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Kalām (Arabic: علم الكلام‎) is the Islamic philosophy of seeking Islamic theological principles through dialectic. In Arabic the word means "words, discussion, discourse". A scholar of kalam is referred to as a mutakallim (Muslim theologian; plural mutakallimiin). There are many interpretations of why this discipline was called "kalam"; one of them is that the widest controversy in this field was about Allah's speech.


Independent minds exploiting the methods of ijtihad sought to investigate the doctrines of the Qur'an, which until then had been accepted in faith on the authority of divine revelation. One of first debates was that between partisan of the Qadar (Arabic: qadara‎, the power), who affirmed free will, and the Jabarites (jabar, force, constraint, Compel), who maintained the belief in fatalism.

At the second century of the Hijra, a new movement arose in the theological school of Basra, Iraq. A pupil, Wasil ibn Ata, who was expelled from the school because his answers were contrary to then orthodox Islamic tradition and became leader of a new school, and systematized the radical opinions of preceding sects, particularly those of the Qadarites. This new school was called Mutazilite (from i'tazala, to separate oneself, to dissent). Its principal dogmas were three:

  1. God is an absolute unity, and no attribute can be ascribed to Him.
  2. Man is a free agent. It is on account of these two principles that the Mu'tazilities designate themselves the "Partisans of Justice and Unity".
  3. All knowledge necessary for the salvation of man emanates from his reason; humans could acquire knowledge before, as well as after, Revelation, by the sole light of reason. This fact makes knowledge obligatory upon all men, at all times, and in all places.

The Mutazilities, compelled to defend their principles against the orthodox Islam of their day, looked for support in philosophy, and are one of the first to pursue a rational theology called Ilm-al-Kalam (Scholastic theology); those professing it were called Mutakallamin. This appellation became the common name for all seeking philosophical demonstration in confirmation of religious principles. The first Mutakallamin had to debate both the orthodox and the non-Muslims, and they may be described as occupying the middle ground between those two parties. But subsequent generations were to large extent critical towards the Mutazilite school, especially after formation of the Asharite concepts.

Early scholars of Kalam were recruited by Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (d. 873 AD) for the House of Wisdom under the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.


The place of kalam in Islamic thought has been controversial throughout history. Many traditional Sunni Muslim scholars have criticized or outright prohibited it, including the well known "Four Imams". Abu Hanifa prohibited his students from engaging in kalam, stating in his view that those who practice it are from the "retarded ones."[1] Malik ibn Anas referred to kalam in the Islamic religion as being "detested"[2], and that whoever "seeks the religion through kalam will deviate".[3] In addition, Muhammad Shafi'i said that no advice on knowledge of Islam can be gained from books of kalam, as kalam "is not from knowledge"[4][5] and that "It is better for a man to spend his whole life doing whatever Allah has prohibited - besides shirk with Allah - rather than spending his whole life involved in kalam."[6] Ahmad ibn Hanbal also spoke strongly against kalam, stating his view that no one looks into kalam unless there is "corruption in his heart,"[7] and even went so far as to prohibit sitting with people practicing kalam even if they were defending the Sunnah,[8] and instructing his students to warn against any person they saw practicing kalam.[9]

Today, criticism of kalam also comes from modern day scholars of the Salafi movement.

Some modern day scholars of the Sufi movement hold mixed views. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, a Sheikh in the Shadili Order, holds that the criticism of kalam from early scholars was specific to the Mu'tazila, going on to claim that other historical Muslim scholars such as Al-Ghazali, As-Subki, and An-Nawawi saw both good and bad in kalam and cautioned from the speculative excess of unorthodox groups such as the Mu'tazilah and Jahmiyya.[10]

Major kalam schools

  • Ash'ari
  • Imami
  • Maturidi
  • Murji'ah
  • Mu'tazili

See also

  • Jahm bin Safwan
  • Jewish Kalam
  • Logic in Islamic philosophy
  • Kalam cosmological argument
  • Madhab
  • Qadr (doctrine)


  1. al-Makkee, Manaaqib Abee Haneefah, pg. 183-184
  2. Dhammul-Kalaam (B/194)
  3. Dhammul-Kalaam (Q/173/A)
  4. Dhammul-Kalaam (Q/213)
  5. Dhahabi, as-Siyar (10/30)
  6. Ibn Abi Hatim, Manaaqibush-Shaafi'ee, pg. 182
  7. Jaami' Bayaanul-'Ilm wa Fadlihi (2/95)
  8. Manaaqibul-Imaam Ahmad, pg. 205
  9. Ibn Battah, al-Ibaanah (2/540)
  10. [1]

External links

Template:Islamic philosophy