KALĀM, meaning ʿilm al-kalām (the science of Kalām), is one of the branches of Islamic religious science. The common use of the word kalām is word, words, or speech. The *Koran is called kalām Allāh, i.e., the speech of God, and so, it was suggested, ʿilm al-kalām is "the science of the word [of God]." The exponent of Kalām is called mutakallim (lit. speaker, pl. mutakallimūn). The Hebrew designation ha-medabberīm and the Latin loquentes are equivalent to mutakallimūn.
The term Kalām, which represents the use of dialectics in theology, probably has antecedents in Greek (as derived from logos or dialexis) and Syriac (as derived from both mamlā, i.e. dialexis and mamlūt allāhūtā, i.e., theology). Kalām is usually translated as "theology," although this rendering is inaccurate, and it is best to use "speculative theology." The theological arena in Sunnite *Islam consisted not only of the Muʿtazilite mutakallimūn, who used logical argumentation, in order to prove some of the principles of religion (= ʾuṣūl al-dīn), but mainly of traditionalist theologians, who were, and still are, the central trend of Islam. While Kalām gives precedence to human reason (= ʿaḳl) in the process of perceiving God and the world, Islamic traditional theology declares to draw its authority solely from divine revelation and tradition (= naḳl) and the teachings of the ancestors (= salaf) of the Muslim community. It should be noted, that even the Muʿtazilite mutakallimūn could not be considered pure rationalists, because they rely to some extent upon divine revelation.
Kalām is commonly identified with two rival schools in Sunnite Islam: the Muʿtazila, flourished as two separate schools in *Baṣra and *Baghdād from the first half of the 8th century until the middle of the 11th century, and the Ashʿariyya, founded in Baṣra in the first half of the 10th century. The eponym of the Ashʿariyya, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935) was a former Muʿtazilite, who used the rationalistic tools of the Muʿtazila in order to defend the doctrines of traditional Islam and to defeat the Muʿtazila. Another important theological school is the Māturīdiyya-Ḥanafiyya, probably founded in central Asia in the 11th century.
The beginning of Kalām is by all means connected to the Arab conquests of *Iraq and *Persia in the 7th century, when the relatively young Muslim community came into contact with Hellenistic philosophical thought, both Christian and non-Christian, and with other religious doctrines, mainly Mazdaean and Manichaean. Public debates with holders of well-established faiths increased the need to use various rationalistic tools in order to defend Islamic doctrines and articles of faith (ʿaḳīda pl. ʿaḳāʾid), whose origins are to be found in the Koran and Ḥadīth (= prophetic traditions), and to uproot what was perceived as heretical concepts (= zandaḳa), infiltrated into Islamic thought. According to al-Tahānawī (d. circa 1745): "[ʿilm al-kalām] is the science, which enables one to assert the authenticity of religious beliefs and [discredit] others by giving proofs and dispelling doubts" (al-Kashshāf, vol. 1, p. 22).
The mutakallimūn comprehended their occupation as two-fold: on the one hand, Kalām is a process of a pure intellectual speculation in search of the ultimate truth, that is "to grasp the unity of God, and study the essence of God and His attributes" (al-Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, vol. 1, p. 25); on the other hand, Kalām is a system of defense and attack. Defeating the adversary by using various dialectical instruments is the main feature of Kalām. Alongside the use of analogy (= ḳiyās), one of the prominent methods of Kalām is ilzām, which means forcing the adversary to admit heretical or absurd views, drawn from his own set of arguments.
Most of the activity of the mutakallimūn was in the inner circles of Islam, mainly against Sunnite traditionalist theologians. Nevertheless, the boundaries between the two groups were never definite. Although traditionalist scholars prohibited practicing Kalām and debating with mutakallimūn, Kalām's methods had a huge impact upon them. For example, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), who belonged to the ultra-traditionalist Ḥanbalite movement, used Muʿtazilite theses and argumentations in his dispute with the Ashʿarites about predestination and free will.
Another group challenged by Kalām and labeled as heretics were the Muslim philosophers, in spite of the resemblance between Kalām's areas of interest and that of falsafa (= Muslim philosophy). The most elaborate endeavor in that direction is Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (= The Incoherence of the Philosophers) by the Ashʿarite theologian *al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). The philosophers, on their part, attacked ʿilm al-kalām and refuted its tenets and methods, as reflected in Ibn Rushd's (= Averroes, d. 1198) Tahāfut al-Tahāfut (= The Incoherence of the Incoherence).
Main Themes in Kalām
All Kalām manuals, after introducing the sources of knowledge of God and the world, viz. human reason and divine revelation, prove the existence of God and the creation of the world by using the proof from accidents, which is based on the doctrine of atoms. According to this doctrine, reality is made up of indivisible atoms with concomitant accidents, which exist only for an instant. Therefore, in every instant God is creating the world anew; there are no intermediate causes. This Islamic occasionalism allows for creation from nothing.
A point of dispute between the Muʿtazila and the Ashʿariyya is the denial of anthropomorphism (= tashbīh). This theme is derived from numerous Qurʾānic verses, which ascribe human properties to God. The Muʿtazila denied the figurative interpretation and applied allegorical interpretation to these verses. The Ashʿariyya for their part used the doctrine of bi-lā kayfa, which means believing the Qurʾānic formulae without trying to explain them.
The question of the unity of God (= tawḥīd), which is actually a cluster of problems, such as proving the existence of God, proving the creation of the world and explaining divine attributes, set out numerous points of dispute between the Muʿtazila and the Ashʿariyya. In the question of divine attributes (= ṣifāt), for example, the Muʿtazila denied their real existence, while the Ashʿariyya stressed their independent status.
The Muʿtazila asserted man's free will, while stating that man creates his own good and bad actions, due to the power God grants him beforehand, and therefore he is liable to reward and punishment. The Ashʿariyya, on the other hand, emphasized that God, as a creator of all things, creates all human actions. Man's responsibility over his actions is maintained by using the doctrine of kasb (lit. acquisition), according to which, when God creates man's acts he also creates in him the ability to "acquire" them. Designed to provide for man's responsibility for his actions, this doctrine is not far removed, if at all, from complete determinism.
The Kalām manuals discuss in length various topics regarding theodicy, eschatology and the status of prophecy. A major issue concerns the created or uncreated character of the Koran, and whether it exists as a divine attribute from all eternity.
Shiʿite Islam embraced Muʿtazilite theses as part of its doctrine from the 9th century, so in a sense they are current to some extent even nowadays. The Ashʿarite manuals are being studied in Sunnite madrasas (= religious boarding schools) alongside the works of the traditionalists.
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