Areas of Specialization
The Arabic Philosophical Tradition (especially Avicenna/Ibn Sīnā); Islamic Theology (especially Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī); the Qurʾān and its commentaries; Islamic mysticism; intellectual history of the classical (ca. 900 - 1200) and post-classical (ca. 1200-1900) periods of Islamic civilization.
Current Projects (Book)
Theologies of Wonder. In the ninth century, some two hundred years after the founder and prophet of Islam (Muhammad) verbally transmitted recitations that were canonized in scripture (the Qur’an, lit. “recitation”), the Muslim community firmly established the doctrine of the Qur’an’s matchlessness or inimitability. Following the canonization of the Qur’an, Muslim theologians reinforced this doctrine by drawing on their theological cosmology that considered miracles “breaks in the divine custom” (Ar. khāriq al-ʿādah), arguing that the Qur’an’s preeminent Arabic style disrupted the customs of ancient Arabian poetry and rhetoric. Literary critics deployed their mastery of Arabic rhetoric to defend the preeminence of the Qur’an’s eloquence, which they claimed reached the degree of matchlessness, in spite of Muhammad’s Arab countrymen being the masters of poetry and “the most eloquent people on the earth” (in view of the Islamic tradition). Muhammad challenged his Arab countrymen to imitate the Qur’an, generating detractors, and several masters of Arabic prose and poetry rose to meet this challenge. Nevertheless, conviction in the Qur’an’s miraculous nature was fixed by the ninth century, and it shaped the collective identity of the Muslim community until today.
The conviction that the Qur’an was endowed with a miraculous quality that rendered human beings powerless to match its eloquence (or alternatively its arrangement of words and ideas) gave rise to a constellation of questions centering on the nature, significance, and implications of extraordinary acts—both sacred and profane. Among the questions posed within Islamic society were the following: What qualifies an extraordinary act—such as the transformation of a staff into a serpent (Moses) or the splitting of the moon (Muhammad), as miraculous? Do acts of wonder, for example the power to heal the sick (Jesus), or the thousands of others that are catalogued in the hagiographical literature which expounds on the lives of the saints, qualify as divinely administered miracles? How did theologians distinguish a miracle from magic, which Islamic society had set off against each other as rivals, acknowledging both as real and effective arts?
The challenge to resolve these difficulties had far-reaching implications within the history of Islam. What was at stake in the controversies surrounding acts of wonder was Muhammad’s prophetic office. Already within its formative period, Muslim theologians claimed that the prophet’s authority could be substantiated only by a wondrous act that was divinely administered to the prophet, and which disabled his audience from producing an act of a similar kind. But the difficulty of how to distinguish a bona fide miracle from magic or sorcery, and from pseudo-arts like trickery or spells plagued Muslim theologians until the present.
Equally at stake in such controversies was the Qur’an’s status as a miracle. The conviction that the Qur’an’s rhetoric, which was a product of the prophet’s superlative clarity of Arabic expression (Ar. bayān), reached a degree of eloquence that rendered human beings (and even supernatural agents) powerless to produce “even a chapter like [the Qur’an]” needed to be grounded in a comprehensive theology of wonder.
This study examines the ways that acts of wonder were defined, defended, classified, contested, and interpreted in a society in which such acts were woven into the social fabric of everyday experience. Defined: Muslim theologians and mystics (Sufis) defined acts of wonder within a cosmological framework that centralized all events under God’s custom. Rejecting the notion of causal necessity in the natural world and ascribing all events to God’s custom, they posited that miracles are essentially disruptions in God’s custom, which follows a habit but does not proceed in a necessary way. Defended: Muslim theologians defended miracles as confirmations of the prophet’s authority. They passionately debated the way that such acts served as testimony of a person who claims to be a prophet. Classified: Muslim scholars developed a classification system that mapped the full range of extraordinary acts—miracles, marvels, trickery, divination, magic, and spells—onto a scheme of piety (or “saintliness”). Contested: Muslim philosophers, who largely adopted a Hellenistic worldview, explained acts of wonder by grounding them in a thoroughly mechanical and rationalistic account of the universe, stripping them of the meanings that theologians and mystics had ascribed to them. Interpreted: The aforementioned acts of wonder within Islamic societies were interpreted as symbols that reinforced the values that Islamic culture ascribed to holy persons.
Current Projects (Articles)
Covenant and Creation in Islam. I am currently writing a three part article that traces the theme of “covenant” and related concepts in Islamic intellectual history—a theme that the Islamic tradition shares with other cultural and religious traditions that emerged within the Near East and that later emerged within the Reformed tradition of Christianity. An overview of covenant theology in Islam and several initial discoveries that I have made appeared in a festschrift for Andrew Rippin under the title, "Is there Covenant Theology in Islam?"
Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī on Intuition: The History of an Aristotelian-Avicennian Philosophical Idea in Islamic Theology. This paper contributes to our understanding of the complex and protracted process through which Ashʿarī-Sunnī theologians appropriated methods, ideas, and concepts from Ancient Greek and Islamic philosophy and subsequently deployed them to explain religious phenomena. It focuses on the Aristotelian notion of “intuition” that Avicenna (d. 1037) introduced as the lynchpin of his comprehensive philosophical system, and which Rāzī and other leading Sunnī theologians introduced into their worldview that recognized, equally, the authorities of human reason and revelation. By charting this salient aspect of the process of appropriation and naturalization, my ultimate aims is to explain the innovative ways that Ashʿarī-Sunnī theologians subjected supernatural phenomena (including miracles, revelation, and prophecy) to the critique of human reason and brought explanations of such phenomena into line with Aristotelian-Avicennian logic, epistemology, and cosmology.
Essay on the Absence of Islamic Faith (More words coming soon.)
My first book project, Rāzī: Master of Qurʾānic Interpretation and Theological Reasoning (Oxford University Press, 2015), focused on Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210), a towering Muslim intellectual whose writings mark a momentous turning point in the Islamic tradition. Rāzī was a leading representative of Sunnī orthodoxy in medieval Islam. Imbued with the heritage of Greek learning and inculcated with an Islamic education, he was the first intellectual to exploit the rich heritage of ancient and Islamic philosophy to interpret the Qurʾān; and he was the first to forge a methodology that unites reason (ʿaql) and scripture (naql).
My monograph explored Rāzī’s intellectual project, which was one of the most ambitious in the history of Islam. Its principal aim was to examine Rāzī’s boldly unconventional intellectual project and to situate it within the broader arc of the Islamic tradition. While previous scholarship in the field of Rāzī studies concentrated on ethics, logic, and epistemology, extremely little attention had been devoted to Rāzī’s magnum opus—his Qurʾān commentary—and on the pivotal role that it played in Islamic intellectual history. I focused mainly on Rāzī’s Qurʾān commentary.
My broad objectives were to explain how Rāzī used the Qurʾān to express his philosophical theology; how Rāzī resolved major methodological conflicts concerning the application of intellect or reason (ʿaql) to scripture (naql); and how he devised rules and principles of Qurʾānic interpretation by assimilating methods and ideas from diverse intellectual currents into Sunnī theology and exegesis. My ultimate goal was to chart the process through which Rāzī appropriated ideas from Aristotelian-Avicennian philosophy (as well as Muʿtazilism) and naturalized them into Sunnī theology and exegesis.