Ali ibn Ismaeel ibn Isshaq is better known as Abul-Hassan Al-Ash’ari. He was born in Basrah, in the South of Iraq, in 260 A.H., corresponding to A.D. 874. His last name, imparted to his school of theological beliefs, Al-Ash’ariyah, is derived from his descent from Abu Moosa Al-Ash’ari, the Prophet’s companion who emigrated from Yemen to join the Prophet in Madinah with a group of his people.
Al-Ash’ari studied under Abu Ali Al-Juabbai, of the Mu’tazilah school of theology and philosophy. Indeed, Al-Jubbai was the chief Mu’tazilah scholar of his time, and under him Al-Ash’ari learnt all the beliefs and views of that school, reaching a high standard of scholarship. Indeed, he was highly respected within the Mu’tazilah circles, to the extent that he would deputize for his teacher in debates. His arguments were lucid and powerful, causing much worry to his opponents.
But his strength in debate was not complemented with similar strength in book writing. The historian Ibn Asakir, however, says that this weakness applied only to Al-Ash’ari’s earlier writings, not to those he wrote after the major change affecting his views and standpoint. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that such weakness was a symptom of the age, because scholars devoted more time to debate and argument, rather than writing books.
It should be said that the Mu’tazilah had been on the ascendancy for some time, reaching the pinnacle of their rise at the time of the Abbasi Caliphs, Al-Ma’moon and Al-Mutassim, who had declared the Mu’tazilah’s views as the only ones acceptable in Islam.
They forced these views on all scholars, to the extent that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal himself was imprisoned, beaten hard, put under house arrest for a long period because he refused to accept a certain belief advanced by the Mu’tazilah concerning the Qur’an and its being a creature of God. He maintained that the Qur’an was God’s word and refused to discuss whether it was created or not. His argument was that the Prophet did not say anything about this and we do not need to say more than what he said.
Al-Ash’ari, then, belonged to the Mu’tazilah school and he attained a high rank among its rising scholars. But at one point he decided to stay at home to weigh up the different aspects of evidence used by the Mu’tazilah scholars and those who were opposed to them. In this period of contemplation, he was able to arrive at something totally different from what he used to preach and argue. He addressed the people on a Friday in the main mosque in Basrah and said: Some of you might have known me and others have not. My name is so and so. I used to say that the Qur’an is created, and that God cannot be seen, and that bad deeds are done by people of their own accord. I am declaring now that I repent of all such views and that my aim is to reply to the Mu’tazilah and expose their hollow arguments. I have stayed away this past period because I felt the arguments and evidence supporting them were equally strong. I could not decide one way or the other. I sought God’s help and guidance, and He has shown me the way which I have written down in these books of mine. I disown my past views in the same way I discard this coat of mine.
Al-Ash’ari makes it clear that his new method is “the following of God’s book and the Prophet’s Sunnah, as well as what has been related by the distinguished scholars among the Prophet’s companions and their successors, and the main scholars of Hadith. We also take the same stand as Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, may God bless him and increase his reward. He was the leader to be followed at the time when error was triumphant.”
Al-Ash’ari wrote a large number of books, and many of these were devoted to refute the arguments of the followers of other religions, natural philosophers, the Mu’tazilah, Khawarij and Shia, as well as those who deny God’s existence. Most of these books have been lost. A few of his books have been edited and published. The most important of these are: 1) Al-Ibanah an Ussool al-Diyanah, in which Al-Ash’ari follows closely the line followed by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal; 2) Al-Luma’ fi al-radd ala ahl al-zaigh wal-bida’. In this book, Al-Ash’ari moves a little toward a rational standpoint; 3) Maqalat al-Islamiyyin, in which Al-Ash’ari records in exemplary objectivity the beliefs and views of different schools of theology.
Al-Ash’ari thus formulated the theological outlook of Ahl al-Sunnah, and he was followed by a large number of distinguished scholars, most of them belonged to the Shafie school of law. Perhaps the most famous of these are Abul-Hassan Al-Bahili, Abu Bakr Al-Baqillani, Imam Al-Haramain Abul-Ma’ali Al-Juwaini, Al-Razi and Al-Ghazali. Thus Al-Ash’ari’s school gained grounds and became, together with the Matoridiyah, the main schools reflecting the beliefs of the Sunnah among Islamic trends and philosophical concepts. Indeed these scholars improved on the arguments advanced by Al-Ash’ari and ensured that the school remained the middle trend, representing the views, beliefs and arguments advanced by scholars of Fiqh and Hadith against the Mu’tazilah and their arguments.
It should be mentioned that the arguments with the Mu’tazilah and similar trends concentrated on their concepts of God and man, the Day of Judgment and the destiny of believers, unbelievers, transgressors and those who violate Islamic law, committing cardinal sins. In all these Al-Ash’ari takes a middle stand. For example, the Mu’tazilah confirm only existence, ever presence, eternity and oneness as God’s attributes. They negate other attributes such as His seeing, hearing and speech. Al-Ash’ari confirm all these other attributes as mentioned in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, stating that they differ from the hearing, seeing and speech of creatures, including man. What distinguishes Al-Ash’ari and his school is that they take a middle of the road stance, confirming everything stated in the Qur’an and authentic Hadith, without trying to interpret it in any arbitrary way as the Mu’tazilah do.
Al-Ash’ari’s views and trend received much support from the political authorities in different countries, such as the Saljookis in the East, the Murabiteen in Morocco and the Auyoobis in Egypt. It continues to be, together with the Matoridi school, the main trend of theology in Sunni Islamic universities throughout the Muslim world.
Al-Ash’ari died in 324 A.H., at the age of 64. May God bless his soul.