Islamic Studies Mihna
by
John Nawas
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0205

Introduction

Mihna literally means “trial, ordeal, test”; it is the term coined by medieval Arabic chroniclers to describe events that took place between 833 and 847 CE, initiated by the seventh Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmun (r. 813–833). In this context, it is usually translated as “inquisition,” though it only vaguely resembles the Spanish Inquisition, which started in 1478 and lasted until the beginning of the 19th century. The mihna is foundational for Islam because it constitutes the watershed in which the relationship between the state and the ulama (religious scholars) regarding authority in religious matters was defined in Islam, irrespective of how this is explained in the studies below. Additionally, the events of the mihna contributed to the further crystallization of Islamic religious thought. Eventually, the Sunnite schools of law (madhahib) came to profess the uncreatedness of the Qurʾan, with Ashʿarism providing a standard Sunnite formulation of this theological stance. Succinctly stated, this standard Sunnite stance is that the Qurʾan is God’s eternal uncreated Word; proponents of the createdness of the Qurʾan, on the other hand, also believe that the Qurʾan is God’s Word, but that it was created in time and formulated such that 7th-century Arabs could understand its eternal message. To understand the implications of the two stances, recall that historical events are mentioned in the Qurʾan, like the battle of Badr (624 CE). Belief in the Qurʾan as God’s eternal Word suggests that the battle of Badr and its outcome were predetermined, whereas the latter position implies indeterminism—a debate known in Christianity as predestination versus free will. The chronology of events that, taken together, constitute the mihna, is generally clear. In 826, al-Maʾmun had a herald announce that there would be no protection for anyone who spoke positively about the first Umayyad caliph Muʿawiya. One year later, in 827, al-Maʾmun declared ʿAli ibn Abi Talib to be the best of all Companions of the Prophet (tafdil ʿAli), and he announced that the Qurʾan was created (khalq al-qurʾan). Some six years later, and four months before his sudden death, the caliph introduced by way of a number of letters the mihna proper to enforce the createdness of the Qurʾan doctrine. Initially, al-Maʾmun personally interrogated seven leading jurisconsults (fuqahaʾ). Continuing a systematic approach, al-Maʾmun then ordered his governor in Baghdad to interrogate larger groupings of ulama. To further broaden the scope of acceptance, al-Maʾmun ordered all court officials (judges, witnesses) throughout the empire to first declare the createdness of the Qurʾan before performing their duties; those who refused disqualified themselves. However, al-Maʾmun suddenly died four months after the beginning of the mihna. The two succeeding caliphs, al-Muʿtasim (r. 833–842) and al-Wathiq (r. 842–847), continued the policy with varying degrees of intensity, threatening at times opponents to the doctrine with whipping or execution. All told, the mihna lasted about fifteen years and was ended in either 849 or 851/2 by the caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861), who officially proclaimed the exact opposite doctrine—the uncreatedness of the Qurʾan—which, as noted before, remains up to today an integral part of Sunnite Islam.

General Overviews

The mihna has been studied from many perspectives and, as indicated in some of the annotations in this article, there are still more to be studied; the last word about the mihna has not been spoken yet, and the debate remains a very lively one. Most works on the mihna emphasize the question why: Why did al-Maʾmun focus on the doctrine of the createdness of the Qurʾan, and why did he introduce an inquisition to enforce acceptance of this doctrine? Most general histories tend to adopt, either directly or indirectly, the too simplistic thesis that the rationalist Muʿtazilites were behind the mihna—despite the fact that Van Ess 1967a (cited under Theological Aspects) very cogently showed decades ago that al-Maʾmun was not a Muʿtazilite proper. At once, however, all studies do approach the mihna as a defining moment in the roles of caliph versus ulama. The list that follows contains general histories that have more than average to say about the mihna. ʿAbd al-Qadir 1939 is included here as one representative of Arabic language works. Hodgson 1974 is a good example of how the mihna is usually presented in most textbooks. Hinds 1998 (EI2) is a must for every student of the topic and offers the standard account of the mihna succinctly summarizing the most important events and interpretations. Cooperson 2005 and Melchert 2006, both biographies, should be used alongside each other because they offer contrasting perspectives; both (in addition to Cooperson 2000) also give very good overviews of current secondary literature.

  • ʿAbd al-Qadir, Muhammad Subayh. Al-Maʾmūn. Cairo, Egypt, 1939.

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    Chapter four (pp. 140–150) of a short biography of al-Maʾmun discusses the mihna, with standard arguments used to assert that the caliph introduced the mihna because he was a Muʿtazilite.

  • Cooperson, Michael. Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Maʾmūn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511497469E-mail Citation »

    Presents a very succinct and clear summary of the views found in the secondary literature regarding the reasons for the mihna (pp. 34–40).

  • Cooperson, Michael. Al-Maʾmūn. Makers of the Muslim World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2005.

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    Provides a good overview of the literature while discussing the mihna within the context of a biography of its initiator, al-Maʾmun (pp. 115–128).

  • Hinds, Martin. “Miḥna.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Vol. 7. Edited by C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs and Ch. Pellat, 2–6. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    An astute summary of the most important events and interpretations; far more than an encyclopedic entry, and difficult for someone just starting with the topic. Nonetheless, well worth the effort to study after acquainting oneself with other general works.

  • Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Vol. 1, The Classical Age of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

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    A succinct discussion of the Miḥna as a struggle between the rationalist Muʿtazilites versus the literalist Hadith scholars (pp. 389–391).

  • Melchert, Christopher. Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal. Makers of the Muslim World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A good synopsis of the secondary literature on the mihna, discussed from the purview of its most celebrated victim, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, with due attention to the hagiographical tradition (pp. 8–16).

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