An Introduction to Kalam: (Islamic Theology)
This brief treatise comprises an introduction to the study of the science of Kalam, one of the most important disciplines of Islamic knowledge. It will suffice to introduce its major branches and comprehend some of the problems it seeks to address, and then note the positions of certain scholars and schools on these problems.
In the linguistic sense, “kalam” (“speech”) denotes a word indicating a certain meaning. In its technical sense, “kalam” denotes the theoretical consideration of matters of religious creed, or theology. Ibn Khaldun said: it is the discipline comprised of disputation over creedal beliefs with rational proofs . Al-Ayhi said: Kalam is the discipline that enables one to affirm creedal beliefs by amassing arguments and repelling doubt .
The Name “Kalam”
Al-Ayhi recorded four types of etymologies for the name of the discipline, respectively claiming it is so called because of 1) its linguistic sense of speech (kalam) yielding “(dialectical) debate” (al-jadal), which is the primary tool of the discipline, much like logic is the primary instrument or bulk of philosophy ; 2) its chapter-headings, which were first titled “discourse (al-kalam) on such-and-such”; 3) its paradigmatic topic of the speech (kalam) of God the Exalted, meaning the Qur’an, which raised ancillary questions to such profusion that the discipline itself came to be named after the topic; and 4) the fact that it enabled adversarial discourse (al-kalam) in religious matters .
Numerous Names of the Discipline
Kalam gained different names corresponding to the theoretical perspective taken. As al-Tahanawi and al-Tahawi variously noted, it is also known as the science of the foundations of religion (usul al-din) and the science of theoretical consideration and deduction (‘ilm al-nazr wal-istidlal); Abu Hanifa famously called it the greatest jurisprudence (al-fiqh al-akbar). The preferred name is the discipline of unicity (‘ilm al-tawhid), in that it explained, on a Qur’anic basis, the relation between the axis of existence (God Most High, humanity, the cosmos) with reference to the two concepts of Divinely-appointed successorship (istikhlaf) and subservience (taskhir). Al-Taftazani said, the discipline related to derivative or inferential matters is called the science of rulings (‘ilm al-ahkam); and the discipline related to first principles or creedal matters is called the science of Divine unicity and attributes (‘ilm al-tawhid wal-sifat) .
Relation between Kalam and Philosophy
Certain scholars have held there to be a methodological difference between kalam and philosophy, in that the mutakallim (practitioner of kalam) admits or denies various metaphysical principles and then offers proofs in their support, while the philosopher admits no such first principles whatsoever and in their absence seeks to reason to a certain aim. For example, the mutakallim may admit the existence of God from the beginning and seek thereafter to offer proofs for His existence; but the philosopher begins with no such presumptions and only then tries to demonstratively establish the existence of God .
Ahmad Amin approximated the preceding schema in contrasting the judge (one who begins by adopting a neutral position and then follows the evidence until he reaches a verdict as to the innocence or guilt of the accused) and the defense lawyer (who from the very beginning is bound to uphold the innocence of the accused).
We should not however inaccurately suggest, regarding the philosophers, that they necessarily begin in the absence of metaphysical presuppositions, for certain philosophical schools certainly do begin from first principles—otherwise they would be seeking through trials and experimentation to affirm or deny any metaphysical postulate whatsoever.
The discipline of Kalam in fact is Islamic philosophy in that it takes the religious creeds brought by Islam as performing the function of first principles. Thus it is a subsection of Islamic philosophy distinct from that postulated by such Arab and Muslim philosophers as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina, which preferred a different method: taking as the point of departure the opinions of Greek philosophers and then seeking to develop Islamic critiques. Those philosophers aided the defence of Islam, in terms of creeds and schools and religions, by taking from philosophy and Greek logic the tools to defend them. That is, they departed from what was given in those creeds and schools (i.e., of Greek philosophy and logic) in order to arrive at what was given for them (i.e., Islam). Dr. Zaynab al-Khudayri said, “Our teacher Dr. Yahya Huwaydi called this philosophy, which blossomed into the various disciplines of law and kalam and principles of religion, Islamic philosophy, because it was established on the Qur’an and its philosophy .”
Origins of Kalam
When Islam arose, the societies of what is known as the Arab lands were comprised of mere tribes or clans. The Prophet’s Hijra to Madina acted to elevate the tribal condition, cutting tribal bonds such that the believers from disparate tribes deferred to a single order of conduct. The nascent Arab Muslim nation began in the heart of that society.
The epoch of the rightly-guided Caliphs extended the teaching of the Prophet, establishing equality among the people and ending the preferential treatment previously accorded one’s kin and the powerful. This however was not the case after the era of the rightly-guided Caliphs, when began the decadent discrepancy between the theoretical affirmation of such equality and its practical application. The ensuing social struggle took the form of internal conflict between the powerful, each of whom sought the Caliphate; the state became an instrument of despotism over common social goals. Each party of them held themselves superior in truth to the rest, and sought religious justifications to that effect. Each party moreover championed a clan’s heritage and lineage in claiming what they upheld (the Umayyads, Hashimites, Abbasids, and so on), as the partisans to the conflict strove to establish dynastic states like that of Persia (Iran).
All of this worked to augment the conditions from which the theological schools (al-madhahib al-kalamiyya) would later develop into the discipline of Kalam. The Kharijite splinter group, most of whose supporters hailed from non-Qurayshite Arab tribes, did not admit the principle that the Caliph could not be elected from non-Qurayshites or non-Arabs (they first elected the non-Qurayshite ‘Abd Allah bin Wahb al-Rasibi to be their leader). The majority of scholars recognize that the Shi‘ite sect found its intellectual roots in Persian notions of kingship and lineage, given the clear resemblance between their school’s positions and the Persian monarchical system. Likewise, most of the supporters of the Mu‘tazilite school were of the Clients (al-mawali), the children of non-Arabs who became patroned wards of the state. Likewise, the Umayyads proved the majority of the supporters of the two sects of Determinism (al-jabr) and Deferral (al-irja’), to the extent that it was said “Determinism and Deferral is the Religion of the [Umayyad] Kings” (al-jabr wal-irja’ din al-muluk). And on this single earth the general Muslim populace splintered, through these conflicts and acts, until they fashioned diverse ways of thought, schools of law, art, knowledge, tradition, and other aspects of civilization. One of these was the discipline of Kalam.
Kalam was consolidated as a discipline also through contesting outside influences. The Islamic conquests came to include diverse bodies at the social level, meaning also those of non-Islamic cultures adhering to manifold ways of thought, schools, creeds, and philosophies. Hence it came necessary to employ rational and logical methods to note the deficiencies in these creeds and philosophies and invite their adherents to Islam.
Assessments of the Place of Kalam in Islamic Thought
A ruling of general prohibition was adopted by some such as certain later Hanbalis and Sufis, including al-Suyuti (in his work Sawn al-mantiq wal-kalam ‘an fann al-mantiq wal-kalam) and al-Hawari (in his work Dhamm al-mantiq wa-ahlih), as some of them relied on a mistaken interpretation of reported enunciations of the early Muslims (al-salaf) that prohibited plunging into speculative discourse on theological matters under a principle called tafwid.
Yet tafwid does not mean silence in the face of corrupt beliefs but rather refraining from plunging into creedal matters so long as the prevailing understanding remains sound. Indicating sound creed is a righteous act, and is what prevailed during the epoch of the Prophet—peace and blessings upon him—and the rightly-guided Caliphs, Allah be well-pleased with them. When there arise widespread deviations from correct understanding, however, then Muslims are obligated to work to rectify them. This is what occurred throughout Muslim history, as whenever the early Muslims undertook to oppose false creeds. Al-Hasan al-Basri said, “None of the Salaf would mention a thing, nor would they debate it, for they were all of a single uniform mission. They only began to talk about a matter and engage in debate when people began to deny it or raise doubts about it. When people began to innovate in the religion, God raised eminent scholars to refute and debunk these innovations and deviations from the truth .
This is likewise supported in what is narrated from Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr: The orthodox community (jama‘a) follows the opinion of Malik, God have mercy upon him, that—unless it would compel someone to [vain] speech, or fearing its general influence, or something to that effect—he would not seek to avoid discussing such matters when desiring to refute falsehood and turn its advocate from its school .
The view that the early Muslims (al-salaf) refrained from engaging theological questions and opposed it is an innovation (bid‘a) of unsound basis. We can provide further examples to support this, including the narration of Ibn Taymiyya from Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, who, in his work al-Radd ‘ala al-Zanaadiqa wal-Jahmiyya, engaged in certain interpretations against what the Zanaadiqa and Jahmiyya doubted regarding the ambiguous elements of the Qur’an; and he then addressed their meaning , as is further narrated by al-Bayhaqi. This is similar to what we regard as the right position, that is, Kalam as the attempt to posit solutions or repudiations to theological problems posed. Of course these attempts are delimited by authentically-narrated articles of creed indicating what God Most High has offered human knowledge (i.e., in its limits of understanding). This true position is confirmed by Ibn Taymiyya: engaging the discipline of Kalam is permissible when verifying truth and invalidating falsehood, and otherwise when not engaged in the aim of arguing with empty proofs or expounding false positions. Ibn Taymiyya said, The early Muslims (al-salaf) and the Imams did not find Kalam objectionable in itself for the terminology it employs—such as the terms essence (jawhar), accident (‘arad), body (jism), or otherwise—but because the meanings that they express in their formulation open themselves to false, reprehensible aspects in the proofs and determinations [offered]. They are not forbidden, because these words combine together meanings both of denial and affirmation…. So if you have familiarized yourself with the meanings they intend, for instance in these expressions, and assess them with the Qur’an and Sunna such that their truth is affirmed, and that falsehood denied which the Qur’an and Sunna deny, then engage them freely. Al-Ghazali relied on a similar method in considering the “unveiling” of the Sufis, and thereby established all of that which is true. Ibn Taymiyya proceeded from this assessment in many topics of Kalam—for instance, the relation between existence and the existent, or the conjunction of Divine power and determination with human free will—in the third part of his Majmu‘ fatawa.
Imam al-Ghazali resembles this position but differed on the point that the discipline of Kalam does not yield certain knowledge (gnosis) (al-ma‘rifat al-yaqiniyya) as does spiritual unveiling (kashf) or inspiration (ilham), for it depends on (and hence is limited to) the intellect. He wrote in his spiritual autobiography: Then I commenced with the discipline of Kalam, and obtained a thorough understanding of it. I studied the works of its sound theologians, and myself composed some works in the subject. But I found it a discipline that, while attaining its own aim, did not attain mine. Its aim is preserving the creed of orthodoxy and defending it against the inclinations of innovative folk. … But in doing so they (the practitioners of Kalam) came to argue on premises they admitted to their opponents and to which they were compelled, whether following precedent (al-taqlid), or the consensus of the community, or by solely accepting the Qur’an and traditions. The majority of their argument was dedicated to laying forth the contradictions of their opponents and criticizing the logical consequences of what they admitted. But this is of little benefit with respect to someone who admitted nothing at all save logically necessary truths—so Kalam was not sufficient in my case and was unable to treat the malady of which I complained.
Determining whether Kalam is permissible, recommended, or necessary proceeds from assessing its benefit, and determining whether it is impermissible with reference to its harm. Al-Ghazali writes elsewhere that Kalam contains both benefit and harm, its specific ruling being determined by the conditions at the time.
Certain Problems Addressed by Kalam and the Positions of Certain Kalam Schools
The Imamate According to Shi‘ism
Lexically, the word “Shi‘a” means “adherent” (ansar), such that the related word “partisanship” (tashayyu‘) denotes the victory of one over another (al-intisar). Historically, the word “Shi‘a” refers to the supporters of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, God be well-pleased with him. In the sectarian sense, the term refers to the explicit conviction that the right to the Caliphate fell only to ‘Ali and his children, God be well-pleased with them. They differed thereafter as to which among his descendents had priority: the Zaydis asserted the Imamate through the third-generation descendent Zayd bin ‘Ali bin al-Husayn; the Ismailis asserted the Imamate through the seventh-generation descendent Isma‘il bin Ja‘far al-Sadiq; and the Twelver (Ithna Ash‘ari) Shi‘ites asserted the Imamate through Muhammad bin al-Hasan (known as al-‘Askari).
The Twelver Shi‘ites hold that the authority of the Imamate is one of the fundamental principles of religion that do not admit rational interpretation and therefore is not subject to independent judgment (ijtihad). Nor are ancillary matters related to it subject to such independent judgment, although they may admit rational interpretation. That is, choosing the leader (al-imam) is not achieved by election through the pledged allegiance (bay‘a) of the community (as Sunnis hold) but rather through Divine appointment and textual designation (i.e., from proof-texts drawn from the Qur’an and Sunna). The pledged allegiance is subsequent to and dependent on this Divine appointment. Shi‘ites narrate various textual proofs for this position, among them the hadith of the pond of Khumm (“Whosoever I am his master (mawla), so too ‘Ali is his master”). Likewise they advance rational proofs, including that the orthodox community—being comprised merely of a multitude of fallible individuals—is not immune from mistakes, and that mistakes in this matter of choosing the leader (al-imam) yield nothing less than chaos and social disintegration. For these reasons, among others, this matter must be effected through Divine appointment and thereby secured against the fallibility of the populace.
Given that they were Divinely appointed, the Imams are understood to be protected from error. Shi‘ites adduce both textual and rational proofs for this doctrine, including respectively God’s address to Abraham—upon him peace—that My Covenant does not include wrongdoers (Q 2:124) and the argument that the infallibility of the Imams interrupts the infinite regress of moral culpability that otherwise obtains.
Imam Muhammad bin al-Hasan (known as al-‘Askari), was hidden in what is known as the “minor occultation” (ghiba sughra), which lasted for seventy years starting in 260AH/874CE. Then began the “major occultation” (ghiba kubra), which will continue until the end of days. Shi‘ites further believe in the messianic return of the twelfth Imam in the last days, in the form of the long-awaited Mahdi.
Taqiyya refers to concealing the doctrines of a school from those who do not believe in it, or an individual’s concealing his affiliation to a school. Shi‘ites adduce in support of this doctrine the Qur’anic verse Except for one who is compelled [to disbelieve] while his heart remains content with faith (Q 16:106), and narrate from Ja‘far al-Sadiq the report “Taqiyya is of my religion and that of my fathers' ”.
The Zaydis follow Zayd bin ‘Ali bin al-Husayn, and are the Shi‘ite denomination most similar to the Sunnis. They agree with the Sunnis (against the Twelver Shi‘ites) that the question of the Imamate is a branch of religion which does admit rational interpretation and is likewise subject to independent judgment. The Twelver Shi‘ites hold their opinion to be established through express textual support, that is, authentically-narrated reports indisputably indicating the person of the Imam. Zaydis recognize texts indicating the person of the Imam but hold them to be less definitive both in their transmission and their signification, and to describe the attributes of the Imam but not specify him by name. Further distinctions between the Twelver Shi‘ites and Zaydis are logically entailed by these differences, in that the former hold that one who denies the Imamate of ‘Ali and his descendents in effect denies decisive proof-texts and so disbelieves; while the latter hold that denying these matters means rather that one has sinfully erred in judgment (but remains within the fold of faith). The Zaydis hold that ‘Ali bin Abi Talib had precedence over Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, God be well-pleased with them all, in that he had more right than them to the title of Caliph, but due to his younger age and the perilous conditions in the troubled state of the time, it is permissible to admit the Caliphate of those before him. This again is opposed to the Twelver Shi‘ites, who hold that the prior three Caliphs were flagrant usurpers. The Twelver Shi‘ites, Ismailis, and certain Zaydis affirm a doctrine of the awaited Mahdi (as opposed to the Sunnis, of whom the majority believe in the Mahdi and another party do not, but in neither case make this doctrine foundational to their Islamic creed).
The roots of the Shi‘ite conception of the authority of the Imam, and specifically that of the Twelver Shi‘ites, hearkens back to the doctrines and philosophies prevailing in pre-Islamic Persia. When Islam entered Persia it was in a state of disarray, and due to it its civilization was enriched but endured. One of the elements of Persian civilization that Islam did not abolish was the system that understood kings to have a quasi-Divine nature, and which influenced the Shi‘ite view of the Imamate (as argued by Muhammad Abu Zahra) .
The Positions Championed by the Kharijites and the Murji’ites
Lexically, “Khuruj” denotes insurrection and insubordination. The active participle “Khawarij” refers to those who rebelled against ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, God be well-pleased with him. The movement originated at the murder of ‘Uthman, God be well-pleased with him, and the allegiance pledged to ‘Ali as Caliph: Mu‘awiya (then Governor of Syro-Palestine) refused to acknowledge this allegiance owed, accusing him instead of covering over the murder of ‘Uthman. Thereafter ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya faced each other in battle (at the Battle of Siffin) and the latter would have been routed, but that ‘Amr bin al-As enjoined his forces to hoist up copies of the Qur’an on their lances (invoking the authority of scriptural writ to decide between them). Certain of ‘Ali’s supporters inclined toward seeking an arbitrated settlement between him and Mu‘awiya, but a faction rejected the possibility of subjecting legitimate authority to such adjudication. They proclaimed the slogan, “no decision save that of God!” (la hukm illa li’llah), and struck camp at Harura (by which they are also known as the Haruriyya). Refusing the outcome of the arbitration, they left (rebelled) against his authority and thus became known as the Khawarij (lit., “those who left”). They subsequently split into twenty schisms.
The most important articles of Kharijite doctrine are 1) considering whoever is content with such arbitration to be unbelievers (takfir). They anathematized ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya and ‘Uthman, all of whom accepted arbitration in matters of authority; 2) appointing the Caliph through free, valid election alone, as established by the Muslim majority (and not a group of delegates or the like). They would support the Caliph so long as he ruled in justice as upheld by the Shari‘a; otherwise, they held it necessary to remove him from power, given also the necessity of rising against permissive authorities; 3) the permissibility of non-Qurayshite Caliphs, and indeed that all contenders were equal regardless of tribal or ethnic origin-even that non-Arab claimants were preferable for they would be easier to remove from power in the event they acted against the Shari‘a. They themselves chose the non-Qurayshite ‘Abd Allah bin Wahb al-Rasibi as their leader; and 4) a radical conflation of belief and action, holding that faith (iman) necessarily yields righteous works. This in turn meant they considered the perpetrator of sins an unbeliever, without distinguishing between enormities and minor sins. Likewise they considered those adhering to opposing judgments and schools to be unbelievers. In support of such doctrines they offered the Qur’anic verse Q 3:97 (And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto God for mankind, for him who is able to find a way there. As for him who disbelieves—surely God is independent of [all] creatures), which they interpreted to equate abandoning the rite of pilgrimage—surely a sin—with full disbelief, such that any sinner becomes a disbeliever. They also cited the verse Q 5:44 (Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah has revealed: such are disbelievers) to mean that every perpetrator of sins had decided his course of action by something other than revelation and so had disbelieved.
The followers of ‘Abd Allah bin Ibad, some of whom continue to reside in Oman and northeast Africa, are known as the Ibadis; they comprise the Kharijite sect closest to the Sunnis. They distinguish between disbelief in doctrine (that is, with respect to God the Exalted proper) and disbelief with respect to His bounties (that is, restricting or denying related aspects). They held that their opponents’ judgments and schools disbelieved in the latter sense, not the former, and thus that their opponents’ persons, homes, and livestock remained inviolable to them (except for their steeds and weapons). Likewise they held their opponents’ testimony, marriage with them, and inheriting from them all to be legitimate.
The Kharijite school rested on the equation of sovereignty (hakimiyya) with power (sulta) as what yields dominion (siyada) quite resembling that of modern political thought—that is, a concept of absolute authority. However, authority yields dominion only in particular times and places. Certain contemporary Islamist groups have approximated this view, relying for instance on what they understood of the teachings of Abul-A‘la al-Mawdudi or the later works of Sayyid Qutb. ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, God be well-pleased with him, was among the first to stridently resist this approach. Responding to the Kharijite slogan “No decision [or: rulership] save that of God!”, he said, “A true word, yet they intend falsehood by it. True, [there is] no rulership save that of God, yet they claim there is no command [or: government] (imra) save that of God while people require leaders (amir), whether righteous or profligate.”
The Murji‘ites were another early sect. Their eponymous key tenet of irja’ lexically denotes “postponement” (ta’khir), for they “deferred” the requital of transgressions to the Day of Judgment. It is imperative to differentiate the position of this sect from that of certain early Companions and Followers who (responding to the conditions of their time) forbade engaging the bitter contemporaneous political struggles. In that vein they recommended “deferring” the case of grave sinners to God Most High, Who will punish or forgive them as He wills on the Day of Judgment. In the subsequent period however, there emerged the Murji‘ites, who took this notion of deferral to its limit and made it a point of doctrine. They thus held that sin does not spoil faith much like obedience does not benefit disbelief—that is, that the believer remains a believer no matter the enormities of sins he commits, just as the disbeliever remains a disbeliever no matter the righteous deeds he works. They held that faith (iman) pertains to [private] beliefs, and that one who pronounces unbelief (kufr) with his tongue and worships idols or practically adheres to Judaism or Christianity (for instance, worshipping the cross or pronouncing Trinitarian doctrine) in the lands of Islam, and thereafter dies without recanting these practices, can yet be a believer of unaffected or complete faith in the sight of God almighty, and can yet be among the Folk of Paradise.
While the Kharijites grossly conflated faith (iman) and action (‘amal), the Murji‘ites radically separated them. The correct position is that the relation between faith and action is one of union (but not absolute identity, as with the Kharijites) and distinction (but not absolute disjunction, as with the Murji‘ites).
Creatures’ Actions, Between the Determinists and Libertarians
The name of the Libertarian sect (al-qadariyya) refers to the human power (qudra) to act and choose. Some hold that it refers to the determination (al-qadr) which they deny God Most High and affirm for humans. Some writers hold them to be aptly described by their opponents as corresponding to the hadith “those who deny God’s measuring-out are the fire worshippers of this community”. The strongest opinion as to their name is that the word “al-Qadariyya” generally encompasses the Mu‘tazilites and the Jahmites and more specifically refers to the latter.
The most important Jahmite leader, Ma‘bad al-Juhani, preached his school in Iraq and was killed by Hajjaj in the uprising of ‘Abd al-Rahman bin al-Ash‘ath and Ghilan al-Dimashqi, who had been debated by ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and was spectacularly killed by Hisham bin ‘Abd al-Malik. This group radically ascribed action and volition to humans, holding that every human action occurs through a will independent from the will of God Most High. They rejected God’s prior knowledge and determining (taqdir) the occurrence of human action. Dr. Muhammad Yusuf observes, “The Libertarians took the position that humans are the ones who determine their own actions through their knowledge, facing them through their will, and enacting them through their power—and that God has no power over these works, cannot engage them in His volition or power, and cannot have knowledge of them before they occur. ” In this way the Libertarians came to ascribe the Divine Attribute of Lordship (rububiyya) to others beside God, delimiting His properly unrestricted knowledge and power.
The Jahmites gained their name through their eponymous ascription to Jahm bin Safwan. They argued that, given that God Most High is the creator of creatures’ acts, and given that He possesses unrestricted power, human power over actions is transformed into a mere instrument without volition. Jahm bin Safwan said, Indeed humans determine nothing, nor are they characterized by such ability; rather they are compelled in their actions, having no [independent] volition and no choice. It is God Most High Who creates actions for them in the same way that He does for other bodies. Actions are ascribed to them only in a figurative sense, as they are other bodies . In the following period this opinion suffused various groups associated with the Sunnis.
The Determinist school (al-jabariyya) came to be named for their fundamental tenet denying human power to act and choose. The Determinist opinion arose in Islam because the transcendental conception of God Most High holds there to be no contradiction between the abstract or general acts of God and the delimited acts of human beings. The former defines and delimits the latter, both in their generation (manifesting them in the visible world through the Divine habit that ensured the conditions of human action) and their commission (like legal boundaries manifest themselves through the various Divine commands of obligation and prohibition, to which humans ought to cleave in their actions). This school of thought conflates the acts of God with everything consequent, and so understands attributing actions to any other than Him to be ascribing Him partners in His lordship—even though this is more properly the case only with reference to the unrestricted acts of God, not the delimited acts of human beings. Their conflation in fact resembles the approach of Idealists of Western philosophy such as Hegel. The improbability of determinism in Islamic orthodoxy means that, contra certain Orientalists, it is not receptive to such Idealism.
Good and Evil, Between the Mu‘tazilites, the Ash‘arites, and the Maturidites
The Mu‘tazilite sect gained its name when Wasil bin ‘Ata’ (founder of the school) differed from his teacher Hasan al-Basri on the question of the status of a Muslim who committed grave sins. The latter held him to be a sinner but nonetheless a Muslim, while Wasil dissented to argue that he was in a station between belief and unbelief (that is, neither a believer nor a disbeliever). Hasan al-Basri commented that Wasil “withdrew” (i‘tazala) from his company, and so this disagreement led to the formation of the Mu‘tazilite school.
Mu‘tazilism is based on five creedal articles. The first two pertain to the highly transcendental conception of God they advance. 1) Divine unity (al-tawhid): Mu‘tazilites rationally interpreted all verses that could yield anthropomorphism and, in an effort to rigorously maintain the single eternity of God, denude God of all attributes other than His Essence (repudiating a distinct existence to these attributes). Thus they rationally interpret the Divine attributes as recorded in the Qur’an to be various names of the Divine essence, not attributes proper. In this sense they are also known as those who deny the attributes (al-mu‘attila), with the nuance that they only deny these attributes as they exist distinct from the Divine essence (al-ta‘til al-juz’iyy la al-ta‘til al-kulli).
2) Justice (al-‘adl): Mu‘tazilites held that the principle of Divine justice dictates that He reward the righteous with good and requite the sinner with ill, and also that He endow humans with power over their actions and the ability to choose between good and evil. For were humans compelled in their deeds, then the Divine reward and punishment based on them would be essentially unjust—and He is above such ascriptions! In order to secure Divine justice, however, they radically emphasized human freedom and so came to imply that humans create their actions.
They held further that the moral quality of actions (their good or evil) inhere essentially in them, being independent of Divine commands or prohibitions. Therefore the Legislator enjoins certain actions because of the good inhering in them and prohibits others due to the evil inhering in them, and even those people who have not been reached by revelation are nonetheless accountable to God for their actions (because the ethical status of actions is independently rationally comprehensible).
3) The Intermediate Position (al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn): The Mu ‘tazilites held that those who commit enormities are relegated to a position between that of disbelief (kufr) and belief (iman)—that is, they cannot properly be said to be disbelievers or believers, although nothing prevents calling them “Muslims” if it is specified that their repentance is yet called for. Ibn Abi Hadid said, If we take the position that those who commit enormities can be called neither believers nor “Muslims” we would prefer that he be called “Muslim” so that we may distinguish him from Dhimmis or idol-worshippers.
4) The Promise and Threat (al-wa‘d wal-wa‘id): Mu‘tazilites held that God’s promise to reward the righteous with good and requite sinners with ill to be irreversible. Thereby they also denied notions of intercession in the hereafter.
5) Commanding the Good and Forbidding Evil (al-amr bil-ma‘ruf wal-nahi ‘an al-munkar): Mu‘tazilites made rebellion against a tyrannical despot obligatory, albeit conditional on the particular circumstances of the case (contra the Kharijites, who affirmed this obligation unreservedly).
The radically transcendent emphasis of the Mu‘tazilites led them to deny the Divine attribute of speech (al-kalam) as distinct from the Divine essence, for, as a contingent characteristic of other creatures, they believed it could imply a multiplicity of deities. In this they repudiated the Christian claims that the Qur’an supported the divinity of Christ when it described Jesus, upon him peace, as the “Word of God” (kalimat Allah). They further interpreted Qur’anic references to the speech of God Most High (kalam Allah) to mean that He created that speech as He did any other thing, and thereby that the Qur’an itself is created (and thus contingent), not pre-eternal.
In keeping with these methodological and hermeneutical principles, Mu‘tazilites rejected the possibility of “seeing” God. Certain scholars understood this to apply specifically to the notion of seeing God with one’s eyes. Al-Shahrastani said, They were united in denying an ocular beatific vision in the Abode of Permanence (ru’yat Allah ta‘ala bil-absar fi dar al-qarar).
From the position that God in His wisdom acted according to certain principles, not haphazardly, the Mu‘tazilites took up the notion that it was necessary for God to act in the best manner possible. That is, given that God the Exalted only acts from His infinite wisdom, it is impossible for Him to command anything but virtue or prohibit anything but depravity. Thus both good and its superlative are necessary for God.
The Mu‘tazilites reached their positions primarily through engaging members of other religions and refuting opposing creeds, by using methodological abstractions and rational strategies derived from Greek logic. However, these techniques—in their rigor—in fact shield one from the vigor and vitality of gnosis as ordered by revelation, and cut at the very heart of knowledge of the unseen. For example, the Mu‘tazilite concept of the Divine essence can be understood as a response to the radical anthropomorphists (or corporealists), who imputed to God aspects of a body (like that of humans); but their more transcendent concept in effect severs the bond between humans and their Lord. It empties their concept of the existence of God, as in the question of Divine attributes, even while it unrestrictedly subordinates these matters to the intellect, as in the question of the ethical status of acts and others such surveyed above. They go too far also in their affirmation of human freedom, as they transform the delimited acts of human beings—which are defined by the acts of God in their instantiation and their moral investiture (takwinan wa taklifan)—into unreserved acts. They hold that humans are the creators of their own acts, but creation is an attribute of Lordship signifying that an act is performed by none other than God. Therefore they seem to imply partners in His lordship, and compromise the monotheism they otherwise strictly seek to defend. Finally, it is more proper to hold that God made the good of His actions obligatory on Himself, rather than to say He is obliged or bound in any fashion. In Qur’anic idiom, He has prescribed it for Himself (kataba Rabukum‘ala nafsih) (cf. Q 6:12).
The eponymous founder of this school is Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, one of the first to study under but then quit the Mu‘tazilites. The Ash‘arites came to comprise the largest Sunni group, including among its ranks such great scholarly giants as al-Juwayni, al-Shahrastani, and al-Ghazali.
Like the Mu‘tazilites, the Ash‘arites held that the Divine essence was transcendent and repudiated anthropomorphism. However, they understood the Qur’anic verses whose apparent sense could yield similarities between God and human beings to employ conventional Arabic figures or metaphors, without subjecting them to further speculative or abstracting interpretation. Al-Baghdadi attributed anthropomorphist interpretations to “renegades and radicals ” and al-Shahrastani considered the anthropomorphist Karramite scholars to be “ignorant fools ”. Al-Ghazali insisted one must properly understand ostensibly anthropomorphic Qur’anic expressions such as those referring to “the Hand [of God]”, which, as an equivocal expression, includes the primary corporeal sense of a limb composed of flesh and bone but also includes a metaphorical sense that is not essentially corporeal.
Ash‘arites affirmed Divine attributes as distinct from the Divine essence, including divine power, will, hearing, sight, and speech. Al-Ash‘ari held that human acts are the result of God’s creation and human acquisition (kasb), which is the conjunction of human power and Divine act. An example to elucidate this relation is the movement of a hand wearing a ring, whereby the movement of the ring is conjoined to that of the hand. Contra the Mu‘tazilites, Ash‘arites did not believe that acts are essentially good or bad, but that they receive their moral character through Divine command or prohibition. Al-Ash‘ari said that one who commits enormities is a sinning believer and relinquished to the will of God as to whether He forgive him and enter him into Paradise or whether He first requite him with punishment for his sins. He further affirmed the possibility of the beatific vision, in that every existent (including God) admits being seen. Ash‘arites posited that the Divine attribute of speech is pre-eternal in His essence, but he divided the Divine speech into two types: unlettered speech (kalam nafsi), which singularly abides with the Divine essence; and lettered speech (kalam lafzi), which is comprised of contingent letters and sounds conforming to the meaning of the unlettered speech that comprehends every injunction and prohibition. The Qur’an is therefore the uncreated speech of God but its disparate letters, colored inks, inscriptions, and vocalizations are all created in time. Finally, the Ash‘arites held that the acts of God are not bound to an underlying rationality, for that would restrict His sovereign will even in such questions as the requital of the obedient and transgressors. Rather they cite the Qur’anic verse He will not be questioned as to what he does, but they will be questioned (Q 21:23).
Various criticisms were advanced against these positions and formulations. Ibn Hazm criticized the Ash‘arite conception of godhead, arguing that their division of the eternal essence of God from His abiding attributes compromises His absolute oneness . The Ash‘arites began soundly, establishing human actions as the result of God’s creation and human acquisition; but their definition of acquisition as merely a conjunction effectively tended toward Determinism. Al-Juwayni commented that denying human power and ability is refused both by rationality and lived experience, for affirming a power without effect (as in the definitions of certain Ash‘arites) is essentially denying that power as such . The Ash‘arite position on the ethical status of acts in effect was said to undermine rationality, for by unreservedly refusing the possibility of independently discerning good (husn) or ill (qubh) they in turn deny the independent existence of good (khayr) and evil (sharr). Likewise, their position that God’s acts are not bound by revelation in an absence of wisdom is a contradictory and inadequate conception inadmissible for God, for His works are unreservedly independent and in turn complete.
The Maturidites are a Sunni sect founded by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, holding many positions in common with the Ash‘arites but differing from them on others. Much like the Ash‘arite approach to Qur’anic verses that could yield an anthropomorphic concept of God, they affirmed His transcendence while understanding these expressions by the conventional figurative meanings they had garnered in Arabic—not through some sort of speculative rational interpretation. The Maturidites recognized that the moral quality of certain works can be rationally apprehended, just as there are others whose moral quality cannot be understood except through revelation. But in every case, they hold that humans are not obliged to do good and refrain from evil until they encounter revelation. They agree with the Ash‘arites that human acts are the result of Divine creation and human acquisition, but (against the Ash‘arites) hold that acquisition is not merely conjoined with action but in fact is its very reality (haqiqiyya). Maturidites hold that those who commit enormities will not abide in Hellfire, even if they died without repenting. Al-Maturidi said, the truth about believing, habitual sinners is that their case is relegated to God Most High, for Him to forgive them if He so chooses (from His bounty and goodness and mercy) or to punish them to the extent of their sins, if He so chooses. They will not abide in the fire. People of faith are between hope and fear. Against the Mu‘tazilite rationalizing interpretation of Divine acts, al-Maturidi said, His acts obey an underlying wisdom because He is the Wise; He wills wisdom by them because He intends them, not because He is compelled to act in a certain manner. He is not bound but rather has free volition and will.
We note here that the Maturidites have the soundest solution to the issue of the scope of reason in discerning the ethical status of actions, in that they develop a variegated approach. Yet they do not clarify the nature of these acts in their two types such that one might say that the acts whose moral status does not admit rational investigation are abstracted from their particular conditions, while those whose moral quality is discernible are circumscribed in relation to their time and place.
Divine Attributes, Between Imputing Similarities and Relinquishing the Matter to God
Tashbih is the position that there are similarities (beyond analogies) between God the Exalted and His creation. Tajsim is the related position that imputes a bodily form to God. Tashbih emerged before Islam among certain Jewish and Christian sects, and then spread to certain radical sects in Muslim lands; its more prominent proponents include certain Shi‘ite groups, the Karramites, and the Hashwites. It is based on a particular understanding of those scriptural verses whose apparent meaning expresses similarities between God and creation.
The Shi‘ite extremists who took such a position include Mughira bin Sa‘id, who claimed that the one he worshipped was a man of light with a crown upon his head and limbs unlike a man, and Bayan bin Sam‘an, who maintained that the one he worshipped was a human being enveloped in light but for his face. The Karramites were named after Muhammad bin Karam al-Sajistani, who affirmed the Divine attributes but in a corporealizing and anthropomorphizing fashion. He called his followers to worship an embodied, delimited God. In his book “The Punishment of the Grave,” he described God as seated proudly upon the Throne in terms that admit movement, change, and cessation— much like he affirmed the beatific vision without securing the doctrine against its potential spatial implications. The Hashwites, finally, are those who cling to an extremely literal hermeneutic, and so insist on the apparent sense of those verses that could imply similarities between God and creation. Al-Tahanawi recorded, in his book Kashshaf istilahat al-funun, that the Hashwites clung to apparent meanings until they corporealized their theology, and further. Some assimilated them into various Sunni groups, especially the later Hanbalites, of whom we may give examples of scholars who appear to adopt the Hashwite hermeneutic; but great numbers of other Hanbalites (including Ibn Jawzi) vociferously rejected it in the fourth and fifth centuries. Ahmad bin Hanbal himself never anthropomorphized but rather urged a specific kind of relegation (tafwid), which (as practiced by certain early Muslims) is simply refusing to comment on such matters.
Ibn al-Jawzi said, “I wonder at those who call to knowledge and tend toward anthropomorphism (tashbih) by taking hadiths literally .” The interpretation (haml) here referred to includes both a specific understanding and discussion of that understanding; but maintaining the traditional approach is achieved by refraining both from plunging into that discussion or speculating on how to understand it.
One of the Sunni approaches to such questions is attributed to Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, founder of the Hanbalite legal school, and includes numerous great scholars such as Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyya, and Ibn al-Qayyim. Other appellations of this methodological group include “the Traditionalists” (lit., “the Companions of Hadith”, ashab al-hadith) and “the Folk [adhering to the way] of the Predecessors” (ahl al-salaf). The later Wahhabite school named after Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab hearkens back to this group in aspects of its method and practice.
The approach of Ahmad bin Hanbal on ambiguous matters was to refrain from commenting on them, relegating their specific interpretation to God (tafwid) in His transcendence with reference to the verse Q 3:7: None knoweth its explanation save God…. Later, Ibn Taymiyya adopted such a position of tafwid, but furthermore considered the early Muslims to have understood these ambiguous verses and hadiths in their apparent sense (i.e., he ascribed this understanding to them despite their refraining from comment). It is evident, he wrote, that when the Lord described Himself as “Knowing, Powerful”, He did not qualify His own formulation by saying its evident sense is unintended. This is because its meaning (mafhum) with respect to Him (fi haqqihi) is similar (mithl) to its meaning with respect to us. A similar hermeneutical principle obtains, Ibn Taymiyya writes, in such cases as God ascribing to Himself the creation of Adam by His Hand .
Ibn Taymiyya rejected determinism for the way it divested the sinner’s responsibility before God. He affirmed human power to act and choose, but without ascribing them the creation of their acts as did the Mu‘tazilites. One of the most enduring elements of human thought, he writes, marshalling a logical-grammatical argument, is [the causal principle by which] one who acts justly is understood to be just, one who works iniquity is understood to be iniquitous, and one who lies is known as a liar—if it is not the creature who is agent of his lies and iniquity but rather God who is the effector of those actions, that entails God be attributed with deceit and wickedness!
Ibn Taymiyya disputed the Ash‘arite position that God’s acts are not justifiable, arguing that this emptied His acts of their underlying wisdom. Rather, he said, He created creation, enjoined His commandments, and forbade His prohibitions all according to a distinct wisdom.
Ibn al-Qayyim agreed with al-Maturidi that the moral quality of certain acts is rationally discernable, yet that the reward of good and requital of ill requires revelation. He wrote, In truth, one will find no contradiction in the approach holding that acts are in themselves good and evil (like they have benefit and harm) without making this a cause of their reward and requital, which is determinable only through the commands and prohibitions of revelation. Like Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn al-Qayyim refused the position that human acts are determined in any way. Thus he affirmed human action and volition without making reference to their existence as God’s creation.
Ibn al-Jawzi differed from Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiyya in understanding potentially anthropomorphic Qur’anic verses and hadiths in terms of a metaphor that could that would be readily understood by an Arabic speaker, without finding it necessary to resort to rational speculation (for example, as one who says that the Qur’anic references to God’s “finger” is “the trace of His virtue” or that “His hand” is “His blessing”). This is the position too of Ibn Hazm, al-Ghazali, and al-Maturidi. (For a thing is taken on its face if possible; if it is interpreted, it is done so based on metaphor.)
There are two aspects to the approach of the early Muslims to this question: their theoretical understanding and its practical implementation. It is unsound to hold simply that they refused to comment on the matter, for certainly some of them did speak on it (specifically ‘Ali bin Abi Talib and Ibn Mas‘ud, in refuting innovators’ creeds). Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim were of the opinion that the early Muslims understood such verses in their apparent sense, while others (including Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Hazm, and al-Ghazali, as surveyed above) felt otherwise.