Islam’s conscientious thinkersPeople of reason vs. people of the hadith
This essay first appeared in New Lines Magazine, a global affairs magazine based in the United States.
Today, if you ask any faithful Muslim what tradition within Islam they follow, the answer will most likely be Sunni or Shia. 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 era 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 Shia traditions were less strictly defined, with more theological fluidity between them and what they would later reject as "heresies".
God – source of revelation and reason?
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 realise 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 scandalised 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 Huseyin 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 Koran (as in 18:16, for example, where pious youths "withdraw" from polytheists; or 19:48, where Abraham "withdraws" from idolaters).
Mutazila, the rational theologians
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 centres of Iraq, such as Baghdad and Basra, they faced the intellectual challenges of ancient traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and, somewhat later, Greek philosophy.