Introduction to 'Ilm-al-Kalam
Martyr Murtada Mutahhari
14. Transitions in the History of the Mu’tazilah
Obviously, all the above-mentioned problems were not posed at one time and by any single individual. Rather, they were raised gradually by several individuals, expanding the scope of ‘ilm al-kalam.
Among these mentioned, apparently the oldest problem was that of free will and determinism, in which the Mu’tazilah, of course, sided with free will. This is a problem which is posed in the Qur’an. That is, the Qur’an refers to this issue in a manner which stimulates thought on the subject. Because some verses clearly indicate that man is free, not coerced in any of his acts. On the other hand, there are verses which, with equal clarity, indicate that all things depend on the Divine Will.
Here the doubt arises that these two types of verses contradict each other. Accordingly, some explained away the verses upholding free will and supported determinism and predestination, while others explained away the verses which refer to the role of Divine Will and Intention, and sided with human freedom and free will. Of course, there is a third group which sees no contradiction between those two sets of verses.11
Moreover, this controversy between freedom and fate is frequently taken up in the utterances of ‘Ali (A). Therefore, it is almost contemporaneous with Islam itself. However, the division of Muslims into two opposite camps, one siding with free will and the other with fate, took place in the second half of the lst 7th century.
It is said that the idea of free will was first put into circulation by Ghaylan al-Dimashqi and Ma’bad al-Juhani. The Banu Umayyah was inclined to propagate the belief in fate and predestination among the people, because it served their political interests. Under the cover of this belief that “everything is by the Will of God” – “amanna bi al-qadri khayrihi wa sharrihi” – “We believe in fate, bring as it may good or evil” – they justified their oppressive and illegitimate rule. As a result, they repressed any notions of free will or human freedom, and Ghaylan al-Dimashqi and Ma’bad al-Juhani were both killed. During that period the supporters of the belief in free will were called “Qadariyyah”.
However, the problem of the infidelity or otherwise of the evildoer (kufr al-fasiq) had become a subject of controversy even before the issue of freedom and fate, because it was raised by the Khawarij during the first half of the first century about the time of the caliphate of ‘Ali (A). But the Khawarij did not defend this view in the fashion of the mutakallimun. Only when the problem was raised among the Mu’tazilah, with the emergence of their doctrine of manzilah bayna al-manzilatayn, it took on the color of a problem of kalam.
The problem of fate and freedom (jabr wa ikhtiyar) automatically brought in its wake such other problems as these: the problem of Divine Justice; the rational and essential goodness or badness (husn aw qubh dhati wa ‘aqli) of things and acts; dependence of Divine Acts on purposes; impossibility of saddling a person with a duty exceeding his capacities, and the like.
During the first half of the 2nd/8th century one Jahm ibn Sakfwan (d. 128/745) voiced certain beliefs regarding the Divine Attributes. The writers of intellectual and religious history of Islam (milal wa nihal), claim that the problem of al-tawhid al-sifati (that the Divine Attributes are not separate from the Divine Essence – which the Mu’tazilah call their “doctrine of tawhid”) and the problem of nafy al-tashbih, also called asl al-tanzih, (which means that nothing can be likened to God) was expressed for the first time by Jahm ibn Safwan, whose followers came to be called the “Jahmiyyah.” The Mu’tazilah followed the Jahmiyyah in their doctrines of tawhid and tanzih, in the same way as they followed the Qadariyyah on the issue of free will. Jahm ibn Safwan himself was a Jabrite (i.e. a supporter of fate or predestination). The Mu’tazilah rejected his view of fate but accepted his view of tawhid.
The foremost among the Mu’tazilah, who established Mu’tazilism (al-‘i’tizal) as a school of thought is Wasil ibn ‘Ata’, who, as mentioned earlier, was a pupil of al-Hasan al-Basri, and who parted company with his teacher in the course of a difference, to establish his own school. Two different versions of the cause why the Mu’tazilah came to be called by this name were mentioned earlier. Some others say that, in the beginning the term “mu’tazilah” was used to refer to a group of persons who remained neutral during the events of the Battle of al-Jamal and the Battle of Siffin, such as Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, Zayd ibn Thabit, and ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar.
Later when the issue of the faith or infidelity of fasiq was raised by the Khawarij, Muslims divided into two camps. One group of them took the third path, dissociating itself from the rest, being indifferent to their debates. They adopted the same kind of neutral attitude with regard to a theoretical problem as those like Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas had adopted in the midst of the heated social political climate of their time. This attitude caused them to be called “mu’tazilah” the “indifferent,” a name which permanently stuck to them.
Wasil was born in the year 80/699 and died in 141/758-59. His views were limited to those on the negation of the Attributes [as distinct from the Essence of God], free will, manzilah bayna al-manzilatayn, al-wa’d wa al-wa’id, and opinions on some differences among the Companions.
After Wasil came ‘Amr ibn ‘Ubayd, who extended and gave final shape to the views of Wasil. After him came ‘Amr ibn Abi al-Hudhayl al-‘Allaf and Ibrahim ibn Sayyar al-Nazzam. Abu al-Hudhayl and al-Nazzim, both, are considered eminent Mu’tazilites. Kalam got its philosophical color at their hands. Abu al-Hudhayl studied philosophical works and wrote books in their refutation. Al-Nazzam presented certain views in the sphere of physics, and it was he who offered the view that bodies are constituted of atoms. Abu al-Hudhayl died, most probably, in the year 255/869, and al-Nazzim in 231/845-46.
Al-Jahiz (159/775-254/868), the famous author of the al-Bayan wa al-tabyin, is another eminent Mu’tazilite of the 3rd/9th century.
During the rule of the Banu Umayyah, the Mu’tazilah did not have good relations with the ruling authorities. During the early days of the Banu al-‘Abbas, they took on a neutral stand.12 But during the rule of al-Ma’mun, who was himself learned in literature, sciences and philosophy, they attracted the ruler’s patronage. Al-Ma’mun, and after him al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq, were staunch patrons of the Mu’tazilah. All the three caliphs called themselves Mu’tazilites.
It was during this period that a heated controversy began extending to all corners of the vast Islamic dominions of the period. The issue under debate was whether Speech is an attribute of the Divine Act or an attribute of the Essence. Whether it is created and temporal (hadith) or uncreated and eternal (qadim) like Divine Knowledge, Power, and Life, the Mu’tazilah believed that the Qur’an is created (in time) and, therefore, is a creation of God (makhluq) and so temporal. They also maintained that belief in the pre-eternity of the Qur’an amounted to infidelity (kufr).
The opponents of the Mu’tazilah, on the contrary, believed in the pre-eternity and uncreatedness of the Qur’an. Al-Ma’mun (r. 198/813 to 218/833) sent out a circular that any believer in the pre-eternity of the Qur’an would be liable to punishment. Many persons were thrown into prison and subjected to torture.
Al-Mu’tasim (r. 218/833 to 227/842) and al-Withiq (r. 227/842 to 232/847) also followed al-Ma’mun’s practice. Of those who went to the prison during that time was Ahmad ibn Hanbal. This policy remained in force until al-Mutawakkil assumed power (r. 232/847 to 247/861). Al-Mutawakkil was not inclined in favor of the Mu’tazilah, and also most of the people were opposed to them. As a result the Mu’tazilah and their admirers suffered a reverse, nay, a reprisal. In the purges that followed, much blood was shed and homes were ruined. The period is remembered by Muslims as the times of “mihnah” – times of adversity and trial.
The Mu’tazilah never recuperated after this, and the field was left open forever for their opponents: the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Ahl al-Hadith. Nevertheless, there appeared some prominent personalities even during the following periods of their decline, like, ‘Abd Allah ibn Ahmad Abu al-Qasim al-Balkhi, well-known as al-Ka’bi (d. 319/ 931); Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i (d. 303/915-6); Abu al-Hashim al-Jubba’i (d. 321/933) the son of Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i; Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d. 415/1024); Abu al-Hasan al-Khayyat; al-Sahib ibn ‘Abbad, al-Zamakhshari (d. 538/1144); and Abu Ja’far al-‘Iskafi.