Al Qushairi’s Fatwa, His Risala & Their Implications for Intra-Islamic Dialogue


[This is the fifth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on iftaa and fatwa held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference and represents my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Moderator: Khaled Troudi
“Al Qushairi’s Fatwa, His Risala & Their Implications for Intra-Islamic Dialogue”
Kenneth Honerkamp, Prof of Islamic Studies, University of Georgia

I hope this paper will give a historical example as to how a fatwa affected the community of its time and how a fatwa in our day can affect the community today and how fatwas form the past may be useful in understanding intra-Islamic dialog today. Within Islam there is a textual and an oral history. In Judaism what gave the rabbis authority was their claim to be carriers of the oral tradition revealed on Sinai at the same time as the written Torah.

At a time when Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan are targets of suicide bombers and some Western scholars and numerous Muslims see Sufism as an extraneous growth owing little to the authoritative textual sources of Islam, the relevance of the fatwa issued in 436 H./1044 C.E. by Abu al-Qasim Abdul Karim Ibn Hawazin al Quashayri on the Complaint of the People of Sunnah Relating to the Persecution that Has Befallen Them and his Epistle (risâla) on Sufism (437/1045) cannot be stressed enough. His fatwa affirmed that the theological perspectives of Abu’l Hassan Ali ibn Ismail al-Ash`ari were shared by the ahl al hadith community of Quashayri’s day. It was signed by the leading Shafi scholars of his day in Naishapur.  In translation it reads: “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the ashâb al hadîth agree that Abu’l Hassan Ali ibn Ismail al-Ash`ari was an imam among the imams of the ashâb al hadîth and his school is the madhhab of of the ashâb al hadîth. He spoke on the foundational precepts of the religious thought, following the path of ahl as-sunnah, criticizing and responding to those who differed from them  among the people of deviation and innovation. He was a drawn sword against the Mutazilites and the Rafilites, and the innovators amongst the People of Qibla as well as against those who have left the community altogether. Whoever defames his character or maligns him or curses him or reviles him has indeed vilified all the ahl as-sunnah. We have written these lines in obedience to this perspective in Dhul-qaida in the year.  The truth of the matter is as stated here.” This was prompted by a controversy due to the ascendancy of the Seljuks in 432. Soon after Tughril came into power his Hanafi (and possibly Mutazilite minister) al-Kundari initiated a campaign against the Shafis, who were the scholarly elite at Nishapur. They initiated a campaign against the Shia (the muwâfid in the polemical language of the day) and what they called ahl al bid`a, referring to the Asharis. In Nishapur the Shafis were identified with the Asharis, and so they lost the privileges to teach and preach at the main mosque, and Ashari came to be reviled as an unbeliever. All this led al-Quashayri to write his fatwa in 436.  Despite this, the controversy continued for ten years and in 446 he composed an open letter to the Muslim world. It raised the issue of the persecution to a new level. He enumerates and then categorically refutes the personal attacks on al-Ashari, and not necessarily the theological criticisms.

Previously, the phrase ahl al-hadîth brought to mind the Hanbali scholars, who were completely anti-kalam. Associating the phrase with Ashari constitutes a move away form the Hanbali school’s old position and this fatwa may have played a role in broadening the concept of what constitutes an ahl al-hadîth culture. Kundari imprisoned Quashayri who was quickly broken out by his followers. They made their way to Baghdad where they were well received. Tughril died and Kundari was killed, and new sultan, Abdus-Salam, ascended to the throne. His minister, the famous Nizam al-Mulk was a Shafi apparently sympathetic to Ashari theology, and founder of the great Nizamiyah institutes. This turned the tide and Quashayri returned to Nishapur until his death. He was regarded by his contemporaries as the “absolute imam” of his era, one with knowledge of both the religious sciences and the Divine Reality.

Al-Quashayri’s Risâla takes the tools of kalam and fiqh to develop what Ahmet Karamustafa calls “a theologically and legally savvy form of Sufism.” The book has assumed what Mustafa calls “canonical status” for most later Sufis and observers of Sufism alike and gives us a unique window on the classical Islamic world.

Before al-Quashayri there were Sufi jurists in Nishapur and training masters. The milâmatiˆ held that the lower soul, or the nafs, must be watched at all times lest it prevent the believer from reaching the true goal of sincere selfless devotion to God. They avoided any public display of piety and took on ordinary jobs. Nishapur became known as the place of formative Sufism. Karamustafa attributes the Risâla’s enduring popularity to its harmonious composite nature.

In the light of the above, we can say the Risâla is a lengthy fatwa that reflects the first fatwa of which we spoke and addressed the waywardness of his co-religionists stemming from the divided nature of their discourse. He feared Sufism had become misunderstood by both the practitioners and the wider community. Its dual purpose was to remind Sufis of Sufism’s earlier uncorrupted state and to defend Sufism before the broader Muslim community, before al-Ghazali.

The first chapter of the book consists of short biographical notes, and titled “The Masters of This Path, Their Deeds and Sayings and How They Uphold the Divine Law (Shariah).” It excludes the companions, and begins with the Tabi`în. Sufism is the leading oral tradition of Islamic scholarship resonating alongside the written tradition. At the end of the chapter he says he has mentioned these people to show they follow the Sunnah and never neglect a single rule. He says those who say otherwise cause themselves to perish, and also those who believe their lies.

In his second chapter he explains basic metaphysical terminology that you generally will not find in the books of fiqh. For example, he explains that nafs is generally understood to mean the “being” of a thing, but for the Sufis it means deficiencies of character and reprehensible traits, so that is it is a negative term.

He finishes the Risâla with the observation that God protects the Sufi masters (shuyûkh) and the necessity of not opposing them, their visions, and spiritual advice for aspirants on the path. He advises to respect and admire them, but not to think they are infallible.

Iftaa is not the sole domain of the fuquhâ. A fatwa’s influence may extend far beyond the time and place of its issuance. The Risâla is a key example of a happy marriage between the written and oral traditions. The translation of Alexander Knish that has recently come out leaves something to be desired, but is complete and faithful to the content. It has some peculiar translations like “scrupulosity” for scrupulousness, but it reads well and I strongly suggest everyone have a copy in their library.

Discussant: Mahmoud Ayoub

Islam is based on submission to God and not on the ideas of human beings. Early on there developed the heritage we attribute to the Sufi tradition, the ascetics, the “weepers” who wept when they read a verse of the Qur’an dealing with paradise for which they longed or of Hell, which they feared. A woman, Rabia al-Adawiyyah is generally considered to be the one who moved Sufism away from asceticism to spirituality. We should remember that with the esoteric influences on Sufism there came problems which led to the persecution of the Martyr of Love al-Hallaj. He gave Sufism a bad name in the eyes of people in general. Thus, the need for someone like al-Quashayri to rehabilitate Sufism as described by our speaker. The Risâla explains the complete rootedness of Sufism in Islamic law and aqîda. I invite Dr. Honerkamp to compare the new translation with the partial translation by the earlier Barbara Shlegel. Some fatwas are book-length, but in what way is the Risâla a fatwa rather than a manual of Sufism? Criticism of people who adopt ideas or rituals not practiced by the first and second generation of Muslims are called ahl al-ahwa wal bida. In the good-old days, and this says a lot about where we are now, people distinguished between good and bad bid`a. I think the formulation that every new thing is a bid`a and every bid`a is an act of going astray and every act of going astray leads to the fire probably is a harsh judgment on a civilization that gave so many new things to the world. I want to remind you that the only religion to produce a truly universal civilization has been Islam. If ourt ancestors believed this notion of bid`a, they would not have created the civilization they did.

Discussant: Moustafa Kassem

This paper opens our eyes to important issues. I see two main themes: the actual fatwa that the Ashari tradition is founded in the Sunnah, and the discussion of the Risâla that Sufism is rooted in Asharism and thus also in traditional Islam. This paper relates to the politics of fatwas. Some opinions may reflect political and social realities beyond the simple interpretation of text. The issue of labeling also comes up. Labelling often takes us off the path of knowledge in that we focus on the label and rather the content. I want to talk about interpretation. The rightof person to their own knowledge, to not be bound by other people’s ideas is what will keep us free. Sufi scholars interpret traditions and ayahs in the light of their spiritual understanding. It was important that you reminded us that the Sufi masters are not infallible. Was al-Quashayri’s authority to give a fatwa broadly recognized in his own time, or only among his followers? I was glad you mentioned the chainsof transmission in the book. It is important for freethinkers or any who wish to think for themselves that they have the ability to investigate and question the validity of the chains of transmission. The notions of good and bad bid`a are essential for our concerns. We must not be scared in a our scholarship that someone will accuse us of bid`a because our conclusions are different from traditional scholarship, or that one might be accused of guilt by association for communing with those whose ideas are not popular. We want to produce things from wihch people will benefit. This requires us both to be brave and at the same time to be informed.

Honerkamp: Barbara Shlegel translated only the terminology, leaving out the biographies. There is another translation by Rabia Harris, partial in one edition and complete in the other. Although the footnotes were put at the end of the book in shortened form and are difficult to access, the translation is very good. I said that his fatwa was signed by the scholars of the day, and recognized as an official hadith, and there was no doubt in Quashayri’s community, not only among his followers, that he was imam al mutlak.

The intention behind the book seems to be to address Sufis and non-Sufis on his opinion and this makes it a fatwa. He says of God that “He knows by his knowledge; He is powerful by His power; He wills by His will; He sees by His sight” and is straight Ashari kalam. He states very clearly in the introduction to the text that the creed of the Sufis is one with the creed of Ashari.

M. Ayoub: Which is what makes his book a manual. Its purpose is to lead people to the Sufi path.

Honerkamp: I think this fatwa is in a religious context. He says plainly that people define their terms in a way to make their meaning clear among themselves and to conceal them from those who disagree with their methods. I think he is attempting not to interpret, but to define, terms from the Sufi perspective. I agree with Br. Mustafa completely on the issue of interpretation. People too frequently say, “God said …” when they should say “I believe that when the Qur’an says this it means this….” I think Muslims tend to turn off their critical faculties when they hear “God said …” or “the messenger said….” People are not always quoting the Qur’an in Arabic when they say kâl Allah.

General discussion

Louay Safi: The challenge for us today is to try to bring spirituality to the discussion. We may need a new word besides Sufi. We can’t help but label, because categorization is part of knowledge. Wisdom is about bringing knowledge to bear on life.

Michelle Church: The fiqh is not something to which Western converts can necessarily relate.

Honerkamp: Not only Western, when you look at the spread of Islam all over the world.

Church: It is interesting to me that when converts speak of their conversion in a spiritual way they are immediately labeled “Sufi.” So I am interested in Dr. Louay’s suggestion that we may need a new term for spirituality.

Anwar Haddam: The conclusion that the Risâla is a fatwa takes me back to the point that we need a serious discussion to come up with a clear sustainable definition of fatwa. To your conclusion that iftaa is not the sole domain of the jurists, I say that islâh is not the sole domain of jurists, but a fatwa is a matter of law. Otherwise there would be fatwas in politics, economics, and social science. We need more clarity. We don’t want to face extremism in material life, but what about spiritual life? Islam is a balance between the spiritual and the material, and the challenge is keeping that balance. The stronger our relationship with Allah, the stronger should be our relationships with our fellow human beings.

Honerkamp: We don’t mind calling someone a faqih or an usûlî, but as soon as someone is called a Sufi there is a problem. Sufism has its spokespeople, history, and methodology. I would suggest there is in the world an extremely effective de facto Sufi tarîqa that has had an enormous impact on the world but it is not called Sufi or even Islam, even though it has a shaikh named Fethullah Gülen: the Gülen Movement. It is not called Sufi or Islamic, but Islamic, Sufi principles deeply infuse the movement.

I can’t say how the fatwa was received other than to recall that the Hanbalis objected to refuting the Mu`tazila on the grounds that to refute them you would have to repeat their arguments. But I repeat that it was identified as a fatwa by the scholars of his day. I quoted from Quashayri that you should not ascribe infallibility to the masters because so many critics of Sufism today say that to be a Sufi you must uncritically follow the master. He also says one should not be overly critical of them but to think the best of them even when you don’t understand them. Consider the case of the Moroccan shaikh Ahmad Zarouk who saw his master sitting with a bottle of wine and a beautiful young girl. He walked out in disapproval, but the master called out to him, “Come back! This is vinegar and this is my daughter.” In other words do not jump to criticize what you do not understand.

M. Ayoub: There is no Arabic word equivalent to the English “mysticism.” Sufism became label that really refers to the dress of the initiate (course wool, or sûf), although some try to attribute the term to other origins (like sofia). A fairly well known Sufi of the 9th century observed, “Sufism used to be a reality without a name and now it is a name without a reality.” There are other terms, like gnosis, that can be used. It is about love of God expressed through poetry or knowledge of God. Sufism is a rich heritage mirroring a rich civilization. It is not, strictly speaking, a madhhab, but cuts across all the schools. Although the Shia were hostile to Sufism in general, it developed in Iran prior to its becoming Shia and still prevails there.

Abubaker Al-Shingieti: From vantage of the theme of the conference, I find a couple of missing dimensions. A discussion of the methodology of fatwa from Al-Quashayri’s approach has already been mentioned. The main missing dimension, however, is the pressure he was under, not only coercion from the authorities, but the intellectual terrorism he faced from his opponents, must be exposed. We must make the point that they are against the spirit of Islam. This addresses issues of authority and legitimacy we face today.

Vinay Khetia: Sufism cuts across schools and sects. Sufism and fiqh have never been mutually exclusive. In saying fiqh is boring or complicated or unattractive to new converts, we must be careful not to dismiss this important part of our intellectual tradition. Shaikh Ibn Baha’i al-`Amali from Southern Lebanon was an architect, a poet, a theologian and a hadith scholar. The spiritual masters were also masters of fiqh and theology. For these people every act has a metaphysical value attached to it and it is the duty of the scholar to identify the metaphysical value of each act.

Honerkamp: I would say the Risâla is a coming together of all of these fields. Sufis don’t call themselves Sufis. They usually call themselves fukurâ. The negative aspect of the nafs in the milâmati perspective is that it is like a piece of charcoal. No matter how much you wash a piece of charcoal it remains black. To change its color you put it the brazier and it glows and turns red. There isn’t a Sufi way of making a fatwa. Quashayri gave his fatwa as an `âlim.

M. Ayoub: One of the greatest Sufis, Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani, belonged to the Hanbali madhhab, as did others.

Daoud Nassimi: Where I grew up the only thing people knew about Islam was Sufism. To me the origin of Sufism is nothing more than a reaction against excessive legalism. Different groups emphasize different aspects of Islam. I am concerned that as soon as we name groups we create opportunities for division and extremism. An excessive emphasis on some values undermines others. Islam is a balanced and harmonized teaching. The devotion in the West of certain days of the week for the spiritual and other days for the secular is strange to me. Emphasizing the intellect at the university but not at the church is strange to me.

Safi: The good Sufis are very introspective; but there are others, like one very well known Sufi in the U.S. who has spoken against other Muslims and loves to be in the corridors of power.

M. Ayoub: The one of whom you speak doesn’t know much about Islam or Sufism.

Safi: But he is Sufi shaikh that people know about.

Haddam: Not all Sufis are alims like Quashayri.

Church: Coming out of Christianity I see Islam cuts across so many cultures. As soon as I became a Muslim I had to ask, “What kind of a Muslim will I be?” It seems you need a way to distinguish yourself among Muslims.

M. Ayoub: I think our negative attitude towards Sufism in large measure is a reaction to our 19th century encounter with the West. We wanted to show the West that we are more rational than the Christians, and Sufism was victim of that.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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