Unfortunately today we find groupings amongst the Ummah who have taken the age old divisions regarding the branches of belief, usūl al-fiqh and jurisprudence to extremes. They speak with an agenda to refute each other and exhaust much effort in this pursuit. Regrettably they consider each other the enemy whilst our lands are occupied by the kuffār, such as the land of the Isrā’ and Mi’rāj (The Prophet’s Night Journey), whilst Muslim blood is spilt by the colonialists the world over and whilst the enemies of Islam seek to seduce Muslims away from our core values, sharī’ah rules and even our ‘aqīdah (belief).
Putting aside the fringe minority amongst both camps, who have clearly gone totally astray – such as those amongst the Sufis that believe in Wahdat al-wujūd – that Allāh (swt) is part of the creation, or those amongst the Salafī ultra-Żāhirī’s (literalists) who make Takfīr (pronouncing disbelief) on everyone apart from themselves – looking at the mainstream of both camps today, one can notice that both sides have gone beyond the bounds of what their founders, and the classical scholars that they refer to, taught.
The Ash’arī scholars and pioneers in history, whilst they disagreed strongly with the views of the literalists did not consider them and their scholars as enemies. They did not consider Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Kathīr and the like as heretics even though they differed with them in many issues, ranging from the definition of Imān, the manner in which to understand the sifāt (attributes) of Allāh (swt), in the usage of Qiyās (legal analogical reasoning) and the permissibility of Taqlīd (following qualified legal opinions of a mujtahid) to a school of thought (madhhab). In fact they did not even consider this camp in the same light as the heretical groups such as the Mu’tazilah or the Khawārij. On the contrary the books of these scholars were respected and quoted by Ash’arī scholars throughout history. It is true that they strongly criticised the literalist camp for their approach and views but this was on the scholarly intellectual level and must be taken in this context. This was the practice even amongst the Salaf as-Salihīn (pious predecessors), such as the founding fathers of the madhāhib (schools of thought). For example when Imam al-Shāfi’ī criticised the principle of Istihsān (juristic preference), a secondary source of law utilised by the Hanafī school, in the chapter Ibtāl al- Istihsān (Refutation of Juristic Preference) in his book Kitab al-Umm, he equated the one who adopted it similar to the one who makes the mind sovereign. This in no way meant that he viewed them as deviants; on the contrary he respected his teacher, the student of Imām Abū Hanīfah, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybānī with high regard.
Similarly the literalist scholars whom the Salafī camp hold in high regard and take their thought from; whilst they also harshly criticised the Ash’arī’s, especially on some of their views such as the attributes of Allāh (swt), their definition of the Qur’ān as an expression of the speech of Allāh, their definition of Imān (belief) as being Tasdīq (assent) in the heart and not including actions, and their justification of Taqlīd – they did not consider them as heretics or deviants deserving the wrath of Allāh (swt). Look at what Ibn Taymiyyah himself says:
“It is not necessarily the case that everyone who makes a mistake in matters of ‘aqīdah is destined to be from the destroyed and the losers. Perhaps, the disputant was a mistaken mujtahid for whom Allāh will forgive his mistake. It is also possible that he did not receive enough information about the topic to conclude that the proof has been established against him.” [Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmū’ al-Fatāwa, vol. 3 p.179]
In fact he mentions that even the Salaf differed on various issues; even those related to the belief. He says:
“The early pious people (al-salaf) disputed about many of those issues. Yet none of them declared the others of having unbelief, evil or sin. Shurayh rejected the reading of the verse, “But I wonder (‘ajibtu) while they mock” (al-Sāffāt: 12). He said, “Allāh does not wonder.” When that reached Ibrāhīm al-Nakha’ī, he said, “Shurayh was a poet who was overcome by his own knowledge. But ‘Abdullah [ibn Mas’ūd] was more knowledgeable than him and he would read, “I wonder”. And ’Āishah disputed with the other Companions regarding Muhammad (saw) seeing his Lord. She said, “Whoever claims that Muhammad saw his Lord has committed a great falsehood against Allāh.” Despite this, we do not say about Ibn ‘Abbās or others who disputed with her on that point, that they stated a great lie against Allāh. They also disputed about whether the dead could hear the words of the living, whether the dead is punished for the crying of his family and so forth…” [Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmū’ al-Fatāwa, vol 3, pp. 239-240]
Remember they considered that Allāh (swt) would forgive the sincere believers for their mistakes even in matters they believed were clear, as is mentioned in the hadīth, “Allāh has pardoned for my nation [what is done] by mistake, out of forgetfulness or under duress.”
If we were to look at the reasons why Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari (d. 936 CE) and those who followed him as well as scholars on the literalist side like Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328 CE) entered into the debates about the branches of belief we would find that they did so with the noble purpose of defending the Islamic creed. Imam Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari rose to the challenge of refuting the strange views of the deviant group, the Mu’tazila who were creating confusion in his time. Sheikh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah on the other hand faced the incorrect views of the extreme sufi mystics influenced by foreign philosophies head on and exposed them.
It would be much more productive, in line with the obligation of enjoining the good and forbidding the munkar (evil) and in keeping with the ethos of the classical scholars, for both camps today to focus on refuting the intellectual onslaught launched by the Kuffār upon the Dīn, its definitive concepts, rules and even the Islamic creed. Today, in the name of reformation people are questioning the hudūd laws set by Allah; they are attempting to destroy the Islamic concept of brotherhood by permitting the alliance with the kuffār against the believers; they attempt to cast doubt on the obligation of the khimār (headscarf) and jilbāb upon the woman in the public life and want us to turn away from the fundamental aqeeda concept of the sovereignty of Allāh (swt) by accepting man-made laws. Secular liberalism championed by the west is the real threat that is corrupting millions of Muslims worldwide not the centuries old debates on the branches of aqeeda and usul al fiqh. One may point to modern day Sūfīs or Salafīs who are modernists used in this campaign against the normative concepts in Islam in order to strengthen his argument against the other camp.
However, it is clear that there are some in both camps who are being used to cast doubt on the fundamentals of the Dīn. There are some who claim to be the followers of Abul Hasan al-Ash’arī yet they go against the qat’ī (definitive) matters, contradicting what is established by evidences that are definitive in authenticity and meaning. They going against the consensus of all the scholars including the four Imāms of the madhāhib and all the scholars from amongst the Ash’arī’s such as Qādī ‘Iyād, Al-Ghazālī, Imām al-Haramayn al-Juwaynī, Al-Suyūtī, Al-Rāzī, Al-Nawawī, Ibn Hajr al-Haytamī, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalānī and others.
They argue away the hudud (prescribed punishments) of Allah such as the obligation to cut the hand of the thief and lashing the unmarried fornicator on the pretext of the changing of the time and place. They misuse the principles of masalih al mursala (public interests), dharoora (necessity), alhaf al-dararain (the lesser of the two harms) and the like to justify the taking of riba (usury), electing people to rule by other than Islam and other matters that would be considered blasphemous to the Ash’ari scholars of the past.
The modernist scholars error is not due to being Ash’arī; rather it is due to being those who are justifying the unjustifiable and their thoughts need to be exposed by both Ash’arī and non-Ash’arī ulema alike.
Similarly it could be said that there are Salafī scholars that legitimise the clearly non-Islamic rule of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and justify the Kingdom’s actions such as its alliance with America. Again those who do this are manifestly turning away from the path of the Salaf, the definitive evidences and the consensus of all scholars including Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Kathīr. The literalist scholars did not only view it is as a strong prohibition; they in fact considered ruling by other than what Allāh (swt) has revealed as disbelief.
Ibn Taymiyyah said: “Undoubtedly, whoever does not believe that it is obligatory to rule according to that which Allah has revealed to His Messenger is a Kafir (disbeliever), and whoever thinks it is permissible to rule among people according to his own opinions, turning away and not following which Allah has revealed is also a Kafir…So in matters which are common to the Ummah as a whole, it is not permissible to rule or judge according to anything except the Quran and Sunnah. No one has the right to make the people follow the words of a scholar or ameer, shaykh or king. Whoever believes that he can judge between people according to any such thing, and does not judge between them according to the Quran and Sunnah is a Kafir.” [Ibn Taymiyyah, Minhaj as-Sunnah, 5/130-132]
Hence, the Salafi-modernists should be exposed by the Salafī and non-Salafī scholars alike.
Perhaps it is also time for both camps to go back to the original sources of the Qur’ān and Sunnah, which are the sources of guidance for the Ash’arīs and Salafīs alike, and attempt to neutrally re-evaluate some of their controversial views. If one was to refer back to the original sources instead of continuing to adhere to the position of their camp, they may conclude that some of the views they have been adhering to are weak or incorrect; such as the traditionalists position that the doors of Ijtihād are closed even though it has been established that Ijtihād is Fard al-Kifāyah (an obligation of sufficiency). Similarly if someone from the Salafī camp independently reconsiders the literalist position of the prohibition of taqlīd he may discover its weakness, as the Qur’ān commands us to,“Ask the people of dhikr (understanding) if you know not” [TMQ 21:7] and the Prophet (saw) said,“The cure for the lack of knowledge is to ask” as well as many other evidences. Maybe if we go back to the original sources and study the matters neutrally, instead of trying to dogmatically defend the position of our teachers and our camp, we may find that the true path is neither Sufism nor Salafism, Ash’arī or Żahirī but that it is a path in between the two.
More importantly regardless of our scholastic or juristic persuasions let us unite against the clear disbelief of secular liberalism and take heed in the words of our Lord,
“And those who disbelieve are allies to one another, (and) if you do not do so, there will be Fitnah (wars, battles, polytheism) and oppression on the earth.” [TMQ Al Anfal: 73]
In this era where the war against Islam is intense and spans the globe it is not fitting for us to exhaust energy in polemics of centuries bygone. Surely refuting the creed of dividing religion from politics and worldly life that has actually affected the ummah en masse is more important than the semantics of the definition of Iman. The thousands of hours spent by imams, speakers, writers and activists in discussing whether the attributes of Allah are literal or metaphoric would be much better spent in actually working to replace the satanic laws that our lands are governed by with the law of the All-mighty, the Supreme. We need to unite upon our fundamentals and despite our differences work together so that the kalima (word) of truth becomes the highest.
“And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah and be not divided among yourselves, and remember Allah’s Favour on you, for you were enemies one to another but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His Grace, you became brethren, and you were on the brink of a pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus Allah makes His Ayat clear to you, that you may be guided.” [TMQ Aal Imran: 103] Abu Ismael al-Beirawi
 Note: This does not mean that he rejected the verse; rather he did not accept one of its alternate recitations.