ASH`ARI, AL- (AH 260-324/874-935 CE), more fully Abu al-Hasan 'Ali ibn Ismail ibn Abi Bishr Ishaq; Muslim theologian and founder of the tradition of Muslim theology known as Ash'ariyah. He is commonly referred to by his followers as the Master, Abu al-Hasan, and he is sometimes referred to by his opponents as Ibn Abi Bishr.
Life and Works. Very little is known concerning alAsh'ari's life. He was for some time an adherent of the Mu'tazili school and a disciple of al-Jubba'i (d. 915), but at some point, probably prior to 909, he rejected the teachings of the Mu'tazilah in favor of the more conservative dogma of the traditionalists (ahl al-hadith). He renounced the Mu'tazilah publicly during the Friday prayer service in the congregational mosque of Basra and thereafter wrote extensively against the doctrines of his erstwhile fellows and in defense of his new position, for which he had become quite well known by 912/3. Sometime later he moved to Baghdad, where he remained until the end of his life.
Some hundred works are attributed to al-Ash'ari in the medieval sources (see McCarthy, 1953, pp. 211-230), of which no more than the following six seem to have survived.
1. Maqalat al-Islamiyin (Theological Opinions of the Muslims) is a lengthy work setting forth the diverse opinions of Muslim religious thinkers; its two separate (and largely repetitious) parts likely represent two originally distinct works, the first of which may have been substantially complete prior to al-Ash'ari's conversion.
2. His Risalah ila ahl al-thaghr bi-Bab al-Abwab (Epistle to the People of the Frontier at Bab al-Abwab [Darband]) is a brief compendium of his teachings, composed shortly after his conversion.
3. Al-luma' (The Concise Remarks) is a short, general compendium or summa that was evidently the most popular, if not the most important, of al-Ash'ari's theological writings; commentaries were written on the Luma' by al-Baqillani (d. 1013) and Ibn Furak (d. 1015) and a refutation of it, Naqd al-Luma' (Critique of the Concise Remarks), by the Mu'tazili qadi ("judge") 'Abd al-Jabbar al-Hamadan (d. 1024). The evidence of direct citations of the Luma' made by al-Ash'ari's followers seems to indicate that there were originally two recensions of the work, of which the one available at present is the shorter.
4. Al-iman (Belief) is a short work on the nature of belief.
5. Al-ibanah 'an usul al-diyanah (The Clear Statement on the Fundamental Elements of the Faith) is a polemical and apologetic exposition of basic dogma, ostensibly written against the Mu'tazilah and the followers of Jahm ibn Safwan (d. 745), but its formally traditionalist style suggests that this work was composed as a kind of apology to justify al-Ash'ari's own orthodoxy after the Hanabilah refused to recognize him as an adherent of traditionalist doctrine.
6. Al-hathth ala al-bahth (The Exhortation to Investigation) is a polemical apology for the use of speculative reasoning and formal terminology in theological discussion directed against the radical traditionalists. Most likely composed later than the Ibanah, this work has been published several times under the title Istihsan alkhawd fi 'ilm al-kalam (The Vindication of the Science of Kalam), but the correct title, given in Ibn 'Asakir's and Ibn Farhun's lists of al-Ash'ari's writings, appears in a recently discovered copy of the work.
A number of other works are quoted with some frequency by later followers of the school of al-Ash'ari, among them his commentary on the Qur'an, perhaps originally composed before his conversion; Al-mujiz (The Epitome); Al-'amad fi al-ru'yah (The Pillars concerning [God's] Visibility), a work on the visibility of God; Idah al-burhan (The Clarification of Demonstration); and Al-ajwibah al-misriyah (The Egyptian Responsa), as well as various majalis or amali, notes or minutes taken from his lectures.
Though it is clear that al-Ash'ari converted from Mu'tazili theology to a more conservative, "orthodox" doctrine that he himself identified with that of the traditionalists, the precise nature of this conversion and the character of his teaching have always been the subject of much debate. It is obvious that he changed his adherence from one basic set of dogmatic theses to another, shifting, for example, from the Mu'tazili thesis that since God is altogether incorporeal he cannot be seen, to one that God is somehow visible and will be visibly manifest to the blessed in the next life. Yet al-Ash'ari's claim that he taught the doctrine of the traditionalists was vehemently rejected by the more conservative of them, particularly the Hanabilah, whose approbation and support he had expected to receive but who looked upon him as an unreconstructed rationalist. Hostility between the Hanabilah and the followers of alAsh'ari continued unabated for many centuries, sometimes erupting into civil disturbances, and the polemic and counter polemic of later supporters and opponents of Ash'ari doctrine tended to obscure the basic issues somewhat, as current attitudes were often projected backward onto the founder himself. Against Hanbali accusations that al-Ash'ari had changed some of his views but not his basic attitude, some later apologists, most notably Ibn 'Asakir (d. 1176) and al-Subki (d. 1370), depict al-Ash'ari as a wholehearted traditionalist. Most of those who taught or supported al-Ash'ari's doctrine, like the Shafi'i qadi and jurisconsult Abu al-Ma'ali 'Azizi ibn 'Abd al-Malik (d. 1100) in his apology against the Hanbali extremists, held that al-Ash'ari taught a doctrine intermediate between the rationalizing theology of the Mu'tazilah and the anthropomorphizing fundamentalism of the radical traditionalists. It is this "middle way" that is witnessed in al-Ash'ari's own writings and in those of most of the theologians who held allegiance to his school. This is also the view of most modern scholars, although a few have tended to adopt one or the other of the more extreme views.
From the works available to us, two points are clear. First of all, not only did al-Ash'ari give up the characteristic dogmas of Mu'tazili doctrine, but also, in taking the revelation (Qur'an and sunnah) and the consensus of the Muslims as the primary foundations and criteria of basic dogma, he rejected the basic attitude of al-Jubba'i's school, namely that autonomous reason is the primary and, in most instances, the original and definitive source and judge of what is true in theology. Second, after his conversion, he continued to express, explain, and argue theological theses in the formal language of kalam theology in such a way as to give them logical coherence and a degree of conceptual clarity. The first stance set him at irreconcilable odds with his erstwhile fellows among the Mu'tazilah, while the second made him unacceptable to the radical traditionalists. It is thus that when he wrote the Ibanah to demonstrate his orthodoxy to the Hanabilah, al-Barbahari (d. 941), one of the most widely respected Hanbali teachers of the day, rejected the work out of hand because in it al-Ash'ari had not repudiated kalam reasoning, nor had he said anything incompatible with his own kalam analyses.
Basic Teachings. In its basic elements, the doctrine of al-Ash'ari is not wholly new. A beginning had been made several generations earlier toward the formation of a conservative, non-Mu'tazili kalam, but its progress had been arrested in the aftermath of the mihnah as a result of the ascendancy of traditionalist anti-intellectualism during and immediately after the reign of the caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861). Al-Ash'ari appropriated or adapted a number of elements from various earlier theologians. To a large extent his teaching follows and develops that of Ibn Kullab (d. 855), who is regarded by later Ash'ari theologians as one of their own fellows (ashab). Al-Ash'ari's theory of human action, however, is based on a distinction previously formulated by Dirar ibn 'Amr (d. 815) and al-Najjar (d. toward the middle of the ninth century), while some of his discussion of the divine names probably depends upon al-Jubba'i. His doctrine on the Qur'an regarding the distinction between the recitation and the copy on the one hand and the text as the articulate meaning that is read and understood on the other, though based on Ibn Kullab, is regarded as original by later authorities. While al-Ash'ari's teaching can be viewed on one level as a synthesis and adaptation of elements already present in one form or another but not hitherto assembled into a single system, it is nonetheless true that out of these elements he constructed a new, conceptually integrated whole of his own.
According to al-Ash'ari, the Qur'an and the teaching of the Prophet present a reasoned exposition of the contingency of the world and its dependence upon the deliberate action of a transcendent creator, which, though not expressed in formal language, is complete and rationally probative. Thus, in contrast to the Mu'tazilah, he holds that theological inquiry is not originated autonomously by the mind but is provoked by the claims of a prophet, and that it is because of the rational validity of the prophet Muhammad's basic teaching that one must accept the entire revelation, including those dogmas that cannot be inferred on purely rational grounds (for example, that God will be visible in the next life), and submit unconditionally to the divine law. Undertaking such theological inquiry is morally obligatory not for any psychological or intellectual reason, but because God has commanded it, and the command is known only in the revelation. With regard to the revelation itself, al-Ash'ari stands in significant contrast to his followers insofar as he does not employ in any of the works that are available to us the common kalam proof for the existence of God, the basic form of which is found in Chrysostom and other patristic writers, but, rather, prefers an argument based entirely and directly on the text of the Qur'an.
In his discussion of the nature of God and of creatures, al-Ash'ari employs a formal method based on the Arab grammarians' analysis of predicative sentences. He holds that predications are divided into three categories: (1) those that assert the existence of only the subject itself (al-nafs, nafs al-mawsuf); (2) those that assert the existence of an "attribute" (sifah, ma'na) distinct from the "self" of the subject as such; and (3) those that assert the existence of an action (fi'l) done by the subject. Since "knows" is not synonymous with "exists," the former must, when said of God, imply the existence of a cognition that is somehow distinct from his essential being (al-nafs). Following a common tradition, al-Ash'ari holds that God has seven basic "essential attributes": the ability to act (al-qudrah), cognition, volition, life, speech, sight, and hearing. Since "perdures" (baq) is not synonymous with "exists," he adds to this list a distinct attribute of "perdurance" (al-baqa'). On the basis of the revelation al-Ash'ari also includes as eternal attributes God's hand(s) and face, which are neither understood anthropomorphically as bodily members nor reduced metaphorically to his self or to one of the seven basic eternal attributes. None of these attributes can be fully comprehended and explained by human understanding; each is distinct from the others and from God's "self," though it is true neither that they are identical with God's self nor that they are other than it.
Al-Ash'ari's view of creation is basically occasionalistic. Whatever exists and is not eternal, God creates, and its existence is his action. Among those events that take place in us, however, we distinguish those that we simply undergo from those that we do intentionally. The former are God's acts alone; the latter occur through an ability to act (bi-qudrah) created in us at the moment the act occurs and are formally referred to as kasb or iktisab ("performance" or "doing"; these terms are commonly, but misleadingly, rendered by "acquisition"). What God wills, and only what he wills, comes to exist. Because he is subject to no rule his acts are just and ethically good as such. The objects of God's will are not coextensive with those of his command. The ethical values (ahkam) of human actions are grounded unconditionally in God's command, license, and prohibition, and as God has already informed us, he will punish and/or reward us in the next life according to our obedience and disobedience in this life. There is no intrinsic relationship between men's actions and their status in the life to come; God does and will do what he wills, and what he wills is just by definition.
Method. Although al-Ash'ari did work out a comprehensive and coherent theology, he seems to have deliberately restricted the scope of his theological reasoning, which does not go much beyond the presentation of his fundamental theses in such a way that the propositions formally asserted are logically unambivalent on the basis of a rigid set of definitions and principles, and even these are not always explained and even less often argued in the texts. Rational arguments for individual theses are set forth in their most elementary form, sometimes in the form of a Qur'an citation and, again, on the basis of presuppositions that, even if stated, are not argued. Where argument is based on the authority of scripture, or where a citation of the Qur'an alludes to and encapsulates a rational argument, the formal principles of the underlying exegesis are presumed known and accepted. Since countertheses and the arguments that support them are logically incompatible with the definitions and principles employed by al-Ash'ari, they are usually disposed of in a purely formal manner.
Al-Ash'ari's surviving dogmatic works are few and quite brief. For some questions, they can be supplemented by citations found in the works of his successors, but even though the later Ash'ari theologians had access to a large number of his writings, they are unable to state his position on a number of important issues. In some instances they do know Ibn Kullab's teaching (for example, on whether or not God's essential attributes are denumerable), but sometimes the sources themselves explicitly recognize that what they offer as the teaching of al-Ash'ari is merely an inference or conjecture. It appears, then, that on a number of questions al-Ash'ari either refused to commit himself or had not carried his inquiry beyond an elementary level. His fundamental aim seems to have been simply to present the basic sense and truth of the primary Islamic dogmas so that they could be thematically possessed and appropriated in an unambiguous form and to distinguish them from heresy and unbelief in such a way that the error of the latter would be clearly understood and displayed.
Later Influence. How rapidly and how widely alAsh'ari's theology was adopted by orthodox Muslims has been a matter of debate, as has the question of its ultimate significance in the religious and intellectual history of Sunni Islam. Its early importance is witnessed by the treatment al-Ash'ari receives in Ibn al-Nadim's bio-bibliographical encyclopedia, Al-fihrist (The Catalog), composed in 987-988, and in Al-final fi al-milal (Judgments on the Sects), a heresiographical work by the Zahiri jurist and philosopher Ibn Hazm of Cordova (d. 1064). Certainly by the latter half of the eleventh century Ash'ari theology was upheld by the leading Shafi'i jurisconsults, and for the historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) it represents the mainstream of orthodox kalam. A number of Sufis, beginning already with several of the disciples of al-Hallaj (d. 922), were Ash'ari in systematic theology, employing kalam as a kind of conceptual, dogmatic foundation to their mystical thought, and others, such as al-Kalabadhi (d. 990), though not strictly Ash'ari in dogma, were influenced by Ash'ari teaching. Again, although the school of al-Maturidi (d. 944) always maintained its theological distinctiveness, Ash'ari influence appears in some of their works. Similarly, the influence of Ash'ari language and concepts can be detected even in some later Hanbali 'aqidahs (outlines of basic doctrine), and in at least one case, the Mu'tamad ft usul al-din (The Foundation concerning the Basic Doctrines) of the Hanbali qadi Abu Ya'la al-Farra' (d. 1066), several formulations are taken over directly from the theological writings of al-BaqilIani, a leading Ash'ari theologian of the preceding generation.
Translations of Works by al-Ash'ari
Klein, Walter C., trans. Al-ibanah 'an usul ad-diyanah (The Elucidation of Islam's Foundation). New Haven, 1940. includes an introduction and notes by the translator.
McCarthy, Richard J., trans. The Theology of al-Ash'ari. Beirut, 1953. Contains both text and translation of Al-luma' and Alhathth 'ala al-bahth (under title Istihsan al-khawd fi 'ilm alkalam), together with a translation of early biographical sources and of Ibn 'Asakir's apology against the Hanabilah and list of works attributed to al-Ash'arI.
Spitta, Wilhelm, trans. Zur Geschichte Abu 1-Hasan al-As'ari's. Leipzig, 1870. This study, now outdated, contains a translation of Al-iman (pp. 101-104).
Works about al-Ash'ari
Allard, Michel. "En quoi consiste l'opposition faite a al-Ash'ari par ses contemporains hanbalites?" Revue des etudes islamiques 28 (1960): 93-105.
Allard, Michel. Le problème des attributs divins dans la doctrine d'al-As'ari et de ses premiers grands disciples. Beirut, 1965. This book contains the most thorough and balanced discussion of the problem of al-Ash'ari's biography and of the authenticity of the extant works.
Frank, R. M. "The Structure of Created Causality according to al-Atari: An Analysis of Kitâb al-Luma', §§ 82-184," Studia Islamica 25 (1966): 13-75.
Frank, R. M. "Al-As'ari's Conception of the Nature and Role of Speculative Reasoning in Theology." in Proceedings of the Sixth Congress of Arabic and Islamic Studies, edited by Frithiof Rundgren. Stockholm, 1975. An analysis of the first section of the Epistle to the People of the Frontier.
Frank, R. M. "Al-Ash'ari's al-Hathth 'ala l-Bahth." Melanges de l'Institut Dominicain d'Etudes Orientales 18 (1985).
Frank, R. M. "Elements in the Development of the Teaching of al-Ash'ari." Le muséon 98 (1985).
Makdisi, George. "Ash'ari and the Ash'arites in Islamic Religious History." Studia Islamica 17 (1962): 37-80; 18 (1963): 19-39. Basing his analysis wholly upon the polemical and apologetic works of al-Ash'ari and his followers, the author denies the authenticity of Al-hathth 'ala al-bahth and sees al--Ash'ari as basically a traditionalist.
Rubio, Luciano. "Los As'ar?es, te?logos especulativos, Mutak?llimes, del Islam." Ciudad de Dios 190 (1977): 535-577. An account of several major themes, chiefly causality and action, as presented in the writings of al-Ash'ari.
R. M. FRANK
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