The Ash˓arites, who were also known as al-Ash˓ariyya, were the largest Sunni theological school, and were named after the school's founder, Abu 'l-Hasan al-Ash˓ari, who lived in the late ninth and early tenth centuries (873–935). Little is known of al-Ash˓ari's personal and scholarly life. The most often repeated information in the sources is that at the age forty, after a series of visions, he changed his position in Islamic theology. He left his Mu˓tazilite teacher Abu ˓Ali al-Jubba˒i over a theological dispute on divine grace and human responsibility (exemplified by the famous example of three brothers with different eschatological fates), and accepted the authority of Ahmad b. Hanbal. Al-Ash˓ari thus adhered to the principles of the traditionalist Sunni majority (Ahl al-sunna wal-jama˓a), although despite their opposition he defended the necessity of using rational argumentation, which was widely practiced by Mu˓tazilites, in justifying these principles. Following his conversion he even wrote a short treatise in favor of the argumentative method in Islamic theology. In combining Sunni doctrines with Mu˓tazilite methodology he was regarded as the founder of the first and later dominant theological school among Sunnis. There were some other independent scholars who tried partly to apply rational methodology to Sunni doctrines before Al-Ash˓ari, such as Ibn Kullab, Harith al-Muhasibi, and Abul-˓Abbas al-Qalanisi, but they were not recognized as the masters of a school by later Sunni theologians. With the exception of the followers of the Hanafite theologian Abu Mansur al-Maturidi in Central Asia, almost all Sunni theologians were regarded as Ash˓arite, although they departed from al-Ash˓ari in some points.
Al-Ash˓ari's immediate students, Abu 'l-Hasan al-Bahili, Ibn Mujahid al-Ta˒i, and others, were not influential in the history of Ash˓arism. However the following generation, among them Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 1013), Ibn Furak (d. 1015), Abu Ishaq al-Isfara˒ini (d. 1027), and ˓Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 1037), played a major role in the formation of the school. Al-Baqillani, for instance, was regarded as the second founder, due to his contributions in rationalizing the Ash˓arite school through his doctrines of atomism, nonexistence, and so on.
Although Ash˓arite scholars suffered for a while from the persecution of Buwayhid sultans and the Seljuk Wazir al-Kunduri in the eleventh century, their conditions rapidly changed shortly after gaining a wide support of the Seljuks during the time of the famous intellectual wazir Nizam al-Mulk. He established the Nizamiyya madrasa (school) in Nishapur, in which Ash˓arite views were officially taught, and then spread to other parts of the Islamic world as far away as North Africa and Muslim Spain. At this time leading Ash˓arite thinkers were Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 1085) and his student Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), both of whom taught at the Nizamiyya School. Al-Juwayni and al-Ghazali imported some philosophical terms and topics into Ash˓arite kalam and legitimized the use of formal Aristotelian logic in both Islamic theological and legal theories.
In the twelfth century, a philosophical trend dominated among the so-called modern or later theologians (almuta˒akhkhirun). This trend gained in strength with the works of later independent-minded thinkers of the school, such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209), Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 1233), and Qadi al-Baydawi (d. 1286). Ash˓arite thought came under the influence of Avicennan Neoplatonist cosmology and mostly absorbed the Islamic philosophical tradition in Sunni theology after a major but ineffective stand by the well-known philosopher Averroes. Thinkers of genius from Central Asia, especially ˓Adud al-Din al-Iji (d. 1355) and his students Sa˓d al-Din al-Taftazani (d. 1389) and Sayyid Sharif al-Jurjani (d. 1413), contributed to the interpretation and expansion of Ash˓arite thought by producing large commentaries throughout the fourteenth century. Ottoman thinkers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, though officially Maturidite, also contributed to this philosophical production by their commentaries and marginal notes on the works of the above-named Central Asian Ash˓arites.
The Ash˓arite school continued to exist in the seventeenth century in the works of the Egyptian al-Lakani and the Indian al-Siyalkuti. After a continuous modernization process in the Muslim world that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Sunnis from both the Ash˓arite and Maturidite traditions, such as Muhammad ˓Abduh of Egypt, Shibli Nu˓mani of India, and Izmirli Ismail Hakki of Ottoman Turkey, attempted a methodological renovation within Islamic theological thought. During this period of modernity, sectarian concerns and identities weakened among Muslim intellectuals, since they took an eclectic and broader approach in order to satisfy the demands of their age. The contemporary Muslim modernists followed their predecessors in detaching themselves from a strict identification with a particular school of thought. However, Ash˓arism still continues to maintain its existence in Sunni societies today.
Ash˓arite thinkers, following al-Mu˓tazila, dealt with the main theological issues of Islamic faith, including arguments for the existence of God, divine unity, revelation, prophecy, and eschatology. They aimed to refute the opposing views of other religions and philosophical schools in a rational dialectical method. But they also discussed the controversial theological issues first raised by the Mu˓tazilites, such as the existence of attributes of God (sifat Allah), the nature of divine speech (kalam Allah), the possibility of seeing God in the future life (ru˒yat Allah), the question of divine omnipotence and human free will (irada), and the fate of a believing sinner (murtakib al-kabira). In Ash˓arite theology God has eternal attributes such as knowledge, speech, and sight, which are, in their system, essential for His knowing, speaking, or seeing. Since it belongs to his eternal attribute of speech, the Qur˒an as God's word was uncreated. Unlike the traditionalist Sunni school and al-Ash˓ari himself, later Ash˓arites did not oppose the metaphorical interpretation of corporeal terms attributed to God in the Qur˒an. As for the question of free will and predestination, Ash˓arites took a middle position between the Mu˓tazilites and Jabrites in emphasizing God's creation of human acts, which each person freely chooses.
There are some differences between the Ash˓arites and Maturidites, the second Sunni theological school, but they are usually regarded as methodological and nonessential. Ash˓arites, for instance, rejected takwin (which means "to bring into existence") as a divine attribute, the eternalness of God's actions, unlike his attributes, and the necessity of believing in the existence and unity of God through rational arguments in the absence of divine revelation, which are among the Maturidite theses.
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M. Sait Özervarli