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Mu'tazilah (Arabic المعتزلة al-mu`tazilah) is a theological school of thought within Islam originating in the eighth century. It is also spelled Mu'tazilite, or Mu'tazilah. The Mu'tazili school of thought had a wide influence on early Islamic philosophy. Their basic tenets maintained monotheistic notions of God and essentially a ideological stance which attempted to reconcile the disputes which would put reason at odds with revelation. Their use of analogy and rationalist explanations were eventually countered and opposed by comparatively theologically conservative schools and the masses.
The name Mu'tazili is thought to originate from either the Arabic root اعتزل (i`tazala) meaning ‘to leave,’ ‘to abandon,’ ‘to desert’; or from the word mutakallim, which means one who studies kalam, or scripture.
Mu'tazili theology emerged out of the Qadarite-Murji'ite dispute over the status of Muslims in the eighth century. This dispute contested two different readings of the Qur’an in regards to the status of believers and non-believers. The group is sometimes labeled as ‘rationalists’ due to their stance on the reading of the Qur’an from a rationalist standpoint. Later, Mu'tazilis expanded on the logic and rationalism of philosophy, seeking to combine them with Islamic doctrines and show that reason and revelation were inherently compatible.
During this period, several questions were being debated by Muslim theologians, including whether the Qur'an was created or eternal, whether evil was created by God, the issue of predestination versus free will, whether God's attributes in the Qur'an were to be interpreted allegorically or literally, and whether sinning believers would have eternal punishment in hell. Islam was also dealing with a number of doctrines later deemed to be heresy, as well as challenges to it from atheists. Mu'tazili thought attempted to address all these issues.
Mu'tazili tenets focus on the Five Principles:
Mu'tazili theology developed in the eighth century and in the ninth century, the Abbasid caliph, al-Ma'mun (reigned 813-833) took interest in the theology, inviting Mu'tazili scholars to his court. While al-Ma'mun subscribed to some of the tenets and favored the more liberal ideology of the Mu'tazili, he did not formally adopt all their tenets as his own. It is suggested that the group and theological position was tied to al-Ma'mun's failed institution of the Mihna or Inquisition.
The Mihna was instituted in 833, during the last year of al-Ma'mun's life and reign. This Inquisition-type policy required Muslim scholars to be questioned in regards to the nature of the Qur’an as eternal and created or uncreated. This was a debate on which the Mu'tazili maintained the created nature of the Qur’an, as their tenet of the Unity of God would not allow the existence of the Qur’an as eternal and uncreated, yet separate from God. Al-Ma'mun required scholars to profess belief in the Mu’tazili position. Those who refused were subject to torture or imprisonment. Although initially quietly instituted, the refusal of one Muslim scholar, Ahmed ibn Hanbal (died 855), to profess this position and his eventual release signaled a victory for the traditional schools of thought that upheld the uncreated nature of the Qur’an. There are some speculations as to the purpose of the Mihna, attributing the institution of the policy to a concern for political consolidation under the guise of a theological dispute. Whatever the case may be, the resistance and eventual dissolution of the Mihna policy also led to strong anti-Mu'tazili positions both in the political as well as ideological realm. The Mu'tazili School eventually lost the support of rulers and high-ranking officials. By the thirteenth century, the theology ceased to be professed within Sunni Islam.
Mu'tazilism's rationalism was appealing to the some of the more liberal, learned classes of the time, as was its stance on free will, and its perceived opposition to the inherent anthropomorphism and anti-rationalism of the rival theologies. However, being elitist in nature, it never gained ground with the masses. The institution of the Mihna in the ninth century by the caliph, its obvious ties to Mu'tazili theology, and the subsequent persecution of scholars made the Mu'tazili even less popular to the public. The Mihna and its aftermath resulted in both theological conservatism and devolution of religious authority onto the ulama community of religious Muslim scholars.
Some Shi'a sects, especially the Twelver version, have adopted certain tenets of Mu'tazili beliefs, and incorporated them into their theology. This may be attributed to the fact that the Shi'a community in large part was not affected by the Mihna. It may have been the result that Shi'a theology allowed for more ideological flexibility than the Asharite position that was later adopted by Sunni Islam.
Some modern attempts have been made to revive Mu'tazili thought, especially as a counterbalance to traditionalist Salafi and Wahhabi schools; notable examples include Harun Nasution and Nasr Abu Zayd. However, these efforts have not been particularly successful.
Encyclopaedia of Islam Online. “Mihna”
All links retrieved December 5, 2014.
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