Islam: The Religion of… Logic? (2/3)

Often described as the Religion of Violence, Islam had a golden age spanning from the 8th-12th century (CE). The previous post brushed over the Islamic Golden Age and Kalam. This post introduces a prominent theological school that lived and died in that time.

The Mu’ tazila


Paradoxical statements in the Qur’an had to be logically qualified.

Their theology was and is incredibly different to mainstream Islam for many reasons, the big ones being belief in Free Will, Atomism, rationalising discrepancies in the Qur’an and that the Qur’an itself was created. Now although the Qur’an is a primary source for knowing God’s laws – pure analytical reason gets the final say! Listed below are the five fundamental beliefs in Mu’tazilism, although monotheism and divine justice are standard for virtually all forms of Islam the interpretation makes them very important. The First Principle, as stated in the Mu’tazila text Kitab Al-Usul Al-Khamsa, is that good and evil can be known solely through human reason (without revelation) and that it is a Muslim’s duty to try and know God in this way. This principle, the autonomy of intellect, underpins the five fundamentals below:

  • MonotheismTawhid,  better expressed as the oneness of God, has had slightly different meanings over the history of Islam. Usually the Qur’an is seen to be an essence of God (His word) and thus co-eternal with Him. Mu’tazilites strict interpretation of tawhid says the Qur’an cannot both be part of Him and apart from Him, so the Qur’an cannot be eternal and thus is created. This became one of the most contested positions in Islamic thought. A view shared by the Ibadi Muslims of present day Oman.
  • Divine JusticeAl-‘Adl, there are many divine attributes and although virtually all schools of thought believe God to have justice as one – the strict analysis of it by Mu’tazilites brings about a controversial view. In answer to the Problem of Evil, like in Zoroastrianism, they respond by introducing Free Will – something completely opposed to the determinism of mainstream Islam. This is because if God is divinely just then he cannot create someone, command them to do evil then punish them for doing so.
  • The Promise and the Threat – At-wa’d wa al-wa’id, this is divine retribution. For this reason one must try to know God through rationality in order not to inadvertently disobey Him (and burn in Hell).
  • The Intermediate PositionAl-Manzilah Bayna al-Manzilatayn, when a Muslim sins they do not become a disbeliever (kafir) but neither do they stay a true believer (mu’min). If they die in this state they will be judged by God separately from a mu’min and a kafir. This view sits between the Kharijite position that sinning is disbelief (a view shared by modern day Islamic Extremists) and the Murjite position that a sinner is still a believer until Judgement Day where God will decide.
  • Commanding Good, Prohibiting EvilAl-‘amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar, an obligation for all mu’min. This is the maxim that led to political intervention in the Abbasid Caliphate.

Mu’tazila: Sunni, Shia, Ibadi?
There are quite a few sects/schools/movements in Islam, this infograph shows the types that are around today. It doesn’t mention Mu’tazila and in my reading I have seen them referred to as Sunni sub-set, their own sect and even not Muslims at all. I would say there is enough difference in views to call them an independent sect. If we look at views on who can be a caliph we see that Sunni say the caliph must be from the tribe of Mohammed, Shia say the caliph must be from the family of Ali then the Ibadi say it can be anyone of strong faith. The Ibadi view was one adopted from their predecessor the Kharijites, the Mu’tazila share the Ibadi and Kharijite view on who can be caliph. But their rational dispute with the texts and onus on self-reasoning is contrary to conservative Ibadi/Kharijite views. Although the lines do blur as we will see in the next post, Mu’tazilites were quite the contrarians of their time – and even of our time.

Nobody Expects the Islamic Inquisition! (Minha)
The fifth doctrine, commanding good and prohibiting evil, invoked political action during the Abbasid Caliphate. Pro-Mu’tazila ulama (religious officials), including the caliphs al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tasim, began interrogating scholars and ulama who did not believe in the Jahmite and Mu’tazilte view of Quranic Createdness. Imprisonment, punishment and even death would fall on those who did not concede. There was a growing ‘traditionalist’ re-serge in Sunni Islam at the time which promoted much the opposite and the fact that Mu’tazila shared views in-line with Zoroastrians and Shia muslims did not win them any favours with the populous. In the field of kalam two more systematic schools emerged in response, these were the Ashi’arites and the Maturidis. The latter was a hardline reaction that advocated Quranic literalism and threw out rational applications. The Ashi’arite school was the middle ground and found much support.

The 10th caliph of the Abbasid reign, Al-Mutawakkil, reversed the order of Minha and with that the ulama freely became less accepting of Mu’tazilites. The general community were already rather against them and Mu’tazilites quickly lost any power or influence they once held. Even after the Mu’tazilites had all gone – their practices still continued, mainly with the Zaidi Shias of Yemen, but also Ismaili Shias, Karaite Jews and certain Sufi schools had by this time all adopted different aspects of Mu’tazila doctrine. The Ashi’arite school of theology which advocated a lighter version of rationalism became moderately accepted in the Sunni mainstream.

The next post is on interpreting sharia (law).

Sources: Initially Wikipedia then,, scholars on Youtube (Sunni & Shia, including Wahhabist Feiz Mohammad), academics and documentaries online. The information was sporadic and sometimes contradictory so I also bought the book Defenders of Reason in Islam which is a detailed analysis of the movement’s initial serge all the way up to it’s revival in our modern times.