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Muʿtazila (Arabic: المعتزلة) refers to a group of Sunni Muslims who famously consider the reason ('Aql) to trump, or be prior to, the Tradition (al-naql). The Mu'tazila are closer than other Sunni theologians to Imami theologians.
The Mu'tazila believed that the theoretical reason should evaluate what we learn through divine revelation, wahy. This principle cultivated in some theses in the intellectual system and religious beliefs of the Mu'tazila, providing them with a particular conception of monotheism and divine justice. Thus, they tried to interpret away the religious texts which were apparently at odds with the reason. For example, they denied, and interpreted away, the possibility of seeing God which is apparently mentioned in some religious texts, because according to the reason, it is not possible to see without a space and a spatial direction, and since God is beyond any space and direction, it is not possible to see Him in this world, nor in the afterlife. Some Mu'tazili beliefs are explicitly contrary to the ones agreed upon by other Sunni Muslims.
The Mu'tazila are considered to be one of the first people in Islam who tried to explain and justify religious doctrines by means of reason and intellectual analysis.
The Mu'tazila constitute a kalami denomination formed in the early 2nd/8th century. The first leader of this group was Wasil b. 'Ata'. He proposed a new theory about the committer of a Major Sin, which was contrary to that of Murji'a and Khawarij. According to his theory, the committer of a Major Sin is not, contrary to the view of Murji'a, a believer, nor an unbeliever, as Khawarij maintained. Rather, such a person is only fasiq (a violator of Islamic rulings) and has a place in between a believer and an unbeliever.
According to some reports, this group is called "Mu'tazila" (which literally means "isolated") because their founder, Wasil b. 'Ata', isolated himself from, and abandoned, Hasan al-Basri's circle and founded his own school of thought.
Some scholars take the Mu'tazila to be in continuity with the political I'tizal (isolation). A group of Sahaba and Tabi'un who refrained from making any judgments concerning, and any supports of, either party at wars in the period of Imam 'Ali (a) was called "Mu'tazila" (since they had isolated themselves from such conflicts). Other scholars believe that Mu'tazila are natural successors of Qadariyya, because the two groups shared many beliefs.
The Mu'tazila continued their social life in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. During the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma'mun, the Mu'tazila reached the peak of their social and political power. The golden age of the Mu'tazila was from 198/813 through 232/846. Al-Ma'mun was a supporter of the rationalist approach and the Mu'tazila. The support lasted until the caliphate of al-Mutawakkil al-'Abbasi.
The Relation between the Shi'a and the Mu'tazila
The Mu'tazila are the closest Sunni practitioners of kalam to the Shi'a. In some points in the history, there was a close relation between Shi'a and Mu'tazili scholars, leading to their mutual influence on one another.
Some contemporary researchers and earlier writers maintained that Shi'ias follow the Mu'tazila in their kalami beliefs. Some Shi'a authors have criticized the thesis that Shi'as are influenced by the Mu'tazila in their kalami views. On such criticisms, the rationalism inherent in the Shi'a thought traces back to the teachings of the Shi'a Imams (a). These authors even believe that because of the historical antecedence of Shi'as to the Mu'tazila, the latter are followers of the former. They take the attribution of Shi'a beliefs to the Mu'tazila to be an accusation made by opponents of Shi'a. Some scholars have appealed to remarks by the Mu'tazila themselves who attribute some of their beliefs to the doctrines of Imam 'Ali (a) to show that it was the Mu'tazila who were influenced by Ahl al-Bayt (a). Other authors have appealed to rejections of Mu'tazili beliefs by prominent Shi'a scholars such as al-Shaykh al-Mufid and al-Sayyid al-Murtada and their fundamental disagreements with some Mu'tazili views to show that Shi'a beliefs in kalam are not influenced by the Mu'tazila.
Some Mu'tazila came to share some Shi'a beliefs. For example, a group of the Mu'tazila believed in the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a) over other companions of the Prophet Muhammad (s), although they believed in the legitimacy of the previous caliphs on the basis of social exigencies. Even some of the Mu'tazila, such as Abu 'Isa al-Warraq (d. 247/861), 'Abd al-Rahman b. Ahmad al-Jabrawayh, and Ibn Qiba al-Razi, converted to Shiism.
The First Interactions
The political and theological Mu'tazila were not closely associated with Shi'as. However, in later periods, Shi'a tendencies grew among the Mu'tazila. At first, the Mu'tazila refrained from making any judgments about people who attended the Battle of Jamal and adversaries of Imam 'Ali (a), but in later periods, most of the Mu'tazila believed that adversaries of Imam 'Ali (a) who fought in the battles against him were sinners and misguided, explicitly taking the Imam (a) to be on the right side.
According to some sources, Wasil b. 'Ata' himself refrained from making any judgments in this regard. According to some reports, he took neither party of the Battle of Jamal to be right. However, there are reports according to which Wasil was a student of Abu Hashim, the son of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya, who was a son of Imam 'Ali (a). Moreover, there are reports about his associations with 'Alawis and his close relationships with Zaydis. On these reports, although Imam al-Sadiq (a) disagreed with Wasil over some issues, Zaydis took the side of Wasil. These relationships show that Wasil was close in some respects to Shi'a beliefs and had affinities with some Shi'a and 'Alawi groups. Although 'Amr b. 'Ubayd, the leader of the Mu'tazila after Wasil, did not accompany the Zaydis, the Mu'tazila after him were in general close to the Zaydis and accompanied them in their subsequent uprisings; for example, the Mu'tazila of Basra supported the Uprising of Ibrahim b. 'Abd Allah b. Hasan.
Al-Nazzam (c. 160/776-231/845) was a student of Hisham b. Hakam and learned some of his kalami thoughts from him.
Bishr b. Mu'tamir was the first Mu'tazili scholar who moved from Basra to Baghdad. He opposed some of the beliefs held by the Mu'tazila in Basra, and thus, formed a new branch of i'tizal in Baghdad. He was close to the 'Alawis. Since then, the Mu'tazila of Baghdad had more Shi'a tendencies, for example, they believed in the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a) to 'Uthman b. 'Affan and even other caliphs. The Mu'tazila of Baghdad had more interactions with the Shi'as. In this city, Shi'as and the Mu'tazila were close to one another. This was why the problem of the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a) to 'Uthman or other caliphs turned into a significant issue among the Mu'tazila. Many of the Mu'tazila in Baghdad believed in the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a), and some of them, such as Abu Ja'far al-Iskafi (240/854) so insisted on his superiority that they came to be known as "'Alawi al-Ra'y" (that is, of an 'Alawi view). However, it should be noted that some of the Mu'tazila, such as those of Basra, were strong advocates of 'Uthman. For example, Jahiz—a well-known Mu'tazili scholar—wrote a book entitled al-'Uthmaniyya in which he defended the view that other caliphs were superior to Imam 'Ali (a). Abu Ja'far al-Iskafi wrote a rejection to Jahiz's book, which shows that the problem of the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a) to other caliphs, which is rooted in Shiism, turned into a significant issue among the Mu'tazila.
The stance of Shi'as and the Mu'tazila against the Ahl al-Hadith (the People of Hadith), who opposed rationalism and the reason, and were, in particular, hostile to the new science of kalam, helped unify Shi'as and the Mu'tazila, especially in the periods in which the Abbasid caliphs supported the People of Hadith. Thus, the association between the Mu'tazila and Shi'as became closer in the second period of the Abbasid caliphate in which the caliph supported People of Hadith and reached its peak in the period of the Shi'a rulers of the Buyid Dynasty.
The Buyid Government
In the Buyid period, the relation between Shi'as and the Mu'tazila reached its peak. In this period, the rationalist approach of Shi'a scholars in Baghdad was very close to that of the Mu'tazila. Both Shi'a and Mu'tazili scholars were close to, and were supported by, the Buyid government. On the one hand, the Buyid rulers were Shi'a, and on the other hand, they were tolerant with respect to different religious approaches. When the Buyid dynasty took over the rule, the Mu'tazila, who used to be under strong pressure by the People of Hadith and Hanbalis, found some liberty. Thus, they held big lectures and were given high-ranking positions in the government, e.g. as judges. In this period, many Shi'a and Mu'tazili scholars had attended each other's lectures. For example, al-Shaykh al-Mufid and al-Sayyid al-Murtada had Mu'tazili teachers as well.
According to historical evidence, some Mu'tazili scholars in this period had such strong Shi'a tendencies that they came to be known in historical sources as "Mu'tazili Shi'as". These people include scholars such as Abu l-Qasim al-Tanukhi (447/1055), Husayn b. Hasan al-Bandar al-Anmati, and Muhammad b. Washshah al-Zaynabi. One of the best-known such figures is Sahib b. 'Abbad (326/937-385/995) who is characterized as a symbol of unity between I'tizal and Shiism. On some accounts, he is considered to be a Shi'a or a Zaydi. There are poems attributed to him in the praise of Shi'a Imams (a). However, there is evidence to show that he was not an Imami, such as al-Shaykh al-Mufid's book in which he rejected Sahib b. 'Abbad's beliefs concerning imamate. However, there is a tremendous disagreement over his being a Shi'a or a Mu'tazili in historical sources, which might show that his beliefs were close to both groups. Another well-known instance of scholars whose beliefs were close to both Shiism and I'tizal is the family of Nawbakhti and beliefs attributed to them. The Nawbakhtis were Shi'a scholars some of whose beliefs were so close to the Mu'tazila that they came to be criticized by al-Shaykh al-Mufid because of those beliefs. However, according to some recent scholarship, parts of Nawbakhti's beliefs which were close to those of the Mu'tazila had precedents in Shi'a beliefs too. Moreover, some of al-Shaykh al-Mufid's own beliefs are known to be close to those of the Mu'tazila. There are scholarships about al-Shaykh al-Mufid's being influenced by them, despite disagreements between them.
Commonalities and Disagreements between Shi'as and the Mu'tazila in the Principles of the Beliefs
Shi'as and the Mu'tazila share some principles of their beliefs. Some of their beliefs about monotheism and the negation of attributes from God are close. Both Shi'as and the Mu'tazila are very close in their beliefs about the principle of justice, but there are serious disagreements about other principles of beliefs. For instance, unlike the Mu'tazila, Shi'as do no take al-amr bi l-ma'ruf wa l-nahy 'an al-munkar (that is, conjoining the right and forbidding the wrong) to be a principle of Islamic beliefs; rather they take it to be an ancillary of religion. There is not much commonality between Shi'a and Mu'tazili beliefs regarding the principle of divine rewards and punishments. According to Shi'as, it is obligatory for God to fulfil His promises, but it is not obligatory for Him to punish the sinners. Thus, He can forgive them if He wills so.
The main difference between Shi'as and the Mu'tazila is with respect to the problem of imamate. According to the latter, it is necessary for God to determine the Imam. They do not believe that the Prophet Muhammad (s) made any explicit statement about the Imams after him. Although some of the Mu'tazila believe in the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a) to other caliphs after the Prophet (s), they nevertheless believe in the legitimacy of the other caliphs due to social exigencies.
- The material for this article is mainly taken from معتزله in Farsi WikiShia.