A creed is a special kind of formal statement of religious belief or collection of such statements. A very good and justly famous creed among the Sunnis is the document known as al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah. I will be discussing it at some length. First, I wish to clarify the framework in which I will present that discussion.
A person might utter a collection of statements about what he or she believes, but this would not amount to something to which we apply the term ‘creed’ in a technical sense. What distinguishes a creed is that it is a collection of the belief statements of a group of religious believers. It is a collective statement, not a personal one. Moreover, a creed is a competitive statement of beliefs: its function is to distinguish one group from another. A creed is accordingly a statement that is primarily addressed, not to God or to His recording angels, but to our fellow-believers.
This function and direction of address carry the implication that one creed is better or truer than that of another group. In most cases, a creed is composed primarily in order to correct and challenge the beliefs that identify another group. In most cases, differences between groups become formalised through their creeds into divisions which, thereafter, may also find expression in social and political divisions.
As we will see, many of the statements in the al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah are formulated, and formulated very precisely, as a refutation of what, according to the settled consensus of the Sunnis are heretical tendencies in the belief statements of various groupings that arose and infested different parts of the Muslim community at that time. Some of those groupings were small; some were numerically significant; some have died out; some have adapted and altered and survived as various splinter groups.
The function of creeds, let me repeat, is to distinguish one group of believers from another. That is not, usually, plainly evident from the content of the statements that make up a creed. Nevertheless, as soon as we look closely at the detail of the wording and formulations used, and inform ourselves about the historical context, we can be sure that a creed is a document of sectarian religious identity. Its purpose is to encourage belonging to one sect and reject belonging to any one or more other sects.
Giving immoderate attention to having a creed necessarily leads to giving immoderate attention to belonging to a group, saying and doing things in ways that prove (to yourself and others) that you belong to this group rather than another. If this happens it does so always at the expense of really believing what the creed claims to believe, and at the expense of allowing that real belief to guide and mould your conscience and your behaviour. To some degree belonging becomes more important than believing; believing (or saying and showing to others that you believe) becomes the means of belonging whereas, obviously, it is supposed to be the other way around.
If immoderate attention is given to having a creed, it always encourages dissension with other groups with different creeds. It generates intolerance – it leads to the different groups criticising each other, refusing to do things together, refusing to mix. The reason for that is the basic fact I mentioned at the beginning, namely that a creed is essentially competitive, essentially a group identification device — a device for differentiating your group from the groups that others are in. That, in turn, leads to forgetting what the groups have in common, or considering what they have in common to be unimportant compared to what differentiates them. The habit of dissension can become so ingrained that the groups are unable to come together even to defend themselves from a common enemy; in the most extreme case, where dissension has generated an abiding hatred, we may find these groups preferring to side with the common enemy rather than with a competitor group.
The confusion of means and ends leads to a shift in priorities: belonging becomes more important, more pressing, than believing. The same confusion leads to another shift in priorities — competing with another group becomes more important, more urgent than understanding and practising according to the creed of one’s own. Because the actual beliefs lose their importance, the beliefs that the groups have in common also lose their importance. The practical result is that the groups’ competition with, and rejection of, each other becomes more intense, more uncivil, more accusations of heresy and unbelief are exchanged.
That intensity of competition is then justified by a more intense belonging, a belonging even further removed from real believing, a more intense assertion that “we” are completely in the right and “they” are completely in the wrong. The habits of mind and disposition that such behaviour produces eventually lead to splits within the group and the formation of splinter parties, who do things slightly differently from the main group.
Then, by the same process as before, the splinter parties build up a distinct identity and become groups in their own right, now competing more intensely with the parent group than with even the other groups they used to compete with.
The process I have just discussed is a process of ever-increasing and widening break-up of the community, of ever-increasing political and moral ineffectiveness in the world. The scores of different groups are too preoccupied with holding on to their own identity to have any space left in their hearts and minds to deal effectively with the problems they face in the world.
This situation can only be remedied by making a sustained effort to make believing more important in our attitudes and actions than belonging. There is no way of doing this other than to identify the core of what we believe and identify primarily with that core, rather than emphasising elements that identify the particular group that we belong to. All kinds of group belonging, just like all material possessions, are left behind at death; whatever function or usefulness they may have had in the here and now, they cease to have beyond death, in the hereafter. Whatever answers we would want to give, after death, to secure our eternal well-being – those are the matters, the formulations, that constitute the core of what we really believe. Remembering that core of beliefs also helps us to remember what we have in common across the different groups, and it helps us not to exaggerate the importance of what makes them different.
The first stage in taking this remedial action is to remind ourselves of this simple fact: no matter how impressive the qualities of this or that great Islamic scholar or this or that great Sufi saint, the strength and energy and blessing that we can get from being attached to them are as nothing compared to the strength and energy and blessing that we can get from being attached to the One who created this universe and prepared it for habitation by human beings, the One who revealed His will and guidance in the Book that He sent down on the heart of His chosen Messenger, a heart that He purified and strengthened so that it could bear the weight of His revelation and embody that revelation in precepts and practices witnessed by the Companions for over twenty years in the full range of circumstances that human beings face. Moreover, the One who created us and revealed the Qur’an and Sunnah has also assured us that both are a mercy for mankind, not a burden, both together are a guidance that suffices us to earn the recompense in the hereafter if we have the will to follow that guidance. God keeps His word; it is we who fail to keep our word to keep our lives in harmony with His Word.
The second stage is to affirm and hold to this other simple fact: that the promised recompense does not come to us because we formulated a belief statement in certain ways but because we built our consciences and our intentions, did our acts of formal worship, and our everyday acts in the world, within the framework of the guidance sent down to us, with a steady conviction that the guidance is sufficient for the purpose for which it was sent down. In surat al-Hujurat, much of which is about courtesy as between the believers and God’s Messenger, and between them and God, has near the end, this command addressed to God’s Messenger:
Say: Would you [plural] teach God your religion, when God knows all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, and [when] God is knower of all things? [49:16]
The second stage, in summary, is having the good manners, the common decency, not to claim to be able to teach God what our beliefs should be, after He has taught us His guidance through Qur’an and Sunnah. The following verse: They make it a favour to you [singular] that they have surrendered. Say: Do not consider your surrender a favour to me. No indeed! Rather God confers a favour on you in that He has led you to the faith, if you are serious and sincere people.
The third stage is to affirm that God forgives those who seek His forgiveness. To affirm that it is to Him that we turn for help and guidance, it is to Him that we belong and to Him that we will return when He wills. To affirm that it is under His supervision that we live and die, that we fail or succeed, that we sin and repent of our sin. And indeed, if we do earnestly repent, then the sin led to a good that is most loved by God, namely repentance, and so the sin becomes, in retrospect, a good. That is our true human identity; our highest dignity and the true calling of Islam, that is, to be creatures who will sin and who will seek forgiveness and who will be forgiven.
All other identities, even one’s identity as a Muslim, can sometimes get in the way of that Islam, the full submission to God. That submission means thinking and believing that He and only He is God and enjoys the prerogative of final judgement on the worth of His creatures. On certain actions and statements defined explicitly as crimes, we can act, individually and collectively, to impose the appropriate penalties. But even then, we are not authorised to condemn the criminal outright, only to punish the act; nor is it permitted to relish and rejoice in the act of inflicting the penalty. We do not and cannot know what there is in the heart of that individual which is nonetheless known to God and may in His judgement suffice to save him hereafter, even if, here, he must be sentenced for what he has done or said.
The duty of care for others, including those in other groups than one’s own, must have priority over the duty to give rulings so that we are, so to speak, always unprepared and unwilling to pronounce anathemas against errors in belief, or to call others heretics. For our normal behaviour in respect of religious differences, there is sure safety in silence; there is sure reward for forbearance and patience; there is sure, practical wisdom in saying “I cannot hold or utter an opinion on this matter”, because my human judgement is always conditioned by the limitations of my intelligence, my information, and the horizons formed by my personal experience and culture. It is neither necessary nor polite to have opinions about everyone and everything. Better to say: “They do that this way; we do that that way: no matter; God knows best. Let us instead speak more of those things that we do the same way…”
In those last words you will have recognized not only the admonitions that come in the Qur’an about speaking to others in the fairer way and leaving it to God to teach us the worth of our differences, but also a statement within the al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah which is offered as a part of the creed, a statement of what his group believes. He says of his group, words to the effect: “We are the people who say God knows best.” It is part of his creed to know that we do not know; to know that we cannot judge others with a fierce, final, untroubled certainty.
That is one reason why for generations this has been the most trusted credal document in the Sunni Muslim world. There are other reasons which I will come to. But first, let me repeat, that it is a creed in the technical sense of that term. It has the form and serves the function that I said characterise creeds, namely to distinguish one group of believers from other groups. And yet it does not do the harm that is usually to be expected from sectarian creeds. In the rest of my talk, I will try to present my understanding of why that is so.
You will have guessed that at-Tahawi has put together a collection of the belief statements of a group that is claiming: “We are not a sect in the usual sense, we are the mainstream; let those of you who are sects enter that same mainstream.”
My task now is to explain how and why this attempt to put together a creed for a non-sectarian sect is, on most (but not all) points, persuasive, successful. I identified just now three stages of the remedial action that is necessary when we see the community of the believers splitting into groups that mistrust each other so much they cannot negotiate any common ground and so their mistrust is on the edge of becoming conflict, indeed sometimes falls over that edge.
Those three stages of remedial action are evident, explicitly or implicitly, in the al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah. They are evident most strongly in the fact that, for the formulation, the expression in words, of what Ahl al-Sunnah wa-l-Jama’ah believe, he relies mostly on the words, the texts themselves, of the Qur’an and Sunnah. He does not rely on particular interpretations of those texts. Rather, his objective seems to be to say to those who do rely on particular interpretations of those texts: let us accept the limitations of our knowledge and understanding, let us not make interpretations when there is no practical need for doing so and certainly no practical benefit from doing so. Let us be, before God, and while journeying on the path of God’s Messenger, quiet and humble in our bearing so that our consciences will not allow us to invent philosophies and theologies and legal dispositions that wall up the guidance, like separated quarters of a city. Rather, let us leave the space open, and live in it peaceably, trusting that the guidance that God sent us is sufficient as guidance. Whatever comes after that, no matter the reputation of the source, cannot have the same authority and power, nor can it have the same blessing, nor can the same good flow from it.