By Tarek Ghanem

Categories : AqidaHistory

  • 12, April, 2016

What is in the name ‘kalam’? How the word kalam came to be the name of the science of Islamic theology reveals interesting findings regarding both the unique function and scope of the science itself, on the one hand, and its wider relation to other Islamic sciences, on the other. The word kalam literally means speech, discourse or conversations. Its meanings also include discourse, discursiveness, argumentation, or disputation. As a name of a religious science kalam covers the theological productions and discourses of different Islamic denominations, including Sunnism, Shi`aism, and Mu`tazlim, and Zaydism. Although there are numerous names designated to this science, the word kalam came to be most commonly used among experts and practitioners over other names, as will be further explained below.

One of the most interesting—and sometimes confusing, for some—is that, unlike other Islamic sciences which have had one consistent name since their formulation, the science of kalam has had several names. Understanding the conceptual and historical reasons of what’s in the name of science of kalam is relevant to the study of kalam whether in traditional or academic settings. Traditionally, acquiring knowledge of the different aspects of a science, including its name, subject-matter, founders, among other aspects, has always been part of traditional pedagogical methodology[i]. Historically there were numerous names of kalam, including: (1) al-fiqh al-akbar (lit. the grand understanding), which is chronologically the oldest known name, as it was used as a title for a theological manual by Imam Abu Hanifa al-Nu`man (d. 80/699); (2) `ilm al-kalam, the most common especially among experts; (3) `ilm usul al-din (lit. the foundations of religion), in contrast to the science of Legal Methodology (usul al-fiqh), and together, these two sciences constitute the core of Islamic intellectualism; (4) `ilm al-`aqa’id(doctrines, or `ilm al-`aqida, using the singular); (5) `ilm al-tawhid or`ilm al-tawhid wa al-sifat (the science divine unity and attributes), and this name refers to its cardinal and focal subject matters; and finally (6) `ilm al-nazar wa al-istidlal (the science of theory and inference)[ii]. Whether by signifying the importance of the science (like in previous names 1 and 3), its scope (names 4 and 5), or methodological and logical modes (2 and 6), the previous names surely reflect the core aspects and mode Islamic theology.

As a science, kalam is traditionally defined as “A science which enables the affirmation of religious doctrines by presenting arguments and getting rid of misconceptions”, to use one of the most cited definitions.[iii] As a word, however, kalam, connotes the fluidity and circularity of dialects and debates. Applying such a word to what should naturally be as fixed and anchored as tents and doctrines of faith, makes this combinatory relation worthy of engaging with and attempting to unfold.

The most extensive account of why this science came to be called `ilm al-kalam can be found in Imam al-Taftazani’s seminal commentary on the famous theological manual of Al-`aqaid al-Nasafiyya, in which he starts by listing the eight common reasons why kalam can be so called:

  • It was common among theologians to say, “The discourse (al-kalam fi) on such and such matter is…”.
  • The question of divine speech (al-kalam), and whether the Quran is created is most famous among its subject-matters.
  • When practiced, this science develops a [dialectic] ability for debating (kalam) to establish revelatory matters and to persuade opponents.
  • It is to religious knowledge what logic (Arb. mantiq, uttering) is to philosophy. Also because it is the first among sciences to be taught and learned through discourse (kalam), and this is why it was so named especially and why the name was not given to any other science.
  • It is fully realized through discussion and managing argumentation (idarat al-kalam) from both sides, while other sciences can be attained through contemplation and reading books
  • It is the most disputable and contentious among these sciences, which intensifies the need to converse with (al-kalam ma`a) the adversaries and rebutting them.
  • Due to the force of its evidences, it because as if it is thought of as being the discourse (al-kalam), and no other science apart from it is seen as such.
  • Since it is based on definitive proofs, the majority of which are supported by textual or revelational proofs (adila sam`iyya), and the strongest science in its effect on the heart and the extent of its immersion into it. This is why it was called kalam, which is derived from kalam or kalim (from the root kaf-lam-mim) meaning a ‘wound’.

Imam al-Taftazani also mentions five additional and original reasons about the naming of kalam in the same work, arguing,

  • That the Companions and the tabi`un (successors) engaged directly with divine speech (kalam), i.e. scripture, because of their mastery of inferring religious doctrines directly from it. Resorting to the science of kalamthen is therefore a substitute of that for those whose ability falls short of the ability to engage with scripture.
  • It is differentiated and triumphed over the doctrines of philosophers by its correspondence to the words (kalam, kalima, word) of Allah and its keeping away from violating it.
  • It does not benefit the physical acts of worship, but only doctrinal beliefs, and as such it is mere discourse (kalam).
  • It is the emphasis on stirring arguments, it is the opposite to ‘calmness’ of clarity (tasfiyya) which is dependent on silence (sukut), and as such it is called after the antonym of silence, which is speech (kalam).
  • It is a combination of the letters kaand In knowing principles of methodical thought, it is ‘like’ (as denoted by the letter ka) attached to the particle lam denoting ikhtisas meaning signifying the ‘ascription of particularization’ (i.e. that something particular is ascribed or associated with something else). As such it is a compound name (ism murakkab) made by combining kaf al-tashbih(the letter ka of resemblances or metaphors) with the particle lam,although it came to known through usage as a singular noun (ism mufrad)[iv].

If thought about inversely, it is probably this very expansive nature of the mode and scope of Islamic theology that have caused the emergence of so many names for it. This echoes the famous mystical aphorism of Imam al-Nifarri; ‘the more the scope of the vision is expanded, the more confined the utterance of expression becomes’ (idha itas`a al-ma`na ḍaqat al-`ibara).

No wonder then that in the English academic literature the science of kalam enjoys a wide gamut of translations: from ‘the science of dialectics’[v], to ‘dogmatic theology’[vi], or a speculative system of philosophical thought[vii], to ‘Islamic speculative theology’[viii], and to natural theology or philosophical theism[ix]. It was even argued to be equivalent to the Greek meaning of “logos” in the various senses of this word, despite the limitations this imposes on the expansive nature of the science.[x]Surely the above wide range of translations affects perceptions with the regard to the contents and the dynamics of the science.

Practitioners and experts of kalamoperated within a complex and multifaceted scope of functions. To shed light on the wider epistemological context related to this scope, and in ways that correspond to the justifications previously listed by Imam al-Taftazani, the scope of kalam is best understood in the following light:

Since the subject-matter of `ilm al-tawhid is what is ‘known’ (al-ma`lum) by virtue of its connection to affirming doctrines, no one then should object when they see the scholars of tawhid engaging in natural science, mathematics, medicine, even philosophy, as well as other sciences, since this falls within the core of their mandated mission… The upshot is that this science investigates the fixed judgments for divine essence, His attributes, the states of the contingent beings (mumkinat) in the ‘here-now’ and hereafter according to the ‘law of Islam’ (qanun al-Islam). What is meant by the ‘laws of Islam’ is the means to knowledge in Islam, in the same way it is well known that every comprehensive overarching principle and comprehensive [epistemological] system has its own criteria and measurements with which it weighs and assesses matters. These measurements are the epistemological tools. Known subjects must then be in-line with Islamic epistemological theory. Every epistemological means whose validity has been definitely established is an Islamic epistemological means”[xi]

Certainly, however, the adoption of the name kalam and the association of the discipline and engagement with philosophical argumentation did not come without a price[xii]. This very naming became a tool used by scholars who criticized Islamic theology’s deployment of and engagement with the philosophical method. The word was used as a pun in both statements and book titles criticizing these aspects of the science, by dismissing kalamscholarship as mere hollow talk or speculation.[xiii] Modern anti-kalamSunni movements use the science of tawhid and `aqida instead for Islamic theology. On the other end of the spectrum, interestingly enough, many reformist theological movements, both Sunni and Shi`a, cling to the word and instead call for a ‘new kalam’ (`ilm al-kalam al-jadid).[xiv]

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of Islamic sciences is that if one juxtaposes their names in one cluster, one can find that there is a shared link between the linguistic and intellectual[xv]. The names of the core Islamic sciences starting from the Quran (a word whose literal meaning denotes reading, reciting as well as differentiation), Prophetic tradition or hadith (denotes telling, narrating, tradition, and reporting), scriptural exegesis or tafsir (lit. explaining, interpreting, or unveiling a meaning), jurisprudence or fiqh (a word means to acquire a subtle understanding), and logic or mantiq(lit. utterance) as well as the previous explication of the meaning of kalam,suggest an epistemic relation. Although the context here does not allow for adequate expanding, but this epistemic relation can be best understood in the light of the centrality of knowledge in Islam[xvi]and the sciences of Shari`ah, chief among which is theology, and that such a knowledge is to be lived, breathed, embodied and certainly practiced rationally, physically, and spiritually; in the same way ideas are spoken and conversed.

As expressed by Wael Hallaq, Shari`ah, within which kalam, with its wide scope, operates, is essentially a discursive practice.

Shari`ah represented a complex set of social, economic, moral and cultural relations that permeated the epistemic structures of the social and political order. It was a discursive practice in which these relations intersected with each other, acted upon each other and affected one another in a multiple ways…Indeed, the theological substrate encompassed the muddily mystical, the esoterically pantheistic and rationally philosophical. thereby creating complex relations between the Shari`ah and the larger spiritual and intellectual orders in which, and alongside which, it lived and functioned…[A] discursive practice that structurally and organically tied itself to the world around it in ways that were vertical and horizontal, structural and linear, economic and social, moral and ethical, intellectual and spiritual epistemic and cultural and textual and poetic, among much more.[xvii]

The naming of the science of kalamhas a particular significance; from the uniqueness of having numerous different names, the particularity and the different denotations and connotations of the term kalam, and the linguistic and historical reasons for how the discipline of Islamic theology came to be known as such, and the linguistic relation with the names of other Islamic disciplines. As erudite scholar of kalam Hasan al-Shafi`i argues, studying the importance of this special name “sheds light on the development of the history of the science [of kalam] and its developments, increases one’s readiness and preparedness to study it, and makes the initial study of it an insightful one.”[xviii]


[i] This is embodied in what is known as the ‘ten principles’ (al-mabadi’ al-`ashra) which are conventionally taught as an introduction at the outset of learning any of the Islamic sciences in traditional circles. These ten principles are combined in famous verses of poetry by Imam al-Sabban on his supra-commentary the famous logical text of Al-sullam. These ten principles compromise: (1) The definition of the science, (2) its subject-matters, (3) the outcome of studying it, (4) the virtues of significance of studying it, (5) its relation to other sciences, (6) its founder(s), (7) its name, (8) its foundational resources, (9) the religious ruling of studying it, and finally (10) its main questions. Al-Sabban, Hashiyya `ala Sharh al-Sullam lil-Mallawi. Cairo; Maṭabi` al-Halabi al-Babi, 2nd edition, 1938, p. 35.

[ii] In his commentary on Al-sanusiyya, Imam al-Bajuri states that some scholars mentions that there are as many as eight different names for this science. However, he only mentions two; `ilm al-tawhid and `ilm al-kalam. Al-Bajuri, Hashiyya `ala matn al-sanusiyya. Al-Matba`a al-Milijiyya, Cairo; 1907; p. 8.

[iii] This is the definition used by Imam al-Iji, from the commentary of Al-Jurjani on his famous book Al-mawaqif, Beirut; Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiyya, v. 1, p. 40.

[iv] Al-Taftazani, Sharh al-Nasafiyya.Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Arabiyya, p. 10-11.

[v]Fakhry, Majid. “Philosophy and Theology: From the Eighth Century C.E. to the Present.” In The Oxford History of Islam, edited by John L. Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 277.

[vi] Chittick, William. Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts. New York: SUNY Press, 1992, p. 1.

[vii] Goldziher, Ignac, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, trans. Andras Hamori and Ruth Hamori, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

[viii] Marmara, Michael. “God and His creation: Two Medieval Islamic Views. In Introduction to Islamic Civilization edited by R. M. Savory. Cambridge University Press,1976, p. 47.

[ix] Craig, William Lane, The Kalam Cosmological Argument. London: Macmillan Press, 1979, p. 4.

[x] Wolfson, Harry Austryn. The Philosophy of Kalam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 1.

[xi] Fouda, Said. Buhuth fi `ilm al-kalam. Amman, Dar al-Razi, 2004; p. 24, 27.

[xii] For more on the interaction between Islamic theology and philosophy, see “Islamic Philosophy (falsafa)” by Hossein Ziai, in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology edited by Tim Winter. Cambridge, 2008.

[xiii] Books from the genre include Dhamm al-kalam wa ahluh by al-Harawi, and Sawn al-mantiq wa al-kalam `an fan al-mantiq wa al-kalam.The latter work, however, is mainly dedicated to criticizing the use of mantiq or Islamic logic, due to it is adoption of Aristotelian concepts, and it serving as an auxiliary science to the field of Islamic theological investigations.

[xiv] From Sunni theology, see the work of the famous later Indian scholar al-Shibli al-Nu`mani in this, and the important book Fi usul al-hiwar wa tajdid `ilm al-kalam (On the Foundations of Dialogue and the Revival of the Science of Kalam). In Shi`a tradition, the reformist contributions of Haydar Huballah under the very title `Ilm al-kalm al-jadid and works of Abd al-Jabar al-Rifa`I on this subject.

[xv] For more on tradition-guided rationality read Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, especially Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. In relation to the inherent philosophical dimension of Islamic theology and its relationship to linguistic, as naturally embodied in the name kalam, this following argument can be read from Whose Justice? Which Rationality?  “tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive enquiry, what a particular doctrine claims, is always a matter of how precisely advanced, of the linguistic particularities of its formulation, of what in that time and place had to be denied, if it was to be asserted, of what was at the time presupposed by its assertions, and so on.” (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, p. 10).

[xvi] The first chapter of Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya `ulum al-din certainly important in this regard. An important work in the English language that investigates this relation is Rosenthal, Franz. Knowledge Triumphant. The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam. Leiden: Brill, 1970.

[xvii] Hallaq, Wael. Shari`ah, Theory, Practice and Transformations.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 543-544.

[xviii] Al-Shafi`i, Hasan. Al-madkhal ila dirasat `ilm al-kalam. Cairo: Maktabat Wahba, 1991, p. 25.