This discussion of the attributes seems to have developed out of the discussions about the Quran. These may have begun before 750, but it is more likely that the Quran only became a subject of vigorous argument towards the end of that century. The Muslims had always believed that the Quran was the Word of God and that it had appeared at a particular point in time, namely, when it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The much debated question at the time was whether it was created or uncreated, i.e., was it the word of God or not. The Mutazilites replied to those who held that the Quran was the uncreated Speech of God by asking about their own utterance (Laff) of the Quran. When a Muslim recites the Quran, his reciting of it is surely not uncreated. So is he creating the words of the Quran in the process of recitation? To this there was no satisfactory answer.
The transition from discussions about the Speech of God to general discussions about the attributes is an easy one. Those who say that the Quran is eternal seem to their opponents to be saying that there are two eternal beings, God and the Quran. They tried to escape from this conclusion by asserting that the Quran was God's knowledge or part of his knowledge. They could then question their opponents, “Is it possible for God to exist and his Knowledge not to exist?” If it was conceded that his Knowledge existed eternally, then the Quran also existed eternally. The M'tazilites avoided this denial of one of their main doctrines 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 points which the Mutazilites regarded as defining their position was that of justice or righteousness, Adl. They referred to themselves as ‘the people of unity and justice.’ In respect of their insistence on justice the Mutazilites may be regarded as heirs of the Kharijites. In practice this meant that they believed in man's responsibility for his acts or the freedom of the human will. They were thus also heirs of that section of the general religious movement which believed in the freedom of the will and was called Qadarite by its opponents. The general conception of the freedom of the will was accepted by the Mutazilites, and the arguments tended to be about secondary questions.
The central concern in this regard is the relation of God to man's ultimate destiny-Paradise (Heaven) or Hell. By insisting on human freedom and responsibility the Mutazilites made man's ultimate destiny depend on himself. The basic thought was that God in revelation showed man what he ought to do to attain Paradise, and then left it to man himself to do it or not to do it. This gave a neat and rational scheme with Paradise as the reward for obedience and Hell as the punishment for disobedience. It is believed that God is somehow bound to give reward and punishment in this way. In due course, however, complications appeared. 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 others? If indeed God is bound to do what is best for men then where was the fairness in the given situation? Thus the Mutazilites face criticism on this point and were unable to handle this issue satisfactorily.
The remaining three of the five points, though used to fix the Mutazilite position, hardly appeared in the theological discussions. The second half of the first volume of the Maqalat al Ashari, which lays down the Mutazilite tenets, devotes seventy-two pages to recording the various opinions of Mutazilites with respect to the first point, thirty-nine with respect to the second, and only thirteen with respect to the remaining three.
The third point is the promise and the threat, Al Wad wa al Waid, or Paradise and Hell: the theological points discussed follow on the discussions between the Murjites and the Kharijites- what is faith? What is the difference between grave and slight sins, and ultimately between good and evil? From what kind of men can Traditions be accepted? The fourth point is the mainly political one of the intermediate position, Al Manzilah bayna al Manzilatayn. The fifth is commanding the good and forbidding the evil, Al amr bil maruf wa al nahy an al munkar, that is, interfering publicly to maintain the observance of the Sharia.
These are the five points that form the foundational principle of the Mutazilites.