Aqeedah Comes First, Right?
By Shaykh Shams Ad Duha Muhammad
Someone recently sent me a question saying he wanted his wife to join Ebrahim College, but that someone told her we are part of the Ash’ari ‘sect’- and therefore, not to do so. Unfortunately, we are today in a sad state of affairs, where people are talking about these peripheral scholastic issues without really understanding the reasonings and contexts behind the issues themselves. Thus, creating huge confusions about the state of belief of other Muslims amongst the general laypeople.
Amongst Sunni Muslims, Ash’ari and Maturidi aqeedah have historically represented the intellectual methods by which Muslims correctly defended their beliefs against the deviant beliefs of other sects. These methods successfully merged rational principles with textual evidences to provide a robust response against deviant sects that had emerged in the third and fourth century. These sects (such as the Mu’tazila), under the influence of Greek philosophy and the patronage of ruling caliphs, had started indoctrinating Islamic thought using excessive rationality – ultimately explaining away many of the fundamental principles of Islam. In defence, the majority of the Muslim Ummah’s ulama and major institutions have been Ash’ari or Maturidi since the fourth century. Almost all Hanafis are Maturidi, and almost all Shafi’i’s and Malikis are Ash’ari. Among scholars, most of the major names after the fourth century, al-Baqillani, al-Ghazali, al-Juwayni, al-Razi, al-Qurtubi, al-Suyuti, al-Nawawi, and others. The majority of Sunni Muslim ulama today and institutions around the world (up to 95%) are Ash’ari – whether al-Azhar, Deoband, Nadwatul Ulama, the institutions of Morocco, Tunisia, etc.
There has however always been a third valid strand that has avoided the Ash’ari and Maturidi method, criticising their use of rational philosophy and insisted that a pure scriptural method should be followed. This strand is referred to as Athari, historically followed by Hanbalis and also nowadays by the Salafi school of thought, and is predominantly followed in places like Saudi Arabia. The Salafi attitude towards the Ash’aris however has today reached an extreme, with some contemporary Salafis (not all), calling Ash’aris ‘deviant’ and ‘outside of the fold of the Ahlus Sunnah’. This has resulted in a backlash with Ash’aris responding in kind; calling the salafis deviant – and the battle goes on.
Unfortunately, despite being an issue amongst scholars, and ultimately a non-issue for the general layperson, the wider public has now been caught up in this.
Ebrahim College’s position is simple, as lay people, it is not necessary for us to belong to any of these theological groups; we can have a simple understanding of our faith and focus on our practises. The differences of opinion are for scholars to dabble in and debate. Principally, we say, all three strands are valid articulations of Sunni aqeedah; none of them are one hundred percent correct or incorrect but they all represent our tradition and show us ways in which our aqeedah can be articulated and defended. This has always been the middle ground and remains so among strong traditional scholars today. We do not teach students to be Ash’ari, rather we teach them to be Muslim first, and respect legitimate difference among the ulama. The different strands and methods are for students who advance to study aqeedah at an advanced level at which point they will make an academic choice or have a leaning. However, because some of the founders of Ebrahim College come from an Ash’ari academic background, salafis accuse us of ‘being Ash’ari’ and try to talk people out of joining us.
All of this might sound like jargon and pettiness to you. In short, we don’t like sectarianism and do not encourage people to be sectarian. We have created balance in the way we teach aqeedah, so that a student comes out understanding all of the important fundamentals of their belief without disrespecting any view held traditionally by ulama. If you ask Ebrahim College students, they will tell you that Ebrahim College is one of the few places where students are taught to understand ISLAMIC aqeedah clearly, respect all views that are based on scholarship, and they are not indoctrinated in to following any particular ideology or sect. This is one of the reasons why so many students choose us.