Brief Sketch of the Origins of Islamic Theology

Brief Sketch of the Origins of Islamic Theology

Shaykh Dr. Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera

The earlier generations had little need for a codified form of theology. Most of the time, Surat al- Ikhlas would suffice. Moreover, during the lifetime of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, in particular, whenever a question of faith or belief arose, he was there to answer it. There was no need then to formally systematize aqida, just as there was no need to do so for fiqh, tafsir, and other religious sciences. Nearly the same was the condition of the era of the Companions and that of the Followers, the blessed period known as that of the pious predecessors (salaf-salihin).  Salaf or salaf-salihin can be translated as “righteous predecessors” or “righteous ancestors:’ In Islamic terminology, it generally refers to the first three generations of Muslims: the Companions (رضي الله عنهم), the Followers (tabi’in), and Followers of the Followers (atba al-tabi’in) regarding whom the Messenger of Allah ﷺ; said,

“The people of my generation are the best, then those who follow them, and then those who follow them” (Bukhari).

Some have said that the appellation refers to all the generations up to the fifth century AH. The khalaf (successors) are then those who came after these three generations, or it refers in some cases to those who came after 500 AH

Nevertheless, although Islamic belief and practice were for the most part unshakable during this period, faint tremors ominously signaled the quake that would soon rumble, then rock, the umma. Seeing the danger posed to sacred Islamic knowledge by deviant individuals, ambitious politicians, and an increasingly troubled populace, scholars from each successive generation, in response to the exigencies of their respective times, compiled and systematized Islamic norms, ideas, and beliefs, and meticulously crafted the disciplines we recognize today.

The origin of rigorous theological study can be traced back to as early as the caliphate of Uthman رضي الله عنه. During his time, various alien ideas took root, with varying durability, in Muslim society and found an eager audience. During the ‘Abbasid period, starting around the middle of the second century AH, the introduction of Hellenistic philosophy into Muslim lands led to heated discord. The newly formed Mu’tazila managed to attain great favor with the ruling class, winning several caliphs over to their beliefs. They used their powerful political purchase to question and reinterpret many fundamentals of Islam and force conformity to their beliefs, or at least cow any would-be dissenters into silence. Those who had the courage to object were mercilessly persecuted, most notably Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal on him), who was cruelly put to the lash for refusing to accept false doctrines concerning the Qur’an. It was out of this turbulent setting that the orthodox theological schools of Abu ‘al-Hasan al-Ash’ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi emerged.

Many of the differences one finds in Islamic doctrine and scholastic theology (kalam) literature are primarily between the Ash’aris and Maturidis and the Mu’tazila and, on a lesser scale, the Khawarij, Jabriyya, Murji’a, and a few other groups. The differences that some point to between the Ash’aris and the Maturidis are not theologically significant and have clear historical reasons, which we shall touch on below. It is more appropriate to view them as two approaches to the same theology and treat them as one. Indeed, the scholars do just that, referring to both groups collectively as Ash’aris when contrasting them with other sects. Both groups have always been mutually tolerant and never labeled the other innovative or heretical. It is only when their doctrine is set against the Mu’tazili and other doctrines that we see major theological divergence. An exhaustive study of each of these groups, and of others, and the effects their interplay had on Muslim government and society has been charted in the venerable tomes of history and theology. It is far beyond our purpose here to give even a synopsis of these works, but to gain a proper context in which to place Al-Fiqh aI-Akbar, it is fitting to give a brief overview of the major theological groups whose origins date back to the author Imam Abu Hanifa’s رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ  time.


The Asharis

The eponymous founder of the Ash’ari school was the “Imam of the Theologians;’ ‘Ali ibn Isma’il ibn Abi Bishr al-Ash’ari al-Yamani al-Basri (Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’ 15:88). A descendant of the famous Companion Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, he was born in Basra in the year 260/873 and died in 324/935.

Imam Ash’ari was born at a time when several bickering sects were busying themselves with leveling charges of heresy and unbelief at other Muslims. Of these, the Mu’tazila emerged as the strongest by far and earned the most adherents, especially once they started to garner support from the caliphate.

Abu ‘I-Hasan al-Ash’ari himself began as a Mu’tazili. Growing up as the step-son and student of the famous Mu’tazili teacher Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i (d. 303/915), he became firmly grounded in their ideology and proficient in their methods of argumentation. He was a skilled debater to boot. All these qualities made him the ideal candidate to be the Mu’tazilis’ star scholar, a post he held for many years. However, at the age of forty, he shocked all by severing himself from them and publicly renounced their beliefs. He then set out to defend the true beliefs of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama’a held by the great jurists and hadith scholars of the time.

Much has been related regarding Imam Ash’ari’s conversion to orthodoxy. The great Hadith master and historian Ibn ‘Asakir relates from Isma’il ibn Abi Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Ash’ari (may Allah have mercy on him):

Ash’ari was our shaykh and imam, the one in whom we placed our reliance. He
persisted on the ideology of the Mu’tazila for forty years. Then he isolated himself
in his house for fifteen days. When he came out, he went to the Grand Masjid,
ascended the pulpit, and said, “0 people, I retreated from you for this period
because, in my study of the evidences [of certain theological matters], they seemed
to me to be on par with each other, and the truth over the false or the false over
the truth was not discernible to me. I thus sought guidance from Allah, Most
Blessed, Most High, and He guided me to the beliefs that I have recorded in this
book of mine. I am now divested of all that I believed, just as I am divested of
this garment of mine.” He took off the garment he was wearing and cast it aside,
and he passed the books on to the people. Among them were Al-Luma’ (The
Sparks). He then said, “Henceforth, I shall endeavor to refute the doctrines of
the Mu’tazila and lay bare their mistakes and weaknesses.”‘ When the scholars
of hadith and jurisprudence read these books, they adopted their contents and
embraced them wholeheartedly, so much that their school of thought came to
be attributed to him.

Another incident, related by Qari, Taftazani, and others, may have also contributed to his conversion. They relate that Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan al Ash’ari once asked his teacher Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i, “What is your opinion regarding three brothers, one of whom dies obedient, another disobedient, and the third as a child?” He replied, “The first will be rewarded, the second punished with Hellfire, and the third will neither be punished nor rewarded.” Ash’ari asked, “If the third one says, ‘0 Lord, why did you give me death at a young age and not leave me to grow up so I could be obedient to you and thus enter Paradise?'” Jubba’i replied that Allah would say, “I knew that if you had grown up you would have disobeyed and thus entered the Hellfire, so it was better for you to have died young.”  Ash’ari said, “If the second one says, ‘My Lord, why did you not let me [too] die young so I would not have disobeyed and entered Hellfire?’ What will the Lord say then?” Jubba’i was confounded. Ash’ari abandoned the Mu’tazila doctrine and took to refuting it and establishing what had been transmitted from the sunna and confirmed by the jama’a, or the community, of Companions and pious predecessors. Therefore, he and his followers were called Ahl al-sunna wa ‘l-Jama’a or “the People of the sunna and the Community” 


The Maturidis

Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Mahmud, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the “Imam of the Theologians;’ was the eponymous founder of the other major Sunni school of theology. He was born in Maturid, a district of Samarqand, in present-day Uzbekistan.  Aside from being one of the imams of the fundamentals of din, he was a prominent jurist of the Hanafi school, having studied under Nusayr ibn Yahya al-Balkhi, and was the author of numerous works in fiqh, usul tafsir, and kalam. He passed away in 333/944. Abu Zahra (d. 1396/1976) says in his Al-Madhahib al-Islamiyya,

Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and Abu ‘I-Hasan al-Ash’ari were contemporaries, and
both were striving in the same cause. The difference was that Imam Ash’ari was
geographically closer to the camps of the opponent [the Mu’tazila]. Basra had
been the birthplace of the Mu’tazili ideology and the place from where it grew
and spread, and it was also one of the main fronts in the ideological war between
the Mu’tazila and the scholars of hadith and jurisprudence (fiqh). Though Abu
Mansur al-Maturidi was far from this battlefield, its echoes had reached the lands
where he lived, and hence, there were Mu’tazila in Transoxiana mimicking the
Mu’tazila of Iraq. It was Maturidi who stood up to combat them.””

What we learn from the biographies of the two Imams is that their goal was one: to defend the orthodox beliefs of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama’a against the onslaught of innovators, especially the Mutazila. Though their objectives were the same, certain elements of their methodologies inevitably diverged, commensurate with the unique circumstances of each Imam’s locality. Some scholars sum up their differences as follows: Ashcari did not give much preference to reason in the presence of sacred texts,’ even if they were transmitted by lone narrators (khabar ahad) rather than through uninterrupted transmission (tawatur), while Maturidi would attempt to reconcile between reason and the transmitted text (manqul), as long as it was possible to do so without too much difficulty or without sacrificing fairness. This slight difference in methodology did not produce any substantial discrepancy in their theological precepts but indeed served only to make the existing theological discourse all the richer. The differences were on ancillary matters that had no bearing on agreed-upon fundamentals, and most could be reduced to mere differences in phraseology. These two schools are thus both classified as orthodox schools of Islamic theology and of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jamaa, with the Maturidis coming under the general heading of “Ashaaris” when contrasted with the Mutazila, Khawarij, and other innovators.

It should be interesting to note that most of the followers of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence have historically been followers of the Maturidi school of theology. However, one third of them, along with three-quarters of the Shafi’is, all of the Malikis, and some Hanbalis, adhere to the Ashari school. A few Hanafis, Hanbalis, and Shaf’is subscribed to the Mutazili school, and aside from another group of Hanbalis, who remained on the school of the predecessors (salaf) in the practice of tafwid/ (consigning the knowledge of the details of ambiguous [mutashabihat] sacred texts to Allah), many others adopted the Hashawiyya ideology. Hashawiyya; Stuffers or Crammers. A sect who attribute human qualities to Allah and are thus anthropomorphists (mujassima). They say that Allah has literally (haqiqatan) settled Himself on the Throne (but not necessarily as the average human being may comprehend). They are named Hashawiyya (stuffers) because they introduced or stuffed many strange concepts into the Messenger’s Hadiths  from Israelite sources. Some have said that the difference between the Hashawiyya and the mujassima (anthropomorphists) is that the Hashawiyya (especially the later ones) did not explicitly reveal their anthropomorphism in unequivocal terms as did the mujassima. Hence, they can be considered Crypto-Anthropomorphists.


The Mu’tazila

Isolationists or Dissenters. The doctrine of the Mutazila originated in Basra in the early second century, when Wasil ibn ‘Ata (d. 131/748) left the circle of Hasan al-Basri after a theological dispute regarding al-manzila bayn almanzilatayn’ and whether a person guilty of enormities remains a believer.  That is, those who are guilty of enormities and die without repentance are not considered
believers or unbelievers, but rather, they are in an intermediate position between the two. They claim that such people will occupy a place in Hellfire although they will face a less severe punishment than that of pure unbelievers. Hasan al-Basri said, “Ata’ has dissented from us,” and thereafter, he and his followers were called the Dissenters, or MuCtazila.’ The Mutazila (also called
Mutazilites) named themselves Ahl al-Tawhid wa ‘l-‘Adl (The People of Divine Oneness and Justice), claiming that their theology grounded the Islamic belief system in reason. Mutazili tenets focused on the Five Principles:

  • (I) tawhid (divine oneness),
  • (2) ‘adl (divine justice),
  • (3) wa’d wa wacid (promise and threat),
  • (4) al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn (the rank in between two ranks), and
  • (5) amr bi ‘l-macruf wa ‘l-nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil).


There are also other opinions regarding the origin of the name Mu’tazila. Shaykh Zahid alKawthari quotes from Abu ‘l-Husayn al-Tara’ifi al-Dimashqi (d. 377/987) that “the origin of the Mu’tazila came from some of the supporters of ‘Ali. When Hasan  transferred the office of caliphate to Mu’awiya ~, this group withdrew from the public and confined themselves to their masjids and to worship.”

The founders and leaders of this sect included Abu ‘Ali Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Jubbai, Amr ibn Ubayd, Bishr ibn Sa’id, Ibrahim ibn al-Nazzam, Yashama ibn al-Mutamir, Abu ‘l Hudhayl al-Allaf, and Abu Bakr ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Kaysan al-Asamm. Over time, the Mutazila split into more than twenty subgroups, such as the Wasiliyya, Hudhaliyya, and Nazzamiyya, each named after their respective founders, and some of them even considered the other subgroups to be unbelievers. However, they shared opposition to the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jam’a in several core beliefs, one of which was their negation of the attributes (sifaat al-ma’ani). Unlike the Ahl alSunna wa ‘l-Jama’a, they claimed that Allah knows, wills, and sees through His essence, not through the attributes of knowledge, will, and sight. Furthermore, they denied the beatific vision by the dwellers of Paradise. They believed that Allah creates His speech in a body and that the Qur’an is therefore created; that reason can dictate the righteous and wicked to Allah and obligate him to declare it as such; that it is obligatory on Allah to punish the sinner and reward the obedient; that the servant is the creator of his willful actions; and that unbelief and disobedience are not created by Allah (hence, they are also Qadariyya). Nevertheless, it must be remembered that although such beliefs are corrupt and invalid, orthodox Muslim scholars did not necessarily charge the Mu’tazila with apostasy, nor did they regard it permissible to label them unbelievers because of their views. However, they did render them the status of innovators and transgressors.


The Qadariyya

Libertarians. These were the proponents of absolute free will, or libertarianism. The ideology of the Qadariyya (sometimes called Qadarites) is fundamentally shared by the Shi’a and the Mutazila, both of whom deny that Allah creates evil but rather ascribe to man the ability to create evil. Ma’bad ibn Khalid al Juhani (d. 80/699) was the first to speak in denial of qadar (predestination).

Hence, Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in his introduction to Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i’s Shi’ite Islam (Shi’ah dar Islam), “Intelligence can judge the justness or unjustness of an act and this judgment is not completely suspended in favor of a pure voluntarism on the part of God. Hence, there is a greater emphasis upon intelligence (‘aql) in Shi’ite theology and a greater emphasis upon will (irada) in Sunni kalam, or theology, at least in the predominate Asharite school. The secret of the greater affinity of Shi’ite theology for the “intellectual sciences” (al-‘ulum al-‘aqliyya) lies in part in this manner of viewing Divine Justice” (Shi’ite Islam II). The Sunni focus on the will of Allah and their disavowal of the human intelligence as the ultimate determiner of what is just and unjust, emanates from the Qur’anic teachings that “Allah does what He pleases” (14:27), that “He will not be questioned as to what He does” (21:23), and that His actions are not subject to human scrutiny and classification, since “You might dislike something when it is good for you, and you might like something when it is bad for you. Allah knows, and you know not” (2:216). While the Shi’ite view may seem attractive and in accordance with the prevalent Christian belief, the philosophy and doctrine of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jam’a are to subject intelligence to revelation, especially since it is a greater error to define the nature of Allah by mere human reason than to have a person entertain the false notion that Allah gives life to “evil:’ Moreover, according to this erroneous logic, it follows that He would be unjust in doing so. The Qur’an teaches that Allah “is never unjust to [His] servants” (8:51). When this verse is read along with the aforementioned verses, one can see that the doctrine of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama’a is more in agreement with the Qur’anic teachings.


The Khawarij

Separatists or Seceders. The Khawarij (or Kharijites) were the first sect to split from mainstream Islam. Following the murder of’ Uthman, ‘Ali  رضي الله عنهمwas made the successor; however, due to certain differences of opinion regarding how to treat the murderers of’ Uthman, a battle ensued between ‘Ali  and Mu’awiya رضي الله عنهم , at Siffin. The battle was indecisive, and the two parties agreed to arbitration. After the arbitration, between ‘Ali and Mu’awiya رضي الله عنهم, a small number of pietists separated from them and withdrew to the village of Harura under the leadership of ‘Abdullah ibn Wahb al- Rasibi and were joined near Nahrawan by a larger group. This was the group responsible for the assassination of ‘Ali and the failed attempts to assassinate Mu’awiya and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As رضي الله عنهم. Even more extreme than the Mu’tazila, they held actions to be an integral part of faith and thus considered anyone guilty of an enormity to be an unbeliever.

There were some other theological sects that emerged which did not have as much influence as the Mu’tazila, but nonetheless added to the fierce sectarianism that characterized the period.


The Jabriyya

Fatalists. The belief of the Jabriyya (or Jabrites) is diametrically opposed to that of the Qadariyya. They had a fatalistic outlook and believed that man has no free will in his actions; that man is under compulsion, or jabr, just as a feather is at the mercy of the winds; and that he has no choice even in his intentional actions. A subgroup of the Jabriyya are the Jahmiyya.


The Jahmiyya

They were followers of Jahm ibn Safwan al-Samarqandi (d. 128/745) and considered pure fatalists (jabriyya). Jahm expressed his heretical beliefs in Tirmidh (present-day Uzbekistan) and was executed by the Umayyad governor of Balkh and Juzajan, Salm ibn AQwaz al-Mazini, in Marw (present-day Turkmenistan). Like the Mutazila, he rejected the eternal divine attributes, but he also held other heretical beliefs. For example, he was one of the first to say the Qur’an was created, having learned this idea from his Damascene teacher Ja’d ibn Dirham (d. 1241742). Another belief attributed to him is that Paradise and Hell are transient. A number of beliefs are sometimes falsely ascribed to him, according to Imam al-KawtharI, and people sometimes hurl the name Jahmiyya as an insulting epithet upon any disagreeable opponent. Certain beliefs held by Jahm ibn Safwan do take one out of Islam into unbelief, as do some of those held by the Karramiyya.


The Karramiyya

Their name and beliefs are traced to Abu Abdillah Muhammad ibn Karram (d. 255/868). About them, Shahrastani writes, “They believed that many contingent things exist in the essence of Allah. For example, they believe that the informing of past and future events exists in His essence just as the books revealed to the messengers exist in His essence [rather than being through His
attributes]. By considering these things to exist in the essence of Allah, the Karramiyya are rendering His essence a locus for created things, whereas time, place, and change are qualities that apply only to created things. In reality, He creates things through His attributes, while the things created are the effects of His attributes.

They are anthropomorphists (mujassima), for Mhaammad ibn Karram declared that his god (as Allah is transcendent above what he ascribes to Him) rests on the Throne; that He is “above;’ as in the physical direction; that He is substantive; and that there are [physical] movement, displacement, and descension for Him, among other irrational ideas. Some Karramiyya also claimed that Allah is a body (jism). The Karramiyya divided over time into twelve sects.


The Murji’a

Postponers, Deferrers, or Antinomians. They were a group of innovators who claimed that disobedience does not harm one, but that Allah forgives all sins as long as one has faith, thus going to the opposite extreme of the Khawarij. Because of their belief, they frequently neglected their religious rites.


Although these sects may no longer exist today as formal groups, some of their beliefs have continued and are heard being advocated by contemporary figures who style themselves as reformers. All praise is due to Allah, then, who has preserved His faith and created in it the power to continually cleanse itself of innovations and spurious reformations. The Messenger of Allah  ﷺ said, “This
sacred knowledge will be borne by the reliable authorities of each successive generation, who will [preserve it and] remove from it the alterations of the excessive, the interpolations of the corrupt, and the false interpretations of the ignorant” (Bayhaqi, Khatib aI-Baghdadi, Sharaf Ashab al-Hadith).

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