`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 locus 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, the terms “tawḥīd” (Divine Oneness) or “`aqīdah” (creed) – so absolutely fundamental to our own articulation of belief – would have drawn nothing but blank stares from the Companions of the Prophet (upon him be peace) themselves. As a community which pre-dated the development of discursive theology and its distinct vernacular, their religious experience simply did not encompass these terms or the discourse which gave them meaning.
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, paralleled the emergence of Islam 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:
The real impetus behind theology emerges out of the concrete historical experience of a community. In the case of Islam, history informed the development of theology in at least three ways: 1) it provided the initial impetus; 2) it defined the issues; and 3) it bequeathed the method.
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 deliberate religious/theological syncretism. 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 matured, 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.
This historical setting served as the backdrop for some of the most rigorous and in-depth public conversations about God ever known to humanity: 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:
In our own times, it is striking how non-doctrinaire the American Muslim community is, despite a full literacy that would allow them to engage the nuances of these debates. The occasional disputes that erupt between Salafists and ‘Asha’rites over the Names and Attributes of God notwithstanding, the traditional ilāhīyyāt debates appear to have a marginal influence on the day-to-day lives of American Muslims. In fact, when compared with the religious landscape we find described in premodern works such as Abū al-Ḥasan al-`Ash’ari’s Maqālāt al-Islāmīyyīn or Shahrastānī’s al-Milal wa an-Niḥal, our community may enjoy an unprecedented level of harmony when it comes to our beliefs about God. For the most part, we tend to avoid any disagreements over the first declaration – There is nothing worthy of worship besides God – of the Islamic testimony of faith (shahādah). Interestingly enough, the kalām debates within our community have been focused more on the second part of the shahādah, Muhammad is the Messenger of God (upon him be peace).
In the old kalām of the premodern period, the role of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) as an exemplar of a Sharī`ah (Way) which expressed Divine wisdom was taken for granted, excepting a few heterodox claims which contested the substance or finality of his prophethood. Under the new kalām of modernity – namely, liberalism – which struggles to fit aspects of the Sunnah within its framework of values, the nubūwāt (prophetic actions) have replaced the ilāhiyyāt as the center of public discourse about Islam.
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 considered far less important than what one believes concerning social issues such as gay marriage. Whereas the old kalām found Islam the “new kid on the block” stumbling’’ upon preexisting ancient debates of the cosmos, the new kalām finds Islam an “old hat,” a source of confidence on account of its former glory but perceiving it as increasingly dislocated by a changing cultural landscape. These two factors in tandem shape the contours of our public conversation about Islam: Suspicion from the dominant culture about how God is worshipped by Muslims (as opposed to which 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 – this is quite the task, to say the least!
Although debating the intricacies of pre-modern slavery and concubinage or gender and sexual identity within the Sacred Law may not come off as sublime as discussing the nature of God, we would be mistaken if we failed to recognize that the modern kalām debate 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: