Skip to main content

Mu‘tazilites

MUTAZILITES

The earliest important theological school of islam. The name (Arabic mutazila ) is derived from the verb itazala, meaning "to separate oneself from." The first Mutazilites 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 Mutazilite school were Wāil ibn Aā (d. 748) and Amr ibn Ubayd (d. 762), both of Bara. But Abul-Hudhayl al-Allāf (d. 840) was the true founder of Mutazilite dogmatics. Other prominent members of the Bara school were Muammar, Hishām al-Fuwaī al-Aamm and al-Naām. The Baghdad school was founded by Bishr ibn al-Mutamir (d.826), and included such men as Thumāma ibn Ashras and Ibn Abī Duād. Under the Caliphs Mamūn, Mutaim, and Wāthiq, Mutazilism was the state theology, and its teaching that the qurĀn was created was enforced by a kind of inquisition (mina ). The Caliph Mutawakkil was hostile to the Mutazilites, 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 Mutazilite doctors, yet nearly all have held the fundamental position expressed in the five basic principles commonly attributed to the Mutazilites. The first, pure monotheism (tawid ), is the most important principle of Mutazilism, 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 Qurān, 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 Qurān 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 Mutazilites 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-wad wal-waīd ), 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 baynal-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 Qurānic (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 Mutazilites 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 Mutazilites in every possible way. Their writings were destroyed, so that the only surviving Mutazilite manuscript, apart from works preserved in Yemen, is the Kitab al-Intiār, edited by Nyberg in 1925. Certain Zaydite manuscripts in Yemen may lead to a better knowledge of the Mutazilites 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 Qurān 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 Muammad Abduh, the great Egyptian reformer (d. 1905), there have been indications of a revival of interest in the Mutazilites among Muslim thinkers, and even of a return to some of their principal theses. This "neo-Mutazilism" 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 3:841847; The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden 1953) 421427. a. n. nader, Le Système philosophique des Mutazila (Beirut 1956). Kitāb-al-Intiār (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 Motazalisme," Mélanges de l'Institut Dominicain d'Études Orientales du Caire 4 (1957) 141202. See also the relevant bibliographies under asharĪ, al-; kalĀm. m. a. cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge, England 2000)

[r. j. mccarthy]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mu‘tazilites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Mu‘tazilites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mutazilites

"Mu‘tazilites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mutazilites

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.