The Influence of the Early Muslim-Christian Relations on the Mu’tazila Theology

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What was the central theme of the Muslim-Christian debates?

Mu’tazila, an Islamic school of thought, appeared in the 8th century in the city of Basra. According to legend, Wasil bin Ata’ (d. 748) , the founder of the Mu’tazila school, walked out of the teaching circle of al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) and “isolated” himself, rejecting his ideas about Murtakib al-Kabira (a person who commits a sin). Hasan’s statement that “i’tazala anna—he separated/departed from us” became later the title of the school that followed Wasil’s thoughts. Although the traditions discussing the name Mu’tazila do not present sufficient evidence, there is no doubt that the latter Mu’tazili scholars embraced and used this title. The Mu’tazila, as people who separated, is very meaningful as it describes a group of people who pursued a completely different path to explain religious issues from the traditional way of thinking.

As Wasil’s followers, the Mu’tazila scholars did not limit their differences to their ideas on Murtakib al-Kabira. Later, they called themselves Ahl al-‘Adl wa al-Tawhid (People of Justice and Monotheism/Unity) based on the theology they advocated. Mu’tazila is known as the first school that established the method of Kalam (Islamic theology) in Islam. This method suggested using philosophical reasoning (al-aql) besides the Scriptures (al-naql). Further, it appropriated the use of Greek philosophy to make theological explanations, where rationalism was superior to the knowledge gained from the texts. Since the scholars who lived before the emergence of Sunni theology did not use theological method like Mu’tazilis, they did not propose any interpretation for God’s attributes; for example, they only repeated what the Scriptures said without any comment. But, the Mu’tazila developed its own understanding about God’s attributes.

The Mu’tazilis were not only known as scholars in history. In attempt to make their conclusions valid ideas of the state, the Mu’tazila scholars did not confine themselves to scholarly work alone. Getting the support of Abbasid caliphs, they forced the other scholars to accept the Mu’tazili ideas. They did not deal with their Muslim opponents only, and were the first defenders of Islam against foreign factors including Christianity.
According to historical records, most debates between Muslims and Christians occurred around the Trinity Doctrine. Muslim criticism about the Trinity was clear by the Qur’anic verses. Christian scholars tried to explain the Trinitarian understanding regarding God’s attributes during their first contact with their Muslim compatriots. At this point, as the Mu’tazila scholars developed an entirely different theory of God’s Attributes from the Sunni tradition, many think that their purpose was to react and respond to Christian ideas. However, it should be noted that the Mu’tazila School of Thought did not reject God’s attributes entirely; but, interpreted them as ineligible for use of Christians. Criticizing Mu’tazila’s attempts, Fazlur Rahman stated:

“How does one reconstruct, for example, the medieval theological doctrines of God and His attributes? It is clear enough that the Mu’tazili doctrine of the denial of attributes was palpably influenced by the totally extrinsic Trinitarian doctrine of Christianity (with whose representatives, among others, the Mu’tazila were waging controversies). But what light can it throw on the Qur’anic God to know now to conceive of one God out of three hypostases? The very starting point of this doctrine and the whole controversy around it is, therefore, wrong. ”

In this work, we will attempt to give the meaning of Mu’tazili ideas in the light of the early Muslim-Christian relations. In this sense, we will try to explain how Christian and Mu’tazili scholars influenced each other during their contacts. However, we will focus mostly on Christian influence on Mu’tazili thoughts. Therefore, my thesis is that Christian beliefs which were known very well by Mu’tazila had influence on Mu’tazili scholars to give their first principle a direction differently from Sunnis. This thesis will first discuss the historical development of Christian-Muslim relations. We will have a chance to see how the two sides improved their arguments. Second, the theological approaches of the relations will be discussed. From the Mu’tazila point of view, we will try to explore al-Qadi Abd al-Jabbar’s opinions for two important reasons. First, Abd al-Jabbar is one of the most important scholars among Mu’tazilis. But more importantly, his books are the most systematically written works in the Mu’tazila history and his explanations are more profound among other Mu’tazili scholars. After realizing Mu’tazila philosophy in Abd al-Jabbar’s thoughts, the approaches of Sunnis will be briefly mentioned.

1. How did the implementation of the Kalam methodology affect the Mu’tazila theology?
2. What was the central theme of the Muslim-Christian debates?
3. What was the main criticism of the Mu’tazila Doctrine?

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