In a recent article I defined a Zaydi as “a progressive, moderate, rational muslim”. I declined to add “who follows Imam Zaid and other Zaidi Imams” because many Zaidis today seem to have moved away from following an Imam, and seem to have faith in a (properly administered) democratic political system with Zaydi Imams providing some kind of religious leadership. It is hard to find a Zaidi today who wants to entrust the leadership of his/her country to a single individual, even a Hashemite individual. It is also hard to find a Zaidi today who thinks Zaidis are locked into the judgements made by Imams in medieval Medina and Yemen. Since Zaidism is open to ijtihad, the opinions of Zaidi Imams centuries ago are not binding on contemporary Zaidis, rather they are a source of inspiration. To see my justification for my definition of Zaidism, refer to the earlier post, “The Question of Zaydi Identity”.
For the purpose of this blog, I think it would be useful to now define what we mean when we say “Sunni” and “Mu’tazili”as well, as these terms seem to mean different things to different readers. A 12 Imamer is easy enough to identify, but not so a sunni or mu’tazili. Part of the problem here is that, in the past, some Sunnis were mu’tazilis, while there are sunnis who consider mu’tazilis as unbelievers, and mu’tazilis who are opposed to sunni theology. To further complicate the definitions, there are sunnis who are “pro ahlul bait” and sunnis who are “anti-ahlul bait”. The same goes for mu’tazilis.
Here is the Wikipedia definition of a sunni:
“Sunni is a broad term derived from Sunna, which is an Arabic word that means "habit" or "usual practice". TheMuslim usage of this term refers to the sayings and living habits of Muhammad. In its full form, this branch of Islam is referred to as "Ahlus-Sunnah Wa Al-Jama'ah" (literally, "People of the Sunnah and the congregation"). Anyone claiming to follow the Sunnah and can show that they have no action or belief against the Prophetic Sunnah can consider him or herself to be a Sunni Muslim.
Sunni theological traditions:
1.Athari , or "textualism" is derived from the Arabic word athar, meaning, literally "remnant" and also referring to "narrations".
2.Ash'ari, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (873–935). This theology was embraced by Muslim scholars such as al Ghazali.
3.Maturidiyyah, founded by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 944). Maturidiyyah was a minority tradition until it was accepted by the Turkish tribes of Central Asia]”
Imam Rassi Society has quoted two other definitions of Sunnis in an earlier post, i.e :
“The adalat (complete reliability)of the sahaba (companions) is the hallmark of the sunnis.” And “The belief in the consensus of the sahaba” is a hallmark of the sunnis.
He adds: The criteria of determining who is a Sunni and who isn't has changed so many times that it is difficult to say who is and who isn't."
Let’s compare Sunnis with the definition of Zaidis I came up with:
Are sunnis progressive? I think not, because they have closed the door on ijtihad, and they accept the status quo, even if it be a tyrannical ruler. Are sunnis moderate? I think not, because when compared with the full range of views including 12 Imamer, Zaidi and Sunni, their views are at the extreme, with the Zaidi views being the medium, and the 12er views being at the other extreme. Are sunnis rational? I think their rejection of mu’tazilism is a rejection of rationalism, and their hypothesis that the Prophet’s descendants do not have a special role, and the sahaba do, is irrational.
Sunnis can be identified as Muslims who are not progressive, not moderate, and not rational. (sorry Sunnis, but you are welcome to disagree in the comments section).
What about mu-tazilis?
As I have pointed out earlier in this blog, the term “mu’tazili” was given to the “People of Divine Justice” by their opponents, the upholders of Qadar (pre-determinism). The term is used in sunni theological books when they are referring to a group of scholars they disagree with. It is not a name that particular Muslims adopted for themselves, and not a name that Zaidis adopted for themselves, therefore Zaidis don't refer to themselves as Mu'tazili as such.
The views which have come to be known as “mu’tazilism” do not include views on the issue of Imamate. However, they include a rational perspective on theological issues, which Zaidis uphold.
Can sunnis be mu’tazili?
As Imam Rassi Society points out, it was once acceptable for a “sunni” to hold mu’tazili views, but it is no longer acceptable (from the sunnis’ point of view).
Imam Rassi Society says:
“The mutazilites were considered Sunnis at some point before being considered heterodoxical.”
Pro Ahlul Bait agrees with this view. He says:
“ Mutazilla cannot be Sunni because a lot of their opinions are not substantiated by ahadith….What caused the Ashari to be part of the Ahlus Sunnah was because Abu Hasan al Ashari backed his opinions through ahadith.”
An examination of “fiqhul akbar” (compiled by students of Abu Hanifa) would suggest that the Mu’tazili views had already been rejected by the Hanifi “ahlus sunna” shortly after the death of Abu Hanifah, or during his lifetime. Since that time, any sunnis who adopt Mu’tazili views are considered wrong (fasiq) by sunni leaders and scholars. Sunnis who adopt mu’tazili views are also considered wrong by Shi-ites, because they have not accepted the Imamate of the Ahlul bait along with mu’tazilism. These individuals can not be labelled as Sunnis or Shi-ites. Whatever they are, they do not have their own label yet. However, some of them, like Pro ahlul bait (and his pro ahlul bait sheikhs?), would like to reclaim the title of “sunni” for themselves, and redefine the genuine sunnis as “salafis”. Pro ahlul bait writes:
“As for Sunnis or wahabis who cannot tolerate the Mutazilla view, they are Nasibis in reality. Anyway, I prefer you to use the term Salafi or Wahabi (for them) instead of Sunni. These people (sunnis) you come across actually recognize themselves as Salafi more than Sunni.”
The trouble with this idea, though, is that it is not just the salafis who reject mu'tazilism, it is all of the "orthodox" sunni theologians over the centuries. This is something that rationally minded sunnis find difficult to come to terms with.
For the purpose of this blog, then, I define a “mu’tazili” as a Shi-ite individual who, by using reason, agrees with the mu’tazili views as expressed in the Wikipedia page on “mu’tazila”, (and confirmed in the works of the Zaidi Imams), and disagrees with the theological stands provided by the athari, ash-ari and maturidi schools.
If we define a mu’tazili as a Shi-ite rationalist, it is then possible to say that the Zaidi Imams were mu’tazili, and the sunnis who liked the mu’tazili standpoints post Abu Hanifa’s lifetime, but did not support ahlul bait, were not mu’tazilis. There is evidence that the mu’tazili views originated with the ahlul bait, and have been wrongly attributed to some of their followers by historians of Sunni/ Western backgrounds. So, let’s avoid the confusion, and draw a distinct line between Sunnism and mu’tazilism, instead of drawing a line between Zaidism and Mu’tazilism.