An Overview of the Mu'tazilah

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Mu’tazilah sect gained its name when Waswil ibn ‘Atha’, the founder of the school, differed from his teacher, Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.) on the question of the status of a Muslim who committed grave sins.  Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.) held him to be a sinner but nonetheless a Muslim, while Waswil dissented, arguing that he was in a station between belief and unbelief, that is, neither a believer nor a disbeliever.  Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.) commented that Waswil “withdrew,” “i’itazalah,” from his company, and so this disagreement led to the formation of the Mu’tazilah school.

Mu’tazilah beliefs are based on five creedal articles.  The first two pertain to the highly transcendental conception of Allah (s.w.t.) they advance.  With regards Divine Unity, at-Tawhid, the Mu’tazilah rationally interpreted all verses that could yield anthropomorphism and, in an effort to rigorously maintain the single Eternity of Allah (s.w.t.), denude Allah (s.w.t.) of all Attributes other than His Essence, repudiating a distinct existence to these Attributes.  Thus, they rationally interpret the Divine Attributes, as Recorded in the Qur’an, to be various names of the Divine Essence, not Attributes proper.  In this sense, they are also known as those who deny the Attributes, al-Mu’aththilah, with the nuance that they only deny these Attributes as they exist distinct from the Divine Essence, “at-ta’thil al-juz’iyy laa at-ta’thil al-kulli.

With regards Justice, al-‘Adl, the Mu’tazilah held that the principle of Divine Justice dictates that He Reward the righteous with good and Requite the sinner with ill, and also that He Endow humans with power over their actions and the ability to choose between good and evil.  For were humans compelled in their deeds, then the Divine Reward and Punishment based on them would be essentially unjust and He is above such ascriptions.  In order to secure Divine Justice, however, they radically emphasised human freedom and so came to imply that humans create their actions.

They held further that the moral quality of actions, their good or evil, inhere essentially in them, being independent of Divine Commands or Prohibitions.  Therefore, the Legislator Enjoins certain actions because of the good inherent in them and Prohibits others due to the evil inherent in them, and even those people who have not been reached by Revelation are nonetheless Accountable to Allah (s.w.t.) for their actions because the ethical status of actions is independently rationally comprehensible.

With regards the intermediate position, al-manzilah bayn al-manzilatayn, the Mu’tazilah held that those who commit enormities are relegated to a position between that of disbelief, kufr, and belief, iman, that is, they cannot properly be said to be disbelievers or believers, although nothing prevents anyone calling them “Muslims” if it is specified that their repentance is yet called for.  The Mu’tazilah scholar, ibn Abi Hadid said, “If we take the position that those who commit enormities can be called neither believers nor Muslims, we would prefer that he be called Muslim so that we may distinguish him from ahl adz-dzimmah or idol-worshippers.”  The ahl adz-dzimmah are the Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians of his time, living under Muslim rule and considered protected communities.

On the issue of the Promise and Threat, al-Wa’d wa al-Wa’id, the Mu’tazilah held that Allah’s (s.w.t.) Promise to Reward the righteous with good and Requite sinners with ill to be irreversible.  Thereby, they also denied notions of intercession in the Hereafter.

On the issue of Commanding the Good and Forbidding Evil, al-amr bi al-ma‘ruf wa an-nahi ‘an al-munkar, the Mu‘tazilah made rebellion against a tyrannical despot obligatory, albeit conditional on the particular circumstances of the case.  This is in contrast with the Khwarij, who affirmed this obligation unreservedly.

The radically transcendent emphasis of the Mu’tazilah led them to deny the Divine Attribute of Speech, al-Kalam, as distinct from the Divine Essence, for, as a contingent characteristic of other creatures, they believed it could imply a multiplicity of deities.  In this, they repudiated the Christian claims that the Qur’an supported the Divinity of Christ when it described Jesus (a.s.) as the “Word of God”, “Kalimatullah”.  They further interpreted Qur’anic references to the speech of Allah (s.w.t.), Kalamullah, to mean that He Created that Speech as He did any other thing, and thereby that the Qur’an Itself is Created and thus contingent, not pre-eternal.

In keeping with these methodological and hermeneutical principles, the Mu’tazilah rejected the possibility of “seeing” Allah (s.w.t.).  Certain scholars understood this to apply specifically to the notion of seeing Allah (s.w.t.) with one’s eyes.  Imam ash-Shahrastani (r.a.) said, “They were united in denying an ocular beatific vision in the Abode of Permanence.”

From the position that Allah (s.w.t.) in His Wisdom Acted according to certain principles, not haphazardly, the Mu’tazilah took up the notion that it was necessary for Allah (s.w.t.) to Act in the best manner possible.  That is, given that Allah (s.w.t.) only Acts from His Infinite Wisdom, it is impossible for Him to command anything but virtue or prohibit anything but depravity.  Thus, both good and its superlative are necessary for Allah (s.w.t.).  This limited Divine Omniscience.

The Mu’tazilah reached their positions primarily through engaging members of other religions and refuting opposing creeds, by using methodological abstractions and rational strategies derived from Greek logic.  However, these techniques, in their rigour, in fact shield one from the vigour and vitality of gnosis as ordered by Revelation, and cut at the very heart of knowledge of the unseen.  For example, the Mu’tazilah concept of the Divine Essence can be understood as a response to the radical anthropomorphists or corporealists, who imputed to Allah (s.w.t.) aspects of a body like that of humans; but their more transcendent concept in effect severs the bond between humans and their Lord.  It empties their concept of the Existence of Allah (s.w.t.), as in the question of Divine Attributes, even while it unrestrictedly subordinates these matters to the intellect, as in the question of the ethical status of acts and others such surveyed above.  They go too far also in their affirmation of human freedom, as they transform the delimited acts of human beings which are defined by the Acts of Allah (s.w.t.) in their instantiation and their moral investiture, takwinan wa taklifan, into unreserved acts.  They hold that humans are the creators of their own acts, but Creation is an attribute of Lordship signifying that an Act is Performed by none other than Allah (s.w.t.).  Therefore, they seem to imply partners in His Lordship, and compromise the monotheism they otherwise strictly seek to defend.  Finally, it is more proper to hold that Allah (s.w.t.) Made the good of His Actions Obligatory on Himself, rather than to say He is obliged or bound in any fashion.  In Qur’anic idiom:

… He hath Inscribed, for Himself, (the Rule of) Mercy ... (Surah al-An’am:12)


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