The Unwelcomed Return of Kalam? (Edition no. 2 / April 2015)

kalam comicby Ustaz Azfar Anwar

It has returned. The mainspring of the downfall of Islamic Civilisation has been re-awakened. Reanimated by the very people who profess ‘to know’, who profess ‘to guide the laity’, and who profess to be products of institutions. Yet logorrhea does not guarantee academia. He who has spoken may not necessarily know what he has spoken. Historical precedents are thus thrown. Lessons from shared antecedents are selectively chosen to circumambulate within set paradigms, formalistically repeated, generations after generations. The pernicious nature of Kalam has been forgotten. Charges of heresy and apostasy are hurled across brethren. And if they ask, ‘who created Allah?’[1] Dismiss all excitements. It is merely a prophetic caveat consigned to oblivion.


The irruption of discursive theological debates or Kalam into Singapore, under the facade of a ‘return to the Pious Past’ and orthodoxy, is but simply a transposed contention of past ‘Schools of Theology’ into our current context. The only difference is that, instead of theologians who are trained in the discipline, it is the non-pundits, who happened to stumble upon this field in their tertiary education but are without doubt not experts, who are the current interlocutors.

A considerable group within the, to borrow from El Fadl, ‘interpretive community’[2] of Singapore, or ‘asatizah’, has for months resuscitate what was presumed to be an ossified dissent from ancient Islamic history, consequently diverting themselves from more crucial issues that beg for the reapplication of ijtihad i.e. issues of gender and sexuality, concept of evolution, Quantum physics etc. Perhaps stupefied by the elliptical nature of theological debates, they even bog down the intellectual progress of their peers, arguing ad infinitum about the same falderal issues pertaining to the nature of God and His attributes. The very same issues that were thought to have been resolved by time and authoritative figures of the very same ‘Pious Past’. They haggle distinctive doctrines of their ‘school’ against each other over these issues, whether face-to-face or via social media, while the lay onlookers look, and then look to others to tackle contemporary matters, though are arguably non-authoritative to do so. These asatizah’s cathexis perhaps lies upon their belief that only they hold the key to orthodoxy; they posit that their actions are simply an inherited legacy of the ‘Pious Past’. This article thus aims to conclude that the asatizah’s circumambulation around Kalam is not only anathema to ‘The Pious Past’, but are also antitheses of the Kalam engaged in by those who truly epitomise this notion of ‘the Pious Past’ i.e. the Prophet’s Companions and unto whom the verse, “Thus We have made you, a Wasat (just and the best) nation”[3] was revealed.

Counterintuitive Islamic Positions on Kalaam

In his Al-Kashf `An Manahij Al-Adillat Fi `Aqa`id Al-Millat, Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) criticised the theologians for extremely bifurcating beliefs about God, and regarding the science of discursive theology as a ‘Primary Jurisprudence’ or Al-Syariah Al-Ula. They then proceeded to impose this ‘Primary Jurisprudence’ upon the collective laity; those who then diverged from their beliefs were either excommunicated or charged with heresy.[4] Intuitively, Ibn Rushd was not the only one who had condemned those who vitiated Islamic theology. Other scholars, who have been promulgated as ‘The Pious Past’ predated Ibn Rushd in their condemnations of the theologians or mutakallimun/al-firaq al-kalamiyyah, in the likes of Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) in his Iljam Al-Awwam `An Ilm Al-Kalam,[5] Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) in his Dar’u Ta`arudh Al-`Aql Wa Al-Naql,[6] Ibn Al-Jawzi (d. 1201) in his Talbis Iblis,[7] and Ibn Al-Wazir Al-Yamani (d. 1436) in his Ithar Al-Haq.[8]kalam-1

The mainstay of these scholars’ critics was their concern for the personal theology (or `aqidah) of the general public, of whom these non-pundit asatizah profess ‘to guide and preserve their `aqidah’. In fact, we are easily able to discern the parallelism of the theologians of the past with these asatizah in their respective arguments. While the theologians regarded theology as a ‘primary jurisprudence’, these asatizah are claiming that theology (or rather personal theology i.e. al-`aqidah) is vital (and thus more important than fiqh) in the sense that if it is ‘flawed’, then the daily Islamic rituals and practices of a Muslim are hereby void. Such was their rationale behind their obsession for engaging in discursive theology or Kalam. Subsequently, while most of them might not engage in brazen charges of heresy and apostasy, in the likes of their predecessors the theologians, the shared derogatory lingua franca is still apparent.

Let us continue to examine what the ‘Pious Past’ had said about Kalam. After outlining the dangers discursive theology posed upon children, and delineating a normative pedagogy for the latter pertaining to the belief of God, Al-Ghazali in his aptly titled book Iljam Al-`Awwam `An `Ilm Al-Kalam or Harnessing The Masses Against Discursive Theology, went on to list the harmful effects of making theology a subject of contention, particularly when the discourses spilled over to the general public; from bigotry, captious questionings about the nature of God and sectarian obstinacy.[9] Al-Suyuti (d. 1505) on the other hand retorts that “evil and destruction have sprung out in this ummah (nation) with the emergence of the theologians, who desire nothing but to limit the vast Mercy of God”.[10]kalam 2

Lying on the same spectrum, modern thinkers postulated that Muslims’ contentions over theological matters were the impetus of the undoing of Islamic Civilisation. Rashid Ridha, for example, posited in an article in Al-Manar magazine in 1898, that the latter was endogenous in nature, with theological debates being the primary agent that regressed Islamic thought and ossified scientific discoveries, besides creating schisms and sects. These schisms would then lead to border conflicts and even wars, thus further weakening the already fragile structure of the Islamic empires during those epochs. Subsequently, even the application of ijtihad in the fields of “fiqh and al-ahkam” was majorly neglected, causing what is now known as `Asr Al-Jumud Wa Al-Taqlid’ or era of stagnation and blind following of traditions.[11]

Even the theologians themselves relegated Kalam. When codifying knowledge in his magnum opus Ihya’  `Ulum Al-Din, Al-Ghazali, who was a theologian in the early stages of his life, did not even classify the sciences of theology in any of his categorisation of knowledge, and even relegated the theologians to that of escorts whom are tasked to guard the pilgrims’ goods against Bedouin loot. As though already expecting counter arguments, he wrote,

“You may say ‘[…] The learned men of Islam who are celebrated in their virtue, and in God’s sight are the most excellent, are the jurisprudents and the theologians. How then do you hold them in such low rank in comparison to the science of religion?’ To this I would reply, ‘whosoever would recognize the truth through men would be lost in the wilderness of confusion. […] If, however, you are satisfied in imitating and revering the accepted degrees of excellence among men, do not ignore the Companions or their high station, because (scholars) […] have agreed upon their superiority, and that in the field of religion they (the Companions) are neither equaled nor excelled. Their superiority however, was achieved not through theology or jurisprudence […]”[12]

One may then ask, did the Companions engage in theology? Did they not ask questions pertaining to the nature of God? Did they not partake in any theological debates amongst themselves? How did the Companions who epitomize ‘The Pious Past’, and ‘Wasat nation’, partake in Kalam?

The Companions’ Kalam

It is only natural, seeing that Islam came to Mecca in a premise of paganism, that the Companions would question the Prophet pertaining to the nature of this new ‘Allah’, simply to discern ‘the one true God’ from the rest of the ‘old gods’ that they had worshipped for generations. In fact most verses from the Quran, including the Hadith, address issues about faith and God. The Prophet acknowledged this natural curiosity and would in fact encourage them by saying on several occasions, ‘Ask me’ or ‘Saluni’.[13] In Zad Al-Ma`ad, Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah states that the Companions would ask even the tiniest details about all matters, all for the sole purpose of fully grasping the true nature of faith. On the other hand, the Prophet would even entertain questions from his “enemies”, answering every question posed to him except those that “only Allah knows the answer to”.[14]

For example, in chapter Al-Baqarah verse 186, the Quran states,

zidni ilman“When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every supplicant when he calleth on Me […]”[15]

In their exegetic commentaries about this verse, both Al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir narrated that the premise behind this was that a bedouin had came to the Prophet and asked, “O Messenger of Allah, is our Lord near that we are able to speak to Him, or is he distant that we have to call out to Him?” The Prophet then recited the verse in response.[16]

Among the selected few amongst the Companions who have been promulgated by scholars to be, for lack of a better term, theologians, was Abu Razin.[17] He was proof that the Companions did engage in theological matters and had addressed the latter to the Prophet himself. On one occasion, Abu Razin had asked, “O Messenger of Allah, where was our Lord before He created His creations?” The Prophet answered, “He was by the `Amaa (heavy clouds), in between air, and He built His `Arsh (throne) upon water”.[18] On another occasion he asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, will we see Allah in the Day of Judgement? And what are the signs of that in His creations?” The Prophet then questioned him back, “O Abu Razin, do you not see the moon?” He answered, “Yes” to which the Prophet finally said, “Allah is far more greater, and that (i.e. the greatness of the moon) is His sign in His creation”.[19]

It is thus clear from the few examples given above that the Companions did partake in asking questions about God, and the Prophet did in fact respond to their queries. We can infer too that the questions posed were on the basis of trying to fully comprehend this new faith, to attain a sense of validity and certitude. We can also deduce that the Prophet simplified intricate issues pertaining to this edifice using examples that can be found in the Companions’ daily lives i.e. moon. He did not resort to ellipses nor jargons in the likes of the theologians of the past, or these contemporaneous asatizah, when teaching the Companions about the nature of God.

However, despite the Prophet’s endorsements for some of the questions pertaining to God, historical evidence suggests his opposition to some others. He warned against ghalutot [20] or captious questionings about the true essence of God that would cause doubts, confusions, heated debates and strifes, leading eventually to schisms, and even war.

Abu Hurayra reported that once the Prophet came to them while they (a group of Companions) were arguing about Al-Qadr (destiny). He became angry to the point that his face turned red “as though pomegranates have been split open on his cheeks”, and said,

zidni ilman 2“Is this what you have been commanded to do? Or is this the reason why I was sent unto you? Verily those who came before you have been destroyed when they too argued like you are arguing now. I insist that you will never argue amongst yourselves about such matters”.[21]

In another narration, the Prophet said,

“Verily those who were before you were destroyed for arguing amongst themselves about such issues […] what is known by you, you may say it. What is unknown by you, leave it to He who Knows”.[22]

In I`lam Al-Muwaqqi`in, Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah states that though the Companions were at variance with each other over al-ahkam or jurisprudential rulings, none of them ever, “not even once”, argued amongst themselves over the names, attributes nor even the actions of God.[23] Perhaps this is the reason the Quran describes them as a “Wasat nation”[24]. This practice, or non-practice, was further reflected during Umar’s caliphate when he banished someone by the name of Subaigh bin `Asl to Basrah, for delving into anthropomorphism. Umar then banned anyone from speaking with Subaigh until he desists from inquiring into anthropomorphism.[25]


The current non-pundit interlocutors of Kalam, or asatizah, may now claim that they are continuing the legacy of the ‘Pious Past’ when engaging in discursive theology. Yet it is tacit that the ‘Pious Past’ did not merely abstain from it but denounced it altogether. On the other hand, instead of applying Kalam on contemporary issues like Quantum physics, evolution etc, they pointlessly resuscitate old discourses that have already been resolved. As a fortiori argument, even the ‘most pious’ of the ‘Pious Past’ i.e. the Companions carefully safeguarded their theological curiosities and musings from turning into bigotry, debates, and strifes, which are concurrent now in Singapore amongst a group within the ‘religious elite’. Whatever that may lead to dissents amongst the Companions was immediately halted, lest they flagrantly attribute to God what should not be attributed, resulting in blasphemy, heresy and even apostasy. Their actions are manifestations of the ‘Wasat nation’ notion, and a reflection of the Quranic dictum,

“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:” and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.”[26]

We have delineated how the ‘Pious Past’, of whom these non-pundits asatizah are basing their actions upon, denounced discursive theology or Kalam. We have recorded its pernicious nature that led to the ruins of Islamic Civilisation, from the regression of Islamic thought, ossification of scientific discoveries, to the formation of schisms that led to conflicts, wars and the fitnah. It had caused generations of Muslims to live in the era of ‘al-jumud wa al-taqlid’, thus vitiating the legacy of ijtihad and Islamic scholarship. It had been abstained by the Companions, proscribed by the Prophet, and decried by God. And now, Kalam has returned to Singapore.

[1]Muslim, Kitab Al-Iman, Sahih Muslim, 242. “It is narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Men will continue to question one another till this is propounded: Allah created all things but who created Allah? He who found himself confronted with such a situation should say: I affirm my faith in Allah.” See also The Holy Quran, 31:11.

[2]Abou El Fadl, Khaled (2003), The Ugly Modern and The Modern Ugly: Reclaiming the Beautiful in Islam.

[3]The Holy Quran, 2:143, trans. Muhsin Khan.

[4]Ibn Rushd, Al-Kashf `An Manahij Al-Adillat Fi `Aqa`id Al-Millat, p.36.

[5]Al-Ghazali, Iljam Al-Awwam `An Ilm Al-Kalam, tahqiq Al-Shaykh Mustafa Abu Al-`Ala’, v. 2, p. 84.

[6]Ibn Taymiyyah, Dar’u Ta`arudh Al-`Aql Wa Al-Naql, v.2, p.44-5.

[7]Ibn Al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis, p.80.

[8]Ibn Al-Wazir Al-Yamani, Ithar Al-Haq, p.11.

[9]Al-Ghazali, Iljam Al-Awwam `An Ilm Al-Kalam, p. 3-6.

[10]Al-Suyuti, Sown Al-Mantiq Wa Al-Kalam `An Fannay Al-Mantiq Wa Al-Kalam, p. 168.

[11]Ridha, Rashid, “La Budda Minhu”, Al-Manar Magazine, issue 11 October 1898

[12]Al-Ghazali (1962), The Book of Knowledge, Ihya’ `Ulum Al-Din, trans. Nabih Amin Faris, p. 48-9.

[13]Muslim, Kitab Al-Iman, Bab Al-Iman, Sahih Muslim, 1/139.

[14]Ibn Qoyyim al-Jawziyyah, Zaad al-Ma’aad, v. 3, p.57.

[15]Trans. Yusuf Ali.

[16]Al-Tabari, Tafsir Al-Tabari, v. 3, p. 480; Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Ibn Kathir, v. 1, p. 413.

[17]Al-Ghazali, The Book of Knowledge, Ihya’ `Ulum Al-Din, p. 49.

[18]Al-Tirmidzi (1980), Kitab Abwab Tafsir Al-Quran, Sunan Al-Tirmidzi, tahqiq Abd ar-Rahman Muhammad Othman, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut, p. 351.

[19]Ibn Majah, Al-Muqaddimah, Bab Fi Ma Ankarat Al-Jahmiyyat, Sunan Ibn Majah, Abd Al-Baqi Publication, 1/64.

[20]Abu Dawud, Kitab Al-`Ilm, Sunan Abi Dawud, 3/123; Ahmad, Musnad Ahmad, 5/435.

[21]Al-Tirmidzi, Abwab Al-Qadr, Sunan Al-Tirmidzi, 3/300.

[22]Al-`Asqalani, Fath Al-Bari’, Dar Al-Rayyan Publication, 13/394.

[23] Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah, I`lam Al-Muwaqqi`in, 1/49.

[24]The Holy Quran, 2:143, trans. Muhsin Khan.

[25]Abu Ishaq Ibrahim bin Musa Al-Shatibi, Al-I`tisam, 2/201-2.

[26]The Holy Quran, 3:7, trans. Yusuf Ali.


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