In the 3rd century AH, a man named Abul Hasan Ali ibn Ismail ibn al-Bishr, a descendant of the famous sahabi Abu Musa al-Ashari was born in Basra. This was an era when Mu’tazilism was gaining a strong foothold in the Muslim community. To very briefly explain Mu’tazilism, they were a sect which tried to meld Islam with Aristotelian philosophy. I’ve written more about them here. It just so happened that the leading Mu’tazilite philosopher of the time, Abu Ali al-Jubbai, married Abul Hasan al-Ashari’s widowed mother and raised his stepson in the Mu’tazilite tradition.
Now, Abul Hasan (well, he was probably just called Ali at this time, but I’ll refer to him with the name and title he’s known by in history) was a very bright student and quickly became a very strong defender and proponent of Mu’tazilism. Abu Ali al-Jubbai, his step-father, was a leading Mu’tazilite and strong writer but he was not a good debater. Abul Hasan al-Ashari, on the other hand, was a master of debate. As he grew older though, he became increasingly disillusioned with Mu’tazilite theology and around the age of 40, renounced it in favor of orthodox Islam.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a discussion he had with his stepfather. One of the things Mu’tazilites denied was Qadr, or predestination. As the story goes, Abul Hasan posed the following hypothetical question: A set of triplets is born. 1 brother dies in a childhood. 1 grows to adulthood and dies a kafir. 1 grows to adulthood and dies a Muslim. Where do each of these three end up in the hereafter? So al-Jubbai answered, “The believer goes to Jannah, the kafir goes to Jahannum, and the brother who died in infancy will be neither in Jannah nor in Jahannum.” So Abul Hasan al-Ashari countered by saying, “Then the brother who died in infancy will ask Allah, why did you not give me a chance to grow into adulthood and die a Muslim to go to Jannah?” Al-Jubbai replied, “Allah knew his path better than he did, and knew that he would grow up to become a kafir. So it’s better that he died as an infant and did not enter Jahannum.” To this, Abul Hasan al-Ashari’s response was, “Then the brother who died a kafir will ask, why did you not make me die as an infant if you knew I would grow up to become a kafir?” Al-Jubbai was unable to come up with a response.
Regardless of the actual process by which Imam al-Ashari arrived at his rejection of the Mu’tazilite school, the fact is that around the age of 40, he began dedicating himself to refuting this doctrine. After Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s bold stance against the Mu’tazilites, no one else had managed a similar rebuttal. Over time they had begun to grow in influence and by the time of Imam al-Ashari, they held very elite political positions and were a strong force in the Muslim world. The traditionalists, as those who followed orthodox Islamic theology were known, could not produce anyone who was able to argue against Mu’tazilism using an Aristotelian framework. The questions that Mu’tazilite doctrine brings up are really irrelevant to anyone who isn’t looking at the world through a Greek philosophical lens. If you use only the Qur’an and Sunnah and common sense, Mu’tazilite doctrine looks very silly. It’s only when you accept Greek philosophy as your foundation do the arguments make any sense.
However, the fact of the matter was that telling people to ignore Greek philosophy was not working. Mu’tazilites were gaining traction amongst average Muslims and Abul Hasan al-Ashari was the ideal man to refute them. He was trained in Mu’tazilite theology, knew the foundations in and out, and was an excellent debater. So he began writing books defending the theology of the salaf using the vocabulary and syntax of the then-modern philosophical tradition.
At this stage, he really did not have a separate school of theology. His theology was the theology of the salaf, he was merely writing and defending it using new language. Of course, some of this did affect the theology, but it was by and large the theology of the salaf. Over time, as the theology was expanded upon and theologians dealt with more and more esoteric issues, it solidified into a separate school of theology. A similar process occurred in the Eastern Muslim world under a scholar named Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi.
I know this is going to anger some people who follow in that tradition, but I think it’s a very important point. Imam al-Ashari lived and wrote in a certain context. That context is gone. Eradicated. Mu’tazilites are not walking around arguing their doctrine. The average Muslim would have no clue what you’re talking about if you mentioned objects and accidents and an unmoved mover and all the other aspects of Greek philosophy that were so important to the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals of that time. These are things that no one cares about anymore because they exist in a context that has long since passed us by. His works and writing had a role, but that role is not here in the present. It’s absolutely ridiculous for Muslims to be arguing over what it means for Allah (swt) to rise over the throne or if the Qur’an is created or uncreated or if certain attributes are literal or metaphorical. These theological schools are discussing topics which history should have long ago buried and forgotten about. Without a doubt, these schools played a vital role in defending Islam from heretical influences. However, those influences are gone. To put it bluntly, it’s pathetic when lay Muslims go and spend time studying theological texts which are refuting sects that are centuries dead. While the average Muslim is being bombarded by ideas from perennialism, atheism, and scientism (which is not science btw), certain Muslims focus on how to defend against sects which are so extinct that they first have to learn what sects existed and then how to refute them.
Whether your teachers are Ash’ari or Maturidi or Athari in theology, this should not be a means to divide ourselves from our fellow Muslims. The below, written by scholars from the Athari school, exemplifies the attitude we should take:
All praise is for Allah, and may the Salah and Salam be upon the Messenger of Allah.
In response to this we say: The Ash’aris and Maturidis have opposed what is correct when they performed Ta’wil of the Divine Attributes of Allah the Exalted, however, they are from Ahl us Sunnah wal Jama’ah and not from the seventy-two misguided sects except those who go into extremes among them in denial and agree with the Jahmiyah- where his ruling would then be like those of the Jahmiyah.
As for the remainder of the Ash’aris and Maturidis, then they are not like that, and they are excused for their Ijtihad even if they erred in the truth. It is permissble to work and cooperate with them in piety, righteousness and goodness.
Take Ibn Taymiyah, who studied under many of the scholars of the Ash’aris, nay, he even fought under the banner of the Mamlukes-the rulers of that time-and the generality of them were Ash’aris, nay, the military leader of that time, the brave Nuruddin al-Zanki the martyr as well as Salahuddin al-Ayubi were both Ash’aris, as has been stated by Imam adh-Dhahabi in his Siyar ‘Alam an-Nubala. And there were many besides them from the scholars, military leaders and people of rectification. Many of the scholars and Imams of the Muslims were Ash’aris and Maturidis such as; al-Bayhaqi, al-Nawawi, Ibn al-Salah, al-Mizzi, Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani, al-Iraqi, al-Sakhawi, al-Zayla’i, al-Suyuti, and indeed, all of the explainers of (Sahih) al-Bukhari were Ash’aris and many besides them.
So with this, the people benefited from their knowledge and admitted their virtue and leadership in the Deen while believing them to be excused for what they made Ijtihad in and erred. May Allah forgive them and pardon them.
The Khalifah al-Ma’mun was a Jahmi Mu’tazili, as well as Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq, they were misguided Jahmis, however, none of the Imams of Islam delivered Islamic legal verdicts to the effect that it was not allowed to follow them in prayers and fighting under their banner in Jihad. So no one, for example, gave a legal verdict stating that it was not allowed to fight with al-Mu’tasim on the day of al-Amuriyah, despite the large numbers of Imams in those times such as: Ahmad, Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Ali ibn al-Madini, Yahya ibn Ma’in and their likes from the major Imams in the third generation of the Hijrah.
We have not heard any of them forbidding working with these people or preventing (others) from following them or fighting under their banners. So, it is an obligation that we observe the manner of the Salaf as-Salih with the opponent, and Allah knows best.
May Allah send Salah and Salam upon Muhammad and his family and companions
Dr, Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Fattah al-Qari’ (former head of the faculty of the Qur’an at the Islamic University)
Dr. Muhammad ibn Nasir al-Suhaibani (teacher at the Prophets Masjid)
Dr. Abdullah ibn Muhammad al-Ghunayman (former head of the department of higher studies at the Islamic University)