Islamic Theologies of Ahl al-Sunna: Theological Indoctrination or Education?

Written by Moutasem Atiya

Ahl al-Sunna consists of three groups – the textualists (Atharīs), whose imām is Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal; the Ashʿarīs, whose imām is Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī; and the Māturīdīs, whose imām is Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī.”[1]

The statement above, made by the Ḥanbalī scholar al-Safārīnī (1114-1188/1702-1774) in his work Lawāmiʿ al-Anwār al-Bahiyya, should not come as a shock to anyone. There has always existed a strand of inclusivity within Islamic theology which has unfortunately been sidelined by the shrill voices of one-party enthusiasts. These voices of inclusion saw all three theological orientations as being acceptable responses to doctrinal questions based on independent reasoning (ijtihād), just as they recognized the validity of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Atharī, Ashʿarī and Māturīdī schools all rose in response to Muʿtazilīs and their critiques of what would eventually become orthodox doctrine.

In the mid-ninth century, the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn made official the Muʿtazilī doctrine. He instituted an inquisition (miḥna) which subjected all scholars of his time to questioning regarding theological doctrine. Those who opposed Muʿtazilī beliefs were severely tortured or killed. In response to Muʿtazilī influence three stances were taken, all developed over a 250 year span.

Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (161-241/780-855) adopted a literalist position in response to the Muʿtazilī inquisition. He asserted that only God and His Messenger ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) had the authority to speak on matters of creed and – in all but three instances – avoided delving into speculative theology in defense of orthodoxy. This literalist approach to textual understandings came to be known as the Atharī creed.

Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (260-324/873-935) and Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (238-333/853-944) were the fathers of the other two schools of Sunnī theology. They differed with the Atharī school in their use of speculative theology (kalām) in rebuttal to Muʿtazilī positions. They also differed in their understanding of the Divine Attributes of God – the Ashʿarīs chose to interpret the Divine Attributes figuratively so as to maintain God’s transcendence over His creation, while the Māturīdīs chose to surrender total understanding to God.

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Altogether, these three schools arose in defense of orthodoxy against what was seen as Muʿtazilī heresy. As time passed, Muʿtazilī influence would wane while the Atharī, Ashʿarī, and Māturīdī systems gained greater and greater traction. As the influence of these three schools spread, so did their proponents. Theological debates began to be waged between the schools, just as they had been waged between the four schools of jurisprudence. Charges of heresy – in some cases arguably warranted – were leveled. The Ashʿarīs and Māturīdīs accused the Atharī camp of anthropomorphism, while the Atharīs accused the former groups of negating God’s attributes. The schools spread across the Islamic world, as did their argumentations.

Flash-forward to America in the nineties

Young men and women inspired to study religion travel overseas – primarily to Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia – bringing back to the States a wealth of knowledge, but also sectarian-like adherences to one of the three theological schools. Educational institutes were built and party lines were drawn. Each school taught creed (ʿaqīdah) defining itself as Ahl al-Sunnah. I remember some of the confusion I personally felt during my days in college, in particular attending an MSA conference in which the two main speakers addressed the issue. One adhered to the Ashʿarī school while the other was an Atharī. Each lectured on their positions in absolutes, giving no room for the other’s possible derivations. It caused great confusion in my heart and mind; I was young. I clearly remember a friend saying to me, “You know Moutasem, we will burn in hell if we get this wrong”. His statement shook my core. Looking back at those days I often wonder what the landscape would have been like if our educational institutes adopted a different approach to this subject. Instead of teaching one of the three theological positions in absolute, what if they taught them in terms of historical development, highlighting where and why each of the schools emerged. What if they educated instead of indoctrinated?

To be fair, Dr. Sherman Jackson’s ALIM Program pioneered the historical educational approach to creedal studies, and he should be recognized for his forward thinking in that area. The approach of inclusivity has also been touted by Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, who has recently stated:

الأثريون والأشاعرة والماتريدية كلهم أهل سنة. هذا الشعار ينبغي أن نرفعه، وأن نوضح ألا هؤلاء خرجوا عن الأثر، وألا هؤلاء أيضا احتقروا الأثر؛ بل الأثر هو للجميع، والنصوص القرآنية تؤيد جميع هذه الاتجاهات.

“The Atharīs, Ashʿarīs, and Māturīdīs are all Ahl al-Sunnah. This is a slogan which we should proclaim, and we should clarify that neither of these camps [i.e. the latter two] has went against the text (al-athar), nor have they belittled the text. Indeed the athar is for all, and Quranic text supports all of these orientations”[2]

Defining Fault lines

I have come to the personal conclusion that the advancement of Muslims in America can only be realized when we define our own fault lines within our community, and do not let them be defined for us by historical and/or international standards. Though I may adhere to the Ashʿarī school of thought as codified by Imām Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111), I do not look at my brothers and sisters of the Atharī school with a heart of suspicion or misguidance. I will not simply tolerate them, or sign a pact of non-aggression – that is not where our hearts should be in regards to each other. We need to have a mutual sense of love and respect for one another and mend this bridge of theological debate. As leaders and educational institutes, if we carry on making theology an issue of contention between each other, we will continually drag Muslim Americans through the same vicious cycle of fragmentation. I, for one, am unwilling to repeat the cycle.

Moutasem Atiya is the co-founder and President of Al-Madina Institute.  He resides in Maryland with his wife and three children while continuing his Islamic Education under the supervision of Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui.  He can be found on twitter @MoutasemAtiya 

[1] Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Safārīnī, Lawāmiʿ al-Anwār al-Bahiyya wa Sawāṭiʿ al-Asrār al-Athariyya li-Sharḥ al-Durra al-Maḍiyya fī ʿAqd al-Firqa al-Marḍiyya (Damascus: Muʾasasat al-Khāfqīn wa Maktabatuhā, 1982), 73.

[2] “Naẓarāt fī Manhaj al-Imām al-Ashʿarī,” al-Mawqaʿ al-Rasmī li-Maʿālī al-ʿAlāma ʿAbd Allāh bin Bayyah,

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5 responses to “Islamic Theologies of Ahl al-Sunna: Theological Indoctrination or Education?”

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  3. Nosherwan says:

    ” the Ashʿarīs chose to interpret the Divine Attributes figuratively so as to maintain God’s transcendence over His creation, while the Māturīdīs chose to surrender total understanding to God.”
    Isn’t it actually the other way around?

  4. Mourad says:

    Assalam alaikum,

    A very important topic but I believe it was not dealt with with enough details.

    Few things to keep in mind.
    Unity is important and it should be our ultimate goal to unite. However, we’ve to make things clear.
    We also need to put aside matters related to islamic brotherhood in general and how to deal with other muslim brothers and sisters who do not share our beliefs, when we discuss these issues, at least from a scholarly perspective.

    The way things have been presented in this article is too simplistic. The author should have presented, even in general terms, what are the (main) differences between these three schools. And if one digs enough, some of them are not trivial at all and are quite contradictory. It would be interesting to shed some light about how Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī and Al Baqilani, for example, stated their ‘aqida compared to let’s say, Errazi and Al Gahazzali, who most today’s Ashʿarīs quote in their writings.

    Interestingly anyone can claim to be “Ahl al-Sunna” or part of “Ahl al-Sunna”; ultimately we’ve to arm ourselves with enough knowledge and ensuing practice which is the only way to be part of “Ahl al-Sunna”
    [وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ [العنكبوت:69].
    And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good.
    [Al Ankabut – 69]

    And Allah knows best.


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