Lesson Four: The Mu’tazilites (2)

The origin of Justice

In the previous chapter, we mentioned, in general terms, the five tenets of the Mu’tazilites. We have, though, discussed in some detail their belief in monotheism. In this chapter, we will be discussing the second of their tenets, i.e. Justice.

It is manifestly clear that there is not a single Islamic sect that considers Justice among the Divine Attributes. No one has said that God is not just. However, the Mu’tazilites differed with their arch opponents, i.e. the Ash’arites, in interpretation. The Asha’rites advanced their argument in such a way that the Mu’tazilites regard as equivalent to rejecting it. For their part, the Ash’arites do not accept the charge that they are rejecters of Justice.

The Mu’tazilites’ belief in Justice is that they maintain that some actions in themselves are just while others are in themselves unjust, such as rewarding the obedient and punishing the sinner, which are thought to be just. So, when we say, “God is Just”, it is because He rewards the dutiful and punishes the offender; it is impossible that He goes contrary to that, and yet, if He does the opposite, it would count as injustice, in which case it is impossible that it could emanate from Him. By the same token, coercing man to commit vile deeds or dispossessing his willpower is regarded as unfair and unjust, which cannot emanate from God, as it is abhorrent, is not permissible, and goes contrary to the Divine affairs.

However, the Ash’arites maintain that there is no such action as intrinsically just or unjust. And yet, what God does is just. Supposing that He rewarded the sinner and punished the obedient, this is the very justice. Similarly, if He took away their willpower and made them commit that which is vile, then punished them for it, this cannot be regarded as miscarriage of justice.

Thus, the Mu’tazilites went against the Unity of Actions, because of their reading of Justice in this manner. Central to the Unity of Actions is that man should not commission the action by his own hands. In other words, God is the One who creates it, and because it is obvious that God will punish the offender and reward the compliant, punishing the sinner, who did not sin out of his free will, would be deemed unfair. This is how the Mu’tazilites concluded that Unity of Actions goes contrary to the grain of Justice.

Accordingly, the Mu’tazilites maintain that man has freewill and choice. They, therefore, defended this doctrine passionately, unlike the Ash’arites, who denied man’s freewill.

The Mu’tzalites followed the tenet of Justice - which requires that some actions are inherently just and others are inherently unjust, and that it is entirely for reason to arbitrate which is which - by another wide spanning tenet, i.e. that of inherent good and repugnance of actions. Qualities like truthfulness, trustworthiness, chastity, and piety are in themselves good, as opposed to qualities such as lying, treachery, and vile deeds are abominations by nature. Thus, actions, even before God passes judgement on them, one way or the other, are capable of demonstrating their innate good or bad aspects.

This has guided the Mu’tazilites to another tenet about man’s intellect, in that it is independent and capable of distinguishing what is good and what is repugnant of things. That is, irrespective of what the sharia law resolves, man can tell good from bad. However, the Ash’arites are disinclined to accept this argument.

Nevertheless, this question has led to a host of issues, some relate to the Divine and others to man. The question of God’s works is one of these issues. That is, is there any purpose behind God’s creation? The Mu’tazilites said: If there were no aim behind God’s creation, this would amount to committing something that is repugnant, in which case it is rationally inadmissible. How about asking man to do what is not in his power? That is, can God ask man to do that which he cannot do? The Mu’tazilites say that this is both repugnant and out of the question. Is man capable of upholding unbelief? The Mu’tazilites answer in the affirmative, in that if the believer is not capable of becoming one and the unbeliever is not able to becoming one, the institution of “reward and punishment” would be rendered nonsensical. The Ash’arites take the opposite position.


Promise means the hope for reward and threat is the risk of getting punished if you fell foul of the Law. The Mu’tazilites argue that since God took it upon Himself to reward the Law-abiding among His creation, as He has declared in the Holy Qur’an, “Our Lord! Thou are He that will gather mankind together against a Day about which there is no doubt; for Allah never fails in His promise.” (3/9) . And since there is unanimity between Muslims on this, He will not break His promise insofar as punishment is concerned. Therefore, God will fulfil all the threats with punishment issued to the godless and the debauchee, unless they repent in their lifetime. Thus, repentance without forgiveness is not possible.

According to the Mu’tazilites, this would entail withholding the threat, which can be equated with breaking the promise of reward, i.e. if they were true, they would necessarily be both repugnant and inconceivable. This belief of the Mu’tazilites stemmed from the question of rational good and repugnance, which is linked to the issue of forgiveness.

The middle way

The tenet of the Mu’tazilites of the middle way came as a reaction to two beliefs, which were dominant in the world of Islam then, i.e. unbelief/belief of thefasiq (godless). The Kharijites were the first ones to hold that committing a cardinal sin is akin to unbelief (kufr).

As is known, the Kharijites were catapulted on the Islamic ideological scene after the incident of “arbitration” (tahkeem ) in Siffeen war [between the then Caliph, Imam Ali (a.s.) and Mu’awiyah, the then governor of Shaam (Syria) ] in the first half of the first century of the Islamic era, i.e. circa 37 H.

It has been reported in Nahjul Balagha (The path of eloquence) [a collection of Imam Ali’s sermons, letters, axioms, etc. ] that the Imam (a.s.) engaged them in debate and refuted their claim with conclusive evidence. After the rule of Imam Ali (a.s.), the Kharijites took a hostile position vis-à-

vis all the rulers that came after him. They took it upon themselves to uphold the duty of “enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil” to the letter; they were as well the proponents of declaring people godless and unbelievers (at-tafseeq wat-takfeer). And since the majority of the caliphs were committing cardinal sins, the Kharijites branded them unbelievers. That is why they were always on the opposite side of the policies of the ruling establishment.

In opposition to the Kharijites there appeared another sect known by theMurji’ites (Procrastinators), or should we say the ruling establishment established it. They teach that the judgement of every true believer, who has been guilty of a grievous sin, will be deferred [yurj’a, hence the name murji’a], or left in a state of suspension, till resurrection. They also hold that disobedience with faith does not do harm, and that, on the other hand, obedience with infidelity would not benefit the person.

The ruling establishment benefited from the opinions of the Murji’ites, in that people were given licence to overlook the godlessness and profligacy of the rulers. It did not stop there; the wrongdoers among the rulers were even considered for future places in paradise. The Murji’ites maintain, “The imam’s (leader’s) position should not be encroached upon, even though he be a sinner. He should be obeyed and prayer behind him [in congregation] is technically deemed a proper one ”.

The Mu’tazilites teach that whoever is guilty of grievous, or cardinal, sin is neither a believer nor an unbeliever; he is in the middle ground between faith and unbelief. That is why they gave it the name, “middle way, or position”.

It is reported that the first one to espouse this view was Wasil bin Ata’ [d. 130/748], student of al-Hassan al-Basri. It is said that one day he was attending one of his teacher’s lectures on the difference of opinion [on the question of thefasiq (godless)] between the Kharijites and the Murji’ites. Before his teacher gave an opinion, he intervened, saying: I believe those guilty of cardinal sins werefasiq (godless) and not unbelievers. He then left the place; it is also said that his teacher expelled him. Having severed his relations with his teacher, he set up a seminary of his own and started imparting his views. He was joined by his brother-in-law and student, Amr bin Ubaid. This had led al-Hassan al-Basri to remark, “I’itazalana Wasil, i.e. he left our company”. However, the wider public would say, “They [i.e. Wasil and Amr] disagreed with the unanimous word, or view, of the umma (Muslim community)”.

Enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong

This duty [in Arabic:al amr bil ma’rouf wan nahi anil munkar ] is considered among the essentials of Islam. Muslims are unanimous in upholding this tradition, although they may differ as to its boundaries and stipulations. The Kharijites, for instance, say that there are no strings attached to upholding it in all circumstances.

However, some ideologues say that it should be implemented, provided there be a good result, and also with the proviso that carrying it out would not attract unsavoury reaction. And yet, the Kharijites chose to differ. While others suppose that “enjoining good, or right, and forbidding evil, or wrong”

relates to one’s conscience and tongue, the Kharijites have made it compulsory that it be upheld, so much so that, in certain circumstances, they take to the sword to defend it.

Among those who teach that in upholding this duty one should not go beyond verbal counselling was Ahmad bin Hanbal [d.245/855]. At some stage during the Umayyad dynastic rule, this view was taken on board, so much so that campaigns to root out objectionable actions (mukaraat) were ruled impermissible.

The Mu’tazilites accepted the parameters of this duty, without confining it to the verbal. They, however, believe that if objectionable behaviour became widespread, or governments turned out to be repressive and unjust, it becomes incumbent on Muslims to uphold the duty.

This view of the Mu’tazilites goes contrary to that ofAhlul Hadith (the People of the tradition) and the Sunnis, whereas it concurs with that of the Kharijite, irrespective of the other differences between these schools of thought.