The Ash’ari School of Theology

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following article was extracted from “The Ash’ari School of Theology” by Shaykh ‘Ali Juma’ah.  The Ash’ariyyah are those who adhere to Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (r.a.) in his school of theology, and before we understand what this school of theology is we should know who Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (r.a.) was.

He is Imam Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Ismail ibn Abi Bishr Ishaq ibn Salim ibn Isma’il ibn ‘Abdullah ibn Musa ibn Bilal ibn Abi Burdah ‘Amir ibn Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (r.a.).  Abu Musa ‘Abdullah ibn Qays al-Ash’ari (r.a.), better known as Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and important figure in early Islamic history.  It is mentioned that Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (r.a.) was born in 260 AH in Basra or 270 AH.  His date of death is also a source of scholarly debate: some say he died on 333 AH and others say in 324 AH, and yet others say 330 AH.  He passed away in Baghdad and was buried between al-Karkh and Bab Baswra.

Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (r.a.) was a Sunni Muslim coming from a Sunni household.  When he was young, he studied Mu’tazilah theology with Abu ‘Ali al-Jubai.  He then repented from this and one day ascended the teaching chair in the mosque and spoke at the top of his voice, “He who knows me, knows me, and he who does not know me let me introduce myself.  I am so and so and I used to say that the Qur’an was created and that Allah cannot be seen by human eyes and that evil actions are actions I commit.  I repent from this and I will respond to the teachings of the Mu’taziliyyah and expose their falsehood.”

The jurist, Imam Abu Bakr as-Sayrafi (r.a.) said, “The Mu’taziliyyah were prominent and used to hold their heads up high until Abu al-Hasan detained them back to a corner and halted their efforts.”

Qadhi ‘Iyadh (r.a.) the Maliki jurist said about him, “He composed the major works for the Ash’ari school and established the proofs for Sunni Islam and established the Attributes of Allah that the people of innovation negated.  He established the Eternality of the Speech of Allah, His Will, and His Hearing.

The people of sunnah held fast to his books, learned from him, and studied under him.  They became intimately familiar with his school of thought and this school grew in number of students so that they could learn this way of defending the Sunnah and adducing these arguments and proofs to give victory to the faith.  In doing this, these students took on his name as well as the followers of his students so they all became known as Ash’ariyyah.  Originally they were known as the mutsbitah, those who affirm, a name given to them by the Mu’taziliyyah since they affirmed in the sunnah and the shari’ah what the Mu’taziliyyah negate.  Therefore, the people of sunnah from the east and the west used his methodology and his argument has been praised by many people.

Qadhi ibn Farhun al-Maliki (r.a.) said about him, “He was a follower of the Maliki school of law and he authored works for the people of the sunnah and he adduced arguments for the establishment of the sunnah and those things that the people of innovation refuted.

He established these clear arguments and proofs from the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions as well as sound rational arguments.  He suppressed the arguments of the Mu’taziliyyah and those apostates after them.  He wrote these extensive works that Allah has benefited the Muslims with; he debated the Mu’taziliyyah and was victorious over them.”

Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Qabisi (r.a.) used to praise him and he even authored a treatise about Imam al-Ash’ari (r.a.) and his school in which he praised him and did him justice.  Imam Abu Muhammad ibn Abi Zayd (r.a.) and others from the leaders of the Muslims also praised him.

Orthodox theology of Sunni Islam, both the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools, is clear in all aspects of theology.  However, most who criticise these schools have been ignorant of the schools’ tenets of belief in Allah (s.w.t.) and this has to do with “additions to Allah” or what is technically referred to as Attributes that Allah (s.w.t.) has Informed us of.  This confusion has its roots in certain Qur’anic words which Allah (s.w.t.) has Added to Himself in His book, and some people seek to affirm these extra Attributes in their literal linguistic meaning which amounts to anthropomorphism.  The Ash’ariyyah, however, understand that these Attributes are not meant for us to establish literally since they are obscure.

This opinion holds that these Attributes cannot be established by intellection, and only from the fact that we have been informed of them through the Revelation of the Qur’an.  These Attributes, therefore, are to be accepted the way they are without trying to derive from their linguistic, literal meanings.  The reason being is that the literal, linguistic meanings are counter to the tenets of belief in Allah (s.w.t.).  This opinion is that of the early Sunni theologians, those who were first called Ash’ariyyah.

The later Ash’ariyyah theologians, however, took a slightly different route: one of interpretation.  These scholars held it better to establish a meaning, even from an obscure word or theme, rather than fall into anthropomorphism.  Both the early and late Sunni theologians are in agreement that the best approach is to pass over these passages without describing and interpreting them as well as not believing in the literal meaning that leads to anthropomorphism.  The later theologians, however, added that one only understands from these Attributes what is appropriate to Allah (s.w.t.).  This is as if to say to the opponents, if you must understand these Attributes then do so only in a way that does not underestimate the Greatness of Allah (s.w.t.) or leads to anthropomorphism.  Therefore, the Eye of Allah (s.w.t.) is interpreted as His Care for His Creation as Allah (s.w.t.) Says in the Qur’an:

“Throw (the child) into the chest and throw (the chest) into the river: the river will cast him up on the bank and he will be taken up by one who is an enemy to Me and an enemy to him': but I Cast (the garment of) Love over thee from Me: and (this) in order that thou mayest be reared under Mine Eye.” (Surah ThaHa:39)

Therefore, one can say that the early theologians’ method was one of belief and the later theologians’ method was one of debate.

This is the methodology of Sunni theology in dealing with these obscure words, which if taken literally will lead to anthropomorphism.  This is why Imam al-‘Iraqi (r.a.) stated concerning the Face or Countenance of Allah (s.w.t.) which occurs so often in the Qur’an and sunnah, “In understanding this there are two opinions: the first is to pass over it as it is without asking how.  So one believes in it fully and resigns its meaning to the ones who possess this meaning with firm conviction that there is none like unto Allah.  The second is to interpret it in a way that is becoming of Allah’s Essence so the meaning of the Face or Countenance of Allah is His Existence.”

Perhaps the best that has been written on this topic is Imam ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi’s (r.a.) statement in his Lum’at al-‘Itiqad, that all that has come in the Qur’an or has been soundly narrated on the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) concerning the Attributes of the most Merciful One must be believed in and be received with acceptance and resignation.  It is also better not to engage in its interpretation, its refutation, or assimilating the Attribute to something tangible, and other problematic methodologies.  It is incumbent to establish the Attribute as it came and to leave interpreting its meaning and to resign its meaning to the One Who Spoke of it in accordance with the way of those who are firmly established in the faith whom Allah (s.w.t.) has Praised by Saying:

… and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say, “We believe in it; the whole of it is from our Lord…” (Surah Ali ‘Imran:7)

And He has Castigated those who innovate in interpretation:

… But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is not of well-established meaning.  Seeking discord, and searching for its interpretation, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah ... (Surah Ali ‘Imran:7)

In this verse, Allah (s.w.t.) Considered the desire to interpret the meaning of the obscure verses as an indication of the sickness of man’s heart and He has Linked their desire for interpretation to cause tribulation but Allah (s.w.t.) has Cut Short their desires since He Says at the end, “And only Allah Knows their meaning.”

Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.) has stated, regarding the statement of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.), “Allah Descends to the lowest of the skies,” and that, “Allah is seen on the Day of Resurrection” and to the like; he said, “We believe in these texts and we verify their truth without asking how, or without seeking a meaning and we desire nothing of this.  We believe what the Messenger of Allah brought is truth and we do not respond to him nor do we describe Allah with more than what He has Described of Himself:

… there is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that Hears and Sees (all things). (Surah ash-Shura’:11)

We simply state what He has Stated Concerning Himself, and we describe Him with that which He has Described Himself.  We do not increase in this as He is Exalted beyond anyone’s description.  We believe in the entire Qur’an, its self evident parts and its obscure parts.  We do not exclude any aspects of it due to some issue that has arisen.  We never go further than the Qur’an and hadits, and we cannot fathom them except by believing in the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) and the Qur’an.  Imam ash-Shafi‘i (r.a.) has stated that, ‘I believe in Allah and what has been Sent from Allah in the manner by which Allah has Willed, and I believe in the Messenger of Allah and in that which has been sent from him in the manner by which he has willed.’  This is the path that both the pious ancestors and later scholars have followed.  All of them are in agreement to confirming these traits and passing over them without referring to interpretation.”

Some detractors might say, “If the Ash’ariyyah claim to be the people of the sunnah why do they not simply call themselves the people of the sunnah?  And why do they instead call themselves Ash’ariyyah rather than naming themselves after the belief of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) and his companions?”  This question, however, is one that finds itself being asked among the public and not the scholars.  This is so since the scholars know that there is no ill in technical language, istihlah.  Therefore that which determines the veracity of a certain school is its proofs, rationale and not its name.

After Muslims began to disagree on theological issues and those of reprehensible innovation emerged, it became necessary to correct these misconceptions and purify the theology of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) and his companions just as Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (r.a.) did.  In this regard, Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (r.a.) did not devise a new school in Islamic theology, but rather restated and emphasised the theology and creed that the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) taught.  This is exactly what Imam as-Subki (r.a.) stated when he wrote, “Know that Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari did not innovate a position nor did he start a new school; rather, he restated the school of the pious ancestors, fighting for the cause that was the way of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.).  Those who follow his way, do so in the sense that he gave a voice to the way of the pious ancestors and he established firm proofs and arguments for this voice.  Therefore, those who follow this system of proofs and arguments call themselves Ash’ariyyah.”

Imam al-Mayraqi (r.a.), the Maliki scholar, said, “Abu al-Hasan was not the first to argue the theology of the people of the sunnah, rather he traverses an already established path and increased in its proofs and clarity.  He did not innovate a new position or school.  Is it not clear that the school of Madina claimed to follow the Maliki school and those of this school call themselves Maliki.  Malik, however, simply followed the example of the pious ancestors who came before him and he was strict in following them.  When his school increased in proofs and clarity, it became ascribed to him.  This is the same situation with the school of Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari.  He did nothing but clarify the positions of the pious ancestors, and his writings scored them victory.”

In another of his writings, Imam as-Subki (r.a.) said, “All of the Hanafiyyah, Shafi’iyyah, Malikiyyah and Hanbaliyyah are one in their creed following the way of the sunnah in the manner laid down by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari.  Generally speaking, the theology of the Ash’ariyyah is gathered in the writings of Abi Ja’far ath-Thahawi, who has been received and accepted by the various schools.”

The great Hanafi jurist, Imam ibn ‘Abidin (r.a.) stated in his book, “As for his statement ‘according to our creed’, those things we believe in aside from secondary juristic issues, which are incumbent on every legally bound individual without following another’s scholarly opinion.  These are what is found amongst the people of the sunnah who are none other than the Ash’ariyyah and Maturidiyyah, and they are both in agreement except for a few minor points, most of which can be reduced to a difference in technical language.”

According to this lengthy discussion and taking into mind the opinions of these formidable scholars, it would be correct for one to say that the creed and theology of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) was according to the Ash’ariyyah school just as it is possible to say that the Qur’anic recitation used by the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) was similar to Shaykh Nafi’ ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahman (r.a.) even though Shaykh Nafi’ (r.a.) never met the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) and it is Nafi’ who recited like the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.).  However, as Shaykh Nafi’ (r.a.) was a great scholar of Qur’anic recitation and he compiled his own, what he compiled was what was most commonly found to be the recitation of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.).

In conclusion, it is clear that the position of the pious ancestors concerning theology was one of acceptance and passing over obscurities so as to avoid falling into heretical positions such as anthropomorphism as mentioned by Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.), Imam Ahmad (r.a.), and others.  This is the creed and theology of the Ash’ariyyah and Allah is Most High and Most Knowledgeable.


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