Traditionalist theology (Islam)

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Aṯharī theology or Aṯharism (Arabic: الأثرية: al-Aṯharīyah), otherwise referred to as Traditionalist theology or Scripturalist theology, is one of the main Sunni schools of Islamic theology.[1] It emerged as an Islamic scholarly movement in the late 8th century CE, which rejects the formulation of Islamic doctrine derived from rationalistic Islamic theology (kalām) in favor of strict textualism in interpreting the Quran and the ḥadīth.[1][2] The name derives from "tradition" in its technical sense as a translation of the Arabic word aṯhar.[1] It is also sometimes referred to by several other names.

Adherents of Aṯharī theology believe the zahir (literal) meaning of the Quran and the ḥadīth are the sole authorities in matters of belief (ʿaqīdah) and law (fiqh);[1] and that the use of rational disputation is forbidden, even if in verifying the truth.[3] Aṯharīs oppose the use of metaphorical interpretation regarding the anthropomorphic descriptions and attributes of God (ta'wil) and do not attempt to conceptualize the meanings of the Quran rationally[4] since they believe that their realities should be consigned to God alone (tafwid).[5] In essence, they assert that the literal meaning of the Quran and the ḥadīth must be accepted without a "how" (i.e. "Bi-la kayfa").

Aṯharī theology emerged among ḥadīth scholars who eventually coalesced into a movement called Ahl al-Ḥadīth under the leadership of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855).[6] In matters of faith, they were pitted against Muʿtazilites and other theological Islamic currents and condemned many points of their doctrine as well as the extreme rationalistic methods they used.[6] In the 10th century, al-Ashʿarī and al-Māturīdī found a middle ground between Muʿtazilite rationalism and Hanbalite literalism, using the rationalistic methods championed by Muʿtazilites to defend most tenets of the Aṯharī doctrine.[7] Although the mainly Hanbali scholars who rejected that synthesis were in the minority, their emotive, narrative-based approach to faith remained influential among the urban masses in some areas of the Muslim world, particularly in Abbasid Baghdad.[8]


Several terms are used to refer to Aṯharī theology or Aṯharism. They are used inconsistently, and some of them have been subject to criticism.

The designation traditionalist theology is derived from the word "tradition" in its technical meaning as translation of the Arabic term ḥadīth.[1][9] This term is found in a number of reference works.[1][10] It has been criticized by Marshall Hodgson (who preferred the term Hadith folk)[11] for its potential for confusion between the technical and common meanings of the word "tradition".[12] Oliver Leaman also cautions against misinterpreting the terms "traditionalists" and "rationalists" as implying that the former favored irrationality or that the latter did not use the ḥadīth.[13] Some authors reject the use of these terms as labels for groups of scholars and prefer to speak of "traditionalist" and "rationalist" tendencies instead.[14] Racha el Omari has applied the designation traditionalist theology in a way that includes both Ashʿarism and Māturīdism.[15]

Aṯharī (from the Arabic word aṯhar, meaning "remnant" or "narrative") is another term that has been used for traditionalist theology.[16] The term traditionism has also been used in the same sense,[17] although Binyamin Abrahamov reserves the term "traditionists" for scholars of the ḥadīth, distinguishing it from traditionalism as a theological current.[1] The term Ahl al-Ḥadīth ("People of the Tradition") is used by some authors in the same sense as Aṯharī,[18] while others restrict it to the early stages of this movement,[19] or use it in a broader sense to denote particular enthusiasm towards the ḥadīth literature.[20]

Since the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars in the Hanbali school of jurisprudence has adhered to the Aṯharī creed (ʿaqīdah), many sources refer to it as Hanbali theology, although Western scholars of Islamic studies remark that it would be incorrect to consider Aṯharism and Hanbalism as synonymous, since there have been Hanbalite scholars who have explicitly rejected and opposed the Aṯharī theology.[21] However, others note that some Shafiʽi scholars also belonged to this theological school, while some Hanbalites in law adopted a more rationalist school in theology.[22] Moreover, extreme forms of traditionalism had not been confined within Hanbalism, and is also part of Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanafi schools.[23] Some authors refer to traditionalist theology as classical Salafism or classic Salafiyyah (from salaf, meaning "(pious) ancestors").[24] Henri Lauzière has argued that, while the majority Hanbali creed was sometimes identified as "Salafi" in classical-era sources, using the corresponding nouns in this context is anachronistic.[25]



Muslim historians and jurists theorized that the companion Zubayr ibn al-Awwam was one of the earliest traditionalist and textualist scholars who influenced later Aṯharī scholasticism.[26] Zubair's method of proto-textualism[27] precedently influenced the scholars of Ahl al-Ḥadīth. This was characterized by their approach to literal adherence to the texts of the Quran and ḥadīth, while largely rejecting the Qiyas (analogy) methodology of Ahl al-Ra'y (scholars of logic).[26] This strict view expressed by az-Zubayr regarding the exegetical interpretation of the Quran was recorded in his primary biographies compiled by Islamic scholars. These include the statements of az-Zubayr such as his advice to one of his children to never argue about the text of the Quran with logic. According to az-Zubayr, the interpretations of the Quran should be strictly binded with the traditional understanding of the ḥadīth and sunnah. Such anti-rationalistic, traditionalistic, and ḥadīth-oriented views were also shared by many influential scholars in history that reached the rank of mujtahid mūtlaq (advanced scholars who founded their own madhhab) such as the Shafiʽite scholar Ibn Kathir, Hanbalite scholar Ibn Taymiyyah,[28][29] Ibn Hazm, Bukhari-independent school,[30] and also scholars from the Jariri and Zahiri schools.[31]

Another companion who was known to hold this textualist stance was 'Abdullah ibn Umar. When enquired by a group of his Tabi'in disciples regarding his views on the Qadariyah, Ibn 'Umar responded with subtle takfīr (excommunication from Islam) towards the Qadariyah for their rejection of qadar (predestination). He also condemned their usage of analogical method (Qiyas). According to contemporary scholars, the reason for the condemnation of the Qadariyah by Ibn 'Umar was the similarity between their doctrines and those of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism due to their respective dualistic cosmologies, which are in line with one ḥadīth that recites: "Qadariyah were Magi of this Ummah".


Aṯharism materialized as a formal distinct school of thought towards the end of the 8th century CE among Muslim scholars of the ḥadīth who held the Quran and the authentic ḥadīth to be the only acceptable sources in matters of law and creed.[6] Alongside Malik ibn Anas, Islamic scholar Ibn Idris al-Shafi'i is widely regarded among the earliest leaders of the Aṯharī school. In the debates between rationalists and the traditionalists, al-Shafi'i was able to successfully uphold the superiority of the ḥadīth over other devices (such as rational arguments, local traditions, customs, ra'y, etc. ) as the source of theological knowledge and Quranic interpretation.[32] From this school would emerge a vigorous traditionalist movement against the Ahl al-Ra'y and its various manifestations.[33][34] The doctrines of these early Shafi'ite theologians would be revived in the treatises of later Hanbali scholars.[35]

At first these scholars formed minorities within existing religious study circles, but by the early 9th century CE they coalesced into a separate traditionalist scholastic movement, commonly called Ahl al-Ḥadīth, under the leadership of Ahmad ibn Hanbal.[6][36] Another major leader of the traditionalist camp during this era was Dawud ibn Khalaf, the founder of the Zahirite (literalist) school. Under the leadership of these two scholars, the Atharite camp gained ascendancy.[37] In legal matters, these traditionalists criticized the use of personal opinion (ra'y) common among the Hanafite jurists of Iraq as well as the reliance on living local traditions by Malikite jurists of Medina.[6] They emphasised the superiority of Scriptural proofs, denouncing the role of 'Aql (human intellect) and also rejected methods of jurisprudence not based on literal reading of scriptures. Unlike mainstream traditionalists, Dawud would go as far as to declare all forms of Qiyas (analogical reasing) to be completely invalid.[6][38] In matters of faith, traditionalists were pitted against Mu'tazilites and other theological currents, condemning many points of their doctrines as well as the rationalistic methods they used in defending them.[6]

Traditionalists were also characterized by their avoidance of all state patronage and by their social activism.[6] They attempted to follow the injunction of "commanding good and forbidding evil" by preaching asceticism and launching vigilante attacks to break wine bottles, musical instruments and chessboards.[6] In 833, the caliph al-Ma'mun tried to impose Mu'tazilite theology on all religious scholars and instituted an inquisition (mihna) which required them to accept the Mu'tazilite doctrine that the Quran was created and therefore not co-eternal with God, which implicitly made it subject to interpretation by caliphs and scholars.[39] Ibn Hanbal led traditionalist resistance to this policy, affirming under torture that the Quran was uncreated and hence co-eternal with God.[40] Although Mu'tazilism remained state doctrine until 851, the efforts to impose it only served to politicize and harden the theological controversy.[41] The failure of the Mihna campaign symbolised the total defeat of the Mu'tazilites and the doctrinal triumph of the persecuted traditionalists, who had gained popular support. Apart from the universal condemnation of the doctrine of Qur'anic createdness; 'Aql (human intellect) was denied any independent role in religious intepretations and driven compliant to Wahy (Revelation) in Sunni hermeneutical paradigm.[42]

Emergence of Kalām[edit]

The next two centuries saw an emergence of broad compromises in both law and creed within Sunni Islam. In jurisprudence, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali schools all gradually came to accept both the traditionalist reliance on the Quran and ḥadīth and the use of controlled reasoning in the form of qiyas.[43] In theology, al-Ashʿarī (874-936) found a middle ground between Mu'tazilite rationalism and Hanbalite literalism, using the rationalistic methods championed by Mu'tazilites to defend most tenets of the traditionalist doctrine.[7] A rival compromise between rationalism and traditionalism emerged from the work of al-Māturīdī (d. c. 944), and one of these two schools of theology was accepted by members of all the Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with the exception of most Hanbalite and some Shafi'i scholars, who ostensibly persisted in their rejection of kalām, although they often resorted to rationalistic arguments themselves, even while claiming to rely on the literal text of the Islamic scriptures.[7]

Traditionalist response[edit]

Although the traditionalist scholars who rejected the Ashʿarī-Māturīdī synthesis were in the minority, their emotive, narrative-based approach to faith remained influential among the urban masses in some areas, particularly in Abbasid Baghdad.[8][44] Its popularity manifested itself repeatedly from the late 9th to 11th centuries, when crowds shouted down preachers who publicly expounded rationalistic theology.[44] After the caliph al-Mutawakkil suspended the rationalist inquisition, Abbasid caliphs came to rely on an alliance with traditionalists to buttress popular support.[44] In the early 11th century, the caliph al-Qadir made a series of proclamations that sought to prevent public preaching of rationalistic theology.[45] In turn, the Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk in the late 11th century encouraged Ashʿarite theologians in order to counterbalance caliphal traditionalism, inviting a number of them to preach in Baghdad over the years. One such occasion led to five months of rioting in the city in 1077.[45]

Modern and contemporary era[edit]

While Ashʿarism and Māturīdism are often called the Sunni "orthodoxy", Aṯharī theology has thrived alongside it, laying rival claims to be the orthodox Sunni faith.[46] In the modern era it has had a disproportionate impact on Islamic theology, having been appropriated by Wahhabi and other traditionalist Salafi currents and spread well beyond the confines of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.[47]

Traditionalist scripturalism also exerts significant influence within the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, such as the Hanafite scholar Ibn Abi al-Izz's sharh on al-Tahawi's creedal treatise Al-Aqida al-Tahawiyya. This treatise would become popular amongst the adherents of the later Salafiyya movement, who regard it as a true representation of the Hanafi creed free from the influence of Māturīdī theology. Numerous contemporary Salafi scholars have produced supercommentaries and annotations on the sharh, including Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, and Saleh al-Fawzan, and it is taught as a standard text at the Islamic University of Madinah.[48]


On Taqlid[edit]

The traditionalists' attitudes towards religious principles led them to differentiate two similar terms: Taqlid and Ittiba. Taqlid which was the practice of blindly following scholars and their opinions (ra'y) without scriptural proofs, was harshly condemned. On the other hand, Aṯharīs understood Ittiba as following the prophetic teachings by using the scriptural evidences supplied by the scholars. Many traditionalists like Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), a major scholar who articulated Ijtihad and rejected Taqlid, would use scriptural proofs from the Quran and sunnah but also in some cases rational proofs.[1][49]

The Athari denunciations of Taqlid would reach its zenith in the writings of the 8th/14th-century theologians Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 C.E/ 728 A.H) and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350 C.E/751 A.H). According to Ibn Taymiyya, those who depart from the clear texts of Qur'an and Hadith to prefer the opinions of other individuals belong to the "Age of Ignorance" (Jahiliyyah) and deserve to be punished.[50] In one of his fatwas sternly condemning the practice of blind Taqlid, Ibn Taymiyya declares:

One who requires taqlīd of a particular imām must be asked to repent, and if he refuses, he is to be killed.[51]

On reason[edit]

While they promoted strict adherence to the Quran, the ḥadīth, the sunnah, and ijma, and consensus Aṯharīs did not neglect the use of reason. According to the traditionalists, rational arguments serve as proofs of the divine revelation. Despite the traditionalist criticism of the rationalist Islamic theologians, reason plays an important role in Aṯharī theology.[52]

According to the medieval Sunni theologian and Hanbalite scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), straying away from tradition and adopting rationalist approaches creates disputes among Muslims. Hence, Ibn Taymiyyah advocated the doctrine of early Aṯharī theologians, which emphasizes the stability of the tradition.[53] Summing up the traditionalist attitude toward rational argumentation, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote:

The preference of rational arguments over traditional ones is impossible and unsound. As for the preference of the traditional proofs, it is possible and sound... that is on account of the fact that being known through reason or not is not an inherent attribute (ṣifa lāzima) of a thing but rather a relative one (min al-umūr al-nisbiyya al-iḍāfiyya), for Zayd may know through his reason what Bakr does not know, and a man may know at a certain time through his reason what he will not know at another time.[53]

On Quran[edit]

Aṯharī theologians believe that every part of the Quran is uncreated (ghair makhluq).[54][55] It is reported that Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) said: "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".[56]

On kalām[edit]

For Aṯharīs, the validity of human reason is limited, and rational proofs cannot be trusted or relied upon in matters of belief, which makes kalām a blameworthy innovation.[3] Rational proofs, unless they are Qur'anic in origin, are considered nonexistent and wholly invalid.[57] However, that was not always the case since a number of Aṯharīs delved into kalām, whether or not they described it as such.[58]

Examples of Aṯharīs who wrote books against the use of kalām[59] and human reason include the Hanbalite Sufi scholar Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and the Hanbalite jurist Ibn Qudama.[60] Ibn Qudama harshly rebuked kalām as one of the worst of all heresies. He characterized its theologians, the mutakallimūn, as innovators and heretics who had betrayed and deviated from the simple and pious faith of the early Muslims. He wrote, "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...".[61]

On attributes of God[edit]

Aṯharīs staunchly affirm the existence of the attributes of God and consider all of them to be equally eternal. They accept the relevant verses of the Quran and the ḥadīth as they are without subjecting them to rational analysis or elaboration.[62] According to Aṯharīs, the real meanings of the attributes of God should be consigned to God alone (tafwid).[5] According to this method, one should adhere to the text of the Quran and believe that it is the truth, without trying to explain it through a figurative explanation.[63]

Ahmad ibn Hanbal reportedly stated: "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 acknowledgment of the Apostle and the confirmation of the Qur'an".[64]

Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi stated: "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".[65]

Anthropomorphism was commonly alleged against Aṯharī theologians by their critics,[4] including the Hanbalite scholar and theologian Ibn al-Jawzi. In some cases, Aṯharī scholars espoused extreme anthropomorphic views,[4] but they do not generally represent the Aṯharī theology as a whole.[66]

On iman (faith)[edit]

The Aṯharīs hold that iman (faith) increases and decreases in correlation with the performance of prescribed rituals and duties, such as the five daily prayers.[67][68] They believe that iman resides in the heart, in the utterance of the tongue, and in the action of the limbs.[56]

On division of tawhid (unity of God)[edit]

Scholars of the Aṯharī theology support the division of tawhid (unity of God) into three categories:

  • tawhid al-rububiyyah ("the oneness of lordship", referring to belief in God as the creator and sustainer of the world);
  • tawhid al-uluhiyyah ("the oneness of divinity", referring to worshipping God as the only deity);
  • tawhid al-asma wa-l-sifat ("the oneness of names and attributes", which asserts that God has only one set of attributes, which do not contradict each other).[69] Ibn Taymiyyah seems to have been the first to introduce this distinction.[69][70]


The 16th-century Ash'arite scholar Ibn Hajar al-Haytami denounced Aṯharī theological views as associated with the doctrine of Ibn Taymiyyah.[71]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Abrahamov, Binyamin (2016) [2014]. "Part I: Islamic Theologies during the Formative and the Early Middle period – Scripturalist and Traditionalist Theology". In Schmidtke, Sabine (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 263–279. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199696703.013.025. ISBN 9780199696703. LCCN 2016935488.
  2. ^ Halverson (2010, 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 distinct traditionalist, anti-theological movement, which defies strict identification with any particular madhhab, and therefore cannot be described as Hanbalite."
  3. ^ a b Halverson (2010, p. 36).
  4. ^ a b c Hoover, John (2020). "Early Mamlūk Ashʿarism against Ibn Taymiyya on the Nonliteral Reinterpretation (taʾwīl) of God's Attributes". In Shihadeh, Ayman; Thiele, Jan (eds.). Philosophical Theology in Islam: Later Ashʿarism East and West. Islamicate Intellectual History. Vol. 5. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 195–230. doi:10.1163/9789004426610_009. ISBN 978-90-04-42661-0. ISSN 2212-8662. LCCN 2020008682.
  5. ^ a b Halverson (2010, pp. 36–37).
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lapidus (2014, p. 130)
  7. ^ a b c Blankinship (2008, p. 53); Lapidus (2014, pp. 123–124)
  8. ^ a b Halverson (2010, p. 35)
  9. ^ Hodgson (2009, Kindle loc. 1589); Abrahamov (2014, p. 263)
  10. ^ Lucas (2005); Belo (2014); Berkey (2010); Leaman (2008); Hoover (2014).
  11. ^ Hodgson (2009, Kindle loc. 8374)
  12. ^ Hodgson (2009, Kindle loc. 1551–1624)
  13. ^ Leaman (2008, p. 81)
  14. ^ Spevack (2014, p. 102)
  15. ^ El Omari (2013)
  16. ^ Halverson (2010, p. 34); Brown (2009, p. 181)
  17. ^ Blankinship (2008, p. 51); El Shamsy (2008, p. 107)
  18. ^ Brown (2009, p. 181)
  19. ^ Esposito (2014)
  20. ^ Leaman (2009)
  21. ^ Halverson (2010, pp. 34–35); Laoust (1986, p. 158)
  22. ^ Halverson (2010, pp. 35–36); Hoover (2014, p. 626)
  23. ^ Abrahamov, Binyamin (1998). "Introduction". Islamic Theology: Traditionalism and Rationalism. George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. viii–ix. ISBN 0-7486-1102-9. .. pure or extreme traditionalism does not belong exclusively to the Hanbalites, but also to the Shaf'iite, the Malikite and Hanafite scholars
  24. ^ Brown (2009b); Shahin (2009)
  25. ^ Lauzière (2015, p. 28)
  26. ^ a b Alwani, DeLorenzo & Al-Shikh-Ali 2003, p. 11
  27. ^ Taufiq (2019, p. 18)
  28. ^ Stowasser, Barbara Freyer (1996). Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation. Oxford University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-19-976183-8.
  29. ^ Spevack (2014), pp. 129–130.
  30. ^ Lucas 2006, pp. 290–292, 303
  31. ^ Stewart 2002, pp. 99–158
  32. ^ Schmidtke, Sabine; Abrahamov, Binyamin (2014). "Scripturalist and Traditionalist Theology". The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 270–271. ISBN 978-0-19-969670-3. The first two centuries of the Islamic era witnessed the struggle of four main approaches over the sources of knowledge and their authoritativeness, these being scripturalism, ancient or local traditions, prophetic traditions, and personal or rationalist argumentation. This debate reached its climax by the time of al-Shāfiʿī, who succeeded in persuading his co-religionists to hold the superiority of the prophetic traditions over other devices as a source of legal and theological knowledge and of interpretation of the Qurʾān.
  33. ^ Glodziher, Dr. Ignaz (2008). "Chapter 3". The Zahiris, Their Doctrine and their History: A Contribution to the History of Islamic Theology. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Publishers. p. 21. ISBN 978-90-04-16241 9. ...apart from the services of Malik b. Anas, Muslims rightfully consider Imam al-Shafi'i as the vindicator of traditionalism. It is from this school, too, that the last vigorous reaction of traditionalism against al-ra'y and against its consequences has arisen...
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  47. ^ Hoover (2014, p. 625)
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  49. ^ Ismail, Raihan (2021). "Chapter 1: Salafism". Rethinking Salafism: The Transnational Networks of Salafi ʿUlama in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 15. ISBN 9780190948955. Ibn Hanbal articulated ijtihad in rejection of taqlid..
  50. ^ Al-Atawneh, Muhammad (2010). "4: Modern Wahhabi Jurisprudence". Wahhābī Islam Facing the Challenges of Modernity. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. pp. 71–72. ISBN 978-90-04-18469 5.
  51. ^ Al-Atawneh, Muhammad (2010). "4: Modern Wahhabi Jurisprudence". Wahhābī Islam Facing the Challenges of Modernity. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. p. 71. ISBN 978-90-04-18469 5.
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  58. ^ Spevack (2014, p. 45). "However, as discussed below, this was not always the case, as a number of Atharis delved into kalam, whether or not they described it as such."
  59. ^ Spevack (2014, p. 76).
  60. ^ Halverson (2010, p. 37).
  61. ^ Halverson (2010, p. 38).
  62. ^ Ali Shah (2012, p. 573)
  63. ^ Abrahamov (1996, p. 6)
  64. ^ Halverson (2010, p. 42).
  65. ^ Waines (2003, p. 122)
  66. ^ Halverson (2010, p. 40).
  67. ^ Halverson (2010, p. 20).
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  70. ^ Ibrahim (2006, p. 106)
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