The Mu’tazila Principles

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The factors that birthed the Mu’tazila movement are essential in understanding their position in the history of Islamic Schools of Thought. These factors can be summarized in three points: first, the martyrdom of the third Caliph, Othman, was the main reason that created chaos among Muslims. This chaos was not only politically motivated, but was also theological due to two factors. During this time many Muslims were killed by their fellow brothers in Islam. This caused a dilemma that lead the remaining Muslims to ponder about the killers in particular, and the people who commit major sins in general. While some believed that the sinners were not believers, others suggested that they were indeed believers. At this point, the Mu’tazila School of Thought took a unique position and declared that the sinners were neither believers nor disbelievers.1 Another theological discussion occurred around predestination. It is believed that people began to think about predestination when they saw many disasters, killings, and chaos. Some Muslims believed that everything was beyond their control as it was predestined by God. But, the Mu’tazila Scholars stood at the opposite end and proclaimed that everyone determined their destination with their free will and actions.2

Second, when Muslims conquered many new lands following the death of the Prophet (PBUH), they were exposed to various foreign cultures, religions, and beliefs. Theological battles were not as easy as the wars that the Muslims took part in. The danger, because of the confrontation, was that the foreigners who either embraced Islam or kept their original religions could insert incorrect thoughts into Islamic theology. Due to this reason, the Mu’tazila needed a super-religious language such as philosophy to win this battle.

The third reason is closely related to the second. Some scholars believe that the attention of the Mu’tazila School of Thought to Greek Philosophy influenced the formation of their principles. The Mu’tazili scholars were aware of Greek Philosophy as many such work were translated into Arabic during the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate.3 There is no doubt that Mu’tazila used Greek Philosophy; but a question still remains: did they determine their theology according to philosophical conclusions or did they derive benefit from philosophical thinking only to defend Islamic theology?

Some scholars introduced themselves as Mu’tazili, and many scholars independently defended the Mu’tazili ideas. But, what are the criteria that are necessary to determine if somebody is a Mu’tazili? It is accepted that there is consensus on five essential principles which are termed ‘al-usul al-khamsa’ among Mu’tazila followers. These are, briefly, al-tawhid (divine unity), al-adl (justice), al-wa’d wa al-waid (eternal reward and punishment), al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn (a position between the two positions), and al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy an al-munkar (commanding to do good and forbidding evil). This article does not aim to provide details on all five principles;4 however, it will attempt to clarify the first principle— al-tawhid.

Mu’tazila’s first principle is reserved for al-tawhid, meaning monotheism—a concept embraced by all Islamic Schools of Thought. However, the Mu’tazila School of Thought has a unique idea about God’s attributes. According to this principle, God has attributes but these attributes have no independent meaning. God’s attributes are the abstract meanings existing and operating within God’s nature. Therefore, it can be said that God is the Knower, Hearer, and Seer but not there are attributes of knowing, hearing, and seeing. Namely, God knows, hears, and sees with his essence without any attribute. Mu’tazila insists that if one accepts the existence of independent attributes, he/she will be forced to accept more eternal beings than one (taaddud al-qudama). Such an acceptance is heresy and against al-tawhid.5

Al-Qadi Abd Al-Jabbar extensively argues the principle of al-tawhid in his major work.6 According to him, the only eternal being is God. The first essential attribute of eternal God is power (al-qudrah), because we witness God’s actions (al-fi’l) (and creations) in this world; and these actions clearly show that He is Powerful (al-Qaadir). Without power, it is not possible to display any action. God’s omnipotence means that He is All-Powerful in eternity and His power is valid for everything without any exception. In other words, there is nothing impossible for God. God’s actions in this world show not only His power but also His knowledge (al-ilm) because actions cannot be made without knowledge. So He is all-Knowing (al-Alim) in eternity and His knowledge covers everything. God’s knowledge and power prove that He is living (al-Hayy). Likewise, God is identified in Abd Al-Jabbar’s system as all-Hearing (al-Basir), all-Seeing (al-Sami’). Finally, he deals with God’s Being (or existence / wujud) and His eternity (qidam).7 Thus far, no problem seems to be in God’s attributes because the other Schools of Thought including Asharites and Maturidis have the same notion about the attributes. However, in Mu’tazila’s understanding, God’s qidam appears as a key term. Thus, Al-Qadi mentions this term at the end of the all attributes. Thereafter, he begins to argue the significance of these attributes.

Abd Al-Jabbar rejects three opinions of different Schools of Thought. The first opinion is that one cannot consider the attributes as eternal or with a beginning. Regarding the attribute of ‘knowing’ (ilm), one may conclude that God knows through a kind of ‘knowledge’ (indefinite form of ‘ilm’; in this form, ‘ilm’ can be considered as either eternal or not). Abd al-Jabbar insists that knowledge, for instance, in its independent meaning must be either eternal or opposite. Each option is false for being an attribute of God. Secondly, the attributes are created meanings. For example, God knows through ‘created knowledge’. This is also a false idea. Lastly, his attributes have independent eternal meanings. For example, God knows through the attribute of ‘eternal knowledge’. This is the most dangerous thinking pattern according to Abd al-Jabbar. So, what does he think about the problem? According to Abd al-Jabbar and the other Mu’tazili scholars (if one does not mind little disagreements among them), there is no reality for the attributes. For example, God knows with His essence (li dhatihi = by Himself). Therefore, in the final statement, God’s attributes are abstract meanings. God knows without ‘knowledge’, hears without ‘hearing’, and sees without ‘seeing’. Of course, Abd al-Jabbar presents many verses as evidence for his thoughts.8

The principle of al-tawhid brought the position of the Qur’an into light. Since God had no eternal attribute, the Qur’an emerging from His ‘Speaking’ was not eternal. But, according to the Mu’tazila scholars, the Qur’an was created. This idea created long and harsh disagreements among Muslims. Through the support of the Abbasid Caliphs, Mu’tazila scholars attempted to suppress other scholars who opposed the Mu’tazili ideas. As a result, a dark period in the history of Islam emerged and is remembered to date as ‘mihna’ (ordeal). This period was similar to the Medieval European Inquisitions, and involved imprisonment, a religious test, and a loyalty oath. During this period, Caliph al-Ma’mun (786-833), who was under the influence of the Mu’tazila theology, ensured that elites, scholars, judges, and other government officials underwent the test. The penalty of failing mihna could also include death.

Just as the Mu’tazili had disagreements with other religions, Al-Qadi Abd al-Jabbar too had numerous disagreements with various other traditions which he emphasizes in his book. And the largest criticism among them was reserved for Christianity. These arguments centered on the concept of ‘al-tawhid’; similarly, the Mu’tazili criticisms against the other religions, including Christianity, also center on al-tawhid.

Abd al-Jabbar used al-Nawbakhti9 as his source for information on Christian theology. Although he utilized a secondary source, it is clear that his knowledge on the subject is profound. Abd al-Jabbar criticized Christianity at two points: the doctrine of the Trinity (al-tathlith) and the belief of incarnation (al-ittihad). He also stressed on the disagreement that occurred between the two Christian sects—the Nestorians and Jacobites. He also portrayed the impracticality of the Trinity by providing philosophical details10 that reflect the scholarly context to which al-Qadi belongs to. But the most important point that captures one’s attention is al-Qadi’s conclusion. He argued that Christians consider two personifications of the Trinity (the Son and the Holy Spirit) as two attributes of God—God being a Speaker and Living eternally.11 Therefore, Christians are wrong in their acceptance of two more eternal beings, even if they consider these factors as attributes of God.12 At this point, al-Qadi repeats a basic principle: A person does not increase in number by increasing in attributes.

As a Mu’tazili, Abd al-Jabbar’s understanding of the Trinity is of great importance due to two reasons. First, contemporary Christian theologians attempted to explain the Trinity using the doctrine of ‘God’s attributes’; Al-Kindi’s assertions supported this idea. Second, Mu’tazila embraced their own thoughts firmly when they explored what Christian theology stated about the doctrine of Trinity, and they blamed the other Muslim Schools of Thought such as al-Kullabiya that recognized God’s attributes similar to Christians.

The second subject which was criticized by Al-Qadi was the belief of incarnation in Christianity.13 Again he pays attention to the disagreements among different Christian sects such as Nestorians and Jacobites. He emphasizes the impossibility of incarnation; however, he does not relate incarnation to the attributes of God.

Hence, the Mu’tazila criticized the Christian beliefs that recognized more than one eternal being; while the Muslims accepted God’s attributes or the Qur’an as eternal. All these theological discussions gave rise to the Christian influence on Islamic theology. As a matter of fact, to seek foreign roots of Islamic theology has always been an interest of the Western scholars. Seppo Rissanen discusses this interest of the Western scholars.14 He records Duncan B. Macdonald and T. J. De Boer as two scholars who defend the theory of influence from Christianity depending on the polemics between Muslims and John of Damascus and his pupil Abu Qurra.15 On the other hand, Michel Allard and Montgomery Watt present their doubts about Christian influence on Kalam. According to Allard, “it is possible that some details of reasoning had passed from the Christians to Muslims and vice versa; but so that the essentials on both sides remain original.16 Richard M. Frank also suspects the theory of direct influence.17 Watt and Joseph Van Ess adopt the idea that Islamic theology emerged due to inner-Islamic processes rather than outer influences.18 According to Sidney Griffith, Muslim Kalam influenced Christian theologians deeply. It is interesting that Griffith calls Christian theologians who tried to explain ‘their characteristic doctrines in an Arabic phraseology modeled on that employed by contemporary Muslim mutakallimun’ as ‘Christian mutakallimun.’19 These Christian mutakallimun were defending their theology against Islamic challenges.

Another scholar who works on the Islamic and non-Islamic origins of Mu’tazila is George F. Hourani.20 Hourani limited his work to only Mu’tazilate ethics. After determining the principles of Mu’tazili ethics, he attempted to understand the origins of these principles. According to him, two Thoughts cannot be the sources: Arabian Paganism and Judaism.21 Hourani eliminates Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism from being the possible sources of Mu’tazili theology; and, he mostly deals with Christianity and Greek Philosophy. He added Von Kremer, Goldziher, Arnold, and Becker to the list of scholars who claim non-Muslim sources for Muslim Theology.22 Among them, Becker presented the most influential argument detailing the similarities between Christian and Mu’tazili scholars. Becker believed that Kalam completely originate from Christianity. He stated:

It is known that the whole method of the kalam springs from Christianity. Whoever reads Islamic dogmatic writers and Christian patristics in turn is so convinced of the connection that he has no further need of detailed proof. They form a single world of thought.”23

However, L. Gardet and G. Anawati approached Becker’s opinions with skepticism. According to them, there was no direct influence. And, it is normal to observe these kinds of similarities in the monotheistic theologies.24 Similarities do not necessarily mean the sameness; and Becker’s conclusions may seem exaggerated, but Hourani presents the most reasonable conclusion:

The cumulative weight of so many resemblances should not be disregarded, and it must be held a reasonable hypothesis that Christian theology had some influence on Islamic theology. But no decisive proof can be expected unless more precise answers can be obtained to the questions. How, when and where?25

[About the resemblances that appear in the John of Damascus’ works] The total of resemblances and contacts makes it difficult to deny that there was an influence of Christian on Mu’tazilite theology, but the forms it took are elusive to the historian and will probably remain so. The reasons for this lie in the reticence of medieval Muslim theologians to acknowledge any studies beyond Islam, expect for the purpose of refutation, and in the sheer multiplicity of channels. Historians have expressed this elusive but real relation of the two cultures in a variety of ways: the common thought-world (Becker), osmosis (Gardet and Anawati), taking spoils (Van Ess). [] In different ages, each one has taken from the other what it has found useful and adapted what it took to its own structure and needs.26

The discussion of influence can be summarized in the four articles:

1. Islamic Theology (Kalam) was completely formed under the influence of non-Islamic sources. The origin of Kalam is not Islamic.

2. It can be said that there was an influence of Christianity on Kalam but the extent of influences must not be overestimated. It is normal that there can be exchange of ideas among cultures.

3. Islam had influence on the Christian theology during the first centuries of Muslim-Christian relations. This option can be considered in the previous one. But it deserves to be mentioned independently due to its uniqueness. It is interesting to express Islamic influence on Christianity when everyone makes effort to show non-Islamic origins of Kalam.

4. There was no influence at all.

Christian theologians treated their Muslim opponents carefully. They attempted to explain their beliefs in a manner that Muslims might approve. For example, Anastasios of Sinai (d. 700) instructed Christians to avoid uttering “two Gods” or “God has carnally begotten a son” in their conversations with Muslims. John of Damascus propounded the idea of “uncreatedness” of the Qur’an. Timothy I employed suitable examples which were not strange for Muslims. Al-Kindi tried to explain the Trinity depending on the doctrine of God’s attributes which was not unfamiliar to Muslim theologians.

Mu’tazili theologians stressed on certain points in their theology to distinguish it from the other theologies. First, Mu’tazili principles were to be considered in the Islamic tradition. In other words, general Islamic basics derived from the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet contributed to the production of Mu’tazili principles. As a matter of fact, Mu’tazila scholars did not ignore the Scriptures; but they offered a new form of interpretation. Secondly, individual Muslim thinkers or schools of thought appropriated many Mu’tazili ideas. For example, Maturidiya employed the same opinions on predestination (qadar) as Mu’tazila. Therefore, all Mu’tazila’s ideologies cannot be stated as unfavorable for Muslims. What makes Mu’tazila different is their emphasis on God’s unity for the purpose of underlying the difference between Islam and other religions.

1 In the Mu’tazili theology, this case is called as “al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn” (position between two extremes). Not only are the killers, all people who commit a major sin considered in this case. They are in the middle of being believer and unbeliever. Until they die, they are treated as Muslims. If they die without repentance, they are known as unbelievers. This principle of Mu’tazila is discussed by al-Qadi Abd al-Jabbar. See: Abd al-Jabbar, 697-738.

2 The ideas of Mu’tazila about predestination are discussed under their second principle called “al-Adl”. Briefly, since they underscore God’s justice very much, they do not appropriate divine intervention into actions of people. If God intervened to people’s actions, they would have done what they did under force; therefore, they would not have been responsible. Ibid., 301-608.

3 Muhammad Abu Zehra, a well-known scholar in Islamic sects focuses on the factors playing a role on the emergence of Mu’tazila in his famous book. See, Abu Zehra, 1: 215-219.

4 Al-tawhid (God’s unity)—according to this principle, God could not be conceived by any human conception. Mu’tazila interprets some Qur’anic verses allegorically not to give any place to their anthropomorphist opponents.

Al-‘adl (Divine Justice)—The Mu’tazilis point at the free will of human beings, so that evil is accepted as humans’ errors in their acts. If human beings’ acts had been from the will of God, then they would not be responsible and both reward and punishment would have been meaningless.

Al-wa’d wa al-wa’id (God’s Promise and Threat)—in consequence of the divine justice, God will reward those who obeyed him with what he promised, and punish those who disobeyed with threats of hellfire.

Al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn (the position between the two extremes)—sinners will be neither eternally in hell nor in heaven.

Al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al munkar (commanding the good and prohibiting the evil)—people must struggle to reach good and to prohibit evil.

It is accepted that “the whole system is summarized under two heads: the belief in God’s absolute unity and the belief in His absolute justice. See: J.R.T.M. Peters, God’s Created Speech: A Study in the Speculative Theology of the Mu’tazili Qadi l-Qudat Abu l-Hasan Abd al-Jabbar bn Ahmad al-Hamadani, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976), 5.

5 Bekir Topaloglu, Kelam Ilmi Giris, 4th ed., (Istanbul: Damla, 1991), 174.

6 Abd al-Jabbar, 149-299.

7 Ibid., 175-182.

8 Ibid., 183-213

9 See: Ibid., 291. However, this name is corrected by the editor in the footnote. The true name is al-Naybakhti. Al-Nawbakhti is a famous scholar whose work is on Shiite.

10 Such as “jawhar-‘araz” (substance-accident) discussion. According to Islamic theology, God is neither jawhar nor ‘araz. These two are the features of created beings.

11 Ibid., 293.

12 More interestingly, Abd al-Jabbar likens al-Kullabiya, a school named after ‘Abd Allah ibn Kullab (d. 854), a precursor of the Ash’arite tradition of Kalam, to Christians because of their acceptance of eternal attributes of God. See, Ibid., 294.

13 Ibid., 295-297.

14 Seppo Rissanen, Theological Encounter of Oriental Christians with Islam during Early Abbasid Rule, (Finland: ABO Akademi University Press, 1993), 11-17.

15 Ibid., 11-12.

16 Ibid., 14-15.

17 Ibid., 15.

18 Ibid., 15.

19 Ibid., 16.

20 George F. Hourani, “Islamic and Non-Islamic Origins of Mu’tazilite Ethical Rationalism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 7, no. 1 (January 1976), 59-87.

21 Ibid., 63.

22 Ibid., 72.

23 Ibid., 73.

24 Ibid., 73.

25 Ibid., 73.

26 Ibid., 76.


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