Lesson Seven: The Shia (1)

The turn now is for the discussion ofkalaam (scholastic theology), as advocated by the Shia. This science, which deals with rational judgement and logic in the field of the fundamentals of Islamic beliefs, has a unique and excellent place with the Shia. Above all,kalaam , in the view of the Shia, has, on the one hand, a strong link with their reported tradition (ahaadith ). On the other hand, it meshes with their philosophy. As we have already mentioned,kalaam , in the view of the Sunnis, is a phenomenon that contraveneshadith andsunnah (Prophetic tradition). And yet, according to the Shia,kalaam does not go contrary tohadith andsunnah only, but has a special place in both of them.

The secret of this is that the traditions of the Shia, unlike those of the Sunnis, comprise a number ofhadiths that deal with logic, metaphysics, and sociology, which have undergone critical study and examination.

In the body of Sunnihadiths these subjects do not feature a lot. Should you come across issues, such as decree and destiny, God’s Will and His Attributes, man’s soul, and life after death, imamate, caliphate, reckoning and the book [of good and bad deeds], you will not find a detailed study that should go with any of those issues. When it comes to the Shiahadiths , you will find, as a matter of course, discussions and elucidations backed by ample evidence. It suffices to compare the sections, pertaining to these subjects, in the six Sunni authentic compendia ofhadith with the corresponding ones in al-Kulaini’s al-Kafi.

Consequently, in the Shia reported tradition,kalaam has been employed to mean intellection, i.e. rational analysis. It is for this reason too that the Shia did not split into two opposing schools, viz.Ahlul Hadith (traditionists) andAhlul Kalaam (speculative theologians) as had been the case with the Sunnis.

Just to recap, according to Sunni sources, we have already mentioned that the first issue of controversy, over one of the fundamental beliefs of Muslims, was the question of the unbelief (kufr) of thefasiq (godless) by the Kharijites. Second in order was the question of man’s freewill and choice, which was advanced by Ma’bad al-Juhni and Ghelan ad-Dimashqi, contrary to what the Umayyad rulers used to advocate. In the first half of the first century of the Islamic era, the debate erupted about the unity of the Attributes and the Essence, championed by al-Jahm bin Safwan. The idea of man’s freewill, as espoused by Ma’bad and Ghelan, was taken on board by Wasil bin Ata’ and Amr bin Obaid, co-founders of the Mu’tazilite School; they also took up the idea of the unity of the Essence and Attributes from al-Jahm. However, the idea of “the middle way”, regarding the unbelief or belief of the godless was their own child. This was the beginning of the Islamic science ofkalaam .

Indeed, this is one interpretation for the emergence of religious rational discussions in Islam, which was advocated by the orientalists and professors of Islamic thought in the East and the West.

Those people [i.e. the orientalists] had deliberately however, overlooked the role of Imam Ali (a.s.) in bringing these serious deductive and rational studies to the fore.

It is a known fact that raising such thought-provoking issues in the domain of Islamic thought was done by Imam Ali in his sermons, appeals, and letters. He was the first to talk about the Essence and the Attributes, Eternity and Transience, simplicity and complexity, unity and multiplicity, and other profound questions, the majority of which can be found in Nahjul Balagha (Path of Eloquence), an anthology of Imam Ali’s words, and other authentic Shia reports. Those discussions and studies were characterized by the spiritual, which was completely alien to thekalaam techniques of the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites that were the product of the thought prevalent in their own day and age.

Sunni historians recognize that Shia thought has been woven of a philosophical fibre. In other words, their intellectual and rational approach is based on deduction. Shia thought is dissimilar to the Hanbilite thought, which unequivocally reject the use of reason and evidence in reaching conviction in religious beliefs. It is also not like the Ash’arite thought, which takes its cue from reason and makes it subservient to the apparent meanings of expressions per se. And it is contrary to the Mu’tazilite thought, which unleashes the rational tendency, because it is based on argumentation that lack substance and proof.

As a result, most of the Muslim philosophers were of Shia persuasion. The heart of Islamic philosophy had and is still being kept pumping by the efforts of Shia scholars who have been imbued with this spirit by their Imams, especially the Commander of the Faithful, Ali (a.s.).

Shia philosophers did not approach philosophical argumentation with the same methodology ofkalaam , shuttling between demonstrative wisdom (himkah burhaniyya ) and a dialectic one (hikmah jadaliyya ). Rather, they succeeded in reinforcing the fundamental beliefs of Islam, inspired by the Holy Qur’an and the emanations of the great Imams of religion. That is why if we want to compile a list of Shia scholastic theologians, meaning those expounders of Islamic Shia beliefs, we will include in it a group of transmitters ofhadith and philosophers. This is so because Shia traditions (hadith ) and philosophy have served the purpose ofkalaam in a better way than the science of speculative theology (kalaam ) itself.

However, if it is meant those scholars who fell under the sway of Mu’tazilite and Ash’arite are speculative theologians, we should confine the list to a very small number. And yet, we do not see any reason for this.

Putting aside the statements of the great Imams (a.s.) on beliefs, which are contained in their sermons, reports, and supplications, the first among Shia scholars, who wrote a book on this subject was Ali bin Ismael bin Maythem at-Tammar. Maythem at-Tammar himself was a companion of Imam Ali (a.s) and was a great orator and communicator. His grandson Ali bin Ismael lived during the lifetime of Amr bin Obaid and Abul Huthail al-Allaf, who were among the first generation of Mu’tazilite scholastic theologians in the first half of the second century of the Islamic era (i.e.Hijri ).

Among the disciples of Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) [148/765], there was a group who earned the name, “scholastic theologians –mutakalimmeen )”, such as Hisham bin al-Hakam [d. 198 H/812 CE], Hisham bin Salim,

Humran bin A’yen, Abu Ja’far al-Ahwal, known as Mu’min at-Taq, and Qais bin Masir. In his monumental compendium ofhadith , al-Kafi, al-Kulaini reports on a debate that took place between this group and an opposing one, with whose results Imam as-Sadiq (a.s.) was joyful.

Those scholars were instructed by Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq during the first half of the second century of the Islamic era. This is a clear proof that the Imams (a.s.) not only took it upon themselves to engage inkalaam , but brought up in their seminaries generations of scholars in this discipline. Hisham bin al-Hakam, for example, excelled inkalaam and nothadith or Qur’anic commentary. Even when he was of a tender age, Imam as-Sadiq (a.s.) used to give him a special treatment over others of his companions and students. There is agreement between observers that he earned this special treatment due to his outstanding scholarship inkalaam .

In raising the station of Hisham, the scholastic theologian, over the scholars ofhadith and jurisprudence, Imam as-Sadiq wanted to stress the importance and value of doctrinal studies and give preference tokalaam over the other two subjects.

It is obvious that this type of conduct by the Imams (a.s.) played a role in spreadingkalaam and shaping Shia rational thinking into a distinctkalaam and philosophical school.

Imam ar-Ridha (a.s.), [who was heir apparent to the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’moun, d. 220/833], used to take part in the polemic sessions convened by al-Ma’moun for speculative theologians of different schools of thought. The proceedings of those debates have been recorded in the Shia books.

As the orientalists overlooked the ideological heritage of Imam Ali (a.s.), they did the same thing with those historical facts that show the Imams (a.s.) sparing no effort in initiating and promulgating rational research into doctrinal issues. And this is both puzzling and questionable.

Al-Fadhl bin Shathan an-Nashabouri, who was a companion of the Imams ar-Ridha, al-Jawad, and al-Hadi (a.s.), was a jurist, traditionist (hadith scholar), and scholastic theologian. He wrote several books inkalaam .

The majority of members of the House of Banu Nawbakht were scholastic theologians. Among them were al-Fadhl bin Abi Sahl, who was chief librarian ofBaitul Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) Library during the rule of [Abbasid Caliph Haroun] ar-Rashid and was a reputed translator, Ishaq bin Abi Sahl, his son, Ismael, the latter’s son, Ali and his grandson, Abu Sahl – who is known in the Shia circles asSheikhul Mutakalimmeen (the teacher, or master, of speculative theologians), al-Hassan bin Mousa, the nephew of Ismael bin Ali, and others of this family of scholarship.

In the third century of the Islamic era, there emerged another luminary, i.e. Ibn Qubba ar-Razi. In the beginning of the fifth century of the Islamic era, a reference could be made to Abu Ali [Ahmad] bin Miskawaih al-Hakim [d. 421/1030], [who was a member of a distinguished group of thinkers who combined political careers with philosophical activity] and also a famous physician and author of the work, “Taharatul A’raaq – Purity of the Dispositions”.

Shia scholastic theologians are many. Among them is Khawaja Nasiruddin at-Tusi [597/1201 – 672/1274], a well-known philosopher and mathematician, the author of the work, “Tajridul I’itiqaad – Uncovering the Belief”. Allama (Scholar) al-Hilli, a very well-known jurist, the author of annotations onTajridul I’itiqaad .

In his bookTajridul I’itiqaad , at-Tusi wrote an unrivalled and strong defence ofkalaam , so much so that speculative theologians, who succeeded him, be they Sunni or Shia, followed in his footsteps. To him goes the credit of introducing significant and qualitative change into philosophy or wisdom (hikmah ), in that he moved it away from argumentation to demonstrative proof. In later stages, though, this change was made complete, i.e. the break was irreversible between the old methodology and the new one. In fact all have become followers of wisdom of the proof (hikmah burhaniyya ). On the other hand,kalaam (scholastic theology) lost its independence in favour of philosophy.

After at-Tusi, Shia philosophers used to discusskalaam issues in a philosophical manner and context and achieved success in this regard more than their predecessors among scholastic theologians (mutakalimmeen ). Sadrul Muta’aliheen and Allama Sabzwari, who were not considered amongmutakalimmeen , reached the pinnacle of eloquence and influence in this discipline.

As a matter of fact, if we consult the pristine sources of Islam, such as the Qur’an, Nahjul Balagha (Peak of Eloquence) and the traditions of the Prophet and his Pure Progeny, we would find out that this approach is closer to these sources than the first, [i.e.kalaam methodology].