Ilm al-Kalām, the term applied to theology in classical Islam, occupies an interesting place in our history.
Much more than law (fiqh), its intellectual counterpart, theology became the focus of the nascent Islamic civilization’s conversation with the world around it.
The term itself, which literally translates as “talk-ology,” carried with it mild sarcasm owing to the fact that it tended to produce tedious dialectic and excessive amounts of technical jargon.
Although it’s difficult to imagine, addressing the terms “tawḥīd” (Divine Oneness) or “`aqīdah” (creed) to one of the Companions of the Prophet (upon him be peace) would likely have drawn blank stares. As a community which pre-dated the development of discursive theology and its distinct vernacular, these terms and the discourse which gave them meaning simply weren’t a part of their religious experience.
At the risk of limiting a rich and nuanced history to a single phenomenon, it can be said that the development of Kalām, Islamic theology, parallels the expansion of Islam and its emergence as the cornerstone of a world civilization. That being the case, much of the shape and texture of its discourse were derived from the pre-existing theological and philosophical environment of the newly annexed lands of Islam.
In the insightful introduction to his annotated translation of Imam al-Ghazālī’s Fayṣal al-Tafriqa bayn al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam, Dr. Sherman Jackson writes:
In spite of its enticing simplicity, the thesis that early Muslims consciously adopted philosophical and theological ideas from older, more established traditions and fused them with a normative Islam is misleading. There was no project of covert religious/theological syncretism here. In describing the organic way in which the intellectual climate of the new Islamic territories influenced the development of theology, Jackson continues:
“Rather than a conscious borrowing, this influence would be more aptly viewed as an unconscious (or in some instances, conscious) retention of ideas and concepts that were assumed to be just as valid under Islam as they were under the old order.“
As the Islamic intellectual tradition began to mature, some of these ideas and concepts would acquit themselves as legitimate and even indispensable while others would fall by the wayside; rejected as incompatible with Islam.
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In any event, this historical setting served as the backdrop for some of the most rigorous and in-depth public conversation about God humanity has ever known: The “created-ness” or eternality of the Qur’ān, immanence and transcendence as they relate to the Names and Attributes of God, the plausibility of ex nihilo creation by an unchanging, eternal Creator, etc. Engagement with these and other theological issues had many demonstrable effects on the religious culture of the time but for the purpose of this short editorial I shall highlight three:
This is the pressure that produced the diamonds: From the initial forays of the Falāsifa like Ibn Sīna and al-Farābī, to the rebuttals of Mu’tazilites like Qāḍī Abd al-Jabbār and al-Jubbā’ī, this discipline produced scholarship. From the endorsed and celebrated rationalist theologies of prominent Ash’arites and Māturidites like al-Bāqillānī, al-Juwaynī, al-Ghazālī, al-Nasafī, and at-Taftazānī to the consistent Traditionalist critique of Ibn Ḥanbal and Ibn Taymīyya, this was a robust conversation.
It established kalām as the domain of specialists. Although, practically speaking, the absence of mass-literacy was perhaps the real determining factor here. For all intents and purposes, these theological discussions took place in the medieval equivalent to the “ivory tower.” I don’t want to paint history with too broad a brush but I think it’s safe to say the Andalusian “man in the street” wasn’t weighing-in on these issues.
Finally, the unintended cumulative effect of this discourse was that it reinforced the universality of Islam. These issues almost exclusively focused on “ilāhīyyāt” or questions concerning God. Sustained focus on these questions anchored theologians in conversations of metaphysical and cosmological significance. For whatever we find of the range of topics and great diversity of opinion within the discourse, these scholars were offering big answers to big questions. Theirs’ was an unapologetic holism.
For a community that enjoys full literacy, the American Muslim community is surprisingly non-doctrinaire. The occasional disputes between Salafists and ‘Asha’rites over the Names and Attributes of God notwithstanding, the traditional ilāhīyyāt debates appear to have only marginal relevance to the day-to-day lives of American Muslims. In fact, when compared with the religious landscape we find described in works like 9th century theologian Abū al-Ḥasan al-`Ash’ari’s Maqālāt al-Islāmīyīn or Shahrastānī’s al-Milal wa an-Niḥal, our community may enjoy an unprecedented level of homogeneity in our beliefs about God. For the most part, our disagreements tend to avoid the first declaration—There is nothing worthy of worship besides God—of the Islamic testimony of faith (shahādah). Interestingly enough, the contentious debate, the kalām within our community is focused on the second part of the shahādah, Muhammad is the Messenger of God (upon him be peace).
Belief in the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) is fundamental to Islam. And while a smattering of voices throughout Islamic history have advanced notions which contravene orthodox beliefs about the substance or finality of his prophethood, it would be highly unlikely to find Muslims debating about whether or not Muhammad (upon him be peace) was an actual prophet. However, inasmuch as the Shari’ah (lit. Way) taught and exemplified by the Prophet (upon him be peace) is believed to represent the Will of God, the nubūwāt (prophetic actions) have replaced the ilāhiyyāt as the center of public discourse about Islam.
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Unsurprisingly, within the context of a modern state which guarantees religious institutions protection from governmental encroachment but expects an absolute monopoly on legislation and law, what one believes about the Names and Attributes of God is far less important than what one believes concerning what people should be allowed to legally marry.
Whereas the old kalām found Islam the “new kid on the block,” coming onto the scene entering preexisting conflicts, the new kalām finds Islam an “old hat,” confident on account of its former glory but feeling increasingly dislocated by a changing cultural landscape.
These two factors working in tandem shape the contours of our public conversation about Islam: Suspicion from the dominant culture about what Muslims believe concerning how God is worshipped (as opposed to what God is worshipped) and the feeling of displacement many modern Muslims feel within contemporary culture. Convincing our neighbors that Islam is not hostile, our daughters that Islam is not oppressive, our sons that Islam is relevant, and ourselves that Islam is a spiritually nourishing way of life and not just something to convince others about is quite a task!
Although debating the intricacies of pre-modern slavery and concubinage or gender and sexual identity within the sacred law is not as high-minded as discussing the nature of God, we would be mistaken if we failed to recognize that our kalām has just as much impact on our religious culture. Of course, there are many observations that can be noted but I would again like to highlight three:
- Make no mistake, pre-modern Islamic theological disputation was no portrait of amity. Biting sarcasm was employed, accusations of heresy were made, and on some occasions even corporeal punishment was used! However, it was a culture of seriousness and intellectual integrity. Perusing those works it becomes clear that Ghazālī read and understood the Falasīfa (Islamic Neo-Platonist philosophers) he was critiquing. Ibn Taymīyya understood the `Ash’arite theologians against whom he wrote so passionately.
With social media as the mise en scene, our disputes appear more about the use of coded language than presenting cogent arguments. “Sell-out” “west-toxicated” “sexist” “racist” “homophobe” all play better within the truncated dialogue space of social media than serious conversations. We have unprecedented ability to access a multiplicity of opinions and yet we seem more confined to our individual echo-chambers than ever. Consequently, very little of our commentary opens psychological space among those with whom we differ. Quite the reverse, much of our commentary is drowned out by the “harmony” of the voices of those with whom we agree.
2. Whereas classical theology was the domain of Islamic specialists, our kalām is more democratic and inclusive. Literacy and a democratizing media culture have given everyone a platform.
This is a cause for both celebration and caution. The Prophet (upon him be peace) listened to the objections of children against their parents and bondsmen against their owners.
The Prophet (upon him be peace) would designate special sessions to teach the women of the Companions and answer their questions. He would not allow the newly converted Africans of Banu `Arfidah to be silenced when they raised their voices in performance in his mosque and he (upon him be peace) took the Pledge of ‘Aqabah from women independent of their husbands and families.
Making sure everyone’s voice is heard is an aspect of his Sunnah. However, every voice being heard is not the same as affording every voice equal priority.
We are a community rich in experience and expertise—not all of which has anything to do with any kind of scholarship or activism—and I’m not suggesting that people relinquish their voices in favor of the voices of Islamic scholars.
In fact, I submit that on a number of issues I’ve heard far more creative and thoughtful perspectives from activists and scholars of other disciplines than from scholars trained in the Islamic tradition.
The voices of Islamic scholars are not important because of their inerrancy or in-depth understanding of every issue. Scholars of the Islamic tradition serve the function of tying our approaches to various issues back to our collective understanding of God and how the trans-historic community of believers have understood His Will.
The answers and approaches to various issues that are settled upon in our community should be the outcome of conversations among people of different backgrounds and interests.
Scholars trained within the Islamic tradition aren’t entitled to give definitive answers for every question but rather should be honoured to steer the conversation in the direction of the Will of God.
3. Our kalām is small. I appreciate the political astuteness and impassioned activism that corresponds with a discourse more focused on questions of identity and human suffering than divine nature. However, we must remember our faith contains a profound system of beliefs regarding God, the nature of the universe and human life. We should be distinct from a generation clinging to politics and politicized visions of sexuality, race, and gender as if this all the human being is. Undoubtedly, these categories are relevant to society. However, we believe there is so much more than society. There is a metaphysical realm of angels and devils, unveilings and spiritual darkness, friendship with God and harmony with nature that is not bound by the way identity is being negotiated in society.
And Allah knows best
Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans is ALIM’s first Scholar-in-Residence and now Executive Director. He converted to Islam while in high school. Upon conversion, Ustadh Ubaydullah began studying some of the foundational books of Islam under the private tutelage of local scholars while simultaneously pursuing a degree in journalism from Columbia. Since then he has studied at Chicagoland’s Institute of Islamic Education (IIE), in Tarim, Yemen, and Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, where he is the first African-American to graduate from its Shari’a program. Ustadh Ubaydullah also instructs with the Ta’leef Collective and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) at times.