The Ashʿarites, the Māturīdītes, and the Recovery of the Tradition

The Ashʿarites, the Māturīdītes, and the Recovery of the Tradition

By Luis Xavier López-Farjeat – Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at Universidad Panamericana, Mexico

The rival school of the Muʿtazilites was the Ashʿarite school, which became the dominant Sunni school in the 9th century. It was founded by Abu al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935 ce), from Basra, a student of the Muʿtazilite al-Jubbāʾī. Al-Ashʿarī converted to Hanbalism around 912 ce. Ahmad ibn Hanbal was a defender of the ‘correct belief ’; that is, he rejected the methodology of kalām, arguing that it was necessary to return to the foundational sources of Islam—the Qurʾān and ahadīth—and abandon the rationalist interpretations of the theologians. As mentioned, the Muʿtazilites had defended the creation of the Qurʾān. Against the Muʿtazilites, both Ibn Hanbal and, later, al-Ashʿarī, defended the uncreated, eternal, and revealed character of the Sacred Book. However, in his attempt to recover traditional views, al-Ashʿarī did not abandon the rational methods he learned from the Muʿtazilites. Consequently, his theology was not well received among the Hanbalites because he still used rationalism to defend traditional belief.

Before Ashʿarism became dominant, there were anti-Muʿtazilite theologians who influenced al-Ashʿarī’s views, Ibn Kullāb (d. c. 855 ce), al-Muhāsibī (d. c. 857 ce), and al-Qalānisī (d. c. 9th C. ce) among them. Harith Bin Ramli has argued that Ibn Kullāb and al-Muhāsibī were especially influential upon al-Ashʿarī (Ramli 2016: 215–224). Ibn Kullāb is particularly interesting for understanding al-Ashʿarī’s position on the divine attributes. The Muʿtazilites rejected the existence of real divine attributes, except for the essential attributes identical to the divine essence. According to al-Ashʿarī, Ibn Kullāb admitted the existence of real divine attributes, claiming these properties belong to and subsist in God but are neither identical nor entirely different from Him (al-Ashʿarī 2005: 169–170). This way of understanding the divine attributes was similar to the way in which Christians understood the Trinity. This would explain why the Muʿtazilites accused Ibn Kullāb of being a crypto-Christian. It is interesting that al-Ashʿarī followed a similar conception, emphasizing that divine attributes were not constitutive of God’s essence as the Muʿtazilies held. The divine attributes, for al-Ashʿarī, are separate from God, although they are co-eternal with Him.

For al-Ashʿarī, divine attributes are real and independent entities that are not identical to God’s essence but reside in it in the same way accidents (aʿrād) reside in a substance (jawhar). However, in the case of the divine attributes, these properties are co-eternal with God’s essence. The essential attributes, according to al-Ashʿarī, are eight in number: knowledge or omniscience (ʿilm), life (hayāt), power (qudra), will (irāda), sight (basar), hearing (samʿ), speech (kalām), and duration (baqāʾ) (1953: 6–19). Note that, unlike the Muʿtaziites, al-Ashʿarī considers ‘divine speech’ (kalām) an essential attribute. As mentioned, for the Muʿtazilites, speech was an attribute of action. This means God did not have the attribute of speech before revealing the Qurʾān to the Prophet. For this reason, the Muʿtazilites claimed the Qurʾān was created and thus not eternal. If, by contrast, God’s speech is an essential attribute, as al-Ashʿarī holds, it co-exists eternally with God. And given that God has revealed the Qurʾān, it follows that the Qurʾān is eternal (qadīm).

If the Qurʾān in Ashʿarīte theology is eternal, so, too, is its meaning. Yet the physical book that contains words in human language must be a created entity. Ashʿarīte theology, therefore, draws a distinction between the meaning of the Qurʾān, that is, the message coming from God’s speech, and the transcription of the divine speech into a physical book. The former is uncreated, whereas the latter is created. This is how, according to the Ashʿarīte position, the divine message of the Qurʾān is co-eternal with the divine essence.

Ashʿarism conflicted with Muʿtazilism about other issues, as well. Recall that the Muʿtazilites endorsed human free will; the Ashʿarītes criticized the Muʿtazilite position, not by entirely rejecting free will but by adopting a more nuanced and complicated position. For the Ashʿarītes, God is the source of ethical values and establishes the moral status of specific actions, that is, whether they are right or wrong. For the Muʿtazilites, human beings identify the moral status of actions through reason. The Ashʿarītes held that ethical values are recognized through God’s commands alone. Hence, the ethics is not derived from natural reason but from revelation. Prior to revelation, there were no ethical values, and, therefore, there were no moral criteria either.

The absence of ethical values before revelation is one of the most difficult Ashʿarite positions to understand. How can one evaluate human beings before religious law, that is, during the ‘natural state’ prior to revelation? It seems that, for the Ashʿarītes, human beings lived amorally prior to revelation, unable to discern between good and evil or right and wrong. Ethics was not intrinsic to humans. Only once the permitted and the prohibited were revealed through revelation did human action gain ethical value.

Moreover, in Ashʿarite theology, God is not just the originator of morality, He has absolute control over all human choices and acts as well. What happens to free will, then? To find room for free will, al-Ashʿarī developed the notion of kasb or ‘acquisition’ doctrine, which, in general terms, states that God is the omnipotent author of human actions, but humans still acquire (maksūb) these actions. According to the kasb doctrine, God determines what human beings can do, and good and evil reduce to what God has commanded or prohibited. Controversially, this seems to negate human responsibility and free will. According to the kasb doctrine, God rules both the natural and human domains. Unsurprisingly, Ashʿarītes are thus usually considered to be advocates of predestination and determinism. Nevertheless, al-Ashʿarī did not view this doctrine as rejecting human moral responsibility and free will but as an attempt to harmonize human responsibility with God’s omnipotence. Al-Ashʿarī held that God creates human actions and the human power to appropriate these actions. So, if an action is undertaken through a properly human power that God has given each human being, this action would be properly human. Thus, as the argument goes, humans are responsible for their actions (Adamson 2010: 400–401). This argument, however, remains problematic. It is unclear whether it allows for free will or moral responsibility in any robust sense, given that God directly creates both the act and the power to act.

Al-Ashʿarī explains the kasb doctrine in Chapters 5 and 6 of The Luminous Book (Kitāb al-Lumaʿ), one of his best-known treatises. There, he appeals to Qurʾānic passages to defend the ‘acquisition’ of acts, for instance, Qurʾān 37: 96: “it is God who has created you and what you do.” The theological explanation leads to the conclusion that God creates every act and the human power to act (1953: 53–75 [§§82–121]; 57–58 [§89]). Several scholars have tried to interpret these passages. For instance, Richard M. Frank’s position is that this doctrine should be understood as a defense of God as the creator of every act and as the creator of the human power to act; in other words, this means He has given human beings the power through which the action takes place. Hence, human beings are the performers, that is, the efficient causes of moral actions, and the kasb doctrine is not necessarily a rejection of human free will and moral responsibility but is actually a defense of human responsibility. However, commenting on Frank’s interpretation, Binyamin Abrahamov disagrees, claiming that al-Ashʿarī’s position is more focused on the defense of God’s omnipotence than on arguing for human free will and moral responsibility (Abrahamov 1989: 210–217; al-Ashʿarī 1953: 67–68 [§107]).

According to Abrahamov, Frank himself admits that al-Ashʿarī does not give a concise definition of power (qudra) and if by that word al-Ashʿarī were referring to an ‘efficient cause’, he would have defined it as such. However, as Abrahamov notes, al-Ashʿarī defines qudra as something distinct from human beings (1953: 76–77 [§§122–123]). In Abrahamov’s interpretation, the main obstacle for understanding al-Ashʿarī’s presentation of the kasb doctrine is that al-Ashʿarī omits relevant elements for a fulsome theory of human action, like the source of the will or the source of the power of will. Further, al-Ashʿarī never says

to whom the power of will belongs, to man himself or to God, whether God creates it for man at the moment the action takes place or before it takes place, or whether it is an inherent element in man. However, since according to al-Ashʿarī God wills and creates all things, one may conclude that He wills and creates man’s power to will as well as the will itself.

(Abrahamov 1989: 215)

The kasb doctrine may lead one to conclude that, given His omnipotence, God is the true agent, and human beings are just determined by His divine will. A difficulty immediately arises: if God creates every action, is He also the author of wrong actions, that is, evil? For the Muʿtazilites, humans, not God, are responsible for evil actions. In The Luminous Book, al-Ashʿarī holds that “evil is from God in the sense that He creates it as evil for another, not for Himself ” (1953: 67–68 [§107]). He defends this statement with the following argument:

if there were in the world something unwilled by God, it would be something to the existence of which He would be averse. And if there were something to the existence of which He was averse, it would be something the existence of which He would refuse. This would necessitate the conclusion that sins exist, God willing or God refusing. But this is the description of one who is weak and dominated—and our Lord is very far above that!

(1953: 36 [§53])

One of the most famous followers of al-Ashʿarī, Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013 ce), belongs to the period that some scholars refer to as ‘classical Ashʿarism’ (Frank 2004; Shihadeh 2012), that is, Ashʿarism prior to the 12th century (when the theological views of another Ashʿarite, al-Ghazālī, influenced by the philosophical method, became dominant). Several of al-Bāqillānī’s works, for instance, his Guidance of Those who Seek Direction (Hidāya al-mustarshidīn), are preserved and contain detailed expositions of theological polemics as well as his reformulation of al-Ashʿarī’s doctrines. Al-Bāqillānī, for example, shared the same conclusions as al-Ashʿarī concerning the kasb doctrine, but he tried to delve into the role of the power of human beings in performing acquired actions. He found it difficult to understand how it was possible to accept a doctrine of free will and moral responsibility if human beings did not author their own actions. Hence, al-Bāqillānī proposed another alternative. He argued that human actions depend on the existence of a human power that has a real effect on human actions. Certainly, the power is acquired, but, for him, this means human beings have acquired the state (h. āl ) of ‘being powerful’. The power (qudra) and the state (h. āl ) are not identical, but they are related. God creates the power; the power gives rise to the state of being powerful, which is properly human. This state is correlated to actions insofar as acquired actions come into existence only when the human state of ‘being powerful’ occurs. This explains why powerless people, that is, young children or sick persons, act but are not responsible for their acts. In this scenario, then, the state of being powerful is properly human, although al-Bāqillānī thinks God is the author of this power and thus the ultimate author of the actions themselves (Thiele 2016: 245–269).

The Ashʿarite presentation of the kasb doctrine raises a difficulty in that the conception of God as the unique cause of every occurrence—natural or human—in the world runs afoul of human agency. Although Frank argues that al-Ashʿarī’s intention was to argue for human beings as causal agents of their acts, there are reasons to hold that God’s absolute omnipotence implies the impossibility of any creaturely causality.

Al-Ashʿarī adopted absolute determinism on the part of God. Learning about atomism from the Muʾtazilites, he argued that every material body is made of transitory atoms, fashioned into the wide variety of bodies that compose reality. Bodies at any instant are just a set of atoms, which are created and annihilated according to God’s free will. This atomistic conception of nature was essential for the refutation of philosophers who had argued that the world was ruled by intrinsic natural causes. According to al-Ashʿarī, natural events depend absolutely and utterly on God in every way. There is no intrinsic causality in nature. In this scenario, as Hume argues several centuries later, it is our mind that perceives natural phenomena as displaying regularity and attributes causality to them. This is very close to what al-Ghazālī argues in the seventeenth discussion of one of his antiphilosophical works, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-Falāsifa) (al-Ghazālī 2000: 166–167; Marmura 1981a: 85). There, he addresses the natural phenomenon of combustion and explains that, although some philosophers would argue that fire is the natural efficient cause of combustion, it is, in fact, an entity that is in itself incapable of action. The true cause of burning cannot be anything other than God.

Although al-Ghazālī’s label as an Ashʿarite has been a matter of dispute (Frank 1994: 76–85; Marmura 2002), this particular discussion from The Incoherence is one of the clear places where al-Ghazālī adheres firmly to Al-Ashʿarī. God is the sole agent responsible for the existence of every entity, change, and accident that takes place in the world. However, although in The Incoherence al-Ghazālī seems to reject natural causality, his position has been a matter of considerable dispute (see Fakhry 1958: 56–82; Courtenay 1973: 77; Wolfson 1976: 549; Goodman 1978; Alon 1980; Abrahamov 1988; Druart 2006; Griffel 2009: 147–213, 215–234). But in The Incoherence, al-Ghazālī, at minimum, rejects the philosophers’ notion of causality, that is, the necessary, natural, causal link between cause and effect. From al-Ghazālī’s point of view, God is free to break the apparently necessary relation between cause and effect. The rejection of natural causality and the dependence of natural events upon the divine will leads to the conclusion that God is the sole agent who can act freely. In the third discussion of The Incoherence, al-Ghazālī precisely explains the meaning of the term ‘agent’ and criticizes those philosophers who have erroneously identified the notion of ‘agent’ with a ‘natural efficient cause’. An ‘agent’, according to al-Ghazālī, is someone who is able to produce an act, capable of willing, has free choice, and is aware of what she wills and of the consequences of her action (2000: 55–77). God, for al-Ghazālī, is an agent because He creates the world freely and is the creator of every event in the world. For this reason, as he states in the seventeenth discussion, He can make fire burn or not burn.

Now, if God has absolute governance over natural phenomena, what happens to human free will? Can human beings be considered agents able to act freely and morally responsible for their actions? If the answer is no, what would happen to Islamic teachings on reward and punishment? Would they still be true? Al-Ghazālī’s stance is close to Al-Ashʿarī’s own: while he does not deny human free will, he holds that God creates every action for each human being and, hence, there is an accurate match between God’s will and human actions. In another work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn), al-Ghazālī insists on the harmonization between free will and God as the creator of every action (1990b: 36). There, he explains that free will should not be viewed as a human power but as a disposition that God provides to human beings. Nonetheless, it is debatable whether this explanation is a defense of God’s omnipotence or of human free will (or both). While trying to understand the kasb doctrine, al-Ghazālī is also aware of the views of the philosophers, especially regarding the idea of causality, and tries to combat them.

Besides the Ashʿarites, there is another important Sunni school that should be discussed, the Māturīdī school, whose founder was Abū Mans. ūr al-Māturīdī (d. 944 ce). The emergence of Māturīdīsm as a formal school dates back approximately to the end of the 11th century or the early 12th century. Al-Māturīdī’s works include polemics with other theological schools (especially the Muʿtazilites), Qurʾānic exegesis, juridical treatises, etc. Most of his writings are lost, but among those preserved, the Book of Unity (Kitāb al-Tawh. īd) stands out. This treatise is a theological work in which al-Māturīdī discusses other Muslim theologians but also engages with the ideas of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and even Greek philosophers. God and the divine attributes feature heavily. Al-Māturīdī states, in typical Islamic fashion, that the most relevant characteristic of God is His oneness. Resembling the Muʿtazilites, he thinks Qurʾānic anthropomorphic expressions are metaphorical; however, like the Ashʿarites, he thinks the essential attributes (knowledge, power, will) are real attributes that are co-eternal with the divine essence. Furthermore, al-Māturīdī keeps the distinction between attributes of essence and attributes of action but, unlike the Mutʿtazilites and the Ashʿarites, he holds that the attributes of action are equally eternal and coexist in the divine essence. The main difference between al-Māturīdī and other theological schools is that he adds an eternal attribute of action that is not mentioned by any other school, with the exception of the H. anafī, that is takwīni. This Arabic term means ‘bring into existence’ and refers to God’s capacity to create, to bring the world into existence.

Regarding free choice, al-Māturīdī held, like the Ashʿarites, that God creates (takwīni) human actions, which are subject to God’s will and decree. He thinks, however, that in this scenario there is still room for free choice. God gave human beings a power to decide between opposites, so they can decide whether they want to follow the straight path or the path of those who are led astray (see Qurʾān 1: 6–7). Once the human decision is made, God will guide those who have chosen the straight path, and He will let those who have chosen evil go astray. Thus, human beings are responsible for their decisions, and at the same time, God is the author of the actions they have chosen.



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