I spent an hour or so pondering over the Ash’ari/Athari polemics and realized the massive impact this has on the perception and importance of tradition between these two theological groups. The only way I could get myself to stop the flow of thoughts was to write them, hence this article. At any rate, this is more a summary for myself rather than an exposition for others.
For Atharis the names and attributes of Allah are to be understood according to their apparent meanings and any apparent contradictions between the apparent meanings of these names and attributes and the intellect is explained as the intellect’s failure to understand the essence of Allah. So in reality there is no contradiction and the mind must hold back from making judgement on any seeming contradiction that appears.
Any anthropomorphic element of these names and attributes is negated using the admission that their modality (kayfiyyah) can never be known, but that the apparent meaning of the name or attribute must be affirmed, as the job of the believer is to submit to the texts and not question them. The modality is left to the knowledge of Allah Himself, and we simply say that the modality is as befits His majesty.
Names or attributes cannot be considered allegorical rather only metaphorical if the Arabs considered it so. So for instance if the Arabs before ~150AH understood the word ‘yad’ or hand to have a metaphorical meaning as power, then only in that case can the word ‘yad’ be understood as referring to power in the Qur’an. Otherwise if the allegory was only deduced in the post-classical Arabic period, i.e. that the word ‘yad’ means power, then this is rejected as it did not come from the Arabic language itself. The basis for this argument is that the Qur’an was revealed in pure and simple Arabic that should have been sufficient for the philosophically untrained Arabs to understand and attain a sound theological understanding of the Qur’an.
So for example, in the last third of the night, where Allah is described as descending ‘nazala’ for the faithful, it is not to be asked whether this descent is true or allegorical, rather that the nature or ‘kayfiyyah’ of the descent must not be questioned, but just accepted at its apparent meaning without questioning. The word ‘nuzul’ was not understood metaphorically by the Arabs so there can be no second meaning to the word.
Therefore, the apparent meanings of the Qur’an and Sunnah are king and speak for themselves. Inter-Qur’an and inter-Sunnah exegesis explains much of our variances in understanding the levels of interpretation of different texts. Tradition must be understood from the lens of the Qur’an and Sunnah, not the opposite. Scholars can err, but the apparent meanings of the texts can never err.
In conclusion, this is understood to be the more authentic understanding of Islam as the salaf or righteous predecessors (i.e. first 3 generations of Muslims) were known to understand the names and attributes of Allah by their apparent meanings (ithbat), and not get too involved in any allegorical possibilities in the meaning of these names.
For the Ash’aris it is permissible to think of Allah’s names and attributes allegorically (ta’wil). The intellect via rational thought and reason can discover the Creator independently of sacred text, as well as determine some necessary attributes of the Creator as a result. For example, by observing that much of reality is contingent, the intellect can determine that the contingent reality it observes must have been caused by something, which as a result of reality being contingent must be an unimaginably powerful being with its own independent will, the latter demonstrating that it is a living being.
Similarly, the intellect can observe reality and determine that physical and biological reality shows intelligence in its composition and evolution, therefore this Creator must also be unimaginably intelligent.
As this list of necessary attributes builds (independent of sacred text and upto 20 different ones according to the Ash’aris) it is determined that the reality of this being is unimaginable and indescribable according to human parameters. Therefore, when one arrives at a text that in its apparent wording, describes the Creator as otherwise, or with apparently anthropomorphic or material connotations, a contradiction presents itself. The conclusion of the intellect, seen as an extension of the Qur’an own exhortations for Muslims to use the intellect to arrive at the truth, is seen as a certain and epistemically powerful conclusion.
To solve this seeming contradiction, the problematic text is then assigned an allegorical meaning to harmonize it with the theological conclusion of the intellect. So using our example of ‘nazala’ again, the descent is described allegorically as the descent of Allah’s mercy rather than the descent of the Creator Himself, as to describe the Creator as descending would assign Him a direction, and thus a 3-dimensional existence, which makes the Creator into either a material or anthropomorphic entity, thus violating the verses of the Qur’an condemning this as well as the intellectual process that led to believing in the Creator in the first place. Names and attributes found in the texts are thus understood according to the 20 necessary attributes.
The Ash’aris were very aware that the salaf did not assign allegorical meanings to the names and attributes of Allah, so they considered their understanding of theology to be an evolution of the theology of the salaf – an attempt to harmonize textual truths with the newly discovered philosophical and theological truths that Muslims had uncovered from philosophy. Unlike the Atharis, they interpreted the salaf to be affirming the wording of Allah’s names and attributes, instead of their apparent meanings, which they left to the Creator’s knowledge (tafwidh).
The Ash’aris did not extend this ‘natural’ aspect of theology (I.e. the determination of theology independently from text) to ethics and law, as is clear from the books of usul-ul-fiqh, the sheer majority of which were written by the Ash’aris. Ethics and Law, it was made clear, was to be determined from the texts, and could not be determined via the intellect, which was the position of the Mu’tazilah. The Ash’aris as a whole did discuss some aspects of natural ethics and law, but never ventured into ‘hard’ natural ethics and law in the same way the Mu’tazilah did, or to the lesser extent, the Maturidis and Hanafis.
As such, to maintain this delicate imbalance in allowing natural theology but restricting natural ethics, Ash’aris came to rely more on tradition as the restrictive element, not the apparent meanings of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Tradition became emphasized, and it was the lens through which the texts were to be understood. Individual scholars can err, but the overwhelming majority or consensus of scholars erring was considered a theological travesty, as how could the Creator misguide His most pious and dedicated servants, and in the most serious of matters – theology, as well?
This emphasis on tradition may also be why the Hanafis have emphasized taqlid much more highly than the other schools. Since the school’s usul is so susceptible to becoming a full-fledged Mu’tazili vehicle via Maturidi ethics and Hanafi rules on using hadith, it would make sense over-emphasize taqlid as a restrictive measure. This is why perhaps Shafiis were much more lenient in allowing their adherents to make taqlid of other schools and even outside the four schools (according to a fatwa by ibn Hajr al-Haytami) as opposed to the Hanafis. It may also be why the Hanafis stressed consensus more than other schools, although I have to research this more to be sure.
Also, theological tradition could evolve, as it had from the time of the salaf to the time of the Ash’aris. And this is why Ash’aris often varied in their interpretation of texts and the allegorical meanings assigned to them, as well other aspects of theology. For example Maliki Ash’aris like Ibn Juzayy refused to assign the names and attributes of the Creator allegorical meanings, instead electing to do tafwidh as the salaf had done. Note however, that the development of Ash’ari theology could also be seen as extension of the time of the salaf if we look at things via the concept of Bid’ah Mahmudah (see my article on Bid’ah for more information).
The Ensuing Discussion
The Atharis and Ash’aris had many criticisms against each other. For example, Imam ibn Taymiyyah argued that the Ash’aris by assuming a contradiction between the intellect and the texts, were landing themselves in a contradiction by saying that the very intellect that had helped them arrive at the texts was now proving to be an impediment. He also argued that intellectual arguments were not required to obtain knowledge of the Creator’s existence, as it was a form of a priori knowledge exemplified by the the concept of fitrah elucidated in sacred texts.
Ash’aris on the other hand argued that saying the Athari ithbat was self-contradictory, as to say the modality was unknown rendered the name or attribute meaningless, and thus the meaning unknown as well. Also, to affirm these meanings for Allah meant assigning Allah anthropomorphic characteristics. It was not enough to say that the modality was unknown, because the meaning of the word was known in the Arabic language and you had assigned that to the Creator.
And they each have rebuttals of each other on these issues.
My Personal Views
I consider this discussion important for my own faith – although not so for the masses – as I wish to meet Allah on the last day with a conception of His majesty and text that He will be most pleased with. It is for this reason that I studied both the Athari and Ash’ari theologies during my studies and kept an open mind to the arguments of each. I do consider both (together with the Maturidis) to be 3 distinctive yet orthodox schools of Sunni theology in the same way that the fiqh madhhabs are 4 distinctive yet orthodox schools of Islamic Law. It seems absurd to me that Allah out of His mercy would allow such exceedingly pious, knowledgeable, sincere and intelligent Muslim scholars to differ in such fine details of theology with penalty in their afterlife.
Perhaps these schools are also manifestations of natural variances in human thought. For example in the same way the human beings naturally gravitate in a secular environment to becoming political, fiscal or ethical conservatives or liberals, perhaps within a Muslim or Islam-affected mindset this is the natural spectrum of variance upon which Muslim thought diffuses. In either case, I find the variance to be normative, though excluding more extreme cases, like Kharijism and Mu’tazilism.
I personally find myself leaning towards the Ash’ari perspective (even though I personally prefer tafwidh over ta’wil) as I have found tradition to be a much more important and powerful restrictive element in the discussion on the control of interpretive choices, especially given how indubitably important tradition becomes in fiqh and how great of a role consensus plays in the Shariah overall. I find the emphasis on the vague notion of ‘apparent meanings’ to be quite distracting from the complexity that is linguistic interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah and delicate balance that exists between the mantuq (voiced) and mafhum (understood) implications of texts. This is why Imam al-Shafii for example, in his al-Risalah, refers to tradition and consensus as controlling factors in the interpretation of texts much more emphatically than linguistic reasons, as due to his high level of linguistic capability he was able to determine the complexities of the process of interpretation to quite a high level.
Also I feel that many of the narrations from the salaf are open to interpretation on these issues, and there may be reason to believe the salaf had a much more diverse and varied range of approaches on these issues. I also feel that ultimately an athari theology comes across as philosophically weak. It may be sufficient for belief, faith and everyday worship, but when it comes to theological discussion and philosophical interaction with foreign theologies it relies too much on ‘open loops’ or ‘maintained contradictions’ to be a strong philosophical tool.
But this is my preference, and I do not wish to impose it on anyone who seeks to follow otherwise. I am still open to changing my mind, and I doubt that this is a conversation that will end in my my mind and heart. May Allah reward us all for our efforts to arrive at the truth, keep our intentions pure and keep us sincere. If anything I would love to see a synthesis of the schools, but I’m not sure if this is possible.
Resulting views of tradition and my thoughts
To me this theological back and forth is relatively inconsequential. As I’ve mentioned, I believe the 3 to be schools rooted in orthodoxy. There is a strong argument to be made, I believe, in linking Hanafi usul to Maturidism, Shafii usul to Ash’arism and Hanbali usul to Atharism, although I have not read any lengthy exploration of this possibility. Although I do anger often at the exaggerations of each school towards the other, and sometimes even the episodes of takfir that seem to be make an appearance now and then.
What is more interesting to me, however, is the resulting epistemological attitude and interpretation of the text-tradition relationship, and especially how that evolves from what at first seems like a completely disconnected conversation on theology.
It is not uncommon to see Atharis stress the importance of keeping Islam pure according to its earliest understandings – hence the popularity of Salafism, which I see as a natural ideological consequence of Atharism, while it is not uncommon to see Ash’aris gravitate more towards Sufis tariqahs and other more outward and emphasized aspects of traditionalism. Even on the social and cultural level, Atharis seem much more willing and able to appropriate modern social and cultural artifacts than traditionalists, who often extend the meaning of tradition to beyond intellectual understanding of Islam to adab, manners, dress, customs and family matters. Although I did not discuss it here at length, what is also not surprising to me is the Maturidi/Hanafi propensity to gravitate towards varying types of ‘hard’ rationalism like Mu’tazilism.
It also plays against them. For example Atharis in their attempt to balance devalued tradition with complex fiqh issues can gravitate towards very maqasid-dependent forms of ijtihad and fatwa which can devalue the very principle of championing the apparent meanings of scripture and lose the intended ‘submission’ aspect, while Ash’aris can over-emphasize or ossify parts of the tradition to the point where the intended point or objective of the tradition becomes lost.
As someone who I feel occupies a rare middle ground between Ash’arism and Atharism (as I see both sides and sympathize with some aspects of Atharism), I do see the need for a nuanced, vibrant and fluid form of traditionalism, where we still consider tradition and fluency in it as paramount yet do not stop the process of engaging in review and reformulation via either going back to Qur’an and Sunnah again, or integrating modern science, philosophy and physics-based cosmology into our theology, ethics and law.