THE SMALL CATECHISM
Muhammad ibn Yûsuf as-Sanûsî (d. 1490)
Joseph Kenny, O.P.
Hamdard Islamicus, 13:4 (1990), 49-64.
Muhammad ibn-Yûsuf as-Sanûsi (d. 1490) is one of the most important representatives of late Islamic theology. Prom his own lifetime his works became the most commonly taught manuals on this subject in North and West Africa. They were used by 'Uthmân dan Fodiye, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate at the beginning of the 19th century. They continue to be studied in Nigeria, where the Arabic text can be found in any well stocked market stall of Islamic literature.
This text is an example of kalâm, a kind of philosophical theology which in vocabulary and teaching goes well beyond the formulations found in the Qur'ân and Hadîth. In the first few centuries of Islam there were many controversies about questions such as where to draw the line between a bad Muslim and an unbeliever, God's determination of events in the universe, particularly human choice of good or evil, the authority of an imâm as compared with that of the scripture, the place of philosophy and rational thought in general, and the unity of God and His attributes.
These questions, especially the last, were influenced by contact with non-Muslim thought, particularly Platonic philosophy. Different positions were taken on these issues by opposing schools of thought until, about 950 A.D. Sunnism took shape with a more or less uniform teaching or orthodoxy on most questions. The Ash'arite school, with its emphasis on divine transcendence and totalitarian omnipotence, became the prevailing school.
Al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) threw his immense authority behind the Hanbalite trend that saw all rationalization of the faith as useless and dangerous. He maintained that only a few experts should study the details of law and kalâm, but admitted that the masses should learn the basic essentials of both. As a result, a simplified popular form of kalâm continued to be propagated by authors who maintained that without some knowledge of it a person could not be considered a Muslim. 'Uthmân dan Fodiye differed from his teacher Shaykh Jibrîl, who said that a Muslim must not only know the basic dogmas of faith but also be able to prove them with reasons.
The present catechism presents dogmas with "proofs" in scholastic categories and a framework going back to the classical kalâm. As-Sanûsî wrote a commentary on this catechism and is the author of several more elaborate catechisms and commentaries. None of his works represents any original thinking, but was merely a popularization of old syntheses. Yet they were far more successful and well known than his ancient masters. For this reason they deserve to be known.
The footnotes accompanying the translation are only brief explanations of some points that may not be clear. For a full explanation of the problems and intricacies of Islamic theology one must consult longer works on the subject.
ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE TEXT
Praise be to God, and blessing and peace be on the Messenger of God. Know that a determination of intelligibility is restricted to three categories: necessity, impossibility, and admissibility. Necessary is what is inconceivable in its intelligibility as non-existent; impossible is what is inconceivable in its intelligibility as existent; something admissible is that whose intelligibility permits its existence or non-existence.
Every legally encharged person is obliged to know what is necessary with regard to, our Lord –the Majestic and Mighty–what is impossible, and what is admissible. Likewise he is obliged to know the same with regard to the messengers –blessing and peace be upon them.
2. Attributes of God
Among what is necessary to our Lord –the Majestic and Mighty– are twenty attributes. These are: (1) existence, (2) being from eternity, (3) being everlasting, (4) otherness from things that come into being, (5) self-subsistency, that is, He does not need a subject-of-inherence nor a determining agency, (6) oneness, that is, there is no duplication of His essence, attributes or acts. The first of these six attributes, existence, pertains to the essence itself, whereas the other five are negative attributes.
Then the Most High necessarily possesses seven attributes called substantive attributes. They are: (7) power and (8) will, which are related to all possible things, (9) knowledge, which is related to all necessary, admissible and impossible things, (10) life, which is related to nothing, (11) hearing and (12) sight, which are related to all existing things, and (13) speech, which is without letters or sound, and is related to the same things knowledge is related to.
Then [the Most High necessarily possesses] seven attributes called adjectival attributes. They follow upon the first seven, and are the Most High's being: (14) powerful, (15) willing, (16) knowing, (17) living, (18) hearing, (19) seeing, and (20) speaking.
Among what is impossible regarding the Most High are twenty attributes, the opposite of the first twenty. They are: (1) nonexistence, (2) coming into being, (3) ceasing to be, (4) likeness to things that come to be, by being a body –that is, for His Most High Essence to take an amount of space– or an accident inhering in a body, by being in a direction towards a body or being Himself a direction point for a body, by being measured by place or time, or for His Most High Essence to be qualified by things that come into being, or qualified by being large or small or by having motives in His actions or judgements. (5) Likewise it is impossible for the Most High not to be self-subsistent, by being a quality inhering in a subject or by needing a giver of form. (6) Likewise it is impossible for the Most High not to be one, by being composed in His Essence, or by having an equal in His Essence or in His attributes, or by there being in existence with Him anything influencing any action whatsoever. (7) Likewise it is impossible for Him to be incapable of effecting anything that is possible, and (8) for anything in the world to come into being while He is opposed to its being, that is, without the Most High's willing it, or through His weakness or inadvertence, or because of casuality or nature. (9) Likewise impossible for the Most High are ignorance, or its equivalent, of anything knowable, (10) death, (11) deafness, (13) dumbness and (12) blindness. The opposites of the adjectival attributes are clear from these.
What is admissible with regard to the Most High is the doing or omitting of anything possible.
3. Proofs for God's attributes
(1) The proof of the existence of the Most High is the world's having come into being, since if it had no one to bring it into being but came into being by itself, one of two equal things would have to be equal to its pair and prevail over it without cause; and this is impossible. An indication of the world's having come into being is its adherence to accidentals which come into being: motion, rest, and others. But whatever adheres to something which has come into being has itself come into being. An indication of the accidentals having come into being is to witness their change from non-being to being, and from being to non-being.
(2) The proof for the necessity of the Most High's having no beginning is that if He had a beginning He would have come into being, and would need something to bring him into being. Then there must be either a cycle or a chain.
(3) The proof for the Most High's having no end is that if it were possible for non-being to overtake Him, He could not have no beginning, since His being would then become admissible, not necessary, and what is admissible can exist only by having come into being. But how can this be, since there has just been shown the necessity of the Most High's having no beginning.
(4) The proof for the necessity of the Most High's otherness from things that come into being is that if He were like any of them, He would have come into being like them; and that is impossible, because of the necessity, which you know from above, of the Most High's having no beginning or end.
(5) The proof of the Most High's self-subsistency is that if the Most High needed a subject-of-inherence, he would be an attribute. An attribute is not qualified by substantive or adjectival attributes, but our Lord –Ever Majestic, Ever Mighty– is necessarily qualified by them. Therefore He is not an attribute. And if He needed a giver of form, He would have come into being. But the proof has already been established of the necessity of the Most High's having no beginning or end.
(6) The proof for the oneness of the Most High is that if He were not one, nothing in the world could exist, because of His incapability in that case.
(7) The proof for the necessity of the Most High's being qualified with power, (8) will, (9) knowledge, and (10) life is that if any of these were lacking, nothing which comes into being would exist.
(11) The proof for the necessity of the Most High to have hearing, (12) seeing, and (13) speech is the Book, the Sunna, and the Consensus. Also if He were not qualified by these attributes, He would have to be qualified by their opposites, which are defects. But defect is impossible for the Most High.
The proof that the doing or omitting of possible things is admissible regarding the Most High is that were any of these things found by reason to be necessary or impossible for the Most High, then what is possible would be turned into something necessary or impossible. And that is absurd.
4. Attributes of prophets
Pertaining of necessity to the messengers –blessing and peace be upon them– are: (1) veracity, (2) faithfulness, and (3) the delivery of what they are commanded to deliver to the creation.
Impossible regarding them –upon them be peace and blessing– are the opposites of these attributes, namely: (1) mendacity, (2) treacherousness in doing something that was forbidden, whether by way of interdiction or by way of disapproval, and (3) the hiding of anything which they were commanded to deliver to the creation.
Admissible regarding them –upon them be blessing and peace– are any of the human accidentals which do not amount to a defect in their high rank, such as sickness and the like.
5. Proof for prophets' attributes
(1) The proof of the necessity of their veracity –blessing and peace he upon them– is that if they were not truthful, there would have to be falsehood in the announcement of the Most High, since the Most High credited their veracity by miracles equivalent to His saying: "My servant is true in all that he delivers from Me."
(2) The proof for the necessity of their faithfulness –peace and blessing be upon them– is that were they treacherous by doing what is interdicted or disapproved, that which is interdicted or disapproved would be turned into obedience regarding them –since God the Most High has commanded us to imitate them in their words and deeds. And the Most High does not command what is interdicted or disapproved. (3) And this is the very same proof for the necessity of the third attribute.
An indication of the admissibility of their possessing human accidentals –God's blessings and peace be upon them– is to witness their happening to them, whether for increasing their rewards, or making legislation, or distracting people from the nearer-world and calling their attention to its cheap value before God the Most High, as well as the Most High's lack of pleasure with it in the House where He will recompense His saints –blessing and peace be upon them according to their conditions in the world.
6. "There is no divinity but God"
The ideas of these creeds are all summed up in the statement, "There is no divinity but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger," since the meaning of divinity is that the Divine One does not need anything besides Himself, and that everything else stands in need of Him. Therefore the meaning of "There is no divinity but God" is that there is nothing which needs nothing besides itself while all besides itself stands in need of it, except God the Most High.
The fact that He –Ever Majestic, Ever High– is in need of nothing besides Himself necessitates: (1) His Existence, (2 his absence of beginning and (3) end, (4) His distinction from things that come into being, (5) His self-subsistency and being above defects. Included in this is the necessity for the Most High to possess (11) hearing, (12) seeing, and (13) speech, since if these attributes did not necessarily belong to the Most High, He would be in need of something to bring Him into being, or of a subject-of-inherence, or of someone to ward off defects from Him.
A corollary is the Most High's being above having motives in His actions and judgements, since if He were not, He would have to be in need of something to realize His motive. But how can this be, since He –Ever Majestic, Ever High– is the One Who is in need of nothing besides Himself?
Another corollary is the Most High's non-necessity of doing or omitting anything possible, since if any of these things, such as rewarding, were, by intelligibility, necessary or impossible for the Most High, then He –Ever Majestic, Ever Mighty– would be in need of that thing for His self-perfection, since there pertains of necessity to Him –ever majestic, ever powerful– only what is a perfection for Him. But how can this be, since he –ever majestic, ever high– is the one who is in need of nothing besides himself?
The fact that all other things stand in need of Him –ever majestic, ever mighty– necessitates for the Most High: (10) life, (7) universality of power, (8) will, and (9) knowledge, since if any of these things were lacking, none of the things which come into being could be brought into being, and nothing would stand in need of Him. But how can this be, since He is the One to Whom everything else stands in need?
The same fact necessitates His Oneness, since if there were a second with Him in divinity, nothing would stand in need of Him, since the two would then both be without power. But how can this be, since He is the Most High to Whom everything else stands in need?
Another conclusion is that the whole world came into being, since if anything in it were without beginning, that thing would have no need of the Most High. But how can this be, since He –ever majestic, ever mighty– is the One to Whom everything else necessarily stands in need?
A further corollary is that no creature has any influence on any effect whatsoever. Otherwise that effect would be in no need of our Lord –ever majestic, ever mighty. But how can this be, since He is the One to whom everything else universally stands in need?
The foregoing argument destroys the supposition that any creature has any influence by its nature. But if you suppose that a creature has influence by a power which God the Most High put into it, as many ignorant people maintain, that is also impossible, since then our Lord –ever majestic, ever mighty– would stand in need of an intermediary to bring certain actions into being. And that is false, because it is necessary, as you know from above, for the Ever-Majestic, Ever-Powerful to need nothing besides Himself."
It is now clear to you that the statement, "There is no divinity but God', implies the three divisions that are necessary for a legally encharged person to know regarding our Lord –ever majestic, ever mighty– and they are what is necessary regarding the Most High, what is impossible, and what is admissible.
7. "Muhammad is the Messenger of God"
The statement, "MuHammad is the Messenger of God" –May God bless him and give him peace– includes belief in the other prophets and,the angels –blessing and peace be upon them– the heavenly books, and the Last Day, since he –blessing and peace be upon him– came crediting all these with truth.
A corollary is the necessity of the veracity of the messengers –blessing and peace be upon them– and the impossibility of their lying. Otherwise they would not be faithful messengers of our Lord –ever majestic, ever mighty– Who knows what is hidden. There follows also the impossibility of their doing anything forbidden, since they –blessing and peace be upon them– were sent to teach creation by their words, deeds and silence, and there must not be in any of these disobedience to our Lord –ever majestic, ever mighty– who chose them over all creation and entrusted them with the secret of His revelation.
Another corollary is the admissibility of their possessing human accidentals which do not amount to a defect in their high rank blessing and peace be upon them –since that does not detract from their messengership and the highness of their position with God the Most High; rather, having such accidentals is part of what adds to their rank.
It is now clear to you that the two statements of the shahâda, although few in letters, include all the articles of faith that are necessary for a legally encharged person to know regarding the Most High and His messengers –blessing and peace be upon them. Perhaps because it is so brief and includes all we have been mentioning, Revealed Law regards it as a translation of Islâm that is in the heart. No one's faith has been accepted without this shahâda.
It is up to an intelligent person frequently to repeat it, calling to mind the articles of faith it contains, until it and its meanings mix with his flesh and blood. For –God the Most High willing– he will see in them secrets and wonders unlimited. Success is by God the Most High. There is no lord other than He, and no one to be worshipped besides Him.
We ask Him –ever praised, ever high– to make us and our loved ones to be uttering the shahâda at death with full knowledge of it.
May God bless and bring peace to our master and protector Muhammad often as anyone remembers him or neglects to remember him. May God the Most High be pleased with all the Companions of the Messenger of God, and with those who follow them in goodness until the Day of Judgement. Peace be on all the messengers who were sent. Praise be to God the Lord of the universe.
For further information see my Ph.D. thesis, Muslim theology as presented by Muhammad ibn-Yûsuf as-Sanûsî, especially in his al`Aqîda al-wustâ (University of Edinburgh, 1970).
On the devolopment of kalâm, see W.M. Watt, The formative period of Islamic thought (Edinburgh: University Press, 1973).
See `Uthmân dan Fodiye, Bayân rujû` ash-shaykh as-Sanûsi `an at-tashdîd `alâ t-taqlîd (ms. copy with the Marafa of Sokoto, also in the University of Ibadan library, 82/59 & 82/602/M11/53) and his Nasâ'ih al-umma al-Muhammadiyya in M. Hiskeet, "An Islamic tradition of reform in the Western Sudan," B.S.O.A.S. 25 (1962), pp. 577-596, also in the Universtiy of Ibadan library, 82/94.
For instance, M.W. Watt, op. cit., Louis Gardet, Introduction à la théologie musulmane (Paris, 1948), Dieu et la destinée de l'homme (Paris, 1967), & H.A. Wolfson, The philosolphy of the Kalâm (Harvard Universtiy Press, 1976).
This argument is based on the premise that the world had a beginning in time, a thesis that the kalâm authors propose to demonstrate. Thomas Aquinas rejects the possiblity of such a demonstration. Cf. his Summa theologiae, I, q.46, a.2, ad 7. Muslim philosphers, such as Ibn-Sînâ, also developed a cosmological argument based on motion, and an asrgument based on contingency. The latter was known to kalâm authrs (See my thesis, p. 114), but was given littel attention, if at all it was understood.
The preceding two paragraphs present a negative aspect of eternity, that of having no beginning or end. But this could apply just as well to infinite time, whereas the real meaning of eternitiy excludes time altogether, being a "total and perfect possession of life" (Thomjas Aquinas, op. cit. I, q.10, a.1).
Oneness in this context means the non-existence of other gods besides Allah. It does not deny composition in God, since the Ash`arites maintain that God's Essence or Existence (the same) is really distinct, though inseparabel, from the seven substantive and seven adjectival attributes listed in section 2. All these attributes, moreover, are distinct from one another. The opposite position of the Mu`tazilite school, that everything in God is completely one and the same, is closer to Christian theology.
Note that Muslim theologians maintain that a prophet is immune from both error and sin, that is, he is both infallible and impeccable.
The ;revious two paragraphs express a philosophical occasionalism based on the Ash`arite adoption of a Democritan world of atoms, all under the direct rule of Allah.