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Ash'arism (Arabic:الأشعرية, al-Ashʿariyya) is a theological school of Sunni Islam that is based on the theological ideas of Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari (b. 260/873-4 d. 324/935-6). In the beginning of his scientific journey, He was Mu'tazili but after a while he was seeking a moderate way between radical rationalism of Mu'tazila and anti-rationalism of Ahl al-Hadith. His efforts resulted in acceptance of the ideas of Ahl al-Hadith along with a rational explanation for them. However, he wasn't successful in solving some basic problems of the ideas of Ahl al-Hadith like determinism (jabr).

Nowadays, most of the Sunnis follow Ash'arism in their theological creed. Some of the great scholars of Ash'arism are Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, 'Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, 'Adud al-Din al-Iji, Sa'd al-Din al-Taftazani. Some of the important books of this school are: al-Shamil fi usul al-din by al-Juwayni, Sharh al-mawaqif by al-Sayyid Sharif al-Jurjani, Sharh al-maqasid wa sharh al-'aqa'id al-nasafiyya by al-Taftazani and al-Tafsir al-kabir by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi.

Position Among Sunnis

Sunni theological schools are:

It is important to be noticed that Fiqhi (jurisprudential) schools of Sunnis are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali. Each Sunni can choose one of the jurisprudential schools and also one of the above-mentioned theological schools.

Characteristics of Ash'arism

The characteristics that differentiate Ash'arism from other theological schools are as follows:

  • God's attributes are separate from his essence,
  • Human is not free in creation of his actions but he acquires them,
  • The good and evil could be understood from religious teaching, not from rational reasoning,
  • God will be visible (by eyes) in the hereafter,
  • Sinner person is still Muslim (he doesn't lose his faith because of committing sin),
  • God can forgive sinners even without their repentance and he also can punish believers,
  • World is created in time (al-Huduth al-Zamani),
  • The word of God (his soliloquy) is eternal but his uttered speech is not eternal,
  • God's actions are not aimed to reach to especial goals,
  • Ordering a duty that is beyond one's power is not wrong,
  • God can lie and violate his promise,
  • God has some attributes (like having hand, leg, face, etc.) but he shouldn't be likened to his creatures and the quality of attributes shouldn't be described.


The school of Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari experienced different situations along with the history. In beginning, the school was rejected by Sunni scholars but this rejection didn't last and gradually Ash'arism became dominant in Sunni thought. The first scholar in the school after Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari was Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 403/1012-3). He explained and commented on the concise books of al-Ash'ari titled al-Ibana and al-Luma' and built a systematical theology based on al-Ash'ari's ideas.

The most influential scholar in the expansion of Ash'arism was al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085-6). After the foundation of the Nizammiyya school in Baghdad in 459/1066-7, Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk invited al-Juwayni for teaching. Al-Juwayni taught Ash'arism for approximately 30 years and since he was Shaykh al-Islam (chief of Islam) and Imam al-Jama'a (leader of Friday Prayer) in Mecca and Medina, his ideas were accepted respectively in all Islamic regions. Through his efforts and through his works, Ash'arism became the official theological school of Sunnis.

Al-Juwayni interpreted the ideas of al-Ash'ari with emphasis on rational arguments and by emerging of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209-10) Ash'arism became more philosophical. Besides defending al-Ash'ari's ideas, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi criticized the philosophical ideas of Avicenna. On the other hand, Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111-2) who was one of the pupils of al-Juwayni, presented a mystical interpretation of al-Ash'ari's ideas. He wrote his important book Ihya' al-'ulum to build a bridge between Sufism and Sunnism, those that were separated one from the other. The advent of some thinkers like Rumi (d. 672/1273-4) among the Ash'aries should be considered as the consequences of al-Ghazali's thought.[1]

Al-Subki in his book, al-Tabaqat al-shafi'iyya, divide the followers and pupils of al-Ash'ari into five classes:

  1. Direct student: Ibn Mujahid al-Basri, Abu l-Hasan al-Bahili, Abu l-Husayn al-Bandar, Abu Bakr al-Qaffal al-Shashi
  2. Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini
  3. Abu Muhammad al-Juwayni (the father of Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni)
  4. Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, Abu l-Qasim al-Qushayri al-Nisaburi
  5. Abu Hamid al-Gazali, Abu Nasr b. Abi l-Qasim al-Qushayri[2]

Ibn 'Asakir adds many people like Fakhr al-Din al-Razi to the list of al-Subki as the sixth and seventh classes.[3]

Important Figures

Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari, the Founder

He is one of the descendants of the famous companion of the prophet (s), Abu Musa al-Ash'ari. He was born in 260/873-4 in Basra and passed away in 324/935-6 in Baghdad. He was a pupil of Abu 'Ali al-Juba'i (one of the greatest scholars of Mu'tazila). One day he asked some questions from his professor and he said that al-'Ash'ari became crazy. When al-Ash'ari realized the inability of al-Juba'i to answer his questions, decided to quit the Mu'tazila school. According to Ibn Khaldun, his disagreement with Mu'tazila which led to separation was the issue of creation of the Qur'an.[4] However, his followers believe that the reason of the separation was his dream and the suggestion of the prophet (s) in the dream for beginning a new approach in theology.[5]

He founded his school in a situation that Mu'tazila was experiencing a stagnation and 'Abbasid caliphs rejected the Mu'tazila. In that time, Mu'tazilis didn't have a respectful position among people and because their ideas seem to be far from Qur'an and Hadiths and close to Greek philosophy, people were doubtful about them.[6]

Al-Ash'ari was a follower of Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi'i (the founder of al-Shafi'i school) in fiqh.[7] He observed two radical trends in his time, on the one hand there were faqihs, traditionalists, Hashwiyya, and Hanabila who highly emphasize text. On the other hand, there was Mu'tazila that greatly advocated reason and neglected the religious texts. Al-Ash'ari aimed to found a middle course between two extremes. The most important books of al-Ash'ari:

  1. Maqalat al-islamiyyin: one of the famous books in "al-Milal wa al-Nihal" (heresiography),
  2. Istihsan al-khawd fi 'ilm al-kalam: the book's goal is to reject the idea of literalists that learning Kalam and rational reasoning are forbidden,
  3. Al-Ibana 'an usul al-diyana: in this book he uses the traditionalistic method and defends the ideas and beliefs of Ahl al-Hadith. It is more likely that he wrote the book when he decided to quit the Mu'tazila school,
  4. Al-Luma' fi al-rad 'ala ahl al-zaygh wa al-bid'a: in this book al-Ash'ari uses the rational method for proving his theological ideas and ignores the ideas of Ahl al-Hadith. The book has profound ideas and it is more likely that he wrote the book during the last part of his life.

Abu Bakr al-Baqillani

Abu Bakr b. Tayyib al-Baqillani was born in Basra and died on 403/1012-3 in Baghdad.[8] He was follower of Maliki school in fiqh.[9] He learned Kalam, mainly under Ibn Mujahid and al-Bahili who were students of al-Ash'ari.[10]

The important role of al-Baqillani was his effort to explain the ideas of Ash'arism in rational method and this approach approximated Ash'arism to Mu'tazila. He believed that all theological beliefs can be proved by rational arguments.[11]

'Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi

Abu Mansur 'Abd al-Qahir b. Tahir al-Baghdadi was a pupil of Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini in Nishabur.[12] He died on 479/1086-7 in Isfarayin. Al-Baghdadi tried to create a set of beliefs, based on the ideas of al-Ash'ari and introduce it as the theology of the majority of the Sunnis. In his book al-Farq bayn al-firaq, he represents the school of Ahl al-Hadith wa al-Jama'a (and by this title he means Ash'arism) as the school of the companions and Tabi'un. In his view, the first theologian of Sunnis among the companions was 'Ali b. Abi Talib (a) who debated with Khawarij on "al-Wa'd wa al-Wa'id" (divine promise and retribution) and also with Qadariyya on "al-Mashiyya wa al-Istita'a" (God's will and power of human).[13]

The other important book of him that has remained is Usul al-din.

Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni

Abu l-Ma'ali 'Abd al-Malik b. 'Abd Allah al-Juwayni was born in Nishabur on 419/1028-9.[14] Al-Juwayni left Khurasan due to discord in there and moved to Mecca and Medina and lived in these cities for 4 years, hence he was titled "Imam al-Haramayn" (Imam al-Jama'a of the two Harams). When Nizam al-Mulk became the ruler of Khurasan, he went back to Nishabur and till the end of his life, he stayed at Nishabur and taught in Nizamiyya. He was the religious leader of Shafi'is. He died on 487 in Nishabur.[15]

Al-Juwayni was a commentator of the great scholars of Ash'arism. His important books:

  • Nihayat al-matalib fi dirayat al-madhahib: his most famous jurisprudential book in al-Shafi'i school,
  • Al-Shamil fi usul al-din: his most important theological work, it is an outstanding book among his works,
  • Al-Irshad ila qawati' al-adilla fi usul al-i'tiqad.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Tusi known as al-Ghazali was born in Tus on 450/1058-9. He was pupil of al-Juwayni in Nishabur. He entered Nizamiyya in Baghdad on 484/1091-2 and taught there until 488/1095-6. He unexpectedly decided to leave Nizamiyya and traveled to Syria, Hijaz, and Jerusalem al-Quds.[16] However on the 499/1105 he returned to Khurasan and started to teach in Nizamiyya. He demised on 605/1208-9 in Tus.

Al-Ghazali experienced a decade of turbulence and doubt and eventually chose Sufism. He believed that the manner and method of Sufism are the best. Afterwards, he wrote his famous book, Ihya' 'ulum al-din. He was one the most influential scholars in the history and civilization of Islam. Over 50 works are attributed to him, some of them are as follows:

  • Ihya' 'ulum al-din: his most important and famous work
  • Maqasid al-falasifa
  • Tahafut al-falasifa
  • Al-Munqidh min al-dalal
  • Kimiya-yi sa'adat
  • Fada'ih al-batiniyya
  • Qawa'id al-'aqa'id

Fakhar al-Din al-Razi

Abu Abd Allah Muhammad b. 'Umar al-Razi was born on 543/1148-9 in Herat. He learned al-Shafi'i fiqh under his father and Kamal al-Din al-Simnani. He studied philosophy and kalam and usul al-fiqh under Majd al-Din al-Jayli (professor of al-Shaykh al-Ishraq)

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi numerously travelled and he used to discuss with advocates of different denominations. His remarkable ability to cast doubt on the ideas of the opponent caused him to be titled Imam al-Mushakkikin (head of the sceptics). He demised on 606/1209-10 in Herat. Unlike al-Ash'ari, he preferred reason over traditions and if there was a conflict between them, he would choose the reason.[17]

His important works:

  • Tafsir al-kabir (or Mafatih al-ghayb) is his most important work
  • Al-Arba'in fi usul al-din
  • Al-matalib al-'aliya
  • Ma'alim usul al-din
  • Al-Hikma al-mashriqiyya
  • Al-mabahith al-mashriqiyya

Adud al-Din al-Iji

Abd al-Rahman b. Ahmad al-Iji al-Shirazi titled Qadi 'Adud al-Din was born in Ij that is located close to Shiraz on 680/1281-2 and demised on 756/1355-6.

Al-Iji was similar to al-Razi in his philosophical approach but he didn't prefer philosophy over kalam and he rather followed the fundamentals of Ash'arism. Al-Iji shaped the last version of Ash'arism and after him, the decline period of Ash'arism began. In this period the scholars just wrote annotations and glosses on the previous books. His most famous book is al-Mawaqif.[18] Although the book is a theological book but it contains some logical and philosophical debates as well. There are many comments on the book and most famous is Sharh al-mawaqif by Sayyid Sharif al-Jurjani.

Sa'd al-Din al-Taftazani

Mas'ud b. 'Umar Sa'd al-Din al-Taftazani was born in Taftazan in Khurasan on 712/1312-3. He studied rational sciences under Qutb al-Din al-Razi (pupil of al-'Allama al-Hilli) and 'Adud al-din al-Iji). He was one of the remarkable scholars in his time in Khurasan. He demised on 791/1388-9 in Samarkand.[19]

Some of his important works:

  • Sharh al-maqasid
  • Sharh al-'aqayid al-nasafiyya

Al-Sayyid al-Sharif al-Jurjani

He was born in Taku which is a village near Astarabad and demised in Shiraz on 816/1413-4. He was a prominent scholars of Ash'arism and he was more accurate than al-Taftazani. His commentary on al-Mawaqif by al-Iji is one the famous theological books of Ash'arism. He was pupil of Qutb al-Din al-Razi and professor of al-Muhaqqiq al-Dawani, those who were Shi'a theologians.[20]

Ala al-Din al-Qushji

Ala al-Din 'Ali b. Muhammad al-Samarkandi (d. 879/1474-5) well-known as Mulla 'Ali al-Qushji was one of the Hanbali faqihs and a great theologian of Ash'arism. His commentary titled Sharh al-tajrid on Tajrid al-i'tiqad by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi is considered as a source of theological ideas of Ash'arism.[21]

Theoretical Ideas

Position of Reason

According to al-Ash'ari, using reason to understand religious texts is necessary and it is not an aberration but it should be noticed that it is not an absolute usage and reason should be bounded to religious text, otherwise, it will misdirect. In the case of conflict between reason and text, al-Ash'ari preferred the text and believed that reason should follow the text. Although he tried to have a moderate approach, in some cases he preferred reason and in some cases he preferred text and he couldn't enforce his moderate ideas in action.[22]

Although Ash'arism started with preventing from reason and allegorical interpretation, rational content in al-Ash'ri's works and the rational heritage in the Islamic world caused that followers of Ash'arism return to rationalism and allegorical interpretation. The great scholars like al-Baqillani, al-Juwayni, al-Ghazali, and eventually Fakhr al-Din al-Razi renewed rationalism.


Ash'arism has especial ideas regarding God, which are different from other denominations.

In the beginning, they used narrative reasons for the existence of God, but eventually, they proved the existence of God by all narrative, rational and mystical reasons which is the manner of 'Adliyya.

In the quest of the possibility of knowing about God's nature, some scholars of Ash'arism like al-Juwayni and al-Ghazali, claimed that it is impossible, but the majority believed that knowing about God's nature is possible.

According to Ash'arism, God has some attributes like having a face, hand, and sitting on the Arsh (throne), and we should accept these attributes but we don't know the quality of them; therefore, we should believe in them regardless to their quality. We also have to consider that the attributes of God are different from humans attributes.

Concerning the creation in time and pre-eternity of the Qur'an, there are different ideas. On the one hand, Mu'tazila believed that the word of God is created in time and on the other hand, Hashwiyya and Hanabiyyla radically stated that the word of God, his voice, and even the cover of the Qur'an are pre-eternal. In this situation, al-Ash'ari chose a moderate idea and differentiated between the verbal word of God that is created in time and the personal word of God (spiritual speech of God) that is pre-eternal.

About seeing God, Mu'tazila consider it as an impossible action. However, Ash'arites had different ideas ranging from seeing by eyes and seeing without quality (in a mystical sense) up to complete illuminative disclosure in a mystical sense.

Different ideas have been posed regarding the relationship between God's essence and his attributes. Mu'tazila believed that the God's essence represents his attributes. Shi'a theologians and philosophers claimed that God's essence is unified with his attributes. The early Ash'arism stated that God's essence and his attributes are separated but later they changed their idea and along with Maturidiyya claimed that the attributes of God are neither unified with the essence of God nor separated from the essence.

In regard to creation, Ash'arism believes that all the creatures are created in time and there is no mediation in the creation and God himself by his almightiness has created the whole world (including the natural and supernatural worlds).

Rational Good and Evil

Ash'arism frankly denied the rational good and evil (the idea that goodness and evilness could be understood through reason). Al-Ash'ari similar to Ahl al-Hadith and Hanbalis states that reason is unable to comprehend the good and the evil and the preferable and un-preferable actions. According to him, believing in the rational good and evil is not compatible with believing in the absolute Divine will. So, for preserving the absolute divine will, Ash'arism believe that the good is what God call good and the evil is what name it evil.

Mu'tazila believes that it's obligatory to God to have benevolence, do the preferable action, give rewards to good people, punish the bad people, and don't order beyond the power of the people. They also believe that God's action should have reasonable aims. Ash'arism criticized this idea and claimed that in this manner, Mu'tazila put reason in a higher position that even God should obey its commands and this is not compatible with the freedom and almightiness of God. Ash'arism believes that there is no obligation on God's actions and he can do whatever he wants and all of his actions are good. We can describe a human action as good or bad but divine action is beyond this division and all of the actions of God are just.

According to this idea, God can appoint duty beyond the power of humanity and it is not obligatory for God to be benevolent and do the preferable action. Also, it is not obligatory to God to reward good people and punish the evil people which means that God can break his promises.[23]

Voluntary Actions (Theory of Kasb)

Is human being free in their actions? In other words, do human beings create their actions or God create their actions? Mu'tazila believes that Human beings are the creator of their actions (theory of Tafwid). Ahl al-Zahir (including Ahl al-Sunna and Jabriyya) considered the voluntary actions of human beings as a creature of God (theory of Jabr). Al-Ash'ari was seeking a middle course and posed the theory of Kasb in which God is the creator of the actions of human beings and human beings are Kasib (acquirer).[24]

Al-Ash'ari considered the Kasb as a dual agent act that is related to both God and human beings. He believed that voluntary action is the result of these two wills.[25] According to Jami, al-Ash'ari's idea means that human has no effect in his voluntary actions and he is just the container of his action. And because of God's will, power and will emerged in human beings and they are able to act voluntarily.

The scholars of Ash'arism defended the theory of Kasb in different ways. For example, al-Baqillani for explaining the theory says: the essence of the action is from God but its goodness or evilness is related to the capacity of the human.[26] Capacity means the ability to do or avoiding the actions and according to Ash'arism, this ability is created in human beings by God during the actions (not before that). That is because the ability is an accident and one accident cannot stay in two times, therefore, if this ability was given before the action, the act by this ability will be nonexistent.[27]

See also


  1. "Asha'ira" in: Birinjkar, Rida. Ashna'i ba firaq wa madhahib Islami
  2. Al-Subki, 'Abd al-Wahhab b. 'Ali. al-Tabaqat al-shafi'iyya. vol. 2. p. 255
  3. Ibn 'Asakir. Tabyin kidhb al-muftari. p. 258
  4. Ibn Khaldun. Muqaddama. vol. 2. p. 946
  5. Ibn 'Asakir. Tabyin kidhb al-muftari. p. 38,42-43; al-Subki, 'Abd al-Wahhab b. 'Ali. al-Tabaqat al-shafi'iyya. vol. 2. p. 245
  6. Walawi, 'Ali Muhammad. Tarikh 'ilm kalam wa madhahib Islami. p. 450
  7. Musa, Jalal Muhammad. Nash'at al-ash'ariyya wa tatawwuriha. p. 186
  8. Ibn 'Asakir. Tabyin kidhb al-muftari. p. 221
  9. Badawi, 'Abd al-Rahman. Tarikh andishiha-yi kalami dar Islam. vol. 1. p. 621
  10. Ibn 'Asakir. Tabyin kidhb al-muftari. p. 217
  11. Musa, Jalal Muhammad. Nash'at al-ash'ariyya wa tatawwuriha. p. 320
  12. Al-Subki, 'Abd al-Wahhab b. 'Ali. al-Tabaqat al-shafi'iyya. vol. 3. p. 238
  13. Subhi, Ahmad Mahmud. Fi 'ilm al-kalam. Vol. 2. P. 772
  14. Musa, Jalal Muhammad. Nash'at al-ash'ariyya wa tatawwuriha. p. 371
  15. Badawi, 'Abd al-Rahman. Tarikh andishiha-yi kalami dar Islam. vol. 1. p. 733
  16. Zarrinkub, 'Abd al-Husayn. Farar az madrisa. p. 245-248
  17. see: Dadbih, Asghar. Fakhr Radi. p. 232
  18. Subhi, Ahmad Mahmud. Fi 'ilm al-kalam. Vol. 2. P. 357
  19. Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Bakr. Bughyat al-Wu'at. vol. 2. p. 285; as cited in Subhani, Ja'far. Buhuth fi al-milal wa l-nihal. vol. 2. p. 361
  20. Majmu'a-yi maqalat-i firaq-i tasannun. p. 504
  21. Majmu'a-yi maqalat-i firaq-i tasannun. p. 504
  22. see: Ash'ari, Abu l-Hasan. Risalat fi istihsan al-khawd
  23. Lahiji, 'Abd al-Razzaq. Guhar-i murad. p. 348; see: Shahristani, Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Karim. al-Milal wa l-nihal. vol. 1. p. 101-102; see: Kalati, Yusuf. Lubab al-'uqul. 302-303; Al-Razi, Fakhr al-din. al-Barahin. vol. 1. p. 148-149
  24. Al-Ash'ari, Abu l-Hasan. Maqalat al-islamiyyin. p. 218
  25. Al-Ash'ari, Abu l-Hasan. al-Luma' fi l-rad 'ala ahl al-zaygh wa l-bid'a. p. 42;al-Juwayni, 'Abd al-Malik b. 'Abd Allah. Lum'at al-adilla fi qawa'id ahl al-sunna. p. 107; Al-Jurjani, 'Ali b. Muhammad. Sharh al-mawaqif. vol. 8. p. 146,233,398
  26. Al-Taftazani, Sa'd al-Din. Sharh al-maqasid. vol. 2. p. 125-127; Al-Hilli, Hasan b. Yusuf. Kashf al-murad fi sharh tajrid al-i'tiqad. 239-240
  27. Al-Ash'ari, Abu l-Hasan. al-Luma' fi l-rad 'ala ahl al-zaygh wa l-bid'a. p. 42; Al-Taftazani, Sa'd al-Din. Sharh al-maqasid. vol. 1. p. 240


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