Ashʿari theology (Arabic الأشعرية al-Asha`riyya or الأشاعرة al-Ashā`irah) is a school of early Muslim speculative theology founded by the theologian Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 324 AH / 936 AD). The disciples of the school are known as Ash'arites, and the school is also referred to as Ash'arite school.

It was instrumental in drastically changing the direction of Islamic theology, separating its development radically from that of theology in the Christian world.

Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari was originally a Mutazilite, and his school was essentially the introduction of some Mu'tazilite principles into mainstream Sunni theology.[1] The school arose mainly as a response to the Mutazila school of thought and some of their views which to Sunnis seemed strange and against previously held opinions. For example the Mu'tazila believed the Quran to be created, whereas Sunnis generally held it be eternal alongside God.


The Asharite view holds that:

  • Complete comprehension of the Unique Nature and Attributes of God is beyond the capacity of human reasoning and sense experience.
  • Although humans possess free will (or more accurately, freedom of intention), they have no power to create anything in the material world as this is entirely the province of God. This doctrine is now known in Western philosophy as occasionalism.
  • Knowledge of moral truths must be taught by means of Revelation, and is not known a priori or by deduction from a priori propositions or by sheer observation of the world. It is permissible for a Muslim to believe and accept that a proposition is a moral truth based solely on the authority of a consensus of authorised scholars (ulama). This is known as taqlid ("imitation" in religion).

The school holds that human reason in and by itself was not capable of establishing with absolute certainty any truth-claim with respect to morality, the physical world, or metaphysical ideas.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Asharites were not completely traditionalist and anti-rationalist, nor were their historical foes, the Mutazilites, completely rationalist and anti-traditionalist, as the Asharites did depend on rationality and the Mutazilites did depend on tradition. Their goals were the same, to affirm the transcendence and unity of God, but their doctrines were different, with the Asharites supporting an Islamic occasionalist doctrine and the Mutazilites supporting an Islamic metaphysics influenced by Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism. For Asharites, taqlid only applied to the Islamic tradition and not to any other, whereas for Mutazilites, taqlid applied equally to both the Islamic and Aristotelian-Neoplatonic traditions. In his introduction to Al-Ghazālī’s The Decisive Criterion of Distinction Between Unbelief and Masked Infidelity, Sherman Jackson writes:[2]

Meanwhile, rationalist writings reflect a clear and sustained recognition of the authority of the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic tradition, including the propriety of following it by way of taqlīd. Traditionalists, on the other hand, use reason – even aspects of Aristotelian reason – but they do not recognize the tradition of Aristotelian reason as an ultimate authority.

Change and development over time

Ash'arism became the main school of early Islamic philosophy whereby it was originally based on the foundations laid down by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari who founded the school in the 10th century based on the methodology taught to him by his teacher Abdullah ibn Sa'eed ibn Kullaab. However, the school underwent many changes throughout history resulting in the term Ash’ari, in modern usage, being extremely broad. For example, Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari of al-Lum’a differs from the Ash’arism of the Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari of al-Ibana, Ibn Fawrak differs from al-Bayhaqi.[3][4]

The Asharite view was that comprehension of the unique nature and characteristics of God were beyond human capability. The solution proposed by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari to solve the problems of tashbih and ta'til concedes that the Divine Being possesses in a real sense the attributes and Names mentioned in the Qur'an. Insofar as these names and attributes have a positive reality, they are distinct from the essence, but nevertheless they do not have either existence or reality apart from it. The inspiration of al-Ash'ari in this matter was on the one hand to distinguish essence and attribute as concepts, and on the other hand to see that the duality between essence and attribute should be situated not on the quantitative but on the qualitative level — something which Mu'tazilis thinking had failed to grasp.[5]

Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari

Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari was noted for his teachings on atomism, among the earliest Islamic philosophies, and for al-Ash'ari this was the basis for propagating the view that Allah created every moment in time and every particle of matter. He nonetheless believed in free will, elaborating the thoughts of Dirar ibn Amr' and Abu Hanifa into a "dual agent" or "acquisition" (iktisab) account of free will.[6]

While al-Ash'ari was opposed to the views of the Mu'tazili school for its over-emphasis on reason, he was also opposed to the views of certain schools such as the Zahiri (literalist), Mujassimite (anthropotheist) and Muhaddithin (traditionalist) schools for their over-emphasis on taqlid (imitation) in his Istihsan al‑Khaud:[7]

"A section of the people (i.e., the Zahirites and others) made capital out of their own ignorance; discussions and rational thinking about matters of faith became a heavy burden for them, and, therefore, they became inclined to blind faith and blind following (taqlid). They condemned those who tried to rationalize the principles of religion as `innovators.' They considered discussion about motion, rest, body, accident, colour, space, atom, the leaping of atoms, and Attributes of God, to be an innovation and a sin. They said that had such discussions been the right thing, the Prophet and his Companions would have definitely done so; they further pointed out that the Prophet, before his death, discussed and fully explained all those matters which were necessary from the religious point of view, leaving none of them to be discussed by his followers; and since he did not discuss the problems mentioned above, it was evident that to discuss them must be regarded as an innovation."

Al-Ghazali's criticism and aid of the school

Although Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) was not entirely in agreement with the Ash'ari school,[8] the most influential work of the Asharite thought became his treatise The Incoherence of the Philosophers. He was a pioneer of the methods of doubt and skepticism,[9] and he changed the course of early Islamic philosophy, shifting it away from an Islamic metaphysics influenced by ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and towards an Islamic philosophy based on cause-and-effect that were determined by God or intermediate angels, a theory now known as occasionalism.

He is famous for defending the theory of occasionalism using logic. Al-Ghazali famously claimed that when fire and cotton are placed in contact, the cotton is burned directly by God rather than by the fire, a claim which he defended using logic. He argued that because God is usually seen as rational, rather than arbitrary, his behaviour in normally causing events in the same sequence (i.e., what appears to us to be efficient causation) can be understood as a natural outworking of that principle of reason, which he then describes as the laws of nature.

Al-Ghazali nevertheless expresses support for a scientific methodology based on demonstration and mathematics, while discussing astronomy. After describing the scientific facts of the solar eclipse resulting from the Moon coming between the Sun and Earth and the lunar eclipse from the Earth coming between the Sun and Moon, he writes:[2]

Whosoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations, geometrical and arithmetical, that leave no room for doubt.

Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a philosopher, famously responded that "to say that philosophers are incoherent is itself to make an incoherent statement." Ibn Rushd's book, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, attempted to refute Al-Ghazali's views. Though the work was not well received in the Muslim community, Averroism went on to have a profound influence in European thought.[10]

Al-Ghazali also wrote The Revival of the Religious Sciences in Islam. It combined theology, skepticism, mysticism, Islam and other conceptions, discussed in depth in the article on Islamic philosophy.

Other figures

Other works of universal history from al-Tabari, al-Masudi, Ibn al-Athir, and Ibn Khaldun himself, were quite influential in what we now call archaeology and ethnology. They worked in a relatively modern style that historians of the present would recognize.

Influence and modern assessment

The influence of the Asharites is still hotly debated today. German orientalist Eduard Sachau blamed the theology of Ash'ari and its biggest defender Ghazali specifically for the decline of Islamic science starting in the tenth century, stating that the two clerics were the only block to the Muslim world becoming a nation of "Galileos, Keplers and Newtons."[11] In terms of theology, the Ash'arites exceeding the Mu'tazila in terms of sinking to low levels during polemical debate, to the point where it was said that intellectual debates replaced the five daily prayers for them.[12]

While philosophy did indeed decline in the western Islamic world (Al-Andalus and the Maghreb), philosophy continued long after in the eastern Islamic world (Persia and India), where the Avicennian, Illuminationist and Sufi schools predominated, until Islamic philosophy reached its zenith with Mulla Sadra's existentialist school of transcendent theosophy in the 17th century.[13][14]

Others, however, argue that the Asharites not only did not reject scientific methods, but indeed promoted them. Ziauddin Sardar points out that some of the greatest Muslim scientists, such as Ibn al-Haytham and Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī who were pioneers of scientific method, were themselves followers of the Ash'ari school of Islamic theology.[15] Like other Asharites who believed that faith or taqlid should only apply to Islam and not to any ancient Hellenistic authorities,[2] Ibn al-Haytham's view that taqlid should only apply to prophets of Islam and not to any other authorities formed the basis for much of his scientific skepticism and criticism against Ptolemy and other ancient authorities in his Doubts Concerning Ptolemy and Book of Optics.[16]

See also


  • Frank, Richard M. Classical Islamic Theology: The Ash'arites. Texts and Studies on the Development and History of Kalam. Vol. III. Edited by Dimitri Gutas (Aldershot, Ashgate Variorum, 2008) (Variorum Collected Studies Series).

External links

  • (Arabic) Hamad as-Sinnan, Fawzi al-'Anjari with Approvals from Dr al-Buti and Habib Ali al-Jifri Kitab Ahl as-Sunnah al-Asha'irah [1]
  • (French) French website on asharism

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