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Title – The Message   Preface   Arabian Peninsula the Cradle of Islamic Culture   Arabia before Islam   Conditions of Roman and Iranian Empires   Ancestors of the Prophet   Birth of the Prophet   Childhood of the Prophet   Rejoining the Family   Period of Youth   From Shepherd to Merchant   From Marriage up to Prophethood   The First Manifestation of Reality   The First Revelation   Who were the First Persons to Embrace Islam?   Cessation of revelation   General Invitation   Judgement of Quraysh about the Holy Qur’an   The First Migration   Rusty Weapons   The Fiction of Gharaniq   Economic Blockade   Death of Abu Talib   Me’raj – The Heavenly Ascension   Journey to Ta’if   The Agreement of Aqabah   The Event of Migration   The Events of the First Year of Migration   Some Events of the First and Second years of Migration   The Events of the Second Year of Migration   Change of Qiblah   The Battle of Badr   Dangerous Designs of the Jews   The Events of the Third Year of Migration   The Events of the Third and Fourth years of Migration   The Jews Quit the Zone of Islam   The Events of the Fourth Year of Migration   The Events of the Fifth Year Of Migration   The Battle of Ahzab   The Last Stage of Mischief   The Events of the Fifth and Sixth years of Migration   The events of the Sixth Year of Migration   A Religious and Political Journey   The Events of the Seventh Year of Migration   Fort of Khayber the Centre of Danger   The Story of Fadak   The Lapsed ‘Umrah   The Events of the Eighth Year of Migration   The Battle of Zatus Salasil   The Conquest of Makkah   The Battle of Hunayn   The Battle of Ta’if   The Famous Panegyric of Ka’b Bin Zuhayr   The Events of the Ninth Year of Migration   The Battle of Tabuk   The Deputation of Thaqif goes to Madina   The Prophet Mourning for his Son   Eradication of Idol-Worship in Arabia   Representatives of Najran in Madina   The Events of the Tenth Year of Migration   The Farewell Hajj   Islam is completed by the Appointment of Successor   The Events of the Eleventh Year of Migration   A Will which was not written   The Last Hours of the Prophet  

15. Asha’irah

From the preceding lecture it became clear that the ideas and notions which led to the emergence of the Mu’tazilite school took birth during the latter half of the first century of Hijrah. The approach of the Mu’tazilah, in fact, consisted of the use of a kind of logical and rational method for understanding the basic doctrines of the Islamic faith. Obviously, the first condition for such an approach is belief in the freedom, independence, and validity of reason. It is also evident that the common people at large are not used to ratiocination and intellectual analysis, and always tend to equate “religiosity” with “credulity” and intellectual submission to the apparent meanings of the Qur’anic verses and in particular of the ahadith. They tend to consider every attempt at independent and original interpretation as a kind of rebellion against religion, especially if the dominant politics deem it in their interests to support this attitude, and more specially if some religious scholars propagate such an outlook, and particularly so when such scholars really believe in their literalist outlook and are inflexible and fanatical in practice. The attacks of the Akhbaris on the Usuliyyun and the mujtahidun, and the attacks of some fuqaha’ and muhaddithun against philosophers in the Islamic world had their roots in such an approach.13

The Mu’tazilah had a deep-rooted interest in understanding Islam and its propagation and defense against the atheists, the Jews, the Christians, the Magians, the Sabaeans, the Manicheans, and others. They even trained missionaries and dispatched them to various regions. Nevertheless, their existence was threatened by the literalists, who called themselves “Ahl al-Hadith” or “Ahl al-Sunnah.” They were ultimately stabbed in the back, weakened and gradually became extinct.

Despite it all, in the beginning, that is until the end of the 3rd/9th century and the beginning of the 4th/l0th, there existed no rival school of kalam – as was later to emerge – that could challenge the Mu’tazilah. All opposition occurred under the claim that the views of the Mu’tazilah were against the externals of the hadith and the Sunnah. The leaders of the Ahl al-Hadith, such as Malik ibn Anas and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, basically considered any debate, inquiry or argument connected with the matters of faith as unlawful (haram). Therefore, the Ahl al-Sunnah not only did not have any system of kalam challenging the Mu’tazilah, but also they were opposed to kalam itself.

About the late 3rd/9th century and the early 4th/l0th, a new phenomenon took place. That was the appearance of a distinguished thinker who had received instruction in Mu’tazilite teachings under Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar, and had mastered them. He rejected Mu’tazilite tenets and inclined towards the doctrines of the Ahl al-Sunnah. Since, on the one hand, he was not a man devoid of genius, and on the other was equipped with the tools used by the Mu’tazilah, he established all the doctrines of the Ahl al-Sunnah on a rational basis, and gave them the form of a relatively closely-knit intellectual system. That distinguished person was Abu al-Hasan al-‘Ash’ari (d. circa 330/941-42). Al-‘Ash’ari – as against the view of his predecessors among Ahl al-Hadith, like Abmad ibn Hanbal – considered debate and argument, and use of the tools of logic in the matter of the doctrines of the faith as permissible, citing evidence from the Qur’an and the Sunnah to support his claim. He wrote a treatise entitled “Risalah fi istihsan al-khawd fi ‘ilm al-kalam” (“A Treatise on Appropriateness of Inquiry in ‘Ilm al-Kalam). 14

It was at this point that the Ahl al-Hadith was divided into two groups:

  1. The Asha’irah, or the followers of Abu al-Hasan al-‘Ash’ari, who considered kalam as permissible;

  2. The Hanbalis, or the followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who considered it unlawful.

In our lectures on logic we have already mentioned that Ibn Taymiyyah, a Hanbali, wrote a book on unlawfulness of logic and kalam.15 There was another reason why the Mu’tazilah became detestable in the eyes of the people. It was the period of calamity or “mihnah,” and the Mu’tazilah under the patronage of the caliph al-Ma’mun, wanted to coerce the people into accepting their belief in the createdness of the Qur’an. This regimentation brought in its wake bloodshed, imprisonment, torture and exile, which shook the Muslim society. The common people considered the Mu’tazilah responsible for that havoc, and this earned them greater disfavor with the public.

These two causes contributed to the public welcome at the emergence of the school of Ash’arism. After Abu al-Hasan al-‘Ash’ari, other distinguished personalities appeared in this school, who strengthened its foundations. Among them following can be mentioned: Qadi Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (a contemporary of al-Shaykh al-Mufid), who died in the year 403/1012-13 Abu Ishaq al-‘Asfara’ini (who is considered as belonging to the generation after al-Baqillani and al-Sayyid al-Murtada ‘Alam al-Huda); Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, the teacher of al-Ghazali; Imam Muhammad al-Ghazali, the author of Ihya’ ‘ulum al-Din himself (d. 505/1111-12); and Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi.

Of course, the Ash’arite school underwent gradual changes, and particularly in the hands of al-Ghazali kalam somewhat lost its characteristic colour and took on the hue of ‘irfan (Sufism). Imam al-Razi brought it close to philosophy. After Khwajah Nasir al-Din al-Tusi wrote his book Tajrid al-‘i’tiqad more than ninety per cent of kalam assumed the colour of philosophy. After the publication of the Tajrid, all mutakallimun – including the Mu’tazilah and the Asha’irah – followed the same road which was trodden by that great philosopher and Shi’ah mutakallim.

For instance, the latter works of kalam such as al-Mawaqif and Maqasid and the commentaries written upon them – all took on the color of the Tajrid. It may be said that, in fact, the more time has elapsed since Abu al-Hasan al-‘Ash’ari, the more the leading Ash’arites have moved away from him, bringing his doctrines closer to the views of the Mu’tazilah or those of the philosophers.

Now we shall list the main doctrines of al-Ash’ari, which are aimed at defending the basic principles of the Ahl al-Sunnah, or attempting a rational justification of their beliefs.

  1. The Divine Attributes, contrary to the belief of the Mu’tazilah and the philosophers, are not identical with the Divine Essence;

  2. The Divine Will is all-embracing. The Divine providence and predestination encompass all events (this belief, too, is contrary to the view held by the Mu’tazilah, though in agreement with those of the philosophers);

  3. All evil, like good, is from God (of course, this view is a logical corollary, in al-Ash’ari’s view of the above belief);

  4. Man is not free in his acts, which are created by God (this belief, too, in al-Ash’ari’s view, necessarily follows from the doctrine of all-embracing nature of the Divine Will);

  5. Acts are not intrinsically good or evil, i.e. husn or qubh of deeds is not intrinsic, but determined by the Shari’ah. The same is true of justice. What is ‘just’, is determined by the Shari’ah not by reason (contrary to the belief of the Mu’tazilah);

  6. Grace (lutf) and selection of the best for creation (al-‘aslah) are not incumbent upon God (contrary to the belief of the Mu’tazilah);

  7. Man’s power over his actions does not precede them [there is no istita’ah qabl al-fi’l], but is commensurate and concurrent with the acts themselves (contrary to the belief of the Muslim philosophers and the Mu’tazilah);

  8. Absolute dean thropomorphism (tanzih mutlaq), or absolute absence of similarity between God and others, does not hold (contrary to the Mu’tazilite view);

  9. Doctrine of acquisition: Man does not ‘create’ his own acts; rather he ‘acquires’ or ‘earns’ them (this is in justification of the Ahl al-Sunnah’s belief in the creation of human acts by God);

  10. Possibility of the beatific vision: God shall be visible to the eyes on the Day of Resurrection (contrary to the view of the Mu’tazilah and the philosophers);

  11. The fasiq is a believer (mu’min) (contrary to the view of the Khawarij, who consider him kafir, and contrary to the Mu’tazilite doctrine of manzilah bayna al-manzilatayn);

  12. There is nothing wrong about God’s pardoning someone without repentance. Similarly, nothing is wrong about God’s subjecting a believer to chastisement (contrary to the Mu’tazilite position);

  13. Intercession (shafa’ah) is justifiable (contrary to the Mu’tazilite position);

  14. To tell a lie or break a promise is not possible for God;

  15. The world is created in time (hadith) (contrary to the view of the philosophers);

  16. The Qur’an is pre-eternal (qadim); however, this is true of al-kalam al-nafsi (meaning of the Qur’an), not al-kalam al-lafzi – the spoken word (this is in justification of the Ahl al-Sunnah’s belief in the pre-eternity of the Qur’an);

  17. The Divine Acts do not follow any purpose or aim (contrary to the view of the philosophers and the Mu’tazilah);

  18. It is possible that God may saddle a person with a duty beyond his power (contrary to the belief of the philosophers and the Mu’tazilah).

Abu al-Hasan al-‘Ash’ari was a prolific writer and as reported, had compiled more than two hundred books. As many as a hundred are mentioned in his biographical accounts, though, apparently, most of those works have perished. The most famous of his works is Maqalat al-‘Islamiyyin, which has been published. It is a very disorderly and confused work. Another one printed is al-Luma’, and perhaps other of his works may have also appeared in print.

Abu al-Hasan al-‘Ash’ari is one of those individuals whose ideas, regrettably, exercised a great influence on the Islamic world. Nevertheless, later, his works have been put to severe criticism by philosophers and the Mu’tazilah. Ibn Sina, in al-Shifa; has refuted many of his ideas without mentioning his name. Even some of his followers, such as Qadi Abu Bakr al-Baqillani and Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni revised and modified his views about predestination and createdness of (human) acts.

Imam Muhammad al-Ghazali, although an Ash’arite who has to a great extent established and strengthened the Ash’arite doctrines, has put them on a different foundation. Through al-Ghazali, kalam was brought closer to ‘irfan and Sufism. Mawlana Muhammad al-Rumi, the author of the Mathnawi, is, in his own way, an Ash’arite; but his deep Sufi inclinations gave a different colour to all the issues of kalam. Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who was familiar with philosophic thought, transformed al-‘Ash’ari’s kalam, further strengthening it.

The triumph of the Ash’arite school cost the Muslim world dearly. Its triumph was the victory of the forces of stagnation over freedom of thought. Despite the fact that the battle between Ash’arism and Mu’tazilism is related to the Sunni world, even the Shi’ite world could not remain unaffected from some of the stultifying effects of Ash’arism. This triumph has particular historical and social reasons behind it, and certain political events effectively contributed to it.

As mentioned earlier, during the 3rd/9th century, the caliph al-Ma’mun, himself an intellectual and a man of learning, rose to the support of the Mu’tazilah. After him al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq also followed him – until al-Mutawakkil assumed caliphate. Al-Mutawakkil played a basic role in the victory of the Ahl al-Sunnah’s doctrines, which acquired dialectic foundations after one hundred years at the hands of al-‘Ash’ari. To be sure, had al-Mutawakkil’s way of thinking been similar to that of his predecessors, Mu’tazilism would have had a different fate.

The rise of the Seljuq Turks to power in Iran was another effective factor in the triumph and propagation of the Ash’arite ideas. The Seljuqs did not believe in the freedom of thought. They were the antithesis of the Buyids, some of whom were men of scholarship and literary merit. Shi’ism and Mu’tazilism flourished in the Buyid court. Ibn al-‘Amid and al-Sahib ibn ‘Abbad, the two learned ministers of the Buyids, were both anti-Ash’arites.

Here we do not intend to support Mu’tazilite doctrines, and later we shall expose the feebleness of many of their beliefs. However, that which deserves appreciation in the Mu’tazilah is their rational approach – something which also became extinct with them. As we know, a religion as rich and resourceful as Islam needs a kalam which has an unshakeable faith in the freedom of reason.


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