

The Qurʾān begins its moral message with a simple imperative to pursue justice, often assuming that its Arabian audience already knows what justice is. It builds upon pre-Islamic Arabian and Jewish practices and modifies some of them significantly. Early Muslim leaders continued to adopt local practices in the areas they conquered, sometimes modifying them in light of the Prophet's example. As Islam came to be viewed as a distinct religion, however, it became increasingly important to assert the specifically Islamic nature of law by tying it to prophetic revelation.

Some Muslims, including the Khārijīyah and some early Muʿtazilah and Ẓāhirīyah, preferred a minimal religious law consisting only of the few explicit provisions found in the Qurʾān, to which some added provisions from the most widely accepted ḥadīth. This left most areas of personal and social life to the discretion of individuals and rulers. Other Muslims, however, sought to develop comprehensive legal systems. The first concern of these systems was to prescribe in detail how to carry out basic ritual duties—the five daily prayers (ṣalāt), fasting (ṣawm) during daylight hours throughout the lunar month of Ramaḍān, the alms tax (zakāt) paid each year on various forms of wealth, and a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage (ḥajj) to Mecca. Beyond those rituals—which, with the profession of faith (shahādah), are known as the pillars of Islam—the legal systems also regulated jihād (warfare to expand Islamic rule), oaths and religious vows, marriage and divorce, commerce, slavery, crimes, court procedures, inheritance, and personal behavior such as dress, manners, and diet. These sets of rules were developed and disputed within scholarly circles, which eventually coalesced into several Shīʿī legal traditions and four Sunnī schools of law (Ḥanafī, Mālikī, Shāfiʿī, and Ḥanbalī), each with its own distinctive tendencies but all sharing the same basic rules and overall structure. By the time these schools were firmly established, most Sunnī legal scholars had adopted the view articulated by al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820) that every rule had to be traceable not to some pre-Islamic precedent but to the Qurʾān and prophetic ḥadīth. Islamic law had become a revealed law.

Muslims have disagreed profoundly, however, about what it means for God to reveal such a law. The Muʿtazilah regarded it as a revealed extension of a natural law grounded in the intrinsically beneficial or harmful properties of human actions; human reason is able to discern many of these properties on its own, but the moral and legal properties of some actions (such as prayer) are known only from revelation.

Philosophers took a quite different view of the Sharīʿah: it is not a truth in its own right, but merely an aid in the quest for truth. They argued that prayer is not a universal mandate whose benefits are built into the structure of the universe, but merely a practical measure imagined by a prophet to help his followers escape the bondage of bodily desires and progress toward the knowledge of God. True philosophers, therefore, do not need the law. Nor do the most advanced mystics, according to a few radical antinomian Ṣūfīs, who likewise regarded the law as a means to a higher end.

The Ashʿarīyah and traditionalists argued that law is neither a natural fact nor a spiritual tool, but simply a divine command. It is conducive to human welfare—indeed, one of its basic principles is never to impose undue hardship—but it cannot be reduced to utilitarian considerations, nor can it be known by reasoning about the properties of human actions. Actions are good if God declares them good, and they are obligatory if he commands them, promises to reward them, and threatens to punish those who fail to perform them. God is just and wise, but the wisdom behind his commands remains inscrutable unless he chooses to reveal it. God's commands are part of his speech, and are therefore known only through revelation, not through reason. Where revelation is silent, humans must extrapolate from revelation using the principle of reasoning by analogy (qiyās): for example, since revelation explicitly prohibits grape wine, and date wine shares with it the property of being intoxicating, date wine must likewise be prohibited. Such reasoning, however, is legitimate only because God has specifically commanded it, not because of any necessary rational coherence or predictability in God's demands.

This view, which eventually became mainstream, appears to make the law eternally fixed and independent of social context, because revelation itself is now fixed in the Qurʾān and the canonical collections of ḥadīth. It has long been claimed that the law is largely settled and that the “gates of ijtihād” are now closed. In fact, the law has never been immune from incremental changes, but the sudden social transformations brought on by the encounter with modern Europe pressed upon Muslims more forcefully the question of the law's adaptability, leading to calls by modernists and Islamists for renewed ijtihād to legitimate reforms through fresh readings of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth. Such reform programs retain the classical assumption that Sharīʿah should be comprehensive and based on revelation. Secularists, however, have preferred to limit revealed law to the small domain of private religious practice, thus leaving most social regulation to the legislative efforts of human governments—much like some of the earliest Muʿtazilah and Ẓāhirīyah. And some progressive Muslims have come to affirm (rather like the later Muʿtazilah) that there exist natural legal principles, such as universal human rights, which revelation upholds and elaborates, and which must be used as a criterion for interpreting revelation. Some have argued that interpretation can even go against the language of revelation, because the detailed rules spelled out in the Qurʾān and ḥadīth are not actually meant to be permanently binding; they reflect just one way of implementing, in a particular historical context, the more fundamental moral imperatives that really constitute God's law. (This view has some classical precedent among a minority of jurists, such as Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī (d. 1388), who argued that the entire revealed law should be made to support five objectives—the preservation of religion, life, reason, property, and family lineage.) Finally, in the spirit of the philosophers, some Muslims have come to view the rules of law as just a means in the pursuit of a higher personal quest. Khaled Abou El Fadl, for example, argues that the law is not a set of rules but a process of seeking after God's will, in which the conclusions one reaches are less important than the integrity of one's quest for a moral life.

Each of these responses to the challenge of modernity reflects some aspect of prior Islamic thought. The range of viewpoints on specific points of law has expanded greatly in the last century, but the vibrant debate between different conceptions of revealed law is nothing new.


The goal of law, as formulated by mainstream classical jurists, is to avoid God's punishment and gain his reward in the afterlife. This otherworldly orientation is firmly rooted in the Qurʾān, which warns Muḥammad's opponents that they face physical destruction in this life, but puts much greater emphasis on a coming day of resurrection and judgment, followed by eternal bliss in paradise or agony in hell. That day is described using vivid images of cataclysmic upheavals of the natural order: mountains crumbling to dust, the skies being rent asunder, and society falling apart so that each individual is left to stand utterly alone before God as the record of his or her deeds is examined and weighed in the balance, each deed being rewarded or punished to within a fraction of an ounce. The resulting sentence of heaven or hell is described in equally graphic but more familiar imagery drawn from the landscape and life of Arabia: cool shade, flowing water, refreshing drinks, luxurious couches, and virginal companions on the one hand and fire, scalding water, bitter food, and everlasting torment on the other.

This is the vision of salvation to which Islamic law refers when it spells out which acts will be rewarded and which will be punished. This simple legal arithmetic, however, does not adequately capture the Qurʾān's teaching about salvation, because the Qurʾān makes paradise contingent not only on deeds but also on faith, which is inextricably bound up with deeds and yet distinguishable from them. If believers are promised paradise, and paradise is a place of unmitigated bliss, how can they also be punished for their sins? One response to this problem was to try to define who is actually a believer and how faith is affected by sins. We will return to this topic in the next section. Another response was to develop a more complex account of the resurrection, judgment, heaven, and hell. Numerous reports (sing., ḥadīth) were attributed to the Prophet on this subject, describing the questioning of the soul in the grave by two angels, punishment for sins while still in the grave (while the soul is still in an intermediate pre-resurrection state known as the barzakh), then a physical reconstitution and resurrection of the body, a vast assembly for judgment, the enumeration and weighing of each person's deeds, a walk over a narrow bridge from which some will fall into the fire of hell while others cross over to a refreshing pool, and the final destination, one of several levels of heaven or hell. Additionally, it was reported that God, in his mercy, would allow the Prophet to intercede on behalf of his followers, so that believers might enter heaven in spite of their sins, or at most would have to endure temporary punishment in hell. Some of the Muʿtazilah questioned these reports, and denied the bodily nature of the resurrection, the Prophet's ability to intercede, and the idea of temporary hell. Some philosophers argued that the soul's ultimate destiny of escape from matter precluded physical resurrection and eternal hellfire. But traditionalists and many theologians took literal acceptance of these detailed reports as a litmus test of orthodoxy.

Mainstream Sunnī orthodoxy thus developed a very physical, eschatological view of salvation, making it hinge on a combination of individual faith, good deeds, and God's mercy. The most rigorous religious scholars tended to make salvation dependent on meticulous adherence to the law, or faith arrived at through personal intellectual exertion. At a more popular level, salvation has often been seen to depend rather on one's membership in the Muslim community, and on God's mercy, which makes up for individual deficiencies. For Shīʿī Muslims, salvation has also been tied to recognition of the imams. Ṣūfīs, while usually affirming orthodox teachings about faith and deeds, the bodily resurrection, and eternal reward, have tended to regard those aspects of salvation as secondary to the personal journey of return to union with God, meaning either annihilation (fanāʾ) of the self or subsistence (baqāʾ) of the soul in loving communion with God; indeed, some Ṣūfīs have denigrated the preoccupation with eternal reward or punishment as a self-centered distraction from the soul's focus on God himself. In the modern world, a literal understanding of the traditional account of human destiny remains widely popular, but interaction with liberal Christians and a resurgence of Sufism and Neoplatonism have led some Muslims to pursue more psychological views of ultimate salvation, and to consider the possibility that even some non-Muslims might achieve it.

The Faithful Community.

To define who will enter paradise is to also define who is a believer, and thus to define the boundaries of the believing community. Perhaps no theological question has been more vexed than this: Who is a true believer, and, if that cannot be determined, who should at least be treated as a Muslim?

The Prophet Muḥammad preached to his seventh-century Arabian audience a monotheistic piety for all peoples. At first he used the term believer (muʾmin) broadly, to include not only his own immediate followers but also those Jews and Christians whom he regarded as sharing his concern for ethical and worshipful living. Over time his movement grew into a distinct community, the ummah, consisting only of Muslims (Ar. muslim, one who submits) and held together by a religion called Islam (islām, submission). Even during the Prophet's lifetime, however, the unity of his community was strained by internal dissent and by varying degrees of commitment, to the point that the Prophet declared some of his followers to be hypocrites (munāfiqūn), nominal members of the community who professed belief but were shown by their actions not to be true believers.

The question of how to identify and demarcate the community of true believers became one of the most pressing concerns of early Islamic thought. From the power struggles that followed Muḥammad's death there emerged several competing ways of imagining and defining this community. That argument subsided somewhat as Sunnīs reached an uneasy consensus on a fairly inclusive and tolerant social vision, but it resurfaced in modern times as colonization and globalization forced the ummah to reassess its identity and its relationship to non-Muslims. Today, as in the early centuries of Islam, some Muslims choose to draw the boundaries of the community in sharp and uncompromising terms, admitting only the most zealous and impeccable believers, while others adopt more pragmatic standards to accommodate the community's diversity and imperfections. Some have even blurred the boundary between Muslims and adherents of other religions.

The narrowest and most exclusive definition of who is a true believer was articulated by a number of early groups known collectively as the Khārijīyah. They originated as a political opposition movement, fighting first against ʿAlī, whom they had previously supported, and then against the Umayyad caliphs (r. 661–750). They argued that a person who has committed a grave sin (fisq) is no longer a believer (muʾmin) but an apostate (murtadd); such a grave sinner (fāsiq) is ineligible to lead the Muslim community and, indeed, should be killed, according to some of them, without any possibility of repentance. This was their ground for opposing ʿAlī and several other claimants to the caliphate: they had all committed grave sins, and had therefore lost their status as believers and their legitimacy as leaders. The Khārijīyah assumed, perhaps without articulating it explicitly, the uncompromising view that faith (īmān) is not just a matter of inner belief (taṣdīq) and verbal profession (iqrār) but also of righteous action (ʿamal)—a definition that drew a very tight circle around the Muslim community. They would follow only irreproachable leaders, whom they selected by vote without regard for ethnicity or lineage; they called others to leave society and come join their encampments; and some conducted raids against other less stringent Muslims, whose life and property they thought it legitimate to take because they considered them unbelievers.

A much more inclusive definition of the community came to be associated with the label Murjiʾah. At first this name designated movements that refused to declare who had been right and who had been wrong in the early disputes over the caliphate, and that consequently were at odds with the Khārijīyah, the early Shīʿah, and the Umayyads. In time, however, the Murjiʾah came to be associated with the view that faith consists simply in knowing and verbally confessing, in a very general way, that God is one and that the Prophet Muḥammad's message is true. They refused to question any professing Muslim's faith on the basis of his or her actions because they considered actions entirely distinct from faith, and they believed that God would forgive believers even for grave sins, or would punish them only temporarily in hell. All believers, therefore, will eventually be admitted to paradise, and all who profess faith must be treated as full members of the believing community on earth. Eventually, the Murjiʾah's refusal to criticize any of the early caliphs became a common Sunnī trope, and their conception of faith was widely adopted, in one form or another, by Māturīdī and Ashʿarī theologians. Their views bolstered the common Sunnī argument that even an impious ruler can lead the community in spite of his sins, and therefore should not be deposed violently, as long as he professes Islam and hails from the Prophet's tribe, the Quraysh.

Sunnī traditionalists generally shared the orthodox theologians’ quietist attitude toward political authority, but felt that their Murjiʾī definition of faith did not recognize the importance of pious works. They therefore articulated a compromise definition: faith requires outward works as well as inner knowledge and verbal profession, but faith is not an all-or-nothing affair; it can increase and decrease in accordance with one's works. This means that sinful actions affect faith but do not make the sinner an unbeliever; they just make him or her a lesser believer. This view, which was especially associated with the Ḥanbalīyah and became quite popular among Sunnīs, combined a very inclusive view of the community of believers and a tolerant view of political leaders with a personal challenge to pursue higher levels of piety.

Similar concerns led the Muʿtazilah to a similar compromise, which they articulated somewhat differently. They shared the traditionalist view that faith includes actions and increases or decreases in keeping with a person's deeds, but they believed God was bound by his own word to punish grave sins with eternal hellfire. Consequently, anyone who commits a grave sin and fails to repent can never enter paradise, and therefore cannot be a believer. Yet the Muʿtazilah did not wish to exclude such people from the earthly community of Muslims, so they denied that such people are rendered unbelievers by their sins. Grave sinners, they said, are neither believers nor unbelievers; they stand in an “intermediate position” (al-manzilah bayn al-manzilatayn) and should be called simply “grave sinners.” They will be punished eternally in hell, but in this world they should still be treated as full members of Muslim society. This avoided the radical exclusivism and revolutionary implications of the Khārijī doctrine, while still allowing the Muʿtazilah to hold rulers’ feet to the fire for their behavior, thus fulfilling what they felt was a binding mandate to “command right and prohibit wrong” (al-amr bi-al-maʿrūf wa-al-nahy ʿan al-munkar).

These arguments over faith, sin, and divine judgment expressed a tension between uncompromising idealism and resigned pragmatism in Muslims’ view of their own community and its leadership. The pragmatism of the classical Murjiʾī and traditionalist positions eventually came to dominate Sunnī thought, but the yearning for a separate and more uncompromisingly pious community lived on in the form of occasional Khārijī revolts, and also among the Shīʿah. The latter's vision of leadership required not just mere competence but an almost prophetic charisma and immunity from error that God granted only to certain descendants of the Prophet, the imams. Like the Khārijīyah, the Shīʿah came to view themselves as a community apart, the only true followers of the Prophet's legacy; but for the most part they did not translate this idealistic vision into exclusivism or political revolt. The largest Shīʿī movement, the Imāmīyah, translated their aspirations into an eschatological vision in which the hidden imam will return to establish an ideal community. The desire to belong to a distinct community called to a higher level of personal piety also found an outlet in Ṣūfī orders—communities of masters and initiates pursuing varying levels of personal and group spiritual practices. These orders were usually well integrated into Muslim society, but occasionally became potent forces of political opposition, as during the colonial period when several resistance movements were led by Ṣūfī orders.

In the twentieth century the vision of a pure community of true believers reemerged among radical Islamist movements, motivating and validating their sometimes violent opposition to Muslim governments, which they regard as agents of unbelief. This puritanical vision is not unprecedented, but it is a radical departure from the pragmatism that has long dominated Sunnī views of the community, and from the more eschatological and spiritual visions of ideal community that have animated Shīʿīs and Ṣūfīs. As Islamists have raised again the question of how to define the community, others have responded, reopening old debates about the nature of īmān (faith) and islām (submission). For example, Farid Esack's experience of struggling against apartheid in South Africa, shoulder to shoulder with Christians but often in direct opposition to fellow Muslims who maintained a pragmatic political quietism, let him to redefine the words īmān, islām, and kufr (unbelief) so that the community of believers is defined in terms of solidarity with the oppressed; in consequence, that community sometimes includes Christians, and it excludes some Muslims. Others have argued that the term islām should be understood to refer to a personal quality of submission to God that can be shared by non-Muslim monotheists, effectively opening the boundaries of the Muslim community to those of other religions who recognize and submit to God's all-encompassing oneness.

The broad and pragmatic Sunnī definition of the community that dominated classical thought still stands as the default measure of who is and who is not a believer, and most Muslims still affirm that no Muslim should question the faith of another. But that definition is now being challenged, because the Muslim world is no longer as insulated from the non-Muslim world as it was before colonization and globalization. If nothing else, the sheer immediacy of daily contact with non-Muslims has forced Muslims to reexamine the boundaries of the faith and the community. They still share some basic concepts such as faith and paradise, but they interpret those concepts in very different ways, echoing disputes that have divided Muslims throughout their history. In this as in other aspects of Muslim belief, understanding Muslims today requires viewing them not as adherents of a simple set of essential beliefs but as participants in an ongoing conversation about God, creation, humanity, prophethood, ethics, salvation, and the boundaries of their own community.


General Overviews

  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011.
  • Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
  • Frank, Richard M. Texts and Studies on the Development and History of Kalām. Edited by Dimitri Gutas. 3 vols. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2005–2008.
  • Goldziher, Ignaz. Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law. Translated by Andras Hamori and Ruth Hamori. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Philosophy and Theology: An Extended Survey. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985.
  • Winter, Tim, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Works on Specific Schools and Thinkers

  • Frank, Richard MacDonough. Beings and Their Attributes: The Teaching of the Basrian School of the Muʿtazila in the Classical Period. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978.
  • Gimaret, Daniel. La doctrine d’al-Ashʿarī. Paris: Cerf, 1990.
  • Goldziher, Ignaz. The Ẓāhirīs: Their Doctrine and Their History; A Contribution to the History of Islamic Theology. Translated and edited by Wolfgang Behn. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2008. English translation of Die Zâhiriten: Ihr Lehrsystem und ihre Geschichte; Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der muhammedanischen Theologie, first published in 1884.
  • Hourani, George F. Islamic Rationalism: The Ethics of ʿAbd al-Jabbār. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Rapoport, Yossef, and Shahab Ahmed, eds. Ibn Taymiyya and His Times. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Taji-Farouki, Suha, and Basheer M. Nafi, eds. Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. The Formative Period of Islamic Thought. Oxford: Oneworld, 1998.

Suggested Primary Texts in English Translation

  • ʿAbd al-Jabbār. “Kitab al-usul al-khamsa (Book of the Five Fundamentals).” In Defenders of Reason in Islam: Muʿtazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, by Richard C. Martin and Mark R. Woodward, pp. 90–115. Oxford: Oneworld, 1997.
  • Aḥmad Khān, Sayyid “Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān's Principles of Exegesis: Translated from his Taḥrīr fī uṣūl al-tafsīr.” Translated by Muḥammad Daud Rahbar. Muslim World 46 (1956): 104–112 and 324–335.
  • Ashʿarī, Abū al-Ḥasan al-. The Theology of al-Ashʿarī. Translated by Richard J. McCarthy. Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1953.
  • Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid al-. The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazālī. Translated by W. Montgomery Watt. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1953; repr. Oxford: Oneworld, 1994.
  • Ibn Sīnā, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh. Avicenna on Theology. Translated by Arthur J Arberry. London: J. Murray, 1951.
  • Kurzman, Charles, ed. Liberal Islam: A Source Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • The Qurʾan. Translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Quṭb, Sayyid. Milestones. Indianapolis: American Trust, 1993.
  • Sells, Michael A., ed. and trans. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʾan, Miʿraj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.
  • Swartz, Merlin, ed. and trans. A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism: Ibn al-Jawzī's Kitāb Akhbār aṣ-Ṣifāt. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002.
  • Watt, William Montgomery, trans. Islamic Creeds: A Selection. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.
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