What is Kalam?
The discipline of ʿilm al-kalam (‘the science of theology’) - where I’ll just write ‘kalam’ for short - is a unique development within the Islamic intellectual tradition. It refers to a specific way of approaching theology that gives less emphasis on mere adoption of received tradition and authority with focus instead on rational speculation and dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by setting up conundrums and contradictions to then resolve. Although the specific methodology of those who were practitioners of kalam - known as “mutakallimun” - will be outlined in the next section, it is important to note that the assumption of kalam theologians was the overall soundness of the religious doctrines of Islam derived from the Qur’an and Hadith with the aim to defend and clarify them through logic and discursive arguments - not to generate doctrines de novo. This is why the definition of kalam given by some scholars like for example Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) is that “it is the science whose aim is to protect the Sunni creed by defending it against the doubts of heretics” (al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, 81):
هو علم مقصوده حفظ عقيدة أهل السنة وحراستها عن تشويش أهل البدعة
The word “kalam” is from the Arabic root k / l / m / meaning ‘speech’, ‘talk’, ‘discussion’ and ‘articulation’. Some argue it is a direct translation of the ancient Greek term “λόγος” meaning ‘word’, ‘reason’ and ‘argument’ or “διάλεξις” meaning ‘disputation’. Others argue that the name was given from the Arabic itself because of the excessive talking and disputation involved. Yet others attribute the origins of the term to the theological topic it was evidently concerned with which was God’s speech (kalam Allah). The term ‘kalam’ is variously rendered into English as ‘speculative theology’, ‘rational theology’, ‘systematic theology’, ‘scholastic theology’ and ‘dialectical theology’. Some associated meanings of the term kalam found in the early Muslim theological literature include:
Aims of kalam
Some of the main aims of kalam include:
Methodology of Kalam
The methodology of the kalam theologians was characterised by at least three features which distinguished them from for example the hadith folk (ahl al-hadith) or non-rationalist inclined scholars. These features are outlined as follows:
1. Theological Polemics: this aspect of their methodology consisted of:
Muslims were in polemical exchanges with the religious traditions that came under their rule. These religious traditions possessed a rich intellectual history and both Christianity and Judaism had already developed theologies with Hellenistic polarisation. However, by the end of the 2nd H / 8th CE and 3rd H / 9th CE centuries, Muslim theology was in the ascendency with a developed system of metaphysics and polemics in the form of kalam and so the existing religious traditions appropriated this theological system to defend against Islamic charges of irrationality. Muslim theologians and especially the kalam theologians engaged in sustained debates with these other faith traditions as a means of missionary activity as well as to evidence the superiority of the Islamic creed over others. As an example of this inter-religious polemic, below is an excerpt from one of the earliest surviving systematic works on Muslim polemics written by the Ash'arite theologian Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 403/1013) on rejecting the union of the divine Word (kalima) with that of Christ’s body (jasad) which was a favourite polemical topos:
 They will be asked: why do you say that the Word of God is united with the body of Christ and not say Moses, Abraham or other Prophets? If they reply by saying that: because of the signs and miracles brought about at the hands of Jesus that are beyond the power of any human being to do such as reviving the dead, healing the blind and the lepers, making what is few plenty, turning water into wine, walking on water, his ascension to heaven, healing the lame and other wondrous acts and therefore all these necessitate that he is God and united with the Word, they will be asked: why do you assume Jesus performed all these miraculous acts that you describe? Why do you not deny that he was unable to do any of these acts and that it was really God who did all them through him and hence, his condition would be just like that of all other Prophets who performed miracles?
 They will then be asked: why do you reject Moses being God or that the word be united with him based on the various miracles he performed like turning his staff into a snake with a mouth, eyes and opening . . . or parting the sea, having a glowing white hand or the plagues that were inflicted through him like the locusts, lice, frogs and blood and other acts that no human being is able to do? (al-Baqillani, Kitab al-Tamhid, para. 40-41 in Christian Doctrines in Islamic Theology, ed. by D. Thomas, pp.93-195 and para.174-175).
The aim here through this dialectical approach of kalam polemics by al-Baqillani is to demonstrate the inconsistency in the underlying logic of arguing for Christ’s divinity by providing counterarguments that parallel the argument of the interlocutor. Below is the presentation of that dialectic:
(1) No human is able to give life to the dead, heal the blind, make what is little plenty, turn water into wine or walk on water.
(2) These actions cannot be performed by any human being.
(3) Therefore, it must be that Christ is divine (ilah) and the Word united with him.
(1) Moses turned a staff into a serpent with a mouth and organs, fully parted the sea and withdrew a white glowing hand.
(2) These actions cannot be performed by human beings.
(3) Therefore, it must be that Moses is divine and possible for the Word to unite with him.
The format of this dialectical approach - especially involving the technique of imputing the negative (especially heretical) implications of a view (called ilzam) - regularly featured in much of Muslim intra-doctrinal disputes as well and thus became a hallmark of the kalam methodology.
2. Syllogistic Logic: this aspect of the kalam method consisted of:
The general early entry of primarily Aristotelian philosophy and its subsequent reception into 2nd H / 8th CE and 3rd H / 9th CE century Islamic philosophical formulations and kalam discourse was far-reaching. Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Topics, Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics as well as his Organon were thoroughly translated into Arabic and found commentaries and expansions by notable philosophers such as al-Farabi (d. 339/950) and Ibn Sina (d. 428/1037) who developed their own systems of logic. With the flowering of sunni theology in the form of Ashʿarism after the late 4th H / 10th CE and its subsequent triumph over Muʿtazilite rationalism, syllogistic logic (qiyas) was thoroughly appropriated as an attractive intellectual tool within Islamic monotheistic polemics and theological study with even claims of Qur’anic proofs for its vindication.
3. Figurative Interpretation (ta’wil): this aspect of the kalam method was hermeneutical and consisted of:
If reason takes primacy in arbitrating the veracity of a particular claim, especially regarding the divine attributes, then the Qur’anic text was no exception. The desire to maintain God’s transcendence (tanzih) was paramount for both scripturalist theologians and rationalist theologians. However, rationalist theologians like the Mu'tazilites and other rationalist groups approached scriptural references to what appear to be surface anthropomorphic ascriptions with total negation and gave figurative paraphrases (ta’wil) to them. For them, it was inconceivable to the mind that scripture intend physical attributes for God so they were not taken literally and denied attribution to Him. Thus, contravention of reason was the justification to reject the apparent surface meanings of the Qur’an.
Kalam and Analytic Theology
The overlap in the approach and aims of kalam with that of analytic theology makes the latter a a convenient comrade for the former. Both approaches broadly seek clarity, rigour, precision and anlaysis that positions reason with the primacy task of servicing revelation. Below are some specific similarities and differences between kalam and analytic theology:
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