Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila
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Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila
The Mu'tazila - literally 'those who withdraw themselves' - movement was founded by Wasil bin 'Ata' in the second
century AH (eighth century AD).
Its members were united in their conviction that it was necessary to give a rationally coherent account of Islamic beliefs.
In addition to having an atomistic view of the universe, they generally held to five theological principles, of which the two most important were the unity of God and divine justice.
The former led them to deny that the attributes of God were distinct entities or that the Qur'an was eternal, while the latter led them to assert the existence of free will.
Ash'ariyya - named after its founding thinker, al-Ash'ari - was the foremost theological school in Sunni Islam.
It had its origin in the reaction against the excessive rationalism of the Mu'tazila.
Its members insisted that reason must be subordinate to revelation.
They accepted the cosmology of the Mu'tazilites but put forward a nuanced rejection of their theological principles. 1 Historical survey The Mu'tazila originated in Basra at the beginning of the second century AH (eighth century AD).
In the following century it became, for a period of some thirty years, the official doctrine of the caliphate in Baghdad.
This patronage ceased in AH 238/ AD 848 when al-Mutawakkil reversed the edict of al-Ma'mun, which had required officials to publicly profess that the Qur'an was the created word of God.
By this time, however, Mu'tazilites were well established in many other centres of Islamic learning, especially in Persia, and had split into two rival factions, the Basran School and the Baghdad School.
Although their links with these two cities became increasingly tenuous, both schools flourished until the middle of the fifth century AH (eleventh century AD), and the Basran School only finally disappeared with the Mongol invasions at the beginning of the seventh century AH (thirteenth century AD).
After the demise of the Mu'tazila as a distinct movement, Mu'tazilite doctrine - by now regarded as heretical by Sunnis - continued to be influential amongst the Shi'ites in Persia and the Zaydis in the Yemen.
AH 324/AD 935) was a pupil of Abu 'Ali al-Jubba'i (d.
AH 303/AD 915), the head of the Basran School.
A few years before his master's death, al-Ash'ari announced dramatically that he repented of having been a Mu'tazilite and pledged himself to oppose the Mu'tazila.
In taking this step he capitalized on popular discontent with the excessive rationalism of the Mu'tazilites, which had been steadily gaining ground since their loss of official patronage half a century earlier.
After his conversion, al-Ash'ari continued to use the dialectic method in theology but insisted that reason must be subservient to revelation.
It is not possible to discuss al-Ash'ari's successors in detail here, but it should be noted that from the second half of the sixth century AH (twelfth century AD) onwards, the movement adopted the language and concepts of the Islamic philosophers whose views they sought to refute. The most significant thinkers among these later Ash'arites were al-Ghazali and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. 2 Cosmology Popular accounts of the teaching of the Mu'tazilites usually concentrate on their distinctive theological doctrines.
To the philosopher, however, their cosmology, which was accepted by the Ash'ariyya and other theological schools, is a more appropriate starting point.
To the Mu'tazila, the universe appears to consist of bodies with different qualities: some are living while others are inanimate, some are mobile while others are stationary, some are hot and some are cold, and so on.
Moreover, one and the same body may take on different
qualities at different times.
For instance, a stone may be mobile when rolling down a hill but stationary when it reaches the bottom, or hot when left in the sun but cold after a long night.
Yet there are some qualities which some bodies cannot acquire; for example, stones are invariably inanimate, never living.
How are the differences between bodies, and between one and the same body at different times, to be explained? The answer given by the Mu'tazilites is that all bodies are composed of identical material substances (jawahir) or atoms (ajza'), on which God bestows various incorporeal accidents (a'rad).
This view was first propounded by Dirar ibn 'Amr (d.
c.AH 200/AD 815) and elaborated by Abu al-Hudhayl (d.
AH 227/AD 841 or later), both of whom were early members of the Basran School.
Abu al-Hudhayl held that isolated atoms are invisible mathematical points.
The only accidents which they can be given are those which affect their ability to combine with other atoms, such as composition or separation, motion or rest.
Conglomerates of atoms, on the other hand, can be given many other accidents such as colours, tastes, odours, sounds, warmth and coldness, which is why we perceive them as different bodies.
Some of these accidents are indispensable, hence the differences between bodies, whereas others can be bestowed or withdrawn, thus explaining the differences between one and the same body at different times.
This account of the world gained rapid acceptance amongst Islamic theologians, although to begin with it was rejected by two Mu'tazilites of the Basran School, al-Nazzam (d.
AH 221/AD 836) and Abu Bakr al-Asamm (d.
AH 201/AD 816?).
The former, who was Abu al-Hudhayl's nephew, argued that atoms which were mere mathematical points would not be able to combine with one another and that, rather than being composed of atoms, bodies must therefore be infinitely divisible.
Abu al-Hudhayl replied that God's bestowal of the accident of composition on an isolated atom made it three-dimensional and hence capable of combining.
Al-Asamm, on the other hand, objected to the notion of accidents, arguing that since only bodies are visible their qualities cannot have an independent existence.
Abu alHudhayl retorted that such a view was contrary to divine laws because the legal obligations and penalties for their infringement were not directed at the whole person but at one of his 'accidents', such as his prostration in prayer or his flagellation for adultery. 3 The five principles According to the Muslim heresiographers, who are our main source of information about the Mu'tazila, members of the movement adhered to five principles, which were clearly enunciated for the first time by Abu al-Hudhayl.
These were: (1) the unity of God; (2) divine justice; (3) the promise and the threat; (4) the intermediate position; and (5) the commanding of good and forbidding of evil.
The first and second principles are of major importance and will be discussed in detail below.
The third principle is really only an adjunct of the second, and is here treated as such.
The fourth principle is a relatively unimportant doctrine which probably only figures in the list because it was thought to have been the reason for the Mu'tazila's emergence as a distinct movement; it is said that when Hasan al-Basri was questioned about the position of the Muslim who committed a grave sin, his pupil. »
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