Thoughts on an answer concerning Ash’ari scholars repudiating their previous beliefs

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By a member of the Team

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

I came across a comment by Shaykh Abu Adam al-Naruiji on this link of his site, answering a question about what is our view concerning the claim that Imam Al-Ash’ari (Rahimahulla) left the path he elucidated and instead went “back to the beliefs of the Salaf” (an epithet many times used for the anthropomorphic and crypto-anthropomorphic beliefs that certain people hold and retroactively project back to the Salaf (the earliest generations of Muslims).)

In here, as usual I will only note down what I understood from the answer, plus any additional related thoughts that may arise. I believe that the importance of this rather brief answer goes way beyond this particular issue and should be used in all related discussions whether it be with deviants or with outright non-Muslims, and that is why I feel it is important to mention this answer and the background rules we can deduce from it.

o    To begin, the Shaykh says that neo-Salafis love to turn debates concerning belief issues into historical debates, since it is very difficult to ascertain almost any single historical evidence without a shred of doubt, except if that event has occurred in the midst of so many people who reported it, that there can be no doubt about its occurrence. This is why historical discussions are a playing field for deviants, since the possibility to argue basically forever that a certain person said or did this or that is always there.

o    Just as a small side-comment, the Shaykh mentions this group as ‘Wahaabis’ outright without any niceties and the like, but for the sake of toning down this issue I will use the term ‘neo-Salafis’ whenever their case comes up, which is very often on this Shaykh’s site.

o    Now, the issue concerning historical events is generally like the Shaykh mentioned, and within the discussion of this general matter are not only the reports found in the Islamic history books, but also the Prophetic Ahadeeth. This is why certain groups, such as the Twelver Shias, can argue bringing up this Hadeeth or that Hadeeth, and the lay Sunni may not realize the fundamental rule that if there is something mass-transmitted which totally contradicts what the Shia has brought up, then this Mutawaatir (mass-transmitted) tradition is taken as a ‘compelling’ evidence (in the real sense that it ‘compels’ all other evidence to ‘submit’ to it), and that all interpretations of the singly-transmitted events cannot surpass that which is mass-transmitted.

o    [Of course, there is the issue of what the narrations might signify in their meaning, but if the meaning is extremely clear as per the rules of language, plus the narration is basically infallible due to its numerous routes, then rejecting it is simply a matter of arrogance towards Allah the Exalted.]

o    And again, many times what we see in the case of Shias or others, is an endless debate concerning the reliability of a certain Hadeeth, or of the sub-narrators that related a Hadeeth, and this is a matter that I personally feel wastes a lot of time and is purposefully used to divert the attention of the followers of truth from the main goal. I think we can all see that of course there will be differences of opinion in the field of Hadeeth studies among the scholars of Hadeeth, in the use of terminology, in the grading of narrators, in the conceptual framework under which a narration may be accepted, and so on. But this is actually a matter for experts, not lay people like most of us who may engage in argumentation about this or that Hadeeth. And also, this should never be a basis for doubting the established matters of the religion that have come to us through unquestionable means.

o    Now, what happens with deviants is that their method for establishing the true belief was non-existent to begin with and they only wished to get to a certain goal or conclusion, and they will use any and all routes to reach their conclusion; and this is the most important thing we have to be careful about in here, since in the case of deviants, we are dealing with those who do not care about Usool and the like, they only care about reaching the end they envisage.

o    In fact, this historical angle also applies very crucially to all non-Muslim religions. The reason is that none of these religions strongly systematized their history or dogma, and what they have are mostly the singular evidences from their “holy books” – singular not only because there is no corroborating mass-transmitted “outside accounts” of what they are saying, but also the “holy books” themselves have come down to us in numerous “versions”, all of them through “Ahaad” (single) chains [if even that, given the many changes that have taken place in these books through the centuries] and such a method cannot be used as a basis for establishing beliefs.

o    So, for example, when a Christian taunts us by saying that everyone saw Jesus (Alayhi Salaam) being crucified, this is in fact impossible to prove in the sense we are talking about, since firstly, their books have not come down to us in an authentic manner, and secondly, the oral transmission is also haphazard and cannot at all be trusted as an ‘Ahaad’ source of information, let alone a mass-transmitted one.

o    Now, coming back to the Shaykh’s reply, he says that this doubt about Imam al-Ash’ari and almost every other Ash’ari/Maturidi theologian came about due to a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of what they have written in their books – and this is something that can easily be done to mislead the masses, since most of us lay people do not have the books in front of us, and even if we do we do not understand Arabic properly, and even if we do know Arabic well enough we have not expended a lifetime in studying the author’s views in order to be familiar with the technical terminology he has come up with throughout his life. Of course, we know of many authors both from the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds who change their views as time progresses, but giving a definite statement concerning what a well-known author meant with his later statements versus the earlier writings is extremely difficult.

o    As an analogy, in the non-Muslim world we have, for example, “Kant scholars” or “Heidegger scholars” and even though they are scholars primarily studying the works of only one author, they still cannot agree as to what Kant or Heidegger may have meant in many of their writings. If this difference of opinion is accepted with respect to non-Muslim academicians trying to find out what earlier non-Muslim writers meant, then why are certain people so quick to rush to judgment concerning what a Muslim scholar meant in some of his writings, and why are they so quick to try to paint them as having “returned” to a certain theology that was not even respectable within their circles? Indeed, the Muslim scholars and their writings deserve a more nuanced study and consideration that what is given to the likes of Kant or Heidegger in Western academia.     

o    In the case of Imam al-Ash’ari and other scholars like him, they may have avoided giving a specific figurative interpretation for certain phrases like “Istawa ‘Alal ‘Arsh”. But this does not mean that they accepted the intellectual position that Allah is in a place or a direction. Rather, what these ‘Ulaamaa did was to reject the crude literal meaning [i.e. ‘Allah rose above the Throne’] that may come to the minds of some people, and then they avoided giving any further meaning to this statement. But note that even if they had given another signification, this would only be a possible meaning that befits Allah. The Shaykh mentions that because of this potential for confusion, a number of scholars went ahead and gave a possible interpretation for phrases such as ‘Istawaa ‘Alal ‘Arsh’ in a manner that befits Allah’s Majesty; because they saw that in their times, silence would lead to potential hereticism, while such was not the case with the earlier generations of this Ummah, where silence would be taken as our total inability to project anything we may think in our minds onto the Mutashaabihaat [ambiguous Verses] revealed by Allah the Exalted.

o    So this difference is important, since the supposed ‘innovation’ of giving a potential meaning that befits Allah to a certain Verse (while this was not previously done by the Ulaama of the earliest generations) is offset by the huge loss including apostasy from the religion of Islam that may occur if only silence is maintained. This is again, because people’s minds and the influences upon their minds had changed from the simpler time of the Salaf, and many people had entered a situation that needed a different type of ‘medication’ so as to say. And as we know, there is no problem in giving a very strong medication to the one who is dying in order to save his life, while this medication is prohibited for people when healthy.

o    The Shaykh also mentions that using books that come to us without a proper chain of narration is useless in establishing what Imam al-Ash’ari (or any other scholar) may have written. This is because if some old manuscript is found buried in some library, no one knows who may have inserted what into these books, and thus made the work ineffective for establishing the view of the author in a reliable manner.  (Again we see the conceptual connection of this with the Bible and similar works, and we see that nothing of what is in the current Bible can be taken with absolute certainty as being the revelation of Allah to mankind.)

o    The Shaykh next mentions that the only true and reliable way to know of al-Ash’ari’s position is through his current students today who have a chain going all the way back to him – that is the Shuyuukh and ‘Ulaama of today who have learned all the way back from Imam al-Ash’ari. And what all of these students say is that Allah is not in a place, direction, He is not a body, and so forth. The only difference is whether they gave a figurative meaning for certain words that appear in the Islamic primary sources such as ‘Yad’ or ‘Istawa’ (crudely translated as ‘Hand’ and ‘Rose Over’), or whether they avoided such specification. This is a matter for scholarly debate amongst the Shuyuukh and ‘Ulamaa, not an arena for people to cast doubts on what true Islamic belief is.

o    But the Shaykh leaves the mot important matter for the last paragraph, where he says that the fundamental rule in Islamic belief is that we do not imitate anyone regarding the fundamental unquestionable beliefs of Islam. So even if we were to imagine for a moment that Imam al-Ash’ari (RA) had changed substantially from his earlier writings, or even if he had left Islam altogether, this would not have changed our belief. We respect this Imam for the way he defended and codified the precepts of Islamic ‘Aqeedah, not that we imitate all of his writings. So even if he had made a huge blunder in any of his books, we are to reject that blunder and stick to that which is established in the religion. So at the end of the day, this matter of what happened to Imam Al-Ash’ari at the end of his life is a purely historical discussion that is not even relevant (or interesting, to use the Shaykh’s words) to the formulation of Sunni ‘Aqeedah.   

o    Just to expand on this matter a little bit, we see that a matter of certainty is that wherein imitation is not acceptable. This is different from issues of jurisprudence, where there is natural scope for differences of opinion and where the people should choose an expert Mufti, Shaykh, etc. to imitate, since the very nature of the “letter” of the texts and the “meaning behind” these texts opens up different possibilities that the lay man cannot investigate by himself, due to his lack of expertise in the area.

o    But with respect to the core belief sciences, there is no “natural scope” for such debates. For example, no one can say that the phrase “There is no god but Allah” needs particularization, or that there may be some “subgenres of gods” not covered by this general statement, or that the “Allah” in this phrase is “perhaps some other Allah”, or other similar invalid statements. So the expositions by Imam al-Ash’ari, Imam al-Maturidi, and many others (Rahimahumullah) are meant to methodically explain these general statements, not to serve as textbooks for blind imitation.

o    But suppose, if any Sunni scholar simply forgot to mention that for example, the phrase “Allahu Akbar” does not mean that Allah is “bigger in size”, this does not mean that he accepted this meaning, or that any of the lay Muslims can imagine that the meaning could be that “Allah is bigger in size than the creatures”. No, even though this scholar may not have included this specific clarification in his book, the lay Muslim should still understand that size cannot be attributed to Allah, since Allah is far removed from such things.

o    And the same goes for Ahadeeth in this field, the lay person is not to wait until he finds the specific Hadeeth or saying of the Salaf where it says: “When Allahu Akbaar is said, note that size is precluded from the possibilities to be attributed to Allah in this saying.” First of all, how can he wait for such a specific and narrow definition to come from a Saheeh Hadeeth…and if there is difference of opinion on the authenticity of the Hadeeth, will he also doubt whether Allah may or may not have size? This is totally wrong. And more importantly, the Qur’an already says that nothing is like unto Allah, so what are these people waiting for in terms of “textual proof”? Why is there such mental dullness in certain people with respect to these very important but obvious matters related to Allah the Exalted? May Allah help us in this matter.

o    Of course, there is a lot to be said about this above issue, but I hope that the elucidations of the Shaykh and the few notes I have written concerning what I understood from the above will be of benefit to all. May Allah help us to understand His Revealed Way, may He accept our deeds, and may He enter us into Paradise through His Mercy.