Ilm al-Kalam

Ilm al-Kalam

By Luis Xavier López-Farjeat – Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at Universidad Panamericana, Mexico

Prior to the emergence of the first theological schools, theoretical religious discussions gave rise to a discipline known as ʿilm al-kalām (the science of kalām, usually translated as ‘theology’) presaging the emergence of the Muʿtazilites. Josef van Ess, one of the most widely recognized contemporary scholars with a focus on the kalām tradition, has tried to identify the origins of kalām in several of his studies. He believes kalām emerged within Islamic controversies, rather than as a reaction to non-Muslims or unbelievers (1975: 101). Moreover, he thinks kalām is a purely Islamic phenomenon, without any external influences at its beginning. Based on the particular kind of argumentation used in early theological treatises, other scholars have challenged van Ess’s position, arguing that kalām emerged from the interaction between Muslims and Middle Eastern Christians. This is evidenced by Muslim–Christian disputations preserved in Syriac (Cook 1980; Tannous 2008; Treiger 2016a). In recent years, there has been abundant research on the interaction between Arab Christians and Muslims around the 8th and 9th centuries. This could lead to relevant historical conclusions and clarify the origins of kalām.

The precise moment at which the word kalām (which literally means ‘speech’) was first used to refer to ‘theology’ is also still uncertain. Perhaps at some point it was used to distinguish kalām from other religious disciplines like jurisprudence (fiqh) (Wolfson 1976: 4). At first, there was not a precise difference between theology and jurisprudence. As mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, jurists interpreted Islamic sources and the law. Perhaps the distinction between fiqh and kalām appeared as an attempt to clarify that jurists were mainly concerned with the interpretation of practical matters, whereas theologians (mutakallimūn), that is, the exponents of the divine word, focused on the theoretical aspects of Islam, which in a contemporary context would fall under the purview of theology and philosophy of religion. Even though these theologians were probably not familiar with philosophical works in the beginning, their questions were philosophical in nature. And while many later religious thinkers initially rejected philosophy, some jurists and theologians gradually realized that philosophical methodology, that is, logic, provided argumentative tools that were helpful for their disciplines, as explained in the previous chapter.

Traditionalist jurists like al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820 ce) steered clear of philosophical methodology. Eventually, however, jurists and theologians accepted logic as a valid and useful method for legal reasoning, especially in the case of the Shāfiʿī Ashʿarite jurist and theologian al-Ghazālī (Hallaq 1990). Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406 ce), the great 14th-century Arab historiographer refers to science of theology (ʿilm al-kalām) as a science that argues using logical proofs to defend the articles of faith and refute innovators who deviate in their dogmas. With the emergence of Muʿtazilite thought in the 8th century, the interaction between philosophy and theology became controversial.

At the same time, several theologians, mainly Muʿtazilites and Ashʿarites, embraced logic and even philosophical vocabulary and arguments as helpful resources for defending religion. That said, the most conservative theologians remained steadfast against the excessive use of philosophical argumentation, which they saw as an external discipline, tempting its supporters to view it as more truthful discipline than religion. For this reason, many theologians and religious thinkers (e.g., the Hanbalites, the Ismāʿīlīs, and the Sufis) are not considered part of the kalām tradition, as they were often critical of the mutakallimūn. This chapter will focus on these mutakallimūn, that is, those scholars who adopted an argumentative methodology for understanding and discussing religious matters.

Exactly how philosophy arrived in Islamic lands has already been discussed in the previous chapters; this chapter discusses schools before the advent of philosophy and how they approached topics related to Islamic revelation without taking philosophical reasoning into consideration and how philosophy began influencing their approaches upon its arrival. Initially, theological discussions shaped the formative period of Islamic philosophical thought. Theologians were interested in understanding God’s nature and creation, as well as issues related to the notion of causality, divine attributes, and the problem of predestination, among other things. These are also philosophical concerns. So, it is not surprising that the philosophy of al-Kindī, the first philosopher of the Arabs, shared similarities with Muʿtazilite thought (Adamson 2003). Later, once philosophy was consolidated around the 10th and 11th centuries, the influence of philosophy in Islamic theology motivated intense discussions about whether the rationalization of religious beliefs was beneficial or harmful for understanding religion. Philosophical concepts and arguments were transferred into a theological frame to discuss and clarify matters like the nature of God, human freedom, and the notion of creation. 

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