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Revisiting the Sensitive Question of Islamic Orthodoxy

For much of Islamic history, the question of who embodies the majoritarian orthodox path of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah has been rather contentious. One view holds that it is only the Atharis [Salafis] that are orthodox, with the Ash‘aris and Maturidis being the closest of the heterodox Muslim sects to ahl al-sunnah. Another view is that it is only the Ash‘aris and Maturidis who represent Islamic orthodoxy. Some, like the Hanbali jurist Imam al-Safarini, extended the net as follows:

أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ ثَلَاثُ فِرَقٍ الْأَثَرِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَحْمَدُ بْنُ حَنْبَلٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ وَالْأَشْعَرِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَبُو الْحَسَنِ الْأَشْعَرِيُّ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ وَالْمَاتُرِيدِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَبُو مَنْصُورٍ الْمَاتُرِيدِيُّ.

Ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah is three groups: Atharis, whose leader is Ahmad b. Hanbal, may Allah be pleased with him; Ash‘aris, whose leader is Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, may Allah have mercy on him; and Maturidis, whose leader is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi.’1

Yet how can it be three sects, when the hadith clearly speaks of one saved-sect? Well, in this broader view of ahl al-sunnah, the Atharis, Ash‘aris and Maturidis aren’t looked upon as different sects, but different ‘orientations’ or ‘schools’ with the same core tenets. And since all three ‘orientations’ consent to the integrity and authority of the Sunnah and that of the Companions, and to ijma‘ – contrary to the seventy-two other sects – they are all included under the banner of ahl al-sunnah. Differences between them may either be put down to semantics, variations in the branches of the beliefs (furu‘ al-i‘tiqad), or to bonafide errors of ijtihad.

Given that the Athari creed represents the earliest, purest form of the beliefs of ahl al-sunnah, there is a valid argument to be made by those who say that it should be preferred when there is a disparity between the three schools. For who besides the Atharis were ahl al-sunnah before the conversion of al-Ash‘ari to Sunni orthodoxy or the birth of al-Maturidi?

Having said that, the fact is that after the rise and establishment of the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools, one would be hard pressed to find a jurist, hadith master, exegist or grammarian who was not a follower of one of these two schools. Historically, and in short: Hanafis have been Maturidis, all except a few; Malikis and Shafi‘is have been Ash‘aris, all save a few; and Hanbalis have been Atharis, all but a few.

And Allah knows best.

1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:73.

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9 thoughts on “Revisiting the Sensitive Question of Islamic Orthodoxy

  1. Reblogged this on The Fahlito Brigante Blog and commented:
    “In this broader view of ahl al-sunnah, the Atharis, Ash‘aris and Maturidis aren’t looked upon as different sects, but different ‘orientations’ or ‘schools’ with the same core tenets. And since all three ‘orientations’ consent to the integrity and authority of the Sunnah and that of the Companions, and to ijma‘ – contrary to the seventy-two other sects – they are all included under the banner of ahl al-sunnah. Differences between them may either be put down to semantics, variations in the branches of the beliefs (furu‘ al-i‘tiqad), or to bonafide errors of ijtihad.”

  2. Iqbal Halani on said:

    There is a certified hadith where the Prophet (SAS) mentioned there would be 73 sects within Islam. So who are these devils who think their beard is bigger and that there should be only ONE wahabi salafist sect in Islam??

    • Perhaps you did not read my reply to the almost identical comment you posted on Christmas day, Iqbal (which can be seen here). I’ll copy and paste the reply below – keeping in mind that your comment is now relevant to this actual post:

      I’m not quite sure how such a comment is relevant to this actual post, Iqbal? That aside, please do read the article linked above by Qadduiri. There you’ll discover the actual intent and context of the hadith, and the fact that you’ve only caught the hadith half way! The Prophet ﷺ went on to say that seventy-two of these 73 Muslim sects are in the Fire, except one. When asked who this one saved sect was, he ﷺ said: ma ana ‘alayhi wa ashabi – “That to which I and my Companions are upon.” (You may also read an abridgement of this topic on this blog here.)

      Your half-quotation of the hadith is deeply regrettable, though perhaps excusable. Less excusable, it would seem, is the mockery of presumably people you disagree with, describing them as devils with big beards! Why such insult? Why not first ensure you have a sound understand of the matter at hand before launching into dismissive mode? Even after that, if such people are mistaken, why not try advising them first out of sincere brotherly concern.

      We all can and do err. That in itself isn’t a cause for downfall or divine disgrace. What is a cause is when there is an absence of seeking Allah’s forgiveness; a lack of humility to correct our mistakes; and a reluctance to try and cleanse our heart of undue rancour, contempt or ill-feeling we may harbour towards other believers.

      I’m sure there must have been much to wind you up and drive you to express yourself in such a manner. I believe also that this isn’t your usual temperament or attitude towards those whom you may differ with.

      May Allah guide and protect us all, and cause us to grow in love and obedience to Him, and make us all of benefit to Islam and the Muslims and humanity at large.

      Your brother,
      Surkheel Abu Aaliyah

  3. Muhammad Luqman on said:

    Assalamualykum warahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.
    May Allah give you the tawfeeq to bring to light the errors in ijtihad so we can be weary of them. Yet a group of Atharis interpret the saying of imam safarini as merely meant to give the general meaning of Ahl us Sunnah in so far as to distinguish it from the Shias, not necessarily meant to give the specific meaning of Ahl us Sunnah, as the saved sect.

    • Wa alaykum as-salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.

      Thank you for you question. As I’m sure you are aware, and as I made clear in the opening remarks to the post, the issue of who specifically is and is not Ahl al-Sunnah is the subject of much polemics and argumentation. Some are deeply troubled by al-Safarini’s above statement, dismissing it on the grounds that the hadith speaks of one saved sect, not three; and starting with the assumption that delving into kalam, beyond what the salaf did, amounts to negating one’s Sunni credentials. I’ve discussed the issue of ‘ilm al-kalam on my blog here.

      Ibn Taymiyyah, as you probably know, looks much more favourable upon the early Ash‘aris than later ones, described them as a whole – in his Bayan Talbis al-Jahmiyyah, 2:87 – that: ‘they are Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama‘ah in those lands where only the likes of the Mu‘tazilah, Rafidah and other innovators exist.’

      And yes, you’re right, some – again, following the Taymiyyan lead in Minhaj al-Sunnah, 2:221 – read the above statement as endorsing Ash‘aris as Ahl al-Sunnah in the general sense of the term, reserving the strict application of the term for the Atharis/Ashab al-Hadith.

      It’s very likely that only the charismatic and authoritative figure of the Mahdi will be able to truly clear this up for the ummah and put the matter to rest once and for all. Until then, we each need to fear Allah as best as we can, aiming for what we each believe is the best articulation of Sunni orthodoxy. We also need to be wise in terms of how, when and where we bring up this issue, in terms of binding or further fragmenting this blessed, yet fragile ummah.

      Wa’Llahu a’lam wa bihi al-tawfiq.

  4. Muhammad Luqman on said:

    Also may Allah have mercy upon you, kindly explain the concept of variations in branches of belief.
    JazakAllukhairan.

    • Variations in what has been called the furu‘ al-i‘tiqad includes issues such as: Did Allah create the Pen or the Throne first? Is the punishment in the grave – may Allah protect us from it – to the body or to the soul, or to both? On the Night of the Heavenly Ascension, did our beloved Prophet see Allah with the eyes of his head or the eye of his heart? Is al-Qadim a Divine name (ism) or a Divine description (khabr)?

      I hope that helps; may Allah bless you in understanding and goodness.

  5. Muhammad Luqman on said:

    May Allah grant you jannatul firdaws out of His kindness, for your kind replies.

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