Who Are The Ahlus-Sunnah Wal-Jamaah?

As-Salaam alaikom wa raHmatullahi wa barakaatuh


Al-Hamdulillah rabbil-3aalameen

was-salaatu was-salaamu 3ala ashrafal mursaleen wa 3ala aalihi wa saHbihi ajmaeen

Amma Ba3ad,

                       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 the Ahl as-Sunnah, 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.”

                by Hajj Gibril Haddad

Q.) A sheikh said Ahl-us-Sunnah wal Jamah are those who follows the thought of Imam ibn Taymiyyah, that is to believe in Allahs’ sifat (attributes) without doing taweel (interpretation). The Ash’aris and Maturidies do taweel which is not the way of the salaf. Therefore they are not from the Ahlus-Sunnah. My question is that I follow the fiqh of Imam Abu Hanifah and I believe that I am a Maturidie. Am I not then from Ahlus-Sunnah? Please answer my question in detail. [name withheld]

A.) The Maturidis and the Ash’aris are from the Ahlus-Sunnah wal Jamaa. Hereunder is a brief explanation on their beliefs regarding the Sifat of Allah.

Basically, the Ulama of Aqaaid (beliefs) are of two categories,

a) The Salaf (former Ulama),

b) Mutakallimeen (Ulama of Aqeedah)

Imam al-Nawawiy (RA) mentions in his commentary of Sahih Muslim, ‘There are two famous Madhabs with regards to the beliefs of the Sifaat of Allah: 1) The Madhab of majority of the Salaf and a few Mutakallimeen is to believe in the reality of the Sifaat of Allah in accordance to whatever is appropriate for Allah. The apparent known meanings of those Sifaat are not meant. No Ta’weel (interpretation) should be made in the matter.2) The Madhab of most of the Mutakallimeen and a few of the Salaf like Imaam al-Nawawiy and Imaam al-Awzaa’ee is that Ta’weel will be made.

Both these Madhabs are unanimously accepted.

Actually, our Aqeeda is in accordance with the first Madhab. The second Madhab came about because there were many misled groups in the latter times, like al-Mujassamah who believe that Allah has the same qualities as human beings. The Mutakallimeen had to refute these misled groups. To do so they made Ta’weelaat (interpretations) by stating that these verse are not in their literal sense, but indicate Power, Majesty, etc. In making Ta’weel, they did not intend to oppose the Salaf, but to oppose the misled groups. The Mutakallimeen have stated that if they were in the era of the Salaf, they would not have made any Ta’weel in the verse of Sifaat.

As for Imaam al-Maturidee (who the Hanafis generally follow in beliefs) and Imaam al-Awzaa’ee (who the Shaafi’ee generally follow in belief), they both believe in not making Ta’weel. (see Muqaddamah of Kitaab al-Tawhid of Imaam al-Maturide by Shaykh Fathullah Khaleef pgs.10-11). This is basically the view of the Ahlus sunnah Wal Jamaa.

As for ibn Taymiyah (RA) believing in the Sifaat of Allah without Ta’weel, the Shaykh is correct in his statement. (Fataawa ibn Taymiyah vol.6 pg.213; Cairo)

As for the statement of the Shaykh that the Ahlus Sunnah are confined to those that follow the thoughts of ibn Taymiyah, this is incorrect as explained above.

The scholars of the Maturidee and Ash’ari schools of thought who came after the founders of these schools adopted the view of making Ta’weel to combat the deviated sects of their respective eras. But, these scholars knew the limits of making Ta’weel.We advise that we maintain the belief of the Salaf, i.e. we don’t make Ta’weel because:1) This was the belief of Imaam al-Maturidee (and we are Maturidees)2) The latter Ulama only made Ta’weel because of Dhuroorah (i.e. necessity in combating the deviated sects).3) These Ulama who made Ta’weel, they knew the limits of Ta’weel and we sometimes might exceed the bounds which will lead us to Kufr.

We should also be aware that not all the beliefs of ibn Taymiyah are in accordance with the Ahlus-Sunnah. We should remain cautious.

Shaykh Taqi-u-ddin Ahmad ibn Taymiyah was a prominent Aalim (scholar) of Deen. Shaykh Taqi-u-ddin had his independent views on many matters based on his vast knowledge and research. It is incorrect for non-scholars and non-academics to pass a judgment especially on such learned people. They should fear Allah and abstain from engaging themselves in such discussions. Differences of opinion is a salient feature among the Ulama-e-Haqq (true scholars).

And Allah Ta’ala Knows Best

by Mufti Ebraheem Desai


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