Ashʿarī, Al-

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ASHʿARĪ, AL- (ah 260324/874935 ce), more fully Abū al- asan ʿAlī ibn Ismāʿīl ibn Abī Bishr Isāq; Muslim theologian and founder of the tradition of Muslim theology known as Ashʿarīyah. He is commonly referred to by his followers as the Master, Abū al-asan, and he is sometimes referred to by his opponents as Ibn Abī Bishr.

Life and Works

Very little is known concerning al-Ashʿarī's life. He was for some time an adherent of the Muʿtazilī school and a disciple of al-Jubbāʾī (d. 915), but at some point, probably prior to 909, he rejected the teachings of the Muʿtazilah in favor of the more conservative dogma of the traditionalists (ahl al-adīth ). He renounced the Muʿtazilah 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-Ashʿarī in the medieval sources (see McCarthy, 1953, pp. 211230), of which no more than the following six seem to have survived:

  1. Maqālāt al-Islāmīyīn (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-Ashʿarī's conversion.
  2. His Risālah ilā ahl al-thaghr bi-Bāb al-Abwāb (Epistle to the People of the Frontier at Bāb al-Abwāb [Darband]) is a brief compendium of his teachings, composed shortly after his conversion.
  3. Al-lumaʿ (The Concise Remarks) is a short, general compendium or summa that was evidently the most popular, if not the most important, of al-Ashʿarī's theological writings; commentaries were written on the Lumaʿ by al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013) and Ibn Fūrak (d. 1015) and a refutation of it, Naqd al-Lumaʿ (Critique of the Concise Remarks), by the Muʿtazili qāi ("judge") Abd al-Jabbār al-Hamadānī (d. 1024). The evidence of direct citations of the Lumaʿ made by al-Ashʿarī'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-īmān (Belief) is a short work on the nature of belief.
  5. Al-ibānah ʿan uūl al-diyānah (The Clear Statement on the Fundamental Elements of the Faith) is a polemical and apologetic exposition of basic dogma, ostensibly written against the Muʿtazilah and the followers of Jahm ibn afwān (d. 745), but its formally traditionalist style suggests that this work was composed as a kind of apology to justify al-Ashʿarī's own orthodoxy after the Hanābilah refused to recognize him as an adherent of traditionalist doctrine.
  6. Al-athth ʿalā al-bath (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 Ibānah, this work has been published several times under the title Istisān al-khaw fī ʿilm al-kalām (The Vindication of the Science of Kalām ), but the correct title, given in Ibn ʿAsakir's and Ibn Farūn's lists of al-Ashʿarī'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-Ashʿarī, among them his commentary on the Qurʾān, perhaps originally composed before his conversion; Al-mūjiz (The Epitome); Al-ʿamad fī al-ruʾyah (The Pillars concering [God's] Visibility), a work on the visibility of God; Iā al-burhān (The Clarification of Demonstration); and Al-ajwibah al-mirīyah (The Egyptian Responsa), as well as various majālis or amālī, notes or minutes taken from his lectures.

Though it is clear that al-Ashʿarī converted from Muʿtazilī 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 Muʿtazilī 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-Ashʿarī's claim that he taught the doctrine of the traditionalists was vehemently rejected by the more conservative of them, particularly the anābilah, whose approbation and support he had expected to receive but who looked upon him as an unreconstructed rationalist. Hostility between the anābilah and the followers of al-Ashʿarī continued unabated for many centuries, sometimes erupting into civil disturbances, and the polemic and counterpolemic of later supporters and opponents of Ashʿarī doctrine tended to obscure the basic issues somewhat, as current attitudes were often projected backward onto the founder himself. Against anbalī accusations that al-Ashʿarī had changed some of his views but not his basic attitude, some later apologists, most notably Ibn ʿAsākir (d. 1176) and al-Subkī (d. 1370), depict al-Ashʿarī as a wholehearted traditionalist. Most of those who taught or supported al-Ashʿarī's doctrine, such as the Shafiʿī qāi and jurisconsult Abū al-Maʿālī ʿAzīzī ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (d. 1100) in his apology against the anbalī extremists, held that al-Ashʿarī taught a doctrine intermediate between the rationalizing theology of the Muʿtazilah and the anthropomorphizing fundamentalism of the radical traditionalists. It is this "middle way" that is witnessed in al-Ashʿarī'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, two points are clear. First of all, not only did al-Ashʿarī give up the characteristic dogmas of Muʿtazilī doctrine, but also, in taking the revelation (Qurʾān and sunnah ) and the consensus of the Muslims as the primary foundations and criteria of basic dogma, he rejected the basic attitude of al-Jubbāʾī'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 kalām 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 Muʿtazilah, while the second made him unacceptable to the radical traditionalists. It is thus that when he wrote the Ibānah to demonstrate his orthodoxy to the anābilah, al-Barbahārī (d. 941), one of the most widely respected anbalī teachers of the day, rejected the work out of hand because in it al-Ashʿarī had not repudiated kalām reasoning, nor had he said anything incompatible with his own kalām analyses.

Basic Teachings

In its basic elements, the doctrine of al-Ashʿarī is not wholly new. A beginning had been made several generations earlier toward the formation of a conservative, non-Muʿtazilī kalām, but its progress had been arrested in the aftermath of the mihnah as a result of the ascen-dancy of traditionalist anti-intellectualism during and immediately after the reign of the caliph al-Mutawakkil (847861). Al-Ashʿarī appropriated or adapted a number of elements from various earlier theologians. To a large extent his teaching follows and develops that of Ibn Kullāb (d. 855), who is regarded by later Ashʿarī theologians as one of their own fellows (aab ). Al-Ashʿarī's theory of human action, however, is based on a distinction previously formulated by irār ibn ʿAmr (d. 815) and al-Najjār (d. toward the middle of the ninth century), while some of his discussion of the divine names probably depends upon al-Jubbāʾī. His doctrine on the Qurʾān 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 Kullāb, is regarded as original by later authorities. While al-Ashʿarī'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-Ashʿarī, the Qurʾān 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 Muʿtazilah, 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 Muammad'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-Ashʿarī 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 kalām 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 Qurʾān.

In his discussion of the nature of God and of creatures, al-Ashʿarī 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-mawūf) ; (2) those that assert the existence of an "attribute" (ifah, maʿnā) distinct from the "self" of the subject as such; and (3) those that assert the existence of an action (fīʿl) 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 somewhat distinct from his essential being (al-nafs). Following a common tradition, al-Ashʿarī holds that God has seven basic "essential attributes": the ability to act (al-quadrah ), cognition, volition, life, speech, sight, and hearing. Since "perdures" (bāq ) is not synonymous with "exists," he adds to this list a distinct attribute of "perdurance" (al-baqāʾ ). On the basis of the revelation al-Ashʿarī 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-Ashʿarī'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 individuals, however, they distinguish those events that are simply undergone from those that they do intentionally. The former are God's acts alone; the latter occur through an ability to act (bi-qudrah ) created in a person at the moment the act occurs and are formally referred to as kasb or iktisāb ("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 (akām ) of human actions are grounded unconditionally in God's command, license, and prohibition, and as God has already informed humanity, he will punish and/or reward individuals in the next life according to their obedience and disobedience in this life. There is no intrinsic relationship between humans' 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.


Although al-Ashʿarī 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 Qurʾān 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 Qurʾān 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-Ashʿarī, they are usually disposed of in a purely formal way. Al-Ashʿarī'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 Ashʿarī 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 Kullāb'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-Ashʿarī is merely an inference or conjecture. It appears, then, that on a number of questions al-Ashʿarī 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 al-Ashʿarī'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 Sunnī Islam. Its early importance is witnessed by the treatment al-Ashʿarī receives in Ibn al-Nadīm's bio-bibliographical encyclopedia, Al-fihrist (The Catalog), composed in 987988, and in Al-fial fī al-milal (Judgments on the Sects), a heresiographical work by the āhirī jurist and philosopher Ibn azm of Cordova (d. 1064). Certainly by the latter half of the eleventh century Ashʿarī theology was upheld by the leading Shāfiʿī jurisconsults, and for the historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) it represents the mainstream of orthodox kalām. A number of ūfīs, beginning already with several of the disciples of al-allāj (d. 922), were Ashʿarī in systematic theology, employing kalām as a kind of conceptual, dogmatic foundation to their mystical thought, and others, such as al-Kalābādhī (d. 990), though not strictly Ashʿarī in dogma, were influenced by Ashʿarī teaching. Again, although the school of al-Māturīdī (d. 944) always maintained its theological distinctiveness, Ashʿarī influence appears in some of their works. Similarly, the influence of Ashʿarī language and concepts can be detected even in some later anbalī ʿaqīdahs (outlines of basic doctrine), and in at least one case, the Muʿtamad fī uūl al-dīn (The Foundation concerning the Basic Doctrines) of the anbalī qāi Abū Yaʿlā al-Farrāʾ (d. 1066), several formulations are taken over directly from the theological writings of al-Bāqillānī, a leading Ashʿarī theologian of the preceding generation.


Translations of works by al-Ashʿarī

Klein, Walter C., trans. Al-ibānah ʿan uūl ad-diyānah (The eucidation of Islam's foundation). New Haven, 1940. Includes an introduction and notes by the translator.

McCarthy, Richard J., trans. The Theology of al-Ashʿarī. Beirut, 1953. Contains both text and translation of Al-lumaʿ and Al-athth ʿalā al-bath (under title Istisān al-khaw fī ʿilm al-kalām ), together with a translation of early biographical sources and of Ibn ʿAsakir's apology against the anābilah and list of works attributed to al-Ashʿarī.

Spitta, Wilhelm, trans. Zur Geschichte Abū l-asan al-Ašʿarī's. Leipzig, 1870. This study, now outdated, contains a translation of Al-īmān (pp. 101104).

Works about al-Ashʿarī

Allard, Michel. "En quoi consiste l'opposition faite à al-Ashʿarī par ses contemporains anbalites?" Revue des études islamiques 28 (1960): 93-105.

Allard, Michel. Le problème des attributs divins dans la doctrine d'al-Ašʿarī et de ses premiers grands disciples. Beirut, 1965. This book contains the most thorough and balanced discussion of the problem of al-Ashʿarī's biography and of the authenticity of the extant works.

Frank, R. M. "The Structure of Created Causality according to al-Ašʿarī: An Analysis of Kitâb al-Lumaʿ, §§ 82184." Studia Islamica 25 (1966): 1375.

Frank, R. M. "Al-Ašʿarī'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-Ashʿarī's al-athth ʿalā l-Bath. " Mélanges de l'Institut Dominicain d'Études Orientales 18 (1985).

Frank, R. M. "Elements in the Development of the Teaching of al-Ashʿarī." Le muséon 98 (1985).

Makdisi, George. "Ashʿarī and the Ashʿarītes in Islamic Religious History." Studia Islamica 17 (1962): 3780; 18 (1963): 1939. Basing his analysis wholly upon the polemical and apologetic works of al-Ashʿarī and his followers, the author denies the authenticity of Al-athth ʿalā al-bath and sees al-Ashʿarī as basically a traditionalist.

Rubio, Luciano. "Los Ašʿaríes, teólogos especulativos, Mutakállimes, del Islam." Ciudad de Dios 190 (1977): 535577. An account of several major themes, chiefly causality and action, as presented in the writings of al-Ashʿarī.

R. M. Frank (1987)

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