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Why did the Mutazilites refer to themselves as ‘upholders of Divine unity (tahwid) and justice (‘adl)’?

In the Name of Allâh, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful

by Ola bint al-Shoubaki

The principles of Justice and Unity, two of the five core principles which form the basis of Mutazilite belief, can arguably be said to be the most fundamental of the five, concerning which it has been suggested that their third principle, that of Al-wa?d wa ?l-wa?id (?the promise and the threat?) derives from the principle of Justice[1].  Thus, it is of little surprise that the Mutazilites choose to refer to themselves as ?Ashaab al-?Adli wa?t-Tawhid? (upholders of Divine unity and Justice).  The main issue which arises here is whether they remain true to that which they ascribe to themselves, or whether there occur weaknesses and contradictions in their claims, and whether the outlook they present is complete.

The most evident feature of Mutazilite thought is their rationalist attitude towards theological intricacies, such as ethics and knowledge of God. Its members united upon the principle that it was essential to provide a rationally coherent account of Religious beliefs, and they placed reason and ration in a sphere above that of Revelation.   To the Mutazilite, reason and revelation cannot contradict one another, and revelation only confirms that which the intellect has deduced, as Al-Ghazali wrote, ?All that is found in the Traditions (the Qur?an and Sunnah) is examined.  Then, if the intellect can agree with it, it becomes obligatory to believe in it?But as for that which is deemed by the intellect to be impossible, then it becomes obligatory to interpret what has been found in the Traditions, for it is not imaginable that the Traditions will contain something that contradicts the intellect.? [2] This is a marked contrast to the beliefs of orthodox Islamic theology.  It is precisely this inviolability of the faculty of reason which surfaces in many Mutazilite arguments, and for which much criticism is levelled against them by both Sunnites and Ash?arites, who originated as a reaction to the excessive rationalism of the Mutazilites.

Mutazilites often shorten their title to simply Ahl al-?adl (people of Justice) suggesting that the principle of Justice is held to be their most cardinal doctrine.  The principle maintains, in its crudest form, the absolute and necessary justice of God, and works to dispel all arguments which insinuate otherwise.  The pivotal doctrine in this respect is that of predestination and free will, and was essentially a refutation of the traditional Sunnite approach to it. Thus the crux of the debate between Mutazilite thought and orthodox Sunnite thought was concerning this notion ? was God responsible for the determination of events and human action, or did man possess free will?  The Sunnite belief was that all of existence, including events and actions, are linked to the decree of God. The Mutazilites, however, proposed that the notion of predestination of any sort would render God unjust, thus it is incumbent that man be responsible for his actions and that God reward and punish him accordingly. [It is important at this point to mention that ?the Qur?an itself maintains a balance between God?s omnipotence and man?s responsibility, but the Mutazilites tend to neglect the former and overemphasize the latter.?[3]] The Mutazilites exemplified this incumbency with the use of seemingly supporting arguments concerning topics such as ajl (the predetermined term of a mans life), rizq (mans predetermined sustenance), and other such related issues. Concerning the question of ajl, Mutazilites argued the point of a man who had been murdered, and asked how this tied in with the notion of mans life span being predetermined.  Producing a satisfactory response which was closed to further argumentation caused some confusion within the circles of Sunnite theology, and various hypotheses were proposed.  Amongst these were those who suggested that the actual ajl of this man was the date at which he would have died had he not been murdered.  Understandably, even fellow Sunnites realised that this was an unsatisfactory response for those who uphold predestination, as it implied that predestination was not rigid; rather it could be disrupted by human action, a notion which in itself belittles the absolute omnipotence of God.  Thus the majority of Sunnites held that whatever way a man died, he died at his appointed term which was previously known to God. Abu?l Hudhayl[4] supported this and further stated that if the man in question had not been murdered at that time, he would have died in some other way, as nobody can escape his ajl.[5]   This was a consistent reconciliation of the original Mutazilite question and the orthodox Sunnite views.

Mutazilites further took issue, however, with the notion of predetermination in connection with mans provision or sustenance. Their argument was a further attempt at avoiding the attribution of evil to God, and claimed that an instance of food being stolen and consequently eaten to keep alive rendered God unjust, for He would not provide unlawful goods as sustenance.  Mainstream Sunnites, on the other hand, argued against this and claimed that whatever contributed towards sustaining a man is his sustenance provided by God in the manner that He pleases.  His ways and logic are beyond our ration.  Mutazilites suggested, however, that the act committed by this man was unlawful, and he must therefore be punished for it, but God would not impel a man to commit an unlawful action, and then punish him for it, for this would be unjust.  Thus it cannot have been a predetermined measure.

Other such problems of predestination arose in the issues of guidance and leading astray, faith and unbelief, and succour and abandonment. It was argued that God could not predetermine such matters, for it would be unjust for Him to proceed to reward and punish man for his affairs in this world if he had no choice in the matter. Rather, God has necessarily given man the ability and capacity to act and believe, and He thus punishes and rewards according to mans actions.  This neatly links in with a following issue of dispute, this being whether actions originate from man or from God, which was an important question, because it suggested that if actions originated from man, man would therefore be responsible for his own actions, and this in turn would contribute towards nullifying the notion of predestination, which would consequently advocate the absolute Justice of God. 

They cited the neo-Kantian equation ?taklif (imposition of duties) implies qudra (power)?, in support of the responsibility of man for his actions, implying that by the fact of God?s commanding of faith, for example, man must have the power to believe, as it would be unjust to command the impossible.  For Al-Ash?ari, however, this is ultimately a supposition of human free will, which undermines the unlimited sovereign freedom of God.  He held that God creates in man not only the power to act, but the choice.  He then creates the action corresponding to these.  He further adds that there is a difference between involuntary actions, such as the beating of the heart, and voluntary ones, such as walking and standing, which are according to what we will.  Al-Ash?ari here proposed his theory of ?kasb? (?acquisition?), in which he argued that when we accept these latter actions, created in us by God, we are ?acquiring? them, and are thus held responsible for them.  In this respect, he formed a balance between free will and predestination.

Mutazilite theologians faced further argument, however, when it was claimed that their concept of power and responsibility was ambiguous.  It was asked who was responsible for the death of a man who was killed by an arrow, if the shooter of the arrow died before the arrow reached its target. The victim would then have been killed by a dead man.  The confusion here arises when one thinks of the power of willing, and the physical power of executing what is willed, and this apparent inconsistency remained unresolved.

As was suggested previously, an important issue the Mutazilites drove to dispel was the suggestion that God could be linked to any kind of evil.  Their argument revolved, in large, around the questions of punishment, the omnipotence of God, and suffering.  Whereas the Sunnite theologians believed in the absolute omnipotence of God, and accepted that He created evil, without trying to rationalise it, their Mutazilite counterparts claimed that evil was rather the responsibility of man, and refused to make a connection between God and evil.  They held that the principle of Justice necessarily entailed that God do what is best and most advantageous for people, and Al-Jubba?i[6] even suggested that God is obliged to prolong the life of an unbeliever if He knows that the latter will eventually repent.  This claim, however, remains inconsistent with examples which seem to reflect the contrary view that it is God who is responsible for some of the ?evil? in both this world and the Hereafter, such as the suffering of children and animals, and the punishment of Hell in the Hereafter. The case of a man who died of disease at an early age and was sent to Hell as an unbeliever was cited as an example, and it was argued that he could have lived longer and been taken to Paradise. Thus, the present ?evil? condition can be said to be attributable to God.   To the Mutazilite, however, the concept of a Just God entails that He punishes men only for acts for which they are responsible, and these two ideas seem to be irreconcilable.   

 The Sifatiyyah vehemently opposed the Mutazilites concerning this issue, and claimed that ?...one who believes in submitting himself to God and entrusting himself to Him, while at the same time attributing all events to a determined fate and unalterable decree, cannot conceivably dispute about qadar: making a division between good and evil, attributing good to the action of God and evil to that of man? [7]( in reference to the Tradition of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that ?The Qadariyya[8] are the Magians of this community.?[9])  In this regard, it could be argued that one of the very foundations of Mutazilite argument in support of their doctrine of ?adl (namely that evil cannot be attributed to God) necessarily contradicts, in itself, their other ?mother? doctrine: that of tawhid.  It is also revealing to cite the view of Al-Ash?ari here, that however God treats a certain person, whatever punishment or reward He bestows upon him, represents Justice. Although something may appear unjust by human standards, it is still in the sphere of His Justice, but in a manner we comprehend not.

It is the principle of tawhid (Unity) which fundamentally distinguishes the Mutazilites from other sects, such as the Kharijites, who agreed with them concerning the principle of ?adl. Although the numerical unity of God is agreed upon by all Muslims, the Mutazilites claimed to affirm the Unity of God fundamentally by their anti-anthropomorphistic doctrine of tawhid.  The principle of Unity essentially challenged the Christian Trinitarian and Magian Dualistic beliefs, and perceived them as external threats to Muslim doctrine.  The defence for it had to be solid, and thus based, again, on reason independent of revelation.

The Mutazilites denied totally the eternal attributes of God, claiming that they did not exist as separate entities but rather existed by means of God?s eternal essence only.[10]  The mere fact that God eternally governs adjectives such as ?alim (Knowing), qadir (Powerful), and khaliq (Creating) does not necessitate their themselves being eternal, for this would involve the implication of more than one eternal Being.  Since Eternity is God?s special characteristic - His quiddity - this would then imply a plurality in the godhead, which in turn contradicts the principle of God?s unity.  According to Al-Ashari, this view was shared by many Kharijites, Murji?ites and some Zaydites, who accepted the statement ?God has knowledge? only to mean that God was Knowing.  A negative outlook was also introduced by people such as An-Nazzam[11] who avoided using the word ?knowledge? because he believed that, ?the meaning of saying ?knowing? is the affirmation of His essence (dhaat) and the denial of ignorance of Him?the attributes belonging to the essence differ only in what is denied of God.? Watt suggested that An-Nazzam?s views were seemingly influenced by Dirar ibn ?Amr[12], who said that ?the meaning of saying that God is knowing, powerful and living is that he is not ignorant, impotent and dead.? [13]  Watt further went on to remark that although affirming the absolute Unity of God was theologically appealing, their theory is unsatisfactory to the ordinary worshipper, who is left to think of their Creator and Object of worship as, at most unknowable, and at least indescribable.  Al-Ash?ari held the stance that rather, these are ?revealed attributes?, the existence of which must be believed in without seeking to understand how (?bila kayf?). The criticism levelled against the Mutazilites by the Orthodox Sunnites in this regard, similar to that of the Ash?arites, was that they were taking their intellect to be their criterion to accept and understand the attributes of God, neglecting the crucial point that God necessarily knows His names and attributes more than His creation, indicating that it is inappropriate to re-interpret these merely because our minds cannot comprehend their Actuality.

Branching off from this is the Mutazilites? notion that the Qur?an is created.  They divided God?s attributes into ?attributes of essence? (sifaat al-dhat), which included those attributes identical with His essence, such as ?knowing?, ?living?, ?powerful? and the like; and ?attributes of action? (sifaat al-fi?l), which they deemed to come into being when God acts, and included such attributes as ?providing?, ?forgiving?, and the such.  Also included in this category the attribute of speech, and thus the Qur?an is temporal and created, for it is the speech of God.  This led to the argument that for the Qur?an to be uncreated is to imply that it is eternal, and to imply this is to suggest, again, a plurality in the godhead.  Their evidence is drawn from the Qur?an, and they quote references alluding to historical events as already having happened (insinuating that had the Qur?an been eternal, it would have been written before the events had taken place, thus they would not be past in relation to it), to it having been ?sent down? on Laylatul Qadr[14], to it having been ?preserved on a heavenly tablet?[15] (indicating that it is finite or limited) and the such.  The argument is that if the Qur?an were eternal, this then would imply predetermination.  There were those opposing the Mutazilites, such as Hisham ibn al-Hakam, who maintained that the Qur?an being an attribute of God, it could not be characterized as being neither created nor uncreated.

A problem which arises is their inconsisteny and incongruity in dealing with the Qur?an.  On the one hand, they claim that all of the anthropomorphic references in the Qur?an must be metaphorically interpreted because God cannot have anything like Him.  Since we have hands, eyes, and ears, God cannot.  Yet on the other hand, certain verses of the Qu?ran (such as those quoted above in support of the createdness of the Qur?aan) are taken and cited at face value, without regard for how others (for example, the Sunnites) may interpret the verse.

Orthodox Sunnism accepted as a Truth the unlimited nature of God?s knowledge, and the limited nature of man?s intellect.  The Mutazilites then introduced their heterodox theory that man should place his reason and intellect above revelation, contradicting the basis of Sunnite thought. They sought to implicate the Justice of God by denying the notion of predestination, arguing that God cannot be attributed to evil, and as such would not punish someone for actions which they were predestined to perform.  The Sunnites argued, however, that although they tried to rationalise God?s knowledge using a preconceived idea of Justice, the mere notion of God?s Justice was a divine concept and to attempt to rationalise it was in itself an injustice against God.  It has also been shown that in attributing good to God and evil to man as a means of supporting their idea of Justice, they were implying a duality in the godhead, thereby contradicting their notion of Unity.  Thus there appears to be discord between their two doctrines.

In attempting to maintain the Unity of God, the Mutazilites denied anthropomorphism and contended the createdness of the Qur?an, so as not to have a plurality of Eternal entities.  Again, however, their reliance on reason alone was not satisfactory, and their refusal to define God in any way did not suffice the ordinary worshipper.  It may be argued that the Mutazilites manipulated the Qur?an and the Sunnah to reconcile them with their own theology, taking them literally where appropriate and metaphorically interpreting them where appropriate.  This too was regarded as a flaw in their argumentation.

Although the Mutazilites succeeded in a considerable amount of proselytization, their heretical beliefs and their incongruity with Orthodox Sunnism eventually led to their demise.  Al-Asha?ri attempted to reconcile extreme Mutazilite rationalism with the rigid liberalism of the Traditionalists, and the product was slightly more acceptable to the Sunnites.

There remains the issue of whether the fragmentation of a Body is an acceptable consequence of intellectual freedom upon its tenets?


  • The Encyclopedia of Islam
  • Al-Ash?ari, Maqalat al-Islamiyyin, ed. H. Ritter (Istanbul,1963)
  • Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid, Ihyaa ?Uloom ad-Din, (Lahore: Ashraf Publishers)
  • Pellat, C., The Life and Works of Jahiz, ed. Pellat, translated by Hawke, D.M., (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969)
  • Madelung, W., Religious Schools and sects in Medieval Islam, (London: Varorium, 1985)
  • Watt, M., The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973)
  • Watt, M., Islamic Philosophy and Theology, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1987)
  • Watt, M., Islamic Creeds, a selection, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994) 


[1] Gimaret, D. Mu?tazila, The Encyclopeadia of Islam

[2] al-Ghazali, Ihyaa? Uloom ad-Din, p 133

[3] Watt, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, p 234.

[4] Abu?l Hudhayl , (d. 227 H./841 A.D. [or later]). He was an early member of the Basran school.

[5] Al-Ash?ari, Maqalat al-Islamamiyyin, p 256

[6] Abu ?Ali al-Jubba?i, (d. 303 H./915 A.D.). He was the head of the Basran school, and a teacher of Al-Ash?ari. Concerning this point, it is reported that Al-Ash?ari questioned Al-Jubba?i regarding the fate of three brothers: a believer, an unbeliever, and one who died as a child. Al-Jubba?i replied that the first would be rewarded with Paradise, the second would be punished with Hell, and the third would be neither rewarded nor punished. When Al-Ash?ari objected that God may have allowed the third to live longer that he may have earned Paradise, Al-Jubba?i responded that God knew that the child would have become an unbeliever had he lived longer. To this, Al-Ash?ari decisively retorted that why had God not, in this case, allowed the second brother to die as a child so that he may be saved from the Hellfire!

[7] Flynn:Kazi, Al-Milal wan-Nihal, p 41

[8] Qadariyya: another term for the Mutazlites

[9] Just as the Magians assert a duality in the creators of actions (Light and Darkness), so the Mutazilites say that God creates good and man creates evil.

[10] There are parallels here between the Mutazilites and the Jahmiyya, who also deny the eternal attributes of God. The parallels, however, do not extend to the denial of predestination, for which the Jahmiyya are ardent supporters.

[11] An-Nazzam (d. 221 H./836 A.D). He was of the Basran school, and the nephew of Abu?l Hudhayl.

[12] Dirar ibn ?Amr (d. 200 H./815 A.D).

[13] Watt, The Formative period of Islamic thought, p246

[14] Surah Al-Qadr, verse 1

[15] Surah al-Buruj, verse 22

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