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Question of the Day
The Ash’ari’s School of Theology
Ash‘aris are those who adhere to Imam Abu Hasan al-Ash‘ari in his school of theology, and before we understand what this school of theology is we should know who Abu Hasan al-Ash‘ari was.
Imam Abu Hasan al-Ash‘ari and scholars’ opinion of him
He is Imam Abu Hasan Ali b. Ismail b. Abi Bishr Ishaq b. Salim b. Ismail b. ‘Abd Allah b. Musa b. Bilal b. Abi Burda ‘Amir b. Abu Musa al- Ash’ari the famous companion of the Messenger of God.
He was born in the year 260 A.H. in Basra and it is also mentioned that he was born in the year 270 A.H. and his date of death is also a source of scholarly debate: some say he died on the year 333 A.H. and others say in the year 324 A.H. and still others say 330 A.H. He died in Baghdad and was buried between al-Karkh and Bab Basra.
Abu al- Hasan al-Ash’ari was a Sunni Muslim coming from a Sunni household. When he was young, he studied Mu’tazalite 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 God 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’tazilites and expose their falsehood.”
The jurist Abu Bakr al-Sayrafi said “the Mutazalites were prominent and used to hold their heads up high until Abu al-Hasan detained them back to a corner and halted their efforts.”
Qadi ‘Iyad 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 God that the people of innovation negated. He established the eternality of the speech of God, His will, and His hearing… The people of Sunna 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 Sunna 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’aris. Originally they were known as the muthbita (those who affirm), a name given to them by the Mu’tazalites since they affirmed in the Sunna and the Shari‘a what the Mu’tazalites negate. Therefore the people of Sunna from the East and the West used his (al-Ash’ari) methodology and his argument has been praised by many people.1
Qadi ibn Farhun al-Maliki said about him:
He [Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari] was a follower of the Maliki school of law and he authored works for the people of the Sunna and he adduced arguments for the establishment of the Sunna 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’tazalites and those apostates after them. He wrote these extensive works that God has benefited the Muslims with; he debated the Mu’tazalites and was victorious over them.
Abu al- Hasan al-Qabisi used to praise him and he even authored a treatise about al-Ash’ari and his school in which he praised him and did him justice. Abu Muhammad ibn Abi Zayd and others from the leaders of the Muslims also praised him.2
Understanding the source of arguments in the Ash’ari’s thought
Orthodox theology of Sunni Islam, both the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools, is clear in all aspects of theology. However, most who criticize these schools have been ignorant of the school’s tenants of belief in God and this has to do with “additions to God” or what is technically referred to as “attributes that God has informed us of ”
This confusion has its roots in certain Quranic words which God 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’arites 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 Quran. 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 tenants of belief in God. This opinion is that of the early Sunni theologians, those who were first called Ash’aris.
The later Ash’ari 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 God. 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 God or leads to anthropomorphism. Therefore the eye of God is interpreted as His care for His creation as God says in the Quran “And I bestowed upon you love from Me that you would be brought up under My eye”. (20.39)
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 al-Hafidh al-‘Iraqi stated concerning the “face or countenance of God” 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 One who posses this meaning with firm conviction that there is none like unto God. The second is to interpret it in a way that is becoming of God’s essence so the meaning of the face or countenance of God is His existence.”3
Perhaps the best that has been written on this topic is Ibn Qudama al-Maqdisi’s statement in his Lum‘at al-‘Itiqad:
All that has come in the Qur’an or has been soundly narrated on the Messenger of God 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 God has praised by saying “And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord”4, and He has castigated those who innovate in interpretation “But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God.”5 In this verse God 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 God has cut short their desires since He says at the end “and only God knows their meaning.”
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal has stated regarding the statement of the Messenger of God “God descends to the lowest of the skies” and that “God 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 God brought is truth and we do not respond to him nor do we describe God with more than what He has described of Himself “there is non like unto Him and He is the all seeing, all hearing”6 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 hadith, and we cannot fathom them except by believing in the Messenger of God and the Qur’an. Imam al-Shafi‘i has stated that ‘I believe in God and what has been sent from God in the manner by which God has willed, and I believe in the Messenger of God 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”7
The relationship between those who follow the Ash’ari school and Abu al- Hasan al-Ash’ari himself
Some detractors might say: “if the Ashari’s claim to be the people of the Sunna why don’t they simply call themselves the people of the sunnah? and why do they instead call themselves Ashari’s rather than naming themselves after the belief of the Messenger of God 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 (istilah). 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 God and his companions just as Abu Hasan al-Ash’ari did. In this regard Abu Hasan al-Ashari did not devise a new school in Islamic theology, but rather restated and emphasized the theology and creed that the Messenger of God taught. This is exactly what al-Subki stated when he wrote:
Know that Abu Hasan al-Ash’ari did not innovate a new [theological] 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 God. 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’araites.
Al-Mayraqi the Maliki 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 [legal] 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 Hasan al-Ashari. He did nothing but clarify the positions of the pious ancestors, and his writings scored them victory.”8
In another of his writings al-Subki says: “All of the Hanafis, Shafi’s, Malikis, and Hanbalis are all one in their creed following the way of the Sunna in the manner laid down by Abu al- Hasan al-Ash’ari. Generally speaking the theology of the Ash’aris is gathered in the writings of Abi Ja’far al-Tahawi who has been received and accepted by the various schools.”9
The great Hanafi jurist Ibn ‘Abidin has 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 (taqlid). These [set of beliefs] are what is found amongst the people of the Sunna who are none other than the Ashari’s and Maturidis, and they are both in agreement exccept for a few minor points most of which can be reduced to a difference in technical language.”10
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 God was according to the Ash’ari school just as it is possible to say that the Quranic recitation used by the Messenger of God was similar to Nafi’ even though Nafi’ never met the Messenger of God and it is Nafi’ who recites like the Messenger of God. However, as Nafi’ was a great scholar of Quranic recitation and he compiled his own, what he compiled was what was most commonly found to be the recitation of the Messenger of God.
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 al-Shafi’i, Imam Ahmad, and others. This is the creed and theology of the Ash’aris and God is most high and most knowledgeable.