Ninth in descent from the Companion of the Prophet, Abu Musa al-Ash`ari, founder of the school that bears his name, Abu al-Hasan `Ali b. Isma`il al-Ash`ari was born in Basra (260/873-4). After a traditional education, he joined the circle of disciples of the Mu`tazili teacher Abu `Ali al-Jubba’i. In 300/912-3, a breach occurred between him and his teacher and al-Asha`ri joined the traditionalists (ahl al-sunnah).
He left Basra and came to Baghdad, studying fiqh with the Shafi`i jurist Abu Ishaq al-Marwazi (d. 340). He devoted the next twenty-four years to the refutation of “the Mu`tazila, the Rafida, the Jahmiyya, the Khawarij, and the rest of the various kinds of innovators” in the words of al-Khatib al-Baghdai. His student Bundar related that his yearly expenditure was a meager seventeen dirhams.
Among al-Ash`ari's books up to the year 320 as listed by himself in al-`Umad (The Supports) include Adab al-Jadal (The Etiquette of Disputation); Al-Asma’ wa’l-Ahkam (The Names and the Rulings), which describes the divergences in the terminology of the scholars and their understanding of the general and the particular; Al-Dafi` li al-Muhadhdhab (The Refutation of The Emendation); Al-Funun (The Disciplines) which is a refutation of atheists. A second book bearing that title was also written, on the disciplines of kalâm; and one of his most important work, Al-Fusul (Chapters), in twelve volumes, a refutation of the philosophers, perennialists, and members of various religions such as Brahmans, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. It contains a refutation of Ibn al-Rawandi’s claim that the world exists without beginning.
In addition, he wrote Idah al-Burhan fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Tughyan (The Clarification of the Proof in the Refutation of Heretics), a preliminary to al-Mujaz; Al-Idrak (The Awareness), on the disciplines that address the subtleties of dialectic theology; Al-Istita`a (Potency), which is a refutation of the Mu`tazila; Al-Jawabat fi al-Sifat `an Masa'il Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Shubuhat (The Replies Pertaining to the Attributes On the Questions and Sophistries of Heretics), al-Ash`ari's largest work, a refutation of all the Mu`tazili doctrines he himself had upheld previously.
Al-Ash`ari is one of the pioneers of the method of refutation using the methodology of the opponents; later al-Ghazali was to employ a similar method in his refutation of the philosophers. Al-Ash`ari also wrote al-Jawhar fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Munkar (The Essence: Refutation of the People of Heresy and Transgression) which is, as the title suggest, a refutation various heresies. His work, al-Jism (The Body) is a proof of the Mu`tazila's inability to answer essential questions that pertain to corporeality, contrary to Ahl al-Sunna. Jumal al-Maqalat (The Sum of Sayings) is a compilation of the positions of atheists and the positions of monotheists whereas Khalq al-A`mal (The Creation of Deeds) is a refutation of the doctrine of the Mu`tazila and Qadariyya whereby human beings create their own deeds.
Al-Luma` fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Bida` (The Sparks: A Refutation of Heretics and Innovators) is a short treatise refuting the claims of the heretics; al-Luma` al-Kabir (The Major Book of Sparks) is preliminary to Idah al-Burhan and, together with the Luma` al-Saghir, the last work composed by al-Ash`ari according to Shaykh `Isa al-Humyari. Maqalat al-Falasifa (The Sayings of Philosophers) deals with the theories and views of the philosophers and Maqalat al-Islamiyyin wa Ikhtilfa al-Musallin (The Discourses of the Proponents of Islam and the Differences Among the Worshippers) is an encyclopedia of Islamic sects.
Al-Ash`ari has also left behind Al-Masa'il `ala Ahl al-Tathniya (The Questions in Refutation of the Dualists) and al-Mujaz (The Concise) in twelve volumes, once again on various Islamic sects. Al-Mukhtasar fi al-Tawhid wa al-Qadar (The Abridgment: On the Doctrine of Oneness and Foreordained Destiny) is a review of the different doctrinal issues which the opponents of Ahl al-Sunna are unable to address whereas al-Mukhtazan (The Safekeeping) is on the questions which opponents did not bring up but which pertain to their doctrines. Al-Muntakhal (The Sifted) is a response to questions from the scholars of Basra; Naqd al-Balkhi fi Usul al-Mu`tazila (Critique of al-Balkhi and the Principles of the Mu`tazila) is a refutation of the book of the Mu`tazili scholar al-Balkhi entitled Naqd Ta'wil al-Adilla (Critique of the Interpretation of the Textual Proofs). In addition, we have the al-Nawadir fi Daqa'iq al-Kalam (The Rarities Concerning the Minutiae of Dialectic Theology) and Al-Qami` li Kitab al-Khalidi fi al-Irada (The Subduer: A Refutation of al-Khalidi's Book on the Will), which is a refutation of al-Khalidi’s doctrine whereby Allah creates His own will.
Al-Radd `ala Ibn al-Rawandi (Refutation of Ibn al-Rawandi) is concerning the Divine Attributes and the Qur’an. Al-Radd `ala Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab al-Jubba'I is an extensive refutation of a Mu`tazili scholar and of his book, al-Usul (The Principles). Also included in the refutation literature are the al-Radd `ala al-Mujassima (Refutation of the Anthropomorphists); a refutation of `Abbad ibn Sulayman in the minutiae of kalâm; a refutation of a book by `Ali ibn `Isa; a refutation of al-Balkhi's book in which the latter claimed he had rectified Ibn al-Rawandi's error in his disputation; a refutation of al-Iskafi's book, al-Latif (The Subtle); a refutation of al-Jubba’i on the principles and conditions of scholarly investigation and the derivation of rulings; a refutation of al-Jubba'I’s objections to al-Ash`ari on the vision of Allah in the hereafter as reported by Muhammad ibn `Umar al-Saymari.
He also wrote al-Ru’ya (The Vision), which affirms the vision of Allah by the believers in the hereafter, contrary to the Mu`tazili doctrine which denies the possibility of such a vision; al-Sharh wa al-Tafsil fi al-Radd `ala Ahl al-Ifk wa al-Tadlil (The Detailed Explanation in Refutation of the People of Perdition), a manual for beginners and students to read before al-Luma`; and al-Sifat (The Attributes), a description of the doctrines of the Mu`tazila, Jahmiyya, and other sects that differ from Ahl al-Sunna on the topic of the Divine Attributes. It contains a refutation of Abu al-Hudhayl, Ma`mar, al-Nazzam, al-Futi, and al-Nashi, and an affirmation that the Creator possesses a face and hands.
In addition, we have the Tafsir al-Qur'an wa al-Radd `ala man Khalafa al-Bayan min Ahl al-Ifki wa al-Buhtan (A Commentary on the Qur'an and Refutation of Those Who Contradicted it Among the People of Perdition and Calumny) which Ibn al-`Arabi al-Maliki says numbered 500 volumes.Ibn al-Subki reports from al-Dhahabi that this Tafsir was written at a time al-Ash`ari was still a Mu`tazili.
We also have various epistles in response to questions from the scholars of Tabaristan, Khurasan, Arrujan, Sayraf, Amman, Jurjan, Damascus, Wasit, Ramahramuz, Baghdad, Egypt, and Persia.
Al-Ash`ari’s voluminous works include Ziyadat al-Nawadir (Addenda to `The Rarities’). Between 320 and his death in 324, we have the following works listed by Furak:
Af`al al-Nabi Sallallahu `Alayhi wa Sallam (The Acts of the Prophet may Allah bless and greet him); al-Akhbar (The Reports); Bayan Madhhab al-Nasara (Exposition of the Doctrine of Christians); Hikayat Madhahib al-Mujassima (The Tales of the Schools of the Anthropomorphists), a refutation of the proofs they adduce; al-Ihtijaj (The Adducing of the Proofs); al-Imama (The Doctrine of the Imam); Ithbat al-Qiyas (The Upholding of the Principle of Analogy); al-khabar al-wâhid (Sessions around the lone-narrator report); Mutashabih al-Qur'an (The Ambiguities in the Qur'an), in which he brought together the stands of the Mu`tazila and the atheists in their invalidations of the ambiguities in the hadith; Naqd Ibn al-Rawandi `ala Ibtal al-Tawatur (The Critique of Ibn al-Rawandi's Denial of Mass-Narrated Hadiths), which contains an affirmation of the principle of Consensus (ijmâ`); Naqd al-Mudahat (Critique of `The Similarity’), a refutation of al-Iskafi on the term qadar; Naqd al-Taj `ala al-Rawandi (The Diadem: Critique of Ibn al-Rawandi); On questions put to al-Jubba'i concerning names and rulings; a refutation of Abu al-Hudhayl on the limitlessness of the foreknowledge and decisions of Allah Almighty and Exalted and another on motions; a refutation of Harith al-Warraq on the Attributes; a refutation of the logicians; a refutation of the proponents of metempsychosis and reincarnation. Al-`Umad ("The Supports") is on the vision of Allah in the hereafter; and the Al-Wuquf wa al-`Umum (The Abeyance of Rights and the Public at Large).
After listing the above titles, Ibn `Asakir says: “I have seen other works not mentioned by Ibn Furak in his list." He then proceeds to list the following:
Al-Hathth `ala al-Bahth (The Encouragement to Research); Risala al-Iman, an epistle on Belief which discusses whether it is permissible to say that belief is created. Ibn Hajar heard it from Abu Ishaq al-Tannukhi with the latter's chain of transmission back to al-Ash`ari, through the latter's student Abu al-Hasan Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Miqsam al-Muqri' al-Baghdadi; Risala ila Ahl al-Thughar (Epistle to the People of al-Thughar), a definition on the doctrines of Ahl al-Sunna. Ibn `Asakir then mentions that al-Ash`ari's works number over two or three hundred books.
As for the epistle entitled Istihsan al-Khawd fi `Ilm al-Kalam, al-Ash`ari most likely wrote it--provided he actually authored it--before his conversion, since it is ostensibly directed against the Hanbalis and uses markedly Mu`tazili terminology such as "divine Oneness and Justice" (al-tawhîd wa al-`adl) in reference to the fundamentals of belief.
The story of this conversion has been told in various versions but the main points on which Al-Asha`ri broke away from the doctrines of Mu`tazila were:
1. He held that God had eternal attributes whereas the Mu`tazila said that God had no attributes distinct from His essence.
2. The Mu`tazila said that Qur’anic expressions, such as God's hand and face, must be interpreted to mean "grace", "essence" and so on. Al-Ash`ari whilst agreeing that nothing corporeal was meant, held that they were real attributes whose precise nature was unknown. He took God's sitting on the throne in a similar way.
3. Against the view of the Mu`tazila that the Qur’an was created, al-Ash`ari maintained that it was God’s speech, an eternal attribute, and therefore uncreated.
4. In opposition to the view of the Mu`tazila that God could not literally be seen, since that would imply that He is corporeal and limited, al-Ash`ari held that the vision of God in the world to come is a reality, though we cannot understand the manner of it.
5. In contrast to the emphasis of the Mu`tazila on the reality of choice in human activity, al-Ash`ari insisted on God's omnipotence; everything, good and evil, is willed by God, and He creates the acts of men by creating in men the power to do each act. (The doctrine of 'acquisition' or kasb, which was in later times characteristic of the Ash`ariyya, is commonly attributed to al-Ash`ari himself, but, though he was familiar with the concept, he does not appear to have held the doctrine himself).
6. While the Mu`tazila with their doctrine of al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn held that any Muslim guilty of a serious sin was neither believer nor unbeliever, al-Ash`ari insisted that he remained a believer, but was liable to punishment in the Fire.
7. Al-Ash`ari maintained the reality of various eschatological features, the Basin, the Bridge, the Balance and intercession by the Prophet Muhammad, which were denied or rationally interpreted by the Mu`tazila.
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