Sunday, July 5, 2009


In the name of Allah the most beneficent and most merciful


An overview of the Science of Debate (Ilm al-Kalam)

Ilm al-Kalam primarily deals with justifying religious beliefs to reason and employing reason to draw new conclusions and consequences from these beliefs. Its subject areas are comprised of (i) the articulation of fundamental beliefs; (ii) the construction of the speculative framework within which these beliefs must be understood; and (iii) the attempt to give coherence to these views within the accepted framework. Scholars of various sects take the assistance of 'Kalam'(debate) to justify their points of view.

Some Muslims sects, particularly salafis, reject Kalam as deviation and innovation. They also exaggerate the impact of non-Islamic influences and philosophy on the evolution of the 'schools of kalam'. As a matter of fact, many of kalam's early themes, such as the status of the sinner or the question of political legitimacy, arose within a purely Islamic context. They should understand that the religion cannot progress if we limit the understanding of fundamental beliefs, saying ‘we cannot discuss issues related to faith’.

Muslims proclaim to the whole world that Quran is the word of God. How a non-Muslim will believe it? We will have to take the assistance of ‘the science of debate (Ilm al-Kalam) and place before him the undeniable facts about Quran and logical explanations as to why this book is the word of God?

In the same way, we need to explain what is the meaning of one-ness of Allah (SWT) in the light of Quran and Ahadith. There are many verses of Quran about the ‘essence’ (unity) of Allah (SWT) and His attributes. These have to be explained in simple understandable terms.

What these sects do is they take the textual meanings of Quranic verses, and if someone questions their interpretation, they stop him from further discussion, saying ‘these issues are related to faith, thus cannot be discussed using human reason’. In the first place, they have misinterpreted the meanings of these verses using their limited common sense. When you try to correct them, they brand you as ‘deviated innovator’.

Salafis and their like minded sects portray Islam as stagnant, rigid and militant religion. This is against the essence of Islam.

If Islam is to continue as a living system, it is important that we revive Islamic theology in its proper perspective. The ‘science of basic principles of Islam’ ( Ilm al-Usul)and the ‘science of affirming the Unity of Allah –SWT’ (Ilm At-Tawhid)under Islamic Theology are very important subjects. We need to revive these subjects so that progress towards Muslim self-understanding; stagnant for over six centuries, can be resumed. We do not mind if someone calls both these sciences together as ‘Ilm al-Kalam’ in the new meanings.


The emergence of Islam was distinguished with polemics (religious debates) with polytheists, jews and Christians in and around Makka. Since Prophet Mohammad (SAWS) was physically available to answer questions, there were no controversies during this period over fundamental questions related to faith and practice.

Political disputes broke out after the death of the Prophet (SAWS) which culminated in the tragic events leading to the martyrdom of the rightly guided Caliph, Hazrat Othman (RU) in 656 AD (35 AH). His martyrdom broke down the political system that was established by Muslims after the death of Prophet Mohammad (SAWS).

The political disputes had their direct impact on Islamic theology. There were three major groups which competed to lead Muslims, (a) Kharijis, (b) Shias and (c) Murjiya. The Kharijis opposed Hazrat Ali (RU), the Shias considered Hazrat Ali (RU) should have been the first Caliph and Murjiyas remained neutral. All the three groups attempted to influence Muslim community dominated by mainstream Ahle Sunna Wa’l Jama’a.

Compare the above situation with the current Muslim world, we will find many similarities. There is a stiff competition among the major groups of Wahhabis/Salafis and Shias to politically dominate and lead Muslims in the world. Other sects like Muslim Brotherhood, Deobandis and Jama’at-e-Islami are involved in bloody conflicts to control Muslim populations in Egypt, Afghanistan Pakistan, etc.

The issue of Kalam or Speech came to the fore in the seventh century AD (second century AH) when an Islamic sect Mu’tazila dominated Islamic horizon and imposed their views as official doctrine of Islam; similar to what Salafis are doing for the last one century in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

During 7th century AD (2nd century AH) the term khawarij (meaning rebels) was first referred to a group of dissidents who rebelled against the leadership of the rightful Caliph, Hazrat Ali (RU). The Khawarij had neither a unified leadership nor a settled doctrine. They were primarily a militant political tendency with an uncompromising attitude. The core of their views revolved around the nature of legitimate leadership. Although the Khawarij's uncompromising views restricted them to a marginal existence, but their impact on Muslim community had been significant.

Let us compare the above with the historical background of Salafis. The founder of Salafism, Ibn Taymiyya rebelled against the Jurisprudential authority of 4 legitimate Imams of Fiqh, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. The Salafis did not have a political leadership or a settled school of thought for over 5 centuries, during 1300-1800 AD, except that they inherited a militant political tendency and an uncompromising attitude in Islamic faith and practice.

Political fortunes changed for this Sect when Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792) came on the scene. Anybody who knows a little about Islamic history, is aware how Ibn Abdul Wahhab rose to power in collaboration with the House of Sauds. The Salafis gained political control of the Arabian peninsula in early 20th Century after bloody conflicts with mainstream Ahle Sunnah Wal Jama’a.

The core of Salafi doctrine also revolves around the nature of leadership of Muslim countries. They want Salafis and their like minded groups to control the Muslim world. It started first when their founder Ibn Taymiyyah declared Muslim rulers of Syria and Egypt as unbelievers and initiated a campaign of overthrowing them from power. Ibn Abdul Wahhab did the same thing in Arabian Peninsula in 18th Century AD. Currently Salafis are doing the same thing in many Muslim countries, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Far East and Central Asia. In 2008, Wahhabis were banned in certain Central Asian Republics for their subversive activities against elected Governments.

During 7th Century AD, the Shais stood firmly against the Kharijis. They believed in the undisputed authority of an Imam (leader). They claimed that the position of Hazrat Ali (RU) as Imam and successor of the Prophet Mohammad (SAWS) was determined by revelation and was not a matter of opinion.

Now, look at the present Islamic world. The Shias are firmly stood against Salafis in the Middle East and the rest of the world challenging them for Muslim leadership.

When we compare earlier Kharijis and Shias and present Salafis and Shais, we realize that these sects have their origins in political power and leadership of Muslims, rather than religion. They indulge in theological arguments with mainstream Ahle Sunnah to support their political objectives.

During 7th Century AD, there were other sects, like Murjiya who maintained their neutrality to both Kharijis and Shias. In addition, there were sects like Qadariyya, ( not silsila Qaadriyya as Shaikh Abdul Qaadar Jeelani® was born three centuries later) who supported the freedom of 'human will’ against the law of Predestination. They argued for absolute freedom of the Human will. They claimed that Allah (SWT) would not put human beings under obligation to act righteously if they did not possess the power to choose their course of action.

Opposing the Qadariyya were the sect of Jabriyya (Determinists). Their most prominent spokesman was Jahm Ibn Safwan (died 746 AD – 128 AH) who taught that ‘no attributes could be associated with Allah (SWT) except for creation, power and action, since any attribute that could be associated with creatures was not fit to be associated with the Creator. As Allah (SWT) is the sole Creator, human actions are also authored by him alone; therefore, human beings have no control over their actions and have no free will’. Jahm also claimed that since Allah (SWT) could not be described as a speaker, ‘the Quran could not be described as His word, except in the sense of his creation’. Jabriyya sect had limited impact on mainstream Muslims.

Then emerged the sect of Mu’tazila who were characterized by their elitism and militant rationalism. They attempted to systematize religious doctrine centered on the affirmation of Allah’s (SWT) Absolute Unity and Absolute Justice.

Some Muslim Sects wrongly claim that ‘Ilm al-Kalam’ is associated with this sect. They should carefully read the history of Islm. The emergence of Islam was distinguished with 'Ilm al-Kalam' - polemics (religious debates) with polytheists, jews and Christiann. It continued during the period of rightly guided Caliphs. Hazrat Ali (RU) had an expert team of 'Ilm al-Kalam (debate) experts who used to debate issues with Kharijis. We need these experts all the time who could explain issues to people in correct Islamic perspective. For more details in this context, visit

Mu’tazila wrongly interpreted ‘Kalam’ which was later corrected by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (died 936 AD – 324 AH).


Mu'tazila's conservatism and their uncompromising logic for 'a reason for everything’, alienated them from main stream Islam. On the question of divine justice, the traditionalist mainstream rejected the Mu'tazila's attempts to impose ‘human and rational concepts of justice’ on Allah (SWT). They questioned the legitimacy of debate advocated by Mu’tazila in this context. The struggle between the Mu’tazila and mainstream Islam came to a head in the 'creation of the Qur'an' controversy which erupted in the first half of the third century AH (ninth century AD). The Mu’tazila imposed all their controversial ideas on Islamic state with the help of Caliph Al-Ma'mun (198-218 AH - 813-833 AD). Those rules were later abandoned by successive Caliphs.

Let us look at the similarities. The Wahhabis imposed their controversial beliefs on Arabian Peninsula with the help of the rulers ‘Al-Sauds’ in early 20th Century in spite of opposition from mainstream Islam.

The first issue that divided Muslims was the question of political authority and its legitimacy. Mainstream Muslims accepted the procedures adopted to elect the first four rightly guided caliphs. The Kharijis did not raise their head during the rule of first two Caliphs. They gained momentum during the rule of third rightly guided Caliph and with the help of certain politically ambitious head of Islamic regions, started questioning his authority in taking decision and accused him of doing things that favor some at the expense of others.

The second major issue discussed within kalam was the status of the person who committed big sins. The Khawarij started this debate by arguing that any person who committed a big sin automatically became a non-believer, thus forfeiting all rights and protections under Islamic law. The Mu’tazila argued that such a person was in an intermediate position, neither a Muslim nor a Non Muslim. The Murjiya argued for withholding of judgment to widen the interpretation as to who could qualify as a believer.

The third major issue discussed in kalam was freedom of the human Will. The Mu'tazila and Qadariyya both came out strongly in support of freedom of the will. They held that human beings are the creators of their own acts, for otherwise Allah (SWT) would be committing a grave injustice if He punishes those who had no choice in what they did.

At the other extreme, the Jabriyya held that man could not have any control over his actions as Allah (SWT) was the sole creator. Most other groups tried to strike a balance between these two poles.

The Shi'a tended to affirm the freedom of the human will and some of their sub sects like Zaydiyya, agreed completely with the Mu'tazila on this. Some other Shi'a groups, held that human beings are, in part compelled because of the chain of causation that triggers our acts.

The Khawarij accepted the idea of predestination, holding that Allah (SWT) was the Creator of the acts of people, and that nothing occurs which He did not Will.

This was also the view of mainstream orthodox and traditionalist groups, who affirmed that the will of Allah (SWT) was supreme and that he was the creator of all human acts, whether evil or virtuous; nothing could happen on earth that contradicted His Will. This position was later given some gradation by al-Ash'ari, who argued that Allah (SWT) created human acts, but human beings acquired (kasaba); meaning human beings are the perpetrators of their acts. He created a fine distinction between creation of human acts by Allah (SWT), and performance of these acts by human beings.

The fourth major issue discussed in kalam was the question of divine attributes. The Jabriyya used the affirmation of the uniqueness of Allah’s (SWT) attributes to deny the existence of free will. The Mu'tazila developed this idea further, arguing that Allah (SWT) could not have attributes in addition to His essence (Unity - Zaat), for this would mean a multiplicity of eternal entities. Later Mu'tazilites, like Abu'l-Hudhayl al-'Allaf (d. 842 AD /227 AH), added that the divine attributes are identical with the divine essence (Zaat – Unity). Allah’s (SWT) knowledge is not an attribute added to his essence, but is identical with that essence.

Early Shi'ite theologians opposed the Mu'tazila, affirming Allah’s (SWT) immanence (actually present throughout the material world) and denying his immutability (the quality or state of change) and transcendence ( the fact, state or act surpassing beyond limits) of time and space. They held that Allah’s (SWT) will was also mutable (alterable), and ascribed motion to him. They also held that Allah’s (SWT) could also be the ‘locus of accidents’ (contingents / mumkinaat / hawadith) and was corporeal in some sense. Allah’s (SWT) knowledge and will could not be eternal, for this would negate human freedom and make accountability redundant. It could also imply the eternal existence of things. Later Shi'ite theologians belonging to Zaydiyya sect, repudiated most of the anthropomorphisms (the attribution of human form and character to Allah-SWT) of their predecessors and turned towards Mu'tazilite positions.

Traditionalists, including Ash'ariyyas, affirmed the reality of Allah’s (SWT) eternal attributes, which they said were neither identical with his Essence (Zaat – Unity)nor distinct from it.

The issue of ‘Quran as creation’ was part of the issue of divine attributes. The Mu'tazila denied that Allah’s (SWT) words were eternal and affirmed that the Qur'an had to be created. This idea was accepted by the Khawarij.

However, the bulk of the traditionalists, including Ash'ariyya, rejected this view, arguing that one could not describe Allah’s (SWT) speech as created because this would mean that Allah (SWT) was subject to changing states. Speech (kalam) was one of Allah’s (SWT) eternal attributes, and the Qur'an, being His word, could not be said to be created or uncreated.

Some early Shi'a theologians like Hisham ibn al-Hakam (d. 816 AD/200 AH), developed a more complicated version of the latter argument, saying that the Qur'an, the word of Allah (SWT) could not be described as creator, created or uncreated, because an attribute, being an adjective, could not have another adjective predicated to it. Similarly, one could not say about Allah’s (SWT) attributes that they were absolute or contingent.

The vision of Allah (SWT) was also debated under Kalam. Whether Allah (SWT) could be seen in Hereafter. The Mu'tazila rejected it and their opponents affirmed it. Issues like ‘limits of faith’, the everlasting states of hell and paradise, the nature and limits of Allah’s (SWT) knowledge, will and power; all were debated under kalam.

Later, some philosophical themes were introduced into kalam, like the nature and classification of knowledge and the science of movement, bodies and things. Kalam was further widened to discuss other sciences, like biology, psychology, chemistry and different logics. However, in essence, Kalam essentially dealt either with attempting to justify religious beliefs to reason, or with employing reason to draw new conclusions and consequences from these beliefs.

Traditionalists had always suspected that the 'reason' being referred to was in fact the suspect intellect of infidel heretics; why else would a believer want to drag the articles of faith in front of the court of human reason? This contention is good when a person has developed strong faith in Islamic principles. But what about those who need counseling on Islamic issues. What about the new converts. What about Da'wa? We need to explain that Islam is the only truthful religion on Earth. Muslims have been involved in polemics right from the start. If we had not taken the assistance of Kalam (debate), Islam would not have spread in the world.

Ash'ari brought to kalam a trenchant skepticism that had a healthy impact on the field of rational argument. This skepticism was carried to great lengths by al-Ghazali, who used it to demolish the confused Neoplatonism of the Hellenizing philosophers. This approach had the potential to contribute much more to the advancement of knowledge than the dogmatic reiteration of philosophical theses, but that potential was not realized by Kalam practitioners because they spent their energies in demolishing their opponents' arguments than in constructing viable alternatives.

The decline of Kalam is attributed to many factors. First, there was the rift that developed between kalam as a discipline and philosophy proper.

Kalam was also undermined by the rise of pro-traditionalist tendencies within the discipline itself. It was difficult to reconcile vigorous rationalist discourse with the traditionalist position, which discouraged questioning in many key areas. The resurgence of traditionalism under Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and subsequent revivals under Ibn Taymiyyah and his disciples was anti-kalam, rejecting not only its theses but its methods. Ash'arite and Maturidi scholars tried to contain the traditionalism tide during fifth to eighth centuries AH (eleventh to fourteenth centuries AD, but they failed to stem this tide. The resurgence of neo Islamic movements like Salafism and their associated groups,further weakened the right approach to Kalam. Now all debates under Kalam are restricted to the view points of dominating sects like Salafis and Shais.

With all these powerful forces deployed against it, the decline of 'right kalam' was inevitable. The early schools of kalam all became extinct, but traces of their teachings remain embedded within the teachings of the main schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

The two main Shi'a schools (the Ithna 'Ashriyya and Zaydiyya) have inherited some aspects of Mu'tazilite rationalism and doctrines. Shi'ism has also been more successful and more reconciled to philosophical discourse.

The Hanafi school of thought became closely associated with the Maturidi school of kalam.

The Shafi'i school of thought adopted Ash'arism as a general rule.

The Maliki school of thought, also adopted Ash'arism as a general rule, but with less enthusiasm.

The Hanbali school of thought favored an anti-rationalist and anthropomorphic position distrusting 'kalam' altogether.

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