Islamic Studies Theology
Andrew Rippin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0089


Reflection on the dogmatic underpinnings of Islam and the introduction of tools by which that reflection can take place are the key elements in what is called “theology” in the Muslim setting. Certain themes came to dominate the discussions: the nature of God and his relationship to the Qurʾan, the meaning of “faith” and of being a “Muslim,” free will and predestination, and the place of reason in relationship to revelation, especially as it relates to ethics. The connection of these discussions with Muslim developments in philosophy is certainly blurred, but theology can always be characterized by its attention to the twin scriptural sources of Islam, the Qurʾan and Hadith. While the extent to which those sources have actually driven the concerns of theology has been greatly contested among scholars (as compared to the concerns having emerged because of foreign or apologetic influences), the prominence of the scriptural texts within Muslim discussions themselves remains the dominating characteristic of the literature.

General Overviews

Attempts to summarize the development of Islamic theological thinking tend to take one of two approaches. One is broad in coverage and involves taking into account other aspects of Islamic culture and learning, including law, Sufism, Shiʿism, and so forth; Goldziher 1981 (based on lectures written in 1907) typifies this approach and emphasizes the point that theology exists as a discipline in interaction with all other scholarly enterprises in the Islamic world; the same approach is followed in Macdonald 1902, as its title indicates, and, in a more limited way, Watt 1985 and Nagel 2000. Works such as Winter 2008 also provide such overviews, although because of the multiple authors involved in a collective volume, such books tend not to provide as integrated a perspective. The second approach is more narrowly focused. Particular attention to the early period dominates, but more thematic approaches are also present, as in Abrahamov 1998; Anawati and Gardet 1950 provide a focused overview. A work such as Cook 2000 illustrates the merits of both approaches by focusing on an issue that has significant theological and legal impact and following its impact from earliest times down to the modern day.

  • Abrahamov, Binyamin. Islamic Theology: Traditionalism and Rationalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

    A brief overview with a small selection of translated texts; an excellent introduction to the development of thought between the 9th and the 16th centuries.

  • Anawati, G., and L. Gardet. Introduction à la théologie musulmane. Paris: Vrin, 1950.

    This French work provides one of the most thorough discussions of kalam in a Western language.

  • Cook, Michael. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Masterful summary from the Qurʾan to today on the Muslim approach to moral responsibility for another person’s actions.

  • Goldziher, Ignác. Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law. Translated by Andras and Ruth Hamori. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

    A translation of Goldziher’s lectures written in 1907 and published in German as Vorlesungen über den Islam. The work successfully places the development of theology within the overall context of Islam, with chapters on Muhammad, law, Sufism, Shiʿism, and 19th-century developments.

  • Macdonald, Duncan B. Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence, and Constitutional Theory. New York: Scribners, 1902.

    A classic introduction that deals with theology in Part 3, from the Umayyads to modern times, and includes translations of creeds by al-Ashʿari (d. 935), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Nasafi (d. 537 AH), and al-Fadali (d. 1821). Reprint 2008, London: Macdonald Press.

  • Nagel, Tilman. The History of Islamic Theology: From Muhammad to the Present. Translated by Thomas Thornton. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2000.

    Translation of Geschichte der islamischen Theologie (Munich, 1994), which places theology in the central role of the development of Islam from the 9th century to the 12th, with consideration of the impact of those ideas in modern times.

  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Philosophy and Theology. 2d ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985.

    A broad and brief introduction to kalam and Islamic philosophy from the beginning until today, with good bibliographical information on older sources.

  • Winter, Tim, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Fifteen essays provide historical overviews and treatment of thematic issues including God and his essence and attributes, creation, ethics, revelation, existence of God, worship, law, Sufism, epistemology, and eschatology.

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