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Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari

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This article is about Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari. For other people who named as al-Ash'ari, see Al-Ash'aris (disambiguation).
Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari
Full Name Abu l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Ismāʿīl b. Isḥāq al-Ashʿarī
Religious Affiliation Sunni
Well-known Relatives Abu Musa al-Ash'ari
Birth 260/874
Place of Birth Basra
Death/Martyrdom 324/936
Burial Place Baghdad
Known for Founder of Ash'ari school in Islamic theology
Professors Abu Ali al-Juba'i, Abu Ishaq al-Marwzi
Works Maqalat al-islamiyyin, al-Ibana 'an usul al-diyana

Abu l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Ismāʿīl b. Isḥāq al-Ashʿarī (Arabic: أبوالحَسَن عَلي بن إسماعیل بن إسحاق الأشعَري, b. 260/874, d. 324/936) was a theologian and the founder of an Islamic school of thought whose followers are known as Ash'aris. He was a progeny of Abu Musa al-Ash'ari. Al-Ash'ari was born in Basra where he later attended the lectures of Abu 'Ali al-Juba'i (d. 303/915). He also attended the lectures of the Shafi'i scholar of fiqh (or jurisprudence), Abu Ishaq al-Marwzi (d. 340/951).

The most important event in al-Ash'ari's life was a profound transformation in his thoughts. Until the age of 40, al-Ash'ari was a Mu'tazili and had close ties with his master, Abu 'Ali al-Juba'i, but after that, he publicly announced his exit from the Mu'tazili beliefs and founded the Ash'arite school of thought.

Biography

Abu l-Hasan 'Ali b. Isma'il b. Ishaq al-Ash'ari was a descendant of Abu Musa al-Ash'ari and the founder of the Ash'arite school of thought in Islam. He was born in Basra in 260/874. He attended the lectures of Abu 'Ali al-Juba'i when he was young and thus, he was an advocate of Mu'tazili thoughts. He remained a Mu'tazili until the age of 40, but after that, he went under dramatic changes of mind, and as a result, he founded the Ash'arite school of thought and countered his earlier beliefs and the Mu'tazili school of thought. He died in Baghdad in 324/936, and was buried between Karkh and the gate of Basra.

Leaving the Mu'tazili Thought

There are various accounts of al-Ash'ari's exit from the Mu'tazili school, the oldest of which is the one provided by Ibn Nadim. According to his account, on an eve of Friday, al-Ash'ari went to the Great Mosque of Basra and publicly announced his change of mind and Repentance, saying that he would disrepute the Mu'tazilis. According to Ibn 'Asakir, al-Ash'ari announced in the mosque that he could not arrive at the truth through reasoning, and that, eventually, the falsity of his earlier beliefs was revealed to him by the divine guidance and the re-reading of the Qur'an and the Tradition. There are other accounts of the motivation behind al-Ash'ari's change of mind, some of which refer to a dream or an inspiration he had.

Theological Principles

Necessary and Acquired Knowledge

Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari believed in two kinds of human knowledge:

  • Acquired knowledge: knowledge acquired through reflection and reasoning.
  • Necessary knowledge: knowledge acquired in a non-theoretical way, including sensory knowledge, knowledge of self-evident facts, and knowledge acquired through a reliable report.

According to al-Ash'ari, it is an obligation for every individual to have knowledge of God. However, knowledge of God—culminating in worshiping and obeying Him—is an acquired knowledge, and thus, the only way to have such knowledge is through reasoning. Therefore, it is wrong to follow or imitate others in one's knowledge of God.

Obligation of Knowing God

The main difference between Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari and the Mu'tazila is that he takes the first obligation—that is, rational knowledge of God—to be based on rational reasoning, that is, one is obligated by the Shari'a, rather than the reason, to employ their reasoning to acquire knowledge of God. Indeed, al-Ash'ari believes that the reason is not in a position to adjudicate whether or not one has an obligation with respect to God.

Judicial Goodness and Badness

The principle of the "Judicial Goodness and Badness" (al-Husan wa l-Qubh al-Shar'i), which is widely known as a view propounded by al-Ash'ari, is based on a distinction he made between theoretical and practical rulings of the reason or intellect. He restricted the realm of the reason to theoretical rulings. In his view, the reason cannot issue any rulings about the goodness and the badness of actions. Thus, it cannot lead us to obligations and prohibitions. They can only be determined by the Shari'a.

Knowledge through Reliable Reports

According to al-Ash'ari, knowledge acquired through reliable reports is a necessary knowledge just like knowledge acquired through sensory data. Just as one does not doubt one's own sensory data and employs them in one's arguments, data received through reliable reports should also be treated as indubitable. Now the Prophet (s) himself reported that if people do not reflect upon his messages and signs, then they will undergo the divine punishment. Since people know about the Prophet's (s) truthfulness, it will be an obligation to reflect upon the signs of his prophethood, and this reasoning leads to a belief in the Hidden and a surrender to the rulings of the Shari'a. This is the beginning of a person's obligations according to al-Ash'ari's view.

Argument from the Observable to the Unobservable

According to Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari, a rational reasoning about religious beliefs is like an "argument from the observable to the unobservable" or "from the present to the hidden". That is, in the course of a rational reasoning, one extrapolates from the features of the sensory mundane things to similar things in an unknown world. Al-Ash'ari does accept the validity of syllogisms, he employs some rational notions in his own arguments, and he does not consider rational consequences to constitute an impediment to one's commitment to religious texts. However, he restricts the realm of the reason. He believed that the rational rulings which led the Mu'tazila to provide esoteric interpretations (ta'wil) of religious texts are the very areas in which the reason is not valid. However, al-Ash'ari's consideration of the logical implications of theological views led to differences between him and the People of Hadith. Thus, he is usually considered as maintaining a position between the People of Hadith and the rationalists.

Views and Beliefs

God and His Attributes

Al-Ash'ari appealed to the argument from the firmness of the creation ("Itqan al-sun'" or "intelligent design") to prove the existence of God. In addition to the argument from the firmness of the creation which directly proves that the world is created, al-Ash'ari brings another argument to the conclusion that the world is incipient (ḥādith). Al-Ash'ari appeals to the argument from mutual exclusion to prove monotheism. He enumerates seven essential attributes for God, and believes that other divine attributes go back to these seven attributes: Omniscient, Omnipotent, Living, Willing, Speaker, Hearer, and Seer.

The Qur'an and the Divine Speech

Just like the People of Hadith, al-Ash'ari takes the divine speech to be eternal and dependent on God's essence. He believes that speech and knowledge are implied by the divine attribute, Living, and therefore, the divine speech is eternal, just like His life. Al-Ash'ari's theory of essential speech (al-kalam al-nafsi) is a consequence of his emphasis on the unity of each of the divine attributes. In this theory, a distinction is made between the eternal divine speech (the essential speech) and the Qur'an. He believes that the Qur'an is a book consisting of parts which are, in turn, constituted by words and letters, and thus, it cannot be eternal. Al-Ash'ari takes the Qur'an to be a translation of the eternal divine speech which came to be uttered by the Prophet (s). With this distinction, al-Ash'ari has changed the formulation of the difficult and historical problem of the creation of the Qur'an: thus, whatever the People of Hadith and the majority of Sunni Muslims have said about the Qur'an "not being created" applies to the essential speech (al-kalam al-nafsi).

Seeing God

According to al-Ash'ari's view, explicit religious texts should not be subject to esoteric interpretations (ta'wil) so long as there is no contradiction between them. Thus, he believes that according to the Qur'an, the believers can see God with their physical eyes. He wrote three books and essays on this issue.

The Human Will and the Doctrine of Acquisition (Kasb)

The human free will and its relationship with the pervasive power of God is one of the most significant issues in the Ash'arite theology. Al-Ash'ari tried to preserve the belief in the divine pervasive volition and power, and at the same time, find a room for the human free will to account for the rationality of obligations as well as divine rewards and punishments by presenting his Doctrine of Acquisition (Kasb). The words "kasb" and "iktisab" (both meaning acquisition) had been used in the same meaning before al-Ash'ari. The use of these words is attributed to two Mu'tazili figures called "Dirar" and "Najjar". But al-Ash'ari has been credited with the doctrine of acquisition because of his remarkable contribution in the illumination and establishment of the notion.

The Divine Justice

Al-Ash'ari has a fundamental disagreement with the Mu'tazila with regard to the problem of the Divine Justice. His approach to the problem of justice has profoundly influenced his views about other theological problems as well. According to al-Ash'ari, God's actions are totally just and wise, but the only criterion for their being just and wise is that they are emanated from the divine essence. That is, God's actions are just but not with the human standards. In fact, every action by God is fully just, and is even a standard for justice. In other words, an action counts as unjust when it goes beyond the specified limits, and since there is no reality above God, no limits can be specified for Him, and thus, every action by God is fully just.

Faith (Iman)

Al-Ash'ari's view about faith (Iman) is generally close to the approach of the Sunni Muslims. Al-Ash'ari takes the faith to consist in the endorsement of the divine unity, and excludes the actions from the concept of faith. His view rests on the idea that the words of the Qur'an preserve their literal meanings even if they are put to technical uses. Therefore, for a person to have faith it is sufficient for one to "endorse" (which is the literal meaning of "Iman"). However, the reality of the faith is in one's heart, and thus, if someone verbally endorses the unity of God but denies it in one's heart, then they will not have the real faith, although apparent and jurisprudential rulings of "Iman" (faith) do apply in this case. Likewise, if verbal denial is not accompanied with a denial in one's heart, it does not count as the real "kufr" (disbelief).

Imamate

According to Ibn Furak, al-Ash'ari has denied the rational necessity of imamate on the basis of his principle of Judicial Goodness and Badness, and thus, he does not take God to be required to send prophets and messengers. Therefore, people do not have any obligations about imamate except what God has obliged them to. He believes that there is no designation about the imamate of any particular person after the Prophet (s). He takes the selection of each of the Four Caliphs to be based on the votes of Ahl al-Hall wa l-'Aqd (experts who can elect a caliph). He believes that after the allegiance, it is an obligation for everyone to obey the selected caliph who was, according to al-Ash'ari, superior to people of his time.

The Creation and the World

Given that al-Ash'ari has provided a rational account of the Sunni beliefs, cosmological beliefs play a crucial role in his theological thought, as they do in the Mu'tazili theology. Ash'arites emphasize the divine omnipotence and omnipresence in all natural phenomena. Thus, they appeal to two principles to prove the "incipience" (huduth) of the world" and the "constant agency of God in the world", although the two principles are limited to the Ash'arites:

  • The principle of substance or the indivisible part: the world consists of indivisible parts or particles.
  • An accident ('arad or property) can only last in one moment (and thus, it cannot persist through time).

Works

Only a few of al-Ash'ari's numerous works are extant today. He provided a bibliography of his own works in an essay under al-'Umad fi l-ru'ya written in 320/932. The list of his works provided by Ibn 'Asakir is mostly adapted from al-Ash'ari's own bibliography. He cited part of the missing work, al-'Umad, from Ibn Furak's Tabaqat al-mutakallimin which is a significant source about al-Ash'ari. The list, in addition to what was added to it by Ibn Furak and Ibn 'Asakir (which includes works written after 320/932), introduces over 100 works.

References