Several months ago, I bought a book online named Sistematik Kelam in Turkish. For those of you who have studied theology, the name may remind you of another name, systematic theology, which is a field studying God through the textual patterns observed in the Bible and generating concepts to articulate faith. I bought Sistematik Kelam because I wanted to read a modern, in depth, and systematically articulated exposition of the Islamic faith. Before, I knew there was a field of study within the traditional Islamic religious discourse called Kelam.
Years ago I took an interest in this field and read about it a lot, but I had no clue that in the divinity schools of some places (at least in Turkey), they teach this subject under the name Systematic Kelam. My first temptation was in thinking this was a European influence since Turkey, more than any other nation (the exceptions would be Central Asian and Caucasian republics), was influenced by modern science and Europe. But that’s just my speculation though I must recognize that the author of the book studied in France.
As I read the book, I found some overlap with the subjects and approaches in systematic theology despite their differences. Here I will provide a brief and general description of the book’s structure and content. After that, I will compare systematic Kelam to systematic theology.
Emrullah Yuksel’s Systematik Kelam is divided into four major sections. In the first section, he defines systematic Kelam and its relation to other fields. According to him, systematic Kelam studies God, his essence and attributes, prophethood, life after death, resurrection, and it defends the faith from attacks. Some concepts of the field do not have a direct equivalent in systematic theology or are not central to it — such as imamet (the chain of transmission after prophet) and shifaat (mediation in prayer between God and other).
The second section is named Divinity, and its subsections include God’s essence, his attributes and (classic) proofs of his existence, predestination and kader (fate), human behavior and free will, hidayet (divine blessings), and delalet (modes of divine punishments). This section also includes explorations of ecel (death, end of creature) and rızık (God’s providence).
The third section explores prophethood, which opens with a necessity for prophets. The next topic in this section is revelation, which ends with the topic devoted to the qualities of prophets.
The fourth section is named Afterlife. Here the book deals with the topics of resurrection, judgment day, and heaven and hell. For whatever reason, this section also includes the topics of mediation and faith.
A few interesting things I noticed about the book are that it heavily refers to the Qur’an in a fashion that would be called proof-texting. The referred verses either support or refute a point, but the author does not develop exegesis of these verses. Also, occasionally E. Yuksel uses verses from the Bible to make a point, especially when the biblical teaching agrees with the Qur’an. Close to the end of the book he gives some verses from the Bible to refute the belief in incarnation.
Now the topics found here come pretty close to that of systematic theology. But in modern books on systematic theology, it would be unthinkable to not engage in modern thought. Systematic theology books address the modern challenges to the Christian faith almost always, either directly or indirectly. However, E. Yuksel’s Systematik Kelam is in dialogue mostly with medieval Islamic thinkers such as Al-Razi or Al-Ashari. Maybe this is done knowingly, but I think this kind of approach makes the book a bit disconnected from everyday reality because modern thought with its challenges to believers requires to address current problems of faith.
Also, it seems to me that the major difference between systematic Kelam and systematic theology is their approach to the studied topics. In systematic theology, usually writers analyze various verses, topics, their history and articulate these concepts. There is a great deal of the authors’ individual takes on these matters, which gives rise to wildly differing systematic theologies. But my sense after reading systematic Kelam was that the author tried to stay within the tradition and pass on this traditional intellectual discourse to future generations rather than have his say and articulate his own take on the matters. The book comes across as more descriptive than analytic.
That said, I found the book very enlightening in terms of how modern Muslim scholars approach traditional theological topics and how they articulate it. Of course, I can’t generalize too much based on a single book published in one country, but I think it helped me see the overlaps and differences between two disciplines that explore questions about God.