“The relationship between the schools of legal thought and the schools of theology is a very lengthy topic, and one that is worthy of more attention. I honestly think it would be a great dissertation topic!
Briefly though, one needs to realize that the four great Imam all lived in different time periods. Hence, their fiqh was dependent on their contextual setting, and the amount and type of knowledge accessible to them (as you all have studied in the Code Evolved insha Allah). Also, their statements pertaining to aqeedah were likewise influenced.
Enough quotes exist from the four Imams that prove that they all held the same creed in Asma wa al-Sifaat (in fact, in all issues of theology, except for a finer detail of Iman where one of them held a different opinion). However, the quantity of these quotes varies greatly. The earlier Imams (i.e., Abu Hanifa, Malik and Shafi’ee) were not surrounded by Mu`tazilah nor was there any major threat from them. However, Imam Ahmed witnessed the peak of their power, and was put in the limelight. Hence, the sheer quantity of quotes narrated from him cannot be compared to the other three.
This, of course, influenced the followers of these four Imams accordingly. Many of the Mu`tazilah were actually Hanafi in their fiqh, one of the reasons being that there were not too many quotes from Imam Abu Hanifa that could be used against them. Also, it was narrated that some of the earliest people who were influenced by Jahm were some of the students of Abu Hanifa (none of them famous – Imam Ahmad mentions this in his al-Radd Ala al-Jahmiyyah). However, all of the famous students of these Imams, and their students after them, were upon the pure Sunni creed, and spoke against kalaam and its influence. The muttawatir narrations from these Imams and their students against kalaam is not denied by anyone – as we quoted in class even al-Ghazali in his Ihya is forced to acknowledge this, that there is ijmaa amongst the early generations regarding the prohibited nature of kalaam. Hence, the earliest Shafi’ees and Malikis were all upon the pure Sunni creed (also called at that time the Ahl al-Hadith). A simple perusal of the tabaqat works of the madhabs will clearly show this (such as Tabaqat al-Shafi’eeya al-Kubra of al-Subki – the first volumes are full of people known for their pure Sunni theology). Of them is the main student of al-Shafi’ee, al-Muzani (d. 264 A.H.), who has a printed work on theology upon Sunni doctrines. Another is Ahmad b. Umar b. Surayj (d. 306 A.H.), who was called ‘the second Shafi’ee’ because of his importance in the madhab. He has numerous statements refuting kalaam doctrines, so much so that a later Shafi’ee who was upon the theology of kalaam (al-Isafari`ini, of the sixth century) said, ‘We’ll take his opinions in fiqh but not in theology.’ Also the famous al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (d. 463 A.H.) has numerous quotes which show his theology, as well as much criticism of kalam. Many of the standard source works of theology were written by Shafi’ees, including those of al-Darimi, Ibn Khuzaymah (d. 311) and al-Lalakai (d. 418). Thus almost all early adherents to the madhab were upon pure Sunni doctrines (although a few were not).
This is even more pronounced in the Maliki madhab. One of the most famous works of Maliki fiqh is the one by Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani. The introduction to this Maliki fiqh manual contains his creed, which is the same as the creed that I taught you all in class.
One of my close friends was attending a lecture by perhaps the most famous representative of kalaam theology in America. This person mentioned that the doctrines of ‘modern Wahhabis’ (sic) were first formulated by Ibn Taymiyyah. In the course of his lecture he also recommended Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani’s work as a primary source of Maliki law. So after the lecture, my friend managed to get through his body-guards and asked him, “You recommended the work of Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani – surely you must be familiar with his Muqaddimah which is exactly the same theology that Ibn Taymiyyah preached, and also modern adherents to pure Sunni creed.” He replied, “Well, Ibn Abi Zayd wrote this work when he was very young, and he recanted from this theology later on in his life.” To which my friend said, “I don’t even want to ask you where this supposed recantation is or which other book of theology he wrote which shows he changed his views (I add: there is nothing of the sort ), the very fact that Ibn Abi Zayd had such a theology in 350 A.H. clearly shows that this theology which you have ascribed to Ibn Taymiyyah existed centuries before him!” To which this person could not give any response.
Likewise the famous Maliki scholar Ibn Abd al-Barr (d. 436) has clear refutations of the theology of kalaam and affirmed all the Attributes and rejected ta`weel. In fact, the Murabitun who ruled over the entire region of al-Maghrib in the 4th century of the hijrah were clearly upon the pure Sunni theology, so much so that the ‘infamous’ burning of the Ihya of al-Ghazali occurred because of them and in their time. It was only later, at the advent of the ‘Muwahhidun’ and Ibn Tumart, where kalaam ideology was forced upon the region (brutally – read the books of history to see the plunder and killing that occurred against Sunnis who were accused of being ‘anthropomorphists’, and realize that this is centuries before Ibn Taymiyyah still!). This was a turning point for the adherents of the Maliki school in terms of theology.
Similarly, kalaam beliefs spread amongst other schools as well, and various governments patronized a specific madhab and theology, which usually led to the spread of that school of thought and aqeedah. (As a side point, those who are always critical of the influence of ‘petro-dollars’ on the spread of a certain creed seem to ignore than this was the case throughout the centuries of Islam -well, perhaps not ‘petro-dollars’ per se but monetary incentives, the building of madrassahs, and the popularization of certain positions and scholars, all were primary factors in the spread of other creeds and even fiqh madhabs). There were some specific dynasties and universities that sponsored Ash`arite theology in particular, and these factors were a primary reason for the ‘infiltration’ of this theology into the Shafi’ee school.
Of course, with regards to Hanbalis, because of the sheer quantity of quotes from Imam Ahmad, it was well-nigh impossible for any person to ascribe himself to Ahmad and still be upon the beliefs of kalaam. There were a few exceptions, the most notable of them being Ibn al-Jawzi and his mentor Ibn Aqil. But by and large, throughout the centuries Hanablis have traditionally been affirming all Attributes and refuting the people of kalaam. Many are the ‘skirmishes’ that have occurred between them and others. As the other schools were gradually influenced by kalaam, this led to the somewhat incorrect misnomer of ascribing pure Sunni theology to the Hanbali madhab, i.e., ‘Hanbalite theology’. Ibn Taymiyyah, after he wrote his Wasitiyyah, was told by the court that tried him that if he were to claim that this creed represented the Hanbali school, and not all of Sunni Islam, he would be let off and no ‘charges’ would be filed. At this he raised his voice, and shouted out in his deep voice to the entire audience, ‘This is not just the creed of Imam Ahmad, or of anyone greater or lesser than him, rather this is the theology of the Quran and Sunnah, and what the pious predecessors have unanimously agreed upon…’.
In any case, to summarize: all of the four Imams (in fact all of the pious predecessors) were upon the pure theology of Sunni Islam. Various historical factors, particularly in the 5th century of the hijra and onwards, contributed to the gradual acceptance of kalaam creed amongst some of the schools of fiqh, and this in turn helped to spread these beliefs amongst the masses, until in our times many assume that kalaam theology is in fact pure Sunni theology. This gradual infiltration can easily be historically documented, and of the easiest ways to do so is to list the creeds of the earliest scholars of all legal schools, and then see how these creeds evolved over time. Another indication is to look at the books written over the centuries (see the partial list I gave you in your notebook). However, out of all the legal schools, generally the Hanbali school proved impenetrable, primarily because Imam Ahmad was the last of the four, and had the most explicit quotes about theology in general and Asma wa al-Sifat in particular, hence it was almost impossible to ascribe to him in legal theory while following kalaam theology.
And Allah knows best…”
Any objective researcher will find that the Atharī creed is the earliest documented Sunnī creed, pre-dating the kalām-based creeds of the Ashāʿirah and Māṭūrīdiyah. This is manifested in numerous theological treatises that still exist from the late second and early third Islamic centuries (some of which predate ʿAqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwīyyah). The Atharī creed was the dominant strand of Sunnī Islam in the fourth and fifth Islamic centuries, and although it came to be limited to the Ḥanbalī School of the sixth century as a result of political changes, it received a reviving boost from the ever-phenomenal Ibn Taymiyya, from whom it still continues to receive vigor.
 This is the view of almost all non-Muslim academics who specialize in Islamic theology, from Ignaz Goldziher to Richard M. Frank, George Makdisi and Joseph van Ess. While it is true that most of these names are dismissive of the Atharī creed because they view it as being overtly simplistic, they acknowledge that this trend of proto-Sunnism pre-dates the kalām trend of Ashʿarism.
Some modern Ashʿarites, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to paint an incorrect picture of this reality, in which it is alleged that Ibn Taymiyya ‘founded’ a new understanding of Islam. In my own personal library, as I write these lines, I can see around a dozen theological treatises in my bookshelf written before al-Ashʿarī, all of which affirm Allah’s Attributes completely and unconditionally, and refute kalām. One may disagree with Ibn Taymiyya, but one cannot historically deny that the general creed that Ibn Taymiyya preached pre-dates him by at least five centuries.
 My doctoral dissertation at Yale, which was an analytical study of Ibn Taymiyya’s magnum opus entitled Averting the Conflict Between Reason and Revelation, began with an introductory chapter of around a hundred pages in which I documented the rise of the Asharite school. In it, I clearly demonstrate that the school began as a small, outcast movement, was initially persecuted by other movements, and due to historical reasons (which I delineate there in detail), eventually manage to supplant the dominant Atharī creed and become the official creed of the Seljuqs and later Islamic dynasties. The claim of modern Ashʿarīs that they have always been the dominant understanding of Sunnism is historically untrue.
 It has been my contention that if Allah had not blessed the Atharī creed with someone of the caliber of Ibn Taymiyya as a defense lawyer and public advocate, it would have long dwindled into a minuscule movement.
(Editor’s note: The 16th footnote has been shortened.)