The Ash’arites

As we have already explained in the previous lessons that the ideas that led to the emergence of the Mutazilite School of Thought can be traced back to the second half of the first century of the Islamic era.

In an attempt to understand the fundamentals of religion and propagating them, they advocated an approach that was a mixture of logic and deduction.  It goes without saying that the first parameter in this approach was giving precedence to the independent judgement of reason over any other thing.  It is obvious too that the wider general public are not concerned with reasoning and examination, considering “practicing religion” synonymous to “worship”, and the manifest, or exoteric, meaning of Qur’anic verses and hadiths (Prophetic traditions), especially the latter, as a forgone conclusion.  They even believe that any reasoning or exerting effort in this regard is a kind of rebellion against religiousness.  This is particularly so, when the ruling establishment encourages this type of thinking; more so, if some of the clergy are proponents of such strand of ideas, and worse still if some are pseudo-clerics.  Examples of these abound.  The intolerance shown, and harsh smear campaigns waged, by the Ikhbaris [a Shia sect that depends solely on reported tradition (Akhbar) in formulating its juridical rulings] against the fundamentalists and the mujtahids [jurists, who depend on reason, in addition to other tools of jurisprudence, such as the Qur’an, and Sunna “Prophetic tradition”, in arriving at religious judgements] is one such example.  Another is the attack by some jurists and speculative theologians on the philosophers in the Islamic world.

The Mu’tazilites had made great leaps in understanding Islam, propagating and defending it against the Dahriyeen [proponents of the doctrine of the eternity of the world, a materialistic, atheistic trend in medieval Islam], Jews, Christians, Magians, Sabians, and others.  They were responsible for educating scores of propagators and sending them far and wide to promote Islam.  They, nevertheless, were threatened from within the camp of Islam at the hands of Dhahirites, i.e. Ahlul Hadith, or Ahlus Sunna.  They were fatally stabbed in the back, so much so that they waned and eventually died out.

In the beginning, i.e. until late in the third and early fourth centuries of the Islamic era, there were no theology schools that were opposed to their school, as was the case much later.  All differing views were reactions to the views that were advanced by the Mu’tazilites that boiled down to hadith and sunnah.  However, originally, the chief exponents of the school of Ahlul Hadith, such as Malik bin Anas [d.179/795] and Ahmad bin Hanbal [d. 245/833] declared the study and inference in matters of belief taboo.   Thus, the Sunnis not only had no school for scholastic theology (kalaam) to counter the Mu’tazilite one, but they denied kalaam and made dabbling in it unlawful (haraam).

However, at the close of the third and the turn of the fourth centuries, a new development took place on the ideological landscape.  Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari [d. 324/935] arrived at the scene. He was a towering figure endowed with genius.  He studied for years at the hands of Judge Abdul Jabbar al-Mu’tazili.  He defected to the Sunni camp. He drew on his experience and Mu’atazilite roots and managed to set up a distinct Sunni School of Thought, championing deduction in arriving at the fundamental beliefs of the Sunnis.

Contrary to the leaders of Ahlul Hadith, such as Ibn Hanbal, al-Ash’ari sanctioned the use of critical examination, deduction, and logic in the fundamentals of religion.  He substantiated his research with evidence from the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah (Prophetic tradition).  He wrote a book in this regard entitled, “A treatise in approving of the embarkation on kalaam (scholastic theology)”.  With the advent of the Asha’rite school, Ahlul Hadith (the People of the tradition) were split into two groups, the Asharites, who endorsed the involvement in kalaam, and the Hanbalites who made the involvement in this type of theology unlawful.  It is to be noted, however, that Ibn Hanbal wrote a book, justifying the barring of experimenting in logic and scholastic theology.

It did not come at a worse time for the Mu’tazilites, i.e. when they had already been weakened by the blows they had suffered. Ordinary people started deserting them in droves, especially during the events of “tribulation”, that is, when they attempted to force their way of thinking on the people under duress, making use of rulers who were sympathetic to and supportive of their brand of doctrine.  Among the most vexing issues was the question of “the creation of the Qur’an”.  It is well documented that the events, which were given the name, “tribulation”, led to many deaths; and people were persecuted and made prisoners of conscience.  The people blamed the Mu’tazilites for those events and thus became averse to their doctrines because of what they saw of their responsibility for the mayhem.

The people’s welcoming the arrival of the new school of thought, the Asha’rite, was due to these two reasons.  After the departure of Abul Hassan al-Asha’ri, there appeared new figures, who contributed to cementing his ideas and developing them.  Among them were Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 403 H.), who was a contemporaneous of ash-Sheikh al-Mufid, Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayeeni, Imam al-Juwaini, the teacher of al-Ghazzali, Imam al-Ghazzali (d. 505 H, 1111 CE) himself, the author of the book, “Ihya’ Uloomuddin – Revival of the sciences of religion”, and [physician, philosopher, chemist and freethinker], Imam Fakhruddin ar-Razi [c.250/864 – 313/925 or 320/932].

The Ash’arite School had undergone gradual change, especially at the hands of al-Ghazzali, who watered down its kalaam image, giving it a gnostic, i.e. mystic or sufi, colour.  During the time of al-Fakhr ar-Razi, it bordered on the philosophical.  However, when the time of al-Khawaja Nasiruddin at-Tusi [the theologian, philosopher, scientist, and vizier 597/1201 – 672/1274] came, and wrote his book, “Tajridul I’tiqad – Uncovering of Belief”, he took the science of kalaam (speculative theology) to an almost entirely philosophical domain.  The book of this Shiite philosopher and theologian set the agenda for all scholastic theologians, who succeeded him, be they Ash’arite or Mutazilite.

After “Tajridul I’tiqad”, at-Tusi wrote “al-Mawaqif – The Positions” and “al-Maqasid – The Intents”, and the annotations that went with them.  In style and approach, the last two were not different from “Tajridul I’tiqad”.  In fact, with the passage of time, the Ash’arites had become far removed from the teachings of the founder of their school, becoming closer to the Mu’tazilite ideology and philosophy.

We give below a broad list of the tenets of al-Ash’ari, who defended the fundamental beliefs of the Sunnis, or more appropriately made these beliefs clearly defined, in some measure:

The disunity of the Attributes [of God] with His Essence.

The universality of the Divine will, decree and destiny across the board of all occurrences, i.e. the opposite position taken by the Mu’tazilites and in conformity with the view of the philosophers.

Both evil and good originate from God.

Man has no freewill.

What is judged as good or repugnant is the exclusive preserve of the sharia Law, i.e. these characteristics are not inherent.

It is not incumbent on God to show grace and choose what is in the best interest of man.  This goes contrary to the Mu’tazilite standpoint.

Man’s power to commission any action is activated while he is carrying it out not before embarking on it.

There is not such a thing as complete “tanzih”, i.e. the principle of elimination of “form and qualities of man” from the conception of the Divine.

Man does not create his action; rather, he earns it.

God can be physically seen in the hereafter.

The godless is a believer.

There is no problem in the Divine granting forgiveness, even without man repenting.  Likewise, a believer can be punished.

There is no problem in intercession.

The universe is created, i.e. in time.

God’s Word is eternal, i.e. self-speech rather than the spoken word.

God’s actions do not necessarily follow a purpose or an aim.

There is no objection to requiring man to do what is not in his power.

Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari was a prolific writer, so much so that it is said that he wrote more than two hundred works.  Some one hundred titles of these are mentioned in the bibliographies.  It is evident, though, that most of these books had been lost.  However, the most famous of his books could be, “Maqaaltul Islamiyyin – The Tracts of the Islamists”.  Anther book is, “Alluma’ – The Brilliancy”.

Al-Ash’ari’s views left an indelible mark on the Islamic doctrinal landscape, and this is regrettable.  However, the Mu’tazilites and the philosophers wrote many books, refuting his opinions.  Many of his beliefs and views were mentioned in Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna’s) book, “Ash-Shifa’ - The Healing, without quoting the source, and were disproved.  Not only this, some of his followers, such as Judge al-Baqillani and Imamul Haramain al-Juwaini had revised his theory on man’s compulsion.

Although Imam Mohammad al-Ghazzali was Ash’arite, and was instrumental in consolidating the doctrinal principles of the Ash’arite School, yet he revamped it with new ideas.  He was responsible for bringing the science of kalaam (scholastic theology) closer to gnosis (irfan) and Sufism.  The Iranian poet ar-Rumi, the author of the book, “al-Mathnawi” was Ash’arite, and yet, he was more inclined to radical irfan.  Because of Imam ar-Razi’s philosophical background, he gave the Ash’arite kalaam a new impetus and a breath of fresh air.

The triumph of the Ash’arite in the world of Islam came at a high cost.  It is a victory for inflexibility, or inertia, and prohibitive practices over freedom of thought.  Although the warring was mainly between the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites, i.e. within the Sunni branch of Islam, yet the Shia World did not escape unscathed.   However, there were historical as well as social reasons for this victory.  Furthermore, certain political developments had a great influence on this front.

The Abbasid Caliph, al-Mutawakkil, had played a significant part in making the Sunni School of Thought gain the upper hand.  A century later, Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari gave the School a speculative theologian touch.  It goes without saying that had al-Mutawakkil been of the same persuasion of his predecessor, al-Ma’moun, the Mu’tazilites would not have faced that fate.

It is noteworthy that the ascendancy of Turkic Seljuks in Iran had played a part in the triumph and spread of the Asha’rite doctrines.  The Seljuks were not people of thought and liberty, unlike aal-Buwaih, during whose rule, Shi’ism and Mu’tazilte ideology made a comeback.  Ibnul Ameed and as-Sahib bin Abbad, among the politicians and scholars, were anti Asha’rite.

We are not trying to defend the beliefs of the Mu’tazilites, in that we will take issue with several of their simplistic ideas.  However, one is left with no alternative but to sing the praise of their rational methodology, which died out with their departure from the Islamic ideological scene.  As is known, a religion as rich and as profound as Islam is in need of kalaam, which is based on the freedom of the intellect and well founded belief and faith.