‘Ilm al-kalam – lit. ‘the science of the word’ (or speech or discussion) – comprises a tradition of dialectical argumentation and speculative thought that attempts to explain, clarify and defend the fundamental theological doctrines of Islam. Early disputes in this tradition revolved around essentially practical questions such as who should lead the Muslim community and whether or not sinners who are nonetheless believers should still be considered Muslims. However, these issues soon gave way to more speculative concerns such as the tension between predestination and free will, the question of whether the Qur’an as the word of God is created or uncreated, and the relation between God’s various traditional attributes and His essential unity. The two most influential schools of kalam are the Mu‘tazilites and the Ash‘arites. The Mu‘tazilites emphasized God’s unity and justice, strongly advocated the use of reason in the interpretation of Qur’anic doctrines and were defenders of human free will. The Ash‘arites emphasized God’s omnipotence (sometimes at the expense of human free will) and in general staked out a middle ground between Mu‘tazilite rationalism and staunchly traditionalist theologico-juristic schools such as the Hanbalites and Zahirites, who generally rejected the use of reason and interpretation in favor of the literal truth of the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad and his companions. For political as well as doctrinal reasons, Ash‘arism eventually overshadowed Mu‘tazilism, and for many came to represent the mainstream of Islamic theological thought. Both schools, however, produced numerous resourceful proofs for the creation of the world, articulated a distinctly Islamic form of atomism, and were severe and implacable critics of the philosophers. Indeed, by the end of the twelfth century, kalam had overshadowed and marginalized Greek-influenced philosophy within the Sunni milieu, at least – although not without being enriched by its concerns, methods and insights.
   Further reading: Abrahamov 1998; Arberry 1957; van Ess 2006; Morewedge 1979; Watt 1948, 1962/85

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.


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