Lesson Three: The Mu’tazilites (1)

We embark on this study into the Mua’tazilites for a reason, which we will discuss later.

This group came into being towards the end of the first century of the Islamic era, or at the turn of the second century. Naturally, during this period,kalaam , or scholastic theology, had already developed into a fully-fledged science.

At the outset, we list down the Mua’tazilites’ distinctive systems of belief. We will then make reference to their famous personalities, stating some outstanding dates in their calendar, and ending with the process of change their doctrines had gone through before they took their final shape.

The issues the Mu’tazilites had discussed were diverse, in that they were not only interested in purely religious beliefs, which should be upheld from their perspective. Any thing that has a bearing on the religious, they did not hesitate to embark on discussing. Thus, issues of philosophical, social, humanitarian, and environmental dimensions were discussed. However, according to them, these issues have a relationship with issues of faith and conviction. They believe that discussing the latter was not going to come true unless the former subjects were discussed.

The Mu’tazilites hold five tenets, they consider fundamental to their core belief:

  1. Monotheism, i.e. in Essence and Attributes.

  2. Justice, i.e. God is Just and is incapable of doing injustice.

  3. Promise and threat, i.e. God has promised those who obeyed Him with reward. By the same token, He has threatened those who disobeyed Him with punishment. And since the promised reward will not be revoked, so will the threat of punishment. However, forgiveness is feasible only with man’s repentance. Forgiveness will not be granted without it.

  4. The middle way, i.e. thefasiq (godless), i.e. the person who has committed a cardinal sin, such as consuming alcohol, adultery, or lying, is neither a believer nor an unbeliever. That is, they are neither here nor there; in other words, half way between belief and unbelief.

  5. Enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil; the Mu’tazilites argue that the way to know what is good and what is evil is not confined to sharia law, in that independent reasoning is capable of recognizing good and evil. Furthermore, they maintain that upholding this duty does not necessarily require the existence of an Imam, or leader, since it is the duty of all Muslims to uphold it. And yet, they also recognize that some aspects of this duty are the prerogatives of the leaders of Muslims, such as executing the Islamic penal code, preserving the integrity of Muslim territories, and other government affairs.

Mu’tazilite theologians discussed those fundamental tenets in detail, in works, such as alUsul al-Khamsa (the Five Fundamentals) by Judge Abdul Jabbar al-Mu’tazili, who was a contemporaneous to Sahib bin Abbad and as-Sayyid al-Murtadha Allamul Huda.

As is evident, monotheism and justice are the only tenets that can be considered as those of belief/faith. As for the remaining three fundamentals, they are distinctly Mu’atazilite. Even “Justice”, which is a religious

necessity, as is evident in the Qur’an, being one of the five fundamentals of religion, has been considered as one of their five tenets, because they deem it among the features of their school of thought. Otherwise, it is not different from the Divine Omniscience and Omnipotence that are among the necessities of religion and its beliefs.

According to the Shia School of Thought, Justice is one of the five fundamentals of religion. At this point, one may pose a question as to the uniqueness of this fundamental that made it one of the five fundamentals. That is, as God is Just, He is Omniscient, Living, Hearing, Seeing, and Omnipotent. Man has to believe in all those Attributes. So, why was Justice singled out with distinction above the rest?

The answer to this question is that Justice does not have any merit over and above any other Attributes. As for Shia theologians, they have made it one of the five fundamentals of the faith, whereas the Ash’arites, who constitute the majority of Sunnis, denied it, unlike the other Attributes, such as Omniscience, Life, and Will.

Accordingly, believing in Justice is one of the characteristics of Shia beliefs, as is the case with the Mu’tazilites.

Therefore, the five tenets are the main features of the Mu’tazilite School of Thought, despite the fact that not all their beliefs are reflected in those five tenets, for they put forward and discussed many subjects relating to divinity, natural sciences, sociology, and the humanities.


Monoteism is of different orders and categories. These include Unity of the Essence (Tawheed thati), Unity of the Attributes (Tawheed sifati ), Unity of the Actions (Tawheed afa’ali ), Unity of worship (Tawheed ibadi ).

Unity of the Essence means that the Essence of God is one, none is like Him and no similitude can apply to Him. Everything else is created by Him and thus lower than Him in status and perfection; rather, it cannot be compared to Him. The Qur’anic verses, “None is like Him ” and “And there is none like unto Him ” testify to this.

Unity of the Attributes means that God’s Attributes, such as knowledge, power, life, will, perception, hearing, and vision are not distinct from His nature. In other words, any of these Attributes could qualify for His Essence.

Unity of the Actions means that all actions, including those of man, are commissioned with the will of God.

Unity of worship means that there is no one besides God who is worthy of worship. Worshipping others amounts to polytheism (shirk ) and thus causes estrangement from the domain of Islamic monotheism.

Exclusively worshipping the One and Only God is different from other categories, in that the other three relate to God, whereas Unity of worship relates to man.

In other words, upholding (a) the integrity of His Essence, rendering it devoid of any peer or similitude, (b) the unity of His Attributes, and (c) the Unity of the Actions, are considered His exclusive preserve. As for the unity of worship, it means that one should worship the One and Only God. And yet, unity of worship can still be considered of His own affairs, in that it

involves calling no associates with Him and that He is worthy of worship, i.e. being the True and Only God that should be worshiped; the phrase, “There is no god but God ” consists of all classes of monotheism. Naturally, it suggests unity of worship.

Unity of the Essence and Unity of worship are the two ancient parts of fundamentals of belief in Islam. For any Muslim to experience any mix-up in these two parts, he would not be deemed Muslim. That is why Muslims are unanimous in upholding these two fundamentals.

However, the Wahhabi sect, founded by Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab, a follower of Ibn Taymiyyah al-Hanbali ash-Shami maintains that some of Muslims’ beliefs, such as intercession, and some of their devotional works, such as pleading with the prophets and the good Muslims go against the grain of worship. And yet, the rest of Muslims do not share the Wahhabis their views.

Therefore, the disagreement of the Wahhabis with the rest of Muslims does not revolve around the issue of whether the true Unity of worship is exclusively God’s or others’, such as the prophets. This goes without saying. Rather, the argument concentrates on whether or not these intercessions and invocations are types of worship. Muslim scholars refuted the Wahhabi argument with detailed counterargument and plenty of evidence.

As regards Unity of the Attributes, there has been a rift between the Mu’tazilite and Ash’arites, in that the latter denied it, whereas the former upheld it. Another disagreement erupted between the two schools regarding Unity of the Actions, but this time the other way round; the Ash’arites upheld it, whereas the Mu’tazilites rejected it.

When the Mu’tazilites call themselves Ahlut Tawhid (the People of Monotheism), and deem monotheism one of their five tenets, they mean Unity of the Attributes, and not that of the Essence or of Worship – because both of them are not subject of disagreement. The exclusion also goes for Unity of the Actions, because they (a) deny it and (b) deal with their belief in it under the tenet of Justice, which is the second in the order of the five fundamentals they advocate.

Both the Ash’arites and the Mu’tazilites are diametrically opposed to one another regarding the categories of Unity of the Attributes and Unity of the Actions. The proponents of each school discussed their evidence in support of their respective arguments. In a separate chapter, we shall discuss the Shia belief regarding the two categories.