Syed Ameer Ali.

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their science of reasoning. Actuated by vanity, and partly
perhaps by ambition, he one day in the Jdmi' mosque of
Basra, in the presence of a large congregation, made a
public disavowal of the Mu'tazilite doctrines, and declared his
adherence to Sifdtism. His theatrical manner and his eloquent
words impressed the people, and the waverers at once went
over to him. Asha'ri was now the greatest man in the
Caliphate ; he was petted by the legists, idolised by the
populace, respected by the Caliph. He gave to the clerical
party what they had long been wanting — a logical system,
or what may be called by that name, for the defence of
patristic theology against the rationalistic conceptions of the
Mu'tazilas, the philosophers, and the Fatimide Imams. Abu'l
Hasan maintained the Sifatia doctrines, with very slight

A short summary of his views, taken from Shahristani, will
explain the present mental lethargy of so many Moslems. " He
maintained," says our author, " that the attributes of the
Deity are eternal and subsistent in His Essence, but they are
not simply His Essence, rather they are additional to His
Essence ; . . . that God speaks by an eternal word, and wills
by an eternal will, for it is evident that God is a Sovereign,
and, as a Sovereign, is One to whom it belongs to command
and prohibit, so God commands and prohibits ; . . . that His
ordering is eternal, subsistent in Him, a quality pertaining to
Him ; that the will of God is indivisible, eternal, embracing all
things subject to volition, whether determinate actions of His
own or actions of His creatures — the latter, so far as created

1 Al-Asha'ri was born at Basra in 260 a.h. (874 a. a), but passed the greatest
part of his life in Bagdad. Up to the fortieth year of his age he was a devoted
adherent of the Mu'tazilas. He ascribed his theatrical abjuration of his old
beliefs to an admonition he received from the Prophet in a dream during the
fasting month of Ramazan.


by Him, not as they are their own actions by appropriation ; x
. . . that God wills all things morally, good and evil, beneficial
and injurious ; and, as He both knows and wills, that He wills
on the part of His creatures what He knows, and has caused to
be registered in the memorial-book — which fore-knowledge
constitutes His decree, His decisions, and His determination,
therein there is no varying or change ; that an appropriated
action means an action which is pre-destined to be done by
created ability, and which takes place under the condition of
created ability." In plainer language, he taught that every
human action emanates from God, or is pre-destined by His
decree, to be performed by a particular person, and this person,
having the capacity of appropriation or acquisitiveness, does
the act ; the act is primarily God's act, secondarily the man's.
For example, if a man applies himself to write a letter, his
desire to write is the outcome of an eternal decree that he
should write ; then he takes up the pen, it is the will of God
that He should do so ; and so on. When the writing is finished,
it is due to his acquisitiveness. Shahristani very appropriately
observes that, according to Abu'l Hasan, no influence in
respect to origination (of action) pertains to created ability.
This worthy divine further maintained that " God rules as a
Sovereign over His creatures, doing what He wills and deter-
mining as He pleases ; so that were He to cause all men to
enter Paradise, there would be no injustice, and if He were to
send them all to hell, there would be no wrong-doing, because
injustice is the ordering in respect to things which do not
come within the sphere of control of the Orderer, or the
inversion of established relations of things, and God is the
Absolute Sovereign, on whose part no injustice is imaginable,
and to whom no wrong can be attributed ; . . . and that nothing
whatever is obligatory upon God by virtue of reason — neither
that which is beneficial, nor that which is most advantageous,
nor gracious assistance . . . and that the ground of (human)
obligation is nothing which constitutes a necessity binding
upon God." . . .

After mentioning the doctrines of Abu'l Hasan, Shahristani
proceeds to state the views of Abu'l Hasan's principal disciple,

1 Shahristani explains this word later.


whose teachings were adopted by a large body of people — Abu
Abdullah Mohammed bin Karram, " whom we count as one of
the Sifatias." This man maintained that the Divine attributes
were distinct from His Essence, that God can be perceived by
eyesight, and that He creates human actions from time to time
as He wills.

No account of al-Asha'ri's teachings would be complete
without a reference to Ibn 'Asakir's work. 1 Shahristani in
his resume of the Asha'rite doctrines maintains a philosophical
and judicial attitude. Ibn 'Asakir, on the other hand, makes
no pretence of holding an even balance between contending
schools. To him, as to Asha'ri, the doctrines of the Rationalists
are rank heresy ; and he denounces their teachings with
uncompromising violence. His exposition, however, of
al-Asha'ri's emphatic rule that the dogmas of the Faith must be
accepted by the orthodox, without questioning, helps us to
understand the tendencies which were set in motion at an
early stage of Moslem development, and which eventually
succeeded in arresting the progress of Moslem nations and
paralysing, in the course of centuries, their intellectual energy.
All questioning was declared to be an impiety and an unfor-
givable sin, whilst the spirit of inquiry was held to be a
manifestation of the devil. " God," says the Koran, " sees
all things " ; therefore, it was assumed, He must have eyes,
and the believer must accept it bila kaifa, without " why or
wherefore " ; — thus reasoned al- Asha'ri, and thus has reasoned
his school through all ages.

Two hundred and fifty years separate al-Asha'ri from his
distinguished exponent and apologist. Within this period of
time, Islam had undergone a great change. Until al-Asha'ri
started his new school of dogmatic theology, the struggle for
ascendancy was confined between Rationalism on one side and
Patristicism on the other. Al-Asha'ri supplied the latter with
a weapon it had never possessed before. As Ibn 'Asakir

1 Abil-Kasim Ali bin al-Hasan b. Hibat-ullah, b. Abdullah bin al-Hasan
Ali Shafe'i, surnamed Ibn 'Asakir, famous for his monumental work on the
history of Damascus, was born in 499 a.h., died 571 a.h. He was a rigid
Shafe'ite and a violent partisan of al-Asha'ri, whom he regarded as a renovator
and foremost champion of Islam. Ibn 'Asakir's work is called The
Exposure by al-hn&m Hasan al-Asha'ri of Mischievous Untruths.


remarks, " al-Asha'ri was the first orthodox dialectician, 1 who
reasoned with the Rationalists and other heretics according to
their own principles of logic." As an attempted compromise
between Rationalism and Patristicism, between " orthodoxy "
and " heterodoxy," his doctrines found a ready acceptance
among the extreme theologians and divines, who saw in his
system the means for overthrowing Rationalism from the
pinnacle of power and influence which it had attained in the
enlightened reigns of al-Mamun and his two immediate suc-
cessors. Rationalism was also favoured by the earlier Buyides,
and, under their auspices and encouragement, its influence
had become paramount in Mid- Asia. " The power of the
Mu'tazila," says Ibn 'Asakir, " was very great in Irak until
the time of Fenakhusru" ('Azud-ud-Dowla). 2 In his reign
Asha'rism first found favour at Court and gradually spread
among all classes. Up to the middle of the fifth century of
the Hegira it was often confounded with Mu'tazilaism, which
al-Asha'ri had professed until his dramatic secession. His
disciples appear even to have been subjected to some per-
secution at the hands of the sects who claimed the special
privilege of orthodoxy.

Under Sultan Tughril, the founder of the Seljukide dynasty,
the followers of al-Asha'ri were suspected of unorthodoxy, and
had to undergo proscription and exile. The Sultan himself
was a follower of Imam Abu Hanifa and professed Hanafite
orthodoxy. He had given orders for public imprecation on
heretics from the pulpits of the mosques. According to Ibn
'Asakir, his vizier, 3 who was a Mu'tazili, included the
Asha'rites in the imprecation, and started a persecution of the

1 Mutakallim bi'lisan.

2 Al-Malik Fenakhusru reigned as the Mayor of the Palace from 367-372 a.h.
Ibn 'Asakir tells the story of how Fenakhusru, after attending one of the
" Assemblies of the learned " which were held in the house of the Chief Kazi,
who was a Mu'tazili, found that there was not a single Asha'rite in their midst.
On being told that there was no learned Asha'rite in Bagdad, he pressed the
Judge to invite some from outside. It was at his instance, it is stated, that
Ibn al-Bakillani, one of the principal disciples of al-Asha'ri, was summoned
to Bagdad. To him Fenakhusru confided the education of his sons. Whether
this story be true or not, the period of 'Azud-ud-Dowla's reign fixes the date of
the rise of the Star of Asha'rism.

3 Abu Nasr Mansur Kunduri, surnamed 'Amid ul-Mulk.


most prominent Imams and doctors among the disciples of

The cloud under which Asha'rism laboured in the reign of
Tughril Beg lifted on his death, and with the accession of Alp
Arslan and the rise of Nizam ul-Mulk, " who favoured the
adherents of the Sunnat," Asha'rism became the dominant
sect. " He recalled the exiles, covered them with honours,
opened colleges and schools in their names." Thus one of the
most generous patrons of learning among the Moslems uncon-
sciously allied himself to a tendency to which, more largely
than any other cause, the sterilisation of the intellectual energies
of the Moslems is due.

Ibn 'Asakir's account of the progress of Asha'rism is
enthusiastic. From Irak it spread into Syria and Egypt under
the Ayyubides 1 and Mamelukes ; from Irak also it was carried
into Western Africa by Ibn Tumart, 2 and it took firm root in
the Maghrib (Morocco). "There remained no other sect in
Islam, excepting some followers of Ibn Hanbal and some
partisans of Abu Hanifa, to compete with the adherents of
al-Asha'ri." " Ahmed bin Hanbal and al-Asha'ri were in
perfect harmony," says Ibn 'Asakir, " in their religious
opinions and did not differ in any particular, in the funda-
mental doctrines and in the acceptance of the authority of
the Traditions." " This is the reason," he continues, " why the
Hanbalites relied from always and at all times on the
Asha'rites against the heterodox, as they were the only dialec-
ticians among the orthodox."

To throw into relief the cardinal principles of al-Asha'ri's
teachings, Ibn 'Asakir places in juxtaposition the opinions
held by different sects.

After mentioning various other sects, he gives an account, in
the words of al-Asha'ri, of the Mu'tazilite doctrines (" in which
they have strayed from the right path "). He tells us that the
Mu'tazilas repudiate the notion that God can be seen by the
corporeal sight, or that the Almighty has any similitude to
human beings ; or that there will be a corporeal resurrection
on the Day of Account. " They repudiate also," he says,

1 Saladin and his successors.

2 The founder of the Almohade dynasty in north-west Africa.


" the doctrine of pains and penalties ('Azdb) 1 in the grave,"
nor do they believe in the intercession (Shafd'at) of the Prophet ;
they hold that human sins can only be forgiven or remitted by
Divine Mercy, and that neither His mercy nor justice can be
influenced or deflected by human intercession ; they believe
that the Koran is created and revealed to the Prophet
and that the " law has been announced according to human

After stating the Mu'tazilite doctrines Ibn 'Asakir proceeds
to give in detail the creed of al-Asha'ri. They are twenty-four
in number, but to show the theological attitude of al-Asha'ri
and his sharp difference with rationalistic Islam it is sufficient
to refer only to a few. After the confession of Faith, regarding
the unity of God and the messengership of the Prophet in which
all Islam is agreed, the Asha'rite creed proceeds thus : —

" We declare that Paradise and Hell are true, that the arrival
of the Hour of Judgment is certain, and that without doubt
God will raise the dead from their graves ; that God will appear
to human sight on the Day of Judgment. 2 We declare that the
word of God (i.e. the Koran), and every part thereof, is
uncreated : that there is nothing on earth, neither good nor
bad, which does not come into existence but by the will of God :
that nothing, in fact, comes into being unless He wishes. We
believe that God the Almighty knows the acts of His servants
and their ends and consequences, as well as those which do not
come to pass. We believe that human actions owe their
origin to His will and are determined in advance by Him ; that
man has no power to originate or create anything by himself
(i.e. without God's help). That man is incapable of obtaining
by himself that which is good for his soul, or avoiding that
which is harmful, except by the will of God."

The Asha'rite creed then goes on thus : — " We believe in
the intercession of the Prophet, and that God will redeem from

1 The meaning of ' Azab will become clearer later on.

2 It is believed that on the third day after burial the grave is visited
by two angels named Munkir and Nakir, who raise the dead to life by blows
from their batons, and interrogate him as to his or her past life and record
the answers in a register. They act as a sort of Juge d' instruction. This
belief, evidently an offshoot from the Egyptian conceptions, was imbedded
in the folk-lore of the country before the promulgation of Islam.


the punishment of fire believers who have sinned." " We
believe in the Day of Resurrection, we believe in the appearance
of the anti-Christ, in the interrogation of the dead by the two
angels (Munkir and Nakir) . We believe in the Ascension of the
Prophet ; 1 we believe that all evil thoughts are inspired by
Satan ; we believe that it is sinful to rise in arms against the
lawful Imam." -

This summary shows more clearly than Shahristani's philo-
sophical analysis the attitude of al-Asha'ri towards Moslem

In order to meet the Mu'tazilas on their own ground, Abu'l
Hasan invented a rival science of reason — the real scholastic
theology of the Moslems, which, though supposed to be an
offshoot of the 'Ilm-ul-kaldm founded by the Mu'tazilas, is in
many essential features different from it. For example, most
of the Mu'tazilas were conceptualists, whilst the Asha'ri Muta-
kallimin were either realists or modified nominalists. The
Asha'ris maintained that a negative quality like ignorance is
an actual entity, whilst the Mu'tazilas declared that it was the
mere negation of a quality, for example, ignorance was the
absence of knowledge. The Asha'ri Mutakallim maintained
that the Koran was uncreated and eternal ; the Mu'tazilite
declared that it represented the words of God revealed to the
Prophet from time to time as occasion arose, otherwise there
would be no meaning in ndsikh and mansukh, for admittedly
some of the later verses repealed others which had been uttered

Asha'rism thus became the dominant school in the East.
When the enlightened Buyides became the mayors of the
palace Rationalism again raised its head in Bagdad ; but
Asha'rism never lost its hold over the conscience of the masses,

1 The belief in the Ascension of the Prophet is general in Islam. Whilst
the Asha'ri and the patristic sects believe that the Prophet was bodily carried
up from earth to heaven, the Rationalists hold that it was a spiritual exalta-
tion, that it represented the uplifting of the soul by stages until it was brought
into absolute communion with the Universal Soul.

2 The orthodox Sunni belief, that once the sacramental oath of allegiance
is sworn to the Caliph any rising against him is a religious crime, led all Moslem
sovereigns to beg for investiture from the Caliph, however impotent, as it
made insurrection against them or their authority on the part of their subjects


nor did Mu'tazilaism ever regain its old position of preponder-
ance. The Buyides were Rationalists ; but the Seljukides, in
spite of their patronage of learning and science, belonged to
the Asha'ri school. Renan x has observed that Islamism,
having become, by the accident of history, the property of races
given over to fanaticism, such as the Spaniards, the Berbers,
the Persians, the Turks, acquired in their hands the garb of
a rigid and exclusive dogmatism. " What has happened to
Catholicism in Spain has happened to Islam, what would have
happened in all Europe if the religious revival which took place
(in Christendom) at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning
of the seventeenth century had stopped all national develop-
ment." This observation is absolutely true. The Persian
always associated an idea of divinity with the person of his
sovereign ; the Turk, the Mongol, the Berber looked upon their
chiefs as the direct descendants of God ; conversion to Islam
did not detract from their veneration of their kings or princes.
For centuries the Arabs had tried to exorcise the demon of
fanaticism which had been introduced into the hearts of the
Spaniards by the Christian clergy ; they failed, and the moment
the Chancellor al-Mansur, in order to enlist popular support
in furtherance of his ambitious designs, raised in Spain a cry
against Rationalism, the same crowd which afterwards assisted
with willing hands and gleeful faces at the auto-da-fe of heretics,
helped in the burning of philosophical works in the market-place
of Cordova. The victorious arms of Saladin carried Asha'rism
into Egypt. Whilst Rationalism was thus fighting a losing
battle with its old enemy, the writings of Imam al-Ghazzali,
which were directed chiefly against the study of philosophy,
strengthened the hands of Patristicism. Abu Hamid Moham-
med ibn Mohammed al Ghazzali 2 was a man of undoubted
talents and purity of character. He had studied philosophy
and dived into the mysteries of the sciences ; he had even

1 Averroes et Averroism, p. 30.

2 Was born at Tus in Khorasan (the birthplace of Firdousi) in the year
1058 a. c. (45b a. h.) ; died in mi a.c. (505 of the Hegira). His most cele-
brated works are the Ihya ul-'uliZm (" the Revival of the Sciences of Religion ") ;
the Munkiz min-az-zaldl {" Deliverance from Errors "); M akdsid-nl-faldsifa (the
"Tendencies of Philosophers"); and Tahdfut-ul-faldsifa (" Destruction of
Philosophers"), to which Ibn-Rushd wrote a refutation called the Tahdfut-u-
Tahdfui ul-faldsifa ("the Destruction of Destruction," etc.) ; see chap. xi.


indulged in free-thought. Suddenly the spirit of earnest
longing for a solid rock on which to rest the weary soul, the
spirit that has worked similarly upon other minds in later ages,
spoke to his heart, and from a philosopher he turned into a
mystic. In the Munkiz, which appears to have been a dis-
course delivered either verbally or written to his religious
brethren, he describes with some naivete how he hankered for
knowledge, and in its search went everywhere, dipped into
everything, acquainted himself with every subject ; and how
he abandoned the doctrines which had been instilled into him
in early life. He says he knew the saying of the Prophet, which
declared that every child was born with a knowledge of the
truth in nature, and therefore wanted to know what that truth
was. Then he describes how he was seized with scepticism,
and how he escaped from its consequences by betaking himself
into the higher regions of faith, viz. a mystical exaltation. The
discourse contains a violent attack on the philosophers, whom
he groups under three heads. (1) The Dahrts, who believe in
the eternity of matter, and deny the existence of a Creator.

(2) The Physicists or naturalists, who believe in the existence
of a Creator, but think that the human soul once separated
from the body ceases to exist, and that therefore there is no
accountability for human actions ; both of them were infidels.

(3) The Theists (Plato and Aristotle) , ' ' these have completely
refuted the doctrines of the first two, and God has saved thereby
the true believer from the battle." " But they must be pro-
nounced infidels ; and so also the Moslem philosophers who
have followed them, especially Farabi and Ibn-Sina, for their
philosophy is so confused that you cannot separate the truth
from the false, so as to refute the latter ! From what we can
discover of the writings of these two men, knowledge may be
divided under three heads ; one group we are bound to pro-
nounce as infidel, another as heresy, and about the third we
need say nothing ! " And yet with all this simplicity there is
considerable practical sense displayed in Ghazzali's writings.
He praises wisdom as far higher than mere belief, and opposes
the fanatical dogmatism which rejects all rational inquiry and
all knowledge because it is cultivated by his betes noires the
philosophers. He calls this dogmatism the unwise friend of


Islam. At the same time his precepts on personal indepen-
dence, on moral discipline, on self -purification, on practical
kindness, and on the education of the young, and his
denunciation of the immoral and useless lives of the Mullahs
of his time, reflect great credit on the goodness of his
nature. 1

From this period there was an unceasing struggle between
Rationalism and Patristicism. In the year 1150, under the
orders of the Caliph Mustanjid, all the philosophical works of
Ibn-Sina and the copies of the Rasail-i-Ikhwan us-Safd found
in the public and private libraries were consigned to the flames.
In 1 192 the physician Ar-Rukn Abdus-Salam was accused of
atheism, and the populace and priests proceeded to make a
bonfire of his books. The Mullah who presided at this
ceremony stood on a chair and delivered a sermon against
philosophy. As the books were brought out they were
delivered to him, and with a few remarks on their impiety,
he threw them into the fire. A disciple of Maimonides was
a witness to this strange scene, and has left an account of
it. "I saw," says he, " in the hands of this doctor the work
of Ibn-ul-Haithem (Al-Hazen) on astronomy. Showing to the
people the circle by which the author represented the celestial
sphere, the doctor burst forth, ' Misery of miseries, inexpressible
disaster ! ' and with these words he threw the book into the
flames." But even the influence of Imam al-Ghazzali and the
temporal power of the sovereigns, some of whom were at heart
rationalists, would not have prevented the eventual victory of
reason over the dead-weight of authority, had not the Mongol's
sword turned the scale. " One Khan, one God : as the Khan's
ordinance is immutable, so is God's decree." Could any
doctrine be more logical or more irresistible, backed as it was
by a million swords ? Rationalism, philosophy, the sciences
and arts went down before that avalanche of savagery — never
to rise again. The gleams of light which we have seen shining
on Western Asia under the successors of Hulaku were the fitful
rays of the setting sun. Policy worked with an inborn
fanaticism in crushing any endeavour to introduce rationalism
and philosophy in the Moslem world. The lawyers were not

1 See chapter xi, post.


only strong, but also the main support of despotism. The
result was, as we have already seen, Patristicism took possession
of the hearts of large sections of Moslems, and has in course
of time become a second nature with them. They can perceive
nothing except through the medium of the patristic glasses.
The Prophet inculcated the use of reason ; his followers have
made its exercise a sin. He preached against anthropolatry
and extravagant veneration for human beings ; the Sunnis
have canonised the salaf and the four jurists ; the Akhbari
Shiahs, their Mujtahids, — and have called any deviation
from the course laid down by them — however much that
deviation might accord with the Master's own teachings

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 48 of 55)