Al-Ashʿarī Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Al-Ashʿarī initiated a theological movement which gave human reason only a limited role in demonstrating religious truths: Dialectical argument was acceptable if it remained subordinate to revealed facts.

Early Life

Al-Ashʿarī (full name, Abu al-Hasan ʿAli ibn Ismail al-Ashʿarī) was born in Basra in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in 873 or 874. He may have been a descendant of the famous Abu Musa al-Ashʿarī (died 662 or 663), a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Nothing is known about al-Ashʿarī’s early life, though it is evident from his subsequent activities that he received the usual education of his time: studies in grammar, the Koran, Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, canon law, and Scholastic theology. It can also be assumed that he was deeply influenced by the intellectual turmoil of an age of violent ideological conflict, during which renewed interest in Greek philosophy intensified the clash between the ultrarationalist Muʿtazilites and the fundamentalist theologians. He became a pupil of the leading Basran Muʿtazilite, Abu ʿAli Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab al-Jubbai (died 915 or 916), and flourished as an aggressive debater in law and dogmatics.

At about the age of forty, in 912 or 913, al-Ashʿarī underwent a radical conversion away from the extreme rationalism of his master al-Jubbai, and made a declaration of repentance in the mosque, announcing his return to strictest orthodoxy and rejecting outright the subordination of religious beliefs to rational principles. About this abrupt change of direction two different stories are told, which, although they are later embellishments to al-Ashʿarī’s biography, are significant because they reflect his role in the development of Islamic theology.

The first story tells of three dreams; in two of them the Prophet orders al-Ashʿarī to return to traditional orthodoxy, but in the third he commands him not to abandon dialectical theology either. In the best-known version of the second story, al-Ashʿarī silences al-Jubbai with an unanswerable riddle of three brothers, one dying as a baby (hence too young for Paradise or Hell), one rewarded with Heaven for his virtuous life, and one sent to Hell for his sins. The infant challenges God on his fate: Why was he not allowed to live and earn salvation? Al-Jubbai replies that God would say that He knew that the child would grow up to be a sinner, and out of divine justice He brought his life to an early end. On hearing this, the third brother now cries out from Hell: Why did He not kill me too, before I had a chance to sin? Al-Jubbai, naturally, is incapable of resolving the dilemma. It was this demonstration of the incapacity of human reason which was said to have turned al-Ashʿarī away from the Muʿtazilite movement, one of whose central beliefs was that God could not be anything but absolutely just.

Life’s Work

There are two ways to approach al-Ashʿarī: evaluating him either by his reputation or by his writings. He is credited with a large number of works (106 titles are known), but not all of the few that have survived are accepted as genuine. Furthermore, their character varies according to whether they were composed before or after his conversion.

Four works may be considered representative of al-Ashʿarī’s output. His Maqalat al-Islamiyin wa-ikhtilaf al-musallin (Discourses of the Muslims, 1930) is noteworthy as one of the first treatises on the Islamic sects and was an important source for later historians of religion. It is divided into two parts, one dealing with the Muslim sects and the other with the views of the Scholastic theologians (mutakallimun). There may also have been a third part examining the opinions of the philosophers. Al-Ibanah ʿan usul al-diyanah (The Elucidation of Islam’s Foundation, 1940) is an outline of the principles of Islam, perhaps written soon after his conversion to strict orthodoxy and therefore extremely hostile to the unbridled use of human reason in theological argument. A third work, Risalat isthsan al-khawd fi ʿilm al-kalam (best known as al-Hathth ʿala al-bahth; Incitement to Investigation, 1953), strongly defends the use of reason and is critical of those same orthodox thinkers whose ranks al-Ashʿarī had so dramatically rejoined. To their claim that rational speculation is heretical, al-Ashʿarī replies that to prohibit the use of reason in the absence of all Koranic and extra-Koranic support is itself a heresy. Finally, the Kitab al-lumaʿ (Book of Highlights, 1953) should be mentioned. It is a late work, similar to Incitement to Investigation in its rigorous defense of Islam by the use of dialectic, and it was probably al-Ashʿarī’s most popular treatise, to judge by the commentaries and refutations it provoked.

Far more significant than al-Ashʿarī’s writings is the body of ideas attributed to him and constituting the theological system named for him. Ashʿarīsm’s general aim was to achieve a true synthesis of purely logical argument and the transcendental elements of revealed religion. A non-Muslim is likely to be unimpressed by the apparent contradictions this method produces, but it would be a gross error to devalue the absolute importance of all the issues involved by relegating them to the status of mere Scholastic quibbles.

Ashʿarī’s method typically combines rational argument with an appeal to Koranic authority, so that each reinforces the other. Thus, to refute the Muʿtazilite preference for mechanical causality (which threatened to make God subject to natural laws), al-Ashʿarī attacks on two fronts. Rationally, it is self-evident that man is not in control of the universe and cannot create himself; his continued existence therefore must be attributable to a higher cause. Hereupon, al-Ashʿarī invokes Koranic verses to confirm by revelation what he has just established by reason. God’s unity is similarly demonstrated by pointing out the logical absurdity of predicating omnipotence of more than one deity, and again the case is supported by Koranic quotations.

By this type of argument, Ashʿarīsm constructed a theology which resolved—or at least acceptably accounted for—all the major points of doctrinal dispute. The rather...

(The entire section is 2611 words.)