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Athari (Arabic: أثري‎; textualism) is a school of theology or movement of traditionalist Islamic scholars who reject Islamic "philosophical discourse" (kalam) in favour of strict textualism in interpreting the Quran.[1] The name is derived from the Arabic word athar, literally meaning "remnant", and also referring to a "narrative." Their disciples are called the Athariyya or Atharis.[2]


For the Atharis, the "clear" (i.e. zahir, apparent, exoteric or literal) meaning of the Qur'an, and especially the prophetic traditions, has sole authority in matters of belief, as well as law, and to engage in rational disputation, even if one arrives at the truth, is absolutely forbidden.[3] Atharis engage in an amodal reading of the Qur'an, as opposed to one engaged in Ta'wil (metaphorical interpretation). They do not attempt to conceptualize the meanings of the Qur'an rationally, and believe that their realities should be consigned to God alone (tafwid).[4] In essence, the meaning has been accepted without asking "how" or "Bi-la kaifa". This theology was taken from exegesis of the Quran and statements of the early Muslims, and was later codified by a number of scholars including Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ibn Qudamah. While adherents of the Athari school are usually of the Hanbali madhhab (school of fiqh), they are not strictly identified with any particular madhhab.[1]


Atharism is originally traced back and attributed to the 9th century theologian Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who is said to have carried on the creed of the early Muslims. Ibn Hanbal's stand against the inquisition by the Mu'tazila (who had been the ruling authority at the time) led to the Hanbali school establishing itself firmly as not only a school of fiqh (legal jurisprudence), but of theology as well.[5]

Later on, the well known scholar Ibn Qudama al Maqdasi came to be a highly regarded upholder of Atharism. He harshly rebuked 'Ilm al-Kalam as one of the worst of all heresies. He characterized its partisans, the theologians, as innovators and heretics who had betrayed and deviated from the simple and pious faith of the early Muslims. He writes: "The theologians are intensely hated in this world, and they will be tortured in the next. None among them will prosper, nor will he succeed in following the right direction...".[6]

Atharism is considered to be a key school of Sunni Islam. The scholar Al-Saffarini (d. 1188) gave the following definition of the three Sunni schools in his Lawami al-Anwar:

"Ahl al-Sunnah consist of three groups: the textualists (al-Athariyya), whose Imam is Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the Ash`aris, whose Imam is Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, and the Maturidis, whose Imam is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and they are all one sect, the saved sect, and they are Ahl al-Hadith." [7]


On the Qur'an[edit]

The Atharis believe that every part of the Qur'an is uncreated (ghayr makhluq).[8][9] It is reported that Ahmad Ibn Hanbal said that: "The Qur'an is God's Speech, which He expressed; it is uncreated. He who claims the opposite is a Jahmite, an infidel. And he who says, "The Qur'an is God's Speech," and stops there without adding "uncreated," speaks even more abominably than the former."[10]

On Kalam and Human Reason[edit]

For Atharis, the validity of human reason is severely limited, and rational proofs can neither be trusted nor relied upon in matters of belief, thus making kalam a blameworthy innovation.[3] Rational proofs, unless they are Qur'anic in origin, are considered non-existent and wholly invalid.[11] Historically, the rejection of rational contemplation developed into a set of doctrines that were quite distinct from those of the Sunni theologians. These distinctly Athari doctrines were then propagated in the form of creedal statements.[11]

Examples of Atharis who wrote books against the use of kalam[12] and human reason include the Hanbali Sufi, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, and the Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudama.[13]

On the Attributes of God[edit]

The Atharis staunchly affirm the existence of the attributes of God and consider all of these to be equally eternal. They leave the verses of the Qur'an in question and the related hadith simply as they are, accepting the poetical statements just as they occurred, without applying much reason to either criticism or expansion upon them.[14] According to Atharis, definition of the real meaning of the attributes of God should be consigned to God alone (tafwid).[4] According to this method, one should adhere to the sacred text of the Qur'an and believe that it is the truth, without trying to explain it through figurative explanation.[15]

Ahmed Ibn Hanbal reportedly stated that "His Attributes proceed from Him and are His own, we do not go beyond the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet and his Companions; nor do we know the how of these, save by the acknowledgement of the Apostle and the confirmation of the Qur'an".[16]

Abu Hanifah puts the matter succinctly in the work attributed to him, Fiqh al Akbar: "All His qualities are different from those of creatures. He knoweth, but not in the way of our knowledge; He is mighty, but not in the way of our power; He seeth, but not in the way of our seeing; He speaketh, but not in the way of our speaking; He Heareth, but not in the way of our hearing. We speak by means of organs and letters, Allah speaks without instruments and letters. Letters are created but the speech of Allah is uncreated."[14][17]

He also declares that: "Allah is [a] thing, not as other things but in the sense of positive existence; without body, without substance, without accidents."[14][17]

In the same work, he clarifies the attributes of God: "He added to Himself meanings of Yad (literal meaning is a Hand), Wajh (literal meaning is Face), and Nafs (literal meaning is Self); as Allah Ta‟ala mentioned in the Qur‟an. Hence, what Allah Ta‟ala mentioned about the Yad, Wajh, and Nafs, are meanings He added to Himself, without a "how" (modality). It should not be said that His Yad definitively means His power or His bounty (exclusively), because such a definitive (and exclusive) interpretation may negate the meaning (Allah willed). This is the method of the (Qadariyyah) and the Mu'tazilah. Rather, His Yad is a meaning He added to Himself without a "how" [modality]"[17]

Imam Abu Hanifah then discusses the attributes of the anger and pleasure of Allah, again highlighting the methodology of the Athar: "Anger and pleasure, are two meanings He added to Himself, but (must be understood) without a "how" [modality]." [17]

Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi stated that: "For we have no need to know the meaning which Allah intended by His attributes; no course of action is intended by them, nor is there any obligation attached to them. It is possible to believe in them without the knowledge of their intended sense."[18]

And al-Wakīʿ bin al-Jarrāh (d. 197H) said: "We submit to these āhādīth as they have come, and we do not say "How is this?" and "Why has this come (in the texts)?"."

This is explained, form the work of Dr Ali Nasir alFaqihi, that these statements establish that the Salaf affirmed the ma'ani (meanings) in opposition to the Jahmiyyah and Muʿtazilah, who were questioning and resentful of what has come in the texts. Hence their statement, "Why has this come?!" [19]

Anthropomorphism was commonly alleged against Athari scholars by their critics, including the Hanbalite scholar and theologian Ibn al-Jawzi. In some cases Athari scholars did espouse extreme anthropomorphic views, but these instances do not generally represent the Athari movement as a whole.[20]

On Iman (faith)[edit]

The Atharis hold that Iman (faith) increases and decreases in correlation with the performance of prescribed rituals and duties, such as the five daily prayers.[21][22] They believe that Iman (faith) resides in the heart, in the utterance of the tongue, and in the action of the limbs.[10]

On the Division of Tawhid[edit]

Though not unanimously practiced in Athari academics, some scholars of the Athari school of divinity, such as Ibn Taymiyyah,[23] supported the division of tawhid into three classifications; Rububiyyah (Allah is the Lord of all existence and disposer of all affairs), Uluhiyyah (singling out the oneness of Allah in worship) and Asmaa wa sifaat (the affirmation of the Names and Attributes of Allah).[24]

Further reading[edit]

  • Halverson, Jeffry R. (2010). Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam: The Muslim Brotherhood, Ash'arism, and Political Sunnism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, USA. (ISBN 9780230102798).
  • Aaron Spevack, The Archetypal Sunni Scholar: Law, Theology, and Mysticism in the Synthesis of Al-Bajuri. State University of New York Press, 1 Oct 2014. (ISBN 143845371X).


  1. ^ a b Halverson, Jeffry R. (2010). Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam: The Muslim Brotherhood, Ash'arism, and Political Sunnism. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 36. The Atharis can thus be described as a school or movement led by a contingent of scholars (ulama), typically Hanbalite or even Shafi'ite, which retained influence, or at the very least a shared sentiment and conception of piety, well beyond the limited range of Hanbalite communities. This body of scholars continued to reject theology in favor of strict textualism well after Ash'arism had infiltrated the Sunni schools of law. It is for these reasons that we must delineate the existence of a distinctly traditionalist, anti-theological movement, which defies strict identification with any particular madhhab, and therefore cannot be described as Hanbalite. 
  2. ^ Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010
  3. ^ a b Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 36
  4. ^ a b Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 36-7
  5. ^ W. Wesley Williams, Tajalli Wa-Ru'ya: A Study of Anthropomorphic Theophany and Visio Dei in the Hebrew Bible, the Qur'an and early Sunni Islam, ISBN 0549816887, p 229
  6. ^ Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 38
  7. ^ "Athari on Sunnipath". 
  8. ^ A. R. Agwan, N. K. Singh, Encyclopedia of the Holy Qur'an, ISBN 8187746009, p 678
  9. ^ Christopher Melchert, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Oneworld Publ., 2006, p 154
  10. ^ a b Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 41
  11. ^ a b Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 39
  12. ^ Aaron Spevack, The Archetypal Sunni Scholar: Law, Theology, and Mysticism in the Synthesis of Al-Bajuri, p 76. State University of New York Press, 1 Oct 2014. ISBN 143845371X
  13. ^ Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 37
  14. ^ a b c Zulfiqar Ali Shah, Anthropomorphic Depictions of God: The Concept of God in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Traditions: Representing the Unrepresentable, p 573. ISBN 1565645758
  15. ^ Binyāmîn Abrahamov, Anthropomorphism and Interpretation of the Qur'an in the Theology of Al-Qasim Ibn Ibrahim: Kitab Al-Mustarshid (Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science). ISBN 9004104089, p 6.
  16. ^ Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 42
  17. ^ a b c d Imam Abu Hanifa's Al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained, Translated by Mufti Abdur Rahman Ibn Yusuf ISBN 9781933764030
  18. ^ David Waines, An Introduction to Islam, ISBN 0521539064. p 122
  19. ^ Kitāb al-Ṣifāt of al-Dārquṭnī (taḥqīq, Dr. ʿAlī Nāṣir al-Faqīhī, 1983) p. 71.
  20. ^ Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 40
  21. ^ Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: 20
  22. ^ Herbert W. Mason, Humaniora Islamica, Volume 1, p 123.
  23. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica describes Ibn Taymiyyah as a member of the Pietist school founded by Ibn Ḥanbal
  24. ^ See Ibn Taymiyya and his Times (Studies in Islamic Philosophy), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195478347