Ilm al-Kalam (عِلْم الكَلام, literally “science of discourse”), usually foreshortened to Kalam and sometimes called “Islamic scholastic theology”, is the study of Islamic doctrine (‘aqa’id). It was born out of the need to establish and defend the tenets of Islamic faith against doubters and detractors. A scholar of Kalām is referred to as a mutakallim (plural: mutakallimūn), and it’s a role distinguished from those of Islamic philosophers, jurists, and scientists.
The rise of kalam came to be closely associated with the Mu’tazila, a rationalist school that emerged at the beginning of the second century ah (seventh century ad) and rose to prominence in the following century. The failure of the Mu’tazila to follow up their initial intellectual and political ascendancy by imposing their views as official state doctrine seriously discredited rationalism, leading to a resurgence of traditionalism and later to the emergence of the Ash’ariyya school, which attempted to present itself as a compromise between the two opposing extremes. The Ash’arite school gained acceptability within mainstream (Sunni) Islam. However, kalam continued to be condemned, even in this ‘orthodox’ garb, by the dominant traditionally-inclined schools.
In its later stages, kalam attempted to assimilate philosophical themes and questions, but the subtle shift in this direction was not completely successful. The decline of kalam appeared to be irreversible, shunned as it was by traditionalists and rationalists alike. Although kalam texts continued to be discussed and even taught in some form, kalam ceased to be a living science as early as the ninth century ah (fifteenth century ad). Attempts by reformers to revive it, beginning in the nineteenth century, have yet to bear fruit. (muslimphilosophy.com)
Reflection on the dogmatic underpinnings of Islam and the introduction of tools by which that reflection can take place are the key elements in what is called “theology” in the Muslim setting. Certain themes came to dominate the discussions: the nature of God and his relationship to the Qurʾan, the meaning of “faith” and of being a “Muslim,” free will and predestination, and the place of reason in relationship to revelation, especially as it relates to ethics. The connection of these discussions with Muslim developments in philosophy is certainly blurred, but theology can always be characterized by its attention to the twin scriptural sources of Islam, the Qurʾan and Hadith. While the extent to which those sources have actually driven the concerns of theology has been greatly contested among scholars (as compared to the concerns having emerged because of foreign or apologetic influences), the prominence of the scriptural texts within Muslim discussions themselves remains the dominating characteristic of the literature.
The basic tenet of Islamic belief is affirmed in the shahāda, the testimonial:
“I testify that there is no God but God and Muhammad is the emissary of God.”
To affirm this statement is to become a Muslim. The oneness of God and the primacy of Muhammad’s prophetic mission are the two indispensable components of the faith. The various orthodox creeds, from the ninth century onward, include many other articles about God’s nature and attributes, the Prophet’s mission and status, human freedom and responsibility, the life of the world-to-come, and the true meaning of belief and unbelief, among others. These formulations were hard-won. Behind the triumphant articles of faith, seemingly so immutable, lay centuries of fierce disagreement. This article discusses the beginnings of theology in Islam, the Mu’tazilite school, classic Sunni Kalam, the transformation of Kalam, other less “classic” theologians, and modern developments.
A Cartography of Modern Muslim Theology
Muslim theology is an incredibly broad and rich field of intellectual inquiry. It remains for me an area of long and abiding interest. Modern Muslim Theology, however, is neither a survey nor analysis of the field. It is more properly a mapping of possibilities. It is constructive in nature. What, then, is Modern Muslim Theology about? There are several ways that I would like to go about answering this question because the book represents many things at once: a disciplinary intervention, an appeal to the religious imagination, a reaffirmation of revelation in the midst of the human modern, and a reframing of theology as an ethical practice.
A Disciplinary Intervention
Firstly, from a disciplinary perspective, Modern Muslim Theology is a work that tries to carve out greater space for a Muslim theological discourse within the Euro-American academy. It seeks to foster a discourse that is already taking shape. Other Muslim scholars writing within the academy have made important contributions on the theological front. While Christian theology – as a discipline – may possess a greater scholarly footprint in comparison (for genealogical and structural reasons), Muslim ventures in contemporary theology have increasingly appeared across a number of fields ranging from biomedical and environmental ethics, metaphysics, and comparative theology to Qur’anic hermeneutics, feminist scholarship, and theologies of liberation. Most assuredly, the Muslim theological discourse already exists. In this respect, Modern Muslim Theology is not a work aimed at generating something new nor is it seeking to justify what has come before. My concern, rather, is to support the discourse conceptually and to grow the discipline structurally.
“…from a disciplinary perspective, Modern Muslim Theology is a work that tries to carve out greater space for a Muslim theological discourse within the Euro-American academy. It seeks to foster a discourse that is already taking shape”
While such a project will require work well beyond what can be accomplished with the written word, I envisioned Modern Muslim Theology, nonetheless, as an important step in that direction. I wanted to write a work that was explicitly theological in both name and substance in order to call greater attention to this discourse in formation. Where my work arguably differs is how it goes about entering the Muslim theological discourse. Many of the preceding contributions have emerged from or operated within the interdisciplinary confines of Islamic studies. While that is a move with certain advantages (as well as disadvantages), my intention was to create a work that occupied a scholarly space separate from the conventional discourses of Islamic studies. This is a work with a clear theological voice working towards establishing a religious ethical framework of faith and action.
Nevertheless, I should clarify that while my overarching aim may be to support a constructive theological space that is distinct from the prevailing academic discourses of Islamic studies (like anthropology, sociology, history, philology, textual studies, and so forth), Modern Muslim Theology does not explicitly argue for or delineate the parameters of such discourse. My approach is more implicit. I assume the discourse’s existence and wrote this work in order to join and hopefully enrich the ongoing theological exchange. This work was written looking forward to where writing in the vein of academic Muslim theology might grow and go.
Indeed, the delineation of a Muslim theological discourse might have been an easier task to undertake given the straightforwardness of such an end. Instead, Modern Muslim Theology responds to other important concerns I had in mind and, as a result, the book contains multiple movements – those mentioned at the beginning. Depending on a reader’s focus, then, the book can be read across a number of different narrative arcs. For the purposes of this essay, I would like to discuss three additional ways that Modern Muslim Theology might be read: 1) Modern Muslim Theology can be read as a work about theology and the religious imagination, 2) the book can be read as a theological exposition on the relationship of the human to the divine for the modern context, or 3) the book can be read as an argument for approaching theology as an ethical practice.
Theology and the Imagination
“Moving beyond classical conceptions of theology, which primarily understand it as either dogmatics (ʿaqīda) or scholastic argumentation (ʿilm al-kalām), I argue that theology ought to be reimagined as far more encompassing an endeavor.”
On a methodological level, I am proposing that the religious imagination can serve as a powerful means for pursuing theology. Moving beyond classical conceptions of theology, which primarily understand it as either dogmatics (ʿaqīda) or scholastic argumentation (ʿilm al-kalām), I argue that theology ought to be reimagined as far more encompassing an endeavor. As I state in Chapter 1 “The Language of Theology,” theology is how human beings respond to God. This alternative conception speaks to the manner in which everyday Muslims negotiate their relationship with God, one another, and the rest of creation in light of their respective histories and personal contexts. With this broader understanding in place, I further contend that theology requires the creativity and energy of the imagination.
Historically, thinkers of the past gravitated to reason as that faculty which set human beings apart from other creatures, the beasts of the land, sky, and sea in particular. The modern world, increasingly mechanized and digital, is a dramatically different environment. Algorithms and machines, by design, exercise a greater fidelity to reason than we do. Resurfacing in significance and distinction, then, are our other human faculties, the imagination especially. The imagination has much to offer to the conversation on faith today.
While the importance of scripturalism and rationalism are generally recognized for the work of theology, the imagination, in comparison, is all too often overlooked or ignored. In response, Modern Muslim Theology presents a theology of the imagination where scripture, reason, and the imagination are brought into concert. I work throughout the book to draw attention back to the imagination as a faculty that has been and continues to be an important element of the Islamic faith and the broader historic tradition. Whether reading revelation or carefully combing the artistic and scholarly productions of the Muslim past and present (and future), the imagination is invariably and undeniably at play.
When read from this perspective, Chapter 4 “The Religious Imagination,” marks the apex of this specific narrative arc. It is there that I discuss the nature of the imagination, its relationship to reason, and its persistent presence across Islamic history starting with the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition before proceeding through the thought of seminal figures like the Sufi metaphysician Ibn al–ʿArabī (d. 638/1240) and the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938). Although the preceding and subsequent chapters do not take up the question of the imagination as explicitly, the book as a whole is designed as a series of demonstrations meant to illustrate what a theology of the imagination looks like. From the life of the Kaʿba to the life of Malcolm X (d. 1965), each demonstration presents to the reader a symbol, structure, or life with iconic significance for Muslims and then figuratively recasts it in a meaningful and innovative way that is relevant for the theological project at hand.
The method of figurative demonstration adopted by this book takes its precedence from the pedagogical tradition of Sufism, in which direction is often provided through a series of symbols, narratives, and interpretations. In other words, I would much rather guide and orient my readers than to speak blindly at them. Furthermore, these re-imaginings are meant to convey both the efficacy and versatility that an imaginative theological approach can possess. Rather than the exclusive domain of scholastics, theology is argued herein to be something that ought to be open to all and it is precisely via the imagination that a captivating and accessible point of entry can be offered.
Human and Divine
On the conceptual level, I am tracing out the relationship of the human and the divine for the work of modern Muslim theology. My reframing of theology as ultimately responsive reflects how I understand this relationship. Nonetheless, just as important as the responses that persons of faith cultivate (theology), careful account must also be taken of that to which each person is responding (revelation) and the ground from which each response emerges (tradition). Theology should be understood, then, as a continual negotiation of revelation – God’s ongoing disclosure to humankind – and tradition – the continuously developing constellation of community and history from which and to which a person of faith simultaneously emerges, turns, and adapts. Moreover, this process unfolds across every period of history in different ways. For this reason, I also spend time teasing out the modern context in which Muslims live today as well as some of the theological challenges faced therein, like the faults inherent to modern conceptions of time and the ways that death is hidden from everyday view.
“On the conceptual level, I am tracing out the relationship of the human and the divine for the work of modern Muslim theology. My reframing of theology as ultimately responsive reflects how I understand this relationship.”
Following this particular narrative arc, the center point of Modern Muslim Theology shifts to Chapter 5 “Revelation and Response.” Before and after it, I describe the ways that human beings carry on, construct, and change tradition as they navigate the contexts in which they live. The tradition is wider and richer than typically imagined. Rather than the repository of the achievements of the learned few, I work to contend that every practitioner of the faith plays a vital role in its formation and continuation. My extended focus on Malcolm X, for example, is my attempt to demonstrate that even in our present era modern lives could and did contribute to the growth of the tradition in substantively meaningful ways. All these efforts at re-conceptualization are meant to render theology more reachable and relevant for Muslims in the here and how.
Alongside these efforts to unearth the human dimensions of theology, I work to demonstrate the parallel ways that God is both present and actively manifest as well. While theology must rightfully account for the human dimensions of life, God, I maintain, must remain the center and circumference of theology. For those familiar with modern theology more broadly, the fifth chapter can be understood as a Barthian re-centering of revelation for the present day. In this apex chapter, I explore the transcendence and immanence of revelation precisely because the modern horizon so very often obscures the contours of the divine. Theology, then, is not an undertaking one pursues alone, but is cultivated in concert with a living community of tradition and with a God who is active and present foremost of all.
Theology As Praxis
On a practical level, Modern Muslim Theology develops a theology for everyday Muslims living in the modern world. As I describe at the outset of the book, this work can also be understood as a “Muslim theology of engagement.” Engagement here works on two levels. In one respect, theology ought to be understood as the engagement of the person of faith with God, which reflects the narrative arc that I describe immediately above – God speaks via revelation and the faithful and faith-seeking strive to respond through their respective theologies. In another respect, theology is also the engagement of the person of faith with the world because how one responds to God finds expression in how one lives in the world, especially with respect to how one responds to all the problems, crises, and challenges that rise therein.
“On a practical level, Modern Muslim Theology develops a theology for everyday Muslims living in the modern world. As I describe at the outset of the book, this work can also be understood as a ‘Muslim theology of engagement.’”
Theology, then, ought to entail praxis. For Muslims pursuing a life of faith, theology is more than just the enumeration of convictions and concepts that one holds to be true. It is more broadly an ethical and embodied practice – the joining together of belief and ethics. God communicates through revelation an ethical framework that demands the commitment of the entire person – mind and body. It is not enough for one to believe. A person of faith responding to God must also express and embody their reply through their ongoing conduct in the world.
When Modern Muslim Theology is read along this particular axis, the arc of the book is that of a trajectory that culminates with the final two chapters. While much conceptual work is undertaken in the preceding sections, these two concluding chapters are where I make the turn to the ethical dimensions of theology. First, I argue that revelation makes clear that faith and righteousness – the Qur’anic term of choice for speaking of right actions or deeds – are intimately tied together. Then, this ethical orientation is applied to prayer in order to flesh out and offer a theology of practice. If theology is indeed to be accessible and open to all, then the practice of theology must be made to live in the everyday moments and actions of life.
These ways of reading Modern Muslim Theology, however, do not represent the limit of interpretive possibilities. In fact, by way of closing, I would offer a final way of understanding what this book is about. Modern Muslim Theology can also be taken as an invitation. It is an invitation for Muslims to enter the theological conversation with greater care, courage, and imagination so that their respective responses to God – the individual lives of faith that each forms and follows – may prove to be transformative for oneself and for others.