Abul Hashim Contribution Of Muslim Philosophy

(The chapter corresponds to Formative Period, ch.7,180-208.)

1. Translations: See GAL, i.219-29; GALS, 1.362-71; Graf (b/a), ii. 109-14,122-32, etc. The basic work is Moritz Steinschneider, Die arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen, Graz 1960; reprinted from various journals dated 1889 to 1896. Other manuscripts have since been discovered. See also Ibn-an-Nadim, Kitäb al-Fihrist, part 7, section 1: translation by Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadim, New York 1970, vol.2. Franz Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage in Islam, London 197 5;a volume of translations from Arabic.

2. See especially Richard Walzer, 'Islamic Philosophy' in Greek into Arabic, Oxford 1962, 1-28; other important articles are also reprinted here. Max Meyerhof, 'Von Alexandrien nach Bagdad: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des philosophischen und medizinischen Unterrichts bei den Arabern', Sitzungsberichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1930, Phil.hist.Kl., 389-429. F. E. Peters, Aristotle and the Arabs, the AristoteUan Tradition in Islam, New York 1968 ; the same author's Allah 's Commonwealth, a History of Islam in theNearEast 600-1100 A.D., New York 1973, deals in some detail with Hellenistic influences in intellectual history.

4. EP, art. al-Kindi (J. Jolivet, R. Rashed). George N. Atiyeh, Al-Kindi, the Philosopher of the Arabs, Rawalpindi 1966. Afred L. Ivry, Al-Kindi's Metaphysics, Albany 1974; translation with commentary.

5. His book The Spiritual Physick has been translated by A. J. Arberry, London 1950.

6. T)isceptatio/Disputatio Christiani et Saraceni', in Migne, Patrología Graeca, 94.1585-96; 96.1336-48.

7. Syriac text edited and translated by A. Mingana in Woodbrooke Studies, ii, Cambridge 1928,1-162.

8. Josef van Ess, 'Dirär b. 'Ami und die 'cahmiya': Biographie einer vergessenen Schule', Dei Islam, 43 (1967), 241-79; 44 (1968), 1-70, 318-20; also art. Dirär b. 'Amr in EI2, Supplement. M. Schwarz,' "Acquisition" (Kasb) in Early Kaläm', in S. M. Stem et al., edd., Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition (Richard Walzer Festschrift), Oxford 1972, 355-87.

Chapter Eight


In the second half of the nineteenth century European scholars were attracted by some of the views of the Mu'tazilites and studied them with great sympathy. In an account of them published in 1865 Heinrich Steiner of Zürich spoke of them as 'the free-thinkers of Islam'. At this period the later Sunnite philosophical theology or Kaläm was little known in Europe and still less appreciated. The Mu'tazilites were seen as standing for freedom of the will and human responsibility; in other respects they adopted sensible, almost nineteenth-century liberal attitudes. It was felt that Islam would have been ever so much more congenial to the European if only the Mu'tazilites had not been replaced by the dry-as-dust, hide-bound, hair-splitting Ash'-arites and their like. In the twentieth century, however, Western scholars gradually realized that this whole conception of the Mu'tazilites was inaccurate. They were not free-thinkers but quite definite Muslims, even if they indulged in speculation on some points; and, far from being liberal in outlook, they were behind the unhappy episode of the 'Inquisition' in the ninth century. In other ways, too, their theological views were linked with the politics of the day. Finally it was realized that some at least had been zealous apologists for Islam towards members of other religions.

The Mu'tazilites who attracted the European scholars and who were important in the history of Islamic theology were those who were involved in the process of bringing Greek conceptions into the discussions of Islamic dogma, that is, in the first elaboration of the discipline of Kaläm. As has just been indicated, the name 'Mu'tazilite' was at first used in a fairly wide sense to include men like Dirär ibn-'Amr, but was later restricted to those who accepted the five points of the Mu'tazilite dogmatic position (to be enumerated later). Nowadays 'Mu'tazilite' is normally used only in the restricted sense by both Muslim and Western scholars, and this usage is followed here.1

The main founders of the Mu'tazilite school, as it came to be, were four men: Mu'ammar, Abu-l-Hudhayl and an-Nazzam at Basra and Bishr ibn-al-Mu'tamir at Baghdad. The dates of their deaths are given as 830, 841 (or later), 836 (or 845) and 825, but none appear to have been publicly active after about 820, and their main activity was possibly much earlier. Mu'ammar was roughly a contemporary of Dirar and is said to have had Bishr as a pupil. Abu-l-Hudhayl was sufficiently well known to take part in a symposium on love in the salon of Yahya the Barmakid (before 803), and succeeded Dirar as leader of the discussions on Kalam in Basra. Bishr ibn-al-Mu'tamir was imprisoned because of Shi'ite sympathies during the reign of Harun ar-Rashld (786-809), presumably after the fall of the Bar-makids in 803. Thus it is likely that it was during that reign that Mu'tazilite Kalam began to take shape.

This account of the beginnings of Mu'tazilism differs from that given by ash-Shahrastanl, which has been widely accepted as the standard one, not least by occidental scholars. His account places the origin of Mu'tazilism fully half a century earlier in the circle of al-Hasan al-Basri (d.728). On one occasion al-Hasan was asked whether the grave sinner should be regarded as a believer or as an unbeliever. When he hesitated, one of the circle, Wasil ibn-'Ata, broke in with the assertion that the grave sinner was neither but was in an 'intermediate position' (manzila bayn al-manzilatayn—literally, 'a position between the two positions'). On Wasil's leaving the circle, accompanied by some of the members, and establishing himself at another pillar of the mosque, al-Hasan remarked lie has withdrawn (i'tazala) from us'; and this gave rise to the collectivename Mu'tazila, 'withdrawers'.

There are strong reasons for rejecting this story. There are numerous versions of it, some much earlier than ash-Shahrastani, and the versions differ at important points. The person who withdrew is sometimes said to be 'Ami ibn-TJbayd, not Wasil, and the circle from which he withdrew to be not that of al-Hasan but of his successor Qatada. The phrase with i'tazala is also ascribed to various people. A further difficulty is that Wasil and 'Ami are both sometimes spoken of as Kharijites, and their views—to judge from the little that is recorded of them—seem at least as close to those of some moderate Kharijites as to those of the Mu'tazilites. Moreover there is nothing to suggest that Wasil and 'Amr had any special knowledge of Greek thought or were interested in it; they died in 748 and 761 respectively.

One point in the story which may be accepted, however, is that there was some connection between Mu'tazilism and the disciples of al-Hasan al-Basri, among whom 'Amr was prominent. The scholars in al-Hasan's following seem to have remained on friendly terms with one another for at least forty years, even when their views diverged. Wasil and others may have held something like the five principles of the Mu'tazilites, though in an embryonic form. Even if this is so, however, the implicit doctrinal (and political) position was not the distinctive contribution of the Mu'tazilites to the growth of Islamic theology; it was their embracing of Kalam.

Such considerations make it probable that it was Abu-l-Hudhayl who put forward the story about 'withdrawing' and who insisted that the only true Mu'tazilites were those who accepted the five principles, which by this time had been theologically elaborated. Insistence on the five principles excluded some of the followers of Dirar and gave doctrinal cohesion to most of the practitioners of Kalam, so that they could now be said to be a genuine school. The use of the story had also advantages. It gave the term 'withdrawers' an unobjectionable meaning, of which those so called need not be ashamed; originally it had probably been a nickname meaning those who had 'withdrawn' from both 'All and his opponents in the first civil war. The story also presented the Mu'tazilites as having genuine roots in Islamic life, and so met the objection that they were introducing foreign un-Islamic ideas. At some point they seem to have been taunted with being followers of Jahm ibn-Safwan—a man with a bad reputation, perhaps because he had fought along with infidels against Muslims. Some verses ascribed to Bishr ibn-al-Mu'tamir, which are probably authentic, speak of Dirar as a follower of Jahm and himself of 'Amr ibn-TJbayd. Both Wasil and 'Amr would be preferable to Jahm as intellectual figure-heads for the school, and there were similarities between their political attitudes and those of the Mu'tazilites in the early ninth century.

In the 'Inquisition' begun by al-Ma'mun the doctrine of the createdness of the Quran, of which public profession had to be made, was a doctribe proclaimed by the Mu'tazilites. Several Mu'tazilites had high positions in al-Ma'mun's administration and must have supported his policy of attempting to reconcile opposing interests by the 'Inquisition'. In other respects, too, the views implicit in al-Ma'mun's policies were close to those recorded of Bishr ibn-al-Mu'ta-mir and the other Mu'tazilites of Baghdad. The Mu'tazilites of Basra, following Abu-l-Hudhayl, were less favourable to 'All but seem also to have been interested in reducing tensions within the community.

The first of the five principles of the Mu'tazilites was that of 'unity', or, more correctly, 'assertion of unity', since the Arabic word tawhid means literally 'the making one'. This implied much more than the mere statement that God is one and that there are not many gods. Muslims enumerate ninety-nine 'beautiful names' (al-asma' al-husna) of God mentioned in the Qur'an, and of these seven received special attention from the early theologians: the Knowing (or omniscient), the Powerful | or Almighty), the Willing, the Living, the Hearing, the Seeing, the Speaking. Some theologians held that God had attributes (sifat) corresponding to these names, such as Knowledge, Power, Will. To the Mu'tazilites, however, this was seen as introducing an element of multiplicity into the unity of God's nature or essence (nafs, dhat), and in insisting on 'unity' they were asserting that these attributes had no sort of independent or hypostatic existence, but were merged in the unity of God's being. In so far as God knew, he knew by himself or by his essence, and not by any hypostatic Knowledge. (In passing it may be noted that Arabic-speaking Christian theologians commonly identified the three hypostases (or peisonae) of the Trinity with three attributes, such as Existence, Knowledge, Life.)

The discussion of the attributes by Muslims seems to have developed out of discussions about the Qur'an. These may have begun before 750, but it is more likely that it was only towards the end of the century that there were vigorous arguments about the Qur'an and that these arose from questions connected with Qadar-ism. Muslims in general accepted the view that the Qur'an is the Speech (or Word) of God. The Qur'an, however, has many references to historical events, and at the same time phrases suggesting its pre-existence on a heavenly 'table' (lawh—8s .2if.). From these points it could be argued that the historical events were predetermined. A contrary argument to this is found in a letter of al-Ma'mun about the 'Inquisition'. He quotes the verse 'thus we narrate to you accounts of what has gone before' (20.99), and draws the inference that the Qur'an was produced after the happenings of which it gives accounts. Even if the discussions began from Qadarism, however, by the time of al-Ma'mun (as explained above) what was at issue was rather the relative political powers of the caliph and his ministers on the one hand and the ulema on the other hand.

Arguments were developed on both sides with great subtlety, and the range of topics included in the discussion became ever wider. Central to the arguments was the interpretation of Qur'anic phrases. Thus from the words 'we have made it (ja'alnd-hu) an Arabic Qur'an' (43.3) it was argued that this 'making' implies creating. One of the most ingenious arguments was from the passages, of which there are several, where a speech, such as 'I am thy Lord', is addressed to Moses from a bush. The upholders of uncreatedness then insisted that, if this is created, a created thing must have said to Moses 'I am thy Lord', so that Moses became guilty of idolatry in accepting a created thing as his Lord.

From arguments of this kind, which were often only verbal juggling, the discussion passed on to deeper questions. The Mu'tazilites tried to baffle their opponents by asking them about their own 'utterance' of the Qur'an; when a Muslim recites the Qur'an, his reciting or 'utterance' of it is surely not uncreated. This puzzle rests of course on the special nature of speech, and in particular on the difference between the relation of speech to the speaker and that of the thing made or created to its maker or creator. Speech is an expression of the character of the speaker to a much greater extent than an artefact is an expression of the character of its maker, and is indeed in a sense one with the speaker, whereas the thing made is separate from its maker. Modem electronic devices have multiplied the puzzles in this field; for instance, when I hear a recording of a speech by a man now dead, am I hearing the man himself ?

The conception of the Word or Speech of God as eternal is one of the points which have suggested to European scholars that the development of Islamic theology was largely due to Christian influences. In this case there is the obvious similarity between the Christian belief that Jesus is the eternal Word of God and a phrase about him in the Quran (3.45). The parallel is not exact, however, for the word commonly applied to the Quran is kalam, which is properly 'speech', whereas the phrase used of Jesus is kalima min-hu, 'a word from him (God)'. Yet, even if the similarity were closer than this, it does not follow that there was direct influence. As has already been explained, the development of Islamic theology came about because of tensions within the community of Muslims. Muslim theologians did not simply copy Christian ideas, but it is possible that a man might adopt a Christian idea if it fitted into his arguments against Muslim rivals.

The transition from discussions about the Speech of God to a general discussion of the attributes is an easy one. Those who say that the Qur'an is the uncreated or eternal speech seem to an opponent to be asserting that there are two eternal beings, God and the Qur'an. One of the ways in which they tried to escape from this conclusion was by maintaining that the Qur'an is God's knowledge or part of his knowledge. They can then say to an opponent, 'Is it possible for God to exist and his Knowledge not to exist ?' If it was conceded that his Knowledge existed eternally, then the Qur'an must also exist eternally. The Mu'tazilites avoided this denial of their doctrine of 'unity' by holding that God had no such hypostatic Knowledge in any way distinct from himself. They then applied this view to the other attributes.

The second of the five principles defining the Mu'tazilite position was that of justice or righteousness ['adl), and they liked to speak of themselves as 'the people of unity and justice'. In their concern for the observance of the moral laws of Islam the Mu'tazilites were heirs of the puritan outlook of the Kharijites, which is not surprising in view of the Kharijite sympathies of Wasil and 'Amr. This concern, however, is more linked with other principles than with the principle of justice. The latter came to be primarily associated with their belief in the freedom of the human will and the individual's responsibility for his acts, the connection being that, if God condemns men to Hell for acts for which they were not responsible, he is acting unjustly. In this the Mu'tazilites were heirs of that section of the 'general religious movement' which favoured Qadarism.

Since all Mu'tazilites accepted the freedom of the will in general, the views recorded of them tend to be about subordinate questions. The central concern here was the relation of God to the ultimate destiny of human beings—Paradise (Heaven) or Hell. By insisting on human freedom and responsibility the Mu'tazilites made a person's ultimate destiny depend on himself. The basic thought was that God in revelation showed the believers what they ought to do to attain Paradise, and then left it to each of them to do it or not to do it. This gave a tidy rational scheme with Paradise as the reward for obedience and Hell as the punishment for disobedience. It is presupposed that God is bound to reward and punish in this way, in accordance with the third principle. In due course, however, they became aware of complications. What about children? If they had not committed any sins, should they not go to Paradise ? But, if they went to Paradise, they had not earned it by their obedience, and was that fair to those who had?

In this connection a reference to the story of the three brothers is not amiss. Though it is usually told to explain al-Ash'ari's abandonment of the Mu'tazilites, it seems rather to contain a criticism of the Mu'tazilites of Baghdad by those of Basra. According to the story there were once three brothers, one good, one wicked, and one who died as a child; the first is in Paradise, the second in Hell, and the third in something less than Paradise where he is neither rewarded nor punished. The third complains that by being made to die as a child he has been given no chance to merit Paradise by his obedience —the commands and prohibitions of Islam were not applicable to children below a certain age, and so these could not be held either to obey or to disobey. He is given the reply that God caused him to die early because he foresaw that, if he grew up, he would be thoroughly wicked. Upon this the second brother asks why he also had not been made to die young before he committed the sins which brought him to Hell. To this, of course, there is no answer. The whole story is a critique of certain Mu'tazilites who held that God is bound to do what is best (al-aslah) for human beings. The discussions of such matters have also further ramifications, such as the unmerited sufferings of children and the sufferings of animals. The latter topic may have been introduced as a result of contact with Indian sects, though it was also discussed by Christian theologians.

The remaining three of the five principles, though used to define the Mu'tazilite position, especially in its political aspect, hardly appeared in the theological discussions. In al-Ash'arf's account of the opinions of individual Mu'tazilites in his Maqalat by far the greater part (about nine-tenths) is concerned with points which fall under the first two principles. The third principle is 'the promise and the threat' (al-wa'd wa-l-wa'Id), or Paradise and Hell, and it implies that God is bound to reward the obedient with Paradise as he has promised and to punish the disobedient with Hell as he has threatened. Among the points discussed under this heading were: what is faith ? what is the difference between grave and light sins, and ultimately between good and evil ? from what kind of men can Hadlth be accepted ? Such questions arose out of the debates between Murji'ites and Kharijites. The Mu'tazilites remained close to the Kharijite position and, for example, opposed the view common among followers of Abu-Hanifa with Murji'ite sympathies that sinners of the community would ultimately be transferred from Hell to Paradise at the intercession of the Prophet.

The fourth principle was that of the 'intermediate position', said to have been introduced by Wasil. In practice it led to political compromise on the basis of leaving certain questions undecided. One did not decide whether Uthman was a believer or an unbeliever, or whether some of those who participated in the civil war after his death were in the right and others in the wrong. The aim seems to have been that Muslims should in some sense accept the whole of their past history and so avoid a situation in which some identified themselves with one strand in it and others with another. This aim is commendable, but the 'intermediate position' had a negative aspect; one neither wholly identified oneself with, say, 'All, nor wholly disassociated oneself from him. The eventual Sunnite position was one of more whole-hearted acceptance, and probably owed more to the conception of 'postponement' [iija ).

The fifth principle is that of 'commanding the right and forbidding the wrong' (al-ami bi-l-ma'iuf wa-n-nahy 'an al-munkai). This was understood by the Mu'tazilites and others as the obligation to maintain justice and oppose injustice by tongue, hand and sword, where one was able to do so successfully. It could cover both moral exhortation of one's fellow-Muslims and moral criticism of unjust rulers and even revolt against them. For the earlier Mu'tazilites, at least, it implied supporting the 'Abbasids.

Enough is known about the leading Mu'tazilites to make it possible to give an account of their distinctive individual views, but such a detailed study would be out of place in the present survey. The following is a brief sketch of the developments up to about 950.

The Mu'tazilite school of Basra is probably earlier than that of Baghdad, and grew out of the teaching of men like al-Hasan al-Basri and Dirar. As already mentioned, Mu'ammar seems to have been a contemporary of Dirar. Because he explored the use of Greek conceptions in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, he may have had less direct influence on later developments.2 The man who did most to give a definite shape to Mu'tazilism in Basra was the slightly younger Abu-l-Hudhayl, also known as al-'Allaf, said to have been bom between 748 and 75 3. He probably remained active in Basra until about 818 when he settled in Baghdad. In his thinking he made considerable use of the Aristotelian conception of substance and accident, but, in accordance with the atomism which came to dominate Islamic theology, he regarded each accident as lasting for only a single (atomic) moment.3 Also at Basra was an-Nazzam (Ibrahim ibn-Sayyar), a follower of Abu-l-Hudhayl but probably not much younger. He seems to have been more interested in the scientific side of Greek thought, perhaps as a result of the teaching of the non-Mu'tazilite Hisham ibn-al-Hakam, whose lectures he is said to have attended.4 In the generation after Abu-l-Hudhayl and an-Nazzam none of the Mu'tazil-ites of Basra was outstanding.

The founder of the school of Baghdad was without question Bishr ibn-al-Mu'tamir. He presumably studied in Basra, since he wrote refutations in verse of several of the leading scholars of Basra, Mu'ta-zilites and others. Along with some of these he participated in the Barmakid symposium on love. It was presumably after the fall of the Barmakids that he was imprisoned by Harun ar-Rashld for alleged Rafidite sympathies; but it is unlikely that he was a Rafidite in the strict sense, though he certainly thought highly of 'AlL He and some of his disciples are found at the court of al-Ma'mun in Khorasan in 817, and presumably returned to Baghdad in 819 along with the caliph. Bishr may have begun Mu'tazilite teaching in Baghdad in the Barmakid period, but the real founding of the school of Baghdad may not have been until 819. The other Mu'tazilites prominent at the court of al-Ma'mun made little contribution to theological discussion, but a little later there was a notable triad: al-Iskafi (d.854) and the two Ja'fars, Ja'far ibn-Harb (d.850) and Ja'far ibn-al-Mubashshir (d.848). About the time when they were active the doctrine became popular in Baghdad that God is bound to do what is best (aslah) for human beings. The two Ja'fars were also noted for their ascetic way of life.

With these three men the great creative period of Mu'tazilism, its Golden Age, may be said to have come to an end. When the policy of the 'Inquisition' was abandoned about 850, they lost their political influence and their contacts with the caliphal government. Gradually they were transformed into a small coterie of academic theologians in touch neither with the masses of the people nor with the main streams of Islamic thought. There were all the marks of a Silver Age; the zest and excitement of the previous period had been lost, and thinkers, instead of exploring fresh fields, were seeking to introduce greater refinement into the answers to old questions. Round about the year 900 this trend is partially reversed and an element of originality is found in three men, two in Basra and one in Baghdad.

Somewhere about 885 the headship of the school of Basra fell to al-Jubba'i (Abu-'Ali Muhammad).5 Against the Mu'tazilites of Baghdad he argued that it is only in respect of religion that God is bound to do what is best for human beings, namely, by sending prophets to bring his messages to them. He saw that God's dealings with individuals cannot be rationally explained but remain inscrutable; and he may have made some use of the story of 'the three brothers'. The only obligation upon God, he insisted, is that he should be consistent with himself. On his death in 91s he was succeeded by his son Abu-Hashim ('Abd-as-Salam ibn-Muhammad al-Jubba'i). Abu-Hashim is chiefly remembered for a novel theory of 'states' (ahwal, sing. hal). When one says 'God is knowing', 'knowing', he held, expresses the 'state' of God's essence distinct from that essence. This was in effect an attempt to maintain that in an attribute like 'knowledge' there is nothing hypostatic or quasi-substantive. Thus baldly stated the theory is not impressive, but one or two later Ash'arite theologians found something attractive in it. Abu-Hashim died in 933.

About the same time the head of the school of Baghdad was a man who is known both as al-Ka*bi and as Abu-l-Qasim al-Balkhi. He discussed the attributes of God and the question of what God is bound to do for his creatures, but he is noted above all for his working out of the atomistic view of nature. He held, for example, that an accident does not endure for two successive moments of time, but that every substance and every accident is created afresh by God in each moment. God's omnipotence implies that he can do what he likes without anything resembling a stable policy. Despite the idea of causal continuity in nature implicit in Greek science and philosophy a dominant place in their thought was given to atomism by Islamic thinkers and not least by the Ash'arites. This may be due in part to the experience of Arabian nomads in the desert, where the irregularity of nature can be more obvious than its regularity, or to sedentary peoples' experience of the whims of autocratic rulers.

While it may be difficult for the Western scholar of the last quarter of the twentieth century to share the enthusiasm for Mu'tazil-ism of the scholars of a century earlier, it certainly made an outstanding contribution to Islamic thought by the assimilation of a large number of Greek ideas and methods of argument. This was essentially the achievement of the great Mu'tazilites of the Golden Age. It must be constantly emphasized, however, that this was no simple acceptance of Greek beliefs because they seemed true and superior to Arab or Qur'anic beliefs. It is rather the case that whatever was taken from the Greeks was accepted because it was useful, that is, useful in their arguments with other Muslims and with non-Muslims. Since the Mu'tazilites were regarded as heretics, however, by the Sunnites, many of their ideas and doctribes could not be taken over directly by Sunnism; but what could happen was that, when Sunnite theologians were arguing against Mu'tazilites, they might find themselves forced by the course of the argument to adopt some of the ideas of their opponents. Perhaps it could be said that the function of the Mu'tazilites was to take over all Greek ideas that seemed even remotely useful to the formulation of Islamic doctrine, so that it could then be left to others to sift these ideas in order to discover which were genuinely assimilable. In the end many ideas were retained, but seldom in precisely the form in which the Mu'tazilites had presented them.

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  • tanja
    What is the histry hashim in islamic scoohlars?
    10 months ago
  • Primula Goold
    How did the mutazilites influence other muslims?
    7 months ago

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