In the 19th century, when the idea of ‘Islamic modernism’ first emerged to address the challenges posed by European colonialism, it reawakened an interest in a largely forgotten ‘rationalist’ school of Islamic thought. This thought was first formulated in the 8th century in Basra. But it was severely repressed from the 11th century onwards. It then plunged into oblivion. However, various schools of Islamic jurisprudence did not shy away from adopting some of its doctrines, even though most of them rejected it as being misguided and even heretical.
The school of thought was that of the Muʿtazila. The English translation of this Arabic word means to ‘withdraw’ or to ‘separate.’ Its beginnings are rooted in an event in which an 8th-century scholar Wasil ibn Ata ‘withdrew’ and separated himself from a study circle headed by a prominent Sunni theologian Hasan al-Basri. Ata’s inclination towards understanding God’s divinity and that of the Quran through reason began to attract followers. One of them was Amr ibn Ubayd, who was of Persian descent. His group began to be known as the ‘Mutazilis’ or “those who had separated themselves.”
Ubyad had initially taken the side of Basri in the theological feud between Basri and Ata. However, Ubyad was eventually won over by Ata. It was Ubyad who began to evolve and systematically give doctrinal shape to Mu’tazila ideas, turning them into a distinct school of Islamic thought. The doctrine started to gain traction among various scholars and theologians.
The Mu’tazila began by rationally exploring the divinity of God. They did not question His existence. They unquestionably believed that He was the creator of the universe who wasn’t created himself. He was present in the past and He is present in the future. He doesn’t have any physical attributes or form, nor any needs. He is all-wise and all-knowing. He is one and the only one and there is no second beside Him. Everything but Himself is dependent on and governed by what He has created. Things do not emerge by themselves. They are, because He is.
The Mu’tazila largely encouraged the reading of the Quran in an interpretative manner, especially verses that seem to generate multiple meanings
According the Mu’tazila doctrines, God only creates ‘good.’ It was man (insan) who is responsible for creating evil — even though man as God’s creation isn’t born bad. To the Mu’tazila, It is irrational to believe that a God who is all-knowing and all-wise could create or cause evil. Moreover, to the Mu’tazila, if God had predetermined the fates and moral disposition of men, the idea of heaven and hell would not make sense. Instead, God gave man freewill and the ability to use reason (aql) to differentiate between good and bad. If this freewill is used to choose what is good, then the person will be rewarded in paradise. If freewill leads a person to choose what is bad, they will be punished in hell.
The Mu’tazila called this a ‘fair test’ that God had formulated for humans in which one can use freewill rationally and avoid evil, or apply it irrationally to create evil. God does not create evil. Evil is created by human error. Therefore, God recognises the existence of social/economic inequalities and the oppression of man against man. These too are part of the ‘fair test.’ For if God made perfect societies in which there was no oppression, suffering or inequalities, then there would not have been any reason for Divine revelation, nor any need for Him to send prophets and sacred texts advising people to help those in need; or to avoid tyranny, oppression, etc.
So, to the Mu’tazila, God judges how insan applies aql to either choose good or choose evil. According to the Mu’tazila, God and His revelation (the Quran) can only truly be understood and appreciated through the agency of aql. The more one rationally speculates about God, the closer they get to understanding His true (benevolent) nature. God has laid a path and provided guidance through revelation how to tread this path. Straying from or staying on the path is not God’s doing. It is man’s doing in how he utilises freewill and choice granted to him by God (whether to stay or stray). The ‘unbelievers,’ too, are given this choice. God encourages men and women to use empirical reasoning to understand why the path suggested by God was the best one to take.
On the question of whether a believer stops being a believer if he commits a ‘grave sin,’ the Mu’tazila took a centrist stance. The radical Kharijites (Khawarij) had declared that a sinner stops being a believer and would be judged as such by God. On the other end were the Murjites (Murji’ah), who claimed that the sinner remained to be a believer and that it was God’s right alone to judge him in whichever manner He chose. To the Mu’tazila, the grave sinner becomes neither a believer nor a non-believer. Instead, he enters an intermediary stage between belief and unbelief. But the Mu’tazila insisted that since God can never retract His promise to reward the good and punish the bad, the sinner will probably be punished even if God considers him to be a believer.
The Mu’tazila largely encouraged the reading of the Quran in an interpretative manner, especially verses that seem to generate multiple meanings. They were of the view that once God’s nature is clearly understood through reason and deep speculation, one could best interpret the complex verses. However, any interpretation that contradicts God’s attributes derived from rational speculation, should be rejected. This is why the Mu’tazila were highly suspicious of the hadith literature.
According to the Mu’tazila, a majority of the hadith were products of sectarian and theological rifts that had developed after the time of the Prophet (PBUH) and his closest companions. To the Mu’tazila, the hadith were “susceptible to abuse as a polemical ideological tool” (U. Ghani in The Sunna and its Status in Islamic Law, 2015). The Mu’tazila wanted to devise an even more thorough and rigorous method of ascertaining the authenticity of the ahadith.
The Mu’tazila were radically against anthropomorphising God or giving Him human attributes. For example, God did not sit on a throne as kings do. This may be a metaphor expressing God’s position and power, but to the Mu’tazila, such anthropomorphic understanding of God trivialises His greatness of being a power unlike any other.
At the core of Mu’tazila doctrines is the dogma that through aql alone can God and revelation be understood and followed. To the Mu’tazila, the ability to think rationally and apply logic were God’s utmost gifts to man, because God had given insan freewill and/or the ability to shape their own condition. God will thus judge the quality and morality of the resultant condition.
The influence of the Mu’tazila doctrines peaked in the 9th century, especially during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun. He declared the Mu’tazila doctrines as the official creed of the caliphate. The ‘orthodox’ ulema who were never comfortable with the Mu’tazila doctrines, protested. They accused the Mu’tazila of undermining the importance of the hadith, demystifying the nature of God and the Quran, overemphasising the dogma of reason, and discrediting established Islamic traditions (born from the hadith). Many anti-Mu’tazila ulema were imprisoned and forced to accept Mu’tazila doctrines.
Some theologians, such as the ultra-conservative Ahmad ibn Hanbal, refused, and suffered torture. The Mu’tazila had presented themselves as defenders of free thought, and as ‘erudite libertines’ battling against the obscurantism of orthodoxy. However, the aggressive persecution of the opponents of the Mu’tazila by Ma’mun, brought this perception and claim into question (M. Campanini in Religion Compass, 2012). From liberators of theology, the Mu’tazila had became theological totalitarians.
The persecution ended in 847 AD, when the caliph Al-Mutawakkil restored the influence of orthodox theologians and began to persecute the Mu’tazila. Shia, Christians and Jews were also persecuted because it was believed they had influenced the Mu’tazila. After igniting the interest and intellect of Islamic scholars for over a hundred years, and then peaking by becoming the state creed during the reigns of at least three Abbasid caliphs, the Mu’tazila doctrines and influence began to decline.
Some latter-day Mu’tazila appeared, but they mostly penned apologia to address orthodox criticisms. None of them were in a position anymore to overcome the resurgence of Islamic orthodoxy which was largely led by the Ash‘arites and the Hanbalites — the two schools of jurisprudence which revived the primacy of hadith literature. Islamic philosophy became increasingly conservative, and developed a suspicious disposition towards theological rationality.
Ironically, the founder of the Ash‘arite school of thought Abu Ali al-Jubba’i was a former Mu’tazila. He continued to use the dialectic method in theology but insisted that reason must be subservient to revelation. The orthodox theologians feared that too much speculative reasoning could entirely undermine the divine nature of revelation and may also lead to disbelief.
But the Mu’tazila were theological rationalists. They were exploring Islamic cosmology as a rational occurrence. They were not debating the existence of God. They took that as a given and as a rational belief because the universe could not have created itself. It was there because there was a creator. And the creator was the uncreated God.
The 20th-century Islamic scholar and modernist Dr.Fazalur Rahman Malik was of the view that the Mu’tazila were unable to produce doctrines that were emotionally satisfying to orthodox Islamic piety. The Mu’tazila understood God as an “intellectual construct” (F. Rahman, Islam, 1962). This left little or no room to experience God and revelation on a more ‘spiritual’ level, or as something that directly interacted with and intervened in everyday lives of the people.
The resurgence of orthodoxy from the 11th century was largely triggered by the extreme exhibition of the dogma of reason which the Mu’tazila began to push through political agencies such as the Abbasid caliphs. However, to Rahman, the Mu’tazila were correct in maintaining human moral freedom and responsibility (Rahman, ibid).
In the 19th century, when European colonialism had largely vanquished Muslim empires, various Islamic scholars responded by exercising self-criticism. On the right were traditionalists who claimed that Muslim rulers and their ulema had become complacent and decadent, thus ignoring the ‘correct’ manner in which Islam was to be practiced. They lamented that instead of bringing non-believers in the fold of Islam, the Muslim empires allowed the beliefs and rituals of their non-Muslim populations to enter Islam, thus disfiguring it and weakening the empires.
The traditionalists emphasised the need to revive the manner in which Islam was served by the rule of its first four caliphs in the 7th century (al-Khilafah ar-Rāshidah). The traditionalists were also highly suspicious of the ideas of political, economic and social modernity that the colonialists began to introduce. They were seen as extensions of Christianity, or tools to dismantle Islamic thought, traditions and rituals.
On the left were scholars who agreed with the traditionalists that the empires had become complacent and decadent. But to these scholars, the reasons for the downfall of Muslim empires were a lot more complex. The scholars tried to understand the malaise facing the Muslims by first exploring the factors that had lifted European regions from the so-called ‘dark ages,’ and then put them in a position to become the world’s new superpowers.
But men such as Syed Ahmad Khan were conscious of the fact that the Mu’tazila doctrines, too, had hardened and became a dogma. Then the dogma of reason was replaced by the dogma of tradition. Therefore, the 19th- and early-20th-century Muslim scholars (who began to be known as Jadids, or Islamic modernists) tried to bridge the gap between the two dogmas
Unlike the traditionalists, these scholars tried to reconcile Islamic texts and tenants with economic, political and philosophical ideas that were emerging in Europe. These ideas were products of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ — an intellectual movement that promoted the primacy (and even supremacy) of rationality, empiricism and science over revelation, monarchical rule ‘through divine decree,’ and the power of the Church. These ideas went on to shape an urban middle-class that had little or no link with the landed elites. It was suspicious of the monarchy and of the political role of the Church.
Enlightenment ideas thus gave birth to free-enterprise, democracy, secularism and industrialisation bolstered by scientific inventions and innovations that greatly facilitated European regions to break free from the ‘pre-modern’ modes of thinking and to start dominating the world as ‘modern’ colonial powers.
The Muslim scholars who closely studied Enlightenment ideas agreed that these, when put into action, had aided Europe’s rise. The scholars were of the view that when these ideas were being formulated, Muslim empires remained complacent and uninterested. Islamic philosophy remained stuck in the 11th and 12th centuries, unable to evolve because mental barriers had been placed by orthodox theologians who were suspicious of open debate and freedom of thought.
This realisation led to the unearthing of the forgotten Mu’tazila doctrines that had been trounced and suppressed by orthodoxy from the 11th century onwards. The challenge facing these scholars was what if wholesale adoption of Enlightenment ideas may not only trigger severe backlash from large Muslim populations that were still operating in pre-modern modes, but the adoption also relegates the important role religion played in the lives of the Muslim communities?
So whereas the Enlightenment philosophers had separated the intellectual faculty of reason from divine revelation, the 19th and early 20th century Muslim scholars — such as Rifa’a at-Tahtawi (Egypt), Qasim Amin (Egypt), Muhammad Abduh (Egypt), Tahir ibn Ashur (Tunisia), Syed Ahmad Khan (India), Chiragh Ali (India), Muhammad Iqbal (India), Ahmad Dahlan (Indonesia), Ghabdennasir Qursawi (Russia), Mahmud Tarzi (Afghanistan), and others — found an ally in old Mu’tazila literature.
There was nothing called modernity when the Mu’tazila were active. However, the mentioned scholars interpreted the Mu’tazila way of rationally comprehending the nature of God and his revelation, as a proto-modern thought process. To these scholars, the Mu’tazila had advocated free thought and liberated Islamic theology, without questioning the validity of the core tenets of the theology. This encouraged ancient Muslims to rationally understand God’s creations through fields such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and philosophy. As the 19th century South Asian Muslim scholar Syed Ahmad Khan wrote, once orthodoxy was turned into dogma, Muslim intellectuality declined and with it Muslim political power.
But men such as Syed Ahmad Khan were conscious of the fact that the Mu’tazila doctrines, too, had hardened and became a dogma. Then the dogma of reason was replaced by the dogma of tradition. Therefore, the 19th- and early-20th-century Muslim scholars (who began to be known as Jadids, or Islamic modernists) tried to bridge the gap between the two dogmas. But they didn’t really reconcile revelation with reason, but rather tried to reconcile revelation with modernity. The former was what the Mu’tazila were doing.
The difference now was that, unlike the hay days of the Mu’tazila when Islamic empires were thriving and expanding, they had either shrunk or fallen when the early Islamic modernists became active. Reason or aql wasn’t the exclusive domain of modernity. In fact, as a philosophical concept it had been around for centuries. To the Mu’tazila, the so-called Islamic obscurantists and their orthodoxy were the central issue. To the Islamic modernists, the issue was not only the rise and spread of modernity, but also how it was being addressed by the traditionalists.
But by the 19th century the concepts of reason or rationality had already become synonymous with European Enlightenment philosophies. So the Islamic modernists issued reminders that the mentioned concepts were active in early Islamic philosophy centuries before they became planks of Enlightenment philosophies. The memory of the Mu’tazila was paraded as an example.
Most Islamic modernists even went to the extent of suggesting that Enlightenment ideas were largely shaped by early Islamic sciences and philosophies when these lost their position and power in the Muslim world. But by no means were such suggestions bitter musings of men downplaying European achievements. The truth is: a majority of Islamic modernists were rather fascinated and impressed by Enlightenment ideas. The challenge was how to fit them in societies still in the grip of pre-modern traditions and worldviews.
Most early Islamic modernists concluded that the Enlightenment had not appeared out of nowhere. It emerged from sectarian tensions and violence within Christianity. This violence weakened the hold of the Church, especially when some Christian sects broke away from the Catholic Church and formed their own churches. Sects such as the Protestants and the Calvinists stripped away from Christianity rituals and beliefs that they found to be exploitative, obscurantist and burdensome.
Pakistan was formed by leaders who were close to Islamic modernists. Islamic modernism as a project was first launched in the country by a civilian-bureaucratic elite and then by a military dictatorship
This process initiated intense debates in which ‘reasoning’ became a vital tool of persuasion. Also, to withstand the power of the Catholic Church, the Protestants and Calvinists encouraged their followers to adopt an enterprising disposition because living a prosperous, profitable and fruitful life too was an act of worship, as long as the prosperity is achieved through honest means.
On the other hand, as these sects grew and prospered, the Catholic Church held an internal dialogue and began to reform itself to meet the requirements of the ‘new age.’
Indeed, one of the most striking products of the Enlightenment was secularism which, by the early 20th century, had begun to be fully constitutionalised in Europe. But a reformed Christianity largely agreed to live with it by not exhibiting any political ambitions.
Islamic modernists wanted to achieve the same. They looked to strip from Islamic theology what they believed were man-made systems and symbols of superstition, exploitation and myopia. In doing this, they brought back the idea of Islamic rationality and then claimed that Islam was inherently a rational religion which encouraged the believers to use aql if they were to fully understand and appreciate God’s greatness and His creations. Interestingly, they also motivated the believers to acquire modern (European) knowledge if they chose to flex their aql.
For example, Syed Ahmad Khan wrote that the modern additions made by Europeans to sciences such as biology, chemistry, economics, etc. can be used as tools to understand how God’s creations function. To him, without this understanding, Islam could not be properly followed. In other words, it could not be followed by just observing rituals.
Islamic modernists wanted to initiate an Islamic Enlightenment which they thought had been pioneered by the Mu’tazila but whose evolution was cut-short by the resurgence of orthodoxy. However, as Dr. Fazlur Rahman noted in 1962, the resurgence was the result of Mu’tazila arrogance and totalitarian point of view that wanted to vanquish all other views. This fact haunted the Islamic modernists. Yet, very few of them were willing to learn anything from it.
Democracy was an important plank of Enlightenment philosophies. It helped Enlightenment thinkers to slowly and gradually develop a consensus among theologians, clerics, entrepreneurs, politicians, aristocrats, and the common folk about their changing roles in a world that was to be governed by economics and politics independent of religion which was relegated to the private and non-political spheres. Religion did not vanish. It was just confined to the Church.
Most Islamic rationalists had a problematic relationship with democracy. They could rationalise the adoption of the modern sciences by pointing out that the Muslim world was once the most learned and informed place, filled with scientists, mathematicians, biologists, chemists and philosophers. But how to rationalise the adoption of modern democracy? What was its Islamic precedent? Some claimed that early Islamic governments exercised a form of democracy by electing caliphs through a consensus achieved among a group of elders.
This led to the claim that Muslims learned about democracy over a century ago. The modernist founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was reported to also have said this. Then there were those who spoke about an ‘Islamic democracy.’ By this they meant Western electoral democracy and parliamentary system but one governed by an ‘Islamic’ constitution, an elected Muslim head of government/state, and a government whose job would be to implement Shariah laws. But this was too vague an explanation, even though it was largely coming from early 20th century modernists (but later adopted by their opponents).
After leading the creation of Pakistan, Mr. Jinnah made it clear that Pakistan was not to be a theocracy because there was no room for the rule of priests in Islam. Yet, he spoke about a ‘Muslim democracy.’ Most Islamic modernists feared that electoral democracy would open the floodgates for obscurantists and firebrand leftists (voted by ‘illiterate’ masses) to come in and establish a ‘mobocracy.’ So, maybe Muslim/Islamic democracy meant the rule of a rational elite elected by an informed elite?
No matter how deeply the Islamic modernists studied Enlightenment ideas, they somehow failed to notice that these ideas first began to emerge when Europe was still largely an agrarian society and the majority of its people were illiterate. Even though the Enlightenment was a project of an intellectual elite, this elite worked to disseminate their ideas through democracy. Indeed, it took decades to do this, but they succeeded in making the common people one of the stakeholders in the transformation of European (and US) societies from the pre-modern to the modern.
Islamic modernists, too, were part of an elite group of intellectuals. The rational thing to do was to unfurl their ideas from top-down through democracy and incorporate responses coming from below. But in the face of opposition from orthodox and conservative forces, the modernists hardened their stance and chose to enforce their ideas on the back of authoritarian rulers. They showed no trust in the hope that Islamic societies could be gradually transformed as had Western societies. Lack of trust in this respect proved disastrous.
Pakistan was formed by leaders who were close to Islamic modernists. Islamic modernism as a project was first launched in the country by a civilian-bureaucratic elite and then by a military dictatorship. It arrogantly discarded the popular belief systems governing the lives of the ‘illiterate masses.’ When modernist ideas came from an elite through authoritarian means, they triggered a reaction. Some modernists then went for a course correction by moving to the left. From Islamic modernists advocating a rational reading of the revelation, and accommodating economic and social modernisation, they added a populist dimension to Islamic modernism. ‘Islamic Socialism’ is one example.
But this came with the introduction of parliamentary democracy. The once marginal Islamists managed to bag 18 seats in the Parliament that came into being after 1971. 18 seats were too few, but it gave the anti-modernist Islamists a powerful platform to declare the failures of modernity and challenge Islamic socialism as a farce. The Islamic socialists, who had a majority in the Parliament, responded by gradually moving to the right to occupy the space opened by the Islamists. The result was an ‘Islamic constitution.’ The Islamic socialists hailed it as a symbol of ‘Islamic democracy.’ But by 1977 they were ousted by the Islamists who now initiated a persecution campaign against modernists on the back of a military dictator. By the 1980s, Islamic modernism had been wiped out.
This played out almost exactly the way the Mu’tazila were crushed. With the intention of making the Muslim community rational in its religious beliefs, the Mu’tazila doctrine adopted an arrogant disposition which then used monarchs to enforce its ideas. This created a reaction which benefited the resurgence of orthodoxy, but one which also used monarchs to persecute the Mu’tazila. Orthodoxy survived, but the Mu’tazila were wiped out.
An intelligent and cogent analysis. Where Muslim societies go next remains a dilemma. So far Muslims have failed to come to terms with modernity. In Afghanistan it is women who are defying the Taliban; men are happy with their restored privileges. Whereas Islam remains influential it is impotent as evidenced by their unsuccessful attempts at electoral victories. Their rage is directed more and more at powerless citizens amongst them.
Elites are fleeing to the West.
It is a scholarly article by you. Very informative. Of course it is your choice to include or not to include ideas of certain persons in it. But in my opinion, including Iqbal and Ghulam Ahmed Parwez on the issues of traditions, rationality and democracy would have made your article more comprehensive. It would have been useful if their persecution at the hands of orthodoxy would have been included.
The other day I was skiming through a book , ” The closing of Muslim Mind ..How Intellectual suicide creaed the modern islamist crisis ”
Authour Rober R Reily . a very Interesing Book .. I think Paracha sahib would be interested in having a look at it .
“Rethinking by Muslims is imperative” is the conclusion of this analysis. This is a fair conclusion.
Education of the Muslim masses based on Good human nature and reasoning is the way forward. There’s no short cut or quick fix approach in this matter.