Answered by Shaykh Gibril F Haddad
Inside Islam “Athari,” “Sunni,” and “Ahl al-Hadith” are all synonymous with each other and with each of the Four Sunni Schools in contradistinction with those non-Sunnis that are defined, in Sunni heresiographical discourse, as denying part or all of the Athars (reports) and Hadiths that define the principles and practice of Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama'a.
Inside Sunnism, however, the above terms differ in various ways due to further polemical meanings according to the emphasis desired by the speaker and the guidelines of his own self-definition.
For example, when “Ahl al-Hadith” define themselves in contradistinction of “Ahl al-Ra’y” then the first term tends to be synonymous with Hanbalis (and Shafi'is) and the second term with Hanafis (and Malikis) although they are all Ahl al-Ra’y wal-Hadith in the larger sense since, on the one hand ra’y - qualified juridical opinion - is the soul of ijtihad and fiqh without which the Shari'a becomes impaired; and, on the other hand, the source-texts are no less essential to the Shari'a. Hence Imams Abu Hanifa and al-Shafi'is famous saying comparing the muhaddith to the pharmacist and the jurisprudent to the physician.
When defining 'aqida, the distinctions similarly reflect the self-perceived and self-representating emphases of each school. In this respect the Hanbalis perceive and represent themselves as the most focused of the Sunni Schools on source-texts. In reality, insofar as those Schools are defined by their founding Imams, then all four of them are equally source-text-focused. But most self-definitions of who Ahl al-Sunna are or what Sunna and Jama'a consist in, are actually formulaic responses which are not meant to be all-comprehensive but are part of a timely, practical arsenal to help dispatch deviations to their graves.
For example, Imam Abu Hanifa said: “Sunna and Jama'a are defined by loyalty to the Two Shaykhs [Abu Bakr and `Umar as Caliphs], love of the Two Sons-in-Law [`Uthman and `Ali], and [the permissibility of] wiping over leather socks [in ablution].” Yet, elsewhere (as in his Wasiyya and Fiqh al-Akbar) he also made belief in Divine foreordained destiny (qadar) and the un-createdness of the Qur’an as essential, defining articles of Sunni doctrine also. The discrepancy is moot since each definition is dictated by context and the needs of the time in which it was uttered.
Similarly, the emphasis of the Hanbali School on textualism is a legacy of the heroic stand taken by Imam Ahmad in defense of that self-defining principle of Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama`a against Mu'tazilism: “We stick to all the authentic reports narrated from the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and his Companions that define his and their way because this is the Prophet’s own definition of the Saved Group.” That legacy became embedded in Hanbali discourse and methodology even though there are, in the `aqidas narrated from the mouth of Imam Ahmad by his students, many Ash'ari and Maturidi truisms. This is the strain that a few Hanbalis embraced in their own positively Ash'ari creeds such as Ibn `Aqil, Ibn al-Jawzi, and al-Saffarini.
Al-Saffarini (d. 1188) notably gave the following definition in his Lawami` al-Anwar: “Ahl al-Sunna consist of three groups: the textualists (al-Athariyya), whose Imam is Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the Ash`aris, whose Imam is Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, and the Maturidis, whose Imam is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi…. and they are all one sect, the saved sect, and they are Ahl al-Hadith.”
Perhaps a more satisfactory expression of the Sunni self-definition of Ahl al-Sunna is given by the great Ash'ari Imam known in absolute terms as “the Ustadh”: Abu Mansur `Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429) in his Farq bayn al-Firaq (The Difference between the Sects). This entire book is in fact an elucidation of the hadith of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, of which the central part says: “... and my Community shall divide into 73 sects...” At the end of the book he defines Ahl al-Sunna thus:
“Those that have completely mastered and codified the principles of belief [=Ash`aris and Maturidis], the Mujtahid Scholars of the four Schools of Law and their followers, the Scholars of hadith that steered clear of deviation, the Scholars of Arabic grammar that steered clear of deviation, the Scholars of tafsir that steered clear of deviation, the Sufis, the people making jihad, and the general masses of the Muslims.”
Similarly al-Iji (d. 756) in the Mawaqif:
“The Saved Group which is excepted from the Prophet’s hadith ‘All of them are in the Fire except one: Those that adhere to what I and my Companions follow’ - these are the Ash'aris, the Salaf of the scholars of hadith, and [generally speaking] Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama`a.”
While al-Haytami, al-Baydawi, and al-Saharanfuri say: “When we use the term Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama`a, what is meant are the Ash'aris and the Maturidis.”
Imam `Abd Allah ibn `Alawi al-Haddad (d. 1132) said:
“If you look with a sound understanding into those passages relating to the sciences of faith in the Book, the Sunna, and the sayings of the Salaf... you will know for certain that the truth is with the party called Ash'ari, named after the Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, Allah have mercy on him, who systematized the foundations of the creed of the people of the truth and recorded its earliest versions, these being the beliefs which the Companions and the best among the Successors agreed upon.… The Maturidis are the same as the Ash'aris in the above regard.”
Was Ghawth al-A'zam, Abd al-Qadir Gaylani (may Allah be pleased with him) Athari or Hanbali in 'aqida? Is a Hanbali or Athari school recognized today? If so, who are some Athari scholars? Is it true that the Hanafis and Shafi'is of Khurasan fought each other and as a result the Hanbali/Athari school spread there? Also, was Mawlana Jami (may Allah be pleased with him) Maturidi? There is a discussion going on at one of the forums at their website wherein one brother claims that the Maturidis “considered one an arch innovator if one didn't give la'na to Abu-l Hasan al-Ash'ari.” Was this ever the case? Were the Maturidis and Ash'aris ever rivals?
Not to my knowledge, but who would focus on such an issue in the first place except those given to la`na, an exercise despised by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and the Awliya? As the ancients advised and no doubt would Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir also: Beloved brother, leave the mire and stick to the pure water. He definitely advised to leave doctrinal debates and focus on good works as time is short! (Note also that the hafiz and Imam al-Sam'ani mentions in his Ansab that Maturidi’s daughter was married to al Hasan al Ash'ari, the father of Imam Abu al Hasan al Ash'ari.) And Allah knows best.
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