Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part VI)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويThe eighth century C.E. was rich in Muslim intellectual activity, and Iraq (Kufa and Basra – and, later, Baghdad) became the incubator of all emerging schools of thought, mainly because of its being a place where diverse people and cultures met, away from the authoritarian Umayyad stronghold (Damascus) and far away from the classical conservative religious environment of Hijaz.

Ever since it became the capital of Ali’s caliphate, Kufa maintained a Shia affiliation.  It was the locus of several Shia revolutions and the short-lived rule of Al-Mukhtar Al-Thaqafi (d. 687 C.E.) took Kufa as his capital and a garrison from which his forces conducted their offensive and defensive military campaigns.  The Grand Mosque of Kufa was a university of various sciences: Arabic language sciences, literature, and various religious sciences – in early Islam, the mosque was the place of worship and education.  Kufa became an identity label for various schools of thought and intellectualism: there was the Kufa School of Grammar, the Kufa School of Qur’an, The Kufa School of Jurisprudence (Fiqh), and so on.

Basra, the other Iraqi major center of learning, was equally contributing to the rising intellectual currents in Iraq.  It was associated with the other school of grammar, and it was the place where several theological schools emerged.  Al-Hassan Al-Basri (d. 728 C.E.) was one of the authoritative scholars from the generation that followed the companions of the Prophet and learned from them, but he did not live during the time of the Prophet.  He was the most distinguished scholar teaching in the Basra Mosque in his time.  In this capacity, his reply to the Khawarij doctrine concerning the grave sinner (see the previous article) became the basis of a mainstream school of theological thought.  He considered the grave sinner a believer, if he held the essential beliefs of Islam.  Al-Basri argued that belief is a state of mind, and it cannot be negated by a violation of Islamic laws, including grave sins.  Therefore, the sinner is rewarded for his belief and good deeds, and he is punished for his sins, or maybe forgiven, as God wills on the Day of Judgment.

This position, as articulated by Al-Basri, insulted the intelligence of his prominent student, Wasil ibn Ata’ (d. 748 C.E.), who found it and the position the Khawarij advocated to be two sides of the same coin of defective reasoning.  In Wasil’s mind, the Khawarij failed to distinguish between the sinner who believed in God and the sinner who did not, and the school of Al-Basri failed to distinguish between the believer who sinned and the believer who did not.  Wasil said: there must be a status for the believer who sinned that does not equate him with the God-fearing believer or the atheist.  When asked to coin a status name outside the conventional belief dichotomy of “Mu’min” and “kafir”, Wasil used a clumsy, long phrase: Al-Manzilatu baynal-Manzilatayn (a position between two the positions) – the “two positions being the “believer” and the “atheist”.  Wasil’s devotion to defend this doctrine made him the founder of the next sect in Islam, the Mu’tazila and this doctrine became one of their specific Five Pillars of Islamic belief (Al-Usoul Al-Khamsah) according to their interpretation Islamic theology, as we see very shortly.

There are several reasons for the naming of this sect as the Mu’tazila, including the famous account that Al-Basri named Wasil and his followers after the latter separated from Al-Basri’s study circle and took another corner in the Basra Mosque to teach.  But this is not a major concern for us for now.  The Mu’tazila theological school rested on the following cardinal beliefs (they are very briefly discussed here):

  1. Monotheism: (Al-Tawheed): while all Muslims believed in this doctrine, their definition of the concept varies. For the Mu’tazila, the phrase, “God is one”, meant He is the only One worthy of worship, He is one in the sense that He is indivisible, and He is one in the sense that His Essence cannot be limited to a body with specific  shape and parts – all mention of such attributes in the Qur’an must not be taken literally, but has to be interpreted properly to reflect these core beliefs of monotheism.
  2. Justice of Allah (‘Adl): again, while all Muslims believe that Allah is just, the Mu’tazila believe that Allah’s justice meant that He is just in the sense that He performs only just acts, while some Muslims, as we shall see, understand justice in the sense that “whatever Allah does is just by definition”. According to the latter belief, Allah may perform any act and it will be just, simply because He performed it. The Mu’tazila believed that every act is either inherently just or inherently unjust, regardless of the doer’s identity, God or man.
  3. The sinner who believes in God holds a status between the believer and the atheist, as it was discussed above.
  4. The certainty of fulfilment of God’s promise (wa’d) and threat (wa’eed): unlike other Muslims who believed that Allah may forgive the sinner on the Day of Judgment, the Mu’tazila believed that He will never do this, because if He does, He would be untruthful when He threatened to punish the sinners. They said, only repentance can wave the sin if accepted by God.  Therefore God will surely carry out all His promises and all His threats, no forgiveness will take place in the hereafter and no intercession by Prophets will help, according the the Mu’tazila, while other Muslims affirmedthe possibility of both.
  5. Encouraging Good (ma’rouf) and Forbidding Bad and Evil (munkar): here the Mu’tazila took a concept all Muslims agree on and nuanced it in two significant ways. First, they considered this concept as a pillar of faith to be discussed in theology, while all other Muslims took it as a matter of practice to be studies under the banner of jurisprudence. Second, the Mu’tazila argued that Muslims must practice this principle at all times and under all circumstances, otherwise they will be violating a pillar of Islamic belief.  Other Muslims made certain exceptions before mandating such practice, such as ensuring the practice will not cause the doer unbearable harm, for example.

Politically, the Mu’tazila achieved great success in the period 813-847 C.E., during the reign of three Abbasid caliphs: Al-Ma’moun, ِAl-Wathiq, and Al-Mu’tasim, when the state adopted their doctrine and made it the official state religion.  As soon as they attained power through the backing of state institutions, “the Rationalists of Islam”, as the Mu’tazila were called for placing reason above all other sources of theological evidence, ended up instituting a doctrinal inquisition of their own and made all official positions in the state a monopoly for those who adopted Mu’tazila theological doctrines, while those who held other beliefs were persecuted and marginalized.

One of the Mu’tazila doctrines, the believe that the Qur’an was created, as opposed to the doctrine that considered it eternal, was imposed on all Muslims and it became a litmus test for anyone whose belief they wanted to discern.  Governors, Judges, and all other state officials were not appointed unless they acknowledged this doctrine and enforced it.  In one case, the state paid ransom only for Muslim prisoners of war who acknowledged that the Qur’an was created, leaving the others in the hands of the Byzantines.  This intolerant practice was referred to as “the ordeal” (Al-Mihnah).  Among the victims of Mu’tazila persecution was Ahmed ibn Hanbal (d. 855), founder of the Hanbali school of Jurisprudence, who was imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs.

The Mu’tazila lost their political status when Al-Mu’tasim died, and the Hanbalis began to control Baghdad, having persuaded the following caliph, Al-Mutawakkil, that their doctrines better represented “true” Islam.  But the Mu’tazila maintained their scholarly prominence until the end of the tenth century C.E.  We will learn more about their doctrines and history in the coming articles.

In the next article, I will discuss the development of the Murji’a doctrines and its development by Abu Al-Hassan Al-Ash’ari.  Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

2 thoughts on “Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part VI)

  1. Your below statement is not clear to me;
    “The Mu’tazila lost their political status when Al-Mu’tasim died, and the Hanbalis began to control Baghdad, having persuaded the following caliph, Al-Mutawakkil, that their doctrines better represented “true” Islam. But the Mu’tazila maintained their scholarly prominence until the end of the tenth century C.E. We will learn more about their doctrines and history in the coming articles.”

    My Understanding is; when we are talking about Mu’tazila and Al-Ash’ari we are referring to the theology or system of belief. While, Hanbalis, Shafie, Maliki, and Hanafi are the sects based on the jurisprudence (Fiqh). Hanbalis aforementioned allegation based on their (Fiqh) or their theology?
    as far as i know they adopted Ash’ari theology.

    • The Hanbalis had a limited involvement in theological argumentation, in a literalist sense. They rejected the Mu’tazili belief that the Qur’an was created in time. As I pointed out in the article, Ahmed ibn Hanbal was one of the people whose objections to the Mu’tazila caused him to be persecuted.

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