Muʿtazilah (Arabic المعتزلة "al-mu`tazilah") is a theological school of thought within Sunni Islam. It is also anglicized as Muʿtazilite. They are usually not accepted by other Sunni Muslims, though their theology parallels Shi'a Islam, such as their belief in free will, promoting justice, and prohibiting evil.


The name Mu'tazili is thought to originate from the Arabic root إعتزل ("iʿtazala") meaning "to leave", "to withdraw".


Mu'tazili theology originated in the 8th century in Basra (Iraq) when Wasil ibn Ata (d. 131 A.H./748 A.D.) left the teaching lessons of al-Hasan al-Basri after a theological dispute regarding the issue of Al-Manzilah bayna al-Manzilatayn (described below); thus he and his followers, including Amr ibn Ubayd (d. 144 A.H./ 761 A.D.), were labelled "Mu'tazili" [Martin "et al.", 1997] . Later, Mu'tazilis called themselves "Ahl al-Tawhid wa al-'Adl" ("People of Divine Unity and Justice") based on the theology they advocated, which sought to ground Islamic creedal system in reason.

Though Mu'tazilis later relied on logic and different aspects of early Islamic philosophy, Greek philosophy, and Hellenistic philosophy, the truths of Islam were their starting point and ultimate reference. [e.g. Walzer, 1967; Craig, 2000] The accusations leveled against them by rival schools of theology that they gave absolute authority to extra-Islamic paradigms reflect more the fierce polemics between various schools of theology than any objective reality. For instance, Mu'tazilis adopted unanimously the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, contrary to certain Muslim philosophers who, with the exception of al-Kindi, believed in the eternity of the world in some form or another. [Craig, 2000] It was usually Muslim philosophers, not the Muslim theologians generally speaking, who took Greek and Hellenistic philosophy as a starting point and master conceptual framework for analyzing and investigating reality.

From early days of Islamic civilization, and because of both internal factors including intra-Muslim conflicts and external factors including interfaith debates, several questions were being debated by Muslim theologians, such as 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, etc. Mu'tazili thought attempted to address all these issues.


Mu'tazili tenets focus on the "Five Principles":

(1) Al-Tawhid التوحيد - Divine Unity. Mu'tazilis believed in the absolute unity and oneness of God. In this regard, they are no different from the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Nevertheless, the different Muslim schools of theology have differed as to how to uphold Divine unity in a way that is consistent with the dictates of both scripture and sound reasoning — a task that is extremely sophisticated given that God is ontologically different and categorically distinct from nature, humans, and material causality. All attempts to talk about the Divine face the severe, perhaps utterly insurmountable, barrier of using limited human language to conceptualize the Transcendent.

One example: All Muslim schools of theology faced the dilemma of affirming Divine transcendence and Divine attributes, without falling into anthropomorphism on the one hand, or emptying Divine attributes, mentioned in scripture, of any concrete meaning on the other [Jackson, 2005] . The Mu'tazili way of doing this was to deny the existence of attributes distinct from Divine essence. In other words, God is, for instance, omniscient, but He knows through His essence rather than by having separate knowledge apart from Him. This assertion was to avoid the multiplicity of co-eternals — something that may impugn the absolute unity and oneness of God, according to Mu'tazilis. In addition, they resorted to metaphorical interpretations of Qur'anic verses or Prophetic reports with seemingly anthropomorphic content. Many other Muslim theologians did likewise. Others opted for either abstaining from making judgments concerning these texts, or to affirm them "without knowing how."

The doctrine of Tawhid in the words of the Mu’tazili prominent scholar, chief justice Abd al-Jabbar ibn Ahmed (d. 415 A.H./1025 A.D.), in an original Mu’tazili work translated in Martin "et al." (1997): It is the knowledge that God, being unique, has attributes that no creature shares with Him. This is explained by the fact that you know that the world has a creator ("sani`") who created it and that: He existed eternally in the past and He cannot perish ("fana'"), while we exist after being non-existent, and we can perish. And you know that He was and is eternally all-powerful ("qadir") and that impotence ("al`ajz") is not possible for Him. And you know that He is omniscient of the past and present and that ignorance ("jahl") is not possible for Him. And you know that He knows everything that was, everything that is, and how things that are not would be if they were. And you know that He is eternally in the past and future living ("hayy"), and that calamities and pain are not possible for Him. And you know that He sees visible things ("mar'iyat"), and perceives perceptibles, and that He does not have need of sense organs. And you know that He is eternally past and in future sufficient ("ghani") and it is not possible for Him to be in need. And you know that He is not like physical bodies, and that it is not possible for Him to get up or down, move about, change, be composite, have a form, limbs and body members. And you know that He is not like the accidents of motion, rest, color, food or smells. And you know that He is One throughout eternity and there is no second beside Him, and that everything other than He is contingent, made, dependent ("muhtaj"), structured ("mudabbar"), and governed by someone/thing else. Thus, if you know all of that you know God's oneness.

(2) Al-'Adl العدل - Divine Justice. Facing the problem of existence of evil in the world, the Mu'tazilis pointed at the free will of human beings, so that evil was defined as something that stems from the errors in human acts. God does no evil, and He demands not from any human to perform any evil act. If man's evil acts had been from the will of God, then punishment would have been meaningless, as man performed God's will no matter what he did. Mu'tazilis did not deny the existence of suffering that goes beyond human abuse and misuse of their free will granted to them by God. In order to explain this type of "apparent" evil, Mu'tazilis relied on the Islamic doctrine of "taklif" — that life is a test for beings possessing free will, i.e., the capacity for choice.

Humans are required to have belief, "iman", faith and conviction in and about God, and do good works, amal saleh, to have iman reflected in their moral choices, deeds, and relationship with God, fellow humans, and all creatures in this world. If everyone is healthy and wealthy, then there will be no meaning for the obligations imposed on humans to, for example, be generous, help the needy, and have compassion for the deprived and trivialized. The inequalities in human fortunes and the calamities that befell them are, thus, an integral part of the test of life. Everyone is being tested. The powerful, the rich, and the healthy are required to use all their powers and privileges to help those who suffer and to alleviate their suffering. In the Qiyamah (Judgment Day), they will be questioned about their response to Divine blessings and bounties they enjoyed in their lives. The less fortunate are required to patiently persevere and are promised a compensation for their suffering that, as the Qur'an puts it in 39:10, and as translated by Muhammad Asad, is "beyond all reckoning".

The test of life is specifically for adults in full possession of their mental faculties. Children may suffer, and are observed to suffer, given the nature of life but they are believed to be completely free from sin and liability. Divine justice is affirmed through the theory of compensation. All sufferers will be compensated. This includes non-believers and, more importantly, children who are destined to go to Paradise.

The doctrine of 'Adl in the words of 'Abd al-Jabbar [Martin "et al.", 1997] : It is the knowledge that God is removed from all that is morally wrong ("qabih") and that all His acts are morally good ("hasana"). This is explained by the fact that you know that all human acts of injustice ("zulm"), transgression ("jawr"), and the like cannot be of His creation ("min khalqihi"). Whoever attributes that to Him has ascribed to Him injustice and insolence ("safah") and thus strays from the doctrine of justice. And you know that God does not impose faith upon the unbeliever without giving him the power ("al-qudra") for it, nor does He impose upon a human what he is unable to do, but He only gives to the unbeliever to choose unbelief on his own part, not on the part of God. And you know that God does not will, desire or want disobedience. Rather, He loathes and despises it and only wills obedience, which He wants and chooses and loves. And you know that He does not punish the children of polytheists ("al-mushrikin") in Hellfire because of their fathers' sin, for He has said: “Each soul earns but its own due” (Qur'an 6:164); and He does not punish anyone for someone else's sin because that would be morally wrong ("qabih"), and God is far removed from such. And you know that He does not transgress His rule (hukm) and that He only causes sickness and illness in order to turn them to advantage. Whoever says otherwise has allowed that God is iniquitous and has imputed insolence to Him. And you know that, for their sakes, He does the best for all of His creatures, upon whom He imposes moral and religious obligations ("yukallifuhum"), and that He has indicated to them what He has imposed upon them and clarified the path of truth so that we could pursue it, and He has clarified the path of falsehood ("tariq l-batil") so that we could avoid it. So, whoever perishes does so only after all this has been made clear. And you know that every benefit we have is from God; as He has said: “And you have no good thing that is not from Allah” (Qur'an 16:53); it either comes to us from Him or from elsewhere. Thus, when you know all of this you become knowledgeable about God's justice.

(3) Al-Wa'd wa al-Wa'id الوعد و الوعيد - Promise and Threat. This comprised questions on the Last day and the Qiyamah (Islamic Day of Judgment). According to 'Abd al-Jabbar (Martin "et al.", 1997): The doctrine of irreversible Divine promises and threats is the knowledge that God promises recompense ("al-thawab") to those who obey Him and He threatens punishment to those who disobey Him. He will not go back on His word, nor can He act contrary to His promise and threat nor lie in what He reports, in contrast to what the Postponers (Murjites) hold.

(4) Al-Manzilah bayna al-Manzilatayn المنزلة بين المنزلتين - the intermediate position. That is, Muslims who commit grave sins and die without repentance are not considered as mu'mins (believers), nor are they considered kafirs (non-believers), but in an intermediate position between the two. The reason behind this is that a mu'min is, by definition, a person who has faith and conviction in and about God, and who has his/her faith reflected in his/her deeds and moral choices. Any shortcoming on any of these two fronts makes one, by definition, not a mu'min. On the other hand, one does not become a non-believer, for this entails, inter alia, denying the Creator — something not necessarily done by a committer of a grave sin. The fate of those who commit grave sins and die without repentance is Hell. Hell is not considered a monolithic state of affairs but as encompassing many degrees to accommodate the wide spectrum of human works and choices. Consequently, those in the intermediate position, though in Hell, would have a lesser punishment because of their belief and other good deeds. Mu'tazilites adopted this position as a middle ground between Kharijites and Murjites. In the words of 'Abd al-Jabbar, the doctrine of the intermediate position is (Martin "et al.", 1997): the knowledge that whoever murders, or fornicates ("zana"), or commits serious sins is a grave sinner ("fasiq") and not a believer, nor is his case the same that of believers with respect to praise and attributing greatness, since he is to be cursed and disregarded. Nonetheless, he is not an unbeliever who can't be buried in our Muslim cemetery, or be prayed for, or marry a Muslim. Rather, he has an intermediate position, in contrast to the Seceders (Kharijites) who say that he is an unbeliever, or the Murjites who say that he is a believer.

(5) Al-amr bil ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'an al munkar الأمر بالمعروف و النهي عن المنكر - advocating the good and forbidding the evil. 'Abd al-Jabbar said (Martin "et al.", 1997): Commanding the good is of two types. One of them is obligatory, which is commanding religious duties ("al-fara'id") when someone neglects them ("dayya`aha"), and the other is supererogatory ("al-nafila"), which is commanding supererogatory acts of devotion when someone omits to do them ("tarakaha"). As for prohibiting evil, all of it is obligatory because all evil is ethically wrong ("qabih"). It is necessary, if possible, to reach a point where evil ("al-munkar") does not occur in the easiest of circumstances or lead to something worse, for the goal is for evil simply not to happen. And, if it is possible to reach the point where good ("al-ma`ruf") occurs in the easiest of circumstances, then preferring the difficult circumstances would be impermissible. Similarly, God has said: “If two parties among the believers fall into a quarrel, make peace between them; but if one of them transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight against the one who transgresses until he complies with the command of Allah; then, if he complies, make peace between them with justice, and be fair: for Allah loves those who act fairly” (Qur'an 49:9). Thus, prohibiting evil is obligatory only if the view does not prevail that prohibiting a particular evil would lead to an increase in disobedience, and if a preference for what was harmful were not predominant. If such a view does prevail, prohibiting evil would not be obligatory, and avoiding it would be more appropriate.

Historical Development

Like all other schools, Mu'tazilism developed over an extensive period of time. Abu al-Hudhayl al-'Allaf (d. 235 A.H./849 A.D.), who came a couple of generations after Wasil ibn 'Ata' and 'Amr ibn 'Ubayd, is considered the theologian who systematized and formalized Mu'tazilism in Basra (Martin "et al.", 1997). Another branch of the school found a home in Baghdad under the direction of Bishr ibn al-Mu'tamir (d. 210 A.H./825 A.D.).

As the number of Muslims increased throughout the Muslim empire, and in reaction to the excesses of rationalism, theologians began to lose ground. The problem was exacerbated by the Mihna, the inquisition launched under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun (d. 218 A.H./833 A.D.). Mu'tazilis have been accused of being the instigators though it was the Caliph's own scheme (Nawas, 1994; Nawas, 1996; Cooperson 2005; Ess, 2006). The persecution campaign, regardless, cost them and theology in general the sympathy of the Muslim masses.

By the end of the ninth century, Mu'tazilis were subjected to vehement attacks from the traditionalists on one hand, and from the atheists, deists, philosophers, non-Muslim thinkers, etc. on the other. It is important to note that the traditionalists, as opposed to Mu'tazili rationalists, were not irrationalists. Both groups operated on the basis of some synthesis between reason and revelation. (See below for Mu'tazili view of the role and interaction of reason and revelation.) Jackson (2002) argued against the "fiction" of a strict traditionalist/rationalist dichotomy, and asserted instead that traditionalism and rationalism, in the Islamic context, should be regarded as "different traditions of reason."

In response to the attacks, Mu'tazili theologians refined and made more coherent and systematic their idea system. In Basra, this task was accomplished by the father and son team, Abu 'Ali al-Jubba'i (d. 303 A.H./915 A.D.) and Abu Hashim al-Jubba'i (d. 321 A.H./933 A.D.). The two differed on several issues and it was Abu Hashim who was to have the greatest influence on later scholars in Basra, including the prominent Abd al-Jabbar who became the most celebrated proponent of Mu'tazilism in the late tenth and early eleventh century (Martin "et al.", 1997). Mu'tazilism did not disappear from the Islamic intellectual life after the demise of 'Abd al-Jabbar, but it declined steadily and significantly. Many of the Mu'tazili doctrines and methodologies, nonetheless, survived in the other Islamic schools.

Theory of Interpretation

Mu'tazilah relied on a synthesis between reason and revelation. That is, their rationalism operated in the service of scripture and Islamic theological framework. They, as the majority of Muslim jurist-theologians, validated allegorical readings of scripture whenever necessary. Justice 'Abd al-Jabbar (1965) said in his Sharh al-Usul al-Khamsa (The Explication of the Five Principles):cquote| إن الكلام متى لم يمكن حمله على ظاهره و حقيقته، و هناك مجازان أحدهما أقرب و الآخر أبعد، فإن الواجب حمله على المجاز الأقرب دون الأبعد، لأن المجاز الأبعد من الأقرب كالمجاز مع الحقيقة، و كما لا يجوز فى خطاب الله تعالى أن يحمل على المجاز مع إمكان حمله على الحقيقة، فكذلك لا يحمل على المجاز الأبعد و هناك ما هو أقرب منهThe hermeneutic methodology proceeds as follows: if the literal meaning of an ayah (verse) is consistent with the rest of scripture, the main themes of the Qur'an, the basic tenets of the Islamic creed, and the well-known facts, then interpretation, in the sense of moving away from the literal meaning, is not justified. If a contradiction results from adopting the literal meaning, such as a literal understanding of the "hand" of God that contravenes His transcendence and the Qur'an mention of His categorical difference from all other things, then an interpretation is warranted. In the above quote, Justice 'Abd al-Jabbar emphatically mentioned that if there are two possible interpretations, both capable of resolving the apparent contradiction created by literal understanding of a verse, then the interpretation closer to the literal meaning should take precedence, for the relationship between the interpretations, close and distant, becomes the same as the literal understanding and the interpretation.

Note: Sharh al-Usul al-Khamsah may be a paraphrase or supercommentary made by Abd al-Jabbar's student Mankdim (Gimaret, 1979).

First Obligation

Mu'tazilis believed that the first obligation on humans, specifically adults in full possession of their mental faculties, is to use their intellectual power to ascertain the existence of God, and to become knowledgeable of His attributes. One must wonder about the whole existence, that is, about why something exists rather than nothing. If one comes to know that there is a being who caused this universe to exist, not reliant on anything else and absolutely free from any type of need, then one realizes that this being is all-wise and morally perfect. If this being is all-wise, then his very act of creation cannot be haphazard or in vain. One must then be motivated to ascertain what this being wants from humans, for one may harm oneself by simply ignoring the whole mystery of existence and, consequently, the plan of the Creator. This paradigm is known in Islamic theology as "wujub al-nazar", i.e., the obligation to use one's speculative reasoning to attain ontological truths. About the "first duty," 'Abd al-Jabbar said (Martin "et al.", 1997): It is speculative reasoning ("al-nazar") which leads to knowledge of God, because He is not known by the way of necessity ("daruratan") nor by the senses ("bi l-mushahada"). Thus, He must be known by reflection and speculation.

The difference between Mu'tazilis and other Muslim theologians is that Mu'tazilis consider "al-nazar" an obligation even if one does not encounter a fellow human being claiming to be a messenger from the Creator, and even if one does not have access to any alleged God-inspired or God-revealed scripture. On the other hand, the obligation of "nazar" to other Muslim theologians materializes upon encountering prophets or scripture.

Reason and Revelation

The Mu'tazilis had a nuanced theory regarding reason, Divine revelation, and the relationship between them. They celebrated power of reason and human intellectual power. To them, it is the human intellect that guides a human to know God, His attributes, and the very basics of morality. Once this foundational knowledge is attained and one ascertains the truth of Islam and the Divine origins of the Qur'an, the intellect then interacts with scripture such that both reason and revelation come together to be the main source of guidance and knowledge for Muslims. Harun Nasution in the Mu'tazila and Rational Philosophy, translated in Martin (1997), commented on Mu'tazili extensive use of rationality in the development of their religious views saying: "It is not surprising that opponents of the Mu'tazila often charge the Mu'tazila with the view that humanity does not need revelation, that everything can be known through reason, that there is a conflict between reason and revelation, that they cling to reason and put revelation aside, and even that the Mu'tazila do not believe in revelation. But is it true that the Mu'tazila are of the opinion that everything can be known through reason and therefore that revelation is unnecessary? The writings of the Mu`tazila give exactly the opposite portrait. In their opinion, human reason is not sufficiently powerful to know everything and for this reason humans need revelation in order to reach conclusions concerning what is good and what is bad for them.

The Mu'tazili position on the roles of reason and revelation is well captured by what Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 324 A.H./935 A.D.), the eponym of the Ash'ari school of theology, attributed to the Mu'tazili scholar Ibrahim al-Nazzam (d. 231 A.H./845 A.D.) (1969):cquote| كل معصية كان يجوز أن يأمر الله سبحانه بها فهي قبيحة للنهي، وكل معصية كان لا يجوز أن يبيحها الله سبحانه فهي قبيحة لنفسها كالجهل به والاعتقاد بخلافه، وكذلك كل ما جاز أن لا يأمر الله سبحانه فهو حسن للأمر به وكل ما لم يجز إلا أن يأمر به فهو حسن لنفسهThat is, there are three classes of acts. The first is what the intellect is competent on its own to discover its morality. For instance, the intellect, according to Mu'tazilis, can know, independently of revelation, that justice and telling the truth ("sidq") are morally good. God is under an ethical obligation to order humanity to abide by these. The second class of deeds is what the intellect can discover their inherent evil and ugliness ("qubh"), such as injustice, mendacity, or, according to al-Nazzam as reported in the above quote, being in a state of ignorance of the Creator. God cannot but prohibit these. The third class is comprised of the acts that the human intellect is incapable of assigning moral values to them. These are only known through revelation and they become known to be morally good if God orders them, or morally wrong if God forbids them. In short, the human intellect is capable of knowing what is right and what is wrong in a very general sense. Revelation comes from God to detail what the intellect summarizes, and to elaborate on the broad essentials. Revelation and reason complement each other and cannot dispense with one another.

In the above formulation, a problem emerged, which is rendering something obligatory on the Divine being — something that seems to directly conflict with Divine omnipotence. The Mu'tazili argument is predicated on absolute Divine power and self-sufficiency, however. Replying to a hypothetical question as to why God does not do that which is ethically wrong ("la yaf`alu al-qabih"), 'Abd al-Jabbar replied (as translated in Martin "et al.", 1997): Because He knows the immorality of all unethical acts and that He is self-sufficient without them…For one of us who knows the immorality of injustice and lying, if he knows that he is self-sufficient without them and has no need of them, it would be impossible for him to choose them, insofar as he knows of their immorality and his sufficiency without them. Therefore, if God is sufficient without need of any unethical thing it necessarily follows that He would not choose the unethical based on His knowledge of its immorality. Thus every immoral thing that happens in the world must be a human act, for God transcends doing immoral acts. Indeed, God has distanced Himself from that with His saying: “But Allah wills no injustice to His servants” (Qur’an 40:31), and His saying: “Verily Allah will not deal unjustly with humankind in anything” (Qur’an 10:44).

The thrust of `Abd al-Jabbar's argument is that acting immorally or unwisely stems from need and deficiency. One acts in a repugnant way when one does not know the ugliness of one's deeds, i.e., because of lack of knowledge, or when one knows but one has some need, material, psychological, or otherwise. Since God is absolutely self-sufficient (a result from the cosmological "proof" of His existence), all-knowing, and all-powerful, He is categorically free from any type of need and, consequently, He never does anything that is ridiculous, unwise, ugly, or evil.

The conflict between Mu'tazilis and Ash'aris concerning this point was a matter of the focus of obsession. Mu'tazilis were obsessed with Divine justice, whereas the Ash'aris were obsessed with Divine omnipotence. Nevertheless, Divine self-restraint in Mu'tazili discourse is because of, not a negation of, Divine omnipotence.

The Validity of Tradition

In the Islamic sciences, reports are classified into two types regarding their authenticity. The first type is diffusely recurrent ("mutawatir") reports — those that have come down to later generations through a large number of chains of narration, involving diverse transmitters such that it is virtually impossible that all these people, living in different localities and espousing (at times radically) different views, would come together, fabricate the exact same lie and attribute it to the Prophet of Islam or any other authority. A large number of narrators is not a sufficient criterion for authenticating a report because people belonging to some sect or party may have an interest in fabricating reports that promote their agendas. The power of this mode of transmission, "tawatur," rests on both the number and diversity of narrators at each stage of transmission. On the other hand, the authenticity of the second type of reports, those which do not meet the criteria for "tawatur," is considered speculative.

'Abd al-Jabbar commented on the issue of reports saying (Martin "et al.", 1997): Mu'tazilis declare as true all that is established by "mutawatir" reports, by which we know what the Messenger of God has said. And that which was narrated by one or two transmitters only, or by one for whom error was possible, such reports are unacceptable in religions ("al-diyanat") but they are acceptable in the proceedings of positive law ("furu` l-fiqh"), as long as the narrator is trustworthy, competent, just, and he has not contradicted what is narrated in the Qur'an.

Thus, the non-"mutawatir" reports are accepted by Mu'tazilis, according to 'Abd al-Jabbar, when it comes to the details or branches of law. When it comes to basic tenets, these reports are not considered authentic enough to establish a belief central to the Islamic faith. That is, the Mu'tazilis main issue is with reports of speculative authenticity that have a theological, rather than legal, content, when these seem to contravene the definitives of the Qur'an and rational proof. Since the doctrines that Mu'tazilis hated most were anthropomorphism and unqualified predestination (Ess, 2006), it were reports supporting these and resisting all hermeneutical attempts at harmonizing and reconciliation that were criticized and rejected by Mu'tazilis.

ee also

* Ash'ari
* Kalam




Mutazilah Literature Online

* []

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