Imam Abu‘l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari

Imam Abu‘l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari

by Dr. Gibril Fouad Haddad

‘Ali ibn Isma‘il ibn Abi Bishr Ishaq ibn Salim, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari al-Yamani al-Basri al-Baghdadi (260-324), a descendent of the Yemeni Companion Abu Musa al-Ash`ari, was in the first half of his scholarly career a disciple of the Mu`tazili teacher Abu `Ali al-Jubba’i, whose doctrines he abandoned in his fortieth year after asking him a question al-Jubba’i failed to resolve over the issue of the supposed divine obligation to abandon the good for the sake of the better (al-sâlih wa al-aslah). At that time he adopted the doctrines of the sifatiyya, those of Ahl al-Sunna who assert that the divine Attributes are obligatorily characterized by perfection, unchanging, and without beginning, but He is under no obligation whatsoever to abandon the good for the sake of the better. He left Basra and came to Baghdad, and took fiqh from the Shafi`i jurist Abu Ishaq al-Marwazi (d. 340). He devoted the next twenty-four years to the refutation of "the Mu`tazila, the Rafida, the Jahmiyya, the Khawarij, and the rest of the various kinds of innovators" in the words of al-Khatib. His student Bundar related that his yearly expenditure was a meager seventeen dirhams.

Among al-Ash`ari’s books up to the year 320 as listed by himself in al-`Umad ("The Supports"):

 Among al-Ash`ari’s books between the year 320 and his death in 324 as listed by Ibn Furak:

After listing the above titles, Ibn `Asakir says: "I have seen other works not mentioned by Ibn Furak in his list." He then proceeds to list the following:

Ibn `Asakir then mentions that al-Ash`ari’s works number over two or three hundred books. As for the epistle entitled Istihsan al-Khawd fi `Ilm al-Kalam, al-Ash`ari most likely wrote it – provided he actually authored it – before his conversion, since it is ostensibly directed against the Hanbalis and uses markedly Mu`tazili terminology such as "divine Oneness and Justice" (al-tawhîd wa al-`adl) in reference to the fundamentals of belief.


The Corrupt Text of al-Ash`ari’s al-Ibana

The above lists exclude al-Ash`ari’s al-Ibana `an Usul al-Diyana but Ibn `Asakir explicitly attributes it to him in the first few pages of Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari, an attribution confirmed by al-Bayhaqi, Abu al-`Abbas al-`Iraqi, Abu `Uthman al-Sabuni, and other hadith masters. The book dates from the beginnings of al-Ash`ari’s Sunni career according to a report narrated by Ibn Abi Ya`la in Tabaqat al-Hanabila and adduced by al-Dhahabi in the Siyar. The report is phrased rather oddly since it depicts a fawning Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash`ari visiting the Hanbali Abu Muhammad al-Barbahari upon entering Baghdad and enumerating before him his refutations of the Mu`tazila and defense of Ahl al-Sunna in order to win his approval, to which al-Barbahari coolly responds: "We only know what Ahmad ibn Hanbal said." "Whereupon," the report continues, "al-Ash`ari went out and wrote al-Ibana but they [the Hanbalis] did not accept it from him." Al-Dhahabi cites this report at the opening of his biographical notice on al-Barbahari in the Siyar directly following the extremely brief notice on Imam al-Ash`ari. Apart from its obviously Hanbali-biased terms, the report clearly shows that al-Ash`ari composed the Ibana upon first coming to Baghdad or shortly thereafter. Shaykh Wahbi Ghawiji cites a statement explicitly confirming this date from Imam Abu al-Hasan `Ali ibn Ibrahim al-Muqri (Ibn Matar) who died in the year 306: "Imam al-Ash`ari composed it in Baghdad upon entering it."

However, despite the authenticity of al-Ash`ari’s authorship, the text of the Ibana itself has undoubtedly not reached us in its original authentic form but in a corrupted version which comprises interpolations along two main ideological slants:

(1) the anthropomorphist interpretation of the divine Attributes and

(2) the apostatizing of Imam Abu Hanifa for supposedly holding, with the Jahmiyya, that the Qur’an was created.

Shaykh Wahbi Sulayman Ghawiji has shown in his analysis of the work entitled Nazra `Ilmiyya fi Nisba Kitab al-Ibana Jami`ihi ila al-Imam al-Ash`ari ("A Scientific Look at the Attribution of al-Ibana in Its Entirety to Imam al-Ash`ari") that these two stances are contradicted by what is known of al-Ash`ari’s authentic positions in his and his students’ works.

The anthropomorphist interpretation of the divine Attributesis illustrated by the following examples:

The passage: "[Our position is] that He has two eyes (`aynayn) without saying how; just as He stated: That ran under Our eyes (a`yuninâ) (54:14)." Ibn `Asakir’s citation of the same passage in the Tabyin states: "[Our position is] that He has an eye (`aynan) without saying how." A recent edition of the Ibana consequently amended its own tradition to follow the text cited by Ibn `Asakir since the evidence of the Qur’an and the Sunna mentions My Eye (`aynî) (20:39) in the singular and Our Eyes (52:48, 54:14) in the plural but never two eyes in the dual. Further down in all versions of the Ibana the text states: "Allah Almighty and Exalted has said that He possesses a face and an eye which is neither given modality nor defined."

The passage: "When supplicating, the Muslims raise their hands toward the sky, because Allah Almighty and Exalted is established (mustawin) over the Throne which is above the heavens… The Muslims all say: `O Dweller of the Throne’ (yâ sâkin al-`arsh)!" This kind of faulty reasoning can hardly come from al-Ash`ari for the following reasons:

The Attributes are divinely ordained (tawqîfiyya) and al-Ash`ari considers it impermissible to make up or derive new terms such as mustawin and sâkin al-`arsh if there is no verse or authentic hadith transmitting them verbatim: "My method in the acceptance of the Names of Allah is Law-based authorization without regard to lexical analogy."

The argument of supplication on the basis of location leads to placing Allah Almighty and Exalted inside the Ka`ba according to the same logic, an absurd impossibility.

The claim that "the Muslims all say: `O Dweller of the Throne’" is unheard of. Yet Ibn Taymiyya cites it and attempts to justify it with the narration: "Allah created seven heavens then chose the uppermost and dwelt in it," adducing a condemned report to support an invented phrase!

Three editions of the Ibana have, "O Dweller of the heaven (yâ sâkin al-`samâ’)" which further casts doubt on the integrity of the text in addition to being equally anthropomorphist.

The passage: "If we are asked: `Do you say that Allah has two hands?’ The answer is: We do say that, without saying `how.’ It is indicated by the saying of Allah Almighty and Exalted The Hand of Allah is above their hands (48:10) and His saying that which I have created with both My hands (38:75). It was also narrated from the Prophet – Allah bless and greet him – that he said: `Allah created Adam with His hand then He wiped his back with His hand and brought out of it his offspring.’ So it is established that He has two hands without saying how. And the transmitted report reached us from the Prophet – Allah bless and greet him – that `Allah created Adam with Hand, created the Garden of `Adn with His hand, wrote the Torah with His hand, and planted the tree of Tuba with His hand,’ that is: with the hand of His power (ay biyadi qudratih)." The last clause contradicts the entire reasoning that precedes and follows, and is actually suppressed from the latest edition of the Ibana! The text further states: "They say: `the hands’ (al-ayd) are the strength (al-quwwa), so the meaning of with both My hands has to be `with My power’ (bi qudratî). The answer to them is: That interpretation is wrong." Al-Ash`ari’s actual position on the Attribute of hand according to Ibn `Asakir is: "Al-Ash`ari took the middle road [between the Mu`tazila and the anthropomorphists] and said: His hand is an Attribute and His face is an Attribute, just like His hearing and His sight."

The following passage is missing from two of the editions of al-Ibana but is found in two others: "And [we believe] that He established Himself over the Throne in the sense that He said and the meaning that He wills in a way that transcends touch, settlement, fixity, immanence, and displacement. The Throne does not carry him, rather the Throne and its carriers are carried by the subtleness of His power, subdued under His grip. He is above the Throne and the Heavens and above everything to the limits of the earth with an aboveness which does not bring Him nearer to the Throne and the Heavens, just as it does not make Him further from the earth. Rather, He is Highly Exalted above the Throne and the Heavens, just as He is Highly Exalted above the earth. Nevertheless, He is near to every entity and is (nearer to [the worshipper] than his jugular vein) and He witnesses everything."

2. The apostatizing of Imam Abu Hanifa for supposedly holding, with the Jahmiyya, that the Qur’an was created. Imam al-Tahawi stated that Abu Hanifa held the opposite position in his Mu`taqad Abi Hanifa or "Abu Hanifa’s Creed," also known as the `Aqida Tahawiyya. Nor did al-Ash`ari mention Abu Hanifa in the chapter on those who held the Qur’an was created in his Maqalat al-Islamiyyin. Al-Ash`ari lived in Baghdad – the seat of the Caliphate and home of the Hanafi school – at a time the Hanafi school had long been the state creed and would probably have been executed or exiled for making such a charge. Furthermore, al-Bayhaqi stated that "al-Ash`ari used to defend the positions of the past Imams such as Abu Hanifa and Sufyan al-Thawri among the Kufans." The charge of the Ibana is therefore almost certainly a later interpolation, as enmity against the Imam al-A`zam and his school and followers typifies fanatic Hanbalis and their "Salafi" successors.

There are also blatant errors which al-Ash`ari the heresiographer and former Mu`tazili would never commit, such as the attribution to the Mu`tazila as a whole of the belief that Allah Almighty and Exalted is everywhere, when he himself reports in his Maqalat that the vast majority of the Mu`tazila said, like Ahl al-Sunna, that it was the controlling disposal (tadbîr) of Allah Almighty and Exalted that was everywhere. Furthermore, there is apparently no known chain of transmission for the Ibana from the Imam despite its ostensible fame and the abundance of his students, nor do any of his first or second-generation students – such as Ibn Furak – make any mention of it. Finally, Imam al-Qushayri’s Shikaya Ahl al-Sunna bi Hikaya Ma Nalahum Min al-Mihna provides an additional external sign that the tampering of al-Ash`ari’s Ibana took place possibly as early as the fifth century:

They have attributed despicable positions to al-Ash`ari and claimed he had said certain things of which there is not one iota in his books. Nor can such sayings be found reported in any of the books of the scholars of kalâm who either supported him or opposed him, from the earliest times to our own – whether directly quoted or paraphrased. All of that is misrepresentation, forgery, and unmitigated calumny!

In conclusion it is possible to say with a fair degree of certainty that the Ibana attributed to al-Ash`ari today is actually the anonymous, chainless rewriting of an anti-Ash`ari, anti-Hanafi literalist with clear anthropomorphist leanings and a willingness to adduce Israelite reports typical of the works of anthropomorphist doctrine while the unaltered version known to Ibn `Asakir, Abu `Uthman al-Sabuni, and other Ash`aris did not reach us. It is a telling confirmation of this conclusion that the early anthropomorphists used to reject the Ibana while those of later centuries quote it without reservation. And Allah knows best.