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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Nancy Khalek

The Arabic term for belief in the sense of a creed, aside from the five pillars to all denominations of Islam, is aqida. The most basic element of Islamic belief is that God is the only Divine being, that he has no partners or co-Creators or co-sharers in his divinity.  According to Sunni belief, other non-earthly beings that do exist, such as angels, are not considered divine, but neither are they human. 

Sunnism is distinguished by six articles of faith (not to be confused with the five pillars), which include the Oneness of God, a belief in the Prophets and Messengers sent to humankind, a belief in revealed scriptures (including but not limited to the Quran), a belief in Angels, a belief in the Last Judgment, and a belief in predestination. The most relevant Sunni theological school in regard to these issues is the Ashari school, founded by founded by the theologian Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 936 C.E.).

Six core beliefs of Islam
  1. Reality of one God
  2. Existence of angels of God
  3. Authority of the books of God
  4. Following the prophets of God
  5. Preparation for the Day of Judgment
  6. Supremacy of God’s will

Asharis believe that a full understanding of the true and singular nature of God falls beyond the scope of human comprehension. In this sense, while humans and the world they inhabit are a part of reality, the Ultimate Reality is only God. This is not to say that Asharis believe in a blind faith with no understanding of what they worship. Rather, by putting the nature of God above the human realm of understandings, Ashari thinking underscores the absolute otherness of the Divine (God) from the mundane reality of human life.

Asharis are sometimes labeled "traditionalists" for their adherence to established doctrine and practice. This label is meant to contrast them with other schools of thought not generally accepted as Sunni, such as the Mutazili system of theology, which developed in the 8th-10th centuries.  Mutazilis are sometimes labeled "rationalists" for their insistence on the application of human reason to discern the nature of religion and to interpret scripture. These oversimplifications are misnomers, however, since Asharis did not reject reason and Mutazilis did not reject tradition.

Asharis, like those who disagreed with them, sought to articulate their understanding of God based on what they perceived to be overall Islamic principles, and in doing so, prioritized God's Reality as a singular nature that is ultimately beyond the scope of human comprehension. For them, the influx of Greek philosophy that came into the Islamic world in the 9th century, and which influenced rationalist approaches, was not the ideal source for religious or spiritual authority.

 

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