Islamic Theology

Islamic Theology

ʿIlm al-Kalām (Arabic: علم الكلام‎, literally "science of discourse"[1]), often foreshortened to kalām, is an Islamic science born out of the need to establish and defend the tenets of Islamic faith against doubters and detractors.[2] A scholar of kalām is referred to as a mutakallim (plural mutakallimūn) as distinguished from philosophers, jurists and scientists.[3] There are many possible interpretations as to why this discipline was originally called "kalām"; one is that the widest controversy in this discipline has been about whether the Word of God, as revealed in the Qur'an, can be considered part of God's essence and therefore not created, or whether it was made into words in the normal sense of speech, and is therefore created.

One of the earliest systematic theological school to develop was Mu'tazila, in the mid 8th century. Mu'tazila emphasized reason and rational thought, positing that the injunctions of God are accessible to rational thought and inquiry. Mu'tazila also taught that the Qur'an, albeit the word of God, was created rather than uncreated, which would develop into one of the most contentious questions in Islamic theology.

In the 10th century, the Ash'ari school developed as a response to Mu'tazila, leading to the latter's decline. Ash'ari still taught the use of reason in understanding the Qur'an, but denied the possibility to deduce moral truths by reasoning. This was opposed by the school of Maturidi, which taught that certain moral truths may be found by the use of reason without the aid of revelation. Another point of contention was the relative position of iman ("faith") vs. taqwa ("piety"). Such schools of theology are summarized under Ilm al-Kalam, or "science of discourse", as opposed to mystical schools who deny that any theological truth may be discovered by means of discourse or reason.


Throughout history, the place of kalām in Islamic thought has been controversial. The vast majority of the early traditional Sunni Muslim scholars have either criticized or prohibited it. Abu Hanifa (699-767 CE) prohibited his students from engaging in kalām, labeling those who practice it as of the "retarded ones".[4] Malik ibn Anas (711-795 CE) referred to kalām in the Islamic religion as being "detested",[5] and stated that whoever "seeks the religion through kalām will deviate".[6] In addition, Shafi'i (767-820 CE) said that no knowledge of Islam can be gained from books of kalām, as kalām "is not from knowledge"[7][8] and that "It is better for a man to spend his whole life doing whatever Allah has prohibited – besides shirk with Allah – rather than spending his whole life involved in kalām".[9] Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855 CE) also spoke strongly against kalām, stating his view that no one looks into kalām unless there is "corruption in his heart",[10] and even went so far as to prohibit sitting with people practicing kalām even if they were defending the Sunnah,[11] and as to instruct his students to warn against any person they saw practicing kalām.[12] In the 21st century, criticism of kalām also comes from the Salafi movement.

Modern-day proponents of kalām such as Nuh Ha Mim Keller, a Sheikh in the Shadili Sufi Order, hold that the criticism of kalām from early scholars was specific to the Mu'tazila, going on to claim that other historical Muslim scholars such as Al-Ghazali and An-Nawawi saw both good and bad in kalām and cautioned from the speculative excess of unorthodox groups such as the Mu'tazilah and Jahmites.[13] As Nuh Ha Mim Keller states in his article "Kalam and Islam":

"What has been forgotten today however by critics who would use the words of earlier Imams to condemn all kalām, is that these criticisms were directed against its having become 'speculative theology' at the hands of latter-day authors. Whoever believes they were directed against the `aqida or "personal theology" of basic tenets of faith, or the 'discursive theology' of rational kalām arguments against heresy is someone who either does not understand the critics or else is quoting them disingenuously."[13]

Major Kalām schools

See also


  1. ^ Winter, Tim J. "Introduction." Introduction. The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 4-5. Print.
  2. ^ Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Linda Gale Jones, Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, p 391. ISBN 1438109075
  3. ^ Clinton Bennett, The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies, p 119. ISBN 1441127887.
  4. ^ al-Makkee, Manaaqib Abee Haneefah, pg. 183-184
  5. ^ Dhammul-Kalaam (B/194)
  6. ^ Dhammul-Kalaam (Q/173/A)
  7. ^ Dhammul-Kalaam (Q/213)
  8. ^ Dhahabi, as-Siyar (10/30)
  9. ^ Ibn Abi Hatim, Manaaqibush-Shaafi'ee, pg. 182
  10. ^ Jaami' Bayaanul-'Ilm wa Fadlihi (2/95)
  11. ^ Manaaqibul-Imaam Ahmad, pg. 205
  12. ^ Ibn Battah, al-Ibaanah (2/540)
  13. ^ a b

External links

  • Wolfson, Harry Austryn, The Philosophy of the Kalam, Harvard University Press, 1976, 779 pages, ISBN 978-0-674-66580-4, Google Books, text at
  • Living Islam
  • The Kalam
  • Kalam Cosmological Argument