Ash‘arites


Ash‘arites
(ash‘ariyya)
   The Ash‘arite school of theology was founded in the early fourth/tenth century by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari. Originally a theologian of the Mu‘tazilite persuasion, al-Ash‘ari ultimately rejected his former school’s privileging of reason after a series of visions and returned to a more robust traditionalism. Specifically, he embraced the traditionalist vision of Sunni Islam put forth by Ahmad ibn Hanbal. However, although al-Ash‘ari avowedly subscribed to the tenets of Hanbalism, unlike the Hanbalites themselves (and much to their chagrin) he defended those tenets via rational argumentation. Ash‘arism thus staked out a relatively moderate middle ground in the conflict between Mu‘tazilite rationalism and Hanbalite traditionalism. In part because of this, in part because of the originality and resourcefulness of its major thinkers, it quickly established itself as the dominant school of kalam. From the mid-fifth/eleventh century on, the Ash‘arites’ principal doctrines came to be virtually synonymous with mainstream, orthodox Sunni theological thought. The Ash‘arites’ theological stance is best understood through its opposition to Mu‘tazilism. First, contra the Mu‘tazilites, they maintained that the Qur’an is uncreated. Indeed, they claimed that God’s speech – like all other traditional divine attributes (e.g. God’s knowledge, sight, etc.) – is eternal and distinct from His essence. Second, the Ash‘arites generally rejected the Mu‘tazilites’ figurative interpretation of traditional Qur’anic attributes without at the same time retreating to the literalism of unreconstructed traditionalists. Following Ibn Hanbal, they held that expressions such as ‘God’s hand’ or ‘God’s face’ should be read bila kayf, ‘without [asking] how’, that is, they accepted them as real attributes whose exact nature could not be grasped by human reason. They applied this strategy as well to crucial eschatological passages in the Qur’an, such as the vision of God, the basin, the bridge, the balance, intercession by Muhammad, etc., which had been denied or rationally reinterpreted by the Mu‘tazilites. Finally, contra the Mu‘tazilites’ emphasis on God’s justice (i.e., on the centrality of human free will), the Ash‘arites gave primacy to God’s omnipotence. They radicalized the Mu‘tazilites’ atomism and insistence on the contingency of all created things, fashioning it into a kind of occasionalism in which God is the direct cause of all that occurs, whether good or evil – even the choices and acts of human beings. According to the doctrine of acquisition (kasb), God creates the acts of human beings by creating in them the power to perform each act. It would seem that the Ash‘arites’ insistence on divine omnipotence undermines the possibility of free will and implies some sort of fatalism. This is indeed how their opponents understood it, particularly the Mu‘tazilites. However, the Ash‘arites themselves understood this position as a mean between the Jabrites’ privileging of divine compulsion and the Qadarites’ and Mu‘tazilites privileging of free will. The Ash‘arite school produced more than its share of outstanding thinkers. From a philosophical perspective, the most important Ash‘arite theologians were al- Ghazali, al-Shahrastani and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. All three men undertook extensive study of the philosophers, learning their doctrines and adopting their syllogistic methods of argument in order to refute them. Particularly as a result of al-Ghazali’s pivotal Incoherence of the Philosophers, the tide started to turn against Greekinflected philosophy in the late fifth/eleventh century and it was soon overwhelmed by kalam. However, Ash‘arism itself was ultimately transformed by its victory over rationalism: after such an extensive engagement with the doctrines and tools of the philosophers, theology took on a considerably more philosophical cast.
   Further reading: al-Ash‘ari 1953; al-Ghazali 1997/2000; Watt 1948, 1973

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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