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Mu'tazili (Arabic المعتزلة) is an extinct theological school of thought within Islam. It is also spelled Mu'tazilite, or Mu'tazilah.



The name Mu'tazili originates from the Arabic root اعتزل meaning "to leave", "to abandon", "to desert".


Mu'tazili theology originated in 8th century in al-Basrah when Wasil Ibn 'Atta' left the teaching lessons of al-Hasan al-Basri after a theological dispute; thus he and his followers were labelled "Mu'tazili". Later, Mu'tazilis called themselves Ahl al-'Adl wa al-Tawhid (People of Justice and Monotheism) based on the theology they advocated, which expanded on the logic and rationalism of Greek philosophy, seeking to combine them with Islamic doctrines, and show that they were inherently compatible.

During this period, several questions were being debated by Muslim theologians, including whether the Qur'an was created or eternal, whether evil was created by God, the issue of predestination vs. free will, whether God's attributes in the Qur'an were to be interpreted allegorically or literally, and whether sinning believers would have eternal punishment in hell. Islam was also dealing with a number of doctrines later deemed to be heresy, as well as challenges to it from atheists, notably Ibn al-Rawandi . Mu'tazili thought attempted to address all these issues.


Mu'tazili tenets focus on the Five Principles:

  • Tawhid التوحيد - Monotheism. God could not be conceived by any human conception. There they argued that verses in the Qur'an describing God as sitting on a throne to be allegorical. The Mu'tazilis argued that the Qur'an could not be eternal, but created by God. Otherwise the uniqueness of God would be impossible. They took the allegorical stance to its extreme and started to term their opponents as anthropomorphists.
  • 'Adl العدل - Divine Justice. Facing the problem of existence of evil in a world where God is omnipotent, 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.
  • al-Wa'd wa al-Wa'id الوعد و الوعيد - Promise and Threat. This comprised questions on the Last day and the Qiyaamah (Islamic Day of Judgement), where God would reward those who obeyed him with what he promised, and punish those who disobeyed with threats of hellfire.
  • al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn المنزلة بين المنزلتين - the position between the two extremes. That is, between those who say all sinners will be eternally in hell, and those who say sinners will not be punished — ie, between Kharijites and Murjites.
  • al-amr bil ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'an al munkar الأمر بالمعروف و النهي عن المنكر - commanding the good and prohibiting the evil. This includes permitting rebellion against unjust rulers as a way to prohibit evil.

In everyone of these tenets there were differences from other schools of theology in Islam at the time.

Historical development

Mu'tazili theology developed in the 8th century, and by the early 9th century became the official court belief of the Abbasid Caliphate, when it was officially adopted by the caliph Al-Ma'mun. While Mu'tazilism took hold among officials and in intellectual circles, its public appeal was limited.

Under al-Ma'mun, an inquisition-like persecution (Arabic: Mihna "Ordeal" 833-848) was undertaken against scholars who did not adhere to Mu'tazili thought. Its main form was forcing non-adherents to renounce the doctrine that the Qur'an was eternal, and instead attest that it was created. The most famous victims of the Mihna were Ahmad Ibn Hanbal who was imprisoned and tortured, and the judge Ahmad Ibn Nasr al-Khuza'i who was crucified. In another famous incident, Muslim prisoners of war held by the Byzantine Empire were only freed if they attested that the Qur'an was created, not eternal. Later the famous Hadith scholar al-Bukhari was also tested regarding his beliefs about the Qur'an.

The Mu'tazili school eventually lost the support of rulers and high ranking officials. By the 13th century, the theology ceased to exist in Sunni Islam.

Legacy and assessment

Mu'tazilism's rationalism was appealing to the learned classes of the time, as was its stance on Free Will, and its perceived opposition to the inherent anthropomorphism of the rival theologies. However, being elitist in nature, it never gained ground with the masses, and its adoption by the rulers and the subsequent persecution of scholars made it appeal even less to the public.

Mu'tazilis initially focused on attacks on Islam from non-Muslims. However they soon became focussed on debating other theologies and sects within Islam itself. Although Mu'tazalis advocated the pursuit of justice even by rebellion against rulers, their alliance with rulers who oppressed non-adherents made this a moot point.

As a response to Mu'tazilism, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari , initially a Mu'tazili himself, developed his Kalam methodology, also based on Greek dialectic, thus starting the Ash'ari school of theology. The Ash'ari school of theology was the codifying of the traditional beliefs of Sunni Islam. Influenced by Ash'aris, the Maturidi school emerged, and its founder wrote many books to refute many of Mu'tazili beliefs.

Many Shi'a sects, specially the Twelver version, have adopted certain tenets of Mu'tazili beliefs, and incorporated them into their theology.

Modern attempts at revival

Some modern attempts have been made to revive Mu'tazili thought, especially as a counterbalance to traditionalist Salafi and Wahhabi schools; notable examples include Harun Nasution and Nasr Abu Zayd and However these efforts have not been particularly successful.

Famous figures

See also

Asharite, Kalam

External links

Last updated: 05-21-2005 01:03:51