Arabic Thought and Its Place in History/Chapter V

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Arabic Thought and Its Place in History by De Lacy O'Leary
Chapter V. The Mu‘tazilites

When the Aristotelian philosophy was first made known to the Muslim world it was received almost as a revelation supplementing the Qur’an. At that time it was very imperfectly understood and the discrepancies between it and orthodox theology were not perceived. Thus the Qur’an and Aristotle were read together and regarded as supplementing one another in perfect good faith, but inevitably the conclusions, and still more perhaps the methods, of Greek philosophy began to act as a powerful solvent on the traditional beliefs.

Maqrizi refers to the Mu‘tazilites as seizing with avidity on the books of the philosophers, and certainly now new difficulties begin to appear as well as the two great problems which had been prominent at the beginning of the second century—the eternity of the Qur’an and the question of free will. The new difficulties were especially concerned with the qualities of God and, later, with the Qur’anic promise of the beatific vision. The problem of the qualities of God is very closely parallel to the earlier difficulty as to the eternity of the Qur’an, indeed it appears as an enlargement of it. Christian theologians educated in the methods of Greek philosophy had already debated this matter, and in their hands it had taken the form of the question, "how many, and what, attributes are compatible with the unity of God?" If God's wisdom, whether expressed in the Qur’an or not expressed, were eternal there was something which God possessed, and consequently something other than God which was equal to him in eternity and was not created by him, so that it could not be said that God was alone and that all other things proceeded from him as their cause as the eternal quality always was side by side with God, and so Wasil b. ‘Ata declared "he who affirms an eternal quality beside God, affirms two gods." But this applies equally to all qualities, justice, mercy, etc., and, as was suggested by the study of Aristotle, all the categories, all that could be predicated of God as subject, were either created by God and so were not essential and eternal attributes, or else were external things equal with God.

The second generation of Mu‘tazilites, of those who begin to show direct acquaintance with Greek philosophy, begins with Abu l-Hudayl al- Allaf of Basra (d. 226 A.H.), who lived at the time when Greek philosophy was beginning to be studied with great ardour and was received without question. He admits the attributes of God and regards them as eternal, but treats them on lines very similar to those employed by the Christians in dealing with the divine hypostases, that is to say, they are not external things possessed by God but modes or phases of the divine essence. The will of God for example, he treats as a mode of knowledge, that is to say that God wills what is good is equivalent to saying that God knows it to be good. But in dealing with the will we must distinguish between (a) that which exists in place, as the moral rules in God's commandments to men, for there could be no will against theft until the creation of things which could be stolen; in such case the will exists in time and is created, for it depends upon a created thing: and (b) that which exists not in place and without an object to which the will refers, as when God willed to create before the thing to be created existed. In man the inner volition is free, but the outer acts are not free; sometimes they are controlled by external forces in the body, or even outside the body, and sometimes they are controlled by the inner volition. Aristotle speaks of the universe as existing from eternity, but the Qur’an refers to its creation, yet these are not inconsistent: we must suppose that it existed eternally, but in perfect quiescence and stillness, as it were latent and potential rather than actual, and without those qualities which appear in the categories of logic and are to us the only known terms of existence. Creation meant that God brought in movement so that things began to exist in time and space, and the universe comes to an end when it returns again to the state of absolute rest in which it was at the beginning. Men can distinguish between good and evil by the light of reason, for good and evil have objective characters which can be recognised so that our knowledge of this difference does not depend only on God's revelation: but no man can know anything about God but by the medium of revelation which is given principally for this purpose.

Ibrahim b. Sayar an-Nazzam (d. 231), the next great Mu‘tazilite leader was a devoted student of the Greek philosophers and an encyclopædic writer. In this he was typical of the earlier Arabic philosophers whose endeavour was to apply Greek science to the interpretation of life and nature generally, an aim which necessarily tended to produce encyclopædic compilations rather than original studies in any one field of knowledge. Already the Mu‘tazilites had reached the position that good and evil represent objective realities and that God, knowing the good does not will that which is contrary to it; but an-Nazzam presses this further and asserts that God can do nothing in the creature save what is for its good and is in itself just. To this the objection was raised that in such case God's own acts are determined and are not free. An-Nazzam replied that he admitted this determination, not in action but in potentiality as God is restricted by his own nature. He attempted to reproduce the ancient doctrine that the soul is the form of the body, as had already been asserted by Aristotle, but he misunderstood the terminology employed and represents the soul as of the same shape as the body. This implies that the soul is a very subtile kind of substance permeating the whole body in the same way as butter permeates milk, or as oil permeates the sesame: both soul and body are equal in size and alike in shape. Freedom of the will is peculiar to God and man, all other created things are subject to necessity. God created all things at once in remote eternity, but reserved them in a state of quiescence so that they may be described as "concealed," and then projected them into active existence at successive intervals.

The next great Mu‘tazilite leader was Bishr b. Mu‘tamir (d. 226 circ.) in whose work we find a more definite attempt to apply philosophical speculation to the practical needs of Islam. In the case of free will he enters directly into the question of how far external influences limit freedom of the will and so diminish responsibility. Infants cannot be condemned to eternal punishment because they have no responsibility, having never exercised free will. Unbelievers, however, are condemned to punishment because, although they have not the help of revelation, it is possible for them to know that there must be a God, and only one God, by the light of reason. In dealing with actions and their moral values we have to consider not only one agent and one object, but often a series, the act being transmitted from one to the other so that each of the intervening objects becomes the agent to the next object. This serial connection he termed "begetting" (tawullud).

Ma‘mar b. Abbad as-Sulami (d. 220) describes God as creating substances but not accidents, so that he produced a kind of universal matter common to all existing things and to this matter or essence the accidents are added, some produced by a force inherent in the essence created, others by free will on the part of the creature. Following the neo-Platonic commentators on Aristotle he treats the attributes of God as purely negative, so that God is unknowable by man. In the case of wisdom or knowledge, that which is known must either be identical with God, or external to him: if God is the agent who knows and that which is known as object is also himself, there is a distinction between God the agent and God the object which implies two persons, and this is subversive of the divine unity: but if God is the agent and knows something external to himself, that knowledge depends on the external object, and God therefore is not absolute but in some sense dependent on something other than himself. Hence the attributes of God cannot be such as the positive qualities which exist in man, but only the negation of those which are distinctively human and dependent: we can only say that he is infinite, meaning unlimited in space, or eternal as unlimited in time, or other like terms negative of the known things which can be predicated of man. The general tendency of Ma‘mar's teaching is distinctly pantheistic: partly this is due to the logical development of a tendency already inherent in the neo-Platonic doctrine with which all Arabic thought was now becoming saturated, and partly it was due to oriental influences which were now beginning to appear in Islam.

Ma‘mar's pantheism was more fully developed by Tumameh b. al-Ashras (d. 213) who treats the world as indeed created by God, but created according to a law of nature so that it is the expression of a force latent in God and not due to an act of volition. Tumameh entirely deserts al-Allaf's attempt to reconcile the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter with the teaching of the Qur’an, and quite frankly states that the universe is eternal like God. This is by no means the last word in Islamic pantheism, but its subsequent development rather belongs to the doctrines of the extremer Shi‘ite sects and to Sufism.

Reverting to an-Nazzam, the great leader of the middle age of the Mu‘tazilites, we find his teaching continued by his pupils Ahmad b. Habit, Fadl al-Hudabi, and ‘Amr b. Bakr al-Jahiz. On the theological side all the Mu‘tazilites admitted the eternal salvation of good Muslims, and most agreed that unbelievers would receive eternal punishment: but there were differences of view as to those who were believers but died unrepentant in sin. For the most part the Mu‘tazilites took the lax view that these would be favourably treated as against the rigorist opinion which reserved eternal salvation to good Muslims, an opinion which appeared amongst the stricter believers during the ‘Umayyad period. The two first named of an-Nazzam's pupils, however, introduced a new theory entirely repugnant to orthodox Islam, though familiar to the extremer Shi‘ite sects, that those neither decisively good nor absolutely bad pass by transmigration into other bodies until they finally deserve either salvation or damnation. With these two thinkers also we are brought into contact with another problem which now began to present itself to Islam, the doctrine of the "beatific vision." Islam generally had expected the vision of God to be the chief of the rewards enjoyed in paradise, but the treatment of the attributes of God had been so definitely against the anthropomorphic ideas expressed in the Qur’an that it became difficult to explain what could be meant by "seeing God." Ahmad and Fadl dealing with this subject deny that men ever will or can see God; the beatific vision can at most mean that they are brought face to face with the "Agent Intellect" which is an emanation from the First Cause, and "seeing" in such a connection must of course mean something quite different from what we understand as vision.

‘Amr b. Bakr al-Jahir (d. 255), the third of an-Nazzam's pupils mentioned above, may be regarded as the last of the middle period of the Mu‘tazilites. He was an encyclopædic writer according to the fashion of the time and wrote on literature, theology, logic, philosophy, geography, natural history, and other subjects (cf. Masudi viii. 33, etc.) To free will he gives rather a new bearing. The will he regards as simply a manner of knowing and so as an accident of knowledge; a voluntary act he defines as one known to its agent. Those who are condemned to the fire of hell do not suffer eternally by it, but are changed by its purification. The term "Muslim" must be taken to include all who believe that God has neither form or body, since the attribution of a human form to God is the essential mark of the idolater, that he is just and wills no evil, and that Muhammad is his prophet. Substance he treats as eternal, accidents are created and variable.

We have now reached the third stage of the history of the Mu‘tazilites, that which marks their decline. During this latter period they divide into two schools, that of Basra giving its attention mainly to the attributes of God, that of Baghdad being chiefly occupied with the more purely philosophical discussion of what is meant by an existing thing.

The Basrite discussions received their final form in the dispute between al-Jubbay (d. 303) and his son Abu Hashim (d. 321). The latter held that the attributes of God are distinct modes of being, we know the essence under such varying modes or conditions, but they are not states, nor are they thinkable apart from the essence, though they are distinct from it but do not exist apart from it. Against this his father objected that these subjective attributes are only names and convey no concept. The attributes are thus asserted to be neither qualities nor states so as to imply subject or agent, but they are inseparably united with the essence.

Against all views of this sort the orthodox adhered, and still adhere to the opinion that God has real qualities. Those who laid emphasis on this in opposition to the Mu‘tazilite speculations are commonly known as Sifatites (sifat, qualities), but they admit that, as God is not like a man, the qualities attributed to him in the Qur’an are not the same as those qualities bearing the same names which are referred to men, and it is not possible for us to know the real import of the qualities attributed to God.

A more pronounced recoil against the Mu‘tazilite speculations appears in Abu ‘Abdullah b. Karram (d. 256) and his followers who were known as Karramites. These returned to a crude anthropomorphism and held that God not only has qualities of precisely the same kind as a man may have, but that he actually sits on a throne, etc., taking in plain literal sense all the statements made in the Qur’an.

The Mu‘tazilite school of Baghdad concerned itself mainly with the metaphysical question—"what is a thing?" It was admitted that "thing" denotes a concept which could be known and could serve as subject to a predicate. It does not necessarily exist, for existence is a quality added to the essence: with this addition the essence becomes an entity (mawjud), without this addition it is a non-entity (ma‘dum) but still has substance and accident, so that God creates by adding the single attribute of existence.

The whole course of Mu‘tazilite speculation shows the influence of Greek philosophy as applied to Muslim theology, but the influence is for the most part indirect. The ideas of Aristotle, as the course of speculation projected to the fore-front the problems with which he had dealt in times past, were received through a Syriac Christian medium, for the most part imperfectly understood and somewhat modified by the emphasis which Christian controversy had given to certain particular aspects. More or less directly prompted by the Mu‘tazilite controversy we have three other lines of development: in the first place we have the "philosophers" as the name is used by the Arabic writers, meaning those students and commentators who based their work directly on the Greek text or at least on the later and better versions. In their hands philosophical enquiry took a somewhat changed direction as they began to understand better the real meaning of what Aristotle had taught. In the second place we have the orthodox theology of al-Ash‘ari, al-Ghazali, and others, which represents Muslim theological science as modified and partly directed by Aristotelian philosophy, consciously endeavouring to make a working compromise between that philosophy and Muslim theology. The older Mu‘tazilite tradition came to an end in the time of al-Ash‘ari: men who felt the force of philosophical questions either adopted the orthodox scholasticism of al-Ash‘ari and those who came after him, or followed the course of the philosophers and drift away from the traditional beliefs of Islam altogether. In the third place we have the Sufi movement, in which we find neo-Platonic elements mingled with others from the east, from India and Persia. The Mu‘tazilites proper come to an end with the fourth century A.H.