Lesson One: Scholastic Theology

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 secondHijri (Islamic lunar calendar) century witnessed the beginning of the controversy between Muslims over issues of akalaam 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 thejabri’ites [from the Arabic rootjabr (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).

Researching 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 ofkalaam (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 andkalaam (speculative theology).

Reading speculative theology books, especially those written in the seventh century of the Islamic era onward, you will discover that mostkalaam issues were the ones discussed by philosophers, Muslims in particular.

Philosophy andkalaam had great impact on each other. One such influence was thatkalaam had introduced new subjects into philosophy. For its part, philosophy had widened the horizons ofkalaam , 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 ofkalaam 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 prophetichadith (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.