At the very beginning of Islamic theological history a group of mutakalliman (the word for theologian in Islamic tradition) in Baghdad and Basra, in an attempt to defend their new religion from external detractors and internal corruption, developed “the first systematic thought-out creed for Islam”; the kalam (theology) called the Mu’tazila.
The Mu’tazila is a rationalist approach to the interpretation of the Qu’ran defending human freedom and positing that reason came before faith; stating that only through the use of the mind were people able to arrive at true faith. They borrowed heavily from Greek philosophical traditions incorporated in their theology through texts brought from Europe and translated into Arabic in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Their creed focused on five points: the divine unity of God; the divine justice of God; the promise and the threat; the intermediate position (who is a Muslim and who is not); and the principle of commanding the good and prohibiting the evil.
During this time – 700 to 1100 A.D. roughly – the Mu’tazila had a symbiotic relationship with the Abbasid Caliphate and together this union of politics and rational thought spawned what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Islam.
“Defenders of Reason in Islam: Mu’tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol”, by Martin, Woodward and Atmaja is about this lost tradition. The book starts by highlighting the greatest Mu’tazilite theologian named Abd al-Jabbar who worked in the 11th century, at the tail end of the period of Mu’tazilite influence (and, not coincidentally, at the end of the Golden Age before the sacking of the House of Wisdom by the Mongols – which is the point most historians use to mark the end of the Golden Age). It then follows on by what could be seen as a mini-revival of the creed in Indonesia in the 20th century among theologians led by Harun Nasution.
There are several things about this book which makes it noteworthy. First, a caveat – this is a theology book. While it touches tangentially on history and politics, it is mainly about a lost theological interpretation of a major world religion. For me, who myself have a degree in theology (albeit Evangelical Christian theology), I found the book both interesting and useful. Theology, as a component of philosophy, defines the way people look at the world around them and interact with nature and each other. For Muslim societies, this has become an existential discussion due to the fundamentalist theological creeds advocated and advanced by certain groups. While Christianity is a reformed religion, thereby making the debates perhaps less existential, I still found the discussions presented in the book eerily familiar.
The major battle at the center of Muslim theology – not unlike in Christian theology in centuries past – has been the inherent tension between reason and tradition; between debate and obedience; between understanding and ritual. In Islam, this battle was fought in ages past between the Mu’tazilite theologians who advanced reason up and against the Ash’arites who advocated for the central role of tradition in the exercise of faith. Due to historical circumstances which we should all learn from (and introduced in this book), the Mu’tazila was banished from Muslim theological debate; leaving only Ash’ari ideas of tradition along a continuum from what we in the west like to call ‘moderate’ Islam on one end to the ‘Salafist’ puritanical traditions which advocate a return to the first three generations after the Prophet (both literally and figuratively).
The defenders of reason appear to have gone silent. Or have they? And why?
“Defenders of Reason in Islam” is an incredibly well researched and nuanced introduction into the Mu’tazila and what could be called neo-Mu’tazila in pre-modern, modern and post-modern Islamic theological debate. A debate that continues to rage, in different languages and through the production of new texts as well as the discovery and digitization of old Mu’tazilite texts like al-Jabbar’s ‘Mughni’, partially recovered from the quiet libraries of Yemen; the internal discussion of how Islam will interact with itself and others in a post-modern, post-colonial world is still ongoing: and unsettled.
This book takes you on a tour of the history of a forgotten theology of rational thought; one that propelled Islam to the pinnacle of civilization during the Golden Age only to paradoxically engender an Islamic Inquisition, and burn itself out in violence to become silent for a millennium. It outlines arcane debates about the nature of God, His role in the world, and the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral and how those relate to human freedom and the limited choices humanity possesses among those things that are possible only according to natural law.
It is a prescient debate as Muslims seek to “recover their own pristine success in world history”; and a discussion on if this can be done while the Mu’tazila remains anathema in the current panoply of Islamic theology.