Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Ashari

The Moslem theologian Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Ashari (873/883-935) defended the basic Islamic belief that the Koran is the revealed book of God and that upon it and the Traditions of the Prophet the religion of Islam must be based.

Al-Ashari seems to have been born in Basra, in present-day Iraq. As was the custom, his education commenced with long exposure to the Koran and the collected Traditions of the Prophet and his Companions. Having mastered these, al-Ashari became a student of the head of the Mutazilite, or rationalist, school in Basra; eventually he would have succeeded his master had he not experienced a reconversion to the traditionalist position of Islam. This crisis in his life is said to have occurred in 912-913, and al-Ashari gave public notice of his intention to attack the Mutazilites from the pulpit. He spent the remainder of his life composing theological polemics against the enemies of the orthodox position. Al-Ashari died in Baghdad.

The rationalist movement in Islamic theology, whose adherents were known as the Mutazilites, had developed in the early 9th century, some 200 years after the death of the Prophet. The movement was influenced by the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian ideas which became known to Moslems through polemical discussions with Eastern Christians and Arabic translations of Greek philosophy. The rationalists, however, were deemed to have gone too far in attempting to harmonize revelation with reason. They were execrated by the traditionalist thinkers, who dubbed them Mutazilites, or "withdrawers" (from the community). The Mutazilites argued, for example, that God is just; if this is so, His creatures must have free will, or else sinners would be punished not for their own acts but for God's. The traditionalists balked at this type of argument as placing a limit upon God's omnipotence—a limit, moreover, merely devised in the mind of one of His creatures.

This Greek-influenced rationalism in religion, though highly distasteful to the bulk of believers, caught the fancy of three of the early Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, who persecuted prominent traditionalists with the usual result of producing martyrs for that party. The tide turned in 850, however, after the accession of the traditionalist caliph al-Mutawakkil, who in turn persecuted the Mutazilites. Theological rationalism had thus fallen from official grace by the time al-Ashari was born, but it fought a successful rearguard action for many years and was only finally discredited among the orthodox by al-Ashari and his followers.

In joining battle with the Mutazilites, al-Ashari declared for predestination. Both good and evil are the products of God's will, and the seeming freedom of choice which man has is merely the creation by God in man of the ability to perform an act. Perhaps the most crucial theological arguments of the time revolved around the problem of whether the Koran, which is held by Moslems to have been dictated to the Prophet by God through the angel Gabriel, is eternal with God or merely one of His creations. The Mutazilites argued that the Koran is not eternal, since only God can be eternal; it therefore is created. Al-Ashari held that it is the literal speech of God, therefore one of His eternal attributes, and hence uncreated.

The general tenor of al-Ashari's thought was to rely upon the Koran and the Traditions, as of course the bulk of believers had been doing. His greatest contribution, however, was to make respectable in the eyes of the traditionalists the rationalist apparatus as long as it was employed to support an Islam firmly based upon those two foundations.


Further Reading on Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Ashari

The work which best places al-Ashari within his historical and intellectual context is Walter C. Klein's translation of al-Ashari's Al-lbanah An Usul ad-Diyanah (1940). Two other books by al-Ashari were translated, with valuable notes, by Richard J. McCarthy, The Theology of al-Ashari (1953). A few other works by al-Ashari exist in Arabic, but they have not been translated into Western languages; the bulk of his writings have been lost. In English the most accessible sampling of al-Ashari's ideas, as well as those of other Moslem theologians, may be found in John Alden Williams, ed., Islam (1961). Al-Ashari's importance to early Islamic theology is discussed in W. Montgomery Watt, Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam (1948). See also his Islamic Philosophy and Theology (1962).