Imami Theology

Priority: b, Quality: c
Without references
From wikishia
(Redirected from Theology)

Kalām al-Imāmīyya (Arabic: کلام الإمامیة, Theology of the Imamiyya) or Shiite Kalām is a branch of Islamic theology concerned with the proof, explanation, and defense of theological doctrines in accordance with the method of Ahl al-Bayt (a) and their prominent students. It highlights the employment of reasoning and hadiths in theological problems. The main difference between the theology of the Imamiyya and other Islamic theological schools goes back to their method and the problems of imamate.

The theology of the Imamiyya had both rational and transmission-based inclinations in the period of the presence of the Shiite Imams (a). After this period, Shiite theologians adopted textualist and philosophical rationalist approaches to theological issues. It exhibits the development of Shiite theology since the period of the Major Occultation. Al-Shaykh al-Saduq, al-Shaykh al-Mufid, and Khwaja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi were, respectively, founders and prominent figures of textualism, rationalism, and philosophical rationalism.

Historically speaking, the theology of the Imamiyya is considered as the first theological school of Islam. Its issues were raised immediately after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad (s) and was developed in the periods of the Rashidun Caliphs and was organized and elaborated in the subsequent centuries. It was structured in the 5th/11th century by al-Shaykh al-Mufid. It was transformed by Khwaja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in the 7th/13th century.


The theology of the Imamiyya was originated immediately after the demise of the Prophet (s). The first theological issue discussed by Muslims at the time was the problem of imamate and caliphate. There were two views about the problem: one that the successor of the Prophet (s) is selected by God and announced by the Prophet (s) himself, and the other that it was left to Muslims to elect the Prophet's (s) successor.

Imam 'Ali (a) and a number of prominent figures from Muhajirun and Ansar were proponents of the first theory. Their names and arguments are cited in sources of history and hadith. In his book, al-Khisal, al-Shaykh al-Saduq has cited 12 such figures and their arguments. They presented two arguments for their position: quotations from the Prophet (s) himself about his successor, and the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a). Those of the Sahaba who defended the imamate of Imam 'Ali (a) can, thus, count as the first Shiite theologians.

At this point, the Shiite theological school was not formed yet, but hints provided by Ahl al-Bayt (a) to the Shi'a regarding key theological issues prepared the ground for such a theological school.

Main Problems

In addition to the problem of imamate which was raised immediately after the demise of the Prophet (s), the oldest theological issues consisted in Divine Attributes, Qada' and Qadar, Jabr (predestination), Istita'a, and Tafwid.

The first person who replied to objections and problems about each of these issues was Imam 'Ali (a). His companions, undoubtedly, followed his theological views. After Imam 'Ali (a), leaders of theological debates and defenders of the principles of the Islamic beliefs were Imam al-Hasan (a), Imam al-Husayn (a), Imam al-Sajjad (a) and the rest of Shiite Imams. They trained students who could defend Shiite theological views.

Thus, the Shiite theological school is historically prior to all other Islamic schools of theology. Imami theologians had already dealt with theological problems even before the emergence of Qadariyya (in the second half of the 1st/7th century) and the Mu'tazila (early 2nd/8th century) who argued against Mushabbiha (anthropomorphism) and proponents of Jabr (determinism) in order to defend monotheism and divine justice. Imami theologians had already established the foundations of monotheism and divine justice with their firm arguments. This is why divine justice and monotheism are known as two 'Alawi ideas.

Organization of Theological Principles and Texts

The theology of the Imamiyya has precedence over the Mu'tazila and Ash'aris in establishing the rules and principles of theological reasoning and writing theological essays and books.

Imam 'Ali (a) was the first person, after the Qur'an, who encouraged Muslims to reflect and reason about their beliefs, and to explain and establish the principles of Islamic teachings. For example, he said about monotheism and divine justice—two central theological issues—that "monotheism is that you do not try to imagine God, and justice is that you do not accuse Him [of having properties that He does not have]".

Some Shiite Imams (a) wrote essays about some theological problems; for example, Imam al-Hasan (a) wrote an essay concerning the problem of predestination. Imami theologians wrote essays and books about theological issues from the early days. According to al-Najashi, "the first person who wrote about imamate was 'Isa b. Rawda (al-Tabi'i)". And Ibn al-Nadim referred to 'Ali b. Isma'il b. Maytham al-Tammar (d. 179/795-6) as the first person who theologized about imamate and attributed a book concerning this issue to him. According to al-Najashi, he was contemporary with al-Nazzam and Abu Hudhayl, and had theological debates with them.

Hisham b. Hakam, a Shiite theologian in the period of Imam al-Sadiq (a) and Imam al-Kazim (a), wrote many theological essays and books, including Kitab al-imama, Kitab al-jabr wa l-taqdir, Kitab al-istita'a, and al-Radd 'ala ashab al-ithnayn.

Imami theology and Mu'tazila and Ash'ariyya Relation

The three Islamic theological schools, that is, Imamiyya, Mu'tazila, and Ash'ariyya, agree over some issues, and disagree about some others. Shiite theology both influenced, and was influenced by, the other two theological schools. However, Shiite theology preserved its independent identity with its general approach remaining unchanged.

Shiite Theology and Mu'tazili Views

There are some theological issues concerning which Shi'as and the Mu'tazila have the same views, such as the identity of Divine Attributes with the Divine Essence, the Quran being created, the denial of self-subsistent speech of God (al-kalam al-nafsi), the denial of visual perception of God, rational rightness and wrongness (al-husn wa l-qubh al-'aqli), and the human power and free will. This has led some orientalists as well as Muslim authors to think that Shi'as were influenced by the Mu'tazila in their theological views. However, the view has been rejected by some Shi'a researchers. Rabbani Gulpayigani has provided different arguments against the view.

Theological Disagreements between the Imamiyya and the Mu'tazila

Ayatollah Ja'far Subhani has referred to the following as the theological problems over which the Imamiyya disagree with the Mu'tazila. In some of these problems, the Shi'as even agree with the Ash'ari view:

  1. Shafa'a (or intercession): all Muslims believe in Shafa'a; however, the Imamiyya and Asha'aris believe that committers of major sins will be rescued from the Hell with the intercession of the Prophet (s) or, at least, their punishment will be mitigated, but the Mu'tazila believe that Shafa'a is specific to people who have obeyed God and deserve divine rewards, and its sole function is to increase their rewards.
  2. Committers of major sins: according to the Imamiyya and Ash'aris, they count as believers, although they are evil-doers. However, the Mu'tazila believed that such people are neither believers, nor unbelievers; they are in a position between the two positions (manzila bayn al-manzilatayn).
  3. The Heaven and the Hell: the Imamiyya and Ash'aris believe that the Heaven and the Hell are already created, but most of the Mu'tazila believe that they do not exist before the resurrection.
  4. Enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong (al-amr bi l-ma'ruf wa l-nahy 'an al-munkar): according to the Imamiyya and Ash'aris, it is a transmitted obligation to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong (transmitted through the Quran and hadiths), but according to the Mu'tazila, it is a rational obligation.
  5. Ihbat: according to the Imamiyya and Ash'aris, ihbat (the cancellation of divine rewards of an action) applied only with respect to certain sins, such as polytheism, but the Mu'tazila held that any subsequent sin leads to the ihbat of its prior good deeds. For example, if a person worships God throughout his life, but tells a lie before he dies, then it is as though he never worshipped.
  6. Reason ('aql) and shari'a: the Mu'tazila so radically relied on reasoning that they rejected all hadiths which seemed incompatible with their reasoning.
  7. Tawba (repentance): according to the Mu'tazila, tawba rationally removes divine punishment, but according to the Imamiyya and Ash'aris, the removal of punishment is not rationally required by tawba; rather it is because of divine favor.
  8. Superiority of prophets to angels: according to the Imamiyya, prophets are superior to angels, but the Mu'tazila believe the contrary.
  9. Predestination and free will: the Mu'tazila believed that God has absolutely left the power and will to human beings, but Shi'as believe in amr bayn al-amrayn.
  10. Divine obligation: the Imamiyya and Ash'aris require the existence of prophets for there to be a divine obligation, but the Mu'tazila believe that reason can enact obligations independently of shari'a.

Theological Disagreements between the Imamiyya and Asha'ira

There are disagreements between the theology of the Imamiyya and that of Ash'aris. Below are some such disagreements:

  1. Identity of Divine Attributes with the Divine Essence: according to the Imamiyya and the Mu'tazila, God's essential attributes, such as His knowledge and power, are identical with His essence. However, Ash'aris hold that God's essential attributes are eternal, and are external to His essence.
  2. Narrated Attributes: these are attributes mentioned in the Qur'an or hadiths, such as God's having a hand and a face. The Imamiyya interpret such attributes away, since they entail anthropomorphism (tashbih) and the embodiment (tajsim) of God.
  3. Predestination and free will: according to amr bayn al-amrayn adopted by the Imamiyya, human actions are literally attributed to him, but for Ash'ari theologians, human beings have no role in their own actions; their actions are created by God.
  4. Istita'a (power): according to Ash'aris, the power to do an action is always created by God simultaneously with performing the action.
  5. Seeing God: according to Ash'aris, it is possible to see God in the afterlife, but the Imamiyya and the Mu'tazila do not believe so.
  6. Divine speech: the Imamiyya take divine speech to be His act, and thus, incipient. But Ash'aris believe that God's speech self-subsistent, and thus, eternal and beginningless.
  7. Rational rightness and wrongness: unlike the Imamiyya and the Mu'tazila, Ash'ari theologians believe that reason cannot perceive rightness and wrongness on its own.


The theology of the Imamiyya follows the method of rational reasoning. However, it differs from the method of the Mu'tazila in that it is more moderate by relying not only on the ordinary reason, but also on the superior reason (the reason of the Infallibles (a)). According to Murtada Mutahhari, Shiite reasoning is not only contrary to Hanbali and Ash'ari approaches, but also with the radical rationalism of the Mu'tazila. He held that the reason relied on by the Mu'tazila is a dialectical, rather than discursive, reason.

Deep intellectual issues were first introduced by Imam 'Ali (a) in his sermons and negotiations. These issues have a spirit totally different from theological methods of the Mu'tazila, Ash'aris, and even some Imami theologians who were influenced by their contemporary theologies.

Theological issues in Shiite hadiths have been investigated in terms of rational and discursive methods. This is why Shiite hadiths count as one of the main sources of Imami theology. About the influence of Nahj al-balagha on the Islamic philosophy, Murtada Mutahhari says: "Nahj al-balagha had a great contribution to the history of eastern philosophy. Sadr al-Muta'allihin, who revolutionized the Islamic philosophy, was influenced by Imam 'Ali's (a) remarks. His method in monotheism is based on an argument from the divine essence for the essence and from the essence for the divine attributes and acts, and all of this is based on God's being a mere being, which is, in turn, built on other principles elaborated in his general philosophy".

'Allama Tabataba'i said about the distinction between Shiite and Mu'tazili theology that "some people mistakenly held that the theological method of Shi'as and the Mu'tazila is the same. A reason for the inaccuracy of this conception is that there are some principles transmitted from the Ahl al-Bayt (a) and relied on by the Imamiyya which are incompatible with the Mu'tazili taste".

'Abd al-Razzaq al-Lahiji holds that the distinctive advantage of the theology of the Imamiyya is that they rely on remarks by the Infallibles (a). However, a Shiite theologian cannot appeal to such remarks with regard to all issues to make his case or reject his opponents. Sometimes the opponent does not believe in the reliability of remarks by the Infallibles (a). Moreover, some theological issues, such as prophethood, the Quran being a miracle, and infallibility, that cannot be proved on the basis of remarks by the Infallibles (a); rather they should be discussed on the basis of rational reasons.

Theological Approaches of the Imamiyya

Common approaches adopted by Shiite theologians are as follows:

Textualism (Reliance on Nass)

"Nass" (نص) refers to one of two things. It is sometimes used in contrast to "Zahir" (ظاهر, apparent meaning) to mean an explicit meaning of a word, and it sometimes refers to transmitted texts (naql) as opposed to reason ('aql). Here by "nass" the second use is intended: any transmitted text (or speech) of the Quran or hadiths.

Textualism is an intellectual system that rests content to religious texts, taking human thought to be unable to rationally justify and explain the religious teachings. According to textualism, apparent and explicit texts of the Qur'an and the Tradition constitute the only source of religious knowledge.

Proponents of textualism differ in the degree of their reliance on religious texts, although they all share the view that reason should not be relied on with respect to religious teachings. On this method, the reason is helpful only as long as it leads us to religious leaders. After this, the reason should only serve the shari'a and follow the apparent and explicit remarks of the Quran and hadiths. In some cases, proponents of textualism appeal to the reason in order to defend religious doctrines, but they believe that the reason cannot achieve any deeper understanding beyond what is implied by religious texts.

This approach follows the hadith-centered approach of the Shi'a in the period of the presence of the Imams (a), and in particular, the period of Imam al-Rida (a) and thereafter. It dominated the Shiite thought in the period of the Occultation of Imam al-Mahdi (a) by al-Shaykh al-Saduq. Proponents of textualism were divided in their treatment of hadiths.

Some of them followed the lead of Sunni Ahl al-Hadith and Hashwiyya. They unconditionally relied on hadiths and believed that it is only the remarks of the Imams (a) that should be relied upon in order to know and understand religious teachings. Since they had no established arguments for their position, they were ignored by most Shi'as and their views were not cited in sources of fiqh and Shiite theology. Abu l-Husayn 'Ali b. 'Abd Allah b. Wusayf (366/976) was a follower of this approach.

The other group believed that hadiths should be cited and evaluated, although conservatively. They evaluated hadiths in accordance with the principles of rijal and hadiths, and did not unconditionally accept hadiths. They also relied only on the speeches of the Infallibles (a), which is why they concerned themselves with writing collections of hadiths. They avoided rational arguments appealed to by people such as Hisham b. Hakam, Mu'min al-Taq, 'Ali b. Isma'il b. Maytham, and Fadl b. Shadhan. It led to a period of idleness of the Imami theology. Theological contributions in this period were limited to defenses of monotheism and imamate in terms of transmitted texts.

In his responses to theological questions, al-Shaykh al-Saduq cited hadiths, instead of making a discursive argument. His theological books, such as I'tiqadat al-Imamiyya (Beliefs of the Imamiyya) and al-Hidaya, consisted wholly of hadiths put together to state a theological issue. However, he also believed in theological views, and thus, tried to interpret away the hadiths which were seemingly incompatible with theological views concerning monotheism and divine justice.

Prominent Figures

there are two versions of textualism: radical and moderate. 'Ali b. 'Abd Allah b. Wusayf (d. 366/976-7) is the only early follower of radical textualism mentioned in sources, before the emergence of Mulla Muhammad Amin Istarabadi (d. 1036/1626-7). However, early followers of moderate textualism include: Muhammad b. Hasan al-Saffar al-Qummi (d. 290/902-3), Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Khalid al-Barqi (274/887-8), Sa'd b. 'Abd Allah al-Ash'ari (d. 301/913-4), Muhammad b. Ya'qub al-Kulayni (d. 329/941), and al-Shaykh al-Saduq (d. 381/991-2).


Rationalism, as opposed to textualism, is the school of thought according to which the reason is a reliable source of knowledge in addition to the revelation. Proponents of this approach seek to explain theological propositions by appeal to rational arguments. They believe in the reliability of the reason, taking rational principles to be the bases of human knowledge. They hold that without recognizing the reason and rational principles, one can have no knowledge, since all other knowledge, from perceptual and empirical to revelation-based knowledge, is grounded in rational principles. They also believe that reason and revelation are compatible: just as the revelation or religion is a source of human knowledge, the reason is also a source of knowledge, and since they both represent one and the same objective, external facts, they will not contradict one another.

Rationalists prefer the reason over religious sources of knowledge in cases of contradiction between the two. However, in such cases they try to interpret religious sources away in terms of the reason.

The main feature of this approach is its moderateness. The founder of this theological method was al-Shaykh al-Mufid who referred to it as "moderate theology", in contrast to al-Shaykh al-Saduq's textualism and Nawbakhtis' "philosophical theology". He established this theological method in order to modify the rational arguments of earlier theologians (the Nawbakhtis) and present a method that respects both the reason and the transmitted evidence.

In the period of Occultation before the period of al-Shaykh al-Mufid, textualism of the People of Hadith was dominant. Rationalism was established with the emergence of al-Shaykh al-Mufid and was continued by his prominent students. It is noteworthy that about one century before al-Shaykh al-Mufid, ibn Qiba al-Razi (d. 317/929-30) had already employed the same methodology.

Al-Sayyid al-Murtada (436/1044), Abu l-Salah al-Halabi (447/1055-6), Abu l-Fath al-Karajaki (449/1057), and al-Shaykh al-Tusi (460/1067) followed al-Shaykh al-Mufid's method. It was continued with Sadid al-Din al-Humisi (or al-Humsi or al-Himsi) al-Razi in his book, al-Munqidh min al-taqlid, and 'Abd al-Jalil al-Qazwini, the author of al-Naqd, introduced himself as a follower of this method. Najm al-Din Abu l-Qasim Ja'far b. Hasan b. Sa'id (676/1277-8), the author of al-Maslak fi usul al-din, was one of the last people who remained committed to this method.

Prominent Figures

  • Ibn Qiba al-Razi, Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Rahman (d. before 317/929-30)
  • Al-Shaykh al-Mufid, Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Nu'man (d. 413/1022)
  • Al-Sayyid al-Murtada, 'Ai b. Husayn b. Musa (d. 436/1044)
  • Abu l-Salah al-Halabi, Taqi b. Najm b. 'Ubayd Allah (d. 447/1055-6)
  • Abu l-Fath al-Karajaki, Muhammad b. 'Ali b. 'Uthman (d. 449/1057)
  • Al-Shaykh al-Tusi, Abu Ja'far Muhammad b. Hasan (d. 460/1067)
  • Al-Humsi al-Razi, Sadid al-Din Mahmud (d. early 7th/13th century).

Philosophical Rationalism

This method deals with theological issues by appeal to the reason and philosophical principles. It remains committed to the Quran and the Tradition as well. However, the way they deal with the issues has a philosophical tone. They even appeal to philosophical principles of ancient Greek philosophy, although they also appeal to Quranic verses and hadiths to support their views.

A philosophized theology is one that draws on philosophical apparatuses to decide on theological issues. It examines and explains theological propositions on philosophical grounds. In other words, it tries to establish theological claims with a philosophical method.

Historical Development

In the Sunni world, the theology and philosophy were intertwined since the period of al-Ghazali (505/1111-2) and before him in the period of Imam al-Haramayn 'Abd al-Malik al-Juwayni (478/1085-6). And in the period of Qadi 'Adud al-Din al-Iji (756/1355-6) it lost its independent identity because it was absorbed into philosophy.

Unlike the Sunni theology which had a dialectical tone, Shiite theology had a discursive tone without having a philosophical coloring (except in the case of the Nawbakhtis). However, with the emergence of Khwaja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (672/1274) and because of certain demands and necessities of the time, Shiite theology was also intertwined with philosophy.

Before Khwaja Nasir, the Shiite theology had a dialectical method and was contrary to the philosophy. Muslim theologians opposed philosophy for centuries since the time it entered the Islamic world. They also opposed the science of logic and avoided using logical rules, since they treated logic to be a philosophical science and at odds with religious beliefs. In the period of Khwaja Nasir (the 7th/13th and 8th/14th centuries), the theology became more discursive and came to have a more philosophical coloring. At this point, the theology found a new identity, appealing to discursive arguments in addition to Quranic verses and hadiths. In the periods after Khwaja Nasir (especially after the 9th/15th century), the theology became totally discursive and was subsumed under philosophy. In this period, it lost its independent identity and was absorbed in the philosophy.

Prominent Figures

Philosophical rationalism was followed by some people in the first decades after the Occultation of Imam al-Mahdi (a). Scholars of the Nawbakhti Family were the first people who followed philosophical rationalism. Prominent figures of this method include:

Well-Known Imami Theologians

Some well-known Imami theologians in different historical periods are as follows:

The 2nd/8th Century

  • 'Isa b. Rawda al-Tabi'i who lived in the period of al-Mansur al-'Abbasi. He is the first person who wrote a theological work.
  • 'Ali b. Isma'il b. Shu'ayb b. Maytham al-Tammar (d. 179/795-6). He had theological debates with Abu l-Hudhayl al-'Allaf, Dirar b. 'Amr and al-Nazzam. He wrote Kitab al-imama and Majalis Hisham b. al-Hakam.
  • Hisham b. Hakam (d. 179/795-6 or 199/814-5) was a student and a prominent companion of Imam al-Sadiq (a). He was a leading theologian, especially with regard to issues of imamate.
  • Abu Ja'far al-Ahwal, known as Mu'min al-Taq. He was a student of Imam al-Sadiq (a) and a Shiite theologian. He was very powerful in theological debates.

The 3rd/9th Century

  • Fadl b. Shadhan al-Nishaburi (d. 260/873-4 ) was a prominent theologian. Many theological works are attributed to him most of which are rejections of deviant Islamic beliefs.
  • Sa'd b. 'Abd Allah al-Ash'ari (d. 299/911-2 or 301/913-4) wrote many theological works such as al-Radd 'ala l-ghulat (rejection of people who exaggerate about the Imams (a)), al-Radd 'ala al-mujbira (rejection of the proponents of predestination), Kitab al-imama (about imamate), and Kitab al-istita'a.
  • 'Abd Allah b. Ja'far al-Himyari wrote many theological works such as Kitab al-imama, Kitab al-dala'il, Kitab al-'azama wa l-tawhid, Kitab al-ghiba wa l-hira, Kitab al-tawhid wa l-bada' wa l-irada wa l-istita'a wa l-ma'rifa.

The 4th/10th Century

  • Ibn Qiba al-Razi: his debates with prominent theologians of his time show that he was a prominent scholar of theology at the time.
  • 'Ali b. Husayn al-Mas'udi (d. 346/957): he was a well-known historian and the author of Muruj al-dhahab. He wrote many theological works. Al-Najashi attributed some books to him such as al-Maqalat fi usul al-diyanat, al-Safwa fi l-imama, al-Hidaya ila tahqiq al-wilaya, and Ithbat al-wasiyya.
  • Muzaffar b. Muhammad al-Balkhi (d. 367/977-8): he was a teacher of al-Shaykh al-Mufid and wrote some theological works, especially concerning the issue of imamate. He wrote a polemic against Jahiz's al-'Uthmaniyya, as well as al-Aghrad wa l-nukat fi l-imama.

The 5th/11th Century

  • Abu l-Qasim 'Ali b. Husayn b. Musa al-Musawi, known as al-Sayyid al-Murtada and "'Alam al-Huda" (355/965-6 ; 436/1044-5): he was a prominent Imami scholar. His most important theological works include al-Shafi, Inqadh al-bashar min al-qada' wa l-qadar, and Tanzih al-anbiya' wa l-dhakhira fi usul al-din. The most important theological issues discussed in his works are the problem of infallibility and imamate, predestination, and the incipience of the world.
  • Muhammad b. Hasan al-Tusi (d. 460/1067), known as al-Shaykh al-Tusi: he wrote many works in different Islamic disciplines. His theological works include Riyadat al-'uqul, Talkhis al-shafi, Tamhid al-usul, al-Ghayba, and Iqtisad fi l-i'tiqad.

The 6th/12th Century

  • Ahmad b. Abi Talib al-Tabrisi, the teacher of Ibn Shahrashub and the author of al-Ihtijaj. He was an Imami theologian and muhaddith in late 5th/11th and early 6th/12th century.
  • Sadid al-Din al-Humsi al-Razi: he died between 580/1184-5 and 590/1193-4. The book, al-Ta'liq al-'Araqi, is the same as the book, al-Munqidh min al-taqlid wa l-murshid ila l-tawhid, written by al-Humsi in 581/1185-6.

The 7th/13th Century

  • Kamal al-Din Maytham b. 'Ali b. Maytham al-Bahrani, known as Ibn Maytham (d. 679/1280-1 or 699/1299-300): his theological works include Qawa'id al-maram fi 'ilm al-kalam , al-Bahr al-khdm fi l-ilahiyyat, Risala fi l-wahy wa l-ilham, Ghayat al-nazar fi 'ilm al-kalam, and al-Najat fi tahqiq amr al-imama.
  • 'Ali b. Sulayman al-Bahrani: he was ibn Maytham's teacher and the author of al-Isharat fi 'ilm al-kalam.