Ash’ari – What’s in a name?

One of the terms that are thrown around by some Muslims that like to label other Muslims is “Ash’ari”. Whenever I hear this term, or any term for that matter, being used to label any Muslim, my first reaction is revulsion, followed by the question: what do you mean by “Ash’ari”? I ask this question not to necessarily get an answer from the person. Rather, I’m looking to turn their attention to their manifested ignorance of the term they’re using. Before you form an idea that I’m siding with anyone, I ask the same question when someone uses the terms “Wahhabi”, “Salafi”, “Sufi”, or any other term for that matter. It’s typically a sign that an individual doesn’t know what a term means when they liberally use it to label many of their fellow Muslims, which is sadly just part of the calamity of this age; manifest ignorance and Googlism to the highest degree.

For those who are interested, I’ll take a few lines to display why when I ask the question “what do you mean by Ash’ari?”, I’m doing it to expose this person’s ignorance to himself.

In brief, Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari was a great scholar born in the year 260 AH in Basra, Iraq, during a time of great scholarship and erudition. During his time the Mu’tazilite group of scholars was the most elite and powerful. In fact, they got to such power at one point that the Muslim ruler at the time having adopted their school of thought began to persecute any scholar that rejected their school. For those who are not versed in this part of Muslim theological history, the Mu’tazilites was a group of scholars who put the intellect (Al Aql) as a judge over the transmission (An Naql). For example, if they read a verse or came across a transmitted narration from the Prophet peace be upon him, and it contradicted their intellectual understanding and logical processes, they would reject the verse or narration from the Prophet peace be upon him. On the surface their methodology and reasons for rejection of many things seemed completely logical to many of their followers. However, for reasons I won’t go into here, the Sunni scholars were able to logically refute their fallacious claims. For a great example refutation read Al Hai’da (الحيدة) by Imam Abdulaziz Al Kinani, who debated the most feared Mu’tazilite theologian of his time, Bishr Al Mareesi, and refuted him to a point that was laughable (l actually did laugh quite a bit when I read it!).

I will point out here that the Mu’tazilites utilized fear tactics and went as far as killing scholars that disagreed with them and ended up putting Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal in prison and tortured him because he would not adopt their theology. In fact, Imam Ahmed was given the title Imam Ahl As’ Sunna Wal Jama’a because of his courageous stance against them when literally all other Sunni scholars were too afraid to speak up. Their most commonly known theological claim is that the Quran was created, rather than being an attribute of God. The classic question they used to determine whether they persecuted a scholar was: what do you say about the Quran? To answer that it is the uncreated word of God meant torture, prison, and possible death. To answer that it is created by God meant safety from their tyranny!

The purpose of this short post is not to address all the different positions on certain theological issues that divided Muslims into the different theology schools. The issue regarding the Quran was one thing. Another contention that up to this day Muslims are, for a lack of a better word, fighting over is how to understand the ambiguous verses that deal with the attributes of God. If God wills it, I will write on this topic in the future. For now, what I’ve mentioned above was just a very ridiculously brief pre-emption to what I wanted to mention about Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari.

Imam Al Ash’ari was the most prominent theologian for the Mu’tazilites for about 40 years. In fact, one could say he was their head theologian that theorized and laid down many of their arguments. He then had what can only be described as an opening from God, in which all the fallacies in their arguments became manifest and clear to him. This caused him to rebel against the Mu’tazilite school and to spend a second and brief period of his life attacking them. In fact, he was using the Mu’tazilite school premises on many of their arguments to refute them. Finally, he entered his third, and what would be his last, phase of his theological evolution. This is when he settled on the creedal formula and theological understanding of God and His nature that was adopted by the pious predecessors. May be in a future post I’ll get into all the different schools and where they differed and based on what evidence they differed on. However, for now, and for the past and the future, I’ll keep quoting the narration of the Prophet peace be upon him:

من قال لا إله إلا الله دخل الجنة

Whoever says there is no God but the One True God, has entered Heaven

I’ll also quote the verse from the Quran where God says in Chapter 4, verse 48:

إن الله لا يغفر أن يشرك به ويغفر ما دون ذلك لمن يشاء ومن يشرك بالله فقد افترى إثما عظيما

Surely God does not forgive that anything should be associated with Him, and forgives what is besides that to whomsoever He pleases; and whoever associates anything with God, he devises indeed a great sin

As Imam Al Qurtubi mentions in his work Al Jami’ Li Ahkam Al Quran, this verse unequivocally makes it clear that so long as a person doesn’t associate partners with God, then he is in a position to receive forgiveness from God over any other sins he commits. This would include mistakes or misunderstandings in the branches of theology and creed that deviate from the consensus of the Muslim scholars over the past 1400 years. Unfortunately, when Muslims throw labels around, it serves as a first step to excommunicate fellow Muslims from being Sunni, which then can be followed by kicking them outside the folds of Islam, and that’s exactly how the Kharijites functioned historically.

Am I deluded to have thought that all Muslims are in fact Muslims? Why is it that so many of our fellow Muslims are so eager to excommunicate the rest from Islam? With all the problems we as Muslims have nowadays, and all the division we are already suffering through, it can be described as nothing less than a capital crime to label each other with names and titles that we don’t even understand. In fact, I’m sure if the Commander of the Believers Umar Ibn Al Khattab may God be pleased with him was around today, he would beat most of us with his stick for our behavior, and no one could blame him.

So if anyone tries to throw the label of Ash’ari on you, or on anyone else for that matter, just ask the question: what do you mean by Ash’ari?

One thought on “Ash’ari – What’s in a name?

  1. Al-salamu ‘alaykum. No doubt this is a thorny issue for some. It requires a lot of humility, sincerity and tawfiq. May Allah guide us all to the truth and keep us firm upon it!

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