Translated by Yusuf Ali
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ilm al-Kalam, or Islamic Theology, is an important discipline in all Islamic centres of learning all over the Muslim world. It is arguably one of the oldest and most dynamic of intellectual pursuits of Muslim learning. The aim of Islamic Theology is to defend Islamic beliefs, known as the Principles of Religion, against external and internal criticisms and intellectual attacks.
The main purpose of ilm al-Kalam, therefore, is to define the central doctrines of faith collectively known as Usul al-Din. Muslim theologians explain that:
Religion is divided into two categories:
Knowledge is the origin and obedience is the branch.
Origins or fundamentals (Usul) are the subject of ilm al-Kalam (Science of Dialectical Theology).
The branches (Furu) are the domain of Jurisprudence.
Scholars’ state: ‘’Everything that is logical and can be proven to be so through pondering and deduction is of the fundamentals (Usul). And everything that is opined through analogy and theological legal judgement is of the branches.’’
The phrase 'ilm al-Kalam' is made up of two parts: 'ilm' meaning knowledge, and 'Kalam' meaning talk or speech. The early Muslim community addressed important doctrinal issues relevant to faith using speech (Kalam) method in the form of discussion and debate. Over time the phrase 'ilm al-Kalam' became associated with talk about God and other theological issues such as justice, prophethood, Imamah, resurrection, etc…
In Shi’a Islam, ilm al-Kalam focuses on the five Usul al-Din:
1- Divine Unity: al-Tawhid
2- Divine Justice: al-Adl
3- Prophethood: al-Nubawah
5- Resurrection: al-Qiyamah
In the main centres of Shi’a learning, also known as the Hawza (pl. hawzat) ilm al-Kalam is studied in all stages of learning and forms an important part of the core syllabus.
ilm al-Kalam, or “God-talk in all its forms”, is one of the main sciences in Islamic thought.
In academic language it means “Islamic Theology,” in the sense that it is a discipline of seeking theological doctrines through dialectic and rational reasoning or 'Jadal'. The striking feature of ilm al-Kalam in Islamic practice is its insistence on debate and argument as central tools for discerning truth and constructing religious orthodoxy. A scholar of ilm al-Kalam or Kalam for short, is referred to as a Mutakallim (pl. Mutakalliman).
The reason for ilm al-Kalam in Twelver Shi'ism is to establish the body of dogmas and central doctrines of faith known collectively as Usul al-Din.
Muslim theologians explain:
Religion is divided into two categories: knowledge and obedience. Knowledge is the origin and obedience is the branch. Origins or fundamentals (Usul) are the subject of ilm al-kalam (Science of Dialectical Theology). The branches (furu) are the domain of jurisprudence. Some scholars have said: Everything that is logical and can be proven to be so through pondering and deduction is of the fundamentals (Usul). And everything that is opined through analogy and theological legal judgement is of the branches.
In the context of Traditional Twelver Shi'ism the science of Kalam is informed, equally, by two strands of thought, namely scriptural (Qur’an and Hadith traditions) and philosophical/logical reasoning.
The Origin of Words, and their Meaning
Literally, ‘Kalam’ means “speech”, “talk” or “words”; ‘yatakallamfi’ means to talk about, or discuss a matter or topic. In an early usage of the word ‘Kalam’ in this sense, the Prophet is reported to have come out and found a group of Muslims yatakallamunafi’l-qadar i.e. talking about, or discussing, pre-destination. In early Islamic sources a number of reasons were offered for giving such a title to the science of Kalam. Sa'ad al-Din al-Taftazani (d.793AH/1390AD) identified three possible explanations for the use of Kalam in theological discourses:
(i) Kalam was used to refer to intellectual speech about any separate issue, such as al-kalam fi katha wa katha.
(ii) In reference to the debate on God’s Speech, whether it was pre-eternal or temporal
(iii) When discussing issues that others preferred to keep quiet on (e.g al-Hadith)
The early theological deliberations of what later became Twelver Shi'aism, from the time of Imam Ali (a.s) (d.40AH/661AD) to the occultation of the twelfth Shi'a Imam (a.s), represent the formative period of Twelver theology that saw the development of an early confessional creed which later became the standard five pillars of religion, Usul al-Din. The earliest theological deliberations in the Shi'a circles focused on the narratives from the Shi'a Imams on the nature of Imamate and its parallel dimensions such as infallibility, knowledge of the unseen (ilm al-Ghayb), and the nature of designation of Imamate (Nass).
According to the fourth/tenth century Shi'a Baghdad-based bibliographer and author of Kitab al-fihrest, Ibnal-Nadim, the first Shi'a Mutakallim who wrote theological passages in a style akin to later kalam writings was Ali b. Isma'il b. Maytham al-Tayyar [sic] who wrote a book defending the theological basis for Imamate. It is worth noting that the former was a contemporary of and debated with leading figureheads from the Mu'tazila Abu al-Huthayl al-'Allaf (d.226AH/841AD) and Abu Ishaq al-Nazzam (d.231AH/845AD).
An increasing number of theological opponents, using a variety of traditional and rational modes of enquiry, considered deliberations relevant to Twelver Shi'a Kalam. These adversaries thrived mainly in the Islamic heartlands of Iraq, primarily in the cities of Baghdad and Kufa. A class of theologians emerged, all of whom were companions of the Shi'a Imams in the aforementioned cities, and began to shape Twelver Usul al-Din in an unprecedented manner:
Moreover, learned companions of the sixth, seventh, and eighth Imams (a.s) continued to contribute to widespread theological discussions in the Islamic heartlands on issues such as Prophecy (al-Nubuwah), Imamate and the afterlife (al-mabdaʼ wa’l ma'ad). These included companions such as Mohammed b. Abiʿ Umayr, Yunus b. ʿAbd al-Rahman, and Fadl b. Shadhan, who was a renowned faqih, Muhaddith, and Mutakallim.
Towards the end of the formative period of early Imami deliberations and later articulations in Usul al-Din Shi'a scholars of pre-eminence such Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti (d.311AH/923AD), together with his nephew Abu Mohammed al-Hassan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti (author of the famous work firaq al-Shi'a), began to lay the groundwork for later systemisations of Twelver Shi'a Usul al-Din. Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti wrote important works on Imamate, Prophecy, Ijtihad, Divine Unity, whilst his nephew, Abu Mohammed wrote equally important works on Divine Unity, Divine Justice, Imamate, and, perhaps the first to do so, works on Falsafa (Philosophy). This would mark the end of the first phase of development of Kalam.
The occultation of the Twelfth Shi'a Imam al-Mahdi (a.s) in the fourth/tenth century triggered a wave of scholarly initiatives by Imami scholars to further explain the doctrines of faith based on the narratives of the Shi'a Imams and with it came the second phase. The codification of the Twelver Shi'a tradition of narrations within the Four Books (al-kutub al-ʼarba'a) was concurrent with the systemisation of theology. In fact the latter two of these Hadith compilations were collected and organised by an important figurehead and expert in post-Ghayba Sha'a thought, including Usul al-Din and Hadith sciences, al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d.460AH/1067AD).
Al-Shaykh al-Tusi's efforts to standardise the Shi'a theological creed followed earlier efforts by his predecessors and main teacher, al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d.413AH/1022AD), along with Al-Shaykh al-Saduq (d.326AH/991AD), author of a number of important works in Shi'a thought, including the famous creed ‘Completion of Faith’ (Kamal al-Din); and Ibn Qiba al-Razi, who had been Mu'tazilite before he became a Twelver Shi'a. Al-Mufid’s main contribution came in the form informed refutations of Mu'tazilite theology which regarded unaided reason (Aql) over and above transmitted reports (Hadiths) prompting them to distinctively reject Twelver Shi'a doctrines such as ‘Faj'a’ and 'Bada'. Raja' is defined as the return to life of pious individuals at the time of the return of the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi (a.s). Al-Mufid’s theological articulations were strongly rational, however, and contrary to accusations of Mu'tazilite tendencies, he defended certain standpoints associated with the traditionalists such as Intercession of the Imams.
The third phase of Twelver Shi'a theology became more prominent around the seventh/thirteenth century, and has continued toto be relevant today.Theological discussions on Usul al-Din incorporated greater philosophical themes informed by metaphysical ideas. The proofs for the Necessary Existent, or God, took central stage in later creed works produced by authors including Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s (d.672AH/1274AD) who wrote ‘Epitome of Doctrine’ (TajrId al-i'tiqad), which had a profound impact on systematic theology in other schools of Islam.
Al-Tusi’s Shi'a successors, namely Ibn Mutahhar al-Hilli (d.725AH/1325AD) and Maytham al-Bahrani (d. 699/1300), and al-Miqdad al-Suyuri (d. 826/1423), wrote influential works on Twelver Systematic Theology that had a profound lasting effect on the teaching of Usul al-Din in Shi'a centres of learning, and continue to be relevant to this day. Al-Hilli’s ‘The Eleventh Chapter’ (al-Bab al-hadi' ashar) and his important commentary on the Epitome of Doctrine, 'kashf al-murad fi sharh tajrid al-i'tiqad' (Unveiling the Desired from the Epitome of Doctrine) are still used by students studying Islamic theology.
Main Debates and Arguments
The main debates and arguments, including internal and external challenges encountered by the Shi'a scholarly community, before and after the period of the ghayba, centred around the Five Principles of Religion, namely:
Al-Tawhid has various components and levels: al-Tawhid al-dhati (Unity of the Essence), al-Tawhid al-sifati (Unity of Attributes), al-Tawhid al-af'ali (Unity of Acts), and al-Tawhid al-'ibadi (Unity in Worship). The main debates and challenges Shi'a theologians had to contend with related to the nature of divine attributes such as Life, Knowledge, Power, Will, Perception, Hearing, Vision, etc. and whether such attributes are separate, in reality, from God’s essence.
The important features of scholarly and theological debate concerning Divine Justice relate to whether God is ‘capable’ of ‘evil’ deeds, or to express it differently, Does God force the faithful to do evil actions? Shi'a theologians, such as the important fifth/eleventh century figurehead of al-Mufid argued:
Allah is Just, gracious. He created men to worship Him and forbade them to disobey Him. He did not charge anyone with any obligation beyond their ability. His creation is far from frivolity and His action is free from impropriety. He has remained above sharing his servant’s actions and rose above coercing them to do any deed. He does not chastise anyone except when they have sinned and does not chide any bondsman or bondswoman except when they do a horrid deed. He does not do injustice, not even an atom’s weight.
Twelver Shi'a theologians responded to claims made by early Muslim philosophers such as the likes of IbnSina who argued that the necessity of sending prophets hinges upon Divine Providence. The alternative position, put forward by Twelver Shi'a theologians in the post-Ghayba period expressed greater fondness for the principle of facilitating divine grace (lutf), an argument which is distinctly Shi'a in its full form. It argues that it is incumbent on God, Allah, out of His mercy and benevolence, to send a Messenger and an Imam to guide mankind. Moreover, Shi'a theologians argued that Messengers and Imams sent by God to guide mankind must be inerrant and immune from all types of sins and reprehensible acts because it makes illogical sense for God to send an infallible message through a fallible medium.
The centrality of theological discussions relating to the theory of Imamate in early and late periods is clear from the number of works written to explain its generalities and particularities. The earliest existing theological creeds have significant sections devoted to the theory of Imamate and its general and particular features such as whether Imamate is obligatory, or whether an Imam is designated by God, or selected by consensus. The most definitive defence of Imamate can be found in the writings of al-Shaykh al-Mufid who said:
The Imamate is a divine position, for the spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslims. It is a grace from Allah bestowed on His bondsmen, making it second to Prophethood. The Imam is appointed by Allah through the prophet. He must be inerrant [maʿsum] with respect to grave wrongdoings and petty misdemeanours. There must be, at all times, an impeccable Imam who is the proof [hujjah] of Allah to mankind. His presence is the safeguard of complete religious interests. He must be knowledgeable in all religious sciences. The appointment of the Imam by Allah is an act of grace [lutf] from Him towards His bondsmen. And the graciousness of sending the prophet and appointing the Imam are incumbent upon Allah. The Imamites [i.e. TwelverShi'a] are of the view that the inerrant Imams are best among their contemporaries of different times and in all fields, in knowledge and intellectual capacity. They do not know the unseen, but they know the intentions of people through a process of inspiration imbued by Allah.
5- Resurrection: al-Qiyamah
The main debate surrounding the issue of resurrection, a theme which permeates the divine scripture and Hadith corpus, is primarily concerned with the mode and type of resurrection that is often mentioned in the Qur’an. Early Muslim philosophical views seemed to directly challenge the traditional accounts and the narratives concerning afterlife in the Qur’an, which advocates bodily resurrection in the literal sense. The Shi'a theologians reached a consensus claiming assertively that resurrection on the day of reckoning is of both body and soul.
To try and establish a link between theoretical knowledge (theoria) and practical knowledge (praxis), that is both relevant and useful to contemporary society, is a worthy pursuit that should be undertaken by everyone who traverses the path of learning. ilm al-Kalam remains a useful theoretical tool which has the potential to contribute to debates and challenges facing Muslims as they engage with post-modernity and the rise of secularism. Moreover, a number of contemporary issues such as gender equality, conceptions of human rights, warfare, global terrorism, etc. fall under the banner of theological discourses which is in turn informed by ilm al-Kalam.
Early Creed works and Theological Treatises
Al-Mufid, Mohammed b. al-Nuʿmān, Tashih al-i'tiqad (Tabriz, 1951)
Al-Mufid, Mohammed b. al-Nuʿmān, Awaʼil al-maqalat (Tehran, 1993)
Al-Hilli, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, kashf al-murad fi sharhtajrid al-i'tiqad (Qum, 2004)
Al-Hilli, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, al-bab al-Hadi 'ashar (Tehran, 2006)
Bibliography and Further Reading
The foundations of religion form the basis from which everything else follows. The tenants of Shi’a Islam can be broken down into two categories:
1. The Principles of Religion Usul al-Din, which outline the essential beliefs in accordance with the Qur’an and the teachings of the Twelve Imams; and
The Holy Qur’an instructs Muslims to take as examples in their life the Prophet (s.a.w) and the other good people, whom Allah (s.w.t) has blessed, especially his family.
Allah created human beings with the ability to speak, and gave them a tongue as a tool by which to talk. Yet to be able to converse, humans must learn to speak the same language in order to communicate.
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