Ibn Hazm was the originator of a school of interpretation which based its understanding of religious texts on the apparent meaning of scriptural concepts as opposed to their hidden meaning. He argued that there is a place for reason in the understanding of scripture, but that it has to be used within the context of revelation and is severely limited in terms of what it can demonstrate. His approach is based on the idea that the language and context of religious texts are sufficient for their readers to understand them, and that there is no need to use concepts such as analogy.
Abu Muhammad 'Ali ibn Hazm was born into an important Andalusian family and went on to have a rather tumultuous political career, being imprisoned three times and banished from Cordoba on several occasions. He is best known for his writings on jurisprudence, and also for his charming Tawq al-hamama (The Dove's Neck Ring), which deals with the concept of love. In it he analyses the concept and differentiates between divine love, which is placed at the highest level, and affection, which is the lowest. Clearly influenced by Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, he regards love as the coming together of otherwise incomplete beings (see Plato). Genuine love occurs when the lover sees beneath the surface of the appearance something which presents an idea of his own nature, and thus becomes strongly attracted by it. Weaker forms of affection result when the individual is limited to the form of the appearance, but perceives nothing deeper beyond it (see Love).
Ibn Hazm is the leading exponent of the Zahirite school of jurisprudence. This school adheres to the exoteric or apparent (zahir) meaning of the religious text, in accordance with the principles of grammar, the hadith (traditions) of the Prophet and the consensus (ijma') of the community. The main opponents of this view are those Muslims who appeal to the esoteric meaning - such as the Isma'ilis, for example - because they think that one needs to look beyond the surface of the text to discover what it really means, and also the philosophers, who insist that reason is a vital means of gaining access to the meaning of scripture. This is more than a dispute about jurisprudence; it affects the understanding of the way in which texts are to be interpreted. Ibn Hazm attacks the notion that one can understand the meaning of a text by using principles such as analogy, as the Mu'tazilites do, to acquire some grasp of the nature of God. The latter argue that we can understand the sifat, the names or qualities of God, by analogy from our understanding of our own characteristics; so, for example, we can grasp what it means for God to be just if we understand what human justice is (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila). According to Ibn Hazm, however, God is a unique being whose qualities cannot be grasped rationally but have to be accepted through faith. There is no objective standard of justice with which God has to concur. He could have obliged us to act in impossible ways, and set out to punish angels and reward the evil. To deny this is to anthropomorphize the concept of God, which is going beyond the nature of the language in Islam about God. The Zahirite uses reason to get an accurate view of the language of the relevant texts and the supplementary hermeneutical material, and stops there (see God, concepts of; Islamic theology).
What role does reason play, then, in Ibn Hazm's understanding of the meaning of important concepts? Reason is important, and essential in any understanding of the facts. We have to use reason to work out what the facts of a particular situation are, but we cannot use it to identify its ethical or religious character. Within the context of revelation, reason has a role to play, but it is an essentially subsidiary role. In comprehending religious language we have to use reason to interpret the text, but we must be aware of the dangers of overelaborating and departing from the apparent meaning. Sometimes people are impressed with the ability of reason to delve into the mysteries of reality, yet all that emerges are disputes about what texts mean and what the nature of the law is. We can avoid this, according to Ibn Hazm, if we stick to the apparent meaning of the text and maintain the autonomy of God. God can do anything at all, he is absolutely free, and we are very limited in our ability to use reason to encompass him. We can use the laws of logic, Arabic grammar and the evidence of our senses, but that is all.
By the time of his death, Ibn Hazm had succeeded in establishing the Zahiri school of interpretation, which followed his particular approach to hermeneutics and which was solidly within the Asha'rite and Sunni tradition. The most distinguished follower of this form of thought was al-Ghazali, who was clearly heavily influenced by Ibn Hazm.
See also: Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila; God, concepts of; Islamic theology; Law, Islamic philosophy ofOLIVER LEAMAN