Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari: The case of the three brothers

Maqalat al-Islamiyyin (Theological Opinions of the Muslims) by Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari.
"Maqalat al-Islamiyyin" (Theological Opinions of the Muslims) by Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari.

Born in Basra and living among the Mutazilites until the age of 40, Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari would later question and refute some opinions of the sect and lead a new teaching that would be called Asharism

In the late 1990s, some young Muslim intellectuals in Turkey began to argue that Islamic thought had been in regression because of the fatalist views of Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari. Some even claimed that the Ottoman Empire fell because of Asharism, which is a simple exaggeration supported with no scientific evidence. Instead, they wanted to return to the rationalist views of the Mutazilites.

A Mutazilite scholar, Abu Ali al-Jubbai, who was his stepfather, raised Ashari. Until he was 40, Ashari was in the Mutazilite community. After that, he began to put distance between his views and that of the Mutazilites. He took the intermediate path between the Mutazilism and Mujassimah (Islamic anthropomorphism).

Early life

Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari was born in Basra in 874. His family tree includes Abu Mussa al-Ashari, a Yemenite who lived during Prophet Muhammad's life. He lost this father in his early childhood. Pursuing his father's will, Ashari received Islamic lessons from Yahya ibn Zakariyya al-Saji, a Sunni scholar. Meanwhile, his mother married Abu Ali al-Jubbai, a Mutazilite scholar. Jubbai raised him with Mutazilite theological views.

Ashari took Islamic law and hadith lessons from prominent Sunni scholars in Basra. From time to time he traveled to Baghdad to listen to the Friday sermons at Mansur Mosque.

On a Friday at the Basra Mosque, he declared that he had left Mutazilism and became a disciple of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a traditionalst scholar and founder of the Hanbali sect of Sunni Islam. Hanbal refuted rationalism and defended strict textualism. In other words, he denied personal views and the use of reason as a tool for Islamic thought. Instead, he insisted on following the hadiths.

A big turn

Ashari left Basra for Baghdad where he spent the rest of his life. In his first years in Baghdad, he tried to create a connection with Hanbali scholars but failed. Although he had written several treatises defending and explaining the Hanbali point of view, Hanbali scholars did not pay much attention to him.

In Baghdad, Ashari debated many rival scholars. He generally defeated them by asking hard questions and coming up with better explanations. In the early centuries of Islam, debating among opponent sects was very common.

After a while, Ashari changed his position again. He thought that the Hanbali interpretation could not cope with contemporary matters, which created great anger among Hanbali adherents. Hanbalis continued hating him until his death. When he died, his friends buried his body secretly because of this hatred.

Ashari had concluded that rejecting reason and strictly following the textual frame of the Quran and hadiths could not solve existing problems. His main aim was to submit satisfying answers to other sects and non-believers.

The case of three brothers

Ashari is often accepted as the founder of "aqidah," Islamic theology. In his third and last period, he developed an intermediate methodology to deal with theological problems. In a famous debate with his stepfather, which is called "the case of the three brothers," Ashari had already shown that he would stand between the extreme views of the Mutazilites and the literalists.

According to the Mutazilites, people have free will, and one can choose good or evil, while it is obligatory for God to punish evil people in hell. Ashari gave the example of three brothers to refute Mutazilite views.

The first brother was a believer and he went to heaven, the second brother was a non-believer and he went to hell. The third brother died when he was still a minor.

The first brother went to heaven because he chose to believe and he did good deeds. So the case of the first brother was in line with the Mutazilite concept of free will and the Mutazilite concept of God doing the better and the best things for people. God surely rewards believers with good and better lives in paradise. In this case, the first brother went to paradise because of his good faith and good deeds.

The second brother went to hell because he chose not to believe and did evil deeds. He went to hell because of his choice and free will. For the second brother, Ashari asked his teacher what was the better or best thing that God did for him? God permitted the second brother to live and die as an infidel and then be in hell. His teacher Jubbai replied that God punished the second brother because he chose an evil faith and deeds in his life in this world. God is just and his justice makes him punish the wrongdoer and reward the doer of good.

The third brother went to heaven nor hell because he did not have enough time to become a believer like his first brother or to become an infidel like his second brother. Again, Ashari asked his teacher what was the better and best thing that God did for the third brother? His teacher replied that God knows the best for him was to die when he was still small or a minor because if the third brother were to grow up, he would become an infidel or a non-believer like his second brother. Thus, it was better for the third brother to die when he was still small or a minor.

Ashari asked why God prolonged the life of the second brother even though God knows that he would grow up and die an infidel? Being an infidel is not good for the second brother. If the Mutazilite concept of God doing the better and the best things for people were true, as Mutazilites claimed, there would not be a single infidel living in this world since an infidel is not good to live in this world. In the hereafter, an infidel goes to hell. God must make all people believers because the final reward for a believer is paradise in the hereafter, if the Mutazilite concept of God doing the better and the best things for human beings is an acceptable and reliable concept. In reality, there are more infidels, or non-believers, than believers in this world. Thus, the Mutazilite concept of God doing the better and the best things for human beings does not agree with human history.

Ashari died in Baghdad in 936. He wrote many books and treatises including the famous "Maqalat al-Islamiyyin" (Theological Opinions of the Muslims). After his death, his followers developed his approach, and many Muslims adopted his views. Famous theologian and Sufi Abu Hamid al-Gazzali and great philosopher and Quran interpreter Fahr ad-Din Razi were among Ashari scholars.

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