Method in Mufid's Kalam and in
Al-Mufid's Notion of Kalám
Al-Mufid's Kalám in Practice
Comparison with Theology
I do not think I can tell you anything new about
al-Shaykh. Most of you are scholars in his tradition and
you study his works and know his sources to a degree and
with a facility that I shall never attain. I have,
though, and do, make an effort to understand his kalám
as best I can, and to understand what he was doing, and
what he meant to do and tried to do.
In a book I wrote about al-Shaykh al-Mufid, I
provisionally translated 'ilm al-kalám by the
word "theology", as its closest equivalent in
the languages of the West. It is not a very satisfactory
translation, for 'ilm al-kalám is not quite the
same as what Christians call "theology." Now my
purpose is to come back to these two terms and consider a
few differences between what al-Mufid, the mutakallim
was doing in his discipline and what Christians mean by
theology. To be quite plain, I am thinking inside my own
tradition, which is that of a Catholic Christian whose
model and ideal in theology is Thomas Aquinas.
I admit that my aim here is personal, simply to answer
a question I have long ago asked myself but have not
investigated before. I am trying today to see the two
methods in comparison: that of 'ilm al-kalám and
of theology. Noting the differences helps me to
understand al-Mufid better, what he is aiming to do and
what he is not aiming to do. Perhaps also it may help you
to understand Christian theology more, what it does and
does not try to do.
My guide in all this has been the monumental study by
Louis Gardet and Georges Anawati, Introduction á la
Théologie Musulmane, which however suffers from the
defect, recognized by its authors, of not considering the
It is commonly said of 'ilm al-kalám in
general that it is a defensive apologetic, good in the
opinion of some Muslims, but not all. Al-Gazzáli thought
'ilm al-kalám to be a dangerous remedy, useful
only for protecting the faith of the people and silencing
Ibn Khaldún's definition of 'ilm al-kalám is
well known: "It is a science that involves arguing
with rational proofs in defence of articles of faith and
refuting innovators who deviate in their dogmas from the
doctrines of the early generations and the people of
tradition. The core of these dogmas is the oneness of
And yet surely the mutakallim, in elaborating
his defence of the propositions to be believed, is at the
same time making an effort to understand and to
illuminate what it is that he believes.
This is what interests me in al-Mufid.
Here is the fundamental difference between kalám
and theology. Kalám aims primarily to defend and
secondarily to illuminate; theology aims primarily to
illuminate: to come to some understanding of a mystery
which the human mind cannot fully grasp, and only
secondarily to defend. Both hold that God is one. And we
both, I presume, also hold that God is a mystery that
cannot be fully understood by the finite human mind. We
both hold that nothing in true revelation can contradict
reason, for God is the author of both reason and
revelation. Yet God can also reveal things about Himself
which are beyond our power to understand fully.
My own interest is in the effort at understanding and
explaining the datum of revelation which al-Mufid makes
in his kalám. One of the important things
al-Mufid did was to provide a rational substratum for the
Imamite faith during the absence of the Imam. He had to
meet not only the objections of outsiders but also the
demands of believing Shi'ites for explanation of how what
is proposed for belief does not contradict what they
I will try, then, (1) to say something about
al-Mufid's own notion of kalám, and (2) then see
how he carried it out, and after that (3) compare it with
the theological method.
I. Al-Mufid's Notion of Kalám
First of all, kalám is for the specialists.
Although ordinary believers were allowed to protect
themselves by taqiyyah, still, says al-Mufid, the
Imams had commanded another group of the more learned,
"to face their adversaries openly in argument and
call them to the truth."
For, says al-Mufid, from the first there had been in
the Imamite community some who "used reason (nazar)
and disputed for the truth and repelled falsehood with
arguments and proofs, for which the Imams praised
In assessing the method of his teacher Ibn Bábawayh,
al-Mufid made this reproach, that "he followed the
method of the traditionists, going by surface. meanings
and shying away from the paths of reflection (al-'i'tibár).
This point of view harms the religion of the one who
holds it, and resting in it blocks rational inquiry
From this criticism it is possible to infer al-Mufid's
own idea of what a mutakallim should do. He should
reflect and try to understand the meaning of the
traditions that he has heard. This will improve the
quality of his own faith and so enable him more
effectively to defend it against the attacks of
Man's first duty, according to al-Mufid, is to know
God. Apparently, then, this
comes even before the duty to reason to knowledge of His
Mere passive acceptance of traditions on the part of
those who are capable of reasoning, brings no reward, for
passive acceptance is not faith.
This however does not mean to say that all must be
skilled in dialectic or capable of expressing their
knowledge in debate and disputation. For nazar
is not the same as munázarah. Many of the
common people, says al-Mufid, are able to have the
personal knowledge, based on reasoning, that puts them
above the passive accepters of another's word, without
being themselves mutakallimún.
On the other hand, al-Mufid says that "reason (al-'aql)needs
revelation (al-sam') both in its premises and in
its conclusions, and it does not dispense with revelation
for informing the ignorant of how demonstration (al-istidlál)
works. And an apostle is necessary for the initial
imposition of moral obligation and its beginning in the
world." This interdependence of reason and
revelation is basic in al-Mufid's system, and it is a
pity that he did not theorize about it further in any of
the writings we have from him.
II. Al-Mufid's Kalám in Practice
It is the contention of this paper that al-Mufid did
more than just argue against external opponents and
refute adversaries. While doing this, he also met to some
extent another vital need of the Imamite believer which
had been performed by the Imams when they were available,
but which needed continuation in al-Mufid's time and
still needs to be done along the lines he laid out or
along the lines laid out by his pupils and successors.
That task is the rational elaboration of the faith. What
does this or that doctrine mean? How can I justify it
against the objections of my own mind? It is the task of
giving an intellectual substratum to what he believed.
For the content of what is to be believed does not stand
on reason alone, but also on revelation (sam').
To this end, for example, al-Mufid elaborates in al-'Ifsáh
a fourfold proof of the need for an Imam: from the
Qur'an, from tradition, consensus, and from reason and
experience. And the last part of the proof, from reason
and experience, rests upon two premises: one, that it is
impossible to carry out the legal duties of the believer
without an Imam, and, second, that God does not oblige
what is impossible. So one of the two premises is
based on revelation, and the second, that God does not
oblige what is above man's strength, is from reason.
Al-Mufid also argues agaisnt the Ash'arites that God
is just and does not command man beyond what he is
capable of. This leads him also to consider whether
God acts for man's best interests, and whether God does
so because He is obliged in justice, or whether He puts
Himself under a kind of moral obligation rising from His
nobility and generosity. In deciding for the latter,
al-Mufid is in agreement with the Baghdadi Mu'tazilites
against the Basran school.
But if God is not held by strict justice, it would
seem rather hazardous to claim that we know by reason
what He may and may not do. Hence this seems to be
another reason why al-Mufid's thesis fits in well with
his other doctrine that reason ('aql) needs
revelation (sam') to support it.
This would seem to be in line with the prayer of
Ibrahim to see how God would raise the dead. God replied,
" 'Do you not then believe?' He said, 'Yes! but to
satisfy my own heart.' " It is not so much a
question of whether it is so, but an effort to understand
how it is so. And in kalám, it is an effort more
in the first operation of the mind (the concept and what
it means) rather than the second operation (the
judgement) which deals with the true and the false.
That is, the Imamite already believes what the Imam
But still he wants to know how this accords and
harmonizes with other things which he knows by reason. So
he asks, for example, in al-Masá'il al-Hájibiyyah,
how this or that Qur'anic verse can be harmonized with
the doctrine of the Imamites, e.g. on the purity of the
People of the House, with the verse: "And God only
wishes to remove all impurity from you, Members of the
Family, and to make you pure and spotless" This
is really asking for an explanation of the meaning of the
verse which he can rationally accept along with the
doctrine that the Imams were already pure.
Or how certain actions of the prophets or the Imams
harmonize with their 'ismah, for example: if Ali
knew what would happen, why did he go to the mosque where
he was assassinated, and why did al-Husayn go to
Kufah? This leads al-Mufid to explain more fully what
'ismah means and what it does not mean.
Granted. then, that the main purpose of 'ilm
al-kalám is to defend one's doctrine against deniers
and enemies, it remains that it also has a secondary
function, which is to explain more fully the meaning of
the doctrine in order to meet the need of the believer
for a fuller understanding of what he believes. I think
this second task of kalám looms large in
Comparison with Theology
All that I have said so far may perhaps seem obvious
to you. Why do I elaborate on it? Because before coming
to a study of kalám and al-Mufid, I had been
trained in theology, and my own curiousity leads me- to
ask what are the similarities and what are the
differences between the two sciences. I would like to
note three differences: one of emphasis, another of
function, and of subject matter.
In theology, the function of defensive apologetic is
secondary, relegated to a minor ancillary role. For
theology is mainly a dialogue between believers rather
than with unbelievers. Where the dialogue is with
unbelievers, one is in the realm of philosophy or what is
called natural theology, which appeals only to what can
be proved by unaided reason. And in defending one's
religious doctrine against outside attacks, or in seeking
to convince a nonbeliever of its truth, one is using the
science called apologetics, not theology proper.
For the primary aim of theology is "understanding
of the faith". Or as Augustine, one of the formers
of the theological tradition said, "I believe in
order that I may understand, and I understand in order
that I may believe better." It uses reason in
order to try to see the harmony between the doctrines
among themselves, and also how they lead man to his last
end, which is the direct knowledge of God in heaven. In
other words, if the parts of a theological system
contradict one another or do not fit in with one another,
the system falls. But the theologian as such does not
make it his business to prove the credibility of what he
believes to a nonbeliever, That is the task of the
philosopher or the apologist. The theologian seeks not so
much to defend as to deepen his faith, and by
contemplating with his reason what he believes to be
revealed truths, to see connections between them and draw
conclusions from them. In doing this he aims to know God
better, even though God will remain a mystery to him. And
the fruit of this effort should ordinarily be love.
It must be said too that another difference between
the subject matter of kalám and that of theology
is that kalám does not deal expressly with
mysteries that surpass our understanding.
Of course, every Muslim will admit at once that there
are many things about God and what pertains to Him, al-ghayb,
beyond the understanding of His creatures. However the
task of kalám is not to treat of those mysteries.
The theologian, in fact, treats many of the same subjects
as the mutakallim, but under a different light:
that of faith. And theology holds of course that many
truths about God (that He exists, that He is One, that He
rewards the good and punishes the evil, etc.) can be
proved by reason alone, but that revelation is necessary
in practice so that these truths can be arrived at by
all, more quickly, easily, and certainly and without
error being mixed in.
For faith, in the theologian's view, is a gift which
God offers and man can accept. When he accepts it, it
raises him above his own natural powers and enables him
to believe not on the strength of proofs, which may or
may not be present, but because God says so.
What the theologian is trying to do by using his
reason with the aid of this gift of faith is to come to
some knowledge of God which stands between the knowledge
of a child, who simply believes, and the direct knowledge
of God which is experienced in love by those who
contemplate Him in heaven.
Back to Index of Articles
1. Paris: Vrin, 1948. This was translated by Subhi
al-Sálih and Farid Jabr, Falsafat al-fikr al-dini bayn
al-'Islam wal-masihiyyah" .Beirut, Dár al-'Ilm
lil-Maláyin, 1969, 3 vols.
2. Ihyá' "ulúm al-din, 1, 174, cited in
Gardet-Anawati, p. 71.
3. A'l-Muqaddimah, 1164, Gardet-Anawati, p. 309.
4. Tash ih al-'i'tiqádát, p. 66, M. McDermott, The
Theology of al-Shaikh al-M'ufid, Beirut: Dar El-Machreq,
1978, p. 317.
5. Tashih pp. 26-7, Theology" p. 315.
6. Tashih, p. 67.
7. Theology" p. 58, citing al-Karájaki, Kanz
8. Al-Fusúl al-mukhtárah, p. 78, Theology" p. 243.
9. Al-Fusúl, p. 79, Theology, p. 245.
10. Tashih, p. 28, Theology" p. 316.
11. Awá'il, pp. 11-12, Theology, p. 60.
12. Al-'Ifsáh. fi imámat Amir al-Mu'minin, pp. 3-4,
Theology, p. 120.
13. Awá'il, pp. 24-25, Theology, p. 156.
14. Awá'il, p. 26, Theology, p. 77.
15. Súrat al-Baqarah, 2:260.
16. Súrat al-'Ahzáb, 33:33; al-Masá'il al-hájibiyyah,
17. I bid., Q. 20.
18. Sermon 43, 7, 9.
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