How a secularist persecution of peaceful orthodox imams changed the face of scholarship: The Mihna

A bizarre event in Islamic history
Between 833 and 848 AD, a bizarre event took place in Islamic history which was to change the face of scholarship and law for ever. It was the agressive inquisition by the ‘secular’ Caliph Al-Ma’mun (yes, the one who also established the Bait al-Hikma) against peaceful orthodox imams.

The Quran: created in time or the eternal word of God?
The mihna had to be undergone by elites, scholars, judges and other government officials, and consisted of a series of questions relating to theology and faith. The central question was about the createdness of the Qur’an. The Mu’tazila, a rationalist movement inspired by Aristotelianism, stated that the Qur’an was created in time, part of the created universe. If the Quran was eternal, it would attain a status next to the Godhead according to the Mu’tazila. If the interrogatee stated he believed the Qur’an to be created, he was free to leave and continue his profession. The orthodox Ulema however refused to deviate from their belief that the Quran was the eternal and uncreated word of God.

Peaceful opposition by the Ulema
The penalties of the mihna became increasingly difficult to enforce as the ulema became firmer and more united in their opposition. Although the mihna persisted through the reigns of two more caliphs, al-Mutawakkil abandoned it in 848. The failure of the mihna seriously damaged Caliphal authority and ruined the reputation of the office for succeeding caliphs. The caliph would lose much of his religious authority to the opinion of the ulema as a result of the mihna. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali legal school, became famous for his opposition to the mihna.

The changed face of authority and scholarship
George Makdisi points out that the crisis of authority caused by the inquisition led the orthodox Ulema to develop the law schools or madhabs. A system of authority was devised in which any layman was free to ask any Alim any question concerning religion. The Alim was free to answer the question in any way, and was allowed to speak against State opinions in this regard. The problem of who is worthy to be trusted was solved by creating educational programmes which resulted in a license to teach, and the status of Mufti. Makdisi goes on to show that this unique system, institutionalized in the Jamia, became the founding structure of the first Medieval European universities, with the doctorate as the licence to teach, the status of Professor replacing the Mufti, and the Ulema’s freedom to speak as academic freedom. And if you ask me, the “research question” always somewhat forcibly demanded by modern academic research, is just an uneasy adoption of the question asked by the layman by which the Mufti would do his research and come up with his conclusions. The Ulema’s method of coming to conclusions on the basis of sometimes contradictory sources came to be known as the most prominent Medieval intellectual movement: Scholasticism.

George Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism in Islam and in the Christian West. Edinburgh University Press, 1990
Walter M. Patton, Ahmad ibn Hanbal and the Mihna. Brill, Leiden 1897

Categories: Muslim Heritage

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