The Historical Reading of Religious Thought

By Shaykh Haider Hobbollah1

The traditional mindset was accustomed to eliminating the distinction between thought and reality in a sense, between the self and the other, between the subjective and the objective, between the mental and the external etc. in their perception and conception of human knowledge. When a researcher or thinker addresses a topic to discover the truth and reality of a particular matter, the process of going through the intellectual and analytical stages and then reaching the conclusion generated by these premises involves a kind of expression of reality when revealing the result. That is, the researcher does not only talk about an idea reached through scientific data, but goes beyond that to talk about the reality he sees to the extent that he equates, equals, and merges what he sees with reality itself in a process of fusion and unification, necessitated by the decisive certainty reached during or as a result of his scientific pursuit and research.

However, the mindset took a significant turn in recent centuries, especially as we have previously explained, to create a kind of blurring between the thing as it is and as it is on the horizon of our perceptions. The mere revelation of the thing in our intellectual horizon does not mean reality, but there is a middle link between them, which we are not entitled to bypass.

Regardless of evaluating these two conceptions of knowledge and which one is correct, as we have previously discussed, and regardless of the kind of relativism faced by the second conception that prevails today on a large scale, one of the implications of this second conception on the general intellectual level is transforming knowledge itself into a matter that can be studied without introducing the element of reality into this study. This approach makes dealing with this material distant from correctness and truthfulness, as long as these two qualities typically involve invoking the reality that had been previously excluded.

In this climate, disciplines such as epistemology, philosophy of science, history of science, etc., grow and flourish and take on an existence and importance of their own; because talking about the history of a discipline gains greater significance when we succeed in separating science and theories from reality and correctness. The history of ideas is an intellectual pursuit to study human knowledge historically, often excluding elements of right and wrong, judgment, and evaluation, even if its results are useful in the second degree to affirm other propositions. What we aim to do here is to provide a brief overview of this dimension of the history of ideas and religious sciences within the religious framework.

Through this overview, we aim to practice an act from within the traditional religious sciences to affirm the religious academic community’s need for a historical reading of knowledge production, and to reproduce these disciplines within another methodology. The reason that confirms this need is that the current religious study seriously lacks this type of reading despite the examples we will mention. This reinforces the necessity of reviving the historical understanding of religious disciplines in the contemporary religious academic community. This has become a pressing need for institutions, centers, and religious seminaries in the post-modern era and the climate of secondary epistemology. It is no longer appropriate for contemporary religious disciplines to turn their face away from this type of reading of religion as a historical entity, regardless of the results targeted by a researcher from such studies, especially on the philosophical level, as done by Dr. Abdul Karim Soroush, especially in his theory of the expansion of religious knowledge.

This historical school has become today one of the greatest schools of thought in the world, offering the most important and valuable contributions to the philosophy of knowledge.

The Absence of a Neutral Approach in Religious Studies

Within the context of the shortcomings of the absence of this type of reading in religious circles, we face the phenomenon of not being neutral in our studies. Studies in the history of academic disciplines remain, in general, neutral, while the mindset governing religious thought and its methodologies is one of correctness and error. Therefore, the state of neutrality in presenting other opinions or cultural contexts is not palatable, based on the assumption that neutrality equals acceptance, meaning that the lack of criticism equals adopting what you were neutral towards. This approach in thinking is due to the weakness of historical and neutral comparative studies in religious academic institutions, except somewhat recently. This point, worthy of attention, confirms the importance of activating this kind of methodological engagement with sciences and their development and evolution.

The History of Sciences in Islamic Heritage, Supporting Examples:

Intellectual history had its presence among Muslim scholars to some degree. These scholars were keen on studying the ideas and opinions of their predecessors, and they were very careful to know their positions and theories, even if they did not put in any effort in developing the discipline of intellectual history in its contemporary form.

For example, within Islamic theology and creed, the efforts made by al-Nawbakhti (d. around 300 AH) and al-Shahristani (d. 548 AH) and others in the field of sects, denominations, and creeds are considered a clear expression of an intellectual historical effort trying to read the history of doctrinal opinions and the like through the study of Islamic and non-Islamic, small and large sects and denominations. This is an important revelation of the theories that formed the cornerstone of these sects themselves.

As another example, on the jurisprudential front, we can focus on the efforts made by Sayyid Muhammad Jawad al-Amili (d. 1226 AH) in his book Miftah al-Karamah, which indicates to a certain extent the distinguished presence of intellectual history in the awareness of its author, the breadth of knowledge, and the distinctive ability to accurately uncover the positions of previous jurists based on direct personal experience, excluding mere reliance on the transmission from scholars and being satisfied with that over practicing a historical jurisprudential investigation on a particular jurisprudential issue or idea. Amili’s experience led to a kind of qualitative leap in this field that had an impact on the personalities that came after him; it is noticeable the presence of historical jurisprudential tracking in the words of those who followed him, such as Shaykh Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi (d. 1266 AH) in Jawahir al-Kalam, Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim (d. 1390 AH) in Mustamsak al-‘Urwah, and Shaykh Ansari (d. 1281 AH) in al-Makasib and others. Hence, Amili’s claim to consensus and popularity for a ruling are considered of significant academic value.

Al-Wadih fi Usul al-Fiqh by Abu al-Wafa al-Hanbali can be recorded as an encyclopedia in Sunni jurisprudential principles, and Fara’id al-Usul by Shaykh Murtada Ansari can be considered a good model at the jurisprudential level in uncovering the positions of the jurists. Shaykh Ansari notably cited in this book the literal texts of many jurists’ statements regarding several issues in this field, which is an important feature in intellectual historical documentation.

In the field of Quranic exegesis and Quranic studies, Majma’ al-Bayan by Shaykh Abu Ali al-Fadl ibn al-Hasan al-Tabarsi (d. 6th century AH) and al-Tibyan by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Tusi, are distinguished by transferring and documenting many exegetical opinions, to the extent that these two books sometimes have a character of not taking a position on a particular verse’s interpretation, and merely transferring the statements made in its interpretation by ancient or later exegetes according to their time.

In the field of philosophy, the commentary by Shahid Murtada Mutahhari (d. 1979 AD) on the book The Principles of Philosophy and the Methodology of Realism by Allama Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (d. 1981 AD), the author of Tafsir al-Mizan, stands out. Mutahhari was deeply engaged in addressing history of philosophy, reading it through its three stages: Greek, Islamic, and Western. For example, before entering the discussions on the value of knowledge that forms the fourth article of the book, he elaborated on the historical explanation of the position on this issue, as well as before addressing discussions on the emergence of plurality in perceptions, the topic of philosophy and sophistry, and other topics.

The Experience of Heritage and Developments in Historical Reading

However, these significant efforts are characterized, as we hinted, by noting opinions and statements and verifying the accuracy of the attribution to this or that person, or to one school of thought or another. Yet, the developments in the history of ideas have added to this type of effort other work of also great importance; in contemporary historical readings, a specific theory is considered, and the opinions and positions that were prominent against this theory are discovered, but not in an incidental, impulsive manner that reduces the temporal distances and intervals. In other words, presenting the theological opinion of Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 413 AH) in Awa’il al-Maqalat along with the opinion of ‘Allamah Hilli (d. 726 AH) in Minhaj al-Haq, for example, or the jurisprudential opinion of Ibn Zuhra al-Halabi (d. 585 AH) in al-Ghunyah alongside the opinion of Muhaqqiq al-Karki (d. 1260 AH) in Matali’ al-Anwar, for example, is not merely juxtaposed. Rather, the opinion of the former expresses the status of this theory at a certain stage or historical epoch, while the opinion of the latter represents the level and state of the theory at another time, sometimes leading to the theory being defined in stages, i.e., divided according to its age into segments and phases as done by Shahid al-Sadr (d. 1400 AH) broadly when presenting the positions of Sayyid Khoei (d. 1413 AH) on the application of the principle of Istishab in juridical doubts in Usul al-Fiqh.

Thus, the scope expands to replace theory with science, studying the discipline of Usul al-Fiqh, for example, in a historical study that observes the stages of this science, its successes and failures on a historical level, and reads the turns it has taken, such as the influence of the rationalist current in it or the emergence of the Akhbari current, as done by Shahid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in his work al-Ma’alim al-Jadidah lil-Usul, and others.

The same is true for Islamic jurisprudence; the historical reading of this science, the stages and history of its schools and trends, and the interactions between these schools throughout history, comparing its golden ages with periods of stagnation and relative decline, and observing its relationships and interactions – historically – with the theology, legal theory, and language, all this and more is a vast field for enriching knowledge of this science, studying its experiences and activities. Recently, a number of efforts have taken on this reading; among them – on the level of Shi’i jurisprudence – is what was presented by Sayyid Hossein Modarressi Tabatabai, who divided the stages of this science into eight, starting from the era of the infallibles and the first century after the Occultation up to the Safavid era, and the era of Wahid Behbahani and Shaykh Ansari, studying the characteristics of each stage according to his viewpoint. Others have also undertaken this task, among the most prominent being Sayyid Hashim Ma’ruf al-Hasani in History of Ja’fari Jurisprudence, Abu al-Qasim al-Karaji in History of Jurisprudence and Jurists, Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi al-Asifi in his introductions to al-Rawdha al-Bahiyya, al-Fawa’id al-Hai’iriyya, and Riyad al-Masa’il, and others.

On the Sunni side, there was a clear interest in this historical jurisprudential research, such as works that focused on the history of Islamic legislation and the history of jurisprudential schools among Muslims, which are numerous.

Thus, this field involves elements of comparison and contrast, whether between prominent figures in a certain science who represented schools like Shaykh Mufid, Shaykh Saduq, Allamah Hilli, Kashif al-Ghita, Shaykh Muzaffar, al-Iji, and Ibn Rozbahan in the field of theology; Ansari, Akhund, Isfahani, Ghazali, and Amidi in legal theory, Shaykh Tusi, Muhaqqiq Hilli, the two Martyrs, Sayyid Khoei, Shafi’i, Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Qudamah, Malik, and others in the science of jurisprudence; and Ibn Rushd, Farabi, Ibn Sina, Nasir al-Din Al-Tusi, Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, and ‘Allamah Tabatabai in the science of philosophy, and so on; or between schools and trends within a certain science like the Illuminationist and Peripatetic schools of philosophy, the Usuli and Akhbari schools in jurisprudence and legal theory, and the various schools of interpretation from the rational, analytical, and mystical approaches, through the customary method and interpreting verses by each other, to even the narrative and historical method.

Comparative studies between personalities can, for example, determine the value each personality holds, and thus some effects are based on that. As an example, other than what we presented about the author of Miftah al-Karamah, the comparison made by a group of Rijal scholars between Shaykh Tusi (d. 460 AH) and Shaykh Najashi (d. 450 AH) shows that their study of the academic personality of both led some to prefer Najashi’s opinions in Rijal over Tusi when there was a conflict and no chance of reconciliation. This outcome, which has its implications, is nothing but the product of a comparative study between these two personalities. Reading their thoughts, the characteristics of their books, and understanding the specifics of their scientific personalities, such as assuming the incidental effort in Tusi’s personality, whose activities expanded to include jurisprudence, principles, theology, Rijal, Hadith, possessing general religious authority in the community, and more, while Shaykh Najashi’s personality was characterized by specialization in the science of Rijal, possibly due to his residence in the city of Kufa at that time. All this helped—and helps—to take such positions, as some Rijal scholars did when there was a contradiction between the two scholars in authentication and weakening, and so on. Thus, if we compare a personality like Muhaqqiq Ardabili (d. 993 AH) in claiming consensus in Majma’ al-Faida wa al-Burhan and Sayyid Amili in Miftah al-Karamah, we could sometimes determine a position regarding the historical documentation of fatwas when the claims conflict with each other.

However, the most modern element in historical studies lies in the historical research surrounding thought and knowledge, attempting to present logical depictions of the connections and bonds between thought and the external environment through a presupposition based on an existing dialectic between thought and the systems it emerged in. Thought does not arise from nothing, nor does it always stem from mere pre-existing scientific data that represents logical premises for it. Politics, economics, society, war, peace, and more play an important – though not sole – role in the emergence or development of intellectual ideas and achievements. These historical contexts that accompany or, let’s say, embrace a certain knowledge sometimes extend their tendrils into this knowledge to an extent that we cannot understand the thought itself without understanding this historical context. For example, it is impossible to read the thought of Vladimir Lenin (d. 1924) in isolation from the conditions and developments that swept through Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Often, we cannot fully understand his thought without knowing about other figures Lenin was in context with, such as Karl Marx (d. 1883) and Friedrich Engels (d. 1895). Similarly, we cannot foresee the secular conception of religion in Europe away from a history rich with political, ecclesiastical, and other events. This means that merely being aware of an idea without examining its surrounding context will often lead to erroneous conclusions or, at the very least, conclusions that lack precision or comprehensiveness.

The same applies to the field of theology in its contemporary stage; studying the developments of this science at this stage cannot be done without reading about the cultural and intellectual environment that surrounded the Islamic and religious situation in general and the personalities of the theologians themselves during this period. The researcher will repeatedly notice how the historical context has had and continues to have a significant impact on the movement of this science at this stage.

The historical reading of religious thought is not merely a methodological approach that researchers in the history of religions, religious studies, or even theologians might employ. Rather, it represents a comprehensive perspective that deeply influences our understanding of religious phenomena, their origins, and their development over time. This approach necessitates a profound engagement with the historical contexts in which religious ideas were formulated, evolved, and eventually institutionalized.

Understanding religious thought historically involves delving into the depths of history to uncover the roots of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions. It requires an examination of the socio-political, economic, and cultural conditions that facilitated the emergence of specific religious ideas and their subsequent evolution. This process is not linear; it is marked by complexities and nuances that reflect the multifaceted nature of human societies and their religious expressions.

Here, we do not wish to evaluate any specific proposition, but rather to understand it more in light of what surrounds it, just as we study religious texts that we do not read apart from the circumstantial and situational evidence, and the diversions that sometimes generate general appearances that occur in a purely historical context, and also about the connected intrinsic evidence that is primarily based on a historical aspect in most cases. Indeed, the concept of Taqiyya itself introduces a purely historical element into the process of understanding the text itself. When Shahid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr wanted to read the Akhbari phenomenon in Shi’i theological and jurisprudential thought, he did not deal with it as merely cognitive positions regarding reason and its activities and productions but studied it psychologically, trying through the introduction of the psychological element of Akhbari scholars to discover the reasons for the emergence of such a tendency. The Akhbaris fear – as sincere believers – of losing heritage in front of the deification of reason was one of the reasons that led them to be cautious about the role of reason in the process of discovering the Sharia ruling, and this fear is not born in isolation from the circumstances and reasons that surrounded the Akhbari himself and generated this reaction.

The interpretation of the Akhbari phenomenon may be extended further to link its emergence to the appearance of the sensory and empirical school in Europe during the Renaissance – given the Akhbaris caution towards rational activity while at the same time valuing sensory knowledge – as Shahid Mutahhari relates from Sayyid Borujerdi, and Mutahhari discusses this statement by noting that the sensory school had not yet entered Iran at the time of the appearance of the hadith scholar Muhammad Amin al-Astarabadi (d. 1036 AH / 1626 CE), the leader and founder of the Akhbari school, so how did this cross-fertilization or influential relationship occur? Then, Mutahhari approximates this with the frequent travels of the mentioned hadith scholar. This idea and its discussions enrich our knowledge of the Akhbari phenomenon as a current that had a wide impact on the sciences of theology, jurisprudence, principles, and hadith, whether we accept this idea in the end or remain skeptical.

Thus, the statement that figures like Sayyid Murtada (d. 436 AH) and Sheikh Tusi made many claims to consensuses in their books due to a specific historical context that produced these books, which is the context of confrontation with the Sunnis who reproached the Shi’a for not having jurisprudential and biographical works, imposed the need to show a kind of unity and cohesion in the Shi’i stance, ignoring elements contrary to the established fame for necessities dictated by the nature of the confrontation. We cannot read the biographical books of Shaykh Tusi and Najashi and others without this context to understand them more. All this means that we introduce elements that were not preserved in the biographical and jurisprudential ideas presented in Shaykh’s list or Najashi’s work or Tusi’s expanded works, but rather surrounded these books themselves to form the womb that produced them and the space from which they issued.

This is akin to the statement attributed to Sayyid Borujerdi which says that the narrations of the Ahl al-Bayt are like a marginal commentary on Sunni jurisprudence. If this statement is accurate, it will have a noticeable impact on the nature of engagement with the texts of the Ahl al-Bayt, and therefore, many of these texts cannot be understood in isolation from the historical context in which they were made, which may lead the jurist or theologian to sometimes deviate from the conventional research pattern.

The same idea held by Sayyid Borujerdi is applied by Sayyid Hossein Modarressi to Sheikh Tusi’s al-Mabsut in the field of jurisprudence. He believes that reading the Sunni jurisprudential work that Tusi was contemporary with confirms that the Shaykh was making a commentary on this Sunni thought, representing the Shi’i positions on the topics discussed at that time, similar to the phenomenon of commenting on practical treatises by later and contemporary Shi’i jurists. If this idea is correct it opens a new horizon in the process of historically reading Shi’i jurisprudence. For example, we ask: Were the divisions and classifications on which jurisprudence was based during and after Shaykh’s time derived from the Sunni arrangement of chapters, as might appear by comparison with the books that preceded Shaykh’s books like those of Mufid and Saduq, such as al-Muqni’a, al-Hidayah, and al-Muqni’? Or is it not so? Can we assume – following from the above – that the division of jurisprudence plays a role in its development and expresses a specific approach to dealing with facts? This might lead us to broader questions about the extent of the relationship and bilateral interaction between Sunni jurisprudence or thought and Shi’i jurisprudence or thought in general, a matter that historical study provides us with a lot of data about.

Have Shi’i scholars, such as Sayyid Hashim Ma’ruf al-Hasani, not studied the relationship between Sufism and Shi’ism both theoretically and historically? Wasn’t the issue of the relationship between Mu’tazilism and Shi’ism a subject of research in Islamic thought, a matter related to theological thought and sometimes based on historical data?

All this leads us to recognize the importance of these topics. It is not correct, as some might think, that getting to know the opinion of this jurist or that, or this theologian or that, or this interpreter or that, is unhelpful as long as evidence is our goal and demand. This way of thinking is one-sided and narrow, as it reads theology, jurisprudence, or exegesis from a single angle. The matter is not so; because getting to know the history of theological, jurisprudential, and exegetical thought, among others—even at the level of understanding opinions—is beneficial and fruitful, as we will notice. The issue is not just about what someone said or leaned towards this or that; it goes beyond that. In this type of reading, we face many examples—besides what has been mentioned—that guide our awareness and knowledge of the sciences we study and investigate. For example, studying the development of treatises about practical law sent through letters, by scholars such as Sayyid Murtada and others, in response to people residing in Tripoli, Mosul, Rey and Tabaristan. Or Shaykh Tusi in answers to the questions of people from Ha’ir, and like Muhaqqiq al-Karaki in his fatwas, and others, and even works like Sirat al-Najat, al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqa, and Wasilat al-Najat by Sheikh Ansari, Sayyid Tabatabai (d. 1337 AH), and Sayyid Abu al-Hasan Isfahani (d. 1365 AH), or studying the history of the organizational structure of the religious authority, or studying the phenomenon of precaution in fatwa and its stages, justifications, and circumstances, or studying the seminary phenomenon as a whole and its stages, or studying the development of seminary curriculum, or studying the development of jurisprudential language through its stages, which is also an important study, and many such examples in the field of jurisprudence as well as others. All this significantly enlightens our understanding of jurisprudence, jurisprudents, and jurists.

The Historical Method’s Results and Benefits

It is worth mentioning some of the benefits that the study of the history of religious sciences can provide to the general religious knowledge, which include:

First Benefit: Understanding the Discipline and Its Theories

As previously mentioned, the study of intellectual history seriously contributes to understanding the discipline itself and its theories by understanding the nature of the accumulation that formed the current final component of this or that theory. For example, if we take the theory of the validity of khabar al-wahid in legal theory and try to study the historical stages it went through, our historical journey, which will require us to gradually pass through the ideas of scholars and Sunni and Shi’i Usuli and Akhbari schools, will enable us to form a clear conception of this theory. By highlighting the distinctions derived from historical study, we can observe the elements of convergence and divergence between Akhbaris and Usulis, the open-minded and the closed-minded, or between Ibn Idris (d. 598 AH) and Sayyid Murtada and others. This information will ultimately clarify this theory for us precisely, whether we agree with it afterward in the evaluation stage or not; because at this stage we are undertaking a purely descriptive task. Hence, we notice that some researchers’ misunderstanding of some theories is due to their lack of historical knowledge about them, which forms an incomplete picture of them, making even their final judgment on them not based on clarity and precision.

Second Benefit: Clarifying Lexical Disputes and Understanding Jargon

Sometimes, the matter may be confusing for the researcher; they might assume that a term used in two different eras signifies the same meaning, which is not the case. Often, this is due to their lack of historical reading; because this reading can show us the context of the previous use to find that the intended meaning was not linked with the term used by another thinker, which is natural. For example, the theory of existential guardianship (wilayat al-takwiniyya), which sometimes is enveloped in ambiguity in Shi’i theology at the conceptual level, to the extent that some of the contemporary senior Shi’i scholars have to present a series of possible interpretations for this theory, and then judge each interpretation separately. Does the guardianship mean the power to intervene in creation, the intermediary in grace, the ultimate purpose of existence, or something else? When we historically pass through the theory, its developments become clear, and its features and qualities are more defined. The same goes for the theory of consensus (ijma’), used in theology and jurisprudence, which is always cited with the same expression and word, but differs in its meaning and substance. When intending to judge a consensus claimed by a jurist, for example, it is essential – to maintain a logical dialogue with him – to understand his views on this term; to know the context that led him to use it as evidence. Does his claim of consensus describe the jurisprudential reality, leap to discovering the Sharia ruling or the opinion of the infallible, or present a specific intuitive analysis, as indicated by Shaykh Ansari?

Another example is the term Ijtihad, which used to mean opinion against the authority of the text until the time of Muhaqqiq al-Hilli, according to some, or until the late fourth century, according to others. Similarly, the terms Sahih (authentic) and Da’if (weak) in the science of Hadith, where they were used in discussions to indicate the authority and reliability of hadith versus a report that was merely narrated by a trustworthy Imami from his like until reaching the Imam in another time period. The same applies to the terms “earlier scholars” and “later scholars,” a term that some associate with several implications on science of Rijal and Shi’i jurisprudence. Is Shaykh Tusi the dividing line, or does the issue extend beyond this precise limit, as some contemporary scholars suggest?

Thus, we see that historical research can limit verbal disputes, thereby saving time for the researcher, theologian, Usuli, jurist, or others.

Third Benefit: Discovering the Interconnection of Sciences and the Nature of This Connection

When a researcher tries to define the logical course of the relationship between theology and philosophy, their historical study of this relationship in the era of contention that preceded Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 672 AH) and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606 AH) or thereafter, can provide them with an experience that guides them to many positives and negatives in this relationship, thereby directing them towards adopting a position based on the ideal relationship in their respective understanding. By historical study, they will know the benefit that these two sciences gained when they were separate – methodologically and content-wise – due to the competitive phenomenon between them. They will also notice the fruitful impact on theology when philosophy influenced it with the latest developments of human intellect in logic, mathematics, and physics.

Similarly, if we want to study the relationship between the sciences of jurisprudence and legal theory with philosophy and logic, for example, when relying on a theoretical analysis that does not mimic reality or look at the historical experience of this relationship, we might reach a certain conception. However, knowledge of the historical relationship that has existed for centuries between these sciences and tracing how they influenced each other, and evaluating these impacts, can sometimes change our conviction. This is because the rich experience that this information provides, is important to evaluate this relationship specifically and practically. For example, when we say that philosophical thinking diverts the mind from its customary understanding of the text, we can refer to the experience that preceded Wahid Bahbahani (d. 1205 AH) and compare it with the experience that followed him, which had a greater influence of philosophical thinking. Do we notice features between the method of the two Martyrs: the first (d. 786 AH) and the second (d. 965 AH) in understanding and between Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Isfahani (d. 1361 AH) in his jurisprudential work, or Muhaqqiq Araqi (d. 1361 AH) in his commentary on al-‘Urwah? Is there a distinction in this regard between the author of al-Madarik (d. 1009 AH) or the author of al-Sharai’ (d. 676 AH) and Shaykh Ansari in his al-Makasib or al-Tahara and Muhaqqiq al-Hamadani (d. 1322 AH) in his al-Misbah? Studying the experience can provide us with additional data for theoretical research and guide our awareness of this relationship to avoid hasty and premature judgments.

Also, the relationship between the developments in the discussions related to the realm of ithbat in legal theory and the circumstances of narrators in Rijal is noticeable. Did the Usuli mindset of Sayyid Khoei regarding the authority of a solitary report have an impact on the recent growth of the science of Rijal in the Shi’i seminary? Did the theory of al-injibar and al-wahn of chains affect the atrophy of the science of Rijal for long periods sometimes?

This relationship between legal theory and Ilm al-Rijal can be analytically uncovered, but the historical experience adds new data to our understanding, gained from the experiences of others.

Fourth Benefit: Discovering the Roles of Theories with Each Other Within a Single Science or Between Sciences

When we read a particular thought of a personality in a field and then try to highlight a comparison between it and those who do not believe in the merits of his thought, we will then clearly find the extent of the influence of some ideas on others, and how this scholar’s commitment to a particular theory led him to a series of other ideas. For example, the Sufi theory of the Perfect Man and the concept of Wilayah in Ibn Arabi’s thought had a relationship with Shi’i theological theories regarding Imamate, either causally from this side or as a dialectical interactive relationship. Similarly, theories explaining the principle and necessity of prophecy and its relationship with the theological principle of infallibility, as observed in some later theologians, and also the strict approach of Imam Abu Hanifa al-Numan (d. 150 AH) towards the Prophetic Sunnah – as said – can explain his stance on analogy and the like. The strictness of Sayyid Murtada and Ibn Idris in the authority of a single report may explain their confident stance on consensus and its certainty, while the belief of the Akhbari school on the narrations leads us to the reasons for Sheikh Yusuf al-Bahrani’s (d. 1186 AH) attack in al-Hada’iq al-Nadhirah on consensus, considering it a Sunni invention, and similarly the criticism of the fourfold classification of hadith by Akhbaris in general. Following this approach, we can understand the interpretation of Shahid Sadr for the emergence of al-seerah al-‘uqalai’yyah and al-mutasharri’ah in jurisprudence and legal theory after Shaykh Ansari; where he saw that the decline of the theories of consensus and popularity and what was like them had caused the emergence of the theory of seerah in the Usuli mind within a specific analysis – which is outside the scope of this paper. Thus, we notice the relationship between the stance on reports and insidad in legal theory, or between rational good and evil, and a lot of other theological issues like the theory of al-aslah, the principle of grace (al-lutf), determinism (jabr), and the assignment of unbearable tasks, and so on. These many examples reveal to us this connection or contrast throughout intellectual history between theories and ideas, which may sometimes help us to criticize or support a particular idea by analyzing the intellectual streams that brought it or influenced it.

Fifth Benefit: Identifying and Discovering Forgotten or Marginalized Intellectual Discussions

Experience confirms that the knowledge of intellectual history refutes, at times, the patterns in which unfounded generalizations are used, not well-grounded on precise investigative grounds. Many ideas are not reviewed and are still ignored on the general academic level, let alone some of them are still buried in manuscripts. Bringing out these opinions and viewpoints, as it indicates a previous richness in a field, can enrich even the contemporary academic and cultural situation or provide it with momentum and contribution.

The issue that occurs in most religious sciences is the emergence of some personalities or books to the surface and forefront, due to certain qualities in them, which affects the rest of the personalities and studies that may stand in a subsequent degree. This leads, in the long term, to the absence of these personalities or studies from many, perhaps most, research, and then it is conceived that the entire scientific reality is expressed by these first-degree personalities or books. In the field of theology, names like Mufid, Saduq, Hilli, Muzaffar, Kashif al-Ghita, Mutahhari, Iji, Lahiji, Qadi al-Mu’tazili, Ibn Rozbahan, and others emerge, while dozens of others who were active and effective in developing or at least discussing theology, like the Halabis; Abu al-Salah (al-Kafi fi al-Fiqh), Ibn Zuhra (Ghunyat al-Nuzu’), Hurr al-Amili (Ithbat al-Huda), Fayd Kashani (Ilm al-Yaqin), Sayyid Shubbar (Haqq al-Yaqin) and others, are obscured. The same happens in the field of Usul, where figures like Mirza Na’ini (d. 1355 AH), Isfahani (d. 1361 AH), Khorasani (d. 1329 AH), Ansari (d. 1281 AH), Araqi, Khoei (d. 1413 AH), and Sadr (d. 1400 AH) are highlighted, while many others, whose Usuli ideas might be well thought out within their books, like the author of al-Jawahir, Sayyid Hakim, and Muhaqqiq Ahmad Naraqi, and the like, are relatively obscured.

Here, we do not want to talk about their reasons but rather their opinion itself, to look at the facts with fairness and academic honesty and to be aware of their overall experience in this regard.

Similarly, in the field of jurisprudence, there are fifteen or twenty jurists – on the Shi’i side – whose names are commonly circulated in jurisprudence, while many other jurists are not noticed, or a jurist is noticed in one of his books but not another. The same issue occurs in the field of philosophy and also in Tafsir.

Before issuing generalized judgments, it is expected that one should have investigated the opinions, statements, and stances, so that accurate judgments can be made on the ideas of others without haste or rushing to claim the existence of an Islamic or doctrinal consensus or popularity on a particular idea, without thoroughly examining its historical course.

We have noticed in many religious intellectual debates how an idea is considered consensual or taken for granted while historical investigation does not give the same result, if not the opposite. For example, as we addressed in our book Nazariyyah al-Sunnah regarding the history of the theory of a solitary report, we concluded that the prevailing idea in the Shi’i world until the seventh Hijri century, with just a few minor exceptions, was the belief that a speculative solitary report is not binding. This result completely differs from what later scholars casually present in their books, claiming the fame of the authority of a solitary report among early Shi’a.

When such a sensitive topic has led to an error, leaving a psychological impact on some researchers in this field, what about other ideas, less critical, as in any ordinary jurisprudential issue? We find many jurisprudential issues – within the Shi’i tradition – that were non-existent before the fifth Hijri century with Shaykh al-Tusi, and numerous studies have confirmed this, which cannot be detailed here.

Sixth Benefit: Identifying the Reasons for Temporary Success and Failure in a Discipline

Historical study helps us uncover the reasons for temporary success and failure in a discipline, such as what happened with theology, legal theory, and jurisprudence after the death of Shaykh al-Tusi, as it is said, and the significant impact Tusi’s charisma left on paralyzing the scientific movement after his death. Similarly, what happened following the influence of the Western wave inside the Islamic world, the growth of nationalist and secular currents, or the effects of what is called the age of decline in promoting a culture of rejection of philosophical thought and the diminishing presence of philosophy in the cultural and intellectual arena, to be replaced by jurisprudence, legal theory, or history and narrations. Also, studying the impact of the Andalusian period on intellectual thought and the Muslim psyche, possibly due to some form of cross-fertilization or presence in European lands. In our present era, the Islamic Revolution in Iran created a general atmosphere that significantly impacted the growth of some studies related to religion, especially modern religious theological and philosophical thought, and related to Islamic political thought, to the extent that it was said: The studies of political thought written by Shi’as since the beginning of the second half of the 20th century surpass what they produced over approximately thirteen hundred years.

Seventh Benefit: Eliminating Personal and Factional Tendencies and Reducing Their Role

Historical studies related to academic personalities help remove the psychological weight these personalities leave on the intellectual and cognitive level. Not studying a personality academically and historically, based on comparison and approximation, and uncovering the successes and failures faced by this personality, and the criticisms and defences that surrounded the discussion about them over the ages by their supporters or opponents, not doing all this leaves an emotional and psychological dimension that dominates judgment on matters, whether this dimension provides a positive or negative answer. The perceptions that might be expressed as obvious about a personality, usually derived from documents resembling sensational journalism, can oversimplify our awareness of someone’s personality, making emotion control our entire stance, to the extent that some assume that this personality – out of love for it – was born out of nothing, as if there were no accumulations that brought it about. He tries to read this person’s thoughts without at least comparing them with his peers, and then he concludes that this person is unparalleled. However, if one studies the historicity of personalities with a comprehensive view that encompasses the surrounding circumstances, one will find that this personality – while fully acknowledging its superiority, advancement, and contributions – has advanced a step or steps on a path thousands have contributed to and are still contributing to, and was not an emergence from absolute darkness or an eternal void.

Similarly, the negative stance towards some personalities or the personalities of some trends, the preconceived notions that do not study the personalities thoroughly in their history, may miss opportunities for the entire sciences. The sectarianism surrounding theology deprives it of many necessary cross-fertilizations that enrich it and multiply its outputs. For example, the conflict that occurred in the history of Islamic theology around the issue of moral rationalism had a significant impact on developing rational studies and determining the value of reason in religious thought in general. However, staying today on this binary, whether the binary of the ‘Adaliyyah and its opponents, or the binary of Mu’tazilite and Ash’ari on this issue, burdens theology against the new theories that have flooded the Western world on this subject since Kant and those before him until our present era.

Today’s intellectual landscape necessitates the formation of a unified stance within the religious discourse on certain matters, rendering obsolete any hesitancy towards engaging in positive selection and integration among traditional religious streams. This development signifies that the presence of binary perspectives within the religious framework is increasingly counterproductive, given contemporary shifts. Consequently, this matter should transcend sectarian discussions, thereby dissolving the divisions that categorize issues like practical reason and similar concepts within sectarian boundaries. Statements such as “this concept is aligned with the Shi’a doctrine” or “that concept belongs to the Sunni and Ash’ari doctrines” are becoming irrelevant. This is because such sectarian distinctions, which are products of historical evolution, complicate the understanding of current developments and overlook the global intellectual context that demands a departure from the sectarian characterization of these issues. The principles of moral rationalism, while they may intersect with the concept of Imamate, should not be framed as a tool for sectarian dispute. Doing so significantly undermines the dynamism and progress of scholarly inquiry. Similarly, other topics suffer from the detrimental effects of sectarianism, including discussions on contemplation and knowledge within theological studies, among others.

The same applies to the sciences of Rijal and Hadith; sectarianism deprives these two sciences of significant materials presented by personalities from other affinities, just as the Shi’a say in their comment on the Sunni stance towards narrations by a Shi’a narrator. The Sunni rejection of these narrations by accusing the narrator of Rafdh has deprived them of significant opportunities to acquaint themselves with the Islamic heritage, and vice versa. The same applies to not accepting the authentication or weakening by Shi’a of Sunni Rijal scholars.

These studies, in this manner, reduce the impact of personal tendencies on the mind and thought as a whole, without eliminating empathetic interaction with each other. They will also grant a natural recognition – not a belittled one – of all or most intellectual and scientific outputs, and thus, limit the reduction or monopolization of knowledge.

However, this does not mean diminishing or belittling the efforts of others due to a simplifying tendency, a trap some contemporary researchers fall into. Practicing moderation can prevent us from going to extremes in this area if we master this practice.

The same can be applied to a thought, or school, as attempted by the well-known thinker Roger Garaudy in his dealings with Western thought, emphasizing in several books, especially Pour un dialogue des Civilisations, on the normality of the Western phenomenon and not being an exceptional miracle disconnected from previous and contemporary civilizations and cultures.

I believe that without exercising a form of respectful courage in engaging with religious intellectual endeavours, regardless of their stature and nobility, it will be impossible to propel these endeavours towards further advancement. The issue lies in remaining static at the stages of greatness, as surpassing them presents obstacles that stifle the evolution of thought and the progression of human knowledge, with no significant exceptions to this rule. Therefore, it is imperative to adopt a neutral stance towards previous experiences, steering clear of engaging in distorted and overly eager criticism. As noted by some contemporary scholars, the approach of unconditional adulation and veneration, rooted in a sense of wonder and amazement, which falls short of addressing the intellectual facet, invariably results in an obscured and misleading representation of the analyzed thought, potentially even leading to contradictions in the process of dissemination and interpretation, where a uniform approach is applied indiscriminately to both the neglected and the relied upon, the old and the new.

In this context, we view with relative caution many studies, books, conferences, projects, and seminars that have focused on studying a historical personality; where the logic of veneration dominates, and the main goal behind these works is mostly to present the positive side of the personality, which may sometimes be justified by the stage not allowing for extensive critical remarks, but rather, the requirement is first to introduce the heritage and reveal its commendable features.

This type of thinking, despite its relative correctness, is not complete; who said that it is necessary to present the heritage in its positive image first and postpone the negative aspects? And what are the objective justifications for using this method in academic research where our actual discussion lies?

Therefore, we see the necessity of opening the door to academic readings – in the true sense of the word – of personalities and historical heritage, away from the logic of propaganda and media, or the logic of disparagement and schadenfreude. This is not a call to expose scholars and predecessors but a desire to restructure the mechanisms of dealing with them. Further clarification on this point will be provided, God willing, when discussing the methodological issues in reading Islamic history.

Eighth Benefit: The Ability to Read the Experience from the Outside

This is an important point. For example, historical reading of thought provides us with more knowledge about matters that even the experiencers themselves may not have noticed; because undergoing the experience imposes frameworks dictated by the nature of the circumstance, conflict, and transformations, making it sometimes difficult for those within the experience to notice the overall general events consciously. However, those standing outside the experience, after things have calmed down, can observe many points that played a role in the experience itself, and thus, can identify the weak and strong points here or there, as long as they are not subject to the influence of the heat and intensity of the experience itself. The best example of this, in the context of contemporary theology, is the theological conflict with Marxism, which extended from the beginning of the 20th century approximately until the late 1980s. Today, we are not subject to the heat of the Marxist atmosphere and the atheistic religious dispute. From here, we can make observations on the experience of the Islamic theologian against the phenomenon of atheism without any reservation. The reason for this is usually that the nature of the experience when it is at its peak and climax, involves the political and social game, and thus, it will no longer be a pure intellectual game as long as this game has a significant impact on life situations. Once the experience ends, the parties will be better able to state the reality of matters without equivocation; because there are no negative impacts to constructive criticism to the extent that existed during the experience. This means that external reading – in this sense of externality – plays a significant role in a clearer determination of weak and strong points, perhaps more than the experiencers themselves and their pioneers.

Ninth Benefit: Identifying Gaps and Uncovering Hidden Principles

Historical reading helps discover the gaps that were hidden or overlooked by predecessors, as well as uncover the foundational and substantive bases from which the predecessors started without explicitly theorizing them in their ideas and theories. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that a particular theory was correct without addressing this structural deficiency that wasn’t theorized but only practiced.

The main reason for these two discovery processes is the nature of knowledge accumulation. Ideas, especially theories and intellectual projects, usually don’t emerge abruptly but undergo a complete life cycle. Information, ideas, and concepts accumulate as a result of research, debate, discussion, and dialogue in various forms. Following this accumulation, the theory begins to take more complete formations. Like images and drawings, when the first point of them starts, its parts, components, and deficiencies do not appear clearly. However, when it becomes almost complete, the gaps start to emerge and take their specific features, making it easier for the observer to complete its formation, discover the characteristics of its elements, and finalize it. This completion usually isn’t possible without historical reading that shows us: How did this picture gradually become complete?

A prominent example of this is the experience of establishing the Fiqh al-Nazariyyah, advocated by a group of leading scholars, most notably Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Fiqh al-Nazariyyah is another expression, practically, of re-forming complete conceptions of jurisprudence, reproducing it within different axes, chapters, titles, and entries. What happens – as confirmed by the experience of the second half of the 20th century – is that gathering the widely scattered jurisprudential details connected to a theory, such as economic, political, or social theories, leads to the formation of a large, patchy picture, where gaps that have not been filled scatter throughout. Reforming jurisprudence based on modern holistic foundations – such as the state, individual, society, economy, world, family, etc., which are new titles playing a significant role in reproducing Islamic jurisprudence if they are considered entrances to this jurisprudence – has led to the formation of new perceptions not devoid of gaps. This means that studying the historical evolutionary path of jurisprudence, through previous experiences, defines the extent of the gap that was gradually filled, and the efforts that sought to achieve the project of theoretical jurisprudence and comprehensive jurisprudence, it also defines the extent of the gap that emerged when the experience of theoretical jurisprudence began to enter the realms of the thought and research.

Taking the same experience of Fiqh al-Nazariyyah as a model, we find, on the other hand, the bases on which jurisprudence operated in the stage before this project without this jurisprudence itself noticing these bases and paths that governed and controlled its activity. When Shahid Sadr discussed, within the framework of his reading, the achievements of Shaykh Muhammad Jawad Mughniyah and others on the topic of jurisprudence’s reliance on an individualistic, reclusive view and the need for social jurisprudence, he was issuing from a study of the history of these jurisprudential achievements. Had he not been aware of the history of this jurisprudence, its paths, and the outputs of its scholars, he would not have been able to identify a point of this sensitivity. More importantly, his own project on Fiqh al-Nazariyyah revealed gaps in the structure of jurisprudence and placed jurisprudence before a series of significant and numerous questions.

Our purpose from the model of Fiqh al-Nazariyyah is to demonstrate that reading the history of jurisprudence before and after this project reveals many gaps that jurisprudence itself has suffered and is suffering from. The accumulation element, reinforced by the claim of Fiqh al-Nazariyyah, helped to look at jurisprudence from another angle, an angle that goes beyond the logic of veneration and glorification, which in itself is not a mistake but surpassing it provides an additional means to complete the entire journey of jurisprudence.

Here, another example can be added to clarify and reinforce the idea, which is a hermeneutical example: the principle of al-jari wa al-tatbiq theorized and practiced by the distinguished exegete Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i (d. 1981), deducing it from noble hadiths. Studying the exegetical work of Allama regarding this topic, and then observing Allama’s achievement in this principle and its formulation and crystallization, leads to the discovery of a flaw in the previous exegetical system which, according to the assumption, lacked such a principle in its conceptions. This means we are faced with two possibilities:

A – That the mentioned principle was a hermeneutical starting point for previous scholars when they applied a verse to multiple instances.

B – That there might be a specific flaw we discovered when we found the principle of al-jari in historical studies. However, what seems more difficult and problematic for the researcher afterward is if they reject the principle of al-jari or limit its scope, even with the justification that it is theoretically acceptable but contradicts the expressions of the narratives that assumed its instances, or at least some of these narratives practically. This will reveal a flaw and a gap in the past exegetical theory that we become obliged to fill or to provide a logical answer for, which would not have been possible without the historical insight into the work of someone like Allama Tabataba’i.

Through reading the historical evolutionary path of theories and scientific topics, we find the points of flaw or gap that were gradually filled, thereby discovering these points and then attempting to fill them again if the previous steps of scholars in this regard were not agreed upon.

Tenth Benefit: Monitoring the Evolutionary Path of a Discipline and Anticipating its Future

One of the contributions of historical reading is attempting to explore the future of a discipline through reading its evolutionary path up to the present moment. If we may say, sciences in their historical movement resemble the movement of history as a whole. Historical materialism, launched by Marxist thought, represents a very important point even if we reject the content of this materialism. The philosophy of history in Marxism – and its developments in historical research with the Renaissance itself – is based on the existence of universal systems that control the course of history, as if history is a mass whose formation and development we observe and discover its laws in a laboratory. This phenomenon – the idea – we find in Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun, who represented the significant beginnings of the sciences of history and sociology in reading the systems of life similarly to reading the systems of nature. The situation evolved until it reached with Arnold Toynbee (d. 1975) and Oswald Spengler (d. 1936) stages of predicting the future. The basis of this type of prediction is based on the doctrine of determinism, which says there are causal systems in the movement of life like nature, and this doctrine sees in history Laplace’s statement in nature, that if we knew the state of the universe at a specific time, it would be possible to predict everything that this state entails until the end of the universe’s history.

We do not want to apply these concepts literally to the movement of sciences, but they certainly have a degree of accuracy in academic life. From here, the reader of the movement of a discipline can anticipate its future trajectory, at least its near future in terms of growth or decline, success or stagnation and failure. For example, if we read the history of jurisprudence under the Buyid or Safavid governments, for instance, we would notice a specific pattern of development that occurred for this jurisprudence after entering the political movement and governance systems to some extent. Based on reading a series of experiences of Shi’i jurisprudence with the state, nation, politics, and governance in a series of past periods, we can anticipate the situation after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran near the end of the 1970s to subsequent decades – apart from the view that Islamic movements in the 20th century and the Islamic Republic in Iran revealed the weakness of the jurisprudential system, its frailty, and lifted the veil on its false reality as some see it, for this is another topic that needs a separate study – based on the pressure of reality which has its multiple implications.

Similarly, if we try to read the experience of the natural scientific interpretation of the Quran, represented by Tantawi Jawhari and Ahmad al-Iskandarani, and after them Shaykh Muhammad Rashid Rida, the author of al-Manar (d. 1935), as a prominent model in it by subjecting verses and texts to the results of natural sciences, a large current emerged among Muslim scholars who saw the necessity of keeping up with natural sciences; thus, the pressure of reality forced them to present a Quranic interpretive approach that tries to achieve a connection and harmony between the Quranic text and modern scientific outputs. This experience, when read historically and then evaluated substantively, we find in it – and this is a purely personal stance that may not be agreed upon – a high degree of flaw that is primarily due to the subjugation of the text under the influence of unconscious fears and fleeing from the pressure of reality, without denying the role of natural sciences in revealing aspects of the religious text that the interpreter would not have noticed originally. These fears led some to conceive of the Quran as a scientific book in chemistry, physics, medicine, etc., and then an approach emerged that legitimized these statements based on the Quran being a clarification for everything, until finally the Farhangestan Qom group in Iran appeared, claiming the presence of all sciences in the Quran, similar to what Ghazali said in his book Jawahir al-Quran, and it reached the point of issuing a book under the title The Monotheistic Computer Program, which claims the existence of a computer system based on the concept of monotheism.

Away from determining the veracity of this claim, which many other scholars reject, it attempted to give the Quran a role in life by incorporating it into the sources of scientific knowledge, given the prevalence of this type of knowledge. As a natural result, it became necessary to invigorate and revolutionize the text to enrich it with scientific data.

However, when we read about this experience after that era has passed, we find, that many of these interpretations – not all – were impositions that do not align with the rules of the Arabic language, its eloquence, or its natural appearance. This experience will become a starting point for us to study our actual and future reality in light of it; to apply it in other experiences we encounter. This is precisely what we observe today, as various currents try, under the pressure of political or social realities here or there, to interpret the Quranic text in their favour. Previous experiences will convince us that the results of a reading subjected to such pressure will be highly erroneous, making us more disciplined, more skeptical about the correctness of our findings, and more humble, regardless of our preferred direction; because experience says about the results of reading the text under such circumstances: they are often wrong, hasty, imposing, and the like.

We do not intend with this example to diminish the value of the natural scientific interpretation of the Quranic text, which undoubtedly contains scientific topics, nor do we claim the existence of an objective and fair reading. What we want is to define the engagement with this interpretive approach, its limits, scope, and methods, and then use this experience to evaluate current experiences or determine the future pattern of engagement with subsequent experiences.

Similarly, the experience of calling for joining and assimilating into the Western bandwagon, which emerged in the mid-19th century and took evolved forms with personalities like Salama Musa (d. 1958) and Taha Hussein (d. 1973) in their early life in the Arab scene, and Hassan Taqizadeh (d. 1969) and others in the Iranian scene, or the experience of outright rejection of the Western influx characterized by a group of Salafist currents.

These experiences, whose severe problems we observe today, can give us a foresight into the future of present projects similar or identical to them, while maintaining specificities and considering time and place. Thus, they determine the necessary pattern of engagement with such projects and ideas.

Thus, we find that reading advanced knowledge and intellectual experiences in a specialized historical manner makes us more capable of determining the conditions of contemporary ideas, sciences, or opinions, especially from a knowledge and methodological perspective, and then predicting the future based on this knowledge of the present reality.

In a final brief statement: The historical mind is a necessity for religious knowledge, and unless we activate this mind in our intellectual activities, we will not be able to overcome many of the problems lingering in the field of religious thought.


  1. Original paper in Arabic. I have not translated most of the footnotes of this paper. The paper was been published in the book Mas’alah al-Manhaj fi al-Fikr al-Dini in 2007.