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Islamic Theology: Definition and History Chap 1

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Chapter Author:  Sheikh Mansour Leghaei


Theology literally is driven from the Greek term ‘theos’ -God- and ‘logy’ – science, study.

 Theology, therefore, is a systematic study of the fundamental beliefs of a religion. Thus Jewish theology, Roman Catholic theology and Islamic theology, etc.

Muslim scholars refer to Islamic theology as ‘Elmul-Kalam’ which literally means ‘the science of rational discourse. (Elm=science, al-Kalam= word)

There are two famous opinions as to why Islamic theology is called ‘Elmul-Kalam’. The first is because ‘al-Kalam’ is the translation of ‘ logos ‘ which was the rational dialogue and human reasoning about the cosmos in pre-Socratic philosophy. The second suggestion is that it is called ‘al-Kalam’ as historically the most controversial theological debate in the 2 nd and 3 rd Islamic centuries, during which this science was developed, was whether the Word of God was created or not?


Difference Between Islamic Theology & Islamic Philosophy

The main difference between theology and philosophy is that a theologian believes in something and then endeavors to rationalize his belief to reach out to those who do not share the same belief with him. Whereas, a philosopher is searching for the truth based purely on his sound reasoning without any commitment to his religious texts. Thus, a theologian presents his rationality in accordance to his religious beliefs whereas a philosopher interprets his religious texts according to his rational findings. 


Types of Islamic Theology

Islamic theology is either textual (Naqli) or rational (Aqli).

Textual theology proves the fundamental belief in Islam directly based on the text of the Quran and Hadiths. Rational theology, although it is also committed to the religious texts, does not directly base its arguments on the religious texts. On certain topics however, rational theology becomes more textual such as discussions on ‘specific Prophets’ and the discussion on the successors of Prophet Muhammad (Imamate).


Islamic Theology in the Realm of Sunni & Shi’a Islam

The basis of Islamic doctrine is rooted primarily in the Quran and then the authentic Hadith. Like the Shi’a, the Sunni theology was originally based solely on the narration of the Quran and the Hadith. From the second century onward, however, different schools of thought were emerged in the Sunni schools of thought. The Mu’tazila (those who withdraw or separated themselves) was the Sunni school of theology founded by Wasil bin ‘Ata’ in the second century (A.H) as a revolution against the traditionalists who did not allow human reason in the development of faith. The Mu’tazila believed that it was necessary to give a rational coherent account of Islamic beliefs. The Mu’tazila school was suppressed throughout the history and majority of the Sunni scholars revolted against it. It was until recent time that some Sunni thinkers such as Ahmad Amin in his book ‘Dhuhal-Islam rediscovered the Mu’tazila school and asserted that the demise of Mu’tazilism was a great misfortune. In the coming meetings we will be dealing more with the Mu’tazila doctrine. For further study of Mu’tazila visit this page: http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ei/mu-tazila.htm

In early fourth century another school rose called ‘Ash’ariyya’ - named after its founding thinker, Abul-Hasan al-Ash’ari (died in 324AH)- representing the majority of the Sunni Muslims revolting against the Mu’tazila. The Ash’ari insists that reason must be subordinate to revelation. They regarded the Mu’tazilite doctrine heretical. For further study of Ash’aria doctrine you may visit this page: http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ei/ashari.htm..

The third Sunni school of theology is that of Maturidiyyah. The Maturidiyyah is named after its founder Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (died in 333 AH) The Maturidiyyah is meant to be the reconciliation between the Ash’ariyya and the Mu’tazila, yet it is more of the advanced version of Ash’ariyya. Along with Ash’ariyyah, Maturidiyyah forms the basis of orthodox Sunni theology. Today nearly 53% of Sunni Muslims are Hanafites in their jurisprudence, and the majority of them are Maturidites in their beliefs. For further study of Maturidiyyah see: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9051462

Shi’a theology is based on the teachings of the Imams of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s). Thus, although it stems from the texts of the Quran and Hadith of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s) it does not negate the use of rationality.

 The Shi’a theology is, therefore, both rational and textual without any contradiction in between. The reason for that is the Hadiths of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s) have logically analysed the theological issues and the Imams of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s) have been teaching theology to their students. Hisham bin Hakam, Hisham bin Salem and Mo’men al-Taq were amongst the most famous students of Imam Sadiq (a.s) in theology. Many debates of Imam Sadiq and Imam Redha (a.s) in various theological issues are reported. Among the most celebrated Shi’a theologians we can name al-Sheikh al-Mofid (died in 413 AH), Khaje Nasir al-Din Toosi (died in 672 AH) and al-Allama al-Hilli (died in 726 AH). This course will deal with the main issues in Islamic theology according to the Shi’a doctrine.


Shi’a textbooks in theology

The most famous theological text books that are being taught in the Shi’a seminaries include:

• al-bab al-Hadi-’Ashar (Chapter eleven) written by al-Allama al-Hilli. It is usually studied with the commentary of Fazel Meqdad (died in 826 AH).

• Tajridul-’Eteqad (Abstraction of belief), written by Khaje Nasir al-Din Tousi. It is usually studied with the commentary of al-Allama al-Hilli known as ‘Kashful-Morad’ (unveiling of what is meant). This book is the most powerful book in Shi’a theology and still is a text book in the Shi’a seminaries.

Apart from the above two mentioned textbooks, the work of Mulla Mohsin Faydh al-Kashani (died in 1091 AH) called ‘‘Elmul-Yaqeen Fi Usulu-Deen’ (Certain knowledge in fundamentals of religion) in two volumes is a very useful text in textual theology.

Main Topics in Shi’a Theology

Knowing God : His Existence, His Unity, His Attributes, His Beautiful Names, His Actions, etc.


God’s Justice : freewill and determination, fate and destiny, justice in legislation, justice in rewards and punishment, good and evil, Shaytan (Devil), etc.

Prophet-hood: The need for Prophets, characteristics of the Prophets, ‘Esmat (divine protection), revelation and the Scriptures, angels and their types and nature ., miracles, the seal of Prophet-hood, etc.

Divine Leadership (Imamat): The need of the Imams, Characteristics of the Imams, differences between the Imams and the Prophets, Proofs of the Imamat, The virtues of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s), the Awaiting Imam, the Return, etc.

Resurrection Day (Ma’ad): the reality of Death, Barzakh , The punishment in the grave, resurrection of the dead, the Day of Judgment, intercession, hell and heaven, pain and pleasure, Characteristics of people of hell and heaven, eternity in hell and heaven.


Modern Theology

In the 20 th century a new branch of theology as a result of modernity and post-modernism emerged in the west that is called ‘modern theology’ . Modern theology divided Christian theology into two camps of liberalism and conservatism. Liberals see theological statements as symbolic expressions of religious experiences that are essential inward and personal. To them, theology is not concerned with factual statements. A scripture must be read not as factual history but as the record of religious experience. Modern theology is more of the philosophy of religion. Issues such as religious language (hermeneutics) and religious pluralism are some of its most important topics.

Other links:

Prophet Muhammad: A Divine Mercy for the Worlds: Lecture 1 

Prophet Muhammad: A Divine Mercy for the Worlds: Lecture 2 



Author: Sheikh Mansour Leghaei


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