While modern scholarship may differ over the origins of the science of theology (ʿilm al-kalām) and even its historical remit, during the formative periods of Islamic thought this discipline was characterised by its rigorous adoption of dialectical paradigms and select rational and linguistic analogues for the defence, explication and synthesis of the theological doctrines of Islam. Historically, in one of its earliest derived senses the term kalām was mostly applied to denote the resort to the adversarial employment of sophisticated dialectical techniques constellated around forms of dialogue in which an opponent’s premises were critiqued through the process of reductively drawing attention to perceived flaws and logical inconsistencies perceived inherent in them. Those individuals whose repute issued from their expertise in this specific brand of dialectical theology were referred to as mutakallimūn or ahl al-kalām, and in the early historical tradition these were individuals who often engaged in debates with non-Muslim antagonists (Pines, 1997: 9-19). Over the centuries, in a broader collective sense, it was the compound termʿilm al-kalām (philosophical theology) which became synonymous with the rational explication of theological doctrines and creeds together with the array of technical discussions deemed theoretically pertinent to their synthesis. Generally, forms of scholarship which were principally concerned with the treatment of faith and beliefs were subsumed under a number of generic labels, including uṣūl al-dīn (the fundamentals of belief),ʿilm al-naẓar wa’l-jadal (the science of disputation and polemics),ʿilm al-tawḥīd (the theology of God’s unicity), and even al-fiqh al-akbar (the grand science), although the termʿilm al-kalām conjured up an approach to the treatment of doctrine and dogma in which intuitively rational theological discourses dominated. Later scholarship when referring to the focus of such discourses used the terms jalīl al-kalām, which implied a preoccupation with cardinal doctrinal issues, and laṭīf or daqīq al-kalām, whose sphere of interest was informed by rationally imbued discussions viewed as being technically less divisive, such as definitions and terminological nuances germane to cosmological and physical theory (Dhanani, 1994: 3-4).
The range of literary genres fostered under the general rubric of kalām was truly prolific: works included theological summae and super-commentaries; apologia and epistles; doxographies and heresiographies covering historical surveys of the movements and influential cynosures of kalām; polemical treatises on Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Judaism; and works devoted to fleshing out isolated theological topics. There were also theologically based treatments of exegetical, legal and ethical subjects; indeed, it was not infrequent that scholars devoted commentaries to the Qurʾān and the Prophetic traditions as a foil to showcasing theological perspectives. Some indication of the philosophical aspect and scope of kalām based topics can be gleaned from the contents of theological summae which include among their themes epistemological preliminaries; definitions of necessary and acquired knowledge; arguments for the existence of God; the originated nature of world; the theory of atoms and matter; the divine attributes; the theodicy; causality; origins of language; leadership; deserts and punishments; the inimitability of the Qurʾān; eschatology; the epistemic value of historical reports and dicta; and even topics such as human autonomy and the nature of the soul. Equally significant is the fact that a plethora of literature was generated by critiques and responses to discussions and arguments. Over the centuries, despite the exponential expansion of the discipline’s remit and coverage, the kalāmdialectical procedure remained a ubiquitous feature of most rationally based theological discourses. The field of kalām never quite matched the formal status achieved by traditions of learning such as jurisprudence (fiqh), the Qurʾānic sciences (al-qirāʾāt wa’l-tafsīr), the study of Prophetic traditions and narrators (ḥadīth together withʿilm al-rijāl) and the linguistic sciences
(al-naḥw wa-lugha), although its literary output was phenomenal. However, it remained such an important discipline not least because of the religious significance of its subject matter but also because of the dominance of its contribution to Islamic intellectual thought, to the extent that analogues gleaned from theological dialectical strategies infiltrated discussions across a range of disciplines, including legal and linguistic thought. And kalām’s impact upon the cultivation of scholastic theological thought in other religious traditions is not to be underestimated (Davidson, 2006; Hegedus, 2013).
Discussions about the origins of the literary sciences of the early Islamic tradition are always fraught with questions about the reliability and authenticity of the available sources. Chronological gaps separating the earliest archival records and the periods to which they refer present something of an obstacle to reaching definitive conclusions about the historical appearance and gestation of theological ideas (van Ess, 1991-7: 4. 320-1; Stroumsa, 1999: 16-17). It is often surmised that later authors present idealised and impressionistic views of their doctrinal beliefs, while also being predisposed to presenting prejudiced accounts of adversaries’ doctrines, especially non-mainstream groups; accordingly, corroborating such accounts is problematic given that the original doctrinal standpoints of such groups have often survived only in fragmented form. Additionally, objections are sometimes raised that even works which are dated to a specific historical period were frequently distilled from later texts, passing through sinuous processes of transmission which may have impinged upon the textual integrity of the original materials. Unfortunately, such overall concerns do tend to deflect attention from the creativity and vitality of the actual thoughts and ideas associated with early theology as so much of the classical scholarship in kalām is predicated on its being a response to and continuation of earlier discussions and debates. Despite reservations about the historical configuration of the development of early kalām, having reached maturity as a discipline over a remarkably short period of time, its intellectual achievements straddled extended periods of early and medieval Islamic thought, with succeeding periods in its history being just as fecund and illustrious as the earlier ones. Some sense of the dynamics of the discussions will be provided by a brief review of the personalities, issues and themes which feature in theological discourses.
One text which preserves an arresting variety of theological materials is the Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyīn wa-ikhtilāf al-muṣallīn (Doctrines and Differences Among Muslim Movements and Adherents), the doxography authored by Abū’l-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 324/935). Notwithstanding the fact that al-Ashʿarī is a seminal figure insofar as his contribution to the crystallisation of Sunni rational theological discourses is colossal, his text provides an indispensable survey of the principal theological movements and some of the ideas and views to which they subscribed in the context of the genesis and flourishing of kalāmdiscourses (van Ess, 2010: 1, 454-501). This is achieved in the text with admirable levels of objectivity and insight, revealing in the process the sheer scope and variety of perspectives which informed nascent theological discussions. In gauging some of the issues raised in the Maqālāt the aim here is not to provide a causal account of the disputes and debates which galvanised the early development of theological thought, but simply identify underlying currents and themes which go someway to introducing the discipline of kalām and shedding light on the character of its discourses together with the doctrines and debates which defined them. In the exordium to his Maqālāt al-Ashʿarī actually refers to his wanting to provide an objective account of the sects and movements of Islam in which he would seek to avoid the denigration of opponents on account of their beliefs. He states that such approaches were reprehensibly evident in the works of his peers, whereas he was of the view that there was little to be gained by the raptorial disparagement of one’s adversaries.
As far as explaining the genesis of theological topoi is concerned there exists a tendency in the sources to identify an axiomatic connection between early theological constructs and the political dissension and turmoil which ensued in the wake of the death of the Prophet Muḥammad in 23/632; and this train of thought is redolent in the Maqālāt. Couching his discussions in a slightly irenic tone, al-Ashʿarī identifies the disputes about the leadership of the community as symbolising the first instances of discord (khilāf) among Muslims, singling out the assassination of the third caliph ʿUthmān as being an issue over which the community remained bitterly divided (Madelung: 1997, 28 ff; van Ess, 1991-7: 4. 695-717). In the text attention then switches to a series of interrelated historical episodes and these include disagreements about leadership of the community between the fourth caliph ʿAlī (d. 40/661) and the Companions, Ṭalḥa (d. 36/656), al-Zubayr (d. 36/656) and Muʿāwiyah (d. 60/680); the Battle of Ṣiffīn (37/657), where ʿAlī and Muʿāwiya’s forces clashed; the divisive impact of ʿAlī’s decision to accept arbitration (taḥkīm), having been on the verge of victory at Ṣiffīn; the emergence of the Khārijites or seceders, formerly ʿAlī’s supporters, who deemed the acceptance of arbitration as an act of wanton disbelief (kufr) and much later the murder of ʿAlī’s son al-Ḥusayn (d. 61/680). The focus on historical events is not irrelevant to understanding the genesis of kalām: firstly, the quandaries thrown up by these tumultuous events in the early tradition witnessed theologians attempting to give apposite context to their unfolding, while also proposing solutions which might explain their occurrence in the framework of the paradigms and teachings of the faith; indeed, early theological epistles do preserve remnants of dialectical disputes about such issues, although suspicions about whether these epistles are the products of pseudepigraphy mean that reservations persist regarding their overall import for the early history of kalām. (Mourad: 2006: 8 ff; Cook, 1983: passim). A case in point is the famous Risāla fi’l-qadar (Epistle on Predestination) attributed to al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 112/728) in response to questions about predestination (qadar) raised by the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān (d. 86/705); in the Risāla al-Ḥasan conspicuously distanced himself from the doctrine of predestination, which perturbed the caliph. Suleiman Mourad has argued that the epistle is probably a product of the fourth/tenth century and was designed to muster support for the Muʿtazilite doctrine of freewill, appealing to al-Ḥasan’s status as a revered figure (Mourad, 2005: 189 ff; van Ess, 1991-7: 2. 47). Similar arguments are presented regarding the epistle on the doctrine of irjāʾ,the idea of postponement, which was ascribed to al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafiyya (d. c. 100/718) and was later associated with theologians referred to as al-Murjiʾites. It basically promotes deferring judgement on contentious theological and political issues to God’s discretion, but later encompassed other doctrines, including the indivisible nature of faith. Political episodes unquestionably serve as a cue for much more developed discussions and these are ruminated over in theologically based arguments and preserved in later doxographical sources such as the Maqālāt. Still, the dispute about origins should not deflect attention from the import of the issues and the overall intellectual vitality of the discussions they inspired.
Among the first groups mentioned in the Maqālāt are the Shīʿites and in discussing their basic doctrines al-Ashʿarī indicates that at stake in Shīʿīsm is not simply the issue of political accession, but the belief that ʿAlī and his offspring had been explicitly invested by divine right (via naṣṣ) with the spiritual and political leadership of the community (van Ess, 2010: I. 479-87). Al-Ashʿarī explains that within Shīʿism it was considered inconceivable that the Prophet Muḥammad could have passed away without designating a successor from his family or that an Imām would deliberately spurn the office of the caliphate in deference to an opponent: the notion of the infallibility of the Imāmand the recourse to dissimulation are used to reconcile such vested claims to political jurisdiction with the historical reality that political power actually lay in the hands of adversaries (Halm, 2004: 1-7; cf. Kohlberg, 1991). Intriguingly, the central doctrine of the Imāmate within Shīʿism is not derived exclusively from a rationally derived construct but is apodictically accepted as a religious truth, yet in kalām discourses the doctrine along with others which issued from it would have been expounded upon and defended by Shīʿite luminaries, where pertinent, through the use of dialectical and rationally devised strategies. This would also have been the case for Shīʿite views on an assorted range of kalām topics, including the debate about the originated contra unoriginated status of the Qurʾān; the concept of the indivisibility of atoms, and even discussions on quantum leaps, all of which are mentioned by al-Ashʿarī as he records the position taken by key Shīʿite personalities on these and sundry issues. A similar pattern is found in al-Ashʿarī’s review of the Khārijites: primary doctrinal theses are introduced, such as their justification of the assassination of ʿAlī and some inferences are made about the theological arc it provides for disagreements among Khārijites about the formal status of major sinners. Yet, having isolated doctrinal shibboleths of the various Khārijite groups, their views on a spectrum of topics and themes salient in rational theological discourses are introduced. In the Maqālāt al-Ashʿarī actually listed books which were authored by leading Shīʿite and Khārijite scholars, and it was these important compilations to which he probably had access. Similar patterns pertain for his review of the remaining movements including the Murjiʾites, the Muʿtazilites, the Aṣḥāb al-ḥadīth (traditionists), the nussāk (ascetics), and then finally the Kullābiyya or companions of ʿAbd Allāh ibn Kullāb (d. 258/854); again, basic doctrinal tenets are presented followed by the listing of viewpoints taken by scholars on doctrinal arguments and issues. The discussions are revisited in greater depth in the ensuing parts of the Maqālāt.
Traditionally defined creeds and articles of faith did furnish the contextual framework for the attendant discourses of philosophical theology yet in its strictest formulation ʿilm al-kalām’s distinctiveness was animated not only through its rationally inspired discussion of theses and constructs as applied to a wide range of theological and subsidiary topics, but also via the disputatious and reactive tone which pervaded kalāmworks. Recently, some scholars have actually argued that many of the topics of kalām were not exclusively ‘theological’ or concerned with the nature of God but rather belonged to the realm of ‘philosophical metaphysics’, suggesting that in the Islamic tradition the mutakallimūn were ‘intellectual rivals’ of the philosophers (Dhanani, 1994: 2-5). This constitutes a reasonable conclusion, although one should bear in mind that even those subjects which were deemed ‘non-theological’ had relevance within a broader dogmatic context and hence attracted the attention of the mutakallimūn. Richard Frank makes the point that as far as the theologians were concerned ‘all of the primary doctrines are held to be rationally demonstrable on the basis of universally acceptable assumptions and principles’ (Frank, 1992A: 18). Critically, all the main dominations and movements of Islam were participants in the craft and discourses of rational kalām, significantly contributing to its discourses. And over the centuries, as a diligent reading of the kalām sources will show, the ability of the discipline to sustain a steady accretion of new theological themes, many of which had their antecedents in the earlier debates and musings, allowed it to reach new levels of conceptual complexity, making the discipline increasingly relevant as an instrument of Islamic thought. The venture of kalām should not be seen as a derivative endeavour which listlessly recycles the thoughts and deliberations of early discourses, but rather it is a discipline which successfully made itself indispensable to concurrent concerns and discussions.
It might be useful at this juncture to consider the prominence of the Muʿtazilites given their importance to the development of rational theological discourses. In the words of one scholar the history of early Islamic theology ‘is primarily a history of the Muʿtazila’, a statement which was an acknowledgement of the historical importance of the set of revolutionary principles and experimental ideas which dictated their approach to theological issues and the reaction their ideas provoked among their opponents (van Ess, 1980: 53). Indeed, among all the major Islamic movements a not insignificant proportion of theological discussions together with their theoretical bases feed off and react to their distinctive brand of rational theology. In the Maqālāt, at the end of his discussion of the doctrinal creeds of the Muʿtazila, al-Ashʿarī refers to the five principles upon which their theological beliefs are founded, including tawḥīd (divine unity),ʿadl (divine justice), manzila bayn al-manzilatayn (the intermediate station between stations), ithbāt al-waʿīd(the reality of threats) and the notion of al-amr bi’l-maʿrūf (enjoining good). Within the Muʿtazilite paradigm, the doctrines of divine justice and unity were to form axial theses which defined their theology. The doctrine of divine unity was informed by a trenchant rejection of scriptural anthropomorphism, and was delicately configured around arguments for the transcendence of God. Belief in divine justice was motivated by their rejection of the idea of predestination. Still, the dominant theme which interweaves through the matrix of Muʿtazilite arguments is the idea of deference to the primacy of reason as the arbiter of truth. When used in conjunction with religious truths, humans are able to distinguish between the intrinsic qualities of good and evil. Al-Ashʿarī does not offer an eponymous classification of the Muʿtazilites into schools of thought, as was sketched for the Shīʿites and the Khārijites, who are presented as fissiparous movements, but instead he presents a select series of kalāmtopics and themes, recounting their professed opinions. Impressively, al-Ashʿarī is rarely judgmental or condemnatory in the text; he simply maintains a strict scholarly objectivity, refraining from fully disclosing his affiliations, with a few notable exceptions.
One figure whose views are mentioned at length in the Maqālāt is Abū’l-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d. circa. 226-36/840-850), who was conventionally referred to as the ‘head’ of the Muʿtazilite school in his heyday: his influence is certainly discerned in later literary sources which preserve many of his opinions, although despite his being the putative author of numerous tracts and treatises, none of his oeuvre is extant. Abū’l-Hudhayl is retrospectively identified with giving definition to the idea of five essential principles of Muʿtazilīsm, and, as van Ess points out these ‘five principles have determined the structure of Muʿtazilī theological work for centuries’ (van Ess, 1987: 224; van Ess, 2010: I. 133). It is also Abū’l-Hudhayl who is prominent among those scholars who are credited with giving further resolution to the Muʿtazilite theory of atomism, which was used to explain ‘the relationship between God and creation’ (van Ess, 1987: 226; Sabra, 2009: 205 ff). The original theory posits that the universe is made up of atoms, the smallest of which is a corporeal particle that is essentially indivisible (Sabra, 2009: 204 ff). The substances (jawāhir) of the world are formed from a conglomeration of atoms and accidents (ʿaraḍ/aʿrāḍ), which inhere in them, with the latter possessing no capacity for infinite endurance (baqā’) but rather it is God who creates and sustains them through his constant and direct intervention in the world (Dhanani, 1994: 62 ff). The corollary of the concept of atomism was that natural or efficient causality was denied among classical theologians, although, as Shlomo Pines observed despite their cosmology on atomism, freedom of human action was retained as a basic principle of the Muʿtazilite system (Pines, 1997: 32). Discussions on atomism appear to have been initially devised by the inventive Ḍirār ibn ʿAmr (d. circa. 200/815) and developed by other Muʿtazilite figures, including Muʿammar ibn ʿAbbād (d. 215/830) and Bishr ibn Muʿtamir, with remnants of Greek, Iranian, and possible Indian philosophical analogues informing the synthesis of ideas. The maturity of the constellation of discussions on atomism is reflected in the fact that the topic appears as ‘a given’ in early kalāmdiscourses (Pines, 1997: 108 ff and 128ff). The theory was even the subject of a critique by Abū’l-Hudhayl’s nephew, al-Naẓẓām (d. c. 220–30/835–45) (Pines, 1994: 11-25; Dhanani, 1994: 5 and 9). Again, the paucity of extant sources means that there is a reliance on later texts for explanations of the origins of the theory. Yet despite this, the complexity and creativity with which the theory is broached by different scholars are hugely significant both in terms of the configuration of ideas in these early periods and their impact upon later theological discourses. Significantly, Daniel Gimaret explains that it was Abū’l-Hudhayl who is credited by later sources with devising the connected notion of ‘the adventitiousness’ of substances (ḥudūth al-jawahir). Gimaret also notes that it was taken up ‘with alacrity’ by Sunni theologians (Gimaret: 1987). Indeed, over successive historical periods the notion was innovatively used by rational theologians in conjunction with suppositions about infinite regress and particularization as part of the rubric of arguments for the existence of God (Madelung, 2005: 273 f; Hoover, 2004, p. 287). On a somewhat related note, as Gimaret has commented, despite rejecting tashbīh (anthropomorphism), in the Muʿtazilite conception, it was possible for man to know God through a process of intuitive reasoning which was referred to as ‘inferring the invisible from the visible’ (qiyās al-ghāʾib ʿalā al-shāhid), by which the attributes, acts and even the very existence of God could be logically inferred by reference to the physical world and its constituents (Gimaret: 1987; cf. Frank, 1992A: 31-2). And later Sunni rational theologians in their discussions avidly assimilated this construct, although disputes about its pertinence as an analogue for proffering inferences about the Almighty resonated in later theological texts. Furthermore, rational theologians may well have enthusiastically embraced such forms of reasoning, but within arch-traditionist discourses there were individuals who fervently objected to the use of such analogues. There is a misleading tendency to attribute the efflorescence of Muʿtazilite thought to the political ascendancy and authority it exercised in the third/ninth century, especially during the period of the miḥna (inquisition), when their influence was brought to bear on the adoption of the doctrine of a created Qurʾān, but even following the decline in their political clout, an abundance of theological ideas and theoretical frameworks to support them is attested in the literature of subsequent centuries (Shah, 2011: 314 ff). The Basran Muʿtazilites could boast figures such as al-Jubbāʾī (d. 303/915), who was al-Ashʿārī’s former mentor, and his son Abū Hāshim (d. 321/933), whose followers were known as the Bahshimiyya. The views and musings of early Muʿtazilite protégés were preserved in the later works of scholars such al-Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), and his students, Abū Rashīd al-Naysābūrī (fl. 5th/11th century), Abū’l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d. 426/1044) and Abū Muḥammad Ibn Mattawayhi (fl. 5th/11th century). Some idea of the magnitude and wealth of materials from the formative periods can be gauged from a review of the contents ofʿAbd al-Jabbār’s voluminous Kitāb al-Mughnī fī abwāb al-tawḥid(Enrichment in the Branches of Divine Unity). Despite issues surrounding the quality of the printed edition and its incompleteness, and its author’s abstruse style, it is a veritable encyclopaedia of philosophical theology. Yet, in reality it represents just a fraction of the impressive Muʿtazilite literary legacy.
In the formative periods of Islamic theological thought the sense of purpose with which Khārijite, Shīʿite and Muʿtazilite scholars defended doctrines is in some respects obscured by the prominence of Sunni rational discourses. In theFihrist, the bibliographical-biographical compendium composed by Ibn al-Nadīm (d. 380/990 or d. 393/1003) tantalizing lists are provided of theological works authored in the third/ninth century. Thus, for example Hishām ibn al-Ḥakam (d. c. 179/795-6) is enumerated among Shīʿite luminaries and ascribed among the many works he is said to have composed are critiques of the natural philosophers, the dualists, and the Muʿtazilites; furthermore, he is credited with the authorship of several expositions which treat a diversity of topics such as the concept of al-imāma, arbitration at Ṣiffīn, the epistemology of narration, the temporality of matter, and even a work covering Aristotelian theory (van Ess, 2010: 210-14). The gamut of topics subsumed within theologians’ works intimates an interest in any area which was deemed pertinent to the theoretical and conceptual thrust of their own kalām discourses, whether it related to the refutation of the doctrines of an adversary, or grappling with broader philosophical constructs. Political themes retained their importance: one doctrine of compromise on the subject of the caliphate developed by Zaydīte and Muʿtazilite theologians was based around the idea that while ʿAlī was the preferred legitimate caliph, the rule of both Abū Bakr and ʿUmar could be deemed valid (imāmat al-mafḍūl), and this idea was apparently the subject of a refutation composed by Ibn al-Ḥakam; it also featured among the repertoire of writings authored by a talented Shīʿite theologian Abū Jaʿfar al-Aḥwal, otherwise known by his sobriquet, Shayṭān al-Ṭāq, who also authored a study of the imāma. Ibn al-Nadīm reports that such was the pre-eminence of al-Ḥasan ibn Mūsā al-Nawbakhtī (d. circa. 300/912) that he was claimed by the Muʿtazilites as one of their own, despite his Shīʿite affiliations. He is described as being both a theologian and a philosopher who authored works which reflected his expertise; one of the texts he composed, al-Ārāʾ wa’l-diyānāt (Convictions and Faiths), part of which has survived, confirms the extensive historical sweep of surveys. It was heavily drawn upon by the Sunni traditionist and Ḥanbalite scholar Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200) in his Talbīs Iblīs (Deceit of Satan), a text which casts a subjective eye over the mischievous exploits and excesses of scholars and systems of belief and practices. Most prominent among al-Nawbakhtī’s works is a survey of Shīʿite groups (Firaq al-Shīʿa) which details their doctrinal affiliations and specific religious convictions, listing doctrinal positions taken by both moderate and extreme sects, the latter being referred to as the ghulāt (van Ess, 2010: 1.220-60). And indeed the profound level of Shīʿite participation in kalām discourses during these formative periods can be gauged from a review of the contents of the Awāʾil al-maqālat (Primary Creeds) composed by al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 413/1022). When discussing the Khārijite groups, Ibn al-Nadīm explains that with regards to their works on Kalām, enumerated among their ranks are senior personalities who bequeathed no written books, seemingly lamenting the fact that their legacy is often ‘hidden and protected’. Works attributed to Khārijite authors betray an avid interest in the range of rational themes which so captivated peers and predecessors among the other theological movements. Ibn al-Nadīm records that al-Yamān ibn Riʾāb authored refutations of the Murjiʾites and Muʿtazilīte teachings on qadar, demonstrating the level of participation in the dialectical discourses by all parties (van Ess, 2010: 1, 118-120). While, the Khārijite Yaḥyā ibn Kāmil authored a work entitled Kitāb al-Tawḥīd wa’l-radd ʿalā’l-ghulāt wa-ṭawāʾif al-Shīʿa (the Doctrine of the Unity of God and a Refutation of the Extremists and Groups among the Shīʿites) (van Ess, 2010: 1, 121). The attention paid to polemical treatments of non-Muslim faiths is also prominent to the extent that even in instances where scholars were preoccupied with defending their own doctrines and ideas in the face of criticism and review, considerable intellectual energies were dissipated on apologetic treatises on the dogma and doctrines of Christianity, Judaism and Manichaeism.
One figure whose reputation is tarnished in the biographical sources, but whose works are emblematic of the reactive thrust of kalām discourses, is Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq (fl. early third/ninth century) (Thomas, 2002; van Ess, 2010: 1.167-79). Despite ambiguities surrounding his life, his alleged beliefs, and disputed links with Muʿtazilism and Shīʿism, living sometime in the mid-third/ninth century, he gained quite a reputation as freethinker, skeptic and maverick. He was undoubtedly a proficient theologian and may have been ostracized for his heretical or unconventional views. There do exist references to his professing dualist beliefs, although he is paradoxically said to have composed a critique of such doctrines; it has been claimed that such was the objectivity that he applied when studying non-Muslim groups that his detractors misconstrued his impartiality as being indicative of his sympathies and convictions (Thomas, 2002: 11). Among the repertoire of works credited to him are several critiques of Christian doctrine, refutations of Judaism, Magians, Manichaeism, and he composed a doxography of sects. A much more extensive collection of works is attributed to a figure said to have been heavily influenced by al-Warrāq, namely Ibn al-Rawandī (fl. third/ninth century). Again, traditional biographies emphasize his expertise and competence as a mutakallim, yet excoriate most of his literary legacy, denouncing him for his heretical views (Stroumsa, 1999: 37-46; van Ess, 2010: 190-95). He authored some twenty different works, including texts on the imāma, khalq al-Qurʾān, a refutation of the Muʿtazilite concepts of threats, and the notion of the intermediate station, and two works on narration, the first of which apparently tackled issues surrounding the authority of reports transmitted on the authority of a single narrator, while the second defended the notion of tawātur (broad authentication issuing from multiple transmission), a topic which traditionist scholars (ahl al-ḥadīth) were to revisit in the context of ḥadīth authentication. Despite the tendentious nature of the biographical sources which mention him, one does detect a somewhat tempestuousness trait to his scholarship for he was the author of works such as the Kitāb al-zumurrud (the Sublime Emerald) and the Kitāb al-marjān (Book of Pearls), against which he subsequently authored refutations, although placing his works and ideas within a fixed historical framework remains illusive (Stroumsa, 1999:38; cf. Lindstedt, 2011:131 ff). He also wrote a work entitled the Dāmigh (the Demolisher), which is reported to have sneered at the composition of the Qurʾān. Glimpses and references to these works are strewn across classical theological literature. So incensed were the Muʿtazilites regarding his critiques of the school, that one of their luminaries, al-Khayyāṭ (d. ca. 300/913) responded by composing the Kitāb al-intiṣār wa’l-radd ʿālā Ibn al-Rawandī (The Book of Defence and Repudiation of Ibn al-Rawandī) in reaction to his Kitāb faḍāʾiḥ al-Muʿtazila (the Doctrinal Disgraces of the Muʿtazilites). Ibn al-Rawandī’s work was actually composed in response to a treatise by al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/868-9) entitled Faḍāʾil al-Muʿtazila (the Virtues of the Muʿtazilites) which vexed Ibn al-Rawandī and it is the text he authored from which al-Khayyāṭ adduces passages in the course of his withering critique (Nader, 1957). In the text Ibn al-Rawandī takes issue with what he perceived to be the indiscriminate criticism of the Shīʿites, and argues that there were graver errors to be discerned in the thoughts of the Muʿtazilites, before rebuking their propositions. His mastery over the technicalities of his opponents’ dialectical discourses can be witnessed in his critique of the concept of tawallud (generated secondary acts), a corollary to the theory of atomism, which various Muʿtazilite figures such as Abū’l-Hudhayl were at pains to clarify. The tenor of the discussions in the Intiṣār provides a good indication of the strength of the disagreements not only between the Sunni camps and their ideological opponents, but also among the various non-Sunni groups, among whom rational theological debates were equally frenetic. Subjects pored over in al-Khayyāṭ’s Intiṣār and al-Ashʿarī’s Maqālāt provide a firm indication of the cut and thrust of kalām discourses during the course of the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries. One might tentatively conclude that the entrenched nature of the defence and clarification of theological positions during these periods betrays profounder stages of gestation through which discussions had already passed. Incidentally, Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʾī composed texts which refuted Ibn al-Rawandī, Ibn Kullāb and his Muʿtazilite cohort, Abū’l-Hudhayl, who was, according to heresiographical sources, berated by his Muʿtazilite peers for postulating the terminal status of heaven and hell, which classical heresiographers insisted was an inevitable consequence of his thesis on the finiteness of contingent matter. The prevalence of refutations in these periods and beyond gives some indication of the surfeit of literary works in which arguments and counter-arguments were articulated among the various proponents of kalām. It marks a terminus a quo for the development of more intricate discussions and deliberations which made the discipline appear somewhat casuistic and rarefied, being insulated from the seemingly uncomplicated credal statements of the scriptural sources; however, its advocates would argue that it remained an indispensable instrument for the intellectual expression and defence of doctrine.
The elaboration of what is conventionally presented as rational Sunni theological doctrine is to a large degree defined through the dialectics of reactive and generative discourses: doctrinal positions are formulated and anticipated in response to and in light of credal statements and rational theological theses already in circulation; in specified instances it is a case of proto-Sunni orthodoxy defining its doctrines in response to views and positions with which it disagrees. Some have contended that the Sunni theological position should not be viewed as being a default one, but one among a brand of conflicting rational ideologies, although such a view underestimates the sheer impact and influence of Sunni rational discourses and their historical saliency (Reinhart, 2010: 25 ff). In the introductory outline provided in the Maqālāt al-Ashʿarī refers to the community of Muslims being divided into ten theological groupings, although eleven are actually listed. The mainstream Sunni groups are separately represented by the traditionists or ahl al-ḥadīth and the companions of ʿAbd Allāh ibn Kullāb (d. 258/854), the progenitor of Sunni kalām discourses. The fact that the Maqālāt highlights the doctrines of Ibn Kullāb, even taking the opportunity to mention his views on the divine attributes in a section which weighs up Muʿtazilite views, is a reflection of the pre-eminence of his contribution to the kalāmdebates (Watt: 1990: 306; van Ess, 199-96:4, 200-2; van Ess, 2010:). Ibn Kullāb came to prominence due to the fact that his whole rational system of theology was based on a critique of key Muʿtazilite doctrines, providing a substrate from which later Sunni dialectical discourses could emerge and it is clear that even in the late fourth/tenth centuries the Kullābiyya continued to be active as noted by the geographer al-Muqaddisī (d. 390/1000) (Collins, 2001: 34f). During the period of the miḥna, Ibn Kullāb promoted the thesis that the divine attributes existed hypostatically within God’s essence, by which he sought to eviscerate the Muʿtazilīte concept of a created Qurʾān; the position led him to endorse the proposition that God’s speech existed eternally (van Ess: 98-103). Ibn al-Nadīm describes Ibn Kullāb as one of the Hashawiyya, a pejorative term used to denote crude anthropomorphism, and it is alleged that he used to assert that ‘God’s speech is God’ (‘kalām Allāh huwa Allāh’). The allegations of anthropomorphism may be a subtle way of criticizing his avowal of the distinctness and reality of the attributes, although another contemporary writer, al-Khwārizmī (d. 387/997), in his Mafātīḥ al-ʿulūm (the Essentials of the Classical Sciences), which offers a summation of the traditions of learning in the fourth/tenth centuries, also uses the term Ḥashwiyya when referring to the Kullābiyya and other proto-Sunni groups. Ibn Kullāb was also associated with the idea that accidents cannot inhere in the divine essence, which was heavily criticized by arch-traditionist camps for in their view it undermined a much more personal conception of God as predicated in the scriptural sources. Ibn al-Nadīm credits him with the authorship of works such as a refutation of the Muʿtazila (al-Radd ʿalā al-Muʿtazila), a work on the divine attributes (Kitāb al-ṣifāt) and a treatise on human agency (khalq al-afʿāl), but it is evident that the brand of dialectical theology which he promoted, along with his peers, al-Muḥāsibī (d. 243/857) and al-Qalānisī (fl. third/ninth century), was to rouse the suspicions of traditionist scholars (Gimaret, 1989, 227 f). If Kullābite theological thought, and the Ashʿarite tradition which followed in its wake, owes its origins to the attempts to counter Muʿtazilite doctrines, then the very brand of religious orthodoxy associated with the aṣḥāb al-ḥadīth was to be one which eschewed the rational and dialectical defences of dogma and the theses generated by such expressions of faith. The dissonance between the arch-traditionist camps and those of the Sunni rational theologians was not confined to the formative years but continued over extended periods of Islamic intellectual thought and engendered a rich stream of literature which matches in sophistication and measure the theological treatises and texts which were composed against ideological opponents in the non-Sunni camps. It has been conventional to associate the flourishing of Sunni rational discourses with the work of Abū’ l-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī for he became the eponym of one of the most dominant schools of scholastic theology in Islamic thought. Although in many ways his achievements industriously built upon the structural edifices of the accomplishments of figures such as Ibn Kullāb and al-Qalānisī, through his own intellectual legacy he left an indelible print on the course taken by classical and medieval Islamic Sunni theological thought; it was described by Frank as representing the most ‘important and influential tradition of systematic theology in Sunni Islam’ (Frank, 1991: 88). Any attempt to appreciate the historical construction and elaboration of kalām within Sunni discourses needs to bear in mind the magnitude of his contribution to its synthesis. Biographical reports suggest that he had been a confidant and leading luminary among the Muʿtazilites, being a disciple of the outstanding theologian al-Jubbāʾī. It is reported that having disagreed with his mentor over the notion of whether God has to do what is best for man (al-aṣlaḥ), he renounced Muʿtazilism and spent the rest of his career perfecting a rationally inspired critique of Muʿtazilite doctrine. While in the Fihrist, Ibn al-Nadīm speaks of his repenting for having professed the doctrines of ‘divine justice’ and ‘the created Qurʾān’. It is claimed that al-Ashʿarī ascended the pulpit, duly pronouncing that he was severing all links with the Muʿtazilites and that ‘exposing their fallacies and deficiencies’ was to be his goal in life. It was through his works and ideas that he ultimately animated groups of Sunnī theologians who synthesized and propounded his legacy, constructing a school around his theological teachings. It is unfortunate that only a small number of his works has survived. Some idea of the reaction his work provoked can be gauged by the fact that the Basran grammarian, al-Rummānī (d. 384/994), a renowned Muʿtazilite, who, notwithstanding his impressive oeuvre of grammatical compositions, authored a number of theological treatises which offered critiques of al-Ashʿarī’s doctrines, although interestingly he even composed texts which berated theses advanced by influential Muʿtazilite scholars.
In the Maqālāt al-Ashʿari precedes his brief discussion of ʿAbd Allāh ibn Kullāb with a section offering a conspectus of the creeds of the aṣḥāb al-hadīthand ahl al-Sunna, which is markedly formulaic in terms of its countenance. And it is striking that at the end of the section on creeds al-Ashʿarī pronounces ‘and we profess and affirm all of their doctrines that we have just recounted’, apparently nailing his theological allegiances to the ideological mast of aṣḥāb al-ḥadīth (al-Ashʿarī, Maqālāt, 1. 350). The inclusion of this summary, particularly given its culminating statement, was deemed conspicuous and it was even speculated that this credal segment might have been inserted subsequently into the Maqālāt in order to flaunt the traditionist credentials of al-Ashʿārī and to appease arch-traditionists with whom he was seeking reconciliation. However, it should be noted that there is a cohesive consistency to the structure of the Maqālāt in that the unfolding of the work’s contents is anchored to its introductory pitch: the idea that the text might have been composed while al-Ashʿarī was still a Muʿtazilite is improbable as there are additional junctures in the text at which he aligns himself with traditional beliefs. One of his surviving texts which is frequently identified with the orthodoxy of the traditionists and was reported to have been one of the last works he authored, al-Ibānā ʿan uṣūl al-diyāna, opens with a statement in which al-Ashʿarī declares himself to be a staunch follower of the brand of religious traditionalism espoused by Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal; in the text he situates his doctrinal tenets within the vector of traditionally defined creeds. Yet even a circumspect review of the Ibāna’s contents and the structuring of its arguments reveals the adeptness and precision with which he was able to build his treatment around a confluence of traditional as well as rational motifs and strategies. From a more general perspective what is important in this context for the significance of kalām and its development are the tension and hostility that the resort to dialectical methodologies and the doctrinal theses generated by them provoked among the more conservative scholarly circles. Indeed, even the nature of al-Ashʿarī’s doctrinal loyalties was disputed by classical scholars: some claimed that there were two modes to his life, namely a Muʿtazilite and post-conversion position; other speculated that there existed several complex layers to his theology following his conversion and enshrined in the Ibāna was an expression of his ultimate doctrinal affiliation. Namely, that he was reconciled with the orthodoxy of the pious ancestors and traditionists, renouncing the truculent rationalism not only of his erstwhile colleagues from among the Muʿtazilites, but also the doctrinal paradigms and methodologies supported by rational Sunni theologians such as Ibn Kullāb, although the countenance of the Ibāna does not support such a thesis. For example, notwithstanding his proficient use of dialectical techniques in the Ibāna, he refers to God’s being not only the creator of all acts, but also the creator of the effective efficacy though which an act is actualized. In the Ibāna it is stated that ‘no one has the capacity to do something prior to God’s actualization (of the act)’, and one finds a similar statement in the Maqālāt, in which it is pronounced that ‘no one has the capacity to do something prior to His/his actualization of it (act)’. The notion that man has no immediate power over the object of his actions smacked of ultra-determinism and certain traditionist scholars recoiled at the notion; it became a standard Ashʿarite standpoint, although interesting variations and explanations of the issue pervaded the works of many later Ashʿarite scholars; the deliberations were later qualified through a theory of acquisition (kasb). This would suggest that the statements expressed in the Maqālāt are commensurate with post-conversion views, underpinning a unity in his theological doctrines which is consistently maintained in compositions such as al-Maqālāt, al-Ibāna and his other works, including the Risāla ilā ahl al-thaghr (Epistle to the People of the Frontiers),al-Lumaʿ(the Resplendent) and the Ḥaththʿalā al-baḥth (Encouraging Rational Theological Enquiry), otherwise known under the title Risālat istiḥsān al-khawḍ fī ʿilm al-kalām (Frank, 1988; McCarthy, 1953). With regards to the last two works, the Lumaʿoffers a dialectical examination of themes such as affirming the existence of a creator; divine will and the Qurʾān; the Ḥathth ʿalā al-baḥth, which serves as an apologetic treatise, argues for the mandatory importance of kalām (Frank, 1991:141-43). Frank argued that one could certainly discern a conceptual unity among these post-conversion works, including the Ibāna (Frank, 1991: 171-5). In this respect much has been made of al-Ashʿarī’s use of the term bi-la-kayf(without qualification) when broaching questions about the divine attributes and acts, for example; Frank does argue that the term, which has a currency among arch-traditionists, did mean ‘without comment’ but he contends that when al-Ashʿarī and the later Ashʿarites used the phrase they intended something much more subtle: namely, that ‘one does not ascribe to God ‘characteristics and properties of creatures’ (Frank, 1991: 155; idem, 1992A:24-5). The suggestion is that the use of the term should not be seen as a concession to the arch-traditionists on the part of al-Ashʿarī or his later followers.
The ahl al-ḥadīth and the sub-groups loyal to them such as ahl al-ẓāhir (the literalists) are generally presented as fostering an aversion to speculatively derived kalām based strategies for the defence of faith. This is the case for the Ẓāhirites, who are historically linked with Dāwūd ibn Khalaf al-Ẓāhirī (d. 270/884), and who took their name from an approach to law which necessitated the rejection of analogical reasoning, but whose theological perspectives were closely aligned with those of the traditionists. It should be noted that the valid point has been made the Ẓahirī approach to law is ultimately a form of rationalism (Sabra, 2007: 10-11). Their most famous adherent was the Andalusian jurist Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064), who was the author of a celebrated doxography entitled al-Fiṣal (faṣl) fī ’l-milal wa’l-ahwāʾ wa’l-niḥal, in which he rails against Ashʿarite doctrinal views with stinging rebukes, revealing the overwhelming contempt which its author has for Ashʿarism and its theological expressions of orthodoxy, although Muʿtazilite, Shiʿite, and even Khārijite theological views are assailed with equal disdain. Similarly, members of the group referred to as the Sālimiyya, who were devotees of Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Sālim and his son Aḥmad, both of whom incidentally studied under the tutelage of the mystic Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 282/896), were ardent critics of Ashʿarī, and composed diatribes against him and even Ibn Kullāb and later Ashʿarites; on the question of the Qurʾān they were advocates of the view that the physical letters and sounds of the Qurʾān had existed eternally (azaliyya). Remaining with the dynamics of internal-Sunni tensions, in the medieval periods heresiographers devoted much attention to debating the beliefs of the Karrāmites, who were followers of Muḥammad ibn Karrām (d. 259/869) (van Ess, 2010: 1, 625 f). He led an ascetic Sunni movement but, along with his later followers, is frequently derided in the works of the Ashʿarites and other Sunni theologians for his crude anthropomorphism and theological views. None of his original works is extant, although quotations from a book he authored on the ‘Punishment of the Tomb’ do appear in the heresiographical literature. The author of the well-known heresiographical text al-Farq bayna al-firaq, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 429/1037) recounted debates he had with figures who were members of the movement and even later medieval writers speak of the egregious views of later adherents of the Karrāmiyya movement and this very fact would appear to indicate the protracted character of disputes among the various groups (cf. van Ess, 2010: 1, 667-716 for a review of al-Baghdādī’s influence).
The school of theology associated with the legacy of Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/944) has much in common with Ashʿarism: firstly, it was formulated around a rationally defined defence of traditionalist Sunni orthodoxy; secondly, notwithstanding the strength of the theoretical bases of its theological framework, it was later figures who constructed an historical school out of al-Māturīdī’s legacy; thirdly, the criticism of Muʿtazilite dogmatic views preoccupied much of its early discourses. However, it also took positions on a range of issues which differed from standard Ashʿarite standpoints such as the eternal nature of the divine act (ṣifāt al-afʿāl) and al-Māturīdī used the presence of evil in the world as a unique argument for the existence of God. (Rudolph, 1997:176; van Ess, 2010: 1, 447 f). Al-Māturidī hailed from Samarqand in Central Asia and although little data are preserved about his life, he was a student of two key figures: Abū Bakr al-Juzjānī (d. 268/881-2) and Abū’l-Naṣr al-Iyāḍī (d. circa. 261-279/874-892), who had connections with reputable Ḥanafī legal scholars. In the later biographical sources ideological links between al-Māturīdī and the Ḥanafīte school of jurisprudence, and even its eponym Abū Ḥanīfa, are always accentuated (Rudolph, 1997:25 ff). Although al-Māturidī is credited with the authorship of a significant number of treatises, some of which offered polemical treatments of Ismāʿīlite, Shīʿite and Muʿtazilite doctrine, only two of his principal works survive: the Kitāb al-Tawḥīd and his monumental commentary on the Qurʾān, Taʾwīlāt al-Qurʾān. One of the striking features of Māturīdī’s rational discourses is the primacy which he attached to reconciling reason and revelation in his theological thought, in ways not matched within the Ashʿarīte theological schema. Notwithstanding the complexity of the theological arguments which al-Māturīdī advanced, his structuring of theological topics in the Kitāb al-Tawḥīd‘provided a template which most subsequent Sunni mutakallimūnfollowed in their own independent treatises and textbooks’ (Wisnovsky, 2005: 66; cf. Rudolph, 1997). The history of the emergence of the Māturidī school remains somewhat vague but the teachings of al-Māturīdī were preserved and promulgated through the efforts of figures such as Abū’ l-Layth al-Samarqandī (d. 375/983-4 or 393/1002-3) Abū’l-Yusr al-Bazdawī (d. 493/1085), whose great-grandfather was one of al-Māturidī’s students, Abū’ l-Muʿīn al-Nasafī (d. 508/1115), ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn al-Samarḳandī (d. circa. 540/1145), who produced a commentary on the Taʾwīlāt, and acolytes such as al-Khabbāzī (d. 691/1292), the author of al-Ḥādī, a summa of Māturīdīte theological thought. Significantly, it is speculated that the abstruseness of al-Māturīdī’s writing style meant in the immediate periods following his death, his work did not receive the attention it merited and even later Māturīdīte adherents preferred the more accessible treatments of his theology written by later students (Aldosari, 2013). Still, it would appear that in Transoxania the scholastic theology championed by al-Māturidī was competing with traditionalist based approaches to theology and creeds supported by certain Ḥanafites which eschewed the themes and approaches covered in a work such as the Kitāb al-Tawḥīd (the Book of ‘Divine’ Unity). For example the al-Sawād al-aʿẓam (The Vast Majority) composed by al-Ḥākim al-Samarqandī (d. 342/953), whose author is listed as one of al-Māturīdī’s students, pays scant attention to rational theological themes but offers general credal and ritualistic statements in the form of sixty-two canons (Aldosari, 2013: 197-202; cf. van Ess, 2010: 1, 448-53; Watt, 1997: 105). In respect of the traditionist tendencies of scholars from this region, links are often made with the legacy of the Egyptian scholar al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321/933), whose credal tract was the subject of a number of commentaries, becoming revered among opponents of kalām. The fact that the projection of the historical depth of the Māturīdīte school of thought was part of a narrative promoted by later scholars should not detract from the pre-eminence of al-Māturīdī’s work and the rigour of his approach to rational theology, which allowed a school of thought to be configured around his legacy. In the context of the history of classical kalām discourses the Māturidīte contribution to their elaboration is monumental.
Turning to the later heirs of al-Ashʿarīsm, the figure renowned for having codified much of al-Ashʿarī’s doctrinal legacy, giving context and definition to his thought, is Ibn Fūrak (d. 406/1015). Included among his works are the Mujarrad maqālāt al-shaykh Abī’l-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī, which represented a summary of the theological beliefs of al-Ashʿarī; a work on technical definitions used in theology, Kitāb al-Ḥudūd; a critique of the anthropomorphic interpretation of Prophetic traditions, Taʾwīl mushkil al-āthār (the Exposition of Ambiguous Prophetic Dicta); a commentary on a treatise attributed to Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767), Kitāb al-ʿĀlim wa’l-mutaʿallim (The Book of the Learned One and the Seeker of Knowledge), and he is even reported to have written a biographical treatise dedicated to theologians. Equally influential is al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013) who is credited with having authored fifty works, including the Kitāb al-Tamhīd (the Book of Theological Preliminaries) and the Kitāb al-Inṣāf fīmā yajibu iʿtiqāduhu (Scrupulousness Regarding Matters of Religious Belief); he also composed a defence of the Qurʾān (al-Intiṣār li’l-Qurʾān); a further treatise on its inimitability, Iʿjāz al-Qurʾān, and even a text which examined the phenomena of miracles, magic and divination, underlining the extensive compass of kalām discourses in these periods. The accolade of the most influential of classical Ashʿarite theologians probably belongs to al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085), and among his works are the Kitāb al-Shāmil (the Compendious on Matters of Theology); the Kitāb al-Irshād (the Book of Guidance); theʿAqīdah al-Niẓāmiyya (The Creed of the Niẓāmiyya); al-Kāfiyya fī’l-jadαl (Sufficiency in the (Craft) of Disputation); and his Burhān fī uṣūl al-fiqh (Validation in the Principles of Jurisprudence), which effectively fuses the theory of law with select theological paradigms (Walker, 2000: xx-xxxi). Both al-Juwaynī and al-Baqillānī composed commentaries on al-Ashʿarī’s works and such was the standing of the former’s Kitāb al-Irshād that it was subject of a number of exhaustive commentaries which, from the standpoint of historian of the Ashʿarite school, are helping to define major conceptual developments within classical and late medieval expressions of Ashʿarism.
Al-Juwaynī was the mentor of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 555/1111) whose legacy to classical Islamic thought is prodigious. It should be noted that notwithstanding his celebrated legal and related works, his impressive repertoire of writings include the famous Tahāfut al-tahāfut (the Incoherence of the Philosophers); the Maqāṣid al-falāsifa (Aims or Propositions of the Philosophers); theological treatises such as al-Iqtiṣād fi’l-iʿtiqād (Moderation in Belief); Iḥyāʾʿulūm al-dīn (Revival of the Religious Sciences); Fayṣal al-tafriqa bayna al-Islām wa’l-zandaqa (the Distinctive Criterion between Faith and Heresy); and, notably, his last work, Iljām al-ʿawāmm ʿan ʿilm al-kalām (Restraining the Common Folk from the Science of Philosophical Theology) (Griffel, 2009: 361-67 for an annotated listing of his works). Assessments of al-Ghazālī’s contribution to classical Islamic thought have gone through a sea change over the past few decades, underlining the fact that appreciating his legacy is critical for a broader contextual understanding of the history ofkalām. Ironically, his intellectual output is inextricably linked with the philosopher he spent so much time criticising and disavowing, Ibn Sīnā, or Avicenna (d. 428/1037). It used to be surmised that through al-Ghazālī’s critique of the philosophers and their systems of thought, interest in the discipline declined in the Islamic world. However, circumspect analyses of his various works have revealed that he himself had made extensive use of Avicennan analogues in his own abstractions across a range of contexts and that far from presaging a period of stagnation in the study of philosophy, the post-Ghazalian world was one in which the philosophical sciences flourished. Differences do exist among modern scholars about the framework governing al-Ghazālī’s use of Avicennan theses and their place within the wider schema of his thought and the genuine nature of his attitude to philosophy (Frank, 1992B: 86; Griffel, 2009: 107-9 and 276-7; Marmura, 2002: 107-8). Robert Wisnovsky referred to his ‘assiduous incorporation of basic metaphysical ideas into central doctrines of Sunni kalām’, but contended that the so-called ‘Avicennan turn’ in Sunni kalām was initiated before al-Ghazālī, through the preceding work of al-Juwaynī and al-Bazdawī, and that even Avicenna’s formulation of the central notion of the necessary of existence (wājib al-wujūd) is linked to responses to Sunni theological discussions on the eternity of the divine attributes (Wisnovsky, 2005: 65-6). In addition to highlighting al-Ghazālī’s appropriation of significant Avicennan theses, Frank did maintain that his commitment to Ashʿarite theology was ‘tenuous in the extreme’, referring to doctrinal inconsistencies regarding his views on occasionalism (the denial of natural causality), and the metaphysics of resurrection; Frank even questioned whether his system of theology was sufficiently thought through, although aspects of his arguments were contested by both Michael Marmura and Frank Griffel (Frank: 1994: x; Marmura, 2002: Mcginnis, 2006, 441 ff). One also needs to bear in mind that although al-Ghazālī mentions with a hint of disappointment in his autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-ḍalāl (Deliverance from Error), that ʿilm al-kalām achieved its goals but not his own ones, he effectively viewed himself as a being an unswerving critic of philosophy. In the attempt to achieve an understanding of his legacy which situates inconsistencies and tensions in his thought within the vector of broader Ashʿarite epistemological paradigms and limitations, Griffel refers to al-Ghazālī’s setting out to achieve‘the naturalization of the philosophical tradition into Islamic theology, adding that in his writings can be found ‘an attempt to integrate Aristotelian logics into the tradition of kalām.’ (Griffel, 2009:7). Frank made the point that the mutakallimūn made no ‘formal distinction between theology and philosophy’ (Frank, 1992A: 19).
Classical Muslim scholarship had alluded to perceived contradictions in al-Ghazālī’s system of thought: the Ḥanbalite trained scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) dismissively speaks of Avicennan influences and analogues which underpin al-Ghazālī’s work; and Ibn Rushd (d. 595/1198), who was persistently critical of the Ashʿarites, makes various accusations against al-Ghazālī, even flagging the fact that he espoused an emanationist theory in his Mishkāt al-anwār (Niche of Lights), which contradicts the widely trumpeted view among rational theologians that the world was created ex nihilo. The Andalusian scholar al-Ṭurṭūsḥī (d. 520/1126) likewise speaks of al-Ghazālī being learned but qualifies this by mentioning his perilous fusing of philosophical and mystical concepts in his work, particularly the Iḥyāʾ. In general, reflecting this paradigm shift in kalām, the historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) had referred to the synthesis of kalāmperfected by later Ashʿarite cynosures as constituting a philosophically absorbed enterprise. And on that point, as far as charting the later trajectories of kalām discourses is concerned, much has been made of the fact that in the post-Ghazālian world, such was the level of integration of philosophical constructs and concepts into kalām discourses, that individuals such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210) and the Shīʿite scholar Nāṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 762/1274) ‘must be considered philosophers as well as theologians’ (Griffel, 2009: 7). This would also apply to the eminent Ashʿarite scholar Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī (d. 631/1233), who intriguingly composed a commentary which was a critique of al-Rāzī’s own exposition of Ibn Sīnā’s al-Īshārāt wa’l-tanbīhāt (Declarations and Admonitions). Besides, this should not disguise the fact that theologians took greater pride in their vocation as practitioners of kalām. Recently, Ayman Shihadeh has referred to shifts in terms of the ‘rise of neo-Ash‘arism’, suggesting that they were given ‘definitive formulation in the thought of al-Rāzī’, but he also makes the important distinction that the classical Ashʿarīte theological tradition, which continues the legacy of the pre-Ghazālian theologians, ‘until the third quarter of the sixth/twelfth century’, can be found to be represented in the works of scholars such as Abū’l-Qāsim al-Anṣārī (d. 512/1118), al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī (d. 504/1114) and others (Shihadeh, 2012: 434-5). Some sense of the richness of kalām discourses can be demonstrated through reference to an area such as ethics, which takes on board an eclectic range of influences. Within the context of these sorts of transitions in the appreciation of kalām, Dimitri Gutas did comment that ‘the development of philosophical thought after Avicenna and its relation to kalām, just like its correlative, the philosophical turn of kalām after al-Ghazālī’s “Avicennization” of it, are taking centre stage in contemporary research’, even predicting that ‘in all likelihood will occupy it for the rest of this century’. Yet despite this observation, one should not overlook the fact that such subject areas represent a tiny proportion of the many facets of kalām discourses, which as outlined in the introduction to this essay, cover such a variegated selection of themes and issues, especially as there remains so much to be discovered about the periods which precede these paradigmatic changes and shifts within the discipline, and even those which proceed them. Indeed, in his work entitled Iḥṣāʾ al-ʿulūm, which offers a summation of the classical sciences, the Islamic philosopher al-Farābī (d. 339/950) defined kalām as ‘a craft which empowers individuals to defend beliefs’, yet the extensiveness and the sheer depth and scope of theological discourses in the late medieval periods are reflected in a work such as the Sharḥ al-mawāqif, the elaborate commentary composed by al-Sharīf al-Jurjānī (816/1413), underlining the intellectual achievements of the discipline.
As has been evident from the brief discussions of reactions to the legacy of Ibn Kullāb, al-Ashʿarī, and even al-Māturīdi, scholars of a conservative and arch-traditionalist bent who favoured the promotion of elementary expressions of the articles of faith through reference to catechisms and creeds were critical of kalām discourses. Questions were raised about the validity of rationally derived theological theses which were generated through the employment of theoretical speculation; and there were criticisms voiced about the usefulness of conclusions derived from discursive and intuitive dialectical strategies. This sense of reservation appears to be replicated among later figures who pejoratively equate the theological discourses devised by the Ashʿarites with forms of Muʿtazilism. Over subsequent centuries the epithet jahmī, which implied ideological links with Jahm ibn Ṣafwān (d. 147/746), renowned for his fusion of deterministic and anti-anthropomorphic views, was to become a derogatory term used to denigrate theological opponents and was even used by traditionists to censure Sunni figures whose doctrinal positions were viewed as being compromised by Muʿtazilite influences. For example, al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), who is renowned for his pre-eminence in the exegetical, historical, and legal sciences, was berated by the traditionist Ibn Abī Dāwūd al-Sijistānī (d. 316/928) for harbouring ‘jahmī’ views on account of contentious theological topics and opinions he included in his commentary on the Qurʾān; and much of the hostility he encountered to his work was linked with theological and other related issues (Shah, 2013: 102 ff). Extolling the virtues of the traditionists’ creed, al-Sijistānī composed a versified summary of doctrinal statements which he referred to as the Manẓūma al- Ḥāʾiyya, a text which was popular among traditionists.
Aversion to philosophical theology among traditionist scholars led George Makdisi to question the accepted narrative in western academic studies regarding Ashʿarism being the principal representative of Sunni orthodoxy, chiefly in terms of its close association with the Shāfiʿite school of jurisprudence (Makdisi, 1962 and 1963). Makdisi argued that in the medieval periods many leading Shāfiʿite and Mālikite jurists distanced themselves from Ashʿarism. Makdisi’s arguments were formulated on the basis that one should not confuse the traditionalist orthodoxy of al-Ashʿarī, as championed in the Ibāna, with the forms of philosophical theology enhanced and preserved by his supporters over subsequent centuries, although it could be argued that Makdisi’s own arguments were heavily influenced by conventional Ḥanbalī historical narratives. It has been noted that Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal was averse to the defences of orthodox doctrine mounted by Ibn Kullāb, al-Muḥāsibī and al-Qalānisī; and over the centuries, Ḥanbalites and the traditionists became renowned for their championing of credal catechisms and the shunning of kalām inspired discourses. The antithesis between advocates and detractors of kalām is a recurring theme throughout the history of theology. However, as mentioned previously, the opposition between attitudes towards kalām is not simply an expression of orthodox versus non-orthodox tensions, but constitutes a debate within traditionalism about the actual validity of the theological theses being defended. This exchange of views is also conducted in light of an on going ideological tussle between Sunni and non-Sunni groups. Similar strains and concerns resonate in the works of traditionist figures such as Ibn Manda (d. 301/911), Ibn Khuzayma (d. 311/923) and, in later years, Ibn Baṭṭa al-ʿUkbarī (d. 387/997) and al-Lālakāʾī (d. 418/1027). Legend has it that when al-Ashʿarī composed the Ibāna he presented it to the Ḥanbalīte al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī al-Barbahārī (d. 329/941), who scorned at it (Frank, 1991:91-2). However, al-Barbahārī is on record as speaking of the ‘baleful nature of the kalām- based procedure’, commenting that ‘such a method led to the igniting of doubts in the heart even though its proponent may arrive at truth and the Sunna’ (Shah, 2013:108). And therein lies the ideological disjunction which separates kalām from traditionist discourses. Criticisms of arch-rationalists were just as vehement: in a work entitled al-Radd ʿalā Bishr al-Marisī, the traditionist ʿUthmān ibn Saʿīd al-Dārimī (d. 280/868) produced a treatise which retrospectively castigated the speculative theological doctrines attributed to Bishr al-Marisī (d. 218/833). And texts which set about explicating staunch traditionist views on basic doctrinal issues do abound in these periods: for example, in the Kitāb al-sunna of Abū Bakr al-Khallāl (d. 311/926), which collates legal and doctrinal statements of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and other leading traditionists, an aversion to philosophical theology serves as one of the work’s subtext. This is also the case for the Kitāb al-sunna wa’l-radd ʿalā’l-Jahmiyyya, which was composed by ʿAbd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 290/903), and covers discussions on the heavenly vision; the majestic throne and dicta discussing the reality of God’s being seated upon it; and even the coming of the Antichrist.
The admonishment of kalām and its proponents is resumed in the work of the mystic Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 412/1021), who was the author of a tract entitled aḥādīth fī dhamm al-kalām wa-ahlihi (Disquisitions on the Censure of Speculative Theology and its Proponents). A much more broad condemnation of kalām was pursued by al-Harawī (d. 481/1088), an eminent mystic, in a similarly titled text which adduced a stream of statements ascribed to principal traditionist figures censuring kalām; in the book he included sections in which successive classes of Ashʿarite and Kullābite theologians are traduced for their rationally derived theological views, and an innovative biographical arrangement is adopted to deliver his criticism. Certainly, some early mystics’ aversion towards kalām is linked with their preoccupying themselves with matters of the heart (Karamustafa, 2007: 20 f). In later years, Ibn Qudāma (d. 620/1223), the Ḥanbalī jurist, composed a treatise entitled: Taḥrīm al-naẓar fī kutub ʿilm al-kalām (The Prohibition of Studying Books on Speculative Theology) (Makdisi, 1960: passim). It was apparently aimed at censuring the activities of Ibn ʿAqīl (d. 513/1119), a distinguished Ḥanbalite jurist and theologian, who in his own lifetime had been compelled to sign a retraction having been impugned for harbouring Muʿtazilite and Sufī sympathies. Ibn ʿAqīl was a student of the influential al-Qāḍī Abū Yaʿlā (d. 458/1066), who was the author of a number of theological treatises which unapologetically used rationally based theological techniques to defend traditionalist and Ḥanbalite theology, although, to an extent, he seems to have avoided the pique of his Ḥanbalite peers as much of the work takes issue with Ashʿarite as well as Muʿtazilite positions. Traditionist texts which censured kalām, such as those authored by Ibn Qudāma and al-Harawī, appealed principally to the authority of incriminatory statements made by the Pious Ancestors and later prominent individuals in which the scholarship of Kalām in all its guises and formats is denounced, but such texts seldom engage in a rationally based critique of arguments, but simply stress that scholars noted for their pious religiosity would not have approved of rationally inspired endeavours. Hostility to philosophical theology and its methodologies was presented in such approaches as a default position of traditionalism (Makdisi, 1990: 13).
The criticism of the arguments and paradigms advanced by rational theologians did inform the works of scholars such as Ibn Rushd and Ibn Taymiyya although, somewhat paradoxically, they show a mastery of the subtleties of kalām techniques and arguments. Ibn Rushd is particularly scathing of the Ashʿarites, paying particular attention to highlighting theoretical shortcomings in the paradigms of philosophical theology. For example in his al-Kashf ʿan manāhij al-adilla (Revealing the Trajectories of Proofs), he includes a rebuttal of the cosmological argument for proving the existence of God and its reliance upon deductions made about the adventitiousness of matter, broadening the scope of his attack to reject the general utility of the ghāʾib ʿalā al-shāhid analogy. He was also contemptuous of certain traditionists whom he labels as the Hashawiyya for their failure to understand the importance of reason in establishing truths, arguing that faith and reason were always in harmony. Previously, in the Islamic West during the rule of al-Murābiṭūn (Almoravids), who enjoyed suzerainty over parts of Spain and North West Africa between 1062-1147, the study of kalām was gradually discouraged but under the auspices of the Alhomads it was revived along with learning in the philosophical sciences. Significantly, the emergence of the Alhomads is linked with the reformist activities of Ibn Tūmart (d, 524/1130), who was unquestionably influenced by the thought of Ashʿarite scholars such as al-Juwaynī, al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī and, most significantly, al-Ghazālī. He was the author of a number of treatises, including the work entitled Aʿazzu mā yuṭlab (the Most Precious Aspiration), a text which combines an inquisitive treatment of theological and jurisprudential topics, and also a work called Tawḥīd al-Bārī (Divine Unity of the Creator). Although Ibn Tūmart occasionally takes issue with Ashʿarite theological constructs and doctrines, he was more concerned with criticising the rigidly traditionist forms of orthodoxy encouraged under the Almoravids; he certainly had a positive impact upon the reception of kalām discourses in the Islamic West. Ibn Tumart’s also composed a creed, referred to as the Murshida (the Guide), which, incidentally was the subject of a legal edict (fatwā) issued by Ibn Taymiyya which condemned the tract for peddling a concept of God’s essence which was based on the ideas of the philosophers and he took him to task for other perceived theological indiscretions. (Ibn Taymiyya, Fatawā: 11, 477 ff; Griffel, 2005: 753 ff).
In the works of Ibn Taymiyya critiques of rational theological doctrines, theses, and frameworks defined by all the major rational theological movements and personalities are relentlessly pursued. In his written works is preserved a treasure trove of materials, including quotations from sources emanating from the early and classical tradition which are no longer extant. Historically, it is important to bear in mind that he sustains the line of attack against philosophical theology which has its origins in the circles of the traditionists of the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries and was unremittingly pursued in the periods beyond, although in his oeuvre, the scale, depth and vigour of the coverage and treatment remain daunting. Ibn Taymiyya remarked that the Pious Ancestors do not loathe kalām simply because of its innovative nomenclature, which enshrines terms such as jawhar and ʿaraḍ, but rather due to the fact that the connotations intended by the use of these terms are reprehensibly erroneous and in conflict with established religious teachings (Ibn Taymiyya, Majmūʿ: 3.307). Centuries earlier in the introduction to his Taʾwīl mukhtalaf al-ḥadīth (The Exposition of Variances in the Traditions), Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889) voiced similar reservations, stating that when it comes to fathoming the import and intended meaning of the scriptural sources, theories about ‘quantum leaps (ṭafra), generated acts (tawallud), accident (ʿaraḍ), substance (jawhar), quiddity (kayfiyya), quantity (kamiyya) and the notion of how (ayniyya) are of no utility. The responses by rational theologians to the criticisms of figures such as Ibn Qutayba and Ibn Taymiyya are animated in equally elaborate terms as the very critiques composed against them, furnishing the discipline of kalām with another lucrative chapter in its intellectual history; and this pattern continues over successive centuries. For example, when Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 750/1350) composed his poem, al-Nūniyya, devoted to enunciating the standard creeds upheld by traditionist scholars, it was subsequently greeted with a withering verse by verse critique entitled al-Sayf al-ṣaqīl (The Polished Sabre) by Taqī al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 756/1355). Yet within traditionist circles laudatory commentaries and super-commentaries on the original poem flourished over the centuries. Finally, one might also draw attention to the internal dynamics of kalām polemics by noting the dispute between two Ashʿarite scholars, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and Ibn Ghaylān (d. circa. 590/1195). Ibn Ghaylān composed a treatise entitled Ḥudūth al-ʿālam (the Temporality of the World) in which he rebutted Ibn Sīnā’s arguments for the eternity of the world, taking his cue from al-Ghāzālī’s treatment in the Tahāfut. Yet he was involved in acrimonious exchanges with al-Rāzī over the efficacy of his approach and its scriptural bases. These exchanges generally highlight the role that intellectual rivalry and the appeal to the authority of revelation played in the fleshing out of arguments, even among adherents of the same ideological tradition (Griffel, 2009: 116-120). While kalām may have sprung from such ambiguous beginnings, among its enduring qualities was its consistent ability to devise, adapt and integrate modes of thinking. So although defending and explicating fundamental religious beliefs and political convictions may have lain at the heart of its genesis, over time the ever increasing range of its remit as a discipline together with the sophistication of the paradigmatic frameworks and methodologies it employed, serves as a measure of the strength of its historical legacy. Moreover, its inexorable influence over the discourses of the other Islamic sciences bespeaks volumes about its importance within expressions of Islamic thought.
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