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An Introduction to 'Ilm

Martyr Murtada Mutahhari
translated from Persian by 'Ali Quli Qara'i
Vol. II No. 2
Rabi al Thani 1405 - January 1985

This long article is a part of Martyr Murtada
Mutahhari's book Ashna'i ba 'ulum-e Islami (An Introduction to the
Islamic Sciences). The book consists of seven parts: (1) logic (2) philosophy
(3) al-kalam (Muslim scholastic philosophy) (4) 'irfan (Islamic
mysticism) (5) usul-e fiqh (the principles of jurisprudence) (6)
fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) (7) hikmat-e 'amali' (practical
philosophy or practical morality). All the seven parts together serve both as
a comprehensive survey of the fundamentals of different branches of Islamic
sciences and a general and comprehensive perspective for the proper
understanding of the basic teachings of Islam along with the main points of
difference among various sects of Muslims. This work of Martyr Mutahhari is
the best introduction to Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. From this view,
Ashna'i ba 'ulum-e Islami deserves to be prescribed as the basic text
for all the students of Islamic studies. It is also very useful for
non-specialists who wish to acquaint themselves with Islam. All the
introductory books written so far are either by the Orientalists and are
naturally biased and fail to give true picture of the development of different
Islamic sciences or are written by Muslim scholars who consciously or
unknowingly incorporate in the body of books certain misleading notions
propagated by the Western scholars of Islam about Muslirn philosophy and its
various branches. It also can be said with some justification that no other
available introductory text in this field covers all Muslim sects and their
specific views. Martyr Murtada Mutahhari's exposition and evaluation of
various theories is objective and unbiased, which is the most essential
condition for a book to be prescribed as an introductory text.
In this part, dealing with 'ilm al-kalam,
the author has discussed the main doctrines of kalam and their
subsequent modifications with special reference to Mu'tazilah, Asha'irah and
Shi'ah schools of kalam. But he has not ignored other schools and has
referred to their relevant doctrines wherever it was necessary for the full
understanding of the problem under discussion.]'Ilm al-kalam is one of the Islamic sciences. It discusses the
fundamental Islamic beliefs and doctrines which are necessary for a Muslim to
believe in. It explains them, argues about them, and defends them.

The scholars of Islam divide Islamic teachings into
three parts:

(i) Doctrines ('aqa'id): These constitute
the issues which must be understood and believed in, such as, the Unity of God,
the Divine Attributes, universal and restricted prophethood, etc. However, there
are certain differences between Muslim sects as to what constitutes the basic
articles of faith (usul al-Din) in which belief is

(ii) Morals (akhlaq): These relate to the
commands and teachings relating to the spiritual and moral characteristics of
human beings, such as, justice, God-fearing (taqwa), courage, chastity,
wisdom, endurance, loyalty, truthfulness, trustworthiness, etc., and prescribe
'how' a human being should be.

(iii) The Law (ahkam): Here the issues
relating to practice and the correct manner of performing acts, such as, prayers
(salat), fasting (sawm), hajj, jihad, al- 'amr bil ma'ruf wa al-nahy
'an al-munkar, buying, renting, marriage, divorce, division of inheritance
and so on, are discussed.

The science which deals with the first of the
above-mentioned is 'ilm al-kalam. The study of the second is 'ilm
al-'akhlaq (ethics). The study of the third is called 'ilm al-fiqh
(the science of jurisprudence). That which is subjected to division in this
classification is the corpus of Islamic teachings; that is, those things which
constitute the content of Islam. It does not include all those Islamic studies
which form the preliminaries for the study of Islamic teachings, such as,
literature, logic, and occasionally philosophy.

Secondly, in this classification the criterion
behind division is the relationship of Islamic teachings to the human being:
those things which relate to human reason and intellect are called 'aqa'id;
things which relate to human qualities are called akhlaq; and those
things which relate to human action and practice are included in

As I shall discuss in my lectures on 'ilm
al-fiqh, although fiqh is a single discipline from the viewpoint of
its subject, it consists of numerous disciplines from other

In any case, 'ilm al-kalam is the study of
Islamic doctrines and beliefs. in the past, it was also called "usul al-Din"
or "'Ilm al-tawhid wa al-sifat".

The Beginnings of Kalam:

Though nothing definite can be said about the
beginnings of 'ilm al-kalam among Muslims, what is certain is that
discussion of some of the problems of kalam, such as the issue of
predestination (jabr) and free will (ikhtiyar), and that of Divine
Justice, became current among Muslims during the first half of the second
century of Hijrah. Perhaps the first formal centre of such discussions was the
circle of al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110/728-29). Among the Muslim personalities of
the latter half of the first century, the names of Ma'bad al-Juhani (d. 80/ 699)
and Ghaylan ibn Muslim al-Dimashqi (d. 105/723) have been mentioned, who
adamantly defended the ideas of free will (ikhtiyar) and man's freedom.
There were others who opposed them and supported predestination (jabr).
The believers in free will were called "qadariyyah" and their
opponents were known as "jabriyyah".

Gradually the points of difference between the two
groups extended to a series of other issues in theology, physics, sociology and
other problems relating to man and the Resurrection, of which the problem of
jabr and ikhtiyar was only one. During this period, the
"qadariyyah" came to be called "Mu'tazilah" and the "jabriyyah"
became known as "Asha'irah ". The Orientalists and their followers
insist on considering the beginnings of discursive discussions in the Islamic
world from this point or its like.

However, the truth is that rational argumentation
about Islamic doctrines starts with the Holy Qur'an itself, and has been
followed up in the utterances of the Holy Prophet (S) and especially in the
sermons of Amir al-Mu'minin 'Ali (A). This despite the fact that their style and
approach are different from those of the Muslim mutakallimun. [1]

Inquiry or Imitation?

The Holy Qur'an has laid the foundation of faith
and belief on thought and reasoning. Throughout, the Qur'an insists that men
should attain faith through the agency of thought. In the view of the Qur'an,
intellectual servitude is not sufficient for believing and understanding its
basic doctrines. Accordingly, one should take up a rational inquiry of the basic
principles and doctrines of the faith. For example, the belief that God is One,
should be arrived at rationally. The same is true of the prophethood of Muhammad
(S). This requirement resulted in the establishment of 'ilm al-'usul
during the first century.

There were many reasons which led to the
unprecedented realization of the necessity for the study of the fundamentals of
the Islamic faith amongst Muslims and the task of defending them, a realization
which led to the emergence of prominent mutakallimun during the second,
third, and fourth centuries. 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 [2] 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.

The First Problem:

Apparently, the first problem which was discussed
and debated by the Muslims was that of predestination and free will. This was
very natural, since it is a primary problem linked with human destiny and which
attracts the interest of every thinking adult. Perhaps it is not possible to
find a society which has reached intellectual maturity in which this problem was
not raised. Secondly, the Holy Qur'an has a large number of verses on this
subject, which instigate thought in regard to this problem. [3]

Accordingly, there is no reason to try to seek
another source for the origin of this problem in the Islamic world.

The Orientalists, habitually, make an effort, in
order to negate the originality of the Islamic teachings, to trace the roots, at
any cost, of all sciences that originated amongst Muslims to the world outside
the domains of Islam, in particular the Christian world. Therefore, they insist
that the roots of 'ilm al-kalam should be acknowledged to lie outside
Islam, and they make similar attempts with regard to the study of grammar,
prosody (and perhaps semantics, rhetoric, and studies of literary and poetic
devices), and Islamic 'irfan.

The problem of determinism and free will (jabr
wa ikhtiyar) is the same as the problem of predestination and Divine
Providence qada' wa qadar, the first formulation relates to man and his
free will, while the second one relates to God. This problem also raises the
issue of Divine Justice, because there is an explicit connection between
determinism and injustice on the one hand, and free will and justice on the

The problem of justice raises the issue of the
essential good and evil of actions, and the latter in its turn brings along with
it the problem of the validity of reason and purely rational judgements. These
problems together lead to the discussion of Divine wisdom (that is the notion
that there is a judicious purpose and aim behind Divine Acts) [4],
and thereby, gradually, to the debate about the unity of Divine Acts and the
unity of the Attributes, as we shall explain later.

The formation of opposite camps in the debates of
kalam, later acquired a great scope, and extended to many philosophical
problems, such as, substance and accident, nature of indivisible particles which
constitute physical bodies, the problem of space, etc. This was because, in the
view of the mutakallimun, discussion of such issues was considered a
prelude to the debate about theological matters, particularly those related with
mabda' (primeval origin) and ma'ad (resurrection). In this way
many of the problems of philosophy entered 'ilm al-kalam, and now there
are many problems common to both.

If one were to study the books on kalam,
specially those written after the 7th/l3th century, one would see that most
of them deal with the same problems as those discussed by philosophers -
especially, Muslim philosophers - in their books.

Islamic philosophy and kalam have greatly
influenced each other. One of the results was that kalam raised new
problems for philosophy, and philosophy helped in widening the scope of
kalam, in the sense that dealing with many philosophical problems
came to be considered necessary in kalam. With God's help, we hope to
give an example of each of these two results of reciprocal influence between
philosophy and kalam.

Al-Kalam al-'Aqli and al-Kalam

Although 'ilm al-kalam is a rational and
discursive discipline, it consists of two parts from the viewpoint of the
preliminaries and fundamentals used by it in arguments:

(i) 'aqli (rational);

(ii) naqli (transmitted,

The 'aqli part of kalam consists of
the material which is purely rational, and if there is any reference to naqli
(tradition), it is for the sake of illumination and confirmation of a
rational judgement. But in problems such as those related to Divine Unity,
prophethood, and some issues of Resurrection, reference to naql - the
Book and the Prophet's Sunnah - is not sufficient; the argument must be purely

The naqli part of kalam, although it
consists of issues related with the doctrines of the faith - and it is necessary
to believe in them - but since these issues are subordinate to the issue of
prophethood, it is enough to quote evidence from the Divine Revelation or the
definite ahadith of the Prophet (S), e.g. in issues linked with imamah
(of course, in the Shi'ite faith, wherein belief in imamah is
considered a part of usul al-Din), and most of the issues related with
the Resurrection.


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

In texts on logic and philosophy it is mentioned
that every science has a special subject of its own, and that the various
sciences are distinguished from one another due to their separate subject
matter. This is certainly true, and those sciences whose subject matter has a
real unity are such. However, there is nothing wrong if we form a discipline
whose unity of subject matter and the problems covered by it is an arbitrary and
conventional one, in the sense that it covers diverse, mutually exclusive
subjects, which are given an arbitrary unity because they serve a single purpose
and objective. In sciences whose subject has an essential unity, there is no
possibility of overlapping of problems. But in sciences in which there is a
conventional unity among the issues dealt with, there is nothing wrong if there
is an overlapping of issues. The commonness of the problems between philosophy
and kalam, psychology and kalam, or sociology and kalam, is
due to this reason.

Some Islamic scholars have sought to define and
outline the subject matter of 'ilm al-kalam, and have expressed various
opinions. But this is a mistake; because a clear-cut delineation of the subject
of study is possible for only those sciences which have an essential unity among
the problems dealt with. But in those sciences in which there is a conventional
unity of problems dealt with, there can be no unity of subject. Here we cannot
discuss this issue further.

The Name "'Ilm al-Kalam":

Another point is why this discipline has been
called " 'ilm al-kalam", and when this name was given to it. Some have
said that it was called "kalam" (lit. speech) because it gives an added
power of speech and argument to one who is well-versed in it. Some say that the
reason lies in the habit of the experts of this science who began their own
statements in their books with the expression "al-kalamu fi kadha".
Others explain that it was called "kalam" because it discussed issues
regarding which the Ahl al-Hadith preferred to maintain complete silence.
Yet according to others this name came to be in vogue when the issue whether the
Holy Qur'an (called "kalamullahi") ,the Divine Utterance [5],
i.e. the Holy Qur'an) is created (makhluq) or not, became a matter for
hot debate amongst the Muslim - a controversy which led to animosity between the
two opposite camps and bloodshed of many. This is also the reason why that
period is remembered as a "time of severe hardship" - mihnah. That is,
since most of the debates about the doctrines of the faith revolved around the
huduth (createdness, temporality) or the qidam (pre-eternity) of
the "Utterance" or kalam of God, this discipline which discussed the
principal doctrines of the faith came to be called " 'ilm al-kalam" (lit.
the science of the Utterance). These are the various opinions that have been
expressed about the reason why 'ilm al-kalam was given this

The Various Schools of Kalam:

The Muslims differed with one another in matters of
the Law (fiqh), following differing paths and dividing into various
sects, such as Ja'fari, Zaydi, Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali, each of
which has a fiqh of its own. Similarly, from the viewpoint of the
doctrine, they divided into various schools, each with its own set of principal
doctrines. The most important of these schools are: the Shi'ah, the Mu'tazilah,
the 'Asha'irah, and the Murji'ah.

Here it is possible that the question may arise as
to the reason behind such regretful division of the Muslims into sects in
matters dealing with kalam and fiqh, and why they could not
maintain their unity in these spheres. The difference in matters of kalam
causes disunity in their Islamic outlook, and the disagreement in the matter
of fiqh deprives them of the unity of action.

Both this question and the regret are justified.
But it is necessary to pay attention to the two following points:

(i) The disagreement in issues of fiqh among
the Muslims is not so great as to shatter the foundations of the unity of
doctrinal outlook and mode of practice. There is so much common in their
doctrinal and practical matters that the points of difference can hardly inflict
any serious blow.

(ii) Theoretical differences and divergence of
views is inevitable in societies in spite of their unity and agreement in
principles, and as long as the roots of the differences lie in methods of
inference, and not in vested interests, they are even beneficial; because they
cause mobility, dynamism, discussion, curiosity, and progress. Only when the
differences are accompanied by prejudices and emotional and illogical
alignments, and lead individuals to slander, defame, and treat one another with
contempt, instead of motivating them to endeavour towards reforming themselves,
that they are a cause of misfortune.

In the Shi'ite faith, the people are obliged to
imitate a living mujtahid, and the mujtahidun are obliged to
independently ponder the issues and form their independent opinions and not to
be content with what has been handed down by the ancestors. Ijtihad and
independence of thought inherently lead to difference of views; but this
divergence of opinions has given life and dynamism to the Shi'ite fiqh.
Therefore, difference in itself cannot be condemned. What is condemnable is
the difference which originates in evil intentions and selfish interests, or
when it centres around issues which drive Muslims on separate paths, such as the
issue of imamah and leadership, not the difference in secondary and
non-basic matters.

/ 7