The Rise and Fall of Mu‘tazilism
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Islam,
السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
Category: Islamic Sciences
The rise of Muslim intellectual achievement that began in the mid-eighth century was partially a by-product of a massive translation effort undertaken by the enormous Muslim empire. Ancient Greek, Latin, Persian, and Indian works were translated into Arabic, primarily at Bayt al- Ḥikmah in Baghdad. While much of the translation was in the field of empirical sciences, some of it had to do with ancient Greek philosophical ideas. The works of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were translated. The result of this was the development of a school of theology based on reason and rational thought, known as the Mu‘tazila.
Origins of Mu‘tazilism
Mu‘tazilism was a very broad and dynamic theological movement, and it’s thus difficult to pinpoint exactly where and how it began. What is clear, however, was the impact of ancient Greek philosophical reasoning on the movement. A prime contention of the Mu‘tazila was that rationalism can be used to understand not just the physical world, but also the nature of God and creation.
The Mu‘tazila adapted Greek philosophical reasoning and attempted to understand it in an Islamic context. To them, the Qur’an and Sunnah were not necessarily the only sources of truth. Like the Greeks, they elevated the role of reason in understanding the world to be equal to, or in some cases, higher than revelation. Using rationalism and reason (dubbed kalam), the Mu‘tazila came to conclusions regarding God that most other scholars considered to be outside of mainstream Muslim belief.
Mu‘tazili belief was summarized by its adherents into five principles:
- Unity: The basic concept that the Mu‘tazila organized themselves around was Tawhid, the Oneness 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-Raḥman, the Source of Mercy) should not be considered part of God himself. Based on their reasoning, they believed that God’s essence should not be associated with His names and attributes, for fear of falling into a form of polytheism as Christians had through their concept of the Trinity.
- Justice: Like the ancient Greeks, the Mu‘tazila believed in absolute free will. In their view, 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 (‘adl). The Mu‘tazila rationalized that any faḍl (mercy) exercised by God was a violation of justice and incompatible with His nature.
- The Promise and the Threat: A by-product of the third point, 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 but before 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.
- Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil: This is a primary belief in Islam, taken directly from the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ. 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 gained ascendancy in the ‘Abbasid caliphal government during the reign of Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833). The founder of Bayt al-Ḥikmah accepted Mu‘tazili beliefs as truth and used his position as the most powerful man in the Muslim world to enforce them. In an inquisition known as the Miḥna (Arabic for “the test”), al-Ma’mun (and his successors al-Mu‘tasim and al-Wathiq) imprisoned, tortured, and killed scholars of Islamic theology that did not follow the official governmental positions regarding Mu‘tazili belief, especially the idea that the Qur’an is not the uncreated, eternal Word of God.
While many scholars accepted the government’s official dogma, or at least remained silent on it, Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal refused and was famously tortured during the reigns of al-Ma’mun and his successors for it. Due to his insistence on the uncreatedness of the Qur’an and the supremacy of traditional Islamic belief over Greek rationalism, he clashed with the official ‘Abbasid government position that the Qur’an is created and that man has total free will.
The Miḥna was wildly unpopular with the general population. Riots in the streets of Baghdad threatened ‘Abbasid rule, and in 848, 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 cause. The brutal methods used by those in power to led to the inevitable decline of Mu‘tazilism.
The unpopularity of Mu‘tazili thought among the general population was further compounded by the opposition of more orthodox-minded approaches towards theology. The Mu‘tazila believed, after all, that reason supplants revelation, and many of their resulting theological conclusions directly contradicted orthodox Islamic belief as stated in the Qur’an. Various Muslim scholars thus attempted to refute Mu‘tazili thought and re-emphasize the role of the Qur’an and Sunnah in deriving Islamic belief.
The first approach was that of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, who insisted on the truth of traditional Islamic belief, but was not in favor of proving it using the kalam that Mu‘tazila believed in. This way of understanding theology became known as the Athari approach to ‘aqidah (belief). Proponents of the Athari approach resisted diving into rational explanations of God, free will, or metaphysics. Instead, they relied on a literal understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah to guide their ‘aqidah. While the Athari approach is firmly within the realm of traditional, mainstream Islam, it did little to turn back the tide of the Mu‘tazila, who fundamentally rejected the Athari approach as being un-intellectual and irrational.
A more direct and effective opposition to Mu‘tazilism came from the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of ‘aqidah. These two approaches, founded by Abu al-Ḥasan al-Ash‘ari (d. 936) and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 944), accepted the use of kalam, but only to defend traditional Islamic belief as stated in the Qur’an. The Ash‘aris and Maturidis refused to use reason to derive new beliefs that contradicted revelation as the Mu‘tazila had, and attempted to use the same reason that the Mu‘tazila championed against them. Al-Ash‘ari and al-Maturidi were contemporaries who independently arrived at similar conclusions regarding reason, and thus founded their two parallel schools. For the most part, these two approaches are identical. They both accept the same orthodox points about ‘aqidah that the Atharis champion, and only differ on minor issues that generally come down to no more than semantics.
Throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries, the scholars of these two schools became masters of philosophy, logic, and rationalism. They managed to find a balance between reason and revelation that the Mu‘tazila could not, and formed a series of arguments based on reason that refuted key Mu‘tazili beliefs such as the createdness of the Qur’an and the inability of God to have mercy on sinners. These scholars argued that God’s attributes not separate from Him, but are simply no more than characteristics that He describes himself by. And that believing so is not a form of polytheism, but orthodox Islamic belief as typified by the Quran and Sunnah. By using reason with the Mu‘tazila considered the highest form of human thought and achievement, they managed to win converts to a more traditional understanding of ‘aqidah.
The greatest scholar of the tradition-based kalam approach was the eleventh century Ash‘ari scholar Abu Ḥamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). He saw the Muslim world as plagued by numerous unorthodox theologies, such as Ismai‘ili (Sevener) Shi‘ism, propagated by the Fatimid Empire in Egypt, and the remnants of Mu‘tazilism. His works thus rely heavily on kalam to prove traditional Islamic beliefs, while also invoking spirituality to guide the layman towards a life of subservience to God. His most profound work was Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), in which he addressed all the major theological claims of Muslim philosophers and the Mu‘tazila and refuted them using their own methods.
What is remarkable about al-Ghazali’s career is that he did not physically fight his theological opponents, yet effectively vanquished them through his writings. Mu‘tazilism did not entirely die out after al-Ghazali, but its popularity dropped precipitously. Outside of Shi‘ism, which adopted some Mu‘tazili concepts, it is difficult to find much in the way of Mu‘tazili works from the eleventh century onwards.
The bulk of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah (Sunni Islam) came to accept the Athari, Ash‘ari, and Maturidi approaches to ‘aqidah as legitimate. And while knowledge of kalam and rational discourse meant to prove Islamic orthodoxy is not considered to be mandatory on every Muslim in Sunni Islam, that field of Islamic sciences has been used throughout history to defend orthodoxy. In the past hundred years, opposition to the use of kalam has developed among some Muslims who believe it to be an unlawful innovation and who fail to differentiate it from Mu‘tazilism. Yet throughout Islamic history, the use of kalam to defend Islamic beliefs as relayed in the Qur’an and Sunnah has been almost universally accepted. It was, in fact, the kalam-based traditional approach of the Ash‘aris and Maturidis that helped bring about the fall of the unorthodox Mu‘tazili approach towards theology in the first place.
Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid, and Richard McCarthy (trans.). Deliverance from Error. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1980.
Brown, Jonathan. Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy. London: Oneworld, 2014.
Yusuf, Hamza. The Creed of Imam Al-Tahawi. Zaytuna Institute, 2007.
Throughout Islamic history, groups have arisen from time to time advocating radically new and divergent ways of thinking about the religion. One of the most radical and violent of these groups emerged during the political mayhem of ‘Ali’s caliphate, which lasted from 656 to 661. Known as the Kharijis, they emerged from a radical political position and went on to develop particularly extreme beliefs that put them at odds with most Muslims. While they never became a major political or religious force in the Muslim world, they had major impact on their own times and their ideology has been replicated numerous times by other fringe groups throughout the past 1400 years.
In Islamic sciences, all knowledge of the religion comes back to two sources: the Qur’an and the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ – the Hadith. The Qur’an is considered the un-changed word of Allah as revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and is thus the foundation of all Islamic knowledge. Second after the Qur’an is the example set forth by the Prophet ﷺ.
But considering that he lived 1400 years ago, how can we be sure that the sayings and doings we attribute to him are real and unchanged? To someone unfamiliar with the science of hadith, the collections of Hadith may seem unreliable and susceptible to corruption. However, due to the work of Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari in the 9th century, the science of Hadith has been protected from such problems using a systematic and thorough method of verification for each and every saying attributed to the Prophet ﷺ. Thus, in the 21st century we can still benefit directly from the authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ promised that every century, a re-newer of the faith of Islam will arise. Throughout history, great Muslim intellectuals, rulers, generals, and artists have come and managed to rejuvenate faith in the Muslim world and help Muslims deal with the problems of that age. For each one of these great figures, a specific historical context was necessary for them to accomplish what they did.
One of the greatest renewers of the faith in history was the 11th century scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Today, he is known as Hujjat al-Islam, the Proof of Islam, because of his efforts in intellectually fighting against some of the most dangerous ideas and philosophies that plagued the Muslim world during his time. From the ubiquitous nature of ancient Greek philosophy to the rising tide of political Shi’ism, Imam al-Ghazali did not leave a stone unturned in his effort to bring back serious Islamic scholarship in the face of heterodox threats.
The awakening of Europe from the Dark Ages and the subsequent intellectual enlightenment of the 1600s-1800s was one of the most powerful movements in modern history. It brought to Europe a dedication to empirical science, critical thinking, and intellectual discourse. Much of this was imported from the Muslim world’s intellectual history, through Muslim entry points into Europe such as Spain, Sicily, and Southeast Europe.
This rise in intellectual work coincided with a period of European imperialism and colonialism over the Muslim world. European nations such as England, France, and Russia slowly conquered portions of the Muslim world, dividing it among themselves. Thus the intellectual enlightenment, coupled with imperialism over the Muslim world, led to what the Europeans saw as a critical study of Islam, its history, beliefs, and teachings. This movement is known as Orientalism. One of the greatest shortcomings of Orientalism, however, is the analysis of Islamic history on European terms, discarding the centuries of academic work put in by great Muslim minds since the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
One of the most dangerous aspects of Orientalism was the European study of the origins of the Quran. Since it is well accepted in academic circles that both the Torah of the Jews and the New Testament of the Christians have changed over the centuries, European academics erroneously believed the same must be true about the Quran. Their efforts to prove their belief that the Quran has been changed and is not authentic led to studies and works of questionable intention and low scholarly merit. This article will critically analyze the origins of the Quran, its transmission, and its compilation, to understand why Muslims accept the copies of the Quran they have in their homes to be the exact same words that were spoken by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the early 600s AD.
The following is a translation from the opening pages Ibn Khaldun’s book of world history, Tarikh ibn Khaldun, written in 1377 in North Africa.
Ibn Khaldun was a scholar of history, economics, sociology, and historiography. His summary of history and particularly its introduction, the Muqaddimah, is seen by many as the basis for modern historical philosophy.
“Know that the subject of history is a noble science that can be very beneficial only if it gives us a proper understanding of:
1- Previous nations’s morals and character
2- The stories of the Prophets
3- Government and politics
For whoever embarks on the study of history, they will end up in a beneficial imitation of the mindset of previous peoples in the subjects of religion and worldly matters.
This subject is dependent on studying numerous sources, understanding diverse subjects, having the best insight and analysis, and being able to verify the truth of sources as they can deviate and be filled with mistakes. Historical research must not be dependent on bare copying of all reports. It should instead be based on an understanding of local customs, politics, the nature of civilization, and the local conditions of where humans live. You must also be able to compare primary and secondary sources, as they can help you differentiate between the truth and falsehood, helping derive conclusions that are believable and honest.”
Translation by Firas Alkhateeb.
So far in our four part series on the four great imams of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), we have seen each one of the imams have a special and enduring role in Islamic history. Imam Abu Hanifawas the trailblazer when it came to codifying fiqh and establishing the basics of how it is to be studied. Imam Malik upheld the importance of hadith in the field of fiqh through his landmark collection of hadith, al-Muwatta. And Imam al-Shafi’i revolutionized the study of fiqh by establishing the field of usul al-fiqh, the principles behind the study of fiqh.
For the last of the four great imams, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, his contribution went beyond just fiqh. Although he was one of the greatest jurists and scholars of hadith of his time, perhaps his greatest legacy was his courage to stand for the orthodox beliefs of Islam as they were imparted to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the face of persecution and imprisonment at the hands of the political authority. For this reason, Imam Ahmad’s legacy is far more than just the establishment of the Hanbali madhab, but also includes the preservation of core Islamic beliefs against political oppression.
In the study of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, different schools have developed over time. These schools were founded by the greatest legal minds in Islamic history, and expanded upon by their successors in their schools. Each one of these imams added a unique and new dimension to the understanding of Islamic law.
For the third of the four great imams, Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i, his great contribution was the codifying and organization of a concept known as usul al-fiqh – the principles behind the study of fiqh. During his illustrious career, he learned under some of the greatest scholars of his time, and expanded on their ideas, while still holding close to the Quran and Sunnah as the main sources of Islamic laws. Today, his madhab (school of thought), is the second most popular on earth, after the madhab of Imam Abu Hanifa.
The collection and codification of Islamic law has historically been one of the most important, and challenging, tasks that the Muslim community has undertaken in 1400 years of history. To be considered a faqih (an expert in Islamic law – fiqh), one must have mastery of the Quran, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, other sources of law, as well as other subjects such as grammar and history.
One of the giants of Islamic law was the 8th century scholar of Madinah, Malik ibn Anas. At a time when the Muslim community desperately needed the sciences of fiqh and hadith (sayings and doings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) to be organized, Imam Malik rose to the occasion. His legacy is manifest in his continued influence throughout the Muslim world, both through his own works and the works of those he helped guide on a path of scholarship and devotion to Islam.
The understanding of the laws and code of conduct of Islam is something that has constantly been evolving throughout Islamic history. The first generations of Muslims after the Prophet ﷺ had a much easier time understanding what is expected out of them as Muslims because they had access to the Sahaba, the companions of the Prophet ﷺ. As history progressed, however, a need arose to codify Islamic laws into organized and easy to access law codes.
The first person who undertook this monumental task was the great scholar Imam Abu Hanifa. Through his efforts, the first school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the Hanafi school, developed. Today, the Hanafi school is the largest and most influential among the four schools (madhabs) of fiqh.
في امان الله
Your brother in Islam,
A Shabbir Ahmed