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Scholastic Theology (Kalam)

The science of scholastic, or speculative, theology (kalaam) is an Islamic science. It is concerned with discussing Islamic beliefs, or what should be upheld of such beliefs from an Islamic perspective. Thus, kalaam seeks to explain the matters relating to these beliefs, advancing the evidence in support thereof and defending the same.

Muslim scholars divide the body of Islamic teachings into three categories: 1. Beliefs: This category deals with the questions and knowledge that one has to be familiar with and subsequently believe in, such as monotheism, the Attributes of the Creator, universal and exclusive prophethood, etc. However, Islamic schools of thought differed as to what constitutes the fundamentals of religion and thereby have to be espoused as such.

2. Ethics: This category deals with the issues and teachings that discuss the "status of man", i.e. those questions relating to moral qualities and spiritual characteristics, such as fairness, piety, courage, integrity, wisdom, rectitude, truthfulness, trustworthiness, etc.

3. Laws: This category takes care of matters relating to the performance and mechanics of acts of worship, such as prayer, fast, hajj (pilgrimage), jihad, enjoining good and forbidding evil, sale and hire, marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. This category is known by another title, namely, jurisprudence.

According to such a division, Islamic teachings have become the main thrust of Islam, to the exclusion of Islamic sciences that discuss the preliminaries, such as humanities, logic, and to a certain extent philosophy.

Also, according to this dissection, there has been a focus on the relationship between Islamic teachings and man. That is, matters relating to man's intellect have been given the name "beliefs", whereas the title "ethics" has become synonymous with questions concerning man's morals and spiritual welfare. As for the issues relating to how man goes about conducting his devotions, they have been given the name "jurisprudence".

As shall, God willing, be explained, although jurisprudence is considered one science, from a juridical perspective, yet it consists of a number of sub sciences. However, kalaam (speculative or scholastic theology) is the science that is concerned with Islamic beliefs or doctrines. It used to be called "fundamentals of religion" or "unity and attributes".

The origins of kalaam

It is not possible to determine with absolute certainty when the science of scholastic theology started. Yet, the middle of the second Hijri (Islamic lunar calendar) century witnessed the beginning of the controversy between Muslims over issues of a kalaam nature. Thus, questions of freewill, predestination, and justice, were debated. Perhaps, the first official seminary was that of al- Hassan al-Basri (d. 110 H.).

Two towering figures, who lived in the middle of the second century, come to mind, especially when one talks about vehement defence of man's freewill. They are Ma'bad al-Juhni [d. 80/669] and Gheelan ad-Dimashqi [of Damascus, d. 150/767]. On the other side of the ideological divide, there were the proponents of the doctrine of predestination. The latter were known as "jabri'ites", as opposed to the former, "qadri'ites", The differences between these two schools of thought had crept into other issues relating to divinity, natural and social sciences, man and resurrection.

The qadri'ites were later known by the name, "mu'tazilites" [lit. the separatists, founded by Wasil bin Ata' (130/748), the student of al-Hassan al-Basri after he had turned his back to his teacher] and the jabri'ites [from the Arabic root jabr (necessity, compulsion)], "ash'ari'ites", [i.e. named after the founder of the School, Abul Hassan Ali bin Ismail al-Ash'ari (d. 324/935)].

The orientalists and their disciples are adamant that the beginning of deductive work in the world of Islam started with that sort of debate.

Nevertheless, the truth is that deductive research in Islamic fundamentals emanated from the Holy Qur'an. The prophetic traditions and the sermons of Imam Ali (a.s.) used to provide the commentary on those Qur'anic passages. It has to be noted, though, that that scholarship varied in style and substance, pursuant to the calibre of Muslim speculative theologians (mutakalimeen). Research or following?

The Holy Qur'an has secured the pillars of belief according to reasoning. It has always aimed to make people reach conviction by way of intellection or rational judgement. The Holy Book does not consider worship in matters of belief sufficient. Therefore, fundamentals of religion have to be examined through logic. Questions such as the existence of God and His unity should be resolved by way of rational judgement, so as the prophethood of Mohammad (s.a.w.). This is how the science of the fundamentals of religion emerged during the first century of the Islamic era.

The embracing of Islam by non-Arabs, the existence of different ideologies and principles, and the co-existence of Muslims with the followers of other religions, such as Jews, Christians, Magians, and Sabians, had precipitated debate between Muslims. Those developments and the interaction between all those peoples were instrumental in the appearance of groups, such as atheists, thanks to the general climate of freedom, especially at the time of the Abbasid caliphate. The latter did not mind the proliferation of such trends, provided that holding such views did not constitute any divergence from the ruling establishment's general guidelines. Philosophy, which called for freethinking and the casting of doubt and false arguments, also came to the fore. All those developments called for scrutiny in the fundamental structures of Islam, with a view of consolidating them, hence the emergence of great speculative theologians (mutakalimeen) in the second, third and fourth centuries of the Islamic era.

The early issues

Perhaps, among the early issues, which became the bone of contention between Muslims, was the question of predestination and freewill. This was quite natural, not least because it has a bearing on man's destiny, hence, the importance attached to it by any sensible person.

There might not be a single intellectually mature society whose members do not engage in debate on these matters. Moreover, since the Holy Qur'an discussed these issues in many verses, it has become the driving force behind the dialogue on such questions between people.

Therefore, we should not go far in order to find a justification for the appearance of this issue in the world of Islam. As for the orientalists, they always seek to refute the originality of Islamic sciences and thought, in any way possible, above all, by tracing such knowledge and scholarship to domains outside the realm of Islam, especially, Christianity. That is why, they try to attribute the science of kalaam (speculative theology) to some other ideology, i. e. not Islamic. After all, this is what they tried to do with even purely Arabic sciences, such as grammar, metrics, rhetoric, figures of speech, and Islamic gnosis, or mysticism (Irfan).

The research in predestination and freewill also deals with the question of decree and destiny (qadha and qadr). Insofar as its relationship with the human beings is concerned, it is called predestination and freewill (jabr and ikhtiyar). And as far as its link with God is concerned, it is called decree and destiny. The research has been extended to cover the issue of [Divine] Justice (adl) for the obvious correlation between predestination and injustice, on the one hand, and freewill and justice, on the other.

Justice, however, led to the study of the "inbuilt good and repugnance" (husn and qubh) of the human actions; this in turn led to the study of reason (aql) and intellectual independence. As a result of discussing all these topics, yet another subject came to the fore, viz. wisdom (hikma), i.e. the wise intents and purposes of the Divine. The research had gradually developed to cover other topics, such as the unity of actions (Tawheed afa'ali) and the unity of attributes (Tawheed sifati). This will be discussed later on.

These scholastic theology issues and research had branched out into a plethora of subjects that have a philosophical dimension, such as the studies in the essence and manifestations of things and the composition of the body from inseparable parts. Scholastic theologians have considered carrying out those studies as necessary, i.e. preparing the ground for the discussions of the issues dealing with the fundamentals of religion, especially creation and resurrection (mabda' and ma'ad).

Thus, a number of issues, which used to be the exclusive domain of philosophy, had become part and parcel of the science of scholastic theology, hence the spanning of topics between philosophy and kalaam (speculative theology).

Reading speculative theology books, especially those written in the seventh century of the Islamic era onward, you will discover that most kalaam issues were the ones discussed by philosophers, Muslims in particular. Philosophy and kalaam had great impact on each other. One such influence was that kalaam had introduced new subjects into philosophy. For its part, philosophy had widened the horizons of kalaam, in that discussing philosophical questions within a speculative theology setting had become necessary. Hopefully, we shall be able to expand on this subject by giving examples later on.

Rational and traditional debate

Despite the fact that the science of kalaam is a deductive and analogous one, in the premises and principles it espouses to reaching logical conclusions, it consists of two parts, i.e. rational (aqli) and traditional (naqli).

Reason comprises the questions that are the exclusive preserve of reason, or intellect. Nevertheless, if tradition is resorted to in the process, it can be considered as an extra piece of evidence on the rational judgement. Issues of debate of this sort include monotheism, prophethood, and some topics relating to resurrection, where you cannot rely exclusively on tradition, i.e. the Holy Qur'an and Prophetic tradition (sunnah). You have to count on reason.

Tradition is concerned with issues pertaining to the fundamentals of religion that one must believe and have faith in. However, since it is a branch of prophethood, and not above it, it is sufficient to prove the issues by way of divine revelation or authentic prophetic hadith (tradition), such as those questions relating to imamate; according to Shiite doctrine, imamate is among the fundamentals of religion. The same goes for the majority of the topics that are relevant to the question of resurrection.

Scholastic theology, a definition
 

It suffices to say that scholastic theology is a science that is concerned with studying the fundamentals of Islamic faith. In other words, it aims to clearly segregate the matters that relate to the fundamentals of religion, proving their veracity with demonstrative proofs and responding to scepticism and baseless arguments levelled against them.

In books that deal with logical and philosophical issues, there is a reference to the fact that for each and every science there is a special subject and that what sets any science apart from the other and makes it different is the uniqueness of the subject it discusses.

Of course, this is true. The sciences whose topics have realistic unity fit this description. However, there can be other sciences, whose topics are numerous, yet subjective, provided that there is a common goal to be served, which is the reason for such unity and subjectivity (I'itibar) Scholastic theology is of the second type, in that the unity of its issues is not intrinsic and qualitative but a subjective one. Thus, it is not essential to look for one subject for the science of kalaam (scholastic theology).

As for the sciences, whose subject matter can demonstrate a fundamental unity, there will not be a possibility of interlocking of their ingredients, i.e. interdependent co-existence. On the other hand, for sciences whose unities are subjective, there can be no harm if their issues intersect another science the unity of whose subject matter is central. This is the reason for the science of kalaam having something in common with philosophy, psychology or sociology.

Some scholars tried to come up with a subject and a definition for the science of kalaam, like those for philosophy. They advanced a number of theories in this regard. This is wrong. Having a unity of subject concerns the sciences that can demonstrate a natural unity of issues. Conversely, any science that lacks this intrinsic unity, in other words, it is subjective, there cannot be a single subject for it.

The name

There had been a debate concerning the name given to this science, i.e. why is it called kalaam? When was it given this name? Some attributed this name to the stature it gives the one who is familiar with it, in that he grows in stature the more he is involved in debate, or speech (kalaam) and in reaching rational conclusions. Others say that the name was derived from the introductory phrase "Debating, or speaking of, this, or that issue.." scholastic theologians (mutakalimeen) used to start their writings or deliberations with. A third party said that it was named the science of kalaam because it involves "debating, talking about, or discussing", the issues the traditionists, or scholars of tradition, (ahlul hadith) prefer to keep "quiet" about. A fourth group are of the opinion that the name can be traced back to the discussion in the context of this science about "God's speech - kalaam", which led to untold conflict and killings; that is why that period was branded "the age of tribulation", in that people of that time overindulged in argument and polemics about religious fundamentals and on whether God's speech was eternal or created.

Schools of scholastic theology

As there was disagreement between Muslims on juridical issues and the branches of religion, ending in the setting up of different schools of thought, such as Jafari'ite, Zaidite, Hanafite, Shafi'ite, and Hanbali'ite, there was disagreement between them over doctrinal matters. Each group had adopted special principles. The most important among kalaam (scholastic theology) schools of thought are Shiite, Mu'atazilite, Ash'arite, and Murji'ite. At this juncture, a question, tinged with regret, may be posed about the disunity of Muslims over juridical and scholastic theology issues. Their differences in kalaam have given rise to their disunity in Islamic thought. Their differences over juridical matters have deprived them of the ability to show a united front in action.

Although posing the question and expressing regret are legitimate, yet the attention must be drawn to these two points: 1. The differences between Muslims over these issues are not so acute that they may shake the foundations of their doctrinal unity and joint programmes. The things they have in common are so many that they render the issues they disagree over insignificant.

2. Ideological and theoretical differences in a society that still demonstrate common ideological fundamentals are inevitable. So long as the differences stem from the same premises and principles and are a result of the different approaches to deduction, without compromising the main objects and aims, such differences are beneficial, in that they enhance research and scholarship.

However, should these differences turn into entrenched positions, bigotry, and irrational inclinations, and the individual effort becomes obsessed with degrading others, without a real attempt to reform the approach, it would lead to disastrous results. The Shia (Shi'ite) school of thought makes it obligatory on the mukallaf [compos mentis: The person obligated to observe the precepts of religion] to follow a living jurist (mujtahid). For their part, the jurists must exert themselves, through scholarship, to arrive at independent judgements, being vigilant as not to fall under the sway of the legal opinions of bygone generations of jurists and great personas. This ijtihad [lit. exertion: the process of arriving at judgements on points of religious law, using reason and the principles of jurisprudence "usul al-fiqh"] and independent thinking would inevitably cause difference in opinion.

However, this particular issue is responsible for giving the Shia jurisprudence the extra edge, survival, and continuity. In its general outlines, difference is not a bad thing. What is condemnable is that difference resulting from ill intentions and evil ulterior motives of those who seek to sow discord among Muslims. Questions such as exploring the history of Islamic thought and the differences that came to the fore as a result of ill intentions and prejudice, the differences of opinion that emanated from rational thinking, and whether or not we should consider all issues of kalaam as fundamental and juridical issues as peripheral are outside the scope of these lessons. Before starting to discuss the schools of kalaam, we have to allude to the fact that a group of Muslim scholars were diametrically opposed to embarking on kalaam or rational study in the questions of fundamentals of religion.

They branded this type of scholarship an impermissible deed and a heresy, or innovation (bida'a). This group is known as "ahlul hadith", or the proponents (scholars) of hadith (tradition). On top of the list of outstanding scholars of this group was Ahmed bin Hanbal [d.245/833], the founder of the Hambalite Sunni juridical school of thought. The Hanbalites are archenemies of any sort of kalaam, be it Mu'tazilite or Asha'rite, let alone Shiite. They are also known for their contraposition on philosophy and logic. The Hanbalite, Ibn Taymiyyah [d.728/1327], the well- known jurist passed a fatwa (edict) forbidding the involvement in scholastic theology (kalaam) and logic (mantiq). Jalaluddin as-Suyuti, another member of ahlul hadith wrote a book entitled, "Sawn al-Mantiq wal kalaam an al-Mantiq wal kalaam", i.e. the "preservation of logic and speech from the encroachments of the sciences of logic and scholastic theology". Malik bin Anas [d.179/795], the founder of the Malikite School of Thought, did not license any research into doctrinal issues. As we have already mentioned, the most important schools of scholastic theology are the Shiite, Mu'atazilite, Ash'arite, and Murji'ite. Some scholars considered the Kahrijite, and the Ismaelite among the schools of Islamic scholastic theology.

However, we do not consider them as such. The Kahrijites have espoused a special brand of beliefs in the fundamentals of religion. Maybe, they were the first ones to do so. They have talked about some beliefs in the context of imamate, deeming those who reject it as fasiq (godless), whom they have branded unbeliever. Yet, (a) they did not establish an ideological school capable of deducing legal opinion; in other words, they did not set up an ideological system in the world of Islam; and (b) in our opinion, as Shia Muslims, their deviant ideological opinions have reached a proportion that they are considered outside the pale of Islam. However, this has made things palatable, in that the Khrijites have almost died out, except for a tolerant faction of them, i.e. the Abadhi'ites.

The survival of the group is attributed to the broad-mindedness of its members. As for the Batinites (secretive), i.e. the Ismaelites, they have introduced so many unsavoury innovations into Islamic thought that it can be said that they left Islam in a state of topsy-turvy. For this reason, Muslims are not prepared to consider them as one of them any more. Some forty years ago, the Group for Rapprochement between Islamic Schools of Thought was established in Cairo, Egypt. The founding fathers were Twelver and Zaidite Shia, Hanafi'ites, Shafi'ites, Malikites, and Hanbalites. The Ismaelites tried very hard to be represented, but all Muslims gave them the cold shoulder. However, despite their apparent deviation from the right path, the Ismaelites, unlike the Kharijites - who did not have a distinct school of thought, have a school of thought, featuring scholastic theology and philosophy. Over the ages, famous intellectuals had emerged from their ranks, leaving behind an ideological heritage. Of late, the orientalists have shown keen interest in their opinions and books. Among the towering figures of the Ismaelites is Nassir Khisro al- Alawi, the Farsi famous poet (d. 841 H.). His known books are, Jami'ul Hukmain (the Compendium of the Two Rules), Wajhuddin (the Face of Religion), and Khawan (sic) Ikhwan (the Brothers).

Abu Hatim ar-Razi (d. 332 H.), the author of A'alamun Nubbuwwah (The Beacons of Prophethood), is another great Ismaelite figure. Another one is Abu Ya'qoub as-Sajistani (d. circa second half of the fourth Hijri century), the author of Kashful Mahjoub (Unveiling the Concealed); the Farsi translation of this book was printed some ten years ago. Also, among other famous personalities of the Ismaelites is Hamiduddin al-Kirmani, the student of Abu Ya'qoub as-Sajistani. He was a prolific writer on the tenets of the Ismaelites. Abu Hanifa an-Nu'man bin Tahbit, known as Judge Nu'man and widely known as well by Abu Hanifa ash- Shii, i.e. the Ismaeli Shiite, [to differentiate him from the founder of the Sunni School of Thought, the Hanifi'ite]. He undertook credible and good research in jurisprudence and hadith. His book, Da'a'imul Islam (the Pillars of Islam) is in circulation.

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