Islamic Theology

Osama Alkhawaja
6 min readMar 6, 2023

The following notes were taken by me during the 2017 ALIM program. I am sharing them here so others may benefit from what I learned. To the extent I’ve made any errors in either understanding or communicating a concept, that fault is entirely my own, and not that of my teachers. Allah knows best.

General Approach

History of Disagreement

Islam allowed for a rich history of competition intellectual positions within different political Islamic civilization. There have always been competing understanding of “God” under the umbrella of Islam. Different ways to interpret the Quran and Sunnah informed by histories and culture.

Reject textualism

Our challenge today is to distinguish between what is universal and transcendent vs. what is historical and contingent.

People naturally look for short cuts to new questions. They cherry pick the scripture to prove their points, one way or another. But this often decontextualizes the text, and ignores other seemingly contradictory commands. For example: how to reconcile “cut off the hand” with “God is merciful.” Our task therefore is to (1) take the text (2) contextualize it, and (3) devise the meaning/principle from it.

This requires us to acknowledge the lenses through which our modern eyes read the text, and to reject the notion that all meaning can be derived entirely from the text.

SH: Just because it did not come out of the Quran does not mean its not right; what are you going to do to articualte & sustain Islam trans-generationally

Early Historical Progression

As Islam expanded horizontally (spatially), it expanded vertically (doctrinally). This means as more people from different faith traditions and cultures accepted Islam, the doctrinal depth of Islam grew to satisfy their various needs.

Most of the known “Muslim world” does not become majority Muslim until about 250 after the Prophet’s death. That means Muslims were a minority in power in the central parts of Islam for largely the formative first three centuries.

Islam traveled faster than Arabic, but eventually certain cultures became Arabized (Palestinians/Syrians/Egyptians). Some strongly retained language/culture (Persians/South Asians). The bulk of scholarship in early Islam was produced by arabized non-Arabs. They became responsible for articulating Islam to those who don’t share their history, culture, or background.

Every generation and each culture asked different questions of their faith, depending on the issues of the time and place . Scholars of each generation had to devise answers to these questions. Sometimes, the entire Q/A is no longer relevant and just fades (is the Quran created). Other times, later scholars build on the analysis. Examples:

  • Muslims believe God is both “Good” and “All knowing.”
  • Zoroastrians believed in duoism. 2 Gods. 1 good and 1 evil. They asked Muslims: How can your God be good and all knowing but allow for evil, hardship, and suffering in the world?
  • Today, people ask does Islam “care” about minority rights? [would never have been asked in this framing 1000 years ago]

Systemization of thought

As scholars began to expand on various doctrines, the different approaches to addressing different topics began to solidify. These topics remain in conversation to today, but have flared up in different points of history. They are generally:

  • Five pillars
  • Arab-lingo franco
  • Law (fiqh)
  • Theology (aqeedah)
  • Philosophy
  • Sufism
  • Caliphate (political)
  • Sunni/shia split

We view Islam through these authoritative lenses. Each has its own tradition and rich historical doctrines. However, when we view them today, they are filtered through modernity. And often, people skip the “tradition” and go “straight to the Quran & Sunnah.” But this approach is self-sabotaging in many ways.

SH: 1+1= 2 & 01. They are both right. The latter in binary, the former in decimal. Neither is more or less reasonable. The trick is to recognize the difference between reason and systems of reason.

Old debates are like precedent/case law. We can and must use them today, to the extent they apply.

Aqeedah

Mutazilites

Background: Mutazila died in 130–150 AH. At this point, the majority was still non-Muslim. Worked in Basra. Faced with different old and well established cultures, he wanted to vindicate Islam theologically against more established religious structures, like Zoroastrism.

Belief:

  • Free will: God is the creator. But there is a very thick line between creator and created, because God gives us free will. So in a sense, he is not to blame for our actions, or the evil on this Earth that results from evil men. Free will is an independent power that provides independent choice. There is no distinction between power/will. God gives you the right to act independent of God. In essence, God has no effect on our lives. He only intervenes for miracles.
  • Good: God is good and just. If it is not good and just, it is not from god. Therefore, evil is the sole responsibility of man.

Legacy: Mutazilites were not orthodox and never became the majority view. But they were never considered outside the fold of Sunni-Islam.

Asharites

  • Background: Abu Hassan All Ashari. He was working in 320AD, and he was responding to the Mutazilites.
  • Freewill: Human beings have free will, in the sense that we can choose to do something, but we do not always have the power to do it. The latter part is contingent on God. God controls the turning of your choice into action. Like shooting a free throw, or drawing a straight line. We acquire power from god by willing to act. Therefore, evil people are responsible for their actions because they choose to act evil. But it is true, that in those instances, God gave them the power to do evil. We Muslims must condition our will to do what God likes. But we cannot presume to know what God will empower to happen.

The Asharites used reason to justify the doctrines of the traditionalists, but concede on the argument of a created Quran.

Maturidites

  • Background: 333 AD in Central Asia. Bazwadi, Nasafi, Maturidi.
  • Theory: Extreme rationalism. Leading characteristic is neither power nor justice but wisdom. Reason. Argued that existence is proved by evil: if the universe brought it self into existence, it would only bring what enhanced itself. But since we are self-destructing, it can’t be so. God permits evil because it serves a wiser purpose we are not aware of or unable to comprehend (Surah al-Kahf). The biggest sin of rationalists is anthropomorphism.
  • You can know nothing you can’t prove. And you can prove nothing without reason (traditionalists reject this)

Traditionalists

  • Background: Led by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. Note: traditionalists in theology are not necessarily Hanbali in fiqh, but Hanbali in fiqh must be traditionalists in theology.
  • Theory: More literalist (but not exactly). But they do not rely on metaphor and “rationalism.” If God said he has a hand/face, then he does (We don’t know what it is and what it looks like). If God said the Quran is created, then it is. They do not believe there is a reason to allegroically interpet God’s hand and attributes.
  • Do not reject reason. They reject a particular system of reason called “Kalam.” Reject it on the basis that it would not preserve the integrity of scripture/divinity
  • God can laugh, God can be angry, God can have effective traits, God can have a relationship with you
  • They do not prove God through reason. They prove it through “Fitra” primordial instinct. They admit there is always going to be unproven premise.
  • Willing to admit figuatirve Arabic speech but not because of Kalam logic, but because that’s inherent to the language

Nature of God Debates

  • Central question: existence of God, and nature of God
  • Rationalist + Asharaits + Mutazilities = Rely on reason and i’lm Al-Kalam (philosophy) → God can’t laugh/anger/happy/have a human trait. Reason allows us to have a universal language in abstract levels. God is not
  • Traditionalists rely on Fitra to prove God.
  • Most books we may read today were written by Ashar’ites who are not kind to Traditionalists
  • Al-Ghazali made an effort to sow peace between the camps. He said there can’t be tafkir beyond kufr. And as long as an individual believes in (1) God (2) Prophet (3) the Last Day, they are Muslim. Note: denying the Ontological truth of the Prophet’s statement is kufr.

Philosophers

  • Don’t like the idea of God creating the world. They believe God and World co-creating. God Created the world involuntarily. World co-eternal with God
  • Kindi, Farabi, Ibn Sina: Resurrection is impossible, God is pure thought, when we die we rid ourselves of our “dirty body” and we go to God as pure thought, God knows that I am in motion b/c I am moving with my body but not that I am walking (the floating man thought experiment”

--

--

Osama Alkhawaja

Lawyer writing on politics, history, and anything that interests me in at the moment