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Words on theology: Early Asharism

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Any doctrine stretched beyond its hermeneutic edge, starts yielding contradictory results that at times form a breeding ground for extremism – ideological and practical. The Mutazillite quest for uncompromising and unqualified monotheism inevitably steered them to the negation of divine attributes and made them stand apart from mainstream Muslim thought on many seminal issues on which faith itself stood hinged. The hermeneutic error committed by Mutazilites, as Abdul Hayy notes is that “they began to apply Greek philosophical methods and ideas to the interpretation of the basic principles of Islam as well”. The tensions inherent to Mutazillite theology were manifest to traditionalists and those who accepted the axioms of religion without ifs and buts. But appeal to scripture in its simplest form unassisted by an armoury of logic, rationality and dialectic process or invocation of personal piety was going to help no longer. Mu’tazilites had accustomed intellectual space to the pleasures of rational argument, so any theological school expecting to counter Mutazillite challenge or for that matter to be a credible voice in Muslim theology was reason bound to adhere to exercise rationalism and the method of dialectic to make any meritorious impression. The call was attended by the subsequent group and what went on to become a standard theological position of the Muslim mainstream – the Asharites.

 Before Asha’rism could rise to the occasion, roll out its principles and doctrines and create a bulwark against the unbridled Mutazilite rationalism, much groundwork was done by three prominent theologians/dialecticians – Ibn Kullab, Al Muhasibi and Al Qalanisi. Each of them, in his style and capacity, explicated, reformulated and enriched the then available theological and Kalam repository and their intellectual legacy and academic efforts were well absorbed by later day Asharites in their project. Kullab is remembered for his idea of Qasb or acquisition of human actions, his famous dictum that “attributes are neither identical to God nor other than him”. With regards to the controversy of eternity and creation of the Quran, he held that Quran was eternal in essence and temporal in form.

 

Al Muhasibi, a contemporary and purported disciple of Kullab disagreed with his master on the question of divine attributes, cutting at the base of linguistic theory, which stood at the base of Kullabite doctrine. Muhasibi took to the opinion that attributes are one with the essence, though differing from one another, a formulation that reflects the impact of people of tradition, whom he was influenced by, to begin with. Harith Bin Ramli observes ” Compared with Ibn Kullab’s theology, Al Muhasibi’s seems to have been closer to the traditionalist creed of Ibn Hanbal and his followers”. An account of Al Kalanisi’s life borders adoxography and whatever little is known about him (Mostly by Abd Al Qahir Baghdadi’s reports) is that he, in line with traditionalists, affirmed the attributes of the God and paradisiacal vision. Despite his traditionalist leanings and the role his teachings later played in the formation of Asharism, he certainly had Mutazillite tendencies on issues like the Oneness of God, and his division of attributes into eternal and time-specific. Harith Bin Ramli notes that “Al Kalanisi adopts a midway point between the Mu’tazila and the Ash’arites, by holding the view that ethical knowledge of right and wrong is attainable through reason, and not exclusively through revelation”. 
    On Friday 915 AD, in the Grand Mosque of Basra, an erstwhile Mutazilite theologian, Abul Hassan Al Ashari proclaimed his conversion to Ash’arism, which was by that time an evolving but ” yet to be systematised theological paradigm”. Al Ashari had mainly broken with his peer and teacher Abu Ali Al Jubbai, a leading Mutazillite, on the question of whether the human reason is a means of knowing theological truths. On this point, he agreed with the Traditionalists that man has no intellectual capacity to distinguish between good and evil. Al Ashari was a middler between Mutazilites and traditionalists in that he approved traditionalists’ rejection of ethical objectivism i.e, man can distinguish between Good and evil solely by his intellect bereft of the light of revelation but he also, in opposition to traditionalists’ stance preferred and practised the method of dialectical reasoning to arrive at the truths of theological propositions. Jan Thiele observes on this occasion that “Beyond the question of knowing man’s obligations, however, al-Ash’ari approved of dialectical reasoning on theological questions: he affirmed that knowledge of God can be gained by rational reflection. In this respect, he agreed with Mu’tazilite teaching.This legitimation of the methodology of kalām was in fundamental contradiction to the principles of the Sunni Traditionalists. Al-Ash’arī even posited that individual reflection about God is man’s first religious obligation. However, it is crucially important to
understand how al-Ash’arī defended this theory: he argued that man’s duty to reflect about God is made known by revelation, just as is the case with all divine commandments.In his sense, alAsh’ari still maintained the primacy of revelation over rational reflection”. In same vein, M. Abdul Hye notes about Asharite movement that ” It laid the foundations of an orthodox Islamic theology or orthodox Kalam, as opposed to the rationalist Kalam of the Mutazillites ; and in opposition to the extreme orthodox class, it made use of the dialectical method for the defence of the authority of divine revelation as applied to theological subjects”. 
      Al Ashari’s median approach however earned him attacks from two diametrically opposite sides of Traditionalists and Mutazilites. In his literal adherence to Quranic text, he in line with the Traditionalists accepted divine attributes ” as co-eternal entities that subsist in God”. But it raised brows in Mutazillite camp who saw it as a compromise with the notion of divine unity and advocacy of multiplicity of eternals. Simultaneously, his trust on the veracity of human reason made him depart from the Traditionalist maxim of Bila Kayf and he went on to formulate a rational explanation of Revelation. 
    As believers, Muslims and for that matter people of other religions seek existential contact with living, personal and devotional attachment with God. This point has been explained at length by contemporary theologians like Galloway, Martinaeu and others. But Mutazillites, in their unfettered race with Greek rationality turned God into something very closer to Aristotlean Unmoved mover and an abstract entity. This was something that could not speak with and make sense to masses to whom God was an active participant in Cosmos, history and their personal lives.

(Amir Suhail Wani is a Kashmir based freelancer, Comparative Studies Scholar, and R&D Engineer with SA Power Utilities Pvt Ltd. Feedback at [email protected])