Ibrahim ibn Sayyar al-Nazzam

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Ibrahim ibn Sayyar al-Nazzam

The Moslem thinker and theologian Ibrahim ibn Sayyar al-Nazzam (died ca. 840) was one of the major figures of the school of thought in Islam known as the Mutazila.

Al-Nazzam was educated in Basra and spent most of his active life (apparently a short one) in the Abbasid capital, Baghdad. Although his main impact was to be upon orthodox Moslem theology, he also engaged in polemics against the Manichaeans, whose ideas were filtering into the Islamic milieu even as they had into Christendom. His writings have come down to us only in fragmentary quotations in later Moslem writers.

Although a knowledge of Greek rationalist thought must be attributed to al-Nazzam, he, along with the rest of the Mutazila, should not be really classified as a philosopher. The main preoccupation of the Mutazilites was theology, and they used philosophical tools to bolster their dogmatism. Moslem thinkers had taken most enthusiastically to Greek methods as soon as philosophical works— mostly Aristotle and Neoplatonic works—became available in Arabic in the generation just before al-Nazzam. It was assumed rather too easily that the genius of these Greek minds would of course harmonize with the revelations transmitted by the prophet Mohammed and with the Traditions of the early Moslem community.

For al-Nazzam, the Koran is the only possible foundation for his intellectual system; it is worth noting, moreover, that his approach to religion is almost completely an intellectual one. The intellectual vigor which al-Nazzam and the other Mutazilites brought to theological discussion was largely channeled into polemics, both against other religions and against other shades of thought within Islam, such as the more extreme sectarians of the Shiis.

The Mutazilites insisted, as good Moslems, upon the absolute oneness of God and upon His justice. The first of these ideas led them logically to insist also that the Koran is created, rather than coeternal with God, as the more traditional Moslems believed. A similar zeal for absolute monotheism led al-Nazzam, in particular, to deny the power of God over evil: God is Absolute Justice and Absolute Good and is All-Wise. Since these statements are true, God cannot be the author of evil, since this would imply that He is either ignorant or in need of the creation of something evil; therefore the source of evil must be sought elsewhere.

The method of thought employed in this example is characteristic of al-Nazzam's approach; another example of his logic is a theory of creation which posits a single act on the part of God, with future events and things latent: all mankind was created at the same instant as Adam but only became manifest later.

The importance of al-Nazzam and other Mutazilites for Islamic thought is in their sharpening of the rationalistic tools which, ironically, were to be turned by later orthodox Moslems against excessive reliance upon rationalism in theology.

Further Reading

In English, a brief account of al-Nazzam's ideas is in Mian Mohammad Sharif, A History of Muslim Philosophy, vol. 1 (1963). □