An Introduction to Kalam

As the Muslim world once again becomes safe for Madhahib, or Sunni legal schools of thought, the next ‘elephant in the room’ must be addressed: creed. Muslim creed is probably the most hotly debated subject in modern Muslim history. Historically, most debates regarding Muslim creed were between Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jama’ah (Orthodox Sunnis) and heretical groups. Today, the debates focus on who constitutes Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jama’ah. Historically, Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jama’ah were primarily the Ash’aris and Maturidis, named after the synthesizers of their schools: Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi. Just as the Shafi’i, Hanafi, Hanbali, and Maliki schools are concerned with jurisprudence, or fiqh, the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools are concerned with discursive theology, or Kalam.

Origins of Kalam

Prophetic allusion to the formalization of the Muslim tradition is well known, with the general model following the structure of Hadith Jibril [1]. More specifically, Islam was broadly defined as Islam, Iman, and Ihsan. The former two are directly concerned with religious rulings, while Ihsan remained less formalized for quite some time. In his famous text, Sharh ul-‘Aqa’id al-Nasafiyyah, Imam Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani divides the types of religious rulings into two categories: that which is concerned with beliefs, and that which is concerned with actions [2]. The former is described by Imam al-Taftazani as ‘asliyyah and ‘itiqadiyyah, or foundational and creedal. This is because the soundness of all other forms of knowledge in the Muslim tradition is dependent upon the soundness of this category. It is creedal because it is concerned solely with what is to be believed, rather than what is to be done. This is what we know today as ‘aqidah, or doctrine, and it corresponds to what is termed ‘Iman’ in Hadith Jibril. Without sound ‘aqidah, one’s acts of worship are of no benefit. Imam al-Taftazani terms the second category as far’iyyah and ‘amaliyyah, or derivative and operational. It is derivative because it follows the establishment of sound ‘aqidah, which is the core basis. It is operational because it is concerned with actions rather than beliefs. This is what we know today as fiqh, or jurisprudence, and it corresponds to ‘Islam,’ as mentioned in Hadith Jibril. The study of ‘aqidah became known by many names, and their origins are disputed. The most famous of these names, however, is ‘Ilm ul-Kalam, or the Science of Kalam.

Kalam literally means discourse or speech. Imam al-Taftazani discusses the origin of the name Kalam in his introduction to Sharh ul-‘Aqa’id [2]. The first theory he mentions is that the scholars of Kalam would title their chapters as “the discussion (Kalam) regarding such-and-such.” This, however, is an unlikely source for the name. Dr. Hassan Mahmoud al-Shafi’i writes in his book al-Madkhal ‘ila Dirasat ‘ilm al-Kalam that ‘Kalam’ was used to refer to the study of Muslim creed by the likes of Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Malik, Imam al-Shafi’i, Ja’far al-Sadiq, and others—all of whom preceded the synthesis of any books regarding ‘Ilm ul-Kalam [3]. The second theory Imam al-Taftazani mentions is that the most notorious discussion in the field of Kalam was that of the speech of God, and whether or not it is created [2]. Like the previous theory, this one also fails to hold firm in the face of a timeline, as this discussion became widespread during the time of Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal, who was tortured for refusing to affirm that the Qur’an was created. Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal, as is well known, came nearly a century after Imam Abu Hanifah. Most of the theories Imam al-Taftazani brings forth can be negated with a proper study of the timeline of events. The most convincing explanation for the origin of the name comes from Dr. Hassan Mahmoud al-Shafi’i, who states that discussions of Muslim creed only produce sincere utterances (Kalam Khalis), and have nothing to do with physical actions [3]. This is because the establishment of creedal points is a matter of belief, unlike discussions of the jurisprudence of prayer, for example, which is concerned with actions. Other names of ‘Ilm ul-Kalam are al-Fiqh ul-Akbar, believed to have been coined by Imam Abu Hanifah himself, Usul al-Din (principles of faith), ‘Ilm ul-Tawhid (the study of monotheism), ‘Ilm ul-Asma’ wal Sifat (the study of Divine names and attributes), and ‘Ilm ul-I’tiqad (the study of creed) [3].

Why Didn’t the Prophet and his Companions Speak of it?

Albeit simplistic and reflective of mass misunderstanding of Islam, questions such as “why isn’t such-and-such mentioned in the sunnah if we need it?” are common. This question is layered with misunderstandings, such as the equating of the sunnah with prophetic narrations, but it suffices to examine what Imam al-Taftazani writes on this matter. Imam al-Taftazani explains that it was due to their nearness to the Prophet ﷺ and the impeccability of their doctrine by way of his direct instruction that the early Muslims did not immediately need to formalize the study and practice of Islam into books [2]. This is true of fiqh, usul al-fiqh, hadith, tafsir, ‘aqidah, grammar, and so on. Rejection of one of these disciplines due to it being an innovation entails the rejection of all of the other disciplines, which are innovations by the very fact that they were formalized. The purpose of their formalization is for the sake of their preservation. In general, hadith was formalized as a discipline due to the proliferation of falsely attributed statements of the Prophet ﷺ. The formalization of Arabic grammar was famously catalyzed by an occurrence demonstrating the loss of natural skill in the Arabic language amongst the people. Shaykh Yasir Fahmy explains that the generations of the companions and their immediate followers experienced little to no change in their grasp of the Muslim tradition as practiced by the Prophet , but the generation that followed them exhibited deficiencies in their understanding of the language of the Qur’an [4]. This, he says, may be attributed to the vast expansion of the Muslim empire, which introduced non-native Arabic speakers. Regardless of the details, one thing is clear: the preservation of Islam was dependent upon the synthesis of these disciplines.

The Telos of Kalam

The end goal of Kalam, in summary, may be described as establishing the rational basis of Muslim belief. Muslims hold the belief that the Qur’an, a text that often calls for tadabbur, or contemplation, proposes not a single element of belief that is irrational. In other words, there is no irrational ‘leap of faith’ that one must undertake to accept orthodox Islam. Sheikh Nuh Keller writes that Kalam exists for the following reasons [5]:

  1.     To define the contents of faith
  2.     To show that it is possible for the mind to accept, not absurd or inconsistent
  3.     To give reasons to be personally convinced of it

Naturally, Kalam is largely polemical. Many books of Kalam take the dialectical form of “if they say X, we say Y.” This is due to the environment surrounding the origin of Kalam, namely the proliferation of a heterodox philosophical movement known as the Mu’tazila. Sheikh Nuh Keller writes that “nothing else could meet the crisis that [the Imams of Kalam] faced; namely, the heretical mistakes of […] the Mu’tazila” [5]. With this in mind, the synthesis of Kalam is known to have been a necessity. Were it not for the Imams of Kalam, the obligation of defeating the Mu’tazila and other heretical groups would have never been fulfilled. As the Islamic legal maxim states, “whatever the obligatory cannot be accomplished without, is itself obligatory” [5].

The Scarcity of Kalam Today

The proselytization of oil-rich countries in the Gulf over the past several decades has dramatically shifted the average layperson’s conception of the Muslim tradition [5]. A movement historically known as Wahhabism and contemporarily known as Salafism was injected into the subconscious of Muslims all over the world, shaping their sensitivities and biases towards this movement’s doctrine. Sheikh Nuh Keller writes that Salafism has become the ‘default Islam,’ despite the fact that it is based on the works of a handful of medieval Muslim theologians that were historically refuted in public debates and postmortem polemical works, then subsequently marginalized beyond notice [5]. This flavor of Islam came to the forefront of Muslim consciousness in the 18th century when Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab performed mass-takfir (ostracizing) of the entirety of the Muslim world and waged war against the Ottoman caliph. Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud united their bloodlines, producing the political and clerical ruling classes of modern-day Saudi Arabia and contributing to the eventual disintegration of the Ottoman empire.

Salafi clerics, with an almost unlimited backing of oil money, preached that the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools of Kalam were heresy at best, and apostasy at worst. Despite the fact that the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools of theology formed the walls of Muslim orthodoxy for over 1000 years, the Salafi movement engaged in historical revisionism, even attempting to implicitly corroborate Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s mass-takfir of the Ottomans by referring to the Ottoman empire as the ‘Ottoman occupation’ [6]. As a result, all things Kalam (among other elements of Muslim orthodoxy) became alien to the average Muslim. Clerics began listing Ash’aris and Maturidis in the same breath as other heretical groups, thus alienating almost every single Muslim theologian over the past millennium. The term Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jama’ah has been co-opted and restricted by the Salafi movement over the past few decades, but classical Muslim scholars beg to differ. The list is too long to enumerate, and it includes the likes of Imam al-Nawawi, Imam al-Suyuti, Imam al-Ghazali, Imam al-Juwayni, Imam al-Subki, Imam al-Birgivi, Imam Zakariyyah al-Ansari, Imam al-Baqillani, Imam al-Bayhaqi, Imam al-Baydawi, Imam al-Razi, Imam Ibn ‘Abidin, Imam al-Sabuni, Imam al-Nabhani, and others—hundreds of thousands of others. Among them is the 16th century master of hadith and Shafi’i jurisprudence, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, who defines the heretics as “those who contravene Muslim orthodoxy and consensus (Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama‘a): the followers of Sheikh Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the two Imams of Ahl al-Sunna” [7]. 

Why We Need Kalam Today

The function of a Mutakallim, or a scholar of Kalam, is to engage with modern philosophies, thoroughly understand them, produce a sufficient response from the Muslim perspective, and then go on the offensive. In an age when -isms are widespread, a Mutakallim must address the various worldviews struggling to seize the mainstream. Further, advances in science, particularly physics and biology, induce questions of ontology that threaten to shatter human exceptionalism, a belief held by nearly all civilizations since the earliest days. The Mutakallim must study these disciplines and contextualize them so as to prevent a rift between clergy and scientists—an unfortunate contemporary reality. A Mutakallim essentially functions as the dam between an ocean of doubts and the people. Many modern crises of faith are easily addressed in the Kalam tradition, such as discussions of the existence of God. Without Kalam, Muslims are left defenseless in a world that is bent on secularizing them. 

Works Cited:

1. https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2014/01/25/jibreel-islam-iman-ihsan/
2. al-Farhari, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Aziz. Al-Nibras: Sharh Sharhul ‘Aqa’id. Asitane Kitabevi. 2005.
3. al-Shafi’i, Dr. Hassan Mahmoud. al-Madkhal ‘Ila Dirasat ‘Ilm al-Kalam. Dar al-Qur’an wal ‘Ulum al-Islamiyyah. 2004.
4. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GbHyop-Uomo
5. http://masud.co.uk/kalam-and-islam/
6. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190829-saudi-arabia-changes-ottoman-empire-to-occupation-in-school-textbooks/amp/?__twitter_impression=true
7. http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/misc/wahhabi.htm


About the author: Wassim Hassan is a graduate in Biology and Chemistry, with additional interests in political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and the Islamic sacred sciences. He is currently studying traditional Islamic sciences. He is the Executive Director at Traversing Tradition. You can follow him on Twitter here.

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Kalam

  1. As the earlier commentator rightly pointed out,the first properly defined creedal school was clearly the school of Ahl Al Hadith wal Athar,or simply the Atharis.We have creedal texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries even before the creed of Tahawi that demonstrate this.Atharism as manifested by the Hanbalite school was the dominant strand of Sunni Islam in both the 4th and 5th centuries.In fact even Non Muslim academics who have studied Muslim theology like Richard Frank or van Ess affirm this as well.The rise of Asharism from a small rejected school to the official creed of the Seljuq(and later other dynasties) dynasty,plus it’s establishment in Baghdad(fitna of Kushayri),thereby overturning the dominant Athari,kalam-rejection based Hanbalites are well documented historical facts.One can this discussed at great length in doctoral dissertations.One may disagree with another theological school,but the constant misrepresentation by some modern Asharis of today is clearly a result of either a lack of knowledge or a deliberate,wilful misrepresentation of facts to bolster the credibility of the creed one subscribes to.

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  2. ibn hajr al haytami conveniently forgets that the first school of creed within ahlus sunnah wa al-jama’ah are in fact the athari creed.

    The aqidah and the works related to belief of ahlul athar predate ashari and maturidi schools.

    In fact the majority of the scholars of ahlus sunnah of the 3rd, 4th and 5th century were indeed athari scholars.

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