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Muʿtazilah

By:
Racha el Omari
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Muʿtazilah

The Muʿtazilah were a major theological school of Islam that was renowned for holding reason (ʿaql) above scripture and other sources of religious knowledge and for its development of the method of dialectical theology (ʿilm al-kalām). It emerged from obscure origins in the middle of second/eighth century and lasted as an independent school into the sixth/twelfth century. The origin of the term Muʿtazilah—meaning those who set themselves apart or those who stand aside—remains as little known as that of the school itself. One account relates how Wāṣil b. ʿAtāʿ (d. AH131/748–749 CE), or his student ʿAmr b. ʿUbayd (d. AH144/761 CE), set himself apart (iʿtazala) from the study circle of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. AH110/728 CE) in disagreement about the status of the grave sinner. Despite its unfounded historicity, this story was widely circulated, by both the Muʿtazilah and others, in explanation of their origins and name.

In the first part of the third/ninth century Abū al-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d. AH226, 227, or 235/840, 842, 847, or 850 C.E.), the first systematizer of Muʿtazilah thought, identified five principles as shared by the Muʿtazilah to mark them as a self-consciously separate group and these principles were in turn projected back onto earlier Muʿtazilah figures.

The first principle proclaims divine oneness (tawḥīd). On the one hand this principle interprets the many attributes of God in the Qurʿān as existing only metaphorically (majāz), lest multiple entities are affirmed in God. These attributes, therefore, have no existence outside of His oneness, such that God hears, sees, and knows through His essence and not through them. On the other hand this principle implies God's transcendence (tanzīh) so that verses describing God in human terms or as having a body, such as His “having a hand” (God's hand is above theirs, 10:48) or “sitting on the throne,” (the Merciful sat on the throne, 5:20) also have to be understood metaphorically.

The double implications of their first principle brought against them the accusation of divesting God of His nature (taʿṭīl). One of the more historically controversial consequences of this principle was their doctrine that the Qurʿān was the “created speech of God” and not part of His essence, since speech as they saw it was one of God's attributes of action. Proclaiming that God's speech is eternal would entail its coeternity with Him and that, they argued, would be nothing less than proclaiming a duality in God.

Their second principle of divine justice (ʿadl) imposes on God the moral imperative of doing what is already known by reason to be just and good. It also pronounces man to be the creator of his actions, namely free will, for God would not be just had He created man's evil deeds and then held him responsible for them. This in turn brought against them the accusations of denying divine will. Their third principle of the punishment and threat (waʿd wa al-waʿīd) implies that God punishes whoever transgresses His command according to His promise in the Qurʿān, thereby setting limitations on God's absolute will (including His mercy) and undermining the Prophet's and Imam's (for Twelver Shīʿīs) intercession on behalf of the believers. Their fourth principle of the “intermediate position” (manzilah bayn al-manzilatayn) assigns a category for the grave sinner as neither a believer nor an unbeliever, but of a fāsiq (mortal sinner). They did not consider that the fāsiq should be ostracized from the Muslim community in legal matters—for example, the funeral prayer is said for him, though the Muʿtazilah deemed him condemned to eternal damnation in hell. Their fifth principle necessitates the responsibility of intervening in the affairs of the community, namely enjoining good and forbidding wrong. It is noteworthy that this principle was adopted with various degrees of intensity among other Muslim groups, such as Sunnīs.

The Muʿtazilah, however, were far from a homogenous or unified school of thought. Experimentation and heterogeneity marked their middle period in particular, which extended from the beginning of the third/ninth century up until the end of the miḥnah. For example, Ibrāhīm b. Sayyār al-Naẓẓām (died between AH 220 and 230/835 and 845 CE) opposed the atomist world view of Muʿtazilah. In his description of human action Dirār b. ʿAmr (d. AH131/749 CE) withstood the Muʿtazilah doctrine of free will and prefigured the traditionalist, rationalist view of Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī's “acquisition” doctrine (kasb). This middle period coincides with the Muʿtazilah rise to a brief and brutally enforced orthodoxy through the policies of al-Maʿmūn (r. AH 196–218/812–833 CE) and his two successors who favored the Jahmite and Muʿtazilah doctrine of the createdeness of the Qurʿān, namely during the miḥnah (AH 218–234/833–849 CE). The third phase in the development of the Muʿtazilah, usually described as the “classical” or “scholastic” period, is marked by efforts to build a coherent system of thought through the competing efforts of two schools: the Basran school with Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʿī (d. AH303/915–916 CE) and his son Abū Hāshim (d. AH321/933 CE) and the Baghdādī school with Abū al-Qāsim al-Kaʿbī al-Balkhī (d. AH319/931 CE). It was the doctrines of the Basrans as formulated by Abū Hāshim that thrived and prevailed in Zaydī and Twelver Shīʿī theology. Indeed, it is mainly thanks to the persistence of Muʿtazilah theology in these two Shīʿī traditions that their thought is available today.

The end of the classical or scholastic period came to a head when the Muʿtazilah suffered a strong setback under the anti-Muʿtazilah and anti-Shīʿī policies of the Seljuks (fifth to sixth/eleventh to twelfth centuries) from which they were never to recover fully. Unlike its legacy among Zaydīs and Twelver Shīʿīs, the Muʿtazilah left a negative legacy among Sunnīs and, after the miḥnah, became equated with heresy and corrupt belief. However, in the nineteenth century, Sunnī Islamic reformists such as Muhammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) adopted the “rationalism” of Muʿtazilah doctrines in order to ground their reform agenda in Islamic history (see his Risālat al-tawḥīd). Despite their rather eclectic reading of Muʿtazilah thought, these Sunnī neo-Muʿtazilī aspirations are significant in so far as the Muʿtazilah came to be perceived as an acceptable form of reformed orthodoxy among Sunnī Muslims.

See also ʿABDUH, MUHAMMAD; KALAM; PHILOSOPHY; and THEOLOGY.

Bibliography

  • Ess, Josef van. Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra: eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991–1997. The most comprehensive intellectual and social history of the Muʿtazilah up to the middle of the third/ninth century. Its fourth volume includes an exhaustive survey of secondary literature and primary sources on the Muʿtazilah as well as a thematic discussion of their doctrines.
  • Ess, Josef van. “Muʿtazilites.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 10, 220–229. New York: Macmillian, 1987. This article expounds the doctrines of the Muʿtazilah and outlines their history with great clarity and detail.
  • Frank, Richard M.Beings and their Attributes: The Teaching of the Basrian School of the Muʿtazila in the Classical Period. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978. Sheds light on the innovative teachings of Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʿī on the divine attributes, specifically his doctrine of the states (aḥwāl), through a close examination of the original Arabic.
  • Peters, J. R. T. M.God's Created Speech: A Study in the Speculative Theology of the Muʿtazilī Qādī al-qudāt Abū l-Ḥasan ʿAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Hamadānī. Leiden: Brill, 1976. This monograph is primarily an exposition of the Basran Muʿtazilah ʿAbd al-Jabbār's (d. AH 415/1025) doctrine on the createdness of the Qurʿān as presented in volume 7 of his major work al-Mughnī fī abwāb al-tawḥīd wa al-ʿadl. It also includes a fairly accessible exposition for the non-specialist of Basran Muʿtazilī theology as represented by ʿAbd al-Jabbār, most importantly its epistemology, ontology, and theodicy.
  • Martin, Richard C.Defenders of Reason in Islam: Muʿtazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol. Oxford, 1997. This work provides an excellent introduction to the Muʿtazilah for its inclusion of a full translation of ʿAbd al-Jabbār's summary of his Uṣūl al-khamsah (the five principles), and its inclusion of a brief history of the Muʿtazilah and finally for its discussion of a neo-Muʿtazilah text.
  • McDermott, Martin. The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd (d. AH 413/1022 CE). Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 1978. Provides the most comprehensive exposition of the Twelver Shīʿī doctrines of al-Shaykh al-Mufīd who adopted much of the Baghdādī Muʿtazilah school doctrines and compares the Baghdādī Muʿtazilah doctrines to those of the Basrans.
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