Theology in Islam

December 2020

Islam uses the term kalam (in the sense that the Quran is ‘the word of God’ Al-Baqarrah 2:75) for theology. In the Traditions the term ‘ilm (knowledge) is specially applied to the knowledge of the Quran we therefore find that ‘Ilm al-kalam is identified with scholastic theology. The word mutakallim means a theologian.

Development of Islamic theology

The first stage in its historical process was the period of the creeds however, initial they were not set out in a logical order. One of the earliest texts written on the Islamic creed is Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-akbar which summarises in ten articles the entirety of what is to be believed. The transendence of God is promient while the actions of men are seen to be completely dependent on the divine will. In the creed of al-Ash’ari (d. 935) we have a thorough exposition of orthodox beliefs.

In Islam kalam is not presented as a total synthesis of all the data of revelation, but primarily as a defensive apologetic concentrating on the various attacks of its adversaries. During the early centuries of Islam, Muslim thought encountered a multitude of influences from various ethnic and philosophical groups that it absorbed, such as the Murji’ah (those who postpone) and the Kharijites. Particularly important were treatises against heresies such as ihana and Maqalat (al-Ash’ari), Farq haynal-firaq (al-Baghdadi), and the works of Ibn Hazm (d. 1065) and al-Shahrastani (d. 1153).

The impact of Christianity and rationalsim on Islamic theology: Islam failed to identify the area of relations in the person of Allah and this caused questions as Islam became more exposed to Greek philosophy and relations with theologians of the Oriental Christian Church and their explanations of the relation of the persons in the Trinity. Muslim thought first encountered Christain theological thinking at Damascus. Some Arab Christians associated with early polemics with Muslims were Sophronius of Jerusalem (560-638), St Andrew of Crete (650-726), St. John of Damascus (676-749) and Theodore Abu Qurra (d. 825). Having failed to understand the relationship between God’s qualities and his essence they took refuge in the view that it was a theological mystery. Rationalists, like the Mu’tazalite, could not accept this verdict and Mu’tazili theologians like Abu’l-Hudhayl al-‘Allaf (d 849) tried to give a systematic presentation of their beliefs. The issue of whether the Quran is eternal or created became a significant point of contention in early Islam. Mu’tazilite doctrine held that the Quran was the created divine word while the dominant varieties of Muslim theology considered the Quran to be co-eternal with God and hence, uncreated.

The formation of orthodox Islamic theology

The orthodox Islamic theologians followed a formal logical procedure associated to a considerable extent from the physics and metaphysics of the philosophers called ‘atomism.’ Through this system they were able to prove that contingent events are not subject to natural physical causes, but are the direct result of God’s constant intervention; thus nature is completely dependent on God. It also provided a basis for their view of predestination in particular the understanding of linking qadar directly to their conceptualization of matter. Atomism was the key factor that led Ash’arites to deny both natural causality and human free-will.

Al-Baqillani (930-1013) in his Tamhid reduced the whole Ash’arite theology to a system, established the intellectual basis and arranged the defensive arguments. His statement of beliefs were accompanied with denunciations against non-Muslim sects and dissidents.

The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (d 1406) came to the view that in interpreting the Quran, only Allah knew the meaning and that it was useless for man to speculate. In his Prolegomena he described the development of kalam and absolutuely rejected all allegorical or hidden meanings in the Quran as had Ahmad Hanbal and al-Ash’ari.

There is a change of approach with the theologians al-Ghazzali (1058–1111) and Ar-Razi (1149-1209). Al-Ghazali (Iqtisad) shows a certain reserve with regard to kalam. He sought to remain faithful to the As’arite doctrine by suppresing philosophical considerations. Al-Ghazzali, some time later did put his thinking into writing in his al-Madnun but it was based on neo-platonic philosophy and not on atomism.

Increasing influence of philosophy in Islamic theology

Theology became extensively invaded by philosophy with its Muslim speculative thought. Contributors to this were al-Sharastani (1086-1153 Nihayat al-aqdam), Fakhr al-Din (Muhassal), al-Baydawi (d.1286 Tawali al-anwar), al-Iji (d.1355 Mawaqif) and al-Jurjani’s commentary (d. 1413). An active school of philosophers in Spain, including the noted commentator Averroes (1126–1198) explicitly rejected the thought of al-Ghazzali and turned to an extensive evaluation of the thought of Aristotle.

Reform movements in Islam have cut loose from the atomic philosophy and have gone back to the leadership of Ibn Sina/Avicenna (980-1037), Ibn Rushd/Averroes (1126-1198) and the Aristotlian view. However, the atomistic view was the most original contribution which Muslim thinkers made to the history of philosophy.

Orthodox scholars of the past disapproved of the science of kalām as it had obvious Hellenistic roots and did not have any basis in the sacred texts, and in fact in most instances contradicted them.

Main theological schools

Sunni Schools – mainstream Islam a) The Ash’arite; b) The Maturidite; c) The Hanbalite.

The Ash’arite: An early school founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (d. 936). In the fourth century of Hijra, al-Ash’ari’s view of the use of dialectics (reasoning) kalam was fully accepted by orthodox Islam and scholastic theology was founded. The orthodox final system was found in the phrase “without enquiring how and without making comparison.” The first element “without enquiring how” was directed against the Mu’tizilites and the second “without making comparison” was directed against anthropomorphism (tajism).

The Maturidite: Al-Ashari’s close contemporary al-Maturdi (d.333) founded a school which is still in existent and regarded as equally orthodox. The points of difference between Al-Ashari do not involve either unbelief or heresy. This theology is popular where the Hanafi school of law is followed, particularly the lands of the former Ottoman and Mughal empires, viz. in Turkey, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

 The Hanbalite: The orthodox belief of Hanbal include the view that God has many attributes and names as mentioned in the Quran and traditions and that God is One; God creates eternally and that Hell and Paradise are eternal; He believed that the people or the inhabitants of Paradise are able to see God and that God will make them see Him as their highest reward – the Beatific Vision; God’s word is eternal and therefore the Quran is uncreated.

2. Mu’tazalite Schools – characterised by rationalism two main schools 1. Basrian; 2. Baghdadian. Mut’azili theologians can be either Sunni or Shi’ites .

The emergence of this school goes back to the late 1st century/early second century AH but there are various (in some way contrary) as to how it developed. Ibn Atta Gazzal is thought to have established the school with five basic principles: 1) Monotheism: the Uniqueness of essence; 2) Justice: the almighty is just and not ruthless; 3) Promise: the almighty, has promised to reward the faithful and sinless servants and punish the guilty and sinful people 4) Moderated opinion: The one who has committted a deadly sin such as drinking alcohol or adultery is neither a believer nor infidel, debauchery is a state between belief and disbelief; 5) Promotion of virtue and prevention of bad practices. These five principle are the basis of the Kalami school of Mu’tazili but the beliefs of Mu’tazili aren’t limited to these.

3. Kharijite School – radicalism or fundamentalism/ There are no Sufis.

A Puritanical school which began in 657 when questions arose as to who should lead the community of Muslims. The Kharijites claimed that the community could only be led by those who were pious and righteous. It was deemed acceptable to overthrow a ruler whose conduct fell short of these ideals. Historically this happened when Ali was murdered in 661 by the Kharijites.

They have a highly developed doctrine of sin and are distinguished from other schools through their emphasis on good actions as well as belief. For the Kharijites the mere profession of the faith was not sufficient in itself to make a person a Muslim; the profession had to be accompanied by righteousness and good works. Muslims who did not agree with them were considered apostate. Their influence is seen today in the Saudi dynasty of Wahhabis. This ideology has been followed by the more radical Muslims (for example Usama bin Laden, Hamas, the Shia’ Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (The Muslim Brotherhood). Such extremism is fuelled by political, social and economic injustice.