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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:
- Tawhid التوحيد - Monotheism. Unity of God. There is an ontological distinction bewteen God and his creation. As such, there is no comparison to be made between the two. And of the verses found within the Qur’an which depict God as having a hand or sitting on a throne are to be interpreted with the use of analogy. With the 99 Beautiful Names of God found in the Qur’an, the names are not distinctive parts of God, as God cannot be divided; they are indistinguishable from God himself. Mu'tazili reject a notion that God's justice would connote justice as being separate from God, just as the extremities of a person's body is not separate from one's self.
- 'Adl العدل - Divine Justice. God's Justice. The Mu'tazili theology develops the Qadarite position of the problem of the existence of evil. God is found to be supremely just and the root so the existence of evil is found in free will. Evil is a result of human beings and can never be the by-product of a just God. Yet, the idea of predestination is not dismissed. Man has a choice, but once that choice is made, God seals the destiny of that person. This idea stresses human responsibility while attempting to maintain the omnipotence of God.
- al-Wa'd wa al-Wa'id الوعد و الوعيد - Promise and Threat. This comprised questions on the Last day and the Qiyamah, where God would reward those who obeyed him with what he promised, and punish those who disobeyed with threats of hell. The Mu'tazili position tended towards a straightforward theology that did not make space for negotiation of the punishment/rewards in the afterlife.
- al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn المنزلة بين المنزلتين - the position between the two extremes. That is, between those who say all sinners will be eternally in hell, and those who say sinners will not be punished—i.e., between Kharijites and Murjites. This idea is not dissimilar to the Christian idea of purgatory. Those who are stuck between the station of either heaven or hell must suffer punishment in the "station between two stations."
- al-amr bil ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'an al munkar الأمر بالمعروف و النهي عن المنكر - commanding the good and prohibiting the evil. This is an ethical principle that includes permitting rebellion against unjust rulers as a way to prohibit evil. This idea was influenced by the Abbasid revolution, which they viewed as a just overthrow of an unjust Umayyad dynasty.
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.
Legacy and assessment
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.
Modern attempts at revival
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.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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All links retrieved November 10, 2022.
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