Islamic Studies Mu`tazilites
Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0138


The Muʼtazilis are of theologians who argued for the importance of reason in religion and theology. Historiographers usually consider the founder of this group to be Wasil Ibn ʻAtaʼ (d. 748), who was a member of the Qadarite group led by al-Hasan al-Basri (d. c. 728). With the rise of the Abbasid dynasty, Muʼtazila became an important school of thought and soon divided into two distinct schools: the Basran school under the leadership of Abu al-Hudhayl al-ʻAllaf (d. 841) and the Baghdadi Muʼtazilite school under the leadership of Bishr b. al-Muʻtamir (d. 825). The two schools had different stances on a number of theological issues, noticeably in their adoption of the Greek atomism theory. According to ʻAbd al-Jabbar, atoms are the smallest constituent components of all bodies. Muʼtazilites also differed in their use of the al-aslah concept, which means that God does what is the best (al-aslah) for every human. At the end of the 10th century the Buhashimiyya school, under the leadership of Abu ʻAbdallah al-Basri and his student al-Qadi ʻAbd al-Jabbar, emerged from the Basran school as a result of the conflict around Abu Hashim’s theory of ahwal (modes). (This was part of an ongoing debate about the ontological status of the divine attributes.) The Muʼtazilites arranged their theological discussion first under their famous five principles (attributed to the 10th–11th century Basran scholar ʻAbd al-Jabbar” divine unity, divine justice, the promise of reward and threat of punishment, the “intermediate [nonjudgmental] position” regarding grave sinners, and the importance of commanding good and prohibiting evil). They dabbled in many other fields, such as cosmology, theodicy, ethics, and refutations of other sects and religions, and in their discussion of Imamates they also touched upon political issues. This can be seen in the encyclopedic work of ʻAbd al-Jabbar al-Mughni. This twenty-volume work was discovered in the 1950s and was published in Egypt between 1960 and 1969, sparking renewed interest in the Muʼtazilis. It is considered the most important surviving work of the Muʼtazila. See also the separate article on theology.

General Overviews

For a general overview of the Muʼtazilites we need to go back to the sources of the two Muʼtazili schools, the Basrian and the Baghdadi. The best source for the Basran school is al-Mughni of al-Qadi ʻAbd al-Jabbar (see Peters 1976). For a more detailed overview of different theories of the Baghdadi school and the early period in general, see Ess 1992–1996, The Flowering of Muslim Theology (Ess 2006), and the French article on the history of the Muʼtazila (Ess 1979). For the development of the Mutʼtzila schools, their downfall, and their revival in the modern period, consult Schmidtke 1998. For the account of different Muʼtzili teachers and the genealogy of the different tabaqat, Diwald-Wilzar 1961 is the best source.

  • Diwald-Wilzer, Susanna, ed. Die Klassen der Muʼtaziliten, von Ahmad ibn Yahya ibn al-Murtada. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1961.

    Originally published in 1902. An edition of the important Arabic source Tabaqat al-Muʼtazila by Ibn al-Murtada (d. 840). Part of a larger work of Ibn al-Murtada known as Al-Munya wa al-Amal fi Sharh al-Milal wa al-Nihal, edited by Muhammad Jawwad Mashkur (Beirut, 1979).

  • Ess, Josef van. “Une lecture à rebours de l’histoire du Muʼtazilisme.” Revue des Études Islamiques 47 (1979): 19–69.

    A historical evaluation of the rise and development of the Muʼatzilites. For detailed information on its early period, consult Ess 1992–1996.

  • Ess, Josef van. Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra. Eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam. 6 vols. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1992–1996.

    This six-volume work is the most detailed overview of the historical and theological development in the first three Islamic centuries. These volumes are the sources for studying early Muʼtazilites up to the end of the Mihna (crises) period. Volume 6 provides different translations (into German) of many text fragments of this early period, most noticeably translations of fragments from some works of al-Nazzam.

  • Ess, Josef van. The Flowering of Muslim Theology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    A series of four lectures given by Ess at the Institute of De Monde in Paris in 1998. Situates Muʼtazilite theology within early Islamic theology and concentrates on it having established Islamic scientific thought by introducing the atomist theory.

  • Peters, J. R. T. M. God’s Created Speech: A Study in the Speculative Theology of the Mu’tazili Qad- l-Quddt Abu al-Hasan ʻAbd al- Jabbar ibn Ahmad al-Hamadani. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1976.

    An excellent work for surveying the Basian Muʼtazili school based on the recently discovered twenty-volume work al-Mughni written by al-Qadi ʻAbd al-Jabbar al-Hamadhani. See Theology.

  • Schmidtke, Sabine. “Neuere Forschungen Zur Muʼtazila Unter Besonderer Berücksichtigung Der Späteren Muʼtazila Ab Dem 4./10. Jahrhundert.” Arabica 45.3 (1998): 379–408.

    DOI: 10.1163/157005898774230419

    Presents a good historical overview of the Muʼtazilites from the group’s beginning to its downfall. It concentrates, however, on later Muʼtazilite development and provides some valuable information on its 19th-century revival.

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