Muʿtazila is a rationalist school of Islamic theology that flourished in the cities of Basra and Baghdad, both now in Iraq, during the 8th to the 10th centuries.
The adherents of the Muʿtazili school, known as Muʿtazilites, are best known for rejecting the doctrine of the Qur'an as uncreated and co-eternal with God, asserting that if the Quran is the word of God, he logically "must have preceded his own speech".
The philosophical speculation of the Muʿtazilites centre on the concepts of divine justice and divine unity. The school worked to resolve the theological "problem of evil": how to reconcile the justice of an all-powerful God with the reality of evil in the world, in accordance to the guidance of the Quran. Mu'tazilites reasoned that, since God is believed to be just and wise, and since he cannot command what is contrary to reason or act with disregard for the welfare of His creatures, evil must be regarded as something that stems from errors in human acts, arising from man's divinely bestowed free will.
Muʿtazilites believe that good and evil are not always determined by revealed scripture or interpretation of scripture, but they are rational categories that could be "established through unaided reason"; because knowledge is derived from reason; reason, alongside scripture, was the "final arbiter" in distinguishing right from wrong. This part alone made them the enemy of those who follow the Hadith.
The Muʿtazili school of Kalam considered the injunctions of God to be accessible to rational thought and inquiry and that reason, not "sacred precedent", is the effective means to determine what is just and religiously obligatory.
The movement reached its political height during the Abbasid Caliphate during the mihna, the period of religious persecution instituted by the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun in AD 833 in which religious scholars were punished, imprisoned, or even killed unless they conformed to Muʿtazila doctrine. The policy lasted for fifteen years as it continued through the reigns of al-Ma'mun's immediate successors, al-Mu'tasim and al-Wathiq, and two years of al-Mutawakkil who reversed it in 848.
In contemporary Salafi jihadism, the epithet or supposed allegations of being a Muʿtazilite have sometimes been used between rival groups as a means of denouncing their credibility.
NameThe name Muʿtazili is derived from the reflexive stem VIII of the triconsonantal root :wikt:عزل|ع-ز-ل "separate, segregate", as in اعتزل iʿtazala "to separate ; to withdraw from".
The name is derived from the founder's "withdrawal" from the study circle of Hasan al-Basra over a theological disagreement: Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭā' asked about the legal state of a sinner: is a person who has committed a serious sin a believer or an unbeliever? Hasan answered the person remains a Muslim. Wasil dissented, suggesting that a sinner was neither a believer nor an unbeliever and withdrew from the study circle. Others followed to form a new circle, including ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd. Hasan's remark, "Wāṣil has withdrawn from us", is said to be the origin of the movement's name.
The group later referred to themselves as Ahl al-Tawḥīd wa l-ʿAdl. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, "The name first appears in early Islāmic history in the dispute over ʿAlī's leadership of the Muslim community after the murder of the third caliph, ʿUthmān. Those who would neither condemn nor sanction ʿAlī or his opponents but took a middle position were termed the Muʿtazilah." Nallino argued that the theological Mu'tazilism of Wasil and his successors was merely a continuation of this initial political Mu'tazilism.
OriginAccording to Sunni sources, Muʿtazili theology originated in the eighth century in Basra when Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭā' left the teaching lessons of Hasan al-Basri after a theological dispute regarding the issue of al-Manzilah bayna al-Manzilatayn. Though Muʿtazilis later relied on logic and different aspects of early Islamic philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, and Indian philosophy, the basics of Islam were their starting point and ultimate reference.
The accusations leveled against them by rival schools of theology that they gave absolute authority to extra-Islamic paradigms reflect more the fierce polemics between various schools of theology than any objective reality. For instance, Muʿtazilis adopted unanimously the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, contrary to certain Muslim philosophers who, with the exception of al-Kindi, believed in the eternity of the world in some form or another.
Scholar Daniel Brown describes the Muʿtazili as "the later ahl al-kalām", suggesting the ahl al-kalām were forerunners of the Muʿtazili. The ahl al-kalām are remembered in Islamic history as opponents of Al-Shafi‘i and his principle that the final authority of Islam was the hadith of Muhammad, so that even the Qur'an was "to be interpreted in the light of , and not vice versa." Ahl al-kalām argued to the contrary, that the book of God was an explanation of everything, and that verses in the Qur'an ordering Muslims to obey the Messenger meant that Muslims should obey the Qur'an, which God had revealed through Muhammad.
Historical developmentAbu al-Hudhayl al-'Allaf, who came a couple of generations after Wāṣil ibn ʿAtāʾ and ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd, is considered the theologian who systematized and formalized Muʿtazilism in Basra. Another branch of the school found a home in Baghdad under the direction of Bishr ibn al-Mu'tamir ; the instigators thought it was the Caliph's own scheme: under Ma`mun the Great, "Muʿtazilism became the established faith.
The first Caliph however to adopt the principles of the Mu’tazilite doctrine was the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid II.
The Muʿtazilites maintained man's creating free will, as did the Qadarites of the later Omayyad period. The Muʿtazilites also maintained that justice and reason must form the foundation of the action God takes toward men. Both of these doctrines were repudiated by the later orthodox school of the Ashʿarites."
The persecution campaign, nonetheless, cost them their theology and generally, the sympathy of the Muslim masses.
As the number of Muslims increased throughout the Islamic empire, and in reaction to the excesses of this newly imposed rationalism, theologians began to lose ground. The problem was exacerbated by the Mihna, the inquisition launched under the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the Sunni jurist and founder of the Hanbali school of thought was a victim of Ma'mun's Mihna. Due to his rejection of Ma'mun's demand to accept and propagate the Muʿtazila creed, ibn Hanbal was imprisoned and tortured by the Abbasid rulers. Under Caliph al-Mutawakkil, "who sought to reestablish the traditional Moslem faith", Muʿtazilite doctrines were repudiated; their professors persecuted; Shias, Christians and Jews were also persecuted."
Muʿtazilism todayToday, Mu‘tazilism persists mainly in the Maghreb among those who call themselves the Wasiliyah, referencing Wasil ibn ‘Ata the reputed founder of Mu‘tazila, the movement uses the mantle of the Mu‘tazila primarily as an identity marker.
Muhammad Abduh was one of the key founding figures of Islamic Modernism that contributed to a revival of Muʿtazilite thought, although he does not seem to have called himself a Muʿtazilite. After he was appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt in 1899, he attempted to adapt Islam to the modern times and to introduce changes in its teaching, in particular at Al-Azhar University. His reforms met with much opposition from the traditional establishment but, even though his immediate successors, such as Rashid Rida, did not follow in his steps, he was a source of inspiration for later modernist and reformist scholars and philosophers such as Fazlur Rahman, Farid Esack, and in particular Harun Nasution and Nasr Abu Zayd, who openly espoused Muʿtazilite views.
The Association for the Renaissance of Mu'tazilite Islam was founded in France in February 2017.
The Five PrinciplesAccording to a "leading Muʿtazilite authority" of the end of the ninth century, and "clearly enunciated for the first time by Abu al-Hudhayl", five basic tenets make up the Mu'tazilite creed:
- justice and unity,
- the inevitability of the threats and promises of God,
- the intermediary position, nor kuffar,
- the injunction of right, and the prohibition of wrong.
The doctrine of Tawhīd, in the words of the prominent Muʿtazili scholar Chief Justice Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, is:
the knowledge that God, being unique, has attributes that no creature shares with him. This is explained by the fact that you know that the world has a creator who created it and that: he existed eternally in the past and he cannot perish while we exist after being non-existent and we can perish. And you know that he was and is eternally all-powerful and that impotence is not possible for him. And you know that he is omniscient of the past and present and that ignorance is not possible for him. And you know that he knows everything that was, everything that is, and how things that are not would be if they were. And you know that he is eternally in the past and future living, and that calamities and pain are not possible for him. And you know that he sees visible things, and perceives perceptibles, and that he does not have need of sense organs. And you know that he is eternally past and in future sufficient and it is not possible for him to be in need. And you know that he is not like physical bodies, and that it is not possible for him to get up or down, move about, change, be composite, have a form, limbs and body members. And you know that he is not like the accidents of motion, rest, color, food or smells. And you know that he is One throughout eternity and there is no second beside him, and that everything other than he is contingent, made, dependent, structured, and governed by someone/thing else. Thus, if you know all of that you know the oneness of God.
Divine justiceFacing the problem of existence of evil in the world, the Muʿtazilis pointed at the free will of human beings, so that evil was defined as something that stems from the errors in human acts. God does nothing ultimately evil, and he demands not from any human to perform any evil act. If man's evil acts had been from the will of God, then punishment would have been meaningless, as man performed the will of God no matter what he did. Muʿtazilis did not deny the existence of suffering that goes beyond human abuse and misuse of their free will granted to them by God. In order to explain this type of "apparent" evil, Muʿtazilis relied on the Islamic doctrine of taklif — "God does not order/give the soul of any of his creation, that which is beyond its capacity." This entailed the existence of an "act of god" to serve a greater good, or the existence of evil acts to prevent a far greater evil. In conclusion, it comprised life is an ultimate "fair test" of coherent and rational choices, having a supremely just accountability in one's current state, as well as the hereafter.
Humans are required to have belief, iman, secure faith and conviction in and about God, and do good works, amal saleh, to have iman reflected in their moral choices, deeds, and relationship with God, fellow humans, and all of the creation in this world. If everyone is healthy and wealthy, then there will be no meaning for the obligations imposed on humans to, for example, be generous, help the needy, and have compassion for the deprived and trivialized. The inequalities in human fortunes and the calamities that befell them are, thus, an integral part of the test of life. Everyone is being tested. The powerful, the rich, and the healthy are required to use all their powers and privileges to help those who suffer and to alleviate their suffering. In the Qiyamah, they will be questioned about their response to Divine blessings and bounties they enjoyed in their lives. The less fortunate are required to patiently persevere and are promised a compensation for their suffering that, as the Qur'an puts it in 39:10, and as translated by Muhammad Asad, is "beyond all reckoning".
The test of life is specifically for adults in full possession of their mental faculties. Children may suffer, and are observed to suffer, given the nature of life but they are believed to be completely free from sin and liability. Divine justice is affirmed through the theory of compensation. All sufferers will be compensated. This includes non-believers and, more importantly, children, who are destined to go to Paradise.
The doctrine of 'Adl in the words of ʿAbd al-Jabbar: It is the knowledge that God is removed from all that is morally wrong and that all his acts are morally good. This is explained by the fact that you know that all human acts of injustice, transgression, and the like cannot be of his creation. Whoever attributes that to him has ascribed to him injustice and insolence and thus strays from the doctrine of justice. And you know that God does not impose faith upon the unbeliever without giving him the power for it, nor does he impose upon a human what he is unable to do, but he only gives to the unbeliever to choose unbelief on his own part, not on the part of God. And you know that God does not will, desire or want disobedience. Rather, he loathes and despises it and only wills obedience, which he wants and chooses and loves. And you know that he does not punish the children of polytheists in Hellfire because of their fathers' sin, for he has said: "Each soul earns but its own due" ; and he does not punish anyone for someone else's sin because that would be morally wrong, and God is far removed from such. And you know that he does not transgress his rule and that he only causes sickness and illness in order to turn them to advantage. Whoever says otherwise has allowed that God is iniquitous and has imputed insolence to him. And you know that, for their sakes, he does the best for all of his creatures, upon whom he imposes moral and religious obligations, and that He has indicated to them what he has imposed upon them and clarified the path of truth so that we could pursue it, and he has clarified the path of falsehood so that we could avoid it. So, whoever perishes does so only after all this has been made clear. And you know that every benefit we have is from God; as he has said: "And you have no good thing that is not from Allah" ; it either comes to us from him or from elsewhere. Thus, when you know all of this you become knowledgeable about justice from God.
Promise and warningThis comprised questions of the Last day, or in Arabic, the Qiyamah. According to 'Abd al-Jabbar, The doctrine of irreversible Divine promises and warnings, is fashioned out the Islamic philosophy of human existence. Humans, are created with an innate need in their essence to submit themselves to something. Also, it is seen as an innate need of all humans to pursue an inner peace and contentment within the struggles of an imperfect world. Knowledge of God, truth, and choices, in relation to one's innate need of submission is seen in Islam as the promise and recompense of God to those who follow. His warning is looked at as a conscious decision by a human submitting themselves, and choosing a varying principle which he had given a clear warning to. He will not go back on his word, nor can he act contrary to his promise and warning, nor lie in what he reports, in contrast to what the Postponers hold.
Intermediate positionThat is, Muslims who commit grave sins and die without repentance are not considered as mu'mins, nor are they considered kafirs, but in an intermediate position between the two. The reason behind this is that a mu'min is, by definition, a person who has faith and conviction in and about God, and who has his/her faith reflected in his/her deeds and moral choices. Any shortcoming on any of these two fronts makes one, by definition, not a mu'min. On the other hand, one does not become a kafir, for this entails, inter alia, denying the Creator — something not necessarily done by a committer of a grave sin. The fate of those who commit grave sins and die without repentance is Hell. Hell is not considered a monolithic state of affairs but as encompassing many degrees to accommodate the wide spectrum of human works and choices, and the lack of comprehension associated to The Ultimate Judge Consequently, those in the intermediate position, though in Hell, would have a lesser punishment because of their belief and other good deeds. Muʿtazilites adopted this position as a middle ground between Kharijites and Murjites. In the words of ʿAbd al-Jabbar, the doctrine of the intermediate position is the knowledge that whoever murders, or fornicates, or commits serious sins is a grave sinner and not a believer, nor is his case the same that of believers with respect to praise and attributing greatness, since he is to be cursed and disregarded. Nonetheless, he is not an unbeliever who cannot be buried in our Muslim cemetery, or be prayed for, or marry a Muslim. Rather, he has an intermediate position, in contrast to the Seceders who say that he is an unbeliever, or the Murjites who say that he is a believer.
The enjoining of right and prohibiting of wrongThese two tenets, like the "intermediate position" follow logically from the basic Muʿtazilite concepts of divine unity, justice and free will, of which they are the logical conclusion. Even though they are accepted by most Muslims, Muʿtazilites give them a specific interpretation in the sense that, even though God enjoins what is right and prohibits what is wrong, the use of reason allows a Muslim in most cases to identify for himself what is right and what is wrong, even without the help of revelation. Only for some acts is the revelation necessary to determine whether a certain act is right or wrong. This is discussed in further details [|below].
The use of reasoning and logicMuʿtazilites based the analysis of all religious texts and doctrines to be analysed by sane mind and solid logic and if there is a discrepancy then the texts or doctrines should be rejected.
This part alone made them the enemy of state and orthodox Muslims who conservatively follow the Hadith.
Theory of interpretationMuʿtazilah relied on a synthesis between reason and revelation. That is, their rationalism operated in the service of scripture and Islamic theological framework. They, as the majority of Muslim jurist-theologians, validated allegorical readings of scripture whenever necessary. Justice ʿAbd al-Jabbar said in his Sharh al-Usul al-Khamsa :
The hermeneutic methodology proceeds as follows: if the literal meaning of an ayah is consistent with the rest of scripture, the main themes of the Qur'an, the basic tenets of the Islamic creed, and the well-known facts, then interpretation, in the sense of moving away from the literal meaning, is not justified. If a contradiction results from adopting the literal meaning, such as a literal understanding of the "hand" of God that contravenes his transcendence and the Qur'anic mention of his categorical difference from all other things, then an interpretation is warranted. In the above quote, Justice 'Abd al-Jabbar emphatically mentioned that if there are two possible interpretations, both capable of resolving the apparent contradiction created by literal understanding of a verse, then the interpretation closer to the literal meaning should take precedence, for the relationship between the interpretations, close and distant, becomes the same as the literal understanding and the interpretation.
Note: Sharh al-Usul al-Khamsah may be a paraphrase or supercommentary made by Abd al-Jabbar's student Mankdim.
The first obligationMuʿtazilis believed that the first obligation on humans, specifically adults in full possession of their mental faculties, is to use their intellectual power to ascertain the existence of God, and to become knowledgeable of his attributes. One must wonder about the whole existence, that is, about why something exists rather than nothing. If one comes to know that there is a being who caused this universe to exist, not reliant on anything else and absolutely free from any type of need, then one realizes that this being is all-wise and morally perfect. If this being is all-wise, then his very act of creation cannot be haphazard or in vain. One must then be motivated to ascertain what this being wants from humans, for one may harm oneself by simply ignoring the whole mystery of existence and, consequently, the plan of the Creator. This paradigm is known in Islamic theology as wujub al-nazar, i.e., the obligation to use one's speculative reasoning to attain ontological truths. About the "first duty," ʿAbd al-Jabbar said it is "speculative reasoning which leads to knowledge of God, because he is not known by the way of necessity nor by the senses. Thus, he must be known by reflection and speculation."
The difference between Muʿtazilis and other Muslim theologians is that Muʿtazilis consider al-nazar an obligation even if one does not encounter a fellow human being claiming to be a messenger from the Creator, and even if one does not have access to any alleged God-inspired or God-revealed scripture. On the other hand, the obligation of nazar to other Muslim theologians materializes upon encountering prophets or scripture.
Reason and revelationThe Muʿtazilis had a nuanced theory regarding reason, Divine revelation, and the relationship between them. They celebrated power of reason and human intellectual power. To them, it is the human intellect that guides a human to know God, his attributes, and the very basics of morality. Once this foundational knowledge is attained and one ascertains the truth of Islam and the Divine origins of the Qur'an, the intellect then interacts with scripture such that both reason and revelation come together to be the main source of guidance and knowledge for Muslims. Harun Nasution in the Muʿtazila and Rational Philosophy, translated in Martin, commented on Muʿtazili extensive use of rationality in the development of their religious views saying: "It is not surprising that opponents of the Muʿtazila often charge the Muʿtazila with the view that humanity does not need revelation, that everything can be known through reason, that there is a conflict between reason and revelation, that they cling to reason and put revelation aside, and even that the Muʿtazila do not believe in revelation. But is it true that the Muʿtazila are of the opinion that everything can be known through reason and therefore that revelation is unnecessary? The writings of the Muʿtazila give exactly the opposite portrait. In their opinion, human reason is not sufficiently powerful to know everything and for this reason humans need revelation in order to reach conclusions concerning what is good and what is bad for them."
The Muʿtazili position on the roles of reason and revelation is well captured by what Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, the eponym of the Ashʿari school of theology, attributed to the Mu'tazili scholar Ibrahim an-Nazzam :
In the above formulation, a problem emerged, which is rendering something obligatory on the Divine being — something that seems to directly conflict with Divine omnipotence. The Muʿtazili argument is predicated on absolute Divine power and self-sufficiency, however. Replying to a hypothetical question as to why God does not do that which is ethically wrong, 'Abd al-Jabbar replied: Because he knows the immorality of all unethical acts and that he is self-sufficient without them...For one of us who knows the immorality of injustice and lying, if he knows that he is self-sufficient without them and has no need of them, it would be impossible for him to choose them, insofar as he knows of their immorality and his sufficiency without them. Therefore, if God is sufficient without need of any unethical thing it necessarily follows that he would not choose the unethical based on his knowledge of its immorality. Thus every immoral thing that happens in the world must be a human act, for God transcends doing immoral acts. Indeed, God has distanced himself from that with his saying: "But Allah wills no injustice to his servants", and his saying: "Verily Allah will not deal unjustly with humankind in anything".
The thrust of ʿAbd al-Jabbar's argument is that acting immorally or unwisely stems from need and deficiency. One acts in a repugnant way when one does not know the ugliness of one's deeds, i.e., because of lack of knowledge, or when one knows but one has some need, material, psychological, or otherwise. Since God is absolutely self-sufficient, all-knowing, and all-powerful, he is categorically free from any type of need and, consequently, he never does anything that is ridiculous, unwise, ugly, or evil.
The conflict between Muʿtazilis and Ashʿaris concerning this point was a matter of focus. Muʿtazilis focused on divine justice, whereas the Ashʿaris focused on divine omnipotence. Nevertheless, Divine self-restraint in Muʿtazili discourse is part of divine omnipotence, not a negation of it.
Validity of hadithThe Mu'tazilite "Ahl al-Kalam" argued that the prophetic example of Muhammad in his capacity as a messenger "is found in following the Quran alone", rather than oral Hadith.
The early Mu'tazilis viewed the transmission of the oral Hadith as not sufficiently reliable. The Hadith, according to them, was mere guesswork, conjecture, and bidah, while the Quran was complete and perfect, and did not require the Hadith or any other book to supplement or complement it. For example, during the Abassid dynasty, the poet, theologian, and jurist, Ibrahim an-Nazzam founded a madhhab called the Nazzamiyya that rejected the authority of Hadiths. His famous student, Al-Jahiz, was also critical of those who followed oral Hadiths, referring to his Hadithist opponents as al-nabita.
According to Racha El Omari, early Mutazilites believed that hadith were susceptible to "abuse as a polemical ideological tool"; that the matn of the hadith -- not just the isnad -- ought to be scrutinized for doctrine and clarity; that for hadith to be valid they ought to be mutawatir, i.e. supported by tawātur or many isnād, each beginning with a different Companion.
In writing about mutawatir and ahad and their importance from the legal theoretician's point of view, Wael Hallaq notes the medieval scholar Al-Nawawi argued that any non-mutawatir hadith is only probable and can not reach the level of certainty that a mutawatir hadith can. However, these mutawir were extremely scarce. Scholars like Ibn al-Salah, al-Ansari, and Ibn ‘Abd al-Shakur found "no more than eight or nine" hadiths that fell into the mutawatir category.
Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭāʾ , held that there was evidence for the veracity of a report when it had four independent transmitters. His assumption was that there could be no agreement between all transmitters in fabricating a report. Wāṣil’s acceptance of tawātur seems to have been inspired by the juridical notion of witnesses as proof that an event did indeed take place. Hence, the existence of a certain number of witnesses precluded the possibility that they were able to agree on a lie, as opposed to the single report which was witnessed by one person only, its very name meaning the “report of one individual”. Abū l-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf continued this verification of reports through tawātur, but proposed that the number of witnesses required for veracity be twenty, with the additional requirement that at least one of the transmitters be a believer.
One Mu'tazilite who expressed the strongest statement of skepticism of any source of knowledge outside of reason and the Qurʾān was Ibrahim an-Nazzam . For him, both the single and the mutawātir reports could not be trusted to yield knowledge. He recounted contradictory ḥadīth and examined their divergent content to show why they should be rejected: they relied on both faulty human memory and bias, neither of which could be trusted to transmit what is true. Al-Naẓẓām bolstered his strong refutation of the trustworthiness of ḥadīth within the larger claim that ḥadīth circulated and thrived to support polemical causes of various theological sects and jurists, and that no single transmitter could by himself be held above suspicion of altering the content of a single report. Al-Naẓẓām’s skepticism involved far more than excluding the possible verification of a report, be it single or mutawātir. His stance also excluded the trustworthiness of consensus, which proved pivotal to classical Muʿtazilite criteria devised for verifying the single report. Indeed, his shunning of both consensus and tawātur earned him a special mention for the depth and extent of his skepticism, even among fellow Muʿtazilites.