A deep dive into understanding the doctrine of this seminal Muslim theologian; then brief consideration of possible parallels to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity

Published in Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims, edited by Evelyne Reisacher, Joseph Cumming, Dean Gilliland and Charles Van Engen.


23 February 2023

Ṣifāt al-Dhāt in Al-Ashʿarī’s Doctrine of God, and Possible Christian Parallels

It scarcely needs to be stated that Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Ismāʿīl Al-Ashʿarī (d. 324/935) is one of the three or four most influential and orthodox thinkers in the history of Islam since the generation of the Prophet and Companions.[1] Ignaz Goldziher refers to him as “this greatest theological authority in orthodox Islam.”[2] His doctrine (which he saw simply as a systematic statement of the teachings of the Qur’ān and the Sunna as understood by the earliest Muslim community) gradually overcame rival doctrines like Muʿtazilism until, by the end of the 5th/11th century, Ashʿarite doctrine became recognized as the official orthodoxy of Sunnī Islam. His teaching is generally seen as the embodiment of Islamic orthodoxy – so much so that modern English-language writers on Islam frequently use the term “orthodox” as though it were synonymous with “Ashʿarite.”


On the other hand, much of the content of his teaching is relatively unknown to many ordinary Muslims today. Daniel Gimaret has rightly pointed out:


 Of all of the Muslim theologians of the classical era, al-Ashʿarī (d. 935) was, beyond any doubt, the most important. Nevertheless, paradoxically, his doctrine remained very poorly known.[3], [4]


Of course Gimaret’s own books[5] have contributed greatly to making the content of al-Ashʿarī’s doctrine better-known (particularly to the French-speaking world). But it is still true that much work remains to be done.


One of the central issues at stake in al-Ashʿarī’s teaching, and in his refutation of Muʿtazilism, was the question of the divine ṣifāt (often translated “attributes”[6]) which are derived from God’s “beautiful names” in the Qur’ān, and the relation of these ṣifāt to God’s essence. If God is Powerful, Knowing and Living, does this mean God has power, knowledge and life? Has God acquired these ṣifāt in time, or has God eternally been characterized by them? And if God’s power, knowledge and life are eternal, then is God synonymous with that power, knowledge and life, or are they something other than God’s essence?


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[1] Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and al-Imām al-Shāfiʿī also come to mind.

[2] Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, Andras and Ruth Hamori, transl. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981 [1910]), p. 104.

[3] Daniel Gimaret, La doctrine d’al-Ashʿarī (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1990), cover. «De tous les théologiens musulmans d’époque classique, al-Ashʿarī (m. 935) a été, sans nul doute, le plus important. Or, paradoxalement, sa doctrine restait encore très mal connue. »

[4] All translations from French, German, and Arabic works in this paper are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

[5] Ibid., and also his Les noms divins en Islam (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1988), and his edition of Ibn Fūrak’s Mujarrad Maqālāt al-Shaykh Abī al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1987), among other publications of Gimaret.

[6] Cf. discussion below on how best to understand the technical meaning of ṣifa.