Shaykh Hassan al Hindi gives an overview of the science of ʿaqida, clarifies points of contention and agreement, and explains why it is a necessary science.
Though each of the Islamic sciences has its specific topics of inquiry and detailed investigations, a student may find himself losing sight of the purpose, importance, and distinctive features of a science when engaged in studying its details and minutiae.
For example, a student may study legal theory (usul al fiqh) under a teacher, covering such topics as linguistic signification, analogy, and consensus, but this student may still not know what legal theory actually is, the benefits that are gained through its study, its ultimate aim, the manner it is to be studied, and the way it distinguishes itself from other sciences.
For the science of ʿaqida, such a comprehensive and universal understanding is necessary before diving into its detailed investigations. He proceeds to provide such an overview by answering a series of questions.
What Is ʿAqida?
The term ʿaqida has two meanings. The first refers to aspects of belief that are obligatory upon a person to establish in his heart and have faith in. These are the concepts and ideas that a person adopts regarding the Creator, this universe, the purpose of creation, this world, the next world, and so forth. This is the ʿaqida that is obligatory upon all Muslims to know.
The second meaning refers to the subject matter that is taught in seminaries, namely the actual science of ʿaqida, which incorporates the first definition mentioned above but extends beyond it. In this context, the term ʿaqida is defined as the knowledge through which religious beliefs are established by means of evidence that is decisive and certain.
I would like to draw attention to the use of the word yuqtadar in classical definitions of the science of ʿaqida. It signifies a strong ability or disposition. Consequently, ʿaqida as a science is a natural disposition or aptitude of the self that is characterized by strength in knowledge, expertise in evidence, and the ability to engage in a dialectic where truth can be distinguished from falsehood. This ability is something that God grants to some of His servants.
The evidence used to establish points of ʿaqida are both rational and textual, and there is no contradiction between these two sources. There are some points of ʿaqida that are evidenced mainly on the basis of rational proofs, others on the basis of textual proof, and yet some others that are based on both these sources.
The Relationship between ʿAqida and Knowledge in General
The relationship between ʿaqida and knowledge in general is one of a general-specific distinction, i.e. all ʿaqida is knowledge but not all knowledge is ʿaqida. A matter is considered a point of knowledge if it is established on the basis of evidence that is knowledge-based and scholarly.
A specific point of knowledge is then termed ʿaqida if in addition to this God attaches a particular significance to it that necessitates belief in it. The ʿaqida of Islam can be divided into two types.
Firstly, those aspects known in their details, such as God being omnipotent, omniscient, all-hearing, and all-seeing, or the specific names of prophets sent to mankind mentioned in the Qur’an, or the names of angels, etc.
Secondly, a general belief in everything that has been authentically conveyed from God and His Prophet, blessings upon him. Thus, there are issues that a Muslim is required to affirm on a general basis and others that he is required to affirm and be taught on a more specific and detailed basis.
Sometimes we are required to express general points of belief in a more detailed fashion. For example, the books of ʿaqida do not detail the creation of Adam, peace be upon him. Muslims suffice with the Qur’an and other texts to affirm as a general point of belief that he was created from clay and was the first human being.
Today, however, it is necessary to discuss this matter in more detail due to the various doubts that have arisen regarding the Islamic creation narrative.
An Intellectual Science vs. Experiential Reality
Another manner in which ʿaqida is divided is between its being a scholarly and intellectual activity and between its being an experiential reality. The former refers to ʿaqida as an engagement with texts, detailing and interpreting various points of creed, expounding their proofs, defending the faith, and so forth. On the other hand, ʿaqida as an experiential reality entails transforming and transferring these points of creed into one’s consciousness and being.
Both of these dimensions are separate but intimately connected. Separate because they engage the subject-matter from two distinct perspectives – one intellectual and the other practical. And intimately connected because they complete one another.
ʿAqida as a Living Science
In order for anything to maintain its state of living, it requires two things: nourishment that allows it to grow and sustain its existence and a medicine/protection that prevents it from being harmed.
The nourishment for faith is found in acts of worship, such as supplication, remembrance of God, prayer, the company of the righteous, and so forth. This type of nourishment is required for everyone.
As for medicine, this is only required by those who suffer from a disease or someone who is prone/exposed to it. What is this medicine? It is of two types:
- It may be a cure to treat an actual disease that is present, or
- It may be a cure to treat a disease that may occur, i.e. preventive medicine.
In the case of the second of the aforementioned points, it is necessary for anyone who feels they are prone to the disease of doubt to learn the general proofs and evidences of ʿaqida. However, if someone is afflicted with doubt regarding a specific issue, it is obligatory upon that person to learn the appropriate evidences for that ʿaqida issue in specific and seek an answer for their doubt.
The Subject-Matter of ʿAqida
There are three primary subjects that ʿaqida deals with:
- Godhead (ilahiyat): what is necessary, possible, and impossible for God.
- Prophethood (nabuwwat): what is necessary, possible, and impossible for prophets.
- Unseen matters (sam’iyat): topics relating to such issues as the Day of Judgment, heaven, hell, angels, devils, the signs of the last day, and so forth. Each of these issues is subsumed under one core principle: things that the intellect deems possible that the revelatory texts affirm and attest to.
Scholars mention other topics that are included in texts of ʿaqida. Some of these topics are introductory discussions, such as moral responsibility (taklif) or the faith of a blind-adherent (muqallid). Other topics are viewed as accessory discussions, such as detailed expositions of the proofs for the existence of God.
Opinions on Why It Is Called Kalam
The science of ʿaqida is also termed the science of kalam. There are different opinions regarding why the latter term was utilized to describe this science. Some opined that it returned to questions concerning the nature of the Qur’an and God’s speech (i.e. kalam) being among the earliest and most oft-debated theological topics. Another opinion stated that the science of ʿaqida involved a sustained engagement between different parties, which often involved verbal debates (i.e. kalam).
Here is an important piece of advice for teachers. Someone who is instructing others in ʿaqida should be completely open to his students and their questions. This is because the teacher is tasked with teaching them knowledge upon which faith and disbelief rests, and he should instruct students in a way that ensures that they have fully understood the material and are convinced by it. Therefore, it is necessary for a teacher to engage the questions of students, their doubts, and endure with them patiently. This is not to be viewed as a flaw in the student nor disrespect towards a teacher.
The Ruling on Studying the Science of ʿAqida or Kalam
In regard to ruling of studying this science, there is no disagreement that it is necessary to know God, His angels, messengers, books, the Last Day, and so forth. The disagreement arises regarding the formal science of kalam, which some have deemed an innovation. This latter opinion is incorrect due to the fact that the emergence of the science of kalam mirrors the development of all other sciences, such as grammar or hadith.
The particular terminology utilized in kalam, such as “privative attributes” or “entailed attributes” is not ʿaqida in itself and nor of a specifically religious character, but labels and categories that explain certain discussion in ʿaqida and present it as a codified and systematic science. This is simply an organic development that all sciences experience.
Another point linked to this is the manner in which Islam spread and interacted with other systems of thought, such as Greek philosophy. Scholars undertook the task of evaluating and critiquing these systems, such as Imam al Ghazali in three of his famous works: Maqasid al Falasifa, Mahak al Nazar, Tahafut al Falasifa.
The scholars of kalam formulated principles, detailed proofs and arguments, etc. in order to eradicate erroneous and misguided ideas and return creed to its pristine state. Therefore, this science not only explained ʿaqida, but acted a barrier preventing corrupt ideas from infiltrating it.
How Does Islamic ʿAqida Distinguish Itself from other Creeds?
The ways in which the ʿaqida of Islam sets itself apart from other creeds and belief systems are as follows:
- The ʿaqida of Islam is from God and His messenger.
- The ʿaqida of Islam is tawfiqi, i.e. it does not accept abrogation, change, alteration, and so forth. Rather, the ʿaqida taught by the Prophet, blessings upon him, is the same one that the Salaf believed in and the one that Muslims continue to accept up until today.
- The ʿaqida of Islam accords with the primordial nature (fitra) of people. For this reason, when a Muslim speaks about the ʿaqida of Islam, it is done with two sources of influence and authority: one external and one internal. The external relates to strength of proof and rational/textual evidence, while the internal relates to the primordial nature of human beings.
- The ʿaqida of Islam does not contradict sound reason or intellect. The oft-repeated statement that the Muʿtazila were misguided because they arbitrated on the basis of reason and the intellect is not correct. Rather, if they had utilized these sources in a sound manner, they would not have been misguided.
- The ʿaqida of Islam is simple and clear.
- The ʿaqida of Islam connects a person to His creator without intermediary.
- The ʿaqida of Islam contains no contradictions. Perceived contradictions are the result of a lack of understanding. Sometimes, a point of ʿaqida may bewilder the mind, but it is never something the intellect deems rationally impossible. Thus, the intellect deems the throne of God and angels as rationally possible even though it is not able to fully comprehend their reality.
- The ʿaqida of Islam is a comprehensive creed for all times, peoples, and places.
- The ʿaqida of Islam is suitable for all times, peoples, and places.
- The ʿaqida of Islam is a moderate creed occupying a middle ground between extremes. It is neither a dry rational creed nor one grounded in emotional sentimentality. Rather, it appeals to both the heart and mind.
- The ʿaqida of Islam is the foundation of personal and communal well-being, righteous action, and rectification. This is why many prophetic traditions begin with, “Whosoever believes in God and the Last Day…” These good deeds and traits are the fruit of sound belief.
Why Study the Science of ʿAqida?
Not understanding the reasons underpinning the need to study a particular science often entails devaluing that science and not engaging it properly. There are a number of reasons why we should engage in the study of the science of ʿaqida.
- To present ʿaqida in a clear, scholarly, and systematic manner. This safeguards people from erroneous beliefs that may be unknowingly adopted in a context where ʿaqida is learnt organically in a general fashion. Such a presentation of ʿaqida also establishes it as a science with defined beginning, middle, and end stages that students can gradually progress through.
- To support points of ʿaqida with proofs and arguments that helps prevent doubts from affecting our faith.
- To strengthen and make firm our ʿaqida against refutations that are mounted against it. This is especially true in an age where even the most fundamental axioms that ʿaqida is premised upon are subjected to doubt, such as the impossibility of infinite regress. Here, it is a communal obligation to produce scholars who possess the knowledge and ability to fend off such doubts from the community at large and safeguard the faith of people.
- The science of ʿaqida allows us to possess belief that is sound, which is a prerequisite for felicity in the next-life. Through sound belief, one is able to properly conceptualize the world and the purpose of existence.
- The science of ʿaqida places an individual in a state of tranquility and peace with the condition that one possess a real connection to God.
How Does One Study ʿAqida?
The default is that every individual is responsible for studying ʿaqida. However, ʿaqida is presented to people based on their respective abilities and preparedness. Therefore, there is no one way of teaching ʿaqida to people. In terms of teaching people ʿaqida, learners fall into the following categories:
Young Children. ʿAqida is taught to them by constantly repeating basic creedal points, such as God is one, God is powerful, God gives us everything, etc., so that these ideas become embedded in their minds. When a child asks a question, he or she should be provided with a clear, simple, and sound answer. Children may not fully comprehend a particular idea, but they do retain it, and many of the ideas they retain at a young age are treated as axiomatic by them when they grow older.
The general laity. They are taught ʿaqida as a general expression of creedal doctrine without detailed and technical discussions. This should be taught to them not on the basis of creedal texts or the terminology of kalam, which the laity are not obliged to know, but rather through tafsir, sira, Qur’anic verses, and hadith using clear but non-technical language.
Well-educated people who are not ʿaqida specialists. They are taught ʿaqida in a general sense and also gradually exposed to some of the more detailed discussions relating to creed. However, these discussions are not presented to them in the manner that it would be to a person seeking specialization. Further, such people are provided answers to doubts – actual and potential – raised against Islamic ʿaqida. In this context, they are taught what is relevant to them in their own time and place, i.e. discussions on atheism, for example, as opposed to the Muʿtazila.
Students who are specialists. Those who are specializing in ʿaqida are required to study everything related to the science. This includes a comprehensive syllabus of classical texts – both early and later –, as well as past and modern ideologies and sects.
A Note to Students of ‘Aqida
Students who are specializing in this science must raise the bar. They should not suffice with intermediary works but eventually dive into the more advanced and principal works of the science after mastering the tools needed to access and understand them.
We must strengthen our aptitude and grasp of the evidence underpinning ʿaqida so that it may be furnished to people appropriately on the basis of their respective abilities and preparedness.
We must understand the period we are living in to present a more contemporary ʿaqida discourse that is suitable and appropriate to today’s culture and environment.
We must be aware of modern ideologies and sects, as well as the doubts raised against Islam, and formulate sound responses to them.
And God knows best.
Hassan al Hindi
This post is based on notes from a lecture in Arabic by Shaykh Hassan al Hindi. The notes were made and translated into English by Ustadh Salman Younas.