The Muʿtazilites and Rationalism in Islam

The Muʿtazilites and Rationalism in Islam

By Luis Xavier López-Farjeat – Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at Universidad Panamericana, Mexico

Before the fall of the Umayyads, several intellectual movements tried to rethink the sense and meaning of a unified Islamic political regime. Among these thinkers was Hasan al-Basrī (d. 728 ce), a noteworthy preacher from Basra. Some sources state that it was he who, for the first time, referred to one of his disciples, Wāsil ibn ʿAta, as ‘the separated’. Wāsil was developing distinct ideas from those of his teacher, and the new title denoted al-Basrī’s recognition of this fact. Although the truth of this story is not universally believed among historians, it perfectly portrays the tendency of the Muʿtazilites to think for themselves and not rely on religious authorities. The Muʿtazilites defended independent religious thought; they were rationalist theologians (Hourani 1985: 67–97; Vasalou 2008; Amir-Moezzi and Schmidtke 2009).

The emergence of ‘independent thinking’ must be understood from the standpoint of a particular political context, that is, the discussions about the proper leadership of the umma during the decline of the Umayyads and the imminent rise of the ʿAbbāsids. The positions of Hasan al-Basrī, adopted later by the Muʿtazilites, obliquely criticized the Umayyads, both ethically and politically.

The Muʿtazilites defended free will, holding that human beings — including the rulers—were responsible for their moral acts and decisions. The origins of the Muʿtazilites are linked to an early religious movement, the Qadariyya (684–750 ce), which radically rejected the doctrine of predestination (jabr) held by other sects as, for instance, the Murjiʾa. Qadar in Arabic means ‘determination’. This might lead us to think that ‘Qadariyya’ refers to those who believed in divine predetermination. However, the term was actually used to refer to those who rejected divine predetermination and accepted free will.

According to the jabr doctrine, God plans every occurrence (natural or human), and, therefore, there is no room for free will. From this, it follows that human beings have no responsibility over their actions. In this sense, human action lacks any intrinsic meaning. All meaning refers back to God. Thus, the Umayyads, who endorsed this view, held that the ruler was exempt from responsibility over the course of his government. The idea of electing a leader to represent the will of the community was nonsensical. In contrast, the Qadariyya argued that free will is proper to rational agents; that is, they can recognize what is right and wrong through their own rational capacity. Transferred to the political realm, this implied that people had the capacity to choose rulers and demand that their actions positively impact society. The founders of the Muʿtazilite school unconditionally adopted the Qadariyya defense of free will. Free will became a crucial issue. Of course, this raises a new question: how are divine omnipotence and human freedom compatible? This discussion would come to dominate interactions between two of the most important theological schools, the Muʿtazilites and the Ashʿarites.

The Muʿtazilites, or Muʿtazila, were an intellectual religious movement that began in Basra in the first half of the 8th century. While precise details are presumptive, everything seems to point to Wāsil ibn ʿAtā as the founder of the movement during the decline of the Umayyads. After some time, ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd (d. 761 ce) joined Wāsil ibn ʿAtā, and after Wāsil’s death in 748 ce, Ibn ʿUbayd became the leader of the group, which divided into two schools: the School of Basra and the School of Baghdad. Although scholarly literature tends to refer to the ‘Muʿtazilites’ in general terms, as a homogeneous group, there were a number of often-divergent approaches between and within these two schools.

Some scholars claim the Muʿtazilites were founded at a later date, when they gained influence in ʿAbbāsid politics. Watt, for instance, holds that the main founders of the Muʿtazilite school were Muʾammar (d. 830 ce), Abū al-Hudhayl (d. 841 ce), and al-Nazzām (d. 846 ce) at Basra, and Bishr ibn al-Muʿtamir at Baghdad (d. 825 ce) (1985: 45–46). Other scholars— primarily van Ess (1975, 1987, 2017: 268–319)—have focused on the contributions of Wāsil ibn ʿAtā and ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd in the founding of Muʿtazilite theology. It is clear from their research that both Islamic thinkers, Wāsil and ʿAmr, were defenders of free will, led ascetic lives, and were politically neutral (van Ess 2017: 292; 386).

Several scholars have made valuable efforts to edit early Muʿtazilite sources (Wolfson 1976; Watt 1985; van Ess 2017; Frank 1966; Daiber 1975). Some non-Muʿtazilite sources report Muʿtazilite positions, for instance, Ashʿarī’s Treatise on the Islamic Schools (Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyin), al-Baghdādī’s Book on Schisms and Sects (al-Farq bayn al-firaq), or al-Shahrastānī’s Book of Religious and Philosophical Sects (Kitāb al-Milal wa-al-nihal). Muʿtazilite sources, like the monumental work of the theologian ʿAbd al-Jabbār, Summa of the Headings of God’s Unity and Justice (al-Mughnī fī Abwāb al-Tawhīd wa al-‛Adl), are also extant. Of course, non-Muʿtazilite sources should be read skeptically since they are written by opponents and outsiders of the Muʿtazilites and sometimes distort their views. However, Muʿtazilite sources may be also read skeptically sometimes, keeping in mind that they exaggerate some issues out of group solidarity.

During the time of ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn (d. 833 ce), the Muʿtazilites managed to impose their views beyond the confines of their own community. In fact, in 833 ce, the caliph began a religious persecution, known as the mihna, against the opponents of Muʿtazilite doctrines, to mixed success. The persecution lasted for 15 years, spanning the caliphates of al-Maʾmūn’s next two successors, al-Muʿtasim (d. 842 ce) and al-Wathiq (d. 847 ce). Around 849–850 ce, al-Mutawakkil stopped enforcing the mihna, and the Muʿtazilites were repudiated and replaced by the Ashʿarite.

There are five fundamental principles that characterize Muʿtazilism, at least in broad strokes. The five principles (usūl al-khamsa) influenced both their philosophical and theological discussions.

These five principles are:

(1) the doctrine of the oneness (tawhīd) of God,

(2) the doctrine of divine justice (ʿadl),

(3) the doctrine of promise and threat (al-waʿd wa al-waʿid),

(4) the doctrine of the state in between (al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn), and

(5) the doctrine according to which human beings shall act to what is good and avoid what is evil (al-amr bi al-marʿrūf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar).


(1) The Oneness (tawhīd) of God and the Divine Attributes.

The Muʿtazilites defended the absolute oneness of God and, consequently, rejected the theory of modes or states (ahwāl), according to which attributes are not direct expressions of God’s essence but modes of that essence from the eternity (Gimaret 1970: 47–86; Frank 1971: 85–100; Thiele 2016: 364–383).

At the risk of oversimplification, Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʾī’s position can be summarized as this: the divine essence remains the same, but we can know different states of the divine essence. Nevertheless, these states do not exist in themselves but in relation to the essence. In other words, these states are perfections different from the essence but cannot exist independently from the essence.

Among the Muʿtazilites of the 10th–11th centuries, ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025 ce) supported a version of the theory of states or modes (Badawī 1983: 412; Elkaisy-Friemuth 2006: 44–46). He held that essential attributes do not inhere in God but are permanent states or modes (ahwāl) that can be attributed to God in relation to the act of creation. These divine attributes can be inferred from creation. Creation is thus proof that God has the power (qudra) to bring things into existence, and the wisdom with which He creates is proof of His omniscience (ʿilm) and life (h.ayāt).

There were, of course, controversies within the Muʿtazilite movement.

However, the dominant position about divine oneness led them to maintain that God’s essential attributes were not separate from God but were identical to his essence. But this was not the case with other types of divine attributes.

In addition to the essential attributes, later Muʿtazilites posited other kinds of attributes, attributes of action (sifāt al-fiʿl), which were not identical to the divine essence, but were descriptions of God’s actions. For example, later Muʿtazilites considered divine speech (kalām) an attribute of action.

This challenged the position of other theologians, especially the Ashʿarites, who considered speech to be an essential divine attribute. This view that divine speech is an attribute of action, rather than an essential attribute, has serious implications. If divine speech is a consequence of divine action, it is something created and, consequently, the word of God in the Qurʾān is created. It is not eternal, as Islamic tradition generally held. Other theological schools forcefully rejected the Muʿtazilite view that the Qurʾān was created.

(2–3) The Doctrines of Divine Justice (ʿadl) and of Promise and Threat (al-waʿd wa al-waʿid).

As mentioned, the Muʿtazilites were defenders of free will and thus also of divine justice. God would only punish someone who was responsible for his or her actions. This defense of divine justice is linked to the doctrine of promise and threat. God fulfills his promise to reward those who have acted according to his commands with Paradise; conversely, He threatens those who disobey his commands with the punishment of hell. Human beings freely choose how they behave, and, consequently, divine justice assigns them reward or punishment. As mentioned, the Muʿtazilite defense of free will comes from an early theological movement, the Qadariyya, which radically rejected the doctrine of predestination (jabr). According to the jabr doctrine, every occurrence (natural or human) is predestined by God. Thus, there is no human free will. The Muʿtazilite position, by contrast, states that human beings are free and thus responsible for the reward or punishment they receive in the afterlife.

Of the Muʿtazilites, ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1024 ce) developed the most mature discussion of these issues in his work Summa of the Headings of God’s Unity and Justice, in which he devotes several pages about divine justice, reward, and punishment. According to ʿAbd al-Jabbār there are several conditions involved in moral judgments. Some of these conditions are qualities required for a human being to be considered a moral agent: for example, maturity, the possession of moral knowledge, the capacity to understand the implications of an ethical judgment, the ability to choose and perform the actions, and being a responsible agent (n.d.: 5–6 [vol. 6.1]). This means that human beings, as moral agents, can reflect on their actions and their consequences. According to ʿAbd al-Jabbār, human beings recognize the moral quality of their actions through reason, that is, whether they are doing good or evil. Human reason provides independent criteria for moral judgments. This contrasts with the Ashʿarite position, which rejects such a possibility.

(4) The Doctrine of the Intermediate State (al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn).

The Muʿtazilites tried to establish an intermediate position between the khārijites and murjiʾites. The former argued that ‘grave sinners’, those who sin gravely, should be expelled from the Islamic community and, in some cases, even executed. The murjiʾites, by contrast, believed that, despite their faults, all believers belonged to the community, and judging grave sinners was God’s prerogative. The Muʿtazilites split the difference, holding that grave sinners were in an intermediate state between believers and unbelievers. Grave sinners deserved no praise, and they should not be recognized as true believers. Through their faults they had turned away from religion. But they are not unbelievers either because, despite having sinned, they still believe in the Islamic faith. Consequently, it is not possible to punish grave sinners as if they were unbelievers; they must only be given a moderate punishment. God will decide whether they have fulfilled their penance. Evidently, then, the Muʿtazilite position sought a middle ground between human and divine justice.

(5) The Doctrine according to which human beings shall act according to what is good and avoid what is evil (al-amr bi al-marʿrūf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar).

This doctrine is related to the preceding one and to the notion of evil. According to the Muʿtazilites, human beings, and not God, are responsible for moral evil. That is, human beings are responsible for their own actions; therefore, they are responsible for their wrongdoing. Just as the Muʿtazilites believed in divine justice, they also believed in human justice, that human leaders should command good and prohibit evil. This doctrine had political implications. As mentioned, the caliph al-Maʾmūn, a supporter of the Muʿtazilite theology, assumed that one of his primary obligations as caliph was to prohibit evil. Therefore, he decided to persecute the opponents of Muʿtazilite theology. Although seemingly a reasonable principle, the doctrine to command good and prohibit evil is dangerous if it becomes a dogmatic political principle. During the persecution of the mihna, prominent jurists, most famously Ibn Hanbal (d. 855 ce), the founder of one of the main schools of Sunni jurisprudence, were persecuted, exiled, and tortured. Despite their intellectual contributions to the Islamic tradition, the Muʿtazilites’ elevation to the state-sanctioned school of theology, like any state-sanctioned orthodoxy, had dangerous and sometimes violent ramifications for religious adherents of other sects.

After the decline of the Muʿtazilites around 850–851 ce, when al-Mutawakkil stopped the persecution of opponents of Muʿtazilism, the school gradually ceased to exist in the Sunni world. However, it continued to influence Shīʿī Islam, particularly Twelver Shīʿites, regarding their doctrines of divine attributes, divine justice, predestination, and free will.