HomeTheological disputes between Ašʿarīs and Ḥanbalīs and their representations from the 11th/5th century to contemporary Wahhabi-Salafism

HomeTheological disputes between Ašʿarīs and Ḥanbalīs and their representations from the 11th/5th century to contemporary Wahhabi-Salafism

Theological disputes between Ašʿarīs and Ḥanbalīs and their representations from the 11th/5th century to contemporary Wahhabi-Salafism

Les disputes théologiques entre ašʿarites et ḥanbalites et leurs représentations du XIe au Ve siècle jusqu’au wahhabo-salafisme contemporain

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Published on Tuesday, June 08, 2021 by João Fernandes


Ḥanbalism and Ašʿarism have been for more than a century represented as two inherently antagonistic theological schools. “Literalist”, “fideist” and “traditionalist”, Ḥanbalism is said to be the uncompromising opponent of rationalist currents. Contemporary Wahhabi-Salafism is perceived itself as a legitimate heir to this doctrine and a modern replica of this struggle. However, several academic studies are shaking up this reading grid and leading to a revision of our certainties by renewing our approaches. Through this international conference, we hope to give them more visibility, to question our representations of Ašʿarism, Ḥanbalism and the contemporary currents that claim to be the later in order to renew our understanding of theological quarrels.



In 1908, I. Goldziher blamed Ḥanbalism for the relentless persecution of rationalist currents, including Ašʿarism, for their practice of kalām. A. S. Halkin (1934), for his part, questioned the anthropomorphistic «literalism» of the Ḥanbalis : the «evasive» expression bi-lā kayf masked their «blind credulity» by admitting for God a face, hands, ... while declaring Him Incomparable. H. Laoust judged these representations «severe» : In his view, Ḥanbalism would have suffered as much from the actions of a few fanatical disciples or extravagant literalists as from «insidious suspicions» conveyed by its opponents.

G. Makdisi (1962, 1963) expands and reinterprets the causes of struggle. The banishment of the kalām is reaffirmed and labeled «traditionalism». The orientalist nevertheless qualifies the ḥanbali dogma about the so-called equivocal divine attributes. Salaf (Pious Predecessors) and Ḥanbalis practiced the tafwīḍ : rejecting any «literal» interpretation inducing anthropomorphism (taǧsīm and tašbīh), while refraining from interpreting (taʾwīl) that of which only God would hold the exact knowledge. The ašʿari discourse legitimizing the taʾwīl is reduced to an attempt to «infiltrate» Orthodoxy. G. Makdisi even believes he detects in the Qādirite creed (al-Iʿtiqād al-qādirī), imposed in Baghdad in the 11th century by the caliph al-Qādir (d. 422H/1030), the excommunication of the Ašʿaris for their definition of the status of the Qur'an in favor of the ḥanbali opinion.

H. Laoust (1939, 1965) has another opinion of the dispute about attributes : Ḥanbalis would hold that God is Incomparable but endowed with «spiritual/metaphysical» and «corporeal/physical» attributes, banishing all anthropomorphism since divine reality is beyond human knowledge. It is this approach that H. Laoust describes as tafwīḍ or «fideism» to which he links the creed of Ibn Taymiyya and that of Wahhabism. The latter is said to be no more than a «renewal of the ḥanbali doctrines and the cautious agnosticism of the traditional faith». The founder of Ašʿarism on the other hand advocates divine incomparability but stands out for his rejection of «bodily attributes» which he interprets (taʾwīl).

Does not attributing to the Ḥanbalis a belief in «bodily/physical» divine attributes ultimately amount to imputing to them an anthropomorphic reading ? This is the opinion of D. Gimaret (1997), who classifies the Ḥanbalis as anthropomorphists, as well as that of W. Wesley (2002) concerning Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. The analyses of B. Abrahamov (1995) and L. Holtzman (2019), though highly nuanced, are attempts to reconcile the two diametrically opposed readings of the tafwīḍ inherited from H. Laoust and G. Makdisi.

Of all these readings, H. Laoust's has the widest support and feeds our representations of Ašʿarism, Ḥanbalism and the ideological origin of the contemporary currents that claim to be from it such as Wahhabi-Salafism : this origin would be the ḥanbali theology, «heir to the Salaf teaching», «fideist», «anti-rationalist» and «literalist» (B. Rougier (2008), S. Amghar (2011), H. Lauzière, (2017), T. Blanc (2017), J. Wagemakers (2020)).

Thus, an immutable doctrinal genealogy is drawn up making of Wahhabi-Salafism the faithful legatee of both a primitive «literalist/fideist» creed attributed to the Salaf (of which Ḥanbalism is said to have been the torchbearer) and a «traditionalist» cause working to undermine rationalism. A so-called «commont» heritage marked first by a resistance to Muʿtazilism, and then by a presumed golden age in the 11th/5th century when Ḥanbalism would have officially established itself as a legitimate opponent of Muʿtazilism and Ašʿarism.

Yet many scholarly studies split this semblance of cohesion by pointing to both a greater richness and complexity of medieval theological debates and a wide range of ḥanbali views on the validity of the kalām, the proper treatment of divine attributes and the nature of the status of the Qur'an. In this conference we aim to reassess our representations of Ašʿarism, Ḥanbalism and the contemporary currents that claim to be the latter, and renew approaches to theological cleavages.

Main topics

Proposals should fall within at least one of the following topics of interest :

Axis 1. Ḥanbalism, a « traditionalist » and « conservative » school ?

In 1998, B. Abrahamov demonstrated the actual use of the kalām among several «traditionalists», including Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal in al-Radd ʿalā z-zanādiqa, although the authenticity of this work remains debated. The quarrel between the imām Aḥmad and the mystic al-Muḥāsibī, often justified by a visceral opposition between kalām and «traditionalism» has been nuanced by G. Picken (2008). E. Chaumont in 2014 suspected the imputed victory to ḥanbali «traditionalism» in the 11th century while J. Hoover (2016) toned down the hostility attributed to the ḥanbalis of this period towards the kalām, as many of them were rationalists, sometimes adopting ašʿari positions. The tripartite classification of what constitutes the created world (bodies, substances and accidents) was indeed taken for granted ; the ḥanbali Ibn al-Zāġūnī saw the kalām as a token of erudition, and Ibn ʿAqīl castigated any «ignorant» who rejects its use (Y. Gobran, 2019). Finally, the philosophical influence in Ibn Taymiyya's late thought has been widely demonstrated with, sometimes, noticeably in his definition of the status of human acts, borrowing from Muʿtazilism, (D. Gimaret, 1977) and, in his conception of the status of the Qur'an, borrowing from Karrāmism in (Y. Gobran, 2019).

Can we therefore still evoke a «traditionalist» and «conservative» dimension to ḥanbali views as they are changing, rationalized and intellectually decompartmentalized ? Or should we re-examine the theological terrain to further exhume its nuances ? A first step might consist of distinguishing between practitioners of the kalām and those who turn away from it (by reluctance, caution or lack of competence). Hostile discourses to the discipline could be re-evaluated in terms of the nature and context of theological debates to identify a possible classification : were they criticizing kalām in general or were they targeting the predominant ǧahmi and muʿtazili kalām wich elevates the absolute authority of reason (ʿaql) above that of Revelation and prophetic Tradition (naql) ? (B. Abrahamov, 2016; Y. Gobran, 2019).

Axis 2. Ašʿarism and Ḥanbalism : two antagonistic theological schools ?

Just a few decades after the death of Abū l-Ḥasan al-Ašʿarī (d. 324H/935), Ašʿarism was gaining prominence in the Baghdadian and Khurāsānian religious spheres. Contrary to G. Makdisi's conclusions, the theological school was contributing as early as the 10th century to the production of thinking and acting elites, some of whom occupied key positions. The school triumphed as an inescapable mode of thought even in the Baghdadian ḥanbali treatises of the 11th century. For all, God with His attributes being Incomparable, could not be a body, a substance or an accident, nor could He be subject to change nor contained by any place (makān). Affirming the divine attributes, said the son of the ḥanbali Abū Yaʿlā l-Farrā, is nothing but affirming their existence. They could not be equated to the attributes of creatures, and «their exact realities would not be accessible to human thinking». They are known (maʿlūma) in the sense that God has stated them, but they remain unknown (ǧayb) in that God has reserved to Himself the knowledge of their exact realities. The formula bi-lā kayf was not so naive ; the notion of kayfiyya and the expression ʿalā ẓ-ẓāhir carry a double meaning (Y. Gobran, 2019).

But were most Ḥanbalis throughout the centuries acquired to this tafwīḍ as defined by G. Makdisi, especially after Ibn Taymiyya (14th century) who discredited it in favor of the literalism (N. Zouggar, 2010) that he imputed to the Ancients (Salaf) by reinterpreting the notion of bi-lā kayf (Y. Gobran, 2019), while sometimes deviating from his own innovative reading (F. Suleiman, 2019) ?

If some ašʿaris sometimes adopted this tafwīḍ as well, what about the interpretation (taʾwīl) of equivocal divine attributes ? Was it a purely ašʿari practice ?

The differences between Ḥanbalis regarding to the status of the Qur'an can also be exploited : Ibrāhīm b. Isḥāq al-Ḥarbī (d. 285H/897), who has been for thirty years the companion of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, attributed to him a doctrine basically similar to that of his contemporaries and Ašʿaris later on. But Abū Yaʿlā l-Farrā (11th century) deplored «fifty» orientations within his school and adopted a doctrine even tough once perceived as unfaithful to Ibn Ḥanbal's teaching by al-Bukhārī (m. 256H/870), Ibn Qutayba (d. 276H/889) and the ḥanbali al-Khallāl (d. 311H/923). Ibn Taymiyya (14th century) would elaborate another equally singular one (J. Hoover, 2010 ; Y. Gobran, 2019). Which of these views prevailed among the Ḥanbalis ?

With no pretention to hastily reconcile original Ašʿarism and Ḥanbalism, the interest of this axis is to reorient the university investigation toward a diversification of readings on the intensity of the disputes, away from the slippery slope of essentialism. The interest in more careful and solidly argued retrospections of both Ḥanbalis and Ašʿaris remains paltry while the majority of Western studies generalizes the literalism/taʾwīl dichotomy, at times amplifying the occasional conflicts between the two factions (whereas these conflicts were often provoked by the excesses of a few factionalists), other times amplifying the divergences by relying on the late analysis of Ibn Taymiyya, whose readings sometimes distort ašʿari opinions, reduce the diversity of ḥanbali discourse, and often reinterpret ancient sources and quarrels so as to reconcile them with his own thought.

Axis 3. Does Wahhabi-Salafism represent the doctrine of the Salaf or that of Ibn Taymiyya (14th century) ?

Salafism is multiple and divided, but an intellectual kinship unites its different tendencies : the Wahhabi reformism arguing that traditional theological, legal and spiritual schools have perverted the community, which should draw its knowledge directly from the Sources. A very «modern» call, according to D. Riffi (2019, 2021), to break with the plurisecular tradition because «these currents which frighten us so much are not the products of dark Middle Ages ; it is even quite the opposite : it is against the medieval tradition, and in a typical spirit of our modernity, that these currents operate».

However, did the concept of salafiyya exist before the 20th century ? H. Lauzière (2010) doubts it. Ibn Ḥanbal himself considered that «being a reliable transmitter and a great memorizer of hadiths (ḥāfiẓ) does not systematically imply that one is one of the Pious Ancients [Salaf]» (L. Daaïf, 2019). Is Ibn Taymiyya (14th century) the precursor of this thought ? B. Haykel (2009) notes that the idea of purging the original orthodoxy of accumulated «heresies» was his favorite theme.

Of the three currents distinguished by D. Riffi (2019), this axis of the conference targets more particularly the study of the Wahhabi discourse of «Saudi type» and that of the jihadists, who aspire to re-establish «the authentic belief» by attacking the traditional theological heritage. The most virulent of them threaten death to those who refuse to say that «God is in Heaven» or «seated on the Throne» for infidelity (kufr) (Z. Wright, 2015) : is this posture an identity marker shared by them all ?

Wahhabi-Salafism often uses the notion of Salaf as an argument of authority, but it is in echo of Ibn Taymiyya that it rejects the traditional method of tafwīḍ, refers to its followers as ahl at-taǧhīl, subscribes to literalism and the Taymiyyan conception of the status of the Qur’an. Ibn Taymiyya's authority seems a priori the most invoked : are his writings considered as the only decryptage of the original discourse, and his arguments as the «last word» in any theological polemic, as suggested by B. Haykel (2009) ? How should we assess the weight of Ibn Taymiyya, even though a late thinker who was accused of anthropomorphism and who was unknown for a long time but through the discourse of his detractors, or later through Wahhabi propaganda (B. M. Nafi, 2009) ? K. El Rouayheb (2010) and F. Griffel (2015) criticize Western scholars for having attributed to Ibn Taymiyya's thought a great success in post-classical and pre-modern Muslim theology while his views were criticized and often neglected by the mainstream Sunni movement before 1881. C. Bori (2018) confirms that the idea of an «immediate and significant» impact of Ibn Taymiyya on the course of the religious history of Sunni Islam does not correspond to reality : after his death, his thought had a relative and selective «reception», with an attempt of rehabilitation in certain circles of «religious, social and political contestation» from the second half of the 17th century.

But to what extent is the interpretation of Ibn Taymiyya's thought itself faithful or faulty and selective today, or even confiscated and reduced to a theological ready-to-think that wants people to believe that it is a direct reflection of the divine expression without human mediation ?

Organisation committee

  • Jean-Jacques Thibon (Inalco (Paris)/CERMOM),
  • Yakota Gobran (Inalco (Paris)/CERMOM),
  • Ilyas Amharar (Aix-Marseille Université/IREMAM).

Scientific commitee

  • Eric Chaumont (Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies/University of Exeter/CNRS/IREMAM),
  • Lahcen Daaïf (Université Lumière-Lyon II/CNRS-IRHT),
  • Jon Hoover (Department of Theology and Religious Studies/University of Nottingham),
  • Farid Suleiman (Departement Islamisch-Religiöse Studien-Friedrich/Alexander Universität-Erlangen-Nuremberg),
  • Jean-Jacques Thibon (Centre de Recherche Moyen-Orient Méditerranée/Inalco-Paris),
  • Nadjet Zouggar (Département d'études moyen-orientales/Aix-Marseille Université/CNRS/IREMAM).

Terms and conditions of participation

CERMOM will take care of the reception of the participants for the duration of the conference (lodging, catering). Exceptionally, CERMOM may contribute to the transportation costs of participants who do not benefit from institutional support.

Proposals for papers (title and abstract, about 1500 characters) accompanied by a short presentation of the author must be sent

by June 25, 2021 at the latest,

to the following address : colloque.discordia@gmail.com

The decision of the scientific committee will be made at the end of this month.

Contributions can be written in French, English or Arabic. A publication of the proceedings is planned.


Abrahamov, B.,

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  • «Scripturalist and Traditionalist Theology», dans The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology, éd. Sabine Schmidtke, New York, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 263-279.
  • Islamic theology, traditionalism and rationalism, Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Amghar, S., Le salafisme d’aujourd’hui, Michalon, 2011.

Blanc, T., «Salafisme : Origines et évolutions doctrinales», 2017, https://www.lesclesdumoyenorient.com/Salafisme-1-Origines-et-evolutions-doctrinales.html

Bori, C., «Ibn Taymiyya (14th to 17th Century) : Transregional Spaces of Reading and Reception», The Muslim World, 108/1 (2018), pp. 87-123 ; voir également son introduction, pp. 4-10.

Chaumont, E., «La notion de wajh al-ḥikmah dans les uṣūl al-fiqh d'Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī (m. 476/1083)», dans Islamic Law in Theory, Boston-Leyde, Brill, 37 (2014), pp. 39-53.

Daaïf, L., «Ibn Hanbal tient-il tous ses maîtres pour des Salafs ?» dans le cadre de la Journée d'étude HanbaNet, La notion de salafisme en débat : contribution à l'histoire doctrinale de l'islam sunnite, Université Aix-en-Provence, le 04 décembre 2019.

El Rouayheb, K., «From Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (d. 1566) to Khayr al-Dīn al-Ālūsī : Changing Views of Ibn Taymiyya among Non-Ḥanbalī Sunni Scholars», dans Ibn Taymiyya and his times, éd. Y. Rapoport and S. Ahmed, pp. 269-318.

Gimaret, D.,

  • «Théorie de l'acte humain dans l'école ḥanbalite», Bulletin d’Études Orientales, Damas, 29 (1977), pp. 157-178.
  • Dieu à l’image de l’homme, Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1997.

Gobran, Y., L'autorité aš‘arite au Ve/XIe siècle. Attributs divins et statut du Coran au cœur des débats contre les mu‘tazilites et les ḥanbalites dits anthropomorphistes, thèse de doctorat, Paris, Inalco, 2019.

Goldziher, I., «Zur Geschichte der ḥanbalitischen Bewegungen», Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 62/ 1 (1908), pp. 1-28.

Griffel, F., «What Do We Mean By “Salafī” ? Connecting Muḥammad ʿAbduh with Egypt’s Nūr Party in Islam’s Contemporary Intellectual Histor », Die Welt des Islams, 55 (2015), pp. 186-220.

Halkin, A. S., «The ḥashwiyya», Journal of the American Oriental Society, 54/1 (1934), pp. 1-28.

Haykel B., «On the nature of Salafi thought and action», dans Global Salafism : Islam's New Religious Movement, éd. R. Meijer, Londres, Hurst & Company, pp. 33-57.

Holtzman, L., Anthropomorphism in Islam : The challenge of traditionalism (700-1350), Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

Hoover, J.,

  • «Ḥanbali theology» dans The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology, éd. Sabine Schmidtke, New York, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 625-646.
  • «God Acts by His Will and Power : Ibn Taymiyya's Theology of a Personal God in his Treatise on the Voluntary Attributes», dans Ibn Taymiyya and his Times, éd. Yossef Rapoport et Shahab Ahmed, Karachi, Oxford University Press, 2010, 55-77.

Laoust, H.,

  • La profession de foi d'Ibn Baṭṭa, Beyrouth, Institut français de Damas, 1958.
  • Les schismes dans l'Islam, Paris, Payot, 1965.
  • Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Taḳī-d-dīn Aḥmad b. Taymīya, Le Caire, Imprimerie de l'Institut français d'Archéologie Orientale, 1939.
  • «Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal», EI².

Lauzière, H.,

  • «L’histoire du salafisme : ses pièges et ses mythes», Moyen-Orient, 33 (2017), pp. 18-23.
  • «The construction of salafisme : Reconsidering salafism from the perspective of conceptual history», International Journal of Middle East Studies ,42/3 (2010), pp. 369-389.

Makdisi, G.,

  • «Ashʿarī and the Ash'arites in Islamic Religious History» (I et II), Studia Islamica, XVII (1962), pp. 37-80 et XVIII (1963), pp. 19-39.
  • Ibn ʿAqīl et la résurgence de l'Islam traditionaliste au XIe siècle (Ve siècle de l'Hégire), Damas, Institut Français de Damas, 1963.

Nafi, B. M., «Salafism Revived : Nu'mān al-Alūsī and the Trial of Two Aḥmads», Die Welt des Islams, (49/1) (2009), pp. 49-97.

Picken G., «Ibn Ḥanbal and al-Muḥāsibī : a study of early conflicting scholarly methodologies», Arabica, 55 (2008), pp. 337-361.

Riffi, D.,

Rougier, B., Qu’est-ce que le salafisme ?, Presses Universitaires de France, 2008.

Suleiman, F., Ibn Taymiyya und die Attribute Gottes, Berlin-Boston, De Gruyter, 2019.

Wagemakers, J., «Salafism : Generalisation, Conceptualisation and Categorisation», dans Contextualising Salafism and Salafi Jihadism, éd. Magnus Ranstorp, Köpenhamn : Nationalt Center for Forebyggelse af Ekstremisme, 2020, pp. 22-37.

Wesley, W., «Aspects of the creed of imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal : a study of anthropomorphism in early islamic discourse», International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34/3 (2002), pp. 441-463.

Wright, Z., «Salafi Theology and Islamic Orthodoxy in West Africa», Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 35/3 (2015), pp. 647–656.

Zouggar, N., «Interprétation autorisée et interprétation proscrite selon le Livre du rejet de la contradiction entre raison et Écriture de Taqī l-Dīn Aḥmad b. Taymiyya», Annales Islamologiques, 44 (2010), pp. 195-206.


  • Maison de la recherche de l'Inalco - 2, Rue de Lille
    Paris, France (75007)


  • Friday, June 25, 2021


  • ašʿarisme, ḥanbalisme, théologie, theology, religion, Islam, salafisme, wahhabisme, attributs divins, divine attributes, statut du Coran, status of the Koran, taʾwīl, tafwīḍ, kalām, rationalisme, traditionalisme, Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, Abū l-?


  • yakota Gobran
    courriel : yakota [dot] gobran [at] inalco [dot] fr

Information source

  • yakota Gobran
    courriel : yakota [dot] gobran [at] inalco [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Theological disputes between Ašʿarīs and Ḥanbalīs and their representations from the 11th/5th century to contemporary Wahhabi-Salafism », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, June 08, 2021, https://calenda.org/883875

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