Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila

The Mu'tazila - literally 'those who withdraw themselves' - movement was founded by Wasil bin 'Ata' in the second century ah (eighth century ad). Its members were united in their conviction that it was necessary to give a rationally coherent account of Islamic beliefs. In addition to having an atomistic view of the universe, they generally held to five theological principles, of which the two most important were the unity of God and divine justice. The former led them to deny that the attributes of God were distinct entities or that the Qur'an was eternal, while the latter led them to assert the existence of free will.

Ash'ariyya - named after its founding thinker, al-Ash'ari - was the foremost theological school in Sunni Islam. It had its origin in the reaction against the excessive rationalism of the Mu'tazila. Its members insisted that reason must be subordinate to revelation. They accepted the cosmology of the Mu'tazilites but put forward a nuanced rejection of their theological principles.

  1. Historical survey
  2. Cosmology
  3. The five principles
  4. The unity of God
  5. Divine justice and human destiny

1. Historical survey

The Mu'tazila originated in Basra at the beginning of the second century ah (eighth century ad). In the following century it became, for a period of some thirty years, the official doctrine of the caliphate in Baghdad. This patronage ceased in ah 238/ad 848 when al-Mutawakkil reversed the edict of al-Ma'mun, which had required officials to publicly profess that the Qur'an was the created word of God. By this time, however, Mu'tazilites were well established in many other centres of Islamic learning, especially in Persia, and had split into two rival factions, the Basran School and the Baghdad School. Although their links with these two cities became increasingly tenuous, both schools flourished until the middle of the fifth century ah (eleventh century ad), and the Basran School only finally disappeared with the Mongol invasions at the beginning of the seventh century ah (thirteenth century ad). After the demise of the Mu'tazila as a distinct movement, Mu'tazilite doctrine - by now regarded as heretical by Sunnis - continued to be influential amongst the Shi'ites in Persia and the Zaydis in the Yemen.

Al-Ash'ari (d. ah 324/ad 935) was a pupil of Abu 'Ali al-Jubba'i (d. ah 303/ad 915), the head of the Basran School. A few years before his master's death, al-Ash'ari announced dramatically that he repented of having been a Mu'tazilite and pledged himself to oppose the Mu'tazila. In taking this step he capitalized on popular discontent with the excessive rationalism of the Mu'tazilites, which had been steadily gaining ground since their loss of official patronage half a century earlier. After his conversion, al-Ash'ari continued to use the dialectic method in theology but insisted that reason must be subservient to revelation. It is not possible to discuss al-Ash'ari's successors in detail here, but it should be noted that from the second half of the sixth century ah (twelfth century ad) onwards, the movement adopted the language and concepts of the Islamic philosophers whose views they sought to refute. The most significant thinkers among these later Ash'arites were al-Ghazali and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi.

2. Cosmology

Popular accounts of the teaching of the Mu'tazilites usually concentrate on their distinctive theological doctrines. To the philosopher, however, their cosmology, which was accepted by the Ash'ariyya and other theological schools, is a more appropriate starting point.

To the Mu'tazila, the universe appears to consist of bodies with different qualities: some are living while others are inanimate, some are mobile while others are stationary, some are hot and some are cold, and so on. Moreover, one and the same body may take on different qualities at different times. For instance, a stone may be mobile when rolling down a hill but stationary when it reaches the bottom, or hot when left in the sun but cold after a long night. Yet there are some qualities which some bodies cannot acquire; for example, stones are invariably inanimate, never living. How are the differences between bodies, and between one and the same body at different times, to be explained?

The answer given by the Mu'tazilites is that all bodies are composed of identical material substances (jawahir) or atoms (ajza'), on which God bestows various incorporeal accidents (a'rad). This view was first propounded by Dirar ibn 'Amr (d. c.ah 200/ad 815) and elaborated by Abu al-Hudhayl (d. ah 227/ad 841 or later), both of whom were early members of the Basran School. Abu al-Hudhayl held that isolated atoms are invisible mathematical points. The only accidents which they can be given are those which affect their ability to combine with other atoms, such as composition or separation, motion or rest. Conglomerates of atoms, on the other hand, can be given many other accidents such as colours, tastes, odours, sounds, warmth and coldness, which is why we perceive them as different bodies. Some of these accidents are indispensable, hence the differences between bodies, whereas others can be bestowed or withdrawn, thus explaining the differences between one and the same body at different times.

This account of the world gained rapid acceptance amongst Islamic theologians, although to begin with it was rejected by two Mu'tazilites of the Basran School, al-Nazzam (d. ah 221/ad 836) and Abu Bakr al-Asamm (d. ah 201/ad 816?). The former, who was Abu al-Hudhayl's nephew, argued that atoms which were mere mathematical points would not be able to combine with one another and that, rather than being composed of atoms, bodies must therefore be infinitely divisible. Abu al-Hudhayl replied that God's bestowal of the accident of composition on an isolated atom made it three-dimensional and hence capable of combining (see Atomism, ancient). Al-Asamm, on the other hand, objected to the notion of accidents, arguing that since only bodies are visible their qualities cannot have an independent existence. Abu al-Hudhayl retorted that such a view was contrary to divine laws because the legal obligations and penalties for their infringement were not directed at the whole person but at one of his 'accidents', such as his prostration in prayer or his flagellation for adultery.

3. The five principles

According to the Muslim heresiographers, who are our main source of information about the Mu'tazila, members of the movement adhered to five principles, which were clearly enunciated for the first time by Abu al-Hudhayl. These were: (1) the unity of God; (2) divine justice; (3) the promise and the threat; (4) the intermediate position; and (5) the commanding of good and forbidding of evil.

The first and second principles are of major importance and will be discussed in detail below. The third principle is really only an adjunct of the second, and is here treated as such. The fourth principle is a relatively unimportant doctrine which probably only figures in the list because it was thought to have been the reason for the Mu'tazila's emergence as a distinct movement; it is said that when Hasan al-Basri was questioned about the position of the Muslim who committed a grave sin, his pupil Wasil bin 'Ata' said that such a person was neither a believer nor an unbeliever, but occupied an intermediate position. Hasan was displeased and remarked, 'He has withdrawn from us (i'tazila 'anna)', at which Wasil withdrew from his circle and began to propagate his own teaching. The historicity of this story has been questioned on the ground that there are several variants: according to one version the person who withdrew was Wasil's associate 'Amr ibn 'Ubayd (d. ah 141/ad 761), and according to another the decisive break came in the time of Hasan's successor Qatada. Moreover it is noteworthy that at least one influential member of the Basran school, Abu Bakr al-Asamm, rejected the notion of an intermediate position and argued that the grave sinner remained a believer because of his testimony of faith and his previous good deeds. This was also the view of the Ash'arites.

The fifth principle, which is derived from several passages in the Qur'an (for example, Surah 9: 71), and which the Mu'tazilites understood as an obligation incumbent on all Muslims to intervene in the affairs of state, was rarely put into practice. For the Ash'arites, the commanding of good and forbidding of evil was the prerogative of the head of state, who acted on behalf of the Muslim community.

4. The unity of God

The first half of the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, is the testimony that there is no god besides Allah. Thus the numerical unity of God is axiomatic for all Muslims. Nevertheless, although the Qur'an explicitly asserts that God is one, and equally explicitly rejects polytheism and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it speaks of God's 'hands' (Surah 38: 75), 'eyes' (Surah 54: 14) and 'face' (Surah 55: 27), and of his seating himself on his throne (Surah 20: 5), thus apparently implying that he has a body. Moreover, in describing the radiant faces of believers 'looking towards their Lord' on the Day of Resurrection (Surah 75: 23), it suggests the possibility of a beatific vision.

However, the Mu'tazilites emphatically rejected such notions, insisting that God is not merely numerically one but also that he is a simple essence. This led them to deny that he has a body or any of the characteristics of bodies such as colour, form, movement and localization in space; hence he cannot be seen, in this world or the next. The Mu'tazila therefore interpreted the Qur'anic anthropomorphisms as metaphors - God's 'hands' are his blessing, God's 'eyes' are his knowledge, his 'face' is his essence and his seating himself on his throne is his omnipotence - and argued that, since the Qur'an elsewhere asserts that 'sight cannot reach Him' (Surah 6: 103), the phrase ila rabbiha nazira means 'waiting for their Lord' rather than looking towards him.

Some of the later Ash'arites accepted the Mu'tazilite position on the Qur'anic anthropomorphisms. In al-Ash'ari's own view, however, they are neither to be dismissed in this way nor understood to imply that God has a body like human beings. They are 'revealed attributes', whose existence must be affirmed without seeking to understand how (bi-la kayfa). Furthermore, the possibility of beatific vision depends not on God's embodiment, but on his existence. God can show us everything which exists. Since he exists, he can therefore show us himself. Hence the statement that 'sight cannot reach Him' must apply only to this world, where he impedes our vision.

Much more problematic than the Qur'an's anthropomorphisms are the adjectives which it employs to describe God. He is said, for instance, to be 'living', 'knowing', 'powerful' and 'eternal'. If we deny these qualities to God, we must then attribute to him their opposites, which are imperfections. But God is by definition free from imperfections; therefore God must always have had these qualities. But does this mean that he possesses the attributes of 'life', 'knowledge', 'power' and 'eternity' and that they are distinct from his essence? The Mu'tazilites reasoned that this was impossible because it would imply plurality in the Godhead. When we speak of God as 'living', 'knowing', 'powerful' and 'eternal', we are, in their opinion, merely considering him from different points of view. God's 'attributes of essence' (sifat al-dhat), as they are generally called, are a product of the limitations and the plurality of our own intellectual faculties; in reality, they are identical with God's essence. Thus, according to al-Ash'ari (Maqalat: 484), Abu al-Hudhayl maintained that 'God is knowing by virtue of a knowledge which is His own essence' and that he is likewise powerful, living and eternal by a power, a life and an eternity which are none other than his own essence. Al-Nazzam expressed this even more forcefully when he said, 'If I say that God is knowing, I merely confirm the divine essence and deny in it all ignorance. If I say that God is powerful, living and so forth, I am only confirming the divine essence and denying in it all powerlessness, mortality and so forth' (Maqalat: 484).

Al-Ash'ari himself rejected this reductionist account of the 'attributes of essence' which made them artefacts of human reason, but his arguments for doing so are far from compelling. He alleged that since in the case of human beings knowing implies possessing knowledge as an entity distinct from the knower, the situation with God must be analogous. Hardly more cogent is the claim that if God knew by his essence, he would be knowledge. Finally, al-Ash'ari's assertion that the 'attributes of essence' are neither other than God nor identical with him is simply a retreat into paradox. However, al-Ash'ari was not alone in wishing neither to affirm the independent existence of these attributes nor to deny it outright. Al-Jubba'i's son Abu Hashim (d. ah 321/ad 933) attempted to resolve the problem by introducing the idea of 'state' (hal). A state is not something which exists or which does not exist; it is not a thing and it cannot be known in itself, only with an essence. Nevertheless it has an ontological reality. According to Abu Hashim, there are in God permanent states such as 'his mode of being knowing' (kawnuhu 'aliman), 'his mode of being powerful' and so forth, which give rise to distinct qualicatives. This compromise was accepted by many of Abu Hashim's fellow Mu'tazilites of the Basran school, but was unanimously rejected by those of Baghdad.

In addition to the attributes of essence, the Qur'an employs a whole series of adjectives such as 'providing' and 'forgiving', which describe God in relation to his creatures. It is easy to imagine a time when God did not have these attributes. The Mu'tazilites called these 'attributes of action' (sifat al-fi'l) because they deemed them to come into being when God acts. In their reckoning, God's 'speech' belongs to this category of attributes, for it does not make sense to think of his commandments as existing before the creation of the beings to whom they are addressed. Thus the Qur'an itself, although the Word of God, is temporal and not eternal. It was created initially in the 'guarded tablet' (Surah 85: 22) and subsequently recreated in the hearts of those who memorize it, on the tongues of those who recite it and on the written page. Although not denying the existence of attributes of action, al-Ash'ari insisted that 'speech' - along with 'hearing' and 'vision' - was an attribute of essence. He argued that if God's word were not eternal, it would have had to have been brought into being. Furthermore, since it is an attribute, it could not have been brought into being other than in an essence in which it resides. In which case either God brought it into being in himself, or he brought it into being in another. But if he had brought it into being in himself, he would be the locus of things which come into being, which is impossible. If, on the contrary, he had brought it into being in another, it is the other, and not God, who would have spoken by the word.

5. Divine justice and human destiny

In addition to championing the unity of God, the Mu'tazilites stressed his justice. They held that good and evil are objective and that the moral values of actions are intrinsic to them and can be discerned by human reason. Hence God's justice obliges him to act in accordance with the moral law. For instance, he is thus bound to stand by his promise to reward the righteous with paradise and his threat to punish the wicked with hellfire. More importantly, the reward and punishment which he metes out must be merited by creatures endowed with free will (see Free will). Thus although the Qur'an says that God guides and leads astray those whom he wills (Surah 14: 4), it cannot mean that he predestines them. This and similar texts refer rather to what will happen after the judgement, when the righteous will be guided to paradise and the wicked will be caused to stray far from it. With regard to our acts in this world, God creates in us the power to perform an act but we are free to choose whether or not to perform it.

Many of the Mu'tazilites held that the principle of justice made it requisite for God always to do for people what was to their greatest advantage. Al-Jubba'i went as far as to claim that God is bound to prolong the life of an unbeliever if he knows that the latter will eventually repent. In view of this, al-Ash'ari is alleged to have asked him about the likely fate of three brothers: a believer, an unbeliever and one who died as a child. Al-Jubba'i answered that the first would be rewarded, the second punished and the third neither rewarded nor punished. To the objection that God should have allowed the third to live so that he might have gained paradise, al-Jubba'i replied that God knew that had the child lived he would have become an unbeliever. Al-Ash'ari then silenced him by asking why in that case God did not make the second brother die as a child in order to save him from hellfire!

For al-Ash'ari, divine justice is a matter of faith. We know the difference between good and evil solely because of God's revelation, and not by the exercise of our own reason. God makes the rules and whatever he decrees is just, yet God himself is under no obligation: if he wished, he could punish the righteous and admit the wicked to paradise (see Voluntarism). Moreover, to suppose as the Mu'tazilites did that human beings had free will would be to restrict the sovereign freedom of the creator. On the contrary, God creates in his creature both the power and the choice; then he creates in us the actions which correspond to these. Nevertheless, we are conscious of a difference between some actions, such as the rushing of the blood through our veins, which are involuntary, and others, such as standing up or sitting down, which are in accordance with our own will. Al-Ash'ari argues that by approving of these latter actions, which God created in us, we 'acquire' them and are thus held responsible for them.

See also: Causality and necessity in Islamic thought; Free will; Islam, concept of philosophy in; Islamic theology; Karaism

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

* al-Ash'ari (before 935) Maqalat al-islamiyyin (Islamic Dogmas), ed. H. Ritter, Wiesbaden, 2nd edn, 1963. (Valuable source of information about earlier thinkers.)

Gimaret, D. (1990) La doctrine d'al-Ash'ari (The Doctrine of al-Ash'ari), Paris: Éditions du Cerf. (A systematic and comprehensive treatment of the subject.)

Gimaret, D. (1992) 'Mu'tazila', in Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition, Vol. VII, fasc. 127-8: 783-93. (Short survey of the topic.)

Hourani, G. (1985) Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Excellent defence of the Mu'tazilite position.)

Leaman, O. (1985) 'Are the Ethics of Religion Objective or Subjective?', in Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch. 4, 123-65. (Critique of the Mu'tazilite interpretation.)

Nader, A.N. (1984) Le système philosophique des Mu'tazila (The Philosophical System of the Mu'tazila), 2nd edn, Beirut: Dar el-Machreq. (Somewhat outdated; apparently a simple reprint of the first edition of 1956.)

Van Ess, J. (1984) Une lecture à rebours de l'histoire du Mu'tazilisme (A Controversial Reading of the History of Mu'tazilism), Paris: Geuthner. (Brief and lively discussion of the early period.)

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