Original Research

Kalām in the crossfire: A historical survey of the legitimacy of the study of theology within the Sunni school of Islam

Nafiseh F. Moghaddas, Sayyid M. Yazdani
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 77, No 4 | a6917 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v77i4.6917 | © 2021 Nafiseh F. Moghaddas, Sayyid M. Yazdani | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 14 June 2021 | Published: 08 November 2021

About the author(s)

Nafiseh F. Moghaddas, Department of Ahl-al-Bayt Studies, Faculty of Theology and Ahl-al-Bayt Studies, University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran, Islamic Republic of
Sayyid M. Yazdani, Department of Islamic Denominations, Faculty of Islamic Denominations, University of Religions and Denominations, Qom, Iran, Islamic Republic of


The aim of this article is to briefly introduce and to examine the views of the founders of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (namely, Abū Hanīfa Nuʻmān ibn Thābit, Mālik ibn Anas, Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfʻī, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal) and that of their renowned students and followers, regarding the legitimacy of engaging in the study of Islamic doctrinal beliefs or Kalām. Different, and often conflicting, views have been postulated on this matter. Some Sunni thinkers have condemned the pursuit of theology as an act of heresy and denounced its practitioners as apostates. Other Sunni thinkers have extolled this discipline as the noblest of sciences whose learning and teaching are, at least under certain circumstances, incumbent. This fundamental dispute regarding the legitimacy of the discipline of theology has resulted in a rather contentious and opaque scholarly environment. In addition to the inherent importance of the discipline of theology as such, the significance of this dispute is compounded by the impact that the attitude one adopts toward this discipline can have on the development of the intellectual and rational aspects of Islam. A negative attitude toward theology, for example, can hamper the application of rational elements to Islamic doctrine. Our focus in this article is on analysing the views of the leading thinkers and jurists of the Sunni school and investigating the most authoritative sources of doctrinal tradition within this major denomination of Islam. Our study leads us to conclude that the disapproving views of the preeminent Sunni figures should be construed, not as a denunciation of the discipline of theology per se, but as a refutation of certain theological principles and persuasions that are viewed as incompatible with orthodox Islamic faith. In addition to and preceding that conclusion, this article provides a survey of the literature concerning the views of Muslim scholars on the legitimacy of Kalām. After categorising these views into the two opposite camps of Kalam’s legitimacy and illegitimacy, the article then proceeds to evaluate and critically analyse them, and to resolve some of their initial incompatibilities.

Contribution: The article sheds new light on the historical development of the discipline of theology within the Sunni schools of Islam. This is a little-studied and often overlooked subject that can help in attaining a better understanding of how this critical field within religious studies has emerged into its present form.


the Sunni school; kalam; theology; disputation; the Muʻtazilah; the Ashāʻirah; the Māturīdīyyah; the Ahl al-Ḥadīth; credal theology; dogmatic theology


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