What the Azhar Believes

al-Azhar 1912
al-Azhar Mosque in 1912

I recently attended a gathering at al-Azhar University, where the World Organization of Azhar Graduates presented with Egyptian Radio about the work and need to spread “Ashari, Wasati” Islam, and define the parameters of true religion. This is done, they said, to help combat terrorism and extremist interpretations of Islam.

That is all well and good, perhaps, provided we know what Ashari and Wasati mean.

The World Association has over 131,000 members – within Egypt but also throughout Asia, Africa, and the West. Formally an independent organization, it is headed by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the foremost spokesman for Sunni Islam in the world.

There is much debate these days, even within Egypt, about whether or not al-Azhar is part of the problem. Some say its reliance on ancient interpretations pulls from the same ground as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It is noteworthy, they say, that al-Azhar has not declared these groups non-Muslims.

The particulars of this debate are beyond this small posting, and unfortunately still beyond my expertise. But here are the basics about Ashari and Wasati.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari died in the first-half of the third century of Islam, in 935 AD.

Early Islam was wracked by internal conflicts and philosophical debates, with the two chief sparring partners the Ahl al-Hadith, the family of tradition, and the Mu’tazila, the translation of which is not especially important here, but represented what they called a rational understanding of Islam.

Ahl al-Hadith relied on literal readings of the Quran with strong dependence on the many traditions and sayings of Muhammad that circulated widely. Among their important beliefs was the uncreated nature of the Quran and the absolute sovereignty of God in the details of man’s destiny.

The Mu’tazila gave metaphorical meanings to much of the Quran, believed it was delivered in time to Muhammad and was not eternal, and that man possessed free will or else God would be unjust in populating Heaven and Hell.

Depending on the caliph, either Ahl al-Hadith or the Mu’tazila would have the upper hand and persecute their opponents. For the record, Ahl al-Hadith bear some resemblance to today’s Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims, while the Mu’tazila no longer exist.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari was raised in Ahl al-Hadith but studied and eventually joined the Mu’tazila. But he repented of this viewpoint in a famous speech at the mosque in Basra, Iraq, and eventually forged his own school.

Concerning the Quran, it was God’s eternal, uncreated word but delivered at a certain point in time. Concerning destiny, God determined certain aspects of a man’s life but did allow him free will. The Ashari position sought to moderate between the two trends at the time, and eventually became the official position of al-Azhar.

But among the most important principles promulgated was the idea that all are Muslims, no matter their philosophy or sins. Al-Azhar today accepts equally the four primary schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, and will call no Muslim an infidel.

Here then is the context for why they do not excommunicate, so to speak, the Islamic State. They are great sinners, al-Azhar repeats continually. But their belief in Islam’s essentials is correct, so they may not be put outside the faith. It is a position that has since saved the Muslim world from much of its early discord. Terrorists like the Islamic State as well as other non-violent but still extreme groups, label most everyone an infidel.

Wasati, meanwhile, simply means “of the middle.” You might think this is related to the story above, but it is of relatively modern coinage. The Quran speaks of Muslims being “the middle nation,” but in early commentary this tended to be interpreted as a people of justice and a religion that is meant to ease the life of mankind.

Wasati is often paired with another term – moderate – to basically say Islam is not a violent, extreme religion. Fair enough, as it often faces the accusation among some who view it through the terrorist lens.

If this is how Azhar graduates and Egyptian Radio are defining Islam to Muslims worldwide, that seems an encouraging matter.

Of course, the issues run deeper, but this post is long enough. I will thus close in imitation of how traditional Muslims ended their commentaries: Any mistakes are mine, and God knows best.

Those with knowledge are invited to provide a better, broader explanation of the above.


al-Azhar Today
al-Azhar Mosque Today
Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Osama al-Qusi: On the Science of Islamic Traditions

Collections of Islamic Traditions

This third and final article on Sheikh Osama al-Qusi focuses on a matter closest to his heart and specialization of study: The sunna of Muhammad, that is, what he said and did outside the recorded testimony of the Qur’an. Whereas article one provided his life history in pursuit of this knowledge, and article two pertained to its implications for Egypt and its governance following the Arab Spring, this article is an introduction to the study itself – ilm al-hadith (the study of tradition) – especially in their proper determination. In technical parlance this is called ilm al-jarh wa al-ta’deel, roughly translated as the science of criticizing and praising.

There are thousands upon thousands of historical records which state Muhammad said or did this or that. How is anyone to know if these collections are accurate or invented? Muslims themselves admit great swaths of these testimonies are not trustworthy, or are at least subject to significant doubt. Long before modern academic criticism informed Biblical study, Muslims developed means to judge their religious sources.

Though the Qur’an was sacrosanct – and remains so – scholars insisted the sunna of the prophet be examined closely. Many recognize, as al-Qusi stated, that the Qur’an is dependent upon the sunna for the elucidation of its meanings. Yet while the Qur’an was a collected and established document early in Islamic history, the sunna were simply scattered recollections from Muhammad’s companions. Their accuracy was of paramount importance in determining Islamic morality and jurisprudence.

As one tradition records, Muhammad said his community would divide into seventy-three groups; the only one to avoiding hellfire is the one that takes up what he and his companions did. These are those who follow the sunna – that is, Sunnis – and perhaps more specifically, Salafis, those who follow the ‘pious ancestors’.

This text will present the views of Sheikh Osama al-Qusi, first providing the history of sunna collection, then some of its technical aspects. It will also describe some of those who fault this technique, ending with why Sunnis represent a middle way among all those who criticize it from various directions.


Sheikh al-Qusi compared the beginnings of sunna collection to the process of assembling the Qur’an. Following the wars of apostasy which cemented his political authority, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, recognized many of those who had memorized the Qur’an were now dead. He ordered Zayd ibn Thabit to consult all authorities and collect all fragments, from which the Qur’an should become a recognized written text. The third caliph Uthman ibn Uffan then standardized this work further, creating six copies to be mailed to each corner of the empire, and then burned all others.

Somewhat in contrast, as opposed to the centralization of the Qur’an the sunna proliferated in fragments and collections. The second caliph Oman ibn al-Khattab began the process of gathering these testimonies and written fragments about Muhammad, but the effort began in earnest with a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Omar ibn Abdel Aziz, in 99 AH. Now considered by some Muslims as a ‘rightly guided’ caliph alongside the first four, Omar used his short two and a half year reign to collect all extant sources.

Omar authorized Ali Mayni to supervise this work, and he relied principally upon two other scholars, al-Zuhri and Abu Bakr ibn Hazm. The work was difficult as by this time the empire had grown significantly, with a corresponding scattering of scholars. Nevertheless, after Omar’s death in 101 AH Imam Malik ibn Anas produced the first collection of traditions, entitled al-Muwatta (The Approved).

Building on this work, the widely respected al-Muslim (d. 875 AD) and al-Bukhari (d. 870 AD) produced their collections of traditions, and were followed by al-Tirmidhi (d. 892 AD), ibn Maja (d. 887 AD), al-Nisa’i (d. 915 AD), and abu Dawud (d. 889 AD), all in the 3rd Century of Islam. These six collections are still considered ‘canonical’ by Sunni Muslims to this day.

Yet these collections also establish the necessity of tradition evaluation. al-Muslim’s and al-Bukhari’s works are distinguished over their contemporaries as they only record those traditions deemed reliable. Others simply recorded all the traditions they found, and in other works, al-Bukhari did the same. His three part work, al-Tarikh al-Kabir, al-Saghir, and al-Wasat (The Large, Small, and Medium History) includes traditions considered less than reliably demonstrated. Further influential collections were assembled by ibn Hiban (d. 965 AD) and ibn Khuzayma (d. 923 AD).

Technical Aspects

Each of these scholars engaged the evaluation of traditions at various levels, yet the process of jarh wa ta’deel was not fully standardized until the 5th Century AH, when it assumed the form which continues today. Every tradition is evaluated on its two parts, the matn (body or content) and the isnad (ascription or chain of authorities). The matn is the meat of the tradition, describing what Muhammad and his companions said or did in a certain circumstance. The isnad is its guarantee, describing how the recorder of the tradition heard it from so-and-so, who heard it from…, and so on, until the chain reaches back to the one who witnessed it directly.

Within jarh wa ta’deel, jarh concerns itself with the matn, to evaluate if the content of the tradition is consistent with greater Islamic history and teaching. Yet more important is ta’deel, to determine the trustworthiness of each person mentioned in the isnad. ‘Adalah (justice) relates to whether or not he was a moral person in his conduct, while dabt (certification) relates to his power of memory. That is, does each mentioned authority possess both the faculty to record accurately what he heard, and the character to pass it on unadulterated? If so, the text of the matn is generally accepted, which can create interesting dilemmas, as will be presented below.

The result of this process divides traditions into categories. Sahih (sound), hasn (good), da’eef (weak), munkar (denounced), and mawdu’ (fabricated) are the standard listings. The collections of al-Muslim and al-Bukhari are named sahih, reflecting their diligent work to include only those traditions which passed the test. Generally speaking, there is no need to review all the historic material again, since this was accomplished thoroughly by the early scholars and finalized by the 5th Century AH. Nevertheless, the refinement process continues, and Sheikh ibn al-Albani of Saudi Arabia was one of the most preeminent modern specialists in ilm al-hadith, the science of traditions.

Contrary Views

As has been done with academic criticism in Christianity, modern scholars, especially but not exclusively Western, have begun to examine Islamic sources to probe their reliability. While some take aim at the Qur’an itself, the traditions are an especially fertile field, with many scholars convinced most emerged not from the time of Muhammad, but from within the dynastic theological and political struggles of the growing empire.

Among non-Western scholars, the Egyptian Mahmoud Abu Raya takes on the reputation of one of the companions of Muhammad, Abu Hurayra, calling him the ‘sheikh of porridge’ for selling invented traditions to the Umayyad dynasty. Sheikh al-Qusi is untroubled by these allegations, finding them simply to be recycled charges from earlier Islamic eras. He then proceeded to describe them.

One of the chief dangers is assaulting the reputation of Muhammad’s companions – who represent the sources of most traditions – is that this threatens to rebound upon the Qur’an itself. It is the companions who memorized the Qur’an and were the source of authority when the authoritative copies were issued. If their character is in question, if they freely invented tales of traditions, may they have done the same with the Qur’an? Moreover, the Qur’an states that God specifically chose the companions of Muhammad; to cast doubt upon them, therefore, is to cast doubt upon God.

This is the chief danger of the Shia sect of Islam, which rejects the first three caliphs in favor of the fourth, Ali, who they believe to have been Muhammad’s choice for succession. They find many of the companions to have been complicit in the scheming which kept Ali from power, and instead favor only the relatives of Muhammad, believing them to be the heirs and rightful leaders of Islam.

Another early critic of the sunna were a philosophical group called the Mu’tazila. They represented the school of reason in Islam, and rejected all traditions in which reason contradicted with the matn. But in matters of faith, reason only goes so far, al-Qusi asserted. Reason is important, but where a contradiction appears, it is usually our own faculties which are deficient.

A modern example concerns a tradition in which Muhammad asserts that only God knows what is in the womb of a pregnant woman. With the advent of ultrasound technology, however, some Muslims rejected the advancement as a charade since it contradicted this saying. This is not right, believes al-Qusi, since only minor reflection is needed to allow science and tradition to find common ground.

A modern equivalent of the Mu’tazila is known as the Qur’aniyuun (Qur’anists), who dismiss the traditions entirely and rely upon the Qur’an alone. Yet they fail to realize Islam is far more than the Qur’an; by excluding the sunna much is lost. Some members of this school pray only three times a day, for example, as the familiar five is related in the traditions, not the Qur’an. In essence, they are substituting modern wisdom for the toils of centuries of scholars, creating for themselves a new ilm al-hadith, where the work has already been done. Every tradition has its isnad, and every character therein has been tested.

The Middle Way

Sunnism, therefore, stands in the center of divergent extreme positions. To make his point, however, Sheikh al-Qusi introduced an Islamic sect which was powerful in history but today is nearly non-existent. The Khawarij (Outsiders) were Muslims completely dedicated to the new religion, fanatical in their interpretation, and partisan to the companions of Muhammad.

Their loyalty to the early caliphs led to a corresponding rejection of the relatives of Muhammad, whom they viewed as seeking to make Islam a family heritage. The Shia, as mentioned before, supported the family and disparaged many companions. Eventually, Sunnism developed a middle position, honoring all early Muslim pioneers, from among the companions and the family, and forbid the practice of speaking against them. After all, as the Qur’an stated, these were chosen by God.

Similarly, Sunnism developed a middle position between the strict literalism of the Khawarij, present among some Salafis today, and the strict elevation of reason by the Mu’tazila, adopted by many critics of Islamic traditions. For Sunnis, reason is an important part of faith, but it should not triumph over revelation, which comes from a reason far greater than that of man.


As insightful as this conversation was, it did not treat the most important issue – reliability of the traditions. Perhaps this was inevitable, as it requires scholarship yet beyond the interviewer. Familiarity is demanded not only of ilm al-hadith, but also its modern academic critique. Sheikh al-Qusi provided another building block from which to attain to such knowledge, but though he asserted the historical soundness of jarh wa ta’deel concerning the traditions, he did not demonstrate it.

Should these lessons be learned in the future, they will be provided for the benefit of readership. For now, however, the value lies in comprehending not only the nature and disputes surrounding Islamic traditions, but also the presence of established guidelines in navigating them. This is the domain of Sheikh Osama al-Qusi and many others, receiving a lifetime of study. Such pursuit and dedication is worthy of respect. Whether or not it deserves credence is a matter of evidence and perspective, requiring more than this simple text.


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