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al-ASH'ARI, ABU 'l-HASAN, 'Ali b. Isma'il, theologian, and founder of the school of

orthodox theology which bears his name. He is said to have been born in t60/873-4 at Basra, and was ninth in descent from the Companion Abu Musa al-Ash'ari. Little is known of his life.


He was one of the best pupils of al-Dhubba'i, head of the Mu'tazila in Basra, and might have succeeded him, had he not left the Mu'tazila for the party of the orthodox traditionists (ahl al-sunna). This change or conversion is placed in 300/91t-3. In later life he moved to Baghdad, and died there in 3t4/935-6.


The story of al-Ash'ari's conversion is told with many variations of detail. Three times during the month of Ramadan he is said to have seen Muhammad in a vision, and to have been commanded to adhere to true Tradition. He regarded this vision as authoritative, and, since the traditionists disapproved of rational argument (kalam), he gave up this also. In the third vision, however, he was toldqto adhere to true Tradition but not to abandon kalam. Whatever be the truth of this story, it is a succinct account of al-Ash'ari's position. He abandoned the dogmatic theses of the Mu'tazila for those of opponents like Ahmad b. Hanbal, whom he professed to follow; but he defended his new beliefs by the type of rational argument which the Mu'tazila employed.


The chief points on which he opposed the doctrines of the Mu'tazila were:


(1)He held that God had eternal attributes such as knowledge, sight, speech, and that it was by these that He was knowing, seeing, speaking, whereas the Mu'tazila said that God had no attributes distinct from His essence.


(t) The Mu'tazila said that qur'anic expressions, such as God's hand and face, must be

interpreted to mean 'grace', 'essence' and so on. Al-Ash'ari, whilst agreeing that nothing

corporeal was meant, held that they were real attributes whose precise nature was unknown.

He took God's sitting on the throne in a similar way.


(3) Against the view of the Mu'tazila that the qur'an was created, al-Ash'ari maintained that it was God's speech, an eternal attribute, and therefore uncreated.


(4) In opposition to the view of the Mu'tazila that God could not literally be seen, since that would imply that He is corporeal and limited, al-Ash'ari held that the vision of God in the world to come is a reality, though we cannot understand the manner of it.


(5) In contrast to the emphasis of the Mu'tazila on the reality of choice in human activity,

al-Ash'ari insisted on God's omnipotence; everything, good and evil, is willed by God, and He creates the acts of men by creating in men the power to do each act. (The doctrine of 'acquisition' or kasb [q.v.], which was in later times characteristic of the Ash'ariyya, is commonly attributed to al-Ash'ari himself, but, though he was familiar with the concept, he does not appear to have held the doctrine himself; cf. JRAS, 1943, t46 f.).


(6) While the Mu'tazila with their doctrine of al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn held that any Muslim guilty of a serious sin was neither believer nor unbeliever, al-Ash'ari insisted that he remained a believer, but was liable to punishment in the Fire.


(7) Al-Ash'ari maintained the reality of various eschatological features, the Basin, the Bridge, the Balance and intercession by Muhammad, which were denied or rationally interpreted by the Mu'tazila.


Al-Ash'ari was not the first to try to apply kalam or rational argument to the defence of orthodox doctrine; among those who had made similar attempts earlier was al-Harith b. Asad al-Muhasibi. Al-Ash'ari, however, seems to have been the first to do this in a way acceptable a large body of orthodox opinion. He had the advantage, too, of having an intimate and detailed knowledge of the views of the Mu'tazila (as is shown by his descriptive work, Maqalat al-Islamiyyin, Istanbul, 19t9; cf. R. Strothmann, in Islam, xix, 193-t4t). His many followers came to be known as the Ash'ariyya [q.v.] or Asha'ira, though they mostly deviated from him on some points.


To a European reader his argumentation differs little at first sight from that of the

ultra-conservative followers of Ahmad b. Hanbal, since many of his proofs depend on the

interpretation of qur'an and Tradition (cf. A. J. Wensinck, Muslim Creed, Cambridge, 193t, 91).

This, however, was because his opponents also, including even the Mu'tazila,qused proofs of this sort, and he was always arguing ad hominem. Yet when opponents would admit a purely rational premiss, al-Ash'ari had no hesitation in using it to refuse them. Once the permissibility of such arguments was established, at least for many theologians, it was possible for the Ash'ariyya to develop this side of his method until in later centuries theology became thoroughly intellectualistic. This, however, was far removed from the temper of al-Ash'ari himself.

(W. Montgomery Watt)



Al-Luma' and Risalat Istihsan al-khawd fi 'Ilm al-Kalam, ed. and tr. by R. C. McCarthy, Beirut

1953, The Theology of al-Ash'ari; al-Ibana, Hyderabad 13t1, etc. and Cairo 1348, tr. by W. C.

Klein, New Haven 1940 (cf. W. Thomson in MW, xxxii, t4t-60)


Ibn 'Asakir, Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari, Damascus 1347 (summarised in McCarthy, op. cit., and

A. F. Mehren in Travaux of 3rd Internat. Congress of Orientalists, ii, 167-33t)


W. Spitta, Zur Geschichte ... al-A'ari's, Leipzig 1876


Goldziher, Vorlesungent, 11t-3t


D. B. Macdonald, Development of Muslim Theology, New York 1903


A. S. Tritton, Muslim Theology, London 1947, 166-74, with further references


W. Montgomery Watt, Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam, London 1948, 135-50


L. Gardet et M. M. Anawati, Introduction a la Theologie Musulmane, Paris 1948, 5t-60


J. Schacht, in Studia Islamica, i, 33 ff.



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Source: from the Encyclopedia of Islam -- 1999 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands

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