Traditionalist Theology (Islam)

Traditionalist theology or Athari (الأثرية‎—al-Aṯharīya) is an Islamic scholarly movement, originating in the late 8th century CE, who reject rationalistic Islamic theology (kalam) in favor of strict textualism in interpreting the Quran and hadith. The name derives from “tradition” in its technical sense as a translation of the Arabic word hadith. It is also sometimes referred to by several other names.

Adherents of traditionalist theology believe the zahir (literal, apparent) meaning of the Qur’an and the hadith are the sole authorities in matters of belief and law; and that the use of rational disputation is forbidden, even if in verifying the truth. They engage in an apparent reading of the Qur’an, as opposed to one engaged in ‘metaphorical interpretation’ (ta’wil). They affirm the meanings of the attributes of Allah, but believe that their modalities(kayfiyyah) should be consigned to God alone.In essence, the text of the Qur’an and Hadith is accepted without asking “how” (i.e. “Bi-la kayfa”).

Traditionalist theology emerged among hadith scholars who eventually coalesced into a movement called ahl al-hadith under the leadership of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (b. 780–d. 855). In matters of faith, they were pitted against Mu’tazilites and other theological currents, condemning many points of their doctrine as well as the rationalistic methods they used in defending them. In the tenth century al-Ash’ari and al-Maturidi found a middle ground between Mu’tazilite rationalism and Hanbalism , using the rationalistic methods championed by Mu’tazilites to defend most tenets of the traditionalist doctrine.

While Ash’arism and Maturidism came to be known as the Sunni “orthodoxy”, traditionalist Athari theology is the creed of the earliest Muslims, and remained the creed of the majority of the Muslims(the sawaad al a’dham) until the rise of the aforementioned kalam based schools in the 4th/5th century, often through state patronage, like the case of the Nidhamiyyah madressahs that spread Ash’arism. In the modern era, Athari/Hanbali theology has had a disproportionate impact on Islamic theology, having been appropriated by Wahhabi and other traditionalist Salafi currents and spread well beyond the confines of the Hanbali school of law.

AL MADINAH, KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA - Muslim pray and read Quran inside Masjid (mosque) Nabawi on March 07, 2015 in Al Madinah, S. Arabia. Nabawi mosque is the 2nd holiest mosque in Islam.

Nabawi mosque is the 2nd holiest mosque in Islam.

Terminology

Several terms are used to refer to traditionalist theology. They are used inconsistently and some of them have been subject to criticism.

The term traditionalist theology is derived from the word “tradition” in its technical meaning as translation of the Arabic term hadith. This term is found in a number of reference works. It has been criticized by Marshall Hodgson (who preferred the term Hadith folk) for its potential for confusion between the technical and common meanings of the word “tradition”. Oliver Leaman also cautions against misinterpreting the terms “traditionalists” and “rationalists” as implying that the former favored irrationality or that the latter did not use hadith. Some authors reject the use of these terms as labels for groups of scholars and prefer to speak of “traditionalist” and “rationalist” tendencies instead. Racha el Omari has used “traditionalist theology” in a way that includes Ash’arism and Maturidism.

The term traditionism has also been used in the same sense, although Binyamin Abrahamov reserves the term “traditionists” for scholars of hadith, distinguishing it from traditionalism as a theological current.

Since the overwhelming majority of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence has adhered to traditionalist theology, some sources refer to it as Hanbali theology. However, others note that some Shafi’i scholars also belonged to this theological movement, while some Hanbalites adopted a more rationalist theology.

Athari (from the Arabic word athar, meaning “remnant” or “narrative”) is another term that has been used for traditionalist theology.

The term ahl al-hadith (people of hadith) theology is used by some authors in the same sense as athari, while others restrict it to the early stages of this movement, or use it in a broader sense to denote particular enthusiasm towards hadith.

Some authors refer to traditionalist theology as classical Salafism or classic Salafiya (from salaf, meaning “(pious) ancestors”). Henri Lauzière has argued that, while the majority Hanbali creed was sometimes identified as “salafi” in classical-era sources, using the corresponding nouns in this context is anachronistic.

History

Traditionalist theology emerged toward the end of the 8th century CE among scholars of hadith who held the Quran and authentic hadith to be the only acceptable sources of law and creed. At first these scholars formed minorities within existing religious study circles, but by the early ninth century they coalesced into a separate traditionalist movement (commonly called ahl al-hadith) under the leadership of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. In legal matters, these traditionalists criticized the use of personal opinion (ra’y) common among the Hanafi jurists of Iraq as well as the reliance on living local traditions by Malikite jurists of Medina. They also rejected the use of qiyas (analogical deduction) and other methods of jurisprudence not based on literal reading of scripture. In matters of faith, traditionalists were pitted against Mu’tazilites and other theological currents, condemning many points of their doctrines as well as the rationalistic methods they used in defending them.

Traditionalists were also characterized by their avoidance of all state patronage and by their social activism. They attempted to follow the injunction of “commanding good and forbidding evil” by preaching asceticism and launching vigilante attacks to break wine bottles, musical instruments and chessboards. In 833 the caliph al-Ma’mun tried to impose Mu’tazilite theology on all religious scholars and instituted an inquisition (mihna) which required them to accept the Mu’tazilite doctrine that the Qur’an was a created object, which implicitly made it subject to interpretation by caliphs and scholars. Ibn Hanbal led traditionalist resistance to this policy, affirming under torture that the Quran was uncreated. Although Mu’tazilism remained state doctrine until 851, the efforts to impose it only served to politicize and harden the theological controversy.

The next two centuries saw an emergence of broad compromises in both law and creed within Sunni Islam. In jurisprudence, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali madhhabs all gradually came to accept both the traditionalist reliance on the Quran and hadith and the use of controlled reasoning in the form of qiyas. In theology, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (874-936) found a middle ground between Mu’tazilite rationalism and Hanbalite literalism, using the rationalistic methods championed by Mu’tazilites to defend most tenets of the traditionalist doctrine. A rival compromise between rationalism and traditionalism emerged from the work of al-Maturidi (d. c. 944), and one of these two schools of theology was accepted by members of all Sunni madhhabs, with the exception of most Hanbalite and some Shafi’i scholars, who ostensibly persisted in their rejection of kalam, although they often resorted to rationalistic arguments themselves, even while claiming to rely on the literal text of scripture.

The Athari approach to faith remained influential among the urban masses in some areas, particularly in Baghdad. Its popularity manifested itself repeatedly from late ninth to eleventh centuries, when crowds shouted down preachers who publicly expounded rationalistic theology. After caliph al-Mutawakkil suspended the rationalist inquisition, Abbasid caliphs came to rely on an alliance with traditionalists to buttress popular support. In the early 11th century the caliph al-Qadir made a series of proclamations that sought to prevent public preaching of rationalistic theology. In turn, the Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk in the late 11th century encouraged Ash’ari theologians in order to counterbalance caliphal traditionalism, inviting a number of them to preach in Baghdad over the years. One such occasion led to five months of rioting in the city in 1077.

While Ash’arism and Maturidism are often called the Sunni “orthodoxy”, traditionalist theology has thrived alongside it, laying rival claims to be the orthodox Sunni faith. In the modern era it has had a disproportionate impact on Islamic theology, having been appropriated by Wahhabi and other traditionalist Salafi currents and spread well beyond the confines of the Hanbali school of law.

These two lines of calligraphy in elegant muhaqqaq script are from chapter 40 (Sura al-Mu'min, The Believer) of the Qur'an. The fragment on which they are written was once part of a Qur'an manuscript that is probably the largest ever produced. Originally, each page included seven lines of script copied on one side only. A double-page would fit perfectly into the gigantic stone Qur'an stand made for the congregational mosque of Bibi Khanum in Samarqand and commissioned by a grandson of Timur (Tamerlane, d. 1405). Its calligrapher was likely the renowned 'Umar Aqta'. Historical sources tell us that 'Umar tried to impress Timur by writing a Qur’an so small that it could fit under a signet ring. When the sultan was unmoved, 'Umar wrote a Qur'an so large that it had to be brought to Timur on a cart.

These two lines of calligraphy in elegant muhaqqaq script are from chapter 40 (Sura al-Mu’min, The Believer) of the Qur’an. The fragment on which they are written was once part of a Qur’an manuscript that is probably the largest ever produced. Originally, each page included seven lines of script copied on one side only. A double-page would fit perfectly into the gigantic stone Qur’an stand made for the congregational mosque of Bibi Khanum in Samarqand and commissioned by a grandson of Timur (Tamerlane, d. 1405). Its calligrapher was likely the renowned ‘Umar Aqta’. Historical sources tell us that ‘Umar tried to impress Timur by writing a Qur’an so small that it could fit under a signet ring. When the sultan was unmoved, ‘Umar wrote a Qur’an so large that it had to be brought to Timur on a cart.

Beliefs

On the Qur’an

The Atharis believe that the Qur’an is uncreated (ghayr makhluq). It is reported that Ahmad Ibn Hanbal said, “The Qur’an is God’s Speech, which He expressed; it is uncreated. He who claims the opposite is a Jahmite, an infidel. And he who says, ‘The Qur’an is God’s Speech,’ and stops there without adding ‘uncreated,’ speaks even more abominably than the former”.

On Kalam and human reason

For Atharis, the validity of human reason is limited, and rational proofs cannot be trusted nor relied upon in matters of belief, thus making kalam a blameworthy innovation. Rational proofs, unless they are Qur’anic in origin, are considered nonexistent and wholly invalid. However, this was not always the case as a number of Atharis delved into kalam, whether or not they described it as such.

Examples of Atharis who wrote books against the use of kalam and human reason include the Hanbali Sufi Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, and the Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudama. Ibn Qudama harshly rebuked kalam as one of the worst of all heresies. He characterized its partisans, its theologians, as innovators and heretics who had betrayed and deviated from the simple and pious faith of the early Muslims. He writes: “The theologians are intensely hated in this world, and they will be tortured in the next. None among them will prosper, nor will he succeed in following the right direction…”.

On the Attributes of God

The Atharis staunchly affirm the existence of the attributes of God and consider all of them to be equally eternal. They accept the relevant verses of the Qur’an and hadith as they are, without subjecting them to rational analysis or elaboration. According to Atharis, the modality(kayfiyyah), which can be thought of as the actual reality of the attributes of God should be consigned to God alone .According to this method, one should adhere to the sacred text of the Qur’an and believe that it is the truth, without trying to explain it through a figurative explanation.

Ahmed Ibn Hanbal reportedly stated, “His Attributes proceed from Him and are His own, we do not go beyond the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet and his Companions; nor do we know the how of these, save by the acknowledgment of the Apostle and the confirmation of the Qur’an”.

Imam Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr al Maliki al Athari (rA) said, “The people of al-Sunnah unanimously agree on the affirmation of all the attributes that are in the Quran and the Sunnah and their being literal (ḥaqeeqah), not metaphorical (majâz), but they do not ascribe a modality to any of that and do not qualify them by a particular limiting description. As for the people of innovation, the Jahmiyyah, all of the Mu‘tazilah, and the Kharijites, they all deny them and do not accept them as literal, and claim that those who accept them are anthropomorphists; and they are, to those who affirm them, negators of the worshiped Lord. The truth is in what the affirmers have said about what is stated in the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger, and they are the imams of the Jamâ‘ah (the mainstream group), and to Allah is all praise.

Anthropomorphism was commonly alleged against Athari scholars by their critics, including the Hanbalite scholar and theologian Ibn al-Jawzi. In some cases, Athari scholars espoused extreme anthropomorphic views, but they do not generally represent the Athari movement as a whole.

On Iman (faith)

The Atharis hold that Iman (faith) increases and decreases in correlation with the performance of prescribed rituals and duties, such as the five daily prayers. They believe that Iman resides in the heart, in the utterance of the tongue and in the action of the limbs.

On division of tawhid

Some scholars of the Athari school of divinity supported the division of tawhid into three categories; tawhid al-rububiyyah (“the oneness of lordship”, referring to belief in God as the creator and sustainer of the world) and tawhid al-uluhiyyah (“the oneness of divinity”, referring to worshipping God as the only deity) and tawhid al-asma wa-l-sifat (“the oneness of names and attributes”, which asserts that God has only one set of attributes and they do not contradict each other). Ibn Taymiyyah seems to have been the first to introduce this distinction., however it is built up from earlier authorities who made similar classifications, like the Hanbali scholar Ibn Battah al-Ukbari.

Criticism

Sixteenth-century Sunni scholar Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, who belonged to the Ashari school of kalam, criticised Athari views associated with Ibn Taymiyyah.

Sources

  • Abrahamov, Binyamin (2014). “Scripturalist and Traditionalist Theology”. In Sabine Schmidtke (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Belo, Catarina (2014). “Theology”. In Ibrahim Kalin (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  • Lapidus, Ira M. (2014). A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press (Kindle edition). ISBN 978-0-521-51430-9.
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  • Lucas, Scott C. (2005). “Theology”. In Josef W. Meri (ed.). Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Routledge.
  • Leaman, Oliver (2009). “Ahl al-Ḥadīth”. In John L. Esposito (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Shahin, Emad el-Din (2009). “Salafīyah”. In John L. Esposito (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  • Spevack, Aaron (2014). The Archetypal Sunni Scholar: Law, Theology, and Mysticism in the Synthesis of Al-Bajuri. State University of New York Press.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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