In the Name of Allah the Compassionate the Most Merciful.
Imam al-Habib Abdallah bin ‘Alawi al-Haddad,(r), said,
If you look with a sound understanding into the those passages relating to the Faith (Aqidah) in the Book and Sunnah and the saying of the virtuous predecessors(Salafus Saleh), whether they be companions or folllowers, you will know for certain that the truth is with the party called the Ashari, named after Shaykh Abu’l Hasan Al Ashari, may Allah have Mercy on him, who systematized the foundations of the creed of the people of truth (Ahlul Haqq), and recorded its earlier version, these being the belief which the Companions and the best among the Followers agreed upon. (the Book of Assistance)
Imam Al Haddad says it requires sound understanding to see how the Ashari Aqidah has not deviated from transmitted sources (ie the Quran, Sunnah and the way of the Salafus Saleh.) Sound understanding requires sound reasoning and looking beyond the superficial aspects of the school which make it appear otherwise, such as many of the Ashari text in Aqidah not containing a lot of quotes from the Quran and Sunnah, most of the Ashari scholars being referenced as scholastic theologians (mutaklimeen), Ashari scholars speaking with the language of the philosopher etc. These are some of the things that I heard which makes one believe that the Ashari School is not based on transmitted sources.
The key to understanding the Ashari school is realizing that it is composed of two parts usul deen and ilm kalam. Imam Uthman Dan Fodio, may Allah be merciful to him said in his Fat’hu ‘l- Basaa’ir regarding the division of the sciences, “Realize that the science of divine oneness (fann’t-tawheed) is divided into two divisions:
 the foundations of the religion (usuul’d-deen); and
 the science of scholastic theology (`ilm’l-kalaam).
Usul ‘d-deen is apart of the individual obligations (furuud’l-`ayaan) while the science of scholastic theology (`ilm’l-kalaam) is apart of the collective obligations (furuud’l-kifaaya). . .Strictly speaking, the second division is not called usul ‘d-deen. It is named the science of scholastic theology (`ilm’l-kalaam). When the first division (usul ‘d-deen) is united with the establishment of rational proofs (nasbu’l-adaalat’l-`aqliyyat) along with the elucidating the variants of the teachings of the people of innovation (aqwaal ahli’l-bid`a) and the philosophers – then that is also scholastic theology. If not, then the science of the foundations of the religion (usul ‘d-deen), its divine, its prophetic and its after-life are well established in the Mighty Qur’an.”
Imam Nawawi said something similar in his Majmo with a different wording,
Concerning Usul Deen: Al Nawawi said, “As for the basic obligation of Islam, and what relates to tenets of faith, it is adequate for one to believe in everything brought by the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and to credit it with absolute conviction free of any doubt.”
Concerning Ilm Kalam (Discursive Proofs): Al Nawawi said, “Whoever does this is not obliged to learn the evidences of the scholastic theologians. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not require of anyone anything but what we have just mentioned, nor did the first four caliphs, the other prophetic Companions, nor others of the early Muslim community who came after them.”
Let’s now take a look at usul deen and ilm kalam from a historical perspective. Usul deen is the Athari Aqidah, which was best exposited in the famous text Aqidah Tahawi. This book is universally accepted as the text representing the Aqidah of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah, Asharis, Maturidi, real Hanbalis and even the neo-Salafis who claim to be Hanbalis. Thus the base aqidah of the Ashari and Maturidi is the Athari Aqidah. This is also why the Athari Aqidah is never mentioned separately when the scholars of Ahlus Sunnah would say, Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah is the Ashari and Maturidi, and this is because the athari aqidah is part of it.
We now need to know how ilm kalam fits into the picture. Due to the rise the Mutazilah and other deviant groups, the scholars of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah felt it was necessary to address deviants using their language and reasoning, thus making it necessary systematize, rationalize the athari aqidah according to what they were dealing with at that particular time, this gave birth the Ashari and Maturidi schools of Aqidah. So the Ashari and Maturidi schools of Aqidah are defensive schools of Aqidah, designed to address issues that were not dealt with during the time of the Salafus Saleh. Those who are ignorant of the Ashari Aqidah being a defensive school, think and believe that the Ashari Aqidah has changed over the years. The Aqidah didn’t change, Ahlus Sunnah encountered new deviants and new issue thus re-systemized and re-rationalized the particular points of Aqidah to address the new issue, so the change is only superficial.
Many people feel that the Ashari and Maturidi deviated way of the Salafus Saleh by simply engaging in Ilm Kalam. This feeling seems justified from the surface, because many statements from the Salafus Saleh indicate that engaging in kalam is prohibited. However when one takes a second look and evaluate all the statements of the Salafus Saleh, it is clear that their only fear of utilizing kalam was saying things about Allah which they had no knowledge of, not that it wasn’t a good way to refute deviant. Imam Shafi said, “If I wished, I could produce a book against each one of those who deviated, but dialectic theology (kalam) is none of my business, and I would not like to be attributed any part of it.” In this one statement we learn several things.
1. Imam Shafi was knowledgeable of Ilm Kalam, because he could produce a book refuting them but did not want to engage in Ilm Kalam.
2. The way to refute deviants is to use their language, but this requires knowing their language and engaging in the things they do.
3. It could also be understood that Imam Shafi did not feel it was necessary at the time to engage in this methodology of refuting deviants, and was merely telling those who would come after them that this is the means by which to refute them if need be.
So based on Imam Shafi statement it appears that he never completely closed the door on kalam. Shaykh Abdul Wakil Durubi said, “What Imam Shafi meant (by the prohitibition of engaging in kalam) was the the hertical scholoastic theology that proliferated in his time and put rationalistic theories ahead of the Quran and Sunna, not the science of theology (ilm tawhid) by which Ashari and Maturidi scholars have clarified and detailed the tenets of Sunni Islam which is an important part of the Islamic sciences.”
Based on this what Imam Shafi prohibited is what the Ashris would consider blameworthy kalam placing rational above transmitted sources, which is what the Mutazila did and because this was the main usage of kalam during that time he did not want to be associated with kalam.
Ibn Hamdan from his Al-Mufti wa al-Mustafti: The blameworthy [type of] `ilm al-kalam is speaking about basic principles of belief [usul al-din] using pure reason or what contradicts a plain, authentic transmissions [from Allah or His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace)]. If it is spoken about using just transmissions or transmissions and reason that conforms to them â€“ this the basic principles of belief [usul al-din] and the way of Ahl al-Sunna. (Al-Adab al-Shar`iya, 2:276)
There were some Ashari scholars who deviated in this manner and put rational above transmitted sources. Imam Taj al-Din al-Subki spoke on this particular issue about some of the scholars placing rational above the Quran and Sunnah. Imam Taj al-Din al-Subki (d. 771/1370) who was himself steeped in kalam theology wrote, “Upon reflection – and no one can tell you like someone who truly knows – I have not found anything more harmful to those of our times or more ruinous to their faith than reading books of kalam written by latter-day scholars after Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and others. If they confined themselves instead to the works of the Qadi Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, the great Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini, the Imam of the Two Sanctuaries Abu al-Ma’ali al-Juwayni, and others of those times, they would have nothing but benefit. But truly I believe that whoever ignores the Qur’an and sunna [defended by these scholars] and instead occupies himself with the debates of Ibn Sina and those of his path – leaving the words of the Muslims: “Abu Bakr and ‘Umar (Allah Most High be well pleased with them) said,” “Shafi’i said,” “Abu Hanifa said,” “Ash’ari said,” “Qadi Abu Bakr said”; and instead saying: “The Sovereign Sage (al-Shaykh al-Ra’is) said” meaning Ibn Sina, or “The Great Master (al-Khawaja) Nasir said,” and so on – that whoever does so should be whipped and paraded through the marketplaces with a crier proclaiming: “This is the punishment of whoever leaves the Qur’an and sunna and busies himself with the words of heretics”” (Mu’id al-ni’am, 7980).
With that being said Kalam is divided into two parts, praiseworthy and blameworthy. Praiseworthy kalam does not contradict the transmitted sources. In fact praiseworthy kalam was used to rationalize and systematize the tenets of faith in way that would be personally convincing to common people. It was also used to refute deviant groups. Blameworthy kalam is when rational thoughts contradicts transmitted sources. Both Imam Al Haddad and Imam Uthman Dan Fodio they wrote an Ashari Aqidah text specifically based on transmitted sources. These text are not necessary in or themselves to establish that the Ashari Aqidah is based on the Quran and Sunnah, sinse Aqidah Tahawi is still taught and used across the Muslim world, but they do indicate that the Ashari Aqida has not changed.
The most important source of me understanding the Ashari Aqidah in light of the Quran and Sunnah has been Shaykh GF Haddad. And I highly recommend those who are interested in learning the Ashari Aqidah in light of the Quran and Sunnah to delve deeply into what he has written. May Allah give his the highest place in Jannah for his works. And Allah knows best.