Ash‘arī, Al-(Abū Al-Ḥasan) ‘Alī
ASH’ARĪ, AL-(ABŪ AL-ḤASAN) ‘ALĪ
Eponym of the Ash‘arite school of Islamic theology; b. Basra, 873; d. Baghdad, c. 924.
Life. Very little is certain about al-Ash‘arī's life. For a long time he was a pupil of the famous Mu’tazilite, Abū ‘Alī al-Jubbā’ī. Tradition gives six different accounts of his conversion from the mu‘tazilites to "orthodoxy," i.e., to traditional Islamic doctrine. After his conversion, al-Ash‘arī championed the traditionist approach, which was finally to triumph over Mu’tazilism. Later in life he moved to Baghdad, where he lectured and wrote until his death. More than 100 titles are attributed to him in the various sources. With the exception of a few short treatises, only three important works seem to be extant: Kitāb al-Luma’, al-Ibāna 'an Usūl al-Diyāna, and Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyīn. The first two are dogmatic treatises and exist in English translations. The third is an objective and immensely important here siography, edited by H. Ritter in 1929.
Doctrine. Al-Ash‘arī owed much to his Mu’tazilite training. It is difficult from the extant sources to form a clear and complete synthesis of his own teaching. Much of the doctrine attributed to him by subsequent writers may well have been the work of later Ash‘arites.
It has been affirmed that al-Ash‘arī's chief contribution to Islamic theology was his introduction of a via media between the two extremes of the Mu’tazilites (and others) and the traditionists. But I. Goldziher insists that Ash’arism, not al-Ash‘arī, was the via media. Some idea of his teaching may be had from his Ibāna, written from an extremely traditionist point of view with an admixture of rational argument, and from the Luma', which contains more rational argument, but remains quite traditionist. It seems to have been intended as a brief handbook of polemics for use against the Mu’tazilites, and its structure follows the five basic Mu’tazilite principles.
Al-Ash‘arī's doctrines are presumably those summed up in the creeds inserted in the Maqālāt and the Ibāna, both strongly traditionist. On the problem of man's responsibility for his acts, al-Ash‘arī is quite deterministic. He made some effort to save free will by the doctrine of acquisition (kasb ), but this doctrine was not originated by him, and it is not clear precisely what he, or anyone else, meant by it.
Among the works attributed to al-Ash‘arī is a short treatise containing a vindication of kalām, that is, of the use of rational argument in dogmatic discussions. While it may not be the actual work of al-Ash‘arī, it is an interesting document which underlines a certain tension that was long felt in Muslim theological circles. It appears that al-Ash‘arī himself was rather reserved in this use of rational argument. Certainly he was far removed from the long and subtle philosophical discussions of the much later theologians who were called Ash‘arites.
Influence. Whatever the immediate personal influence of al-Ash‘arī may have been, his name is associated with the theological synthesis that ultimately came to be the "orthodox" theology of the vast majority of Muslims. Yet it is not clear why al-Ash‘arī came to be regarded as its founder; sources close to his time give no indication of the prominence his name was to enjoy. Nevertheless, the work of al-Ash‘arī himself, and of those whom he did influence, may well have given rise to the currents developed and enriched by the genius of later "Ash‘arite" theologians.
The earliest complete Ash‘arite treatise at our disposal is the Tamhīd of al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013). In this dogmatic and apologetic compendium are discussed, or at least adumbrated, practically all the questions with which Muslim theology would ever deal. It is possible that much of what al-Bāqillānī wrote was simply a restatement of views and arguments already put forth by al-Ash‘arī. The next important Ash‘arite theologian was al-Juwaynī (d. 1085). His work shows considerable advances in reasoning over that of al-Bāqillānī 1. algazel (Ghazzālī, al-; d. 1111) was a disciple of al-Juwaynī and an Ash‘arite, but his work marked a new departure in theology, and his Iqtisād is far removed from al-Ash‘arī's Luma'. Ibn Khaldūn calls him the first of the "modern" theologians.
The most prominent Ash‘arites after Algazel were Shahrastānī (d. 1153), Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210), Isfahānī (d. 1348), Ījī (d. 1355), and Jurjānī (d. 1413). But no real theological advances were made. More emphasis was given to questions now regarded as purely philosophical. Ash’arism as a theology was no longer a living system, but a kind of fixed dogmatic conservatism. It ended, as W. M. Watt put it aptly, in a blaze of philosophy. This was a consummation very far from the essentially religious spirit of its eponym.
See Also: kalĀm.
Bibliography: al-ash‘arĪ, Al-Ibānah 'an Usūl ad-Diyānah, tr. w. c. klein, The Elucidation of Islam's Foundation, in American Oriental Series 19 (New Haven 1940). The Theology of al-Ash‘arī, ed. r. j. mccarthy (Beirut 1953), the Luma', the vindication of Kalām, and other texts in Arabic and English. g. makdisi, "Ash‘ari, and the Ash‘arites in Islamic Religious History," Studia Islamica, 17 (1962) 37–80; 18 (1963) 19–39.
[r. j. mccarthy]