Friday, April 5, 2013

Tim Winter on the tension between transcendence and immanence in kalam and Sufism

Many disturbing questions of this kind in turn seemed to be generated by a tension implicit in the Qur'an itself. Some verses spoke of a God who seemed utterly transcendent, so that "nothing is like him" (Qur'an 42:11). Such a deity "is not asked about what he does" (21:23), and appears to expect only the unquestioning submission (islam) which seemed implicit in the very name of the new religion. But there were many other passages which implied a God who is indeed, in some sense that urgently needed definition, analogous to ourselves: a God who is ethically coherent, and whose qualities are immanent in his creation, so that "Wheresoever you turn, there is God's face" (2:115). This fundamental tension between transcendence and immanence, or, as Muslims put it, between "affirming difference" (tanzih) and "affirming resemblance" (tashbih), became intrinsic to the structuring of knowledge in the new civilisation. As one aspect of this it could be said, at the risk of very crude generalisation, that the Qur'an theology of transcendence was explored by the kalam folk, and its theology of immanence by the Sufis, which is why, perhaps, we should seek for Islam's greatest theologians among those who emphasised the symbiosis of the two disciplines. It may be thus, rather than for any unique originality, that Ghazali came to be called the "proof of Islam", and Ibn 'Arabi "the greatest shaykh". Their apparent eclecticism was in fact a programmatic attempt to retrieve an original unity, which is why scripture is so central to their respective manifestos.
-Tim Winter, The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, pg. 6. 

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