AŠʿARĪ, ABU’L-ḤASAN ʿALĪ B. ESMĀʿĪL B. ESḤĀQ, scholastic theologian (motakallem) and founder of the theological school of the Ašʿarīya or Ašāʿera (ca. 260/874 to 324/936).
He was born in Baṣra, a descendant of the famous companion of the Prophet and arbitrator at Ṣeffīn for ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, Abū Mūsā Ašʿarī, and for the first forty years of his life he was a zealous supporter of the Muʿtazilites (q.v.) and the favored pupil of their leader in Baṣra, Abū ʿAlī Moḥammad Jobbāʾī (d. 303/915-16), whom he might well have succeeded as head of the seat there. However, at about the age of forty (i.e., in ca. 300/912-13—unless this date has been selected by Ašʿarī’s later biographers to fit the idea expressed by Ebn ʿAsāker that Ašʿarī was the moǰadded or “reviver of religion” for the 4th/10th century) he abandoned the doctrines of the Muʿtazilites for a much more conservative theological position akin to that of the Ahl al-ḥadīṯ wa’l-sonna and the imam Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. It has been suggested by Montgomery Watt (Islamic Philosophy, p. 82) that a certain rivalry with Jobbāʾī’s son (and eventual successor in Baṣra) Abū Hāšem may conceivably have been a factor in Ašʿarī’s decision to seek fame and influence in another theological school, but the basic reason seems to have been a genuine change and evolution in his theological views, signaled in the accounts of the sources by a Pauline-type conversion after three dreams in which the Prophet appeared to him and indicated the correct way of belief—a story which may well contain some symbolic truth. A feeling seems to have arisen that the Muʿtazilite attempts to explain such basic theological problems like the createdness or uncreatedness of the Koran, free will and predestination, God’s necessary justice or the purely capricious nature of His actions, God’s attributes, etc., by rational arguments were spiritually and intellectually unsatisfactory. Ašʿarī therefore moved now to the traditionalist Sunni position in upholding the superiority of revelation to reason, basically that of such conservative founding fathers of Islamic theology as Mālek b. Anas and Ebn Ḥanbal.
Ašʿarī now spent the remaining years of his life engaged in developing his views and in composing polemics and arguments against his former Muʿtazilite colleagues. The Ašʿarī scholar Ebn Fūrak numbers these at 300, and a biographer like Ebn Ḵallekān at 55 (Beirut, III, p. 286, tr. de Slane, II, p. 228); Ebn ʿAsāker gives the titles of 93 of them, but only a handful of these works, in the fields of heresiography and theology, have survived. The three main ones are his Maqālāt al-eslāmīyīn (ed. H. Ritter, Istanbul, 1929-30), which comprises not only an account of the Islamic sects but also an examination of problems in kalām, or scholastic theology, and of the names and attributes of God; the greater part of this work seems to have been completed before his conversion from the Muʿtazilites. His Ketāb al-lomaʿ (ed. and tr. R. C. McCarthy, Beirut, 1953) and his last work Ketāb al-ebāna ʿan oṣūl al-dīāna (tr. W. C. Klein, New Haven, 1940) are expositions of his developed theological views and arguments against Muʿtazilite doctrines.
Ašʿarī’s significance in the development of Muslim theology is that he adopted a conservative position on the supreme importance of the Koran and revelation, but defended them with the new weapon, learnt from the Muʿtazilites, of rational argument or kalām, being apparently the first scholar to make such argumentation congenial to the traditionalist scholars. Much of his writings consists of arguments from the Koran and tradition, but in fact these are handled with the new technique of rational reasoning, all in the service of emphasizing God’s transcendence and omnipotence. Ašʿarī therefore marks a slight ebbing of the first period of the reception of Hellenism and philosophy into Islam at its formative period; changes had been made in the fabric of Islamic thought, and some of these were irreversible, but Ašʿarī ameliorated them and made them palatable to the mainstream of Sunni thinking.
After his death, such followers in Iraq and Iran as Ṣoʿlūkī, Bāqellānī, Ebn Furāk, Esfarāyenī, Qošayrī, and the Emām-al-ḥaramayn Abu’l-Maʿālī Jovaynī carried on Ašʿarī’s work and made Asḥʿarism, linked with the conservative Shafeʿite school of feqh, a dominant intellectual force in the central and eastern lands of Islam (Ašʿarī’s own legal affiliation is uncertain, though most later authorities attach him to the Shafeʿites), and it was eventually even carried to the Maḡreb through the enthusiasm of Ebn Tūmart, the Mahdī of the Almohad movement in the 6th/12th century; a substantial proportion of the leading thinkers of the Islamic world at this time were followers of the Ašʿarī kalām. Within Iran, Asḥʿarism became a powerful and influential force among the olamāʾ of Nīšāpūr, contending amongst them for dominance with the rival Ḥanafī madḫab (for details, see C. E. Bosworth, The Ghaznavids, pp. 173ff.; R. W. Bulliet, The Patricians of Nishapur: A Study in Medieval Islamic Social History, Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 36ff.; H. Halm, Die Ausbreitung der šāfiʿitischen Rechtsschule von den Anfangen bis zum 8./14. Jahrhundert, Wiesbaden, 1974, pp. 32ff.). Although it was under a cloud during the period of the Daylamī Buyids, adherents of Shiʿism and sympathizers with the Muʿtazilites, and was even mildly persecuted by the Saljuq Ṭoḡrïl Beg’s vizier, the Ḥanafī Abū Naṣr Kondorī, Asḥʿarism came into royal favor in the reign of Malekšāh through the influence of the latter’s great vizier Neẓām-al-molk, himself a product of the Asḥʿarite-Shafeʿite scholarly tradition in Nīšāpūr. These doctrines now became the official teaching in the network of madrasas established, from Syria to Transoxania, by Neẓām-al-molk, and a further fillip was given to their prestige by the adherence to them of Ḡazālī.
The extant manuscripts of Ašʿarī’s works, plus editions of the texts and studies on his works, are listed most fully in Sezgin, GAS I, pp. 602-04.
See also Brockelmann, GAL I, pp. 207-08; S. I, pp. 345-46; in both of these are listed the entries on him in the medieval biographical writers (Ḵaṭīb Baḡdādī, Ebn ʿAsāker, Ebn Ḵallekān, Tāǰ-al-dīn Sobkī, Ebn al-ʿEmād, etc.).
Important works amongst the extensive secondary literature include D. B. Macdonald, The Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence, and Constitutional Theory, New York, 1903, pp. 187ff., 207ff. and index.
I. Goldziher, Vorlesungen über den Islam, Heidelberg, 1910, pp. 110ff.; tr. A. and R. Hamori, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, Princeton, 1981, pp. 95ff.
A. J. Wensinck, The Muslim Creed, Cambridge, 1932, index.
A. S. Tritton, Muslim Theology, London, 1947, pp. 167-76 and index.
L. Gardet and G. C. Anawati, Introduction à la théologie musulmane, essai de théologie comparée, Paris, 1948, pp. 52-62.
W. Montgomery Watt, Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam, London, 1948, pp. 135-62 and index.
Idem in EI2 I, pp. 694-95.
Idem, Islamic Philosophy and Theology, Edinburgh, 1962, pp. 82-90.
Idem, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, Edinburgh, 1973, pp. 303-18.
G. Makdisi, “Asḥʿarī and the Asḥʿarites,” Stud. Isl. 17, 1962, pp. 37-80; 18, 1963, pp. 19-39.
(C. E. Bosworth)
Originally Published: December 15, 1987
Last Updated: August 16, 2011
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Vol. II, Fasc. 7, pp. 702-703