`Aqīdah, Kalām, and the Obligation of Ma`rifah
Updated: Mar 3, 2022
Mateen A. Khan (Trenton, NJ)
`Aqīdah is the Most Important Science
Today, the world’s people are drowning in a sea of knowledge. Yet, we flounder without any clear guidance to what it all means. From work and school related knowledge to websites, videos, and social media—which of it is important, relevant, and worth our attention? Unfortunately, we often miss the larger, more important discussions. Most people are too occupied with their own worldly lives and have little time to contemplate purpose, existence, death, and what comes after. The cell phones in hand, entertainment centers at home, and movie theaters in each part of town quickly steal any free time for reflection.
Yet, an attraction towards the truth resides deep within each person. It’s a desire to cut through the man-made fog to see the underlying reality of existence. Some follow this attraction with exploration in the Natural Sciences, others in physical experiences, and still others sadly ignore it as something not worth thinking about. Tightly bound to this is the practical matter of relevant guidance—differentiating between the right and wrong, good and bad in our lives. Here, some inescapable questions arise for each person:
Is there a Creator for the Universe, or has it always existed?
Is there anything after death?
What do we make of these competing ideologies and theologies seeking to answer these questions? Which ones, if any, are true?
It is imperative in our time to create an environment which addresses these questions, and gives people purpose, understanding, and guidance. We need to create an environment of the most important type of knowledge. Drawing our attention by pointing out his status, the Prophet ﷺ said, “I am the most fearful of Allah among you, and I am the most knowledgeable of Him.”1 In this brief statement, he ﷺ indicates the most important knowledge is the knowledge of Allah. It is the root of all beneficial knowledge as everything the Prophet ﷺ taught us comes from it. Allah ta`āla said:
شَهِدَ اللَّـهُ أَنَّهُ لَا إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ وَالْمَلَائِكَةُ وَأُولُو الْعِلْمِ قَائِمًا بِالْقِسْطِ
Allah witnesses that there is no deity except Him, and [so do] the angels and those of knowledge – [that He is] maintaining [creation] in justice. (3:18)
Regarding this ayah, Sayyidunā Ibn `Abbās (May Allah be pleased with him) said, “Indeed, whoever testifies oneness for Allah, then it is the best of knowledge. For it is knowledge of that which is the most important and noble of knowledges. Indeed, knowledge increases nobility according to the nobility of what is known. When Allah ta`āla is the most magnificent of all existents, then likewise knowledge of Him will be the most magnificent of knowledges.2
Hence, the knowledge of Allah’s oneness and attributes is the greatest of sciences not only because it answers those inescapable questions, but additionally all other fields of knowledge are built upon it. It is known as al-`Ilm al-Uṣūl (foundational knowledge), because the other four sciences in the Sharī`ah stem from it. The first is Tafsīr, which is the study of an attribute of Allah, His speech. The second is Ḥadīth, which relies on recognizing the Prophet ﷺ and that only happens after recognizing Allah. The third is Uṣūl al-Fiqh, which is the study of the proofs of rulings, and all of that goes back to Allah’s Book. The fourth is Fiqh, which is built upon its Uṣūl.3
Every human, from our father Ādam (May Allah give him peace) to the last Muslim, either accepts it or is accountable for accepting it. Indeed, every creation of Allah, from the animate to the inanimate, (besides most men and jinn) accept it. It would be accurate to say that while the Sharī`ah of each Messenger has changed, their `aqīdah has been one and the same. One would expect as much since `aqīdah is an explanation of Reality, and Reality does not change from one generation to another. `Aqīdah starts with the knowledge of Allah’s oneness and attributes. Then, all creation has been a result of Allah’s will. Hence, it only makes sense that `aqīdah be the most important of all fields.
It’s worth noting `aqīdah does not mean belief in a baseless gathering of held opinions, but rather, they are beliefs of dogma and doctrine. For example, one does not say, “I believe gravity exists.” Similarly, we do not say, “We believe a Creator exists.” Rather, we say with certainty, “A Creator exists.” We do not say, “We believe Muhammad ﷺ is the Messenger of Allah.” Rather, “Muhammad ﷺ is the Messenger of Allah.” Some may consider the point minor, but once īmān and the proofs supporting `aqīdah are understood, there is no reason to separate what is known physically from `aqīdah. Rather, as we will see in future articles inshā`Allāh, logic dictates that most `aqīdah points have a stronger basis than known physical laws.
The Need for Kalām
Every generation has a greater need for a particular science. In current times, people have a near non-existent understanding of creed. By this, I do not mean the regurgitation of the six articles of faith, but rather firm conviction in the truth of these articles resulting from a strong logical and textual-based foundation. The current generation has a need for a science called Kalām. Even other religions are turning to the work of Muslim Kalām scholars to support common core beliefs like the existence of a Creator.
Kalām is the science of Allah’s oneness and attributes through which Islamic beliefs are established by laying out proofs (both logical and text-based) and removing doubts.4 Imam al-Taftazānī wrote in his Sharḥ al-`Aqā’id, “[Kalām] is security from the varying darknesses of doubts.” It was developed to further explain and defend `aqīdah, much like Fiqh developed to give insight into new rulings and understanding of old ones. For example, whereas our `aqīdah is Allah is the Creator of all things, Kalām explains to us why every contingent and possible existent must have a pre-eternal and necessary Existent.
There is a rich tradition of explaining and defending `aqīdah, which arose soon after the Prophet’s ﷺ passing. During the time of the Prophet ﷺ, disagreements in creed did not exist, as the Companions were pure-hearted individuals drinking directly from the fountain of prophethood. If any disagreements arose, they were quickly resolved by simply asking him ﷺ.
After his ﷺ death, different groups like the Mu`taziliyyah (the first group holding beliefs directly against clear scripture), Rawāfiḍ, Khawārij, etc. emerged. These groups held deviant positions incompatible with what was passed from the Prophet ﷺ and the Companions. Whereas disagreements in other fields like Fiqh are more easily tolerated, the Prophet ﷺ warned us about disagreements in `aqīdah.
وَإِنَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ تَفَرَّقَتْ عَلَى ثِنْتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ مِلَّةً وَتَفْتَرِقُ أُمَّتِي عَلَى ثَلاَثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ مِلَّةً كُلُّهُمْ فِي النَّارِ إِلاَّ مِلَّةً وَاحِدَةً قَالُوا وَمَنْ هِيَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ مَا أَنَا عَلَيْهِ وَأَصْحَابِي
Indeed, Banū Isrā’īl split into seventy-two sects. My ummah will split into seventy-three groups. Each of them will enter the Fire (for a time) except for one group. [The Companions] said, “Who are they, O Allah’s Messenger?” He ﷺ said, “Those who follow my path and the path of my Companion.”5
Deviance in creed can range from bid`ah to kufr, having consequences in both this world and the next. It follows then, we must closely guard our understanding of Allah and Reality. Kalām, like Fiqh, Uṣūl al-Qur’ān, Uṣūl al-Ḥadīth, and other sciences, arose to protect and propagate core Islamic teachings. Nearly every attack against `aqīdah today is old and recycled from hundreds— if not thousands— of years ago. These attacks, whether stemming from philosophers, atheists, or other religions, are convincingly answered by scholars of Kalām by correctly utilizing the tools of competing ideologies like philosophy, logic, and the Natural Sciences to defend `aqīdah.
At times, Kalām can be very abstract and difficult for the untrained mind. For specific people and in specific times, it is better left undiscussed since it can result in confusion instead of clarity. The Prophet ﷺ did not ask people to prove their beliefs, but rather just to believe. In a time when misguidance is rare and people naturally follow Islam on a communal scale, Kalām in unnecessary among laypeople. Imam Abū Yūsuf, the absolute mujtahid and student of Imam Abū Ḥanīfah, said to Bishr al-Marīsī, “Whoever seeks knowledge through Kalām, has become a disbeliever.” Similar statements have been attributed to other notable scholars, but these statements referred to those who misused the tools of Kalām to arrive at ideas contrary to the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamā`ah. However, when misguidance is rampant like in today’s world, people follow their whims and attempt to justify it through misplaced philosophy and feelings, then Kalām is necessary. In needed times, Kalām has been a necessary tool illuminating the truth of Islam against the falsehoods of atheism, agnosticism, and other religions.
“The truth is that the science of Kalām is an obligation upon the Muslims (wājib `alā al-kifāyah). There must exist one who stands to fulfill this responsibility on behalf of the Muslims.”6
As for Imam Abū Yūsuf’s statement above, he referred to the likes of Al-Marīsī, who was a disbeliever of the Jahmī sect utilizing Kalāmī tools against proper `aqīdah. Likewise, great scholars like Imam Abū Ḥanīfah, Najm al-Dīn al-Nasafī, and Kamāl ibn al-Humām from amongst the Hanafis engaged in Kalām as needed.
Ma`rifah is an Obligation
The first focus of Kalām addresses the first point of `aqidah, Allah. More specifically, it addresses the recognition of Allah. By consensus, the recognition (ma`rifah) of Allah is obligatory on every human possessing a working intellect (al-`āqil) and of age (al-bāligh). A working intellect is anyone capable of discerning between right and wrong, the beneficial and harmful. A child comes of age and becomes an adult in the eyes of the Sharī`ah by age 15 hijrī years, earlier if they show signs of having reached puberty. In fact, some scholars, most notably the Iraqi Hanafis, made ma`rifah binding on the intelligent child even before he or she comes of age. Once one can understand the proofs for the Creator, he and the adult are similar in this respect.7 It is impermissible that Allah remain unknown to a person gifted with intellect.
أَيَحْسَبُ الْإِنسَانُ أَن يُتْرَكَ سُدًى Does man think that he will be left neglected? (2:36)
This is a prompt from Allah that He would not neglect us from achieving ma`rifah. The ma`rifah of Allah is the first obligation on a person because all other responsibilities in deen are based upon it and stem from it. Praying and fasting necessitate the recognition and acceptance of the Creator first. The Qur’an commands as much.
فَاعْلَمْ أَنَّهُ لَا إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ Know that there is no deity except Allah. (47:19)
Imam Abū Yusuf narrated from Imam Abū Ḥanīfah, who mastered `aqīdah before stepping into fiqh, “Ignorance of recognizing his Creator is not an excuse for anyone when he has seen the creation of the heavens, the earth, himself, and all of the creation of his Lord.”8
The scholars of `aqīdah have a very specific definition of ma`rifah. Imam Abū Ḥanīfah defined it in Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, “We recognize Allah as His right to be recognized just as Allah has described Himself in His book with all His attributes.”
Now, one might argue, “How can anyone truly know Allah?” True, no one can fully fathom the dhāt (essence) or ṣifāt (attributes) of Allah. However, ma`rifah means to recognize Him by confirming what He has confirmed for Himself and denying what He has denied for Himself in the Qur’an and Ḥadīth. It means to do this without making any similarities between Him and another nor denying any of His confirmed traits.
Islam begins with a heavy understanding—we owe our intelligence, our blessings, our existence, and indeed, everything to a Creator. Hence, it is incumbent on us to recognize Him as best we can. This is even more so in today’s climate of ever-increasing atheism and confusion. We will discuss methods of arriving at ma`rifah in a future article, inshā’Allāh. Here, we suffice with the point that ma`rifah is the first and foremost obligation upon every responsible person in the Sharī`ah. It is best gained today in an intellectual way through the study of Kalām. Every individual must take the necessary steps to increase their own conviction in Islam and those around them, Muslim and non-Muslim. We ask Allah for tawfīq.
1 Al-Bukhārī 20. Bāb qawl al-nabiyy, “Ana a`lamukum bi Allah.”
3 Ahmed, A. (2018) Outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases in Muslim majority countries. Journal of Infection and Public Health, 11 (2), 153-155. doi.org/10.1016/j.jiph.2017.09.007
7 Al-Bukhārī, Ibrāhīm. Talkhīṣ al-Adillah. Beirut, 2011.