Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Question: Is it true that the Hanbalis were very anti-Ash`ari? I have heard from some people that the beliefs of the Salaf were the beliefs of the “Atharis” and not the Ash`ari/Maturidis and things like interpreting the attributes is not valid. Can you please clarify?
Answer: In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon His Messenger Muhammad, his folk, companions, and followers
Walaikum assalam wa rahmatullah,
I pray this finds you in the best of health and spirits.
Yes, there was historically a group of Hanbalis who were quite anti-Ash`ari. Some of them were simply wary of the nuances of scholastic theology (kalam) and feared the impact it may have had on the purity of the beliefs within the Qur’an and Sunna. However, there was also a tendency–certainly not predominant–towards excessive literalism in beliefs and even towards anthropomorphism (affirmation of human attributes to Allah).
The Ash`ari and Maturidi Schools: the Standards of mainstream Sunni beliefs
This is why the scholars considered the prevalent way of the Ash`aris and Maturidis to be the ‘standard’ by which anyone’s beliefs would be judged. If these beliefs– whether referred to as “Athari aqida” or anything else–corresponded in content and implications to the beliefs acceptable to the mainstream Sunni schools, then such beliefs were accepted as being within the framework of Ahl al-Sunna; and to the extent that they didn’t, in content or implications, they weren’t.
Imam Ash`ari and Imam Maturidi were from the Salaf
Both Imam Abu’l Hasan al-Ash`ari and Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi were from the Salaf (the age of the early Muslims, generally defined as those of the righteous who lived in the first three Centuries after the Prophetic age). Both of these Imams simply defended and upheld the transmitted beliefs of the Qur’an and Sunna, as understood by mainstream Sunni Islam in each generation before them, from the extremes of excessive literalism and excessive rationalism.
Their teachings and methodology were accepted as the standard of mainstream Sunni Islam by clear general consensus of the scholarly community in their own times and in every generation since–a sign of Divine acceptance by clear promise of Allah and His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), for it is a Divine promise that the teachings of His final revelation will be preserved and a Prophetic promise that his Umma will not agree on error.
The Divine Attributes and the way of Consigning (tafwid) the meaning to Allah
When it comes to understanding those Divine Attributes that may appear to indicate some similitude between the Creator and creation, the preferred position of both the Ash`aris and Maturidis is: Affirming what Allah has affirmed, such as istiwa’ or His Hand or Eyes, not more and not less.
 Negating what Allah has decisively negated, which is any similitude whatsoever between the Creator and creation–a negation that the sound intellect readily discerns, and which was affirmed by Allah’s words, “There is absolutely nothing like unto Him.” [Qur’an]  Consigning (tafwid) the specific meaning and details of such matters to Allah Most High. [Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid `ala Jawharat al-Tawhid; Nablusi, Sharh Ida’at al-Dujunna; Abu Mu`in al-Nasafi, Tabsirat al-Adilla; Qari/Abu Hanifa, Sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar; Maydani/Tahawi, Sharh al-Aqida al-Tahawiyya; Bouti, Kubra al-Yaqiniyyat]
This was the way of the Salaf
This was clearly the way of the pious predecessors (salaf). Their statements of affirmation, which our methodologically-divergent brethren passionately latch onto, were not statements of excessive literalism. Rather, they were simply affirming what Allah has affirmed and strongly condemned those who would negate anything that Allah affirmed (for that entails disbelief, thus the reason why some statements were so firm). However, they did not affirm more than that and did not insist on understanding such affirmations in being “literal” in nature. This is because the literal (i.e. primary) meaning of such matters entails affirming similitude between the Creator and creation and such similitude has been clearly and decisively negated throughout the Qur’an.
What About Figurative Interpretation (ta’wil)?
However, when the need for it arose, some of the early Muslim (salaf) scholars and many of the later Muslim (khalaf) scholars used figurative interpretation to give a meaning to such “apparently problematic” primary texts, using the sound principles of linguistic usage and textual interpretation.
These scholars had clear precedent in the interpretations of many of the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), most notably Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him), who also engaged in such interpretations when there was need. This is clearly found in many of the very earliest reliable tafsirs of the Qur’an, such as Tafsir al-Tabari, and also in Imam Maturidi’s own tafsir, Ta’wilat Ahl al-Sunna.
The later scholars engaged in figurative interpretation more than the earlier scholars because of the greater prevalence of literalist excesses and the harms these were causing to the laity among the believers.
Does Figurative Interpretation Entail Negation of What Allah Affirmed (ta`til)?
Figurative interpretation doesn’t entail negation of what Allah affirmed in any way whatsoever, because this way, akin to the way of ‘consigning the meaning to Allah’ (tafwid), also entails: Affirming what Allah has affirmed, such as istiwa’ or His Hand or Eyes.
 Negating what Allah has decisively negated, which is any similitude whatsoever between the Creator and creation–a negation that the sound intellect readily discerns, and which was affirmed by Allah’s words, “There is absolutely nothing like unto Him.” [Qur’an]
But it differs in that it Affirms a meaning to these texts, using the principles of established linguistic usage and sound textual interpretation (such as “Hand” signifying power or favor, as understood from the context). It is very important to note that this figurative interpretation entails affirming a meaning in the sense of affirming what the text signifies–and not an exclusive affirmation of meaning (such that A=B, meaning that text A means B, and nothing else). [For examples of such interpretation, see Shaykh Gibril Haddad’s Ibn `Abd al-Salam and Ash`ari Ta’wil.]
The way of figurative interpretation (ta’wil), as exercised by the mainstream Sunni scholars of the Ash`ari and Maturidi schools is an affirmation of what is understood from such expressions, and not an exclusive specification of meaning. Thus, the way of figurative interpretation (ta’wil), which the scholars only resorted to with the utmost of caution when there was genuine need, also entails a consignment of the ultimate meaning to Allah Most High (tafwid). This is an important but subtle matter, so understand!
And Allah alone gives success.