AŠʿARĪYA (or Asḥʿarism), an Islamic school of theological thought founded by Abu’l-Ḥasan Ašʿarī. In accord with the division of disciplines taught in the madrasas, the bio-bibliographers of Islam are wont in kalām to characterize an impressive number of scholars as Asḥʿarites, just as in feqh they specify scholars’ adherence to one or the other of the four great legal schools (maḏāheb). One is therefore inclined to think of the Ašʿarīya likewise as a well-defined school. But its self-conception as universalist Muslim, and the still continuing discussion of the specialists about its common identity, require that significant differences be kept in mind: 1. The Ašʿarīya is primarily concerned with subtleties of doctrine, not with the legal practices that give the maḏāheb their obvious individualities. 2. Abu’l-Ḥasan Ašʿarī and his writings play a less influential role in the Ašʿarīya than, by comparison, the founders of the maḏāheb, or other schools, and their works. 3. Association with the Ašʿarīya is not based on specific texts or a set of principles, but on affinity with its reasoned spirit of compromise, hence a loose spiritual bond. But by analogy, e.g., with the Augustinian or Thomist theological schools of the Latin Middle Ages, we may speak of the Ašʿarīya as a theological school of Islam. Whether Ašʿarī is not merely the school’s eponym chosen by his later followers, but also its true founder, has always been, and probably will remain, a hotly discussed question, since most of his works are no longer extant and little is known about the first phase of the Asḥʿarite movement.
Although sagacious scholars before Ašʿarī had already proposed essentially the same solutions, and although the number of his first followers was small (Ebn ʿAsāker, Tabyīn kāḏeb al-moftarī, Damascus, 1347/1928, p. 397), careful analysis of the writings of some later Asḥʿarites has brought to light the seminal influence of Ašʿarī’s teachings. It was his personal discovery (leading to his conversion from the Muʿtazilites) that the two dangerously polarized tendencies which threatened to rip the Muslim community apart could be joined through a mutually beneficial connection: On the one hand there would be a strict adherence to the traditions of the forefathers (especially emphasized by the Hanbalites), on the other a good measure of independent reasoning usually resulting from enthusiastic application of the principles and methods learnt from foreign savants (chiefly the Muʿtazilite line). This compromise became the rallying program of the numerous scholars over the centuries who chose to follow Ašʿarī, regardless of individual doctrinal differences. Its inherent difficulty often made them suspect as double-faced.
Characteristic teachings. The Ašʿarite program branches out into a number of characteristic teachings differing only in details from one author to the other. (a) Reality of Allāh’s attributes. Against the Muʿtazilites, who endeavored to purify theology from anthropomorphism by divesting Allāh of all attributes (taʿṭīl), Ašʿarī and his followers insisted on the reality of the revealed attributes. They are eternal as Allāh himself, but they are neither identical with His essence, nor altogether different from it. The Koran, too, is, as Allāh’s speech, eternal and uncreated. (b) But no anthropomorphism. Against the Ḥašwīya the Asḥʿarites denied that the anthropomorphic attributes implying bodily existence have the same meaning for Creator and creation. Hence interpretation (taʾwīl) of the revealed texts is necessary. (c) Man’s responsibility for his acts which are, nevertheless, part of Allāh’s creation (against the Muʿtazilites and the Jabarites). Allāh is the sole Creator, hence also of man’s acts, but man is given the possibility of acquiring (kasb) his acts and thus becoming responsible for them. (d) Man’s vision of Allāh in the future life (against the Muʿtazilites and the Jabarites). Allāh will be truly seen by man in his future life, but independently from the conditions of earthly vision, in the manner He sees His creatures.
Historical function. Ašʿarī was an excellent debater, and his followers appear to have developed their theories mostly on the occasion of dialogues with contemporary scholars. As a result Asḥʿarite thought is strongly influenced by the intellectual and social conditions of the time and is meant to act upon them. This explains why sometimes the emphasis on the traditions prevails and other times the emphasis on rational views, depending on the sectarian exaggerations of the opponents. But in the long run rational and even philosophical arguments acquired the upper hand. Ašʿarī himself had mostly battled with the Muʿtazilites in 4th/10th century Baṣra and Baghdad. Although against the Persian Ahvāzī he is put forward as a true Arab (Ebn ʿAsāker, op. cit., p. 364), his most famous followers came from Persia. They brought with them the problems at issue there and established the strong position of the school among the new forces. Bāqellānī (d. 403/1013) can almost be regarded as the second founder of the school, since he introduced such rational foundations as atomism, the existence of the void, etc. (Ebn Ḵaldūn, Moqaddema, Paris, 1958, III, p. 40); he still lived in Baghdad (and died there) but also traveled to Shiraz. Ebn Fūrak (d. 406/1015) and Esfarāyenī (d. 418/1027), his fellow-students under Bāhelī in Baghdad, both originated from Persia and returned there to dispute with the Karrāmīya sect and spread Asḥʿarite teachings. Through Ebn Fūrak, who also attracted Sufis to his lectures, among them Qošayrī, Asḥʿarite thought began its fruitful union with mystical experience which reached its peak in Ḡazālī (d. 505/1111).
In 5th/11th-century Persia the Ašʿarīya at first had to struggle hard to gain a foothold; in Nīšāpūr the founder and his school were even publicly cursed (in 445/1053). The Muʿtazilites appear to have become an even more dangerous enemy in Persia than earlier at the court in Baghdad because of their factual alliance with Shiʿism. Probably they left their imprints on the rather philosophical vocabulary of the orthodox Mātorīdīya school as well. But the spirit of compromise gave the Ašʿarīya greater influence with the masses and consequently also with the new Saljuq administration. By building schools for its great teachers the vizier Neẓām-al-molk effectively helped to establish the Ašʿarīya as the dominating representative of orthodox Muslim thought. The Ašʿarīya proved its own internal strength by producing its greatest thinkers just when the external conditions were most favorable: Abu’l-Maʿālī Jovaynī Emām-al-ḥaramayn (d. 478/1085-86) and Abū Ḥāmed Ḡazālī (d. 505/1111), who formed Islamic thought for centuries. According to Ebn Ḵaldūn it was Ḡazālī who reformed kalām by introducing the “method of the moderns” (Moqaddema III, p. 41), i.e., recourse to philosophy, and especially employment of the Aristotelian syllogism in its stringent form. This new method was so eagerly adopted by such later Asḥʿarites as Moḥammad Šahrestānī (d. 548/1153), Faḵr-al-dīn Rāzī (d. 606/1210), ʿAżod-al-dīn ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Īǰī (d. 756/1355), and ʿAlī b. Moḥammad Jorǰānī (d. 816/1413), that philosophical and scientific views could freely enter into Asḥʿarite thought and even become predominant.
For editions and translations of works by Asḥʿarite authors, see the bibliographies under their names.
Secondary sources: M. Allard, Le problème des attributs divins dans la doctrine d’al-Ašʿarī et de ses premiers grands disciples (Recherches, vol. 28), Beirut, 1965.
Idem, “En quoi consiste l’opposition faite à al-Asḥʿarī par ses contemporains hanbalites?” in REI 28, 1960, pp. 93-105.
R. Brunschvig, “Muʿtazilisme et Ašʿarisme à Baġdād,” Arabica 9, 1962, pp. 345-56.
L. Gardet and M. -M. Anawati, Introduction à la théologie musulmane (Ētudes de philosophie médiévale, vol. 37), Paris, 1948, (2nd ed., 1970), pp. 52-76.
I. Goldziher, Vorlesungen über den Islam, 2nd ed., Heidelberg, 1925, pp. 71-132.
G. Makdisi, “Asḥʿarī and the Asḥʿarites in Islamic Religious History,” Stud. Isl. 17, 1962, pp. 37-80; 18, 1963, pp. 19-39.
R. J. McCarthy, The Theology of Al-Asḥʿarī, Beirut, 1953 (with a summary of Ebn ʿAsāker’s Tabyīn).
L. Rubio, “II. Los Asʿaries, teólogos especulativos, Mutakállimes del Islam, considerados generalmente como los teólogos ortodoxos. Su doctrina de la causalidad,” Ciudad de Dios 190, 1977, pp. 535-605.
J. Schacht, “New Sources for the History of Muhammadan Theology,” Stud. Isl. 1, 1953, pp. 23-42.
M. Schreiner, “Zur Geschichte des Ašʿaritenthums,” Actes du 8e Congrès des orientalistes, Leiden, 1893, I, pp. 77-117.
J. van Ess, Die Erkenntnislehre des ʿAḍudaddīn al-Īcī, Wiesbaden, 1966.
W. M. Watt. “Asḥʿariyya,” EI2 I, p. 696.
Originally Published: December 15, 1987
Last Updated: August 16, 2011
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