Mu’tazilites: The Defenders of Reason in Islam
May 23, 2023

Ahmad Farouk Musa || 23 May 2023

“Verily, We did offer the trust [of reason and volition] to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it. Yet man took it upfor, verily, he has always been prone to be most wicked, most foolish”.

[Surah Al-Ahzab, 33:72]


Qur’anic exegetes have proposed various meanings for the word ‘trust’ in the above verse. Perhaps the most accurate definition—as per Muhammad Asad’s explanation in his commentary ‘The Message of the Quran’—is ‘reason’, ‘intellect’ or ‘the faculty of volition’. Thus, it refers primarily to the superiority of intellect or the force of reason that enables that volition. Hence, ‘reason’ or ‘intellect’ is what differentiates us from all other celestial beings, including the angels.

The angels were once commanded to prostrate before Adam because of the superiority of reason bestowed unto no other creation but the creatures called humans. In this regard, Muhammad Asad, deeply influenced by the views of Imam Muhammad Abduh, underscores the importance of ‘reason’ in his debate surrounding the following verse:

“And He imparted unto Adam the names of all things; then He brought them within the ken of the angels and said: “Declare unto Me the names of these [things], if what you say is true.”

[Surah Al-Baqarah, 2: 31]

The term ‘ism’ (name), according to Arabic philologists, has the connotation of “imparting knowledge (about something)”. According to Muhammad Asad, it has the philosophical equivalent of “concept”.

The subsequent verses indicate that by virtue of the acquisition of knowledge in the form of a “name” or concept of thinking, man is therefore, in some cases, higher in status than angels. “Name” is a symbolic expression of the formidability in defining an expression that embodies the unique characteristics of humankind, which entitles them, in the words of the Qur’an, to become God’s vicegerent on earth.

Accordingly, the mission and aspirations of the Islamic Renaissance Front is to rejuvenate or renew Muslim thinking, that is, to champion the superiority of reason or simply ‘the rise of reason’. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that it manifests a form of rethinking and rejuvenation as embodied in the Mu’tazilites’(Rationalists) tradition of rationalism in the modern world of Islam.

However, an unavoidable question is, what about ‘iman’ or faith? Is reason required to experience it? On this point, Imam Muhammad Abduh opines that faith is incomplete without reason. In his view, reason is the only source of faith. Indeed, it is thanks to reason that man can recognise and appreciate the signs of Divine power, not through passive acceptance.

 The Challenges

Indeed, all the challenges we face now are the same challenges the past reformers faced, and the cause is the same: intellectual stagnation. A decline in rationalism amongst modern Muslims has led to the decay of the Islamic world today.

Sadly, once upon a time, we were a great civilisation when the West was still in the dark ages. We could boast of leading scientists, physicists, mathematicians, chemists, astronomers, physicians, and philosophers in the Muslim world. Our achievements in many fields of knowledge were established at the House of Wisdom in the Rationalists era. Alas, all of that is now history and we can only reminisce about our past achievements.

The Rationalists at that time believed that one of the ultimate traits of God was justice. This constitutes one of the five principles (usul al-khamsah) of the Rationalists’ doctrine. Since God is Just, man must therefore use their reason to differentiate between right and wrong as he endeavours to uphold justice. Moreover, for the Rationalists, being most Just, God will not respond arbitrarily to what is good and bad. Man will receive God’s response, be it the blessings of heaven or the torture of hellfire, as a result of the choices he makes and the actions he undertakes based on his own freewill.

This explanation conflicts with what can be extracted from the works of the Ash’arites (Traditionalists). For the Traditionalists, God is most Compelling; with His strength, God may cast someone who is pious and just into the hellfire and place someone who is cruel and evil into heaven. Why? Because that is what God who is the most Compelling and the most Powerful has the power to do. In contrast, the Rationalists believe that God is Just and not a dictator. In a nutshell, this is the theological conundrum that we have inherited for generations.

How Does God Interact with Us?

God who is Most Compelling reveals His message to us primarily in two ways—either through His Revealed Book or through the Book of the Universe. In His Revealed Book sent down to us, i.e. the Qur’an, is the verse:

“Verily, this Qur’an shows the way to all that is most upright, and gives the believers who do good deeds the glad tiding that theirs will be a great reward”

[Surah Al-Isra’, 17:9]

However, we often forget that God also speaks to us through the universe He created. Surah al-Imran states:

“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed messages for all who are endowed with insight, [and] who remember God when they stand, and when they sit, and when they lie down to sleep, and [thus] reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: “O our Sustainer! Thou hast not created [aught of] this without meaning and purpose. Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Keep us safe, then, from suffering through fire!”

[Surah Al-Imran, 3:190-191]

Based on this verse, Imam Muhammad Abduh concludes that someone could not possibly have faith in God other than through mobilising his mind and intellect to think about the creations of God the Almighty.

Mu’tazilites believe that God and the firmaments of His creation could only operate in accordance with rational rules that He himself has established. It was this view that spurred the Muslims to explore the world and attain the pinnacle of scientific excellence in various fields.

The universal realm operates through a system that is determinate in as much as it is orderly, where everything functions in an organised manner, from the smallest atom to the biggest planets and stars that revolve in their respective orbits.  All of them revolve neatly in accordance with divine natural rules.  All these natural rules are entirely pure, and many of them have mathematical properties. For instance, water will boil at 100°C and it will freeze at 0°C. Anything that is thrown from above will land on the ground due to the pull of gravity.  All of these are the natural laws of the universe created by God. Only when we study these natural laws and universal rule can we understand natural phenomena based on scientific knowledge, knowledge which originates from God Himself. By pursuing and equipping ourselves with such scientific knowledge, we may shape a new civilisation.

The Rationalists were aware of all these natural laws. They diligently pursued a wealth of knowledge from the East and the West, translated scientific ideas and improved upon them without prejudice—whether such knowledge was obtained from believers or agnostics. As a result, they advanced in all fields of knowledge which culminated in establishing the House of Wisdom. They were the people who held to the rational theory that everything that happens must be in accordance with the natural laws determined by God, which in modern language translates to the word – science.

In contrast, Muslims influenced by the Traditionalists’ doctrine assume that God who is most Compelling can do even what conflicts with the natural law. Simply because He is the God who is the most Compelling, they believe that His power does not constrain Him to the natural laws that He created—in the same manner that He can cast someone pious into the hellfire or place an evil person into heaven.

It is this kind of belief that creates shamans claiming to perform all sorts of otherworldly surgeries to remove gallstone, not to mention a litany of spiritual surgeries. Erroneous beliefs such as these fan the development of various pseudosciences. Using the incantations of magical spells, charlatans claim that because God is the most Compelling, He may do whatever He pleases as He is not bound by the laws of nature.

The Modern Problem

This issue of pseudoscience is but one of the problems that impede Muslims’ ability to advance in the field of science. Sadly, it has also spilled into the field of politics and statecraft. The assumption that the Qur’an is to be implemented without any consideration of context or historicity is what robs it of its dynamism to address compelling issues of this age such as fundamental human rights, democracy, and pluralism.

Indeed, a rigid and literal interpretation of the Qur’an entraps Muslims in the utopian Medinan State concept. To use Tariq Ramadan’s concept from his book “Radical Reform”, it creates an obsession with a model while blinding us to its underlying principles. In fact, for us to advance and prove that Islam is a religion suited to and in line with fundamental human rights and the modern concepts of nationhood, we have to accept that the religion of Islam concurs with sound logic.

Unless we manage to achieve unanimity in giving reason and intellect its due, neither can we face the shifts of time and the various challenges of the era, nor can we free ourselves from the clutches and burdens of the past generation. This is an essential step as we venture to rebuild our once glorious civilisation.

The Solution

“Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves”

[Surah Al-Ra’d, 13: 11]

Muhammad Asad interprets this verse to show how Revelation operates via cause and effect (sunatullah). The Austrian scholar claims that since Revelation can impact the life of both the individual and the community, the rise and fall of a civilisation is contingent on the moral standards of humankind as a result of change “from within themselves”.

Accordingly, Muslims cannot expect change to happen automatically by sitting idly and praying for a miracle. It is a mistake to think that every matter on Earth is predetermined such that any attempt to alter the course of events is futile. As the Traditionalists lament: No matter how hard we try, we cannot change destiny. However, by resigning themselves to the supposedly inexorable ‘pull of fate’, Muslims are bound to become a backward people, with mediocre contribution, if any, to science and technology.

The earliest generation of Muslims did not await with forbearance the arrival of al-Mahdi to rescue and lead them. Not surprisingly, the renowned Tunisian sociologist and historian Ibn Khaldun sneered at the concept of the Mahdi (Islam’s Awaited Messiah) in his ‘Muqaddimah’ (Prolegomena). He adamantly rejected any possibility of such an event taking place. This sort of belief, in his view, is counterproductive; it turns Muslims into a passive, unremarkable people.

The Qur’anic phenomenon shook Arabia and freed its people from the shackles of erroneous beliefs. Within the span of a few decades, the Qur’an spread its worldview across the Arabian borders and gave birth to the first ever ideological community in history through its insistence on reason and knowledge. It enthused its followers to disperse around the world to uncover the natural laws. The newly acquired sense of curiosity spurred research and scientific discovery that catapulted the Islamic world to its zenith.

The culture pioneered by the Rationalists infiltrated middle-age European thought in many ways and through many paths. It sparked a revolution in the European culture known as the Renaissance, ultimately giving rise to the current “scientific age”.

Undoubtedly, only by reigniting the culture of reasoning and research based on science and technology can we reclaim the success and glory of our predecessors.

Dato’ Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa MD, MMed (Surgery), PhD (Surgery), is the Founder and Director at Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), a think-tank advocating reform and renewal, and the empowerment of the intellect.

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Updated version: 2.39-20231022