The relationship between Mu’tazili theology and Zaydism has been raised; claims that Zaydism “borrowed” mu’tazilism from Sunni theologians, and claims that Zaid bin Ali was a follower of the mu’tazili school rather than a person who inspired it, are worth discussing and clarifying. A Zaidi scholar has also said it is erroneous to label Zaydism as “Mutazili in theology”, when in fact Zaydism comprises more than just Mu’tazilism, as the Mu’tazili school does not deal with the issue of Imamate.
What is Mu’tazilism?
An Islamic school of speculative theology, often described as rationalist because it states that human reason is more reliable than tradition and prefers speculation over “taqleed” (blind acceptance).
The Mu’tazilis believe that it is speculation and reflection which leads to the knowledge of Allah, particularly Allah’s unity (tawheed), His Justice (adl) , Prophecies (nubuwaat), and what is lawful/unlawful. For Zaydis, knowledge of Imamate is added to this list (see Imam alHaadi’s credal statements on our translations blog).
Non mu’tazilis oppose this notion and state that knowledge is gained through uncritical acceptance of ideas (al ilm bil taqleed), and that there is no need to reflect and speculate.
Early Hanbali credal statements encourage “ acceptance of traditions as they are without questions of “why” and “how”, no interpreting of traditions, and no discussion of predestination and other issues.” Even the Hanafi school has a “Laa kaif” policy on some of the issues Mu’tazilis speculate about.
Is Mu’tazilism based on the Quran?
Mu’tazilis state that the proof that speculation is obligatory is in the Qur’an, e.g. “Speculate about what is in the Heavens and the Earth” (10.101)
Mu’tazilis say that there are systems which are right and others which are wrong, it is impossible that all systems can be wrong, for the truth lies within one of them, and the truth can only be found through speculation, not through other people. Therefore speculation is obligatory, and taqleed is incorrect.
The Wikipedia summary of Mu’tazilism states:
“Mu'tazilis believed that the first obligation on humans, specifically adults in full possession of their mental faculties, is to use their intellectual power to ascertain the existence of God, and to become knowledgeable of His attributes. One must wonder about the whole existence, that is, about why something exists rather than nothing. If one comes to know that there is a being who caused this universe to exist, not reliant on anything else and absolutely free from any type of need, then one realizes that this being is all-wise and morally perfect. If this being is all-wise, then his very act of creation cannot be haphazard or in vain. One must then be motivated to ascertain what this being wants from humans, for one may harm oneself by simply ignoring the whole mystery of existence and, consequently, the plan of the Creator. This paradigm is known as wujub al-nazar, i.e., the obligation to use one's speculative reasoning to attain ontological truths. About the "first duty," 'Abd al-Jabbar said (Martin et al., 1997): It is speculative reasoning (al-nazar) which leads to knowledge of God, because He is not known by the way of necessity (daruratan) nor by the senses (bi l-mushahada). Thus, He must be known by reflection and speculation.”
What came first, Mu’tazilism or Zaydism?
The mu’tazili school got its name (given to it by other theologians) around the same time as Zaid bin Ali was alive, however, some of its principals were being discussed before Zaid’s time, as a result of the Karbala tragedy (e.g. Divine Justice, Reward and Punishment) when people became became disillusioned with the Umayyad leadership. It could be said that Zaydism and Mu’tazilism grew up together, as each of the following issues arose and were dealt with:
1. Al-Manzilah bayna al-Manzilatayn المنزلة بين المنزلتين - the intermediate position. That is, Muslims who commit grave sins and die without repentance are not considered as mu'mins (believers), nor are they considered kafirs (non-believers), but in an intermediate position between the two.
Wasil bin Ataa (died 131 AH) is credited by Western historians as being the first to voice the view “Those who commit major sins are neither believers or unbelievers”, and the one who started a study circle independent his previous study circle (that of Hassan al Basra). This standpoint is known as the position between 2 positions, i.e. between khawaarijism and murjism.
It is said that Zaid bin Ali and Wasil sat in the same circles and agreed on this point. Some say that Wasil was Zaid’s student. According to a sunni source, Wasil ibn Ata (ra) and Imam Zayd ibn Ali (as) were considered "blood brothers" because their views were synonymous on various issues. Then it is no surprise that Zaidis adopt this position.
The 12 Imamer view is similar to the mu’tazili view, except that, in their view, 12 Imamers will have special privileges in regards to entering paradise, compared to other Muslims. This is justified by a narration they attribute to Imam Jaf'ar as Sadiq: "Verily, God has angels who cause sins to fall off the backs of our Shi'ites, like the wind does to leaves in autumn” and also by narrations, attributed to their Imams, saying that the Prophet, 12 Imams and righteous Shi'ites will intercede for the rest of the Shi'a (and presumably not for other Muslims).
2. Al-Tawhid التوحيد - Divine Unity. Mu'tazilis believed in the absolute unity and oneness of God. and denied the existence of attributes distinct from Divine essence, and they used metaphorical interpretations of Qur'anic verses with seemingly anthropomorphic content.
Imam Zaid approved of the metaphorical interpretation (ta’wil) according to this narration:
Ubaidullah ibn al-‘Ula said, I heard Zayd ibn ‘Ali say about the following ayat:
And the Jews say, “God’s hand is shackled; and manacled [by Allah] are their hands because of this their assertion. No, but wide are His hands stretched out... 5: 64
Imam Zayd says that the reference here is to Allah’s magnanimity and generosity. In other verses in the Quran the words speak of Allah: “giving abundantly.” In Arabic discourse when it is said that a person is indebted to another person’s hand it is another way to express how one person extends is helping self to another person.
Allah also says:
And neither allow your hand to remain shackled to your neck...
and this, according to Imam Zayd, this means do not withhold your hand from spending in good causes as it would be tantamount to having your hand tied to your neck.
Allah also says:
Said He: “O Iblis! What has kept you from prostrating yourself before that [being] which I have created with My hands?
This would mean that “I [God] personally created him [Adam] without parents. This is not a specific reference to human-like “hands” as much as it is a reference to Him as a whole being responsible for Adam’s creation. It could very well be that Allah said to Adam “be” and he was without ever having His “hands” involved in the act of creation.
...and the heavens will be rolled up in His right hand...
“right hand” in the above ayat refers to His ability and potency. Likewise:
rolled up in His right hand... would refer to His possession and dominion. It is like saying: If it is in my hand it is mine. Which does not necessarily and literally mean that I have it clenched in my fist. There are examples of this in Arabic poetry.”
In contrast to Zayd bin Ali’s position, his contemporary, Abu Hanifa, said in his book Fiqhul Akbar:
“He (Allah) has a hand, a face and a soul, as Allah mentioned in the Qu'ran, and whatever Allah mentions in the Quran regarding the face the hand and the soul, these are His attributes, and (let there be) no discussion about this (laa kaif). It should not be said that His "hand" signifies His "power" or His "kindness", for that would be cancelling out the attribute, and that is what the Qadariyyah and Mu'tazilah are saying. His hand is (one of) His attributes, with no discussion, (just as) His Anger and His Pleasure are two of His attributes, with no discussion ."
This indicates that Zaid bin Ali had the mu’tazili view on this issue, but his student, Abu Hanifa, did not follow his view in this regard. Zaidis follow Zaid’s position, not Abu Hanifa’s, yet many people desribe Zaydism as “close to Hanafism”.
3. Al-'Adl العدل - Divine Justice. Facing the problem of existence of evil in the world, the Mu'tazilis pointed at the free will of human beings.
Muhammad and his early companions, the Sahabah, always insisted on the theory of Sovereignty of Allah, and the freedom of human will, based on the doctrine that man would be judged by his actions. These teachings were predominant until the Umayyad period.
Due to public hatred after the tragedy of Battle of Karbala, the sack of Medina, and many political blunders committed by theUmayyad Caliphate , they were in need of a theory of Predestination,(see Predestination in Islam ), fatalism, (jabr), that "a man is not responsible for his actions which proceed from God". So with their help a school of thought was emerged and was called "JABRIA", which appealed to many because pre-Islamic values were fatalistic. The mu’tazili school, in response, reaffirmed the “adl” concept, which was not something new, but the original concept held by the first generation of Muslims.
Ash’ari opposed it and created the Kasb standpoint as an alternative. Maturidi created a similar standpoint to Ash’ari. The Hanbali school opposed Ash’ari and the Mu’tazilil and created a position even closer to jabr (compulsion).
The Mutazili became known as “People of Divine Unity and Justice”(ahlul tawhid wal adl) .
Judging by his actions in rebelling against the pro-jabr Umayyad leadership, Zaid had the view of the mu’tazili school on this issue, and the Zaydis have adopted it.
There appear to be differences of opinion in the 12 Imamer camp on the issue of Divine Justice.
The leading Iranian ayatollah, Ja’far Subhani, wrote: “ What God has ordained for man is, precisely, free will, the very feature which distinguishes him from animals; man has been ordained a free agent, capable of choosing to perform or abstain from actions.” This sounds like the mu'tazilil position, but then he adds:
"In other words, although action revolves upon man, it is also dependent upon God; for the action proceeds from the human agent, but since in reality the agent, along with his power, is created by God, how can one consider the action of such an agent to be independent of God?" which sounds like the Maturidi position.
He later mentions that God also has foreknowledge of what people will do, but does not compel them.
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq’s view, “The reality is neither pre-destination, nor absolute free will, but something between the two” is a statement of non-committal which does not part with the Ash'ari or Maturidi view.
THE 12 imamers also have a narration they attribute to Imam Ali, saying: “This (doctrine of predestination) is a dark path - do not traverse it; a deep ocean - do not enter it; and a divine mystery - do not try to unveil it.” This statement reminds me of the Hanbali school’s warnings not to discuss predestination at all, and goes against the mu’tazili spirit of speculation in order to gain knowledge.
Therefore, it could be said that the Zaydi math-hab holds a unique position on this issue, which goes right back to the early days of theological discussions.
As for sunnis who agree with the mu'tazili/Zaidi position on adl, they have been disowned by the vast majority of their sunni brethren, especially since the "Mihna" instigated by the caliph Ma'mun.
4. The concept of “commanding good and forbidding evil” was/is another of the mu’tazili tenets. During his lifetime, Imam Zaid put this concept into practice, by rising up against the corrupt leadership. In Yemen, the Zaydi Imam al Haadi (died 300 AH) added the concept of rising up against corrupt leadership as a tenet of Zaydism, and added the knowledge of Imamate (Zaydi imamate) to the mu’tazili list of knowledge that Muslims must speculate about in order to know Allah. This is why Zaydis would say that their theology is more than just mu’tazilism; the Zaydi Imamate doctrine stands alongside the mu’tazili tenets and holds equal importance.
Zaidis believe that the unbroken chain of truth goes from the prophet's family passed down knowledge generation after another. The mu'tazili tenets form part of this unbroken truth, but were not known as "mu'tazili" tenets by the ahlul bait. The name was later given by sunni scholars who perceived their own views as the norm and the ahlul bait's views as somehow unorthodox. Wasil bin Ataa was a student of ahlul bait members, like Muhammad bin al Hanafiyyah and Zaid bin Ali, who became known for separating himself from the main Basran school.