Kalam and Islam
Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller

Most of us have met dedicated and otherwise intelligent Muslims who have made themselves "ʿaqida police" to confront the rest of us with their issues in tenets of faith. We are told that this group, or that group, or most Muslims, or we ourselves are kafirs or "non-Muslims" on grounds that are less than familiar, but found in some manual of Islamic creed. Before going to hell on a trick question, or sending someone else there, many Muslims today would do well to cast a glance at the history of traditional Islamic theology (kalam), and the real creedal reasons that make one a Muslim or non-Muslim. Nuh Keller examines them in the following address given at the Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Few would deny today that the millions of dollars spent worldwide on religious books, teachers, and schools in the last thirty years by oil-rich governments have brought about a sea change in the way Muslims view Islam. In whole regions of the Islamic world and Western countries where Muslims live, what was called Wahhabism in earlier times and termed Salafism in our own has supplanted much of traditional Islamic faith and practice. The very name Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'a or "Sunni orthodoxy and consensus" has been so completely derailed in our times that few Muslims even know it is rolling down another track. In most countries, Salafism is the new "default Islam," defining all religious discourse, past and present, by the understanding of a few Hanbali scholars of the Middle Ages whose works historically affected the tribes and lands where the most oil has been found. Among the more prominent casualties of this "reform" are the Hanbalis' ancient foes, the Ash'ari and Maturidi schools of Sunni theology.

For over a thousand years Ash'ari-Maturidi theology has defined Sunni orthodoxy. When I visited al-Azhar in Cairo in 1990 and requested for my library the entire syllabus of religious textbooks taught by Azhar High Schools in Egypt, one of the books I was given was a manual on Islamic sects, whose final section defined Ahl al-Sunna as "the Ash'aris, followers of Abul Hasan al-Ash'ari, and the Maturidis, followers of Abu Mansur al-Maturidi" (Mudhakkara al-firaq, 14).

This is not an isolated assessment. When the Imam of the late Shafi'i school Ibn Hajr al-Haytami was asked for a fatwa identifying ashab al-bida' or heretics, he answered that they were "those who contravene Muslim orthodoxy and consensus (Ahl al-Sunna wa al- Jama'a): the followers of Sheikh Abul Hasan al-Ash'ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the two Imams of Ahl al-Sunna" (al-Fatawa al-hadithiyya, 280).

Few Muslims today know anything about the Ash'ari and Maturidi schools or their relation to Islam. So I shall discuss their theology not as history, but as orthodoxy, answering the most basic questions about them such as: What are the beliefs of Sunni Islam? Who needs rational theology anyway? and what relevance does it have today? We mention only enough history to understand what brought it into being, what it said, what it developed into, what its critics said of it, and what the future may hold for it.


Islamic theology is based on an ethical rather than speculative imperative. Many Qur'anic verses and hadiths show that iman or "true faith" is obligatory and rewarded by paradise, and that kufr or "unbelief" is wrong and punished by hell. Every Muslim must know certain matters of faith, be convinced of them himself, and not merely imitate others who believe in them. The faith God requires of man is expressed in the words:

"The Messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the believers. Each believes in Allah, His angels, His books, and His messengers. We do not differentiate between any of His messengers, and they say: We hear and obey, O Lord grant us Your forgiveness, and unto You is the final becoming"
(Qur'an 2:285).

This verse defines the believer as someone who believes in the Prophet's revelation ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace) in general and in detail. The details have to be known to be believed, for as Allah says, "Allah does not tax any soul except in its capacity" (Qur'an 2:286), and it is not in one's capacity to believe something unless it is both known to one and not unbelievable, meaning not absurd or self-contradictory. Moreover, "belief" means holding something to be true, not merely believing what one's forefathers or group believe, such that if they handed down something else, one would believe that instead. That is, "belief" by blind imitation without reference to truth or falsity is not belief at all. Allah specifically condemns those who reject the message of Islam for this reason, by saying:

"When they are told: 'Come to what Allah has revealed, and to the Messenger,' they say, 'It suffices us what we found our forefathers upon' – But what if their forefathers knew nothing, and were not guided?"
(Qur'an 5:104).

In short, Islamic kalam theology exists because belief in Islam demands three things:

(1) to define the contents of faith;
(2) to show that it is possible for the mind
to accept, not absurd or inconsistent;
(3) and to give reasons to be personally convinced of it.

"Very well," one may say, "these are valid aims, but what proof is there that rational argument, the specific means adopted by traditional theology, is valid or acceptable in matters of faith?" – to which the first answer is that the Qur'an itself uses rational argument; while the second is that nothing else would have met the historical threat to Islam of Jahm and the Mu'tazila, the aberrant schools who were obligatory for Ash'ari and Maturidi to defeat.

The Qur'anic proof is the verse

"Allah has not begotten a son, nor is there any god besides Him, for otherwise, each would have taken what they created and overcome the other – how exalted is Allah above what they describe!" (Qur'an 23:91), whose premises and conclusion are: (a) a "god" means a being with an omnipotent will; (b) the omnipotent will of more than one such being would impose a limit on the omnipotence of the other, which is absurd; (c) God is therefore one, and has not begotten a son, nor is there any god besides Him.

A second proof is in the Qur'anic verse

"Were there other gods in [the heavens and earth] besides Allah, [the heavens and earth] would have come to ruin" (Qur'an 21:22), whose argument may be summarized as:

(a) a "god" means a being with an omnipotent will, to whom everything in the universe is thus subject;
(b) if the universe were subject to a number of omnipotent gods, its fabric would be disrupted by the exercise of their several wills, while no such disruption is evident in the universe;
(c) God is therefore one, and there are no other gods.

The historical proof for rational argument – unmentioned in kalam literature but perhaps even more cogent than either of the Qur'anic proofs just mentioned – is that nothing else could meet the crisis that Ash'ari and Maturidi faced; namely, the heretical mistakes of the two early proto-schools of ʿaqida, the Jahmiyya and the Mu'tazila. We say "nothing else" because a chess player cannot be defeated by playing checkers, and the only way to refute the arguments of the Jahmiyya and of the Mu'tazila was by intellectual means. Mere political suppression would have but hardened their party spirit into sectarian obstinacy, so it was necessary to defeat them with rational argument.


The challenge facing Abul Hasan al-Ash'ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi was thus threefold: (1) to define the tenets of faith of Islam and refute innovation; (2) to show that this faith was acceptable to the mind and not absurd or inconsistent; and (3) to give proofs that personally convinced the believer of it. Though not originally obligatory itself, kalam became so when these aims could not be accomplished for the Muslim polity without it, in view of the Islamic legal principle that "whatever the obligatory cannot be accomplished without is itself obligatory." As we have seen, the specific form of the response, rational argument, was used by the Qur'an, mandated by human reason, and necessitated by history. We now turn to the concrete form of the response, which was the traditional tenets of faith (ʿaqida) of the two schools, after which we will look at how the response was conditioned by their historical predecessors, the Jahmiyya and Mu'tazila schools.


The heart of traditional kalam theology is that – after the shahada "there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah," and after acknowledging Allah's infinite perfections and transcendence above any imperfection – it is obligatory for every Muslim to know what is (a) necessarily true, (b) impossible, or (c) possible to affirm of both Allah and the prophets (upon whom be peace). These three categories traditionally subsume some fifty tenets of faith.

(a) The twenty attributes necessarily true of Allah are His (1) existence; (2) not beginning; (3) not ending; (4) self-subsistence, meaning not needing any place or determinant to exist; (5) dissimilarity to created things; (6) uniqueness, meaning having no partner (sharik) in His entity, attributes, or actions; (7) omnipotent power; (8) will; (9) knowledge; (10) life; (11) hearing; (12) sight; (13) speech; such that He is (14) al-mighty; (15) all-willing; (16) all-knowing; (17) living; (18) all-hearing; (19) all-seeing; (20) and speaking – through His attributes of power, will, knowledge, life, hearing, sight, and speech, not merely through His being.
(b) The twenty attributes necessarily impossible of Allah (21-40) are the opposites of the previous twenty, such as nonexistence, beginning, ending, and so on.
(c) The one attribute merely possible of Allah (41) is that He may create or destroy any possible thing.

The attributes of the prophets (upon whom be peace) similarly fall under the three headings:
(a) The four attributes necessarily true of the prophets (42-45) are telling the truth, keeping their trust, conveying to mankind everything they were ordered to, and intelligence.
(b) The four attributes necessarily impossible of them (46-49) are the opposites of the previous four, namely lying, treachery, concealing what they were ordered to reveal, and feeblemindedness.
(c) The one attribute possible of them (50) is any human state that does not detract from their rank, such as eating, sleeping, marrying, and illnesses not repellant to others; although Allah protected them from every offensive physical trait and everything unbecoming them, keeping them from both lesser sins and enormities, before their prophethood and thereafter.

When one reflects on these fifty fundamental tenets of faith, which students memorized over the centuries, it is not difficult to understand why Ash'ari-Maturidi kalam was identified with Islamic orthodoxy for over a millennium; namely, they are the tenets of the Qur'an and sunna.


We find however in the history of kalam that authors sometimes urged the distinctive doctrines of their school, particularly against opponents, as if they were basic principles of Islam. Now, "basic principles" are what every Muslim must know and believe as a Muslim, while "distinctive doctrines" may include virtually any point that controversy has brought into prominence. The two are not necessarily the same.

A number of points of ʿaqida were not originally central to the faith of Islam, but entered the canon of "orthodoxy" by celebrity acquired through debate among schools. To take but one point for example: the question of "whether man is obligated to know God by revelation or whether by human reason alone" has been treated by Ahl al-Sunna, Mu'tazila, and Jahmiyya theologians as a point of ʿaqida, though it does not personally concern one single Muslim – for all Muslims know Allah through the revelation of the Qur'an – but rather concerns Allah's own judgement of human beings who have never been reached by the Islamic revelation, a judgement Allah is unlikely to consult anyone else about, whether believer or unbeliever. Something so devoid of practical consequences for Muslims could not have become prominent except through faction and debate.

Treating distinctive doctrines as basic tenets of faith, however, was not always the result of mere controversy, but because Sunni theologians had to distinguish truth from falsehood, the latter including the many mistakes of the Mu'tazila and Jahmiyya. All falsehoods are rejected by Islam, and in matters of faith most are serious sins, but some are more crucial than others. In other words, in the spectrum from right to wrong beliefs, there are four main categories:

(1) central beliefs that one must hold or one is not a Muslim;
(2) beliefs that are obligatory to hold, but denying them
does not make one a non-Muslim;
(3) beliefs that are unlawful to hold, but affirming them
does not make one a non-Muslim;
(4) and beliefs that no one can hold and remain a Muslim.

For many Muslims today, greater knowledge of these four necessary distinctions would bring about greater tolerance, and teachers of Islamic theology must explain that while "orthodoxy" reflects what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues spell the difference between faith and unbelief, while others are things that Muslims may disagree about and still remain Muslim.

To say it again, a particular point of ʿaqida could be contrary to another, even heretical school of thought and hotly debated, yet not directly concern kufr or iman, faith or unfaith. Indeed, the longer and harder the historical debate, the less likely the point under discussion is a matter of salvation or damnation, for it is inconsistent with Allah's mercy and justice to create men of widely varying intelligence and then make their salvation depend on something that even the most brilliant of them cannot agree upon. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210) acknowledges this by writing:

One should know that theologians have had considerable difficulty defining kufr (unbelief) ... Kufr consists in denying the truth of anything the Prophet ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace) is necessarily known to have said. Examples include denying the Creator's existence, His knowledge, power, choice, oneness, or perfection above all deficiencies and infirmities. Or denying the prophethood of Muhammad ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace), the truth of the Qur'an, or denying any law necessarily known to be of the religion of Muhammad ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace), such as the obligatoriness of prayer, of zakat, fasting, or pilgrimage, or the unlawfulness of usury or wine. Whoever does so is an unbeliever because he has disbelieved the Prophet ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace) about something necessarily known to be of his religion.

As for what is only known by inference from proof to be his religion, such as "whether God knows by virtue of His attribute of knowledge or rather by virtue of His entity," or "whether or not He may be seen [in the next life]," or "whether or not He creates the actions of His servants"; we do not know by incontestably numerous chains of transmission (tawatur) that any of these alternatives has been affirmed by the Prophet ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace) instead of the other. For each, the truth of one and falsity of the other is known only through inference, so neither denial nor affirmation of it can enter into actual faith, and hence cannot entail unbelief.

The proof of this is that if such points were part of faith, the Prophet ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace) would not have judged anyone a believer until he was sure that the person knew the question. Had he done such a thing, his position on the question would have been known to everyone in Islam and conveyed by many chains of transmission. Because it has not, it is clear that he did not make it a condition of faith, so knowing it is not a point of belief, nor denying it unbelief.

In light of which, no one of this Umma is an unbeliever, and we do not consider anyone an unbeliever whose words are interpretable as meaning anything besides. As for beliefs not known except through hadiths related by a single narrator, it seems plain that they cannot be a decisive criterion for belief or unbelief. That is our view about the reality of unbelief (Mafatih al-ghayb, 2.42).

Such breadth of perspective was not unique to Razi, the lifelong defender of Ahl al-Sunna ʿaqida and implacable foe of its opponents, but was also the view of Imam Ash'ari himself. Dhahabi says:

Bayhaqi relates that he heard Abu Hazim al-'Abdawi say that he heard Zahir ibn Ahmad al-Sarkhasi say, "When death came to Abul Hasan al-Ash'ari in my home in Baghdad, he called me to him and I came, and he said, 'Be my witness: I do not declare anyone an unbeliever who prays towards the qibla, for all direct themselves to the One who alone is worshipped, while all this [controversy] is but different ways of speaking" [1] (Siyar al-a'lam, 15.88).

These passages show that both Ash'ari and Razi, the early and late Imams of their school, implicitly distinguished between the central ʿaqida of Islam, and the logical elaboration upon it by traditional theology. Clearly, their life work brought them to the understanding that kalam theology had produced a body of knowledge that was, if important and true, nevertheless distinct from the ʿaqida that is obligatory for every Muslim to believe in order to be Muslim. The difference however, between ʿaqida or "personal theology," and kalam or "discursive theology" was perhaps most strikingly delineated by Imam Ghazali (d. 505/1111).


According to Ghazali, kalam theology could not be identified with the ʿaqida of Islam itself, but rather was what protected it from heresy and change. He wrote about his long experience in studying kalam in a number of places in his Ihya' 'Ulum al-Din, one of them just after his beautiful ʿaqida al-Qudsiyya or "Jerusalem Creed." After mentioning the words of Imam Shafi'i, Malik, Ahmad, and Sufyan al-Thawri that kalam theology is unlawful – by which they meant the Mu'tazilite school of their times, the only example they knew of – Ghazali gives his own opinion on discursive theology, saying:

There is benefit and harm in it. As to its benefit, it is lawful or recommended or obligatory whenever it is beneficial, according to the circumstances. As to its harm, it is unlawful whenever and for whomever it is harmful.
Its harm is that it raises doubts in minds and shakes a student's tenets of faith from certitude and conviction at the outset, while there is no guarantee that he will ever get it back again through proofs, individuals varying in this. That is its harm to faith.
It has another bad effect, namely that it hardens heretics' attachment to their heresy and makes it firmer in their hearts by stirring them up and increasing their resolve to persist. This harm, however, comes about through bigotry born of argument, which is why you see the ordinary unlearned heretic fairly easy to dissuade from his mistakes through affability; though not if he has grown up in a locale where there is arguing and bigotry, in which case if all mankind from beginning to end were to join together, they would be unable to rid his heart of wrong ideas. Rather, his prejudice, his heatedness, and his loathing for his opponents and their group has such a grip over his heart and so blinds him to the truth that if he were asked, "Would you like Allah Most High Himself to raise the veil so you can see with your own eyes that your opponent is right?" he would refuse, lest it please his opponent. This is the incurable disease that plagues cities and people: the sort of vice produced by bigotry when there is argument. This also is of the harm of kalam.
As for its benefit, it might be supposed that it is to reveal truths and know them as they truly are. and how farfetched! kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably founders and misguides more than it discovers or reveals. If you had heard these words from a hadith scholar or literalist, you might think, "People are enemies of what they are ignorant of." So hear them instead from someone steeped in kalam theology, who left it after mastering it in depth and penetrating into it as far as any scholar can, and who then went on to specialize in closely related fields, before realizing that access to the realities of true knowledge was barred from this path. By my life, theology is not bereft of revealing and defining the truth and clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about things that are already clear and almost plain before learning its details.
Rather, it has one single benefit, namely guarding the ordinary man's faith we have just outlined [the Jerusalem Creed] and defending it by argument from being shaken by those who would change it with heresies. For the common man is weak and susceptible to the arguments of heretics even when false; and the false may be rebutted by something not in itself especially good; while people are only responsible for the creed we have presented above (Ihya' 'Ulum al-Din, 1.86).

In this and other passages of Ihya' 'Ulum al-Din, al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, and Faysal al-Tafriqa which summarize his life experience with kalam theology, Ghazali distinguishes between several things. The first is ʿilm al-ʿaqa'id or the knowledge of basic tenets of faith, which we have called above "personal theology," and which he deems beneficial. The second is what we have called "discursive theology," or kalam properly speaking, the use of rational arguments to defeat heretics who would confuse common people about tenets of faith.
Ghazali believes this is valid and obligatory, but only to the extent needed. The third we may call "speculative theology," which is philosophical reasoning from first principles about God, man, and being, to discover by deduction and inference the way things really are. This Ghazali regards as impossible for kalam to do.


The scholars of kalam certainly did not agree with Ghazali on this latter point, and history attests to their continued confidence in it as a medium of discovery, producing what has subsequently been regarded by almost everyone as a period of excess in kalam literature. Taj al-Din al-Subki (d. 771/1370) who was himself steeped in kalam theology wrote:

Upon reflection – and no one can tell you like someone who truly knows – I have not found anything more harmful to those of our times or more ruinous to their faith than reading books of kalam written by latter-day scholars after Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and others. If they confined themselves instead to the works of the Qadi Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, the great Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini, the Imam of the Two Sanctuaries Abu al-Ma'ali al-Juwayni, and others of those times, they would have nothing but benefit. But truly I believe that whoever ignores the Qur'an and sunna [defended by these scholars] and instead occupies himself with the debates of Ibn Sina and those of his path – leaving the words of the Muslims: "Abu Bakr and 'Umar (Allah Most High be well pleased with them) said," "Shafi'i said," "Abu Hanifa said," "Ash'ari said," "Qadi Abu Bakr said"; and instead saying: "The Sovereign Sage (al-Shaykh al-Ra'is) said" meaning Ibn Sina, or "The Great Master (al-Khawaja) Nasir said," and so on – that whoever does so should be whipped and paraded through the marketplaces with a crier proclaiming: "This is the punishment of whoever leaves the Qur'an and sunna and busies himself with the words of heretics" (Mu'id al-ni'am, 79-80).

For Subki, it showed how far kalam had strayed for latter-day authors to call heterodox figures such as Ibn Sina[2] or Tusi[3] "Sovereign Sage" or "Great Master" in works supposedly explaining the faith of Islam. The reason he found nothing "more harmful to those of our times or more ruinous to their faith than reading the books of kalam theology written by latter-day scholars" was that they had vitiated the very reason for kalam's existence: to defend the truth. By widening its universe to include heretics and giving them titles of authority, kalam literature had become a compendium of wrong ideas.

To summarize, although Sunni theology first defined orthodoxy and rebutted heresy, it afterwards swelled with speculative excesses that hearkened back those of the Jahmiyya and Mu'tazila. At this juncture, it met with criticism from figures who knew it too well to accept this, such as Imam Ghazali, Taj al-Subki, Nawawi, and others, whose view was that kalam was a medicine useful in moderation, but harmful in overdose. Their criticisms were valid, for when theology obeys a speculative rather than an ethical imperative, it ceases to give guidance in man's relationship to God, and hence is no longer a science of the din.

What has been forgotten today however by critics who would use the words of earlier Imams to condemn all kalam, is that these criticisms were directed against its having become "speculative theology" at the hands of latter-day authors. Whoever believes they were directed against the ʿaqida or "personal theology" of basic tenets of faith, or the "discursive theology" of rational kalam arguments against heresy is someone who either does not understand the critics or else is quoting them disingenuously.

We conclude our remarks with a glance at kalam's significance today. What does traditional theology have to offer contemporary Muslims?


With universal comparison, the door today is open to universal skepticism, not only about particular religions, but belief in God and in religion itself. It is hence appropriate to consider the legacy of kalam proofs for the existence of God.
At the practical level, most people who believe in God do not do so because of philosophical arguments, but because they feel a presence, inwardly and outwardly, that uplifts hearts, answers prayers, and solves their problems. Yet Muslims and others find their faith increasingly challenged by an atheistic modern world. The question becomes, can traditional kalam arguments answer modern misgivings?

Now, philosophy as taught today in many places dismisses traditional proofs for the existence of God as tautological, saying that they smuggle in the conclusions they reach by embedding them in the premises. A young American Muslim philosophy student asked me, "How can we believe with certainty that there is a God, when logically speaking there is no argument without holes in it?" He mentioned among the arguments of kalam that (a) the world is hadith or "contingent"; (b) everything contingent requires a muhdith or "cause"; (c) if there is no first cause that is "necessary" or uncaused, this entails an infinite regress, which is absurd; and (d) therefore the world must ultimately have an uncaused or "necessary" cause as its origin.

While scholars like Majid Fakhry in his History of Islamic Philosophy point out that saying that "the 'contingent' (hadith) requires a 'cause' (muhdith)" is a mere play on words, one can answer that while the form of this argument does contain a play on words, if we penetrate to the content of these words, they express an empirical relationship so basic to our experience that science regards it as axiomatic. That is, to provide a scientific explanation for something is to suggest a probable cause for it, and then present evidence for the particular cause being adduced as its "explanation."

In cosmology, for example, the origin of the universe must be explained causally, and most scientists currently believe that the universe began about fifteen billion years ago in a cosmic cataclysm they term the Big Bang. and yet this most interesting of all events, indeed the effective cause of all of them, is somehow exempted from the scientific dictum that to explain something is to suggest a cause for it. Why the Big Bang? What urged its being rather than its nonbeing? This is no trivial enigma, still less a play on words. If to explain an event is to find a cause for it, then the Big Bang is not an scientific "explanation" for the origin of the universe in any ordinary sense of the word. Here, the kalam argument that the contingent must return to the necessary is still relevant today, and has been cited by name in works such as Craig and Smith's Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. The prevailing cosmological view among scientists is that the universe did have a beginning, and this requires an explanation.

Another traditional kalam argument vitally relevant to the teaching of Islam is the "argument from design," namely that the complexity of many natural phenomena is far more analogous to our own intentionally planned processes and productions than to ordinary random events. That is, the perfection of design in nature argues for the existence of a designer. As in the previous example, to teach this argument directly from kalam would seem to many intellectual Muslims today, particularly those scientifically literate, to be a mere tautology or play on words. But when filled in with examples drawn from scientific literature, its cogency becomes plain.

Examples abound. One of them forms the central thesis of the work Just Six Numbers by the British Astronomer Royal Martin Reese of Cambridge. He has determined that the fabric of the universe depends on the coincidence of six basic physical number ratios, two of them related to basic forces, two fixing the size and texture of the universe, and two fixing the properties of space itself. These six numbers, in Reese's own words, "constitute a 'recipe' for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any of them were to be untuned [the slightest bit different in numerical value], there would be no stars and no life" (Just Six Numbers, 4). If any of these six numbers were dependent on the others, the fact that they allow for the existence of the universe would be less astonishing, but none of them can be predicted from the values of the others, and each number compounds the unlikelihood of the others. The only consequence mathematically inferable from this is that the universe that we know and live in is unlikely to an absurd degree. The statistical probability of the confluence of just these numbers is, to borrow the expression of astronomer Hugh Ross, about as likely as "the possibility of a Boeing 747 aircraft being completely assembled as a result of a tornado striking a junkyard" (Discover , 21, no. 11).

The shocking improbability of ourselves and our universe is no play on words, and shows the relevance of the kalam argument for the existence of God from design.

Another example of the argument from design is the origin of life, especially with what is known today, after the advent of the electron microscope, about the tens of thousands of interdependent parts that compose even the simplest one-celled organism known. The probability of such an entity not only assembling itself, but also simultaneously assembling a viable reproductive apparatus to produce another equally complex living reality does not urge itself very strongly according to anything we know about empirical reality. That is, the origin of perfectly articulated functional complexity argues for a design, and a design argues for the existence of a designer.[4]

A third example of the relevance of the argument from design is what physicist Paul Davies has called in his Mind of God "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" in describing and predicting the phenomena of the physical world. The "unreasonableness" in it is that if, as scientism avers, the structure of our brains that determines the way we view reality is only an evolutionary accident, which would presumably be much different if we were, say, a race of aliens who had evolved on different planet, why is it that so much of the mathematics that was first worked out as an abstract exercise in the minds of pure mathematicians has been so spectacularly effective in explaining the physical world? If man were hundreds of times larger than he is or hundreds of times smaller, his perceptual reality would be so completely different that he might well not have developed the integers or other mathematical tools that he did. But because man has turned out just so, by an uncannily improbable coincidence, the mathematical rules formulated by pure mathematicians – which should be a mere accident of man's evolutionary and cultural history – turn out, often years after their discovery, to be exactly the same rules nature is playing by.

The enigma here is that, while there is a distinct evolutionary advantage in knowing the world by direct empirical observation, we have been equipped with a second faculty, of no selective evolutionary advantage at all, which can incorporate quantum and relativistic mathematical systems into our mental model of the world. For Davies these facts suggest that a conscious Being has encoded this ability within humanity, knowing that one day they would reach a degree of comprehension of the universe that will bring them to the realization that the unreasonable correspondence of nature to pure thought is not a coincidence, but the outcome of a great design.

There are many other examples of the argument from design, particularly in the complexity of symbiotic and parasitic relationships between species of the natural world, which, if too long to detail here, also strongly attest to the relevance of the kalam argument for the existence of God.


As for the role of kalam in defending Islam from heresies, Jahm and the Mu'taziites are certainly less of threat to orthodoxy today than scientism, the reduction of all truth to statements about quantities and empirical facts. The real challenge to religion today is the mythic power of science to theologize its experimental method, and imply that since it has not discovered God, He must not exist.

Here, the task of critique cannot be relegated to traditional proofs drawn from the literature of a prescientific age. Rather, it belongs to scientifically literate Muslims today to clarify the provisional nature of the logic of science, and to show how its epistemology, values, and historical and cultural moment condition the very nature of questions it can ask – or answer.

Omniscience is not a property of science. In physics today, at the outset of the twenty-first century, we do not yet understand what gives physical matter its mass, its most basic property. In taxonomy, estimates vary, but probably less than 3 percent of the living organisms on our own planet have been named or identified. In human fertility, many fundamental mechanisms remain undiscovered. Even our most familiar companion, human consciousness, has not been scientifically explained, replicated, or reduced to physical laws. In short, though we do not base our faith on the current state of science, we should realize that if science has not discovered God, there is a long list of other things it has not discovered that we would be ill-advised to consider nonexistent in consequence.

In short, attacks today on religion by scientism should be met by Muslims as Ash'ari and Maturidi met the Mu'tazilites and Jahmites in their times: with a dialectic critique of the premises and conclusions thoroughly grounded in their own terms. The names that come to mind in our day are not Ash'ari, Baqillani, and Razi, but rather those like Huston Smith in his Beyond the postmodern Mind, Charles Le Gai Eaton in his King of the Castle, Keith Ward in his God, Chance, and Necessity, and even non-religious writers like Paul Davies in The Mind of God and John Horgan in his The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind. Answering reductionist attacks on religion is a communal obligation, which Muslims can only ignore at their peril. This too is of the legacy of kalam, or the "aptness of words to answer words."


A final benefit of kalam is to realize from its history that there is some range and latitude in the beliefs of one's fellow Muslims.

In an Islamic world growing ever younger with the burgeoning population, there is a danger that those quoting Qur'anic verses and hadiths without a grasp of the historical issues will stir up the hearts of young Muslims against each other in sectarian strife. People like to belong to groups, and the positive benefits of bonding with others in a group may be offset by bad attitudes towards those outside the group. The Wahhabi movement for example, recast in our times as Salafism, began as a Kharijite-like sect that regarded nonmembers, including most of the Umma, as kafirs or unbelievers. Here, a working knowledge of the history and variety of schools of Islamic theology would do much to promote tolerance.
The figures we have cited, from Ash'ari to Razi to Dhahabi to Ibn Taymiya, were men who passionately believed that there was a truth to be known, and that it represented the beliefs of Islam, and that it was but one. They believed that those who disagreed with it were wrong and should be engaged and rebutted. But they did not consider anyone who called himself a Muslim to be a kafir as long as his positions did not flatly deny the truthfulness of the Prophet ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace). Imam Ghazali says in Faysal al-tafriqa: "Unbelief" (kufr) consists in asserting that the Prophet ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace) lied about anything he conveyed, while "faith" is believing that he told the truth in everything he said (Faysal al-tafriqa, 78).

There is wide scholarly consensus on this tolerance of Islam, and we have heard from Imam Ash'ari that he did not consider anyone who prayed towards the qibla to be an unbeliever, from Razi that he did not consider anyone to be an unbeliever whose words could possibly mean anything besides, and from Ibn Taymiya that he considered everyone who faithfully prays with ablution to be a believer. None of them believed that a Muslim can go to hell on a technicality.


To summarize everything we have said, the three main tasks of kalam consist in defining the contents of faith, showing that it contradicts neither logic nor experience, and providing grounds to be personally convinced of it, and these three are as relevant today as ever.

First, the substantive knowledge of the ʿaqida each of us will die and meet Allah upon will remain a lasting benefit as long as there are Muslims.

Second, demographers expect mankind to attain close to universal literacy within fifty years. Members of world faiths may be expected to question their religious beliefs for coherence, logicality, applicability, and adequacy, and the work of Ahl al-Sunna scholars will go far to show that one does not have to hang up one's mind to enter Islam.

Third, universal communication will make comparisons between religions inevitable. Blind imitation of ethnic religious affiliation will become less relevant to people around the globe, and I personally believe Islam has stronger theological arguments for its truth than other world religions. Indeed, Islam is a sapiential religion, in which salvation itself rests not on vicarious atonement as in Christianity, or on ethnic origin as in Judaism, but on personal knowledge. Whoever knows that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God is by that very fact saved.

So in the coming century, three areas of kalam's legacy will remain especially relevant for Muslims: first, the proofs for the existence of God from necessity and design, second, the rebuttal of the heresy of scientistic reductionism and atheism, and third, promoting tolerance among Muslims. The latter is one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.


1 Dhahabi goes on: "This is my own religious view. So too, our sheikh Ibn Taymiya used to say in his last days, 'I do not consider anyone of this Umma an unbeliever,' and he would relate that the Prophet ( ﷺ  Allah bless him and give him peace) said, 'No one but a believer faithfully performs ablution' [Ahmad, 5.82: 22433. S], saying, 'So whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim'" (Siyar al-a'lam, 15.88).
2 Ibn Sina, the "Sovereign Sage" referred to by latter-day kalam authors here, had a number of heterodox beliefs. First, he believed that the world is beginninglessly eternal, while Muslims believe that Allah created it after it was nothing; second, he believed that Allah knows what is created and destroyed only in a general way, not in its details, while Muslims believe that Allah knows everything; and third, he held that there is no bodily resurrection, while Muslims emphatically affirm in it. Taj al-Subki's above passage continues: "Is he [such a latter-day kalam author] not ashamed before Allah Most High to espouse the ideas of Ibn Sina and praise him – while reciting the word of Allah "Does man not think We shall gather together his bones? Indeed, We are well able to produce even his index finger" (Qur'an 75:7) – and mention in the same breath Ibn Sina's denial of bodily resurrection and gathering of bones?" (Mu'id al-ni'am, 80). Imam Ghazali, despite his magisterial breadth of perspective in ʿaqida issues, held it obligatory to consider Ibn Sina a non-Muslim (kafir) for these three doctrines (al-Munqidh min al-dalal, 44-45, 50).
3 The "Great Master" Nasir al-Din al-Tusi was the traitor who betrayed Baghdad and its whole populace to their Mongol slaughterers out of sectarian malice against the Sunni caliphate. In tenets of faith, he introduced philosophy into Shiism, reviving Ibn Sina's thought in a Twelver Shiite matrix, and authored Tajrid al-'aqa'id, the preeminent work of Shiite dogma to this day, in which he describes man as "the creator of his works" (Encyclopedia of Religion, 6.324, 7.316, 13.265) – while the Qur'an tells us that "Allah created you and what you do" (Qur'an 37:96).
4 The Associated Press on Thursday 9 December 2004 carried the story "Famous Atheist Now Believes in God," in which religion writer Richard Ostling mentions that a British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has now changed his mind. "At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. 'A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature,' Flew said in a telephone interview from England." He also recently said that biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved" (U.S. National – AP Website, 9 December 2004).

Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller is a writer and translator of the traditional Islamic sciences who lives in Jordan. He took the Shadhili tariqa from Shaykh 'Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri in Damascus in 1982. He teaches a circle of students in Amman.

© Nuh Ha Mim Keller, All rights reserved.
The above is the text of a talk given to the
Aal al-Bayt Institute of Islamic Thought on
4 January 2005 in Amman, Jordan.

The article was first published in Islamica Magazine
(www.IslamicaMagazine.com, x L 20120703), with permission.