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Ash'arism or Ashʿari theology (Arabic الأشعرية al-Asha`riyya or الأشاعرة al-Ashā`irah) is an early theological school of Islam (Sunni in particular) founded by Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 324 AH / 936 AD). The disciples of the school are known as Ash'arites, and the school is also referred to as the Ash'arite school.
Some people mistakenly relate Ash'arism to Sufism, while they have different meanings.
The school arose mainly as a response to the Mu'tazila school of thought and some of their beliefs which to Sunnis seemed strange and against previously held opinions. For example, the Mu'tazila believed the Quran to be created, whereas Sunnis generally held it be eternal alongside God. On the other hand, this new movement made a big shift for Islam. This new school became a base in educating Islam as a religion, as it depends on rationalism in understanding Islam from Quran and Hadith. Ash'arites state that Islamic faith is based on the usage of the mind. With the prevalence of globalization -only in the recent decades- it became noticed that Ash'arism is refused and attacked by some Salafi extremists as they refused the concept of depending on the mind as a basic way for understanding the Quran.
The Asharite view holds that:
- Interpretation of Quran (Tafsir) and Hadith should keep developing with the previous aid of old interpretations.
- Getting to know God is by studying his holy names and attributes in addition to studying his book (The Quran) and his holy Hadiths.
- Complete comprehension of the unique nature and attributes of God is beyond the capacity of human reasoning and sense experience.
- Although humans possess free will (or more accurately, freedom of intention), they have no power to create anything in the material world as this is entirely the province of God. This doctrine is now known in Western philosophy as occasionalism.
- Knowledge of moral truths must be taught by means of Revelation, and is not known a priori or by deduction from a priori propositions or by sheer observation of the world. It is permissible for a Muslim to believe and accept that a proposition is a moral truth based solely on the authority of a consensus of authorised religious scholars (ulama). This is known as taqlid ("imitation" in religion).
Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari
Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari was noted for his teachings on atomism, among the earliest Islamic philosophies, and for al-Ash'ari this was the basis for propagating the view that Allah created every moment in time and every particle of matter. He nonetheless believed in free will, elaborating the thoughts of Dirar ibn Amr' and Abu Hanifa into a "dual agent" or "acquisition" (iktisab) account of free will.
While al-Ash'ari opposed to the views of the Mu'tazili school for its over-emphasis on reason, he was also opposed to the views of certain schools such as the Zahiri (literalist), Mujassimite (anthropotheist) and Muhaddithin (traditionalist) schools for their over-emphasis on taqlid (imitation) in his Istihsan al‑Khaud:
"A section of the people (i.e., the Zahirites and others) made capital out of their own ignorance; discussions and rational thinking about matters of faith became a heavy burden for them, and, therefore, they became inclined to blind faith and blind following (taqlid). They condemned those who tried to rationalize the principles of religion as `innovators.' They considered discussion about motion, rest, body, accident, colour, space, atom, the leaping of atoms, and Attributes of God, to be an innovation and a sin. They said that had such discussions been the right thing, the Prophet and his Companions would have definitely done so; they further pointed out that the Prophet, before his death, discussed and fully explained all those matters which were necessary from the religious point of view, leaving none of them to be discussed by his followers; and since he did not discuss the problems mentioned above, it was evident that to discuss them must be regarded as an innovation."
Change and development over time
Ash'arism became the main school of early Islamic philosophy whereby it was originally based on the foundations laid down by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari who founded the school in the 10th century based on the methodology taught to him by his teacher Abdullah ibn Sa'eed ibn Kullaab. However, the school underwent many changes throughout history resulting in the term Ash’ari, in modern usage, being extremely broad. For example, Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari of al-Lum’a differs from the Ash’arism of the Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari of al-Ibana, Ibn Fawrak differs from al-Bayhaqi.
For example, the Asharite view was that comprehension of the unique nature and characteristics of God were beyond human capability. The solution proposed by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari to solve the problems of tashbih and ta'til concedes that the Divine Being possesses in a real sense the attributes and Names mentioned in the Qur'an. Insofar as these names and attributes have a positive reality, they are distinct from the essence, but nevertheless they do not have either existence or reality apart from it. The inspiration of al-Ash'ari in this matter was on the one hand to distinguish essence and attribute as concepts, and on the other hand to see that the duality between essence and attribute should be situated not on the quantitative but on the qualitative level — something which Mu'tazili thinking had failed to grasp.
Difference between Ash'arism and Sufism
Telling the difference between them is a bit complex. As a theology, they are much of the same, thus they face the same criticism. But Sufists often refer to Sufism as a method to follow (Tasawwuf or Tariqa) rather than a theology, while in fact Sufism is uniquely based on philanthropy ideology. Many Sufists had learned from al-Ash'ari. But Sufists consider Sufism as Islam itself and so the Sufism was even before prophet Muhammad.
- Ash'arism started to face huge criticism by some of the modern extremist Salafists as they think that the time of developing Islam's comprehension is beyond these days, as for Islam's best days were before now (Islam as a state and as a knowledge). While Ash'arites believe that comprehending Islam should develop as time goes on, and to explain each age of time by understanding the Quran.
This mentality isn't restricted only to Ash'arism in modern days. For example, Al-Qaeda's ex-leader Osama bin Laden once tried in one of his speeches to explain what's happening to the Muslims by referring to some Quranic verses. But those Salafists see a similarity in this mentality with the Mu'tazila, while in the Ash'arites' point-of-view it's entirely different, and thus comparing them to Mu'tazila is considered "outrageous".
- German orientalist Eduard Sachau blamed the theology of Ash'ari and its biggest defender Ghazali specifically for the decline of Islamic science starting in the tenth century, stating that the two clerics were the only block to the Muslim world becoming a nation of "Galileos, Keplers and Newtons." In terms of theology, the Ash'arites exceeding the Mu'tazila in terms of sinking to low levels during polemical debate, to the point where it was said that intellectual debates replaced the five daily prayers for them.
- Others, however, argue that the Asharites not only did not reject scientific methods, but indeed promoted them. Ziauddin Sardar points out that some of the greatest Muslim scientists, such as Ibn al-Haytham and Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī who were pioneers of scientific method, were themselves followers of the Ash'ari school of Islamic theology. Like other Asharites who believed that faith or taqlid should only apply to Islam and not to any ancient Hellenistic authorities, Ibn al-Haytham's view that taqlid should only apply to prophets of Islam and not to any other authorities formed the basis for much of his scientific skepticism and criticism against Ptolemy and other ancient authorities in his Doubts Concerning Ptolemy and Book of Optics.
- Early Islamic philosophy
- Islamic philosophy
- Islamization of knowledge
- Islamic schools and branches
- Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari fima Nussiba ila al-Imam al-Ash`ari (Ibn 'Asakir)
- Watt, Montgomery. Free-Will and Predestination in Early Islam. Luzac & Co.: London 1948.
- M. Abdul Hye, Ph.D, Ash’arism, Philosophia Islamica.
- Corbin (1993), pp. 115 and 116
- Bin Laden speech uploaded on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7MeJnuT4FI
- Muzaffar Iqbal, Science and Islam, pg. 120. From the Greenwood Guides to Science and Religion Series. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 9780313335761
- Rashid Ahmad Jullundhry, Qur'anic Exegesis in Classical Literature, pg. 53. New Westminster: The Other Press, 2010. ISBN 9789675062551
- Sardar, Ziauddin (1998), "Science in Islamic philosophy", Islamic Philosophy, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved 2008-02-03
- Anwar, Sabieh (October 2008), "Is Ghazālī really the Halagu of Science in Islam?", Monthly Renaissance 18 (10), retrieved 2008-10-14
- Rashed, Roshdi (2007), "The Celestial Kinematics of Ibn al-Haytham", Arabic Sciences and Philosophy (Cambridge University Press) 17 (01): 7–55 , doi:10.1017/S0957423907000355
- Frank, Richard M. Classical Islamic Theology: The Ash'arites. Texts and Studies on the Development and History of Kalam. Vol. III. Edited by Dimitri Gutas (Aldershot, Ashgate Variorum, 2008) (Variorum Collected Studies Series).
- (Arabic) Hamad as-Sinnan, Fawzi al-'Anjari with Approvals from Dr al-Buti and Habib Ali al-Jifri Kitab Ahl as-Sunnah al-Asha'irah 
- (French) French website on asharism www.at-tawhid.net