The Formative Development of Classical Muslim Theology – Atheological “Peripheral Vision.”

When we begin to look at the very early development of Muslim Theology one needs to understand that the Arabians (as opposed to the Arabs – further below) had Atheological “Peripheral Vision” – which basically means that the way they understood revelation was just “common sense.” This is as opposed to “central vision” where its utility comes in use for reading and for focusing on specific areas. Once we understand this at the very basic level we can then begin to appreciate the level of paucity in terms of theological exchanges among the Prophet’s companions and their heirs. For them, there was never a habit to indulge over individual words as the key to apprehending or to make meaning.

Of course, this all changed with the expansion of the Islamic empire in the 8th Century where we see a coming together of various civilisations which shifted the interpretive orientation of Arabs (distinguished from Arabian) Muslims. The Arabians simply interpreted texts according to their own common sense ways of understanding. The newly converted Arabicised people inherited a far more systematic and analytical method of making meaning. Naturally, this led to two broad groups of Muslim theologians: Traditionalism and Rationalism. Much has been written about this, but suffice to say that the only meaningful departure point for both of them was which universe of meanings should be recognised as the proper backdrop to which scripture should be made to make sense.

Parallel to all of this was another development where the designation of “Arab” as it were, was stretched beyond its original application – this had the effect of concealing the different interpretive legacies of the ones who began and those who ended their genealogy as “Arabs.” This led to the distinction between peripheral and central visions now becoming all but blurred.

As a consequence, in its speculative mode, theology became known as ilm al-kalām which literally means: “the science of words”. In response to the many nouveaux Arabes, it was Imām al-Shāfi’ī who produced his al-Risālah (The Epistle) as an attempt to ensure the primordial supposition of the Arabians as opposed to the Arabs.

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