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:
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 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.
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:
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.
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:
Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans