Due to the many debates between the different Islamic schools of thought as well as inter-faith debates, the Mutazilites used reason to address the various contemporary issues- such as whether the Quran was created or eternal, whether evil was created by God, the issue of pre-destination versus free will, whether God’s attributes in the Quran were to be interpreted allegorically or literally, etc.
Origin of Mutazilites
Mutazilites base their philosophical speculations on five essential tenets which formed the foundation of the Mutazilite Theology. The Mutazilite discussions began some time before 800. The main founders of the Mutazilite theological position were four men;
1. Muammar (or Mamar),
A story of the origin of the name ‘Mutazila’ connects it with the discussion that took place in the circle of Al-Hasan Al-Basri. Once when Al Hasan was asked his view on the dispute between the Murjiites, who said the grave sinner was a believer, and most of the Kharijites, who said the grave sinner was an unbeliever, a man interrupted before Al Hasan could reply and asserted that the grave sinner was in an intermediate position. This man, Wasil Ibn Ata, then withdrew from the circle, and Al Hasan remarked, ‘He has withdrawn from us’. From this remark he and his party were called the ‘Mutazila’. Unfortunately this is not the only account of the origin of the Mutazila.
A similar story is told of Al Hasan’s pupil Qatada and another man Amr Ibn Ubayd, and this latter man is often referred to as the founder of the Mutazila. Eventually, Wasil was felt to be a better figure-head or because most Mutazilites preferred his views, he came to be regarded as the original founder of ‘Mutazilism’.
Basic Principles of Mutazilites
The Mutazilites relied on a synthesis between reason and revelation in interpreting Islam. The rationalism of the Mutazilites worked for the Scriptures. The Mutazilites relied on 5 basic tenets for expounding their philosophical standpoint.
1. The first principle is that of ‘Al Tawheed’, or belief in the Divine and Absolute Divinity of God.
2. The second principle is that of ‘Adl’ or Divine Justice. As regards evil, it was defined as something that arises from the errors in human action and not from God. God does not ask man to act evil; it is due to man’s free will that man acts in such a manner. The doctrine of Adl is basically the belief that God is removed from all that is morally wrong (Qabih) and that all His acts are morally good (Hasana).
3. The third belief is ‘Al Wad wa al Waid’, meaning promise and threat. This doctrine has to do with Qiyamah, i.e., the Islamic Day of Judgment. Divine promises and threats is the knowledge that God promises to recompense those who obey Him and He threatens punishment to those who disobey Him.
4. ‘Al Manzilah Bayna Al Manzilatayn’, the fourth tenet, refers to the intermediate position. The belief is that the Muslims who commit serious sins and die without repentance are neither considered as believers nor as non-believers, but they lie in an intermediate position between the two.
5. The fifth principle of the Mutazilites is ‘Al Amr Bil Maruf Wa Al Nahy An Al Munkar’, meaning, advocating the good and forbidding the evil.
The Mutazilites did continue to exist for quite some time after they were established, but mainly as a school of academic theologians with practically no popular following. The theologians they do not appear to have made any significant contributions to the development of their subject. There was a gradual decline in the Mutazilite position in the following years. Such a decline was only natural after the central Mutazilite position had ceased to be relevant to contemporary life and had been decided against by the community as a whole. This decline, however, does not cancel out the great contribution made by the Mutazilites to the intellectual life of Islam in that they were the chief founders of the discipline of speculative or philosophical theology.