The Mutazilite position

How do the Mu'tazila justify their contention that undertaking reflection with a view to knowing God is obligatory? Al-Malahimi (d. 1141), a later Basran Mu'tazilite, puts forth two representative arguments in this regard.5

First, he argues that reflection offers the agent who is devoid of the foregoing knowledge the hope of allaying an inevitable fear resulting from a certain ''motive'' (khatir), which appears in his heart in one of several ways. If the sensible person hears or reads theological discussions and encounters warnings of afterlife punishment for unbelievers, he will experience fear as he realises that the world indeed betrays evidence of an intelligent Maker, confirming that His existence is a real possibility. If no such external factors effect this motive, God will, by necessity, produce it directly in the agent's heart.6 Once the inevitability of this eschatological fear is established, the duty to reflect is affirmed through the Mu'tazilite ethical premise that it is obligatory on the agent to avoid any unjustified harm that he expects to befall him. Mu'tazilites consider this to be a duty in a realist sense: harming oneself is evil because it is a form of wrongdoing, and wrongdoing is intrinsically evil.7

The second argument runs as follows. Possessing knowledge of God's existence itself constitutes a duty for the agent; reflection is necessary for attaining this knowledge; an act that is necessary for fulfilling a duty itself becomes a duty; therefore, reflection is a duty. Malahimi justifies the premise that the agent is obligated to possess this knowledge on the ground that knowing that there exists a deity, who will punish evildoers and reward the doers of good, will motivate the agent to do good and avoid evil; all that serves this end will consequently be a duty.

Reflection, for Mu'tazilites, is thus neither intrinsically obligatory, nor an end in itself.8 Rather, it is a duty on account of the foregoing ethical considerations, envisaged within the standard Mu'tazilite framework of ethical realism. By this, they attempt to demonstrate that theological reflection is a rational duty, without recourse to revelation, the acceptance of which presupposes belief in God.

Yet Mu'tazilites go on to maintain that reflection in order to know God is the most "primary" (awwal) duty of all. This contention seems to run into serious difficulties: evidently, the thrust of the above arguments is that this duty is neither absolute nor known immediately, but is conditional on the foregoing ethical duties, which indeed appear more primary.9

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