1. For the chapter generally: Formative Period, ch.9, esp. 256-71.

2. Legal schools: N. J. Coulson, A History of Islamic Law, Edinburgh 1964; Schacht, Introduction to Islamic Law (n.4/2).

4. Watt, Bell's Introduction to the Quran, Edinburgh 1970, 167-70, 45-50.

5. EI2, art. Ahmad b. Hanbal (H. Laoust); Formative Period, 291-5.

6. Formative Period, 131-4, 285f.; Wensinck, Muslim Creed[B/E), has translations of the Hanafite creeds Al-fiqh al-akbai I and II and the Wasiyya.

7. Ibn-Kulläb: EI2, supplement, art. Ibn Kulläb (J. van Ess); Formative Period, 286-9.

8. Ibn-Karräm: EI2, art. Karrämiyya (C. E. Bosworth); Formative Period, 289-91.

9. Massignon, Passion2, i.350-68 (E.T., i.307-22), the fullest account of the period from 874 to 941 ■, Watt, 'The Significance of the Early Stage of Imämite Shi'ism', in N. R. Keddie (ed.), Religion and Politics in Iran, New Haven 1983, 21-32; also in German in K. Greussing (ed.), Religion und Politik im Iran, Frankfurt am Main, 1981, 45-57-

10. $üfism: A. J. Arberry, Sufism, London 1950; Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Chapel Hill 1975, J. van Ess, Die Gedankenwelt des Härit al-Muhäsibi, Bonn 1961Louis Massignon, Passion2 and Essai2 (as in b/e).

11. Ibn-Sälim: (Abü-l-Hasan or Abü-l-Husayn Ahmad ibn-Muhammad al-Basri); Massignon, Passion2, i.631; ii.i4of. (E.T. i.582; ii.i^of.), correcting statements in Passion1, 36 if. and Essai2, 294-300. See also pp. 109-10 and n. 14/29.

Chapter Ten


Al-Ash'ari is one of the outstanding figures in the history of Islamic theology, but it is only recently that scholars have been able to form a clear idea of the precise nature of his achievement and its importance. Until about the middle of this century it was generally supposed that before the 'conversion' of al-Ash'ari the only rational or philosophical theology was that of the Mu'tazilites and some similarly-minded people,- from this supposition it followed that the beginning of Sun-nite philosophical theology or Kalam was when al-Ash'ari changed allegiance from Mu'tazilism to Hanbalism and resolved to defend Sunnite (Hanbalite) doctrines by Mu'tazilite methods. It is now realized that there were forms of Sunnite Kalam before al-Ash'ari, notably among the Kullabiyya (as described in the last chapter), and it is probable that on his 'conversion' al-Ash'ari attached himself to the Kullabiyya. In this group he was doubtless prominent, but another man, al-Qalanisi, was, if anything, more prominent. It was possibly nearly a century later before this group of theologians began to think of themselves as Ash'arites, and to be so regarded by others. The publication of a book by the Ash'arite Ibn-Furak (d.1015), entitled The Difference between the two Shaykhs, al-Qalanisi and al-Ash'ari', may have contributed to this result. What is certain is that by the eleventh century the main branch of Sunnite Kalam thought of itself as Ash'arite.

Abu-l-Hasan 'All ibn-Isma'il al-Ash'ari was born at Basra in 873, and studied under the head of the Mu'tazilites there, al-Jubba'L1 As a distinguished pupil he sometimes took the place of the master, and might conceivably have succeeded him, it is said. On the other hand, al-Jubba'i had a very intelligent son, Abu-Hashim, who did in fact succeed him; and it may be that the rivalry between this man and al-Ash'ari was a factor contributing to the latter's abandonment of the Mu'tazilites, which took place about 912, shortly before the death of the master in 915. The positive side of this 'conversion' was the acceptance of Sunnite dogma in its Hanbalite form; and for the rest of al-ash'ari his life al-Ash'ari devoted himself to the defence of this position and the critique of Mu'tazilism. He moved to Baghdad towards the end of his life, and died there in 935.

Some sources suggest that the story of the 'three brothers' (mentioned above) provided a theological motive for the change,- but this is unlikely, since al-fubba'i and other Mu'tazilites of Basra already felt dissatisfaction with the attempts to give a rational account of the variations in men's destinies. It looks as if al-Ash'ari, carrying his master's line of thought a little farther, came to the conclusion that revelation was superior to reason as a guide to life, and decided to attach himself to those who explicitly gave first place to revelation.

Al-Ash'ari doubtless also saw that Mu'tazilism in general was becoming increasingly irrelevant to the contemporary situation. Earlier Mu'tazilites had been associated with attempts to work out a compromise which would help to overcome the cleavage between Sunnites and Shi'ites. With the abandonment of the policy of the 'inquisition' about 850 the caliphal government became pro-Sunnite, and what has been called the consolidation of Sunnism followed. At the same time many vague strands of Shi'ite feeling were replaced by the more definite Imámite form of Shi'ism. By 912 it must have been clear to an acute observer that the prospects of anything being achieved by the Mu'tazilite compromise were rapidly declining. The Mu'tazilites had in fact become a group of academic theologians who had retired to an ivory tower remote from the tensions and pressures of ordinary life.

The actual decision to change allegiance is said to have been made after a series of three dreams during the month of Ramadan, in which the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him. In the first of these the Prophet told him to defend what had been related from himself, that is, the Hadith, and in the second asked how he had been fulfilling this task. Other versions speak of him first studying Hadith about seeing Muhammad in dreams (since he doubted the reality of his experience), about intercession (by the Prophet on the Last Day) and about the vision of God in Paradise. At some point, in all versions of the story, he completely gave up rational methods, and confined himself to studying Quran and Hadith. In the third dream, however, the Prophet, when told about this, angrily said that he had commanded him to defend the doctrines related from himself, but had not commanded him to give up rational methods. On the basis of this conception al-Ash'ari worked out his new theological position, which may be described as the support of revelation by reason. The doctrines he accepted were more particularly those of Ahmad ibn-Hanbal, but because of the use of rational methods the Hanbalites rejected both him and his followers.

His main differences from the Mu'tazilites may be brought under four heads. First, he held that the Qur'án was uncreated and was the very Speech of God, and that it, like the other attributes, was eternal and in some sense distinct from God's essence. Secondly, with regard to the anthropomorphic expressions in the Qur'án, he insisted that these must simply be accepted 'without specifying how' (bi-la kayf). The Mu'tazilites, on the other hand, had held that, for example, where the Qur'án speaks about God's 'hand' what is meant is his 'grace'; this could be supported by metaphorical usages of the word 'hand' in Arabic comparable to the English 'lend a hand'. Thirdly, al-Ash'ari insisted that various eschatological matters must be taken as they stand and not explained as metaphors. The Mu'tazilites had tended to say that the vision of God by the faithful in Paradise meant that they would know him in their hearts (the heart being the seat of knowledge); but al-Ash'ari argued forcibly that the Qur'ánic phrase (75.23), 'looking to their Lord', could mean only looking in the normal sense, though this had to be understood 'without specifying how' and without implying anything resembling corporeality in God. Fourthly, he rejected the Mu'tazilite doctrine of free will, or man's ability to do an act or its opposite, and asserted the doctrine of 'acquisition' (kasb, iktisáb) previously held by Dirár, according to which God creates the acts of individuals but the individuals 'acquire' them; the act is God's creation in that it is only at the moment of action that he creates the power to act in the individual, and in that it is power to do only this act, not either this act or its opposite.

Besides the lengthy book on 'the Views of the Islamic Sects' (Maqaldt al-islamiyyln) there are extant several shorter works by al-Ash'ari, of which the most important are those usually referred to as the Ibana and the Luma'. Both deal with a number of questions currently being discussed by theologians, but it is thought that the Ibana was intended to meet criticisms by Hanbalites while the Luma' was directed against those from Mu'tazilites. A. J. Wensinck was the first Western scholar to examine the Ibana and he could not understand how such a book could have been written by the father of rational theology, since the arguments appeared to be chiefly quotations from Qur'án and Hadith. Wensinck's difficulties are understandable, but they disappear completely when it is realized that the Mu'tazilites of the time also argued from Qur'ánic verses (as can be seen from some extant material), and when the precise character of al-Ash'ari's arguments is carefully examined. When he quotes a verse and argues from it, he is not simply quoting (as some other writers did) but is placing the verse within a setting of rational conceptions, and he has other arguments which do not depend on quotations; for example, in defending the reality of the vision of God in Paradise, he argues in effect: 'whatever exists God may show to us; but God exists, and so it is not impossible that he should show himself to us'.


One is thus justified in concluding that these later theologians had good grounds for taking al-Ash'ari as eponym of their school.

Along with the supposition that al-Ash'ari was the initiator of the main school of Sunnite Kalam there went a second supposition, namely, that about the same time a second school of Sunnite Kalam was founded in Samarqand by the Hanafite scholar al-Maturidi, and that these were two parallel schools of roughly equal importance. This second supposition is not so erroneous as the first, but it requires some qualification. It is true that al-Maturidi was leader of a school of Sunnite Kalam in Samarqand, but this school remained obscure and little known for centuries; thus it is not mentioned in Ibn-Khaldun's account of Kalam written in the late fourteenth century. Though the Maturidites knew about the Ash'arites by about the year iooo, it is not until about 1200 that a few scattered references to Maturidites appear in Ash ante writings. By the sixteenth century, however, it was possible for an Ottoman scholar to write that 'at the head of the science of Kalam among the Ahl as-Sunna wa-l-Jama'a were two men, one a Hanafite and the other a Shafi'ite', namely, al-Maturidi and al-Ash'ari. This resurrection of al-Maturidi doubtless owes something to the fact that the official legal rite in the Ottoman empire was the Hanafite.2

Despite this exaltation of his position al-Maturidi (Abu-Mansur Muhammad ibn-Muhammad ibn-Mahmud) remains obscure. He must have been roughly a contemporary of al-Ash'ari, since he died in Samarqand in 944, but virtually nothing is known of his life. A general work on theology, Kitab at-Tawhid, has now been edited, and this makes it possible to speak authoritatively about his views. Earlier European statements about thirteen differences between Ash'arites and Maturidites are derived from a late and unreliable source, and are in part mistaken. The differences between the Maturidite-Hanafite position and the Ash'arite may now be discovered from the primary texts which have been edited and are readily available. They are conveniently arranged under four heads.

First, for al-Ash'ari and his followers, as for the Hanbalites, faith (Iman) consists of word and act, that is, profession of belief and fulfilment of the prescribed duties. Since the level of the performance of duties varies, faith is subject to increase and decrease. For the Hanafites, on the other hand, faith consists in word only, or, as they phrased it, belongs to the heart and the tongue. It is thus the inner conviction accompanying the formal profession of belief, and so cannot be said to increase or decrease. Secondly, with regard to the freedom of the will al-Maturidi was close to the Mu'tazilites and held that men had the ability (power) to do either an act or its opposite; but other Hanafites were closer to al-Ash'ari. Thirdly, al-Maturidi, following the Murji'ite views of Abu-Hanifa, held that a believer does not cease to be a believer because of a grave sin, and so will not be eternally in Hell. Al-Ash'ari's position was similar, but he was not prepared to assert that no believer will be eternally in Hell. Fourthly, both schools held that Cod has attributes ( sifât), such as knowledge, and they held that it is by his attribute of knowledge that God knows, not, as the Mu'tazilites had said, by his essence. They accepted the distinction between active ( fi'liyya) and essential ( dhàtiyya ) attributes, but, whereas al-Mâturîdï considered all alike to be eternal, al-Ash'ari maintained that an 'active' attribute like creativity cannot be eternal since it only exists when God is actually creating.

The work of al-Ash'ari and of al-Màturîdï marks the ebbing of the first wave of Hellenism. A number of Greek concepts had been eagerly seized upon by a small section of the more educated Muslims. Some, especially those hostile to the nascent Sunnism, committed themselves entirely to the guidance of reason as that was understood in Greek philosophy, and gave no more than lip service to Islamic religion. More important was the attempt of the Mu'tazilites and others to effect a fusion of Islamic dogma and the Greek intellectual tradition. Though the first enthusiasts may have made too great concessions to the Greek outlook, they undoubtedly raised the level of intellectual activity among the Muslims. The service of Sunnite Kalàm was to discern ways of assimilating the Greek conceptions and methods so far adopted without compromising any of the central dogmas. Thus Islam emerged from the first wave of Hellenism still recognizably itself, even if changed in some, perhaps only peripheral, matters.

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