Islamic Beliefs and the Importance of Its Study
‘Ilm al-tawhid, the science of divine oneness, is one of the most important and noble sciences. Not only does it refine one’s understanding of the Creator, His messengers, and His communication with creation, but it also enables one to gain insight into the reality and purpose of this world and into the eschatological matters of the Hereafter. These are in fact the three major themes of any work on Islamic beliefs:
(1) The divine being and attributes (ilahiyyat)
(2) The functions of prophethood (nubuwwat)
(3) Eschatology and that which comes after death (maghibat).
In the face of the present-day onslaught of varied ideologies and beliefs, and the promotion of unfettered freedom of thought, it is essential for all Muslims, the youth in particular, to have a firm grasp on their beliefs. The basic understanding one absorbs by being brought up in a Muslim home is scarcely adequate.
There is ample textual proof to the necessity of learning Islamic doctrine. In the Qur’an it states, “No that there is no other deity worthy of worship except Allah” (47:19), and the Messenger of Allah said, “Say, ‘I believe in Allah,’ and thereafter stand firm” (Muslim ).
Studying philosophy without a prior grounding in Islamic theology has many times been ruinous to the faith of some Muslims. Those with exposure to confused renditions of metaphysics and other recondite disciplines sometimes find it very difficult to accept the Islamic beliefs of which they were hitherto unaware. They are compelled, then, to assess these beliefs in light of the ideas that they have subconsciously or knowingly adopted. For some, this path leads to immense intellectual and emotional confusion and trauma which takes years to overcome.
Others are swallowed up by their predicament and become staunch proponents of “reform” and “progressivism” in the religion. Certain extreme cases-Allah forbid-end in outright apostasy. Only sincere believers who are blessed by Allah with the light of true knowledge and recourse to Him are saved.
Another benefit of studying one’s ‘aqidah , beyond this very basic level, is attaining a real and true appreciation of one’s beliefs and a deeper understanding of them, both of which lead to the elimination of doubts. Further study also curtails unnecessary and unconstructive debates regarding the nature of divinity. “Where is Allah?” “How Powerful is He and how much control does he have?” “Does Allah evolve?” “What is Allah and what is He not?” “What constitutes true belief?” “Are deeds important or is just calling oneself a Muslim sufficient for one’s salvation?” “Are prophets capable of sin?” “What is our perspective on the Companions?” “Are there other creations of Allah beyond what we can see?” “What comes after death?” “Is there such a thing as eternity?”
Questions like these can easily be answered by studying more advanced books on Islamic doctrine under the tutelage of reliable scholars. However, the true benefit of this learning lies beyond any intellectual satisfaction that one gains in this world; there is a higher purpose. The scholars, while explaining the first rules (mabadi’ ) of this science, state that its objective is to attain, by the mercy and grace of Allah, success in the Hereafter, the good pleasure of the All-Merciful, and entry into the gardens of eternal bliss.
Brief Sketch of the Origins of Islamic Theology
The earlier generations had little need for a codified form of theology. Most of the time, Surat al-Ikhlaṣ would suffice. Moreover, during the lifetime of the Messenger’s lifetime, in particular, whenever a question of faith or belief arose, he was there to answer it. There was no need then to formally systematize ‘aqidah , just as there was no need to do so for
fiqh , tafsir, and other religious sciences. Nearly the same was the condition of the era of the Companions and that of the Followers, the blessed period known that of the pious predecessors (salaf salihin).
Nevertheless, although Islamic belief and practice were for the most part unshakable during this period, faint tremors ominously signaled the quake that would soon rumble, then rock, the Umma. Seeing the danger posed to sacred Islamic knowledge by deviant individuals, ambitious politicians, and an increasingly confused populace, scholars from each successive generation, in response to the exigencies of their respective times, compiled and systematized Islamic norms, ideas, and beliefs, and meticulously crafted the disciplines we recognize today.
The origin of rigorous theological study can be traced back to as early as the caliphate of ‘Uthman. During his time, various alien ideas took root, with varying durability, in Muslim society and found an eager audience. During the Abbasid period, starting around the middle of the second century AH, the introduction of Greek (or more precisely Hellenistic) philosophy into Muslim lands led to heated discord. The newly formed Mu‘tazila managed to attain great favor with the ruling class, winning several caliphs over to their beliefs. They used their powerful political purchase to question and reinterpret many fundamentals of Islam and force conformity to their beliefs, or at least cow any would-be dissenters into silence. Those who had the courage to object were mercilessly persecuted, most notably Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ , who was cruelly put to the lash for refusing to accept false doctrines concerning the Qur’an. It was in this turbulent setting that the orthodox theological schools of Abu ‘l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ emerged.
Many of the differences one will find in Islamic doctrine and scholastic theology (kalam) literature are primarily between the Ash‘aris and Maturidis and the Mu‘tazila and, on a lesser scale, the Khawarij, Jabariyya, Murji’a, and a few other groups. The differences that some point to between the Ash’aris and the Maturidis are not theologically significant and have clear historical reasons, which we shall touch on below. It is more appropriate to view them as two approaches to the same theology and treat them as one. Indeed, the scholars do just that, referring to both groups collectively as Ash’aris when contrasting them with other sects. Both groups have always been mutually tolerant and never labeled the other innovative or heretical. It is only when these are set against the Mu’tazili and other doctrines that we see major theological divergence. An exhaustive study of each of these groups, and of others, and the effects their interplay had on Muslim government and society has been charted in the venerable tomes of history and theology. It is far beyond our purpose here to give even a synopsis of these works, but to gain a proper context in which to place al-‘Aqīdah al-Tahāwiyya , it is fitting to give a brief overview of the major theological groups.
The eponymous founder of the Ash’ari school was the “Imam of the Theologians,” ‘Ali ibn Isma‘il ibn Abi Bishr al-Ash‘ari al-Yamani al-Basri (Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala’ 15:88). A descendant of the famous Companion Abu Mūsā al-Ash‘ari, he was born in Basra in the year 260/873 and died in 324/935.
Imam Ash‘ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ was born at a time when several bickering sects were busying themselves with leveling charges of heresy and unbelief at other Muslims. Of these, the Mu‘tazila emerged as the strongest by far and earned the most adherents, especially once they started to garner support from the caliphate.
Abu ‘l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ himself began as a Mu‘tazili. Growing up as the step-son and student of the famous Mu‘tazili teacher Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i (d. 303/915), he became firmly grounded in their ideology and proficient in their methods of argumentation, and he was a skilled debater to boot. All these qualities made him the ideal candidate to be the Mu‘tazilis’ star scholar, a post he held for many years. However, at the age of forty, he shocked all by severing himself from them and renounced their beliefs. He also publicly announced his repentance from their beliefs, and then set out to defend the true beliefs of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama‘a held by the great jurists and
ḥadīth scholars of the time.
Much has been related regarding Imam Ash’ari’s ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ conversion to orthodoxy. The great ḥadīth master and historian Ibn ‘Asakir relates from Isma‘il ibn Abi Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Ash‘ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ, “Ash‘ari was our shaykh and Imam, the one in whom we placed our reliance. He persisted on the ideology of the Mu‘tazila for forty years. Then he disappeared into his home from the public for fifteen days. When he came out, he went to the Grand Masjid, ascended the pulpit, and said, ‘O people, I retreated from you for this period because, in my study of the evidences [of certain theological matters], they seemed to me to be on par with each other, and the truth over the false or the false over the truth was not discernible to me. I thus sought guidance from Allah, Most Blessed, Most High, and He guided me to the beliefs that I have recorded in this book of mine. I am now divested of all that I believed, just as I am divested of this garment of mine.’ He took off the garment he was wearing and cast it aside, and he passed the books on to the people. Among them were Al-Luma‘ (The Sparks). He then said, ‘Henceforth, I shall endeavor to refute the doctrines of the Mu‘tazila and lay bare their mistakes and weaknesses.’
When the scholars of ḥadīth and jurisprudence read these books, they adopted their contents and embraced them wholeheartedly, so much that their school of thought came to be attributed to him.”
Another incident, related by Qari, Taftazani, and others, may have also contributed to his conversion.
They relate that Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ once asked his teacher Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i, “What is your opinion regarding three brothers, one of whom dies obedient, another disobedient, and the third as a child?” He replied, “The first will be rewarded, the second punished with Hellfire, and the third will neither be punished nor rewarded.” Ash‘ari asked, “If the third one says, ‘O Lord, why did you give me death at a young age and not leave me to grow up so I could be obedient to you and thus enter Paradise?’” Jubba’i replied that Allah would say, “I knew that if you had grown up you would have disobeyed and thus entered the Hellfire, so it was better for you to have died young.”
So Ash‘ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ said, “If the second one says, ‘My Lord, why did you not let me [too] die young so I would not have disobeyed and entered Hellfire?’ What will the Lord say then?” Jubba’i was confounded.
Ash‘ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ abandoned the Mu’tazila doctrine and took to refuting it and establishing what had been transmitted from the Sunna and confirmed by the jamāʿa , or community, of Companions and pious predecessors. Therefore, he and his followers were called Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jamāʿa or “the People of the Sunna and Community” (Minaḥ al- Rawḍ al-Azhar 220, Sharḥ al-ʿAqā’id al-Nasafiyya ).
Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Maḥmūd, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ the “Imam of the Theologians,” was the eponymous founder of the second major Sunni school of theology.
He was born in Māturīd, a district of Samarqand, in present-day Uzbekistan. Aside from being one of the Imams of the fundamentals of Dīn, he was a prominent jurist of the Ḥanafī school, having studied under Naṣr ibn Yaḥyā al-Balkhī.
Abu Zahra (d. 1396/1976) says in his Al-Madhāhib al-Islāmiyya, “Abu Mansur al-Maturidi ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ and Abu ‘l-Ḥasan al-Ash’ari ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ were contemporaries, and both were striving in the same cause. The difference was that Imam Ash’ari was closer to the camps of the opponent [the Mu‘tazila]. Basra had been the birthplace of the Mu‘tazili ideology and the place from where it grew and spread, and it was also one of the main fronts in the ideological war between the Mu‘tazila and the scholars of ḥadīth and jurisprudence (fiqh).
Though Abu Mansur al-Maturidi ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ was far from this battlefield, its echoes had reached the lands where he lived, and hence, there were Mu’tazila in Transoxiana mimicking the Mu‘tazila of Iraq. It was Maturidi who stood up to combat them.”
What we learn from the biographies of the two Imams is that their goal was one: to defend the orthodox beliefs of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama‘a against the onslaught of innovators, especially the Mu‘tazila. Though their objectives were the same, certain elements of their methodologies inevitably diverged, commensurate with the unique circumstances of each Imam’s locality.
Some scholars sum up their differences as follows: Ash‘ari did not set great store by reason in the presence of sacred texts, even if they were transmitted by lone narrators ( khabar ahad ) rather than through uninterrupted transmission (tawatur ), while Maturidi would attempt to reconcile between reason and the transmitted text (manqul), as long as it was possible to do so without too much difficulty or without sacrificing fairness. This slight difference in methodology did not produce any substantial discrepancy in their theological precepts, but indeed served only to make the existing theological discourse all the richer. The differences were on ancillary matters that had no bearing on agreed-upon fundamentals, and most could be reduced to mere differences in phraseology. These two schools are thus both classified as orthodox schools of Islamic theology and of the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama‘a, with the Maturidis coming under the general heading of “Ash‘aris” when contrasted with the Mu‘tazila, Khawarij, and other innovators.
It should be interesting to note that most of the followers of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence have historically been followers of the Maturidi school of theology.
However, one third of them, along with three-quarters of the Shafi‘is, all of the Malikis, and some Hanbalis, adhere to the Ash‘ari school. A few Ḥanafīs, Hanbalis, and Shafi‘is subscribed to the Mu’tazili school, and aside from another group of Hanbalis, who remained on the school of the predecessors (salaf) in the practice of tafwid (consigning the knowledge of the details of ambiguous [ mutashabihat ] sacred texts to Allah), many others adopted the Hashawiyya ideology ( Muqaddimat al-Imam al-Kawthari ).
Isolationists or Dissenters. The Mu‘tazila doctrine originated in Basra in the early second century, when Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ (d. 131/748) left the circle of Hasan al-Basri ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ after a theological dispute regarding al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn, and whether a person guilty of enormities remains a believer. Hasan Basri ﺭﺣﻤﺔ ﺍﻟﻠﮧ ﻋﻠﯿﻪ said, “‘Ata’ has dissented from us,” and thereafter, he and his followers were called the Dissenters, or Mu‘tazila.
The Mu‘tazila (also called Mu‘tazilites) named themselves
Ahl al-Tawhid wa ‘l-‘Adl (The People of Divine Oneness and Justice), claiming that their theology grounded the Islamic belief system in reason. Mu‘tazili tenets focused on the Five Principles:
(1) tawhid (divine oneness)
(2) ‘adl (divine justice)
(3) wa‘d wa wa‘id (promise and threat)
(4) al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn (the rank in between two ranks)
(5) amr bi ‘l-ma‘ruf wa ‘l-nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil).
The founders and leaders of this sect included Abu ‘Ali Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Jubba’i, ‘Amr ibn ‘Ubayd, Bishr ibn Sa‘id, Ibrahim ibn al-Nazzam, Yashama ibn al-Mu‘tamir, Abu ‘l-Hudhayl al-‘Allaf, and Abu Bakr ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Kisan al-Asamm.
Over time, the Mu‘tazila split into more than twenty subgroups, such as the Wasiliyya, Hudhaliyya, and Nazzamiyya, each named after its founder, and some of them even considered the other subgroups to be unbelievers. However, they shared opposition to the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama‘a in several core beliefs, one of which was their negation of the attributes (sifat al-ma‘ani ).
Unlike the Ahl al-Sunna wa ‘l-Jama‘a, they claimed that Allah knows, wills, and sees through His essence, not through the attributes of knowledge, will, and sight. Furthermore, they denied the beatific vision by the dwellers of Paradise. They believed that Allah creates His speech in a body and that the Qur’an is therefore created; that reason can dictate the righteous and wicked to Allah and obligate him to declare it as such; that it is obligatory on Allah to punish the sinner and reward the obedient; that the servant is the creator of his willful actions; and that unbelief and disobedience are not created by Allah (hence, they are also Qadariyya). Nevertheless, it must be remembered that although such beliefs are corrupt and invalid, orthodox Muslim scholars did not necessarily charge the Mu‘tazila with apostasy, nor did they regard it permissible to label them unbelievers because of their views. However, they did render them the status of innovators and transgressors.
Libertarians. These were proponents of absolute free will, or libertarianism. The ideology of the Qadariyya (sometimes called Qadarites) is fundamentally shared by the Shi‘a and the Mu‘tazila, both of whom deny that Allah creates evil but ascribe to man the ability to create evil. Ma‘bad ibn Khalid al-Juhani (d. 80/699) was the first to speak in denial of qadar (predestination).
Separatists or Seceders. The Khawarij (or Kharijites) were the first sect to split from mainstream Islam. After the arbitration between ‘Ali ﺭﺿّﻰ ﺍﻟﻠﻪ ﻋﻨﻪ and Mu‘awiya ﺭﺿّﻰ ﺍﻟﻠﻪ ﻋﻨﻪ, a small number of pietists separated from them and withdrew to the village of Harura‘ under the leadership of Ibn Wahb and were joined near Nahrawan by a larger group. This was the group responsible for the assassination of ‘Ali ﺭﺿّﻰ ﺍﻟﻠﻪ ﻋﻨﻪ and the failed attempts to assassinate Mu‘awiya ﺭﺿّﻰ ﺍﻟﻠﻪ ﻋﻨﻪ and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As ﺭﺿّﻰ ﺍﻟﻠﻪ ﻋﻨﻪ . Even more extreme than the Mu‘tazila, they held actions to be an integral part of faith and thus considered anyone guilty of an enormity to be an unbeliever.
There were some other theological sects that emerged which did not have as much influence as the Mu‘tazila, but nonetheless added to the fierce sectarianism that characterized the period.
Fatalists. The belief of the Jabariyya (or Jabarites) is diametrically opposed to that of the Qadariyya. They had a fatalistic outlook and believed that man has no free will in his actions; that man is under compulsion, or jabr, just as a feather is at the mercy of the winds; and that he has no choice even in his intentional actions. A subgroup of the Jabariyya are the Jahmiyya.
They were followers of Jahm ibn Safwan al-Samarqandi (d. 128/745) and considered pure fatalists (jabariyya). Jahm expressed his heretical beliefs in Termez (present-day
Uzbekistan) and was killed by Muslim ibn Ahwaz al-Mazini in Marw (present-day Turkmenistan). Like the Mu‘tazila, he rejected the eternal divine attributes, but he also held other heretical beliefs. For example, he was one of the first to say the Qur’an was created, having learned this idea from his Damascene teacher Ja‘d ibn Dirham. Other beliefs attributed to him are that Paradise and Hell are transient. A number of beliefs are sometimes falsely ascribed to him, according to Imam al-Kawthari, and people sometimes hurl the name Jahmiyya as an insulting epithet upon any disagreeable opponent. Certain beliefs held by Jahm ibn Safwan do take one out of Islam into unbelief, as do some of those held by the Karramiyya.
Their name and beliefs are traced to Abu ‘Abdillah Muhammad ibn Karram (d. 255/868). About them, Shahrastani writes, “They believed that many contingent things exist in the essence of Allah. For example, they believe that the informing of past and future events exists in His essence just as the books revealed to the messengers exist in His essence [rather than being through His attributes]. They are anthropomorphists (mujassima), for Muḥammad ibn Karram declared that his god (as Allah is transcendent above what he ascribes to Him) rests on the Throne; that He is “above,” as in the physical direction; that He is substantive; and that there are [physical] movement, displacement, and descension for Him, among other irrational ideas. Some Karramiyya also claimed that Allah is a body (jism ).
The Karramiyya divided over time into twelve sects
(Shahrastani, Al-Milal wa ‘l-Nihal 1:108-109).
Postponers, Deferrers, or Antinomians. They were group of innovators who claimed that disobedience in faith does not harm one, but that Allah forgives all sins as long as one has faith, thus going to the opposite extreme of the Khawarij. Because of their belief, they frequently neglected their religious rites.
Although these sects may no longer exist today as formal groups, some of their beliefs have continued and are heard being advocated by contemporary figures who style themselves as reformers. All praise is due to Allah, then, who has preserved His faith and created in it the power to continually cleanse itself of innovations and spurious reformations. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “This sacred knowledge will be borne by the reliable authorities of each successive generation, who will [preserve it and] remove from it the alterations of the excessive, the interpolations of the corrupt, and the false interpretations of the ignorant”
( Bayhaqi; Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharaf Ashab al-Hadith ).
[Excerpt from al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained, Abdur Rahman ibn Yusuf]