Evaluating al-Ash‘ari’s Change of View on Religious Epistemology

As I said before, I am going to try to publish some of the papers I wrote in the past on this blog so I could (1) have a more complete record of my thoughts in one place, and (2) better organize my thoughts, iA. This was a paper I wrote back in May, 2012 for RELI 3559, a course at U.Va. on Islamic theology taught by R.B. Siebeking. Unfortunately, I have never thought about this topic again as deeply as I had at the time, but my sentiments remain the same: We need to bring back more rationality in Islam. P.S. Eid Mubarak! 🙂

May 7, 2012

Evaluating al-Ash‘ari’s Change of View on Religious Epistemology

The decrease of emphasis on the use of rationality in engagement with the scripture and the traditions, the replacement of theology with jurisprudence as the dominant focus among the scholars, and the transition from ijtihad to taqlid in the Islamic intellectual tradition in the medieval period all seemed to have been voluntary moves to block intellectual progress and seemed to have thereby contributed indirectly to the development of the Salafist movement that so shaped 20th century Islam. As part of my effort to understand this paradigm shift in religious epistemology, I would like to examine a key figure from the earliest period of this transition—Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, theologian and eponym of the Ash‘arite school of theology. Although little is known about al-Ash‘ari’s life, his “conversion” from Mu‘tazilism to the more conservative traditionalism (ahl al-hadith) is widely known and constituted a significant episode in the history of the Islamic intellectual tradition. What was the nature of his conversion? Why did he change his view regarding the use of reason? Unfortunately, historical sources do not provide clear answers. It is not even possible to compare and contrast al-Ash‘ari’s views pre- and post-conversion, as barely any of his pre-conversion works have been preserved. In fact, out of the supposed some hundred works of al-Ash‘ari, only around six have survived. In this paper, I will thus content myself with evaluating al-Ash‘ari’s post-conversion view on reason in considering these three questions: 1) Did his change of view make sense in the historical context? Did the historical context provide him with any motives for converting? 2) Is there any intellectual continuity between a general Mu‘tazilite view on reason and his later view? Is there rational consistency in his later view? 3) What impact might his views have had on the scholars of later generations and on the broader Islamic intellectual tradition, with reference to the question of epistemology? The bulk of this paper will be devoted to the evaluation of al-Ash‘ari’s view in consideration of the second question.

The Historical Context

During the third/ninth century, following Caliph al-Ma’mun’s campaign of religious persecution known as the mihnah, “a strong reaction set in against the ‘rationalist’ kalam” of the Mu‘tazilite court theologians. Van Ess suggests that this “ordeal” (meaning of mihnah) probably aroused in the general public a certain kind of negative collective memory about the Kharijites, who had permanently linked any practice of takfir with exclusivist extremism[1]. In addition to this violent act, which considerably discredited their image, the Mu‘tazilites were also holding a position that was becoming increasingly irrelevant to the contemporary situation. Watt postulates that “Mu‘tazilism was essentially an attempt to work out a compromise that would in part overcome the cleavage between Sunnites and Shi‘ites.” However, by the middle of the ninth century, this effort had evidently been abandoned by the government in favor of a pro-Sunnite regime, as both Sunnism and Shi‘ism irreversibly solidified. Meanwhile, people had become more disillusioned with the government and the theology it promoted. Eventually, the Mu‘tazilites became no more than “a group of academic theologians who had retired to an ivory tower remote from the pressures and tensions of the times,”[2] and indeed far away from the hearts of the common people.

Replacing the rationalist trend was the rise of the “Hadith folk”[3], who were the strict followers of the Hadith and the jurists (notably, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal) who resisted the use of reason and accepted the scripture and the traditions literally, “without asking how” (bila kayfa)[4]. Such complete subordination of reason was diametrically opposed to the Mu‘tazilite view, which affirmed the primacy of reason in the attainment of religious knowledge. It was in this climate of contradiction, in 874, that al-Ash‘ari was born. Despite belonging to an orthodox family, al-Ash‘ari studied under and became one of the best disciples of the Mu‘tazilite master of Basra, al-Jubba‘i (d. 915). However, at around age 40, he publicly renounced Mu‘tazilism during a Friday prayer and thereafter devoted his life to defending his new orthodox position which in many ways represents a middle path between the two extremes.

Did his conversion make sense given the historical context? Although the reversal of his opinion could appear sudden and arbitrary to the observer, when considered in the historical context as described above, it would not seem so surprising anymore. Extreme positions like Mu‘tazilism and Hanbalism simply could not be held for an extended period of time without incubating, in the concerned thinker, some desire for reconciliation. In fact, al-Ash‘ari was neither the only nor the first person to pursue “rationalist orthodoxy”. Before him, ash-Shafi‘i already “held that there should be a certain number of men trained thus to defend and purify the faith, but that it would be a great evil if their arguments should become known to the mass of the people”[5], and two other contemporary theologians, at-Tahawi (d. 331) and al-Maturidi (d. 333), were also starting to work in the same line of thought. MacDonald speculates hence that the inclination to reconcile reason[6] and orthodoxy, albeit being subconscious, was already there in the historical current; people just didn’t recognize its existence.

This “subconscious” theory could even account for the change within al-Ash‘ari himself. A famous report of how al-Ash‘ari converted is that he dreamed of the Prophet three times (some psychologists say that dreams contain representations of the dreamer’s subconscious thoughts): “Twice the prophet said, ‘Help the traditional beliefs.’ After the second command he gave up theology and spent his time on the Koran and tradition. In the third vision Muhammad asked what he had done and then said, ‘I did not tell you to drop theology but to defend the traditional beliefs for they are the truth.’”[7] And that’s when al-Ash‘ari finally realized the new position that he needed to defend.

Regardless of what actually happened, what we can be sure of through an understanding of this historical context is that al-Ash‘ari’s conversion was most likely not a result of a sudden decision but a gradual transformation; a transformation that was caused in part by a general political dissatisfaction with the Mu‘tazilite position and the influence of the Hadith folk and the popular thoughts. However, perhaps the most important reason for his conversion was his intellectual and theological dissatisfaction with the Mu‘tazilite doctrine. This claim can be supported by the comprehensiveness, complexity, and acuity of the theological position found in al-Ash‘ari’s works. Someone who just decides to convert based on sentimental waves simply does not construct such sophisticated and rationally consistent theories. In the next section, I will examine one of these theories—his theory about the place of speculative reasoning in theology—and try to determine why he might have been motivated to formulate this new view on reason.

A Rational Evaluation of al-Ash‘ari’s ‘ilm usul ad-din

Although Al-Ash‘ari’s ideas might very well have been developed consciously or subconsciously under the influence of the historical current, as suggested in the last section, the most explicit reason for his conversion is generally recognized to be his intellectual dissatisfaction with the Mu‘tazilite position. For, an account even more famous than the dream narration is the “three brothers” story, in which al-Ash‘ari raised an objection disproving the Mu‘tazilite doctrine of “the best” (al-aslah)[8] that silenced his teacher al-Jubba‘i:

The story is that he asked his master: “What do you say of a believer, an unbeliever, and a child?” Al-Jubba‘i replied: “The believer is in heaven, the unbeliever in hell, and the child in a place of safety.” Al-Ash‘ari asked again: “But should the child ask God why he did not let him grow up that he might earn a bigger reward?” Al-Jubba‘i: “God would say that He knew that he would be a sinner if he grew up.” Al-Ash‘ari retorted: “The unbeliever would ask why God did not kill him that he might not sin.” Al-Jubba‘i had no answer.[9]

The story has an ironically similar quality to that of the Mu‘tazilite founding story involving Wasil ibn ‘Ata withdrawing from the circle of al-Hasan al-Basri. The difference is that in the former, the intellectual dissatisfaction was with the use of intellect itself. It is a protest on al-Ash‘ari’s part, “a recoil from the impossible task of raising a system of purely rationalistic theology”[10] to reliance upon what is physical and unquestionable: the scripture, the traditions, and the practice inherited from the early Muslims.

So what did al-Ash‘ari now think should be the role of reason? Did he retain the use of reason in theology or did he abandon it completely like the Hanbalites, whose position he professed to hold? If he did retain reason, how big a role did he think reason should play? Although there has been much debate on this topic since the time of al-Ash‘ari himself[11], the rough general consensus is that he did use reason, but only insofar as it restricted itself to the scripture and the traditions. But this position seems to be problematic in the same way that saying “It never makes sense to say it never makes sense” is problematic; namely, that reason, in this case, is referring to itself in a way that prohibits or brings trouble unto itself. Does al-Ash‘ari’s theory manage to avoid this trouble? And if it does, are there other problems with his theory?

To find the answers to these questions, I will examine al-Ash‘ari’s view on the role of speculative reasoning in theology as presented in the prefatory section of his Risalah ila ahl al-thaghr bi-Bab al-Abwab (Epis­tle to the People of the Frontier at Bab al-Abwab) with the help of Richard Frank’s analysis of the piece. This risalah is a compendium of the usul ad-din on al-Ash‘ari’s view, composed shortly after his conversion, and in its preface, al-Ash‘ari discusses his “‘ilm” usul ad-din (the science of the fundamentals of religion) —essentially, his methodology for obtaining theological knowledge. It is important to note here the fact that he even elaborates on a methodology at all is something which is anathema to the Hanbalites, who only discuss the usul ad-din and do not go beyond them to formulate a method of knowing the usul ad-din. Basically, al-Ash‘ari’s methodology consists in following through a “rational order of the progression of faith” to obtain faith in the authority of the scripture and the traditions and thereupon obeying all the commands in the scripture and in the traditions without questioning. Here, it is obvious that following through the “rational order of the progression of faith” is the extra step of “kalam” that that the Hanbalite position lacks and disapproves of[12]. What is this rational progression of faith?

Essentially, al-Ash‘ari divides the teaching of the Prophet into four major topics and ordered them in a logical way so that the resulting sequence explains how one obtains faith in the authority of the Prophet. According to this conception, “the Prophet called his auditors to the faith by leading them through progressive stages of understanding until they came to recognize the origin and nature, and so the authority of his teaching.”[13] These four stages are as follows:

1) To acknowledge the contingency of the world and that of one’s own being

2) To acknowledge that the world and each individual are subject absolutely to the will of an omnipotent and provident God

3) To recognize that Muhammad is a true emissary of God

4) In consequence of this, to believe all that the Prophet says is to be believed and to do all that he has commanded to do[14]

The first three stages could be reached by applying reason to the arguments provided by the Prophet, and the fourth stage—acceptance of the authority of the Prophet sc. of the scripture and the traditions—is just a necessary moral consequence of having been through the first three. Basically, reason is a tool that we use to realize that we should do all that the Prophet has commanded us to do (without using reason). Another way to think about it is that the three stages are “evidence” for the validity of the fourth stage—the “command”; and you only need to use reason for understanding the evidence, not for following the command. Before analyzing the issues with this theory, I will elaborate on al-Asha’ri’s explication of these four stages.

What does the “evidence” look like? Basically, for the first two stages, the evidence are arguments (hujaj and adilla) used by the Prophet in the scripture and the traditions. The evidence for the third stage is the miracle of the Prophet, i.e. the Qur’an. Here are some of the arguments al-Ash‘ari says the Prophet used for the first two stages. For stage one, the acknowledgment of the contingency of oneself and of the world, al-Ash‘ari indicates that the Prophet pointed out to the people of the world the contingency of their being “through the alternation of form and disposition that occur in their persons and through the differentiation of languages”[15]. For the second stage, the acknowledgement of one’s subjection to God and God’s attributes, al-Ash‘ari says that the Prophet made known to the people of the world “the way to recognise their maker through the evidence found in themselves and elsewhere that requires His existence and demonstrated his will and His Providence.”[16] Although these particular arguments seem a little vague, al-Ash‘ari asserts that all the arguments presented in the canonical sources are rational, conclusive and better than any arguments the philosophers can come up with (for example, the arguments for contingency based on the idea of  “accidents”). And therefore reason itself, for its own perfection, should demand “its self-restriction to these arguments and conclusions.”[17] He also bolsters his claim by the historical sociological evidence that the first few generations of Muslims never asked for any more evidence than these.

As for stage three, the recognition that Muhammad is a true emissary of God, al-Ash‘ari claims that the veracity of the Prophet is established by signs and miracles. Muhammad had a special sign just as Jesus and Moses each had their signs (the miracles they performed), and that special sign is the Qur’an. However, in order to recognize that it’s a miracle, one needs to have been through the first two stages. One could thus call it a “conditional” miracle. Recognition of this miracle should then further confirm the validity of the first two stages, prove the veracity of the Prophet (the third stage), and also lead, necessarily, to the fourth stage: belief in and action upon all of the Prophet’s commands. While the connections between the first three stages are supposedly logical, the connection between the third and the fourth, here, seems to be one of moral necessity.

Now, here are three possible objections to this theory relating to the “self-referential trouble” that was alluded to earlier. While al-Ash‘ari might have answers to some of them, I think he could not provide an answer to at least the last one.

First objection: Granting that the rational order of the progression of faith is actually rational and that the evidence are actually conclusive[18], in order to obtain the evidence and the arguments for achieving the first three stages, one still needs to consult Islamic sources like the scripture and the traditions. Why does al-Ash‘ari seem to insist then that the authority of the scripture and the traditions is not the point of absolute beginning?

What al-Ash‘ari would say: It’s true that there can be no awareness of the Prophet’s claims and precise teachings apart from the transmitted sources, but these teachings in the beginning do not have “authority”; they are merely presented as evidence so that one would accept later the authority of all the claims and teachings as a whole. In other words, some statements from the transmitted sources are arguments and thus evidence for the first three stages, and some are just commands that one has to follow after one has achieved the fourth stage. One has to be careful in distinguishing between the two kinds. The authority of the scripture and the traditions, therefore, is not the absolute beginning. The absolute beginning is the arguments and the evidence contained within the scripture and the traditions.

Second objection: But how exactly does one distinguish between the evidence statements and the command statements? Although the Prophet might actually have presented to his companions the statements in the “rational” order that is suggested here, the fact is that after the first generation of Muslims, all we have are the texts—the scripture and traditions—without the “presenter,” who should have been the Prophet. Today, the “evidence” statements and the “command” statements are all jumbled up together in the texts. How are we supposed to distinguish the two kinds? How are we supposed to become convinced by the “evidence” statements in the first place when they are obscured by the other supposedly unreasonable “command” statements?

What al-Ash‘ari would (probably) say: Practically speaking, the problem of determining the criteria for distinguishing between the two kinds of statements simply does not arise. As one reads through the texts, one’s reasoning faculty would become so content with the evidence statements as a result of their perfect coherence with “the nature of things as given to human understanding in the experience of being”[19] (innate metaphysical knowledge), that we would eventually accept the entire religion, along with the command statements. In other words, one learns “the way to use the reports of the Prophet as a demonstration”[20] for the truth of all the claims of the Prophet. The knowledge of the difference between the two kinds therefore is simply a kind of a priori knowledge.

Third objection: So, the idea is that, even though there are still questions that remain from the command statements, the metaphysical and physical picture that has been spelled out by the evidence statements (automatically picked out due to their coherence with our reason) is already so complete and so attractive, that the person who scrutinizes these texts should be willing to and in fact will necessarily accept the whole package, including the points that are unclear. However, it seems that according to this theory of the rational order of the progression of faith, recognizing the contingency of created beings, God’s attributes, and the Prophet’s authority are the only things whose truths should be determined by the evidence statements (or perhaps that the evidence statements in the texts can only affirm the truths of these things), and everything else should be accepted as is, bila kayf. One cannot help but wonder, though: why should we only apply reason on these particular categories? Why can’t we simply apply reason on all the statements in the texts, and leave only the very ambiguous ones without asking how? What is really preventing us from using reason all the way through in interpreting the texts if the texts are in fact the truth?

I am not certain that al-Ash‘ari has an answer to this objection. However, the later Ash‘arite theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi did build on al-Ash‘ari’s theory and devised a way to deal with this problem by dividing the verses of the Qur’an into three types: those that have an apparent sense that can be confirmed by rational indicators, those that do not have an apparent sense that can be confirmed by rational indicators, but can be confirmed through other indicators, and those which are ambiguous both in meaning and indicators. “The sound exegete, according to al-Razi, will know how to discover the truth concerning the first two types of verses, and will know to entrust the meaning of the third type to God.”[21] Note, however, that al-Razi considers here only the Qur’anic verses and not the hadith literature, which probably contains too many contradictions for any appropriate application of reason. This observation is enlightening when considered in terms of al-Ash‘ari’s motive for conversion. It is possible that the crux of the whole matter was simply an unease al-Ash‘ari felt with the tension between rationality and certain contradictory commands contained within the hadith literature.

What has been presented so far in this section is a “rational” examination of al-Ash‘ari’s position on the role of reason in theology; that is, an assessment using reason, as a Mu‘tazilite might have done. The result of this assessment suggests that al-Ash‘ari did have some coherent reason for switching his view, namely that the arguments in the texts for the authority of the texts are conclusive and intellectually satisfying, and therefore all that is left for us to do is to accept the texts bila kayfa, as the Hanbalites preach. We can conclude hence that there is at least some intellectual continuity between the Mu‘tazilite view and al-Ash‘ari’s view on reason in that al-Ash‘ari did not simply abandon the use of reason but sought to subordinate it to the extent that it made room for certain irrational commands.

However, how could he justify his ‘ilm usul ad-din i.e. the use of kalam to the Hanbalites? We do not have the space to go deep into this issue here, but in his Al-hathth ala al-bahth (The Exhortation to Investigation), which is often published under the title Risala (fi) istihsan al-khawd fi ‘ilm al-kalam (A Vindication of the Science of Kalam), al-Ash‘ari defends the use of kalam by arguing that the Hanbalite argument for “kalam is haram” fails because, for one thing, the Prophet was not ignorant of the use of kalam. It only appears so because the language of kalam did not develop until later. In fact, all the arguments in the canonical sources are completely rational and can be readily translated into the language of kalam if need be. He gives many examples of what he believes to be these kinds of arguments and states:

All the verses which we have mentioned, as well as many which we have not mentioned, are a basis and argument for us in our kalam on what we mention in detail. It is true that no question was particularized in the Book and the Sunna. But that was because the particularization of questions involving rational principles did not take place in the days of the Prophet. However, (he and) the Companions did engage in kalam of the sort we have mentioned.”[22]

Although the Hanbalites would probably reject this argument outright because the argument itself is apparently the result of speculative reasoning, since we’re assessing the rational consistency of al-Ash‘ari’s position, the Hanbalite’s irrational rejection should not be a concern here. In any case, al-Ash‘ari did not seem to identify with Hanbalism at the end, even if he did in the beginning. And, as history has shown, al-Ash‘ari’s theology has proved to be a completely new school of thought which carved out a new path between Mu‘tazilism and Hanbalism and which became the mainstream orthodoxy.

To summarize, the Mu‘tazilites thought they could apply reason on everything, while the Hanbalites thought they should just accept everything without using reason. Al-Ash‘ari, out of his dissatisfaction with the inability of reason to deal with certain issues, put forward a new position advocating that one should use reason in order to accept the authority of the Prophet, but should not question any commands after this point. Although it was a good effort to bring together the two extremes, overall, I find that al-Ash‘ari’s withdrew from the use of reason too fast, too much. The theology that he constructed is still closer to the Hanbalite position and retains much of its intellectual inflexibility.

Impact on the Islamic Intellectual Tradition

In order to assess the impact of al-Ash‘ari’s religious epistemology on the broader epistemological practice of the Islamic intellectual tradition, it is necessary to understand the different types of religious epistemology. The typology I will present here is from Norman Calder’s essay “The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy”. Calder suggests that “all possible forms of religious belief can be caught under the following five headings: scripture, community, gnosis, reason, charisma.”[23] “Scripture” is just the idea that God reveals himself through a set of written texts. “Community” means that God’s revelation to man is primarily through the community, “that one particular community has been chosen by God and within that community correct belief will be articulated and preserved, because that community is guarded by God and preserved from error.”[24] “Gnosis” denotes the process of obtaining divine knowledge through mystical experience, and is usually associated with the Sufis. What is meant by “reason” is straightforward; it is usually associated with two groups: the Mu‘tazilites and the philosophers. “Charisma”, on the other hand, is exclusively associated with Shi‘ism (except in certain Sufi circles), as Shi‘ites believe that God has appointed one person with special charisma to preserve His message.

Calder’s own analysis of Sunni orthodoxy is that Sunnis lie somewhere between scripture and community (or that they encompass both categories) while being closer to community. The scriptural texts, according to him, are “the residue of salvation history”[25] that constitutes authority in the religion. Then, after the period of salvation history ended, the Muslim community derives over the course of the rest of the history an orthodox theology and a system of law that are explained and justified by reference to the authoritative scriptural texts “through engagement in the exegetical process”[26]. And it is because this exegetical process is based on an intellectual tradition grounded in mutual reference and recognition within a scholarly community across time, that the Sunni Orthodoxy is judged to have a mainly community-based epistemology. McAuliffe, in her essay “The tasks and traditions of interpretation”, depicts how much Muslims scholars paid respect to past scholars even if what they really wanted to do was to make their own commentaries on the scriptural texts[27]. In fact, if a Muslim scholar made any commentaries based on his own reasoning or imagination, he would be marked as heretical. In his conclusion, Calder judges Sunni Islam to be “primarily a religion of community, scripture and gnosis, marginally of reason, and hardly at all of charisma.”[28]

Although this uneven distribution leaves something to be desired (e.g. more rationality), one remarks that there is certainly not a lack of diversity of epistemological categories defining the intellectual tradition of Sunni orthodoxy, and I believe that al-Ash‘ari did much to contribute to this diversity. During the time of al-Ash‘ari, Mu‘tazilism represented the epistemological category of “reason”, and Hanbalism represented (roughly) “scripture”. What al-Ash‘ari brought forth, as he created a theology from existing elements and thoughts—a theology that used rational arguments but was at the same time orthodox and acceptable to the community at large—was essentially the tradition of “community” to tie together both “reason” and “scripture”. As we have seen, al-Ash‘ari’s theology was not a perfect synthesis, but it did open the door to a more eclectic intellectual tradition, which was later epitomized by the celebrated Ash‘arite theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111).[29]

In conclusion, al-Ash‘ari’s change of view on reason has had a relatively positive effect on the Islamic intellectual tradition. How much, then, has al-Ash‘ari’s theology contributed to the Salafi literalist movement that is characteristic of the Islam we know today? I would say: not much. The scholars that contributed the most to this movement were Ibn Taymiyya and fundamentalists in the modern period like ibn Abdul Wahhab. While al-Ash‘ari expanded the epistemological categories defining orthodox Islam, these literalists ignored both community and reason and indeed gnosis, reducing Islam to a much smaller tradition based only on the Qur’an and the sunnah. At first glance, this might not necessarily be a bad thing and could even have the effect of purifying the religion. However, when fourteen centuries of intellectual tradition had abruptly been cut out, the scriptural texts now existed only in a vacuum—their associated context being centuries removed from, and no longer relevant to the current context. In my personal opinion, this was an unfortunate turn. Perhaps what we need today is another al-Ash‘ari-like figure to reform and broaden our scope of religious epistemology.


Calder, Norman. “The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy.” In Intellectual Traditions of Islam, edited by Farhad Dftary, 66-86. New York, London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd in association with Ismaili Studies, 2000.

Frank. M. Richard. “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning in theology.” In Early Islamic Theology: The Mu`tazilites and al-Ash`ari, edited by Dimitri Gutas, 136-154. Ashgate, 2007.

Gardet Louis and Anawati M.-M. Introduction à la théologie musumane : essai de théologie comparé. Paris : Librarie Philosophique J. Vrain, 1970.

Hodgson, G.S. Marshall. The Venture of Islam: conscience and history in a world civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974.

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen.“The tasks and traditions of interpretation.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

MacDonald, Duncan B. MacDonald, Development of Muslim theology, jurisprudence, and constitutional theory. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903.

McCarthy, Richard J., S.J., trans., “Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari’s Risala (fi) istihsan al-khawd fi ‘ilm al-kalam.” In The Theology of Al-Ash‘ari, 119-134. Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1953.

Nasr, Seyyed Hoseein. Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to the Present: philosophy in the land of prophecy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Sands, Zahra Kristin. Sufi Commentaries on the Qur’an in Classical Islam. New York: Routledge, 2006).

Tritton, A.S. Muslim Theology. London: Published for the Royal Asiatic Society by Luzac, 1947.

van Ess, Josef. The Flowering of Muslim Theology, trans. Jane Marie Todd. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Watt, Montgomery W. Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Edinburgh: University Press, 1962.


[1] Josef van Ess, The Flowering of Muslim Theology, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2006), 31.

[2] Montgomery W. Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology (Edinburgh: University Press, 1962) 83

[3] Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: conscience and history in a world civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), 438.

[4] Seyyed Hoseein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to the Present: philosophy in the land of prophecy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 124.

[5] Duncan B. MacDonald, Development of Muslim theology, jurisprudence, and constitutional theory (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 187.

[6] “reason” here means the use of intellect independent of scripture not grounded in taqlid, not “scriptural” reasoning.

[7] A.S. Tritton, Muslim Theology (London: Published for the Royal Asiatic Society by Luzac, 1947) 166.

[8] Namely, that God is constrained to do that which may be best and happiest for His creatures.

[9] Tritton, Muslim Theology, 166 (with modification).

[10] MacDonald, Development, 190.

[11] Richard M. Frank, “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning in theology,” in Early Islamic Theology: The Mu`tazilites and al-Ash`ari, ed. Dimitri Gutas (Ashgate, 2007), 137.

[12] We will see at the end of this section how al-Ash‘ari defends the use of kalam

[13] Frank, “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning in theology,” 138.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Risalah ila ahl al-thaghr bi-Bab al-Abwab, p.82,2, quoted in Frank, “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning  in theology”, 138

[16] Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Risalah ila ahl al-thaghr bi-Bab al-Abwab, p.82,2, quoted in Frank, “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning  in theology”, 138

[17] Frank, “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning in theology,” 144.

[18] …which could be problems themselves, but I will not raise the issue in this paper.

[19] Frank, “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning in theology,” 139.

[20] Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Risalah ila ahl al-thaghr bi-Bab al-Abwab, p.90,7, quoted in Frank, “Al-Ash`ari’s conception of the nature and role of speculative reasoning  in theology”, 140

[21] Zahra Kristin Sands. Sufi Commentaries on the Qur’an in Classical Islam (New York: Routledge, 2006), 60.

[22] Richard J. McCarthy S.J., trans., “Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari’sRisala (fi) istihsan al-khawd fi ‘ilm al-kalam,” in The Theology of Al-Ash‘ari (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1953), p.129,20.

[23] Norman Calder, “The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy,” in Intellectual Traditions of Islam, ed. Farhad Dftary (New York, London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd in association with Ismaili Studies, 2000), 71.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “salvation history” is just a history that defines a religion.

[26] Calder, “The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy,” 77.

[27] Jane Dammen McAuliffe, “The tasks and traditions of interpretation,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[28] Ibid., 83.

[29] Louis Gardet and M.-M. Anawati, Introduction à la théologie musumane : essai de théologie comparé (Paris : Librarie Philosophique J. Vrain, 1970), 67.

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3 Responses to Evaluating al-Ash‘ari’s Change of View on Religious Epistemology

  1. bioinika says:

    Very interesting article. Some things that came to mind as I read:
    The section on ibn Hanbal as a literalist who suppresses rationality was striking reminder of difference between what is typically known about these figures. It doesn’t seem like speakers ever talk about this rejection of rationality. It’s also why I enjoy finding people who are knowledgeable and willing to talk about such things. So thank you in that regard

    Another question that comes to mind on the objections to Ashari’s position, and the quote “the arguments in the texts for the authority of the texts are conclusive and intellectually satisfying, and therefore all that is left for us to do is to accept the texts bila kayfa”, is that if the texts and arguments simply jive with reason and we come to be convinced of the totality, what does that mean of those who aren’t muslim? Is their rationality deficient or something?

    You mention that “I find that al-Ash‘ari’s withdrew from the use of reason too fast, too much. The theology that he constructed is still closer to the Hanbalite position and retains much of its intellectual inflexibility.” What would a more favorable stance be and why is it (if you remember) you feel he fell short of that measure?

    You mention that “Perhaps what we need today is another al-Ash‘ari-like figure to reform and broaden our scope of religious epistemology.” This hope brings to mind the idea I’ve heard of periodic reformers, or something like that. The view is that humanity has certain ‘eras’ that follow each other, with each of the eras being cause by the fall of the previous era and a reformer rising to renew the religion. Just an aside

    Overall, interesting piece. You mention that al-Ashari did a lot to diversify the sources of knowledge in the tradition, but I come to ask myself: did he really? And in what regard? It probably goes without saying that he did have a big impact on the tradition, but on the relation between tradition and rationality, I’m not so sure. It seems like (Sunni) Islam really is a religion of orthodoxy; it values itself on the fact that it doesn’t change (in contradiction to other religions which it states do). In so many sermons, there is the saying in the opening talking about innovation being in hell fire (and for me personally, it seems like its directed at independent thought). Maybe its just from my vantage point or maybe its just the times, but it really doesn’t seem like al-Ashari has had much influence in the current thinking in terms of elevating the position of rationality. Is this why you feel al-Ashari fell short?

    • sy2m says:

      Thank you for reading and for another thought-provoking comment. I apologize for the late reply; I just saw it last night and could not finish my reply before I went to bed. I am glad you found this to be an interesting article. I would definitely not describe myself as “knowledgeable” about Islam, but at most an intellectually curious Muslim. In any case, I greatly enjoy having these kinds of discussions with people.

      Ibn Hanbal was one of the most influential and venerated scholars of Islam, but it is a fact that rejection of rationality is the most defining feature of the ahl al-hadith movement / traditionist theological school he helped found. My guess is that he and the other hadith scholars did not start out rejecting rationality for the sake of rejecting it, but overtime they realized that such rejection was necessary in order to preserve the epistemic authority of the hadith literature, which contains certain narrations that are either contradictory to each other or contradictory to the Qur’an. As I wrote in this article: “It is possible that the crux of the whole matter was simply an unease al-Ash‘ari felt with the tension between rationality and certain contradictory commands contained within the hadith literature.” So with regard to your question as to why I feel that al-Ash’ari fell short, I think I would say that he did not address this issue in a satisfactory manner (i.e. he did not provide a satisfactory answer to my third objection). Of course, I am not saying that all ibn Hanbal did was preserving falsehood, since there are definitely authentic ahadith, and they are a very important source of Islam knowledge. Unfortunately, as typical of many movements, what began as a reaction against an extreme view seemed to have become the seed of another extreme view. I don’t know how much ibn Hanbal can be blamed for the various extremist movements prevalent in the modern times, but a lot of these people attach themselves to the Hanbali school. Personally, I do not reject the entirety of the hadith literature and do view it as an important source of knowledge about Islam, but for me the authority of the hadith comes after the Qur’an (#1) and after rationality (#2), i.e. if any given hadith contradicts with these two other sources of knowledge, then it is false. With regard to why I rank Qu’ran before rationality in epistemic authority, I plan to write a post about that soon insha’Allah. For now, I will not write about my thoughts on the hadith. That is still something I am struggling with as a Muslim.

      With regard to your question about whether al-Ash’ari would have thought non-Muslims as suffering from deficient rationality—I would say yes, but this diagnosis only applies to those who reject Islam even after sincerely examining all evidence. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind what the Qur’an says with regard to the use of reason in matters of religion. Before I make my point, I just want to point out that the Qur’an is very clear about how using reason/intellect is a requirement for all humankind. The very first verse that was revealed was “Read! In the Name of your Lord who created” (96:1). (See the complete chapter here: https://quran.com/96). Another famous verse reads: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error…” which is basically telling us, it’s fine, you don’t have to believe in Islam, but if you use your reason, you will see that truth is clear and distinct from falsehood. And in hundreds of verses, the Qur’an uses words like reason, think, ponder, reflect, remember. Just a few examples:

      “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason.” (2:164)

      “Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction.” (4:82)

      “Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason.” (8:22)

      See more examples here:

      Some scholars interpret these verses and comment that non-Muslims need to use their intellect to realize the truth of monotheism (that we should worship the one true God), and Muslims need to use their intellect to remain conscious of God and maintain or increase their level of faith.

      NEVERTHELESS—and this is my main point—it is also repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an that God is the only One who can guide a person to Islam. “Say: ‘With Allah is the perfect proof and argument; had He so willed, He would indeed have guided you all.’” (6:149). This allows the possibility that someone entirely rational does not become a Muslim even after examining Islam in detail. Maybe it’s the case that their heart is not sincere, but the condition of their heart can only be influenced by God. The truth is that religion is not a logical proof. There is a certain spiritual dimension involved in every religion, including Islam. Although I really want to say that I became a Muslim entirely because I was convinced by the arguments, that is not true. The last straw so to speak was an undescibable feeling gentleness of a higher being that came upon me when I was reading the Qur’an (despite the stern tone of the Book). Another example is how Yasir Qadhi (an American Muslim scholar) once said that at the end it was the beautiful recitation of the Qur’an that really convinced him that Islam was the truth.

      So that was a very long answer to your question. I suppose the short answer is that according to Islam, if a non-Muslim (1) uses reason and, (2) is sincere about seeking the truth, in examining all evidence and arguments presented by Islam, then he or she would necessarily become a Muslim. Although almost everyone possesses the faculty of reason, whether someone has sincerity or not is something that nobody can change except for God.

      The reason I said we need another al-Ash‘ari-like figure today is because I feel we are at one extreme today, and it is time for the pendulum to swing the other way, i.e. Islam today needs a healthy dose of rationality. I think al-Ash’ari did his best for his time, but we have to remember that that was more than 1000 years ago. His influence has since been eclipsed by that of other scholars and movements. In particular, the strongest influence for the modern period probably came from wahhabism and the salafi movement (begun in the 18th and 19th century respsectively). What you said about the different “eras” of human civilization reminds me of a hadith: “At the beginning of every century Allah will send to this ummah someone who will renew its religious understanding.” I pray that this someone is already here today and that the ummah (the global Muslim community) of the 21st century is ready for a renewal of understanding.

      As for the idea of bid’ah or innovation (typically mentioned in a supplication made before sermons, as you insightfully pointed out), I don’t know enough about it to make a comment, but it is an idea that I am very interested in learning more about. Perhaps I will share what I learn in a future post.

      Thank you again for commenting. You have given me ideas for several future posts. Once I finish moving and settle down in my new job, I will begin to realize those posts iA.

      • bioinika says:

        Interesting points and thank you for your thoughts
        I guess a question that opens regarding the situation you mentioned with sincerity and rationality is whether sincerity requires a reasoning capacity. This question comes to mind since I personally don’t see humans as so rational. Even the ones who claim to follow logic can’t help but be affected by subtle biases, etc. that will color our rationality. (Perhaps this starts to question the notion of rationality as a whole since what seems rational to one person, may not be so to another). But back to the question, does one who is sincere, but easily swayed by passions or culture, capable of finding Islam as right for them? You mentioned converting so idk if you can comment on it but it certainly sounds within the realm of possibility that there are a good few people who perhaps have danced with Islamic ideas and are seeking the truth, but have not chosen to become muslim, out of commitment to a faith they feel compelled to follow for cultural reasons, or who feel their religion is still viable in their eyes (I know of some who may fall into this latter case).

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