An Early Islamic Debate on Faith and Reason Is Worth Examining

Past attempts to reconcile logic and belief tend to be dismissed today not because they lack merit but because they were politically defeated

An Early Islamic Debate on Faith and Reason Is Worth Examining
The Abbasid caliph Al Mamun, whose authoritarian support for the Mutazilite doctrine overshadowed the merits of the theology (Photo by Culture Club / Getty Images)

Today, if you ask any faithful Muslim what tradition within Islam they follow, the answer will mostly likely be Sunni or Shiite. Those who identify as Sunni may also follow one of the four schools of jurisprudence: Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki or Hanbali. Other Sunnis dismiss these established schools and claim to follow the way of the “salaf” — the first three generations of Islam — often with an emphasis on strict literalism.

There is, however, something ironic about the times of the salaf that both their purported revivalists as well as many other contemporary Muslims seem to ignore: It was a time of richer diversity within Islam. For a start, there were more schools of jurisprudence than those that are well-known today — initiated by such scholars as al-Awzai (d. 774), al-Thawri (d. 778) and al-Zahiri (d. 883), all of which either died out naturally or merged with other schools. Others, such as the school initiated by Ibn Karram (d. 868), ended up on the losing side in violent inter-sectarian struggles. Moreover, both Sunni and Shiite traditions were less strictly defined, with more theological fluidity between them and what they would later reject as “heresies.”

This is most evident with regard to the Mutazila, the first school to develop “kalam” (Islamic theology). Today, most Sunni sources count this among the early “heresies” within the faith, rejected by the followers of their one and only true path. Little do they realize that many of the earliest Hanafis — the largest Sunni school to date — were in fact Mutazilites, and the latter’s thinking left important traces on mainstream Sunni thought, such as an uneasiness with anthropomorphism (the attribution of human traits) with respect to God.

The key aspect of Mutazila thought is well-known, though, both among Muslims and in Western sources: their “rationalism.” But there are misunderstandings about what this means. Conservative Sunni Muslims, in particular, are often scandalized by the idea that fallible human reason could be valued much beside infallible divine revelation: “as if revelation is from God,” as the Turkish theologian Hüseyin Kansu puts it, “and reason is from the infidels.”

For the Mutazila, however, both revelation and reason were from God — as independent paths to the same ethical truths. And the exact meaning of this duality needs to be better grasped, for it is relevant to some of the heated debates about religion, law and ethics that take place in the Muslim world today.

Let us begin with who the Mutazila were. Their curious name, “those who withdraw,” may come from the story that their founder, Wasil ibn Ata (d. 748), had “withdrawn” from the circle of his teacher, Hasan al-Basri (d. 728). An alternative explanation, preferred by the Mutazila themselves, is that, as pious ascetics, they “withdrew” from the sinful temptations of the world and from fanatic partisanship in the civil wars that tore Muslims apart — evoking the positive iterations of the term in the Quran (as in 18:16, for example, where pious youths “withdraw” from polytheists; or 19:48, where Abraham “withdraws” from idolaters).

Pious, but also rationalist? Yes, that is exactly how the Mutazila were. To understand why, one must look at their context. The early Islamic empire had grown remarkably in just a century from Spain to Persia. In much of these newly conquered territories, Muslims had triumphed by religious zeal and military might, but in the cosmopolitan centers of Iraq, such as Baghdad and Basra, they faced the intellectual challenges of ancient traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and, somewhat later, Greek philosophy. Against them, the more parochial scholars who took pride in believing “bila kayfa,” or “without asking how,” could not offer any rationale. Instead, Islam needed rational theologians who could “make sense” of the faith. And these were none other than the Mutazila.

This effort for a rationally consistent “dawa” (call) explains all the doctrines of the Mutazila that more dogmatic Muslims found unnecessarily complicated, if not outrageously heretical.

For example, the Mutazila opposed the popular belief in predestination, or “qadar,” instead arguing that God had given human beings complete freedom and power in their acts. For otherwise, they realized, they could not defend God’s justice — a pivotal principle in their system — in rewarding or punishing people for their deeds. (They had also seen how the doctrine of predestination was used by the despotic rulers of the Umayyad dynasty, which dominated the Islamic Empire from 661 to 750, to instill unquestioning obedience to themselves.)

Another doctrine of the Mutazila which many Muslims have found baffling was that the Quran was God’s “created” word — instead of preexisting with God Himself since eternity. The reason was their realization that an “uncreated Quran” would vindicate the Christian doctrine of “uncreated Christ” — as the Christian theologian John of Damascus (d. 749) had intelligently argued. (Because Christ, too, was “word of God,” according to none other than the Quran.)

In other words, by defining the Quran as “created,” the Mutazila were not devaluing the Quran. Instead, they were trying to guard the core teaching of the Quran, which is God’s absolute unity.

Yet perhaps the most significant idea of the Mutazila was their conceptualization of divine law — sharia. It came from their answer to what is known to moral philosophers as the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something “good” or “bad” because God commands or bans it? Or does God command or ban things because they are inherently “good” or “bad”?

With arguments based on the Quran — which commands “maaruf” (known good), referring to humans’ ethical knowledge — the Mutazila defended the second view above, often called “ethical objectivism.” In this view, divine commands, revealed as sharia, educated Muslims about objective ethical values that were already in the nature of things and knowable to human reason. Murder was inherently evil, in this view, and sharia only indicated this truth, which would be still valid otherwise.

The opposite view — which later dominated Sunni Islam — was what philosophers call “divine command theory.” In this view, God’s commands, revealed as sharia, did not indicate but constitute moral truths. So, murder was wrong only because God banned it. If God had commanded it, then it would be perfectly right, because there was no measure of “good” and “bad” other than sharia.

These two opposite theologies about sharia had serious implications for its interpretation.

One was the thorny issue of hadith, the reported words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Unlike the Quran, on whose authority all Muslims agreed, the authenticity of these orally transmitted reports, mixed with hearsays and forgeries, were doubtful. That is why most jurists in Iraq — early Hanafis, including the Mutazila — accepted only a limited number of frequently transmitted hadiths, paying most of their attention to the Quran and human reason. As such, they were called “Ahl al-Ray” (“People of Reason”).

The opposite camp was “Ahl al-Hadith” (“People of Hadith”). They held that hadiths should guide Muslims on every possible question — thus leaving minimum need for reason — and that their authenticity could be confirmed by establishing an unbroken chain of narrators (A heard from B, who heard from C, who heard from Muhammad, without a missed link in the chain). Spearheaded by the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the staunchest adversary of the Mutazila, this movement ultimately produced the major “six books” of hadith, which continue to be revered today.

A key difference between the two camps was whether the content of hadiths could be questioned using reason. For the Ahl al-Hadith, once the chain of narrators was established and the hadith was confirmed as “sahih” (authentic), there was little left to discuss. It became a canonical text that simply had to be accepted and obeyed. For the Mutazila, however, any hadith, regardless of its chain of narrators, could be questioned by judging its content — in light of both the Quran and human reason, including moral intuition.

Here is an example. Ibn Hanbal’s hadith collection, “Musnad,” included a narration from Muhammad which read: “The believers and their children will be in Paradise, and the polytheists and their children will be in Hell.” The latter part reportedly “upset” Muhammad’s wife Khadija, as it would offend the conscience of most of us. But did conscience count as a yardstick in religion?

The Mutazila emphatically said yes. “God would not punish children,” wrote Ibrahim al-Nazzam (d. 845), “because that would make Him an oppressor, which He is not.” Two centuries later, the last great Mutazila scholar and judge Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025) also commented on such hadiths that are morally unacceptable, writing: “It is not permissible to abandon the rational faculties that God the Exalted has ingrained in us in favor of such reports.”

Luckily, the children-in-hell hadith had a flaw in its chain, so it was ultimately classified as “weak.” Yet many Muslims today read other narrations that disturb their conscience: “sahih” reports that command obedience to corrupt tyrants; servitude to capricious husbands; or killing people, merely for their beliefs, as “apostates.”

In the face of such religious teachings that are ethically unjustifiable, Muslims today may find it helpful to remember the Mutazila perspective: that God cannot command injustice — the definition of which may vary and evolve over time and context — and we have the right to question those who tell us that He did.

In other words, as the contemporary Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl put it recently, Muslims can use more “conscientious thinking” in religion. When they are called on to obey religious rulings that are absurd or unconscionable, they can legitimately say, “I do not buy this; it does not make sense to me.”

However, this perspective has been emphatically curbed in mainstream Islamic thinking, because of the dominance of divine command theory. In this view, an independent sense of justice cannot question religious texts, because justice has no basis outside of those texts.

Ironically, the scholar who championed this view was a defector from the ranks of the Mutazila: Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari (d. 936), who, at the age of 40, made a U-turn in his beliefs, rejecting all Mutazili ideas and instead began “professing what Ibn Hanbal professed.” Having once been a rational theologian, however, he was more sophisticated than Ibn Hanbal himself, who rejected all theology as a useless innovation. Ashari defended Hanbali doctrines with rational argumentation, initiating the theological school known as Asharism (which is distinct from, but influential on, the aforementioned four jurisprudential schools), which increasingly dominated the Sunni world, especially after becoming the state-sponsored doctrine in the late 11th century.

Another important episode from this century was the official condemnation of the Mutazila by the Hanbali caliph al-Qadir. In 1017, he proclaimed the “Qadiri Creed,” which explicitly targeted the Mutazila view of scripture: “He who says the Quran is created is an infidel, whose blood may legitimately be shed.” Soon, Mutazila scholars were forced to retract their beliefs. Those who resisted were jailed, while their “heresies” were condemned from mosque pulpits.

To be fair, some of the Mutazila had also resorted to state coercion, much earlier, when their “created Quran” doctrine was imposed by the caliph al-Mamun’s infamous “mihna” (literally, “ordeal”), a kind of inquisition, from 833 to 851. This was an unforgivable mistake on their part, which is told and retold in Sunni sources. However, the same sources never speak about the Qadiri Creed, the very existence of which we learned only thanks to modern Western scholarship.

What really happened, in a nutshell, was that People of Hadith won over People of Reason — in part thanks to the dictates of the rulers, for whom they preached “obedience,” even if they were “unjust and corrupt,” as they explicitly put it. Meanwhile, as the winners of this long war of ideas, the People of Hadith also wrote the very history of it, to their own advantage.

Condemned and purged, the Mutazila faded away in the Sunni world, finding some niches only among Shiites, especially the Zaydis of Yemen. Its earlier jurisprudence, Hanafism — whose very founder Abu Hanifa (d.767) had drawn much ire from the People of Hadith — had to conform, minimizing the scope of its rational law-making tool called “istihsan,” which means “considering something good” without any textual basis, like “equity” in Western law. Ultimately, in the words of Wael Hallaq, a contemporary expert on Islamic law, the Ashari doctrine became “the most fundamental principle of Sunni jurisprudence” — that “God decides on all matters and that the human mind is utterly incompetent to function as a judge of any human act.”

Was this a wrong turn in the Islamic tradition? Or was it exactly as it should be?

One of those who seems to think it was a wrong turn is Ahmad al-Raysuni, a prominent Islamic scholar from Morocco who served as president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars until recently, after replacing the late Yusuf al-Qaradawi in 2018. In his 2005 book, “Imam al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law,” published by the International Institute of Islamic Thought, he tackles the issue and concludes:

“If the truth be told, the Ash’arites who have denied ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ as rationally discernible properties which inhere in things and actions have been carried along by the force of the longstanding, contentious debate between them and their Mu’tazilite opponents … . As the days, years and indeed centuries passed, this struggle only grew fiercer and more intractable, while ‘reaction’ against the Mu’tazilites was such a dominant feature of Ash’arite thought that opposition to the Mu’tazilites became a kind of ‘personal obligation’ for every Ash’arite thinker!”

Also relevant was that, at a later stage in the Asharite tradition, great scholars such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) partly accepted the rationality of law, allowing them to develop the important doctrine of “maqasid al-sharia” — the “higher objectives and intents of Islamic law.” Nevertheless, as Raysuni shows, these late Asharites were still held back by “the fear of being besmirched by an abandoned doctrine,” meaning the Mutazila. However, Raysuni adds:

“We need to apologize on behalf of those who denied self-evident truths and defended illusions and fantasies simply in order to vex and contradict the Mu’tazilites.”

So, apparently, the Mutazilites were not wrong in everything. This does not mean they were right in everything, either. But they represented an important intellectual effort in early Islam in reconciling Islamic faith and law with universal human reason and ethics. At a time when such a reconciliation is even more urgently needed, some of their ideas may be worth reconsidering.

This may also be true for some other vanished sects or intellectual movements in the history of Islam. After all, this history, even from the eyes of the most pious in faith, is human-made. It is shaped not just by the religious tenets of Islam but also the accidents of history, the effect of ancient cultures and the dictates of arbitrary rulers. Today’s Muslims have the right, therefore, to look at this complex Islamic tradition not only with respect but also critical reason, in order to find the best inspirations they can, to rearticulate Islam for a radically different millennium.

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