Mu‘tazilites


Mu‘tazilites
(mu‘tazila)
   The Mu‘tazilites were one of the two most influential schools of kalam, or theology. Founded in the early second/eighth century by Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ (according to traditional accounts), they placed great stock in the power and autonomy of reason for guiding the interpretation of revelation and the determination of proper belief. The exact source of their name, which means ‘those who withdraw or separate themselves’, has been disputed, but most likely has to do with their doctrinal position vis-à-vis the intermediate eschatological status of sinning Muslims (somewhere between true believer and infidel). The Mu‘tazilites adhered to five principal theses: (1) God’s unity, (2) God’s justice, (3) ‘the promise and the threat’ (of Paradise and Hell), (4) the aforementioned ‘intermediate position,’ and (5) the enjoining of what is good and the forbidding of what is bad. The first two principles are typically seen as foundational, and the Mu‘tazilites accordingly often characterized themselves as ‘the people of justice and unity’ (ahl al-‘adl wa al-tawhid). Emphasizing God’s unqualified unity, they sought to purge their conception of God of all multiplicity: they argued that the various divine attributes mentioned throughout the Qur’an (e.g. God’s knowledge, power, life, will, perception, etc.) are not in fact realities separate from the divine essence, but rather are identical with it. For the Mu‘tazilites, God is absolutely unique and transcendent, and for this reason they refused to take the Qur’an’s sometimes rather anthropomorphic descriptions of God at face value, insisting upon a more figurative interpretation, and stressing the necessity of rational argumentation for arriving at an adequate conception of God’s unity and transcendence. In proclaiming God’s justice, the Mu‘tazilites were in effect taking up their Qadarite predecessors’ emphasis upon the freedom of the human will. They argued that God could justifiably condemn people to Hell if and only if they were free to choose (and thus ultimately responsible for) their own actions. Because of the Mu‘tazilites’ emphasis on the centrality of reason and interpretation, their selective appropriation of Greek philosophical methods, their intellectualized conception of God, and their commitment to human free will and responsibility, they have sometimes been cast as rationalists, liberals, and even freethinkers within the Islamic tradition. This, however, is somewhat inaccurate: notwithstanding their commitment to reason, they were sometimes guilty of their own dogmatic intolerance, especially once they were backed by the political muscle of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. Indeed, in accordance with their fifth principle, which effectively justified the exercise of compulsion and violence in defense of the faith, they zealously persecuted their intellectual enemies (specifically those who disagreed with them about the createdness of the Qur’an), having them silenced, imprisoned, and in some cases, killed. In part because of these political excesses, in part because they were outmaneuvered by the doctrinal compromises and syntheses of the relatively more moderate Ash‘arite school, the Mu‘tazilites’ intellectual and political influence started to wane in the second half of the third/ninth century and they gradually ceased to be a vital force in the Sunni world. However, despite the Mu‘tazilites’ eventually marginal status, their historical importance and influence cannot be overestimated.
   Further reading: Abrahamov 1998; Arberry 1957; van Ess 2006; Frank 1978; Martin et al. 1997; Watt 1948, 1962/85

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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