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Islamic thought during its fourteen centuries of history could be summarised as an eternal debate between those with a tendency more inclined to favour a human rational analysis and interpretation of the Word (Qur’ān) and the Islamic Tradition (Sunna), and those inclined to use human reason in a more limited fashion, especially in relation to the assumptions of faith which are particularly difficult to rationalize: the existence of God, the creation of the World, the resurrection of the body and soul, etc. Over the centuries, and particularly in the recent and contemporary eras (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), the prudent use of human reasoning has turned some scholars away from literalism, encouraging some interpretative exegesis of the Qur’ān and Sunna. Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd in Reformation of Islamic Thought, A critical historical analysis (p. 14) has described the process of reducing Islamic religion to the realm of jurisprudence as the paradigm of sharīʽah. This process is reported by Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd to have decreased the role of theology within Islām, effectively stifling a debate on the use and abuse of human reason within religion, an issue which still today, in parts of the Islamic World, has not yet found an effective resolution. From the fourteenth century, higher education lacked vitality, and international scholarship was affected by political conditions of anarchism and disinterest. In the Muqaddima (trs. Rosenthal, Vol. 3, 1967), Ibn Khaldūn indicates a division between the Islamic subjects learned in the madrasah system: the ʽulūm al-ʽaqlīyah (the sciences of reason) and theʽulūm al-naqlīyah (the sciences of tradition). The former sciences were based on the observation and deduction of human beings and the vise of rational specific competences by religious experts; the latter were based on revelation by the lawgiver and on the transmission of religious knowledge. The second approach predominated, and the prevailing pedagogical technique of learning by memorization, particularly of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth was successful in the transmission of knowledge by repetition. The importance of understanding the teachings was initially recognized, but over time, the madrasah was to become a system of higher juridical learning in which the interpretation (tafsīr) of the Qurʾān and of Tradition became limited. The predominance of the Islamic fiqh in the curricula and of outdated pedagogical practices caused a long period of decline that eventually culminated in a rude awakening with the advent of European colonialism, which brought a new, completely different approach to higher education.

The relevance of the Muʽtazilite school within this eternal debate, inside and outside the Islamic educational path, and that of a new- Muʽtazilite approach during the Nahḍa (the Arab cultural renaissance) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, contributed to the importance of this group of rational theologians, who, after one thousand years, can still play a vital role in the debate surrounding contemporary Islamic thought.

 Concerning the meaning of i‘tazala

The origin and the referring sense of the term Muʽtazila are directly related to the significance of the idiom used to define them: i‘tazala suggests to dissociate, to withdraw, to separate from something or someone, and when combined with the particle mu-, the resulting term muʽtazila acquires the meaning of "those who separate themselves, who stand aside". Daniel Gimaret in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill, II ed., Vol. 7, p. 783) reports that the founders of this group in the southern Iraqi city of Baṣra had decided to leave the assembly led by Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728), or more probably by his successor, Qatāda ibn Diʽāma (d. 736), a move which was related to the disquisition on the status of the sinner within Islām. At that time, the fragmentation of the Umma (community) had promoted the formation of different positions on this topic, ranging from a radical attitude (Khawārij) that identified in the grave sinner an un-believer (kāfir), to more accommodating positions which recognized the grave sinner as remaining a believer (mu’min). Consistent with the very first Muʽtazilite position emerging in al-manzila bayna al-manzilatayn (the intermediate status of the sinner), Ḥasan al-Baṣrī supported the notion that the sinful Muslim’s status was that of a hypocrite (munāfiq). From the evidence of widespread agreement on this position, it is difficult to support the view that Ḥasan al-Baṣrī and Wāṣil ibn ʽAṭā’ or ʽAmr ibn ʽUbayd, the founders of the Muʽtazila, held opposing opinions on this topic. A similar story refers to a quarrel between ʽAmr ibn ʽUbayd and Qatāda ibn Diʽāma concerning the theological disquisition on human free will and the strict relationship among the first Muʽtazilites and the supporters of the Qadariyya (the adherents to the free will position in Islām), but even here, many doubts remain. However, it is possible that the defining viewpoint associated with these theologians, as reported by Carlo Alfonso Nallino (in RSO, VII, 1916), referred to the neutral position assumed in Baṣra by a part of the cultural intelligentsia during the second half of the seventh century and the first half of the eighth, which was in opposition to a deep politicization of the Islamic community. Nallino historically argued that after the civil war broke out between the supporters of ʽAlī and those of the clan of Banū Umayya (the Omayyads), some of the Companions of the Prophet such as ̔Abd Allāh ibn ʽUmar, Saʽd ibn Abī Waqqāṣ decided that they would not support ʽAlī or the Omayyad, assuming a Muʽtazilite position equidistant from the belligerent parties. It is likely that the term Muʽtazilite, in the southern Iraqi area, at a later time and in close relation with this neutral primary meaning, was assumed by Wāṣil ibn ʽAṭā’ and ʽAmr ibn ʽUbayd in continuity with these Companions of the Prophet. However, doubts remain concerning the correlation with the historical and religious links between these Companions and the first Muʽtazilites or Ḥasan al-Baṣrī.

 The first phase: neutrality vs. politicization

In this analysis on Muʽtazilism, it is of primary importance to distinguish the different phases of its historical path in relation with the main events of the early Islamic centuries. M. Watt in the Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Oxford, Oneworld, 2009, p. 211) argues that at the beginning, even with the support of primary sources such as the Kitāb al-Intiṣār of the Muʽtazilite Ibn al-Khayyāṭ (d. ca 913) or the Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyīn of al-Ashʽarī (d. 936), it is hard to acquire information on the theological beginnings of this vigorous intellectual movement. The rigor of the early Muʽtazilites seems directly related to a clear monotheistic approach and to a religious pietism which, as already mentioned, was rooted in the social and economic background of Baṣra, a urban area that, from the beginning of the seventh century, until its end, rejected direct affiliation with the emerging sectarianism in the Dār al-Islām. As I wrote in Baṣra, cradle of Islamic culture. An analysis of the urban area that was the early home of Islamic studies (Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 239, 2013, pp. 191-220), this city preserved an independent and unrestricted spirit of analysis of the Islamic religion for a longer period of time, aided by a lack of censorship, at least until the advent of the ʽAbbasids in 750. This plurality of views is evidenced by the birth in this Iraqi city of Khawārij, Qadarite, Murji’te, Muʽtazilite and proto-Sufism (male and female) groups, without taking into consideration the existence there of pre-Islamic Zoroastrians and Manicheans. It is therefore relevant to emphasize that, prior to the revolution which toppled the Omayyad dynasty (747-750), the limited information available concerning the Muʽtazilites reveals the presence of a mosque as the building used by the first supporters, and as reported by J. Van Ess (“Lecture à Rebours de l’Histoire du Muʽtazilisme”, Revue des études Islamiques, p.45), the early Muʽtazilites promoted a dual behavior: a solidarity which took precedence over tribal and clan solidarity in a historical period of instability, and a propagandist emigration into the Islamic conquered lands to bring more than just the Muʽtazilite way of thinking (at that time still theologically limited), a better knowledge of the main Islamic values and principles. In the first half of the eighth century, the lack of juridical and theological assistance in the Umma was perceived as a clear problem, in particular within the rural areas. ʽUthmān al-Ṭawīl, as reported by J. Van Ess, converted many people in Armenia to Islām, working as a draper and living in the region for many years.

Another specific characteristic of this first Muʽtazilite phase is the trade activity of the early chiefs of this community group. Both Wāṣil ibn ʽAṭā’ and ʽAmr ibn ʽUbayd were fabric traders, and they worked not only in connection with the main urban areas of Dār al-Islām, but also traded with China and India. A portion of their income was set aside to support the poorest within the Muʽtazilite community, a practice which was quite common for a lot of local groups in Baṣra, such as the Qadarites and the Ibadites, a sub-sect of Khawārij.

During the first decades of this period, Wāṣil increased the communitarian political attitude of mutual comparison between the members of early Muʽtazilism, promoting unity among them without assuming a position in relation to the conflicts which had previously emerged in the Umma.

Wāṣil wished to preserve the reputation of the Prophet’s Companions, and to preserve the favorable memories of their role in the early Umma. Certainly some of these individuals might have been vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy (nifāq), and of having committed a grave sin (which would have made them fussāq), but it is difficult to know who they were. The liʽān, a reciprocal anathema, was pronounced on both of the sides which had participated in the Battle of the Camel, which took place in 656, and involved ʽAlī vs. Ṭalḥa Ibn ‘Ubayd Allāh – Zubayr Ibn al-‘Awān and his supporters (both Companions of the first time). However, to identify real wrongdoers would have to be left to God alone and to his judgment.

The desire to defuse the conflict within the Umma motivated Wāṣil ibn ʽAṭā’ and ʽAmr ibn ʽUbayd to elaborate and rationalize an aspect of their thought that concerned the intermediate status of the sinner (manzila bayna al-manzilatayn) and preserved the reprobate’s status as a hypocrite, but not as an unbeliever. This latter status could lead to expulsion from the community.

A second key aspect of early Muʽtazilite thought, which is in continuity with that of their master, Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, but is also related to that of the Qadariyya, a group of theologians born in Baṣra, reflected on the rejection of the doctrine of predestination and the affirmation of the absolute responsibility of every individual with regard to his transgression, which could not be in any sense the work of God. Many words have been spent in relation to the theological origin of the Islamic disquisition on human free will vs. predestination. Morris S. Seale, in Muslim Theology: a Study of Origins with Reference to the Church Fathers (London: Luzac & Co, 1964), argues for the influence of Christian Oriental Patristic thought on early Islamic theology, while M. Watt (The formative period of Islamic thought, p. 94) remains more cautious in this respect, pointing out that this topic has always been very popular in the Semitic religious tradition. It is interesting to note that although it is evident that Ḥasan al-Baṣrī promoted an analysis in support of human free will, the earliest link with this topic within Islām has not yet properly emerged. The relevance of the Muʽtazilite support of the position on human free will needs to be considered as the basis of the entire rational theological system, as without this assumption, the entire scheme rooted on ’Allah’s unity (tawḥīd) and justice (ʽadl) would be inconsistent, in particular when referring to eschatological aspects related to the final judgment.

How could God could judge human beings if the latter were unable to act regardless of his will?

Finally, it must be emphasized that until the beginning of al-Ma’mūn the ʽAbbasid’s caliphate in 813, the Muʽtazilite political position on the conflict among the Arab clans, the Omayyads, ʽAbbasids and proto-Shīʽah groups, remained neutral. This is in contrast with the position assumed, at the beginning of the XX century, by H. S. Nyberg, who in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill, 1938), supported the view that Muʽtazilites were propagandists for the ʽAbbasids, confusing the emigration of Wāṣil ibn ʽAṭā’ and ʽAmr ibn ʽUbayd’s disciples as being connected with local plots of insurrection. Claude Cahen, on the contrary, warns against making too close a link between Mu‘tazilism and the rise of ‘Abbasid power. The political neutrality of the Muʽtazila, at least at the end of the VIII century, is also supported by the non pro- Alid position of the first supporters of this sect, who opposed the fundamental Shi‘ite doctrine of the imamate, according to which ‘Alī and, after him, his descendants, should have succeeded Muḥammad as the Imām or ‘guide’ of the early Community. Abū Bakr al-Aṣamm ( 850), for example, seems to say that the imamate can only be established through the unanimous consensus of the entire Community, a more proto-democratic and Khawārij position. The intention was to challenge the attribution of the imamate to ‘Ali, since his investiture had occurred not in a period of peace, but at a moment of discord among the Companions of the Prophet (Al-Baghdadi 1985, p. 120). A Mu‘tazilite holding even more marked anti-Shi‘ite views was ‘Amr Ibn ‘Ubayd, who, like Wasil Ibn ‘Ata, was one of the very first Mu‘tazilites to take a strong line against the Rafidites, a denomination attributed at that time to the imamite Shi‘ites. Another mistake, which is usually attributed to the Swedish expert (H. S. Nyberg), is to underline the proximity of early Zaydism Shiʽite theology and Muʽtazilism, and it was a minimum of half century before the first real contacts can be evidenced. Today, it is generally accepted that early Shi‘ism borrowed much from Mu‘tazilite theology. However, as reported by Dominique Sourdel, we need to wait until the time of al-Ma’mūn’s caliphate (813-833) before a greater mutual understanding between these two groups was established.

 The five pillars of Muʿtazilism

It would be fruitless to seek a definitive answer to the origins of Mu‘tazilism, that is to say the origins of Islamic theology tout court (the Mu‘tazilites may be considered to be the first organised theologians of Islām). A number of indisputable key points can be made. The origins of Mu‘tazilism cannot be reduced to a single common denominator, and probably cannot be defined as either pro- or anti-‘Alid. At the beginning it was neutral in this respect, but with the end of the eighth century, the Muʽtazilite position began to change. In fact, it is undeniable that Mu‘tazilism was to arise, in particular, during al-Ma’mūn’s caliphate (813-833), in a form which was able to play a political role, but the responsibility for this is more with the caliphate under examination than with the Muʽtazilite theologians. However, it is more important that first the emergence of the main Muʽtazilites’ theological assets is investigated, before then, secondly, the relationship with political power is uncovered. The outline of the five principles that follows does not, for reasons of simplicity, take into account the many variations of detail introduced by the various thinkers of this school. The Muʽtazilite manuscript Kitāb al-Uṣūl al-Khamsa, which is attributed to ʽAbd al-Jabbār Ibn Aḥmad (d. 1025), and was previously elaborated by Abū al-Hudayl al-Allāf (d. 849), symbolizes the process of Islamic theological systematization that emerged in the course of the ninth century (the third century of the Islamic era).

The first and most important principle is the Unity of God (tawḥīd) and the denial of its attributes: "Muʽtazilites, while radically rejecting the attribute of eternity, say that God is eternal and that eternity is the particular nature of his essence. They affirm that God knows through his essence, is powerful through his essence, alive through his essence: not through a knowledge, a power or a life that hold good as attributes eternally co-existing with Him. This is because, if the attributes were part of eternity together with God, they would also be part of His divinity" (al-Shahrastānī, 1977, p. 48). To assign to God attributes separated from his essence, for the Muʽtazila, is to commit a sin of polytheism, and to break the Unity of the Divinity is to, consider the attributes as separate Gods. Some Mu‘tazilites also distinguished the attributes of essence of God, from attributes of action. The former, as elaborated by Abū ʽAlī al-Jubbā’i (d. 915) are those that form an integral part of God’s essence (life, power, knowledge, will, speech, hearing, sight), attributes without which God would not be able to show its immeasurable and superior features. The latter are attributes that God may or may not activate, examples being creator or judge, in the sense that He can create or not create, according to His will; judge or not judge, according to his will, etc.

The second main Muʽtazilite principle is related to God’s Theodicy (ʽadl Allah) and showed a close link with Human Free Will; W. Madelung parsed the problem of divine justice into two theses: “(1) God wants well for humans; He does not will or create evil and lying, etc. God offers guidance in the right path, but does not force humans to go astray; (2) it follows from this that acts and deeds, and thus punishable immoral acts, are not forces and creatures by their creator. God would be unjust if He punished his creatures for acts that He created in them" (Madelung, 1985, p. 8). This anti-predestination position increased the Muʽtazilite support for a rationally oriented understanding of God, and with an-Naẓẓām, this reached the status of a radical awareness, which was supported by a minority within this theological school. The nephew of Abū al-Hudayl and master of al-Jāḥīẓ, argued that if God was able to prevent an evil act taking place, he would be bound to prevent it, since (even) consenting to an evil happening is a vile and blameworthy act.

Therefore, given that in fact God does not prevent the evil, he can only act according to his justice (‘adl), and it is impossible to attribute to Him the ability (qudra) to act unjustly (al-Shahrastani 1977, p. 57). This conclusion could imply a potential negation of God’s omnipotence.

The fact that God does not desire evil does not have to mean, however, as the majority of Mu‘tazilites would assert, that He is incapable of doing evil.

The third principle introduced the Muʽtazilite eschatological thinking. God has promised the good a suitable recompense, while the evil will receive a corresponding punishment (al-wa‘d wa’l-wa‘īd), according to the principles of justice and without deviating from this duty. This position, however, would have clashed with another important feature inherent in the divinity, his mercy. Other theologians such as al-Māturīdi (d. 944) or al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) criticized this absolutist attitude which tried again to limit God’s omnipotence, supporting that Allah, if this was his will, could punish someone good, as clearly emerged in the Ancient Testament (Job) or forgive a sinner, through infinite mercy. Al-Māturīdi’s rational elaboration of the non-perpetuity of guilt and al-Ghazālī’s eschatological universalism directed also towards non-Muslims, showed a different position within Islamic Kalām.

The fourth pillar, al-manzila bayna al-manzilatayn (the intermediate status of the sinner) has been previously examined, while the fifth, al-amr b’il-ma‘rūf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar, "command the good and forbid evilness" is a famous Qur’anic (III, 104, 110) principle, which is agreed on by all Muslims and refers to the enforcement function of the duly constituted government of a community, and it would be have been extensively exploited during al-Ma’mūn’s caliphate.

These pillars were equally adopted within the Muʽtazilte schools of Baṣra and Baghdād (formed when the caliph al-Maʾmūn requested some theologians of this group in the capital). The main differences that would have emerged among them are more related to the singular elaboration of the protagonists than to any difference concerning these five Uṣūl.

 The politicization of rationality and the relevance of al-Ma’mūn’s caliphate

An understanding of the political - religious relationship between the Muʽtazila and al-Ma’mūn (813-833), and also that operating during the caliphates of his two successors, al-Muʽtaṣim (833-842) and al-Wāthiq (842-847), has to be rooted in the complexity of this historical period. The firstborn of Hārūn al-Rashīd (763-809) came to power through a civil war against his brother. His father, in an attempt to avoid conflicts, had divided the caliphate between them, assigning the Iranian side to al-Ma’mūn, and the Iraqi and western side, as well as the title of caliph, to al-Amīn.

The need for al-Ma’mūn to strengthen his power in the political and religious field was associated with his need to meet two objectives: centralizing his authority, and demonstrating a capacity to reconcile the umma as an expression of divine will, following the division which had been created during the early civil war (al-Fitna al-Kubrā, among the Companions of the Prophet).

The attempts to achieve these objectives can be considered to be the classic features of this caliphate. The process of moving towards these objectives involved all al-Ma’mūn’s offices, and on the military, administrative, fiscal, and monetary level, al-Ma’mūn tried to produce uniformity through imposing strict control over the entire bureaucratic system. However, if the caliph’s reforms in these fields, the successes and the failures, were clearly prerogatives of the caliph, on the religious level, the centralizing tendencies of al-Ma’mūn’s policies were, in a way, a reaction to the evolution of Islām. The appearance of numerous religious scholars, perceived to be both proper interpreters of Islām and as detracting from the power of the central authority, was seen as a challenge by al-Ma’mūn, who was not willing to subordinate caliphal authority to anybody else. After the murderer of his brother, the aim of al-Ma’mūn was to supervise and guide debates on religious and cultural subjects, in order to foster the image of a caliph who, as the first Khalīfat al-Rashidūn, was the defender of Islamic religion, customizing the interpretation of the holy Qur’ān around a political-religious ideology. The caliph’s ability to participate in and oppose theologians in the open debates taking place in court afforded him the opportunity to consider the aspects of those debates which were more closely connected to his political views.

Open discussions between the Jahmite thinker Bishr ibn al-Marīsī and the Muʽtazilites Abū al-Hudayl and Thumāma ibn Ashras—and also those who were among the first of the various authors of the Zaydiyya (a proto-Shīʽa sect), such as ʽAlī ibn al-Haytham—were all held in al-Ma’mūn’s presence, and this reinforced the image of an authority which, while respecting Islamic faith, assumed a position similar to that of the Persian Shahanshahs of the pre-Islamic era. In the Muʽtazila, the presence of al-Ma’mūn as caliph provided a favourable environment for the birth of a second group of Muʽtazilites in the capital of the ’Abbasid Empire. The establishment of the rationalist school of Baghdād overlapped with the commencement of Muʽtazilite thought as regards certain assumptions concerning politics, in accordance with the more theocratic views of the proto-Shīʽa sects. Shīʽite thought gave a prominent role to the Imām, the man who held the wisdom and political skills necessary for him to lead the community. The Zaydite Shīʽa sect, less geared to maintaining a high level of conflict with the proto-Sunnite sects, was the only one that began, in the first half of the ninth century, to build a more cooperative relationship with Muʿtazilism, both theologically and politically.

The development of a cultural project that could lead to a new religious and (consequentially) political cohesion in the Umma was the result of al-Ma’mūn’s efforts, and is also evidence of the Muʽtazilite and proto-Shīʽa influence in deepening a mutual understanding of their thinking. It is noteworthy that in these decades, some Muʽtazilite authors such as Bishr ibn al-Muʽtamir, Thumāma ibn Ashras, Abū al-Hudayl and others backed al-Ma’mūn’s decision to designate ʽAlī al-Riḍā, the eighth heir of the proto-Shīʽa imamite sect, as his successor, and to acclaim ʽAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib as the best Companion of the Prophet, in contrast with the founders of the Baṣrian theological school and others contemporaries in Baghdād such as an-Naẓẓām, al-Jāḥīẓ, Hishām al-Fuwaṭī ( 840) and others, who continued to assume a position which differed from that of the pro-Alids. The degree of cohesion between some proto-Shīʽa and Muʽtazilite authors, which was more politically than theologically based, is abundantly confirmed by their mutual backing of this decision. Al-Ma’mūn’s failure, after this designation, to obtain political support both on the proto-Sunni and proto-Shīʽa side, increased the conflict within the empire, provoking a second civil war within the ʽAbbasid clan. This took place only a few years after that during which al-Ma’mūn had opposed his brother, but without decreasing the caliph’s campaign of political centralization. After this second clash, indeed, al-Ma’mūn continued his religious policy but, in contrast to expectations, he did this without demonstrating clear favouritisms: "al-Ma’mūn’s philanthropic activities covered the full spectrum of Islamic intellectual currents […]. Two features of al-Ma’mūn’s religious-political policy deserve emphasis. First, al-Ma’mūn did not display political favouritism towards any of the trends that made up the mutakallimūn milieu. He helped all the members of this milieu by placing them in positions of intellectual influence and supporting them financially. Whatever his personal beliefs may be, he chose counsellors from different theological currents. If we want to reconstruct how al-Ma’mūn envisioned the religio- political map, we ought to ignore the theological nuances that distinguished one mutakallim trend from another, because in a political sense al-Ma’mūn did not have any preferences. Second, the significant religio-cultural divide during al-Ma’mūn’s reign was between the traditionalists and the mutakallimūn. At the outset, al-Ma’mūn’s policy towards the traditionalists followed the lines of previous caliphs, as he, like them, distributed financial aid to the traditionalists. However, when al-Ma’mūn realized that the traditionalists accepted his financial support but not his intellectual directives, he changed his policy. The fact of the matter is that long before the Miḥna (an Inquisition), al-Ma’mūn failed to attain control of the traditionalists and he was probably aware of their independence and their success in winning the support and admiration of the masses." (N. Hurwitz, 2002, p. 120.)

During the twenties of the ninth century, the coexistence of different groups of theologians in the court of Baghdād increased the level of mutual debate and understanding on different religious positions, and this was further favoured by the Mecenate approach of the caliph, who also renewed the study of the sources of antiquity and late antiquity in the Bayt al-Ḥikma, an Academy in which primary sources of an inclusive ancient knowledge, in Greek, Syriac, old Persian etc. were translated into Arabic.

As already observed, individual Mu‘tazilite thinkers elaborated and clarified general formulations (the five pillars), creating a true scholastic topic, rich in subtle and sometimes sophistic disquisitions. One of the most important consequences of the negation of attributes of God was the denial of the eternity of the Qur’ān, adopted by al-Ma’mūn towards the end of his caliphate.

Although it is the direct word of God, according to Mu‘tazilites, the Qur’ān is created; to admit its eternity would be to support the existence of another eternal attribute distinct from the divine essence. The central importance of this dogma of the creation of the Qur’ān for Mu‘tazilites is demonstrated by the fact that when, in 827, the caliph al-Ma’mūn declared this dogma as an official theological aspect for the entire empire, the determinant of ‘orthodoxy’ consisted specifically in the acceptance or rejection of the notion of the word of God as being co-eternal with Him. In order to impose the doctrine of the created Qur’ān, the caliph al-Ma’mūn and his two successors, with the assistance of pro-Muʽtazilite religious judges (quḍāt), organised an inquisitorial tribunal (the Miḥna), which persecuted theologians and jurists with opposing views.

One of these persecuted individuals was the famous traditionalist Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855). This was no mere theological hair-splitting. If the Qur’ān is indeed created, it can be subjected to interpretation and modification by the interpreter, particularly the caliph. By imposing Mu‘tazilite theology through the doctrine of the created Qur’ān, al-Ma’mūn sought to impose his own authority not only at the political level but also at the religious one, as it had been at the beginning of the post-Muḥammad phase of the Khulafā al-Rāshidūn, in the seventh century. The failure of this inquisition coincided with the caliphate of al-Mutawakkil (847-861), in which the Miḥna was dismissed and the participating theologians were attacked as members of an un-orthodox sect. This caliphate favoured a renewed more quietist and a-political approach from the Muʽtazila which promoted, however, an increasing rational debate among its new group of supporters and detractors.

 The Muʽtazila and the end of Sunnite formative period

The failure of the Miḥna only partially decreased the level of theological awareness of the Muʽtazila, a school that continued to play a relevant role within Kalām (or ʽIlm al-Kalām, science of the dialectic discourse), increasing, contrariwise, its influence in particular within the Shīʽa. It was easy for these mutakallimūn (experts of Kalām) to retreat behind the doors of the schools, turning their back on political ambition and dedicating themselves to pure speculation. During the ensuing long period of consolidation of Sunnism, the Mu‘tazila continued to survive, although they lost the title of an orthodox school. During the second half of the ninth century and for the entire tenth century, a theological battle, which was violent, but only in the verbal and written sense, led to a confrontation that drew Muslim theologians further into opposing positions, increasing the number of schools within and outside Kalām. Following the anti-Miḥna success, an opposing Kalām group, rooted in the Ḥanbalite juridical school, demonstrated a theological approach which was in complete contrast with the Muʽtazila, re-discovering a determist and predestinarian approach which sought to disempower human reason. An important role in this development was played by al-Ashʽarī (d. 936), who after being trained as a Muʽtazilite, "converted" himself to a form of rationalism which decreased the human factor, fully restoring God’s omnipotence. The growing importance of Asharism is related to the capacity of the founder and his successors to discuss Muʽtazilite positions through the same rational methodology, in contrast with a Hanbalite attitude which directly rejected a rationalist approach; however, it would be in relation with the thought of the Kalām author al-Māturīdī (d. 944), founder of a theological and juridical school, which subsequently disappeared, that the debate among these three schools reached an interesting confrontation, assuming positions which were sometimes complementary, and at other times in clear opposition. As reported by M. Watt (2009, p. 316) the end of the Islamic formative period, without causing a cessation of intellectual development, decreed a change of its character.

By the time of al-Māturīdī, al-Ashʽarī, and the Muʽtazilites al-Jubbā’ī (d. 915), Abū Hāshim (d. 933) and al-Kaʽbī al-Balkhī (d. 929), the new theological disquisition did not lead to a revision of the central structure of Islamic dogma, as had happened before. During the first half of the tenth century, the doctrines of Islamic creed had assumed the final form, the legal schools had taken a definitive shape and the canon of Tradition was finally formed. However, as subsequently reported by al-Ghazālī, two centuries later, and by new-Muʽtazilite authors working in the nineteenth century, the formative process of Sunnite thought was incomplete.

The rivalry among the theological schools continued without resolving many of the disquisitions concerning human free will, the Qur’ān’s creation or un-creation, God’s mercy and justice, the salvation of others within Islām, and other contentious topics. Other conflicts between theology and philosophy were also to emerge, without it being possible to reconcile their positions.

 The survival of the Muʽtazila

During the ensuing long period of the consolidation of Sunnism (tenth century), the Mu‘tazila continued to play a relevant role, but not any more within the Sunna. Exceptions are the already named Abū Hāshim, and particularly the Qāḍī ʽAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), a Shāfiʽite in law and writer of a comprehensive "summa" of speculative theology, the Mughnī, in which he presented a full encyclopaedia of Muʽtazilite thought, in particular related to the pillars of unity and God’s justice.

In the Mughnī, ʽAbd al-Jabbār accused Ashʽarism of having presented the Will of God as being unknown and intangible by human understanding, provoking a standstill in Islamic speculative theology. The end of the truly creative period of the Mu‘tazila is usually seen as being marked by the publication of the important Qur’anic commentary written by al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144), in which its main inspirations constitute the idea of human free will and the negation of attributes. Zamakhsharī was not the only Qur’anic commentator with Mu‘tazilite views; others included al-Tabarsī (d. 1155). In assessing al- Zamakhsharī’s thought, W. Madelung focuses on the province of Khawarazm, the ancient Chorasmia (south of what remained at that time of Aral lake), as an important venue for Muʽtazili Kalām. In the latter half of the twelfth century, the Sunni polemicist Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī (d. 1209), an Ashʽarite theologian and exegete, reports that Muʽtazilite disputants forced him to leave Khawarazm (W. Madelung, 1986, p. 485). The same author argued that in this region, the Muʽtazila existed in two contending schools, the Bahshamiya, which followed the elaboration of ʽAbd al-Jabbār, and a second one, which followed Abū Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d. 1085), a rationalist expert in Islamic jurisprudence.

However, the Muʽtazilite way of thinking, in parallel with these latter Qur’anic exegetes, survived outside Sunnism. This happened very obviously among Shi‘ite theologians, both Imamites like al-Mufīd, who died in 1022 and supported divine justice and human free will, and Zaydites like those in Northern Yemen, until the nineteenth century, and the Iranian south Caspian area.

Nevertheless, the lack of official support or a large audience prevented a final late flowering of Mu‘tazilite doctrines, although, at least until the arrival of the Seljuks in the mid fifth⁄ eleventh century, and under the protection of the Buyids (a Zaydite and Ismailite dynasty which led the ʽAbbasid empire as Viziers between 945 and 1055, before the arrival of the Seljuks), many scholars further developed or clarified the speculative achievements of the early Mu‘tazilites.

The school of Baṣra played a significant role within Zaydism in Yemen, but also outside it, as for example in Ṭabaristān and in the Caspian Sea area. Followers of al-Jubbā’ī, al-Kaʽbī al-Balkhī, and ʽAbd al-Jabbār created local groups of mutakallimūn, exegetes, jurists, who, whilst not being particularly famous or important for speculative elaborations, were, nevertheless, fundamental in preserving the writings of the Muʽtazila until contemporary times. However, as it was in the past and among proto-Sunnite sects, the Muʽtazilite arguments promoted internal debates within Zaydism too; an extremely conservative and reactionary focus on the teachings of the Zaydite pro-Muʽtazilite Yaḥya Ibn Ḥusayn (d. 911) in Yemen, was established by the Mutarrifiya, a vigorous group of opponents of Muʽtazili Kalām within the Zaydiya. This group followed a deistic doctrine which stated that God created the four elements and then did not intervene in the world except in the case of miracles, while, on the contrary, the Muʽtazila supported an atomistic occasionalism: God creates all the particles and attributes that comprise existence in all instances.

However, the Muʽtazilite influence in Yemen reached its zenith a century after the death of ʽAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), when the numbers of scholars who supported this school won the internal struggle with the Muṭarrifiya, increasing the number of the Zaydite theological schools which followed the Muʽtazilite teachings. (Richard C. Martin, Mark R. Woodward, 1997, p. 41).

On the Imāmī Shīʽa side, Muʽtazilism first made an impact at the end of the ninth century, with the Banū Nawbakht, a clan of Iranian origin, closely related to the Abbasids, from the caliphate of al-Manṣūr (754-775). Abū Sahl al-Nawbakhtī (d. 924) and his nephew al-Ḥasan b. Mūsā (d. 923), the author of the Kitāb Firaq al-Shīʽa, an interesting work on the main divisions within Shīʽism in the second half of the ninth century, were the first supporters of Muʽtazilite Kalām, which, however, was initially short-lived; the theology of Ibn Bābawayh (d. 991) affirmed, on the contrary, that God creates the actions of men and wills everything which comes into being (including evil).

Muʽtazilite theses would, however, decisively prevail in the long term, with the disciple of Ibn Bābawayh, al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022), upholding the theses of the Baghdādī school, as is abundantly illustrated by his Awā’il al-maqalāt (M. J. McDermott, The theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufid, Beirut 1978). Subsequent to this, it was the turn of al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (d. 1045), a disciple of al-Mufīd and ʽAbd al-Jabbār, who, for his part, successfully championed the theses of the school of Baṣra. The Qur’anic commentaries of Abū Jaʽfar al-Tūsī (d. 1067) and of al-Tabarsī (d.1155), both steeped in Muʽtazilite principles, further show the importance of this school in theological Imamite though. The Muʽtazila, which lost the status of orthodoxy within proto-Sunnism, during the ninth century, acquired, by contrast, in later centuries and in particular inside Shīʽa, a weight that permitted them to survive and to be remembered by history.


New-Muʿtazilism has not survived the fatal alliance of Western neo-colonialism (and petro-dollar capitalism) and Islamic revanchism, which emerged in the eighth decade of the twentieth century. In the recent decades, Political Islām and the influence of Wahhabi literalism have held back the Arab world, and it would be necessary to definitively resolve their difficulties of understanding in order to be part of a multi-national and multi-religious world in which Islām is seen as one of the most relevant faiths, but is not seen as the only one.

The case of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country of the world, shows through the reflection of some authors such as Harun Nasution (d. 1998) and Nurcholish Madjid (d. 2005), that it has been possible to encounter modernity without losing a society’s Islamic roots: “Nasution share[s] the opinion that the rationalization of Islamic theology is an essential component of a larger program of modernization in Muslim societies. […] Nasution’s goal is the development of an Islamic modernity capable of competing with Western modernities on an equal footing, but retaining the deeply pious attitudes characteristic of traditional Islam. His strategy for realizing this goal has included the reformulation and rationalization of Islamic thought, the development of Islamic higher education and the diminution of agitation for an explicitly Islamic state” (Martin et al. 1997, p. 159).

A deep reflection on the concept of the Islamic state is necessary, worked out through a correct and historicized reformulation of it. The first Islamic state par excellence, in Medina, was in fact rooted on the formation of a multi-confessional constitution, which takes its name from this city.

The relevance of the Muʽtazila in the past and in particular of Neo-Muʿtazilism in the contemporary time persists in leaving unanswered questions in a debate which should not remain limited to narrow intellectual circles. It must become the critical conscience of Muslim public opinion, an objective that at present seems only realizable at some point in the future.



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How to cite:
Marco Demichels, «Muʽtazilism », in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, octobre 2015, URL =ʽtazilism