The earliest important theological school of islam. The name (Arabic mu‘tazila ) is derived from the verb i‘tazala, meaning "to separate oneself from." The first Mu‘tazilites were political, those who "separated themselves from" both ‘alĪ and his opponents in the quarrel over the legitimacy of his succession to the caliphate. Later the term indicated the position that the Muslim grave sinner was neither believer, unbeliever, nor hypocrite, but simply a sinner (fāsiq ).
History. The founders of the Mu‘tazilite school were Wāṣil ibn ‘Aṭā’ (d. 748) and ‘Amr ibn ‘Ubayd (d. 762), both of Baṣra. But Abu’l-Hudhayl al-‘Allāf (d. 840) was the true founder of Mu‘tazilite dogmatics. Other prominent members of the Baṣra school were Mu‘ammar, Hishām al-Fuwaṭī al-Aṣamm and al-Naẓẓām. The Baghdad school was founded by Bishr ibn al-Mu‘tamir (d.826), and included such men as Thumāma ibn Ashras and Ibn Abī Du‘ād. Under the Caliphs Ma’mūn, Mu‘taṣim, and Wāthiq, Mu‘tazilism was the state theology, and its teaching that the qur’Ān was created was enforced by a kind of inquisition (miḥna ). The Caliph Mutawakkil was hostile to the Mu‘tazilites, and from his time on the school gradually declined, though it long maintained centers in the eastern part of the empire. After the Mongol invasions it survived mainly among the Zaydites of yemen, where it still exists.
Teachings. There are divergencies in doctrine among the many Mu‘tazilite doctors, yet nearly all have held the fundamental position expressed in the five basic principles commonly attributed to the Mu‘tazilites. The first, pure monotheism (tawḥid ), is the most important principle of Mu‘tazilism, since it is the source of almost all its doctrines. God is one in the strictest sense. Anthropomorphisms are to be denied, or, when they occur in the Qur’ān, are to be interpreted symbolically. The attributes commonly assigned to God have only a figurative meaning and are in no way realities in or distinct from the divine essence. The Qur’ān is created. There is no beatific vision. Several solutions are proposed to the problems of creation and of God's relation to the created world.
The second principle concerns divine justice (’adl ). God is supremely just. He always does what is best for His creation. He cannot will evil; hence man is personally responsible for his own moral acts. The Mu‘tazilites insisted strongly on man's free will, a position that was practically rejected by later "orthodox" Muslim theology. The third principle, called "the promise and the threat" (al-wa‘d wa’l-wa‘īd ), begot discussions concerning the final lot of the believer, sinner, and infidel; the nature of faith and unbelief; grave and light sins; legal questions in general; and the authenticity of traditions. The fourth was the intermediate state of the grave sinner (al-manzila bayna’l-manzilatayn ). This is not clearly distinct from the two preceding principles. But the discussion of the grave sinner's state involved lengthy consideration of the caliphate and of the legitimacy of the first four caliphs. The fifth principle dealt with commanding good and forbidding evil. The expression is Qur’ānic (e.g., 3.106, 110). Disapproval of evil must be by word and deed, and even by the use of the sword. This was little discussed as time went on. The general framework of these five principles left much room for refinement and difference of opinion, and later discussions often developed into philosophical disputes.
Significance. The Mu’tazilites have sometimes been called rationalists, freethinkers, or liberals of Islam. They were rationalists only in the sense that they used rational argument in their teaching. To this they were forced by the necessity of defending Islam against the dualists (Manichaeans) and the followers of other religions, many of whom became halfhearted converts to Islam. It later became the practice of "orthodox" writers to vilify the Mu‘tazilites in every possible way. Their writings were destroyed, so that the only surviving Mu‘tazilite manuscript, apart from works preserved in Yemen, is the Kitab al-Intiṣār, edited by Nyberg in 1925. Certain Zaydite manuscripts in Yemen may lead to a better knowledge of the Mu‘tazilites and their teaching. By their polemic they certainly saved Islam from its early adversaries, and by their use of reasoning and philosophy they founded the science of kalĀm. They also contributed much to the development of the sciences of Qur’ān exegesis, jurisprudence, and tradition. Far from being liberal, they showed much intolerance when themselves protected by the state. They played an important role in the development of Muslim theology and profoundly influenced many of the "orthodox" theologians. Since the time of Muḥammad ‘Abduh, the great Egyptian reformer (d. 1905), there have been indications of a revival of interest in the Mu‘tazilites among Muslim thinkers, and even of a return to some of their principal theses. This "neo-Mu‘tazilism" could have far-reaching effects on the development and direction of modern Islam.
Bibliography: h. s. nyberg, Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. b. lewis et al. (2d ed. Leiden 1954–)1 3:841–847; The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden 1953) 421–427. a. n. nader, Le Système philosophique des Mu‘tazila (Beirut 1956). Kitāb-al-Intiṣār (Le Livre du triomphe et de la réfutation d'lbn al Rawandi l'hérétique), Arabic text and French translation of Nyberg's 1925 edition referred to in the text. r. caspar, "Le Renouveau du Mo‘tazalisme," Mélanges de l'Institut Dominicain d'Études Orientales du Caire 4 (1957) 141–202. See also the relevant bibliographies under ash‘arĪ, al-; kalĀm. m. a. cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge, England 2000)
[r. j. mccarthy]
"Mu‘tazilites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mutazilites
"Mu‘tazilites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mutazilites