Kalam and Islam - Article by Sheikh Nuh hafizullah

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  1. abu nibras

    abu nibras Staff Member

    Kalam and Islam
    By Nuh Ha Mim Keller

    Most of us have met dedicated and otherwise intelligent Muslims who have made themselves “‘aqida 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 as-hab 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-hadithiy-ya, 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.


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