Mu’tazila: Between Reason and Faith

When talking about sects or schools within Islam majority of the people immediately think about the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, often ignoring other schools of thought. One of the most prominent Islamic schools of thought is the Mu’tazila (المعتزلة‎), a rationalist school of Islamic theology that flourished during the 8th to the 10th centuries.

The Mu’tazila played a very significant role in Islamic history, not only in regard to theological and philosophical ideas, but even in the direction of the Caliphate at the time. This movement had been filled with controversy since its early days up until its disappearance several hundred years later, having a major role during the notorious Mihna days.

The name Mu’tazila means “those who separated (themselves); withdrew from”. The name is derived from the founder Wasil ibn Ata’s “withdrawal” from the study circle of Hasan Al Basri over a theological disagreement. The theological dispute was about the legal state of a sinner: is a person who has committed a serious sin a believer or an unbeliever? Hasan Al Basri answered the person remains a Muslim. Wasil disagreed, stating that a sinner was neither a believer nor an unbeliever and ‘withdrew’ from the study circle. Others followed Wasil and formed a new circle. Hasan Al Basri’s remark, “Wasil has withdrawn from us”, is said to be the origin of the movement’s name.

The Mu‘tazila adapted Greek philosophical reasoning and attempted to understand it in an Islamic context. To them, the Qur’an and Sunnah (Sayings of Prophet Muhammad) were not necessarily the only sources of truth, rather, they gave reason an elevated role in understanding the world (both material and spiritual) to be equal to, or even in some cases, higher than revelation. Using rationalism and reason, the Mu‘tazila came to conclusions regarding God, the Qur’an and free-will that the majority of other scholars considered to be outside of mainstream Islamic belief. The list of famous Mu’tazila includes Al Zamakhshari, Al Jahiz, Al Ma’mun, and Judge Abdul Jabbar.

Mu’tazili belief can be summarized into five main principles:

  • Unity [of God]: While this is a concept that all Muslims accept, the Mu‘tazila took it a step further than most in insisting that the attributes of God (as exemplified by his names in the Qur’an, such as al-Basir, the All-Seeing) should not be considered part of God himself. Based on their reasoning, they believed that God’s essence should be associated with neither His names nor His attributes.
  • Justice: Similar to the ancient Greeks, the Mu‘tazila believed in absolute free will. According to Mu’tazili teaching, God does not predetermine the lives of humans, but rather that they make decisions entirely independently of what God wills. As a result, they believed that humans are bound to a fate on the Day of Judgment that is entirely determined by Divine justice (عدل). The Mu‘tazila rationalized that any mercy (فضل) exercised by God was a violation of justice and incompatible with God’s nature. One can imagine how much controversy this specific doctrine had caused in the past, even to this day, as mainstream Muslim theology contradicts this belief.
  • The Promise and the Warning: A logical continuation of the second doctrine, the Mu‘tazila believed in al-wa‘d wa al-wa‘id, a belief that God is bound by an obligation to exercise absolute justice.
  • The Intermediate Position: The Mu ‘tazila believed that any Muslim who died after committing a grave sin (كبيرة), without repenting for it, was to be considered neither a believer nor a disbeliever in God. They claimed that such a person was in an “intermediate position” that would be judged separately by God. As we discussed before, this doctrine was the main cause of Wasil ibn Ata’s withdrawal from Hasan Al Basri’s circle, since Al Basri held that in such a situation the person remains a Muslim.
  • Enjoining of Right and Prohibition of Wrong: This is a primary belief among different sects and branches within Islam, taken directly from the sayings and actions of Prophet Muḥammad. In their interpretation of it, however, force may be used to command what they saw as good and forbid evil, a concept that directly led to the Miḥna.

The Mu’tazila held that the Qur’an is created, completely contradicting the mainstream belief that the Qur’an is the uncreated, eternal Word of God. In 827 CE, the caliph Al Ma’mun issued the proclamation of the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an. The proclamation was followed by the institution of the Mihna six years later, approximately four months before his sudden death in 833 CE. The Mihna continued under his successors, Al Mu’tasim and Al Wathiq, before Al Mutawakkil abolished it in 848.

During that time, Mu’tazilites had acquired great power in the Abbasid Caliphate, as Caliph Al Ma’mun adopted their belief system. Mu’tazili scholars held various high positions in the state at that time, to the point were Caliphs made Mu’tazili doctrines the official doctrines of the state, persecuting anyone who rejected them.

At that time, many scholars accepted the government’s official dogma, or at least remained silent on it, yet Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal refused and was famously imprisoned and tortured during the reign of Al Ma’mun and his successors for it. Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal insisted on the uncreatedness of the Qur’an and the supremacy of traditional Islamic belief over reason and Greek rationalism.

In 848 CE, Caliph Al Mutawakkil ended the Miḥna and released Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal from prison, but the Miḥna had already done its damage to the Mu‘tazili movement; which eventually led to the inevitable decline of Mu‘tazilism.

This era in Islamic history is considered a very dark one, with simple philosophical or theological disputes being managed with imprisonment, torture, and even killing. No doubt, the Mu’tazili movement had a role in what had occurred, a role in spreading injustice and tyranny, but one should not ignore the important and quite illuminating Mu’tazili tradition and thought, especially when we are at a similar dark time, with speech and ideas being again faced with imprisonment, torture, and death, a sort of neo-Mu’tazili revival is needed in the Islamic world.

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