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Short description: Study of Islamic doctrines

ʿIlm al-kalām (Arabic: عِلْم الكَلام, meaning "science of discourse"),[1] usually foreshortened to kalām and sometimes called "Islamic scholastic theology" or "speculative theology", generally speaking, is the philosophical study of Islamic doctrine ('aqa'id).[2] It can also be defined as the science that studies the fundamental and basic doctrines of Islamic faith (usul al-Din), proving their validity, and refuting any doubts regarding them.[3]

Kalam was born out of the need to establish and defend the tenets of the Islamic faith against the philosophical doubters.[4][5] However, this picture has been increasingly questioned by scholarship that attempts to show that kalām was in fact a demonstrative rather than a dialectical science and was always intellectually creative.[6] It is also important to note that the definition of Kalam has changed depending on the time and context and who it was used by.[4]

The Arabic term Kalām means "speech, word, utterance" among other things. There are many possible interpretations as to why this discipline was originally called so; one is that one of the widest controversies in this discipline, in the second and third centuries of Hijra, has been about whether the "Word of God" (Kalām Allāh), as revealed in the Quran, is an eternal attribute of God and therefore not created, or whether it is created words in the sense of ink and sounds.[4][7] A scholar of Kalām is referred to as a mutakallim (plural: mutakallimūn), and it is a role distinguished from those of Islamic philosophers, jurists, and scientists.[8]


Many definitions exist for Kalam. One definition is that "kalām is the science which is concerned with firmly establishing religious beliefs by adducing proofs and with banishing doubts".[9] Al-Farabi in his Iḥṣāʾ al-ʿulūm defined Kalam as "a science which enables a man to procure the victory of the dogmas and actions laid down by the Legislator of the religion, and to refute all opinions contradicting them".[9] A common synonym isʿilm al-tawḥīd meaning science of the Unity (of God).[9]


As early as in the times of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE), the discipline of Kalām arose in an "attempt to grapple" with several "complex problems" early in the history of Islam, according to historian Majid Fakhry.[10] One was how to rebut arguments "leveled at Islam by pagans, Christians and Jews".[10] Another was how to deal with (what some saw as the conflict between) the predestination of sinners to hell on the one hand and "divine justice" on the other (some asserting that to be punished for what is beyond someone's control is unjust). Also Kalam sought to make "a systematic attempt to bring the conflict in data of revelation (in the Quran and the Traditions) into some internal harmony".[10] Other factors that might have led to the necessity of the study of Islamic doctrines include the various nations that embraced Islam, and brought with them new ideas and doctrines, and the emergence of Zandaqa in the Islamic world.[11]

Ahl al-Kalām

In early Islam, Ahl al-Kalām essentially referred to the Mu'tazilites, in addition to other smaller schools. Historian Daniel W. Brown describes Ahl al-Kalām as one of three main groups engaged in polemical disputes over sources of authority in Islamic law during the second century of Islam -- Ahl ar-Ra'y and Ahl al-Hadith being the other two. Ahl al-Kalām agreed with Ahl al-Hadith that the example of the Islamic prophet Muhammad was authoritative, but it did not believe it to be divine revelation, a status that only the Quran had (in its view).[12] It also rejected the authority of the hadith on the grounds that its corpus was "filled with contradictory, blasphemous, and absurd" reports, and that in jurisprudence, even the smallest doubt about a source was too much.[13] Thus, they believed, the true legacy of Muhammad was to be found elsewhere, i.e. in the sunnah, which is separate from the hadith. Ahl al-Hadith prevailed over the Ahl al-Kalām (and Muslims, or at least mainstream Muslims, now accept the authority of the hadith), so that most of what is known about their arguments comes from the writings of their opponents, such as Imam al-Shafi'i.[13] Brown also describes the Muʿtazila as "the later ahl al-Kalām", suggesting the ahl al-Kalām were forerunners of the Muʿtazilites.[14]

Later schools of Kalam like the Kullabis, Asharites and Matuiridis would develop systems that would defend the core orthodox creedal points of Islam completely on rational grounds, and were open to engaging in philosophy alongside the Quran and hadith.[7] This was unlike the Mutazilites, whose kalam instead prioritised reason over revelation to the point where the Quran and hadith would only be accepted if it aligned with their interpretation of rationalism.[15] The Hanbali school and followers of Ahmed Ibn Hanbal would generally avoid kalam and philosophical talk all together, seeing it as an innovation, and only address it out of necessity.[16]


There are several proposed reasons behind calling this discipline Ilm al-Kalam. One reason is that it gave the person well-versed in it power and strength in kalam, i.e. speech and discourse.[17] Another proposed reason is that the name originated from the habit of its scholars of starting the discussions in their books with "al-kalamu fi kadha".[17] Yet another reason is that people who were involved in this discipline discussed issues (and as such were involved in kalam about these issues) in which Ahl al-Hadith remained silent.[17] Other proposed reasons include that a mihna resulted from the discussion in this discipline of whether the Quran, which is regarded as the kalam of Allah, is created (makhluq) or not.[17]

As an Islamic discipline

Although seeking knowledge in Islam is considered a religious obligation, the study of kalam is considered by Muslim scholars to fall beyond the category of necessity and is usually the preserve of qualified scholars, eliciting limited interest from the masses or common people.[18]

The early Muslim scholar al-Shafi‘i held that there should be a certain number of men trained in kalam to defend and purify the faith, but that it would be a great evil if their arguments should become known to the mass of the people.[16]

Similarly, the Islamic scholar al-Ghazali held the view that the science of kalam is not a personal duty on Muslims but a collective duty. Like al-Shafi‘i, he discouraged the masses from studying it and that only the most able do so.[18]

Despite the dominance of kalam as an intellectual tradition within Islam, some scholars were critical of its use. For example, the Hanbali Sufi, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari wrote a treatise entitled Dhamm al-Kalam where he criticized the use of kalam where as the Shafii hadith scholar Al-Bayhaqi approved of it in the correct framework.[15]

Major kalam schools

Sa'id Foudah, a contemporary Ash'ari scholar of kalam (Islamic systematic theology).




  • Ibadi

See also


  1. Winter, Timothy, ed (2008). "Part I: Historical perspectives - Qur’an and hadith". The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–32. doi:10.1017/CCOL9780521780582.002. ISBN 9781139001816. 
  2. Mutahhari, Murtada; Qara'i, 'Ali Quli (translator). "An Introduction to 'Ilm al-Kalam". 
  3. Mutahhari, Murtadha. "An Introduction to Ilm al-Kalam". "For a definition of 'ilm al-kalam, it is sufficient to say that, 'It is a science which studies the basic doctrines of the Islamic faith (usul al-Din). It identifies the basic doctrines and seeks to prove their validity and answers any doubts which may be cast upon them.'" 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2  • Treiger, Alexander (2016) [2014]. "Part I: Islamic Theologies during the Formative and the Early Middle period - Origins of Kalām". in Schmidtke, Sabine. The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Oxford and New York City: Oxford University Press. pp. 27–43. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199696703.013.001. ISBN 9780199696703. 
     • Abrahamov, Binyamin (2016) [2014]. "Part I: Islamic Theologies during the Formative and the Early Middle period - Scripturalist and Traditionalist Theology". in Schmidtke, Sabine. The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Oxford and New York City: Oxford University Press. pp. 264–279. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199696703.013.025. ISBN 9780199696703. 
  5. Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Linda Gale Jones, Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, p. 391. ISBN:1438109075
  6. Shihadeh, Ayman; Thiele, Jan (2020-05-06) (in en). Philosophical Theology in Islam: Later Ashʿarism East and West. Brill. pp. 299. doi:10.1163/9789004426610. ISBN 978-90-04-42661-0. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bosworth, C. E.; van Donzel, E. J.; Heinrichs, W. P. et al., eds (1978). "Kalām". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. 4. Leiden: Brill Publishers. doi:10.1163/1573-3912_islam_COM_0421. ISBN 978-90-04-16121-4. 
  8. Clinton Bennett, The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies, p. 119. ISBN:1441127887.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Gardet, L. (2012-04-24), "ʿIlm al-Kalām" (in en), Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition (Brill), doi:10.1163/1573-3912_islam_com_0366,*-COM_0366, retrieved 2023-11-01 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Fakhry, Majid (1983). A History of Islamic Philosophy (second ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. pp. xvii-xviii. 
  11. Mutahhari, Murtadha. "An Introduction to Ilm al-Kalam". "These were: embracing of Islam by various nations who brought with them a series of (alien) ideas and notions; mixing and coexistence of the Muslims with people of various religions, such as, the Jews, the Christians, the Magians, and the Sabaeans, and the ensuing religious debates and disputes between the Muslims and those peoples; the emergence of the Zanadiqah in the Islamic world - who were totally against religion - as a result of the general freedom during the rule of the 'Abbasid Caliphs (as long as it did not interfere in the matters of state politics); the birth of philosophy in the Muslim world - which by itself gave birth to doubts and skeptical attitudes." 
  12. Brown, Rethinking tradition in modern Islamic thought, 1996: p.51
  13. 13.0 13.1 Brown, Rethinking tradition in modern Islamic thought, 1996: p.13-5
  14. Brown, Rethinking tradition in modern Islamic thought, 1996: p.15
  15. 15.0 15.1 Jeffry R. Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: p 37. ISBN:0230106587
  16. 16.0 16.1 Black Macdonald, Duncan (2008). Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence, and Constitutional Theory, Chapter=III. The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. p. 187. ISBN 978-1584778585. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Mutahhari, Murtadha. "An Introduction to Ilm al-Kalam". 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Bennett, Clinton (2012). The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 119. ISBN 978-1441127884. 


Further reading

External links