The Spread of Ash'arism in the Islamic world from a Sunni perspective
Understanding Islam
Bayaan at-Talbees Ahlul-Takfeer
Ahlu-Sunnah Versus the Ashari/Sufi Movement
The Senior Scholars Warn Against Extremism and Exageration in Religion
Muslim Authorities
Countering Islamaphobia
To Non Muslims
Salafi Conferences With Scholars
A historical overview of how they came about

The Spread of Ash'arism

"The Ahl al-Sunnah (=Hanbalites) are the orthodox party. They are not called Ahl al-Sunnah because they follow Imam Ahmad in the minutes of Fiqh. Rather, they are Sunnites because they follow him in matters of beliefs. And he is not followed as if he, i.e. Ibn Hanbal, is the sole and final authority of Orthodoxy (=Ahl al-Sunnah). He is rather a great proponent of this Orthodoxy, and one of the final Salaf' authorities. So when someone says that the Ahl al-Sunnah (read: Hanbalites) were the majority, they do not mean those who follow the Hanbali Madhhab of Fiqh. That is not the point .

When we speak about 'Hanbali' in creed, we mean: Sunnite, Salafite, orthodox. That is: he is following the creed of Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and all other Salaf, and many righteous Khalaf. Now the question some are asking is: Are the Hanbalites the majority or were they at any time the majority?

The answer that can be given is first preceded by the following: an emphasis that we mean with 'Hanbalites' those who follow in doctrines the beliefs of the Companions, the Followers, the Imams thereafter - such as Nu'aym b. Hammad, Zuhayr b. Harb, Musaddad b. Musarhad, al-Buwaythi, Ibn Rahawayh and others headed by Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal - and whoever followd in their steps.

This 'Hanbalite' doctrinal Madhhab can be captured in the following anecdote:

The Hanbalite Shaykh in both Fiqh as 'Aqidah, al-Imam, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, was once asked:

'Can there be a Wali of Allah on a creed different from Ahmad Ibn Hanbal?'

To which he responded: "Ma kana wa-la yakun!"

translated it means "that has never happened nor will it ever happen"


His words imply: everyone who was a Sunnite must be on the same doctrinal path as that of Imam Ahmad, for his beliefs were correct.

Why has it been called 'Hanbali', and not Shafi'ite or Hanafite of Malikite, this rightly guided doctrinal Madhhab? Well, that is explained by Ibn 'Abd al-Barr and Ibn Taymiyyah. The latter said it very nice, i.e. explained it reasonably:

Ibn Taymiyyah, the Shaykh al-Islam said:

'Because Imam Ahmad came to posses more than other scholars in the way of the Sunnah and textual reports on the authority of the Prophet and because he weathered the Great Inquisition (mihnah) and (courageously) repudiated those given to unsanctioned innovation (ahl al-bid’ah) more than did other scholars, his statements and knowledge in this area surpass that of other scholars. As a champion (imam) of the Sunnah, he thus became more prominent than others. Or, one might put the matter in the words of one of the righteous, knowledgable shayks from North Africa, ‘Credit for establishing doctrine belongs to Malik and al-Shafi’i, while prominence as a leader belongs to Ahmad b. Hanbal,’ meaning that Ahmad’s doctrine was the same as that of all the great imams, notwithstanding the fact that some of them may surpass others in terms of knowledge, clarity of articulation, championing the cause of truth and fighting against falsehood.'

So because of this, this doctrine became known by some as 'Hanbalite'. I hope that is clear, and that we won't misunderstand any of that.

Now, dear brother, the question whether these 'Hanbalites' were ever a dominant party:

Well, from this 'Hanbalite' view we of course state they were ONCE a dominant factor, nay the ONLY dominant ones. Simply because they ascribe themselves to the earliest Salaf, i.e. the Companions. So being followers of the Companions and other Salaf - such as the Followers and their Followers - these 'Hanbalites' considered themselves orthodox.

However, none of them called himself a 'Hanbalite' in doctrine (as many nowaday don't do). But they do mean this. What has been done since the late time of the Salaf, i.e. since Imam Ahmad's time, was to identify orthodoxy with what Imam Ahmad believed, said or did. That is: they judged matters by taking recourse to what this examplary Imam opinioned, not as blind followers (muqallidun) but as followers of the Qur'an and the Sunnah (muttabi'un). They did not rely solely on Imam Ahmad, far from it: they saw all those saints of earlier times such as the ones I named, but also Sufyan al-Thawri, Ibn 'Uyayna, Malik b. Anas, al-Awza'i, Hammad b. Salamah, Hammad b. Zayd, Abd al-Rahman b. Mahdi, al-Qattan, Abdallah b. Yusuf, Muhammad b. al-Hasan, Abu Yusuf, Ali b. al-Ja'd, Muslim b. Ibrahim al-Farahidi, Abdallah al-Darimi, up until the magnificent generations of Imam Ahmad, Ibn Rahwayh, Ibn al-Madini, Ibn Sa'd, Ibn Ma'in, al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud etc. as Imams of Guidance or as worthy of being followed.

And because of Imam Ahmad's personal experience (the Mihna etc.) and what happened after it, this man became a beacon of light when it comes to Islamic sound creed. And no doubt, as the Salaf were the majority in their times and they followed guidance, so were Imam Ahmad's followers in those earliest days after the period of the Salaf al-Salih. And this can in fact be historically proven, without taking recourse to the multiple evidences of books, epistles etc. that were produced in those times.

The proof lies in the explicit policies of the Caliphs after the Mihna, in particular under al-Mutawakkil. This Abbasid Caliph cut of the ties with Mu'tazilism and other innovative groups and he called upon the Qur'an and the Sunnah, and he ordered people to follow them. And this happend in the second hald of the 3rd century. And surely, I do not doubt that almost everyone and everywhere was 'Hanbalite' in doctrine in the central lands, except were there were some Shí'ite Rafidi communities in some major Sunni cities or strongholds of Zaydite followers in mountain area, beside Khawarij in rural or nomadic regions. As for the Mu'tazilites, well: they had their influence still, but politically they were defeated in Abbasid territoria in the late 3rd century. They would stay a great factor, even revived in the 4th century under Sahib al-'Abbad in what is now known as Iran, but they would never have the strenght they had in their 'Golden Era' of al-Ma'mun and al-Mu'tasim. But in all these times, the Sunnites/'Hanbalites' were the overwhelming majority and the dominant factor under the masses and most intellectual circles. This was at least in the 3rd and 4th century.

In the 3th century, at the same time Ahmad and his elderly followers were active, a party known as the Kullabiyyah emerged. They were very close to 'Hanbalite' doctrines, but they abandoned some of it and its principles for Mu'tazilite ones. al-Ash'ari, an important Kullabite, was a product of this synthesis between the Sunnah and Bid'ah. He became prominent in the early 4th century, but had not many followers. The same counts for other Kullabite Imams, cf. Abu'l-'Abbas al-Qalanisi, Abu 'Ali b. Shadhan etc. They all lived contemporary with al-Ash'ari, and they all were in general Sunnites - even ascribing themselves clearly to Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, as al-Ash'ari does in most of his works - but they could not resist some innovative tenents that incrept int their thinking, mostly because they relied upon the principles of Kalâm etc. But of course: these Kullabites did only come up the scene early, so they couldn't have a large following yet. Especially when they don't have any political support. Let us speak a bit on that, cause politics is an important factor to decide whether some party had the upperhand or not. As the saying goes: 'People follow the religion of their leaders'.

Politics is an crucial factor in Islamic history. Unfortunately, I do not have a book with me now where this has been discussed with sepcial reference to Ash'arism. But Shaykh al-Mahmud mentioned this from ibn Taymiyyah who spoke on that. Therein the Shaykh al-Islam stated that concerning different sects, to begin with: 'Umar b. 'Abd al-'Aziz. He who revived the Sunnah and subdued Bid'ah, such as the innovating thoughts of Ghaylan al-Dimashqi and others. And he spoke espec. about the 'Abbasid Caliphs, in particular al-Ma'mun, and how they defended, sponsered and supported the Mu'tazilah, while at the same time molesting and attacking the Ahl al-Sunnah. Shaykh al-Islam then spoke - adn I believe al-Mahmud too - about the Ahl al-Sunnah: espec. about al-Mutawakkil's policies and that of his successors. He discussed in several laces in his Majmu' the role of the Abbasid Calip al-Qadir bi''llah and al-Qa'im bi'llah, as his student al-Dhahabi did. Untill he came to Nizam al-Mulk and Alp Arslan, and how Ash'arites were supported in some ways.

In fact, what I remember is that al-Mahmud spoke espec. about the Da'wah of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab (read: the Wahhabites) and that thanks to the political changes this Da'wah became strong. And yes, there is no surpise in that. Cause politics is one of the most important factors of making Muslim into this or that, particularly on the long term. But the Saudis and others have supported the so-called Salafi Da'wah immensly and, yes, for this reason many have been following it and propagating it. This is how things evolve.

What I want to point out is: politics is a MUST to have dominiance, be it Mu'tazilite, Hanbalite (read: Salafite or Wahhabite nowadays) or Ash'arite. Let us see WHEN Ash'arites were politically supported or sponsored.

Well, Ash'arism did not have any political support in the earliest decades. That is from the time of al-Ash'ari's death till, let say, the turn of the 4/5th century. In fact, the 'Abbasid empire and most kingdoms beside it did not have any relationship with a part called Ash'arites.. except one might say: al-Baqillani. He was a regular visitor of the courts in Baghdad and elsewhere, but any influence of him on rulers or the popular masses is absent. In fact, an early witness by the name of Abu 'Ali al-Ahwazi (d.446) explicitly stated that al-Ash'ari had only four followers. Whatever the truth of that, the implication is clear: the first generation of Ash'arites was very very small.

This can be accepted without much criticism, since Ibn 'Asakir does not search in vein of countering this objection but bring in proofs that praised smallness and being few by Prophetic narrations (something brother Abuz Zubair mentioned). So there is - by all logic - no great party called Ash'arites in the early decades if you ask me, based on this and other evidences. There were Ash'arites and they existed in more than one place, but they were not a great community - let alone a dominant party! This begun only later, after the generation of Ibn al-Baqillani as argued elsewhere.

In short: al-Baqillani was a well-known Malikite scholar, a jurist of the Madhhab. He was a very capable Mutakallim, on the way of al-Ash'ari. He learned his Madhhab al-Ash'ari from some of the direct students of the Imam. He engaged in a lot of debates, discussions etc. against all kind of innovators. He debated Shi'ites, Karramites, Dahrites, Philosophers etc., but the single greatest enemies of him were the Mu'tazilites. All his books contain long and detailed refutation of espec. the Mu'azilites. His arena of debate was primarily the courts of rulers. In fact, so good was he that the ruler of Baghdad sent him an an emissonary to Constantinopel were he discussed with Christians about the true religion. All in all: al-Baqillani was a great Mutakallim, a defender of the mainstream Sunnah. He was not a fulfledged Sunnite: not at all. But he was called - by Ash'arites of course - as the 'Spokesman of the Ahl al-Sunnah' - not in Baghdad! Nay, by Andalusians elsewhere etc. For he defended the Qur'an and the Sunnah against the attacks of the Rafidah, headed by Sharif al-Murtada, the Mu'tazilah, headed by Qadi Abd al-Jabbar and many others, incl. a lot of Rafidah, the Karramiyyah, the Jahmiyyah etc. From all those people who would be present before a Sahib b. 'Abbad, a famous (moderate) Shi'ite-Mu'tazilite Vizier, in court a Baqillani would indulge with others and against them concerning religious issues. There is a story that when all leading scholars were together in the court of such a ruler, the latter would motivate them to discuss things and debate; but when he saw that all had their advocates brought in he asked the attendants who is the representative of the general common folks. They could not find anyone, but al-Baqillani so it is said. So when he attended - as a Mutakallim - the leaders of the sects/groups (tawa'if) rumoured among each other secretely to make fun: "There comes the Shaytan..", i.e. al-Baqillani. So al-Baqillani heared that and said to them: {tanazzalu shayatina 'ala kulli affakin athim}, an Ayat from the Qur'an which says: The Satans descend on each and every gross liar! As such was his skill in debating. The interesting thing is: al-Baqillani did represent part of the doctrines of the Ahl al-Sunnah, espec. when it comes to counter the worser innovators who undermine doctrines which Ash'arites and Ashab al-Hadith concur upon. So in that sense: yes, he is a short of advocate of the Ahl al-Sunnah. But he was not thé representative of them, incl. the 'awwâm/common people. They did not have Mutakallimun, for Kalam is despised. So of course: for the Vizier its difficult to find one, for the Ahl al-Sunnah - the pure ones - do not have Mutakallimun.

Just like when Imam Ahmad entered as a prisoner court he did not act as a Mutakallim, simply because he wasn't one as he said: "I am not a Mutakallim: I am a man of Athar".

Bearing Ibn al-Baqillani's prominent position - and therefore also a degree of popularity with some circles, espec. foreigners from al-Andalus, al-Maghreb, Khurasan etc. - it is not surpisely that he would secure for himself some kind of fame and authority. And of course: his fame and authority can be perfectly explained, as I stated elsewhere, by the fact that he is closer to the truth, i.e. the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

For this reason he was also admired by many members of other Madhhabs, incl. some Hanabilah. This does not mean he was admired by all Sunnites or most of them. On the contrary: several scholars of high repute disliked his involvement of Kalam and would reprimand him or his followers. The best example would be the Imam of the Shafi'iyyah in Baghdad: Abu Hamid al-Isfara'ini, one of the greatest later-day Fuqaha of the Madhhab. But this did not make all people abandon him or shun him. As I said: many foreigners who travelled to Baghdad or came on her way to Hajj would see him and admire his defense of the Sunnah. And these people, espec. the scholars from the far east and west, would study under him and take with them these doctrines back.

The most famous traveller or foreigner who was taken by al-Baqillani as a Mutakallim was Abu Dharr al-Harawi. He came from Herat to the Hedjaz, and on his way he stayed for a time in Baghdad were he found al-Baqillani. He accepted his doctrines and spread them to others. This counts for many students of al-Baqillani, so it seems. In fact, historians noted this. One of them was another Herat-citizen who knew Abu Dharr's involvement in Kalam, about which he reported:

"May Allah curse Abu Dharr, he was the first one who brought [Ash'ari] Kalam into the Haram (i.e. Makkah) and the first one who spread it among the Maghâribah (the Maghrebians)!"

And al-Dhahabi confirms this as many others.

Abu'l-Walid al-Baji was not an Ash'arite, only after he left the Andalus to the East for Hajj and knowledge. When he visited as a traveller Makkah, he saw Abu Dharr al-Harawi. From him he took the Kalam of the Ash'arites, through Abu Dharr al-Harawi from al-Baqillani etc. And al-Baji is one out of more people who took it from Abu Dharr from Makkah, just like others took it from other students of al-Baqillani.

In Mosul for example you had al-Simnani, in Syria you had a famous scholar - I forgot his name - who transmitted Imam al-Tabari's books, etc. etc.

And only after and because of al-Baqillani's efforts from the capitol of the learned Muslim world, Ash'arism started to spread. And its spread and growth was a steady and difficult process.

And from this the implications are clear: Ash'arism was not a big school after its founder for a long while. It had its first great output and spread thanks to the efforst of another: Ibn al-Baqillani. He died in 403, that is: 80 years after al-Ash'ari died and 100 years after Ash'arism was born. There is no state or ruling house involved in that period nor long afterwards - which would give it a new positive impuls; far from that! We shall see that it was confronted with enmity and rejection, and the worst of Takfir! This happened in the early fifth century over a long period, and the second half of it from time to time. In fact, even in the 6th century they were condemned occasionly and criticized by some scholars.

In the fifth century, i.e. after Ibn al-Baqillani, Ibn Furak etc. Ash'arism developed strongholds in the far east: Khurasan. Especially in Nishapur Ash'arites were to be found. How this is explained is not something easy. But I think that the diversity of 'Iraq and elsewhere obstructed people in Khurasan to choose or subscribe to a party or group, except two: the Hanafites or the Shafi'ites. And these two parties were mostly Mu'tazilites and non-Mu'tazilites respectively. So when Mu'tazilism found its bedrock in the Hanafi Madhhab there, the Shafi'ites saw their case supported by the very enemies and opponents of the Mu'tazilites, i.e. the Ash'arites or those who defended the 'Ahl al-Sunnah' as Mutakallimun.

There were of course many Hanbalites, Karramites and maybe Maturidites in those regions, but essentially in fifth century Khurasan (in Nishapur, Bust, Samarkand etc.) two parties dominated the political arena and the Ash'arites - little by little - the religious one.

However, the Ash'arites became victims of the Khurasanian elites. The rulers and the scholars issued out verdicts against them, which resulte in deportation (al-Juwayni, al-Qushayri), emigration (al-Bayhaqi), excommunication, execution (the earlier Ibn Furak is said to have been killed by the Sultan's order) etc. They were despised and rejected. They could have been no way: thé majority or dominant factor in religious discourse! Impossible.

They were rather a small group of scholars (and maybe some laymen) centred here and there, but winning some faithful followers in the eastern provinces. Most of these were not fulfledged Ash'arites, in fact: many of them were not called Ash'arites but Kullabites. For they were considered as Kullabiyyah, as their Imam al-Ash'ari was called an Kullabi. The Ash'arites who fled or left the east entered the western countries: they entered Baghdad, Basra, the Hedjaz etc. This is probably another impuls given to them, how ironic, fleeing from persecution they managed to spread their thoughts.

So al-Juwayni is one of those who went to the Hedjaz were stayed some time in Makkah and Madinah, the two Harams, and consequently called: Imam al-Haramayn. But many entered Baghdad, and in it was a lot of opposition. This can be read in different works, and the best historian to start with with respect to the 'welcome of Asharites' into Baghdad would be Ibn Abi Ya'la.

He authored as a long-life inhabitant of Baghdad and being a well-known Hanbali authority in his time the history book Tabaqat al-Hanabilah. A cursory reading of all the later Hanbalites in that book would reveal how many times it is said: wa-kana shadid 'an al-asha'irah or ash'ariyyah, as our brother Abuz Zubair pointed out. You won't find that for earlier Hanbalites. In those biographies - let say those died before 430 - you'll find him say: wa-kana saahib al-sunnah or shadid fi ahl al-bid'ah etc. Just take a look in that book. It is an good testimony about Ash'arite history in Baghdad, even if so little has been said about them.

Ibn Abi Ya'la himself was very critical of them, such that even Abu Tahir al-Silafi - a colleague and friend of Ibn 'Asakir - made mention of his harshness, may Allah forgive them all.

Anyway, Ash'arism was not a dominant factor - let alone the majority - in most central lands (Syria, Egypt, 'Iraq, the Hedjaz etc.) in the 5th century and for most of the 6th century. As for the Maghreb, that is a different story. I will leave that for now, incl. the burning off of al-Ghazzali's books, the rise of Ibn Tumart and his so-called Muwahhidun who said that they wanted too purify the 'awwam from Tashib and Tasjim of the Murabitun etc.

Ash'arism in the central lands - as many doctines and sects - was strenghtened by: politics. Politics is mostly the key-word. Jinnzaman himself is partly right: goverments, money-makers etc. have a big inlfuence in turning people into this or that. The best - and most tragic - example is Iran. I don't know if someone is acquaintent with the Safawid history and their turning of Sunnites nto Shi'ites in the 16th/17th centuries?

Ash'arism gained effort as an enemy of Mu'tazilism. The Mu'tazilites were active in mostly eastern lands: everything right of Egypt/Syria. It is more than logical that the weak state of Mu'tazilites in Sham and Misr meant the weakness of Ash'arites there. Yes, there were Ash'arites. Some from the students of the class of al-Baqillani. However, they were not dominant.

Sham's religious thinking was Sunnite: Hanbalites, Shafi'ites and Malikites there were Sunnites. The Hanabilah in the fifth century had their debates with Ash'arites, as Abu'l-Faraj al-Shirazi is a good example (incl. his descendants). Just check his bio in Ibn Abi Ya'la's book. He also wrote a large book - still unpublished - on 'Aqidah. A descendant of him wrote the Risalah al-Waadiha fi'l-Radd 'ala'Asha'irah, published by 'Ali b. 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Shibl Hafidahullah. There was struggle in Sham, but dominance was absent for sure.

This perceived dominance - which started the discussion - has been fed by the apparent prevalence of the Ayyubides in general and Salah al-Din in particular in the late 6th century and early 7th century. It is said that he was an Ash'arite. Whatever is true of that, what's important is the report that he - as alleged - spread it through the efforts of Ibn Darbas and others. Yes, from that time one might say: Ash'arites became a important and great factor of defining religous thought. From the time of the period of Salah al-Din, Ibn 'Asakir (d.571) etc.

In fact, Ibn 'Asakir's book in defense of the Imam and his followers is - I think - thé greatest impuls ever given to it after al-Baqillani's efforts in general and Ibn Tumart's in the Maghreb. For he gave the Shafi'ites - the largest group in Sham and Egypt - his view how orthodoxy is defined.

Of course, the Hanbalites did not rest nor other groups. But the strenght and largeness of the Ash'ari Madhhab started with that generation, and before it was from non-existent to not weak. The rulers - with the support of Shafi'ites who were accidently Ash'arites and fulfilling a post in the judicary - supported this party, and sometimes they gave support the the non-Shafi'ites.

The Hanabilah altogether were non-Ash'arites, and therefore against any spread or support from or for Ash'arism. They always tried to subue them, as the lives of some prominent Maqâdisa illustrates (cf. Abd al-Ghani al-Maqdisi, Muwaffaq al-Din etc.).

The Shafi'ites traditionalists were not different. al-Mizzi, the father-in-law of Imam Ibn Kathir and a colleague of Ibn Taymiyyah, experienced also things with them. And al-Dhahabi, to which the orientalist of above also referred, was also active against their beliefs.

All in all, we can say that the growth of Ash'arism started only in the second half of the 6th century. And this resulted in the 7th century into major clashes: Ibn Taymiyyah versus the Ash'arites and others. By that time they might be called a dominant factor among some scholars (or many even - I dont know for sure), but among laymen: never.

Never, as Ibn Qudamah (d.620) would say.

In fact, this Imam from the Hanabilah who debated some of them and confronted them with their blasphemies of the denial of the letters and sound - see many of his works - was amazed by the claim of some of them that they were a great group, having a lot of followers etc. He says:

"And from what's amazing: the Ahl al-Bid'ah (i.e. the Ash'arites in this context) argue that they are the people of truth because of their multitude, and their abundant possessions and status, and their manifest appearance.."

And then he refutes them excellently! So in this period, i.e. around the 6th century the Ash'arites multiplied and become bolder in their doctrines. And in the next century, i.e. Ibn Taymiyyah's time, they would claim to represent the majority.

But this is false. How could they have been so fast - between Ibn 'Asakir's statements untill Taqi al-Subki's speech - becoming the majority, the dominant part?! Impossible, never heard off! Yes, they were becoming strong - and for this reason we can understand Ibn Qudamah's testimony and Ibn Taymiyyah's persecution etc. - but they were never what they claim today.

When did they became the majority? Well, if we speak about the scholarly elites then we might say after Taj al-Din al-Subki (that is from the year 800 onwards). This is what I think. And this has to do with Ibn 'Asakir's Tabyin, Taj al-Subki's Tabaqat, the Sharh of al-Taftazani which became very popular among Egyptian scholars, and many other factors. Such that when Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, 200 years after al-Haythami, was called a Mushabbih and Mujassim by scholars outside the Najd. For many of them were Ash'arites or influenced by them. And suprisingly these critics of the 'Wahhabis' accused Ibn Abd al-Wahhab of misinterpreting or opposing Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, a scholar they admired and ascribed too! So they were 'Asharites' or non-Ash'arites and something in between. Just like you have al-Nawawi's, Ibn Hajar's etc. today.

And which is represented most..? Allah Knows best.

But Allah, the Exalted, Knows that many people - the common Muslims - do not share Ash'arite doctrines. And the brother who quoted Ibn Qutaybah should be thanked for documenting this to the unaware. In fact, I remember that a scholar from the Salaf once was asked how to believe in something - on which he responded:

"Just like the common people believe in.."

And this - dear brother Beyonder - is what you and me and everyone else should believe in: the common, known and supported beliefs of the Prophet, his Companions, the Followers - men, women, children and slaves - and everyone else.."