Ḥasan Al-Baṣrī

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ASAN AL-BARĪ (ah 21110/642728 ce) was a famous Muslim ascetic of the generation following the prophet Muammad. The son of a freed slave, he was born in Medina and brought up in nearby Wādī al-Qurā. During the First Civil War, which resulted in the rise of the Umayyad caliphate, asan moved to Basra, where he settled permanently after a brief career as holy warrior in what is now Afghanistan and as secretary to the governor of Khorasan.

To a simple religious spirit such as asan, the social and economic changes accompanying the schisms and coups d'état within Islam amounted to an excess of worldliness. Thus he reacted much more sharply to this disease in the hearts and behavior of the people than he did to the tyranny of the Umayyad government, then personified in al-ajjāj, the governor of Iraq. Though openly critical of the Umayyads, asan refused to "bid them good and forbid them evil" (because, he said, their swords were faster than our tongues) or to participate in uprisings against them. Likewise, he advised others not to oppose by the sword a punishment or test from God, such as the tyrant al-ajjāj, but to face it with patience and repentance: God, said asan, brings change and relief through these means rather than through hasty resort to violence. Thus, a Khārijī who tries to right a wrong (through violence) commits a greater wrong.

Although he was an acknowledged expert in the Islamic religious sciences of tafsīr (Qurʾanic exegesis), fiqh (jurisprudence), and adīth (traditions of the Prophet), and he was also said to have lectured and written books on these subjects, asan's fame rests on his pietistic and dogmatic concerns. Here his interest lay not in theological doctrine but in the quality of faith and action, in the inner, genuinely sincere, pious life of the heart translated into an outer, morally upright, ascetic mode of living. Equipped with extensive knowledge and a living memory of the practice of the Prophet's companions, an attractive personality, an eloquent tongue, and most of all, a fearful heart and an upright character, asan engaged in preaching against worldliness and its resulting hypocrisy. His sermons and letters are grim reminders of the transience of worldly life, the permanent value of the life in the hereafter, and the inevitability of death and divine retribution, as well as moving exhortations to fear God and foster sincere faith and upright conduct. The munāfiqūn, those worldlings with skin-deep faith and readiness to sin, were morally aberrant believers in acute danger of hellfire and hence urgently in need of help.

asan's doctrine of qadar (free will) was also morally inspired, directed as it was against the sinners' deterministic rationalizations. Challenged by Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik to defend and define his position, he indicated that humans have power (qudrah ) to choose freely; that good and guidance come from God, who has foreknowledge of both good and evil (the latter coming from humans or the devil); that God's predestination is not coercive nor his foreknowledge prohibitive for human free choice. The reports that asan recanted his belief in free will were probably later attempts by the orthodox Sunnīs to clear his reputation of what had come to be regarded as heresy, although the possibility remains that he did partially modify his position.

The fact that both the ūfīs and the Muʿtazilah regarded asan as one of their forerunners is a mark of his importance and influence as an ascetic and a theologian. It is even more remarkable that the Sunnīs take pains to count him among their own predecessors despite his novel attitudes in matters of piety and dogma. And it is a measure of his immediate impact that on the day asan died, evening prayers could not be held in the mosques because the whole city of Basra was busy attending his funeral.


Besides numerous fragments of sermons (mawaʿiz ) and a few bits and pieces of his Qurʾanic exegesis, some of asan's letters (rasaʾil) have survived, including those addressed to caliphs ʿAbd al-Malik and ʿUmar II. In addition, asan has been frequently quoted as an authority in tafsīr, adīth, and fiqh literature, as well as ādāb (belles lettres) and akhlāq (ethics, particularly exhortative).

The earliest basic source on asan's life and thought is Ibn Saʿd's Kitāb al-abaqāt al-kabīr, edited by Edward Sachau and others as Biographien Muammads, seiner Gefährten und der späteren Träger des Islams bis zum Jahre 320 des Flucht, vol. 7, part 1, (Leiden, 1915), pp. 114129. In his pioneering Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane (Paris, 1922), pp. 152175, Louis Massignon emphasizes asan's ascetic side, in contrast to the idealistic tradition prevailing in Kufa. Helmut Ritter's "Studien zur Geschichte der islamischen Frömmigkeit: 1, asan el-Basrī," Der Islam 21 (1933): 183, provides an excellent analysis along with the edited text of asan's letter to ʿAbd al-Malik, which has formed the basis for later studies. Joseph van Ess's Anfänge muslimischer Theologie (Beirut, 1977) and Michael Cook's Early Muslim Dogma: A Source-Critical Study (New York, 1981) are almost exclusively concerned with asan's theological views.

Hasan Qasim Murad (1987)

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Ḥasan Al-Baṣrī

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