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Al-Āmidī, Sayf al-Dīn

By:
Laura Hassan
Source:
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Al-Āmidī, Sayf al-Dīn

( A.H.551/1156 C.E.– A.H.631/1233 C.E.)

Abū l-Ḥasan (or Abū l-Qāsim) ʿAlī b. Abī ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Sālim al-Taghlibī Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī was an influential Ashʿarī theologian and Shāfiʿī jurist, especially skilled in the methods of dialectical reasoning, and well-versed in Avicennan philosophy. He is still revered today for his defense of Ashʿarī theology and for his significant jurisprudential legacy. Al-Āmidī was active during a period of considerable intellectual upheaval. Theologians of the Islamic world grappled with the impact of Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) philosophy, which was both Aristotelean and Neoplatonic in heritage, and Islamic in its explanation of God’s nature and relation to the world as its final and efficient cause. Al-Āmidī’s works are of great interest in regard to the encounter between Ashʿarism and Avicennism at this moment in Islamic intellectual history.

Biography

Al-Āmidī’s was an itinerant life which seems to have been fraught with controversy, and his biography attracts much scholarly attention. He was born in Āmid, the largest town in the Ottoman province of Diyarbakir, eastern Anatolia (the town itself now bears the name Diyarbakir). After an early education in the Qurʾān, theology (uṣūl al-dīn) and Ḥanbalī law, al-Āmidī departed his hometown aged fourteen or fifteen (c. 1170), never to return. The absence of references to his family, including in his own appellation, suggests humble origins. Al-Āmidī went first to Baghdad, continuing his studies with the Ḥanbalī Abū l-Fatḥ Naṣr b. Fatyān b. al-Mannī al-Ḥanbalī (d. 1187), whom he is said to have surpassed in skill at disputation. During his time in Baghdad al-Āmidī transferred to the Shāfiʿī school, studying under Abū l-Qāsim Yaḥyā b. ʿAlī b. Faḍlān (d. 1199), head of the Shāfiʿīs of Baghdad, known for his skills at the juristic discipline of disputation (khilāf) and logic (manṭiq). Ibn Faḍlān was also the teacher of the philosopher ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī (d. 1231), whose autobiography testifies to the presence of Avicennan philosophy in the mainstream madrasa (college) institution of thirteenth-century Baghdad (Gutas, 2011); it may be that Ibn Faḍlān was influential in al-Āmidī’s engagement with philosophy. Al-Qifṭī (d. 1248) tells us that al-Āmidī learned philosophy with a group of Christians and Jews in the Karkh region of Baghdad, and it is likely that al-Āmidī’s transfer to the more rationally oriented Shāfiʿī school was motivated by his interest in philosophy. Despite Endress’s suggestion to the contrary (Endress, 2006) the chronology and contents of al-Āmidī’s works suggests that his change of allegiance does not indicate that he was a committed Ashʿarī by this stage.

During his thirties or early forties al-Āmidī departed Baghdad, a move which al-Qifṭī attributes to al-Āmidī’s having been shunned by a group of jurists due to his interest in philosophy. He arrived in Cairo in 1196 aged forty-two, possibly after a period spent in either Aleppo or Hama in Syria. An encounter with the illuminationist philosopher al-Suhrawardī (d. 1191) around this time is recorded by al-Ṣafadī (d. 1363), and is said to have made a significant impression. Al-Āmidī’s works do not, however, offer any evidence of a Suhrawardīan influence.

In Cairo al-Āmidī took up a position at the Shāfiʿī madrasa in al-Qarāfa al-Ṣughrā. None of al-Āmidī’s extant works of theology, philosophy, or jurisprudence date from this period, but al-Qifṭī writes that his works on the “science of the ancients” became well known and were frequently copied during this time. Sometime before 1208 al-Āmidī travelled to Syria, a move which Ibn Khallikān (d. 1286) attributes to al-Āmidī’s fleeing from a group of scholars in Cairo who had accused him of following “the way of the philosophers” (madhhab al-falāsifa), and of “bad doctrine.” The anti-philosophy motif is crystalized in the later accounts of Abū al-Fidāʾ, Ibn Kathīr, al-Dhahabī, al-Suyūṭī, Ibn al-ʿImād and Ibn Qāḍī Shuhba. Al-Āmidī settled first in Hama, enjoying a period of stability under the patronage of al-Malik al-Manṣūr (r. 1191–1220). It seems that al-Āmidī first encountered the works of al-Rāzī (d. 1210) here, and almost all his extant philosophical and theological works date from this period.

In around 1220 al-Āmidī travelled to Damascus. He was given headship of al-Madrasa al-ʿAzīziyya, where he wrote his legal works. Under al-Malik al-Muʿaẓẓam (r. 1218–1227), al-Āmidī was well supported. However, during the reigns of al-Muʿaẓẓam’s successors, al-Malik al-Nāṣir (r. 1227–1229) and al-Malik al-Ashraf (r. 1229–1238), al-Āmidī became increasingly unpopular. Eventually, in 1233 al-Ashraf dismissed al-Āmidī from his position, placing him under house arrest. He died just a few months later, on 4 Ṣafar 1233.

The biographical sources offer three main explanations for al-Āmidī’s ultimate fall from favor. The first relates to the anti-philosophy motif: Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1256) claims that the reason for al-Āmidī’s dismissal was the Ayyūbid rulers al-Muʿaẓẓam and al-Ashraf’s disdain for his use of “logic and the sciences of the ancients,” which he claims prompted the issuance of a fatwā against the teaching of any science other than tafsīr and fiqh. Alternatively, al-Āmidī lacked political tact and diplomacy: al-Qifṭī and Ibn Wāṣil (d. 1298) relate an incident (the details of which are obscure) which occurred when the Ayyūbid ruler al-Malik al-Kāmil took control of Āmid, al-Āmidī’s hometown in 1233. Finally, al-Āmidī’s personal encounters with Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s students, especially Shams al-Dīn al-Khusrawshāhī (d. 1254), appear in explanation of his dismissal: Ibn Wāṣil stresses al-Āmidī’s opposition to al-Rāzī and claims that al-Āmidī was envious of his peer and resultantly “exaggerated in his defamations and slander of him.”

Al-Āmidī’s biography has received much scholarly attention and for a long time was wielded to exemplify the now defunct notion that philosophy was vanquished in the Islamic world by an aggressive orthodoxy heralded by al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). Several scholars took the biographical motif of al-Āmidī’s being accused of heresy at face value (Goldziher, 1916; Sourdel, 1986; even Weiss, 2010; on this trend, see Brentjes, 2008). Brentjes and Endress both demonstrated the fallacy of this approach in relation to the widespread presence of Avicennism within madrasa institutions of al-Āmidī’s day, both emphasizing personal and political reasons for al-Āmidī’s demise (Brentjes, 2008; Endress, 2006). Analysis of al-Āmidī’s works of philosophy and theology makes plain that al-Āmidī’s intellectual opposition to al-Rāzī, aggravated by the context of competition for patronage, is the most likely explanation for al-Āmidī’s difficulties as a scholar (Hassan, forthcoming 2020).

Works and Doctrine

Al-Āmidī’s stance in relation to Ibn Sīnā’s philosophical system underwent considerable evolution. Manuscripts of a number of al-Āmidī’s works of philosophy which have become available in recent years testify to his experimentalism in regard to the integration of philosophy and theology.

Al-Āmidī’s earliest work, al-Nūr al-bāhir fī l-ḥikam al-zawāhir, of which the four extant volumes (1–3 and 5) have been published as a facsimile, is anomalous in relation to his other works in its expression of commitment to the doctrines of Ibn Sīnā,which can be described as “theological” (the emanation of the world from God in eternity, the absolute simplicity of God’s essence). The date on the available manuscript (1196) places this as al-Āmidī’s earliest known work of philosophy, and it was likely composed during his time in Baghdad. This may be one of the works the distribution and copying of which al-Qifṭī records to have occurred during al-Āmidī’s spell in Cairo, which began in the same year.

The remainder of al-Āmidī’s works of philosophy and theology were composed much later, during his time at the courts of Ayyubid Syria. Well known is his Kashf al-tamwīhāt fī sharḥ al-ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt, the autograph copy of which is dated 1208. The work, dedicated to the ruler of Hama, al-Malik al-Manṣūr, is a critique of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s commentary on Ibn Sīnā’s Pointers and Reminders. Though cited by Gutas (2002) as an example of al-Āmidī’s “mainstream Avicennism,” the Kashf in fact provides little indication of his own doctrinal commitments at the time of its authorship. Rather, it is devoted, in a manner that is rather relentless, to highlighting logical errors in al-Rāzī’s commentary. This, along with the work’s dedication to al-Manṣūr, suggests that al-Āmidī was in competition with al-Rāzī’s followers (whom we know from Ibn Wāṣil he encountered in the Syrian courts) for Ayyūbid patronage.

Two lesser-known works which better display al-Āmidī’s own developing commitments are his Daqāʾiq al-ḥaqāʾiq fī l-ḥikma, the extant manuscript of which is undated, and his Rumūz al-kunūz, composed in 1214. Together these works bridge the period of al-Āmidī’s early commitment to Avicennan philosophy and his later promotion of the Ashʿarī creed. It is unfortunate that only the opening volume of the Daqāʾiq, on logic, is extant in MS 42b of the Garret Collection of Islamic Manuscripts at Princeton University. The only known extant manuscript of Rumūz al-kunūz is at present at the Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul. Al-Āmidī’s stated purpose is to provide a short summary of the teaching of the “Metaphysicians” (al-ʿulamāʾ al-ilāhiyyīn), the importance of which is that certain contemporaries have let a preoccupation with the fantastic-sounding terminology of the philosophers distract them from attention to the revealed law. Though the work is short, and often tantalizingly brief in its consideration of major philosophical theories, it is testament to a moment in al-Āmidī’s career when he remained willing to tolerate Ibn Sīnā’s ideas to the extent possible without compromising key tenets of Ashʿarism. In this general approach the work’s agenda is shared with that of the Daqāʾiq, the introduction of which states that many parts of philosophy, including most of its logic and physics, as well as aspects of its metaphysics, do not contradict the sound doctrine of “the Muslims.” It is nowhere clear whether or not al-Āmidī is concerned in these works with the validity of those theories which are not theologically contentious.

Al-Āmidī’s works of theology, his Abkār al-afkār fī uṣūl al-dīn, and the shorter theological manual, Ghāyat al-marām fī ʿilm al-kalām, postdate his philosophical works. They contrast with al-Āmidī’s earlier works in their overt and strident opposition to the philosophers, and yet the influence of Ibn Sīnā, even in al-Āmidī’s conception of creation, is unmistakable. Specifically, al-Āmidī holds that God’s priority over the world is primarily that his existence is of necessity, in contrast with the existence of everything else, which is only possible. This replaces the classical Ashʿarī belief that God’s transcendence is in the pre-eternality and perpetuity of his existence, contrasted with the temporality of the world’s. Nevertheless, al-Āmidī fiercely opposes Ibn Sīnā’s notion that the world emanates from the essence of its cause, insisting that the action of an agent possessed of volition is the only valid explanation for the world’s origination. Al-Āmidī distinctively allows that a volitional agent could act pre-eternally, but contrary to the way in which his doctrine of creation is characterized by later commentators including ʿAḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī (d. 1355), this is not a significant feature of his own discussions; indeed, al-Āmidī staunchly maintains the world’s origination ex nihilo (Hassan, forthcoming 2020).

Al-Āmidī’s key jurisprudential work, his al-Iḥkām fī uṣūl al-aḥkām, abridged in Muntahā l-sūl fī ʿilm al-uṣūl, which we know because of internal references to postdate his works of theology, has been studied at length in Weiss (2010). The Iḥkām is rigorously structured according to the dialectical method of which the organizing principle is the masʾala, the controversial issue, which provides a platform for the discussion of all known positions on a given topic. As Weiss argues, this makes al-Āmidī’s discussions representative of the juristic milieu of his day. Weiss also demonstrates that a major concern in al-Āmidī’s jurisprudence is to rationalize the primacy of revelation as a source of law. Also known to be extant are an undated manuscript text on the science of dialectics (al-jadal) and a short, doctrinally neutral dictionary of philosophical and theological terms, al-Mubīn fī sharḥ alfāẓ al-ḥukamāʾ wa-l-mutakallimīn, which has been published and which further testifies to al-Āmidī’s interest in the relation between the traditions.

Legacy

Despite his ultimate staunch commitment to the doctrines of classical Ashʿarism, al-Āmidī’s thought is evidence, especially in its evolution, of the gradual and intricate process of absorption of and response to aspects of philosophy occurring among Ashʿarī theologians in the long shadow of Ibn Sīnā. Al-Āmidī died almost two centuries after Ibn Sīnā, but despite this considerable time lapse, many of the theological issues provoked by the latter’s philosophy were far from settled. Al-Āmidī was deeply impressed by the more theologically potent aspects of Ibn Sīnā’s metaphysics, and yet, ultimately, firmly committed to classical Ashʿarī doctrine. His emerging opposition to al-Rāzī demonstrates the crucial role of the latter as mediator and developer of Avicennan philosophy in the theological milieu of his time. Al-Āmidī’s integration of certain aspects of Ibn Sīnā within his theology provokes significant criticism from Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), while his main theological legacy is via the impact of his Abkār al-afkār on ʿAdḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī’s Kitāb al-mawāqif fī ʿilm al-kalām, an important textbook for students of theology even up to the present day.

Bibliography

  • Brentjes, Sonja. “Courtly patronage of the ancient sciences in post-classical Islamic societies.” Al-Qantara 29 (2008): 403–436.
  • Endress, Gerhard. “Reading Avicenna in the madrasa: intellectual genealogies and chains of transmission of philosophy and the sciences in the Islamic East.” In Arabic Theology, Arabic Philosophy: From the Many to the One: Essays in Celebration of Richard M. Frank, edited by J. E. Montgomery, pp. 371–422. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers and Department of Oriental Studies, 2006.
  • Gutas, Dimitri. “Philosophy in the Twelfth Century: One View from Baghdād, or the Repudiation of al-Ghazālī.” In In the Age of Averroes: Arabic Philosophy in the Sixth/Twelfth Century, pp. 9–26. London: Warburg Institute, 2011.
  • Gutas, Dimitri. “The Study of Arabic Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: An Essay on the Historiography of Arabic Philosophy.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 29, no, 1 (2002): 5–25.
  • Hassan, Laura. Ash‘arism encounters Avicennism: Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī on Creation. Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2020.
  • Shāfiʻī, Ḥasan al-. al-Āmidī wa-ārāʾuhu al-kalāmiyya (Al-Āmidī and his Theological Views). Cairo: Dār al-Salām, 1998.
  • Shihadeh, Ayman. “From al-Ghazālī to al-Rāzī: 6th/12th Century Developments in Muslim Philosophical Theology.” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2005): 141–179.
  • Weiss, Bernard. The Search for God’s Law: Islamic Jurisprudence in the Writings of Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī. 2d ed. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010.
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