Mu'tazilah: The Rise of Muslim Rationalism

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following was adapted from an article by Dr. Muhammad Kamal.

The Mu’tazilah was the first rationalist theological school, founded in Basra and later developed in Baghdad, in particular during al-Ma’mun’s caliphate from 813 to 833 CE.  The main figures behind the establishment of the school in Basra were Waswil ibn ‘Atha’ (d. 748), ’Amr ibn ‘Ubayd, Abu al-Hudhayl al-‘Allaf, Ibrahim an-Nazzam Mu’ammar ibn Abbad al-Jubay, and Abu Hashim ibn al-Jubay.  The founder of the school of Baghdad was Bishr ibn al-Mu’tamir and thinkers such as Imam al-Askafi (r.a.), Ahmad ibn Dawud and al-Ka’bi contributed to the development of the school.  al-Ma’mun, the Abbasid caliph, encouraged the development of rational thinking and philosophy in Baghdad.  He also patronised the Mu’tazilah school, and during his time several Mu’tazilah scholars reached positions in government administrations.

Under the influence of the Mu’tazilah theology, al-Ma’mun also began an ‘Inquisition’ on the concept of the createdness of the Qur’an, which led to the imprisonment of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.), who held the opposite view, and the persecution of his followers in Baghdad.  But after the death of al-Ma’mun, the political situation gradually turned against the Mu’tazilah and the traditionalist theology represented by the views of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.) was revived during the rule of al-Mutawakkil in 847 CE.

The Mu’tazilah school emerged as the result of the ethical and political turmoil of its own time and then ventured into the realm of speculative theology.  After the assassination of ‘Utsman ibn ’Affan (r.a.), the third successor to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in 656 CE, Muslims were divided into various political groups which were fighting each other.  This political division continued during the Umayyads and the Abbasids, which created a general feeling of bitterness and frustration among Muslims.  They wanted to know whether Allah (s.w.t.) or human beings were responsible for this bloodshed and, if human beings were responsible for such corruption, what their punishment would be.  The traditionalist Muslims, represented by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.), relied on the literal interpretation of the Qur’an, and the Kharijiyyah maintained that the committer of a grave sin would not possibly be considered a believer.  Another group, namely the Marji’iyyah, claimed that the case should be left to Allah (s.w.t.) to Decide.

It is reported that one day, in the second century of hijrah, in the city of Basra, a person came to the mosque of Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.) and requested his views on this issue.  Shaykh al-Baswri (q.s.) began to think about a proper answer, but before he could give his opinion, either Waswil ibn ’Atha or ’Amr ibn ’Ubayad, both pupils of the shaykh, broke out with the answer, saying, “The committer of the grave sin is neither a believer nor a non-believer, but is in the state between the states of belief and unbelief.”2

It is also reported that Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.) did not like the attitude of his pupil and asked him to leave.  Waswil ibn ’Atha and ’Amr ibn ’Ubayad left the circle of Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.) and began to teach their own views on different theological problems; they were called the Mu’tazilah.  Prof. Montgomery Watt states in ‘Islamic Philosophy & Theology’ that there are numerous versions of this story.  The student who withdrew from Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri’s (q.s.) school is often assumed to be ’Amr ibn ‘Ubayad rather than Waswil ibn ’Atha, but some sources say that ‘Amr ibn ‘Ubayad was a student of Shaykh Qatadah (r. a.), Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri’s (q.s.) successor.

According to Prof. Ignac Goldziher, the name of the Mu’tazilah school derives from the lifestyle of its founders, who renounced the world and abstained from all sorts of material possession and pleasure.  On the other hand, Ustadz Ahmed Amin (r.a.), in Fajir al-Islam, tried to connect the name of the school with a Hebrew term, ‘pharisses’, which was given to a group of Jewish theologians who advocated ideas similar to those of the Mu’tazilah; the Hebrew term also means ‘to recede’.

The Mu’tazilah are accused of being dualists and of having their origin in Zoroastrianism because, in terms of their interpretation of goodness and badness, they believe that Allah (s.w.t.) is Absolutely Good and therefore cannot be the source of evil, and that there shall be a source for evil, which is other than Allah (s.w.t.).  The Mu’tazilah is the first rationalistic school in the history of Islamic thought.  It interpreted the dogmas of religion in the light of human reason.  The followers of this school are also known as ‘Ahl al-’Adl wa at-Tawhid’, or ‘the People of Divine Justice and Divine Unity’, because they advocated the ideas of the Unity of Allah (s.w.t.) and Divine Justice.

The theological issues discussed by the Mu’tazilah, such as free will and predestination, the relationship between the Divine Attributes and the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.), were also debated by some Muslim thinkers during the Umayyad period before the rise of Mu’tazilah.  These thinkers can be divided into two groups.  The first group included al-Ja’ad ibn Dirham, al-Mughirah ibn Sa’id al-‘Ajali, and Jahan ibn Swafwan, who rejected the Reality and Eternity of the Divine Attributes and also believed in the createdness of the Qur’an.  al-Ja’ad ibn Dirham was from Damascus.  He was arrested and sent to Iraq by Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad caliph.  He was beheaded by the Iraqi ruler, Khalid ibn ‘Abdullah al-Kisri, who was the uncle of Hisham in 742 CE.  al-Mughirah ibn Sa’id al-‘Ajali was killed by the ruler of Iraq, Khalid ibn ‘Abdullah al-Kisri, in 737 CE.  Jahan ibn Swafwan was killed in 745 CE.

The second group included ‘Umar al-Maqsus, who was accused by the Umayyads of corrupting the mind of young Mu’awiyah ibn Yazid, his pupil, and executed in 699; Ma’bad al-Jahani, who was crucified by Hajaj ibn Yusuf ats-Tsaqafi in Iraq; and Ghaylan al-Dimashqi, who was crucified on the gate of Damascus on the orders Hisham ibn Abdul Malik.  These thinkers believed in al-Qadariyyah and rejected the doctrine of al-Jabariyyah, predestination, in Islam.  The term ‘al-Qadariyyah’ is used in the converse sense by Muslim thinkers when describing a doctrine of free will or al-ikhtiyar.  ‘al-Qadar’ stands for something quite the opposite of free will in the literal sense.  But at the same time the term is associated with a cluster of Muslim thinkers advocating a doctrine whose philosophical trend is distinct from the literal meaning of the term.

It is worth mentioning that the problem of free will was even discussed by Augustine of Hippo in ‘The City of God’ before the rise of Islam, and it is possible that the ideas of this Christian thinker later influenced Islamic theology.  Augustine’s idea was developed in response to Cicero, who rejected God’s Foreknowledge of the future, meaning there would be no prediction of events, and human actions would be free.  Cicero’s argument is quite simple to understand, as it asserts that if predestination prevails, then there can be no free will.

Against Cicero, Saint Augustine argues that God, as the Creator of all beings, has Bestowed power in them to will, but that all wills, including wicked wills, are human products because wickedness cannot be ascribed to God; that it is not then the case that since God Foreknows what will happen to an individual there is therefore nothing in the power of our wills; and that: “Prayers, also, are of avail to procure those things which He Foreknew that He would Grant to those who offered them; and with justice have rewards been appointed for good deeds, and punishments for sins.  For a man does not therefore sin because God Foreknew that he would sin.  Nay, it cannot be doubted but that it is the man himself who sins when he does sin, because He, whose of Foreknowledge is infallible, Foreknew not that fate, or fortune, or something else would sin, but that the man himself would sin, who, if he wills not, sins not.  But if he shall not will to sin, even this did God foreknow.”

The problem as to whether human beings were free to determine their own destiny or whether their being was determined by the Creator was also one of the central disputes in a rift within the Kharijiyyah movement.  For the first time, the Ajarridi-Kharijiyyah split into two sub-groups, the Maimuniyyah and the Shu’aybiyyah.  The reason for this division originated in an argument between Maimun and Shu’ayb, the leaders of the groups.  Shu’ayb had some money belonging to Maimun, and when Maimun demanded repayment Shu’ayb said to him, “I shall give it to you, if Allah Wills.”

Maimun replied, “Allah has Willed that you should give it to me now.”

And Shu’ayb said, “If Allah has Willed it, I could not have done otherwise than give it to you.”

Maimun continued by saying, “Verily, Allah has Willed what He Commanded; what He did not Command, He did not Will; and what He did not Will, He did not Command.”

They wrote about their dispute to their leader ‘Abd al-Karim ibn Ajarrad, who was in prison.  ‘Abd al-Karim responded with: “What Allah Willed came about, and what He did not will did not come about; and we do not fix evil upon Him.”  Maimun and Shu’ayb both believed that their leader had approved their view and they therefore separated, forming two different groups.  The followers of Maimun, the Maimuniyyah, were known for their belief in free will and claimed that although Allah (s.w.t.) is Omnipotent, no evil should be attributed to Him.  Therefore, the Shu’aybiyyah, followers of Shu’ayb, became the forerunners of the adherents to fatalism in Islamic theology.  The theological doctrine of the Mu’tazilah, however, is crystallised in five major theses, such as the Unity of Allah (s.w.t.), or the relationship between the Divine Attributes and the essence of God; al-qadar or human free will; the Createdness of the Qur’an; the intermediate position of the grave sinner; and commanding the right and forbidding the wrong.

One of the major theological issues discussed by the Mu’tazilah was the Reality and Eternity of the Divine Attributes and their relationship with the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.).  It is necessary to understand the roots and the background of this issue in Judeo-Christian theology.  The belief in the Reality of the Divine Attributes is generated by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and was discussed by Christian theologians before the rise of the Mu’tazilah.  Shaykh Yahya ibn ‘Adi, one of the Christian theologians, remarked that the triad of the Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — corresponds to three Attributes of God, namely Life, Wisdom and Power; however, there are different opinions on the nature of the last two attributes.

Some Christian thinkers believe that they are mere Names or Qualities of God and not real things as such, whereas the Orthodox Christians accept these two Attributes as real things, distinct from God but not independent of Him.  The problem that arises is the question of whether these Attributes are Created by God or Co-Eternal with Him.  The Orthodox Christians admit that, as God is Eternally Living, Eternally Omniscient and Eternally Omnipotent, there is no reason for the denial of the Eternity of the Second and Third Attributes.  On the other hand, other Christians reject this claim on the grounds that anything Eternal is to be called God, therefore the three Attributes shall be called three gods, which is polytheism.

Hence, we conclude that the Christians are divided into two groups: the first group believes in the Reality and Eternity of the three Attributes, and the second rejects this belief and argues for the Unity of God.  The claim that the Mu’tazilah was inspired by Christian theology comes from this similarity between the views of their school and some Christian theologians, but this is unjust, because a similar influence is traceable even on the theological views of the traditionalist Muslims.  It may be true that the Mu’tazilah followed the heretics amongst the Christians in their views, but the traditionalist Muslims followed the Orthodox Christians, believing in the Reality and Eternity of the Divine Attributes.  To the traditionalist Muslims, the Unity of Allah (s.w.t.) is a relative term; they accept the Eternity of the Attributes, recognising the ontological status of each Attribute as something that really Exists Eternally and is in the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.).  Subsequently, the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.) becomes a container for many eternal, real entities apart from Him; this view accepts the plurality of eternals.

Against this view, the Mu’tazilah explain a new relationship between the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.) and the Attributes by saying that Allah (s.w.t.) does not possess the Attributes and they are not in His Essence, but rather that the Divine Essence and the Attributes are identical and the same.  For example, we cannot say that Allah’s (s.w.t.) Knowledge is something other than Allah (s.w.t.) and is Eternal, or else knowledge will become another independent, eternal being.  In this way, the Mu’tazilah believe in the Unity of Allah (s.w.t.).  This concept of unity is used for two purposes.  It is used in the sense of numerical unity or absolute unity, which is the denial of the existence of more than one Allah (s.w.t.).  This meaning of the unity is in agreement with the Qur’anic notion of monotheism.  And it is used in the sense of internal unity and simplicity, as that Allah’s (s.w.t.) Essence is free from essential plurality and composition.

If we go back to the history of Judeo-Christian theology, we find that the argument for the Unity of God was propounded by Judaeus Philo, and then restated by Spinoza in his pantheistic philosophy for the same purposes.  For Philo, Eternity is an Essential Quality of God; no other kind of being except Him is Eternal.  This view represents the established Judeo-Christian and Islamic principle of monotheism.  Its denial is the rejection of these three Semitic religions.  Spinoza supported the Philonic principle by putting the argument into a better logical form, saying that if there are two substances like immaterial God and the world, either they should be absolutely different or absolutely same.  If there are two absolutely different substances with nothing in common, one cannot become the cause of the other.  If the existence of two different substances is not possible, then we must consider the case of the existence of two substances that are absolutely alike.  But such substances cannot be called two unless, in addition to their common qualities, they possess some other quality in which they differ, “and then two substances would be granted as having the same attribute, which is absurd.”

The arguments of the Mu’tazilah and Spinoza are no different from the Philonic principle.  All of them emphasise the Eternity of God and reject the attribution of this Quality to another kind of being.  The Mu’tazilah have developed another argument in support of their conception of Divine Unity, based on the nature of each positive predicate or proposition which involves negation.  When we describe Allah (s.w.t.) and mention one of His Attributes, we implicitly negate another Attribute.  For example, the proposition “Allah (s.w.t.) is Merciful” means “Allah (s.w.t.) is not vengeful”, and then that negation signifies that Allah (s.w.t.) is limited to that Attribute, which is not possible with regard to the Unlimited Nature of Allah (s.w.t.).

Hamdan ibn al-Hazil al-Al’at, one of the Mu’tazilah, stated, “If you say Allah is All-Knowing, then you negate ignorance to be predicated of Allah, and in this way whenever you talk about one of His Qualities, you negate some other Quality in Him.”

According to Imam ash-Shahrastani (r.a.), this argument was borrowed from Greek philosophy and not founded by the Mu’tazilah.  an-Nazzam, a Mu’tazili thinker, provided another argument for the rejection of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Will as a separate entity, by giving an equivalent meaning to “will”, like “need”, which results in action.  He said that “need” is the state of imperfection and lack and it should not be ascribed to Allah (s.w.t.).  Mu’ammar ibn Abbad as-Sulami, another Mu’tazili thinker, believed that Allah (s.w.t.) knows neither the world in which we live, nor Himself, because if He has Knowledge, then that Knowledge is either within or without Allah (s.w.t.).  In the first case, there will be no distinction between the knowing subject and the known object; both of them become one and the same, and that is not possible; the subject and object must be different.  And if we accept that knowledge is not within Allah (s.w.t.), that the known object is something distinct from the knowing subject, it simply means that the subject is dependent upon the object for acquiring knowledge.  On the other hand, there will be two different things in the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.).  For this reason, knowledge should not be predicated to Allah (s.w.t.).

The denial or the acceptance of the Divine Attributes has led to another problem in Muslim theology with regard to the nature of the Qur’an — whether it is Eternal or Created.  The traditionalist Muslims argued that the Qur’an is the Word of Allah (s.w.t.) and Existed before its Revelation and even before the Creation of the world.  This is a belief in the pre-existent Qur’an, which is prior in time to the Creation of the world and human life.  There are two arguments developed by the traditionalist Muslims in support of this view.  First, they claim that the Eternity of the Qur’an is a logical consequence of the acceptance of the Divine Attributes as something Real and Eternal.  The Speech of Allah (s.w.t.) is an Attribute, which is Real and Eternal and Subsists in the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.) and for this reason, we need to pronounce the Co-Eternal Characteristic of Allah (s.w.t.) and His Speech.  Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.), representing the views of the traditionalist Muslims, stated that, “Whatever is between the covers of the Qur’an is the Speech of Allah, and whatever we hear, read and write is the Speech of Allah.  Since the Speech of Allah is Eternal, then the Words are Uncreated and Eternal also.”

It is also reported by Imam ash-Shahrastani (r.a.) that the Hanbaliyyah do not say that the Qur’an in this physical form as a printed book read by Muslims is Eternal and Uncreated: “We should not assert the Eternity of the letters and sounds, which subsist in our tongues.”  The position of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.), however, requires further clarification, because he asserts the Eternity of the Qur’an, and at the same time, as it seems, he does not Attribute Eternity to the copy of the Qur’an, which we read in the present book form.  In this regard one can conclude that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.) distinguishes between two Qur’ans of the same kind.  The first Qur’an, Revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), is Eternal, having its own Existence and Reality before the Creation of the world, and the Qur’an that comes into existence whenever we recite it.

The second argument developed by the traditionalist Muslims for the Reality and the Eternity of the Qur’an is based on the verses in the Qur’an itself.  It is Written that:

Nay this is a Glorious Qur’an, (Inscribed) in a Tablet Preserved! (Surah al-Buruj:21-22)

Furthermore, I Call to witness the setting of the stars ― And that is indeed a mighty adjuration if ye but knew ― That this is indeed a Qur’an Most Honourable, in a Book Well-Guarded, (Surah al-Waqi’ah:75-78)

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Ha Mim.  By the Book that Makes things clear ― We have Made it a Qur’an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand (and learn wisdom). (Surah az-Zukhruf:1-3)

These verses, which contain expressions such as “a Tablet Preserved”, “a Book Well-Guarded”, and “the Book that Makes things clear”, for the orthodox Muslims, signify that the Qur’an Existed in Heaven prior to its Revelation.  There is nothing contradictory in such a view according to the Mu’tazilah, because the Qur’an Describes Itself as the Word of Allah (s.w.t.):

If one amongst the pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the Word of Allah; and then escort him to where he can be secure: That is because they are men without knowledge. (Surah at-Tawbah:6)

Still, this does not assert the Eternity of the Qur’an, simply because Eternity Belongs to Allah (s.w.t.) Only, and nothing else can be Eternal or Uncreated.  If we accept the eternity of anything except Allah (s.w.t.), then we approve polytheism and negate monotheism.  In our discussion of the problem of the Divine Attributes, we said that the Mu’tazilah reject the Eternity as well as the Reality of the Attributes.  The issue of the Uncreatedness of the Qur’an seems to be different.  No doubt, the Mu’tazilah do not agree with the traditionalist Muslims on the Eternity of the Word of Allah (s.w.t.), but they do not deny the Reality of the Qur’an and admit that there was a real Qur’an, which Existed before its Revelation in a Preserved Tablet.  They also insist that Allah (s.w.t.) even Created it before it was Revealed, and hence there was no room for the belief in its Eternity.  It was also inferred from the Qur’anic verse:

Thus do We Relate to thee some stories of what happened before,,. (Surah ThaHa:99)

This is in order to prove that the Qur’an was produced after the events Mentioned in this text.

In addition to this view, an-Nazzam and al-Mu’ammar have gone further by advocating the idea that Allah’s (s.w.t.) Word is not communicable.  an-Nazzam also denied the Preservation of the Qur’an on a Tablet, saying that the word is created in air in the form of a combination of articulate sounds at the time of its Revelation.  al-Mu’ammar believed that the Qur’an is neither the Word of Allah (s.w.t.) nor His Work, but the production of nature, because Allah (s.w.t.) Creates only substances and not accidents, and the substances are capable of producing accidents.

If the Qur’an is an accident, it is not Created by Allah (s.w.t.) but produced by a natural body, which is located in space and time.  It is also reported that al-Mu’ammar does not ascribe to Allah (s.w.t.) the Eternal Attributes, nor can he believe that Allah’s (s.w.t.) Word is His Work, because Allah (s.w.t.) does not Create accidents.  In this way, for al-Mu’ammar, Allah (s.w.t.) Created bodies, and the accidents are the products of the bodies, as fire produces burning, and the sun heat, and the moon coloration of things; things are produced by this, or by choice, like animals produce motion and rest, aggregation and segregation.  To reiterate, the act of producing a Word or the Speech of Allah (s.w.t.) is either mediated by nature, for example the sound came from the bush to Moses (a.s); or by choice, as in the case of other prophets, who have been Given power by Allah (s.w.t.) to express the Divine Law.  Relying on al-Mu’ammar’s view, the Qur’an belongs to the second category, a human production but Divine in its Characteristics as it Reveals the Will of Allah (s.w.t.).

Another theological problem to be discussed here is free will: whether human beings are free or their actions determined by Allah (s.w.t.); whether Islam is compatible with the doctrine of free will or not.  Dr. Majid Fakhry stated that most Muslim historians believe that this problem is the first abstract issue on which the theologians began to argue.  The confusion regarding human freedom arose because the Muslim theologians found verses in the Qur’an for as well as against predestination.  It also happened that in the history of political Islam, in particular during the Umayyad period, the predestinarian verses were given preference over the verses in favour of free will, for political reasons.  The predestination theory does not hold human beings responsible for their actions and consequently the doctrine, with its political implication, provides a ground for the justification of any kind of oppressive measures and actions taken by the rulers against the people.  Many Muslim rulers were able to suppress the voices of the intellectuals and the movements against social injustice with the help of some Muslim scholars by putting emphasis on the verses in support of predestination.

In the Qur’an there are verses that affirm predestination, for example:

As to those who reject faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.  Allah hath Set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur). (Surah al-Baqarah:6-7)

Say: “I have no power over any good or harm to myself except as Allah Willeth.  If I had knowledge of the unseen, I should have multiplied all good, and no evil should have touched me: I am but a warner, and a bringer of glad tidings to those who have faith.” (Surah al-A’araf:188)

Say: “Nothing will happen to us except what Allah has Decreed for us: He is our Protector”: and on Allah let the believers put their trust. (Surah at-Tawbah:51)

If it had been the Lord’s Will they would all have believed all who are on earth!  Wilt thou then compel mankind against their will to believe!  No soul can believe except by the Will of Allah and He will Place doubt (or obscurity) on those who will not understand. (Surah Yunus:99-100)

No kind of calamity can occur, except by the Leave of Allah: and if anyone believes in Allah, (Allah) Guides his heart (aright): for Allah Knows all things. (Surah at-Taghabun:11)

He it is Who Created you from clay, and then Decreed a stated term (for you).  And there is in His Presence another determined term; yet ye doubt within yourselves!. (Surah al-An’am:2)

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Whatever is in the heavens and on earth let it declare the Praises and Glory of Allah: for He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.  To Him Belongs the Dominion of the heavens and the earth; it is He Who Gives life and Death; and He has Power over all things.  He is the First and the Last, the Evident and the Hidden and He has Full Knowledge of all things. (Surah al-Hadid:1-3)

There is no moving creature on earth but its sustenance depends on Allah: He Knoweth the time and place of its definite abode and its temporary deposit: all is in a Clear Record. (Surah Hud:6)

There are also certain verses that emphasise free will:

Man does not weary of asking for good (things), but if ill touches him, he gives up all hope (and) is lost in despair. (Surah Fuswswilat:49)

Say “The Truth is from your Lord”: let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject (it): for the wrongdoers We have Prepared a Fire whose (smoke and flames), like the walls and roof of a tent will hem them in… (Surah al-Kahf:29)

“Now have come to you from your Lord, proofs (to open your eyes): if any will see, it, will be for (the good of) his own soul; if any will be blind it will be to his own (harm): I am not (here) to watch over your doings.” (Surah al-An’am:104)

Say: “O ye men!  Now Truth hath reached you from your Lord!  Those who receive Guidance, do so for the good of their own souls; those who stray, do so to their own loss: and I am not (set) over you to arrange your affairs.” (Surah Yunus:108)

The argument for predestination propounded by the traditionalist Muslims is based on the notion of Causal Determination by Allah (s.w.t.) of physical events and human activities.  These theologians draw no distinction between natural events in the physical world and the events that take place as the result of rational choices made by human beings, for both are considered to be predetermined by Allah (s.w.t.).  This argument also suggests that human essence is something Fixed and Created in its completed form, and that human beings are not capable of changing their own nature: if a person is created strong and ruthless, he or she remains as he or she is, without having the choice and ability to change that.  For example, it is reported by Imam Muslim (r.a.) in his Swahih that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said, “As for any one of you, his generation in the womb of his mother is affected in the course of forty days, afterwards an angel is commissioned to breathe the living spirit into him.”

The angel is said to ask Allah (s.w.t.), concerning the destiny of the seed, “O my Lord, miserable or blessed?”  Whereupon one or the other is written down.  Then, “O my Lord, male or female?”  Again, one or the other is written down.  He also writes down the child’s manner of conduct, deeds, term of life and sustenance.  Then it is said to the angel, “Roll up the leaves, for no addition shall be made thereto, nor anything taken there from.”

Although the traditionalist Muslims, in advocating the doctrine of predestination, base their views on the Qur’an, this does not mean that the Qur’an has left no grounds for the belief in free will.  This is a source of confusion among Muslims, and the Mu’tazilah attempt to provide logical ground for the doctrine of free will without relying completely on the Qur’anic verses.  However, there is no difficulty in understanding predestination as far as it implies that Allah (s.w.t.), Who is the Creator of the universe, Controls everything, including human actions.  The problem arises when we believe in free will as well as the Existence of Allah (s.w.t.).  This issue brings to mind the attitude of the Western philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, towards theism.  For these philosophers, theism is incompatible with the doctrine of free will.  As Sartre remarked, “Everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.  He cannot start making excuses for himself.”

In Sartre’s view, freedom is possible only when one accepts atheism.  In this case, atheism becomes a philosophical conviction and a practical attitude, for whoever accepts the existence of an omnipotent being above his or her own power will nor remain free and cannot become the author of his or her own life.  It is also Written in the Qur’an that Allah (s.w.t.) has left the non-believers to themselves and does not Guide them.

Those who believe not in the Signs of Allah, Allah will not Guide them, and theirs will be a grievous Penalty. (Surah an-Nahl:104)

Human freedom, for Nietzsche and Sartre, presupposes the denial of the existence of God, but how does a Muslim thinker argue for human freedom?  How can human beings be free when they believe in the Existence of an Omnipotent Being, who is capable of Controlling human actions?  In opposition to the doctrine of predestination, the Mu’tazilah, perhaps under the influence of Ma’bad al-Jahani and Ghaylan al-Dimashqi, who advocated the doctrine of free will before the rise of the Mu’tazilah school, try to discuss the possibility of free will under the umbrella of theism.  They believe that predestination is a mere absurdity because it implies imperfection in the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.), and describes Allah (s.w.t.) as being unjust.  Also, it contradicts the notion of Divine Retribution.

Before we begin this argument, let us examine how the Mu’tazilah explain the causal relationship between Allah (s.w.t.) and the world.  This is analysed in two ways: some of the Mu’tazilah agree on the direct causal relationship between Allah (s.w.t.) and the world, whereas an-Nazzam and al-Mu’ammar believed in the existence of a chain of intermediaries between Allah (s.w.t.) and the events that take place in the world.  But both groups excluded human action from this causal relationship, applying the law of causation only to the physical phenomena and events in the world.  Unlike the traditionalist Muslims, they made a distinction between human actions and the events in the natural world, and kept the latter only under the domain of the causal determination.  All actions made by human beings, for the Mu’tazilah, flow out of human will and an awareness of the situation.  Human beings, unlike animals and physical objects, know themselves and know what they are doing.  On the basis of this description, human beings will be held responsible for their bad deeds.  In brief, the arguments for free will made by the Mu’tazilah can be summarised as follows.

The first argument deals with the conception of Divine Justice, which can be subdivided into two parts.  Firstly, the Mu’tazilah maintain that Allah (s.w.t.) is Good and Just, and that evil and injustice should not be referred to Him.  If Allah (s.w.t.) Creates evil He should be evil, and if He Creates justice, then He would be Just.  But as Allah (s.w.t.) is Absolutely Good and Just, evil and injustice cannot be attributed to Him.  The Moral Perfection of Allah (s.w.t.), however, does not signify that Allah (s.w.t.) has no power to do evil, but consists in this, that He has Power to do everything, and Exerts this power only in doing what is good; if we were to say that Allah (s.w.t.) has no power to do evil then it would mean His Power is limited.

Secondly, Divine Justice postulates human freedom, for if human beings are not the authors of their lives then they should not be held responsible for their deeds.  Allah’s (s.w.t.) Promises to Punish the sinners and this signifies that human beings are free.  Otherwise, it would be unfair for Allah (s.w.t.) to Punish human beings for sins not created by them, or that they were compelled to commit.  If we were to believe that human action is Determined by Allah (s.w.t.), human beings would deserve no blame and no punishment.  Human freedom is then a logical requirement of Divine Justice.  Human beings are capable of acting freely and hence they are morally responsible.  In Kitab al-Uswul al-Khamsa’, ’Abd al-Jabbar stated that, “It is the knowledge that Allah is removed from all that is morally wrong and that all His Acts are morally good.  This is explained by the fact that you know all human acts of injustice, transgression and the like cannot be of His Creation.  Whoever attributes that to Him has ascribed to Him injustice and insolence and thus strays from the doctrine of justice.”

The second argument, which is originally given by Waswil ibn ’Atha, emphasises the ability of human beings to think and to choose: “Man knows that he possesses capacity and actions within himself and whoever denies that, he denies necessity.”  Human capacity is interpreted as will and knowledge, which are the only distinctions between man and the other living beings and non-living entities in the world.  Then, as Waswil said, “It is possible for a man who is seated to stand up, for the man in motion to come to rest, and for the man who is speaking to remain silent.”

Thirdly, human beings are conscious, can choose, but other kinds of beings are deprived of this privilege.  The natural objects and events are determined by transient causation.  For example the chair is moved by my hand, which is moved by me.  The movements of the chair and my hand belong to two different kinds of causation, and the latter can be called immanent because it is by me as an agent.  Waswil’s idea is similar to Aristotle’s concept of the Prime Mover, which describes Allah’s (s.w.t.) to be in a position, as an Agent, to Make the events happen; the agent is not determined by a transient cause.  The fourth thesis concerns the position in Islam of the grave sinner and was raised due to the eruption of civil war and political unrest in the Muslim world.

The Kharijiyyah believed that the committer of the grave sin was an unbeliever and the Marji’iyyah preferred the case stating that no judgement should be made by human beings.  The Mu’tazilah held the view that the committer of the grave sin is neither a believer nor an unbeliever, but that he or she is in the intermediate position, in a state between belief and disbelief.

The fifth thesis, commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, has moral and political significance as it considers obligatory measures to prevent social injustice in society and elevate morality.  As ’Abd al-Jabbar remarked, “It is necessary, if possible, to reach a point where evil does not occur in the easiest of circumstances or lead to something worse, for the goal is for evil simply not to happen.”

Although the Mu’tazilah discussed these five theses, they disagreed with each other on some points in their analysis of the theses’ meanings.  Some members of the school of Baghdad, such as al-Ka’bi and Abu al-Qasim al-Balkhi, also incorporated the theory of atomism into their theological doctrine.


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