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.