An Early Islamic Debate on Faith and Reason Is Worth Examining

By Mustafa Akyol

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

oday, 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.)

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