The Origin of ‘Ilm al-Kalam

By Brother Ahab Badaiwi

‘Ilm al-Kalam, “Islamic theology”, represents one of the the most dynamic, intellectually-thriving, & philosophically-rich scholarly tradition in the world. But what’s the origin of kalam?

The story begins in the early 500s & 600s AD Middle East. Kalam emerged in multi-religious milieu of Middle East. Muslims as newest religious group & ruling minority sought to assert themselves amidst indigenous populations. Other competing religious groups at the time in Middle East spoke Aramaic, Greek, Middle Persian…Coptic, Armenian, & Arabic. Christians actively present in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, & Egypt. Zoroastrian scholarly activity palpable in Iraq & Iran. Mandean learned traditions attested in Iraq. Buddhist in Afghanistan & Central Asia. While some Jewish scholarly presence in Iraq.

Other religious traditions somewhat active in late antique Middle East include significant but sometimes-ignored religious experimentations & syncretic sects, such as Gnosticism, Neo-platonism, spiritual paganism, Alexandrian philosophy, hermeticism, Chaldaean oracles, & neo-pythorgansiam.

Before Islam Abrahamic communities in Middle East assimilated & carried forth Hellenic philosophical & scientific legacy & were engaged in centuries-long inter-religious debates & disputations. Nascent Muslim settlers came into contact with hellenised communities in Syria & Iraq.

Early religious commitments of Muslims ran their course towards development in spirit of inter-religious disputations. Two views prevail in academic community as to the origin of kalam. Josef van Ess opines that kalam didn’t start as polemic against unbelievers…
Van Ess of view that kalam started as inner-Islamic discussion through (mainly) political development. This is known as the internalist thesis. It reduces non-Muslim influences to minimum. In 1970s & 80s Van Ess came across two very early kalam texts dating back to 700s AD…
One was attributed to Muhammad bin al-Hanafiyya (rahimahullah) while other to Umayyad caliph ‘Umar II (rahimahullah) (d. 720). Harsh criticism promoted van Ess to revise his position to argue for a later date than originally assumed.

It is important to remember kalam has two distinct meanings that should be differentiated:

1) kalam as style of argumentation involving talk (ﻛﻠّﻤﺔ) with interlocutor by asking questions to reduce position of opponent to meaningless alternatives.

2) kalam as a scholarly tradition (Islamic theology) that employs kalam-style method. We should remember that Islamic theology shouldn’t be equated with kalam tout court. Why? Other Islamic theologies can be very critical of kalam, such as Hanbali theology, early Shi’i theology, etc

Kalam as style of argument has ancient roots in Middle East religious culture, before Islam. Following Council of Ephesus (431 AD) (& others) Christians in Middle East divided into rival factions determined to gaining ideological influence, vindicate beliefs, & refute beliefs of rival.

Shortly after Islamic Conquests Muslims were drawn into intra-Christian debates. Notable examples include debate between group of Muslim emigres and Abyssinian emperor & Prophet Muhammad with Christians of Najran. But who were most formidable debaters at dawn of Islam?

Evidence by Michael Cook & more recently Jack Tannous challenge van Ess’ internalist thesis. Cook notes that kalam-style arguments are present in Syriac Christological debates as early as 600s AD, such as in Monothelete document (extant manuscript held in British Library).

In terms of content, Seventh-century Christological debates invariably begin with disjunctive question (‘Do you believe X, yes or no?’) & then proceed methodically to discuss each of possibilities (‘if you say X, then it should be asked… but if you say Y, then…’),

The aim is to refute opponent’s response or show opponent’s view concurs with position of questioner. Syriac debates in 600s show remarkably similarity to earliest Muslim kalam texts which show same pattern (ﺍﻥ ﻗﺎﻝ … ﻓﻴﻘﺎﻝ ﻟﻪ) as 7th Century Syriac ones.

Academics conclude, then, that kalam genre in Islam is product of 7th century Syriac Christological schism. One view holds that Muslim learned art of kalam by either participating in Christological debates (Syria/Iraq) or through skilled Christian converts to Islam.

Closed reading go George’s Syriac polemics shows imitation of Greek Christological aporiai (type of argumentation in Ancient Greek philosophy & rhetoric) from 500s & 600s AD. Significantly George was Bishop of Christian Arab tribes of ‘Aqolaye (in Kufah) & Tu’aye & Tanukaye.

More accurate & recent assessment on origin of kalam focus on George Bishop of Arab tribes (d. 724). George wrote anti-Chalcedonian polemics in Syriac. Three such polemics survive showing author employing famous disjunctive formula to undermine opponent’s theological position.

These three Christian Arab tribes were all present in one of the earliest Christian-Muslim debate recorded by history: the debate between Jacobite Patriarch John Sedra & Hagarene (Muslim) ‘Umayr bin Sa’d al-Ansari, emir in Syria, that took place in year 644 AD.

Syriac sources describe the debate as “mamllā,” which translates to conversation or ﻛﻼﻡ in Arabic. This recent hypothesis on origin of kalam singles Arab Christians in Iraq & Syria as most plausible conduit for transmission of Islamic kalam (& later Islamic theology).

Kalam in Arabic corresponds to mamallā in Syriac. In both instances the term means “conservation,” “speech,” or “disputation”. Syriacs conflated translated Greek term theologia as mamllā alāhāyā (“speech regarding divinity”). But reading of this evidence requires caution.

It very possible that the Arab Christians present at debates took notice of fact that disputants acted as “spokesmen,” or memallēl alāhāyātā, that is, “one who speaks on divine matters,” the Syriac equivalent of the Arabic mutakallim.

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