The Orthodox Creed

Posted on October 8, 2006. Filed under: 202 - Advanced Asma wa Sifaat |

A Study of al-Durra al-Mudhiyya fi ‘Aqidat al-Firqa al-Mardhiyya
(The Luminous Pearl on the Doctrine of Pleasure-endowed Sect)
By al-’Allama al-Shaykh Muhammad al-Saffarini al-Hanbali

Allah praise be to Allah, who gifted us to Islam and guided us to the path of His Prophet SallAllahu ‘alaihi wa-sallam. Surely, without His guidance we would be in complete loss.

May the peace and the blessings of Allah be upon the Prophet, His companions, His family and all those who followed them in righteousness until the Day of Judgement.


Before we begin, it is very important to answer an elementary question, and that is: what exactly is Orthodoxy in Islam and how is it determined?

A simple answer would be the answer of the Prophet SallAllahu ‘alaihi wa-sallam about the saved sect, that they are upon what the Prophet and his companions were upon.

This is one of the easiest methods of examining the claims of various groups claiming for themselves orthodoxy. For example, it is easy for one to have a brief look at the Mu’tazilite beliefs and realize that it takes root in Greek philosophy and not in the Sunnah.

However, this simplicity sometimes does not work, especially when, for example, certain heretical sects claim a large number of following for themselves, attribute themselves to one or more of the four orthodox schools of Law (fiqh), and in the due course, distorting history in their favour.

This is when it becomes important for a person to know the historical roots and circumstances of each of these sects to be able to discern their claim to orthodoxy.

Currently, since there are two main camps in the Muslim world, the Salafis and the Ash’aris, each of them laying claims to orthodoxy, it is important to briefly mention their history, tracing their roots to their respective origins, and thereby establishing whose claim to orthodoxy is more worthy than the other.

Historical Background

In the beginning of Islam, the Quran and the Sunnah was the ultimate source of Islamic thought on all aspects of human life. Just as fiqh was deeply rooted in, and based on the two legal sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, theology too was based on the very same sources without any external influence. This approach was represented by the bulk of the Prophet’s Companions and their successors, who formed to constitute what we know and refer to today as: traditionalism.

The first Islamic century witnessed the emergence of heretical sects such as the Khawarij, the Shi’ah and the Qadariyya (‘Free-Willers’), and the Jahmites, the followers of al-Jahm b. Safwan.

The second Islamic century witnessed the emergence of the Mu’tazilites, under the leadership of Wasil b. ‘Ata. The common story often quoted in the heresiographical works is that during the confusion caused on the status of a sinful person in Islam due to the Khawarij, who expelled one from Islam due to sins, and the Murji’ah, who argued that sins do not affect one’s faith; a person came to al-Hasan al-Basri to enquire about the orthodox position on a sinful person, is he or is he not a Muslim?

Before al-Hasan al-Basri could reply, Wasil b. ‘Ata interjected and claimed: ‘Such a person is not a believer, nor a disbeliever, rather he is of ‘an intermediate rank between the two ranks (of faith and disbelief)’ (al-manzila bayna al-manzilatayn)’ Thus, he was expelled by al-Hasan al-Basri from his gatherings. Wasil b. ‘Ata then began having his own gatherings at a corner of the same Masjid, which prompted al-Hasan al-Basri to say: la qad i’tazalana Wasil (Wasil has withdrawn from us), and were therefore known as the Mu’tazila (lit. those who withdraw).

The Mu’tazili movement marked the emergence of the rationalist movement in Islam for their use of Greek Philosophy, which became known amongst the Salaf as ‘Ilm al-Kalam, and received violent attacks. Thus, there appeared two main theological camps amongst the Muslims, the traditionalist camp that represented the Salafi school, and the rationalist camp that represented advocates of Greek philosophy and rationalism.

The rationalist movement received fierce criticisms from the Salaf for its disregard for the traditions in favour of reason. The movement, however, spearheaded by the Mu’tazilites, did eventually rise to power for two main reasons:

1) They managed to gain acceptance and legitimacy for themselves by adhering to the Hanafi school in fiqh, and thereby, acquiring official posts as judges in Islamic courts. It was much easier for them to join the Hanafi school than the rest due to the school’s inclination to rationalism; whereas the rest of the scholars were ardent followers of the Ahl al-Hadeeth movement, who were always at odds with the Ahl al-Ra’y for their vigorous use of Qiyas, making it impossible for the Mu’tazilites to infiltrate their ranks. It is noteworthy that even amongst the Hanafi school, despite of their struggle, the Mu’tazilites did not receive approval.

2) Their good connections with the ruling ‘Abbasid Caliphate always placed them in a favourable position. For instance, the Mu’tazilite leader, ‘Amr b. ‘Ubayd was a close friend of the ‘Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur; Abul-Hudhayl al-’Allaf was the teacher of the Caliph Ma’mun who instigated the period of Mihna of the creation of the Quran against Ahl al-Sunnah; al-Nadham had good relationship with Muhammad b. ‘Ali, one of the ministers under the ‘Abbasid Caliphate; and finally, Ahmad b. Abi Du’ad, the Hanafite jurist was a supreme judge for Caliph al-Mu’tasim.

Hence, the Mu’tazilites were able to influence the Caliphate in instigating an inquisition against Ahl al-Sunnah through out the land, which resulted in scores of scholars acknowledging the creation of the Quran under duress, while the prisons became over crowded with those who refused. The mosques in Egyp had inscriptions written on them: There is no God but Allah, the Lord of the Created Quran.

This period was very critical for it posed a real threat to the very survival of the traditionalist movement, and it was only due to the staunch and heroic resistance demonstrated by Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, that the traditionalist movement won the day, and hence, he was to be known as the Imam of Ahl al-Sunnah.

After this humiliating defeat, the rationalist movement began to lose ground and respect amongst the commoners, neither did it enjoy the support it once had prior to Caliph al-Mutawakkil who restored the traditionalist status.

At the same time, there appeared those who sought to reconcile between the traditionalist and the rationalist movement, and that was by championing the traditionalist cause, using the rationalist weaponry.

The first to start this trend was Ibn Kullab. However, his attempt was rendered a failure since Imam Ahmad issued a decree of boycott against him for practising Kalam. Such was also the case with some of the early ascetics and Sufis like al-Muhasibi, who used to have large gatherings of sermons. It only needed one statement from Imam Ahmad to diminish al-Muhasibi’s status, which caused him to die in exile with only a hand full to pray over his funeral. Such was the strength of the traditionalist movement, and the insignificance of the rationalist movement.

Ibn Kullab’s efforts, however, did not go in vain, for there appeared Abul-Hasan al-Ash’ari who revived the attempt of reconciling between traditionalism and rationalism.

Abul-Hasan al-Ash’ari was brought up in a prominent Mu’tazilite household under the care of an eminent Mu’tazilite theologian Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i. For forty long years he was nourished on the Mu’tazilite version of Greek philosophy and negative theology, which obviously were to have a lasting effect on his thought.

As to why exactly al-Ash’ari left Mu’tazilism remains obscure, but it is noteworthy that by this stage, the Mu’tazilites were rapidly losing ground, and neither did they enjoy the popular support as did the traditionalist. Perhaps, this could be one of the reasons for al-Ash’ari making a sudden U-turn after forty years, and turning against the rationalist movement.

Al-Ash’aris efforts, like that of Ibn Kullab were also destined to go in vain, at least for a century, for the traditionalist viewed al-Ash’ari with much suspicion, especially for indulging in Kalam. In this regard, al-Ash’ari wrote his final work called al-Ibana and presented it to al-Barbahari al-Hanbali, the leading traditionalist of his time, but the latter rejected it point blank.

After the demise of al-Ash’ari, there remained a few number of scholars who adhered to the Ash’ari school, yet they, far from being prominent, were constantly attacked every now and then by the scholars of the four schools, and often cursed publicly on the pulpits, precisely for employing Kalam in theology. The famous creed authored by the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Qadir was written and publicly read to endorse the traditionalist beliefs and attack the rationalist movement, including the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites.

It was only in the 5th Islamic century when the Nidham al-Mulk, a vizier who favoured the Shafi’is and the Ash’aris, took control and established a network of colleges that became known after him as Nidhamiyya Colleges, that the Ash’arites were finally able to breath and propagate their rationalism freely. A sudden influx of power for the neo-rationalist movement caused many riots in Baghdad between the traditionalist and the rationalists, now being represented by the Ash’arites.

The reason why the Nidhamiyya Colleges worked so well in favour of Ash’arism, is that Nidham al-Mulk had stipulated conditions, making the fiqh lessons to be exclusively Shafi’i. This was a perfect opportunity for the Ash’arites to convince their co-madhabists from the Shafi’i school of Ash’arism. However, their efforts failed due to the opposition they received from the traditionalist Shafi’is, and hence the Ash’ari struggle for recognition moved to Damascus.

In Damascus there appeared two main Ash’arite propagandists, one before Ibn Taymiyya, and the other after. The first one being Ibn ‘Asakir al-Dimashqi, and the other being al-Subki.

Ibn ‘Asakir also made an attempt to gain approval for Ash’arite rationalism from his Shafi’i colleagues, and to this end he wrote his famous defence of Ash’arism called: Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari. In this book he presents a laudatory biography of al-Ash’ari, then lists more than 80 Ash’arite theologians, and finally ends with a section dealing with problematic reports from al-Shafi’i in particular concerning the censure of Kalam. Here, Ibn ‘Asakir is obviously addresses his colleagues from the Shafi’i school and tries convince them that Shafi’i only opposed the Kalam used by the Qadariyya, and not the science of Kalam itself as used by the Ash’arite Mutakallims. This effort by Ibn ‘Asakir was also destined to fail, for the bulk of the Shafi’is remained faithful to traditionalism.

After Ibn ‘Asakir, it was time for Ibn Taymiyya to rock the very foundations of the Ash’ari world, and champion the cause of the traditionalist movement, which was to have a lasting affect for centuries to come. If, on one hand, Shafi’is had Madhab based colleges that were restricted to Shafi’ism, thereby facilitating for the Ash’aris to win approval of their co-Madhabists; there were, on the other hand, Dar al-Hadeeth or Colleges for Traditionist studies that were not restricted to a school of fiqh, and therefore, were attended by followers of the four schools.

This is where Ibn Taymiyya played a pivotal role for he was a professor at Dar al-Hadeeth, where he had access to Shafi’i students such as al-Dhahabi, Ibn Kathir, al-Mizzi and others. This strengthened the bond between the traditionalist amongst the Shafi’is and the Hanbalis, against their common rationalist enemy, the Ash’arites.

Ibn Taymiyya’s everlasting influence on the Shafi’i traditionalists became an enormous obstacle for the latter Ash’arite propagandists such as al-Subki. Yet, al-Subki was well equipped to take up the challenge, which he did by writing his biographical masterpiece on the Shafi’i scholars, which he called Tabaqat al-Shafi’iyya. This work, like Tabyin of Ibn ‘Asakir, was also aimed at the Shafi’i colleagues, but it was a more clever attempt by far.

Unlike Ibn ‘Asakir’s book title which made a clear reference to al-Ash’ari, al-Subki’s work title was very subtle and therefore appealing to all Shafi’is. In this work, al-Subki’s major obstacles were not the traditionalists foreign to his school, but rather they were the traditionalists from his own school. To this end, he did not spare an opportunity to discredit al-Dhahabi’s status as a great Shafi’i, by attacking him and describing him as a Hanbalite-Hashawite sympathiser.

However, al-Subki’s attacks on al-Dhahabi eventually fired back at him, for the latter Shafi’is did not view these attacks in good light, and often mention in their biographical notes, how kind al-Dhahabi was to his student al-Subki, implying thereby that al-Subki returned his own teacher’s kindness with rebuke. After al-Subki, there were no significant attempts to gain acceptance on part of the Ash’arites, for thereafter, the Shafi’ies kept producing the mutakallims, as well as the traditionists like Ibn Hajr who were often antagonistic to the Mutakallmimun.

Hence, the traditionalists efforts have always been geared it keeping the rationalist Ash’arites out of orthodoxy, whereas the Ash’arite rationalist effort has always focused on gaining acceptance and an entry to orthodoxy.

This shows that Ash’arite claim to orthodoxy is not a matter of dispute amongst the Hanbalis and the Ash’arites alone, rather the Shafi’i school itself was divided as to its legitimacy. Imam Ahmad, on the other hand, was recognised as the ultimate champion of Sunnah, by the traditionalists from the Hanbalis and the Shafi’is without doubt, and by the Ash’arites with concealed hesitance. This is clear from al-Ash’ari’s attempt to gain legitimacy by claiming to be a follower of Imam Ahmad in al-Ibana.

Such a brief look at history helps us define orthodoxy and further identify who have more right to lay claim to orthodoxy, and whether or not Ash’arite claim to orthodoxy has any weight.

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