Imam Abu ‘l-Hasan al-Ashari

By ‘Allamah Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi

The Crisis of ‘Itizal’:
Ascendancy of Mutazilites: The Mutazilites
suffered a severe setback after the death of
Mutasim and Wathiq, both of whom were ardent
supporters of their school. Mutawakkil, the tenth
Abbasid Caliph, succeeded his brother Wathiq
in 232 A.H. He was against the Mutazilites and
keen for the restoration of the true faith. He
declared as heretic the allegedly freethinking
Mutazilites, expelled them from public offices
and interdicted discussions on dogmatic
questions by them. Yet, ‘Itizal had taken roots
in the circles of the learned and the philosophers,
all over the Islamic world. Although the doctrine
in regard to the creation of the Qur’an had died
out, the Mutazilite thought still exercised
considerable influence. The Mutazilites
continued to be vigorous owing to the eminent
exponents of ‘Itizal’ who were well-versed in
literature, dialectics, jurisprudence and other
sciences, and held high offices under the State.
They gained ascendancy by the middle of the
third century A.H. when it was commonly held
that they possessed rationalistic tendencies, were
progressive thinkers and seekers after the Truth.
This became the prevailing taste which was
taken after by the young men, students and
others who wanted to cut a figure. The Hanbalite
School could not produce another savant of
Ahmad Ibn Hanbal’s erudition while the
traditionists and the teachers of orthodox school
came to regard secular sciences as undesirable
intruders into the domain of religion. The
ignorance of orthodox theologians in dialectics
and other secular sciences began to be regarded
as their weakness with the result that the ‘Itizal’
acquired predominance such as it had never
gained before or after that period. It is true that
all those who had a profound knowledge of
religious sciences had generally accepted the
tenets of the traditionists and jurisprudents but
the misinformed commonalty was mostly
swayed by the wit and art of discursive reasoning
exhibited by the Mutazilites. Many among the
theologians too suffered from inferiority complex
which served to attract minds not content with
the formalism of the orthodox school towards
the Mutazilite thought. This, indeed, posed a great
danger for the Shariah and the path trodden by
the mentors of the old. The rationalists, holding
the view that human reason was competent to
go searching after the Ultimate Reality,
explained away those passages of the Qur’an
which they did not find helpful to their modes of
reason. These explanations were undermining
the religion and fundamental tenets of the Faith.
An alleged rationalism lacking in erudition and
wisdom was thus gaining ground among the
Muslims which could not be refuted successfully
by the unflinching faith and ardent zeal of the
Hanbalites and traditionists or by the moral and
spiritual excellence of the pious, nor yet by the
analogical deduction and elaborate canonical
laws and rules of the jurists.
The Man demanded by the Faith:
The crisis demanded a savant, profound in
knowledge and well-versed in the secular
sciences, who could fight the Mutazilites with
their own weapons. He had to be a man of
towering personality, unrivalled even by the most
eminent exponents of the Mutazilite thought; and, such was the man of the hour that Islam got in
the person of Abul Hasan Ali al-Ashari.
Abul Hasan Ali al-Ashari:
Abul Hasan Ali was the son of Ismail who
descended from Abu Musa al-Ashari, a reputed
companion of the Prophet, at Basra in 260 A.H.
After the death of Ismail, his mother had married
Abu Ali al-Jubbai (d. 915 A.D.) who was the last
great teacher and an ardent expounder of ‘Itizal’.
Al-Ashari, brought up and educated by al-Jubbai,
soon became an adherent of the Mutazilite
doctrine and a trusted lieutenant of the latter. Abu
Ali al-Jubbai was a successful teacher and writer
but not a good debater while Abul Hasan Ali al-
Ashari was celebrated both for his wit and
eloquence. During the debates on the doctrines
of ‘Itizal’, al-Jubbai used to ask him to contend
with the opponents of his school. Thus he soon
earned a name for his mastery over the science
of disputation and was recognized as a teacher
of the Mutazilite School of Thought. It was
expected that he would succeed his god-father
and mentor and prove a still more vigorous and
eminent exponent of the Mutazilite doctrines.
Allah had, however, willed otherwise.
Notwithstanding the fact that al-Ashari had spent
his life in advocating the Mutazilite school whose
leadership was about to fall in his lap, Providence
had selected him to vindicate the Sunnah. He
began to see through the intellectual sophistry of
the Mutazilite School, its quibblings and
hairsplitting, and ultimately realized that the
specious reasoning of the rationalists was nothing
more than an intricate yet well argued spell of
words, ideas and thoughts but really
inconsequential in so far as the search for Truth
was concerned. It dawned upon him that the
source of truth lay only in revelation; the way of
the teachers of the old and companions of the
Prophet was the only Right Path, and that there
was no reason why intellect should not submit to
it. Thus getting disenchanted from the Mutazilite
doctrines at the age of forty, he developed an
intense dislike for the so-called rationalist
school. He did not come out of his house for
fifteen days. On the sixteenth day he went from
his house to the principal mosque of the city. It
was Friday and al-Ashari elbowed his way,
through the thronging crowd of the faithful.
Going straight to the pulpit and ascending its
steps he started to proclaim: “Many of you know
me. I want to tell those who do not know me
that I am Abul Hasan Ali al-Ashari. I was a
Mutazilite and believed in their doctrines. Now
I seek repentance from Allah and turn away
from my earlier beliefs; henceforth, I shall
endeavor to refute the doctrines of the
Mutazilites and reveal their mistakes and
weaknesses.”
And from that day on al-Ashari devoted himself
wholeheartedly to the repudiation of the
Mutazilites and began propounding the tenets
of the orthodox school. With his profound
knowledge, penetrating intellect, eloquence,
mastery over dialectics and a facile pen, he was
able to overshadow his disputants and uphold
the doctrines of the Conformist School.
Missionary Zeal of al-Ashari:
For he considered it an obligation and a mission
enjoined by Allah Almighty, al-Ashari
performed the task he had taken upon himself
with an untiring zeal. He used to attend the
meetings of the Mutazilites and search out
rationalists to set at rest their doubts about the
doctrines of the orthodox school. If anyone
raised the objection as to why he met the
skeptics and dissenters, who ought to be
shunned, he would reply that he could not do
otherwise. He explained that the Mutazilites
were all well-placed in life, held the offices of
administrators, judges, and other venerable
positions, and, therefore, they could not be
expected to come to him. If he too were to sit
with folded hands, how would they come to
know the Truth, and also that there was
someone who could defend the faith with
reason and arguments.

Achievements of al-Ashari:
Al-Ashari was a postmaster of debates and
polemics. He had an aptitude and facility, which
he used with consummate skill in contending
for the religion. No one was better qualified
than he for the task as in his knowledge of
secular sciences like logic and dialectics he
excelled all the Mutazilite doctors and could
rebut their objections like a teacher answering
the questions of his students. One of his
disciples, Abu Abdullah ibn Khafif, has left an
account of his first meeting with al-Ashari in
these words: “I came form Shiraz to Basra
being too keen to meet al-Ashari, I enquired of
his address. I went to his place at a time when
he was attending a debate. A band of the
Mutazilites was then blurting out questions one
after another. After they had all finished their
haranguing, al-Ashari began his speech. He
took the objections raised by each, one by one,
and set at rest all of their doubts. When al-
Ashari rose from the meeting, I followed him.
He asked, ‘What do you want?’ I replied, ‘I
want to see how many eyes, ears and tongues
have you got.’ He smiled on hearing my
answer.”
The same narrator adds: “I couldn’t see why
you kept quiet in the beginning said I, ‘and
allowed the Mutazilites to present their
objections. It behooved you to deliver lectures
and meet their objections therein, instead of
asking them to speak out first. Al-Ashari replied,
‘I do not consider it lawful even to repeat their
doctrines and beliefs, but once some one has
expressed these, it becomes an obligation for
the righteous to refute their tenets’.
Abul Hasan Ali al-Ashari was the founder of
Islamic scholasticism (kalam). All the
dialecticians of the later ages have
acknowledged al-Ashari’s God-gifted
intelligence and sagacity, discernment and
profundity. Qadi Abu Bakr Baqillani was known
to his compatriots by the name of Lisan-ul-
Ummah(Tongue of the Nation), on account of
his eloquence and penmanship. Once, when
somebody remarked that his writings appear to
excel those of al-Ashari, Baqillani replied that
he considered it an honor to be able to understand
al-Ashari’s works.
Another reputed doctor, Abu Ishaq Asfraini, who
is considered an authority on dialectics and
jurisprudence, admitted that his own knowledge
was like a drop in the ocean in comparison to
that of Sheikh Abul Hasan al-Ashari, a disciple
of al-Ashari while al-Ashari employed the same
similitude for comparing himself to his master.
The Middle Course of al-Ashari:
Al-Ahsari adopted a middle course between the
Mutazilites and the traditionists. Unlike the
former, he neither accepted the claim of reason
to be completely free to discern metaphysical
realities and deliver its verdict about the content
and nature, attributes and characteristics of the
Supreme Reality, nor did he agree with those
Hanbalites and traditionists who, owing to their
fervor for the faith, considered it necessary to
sneer and turn their back upon reason for the
defense of religion. He did not consider it prudent
to keep quiet about those dialectical and dogmatic
issues, which had been raised during his times.
He employed philosophical terminology in his
discussions with the Mutazilites and the doctors
of rationalist school which enhanced the respect
of the orthodox school. In fact al-Ashari followed
the maxim: Talk to the people according to their
understanding; and this meant keeping the laity
in view as much as the elite.
For the Mutazilites had followed their own
instincts and desires by explaining away the
dictates of religion and preferred the doctrines
propagated by the expounders of their sect over
the tenets of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, al-
Ashari criticized them with all the emphasis at
his command. In the first treatise he wrote after
turning away from ‘Itizal’ he explained: “It ought to be known that these sects, viz., the Mutazilites
and the Qadariyah have, in falling behind the
precursors and leaders of their sects, really
turned away from the right path and submitted
to their own wishes and desires. They have
explained away the Qur’anic text in a Way
unauthorized by God Almighty. Their
interpretation is neither supported by reason nor
by the Traditions handed down from the Prophet,
his companions or their successors.”
Thereafter, throwing light on the canons of his
own school of thought, he says: “We have a faith
in the Qur’an and the Traditions and, therefore,
hold the opinion that these have to be followed
ungrudgingly. What has been handed down by
the companions, their successors and traditionists
has to be accepted completely and with
unquestioning submission, for this is the way of
Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. We shun those who do not
follow the path of Ahmad, for he was the pious
and erudite Imam, whom Allah Almighty enabled
to show the path of righteousness and efface
the deviations and innovations, doubts of the
skeptics and interpretations of the misguided.
May God glorify the adorable and venerable
Imam!”
The achievement of Al-Ashari, however, did not
consist merely of his defense of the orthodox
school, for the Hanbalites and other traditionists
had already been seized with the task. The most
valuable accomplishment of al-Ashari was the
formulation of principles which enabled the tenets
of the orthodox school to be accepted in the light
of reason, i.e. on the basis of logical arguments.
He examined the doctrines of the Mutazilites and
other sects in accordance with the principles of
logic and the philosophical terminology evolved
by these sects, and brought out their mistakes so
as to uphold the beliefs and tenets of the orthodox
school.
Al-Ashari maintained that the ultimate source
of faith and the key to metaphysical realities were
revelation and the teachings of the Prophet rather
than human reason, speculation or Grecian
mythology. At the same time, he disagreed with
the rigid dogmatism of the conformists who
thought it prudent to keep quiet about the issues
raised by the misguided sects simply because
the Traditions handed down form the Prophet
did not mention their terminology. Al-Ashari held
the view that this attitude would be reckoned as
a weakness of the orthodox school and would
ultimately be harmful to it. Al-Ashari also
maintained that the attitude of the rigid
dogmatists would enable the Mutazilites and
other misguided sects, through their apparent
endeavor to reconcile faith with reason and
religion with philosophy, to attract the young and
intelligent who were not content to be driven in
a common groove. He agreed with the orthodox
view that revelation and prophethood were the
only sources to be depended upon in so far as
the faith was concerned – a view diametrically
opposed to the Mutazilites and the philosophers
– but it was not only lawful but absolutely
necessary or even obligatory to take recourse
to the logical deduction and prevalent
philosophical terminology for evincing the
religious tenets. He maintained that it was not
at all necessary to avoid the issues pertaining to
perception or intellect, which were ultimately
grounded in human experience but had
unnecessarily been made a part of religious
doctrines by the rationalists, in order to prove or
disprove the latter with the help of a clever play
upon word. At the same time, he considered it
essential for the expounders of religion to face
those issues and refute the claims of the
Mutazilites and other philosophers with the help
of logic and reason. He did not subscribe to the
view that the Prophet of Islam made no mention
of the issues raised by the rationalists of later
times, either on account of his ignorance or
because the Prophet did not consider it lawful
to do so. It was so simply owing to the fact that
these questions and rationalistic modes of
thought had not come into existence during the life time of the Prophet. Al-Ashari maintained
that like the new problems of sacred and secular
laws which were brought to the fore by
exigencies of changing times, new questions in
the realm of faith and metaphysics were also
being raised. Therefore, like the jurisprudents
who had grappled with the legal problems and
solved them through analogical deduction and
amplification of canon-laws, the doctors of
religion and the scholastics were duty bound to
explain and elucidate the canons of faith in
regard to these new questions. Al-Ashari wrote
a treatise entitled Istihsan-ul-Khaudh fil-Kalam
to explain his view-point in this regard.
Thus, ignoring the approbation or opposition of
the either sect, al-Ashari went ahead with the
task of defending religion according to his own
light. This undoubtedly required great courage
and intelligence; and, as it were, al-Ashari proved
himself equal to the task. With his lectures and
writings he was able to stem the rising tide of
the rationalism, ‘Itizal’ and philosophy, and save
many souls form being swept away by the wave
of skepticism. He inculcated faith and
enthusiasm, zeal and self-confidence among the
followers of orthodox school through his wellargued
and forceful vindication of the faith. Al-
Ashari’s defense was, however, not the least
apologetic. On the contrary, he was able to
eradicate the inferiority complex that had
unconsciously seized the followers of the
orthodox creed, and was insidiously undermining
their self-confidence. Al-Ashari soon turned the
tables on the Mutazilites who, far from
maintaining the force of their onslaught on the
orthodox school, found it difficult to withstand
the offensive of al-Ashari, which was made with
the full weight of an unshakable conviction. Abu
Bakr ibn as-Sairfi says that the Mutazilites had
caused a crisis for Islam but Allah brought forth
Abul Hasan Ali al-Ashari to take up the cudgels
against them. He was able to overcome them
with his intelligence and dialectics. He, therefore,
soon came to be regarded as one of the foremost
expounders and renovators of the faith, while
certain persons like Abu Bakr Ismail hold him
as second only to Ahmad Ibn Hanbal for his
endeavors to uphold and defend the true faith.
Al-Ashari’s Works
Al-Ashari defended the orthodox school not
merely with his sermons, debates and polemics,
but also wrote valuable treatises to expose the
weaknesses of heretical sects. It is reported that
the commentary on the Qur’an written by al-
Ashari ran into thirty volumes. Al-Ashari is said
to have written some 250 to 300 works; a large
number of which traverses the main positions
of the Mutazilites or other non-conformist sects
and heretical creeds. One of the voluminous
books written by al-Ashari is ‘Kitab-ul-fusul,
comprising twelve volumes, which confutes the
doctrines of a number of sects including so-called
rationalists, atheists and naturalists as well as
other creeds like those of the Hindus, Jews,
Christians and Magians. Ibn Khallikan has also
mentioned some of his other works entitled
‘Kitab al-Lom, Kitab al-Mujaz, Idhahul-
Burhan, Al-Tabeen an Usul id-Din, and Kitab
us-sharah wat-Tafsil.’ Besides these works on
dialecties, al-Ashari wrote several books like
Kitab ul-Qiyas, Kitab ul-Ijtihad and Khabarul-
Wahid on other religious sciences. He wrote
a tract to refute the doctrine of the negation of
Traditions reported through more than one
source, which was expounded by Ibn ur-
Rawandi. In one of his books entitled al-Amad
al-Ashari has given a list of 68 books written by
him till 320 A.H., i.e. four years before his death.
A number of these works run into ten or twelve
volumes. The books written by him during his
last four years are also by no means
inconsiderable. His Maqalat-ul-Islamiyyin
shows that al-Ashari was not merely a
dialectician but also a reliable chronicler of
different faiths. In this book he has recorded
the doctrines of a number of sects with a sense
of responsibility behaving an eminent historian,
for, his explanation of their dogmas agrees with the exposition of these faiths by their own
followers.
Profound Knowledge and Piety:
Al-Ashari was not simply a prolific writer but
one profound in knowledge also. Like all other
mentors of the old he was unrivalled in moral
and spiritual excellence too. A jurist, Ahmad Ibn
Ali, says that he had been with al-Ashari for
twenty years but he did not see anyone more
reverent and godly, shy and modest in his worldly
affairs but, at the same time, zestful where the
performance of religious duties was concerned.
Abul Husain al-Harwi, a dialectician, relates that
for years together al-Ashari spent whole nights
in vigils and performed morning prayers with
the ablution taken at the nightfall. The personal
servant of al-Ashari, Bundar Ibn al-Husain, is
on record that the only source of livelihood of
al-Ashari consisted of a fief with an income of
seventeen dirhams per day, which he had
inherited from his grandfather Biala Ibn Abi
Burdah Ibn Abi Musa al-Ashari. Al-Ashari died
in 324 A. H. and was buried in Baghdad. An
announcement was made over his funeral that
the “Defender of the Tradition” had passed
away.
Abu Mansur al-Maturidi
During the same period another theologian, Abu
Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 332 A. H.), emerged in
Samarkand to defend the faith against the
attacks of the heretical sects. Owing to the
continuous wrangling with the Mutazilites, al-
Ashari had become a bit extremist in some of
his views, which were stretched further by his
followers; al-Maturidi’s thought is, however,
marked by its moderation. He rejected all such
accretions to the Ash’arite thought, which had
become a part of it in due course of time and
which left many loopholes unfilled, many
questions unanswered. Al-Maturidi perfected the
Asharite system and gave it an intellectually
irreproachable form. The differences between
the Ash’arites and the Maturidites were simply
marginal and limited to 30 to 40 issues of
comparatively lesser importance.
Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, belonging to the
Hanafite School of jurisprudence, had a majority
of his followers amongst the theologians and
dialecticians of that school just as most of the
Shafi’ite dialecticians followed al-Ashari. Al-
Maturidi was also a man of letters who has left
many valuable works refuting the doctrines of
the Mutazilites, Shiites and Qarmatians. One of
his books, Tawilat-I-Qur’an is an outstanding
example of his keen intellect and mastery over
rationalistic sciences of the day. However, since
al-Ashari had to confront the Mutazilites in the
center of Islamic world, which also happened to
be a seat of the Mutazilite School, he came to
exert a far greater influence over the intellectual
circles. Also, al-Ashari was a great original mind
who would always be remembered for laying
the foundation of Islamic scholasticism.
Later Ash’arites:
A number of reputed savants of profound
knowledge and unequalled agility of mind were
produced by the Ash’arite school. They
contributed to the development of the school and
exerted an immense influence on the minds of
the intellectuals and the educated youth with the
result that the orthodox school was enabled again
to gain supremacy in the Islamic world. In the
fourth century of the Muslim era were born such
luminaries as Qadi Abu Bakar Baqillani (D. 403
A. H.) and Abu Ishaq Isfraini (d. 418 A.H.) and
after them came Abu Ishaq Shirazi (d.476 A.H.)
and Imam ul-Haramayn Abul Ma’ali Abd al-
Malik al-Juwaini (d. 478 A.H.) in the fifth century
who were held in high esteem owing to their
profound knowledge. Abu Is’haq Shirazi was
the Rector of the Nizamiyyah University at
Baghdad. He was sent by Caliph Muqtadi-b’illah
as his ambassador to the Court of the Saljukid
king Malik Shah. He was held in such a high
esteem by the populace that in whichever town
he happened to pass during his journey form Baghdad to Nishapur, the entire population came
out to greet him, people showered over him
whatever valuables they could afford and took
the dust underneath his feet out of reverence.
When Shirazi arrived at Nishapur, the entire
population came out of the city to greet him and
Imam ul-Haramayn carried the saddle-cloth of
Shirazi on his shoulder as a porter’s burden while
escorting him. Imam ul-Haramayn took a pride
ever thereafter on the honor of being able to
serve Shirazi.
Imam ul-Haramayn was accorded the highest
place of respect by Nizam ul-Mulk, the prime
Minister of the Saljukid King Alap Arslan. He
held the charge of Preacher of the principal
mosque of Nishapur, Director of the Religious
trusts and Rector of the Nizamiyah University
at Nishapur. Ibn Khallikan writes of him: “For
thirty years he remained without a peer in the
fields of learning and piety. He was the chief
mentor and preacher, exemplar and a man of
God.”
An annalist has related an incident, which shows
the respect, accorded to Imam ul-Haramayn.
Once Malik Shah, the Saljukid King, announced
the appearance of the new moon at the end of
Ramadan. Imam ul-Haramayn, not satisfied with
the evidence, produced in this regard, got another
announcement made which said: “Abul Ma’ali
(name of Imam ul-Haramayn) is satisfied that
the month of Ramadan will continue till
tomorrow. All those who want to act on his
decision should keep fast tomorrow also.”
When the king questioned Imam ul-Haramayn
about his announcement he said: “I am bound to
obey the King in matters falling in the sphere of
the State but in questions pertaining to religion,
the king ought to have asked for my decision
since under the Shariah a religious decree carries
as much authority as the edict of the king. And
the matters pertaining to fast and Eid are
ecclesiastical issues with which the king has
nothing to do.”
The king had at last to get another declaration
made saying that his earlier announcement was
wrong and that the people should therefore
follow the decision of Imam ul-Haramayn.
When Imam ul-Haramayn died in 478 A.H., the
markets of Nishapur were closed, the pulpit of
the principal mosque was dismantled and four
hundred of his disciples destroyed their pens and
inkpots as a mark of respect to him. The
inhabitants of Nishapur received condolences
and expressed their grief on the demise of Imam
ul-Haramayn with one another for full one year.
Nizam ul-Mulk Tusi, the Prime Minister of the
then strongest Islamic kingdom of Saljukids, was
himself an Ash’arite. He gave great impetus to
the Ash’arite School by providing it with the
official backing. The two renowned educational
institutions, the Nizamiyah University of
Nishapur and Baghdad proved to be a turning
point in the Ash’arite bid for victory over other
intellectual movements in the then Islamic world.

Saviors of Islamic Spirit

(IV: 12/08, 01/09)

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