Al-Farabi’s Critique of Kalam

Amos McCandless

Amos McCandless (class of 2014) is a Theatre major from Concord, New Hampshire. He is interested in both the performance and technical aspects of theatre and plans on pursuing a career in one of those concentrations. In addition to theatre, Amos enjoys reading, writing, and hiking. Amos’ work was produced for Professor Peter Ahrensdorf’s Political Science 209: Medieval Political Theory.

Throughout history, Islam has opposed the idea of using philosophy to understand the divine. Imams and teachers of religious thought in the Muslim world have taught that the only way to achieve perfect happiness is to obey the divine law set down in the Quran. Islamic philosophers such as Al-Farabi went against this teaching by asserting that philosophy is a valid way to understand the meaning of true happiness. In his “Enumeration of the Sciences,” Al-Farabi argues that dialectical theologians use kalam (the practice of defending religions) to present weak rational defenses for religions that are made worthless by asserting that religions cannot be understood by reason. Through implications, Al-Farabi shows that since all religions can present the same types of argument, one cannot tell which religion is right, which are wrong, or even if any are right. By arguing that they are above reason, religions eventually resort to irrational defenses that avoid the question of the truthfulness and credibility of divine law. Al-Farabi implies that since religion is above reason, the dialectical theologian’s defense of religion digresses from rational arguments to the use of violence and falsehood. This disgression compromises religions’ assertions of credibility and implies that divine law and its interpretations are not based on the truth of God and the Prophets, but rather on the lies of the dialectical theologians and other defenders of religion.

Al-Farabi begins his critique of kalam by asserting that all religions can use its arguments: “As far as the ways and opinions that must be employed in defending religions are concerned [dialectical theologians] hold a variety of views.”1 Al-Farabi’s “Enumeration of the Sciences” is not merely a critique alfarabi1-141x150 Al-Farabi's Critique of Kalamof Islam, but a critique of all religions. By stressing the presence of multiple religions, Al-Farabi implies that all religions are equally capable of defending themselves by using the same argumentative techniques. All religions, thereby, are equally valid because they all have the same reasoning for their defenses. As such, they all have the same flaws in their justifications.

Al-Farabi states that theologians first defend religion by asserting that it is above reason and is thus impervious to any questions posed by flawed human intellect. Al-Farabi goes on to imply that religion’s assertion that it is above reason ultimately makes it impossible to discern which religion is the true religion. He describes the dialectical theologian’s reasoning why humans need religion (in addition to intellect) in this way:

man is such that, through revelation, religions can offer him what he cannot apprehend by his intellect, and before which his intellect is impotent. Otherwise, revelation would be meaningless and useless, for it would only offer man that which he knows already or what he could, upon reflection, come to apprehend by his intellect.2

Theologians argue that revelation is unknowable by human intellect and was revealed to the prophets in order to offer humans important teachings they might not otherwise have. However, Al-Farabi fails to address the most obvious objection raised from this defense, namely if religion cannot be understood by human intellect, then man cannot be expected to know which religion is true and which is false. In fact, humans cannot know if religion contains any truth because its full truth is unknowable by his intellect. Al-Farabi may have left this objection unstated to encourage his readers to arrive at that objection independently, while he avoided persecution by avoiding the objection.

Theologians argue that revelation is unknowable by human intellect and was revealed to prophets in order to offer us important teachings we might not otherwise have.

In further description of theology’s defenses, Al-Farabi reveals that religions have incomplete arguments against this previous concern and resort to the seemingly rational claim that the messenger who delivered divine law couldn’t have lied. They aver that the “miracles that he performs or that take place through him, or the testimonies to his veracity. . .of the veracious and trustworthy ones who preceded him” prove that divine law is truth.3 Al-Farabi again raises no objections to these claims, but his cursory examination of these proofs permits the reader to see the circular argument thus made. Dialectical theologians argue that people can trust the word of the prophet because other prophets have trusted him and earlier prophets trusted those prophets.

This is not a rational argument. Because prophets cannot prove their veracity through any means other than the support of other prophets, we ultimately must believe that the first prophet received divine revelation from God. Al-Farabi reveals that theologians use the faςade of reason to hide the fact that this argument has no basis in proof, but relies entirely on faith. Instead of providing reasonable proof for the prophets’ inability to lie in matters of religion, Al-Farabi shows how religions rely on followers to believe in the authority other humans that divine law is true. Dialectical theologians stress that no reason is required in religion because of divine law; these theologians encourage their followers to use blind faith in following the words of divine law and theologians’ interpretations of it.

Al-Farabi goes on to describe a second group of theologians who take the original words of religious founders and interpret them in order to make seemingly contradictory logical statements and religious teachings come together in harmony. He describes this group as willing to select any contradictory statements found in divine law and interpret these statements in such a way that they are harmonious “no mater how remote the interpretation may be.”4 Al-Farabi depicts this group as desperate defendersalfarabi1-141x150 Al-Farabi's Critique of Kalam of the faith; they are willing to latch onto any interpretation that defends their faith, no matter how weak or strong. They are also willing to “construe things of sense” or generally accepted opinions “in a manner that would make it accord with what is in the religion.”5 A contemporary analogy can be found in the way some theologians interpret the Bible so that it accords with the generally-accepted theory of evolution. In order to make the story of creation accord with this theory, theologians interpret each “day” of creation as an unspecified duration of time rather than a literal day so that it can be reasonably stated that evolution is part of God’s divine plan. However, by doing this, theologians tend to dilute God’s word. Al-Farabi shows that by using such forms of interpretive compromise, religion loses some of its credibility through its need for constant reinterpretation and revision so that it can square with science and, by extension, reason.

Al-Farabi goes on to discuss how this same group of theologians uses irrelevant counter-arguments to defend those “absurd” aspects of religion that cannot be rationally defended. He explains that this group defends those absurd aspects of its religion by “looking into all other religions and selecting the absurd things in them,” using them when confronted by arguments they cannot rationally counter. Al-Farabi states that this argument is insufficient because “their adversary’s silence would result from this accepting the validity of these things rather than from his inability to argue against them.”6 This argument does nothing more than point out that all religions have absurd aspects that defy rational explanation. Some theologians ask religions other than the tradition they accept to justify each piece of the Law, and to answer every philosophical and theological question with reason, when they do not ask the same of their own faith. Such hypocrisy reveals that such theologians hold a strong bias in support of their tradition, making them unable to fully comprehend the validity of arguments countering their own. Al-Farabi implies that since no religion can explain every contradiction within its scriptures, all religions are false.

Al-Farabi explains that the dialectical theologians who notice this flaw in their arguments typically resort to threats, deceit, and violence to defend their faith. They abandon a critical and rational study of divine law and insist that such a critic remain silent “either from shame and his inability to express himself adequately, or from fear of being harmed.” (Al-Farabi, “Enumeration,” 30.)) He describes a dogmatic regime that wishes for a partial understanding of its religion and the arguments against it, but instead desires to silence all opponents, no matter how relevant their claims may be. These dialectical theologians are “convinced of the validity of their own religion beyond any doubt” and are willing to defend it “By using any chance thing”7 Al-Farabi explains that they argue it is appropriate to use falsehood against the two types of men who would oppose religions: enemies, and those of weak intellect or poor judgment. In this way, those defending religion can lie in order to coerce people to follow divine law. Al-Farabi’s depiction of kalam leaves readers wondering how religious prophets and defenders could lie about the faith when it was previously stated that their veracity made it so that they were infallible. People cannot trust divine law as the truth since their knowledge of it has been mediated through the interpretations of dialectical theologians, who see it as their duty to compel belief by any means possible. Al-Farabi implies that since theologians can justify their positions using falsehood with those who question religion, it is possible that the original prophet also lied in order to defend his religion. This strategy of employing falsehood in religion’s defense ultimately compromises religion’s credibility.

Al-Farabi subtly reveals the fundamental flaws and indefensibility of religions by showing how the dialectical theologian digresses from the lofty position of revelation’s superiority over human intellect to falsehoods thought permissible. He reminds us that the theologian need not rely on reasoning. A lack of rational defense and proof implies that, fundamentally, all religions are false and that theologians use kalam in order to offer the appearance of rational defense when, in reality, they rely on faith alone.


Al-Farabi. “Enumeration of the Sciences.” In Medieval Political Philosophy. Edited by Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963.


  1. Al-Farabi, “Enumeration of the Sciences,” in Medieval Political Philosophy, eds. Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963), 28. []
  2. Al-Farabi, “Enumeration,” 28. []
  3. Al-Farabi, “Enumeration,” 29. []
  4. Al-Farabi, “Enumeration,” 29. []
  5. Al-Farabi, “Enumeration,” 29. []
  6. Al-Farabi, “Enumeration,” 30. []
  7. Al-Farabi, “Enumeration,” 30. []