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The Ashʿari theology (Arabic الأشاعرة al-asha`irah) is a school of early Muslim speculative theology founded by the theologian Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 324 AH / 936 AD). The disciples of the school are known as Ash'arites, and the school is also referred to as Ash'arite school.

It was instrumental in drastically changing the direction of Islamic theology, separating its development radically from that of theology in the Christian world.



In contrast to the Mutazilite school of Islamic theology, the Asharite view was that comprehension of unique nature and characteristics of God were beyond human capability. And that, while man had free will, he had no power to create anything. It was a taqlid ("faith" or "imitation") based view which did not assume that human reason could discern morality. This doctrine is now known as occasionalism. However, a critical spirit of inquiry was far from absent in the Asharite school. Rather, they did not believe that human reason in and by itself was capable of establishing with absolute certainty any truth-claim, be it with respect to morality, the physical world, or metaphysical ideas.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Asharites (or "traditionalists") were not completely traditionalist and anti-rationalist, nor were the Mutazilites (or "rationalists") completely rationalist and anti-traditionalist, as the Asharites did depend on rationality and the Mutazilites did depend on tradition. Their goals were the same, to affirm the transcendence and unity of God, but their doctrines were different, with the Asharites supporting an Islamic occasionalist doctrine and the Mutazilites supporting an Islamic metaphysics influenced by Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism. For Asharites, taqlid only applied to the Islamic tradition and not to any other, whereas for Mutazilites, taqlid applied equally to both the Islamic and Aristotelian-Neoplatonic traditions. In his introduction to Al-Ghazālī’s The Decisive Criterion of Distinction Between Unbelief and Masked Infidelity, Sherman Jackson writes:[1]

Meanwhile, rationalist writings reflect a clear and sustained recognition of the authority of the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic tradition, including the propriety of following it by way of taqlīd. Traditionalists, on the other hand, use reason – even aspects of Aristotelian reason – but they do not recognize the tradition of Aristotelian reason as an ultimate authority.

Promoting figures



Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari was noted for his teachings on atomism, among the earliest Islamic philosophies, and for al-Ash'ari this was the basis for propagating a deterministic view that Allah created every moment in time and every particle of matter. Thus cause and effect was an illusion. He nonetheless believed in free will, elaborating the thoughts of Dirar ibn Amr' and Abu Hanifa into a "dual agent" or "acquisition" (iktisab) account of free will.[2]

While al-Ash'ari was opposed to the views of the Mu'tazili school for its over-emphasis on reason, he was also opposed to the views of certain orthodox schools such as the Zahiri (literalist), Mujassimite (anthropomorphist) and Muhaddithin (traditionalist) schools for their over-emphasis on taqlid (imitation) in his Istihsan al‑Khaud:[3]

"A section of the people (i.e., the Zahirites and other orthodox people) made capital out of their own ignorance; discussions and rational thinking about matters of faith became a heavy burden for them, and, therefore, they became inclined to blind faith and blind following (taqlid). They condemned those who tried to rationalize the principles of religion as `innovators.' They considered discussion about motion, rest, body, accident, colour, space, atom, the leaping of atoms, and attributes of God, to be an innovation and a sin. They said that had such discussions been the right thing, the Prophet and his Companions would have definitely done so; they further pointed out that the Prophet, before his death, discussed and fully explained all those matters which were necessary from the religious point of view, leaving none of them to be discussed by his followers; and since he did not discuss the problems mentioned above, it was evident that to discuss them must be regarded as an innovation."


Despite being named after Ash'ari, the most influential work of this school's thought was The Incoherence of the Philosophers, by the Persian polymath al-Ghazali (d. 1111). He was a pioneer of the methods of doubt and skepticism,[4] and he changed the course of early Islamic philosophy, shifting it away from an Islamic metaphysics influenced by ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and towards an Islamic philosophy based on cause-and-effect that were determined by God or intermediate angels, a theory now known as occasionalism.

He is famous for defending the theory of occasionalism using logic. Al-Ghazali famously claimed that when fire and cotton are placed in contact, the cotton is burned directly by God rather than by the fire, a claim which he defended using logic. He argued that because God is usually seen as rational, rather than arbitrary, his behaviour in normally causing events in the same sequence (ie, what appears to us to be efficient causation) can be understood as a natural outworking of that principle of reason, which we then describe as the laws of nature. Properly speaking, however, these are not laws of nature but God's habits, which he could change anytime.

Al-Ghazali nevertheless expresses support for a scientific methodology based on demonstration and mathematics, while discussing astronomy. After describing the scientific facts of the solar eclipse resulting from the Moon coming between the Sun and Earth and the lunar eclipse from the Earth coming between the Sun and Moon, he writes:[1]

Whosoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations, geometrical and arithmetical, that leave no room for doubt.

Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a philosopher, famously responded that "to say that philosophers are incoherent is itself to make an incoherent statement." Ibn Rushd's book, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, attempted to refute Al-Ghazali's views. Though the work was not well received in the Muslim community, Averroism went on to have a profound influence in European thought.[5]

Al-Ghazali also wrote The Revival of the Religious Sciences in Islam, a cornerstone of the Ashari school's thinking. It combined theology, skepticism, mysticism, Islam and other conceptions, discussed in depth in the article on Islamic philosophy.

Other figures

Other works of universal history from al-Tabari, al-Masudi, Ibn al-Athir, and Ibn Khaldun himself, were quite influential in what we now call archaeology and ethnology. They worked in a relatively modern style that historians of the present would recognize.

Influence and modern assessment

The influence of the Asharites is still hotly debated today. It was commonly believed that the Asharites put an end to philosophy as such in the Muslim world, with the death of Averroes at the end of the 12th century. While philosophy did indeed decline in the western Islamic world (Al-Andalus and the Maghreb), recent research has shown that philosophy continued long after in the eastern Islamic world (Persia and India), where the Avicennian, Illuminationist and Sufi schools predominated, until Islamic philosophy reached its zenith with Mulla Sadra's existentialist school of transcendent theosophy in the 17th century.[8][9]

The 12th to 14th centuries marked the peak of innovation in Muslim civilization, and this continued through to the 16th century. During this period many remarkable achievements in science, engineering and social organization were made, while the ulema began to generate a fiqh based on taqlid ("imitation based on authority") rather than on the old ijtihad. Eventually, however, modern historians think that lack of improvements in basic processes and confusion with theology and law degraded methods. The rigorous means by which the Asharites had reached their conclusions were largely forgotten by Muslims before the Renaissance, due in large part to the success of their effort to subordinate inquiry to a prior ethics - and assume ignorance was the norm for humankind.

Modern commentators blame or laud Asharites for curtailing much of the Islamic world's innovation in sciences and technology, then leading the world. This innovation was not in general revived in the West until the Renaissance, and emergence of scientific method - which was based on traditional Islamic methods of ijtihad and isnad (backing or scientific citation). The Asharites did not reject these, amongst the ulema or learned, but they stifled these in the mosque and discouraged their application by the lay public.

The Asharites may have succeeded in laying the groundwork for a stable empire, and for subordinating philosophy as a process to fixed notions of ethics derived directly from Islam - perhaps this even improved the quality of life of average citizens. But it seems the historical impact was to yield the initiative of Western civilization to Christians in Europe.

Others, however, argue that the Asharites not only did not reject scientific methods, but indeed promoted them. Ziauddin Sardar points out that some of the greatest Muslim scientists, such as Ibn al-Haytham and Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī who were pioneers of scientific method, were themselves followers of the orthodox Ash'ari school of Islamic theology.[6] Like other Asharites who believed that faith or taqlid should only apply to Islam and not to any ancient Hellenistic authorities,[1] Ibn al-Haytham's view that taqlid should only apply to prophets of Islam and not to any other authorities formed the basis for much of his scientific skepticism and criticism against Ptolemy and other ancient authorities in his Doubts Concerning Ptolemy and Book of Optics.[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Anwar, Sabieh (October 2008), "Is Ghazālī really the Halagu of Science in Islam?", Monthly Renaissance 18 (10),, retrieved 2008-10-14  
  2. ^ Watt, Montgomery. Free-Will and Predestination in Early Islam. Luzac & Co.: London 1948.
  3. ^ M. Abdul Hye, Ph.D, Ash’arism, Philosophia Islamica.
  4. ^ Najm, Sami M. (July-October 1966), "The Place and Function of Doubt in the Philosophies of Descartes and Al-Ghazali", Philosophy East and West 16 (3-4): 133–41  
  5. ^ Ahmad, Jamil (September 1994), "Ibn Rushd", Monthly Renaissance 4 (9),, retrieved 2008-10-14  
  6. ^ a b c Sardar, Ziauddin (1998), "Science in Islamic philosophy", Islamic Philosophy, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, retrieved 2008-02-03  
  7. ^ H. Salih, M. Al-Amri, M. El Gomati (2005), "The Miracle of Light", A World of Science 3 (3), UNESCO
  8. ^ Nasr, Seyyed Hossein; Oliver Leaman (1996). History of Islamic Philosophy. Routledge. p. 35. ISBN 0415131596.  
  9. ^ Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (2006). Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of prophecy. SUNY Press. pp. 87–8. ISBN 0791467996.  
  10. ^ Rashed, Roshdi (2007), "The Celestial Kinematics of Ibn al-Haytham", Arabic Sciences and Philosophy (Cambridge University Press) 17: 7–55, doi:10.1017/S0957423907000355  

External links

  • (Arabic)Hamad as-Sinnan, Fawzi al-'Anjari with Approvals from Dr al-Buti and Habib Ali al-Jifri Kitab Ahl as-Sunnah al-Asha'irah [1]


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