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.