Do we have it in us to become Mutazalite?

The Muslim world should be made aware of their rich tradition of dissent, philosophers, and theologians who did not balk from calling out charlatans and misleaders in their faith and were never afraid to "separate" or "withdraw" from what they believed to be unreasonable schools of thought

All the debate currently focused in the Islamic world and the West is about reformation in Islam and what the Muslims are going to do about it; whether they are equipped to do it or not, whether they will have the moral courage to do it and if they will allow the ex-Muslims and the apostates to take the movement forward. I am reminded of Anouar Majid's phenomenal book 'A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam and America’. In the book, Anouar Majid propagates reviving the tradition of 'zanadiqa' or heresy from the 12th-century Islamic world and to make Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as our poster boy instead of al-Ghazzali, the former having emphasized on the primacy of reason over texts. Anouar mainly focuses on the work of Robert R. Reilly's The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Reilly's thesis also is the story of how Islam grappled with the role of reason after its conquests exposed it to Hellenic thought and how the side of reason ultimately lost in the ensuing, deadly struggle.

He sketched a portrait of the school of Islamic theology based on reason and rational thought that flourished in the cities of Basra and Baghdad, both in present-day Iraq, during the 8th–10th centuries. The adherents of the Mu`tazili school—known in the English language as "Mu`tazilites"—are best known for their denying the status of the Qur'an as uncreated and co-eternal with God, asserting that if the Quran is God's word, logically God "must have preceded his own speech". The movement emerged in the Umayyad Era and reached its height in the Abbasid period. After the 10th century, the movement declined. It is viewed as heretical by some scholars in modern mainstream Islamic theology for its tendency to deny the Qur'an being eternal, and to allow for the possibility of free will and thus opposing the strict determinism of mainstream thought. In contemporary jihadism, supposed allegations of being a mu`tazili have been used between rivaling groups as a means of denouncing their credibility.

The name muʿtazili derives from Arabic verb i'tizàl ("to part from", "to separate from"). It finds its origin after the founder's (Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭā') "withdrawal" from the study circle of Hasan of Basra over a theological disagreement. Hasan's remark, "Wāṣil has withdrawn from us", is said to be the origin of the movement's name. The group later referred to themselves as Ahl al-Tawḥīd wa l-ʿAḍl ("people of unity and justice"), and the name 'muʿtazili' was in origin used by their adversaries. Though Mu'tazilis later relied on logic and different aspects of early Islamic philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, and Hellenistic philosophy, the truths of Islam were their starting point and ultimate reference. The accusations leveled against them by rival schools of theology – that they gave absolute authority to extra-Islamic paradigms –reflect more the fierce polemics between various schools of theology than any objective reality. For instance, Mu'tazilis adopted unanimously the doctrine of creation 'ex nihilo', contrary to certain Muslim philosophers who, with the exception of al-Kindi, believed in the eternity of the world in some form or another. It was usually Muslim philosophers, not the Muslim theologians, generally speaking, who took Greek and Hellenistic philosophy as a starting point and master conceptual framework for analyzing and investigating reality.

The Mutazalite school of thought emerged as a reaction to political tyranny; it brought answers to political questions or questions raised by current political circumstances. The philosophical and metaphysical elements, and influence of the Greek philosophy were added afterward during the Abbasid Caliphate. The founders of the Abbasid dynasty strategically supported this school to bring political revolution against Umayyad Caliphate. Once their authority established, they also turned against this school of thought. Mutazilites based the analysis of all religious texts and doctrines to be analyzed by the sane mind and solid logic and if there is a discrepancy then the texts or doctrines should be rejected. This part alone made them the enemy of the state and fanatic orthodox Muslims who conservatively follow the Hadith and Tafsirs. Fragments of 'Ketab e Zummorud' indicates that during and after Abbasid rule many of these thinkers were executed under their heresy laws.

In 827 CE, the caliph al-Ma’mun issued the proclamation of the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur'an. The proclamation was followed by the institution of the 'Mihna' six years later, approximately four months before his sudden death in 833 CE. This particular doctrine was well known to be embraced by the Mu'tazilite school during this period. The Miḥnah ("trial" or "testing") refers to the period of religious persecution instituted by the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun in 833 AD in which religious scholars were punished, imprisoned, or even killed unless they conceded the Mu'tazila doctrine of the created nature of the Qur'an. The policy lasted for fifteen years (833–848 CE) as it continued through the reigns of al-Ma'mun's immediate successors, al-Mu'tasim and al-Wathiq, and two years of al-Mutawakkil who reversed it in 848 (or possibly 851) AD. The abolition of Mihna is significant both as the end of the Abbasid Caliph's pretension to decide matters of religious orthodoxy and as one of the few instances of specifically religious persecution in Medieval Islam.

Traditional scholarship viewed the proclamation of doctrine and the Mihna where al-Ma’mun tested the beliefs of his subordinates as linked events, whereby the caliph exercised his religious authority in defining orthodoxy, and enforced his views upon others through his coercive powers as ruler. Al-Ma’mun’s motivations for imposing his beliefs upon the members of his government (such as his judges, for the scope of the Mihna was not extended to examining the beliefs of the commoners in the manner of the European Inquisitions) were attributed to his Mu'tazilite intellectual tendencies, his sympathies towards Shi’ism, or a shrewd decision to consolidate his religious authority during a time where the ulama were starting to be seen as the true guardians of religious knowledge and the prophet’s traditions.

It is important to note that in classical Islam, it was private individuals and not the caliphate who undertook the mission of developing the various Islamic sciences including the law. That is, the law, contrary to what happens in modern nation states, was not the exclusive preserve of the state. In fact, the jurists developed it in conscious opposition to the state (e.g., Jackson, 2002, Jihad and the Modern World, Journal of Islamic Law and Culture). From early on, there was a religious order in classical Islam that was distinct from the political order. The semi-autonomy of the scholars resulted in the interesting phenomenon of the emergence of different, and regarding some issues, diametrically opposed schools of jurisprudence — all considered Islamically valid and authentic. The 'Mihna', within this context, reflects the caliph's frustration with the powerful and influential juristic culture.

The thing is that this history is not taught in Islamic schools and Universities and it absolutely is not a part of Muslim folklore. Only academics who have the patience to sit in dusty libraries and spend years in digging up the schisms and shifts of Islamic theology are able to unearth this period in Islam and then too, if it conflicts with their interests of belief they do not objectively lay it out in the open but are hell bent in pushing it into obscurity again. There have been defenders of reason in Islam and more often than not they have been punished, flogged, ostracized, mutilated and even beheaded or killed for giving primacy to reason. Like Anouar Majid insists, it's time to revive the 'zanadiqa' or heresy and start looking for heretics, who have been there – persecuted and terrorized primarily inside the Muslim societies.

The West keeps forgetting that Muslims are the first victims of a very regressive theology that has found takers in the disgruntled, dispossessed, disempowered and disaffected populations of the world mostly because of their foreign policies. Though I would not advocate the brutal method of Caliph al-Mamun in forcing reason over those who are ready to die for their beliefs, hence rendering the ability to reason ineffective, I would prefer that the Muslim world itself be made aware of their rich tradition of dissent, philosophers, and theologians who did not balk from calling out charlatans and misleaders in their faith and were never afraid to "separate" or "withdraw" from what they believed to be unreasonable schools of thought fast turning into bigotry or fascism.

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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