Lesson Five: The Mu’tazilites (3)

What has been discussed in the previous two lessons relate to the core beliefs of the Mutazilite School of Thought. However, and as we have already mentioned, they advanced many views and opinions and defended them fervently. Some of those views relate to different disciplines, such as divinity, physics (or natural sciences), sociology, and man. Insofar as subjects of divinity, or metaphysics, are concerned, there are those, which involve the public aspects, and those that deal with the intimate aspects. It goes without saying that, in common with other speculative theologians, the Mu’tazilites have aimed to deal with the latter, which revolve around the core of religious beliefs. As regards the discussion on public affairs, it is deemed as a prelude to the wider issues of discussing metaphysics. The same applies to natural sciences. That is, should theologians embark on any question in the domain of physics, they do so as a lead up to proving a religious belief or solving a problem relating to it. We give below a summary of those views, starting with metaphysics.

The Divine

Unity of the Attributes.


The Word, or speech, of God; is it created, i.e. is the Word a characteristic of the Action, and not of the Essence?

God’s actions have aims, i.e. each and every action that emanates from God has a purpose and serves an interest.

Forgiveness without repentance is not possible. This is one of the fundamentals, i.e. promise and threat.

Asking man to do more than that in his power is inconceivable.

Man’s actions are not created by God in any form. God’s will has no say in man’s own actions.

The universe has been brought into existence (haadith). This view is diametrically opposed to what philosophers hold.

Physically seeing God, whether in this world or the hereafter, is impossible.

Natural science

The body is composed of indivisible atoms.

Smell is caused by atoms, travelling in the atmosphere.

Flavour is nothing but particles that influence the taste of man.

Light consists of particles travelling in the atmosphere.

Interference of bodies is not inconceivable. This view is espoused by some Mu’tazilites.

Impulsive motion is not inconceivable. This view too is held by some Mu’taziltes.


Man has freewill and choice and is not coerced. This idea relates to the idea of creation of actions and the issue of Divine Justice.

Power, i.e. man has the power to decide, before embarking on any activity, to go ahead with it or abandon it.

The believer is capable of turning into an unbeliever and vice versa.

The godless is neither a believer nor an unbeliever.

Reason, or intellect, is capable of distinguishing certain matters independent of any prior guidance from the sharia Law.

When tradition goes contrary to reason, the latter should take precedence over tradition.

The Holy Qur’an can be interpreted by way of intellection.

Social and political issues

It is compulsory to uphold the duty of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil, even if it requires taking to fighting with the sword.

The succession to power of the Guided Caliphs in the order it took place is sound.

Ali was more superior to those who preceded him to power. This view, however, is espoused by some Mu’tazilites. The majority of them, except Wasil bin Ata’, were of the opinion that Abu Bakr was more superior. However, later generations maintain that Ali was more superior.

It is permissible to criticise the Companions [of the Prophet (s.a.w.)], study and analyse their works.

Undertaking a comparative study of the political programmes of both [the Guided Caliphs] Omar and Ali.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. In some of those issues, the Mu’tazilite views agree with those of the Ash’arites, the philosophers, the Shiites, the Kharijites and the Murj’ites.

It is to be noted, though, that the Mu’tazilites had never fallen under the influence of Greek thought, so much so that they had never espoused any of its philosophical heritage that was in vogue at the pinnacle of the Mu’tazilite ideological acumen. They even went further in writing books, refuting the claims of philosophers. The struggle between speculative theologians (mutakalimeen) and philosophers benefited both the camps, in that the gulf between the two rivals was made very much narrower, in spite of the fact that there remained some issues, on which the two sides chose to differ.

The process of change and history

Naturally, these issues did not come to the fore at one go and were not advanced by a single person or a particular group. They were propagated by several vanguards and espoused and developed steadily by others through the passage of time.

Among those contentious issues was the question of compulsion and empowerment, or delegation, (jabr andtafweedh ), which was the oldest. The Mu’tazilites adopted the principle of delegation. The Holy Qur’an discussed this question in many passages; this might have given rise to mind provoking exercises.

On the one hand, the Holy Qur’an states unequivocally that man has freewill and choice in whatever actions he takes and in his general conduct, i.e. he is not coerced to do anything he is not willing to do.

And yet, there are many Qur’anic passages that state that everything is subjected to the Will of God.

This is how the misunderstanding has happened, as those two sets of Qur’anic verses look seemingly contradictory. Therefore, some took to interpreting the first set to conclude that man has freewill over his actions. Others chose to side with the second set of verses, i.e. those concerning God’s will and decree and destiny (qadha and qadar ), deducing that everything is in the hands of the Divine.

However, there is a third group, who maintain that there is no contradiction between the two sets of verses.

This subject had been extensively discussed in Imam Ali’s words and sermons. However, debating the subject was synonymous with the emergence of Islam as a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, Muslims taking sides on, and splitting into factions over, this issue came into being during the second half of the first century of the Islamic era.

It is said that the idea of man’s freewill was first put forward by Ghelan ad-Dimashqi and Ma’bad aj-Juhni [during the Umayyad rule]. The Umayyad wanted to disseminate the ideology of compulsion (jabr ) among the wider general public for their political ends. Under the slogan, “We believe in divine decree (qadha’), whether good or bad”, they used to justify their unjust and imposed rule. For this reason they persecuted the proponents of the doctrine of man’s freewill and freedom. Similarly, they executed both Ghelan and Ma’bad. The followers of this school were called the Qadri’ites [i.e. the believers in man’s freewill and choice].

As for the issue offisq (godlessness), it was debated even before the question of compulsion and freewill. Its first exponents were the Kharijites, during the rule of Imam Ali (a.s.). However, they did not debate it in a scientific and structured way, as was the case in the discipline ofkalaam (scholastic theology). This, though, was taken up by the Mu’tazilites, who developed it, usingkalaam techniques. The result was the espousal of “the middle way, or position”, [i.e. the godless is neither a believer nor an unbeliever; he is half way between the two].

Discussing the question of decree and destiny had led to a host of other issues. Divine Justice, rational good and repugnance, justifying Divine Actions by way of intents and purposes, and the inconceivability of requiring man to do what is beyond his power and reach, to name but a few.

In the second half of the second century of the Islamic era (Hijri ), a man called al-Jahm bin Safwan [d.127/745] circulated new ideas concerning the Attributes of the Divine. The historians of sects and factions (milel and nihel) allege that Unity of the Attributes, i.e. God’s Attributes are His very Essence, which the Mu’tazilites deem the bedrock of Monotheism, as well as the question of the dissimilarity between God and His creation, i.e. (tanzih) [the principle of elimination of “form and qualities of man” from the conception of the Divine], was first advanced by al- Jahm bin Safwan; his followers were later known by the Jahmi’ites. In the doctrine of empowerment (tafweedh ), The Mu’tazilites followed in the footsteps of the Qadri’ites. As regards monotheism and tanzih they chose to follow the Jahmi’ites. As for bin Safwan himself, he was aJabri’ite .

Thus, and as has been reported, the Mu’tazilites, in two of their fundamental beliefs – monotheism and justice, followed two other groups. That is, in monotheism, they adopted what the Jahmi’ites advocate, and in justice, they emulated the Qadri’ites. It can, therefore, be said that the Mu’tazila school of thought represents the development of the views of the two groups into a distinct shape.

The founder of this school of theology, i.e. who turned it into a distinct sect, was Wasil bin Ata’ al-Ghazzal [d. 130/748], who was a disciple of Al-

Hassan al-Basri. He deserted his teacher after he gave an opinion on the matter of the godless (fasiq ) before waiting for his teacher to reply and left to set up his own seminary. That is why his disciples and the followers of his school are called the deserters, or separatists, i.e. Mu’tazilites. However, others are of the opinion that the name was first given to a group of people who chose to take a neutral position vis-à-vis the wars of al Jamal and Siffen, [which were fought during the rule of Imam Ali], such as Sa’ad bin Abi Waqqas, Zaid bin Thabit, and Abdulla bin Omar. At a later date, when the question of faith or unbelief of thefasiq (godless) was raised by the Kharijites, a question which divided Muslims into two camps, a third group took a third way, preferring to stay neutral. In other words the approach personalities such as bin Waqqas adopted in a political matter. This theological group espoused in an ideological issue, hence the name, Mu’tazilite (non-aligned).

The studies of Wasil bin Ata’ were confined to the issues of God’s Attributes,tafweedh (man’s freewill), the middle way [of the godless], promise and threat, and some other opinions on the differences of the Prophet’s Companions (Sahaaba).

After his departure, Amr bin Ubaid, his brother-in-law and leading disciple, developed his opinions. Among other prominent teachers of this school were Abul Huthail al-Allaf (d. 235H.) and Ibrahim an-Nidham (d. 231H.). At the hands of the last two, the science ofkalaam (speculative theology) took a philosophical tone. Abul Huthail studied the books of the philosophers and wrote critical essays of them. An-Nidham came up with new and numerous theories in physics, among which was the “atoms of bodies”.

Among other luminaries of the Mu’tazilites was Al-Jahidh, the famous man of letters, writer, and author of the book, “Al-Bayan wat Tabyeen” (The Declaration and Elucidation), who lived in the third century of the Islamic era (i.e.Hijri ).

The Mu’tazilites were not on good terms with the rulers of the Umayyad dynasty. In the early days of the Abbasid dynasty, they took a neutral position. However, al-Ma’moun [d. 256/870], the famous Abbasid Caliph took notice of their dogma and granted them protection; this had continued during the rule of both al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq, who succeeded him in the office of Caliphate. Those three caliphs were known to be of a Mu’tazilite persuasion.

In those days,kalaam issues were hotly debated, so much so that debate travelled far and wide in the Islamic world. The question of the Word, or Speech, of God, i.e. is it of the domain of His Actions or His Essence? Is it created or eternal, such as Omnipotence, Life, and Omniscience? And is the Qur’an, which is the Word of God, created and caused or not created and eternal?

The Mu’tazilites are of the opinion that the Word of God is created and that the Qur’an is created and caused; they went even further in declaring those who believe in the eternity of the Qur’an as unbelievers. Others took the opposite view. Al-Ma’moun issued an order, punishing any person who

maintained that the Qur’an is eternal. As a result many people were imprisoned and tortured.

The Abbasid Caliphs al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathinq continued the policy of their predecessor al-Ma’moun, in cracking down on dissent. Ahmad bin Hanbal [d.245/833], the founder of the Hanbalite School of Thought was the most famous of their prisoners. The Caliph al-Mutawakkil turned his back to the Mu’tazilites and persecuted them. During those testing times, a lot of blood was spilled and properties ransacked. Muslims dub that period as “tribulation”.

That onslaught by al-Mutawakkil almost decimated the Mu’tazilites. The arena was left forAhlus Sunnah (The Sunnis) andAhlul Hadith (the People of the Tradition).

Nevertheless, even during the periods of their weakness, they managed to produce outstanding ideologists, such as Abul Qassim al-Balkhi, also known as al-Ka’bi (d. 217 H.), Abu Ali al-Jibba’i (d. 303 H.), his son, Abu Hashim al-Jibba’i, Judge Abdul Jabbar al-Mu’tazili (d. 415 H.), Abul Hassan al-Khayyat, who lived at the lifetime of as-Sahib bin Abbad, az-Zamakhshari (d. 583 H.) and Abu Ja’far al-Iskafi.