What is Kalam?

Basic theology, or Usul-ul-Din, is usually a simple extraction of the beliefs that a Muslim should have based on the Qur’an and Prophetic Sunnah. In Sunni Islam, we attempt to attain orthodoxy in our beliefs by ensuring that our interpretation of the sacred texts in matters of religious belief is as close as ideally possible to the beliefs of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions, as we want our beliefs to be pure and unadulterated by any foreign, heretical ideas. For Sunnis, it is difficult to speak of Usul-ul-Din as an intellectual tradition, as we attempt to ensure that our basic beliefs remain as static as possible from the earliest generations of Muslims. This is why to this day we still study Usul-ul-Din using the earliest possible texts we can find on this subject, such as the Qur’an and Sunnah themselves or texts by Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam al-Tahawi.

Kalam, on the other hand, is the Islamic tradition of philosophical theology. Sunni Kalam is an Islamic intellectual tradition that does not seek to Usul-ul-Din, rather to enhance our understanding, explanation, and study of it using philosophical principles. This subject developed in response to heretical ideas that came about in early Islamic History due to the translation & eventual study of Greek philosophy in the Muslim world, as well as Muslim encounters with foreign ideas with the people whose lands they had conquered.

Kalam is unlike other parts of the Islamic intellectual tradition in significant ways. Although it became a part of mainstream Islamic scholarship for most of Islamic History, its origins were largely based on pragmatic concerns. Scholars of Kalam like Imam al-Ghazzali explicitly addressed this point in their works. For subjects like fiqh, usul-ul-fiqh, tafsir and hadith we can often trace an inherited tradition from ourselves all the way back to the Prophet ﷺ. Indeed the Companions themselves demonstrated some sort of primordial understanding of these subjects, even if they did not identify them as the formal, academic fields of inquiry we now know them as today.

In Kalam however, this is not the case. The earliest generations of Muslim scholars never discussed philosophical theology, even if they did discuss and even differ on subtle nuances of Sunni orthodox belief. It is a Sunni intellectual tradition that started after the salaf, not from them.

When Sunnis eventually took up Kalam as a tool to refute what they perceived as heretical ideas brought up by groups like the Mu’tazilah, justify Sunni Usul-ul-Din and ground it in sound philosophical principles they resorted to the only philosophical system that was available at the time, that of the Greeks. They Islamicized ideas from Greek epistemology and metaphysics in ways they thought were philosophically rigorous but also in line with Sunni Usul-ul-Din. So Kalam is not only different from other Islamic intellectual traditions because of its novelty, but also because it relies heavily on grounding in a source of knowledge foreign to sacred text: Greek epistemology and metaphysics.

As is well known, this has proven to be a controversial issue at certain times in Islamic History, including the time we live in. Two madhhabs in Sunni theology developed using this source: the Ash’ari and the Maturidi madhabs. One developed in opposition to its use, the Athari madhhab. But all 3 share the essential theological conclusions of orthodox Sunni Usul-ul-Din, even if they might differ on some nuances here and there.

It is critical to realize that while the Greek philosophical system that Sunni theologians incorporated into Islamic theology was foreign, it was the most authoritative intellectual system of understanding reality that was known at the time. Today when we talk about understanding God, Islam & the Quran considering contemporary natural science, Quranic studies or the study of history for example, we are asking questions similar to what the earliest Muslims would have asked if they encountered Greek philosophical ideas. We are seeking reconciliation between beliefs and systems of thinking that we consider to be rationally or empirically authoritative in some way. What Sunni scholars of Kalam were doing was therefore not just what we would expect to do today in the same situation but was important and necessary in the same way that it is vital Islamic theologians discuss contemporary issues today. Muslim philosophers & Mu’tazili theology were incredibly influential at numerous moments in Islamic History, so it was worth the risk of engaging with these ideas on their own turf.  The major differences today, are the ideas being reconciled and the fact that we are now dealing with all Muslims being exposed to these ideas instead of a handful of intellectuals.

Considering what I have mentioned, I want to highlight three important points which are relevant to what I have discussed in this article so far.  

Undoing False Narratives About Kalam

It is vital to undo the misgivings of Sunni Kalam and Sunni philosophical theology that have gained popularity following over the past century. Many early & influential modernists in the Muslim world were sweepingly critical of Sunni Kalam because they perceived it to be archaic, stagnant, rigid and largely irrelevant to the Muslim masses. I believe this is a gross misunderstanding of Kalam. While parts of it may need updating (as I will mention in my 3rd point), early Muslim modernists were not exposed to the deeply philosophical and complex ideas that had transformed European thought and led it to the intellectual superiority that they believed Muslim thought was lacking in. Early Muslim modernists were enamoured by superior Western science & technology, but they often did not realize that behind it were complicated, difficult, and sometimes even convoluted ideas by philosophers like Descartes, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein etc. Academic and intellectual discussions do not have to be immediately relevant to the masses to be immensely influential and effective in their eventual percolation into the rest of society.  By dismissing the Muslim tradition of Kalam, these Muslim modernists effectively disconnected many modern attempts at developing a powerful contemporary Muslim philosophical system from its rich roots.  

Another party that is guilty of bringing about these misgivings is Najdi Salafism and hard-Atharism. Both portray an anti-Kalam perspective as not just being more up-to-date and ‘better’ as the previous group did, rather adopts a very harsh theological tone in which Kalam is not just rigid and archaic, but heretical. The Najdi Salafi excesses of enforcing and spreading their views around the world are well known, and it has only exacerbated attitudes against Kalam among everyday Muslims.

This is slightly off-topic, but I am one of the few people I know who is deeply passionate about Sunni Kalam but also believes that we should be sympathetic to Imam Ibn Taymiyyah’s critique of it and take it seriously. Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s critique provokes two irritating extremes, that may in part be a result of that Imam’s own polemical style of argumentation and writing – which is fine by itself as many scholars have written that way over Islamic History. It is the reaction and uptake of it that is the problem. One extreme takes his critique of Kalam as gospel and adopts his perspective on Kalam as so absolute and authoritative that anyone who disagrees with him are ‘people of innovation’ and not ‘Ahlus-Sunnah’. This is ridiculous, and just because scholars of Kalam developed the study of Usul-ul-Din after the time of the Salaf does not mean their ideas were unorthodox. Orthodoxy itself is partly governed by the scholarly community, and the scholarly community accepted the Ash’ari and Maturidi approaches as orthodox just like the accepted the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali orthodox approaches in fiqh.

The other extreme reacts strongly against his theological views and censures him as an innovator. It is to the point that in private circles I have even seen respected contemporary Sunni scholars of Kalam make takfir of him. This is preposterous given that the Imam is celebrated and respected among later Hanbali scholars, even if they did not agree with all his theological views. The fact that the Imam was heavily promoted as an anti-traditional figure by anti-traditional modernists and Najdi Salafis made all this worse. We increasingly find in Hanbali sources that this was not the case. He was a staunch Hanbali and even aligned with Sufi figures among his colleagues, students and teachers.

Discussing Contemporary Issues Should Require a Background in Kalam

Secondly, Sunni Kalam is a rich tradition of Sunni thought that is immensely important to use, take inspiration from and apply when we discuss contemporary issues of theology in the Muslim world today. In fact, I believe very strongly that someone should be well-versed in Sunni Kalam (as well as the discussions of philosophical Muslim theologians who were against usage of Greek metaphysics in Kalam like Imam ibn Taymiyyah) before venturing into addressing contemporary theological issues. Why? Because if you are exploring contemporary theological issues and not using the most ‘Islamic’ source of philosophical theology, you are going to end up using sources that are non-Islamic, such as material by Christian theologians, atheist epistemologists and philosophers and other Eastern philosophies etc. Given that Islam and its sacred texts have no native philosophical system (in the conventional sense at least), this will be inevitable. You might as well use the tradition to ground your thinking as much as possible in an ‘Islamic’ system of thinking. Otherwise you are just going to start a new crisis all over again, and the scholars of Sunni kalam spent centuries trying to fix the previous one.

On Kalam Positivism

Lastly, there has been a trend in the last decade or so of Sunni seekers of knowledge increasingly acknowledging the utility and importance of their Kalam tradition. I am one of those people as well. I studied Maturidi texts (despite having studied the Shafii school of thought) with my teachers after first having been a staunch Salafi and anti-Kalam advocate. However, as I have broadened my reading in both Kalam and contemporary epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy over the past few years I have noticed that there is an unfortunate abundance of Kalam positivism abound, and this is distinct from what I outlined in my first point about anti-Taymiyyan extremes.

Kalam positivism is my own terminology, so let me explain. As I outlined in this article, Kalam was a later development in Sunni thought and it was in part a pragmatic response to certain pressures found in the Muslim intellectual world. It took up Greek metaphysics as a key grounding for its philosophical methodology. Kalam positivists however, advocate that the philosophical grounding of the Sunni kalam tradition is sacrosanct and therefore we should restrict ourselves as much as possible to the epistemic and metaphysical grounding of the past tradition.

I find this conclusion absurd and unnecessary. The philosophical grounding of Sunni Kalam (not the Usul-ul-Din which it tries to justify) clearly shows its age. There are many tremendously profound ideas among the scholars of Kalam, and it is clear to me that there was divine guidance involved in the process, such as in Imam al-Ghazzali’s theory of motion. However, we should not need to – or expect others to – blindly accept the classical metaphysical realism and subject-object ontology of propositions that is inherent in Sunni Kalam and treat them as brute orthodoxy. In fact, when I was initially Salafi, and was studying Biology in university, one of the main issues that drove me away from Kalam were concepts of Jawhar, Jism and A’rd that are found in Kalam texts. As someone who had grown up passionate about the theoretical natural sciences, I just found them strange. Today, even though I not only understand these concepts a lot better and can even justify them in multiple ways, I find them unnecessary even if they have some utility. Similarly, as someone who taught ESL for six years, is passionate about the sciences of the Arabic language and teaches teenagers Islamic theology, I find the subject-object ontology of propositions in classical mantiq to be either outdated or impractical. I still teach mantiq from classical texts to help students to become more analytical in their approach to verbal reasoning, but I do not advocate for it as THE ontology to understanding language-based thinking. I prefer newer ideas about language grounded in human psychology and linguistic biology and the limitations of mathematical and verbal logic. I also find newer contemporary ideas in epistemology more compelling than classical foundationalism like warrant, coherence, and moderate foundationalism. I have not even explored contemporary ethics yet.

Why we are still discussing scientific knowledge and empirical propositions as contrasted with Islamic thought and reason instead of integrating them into the same system? Why can we not explore Sunni Kalam from differing angles inspired by reformed epistemology or natural theology? Given that Kalam was a tradition that developed while being grounded in at least at some level, foreign epistemologies and for pragmatic purposes, I do not see why this cannot be the case, and why attempts to update and enhance Sunni Kalam beyond its classical roots should not be attempted. We are maintaining the same Usul-ul-Din, after all. There is already important work going on in updating the tradition in Quranic Studies, history, Usul-ul-Fiqh, Fiqh and Islamic ethics etc that carries forward the spirit of the tradition without falling into the excesses of modernism, reformism or puritanism. Why not Kalam?

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