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Brief History of the MU'TAZILA


Its Origins


Historical evolution


More On the MU'TAZILA

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Brief History of the MU'TAZILA



MU'TAZILA, the name of a religious movement founded at Basra, in the first half of the

2nd/8th century by Wasil b. 'Ata' (d. 131/748 [q.v.]), subsequently becoming one of the most

important theological schools of Islam.


The origin of this term-which has the sense of 'those who separate themselves, who stand

aside'-remains enigmatic. According to a traditional explanation (sometimes acknowledged

by the Mu'tazila themselves), the word would have been applied to Wasil-or to his lieutenant,

'Amr b. 'Ubayd (d. 144/761 [q.v.])-because on the question relating to the definition applicable

to the Muslim guilty of a serious offence, the former (or the second) 'would have separated

himself' from al-Hasan al-Basri (or from qatada) (on this tradition and its variants, see W. M.

Watt, The formative period of Islamic thought, Edinburgh 1973, 209-11). An explanation, more

plainly hostile, propounded notably by Ibn al-Rawandi (according to al-Khayyat, K. al-Intisar, ed.

Nader, Beirut 1957, 118, ll. 2-9, later by al-Ash'ari, K. al-Luma', ed. McCarthy, Beirut 1953,

a 184), is that, on the same question of the name to be given to the sinful Muslim-who should,

according to Wasil, be described by the definition of fasiq, an 'in-qtermediate rank' between

tthat of mu'min and that of kafir-Wasil was opposed to the consensus of the Muslims for whom, in

any circumstances, the sinful Muslim could not be other than 'believing' or 'disbelieving'. To

this, the Mu'tazila replied that, on the contrary, Wasil's intention was in fact to retain only that

which, among Muslims, was the object of a consensus: while they differed as to whether the

sinful Muslim should be termed mu'min or kafir, all, on the other hand, were agreed in defining

him as fasiq (K. al-Intisar, 118, ll. 10-19). In other words, on this question, Wasil was as unwilling

to side with the Murji'a (q.v.; partisans of the first solution) as with the Kharijites (q.v.; partisans

of the second); he chose to 'stand aside' from this debate.


It is an explanation of this kind which today, in particular as a result of the studies undertaken

by Nallino (Sull'origine del nome dei Mu'taziliti, in RSO, vii [1916]), is generally accepted: i'tizal

would designate a position of neutrality in the face of opposing factions. Nallino drew support

for this argument from the fact that at the time of the first civil war, some of the Companions

('Abd Allah b. 'Umar, Sa'd b. Abi Waqqas, etc.), who had chosen to side neither with 'Ali nor with

his adversaries, were for this reason called mu'tazila. He even drew the conclusion that the

theological Mu'tazilism of Wasil and his successors was merely a continuation of this initial

political Mu'tazilism; in reality, there does not seem to have been the least connection between

one and the other. But, in its principle, this explanation is probably valid.

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Its Origins


Little is known of the origins of the movement. It appears to be established that Wasil, originally

a disciple of al-Hasan al-Basri [q.v.] was indeed the sole founder, and this during the lifetime of

the latter. It was only at the end of a relatively long period, and after the death of al-Hasan

(110/728), that 'Amr b. 'Ubayd-another disciple of al-Hasan, and a particularly eminent

one-decided to join him. After the death of Wasil in 131/748, it was 'Amr who took on the

leadership of the group. It is hardly likely that at this early stage of the movement the Mu'tazili

doctrine, as it was to be formulated several decades later by Abu 'l-Hujayl, was already fully

developed. No doubt the theses defended here were essentially the same as those previously

current in the milieu of the qadariyya [q.v.], to which al-Hasan belonged: rejection of the

doctrine of predestination, affirmation of the absolute responsibility of every individual with

regard to his transgressions which could not be in any sense the work of God. It will be noted

that, on the question of the name to be applied to the sinful Muslim, al-Hasan seems to have

accepted the notion of an 'intermediate rank', although in the event he proposed munafiq

('hypocrite' [q.v.]) in place of fasiq ('malefactor' [q.v.]). Similarly, al-Hasan subscribed to the

principle that every unrepentant sinner will suffer for ever the torments of Hell, an essential

element of what was later to be called 'the promise and the threat' (al-wa'd wa 'l-wa'id).


Did the movement launched by Wasil also have political objectives? Nyberg believed so, on the

basis of a singular interpretation of the i'tizal and of the doctrine of the 'intermediate rank' (cf.

EI1, s.v. Mu'tazila, at III, 787-8). This, according to him, should in fact be interpreted as

denoting a position of a political nature, characterised simultaneously by a declared hostility

with regard to the Umayyads and a cautious attitude towards the Sji'a, at least in consideration

of its more radical elements. Now, Nyberg claimed, this position corresponded exactly to that of

the 'Abbasid movement, to the extent that the doc-qtrine of 'intermediate rank' would be

nothing other than 'the theoretical encapsulation of the political programme of the 'Abbasids

before their accession to power'. This explains why, 'for at least a century', Mu'tazili theology

'remained the official doctrine of the 'Abbasid court'. This would also account for the fact that

Wasil sent envoys to the different countries of the Muslim world; the object was to spread the

propaganda of the 'Abbasids. This interpretation, as proved now, has no validity. Not only did

tthe first Mu'tazila not support the 'Abbasid movement, but a large number of them participated

in the insurrection of Ibrahim b. 'Abd Allah [q.v.] in 145/762 against al-Mansur (cf. J. van Ess,

Une lecture a rebours de l'histoire du mu'tazilisme, 120-1). The 'propaganda' organised by Wasil was,

in all probability, of a purely religious nature (ibid., 104-8). As for the supposed amicable

relations between al-Mansur and 'Amr b. 'Ubayd, this is probably an instance of a legend

invented after the event (ibid., 118-22). It was only on the accession of al-Ma'mun that

Mu'tazilism became, for a brief period, official doctrine.

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Historical evolution


The author of the present article is not a historian, and therefore will not venture to describe

the history of Mu'tazilism (which extends over a period of approximately five centuries) in detail

and with reference to all its elements, doctrinal, political and social. On this subject, and in

particular on the earliest periods, some very detailed and informative analyses have been

compiled, in recent years, by J. van Ess. While inviting the reader to avail himself of these

sources (see Bibl.), we confine ourselves here to a few succinct references.


The great age of Mu'tazilism is not limited, as is still all too often the general view, to the first

'Abbasid century. The revocation by the caliph al-Mutawakkil, in 234/848, of the decrees

instituting the mihna [q.v.] marks only the end of one period, that during which, for a period of

some thirty years, the Mu'tazili school enjoyed the favour of the caliphs of Bagjdad. In fact, by

the time this reversal took place, the Mu'tazila were established not only in the capital but also in

numerous regions of the Islamic world, especially in Persia, where measures taken in Bagjdad

did not necessarily have an effect. Furthermore, although deprived of the patronage of the

'Abbasid caliphate, they subsequently found other princes or influential persons (under the

Buyids, in particular) to support them. Better still: this first period, which we are quite willing to

term the 'heroic' period, or that of the 'great ancestors', is not-in our view, at least-the

most important. It was only at a later stage that there appeared, from the point of view of

elaboration and systematisation of doctrine, what may be described as the 'classical' period of

Mu'tazilism, lasting approximately from the last quarter of the 3rd/9th century to the middle of

the 5th/11th century (in other words, until the arrival of the Saljuqids). It could almost be said,

mutatis mutandis, that, in relation to persons such as Abu 'Ali and Abu Hashim al-jubba'i, the

Mu'tazila of the first period correspond to the pre-Socratic philosophers in relation to Plato and



This difference between two periods of Mu'tazilism is very clearly felt within the school itself: thus

Ibn Abi 'l-Hadid distinguishes systematically between al-mutaqaddimun (or al-qudama'), 'those of the

earlier period', and al-muta'akjkjirun, 'those of the later period' (cf. SjarhNahj al-balagja, ed. M.

Abu 'l-Fa·l Ibrahim, i, 7-8; iii, 288, l. 19; xi, 119, l. 17-18 and 120, l. 5). Mankdim, for his part,

readily uses, to denote the first, the term salaf: al-salaf min ashabina (Sjarh, 634, l. 10), al-mashayikj

min al-salaf (ibid., 146, l. 11). q


Furthermore, it is known that, very soon, the Mu'tazila constituted two separate schools, 'those

of al-Basra" and 'those of Bagjdad" (terms which, over the course of time, were to

become purely conventional, having no association with specific geographical location). Taking

into account the two periods mentioned above, there is thus a total of four groups of

theologians, clearly distinguished, again, by Ibn Abi 'l-Hadid: the "Basrans of the earlier

period' (qudama' al-basriyyin) and 'those of the later period', the "Bagjdadis of the earlier

period' (qudama' al-bagjdadiyyin) and 'those of the later period'.


Among the "Basrans" of the first period, the most significant figures are 4irar b.

'Amr (d. ca. 200/915 [q.v. in Suppl.]), Abu Bakr al-Asamm (d. 201/816? [q.v. in Suppl.]), Abu

'l-Hujayl (d. 227/841? [q.v.]), al-Nazzam (d. 221/836 [q.v.]), nephew and disciple of the

preceding, Mu'ammar b. 'Abbad (d. 215/830 [q.v.]), Hisham b. 'Amr al-Fuwati (d. between

227/842 and 232/847, cf. Gimaret-Monnot, Shahrastani, Livre des religions et des sectes, i, 249

[q.v.]), the eminent writer al-jahiz (d. 255/869 [q.v.]), a disciple of al-Nazzam, 'Abbad b.

Sulayman (d. ca. 250/864 [q.v.]), a disciple of Hisham al-Fuwati, Abu Ya'qub al-Sjasham (d. after

257/871, cf. Gimaret-Monnot, op. cit., 199), a disciple of Abu 'l-Hujayl. Among the

"Bagjdadis" of the same period, it is appropriate to mention in particular Bishr b.

al-Mu'tamir (d. 210/825 [q.v.]), founder of the school of Bagjdad, øjumama b. Ashras (d.

213/828? [q.v.]) and Abu Musa al-Murdar (d. 226/841 [q.v.]), disciples of Bishr, ja'far b. Harb (d.

236/850 [q.v.]) and ja'far b. Mubashshir (d. 234/848 [q.v.]), disciples of Abu Musa, Abu ja'far

al-Iskafi (d. 240/854 [q.v.]), disciple of ja'far b. Harb.

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More On the MU'TAZILA



The name Mu'tazili originates from the Arabic root ÇÚÊÒá meaning "to leave", "to abandon", "to desert".




It originated in 8th century in al-Basrah when Wasil Ibn 'Atta' left the teaching lessons of al-Hasan al-Basri after a theological dispute, and hence he and his followers were termed Mu'tazili. Later, Mu'tazilis called themselves Ahl al-'Adl wa al-Tawhid (People of Justice and Monotheism) based on the theology they advocated.


Mu'tazili theology developed on logic and rationalism from Greek philosophy, and sought to combine Islamic doctrines with the former, and show that they are inherently compatible.


During this period, several questions were being discussed among Muslim theologians, such as, whether the Quran is created or eternal, whether evil can be created by God, the issue of predestination vs. free will, whether God's attributes in the Quran are to be interpreted allegorically or literally, and whether sinning believers will have eternal punishment in hell.


Also during this period, there were several heresies within Islam, as well as some atheist attacks on it, for example the apostate Ibn al-Rawindi.


In response to all that, Mu'tazili thought developed to address all these issues.




Mu'tazili tenets focus on the Five Principles:


Tawhid ÇáÊæ�í� - Monotheism. God could not be conceived by any human conception. There they argued that verses in the Quran describing God as sitting on a throne to be allegorical. The Mu'tazilis argued that the Quran could not be eternal, but created by God. Otherwise the uniqueness of God would be impossible. They took the allegorical stance to its extreme and started to term their opponents as anthropomorphists.

'Adl ÇáÚ�á - Divine Justice. Facing the problem of existence of evil in a world where God is omnipotent, the Mu'tazilis 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 no 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 God's will no matter what he did.

al-Wa'd wa al-Wa'id ÇáæÚ� æ ÇáæÚí� - Promise and Threat. This comprised questions on the Last day and the Day of Judgement, where God would reward those who obeyed him with what he promised, and punish those who disobeyed with threats of hellfire.

al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn ÇáãäÒáÃâ€

Èíä ÇáãäÒáÊ

ƒÂ­ÃƒÂ¤ - the position between the two extremes. That is, between those who say all sinners will be eternally in hell, and those who say sinners will not be punished.

al-amr bil ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'an al munkar ÇáÃãÑ ÈÇáãÚÑæ

ƒ? æ Çáäåí Úä ÇáãäßÑ - commanding the good and prohibiting the evil. This include permitting rebellion against unjust rulers as a way to prohibit evil.

In everyone of these tenets there were differences from other schools of theology in Islam at the time.



Historical development

After its beginning in the 8th century, Mu'tazili theology became the official court belief of the Abbasid Caliphate by the early 9th century, when it was adopted officially by the caliph Al-Ma'mun. It only spread in the learned intellectual circles, and never gained ground among the public.


Under al-Ma'mun, an inquisition-like persecution (Arabic: Mihna "Ordeal" 833-848) was undertaken for the scholars who do not adhere to Mu'tazili thought. Its main form was forcing non-adherents to renounce the doctrine that the Quran is eternal and instead, they have to attest that it is created. The most famous person to be persecuted was Ahmad Ibn Hanbal who was imprisoned and tortured in his famous ordeal, as well as the judge Ahmad Ibn Nasr al-Khuza'i who was crucified for it. Moreover, to show the zeal with which Mu'tazilism took hold among officials, in an instance of freeing Muslim prisoners of war held by Byzantium, a test was held for them, and those who said that Quran was eternal were left as prisoners, and not freed. Later the famous Hadith scholar al-Bukhari was also tested on the Quran status as well.


Soon after, the Mu'tazili school lost its support from rulers and high ranking officials. By the 13th century, the theology ceased to exist in Sunni Islam.



Legacy and assessment

Although its rationalism was appealing to the learned classes of the time, Mu'tazilism never gained ground with the masses, being elitist in nature. Its adoption by the rulers and the subsequent persecution of scholars made it appeal even less to the public.


Mu'tazilis initially focused on attacks on Islam from non-Muslims. It quickly however became obsessed with debate against other theologies and sects within Islam itself.


As a response to Mu'tazilism, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, initially a Mu'tazili himself, developed his Kalam methodology, also based on Greek dialectic, thus starting the Ash'ari school of theology. Influenced by Ash'aris, the Maturidi school emerged, and its founder wrote many books to refute many of Mu'tazili beliefs.


Many Shi'a sects, specially the Twelver version, have adopted certain tenets of Mu'tazili beliefs, and incorporated them into their theology.



Modern attempts at revival

As stated above, Mu'tazili thought never took hold among the masses. Its rationalism have always had admirers, as well as their stance on Free Will, and the perceived opposition to the inherent anthropomorphism of the rival theologies.


Although they advocated the pursuit of justice even by rebellion against rulers, their alliance with rulers who oppress non-adherents made this a moot point.


Some modern attempts have been made to revive Mu'tazili thought, specially as a counterbalance to traditionalist Salafi/Ash'ari schools. However those never really took off the ground due to various reasons.



Famous figures

Ibrahim al-Nazzam


Abu Huthail al-'Allaf

al-Qadi Abdul Jabbar

al-Jahiz a literary genius, and linguist

al-Mawardi a judge and writer on politics

Ibn Abi al-Hadid a poet who collected the sayings of Ali Ibn Abi Talib

al-Zamakhshari an exegete of Quran

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