Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sunni Identity and Mu'tazili Identity: A Zaydi Perspective

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.


  1. What makes the Mu`tazila most superior compared to all other schools is their ability to debate against non-Muslims. Unfortunately today, all the Muslim schools only focus on bashing each other. Our knowledge of non-Muslims is very limited. Do Muslim scholars of today really understand Christian theology ? Do they have a degree in Christian theology or Jewish Theology? Is there any extensive study on Hinduism, Buddhism or Sikhism by Muslim scholars ? However, when it comes to Sunnis focusing on Shiasm or vice versa there is a lot of material found online.
    The Zaydia today say they are superior to Mu'tazila because they believe in imamate. However, in reality the Zaydis are sadly portrayed to be militant Muslims. To the Western media this only helps them show us in negative light. Since the Zaydis became isolated, they should have migrated their schools to the Western nations. Then they could have taken steps further to guide the new generation of Westerns with latest Sciences, and discoveries.
    Here is an example where the Muta'zila are able to prove their superiority in defending Islam.
    Listen from 5:20

    Now the shia might say these Mutazilla stole knowledge from the Imams. If this is he, case where are the Phd holders in Christian or Jewish theology within the Shia scholar? Why don't we have any experts in this field today ? Why are our scholars imitators instead of leaders when it comes to debates ?

  2. Wasil Ibn Ata (ra) wrote authored a book called 1000 Questions and Answers for Zoroastrianism.
    Refer to 2:50

    Do we have modern Shia or Sunni scholar writing books at this level for today's non-Muslims ?

  3. Interesting point Pro ahlul bait. I'm thinking along these lines; many non Muslims are disillusioned with their faiths and open to something different. They look around and consider Islam but are put off by what they see and hear. We don't really need to debate with them about their faiths, as they have already dismissed them, but we need to present Islam in an appealing way. Taking advantage of mu'tazilism, troublesome verses and ahadith, which are frightening away potential new converts, can be reinterpreted in a way that fits with today's more sophisticated societies.... many non muslims are looking for peaceful solutions to the worlds' problems, and Islam needs to be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem. But until we get the salafis under control, with their literal interpretations of some of the harshest components of Muslim texts, there is no hope. I hope we can show the Salafis that there is a good alternative to their miserable sect!

  4. Most of the sites which strongly oppose Islam are linked to extreme Christians. Then other groups copy and paste from them.
    If religious debates are not much in demand then Imam Al Asi tells us to focus on the lastest research in the area of Sciences.

  5. Zaida,

    I think that you still have a problem with your definition of a mutazilite because some of them are clearly not Shi'ite in any sense; that is, they do not believe in the concept of Imamate which is the core belief of all Shi'ite groups. They may not be Sunnis, but neither are they necessarily Shi'i, although some were.

    Although you didn't explicitly say it, I think that what you are also getting at is that the bigger obstacle we have is atheism and agnosticism than other religions and that we should be focusing our energy in that area as well as giving a more accurate picture of Islam. I agree with this assessment. A lot of people don't like his approach to other religions, but the person who has probably had the greatest influence amongst English speakers in this regard is Dr. Nasr and his associates who have produced a lot of intellectually engaging material.

  6. Salaam
    I've read some books by Hossein Nasr. He is a very good writer. I strongly recommend his works to Shias and Sunnis.

    As for Mutazilla, either people can call them non-sunnis and non-shias or they can conclude that its a hybrid between Sunnis and Shias.

  7. Here is an important post I found about the Mutazilla.

    Many great Hanafi Ulama especially between the 4th to the 7th centuries were Mu'tazili in aqidah.
    Due to them being giants in the Hanafi madhab, their views are taken into consideration to a certain extent, however their views could only be adopted in issues that have no connection at all to their Mu'tazili beliefs.
    That is why one would sometimes find Ulama adopting a view mentioned by a Mu'talizi Hanafi, then clarifying that the reason for this acceptance of his view is that this view couldn't be based on his Mu'tazili beliefs, thus it wouldn't matter here whether he is Mu'tazili or not.

    This differentiating -between views that could be based on Mu'tazili though or not- isn't an easy task and is reserved for Ulama well-versed in aqidah as well as fiqh.
    One will find examples of where an alim clearly mentioned that he adopted this view as it couldn't have anything to do with Mu'tazili aqidah, yet was later refuted by another who showed its connection to Mu'tazili belief.
    This is why some prefer not adopting any views proposed by Mu'tazili's.

    It should be remembered, that there is a huge difference between adopting the view of a Hanafi Mu'tazili and adopting the view of a non-Mu'tazili, that happened to reach us due to it being recorded by a Mu'tazili.
    Mukhtar az-Zahidi, a famous Mu'tazili, has in his work "Qunyah" recorded thousands of Hanafi positions held by non-Mu'tazili giants prior to him. His book could be used, as long as the source isn't a mu'tazili.

    As for Zamakhshari, one wouldn't find much fiqhi opinions of his in Hanafi works. He is generally relied upon for his mastery in the Arabic language or at times for views that he has narrated from earlier mashaikh or Imams of the Madhab. His beliefs wouldn't affect these issues.

  8. a few years ago a shaykh had given me a Cd as a Gift,entitled''the 4 Great Imams by Dr.hisham al-awadi''
    today i was listening to the part of Ahmed ibn Hanbal,when it came to his Ordeal,the author was talking about the Mu'tazila,and was saying he wanted to avoid speaking about their beliefs,he was spreading arumour that they were a fitna odf the jews,and was calling them deviants and ''dangerious people''when talking about the different people who supported Makhluq Al-Quran,and how they were killed by the Ummawai caliphs,and abbassi caliphs until Al-Mamun(l.a) had accepted them.all very implicitly,
    i always thought to my self,How can the quran be eternal?Allah is the First and eternity equates that it was always there,if the speech of allah is something he creates,then surely the quran must be created?i think most people know this,but because it was not in the quran,the sunnis were opposed to it,that sounds obscure,sicne many things of theirs and beelfis are not in teh quran,this shwos em they are actively opposed to rational thinking!

    i was also listening to hamza yusuf,and he was telling his followers not to get into such discussions,because the muslims ahd a simple aqidah.

  9. The argument about whether or not the Qur'an is created sounds silly to me, and I am amazed that people were willing to be jailed or tortured because of their passionate view on such a silly argument, which has no bearing on the practical application of Islam to daily life. However, I think the argument about whether or not the Qur'an is to be understood literally or interpreted metaphorically is an important one. Also whether the "hadith" should be relied upon in the same way as the Qur'an. These issues have huge ramifications for how we Muslims practise Islam in the modern world.

  10. I agree,But according to Zaydi doctrine you may not agree with me.Because taqiyah is not allowed in your religion.and you have to suffer for your beleifs.

    i understand that Ahmed ibn hanbal was firm in his shows,and he did not subscribe to our view,because he could not find a place in the quran where ti said ''inna khalaqna al-quran''but instead

    ''''''''إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاه ُُ قُرْآناً عَرَبِيّا ً لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ''

    Inna Ja`alnahu Qur'anaan `Arabiyaan La`allakum Ta`qiluna

    043.003 Lo! We have appointed it a Lecture, in Arabic that haply ye may understand.

    someplaces the root :

    fajaʿalnāhu (فَجَعَلْنَٰهُ) verb is translated as to amke

    others like this wa-ij'ʿal (وَٱجْعَل) verb (5)

    means to appoint.

    he stated if allah had created the quran he would have been specific about it.

    i think it is a matter of words.

    two words with the same meaning.

  11. i think that the aqa'id are the most important thing in our religion.for example we will be judged on our beleifs and not our actions on a more important level.those with the sound doctrine will be in heaven while those with the false doctrine will be in the hell.
    in fact it is the aqa'id wich shape the amal,and without proper understanding of theology we cannot apply the amal.the quran first revealed the aqa'id then the obvouisly islam is a faith of iman and amal are secondary.........

    Wallaho alim.

  12. how do you zaida,believe we should apply islam?

    and do you define modern as western

    or modern as muslim in its own context?

    and if the former,why should we from a religouis obligation subscribe to this ''modern ''view.

    i mean ,a faqih,cannot make a ruling without a evidence.

    and we need evidence to determine that it is binding upon muslims to follow this ''modern world''otherwise criticizing traditonal muslims,will only be out of self desire(al-a3eesh)and not good exhortation(Masiya)

  13. saklam alaykum Proahlulbayt1,is this book still available?if so where can i find it?

    soemtimes i spend my time defending islam against parsism.

    this book will be valuable for our cause :D

    i have just worked on a article on the monothestic origins of all religions

    and this book will be usefull.

    modern day ''neo-Parsis'' openly atatck islam,from a theological pint of view.

    they attack the concept of qadr fo(und within sunnism),and hevane and hell(wich is metaphorical for them).

    plz help


  14. Sister Zaida
    The argument of the Quran being created or uncreated is very important. Please watch those clips I sent you on Mutazilla and Rational Theology. You will see why its so important.
    The reality is us Sunnis were afraid to accept a new madhab and this was our downfall.
    As for Imam Ahmad (ra) suffering for his beliefs, the reality is these stories have been exaggerated to make the Mutazilla look bad. This is just like how the 12rs make up stories of they have suffered in the past for being Shias. The reality is they were a pacifist movement for over 1000 years who did nothing but speak against the sahaba.

    I personally advise you to get into a company of a good scholar. Maybe you should give bayah to Shaykh Ninowy who expert on Sunni, Zaydi and Mutazilli beliefs. Otherwise, your personal views will only lead to confusion and misguidance.
    I've seen the Zaydi material so far. They have not impressed me. Instead they showed me that the Zaydis (right now) are another closed minded and backwards school just our Sunnis and other Shia schools. Maybe this will change in the future.

  15. To Anonymous
    The book by Wasil ibn Ata is a rare collection. Maybe the Zaydis of Yemen might have it.

  16. Also Zaida,i know you get sick of hearing my exhortation A.K.A rethoric,but Allah will not Ask us if we were ''modern''or if we were ''secular''or pleased non-muslims!

    we will be asked on our Hearts,on our faith and our deen,but most importantly the Imam of our time,of course the practice of deen is very important,unfortenatly people dismiss the importance of Ma' really understanding religion ,over simple acts.and others dismiss the acts of shari'ah simply because they think they have Ma'arifah!

    if we cannot understand these theological issues,we will eb blidnkly following,we are doing something for nothing.

    i admire you wanting to gain converts to islam,and all,insha'Allah you will

    it is betetr then red camels.

    but having converted 2 non-musims myself,i did not do it because of making islam seem more western,it was more or so,according to them-the way i treated others,and i was honest with what i beleived,and explained it to them!

    for example,you fear non-muslims,will be put off by cutting of the hand,well tellthem the beenifts of it!

    or apostacy,well in any civilized nation state,you are not compelled to pay taxes and other legal requirements as long as your non a citizen of that state,but when you become a citizen,there is no way out,and you are obliged to obey those cusotms as long as you live.

    you it hink,you can give up your pasportm and not die for it?its called Treason.

    honesty,and sincere intentions will bring us along way more then we think.

    wehn we lie about our religion,and its true fundements we are becoming like jews and christians who change their religon,because people arent showing up on sundays anymore!!!!!!!!

    and if we bel;eive ''

    هُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ رَسُولَهُ بِالْهُدَى وَدِينِ الْحَقِّ لِيُظْهِرَهُ عَلَى الدِّينِ كُلِّهِ وَلَوْ كَرِهَ الْمُشْرِكُونَ (9:33)

    He it is who has sent forth His Apostle with the [task of spreading] guidance and the religion of truth, to the end that He may cause it to prevail over all [false] religion -however hateful this may be to those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God.

    then we will not worry about the blame of the blamers!

    opur religion will triumph no matter what,because it is simply the truth!

    we dop not ned to ''revise'' it.

    we do not need to ''re-interpret ''it.

  17. Allah says in al-Fath:

    هُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ رَسُولَهُ بِالْهُدَى وَدِينِ الْحَقِّ لِيُظْهِرَهُ عَلَى الدِّينِ كُلِّهِ وَكَفَى بِاللَّهِ شَهِيدًا (48:28)

    48:28 (Asad) He it is who has sent forth His Apostle with the [task of spreading] guidance and the religion of truth, to the end that He make it prevail over every [false] religion; and none can bear witness [to the truth] as God does.

    He Also Says:

    وَرَأَيْتَ النَّاسَ يَدْخُلُونَ فِي دِينِ اللَّهِ أَفْوَاجًا (110:2

    110:2 (Asad) and thou seest people enter God's religion [1] in hosts

    so the coming of people to islam will happen no matter what mis-information prevails,or whatever soem westerners misunderstand about our religion.

    just do your best to be honest,and live in a kind way to non-muslims,this speaks more then 1000 words

    allah Says:
    مُّحَمَّدٌ رَّسُولُ اللَّهِ وَالَّذِينَ مَعَهُ أَشِدَّاء عَلَى الْكُفَّارِ رُحَمَاء بَيْنَهُمْ تَرَاهُمْ رُكَّعًا سُجَّدًا يَبْتَغُونَ فَضْلًا مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَرِضْوَانًا سِيمَاهُمْ فِي وُجُوهِهِم مِّنْ أَثَرِ السُّجُودِ ذَلِكَ مَثَلُهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَمَثَلُهُمْ فِي الْإِنجِيلِ كَزَرْعٍ أَخْرَجَ شَطْأَهُ فَآزَرَهُ فَاسْتَغْلَظَ فَاسْتَوَى عَلَى سُوقِهِ يُعْجِبُ الزُّرَّاعَ لِيَغِيظَ بِهِمُ الْكُفَّارَ وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ مِنْهُم مَّغْفِرَةً وَأَجْرًا عَظِيمًا (48:29)

    48:29 MUHAMMAD is God’s Apostle; and those who are [truly] with him are firm and unyielding towards all deniers of the truth, [yet] full of mercy towards one another. Thou canst see them bowing down, pros­trating themselves [in prayer], seeking favour with God and [His] goodly acceptance: their marks are on their faces, traced by prostration. This is their parable in the Torah as well as their parable in the Gospel: [they are] like a seed that brings forth its shoot, and then He strengthens it, so that it grows stout, and [in the end] stands firm upon its stem, delighting the sowers. [Thus will God cause the believers to grow in strength,] so that through them He might confound the deniers of the truth. [But] unto such of them as may [yet] attain to faith and do righteous deeds, God has promised forgiveness and a reward supreme.

  18. ProAhlulbayt1,Thank you,i am glad it still survives.

    does anyone know about this book or wether its still available?

    the arabic version will be fine.

    any help will e greatly appreciated.

  19. There are a lot of mistakes in this artcile, Mutazilis were never ever can be considered Shia, they were agains the Imamah and they supported Sahaba.
    Sunni doesn't mean exactaly following the Sunnah,there are a lot of Sunni schools and a lot of them interpretat the sunnah in different ways, plus the Shia also follow the Sunnah of Ahlu Bait and Prophet.
    Zaydi are considered by many people as sunnis.

    Shia Mula recognizes that it's uncorrect saying that Mutazilis were Shia, they were sunnis and they were the ofitial school of the Sunni Abasi state, but some of them integrated in the Shia corrent because they were persecuted by other Abasi with Ashari's ideas, other mutazilis integrated in Abu Hanifa school.
    Sunnis actually support ahlu bait, just they say that sahaba are as important as them.