Bring Back Islam’s Mutazilite “Golden Age”?

Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921) on the Mutazilite revisionism of his era:

Authors of sophistic fantasies about hypothetical developments in Islam at times draw pictures of how salutary it would have been to the evolution of Islam if the Mutazila had successfully risen to spiritual dominance…

Currently (see here, reviewed 9/2/10 at The National Review Online), the Mutazilites, typified by the Abbasid Muslim rulers al-Mamun (r. 813-833) and al-Mutasim (r. 833-842) are being lionized as avatars of the kind of “rationalist freethinking” which might have spared both Muslims and non-Muslims from the consequences of traditionalist Islamic irredentism. These views are a contemporary re-packaging of idealized portrayals initially put forth by Heinrich Steiner in 1865, and reiterated afterward by late 19th and early 20th writers. All such romantic and apologetic portrayals—past and present—maintain the Mutazilites were “liberal” rationalists and freethinkers.

But these roseate characterizations are grossly oversimplified, and ahistorical. The Mutazilites were pious Muslims motivated by Islamic religious concerns, first and foremost. The wistful projection of “Mutazilism” as a “squandered” modernizing force for Islam is an untenable hypothesis, debunked long ago by Ignaz Goldziher, one of the pre-eminent Western scholars of Islam.

Goldziher acknowledges the “one salutary consequence” of the Mutazilites ruthless endeavors was bringing “aql,” reason, “ bear upon questions of belief.” But he also demonstrated that the Mutazilites exhibited no real manifestation of liberated thinking, or any desire “…to throw off chafing shackles, to the detriment of the rigorously orthodox [Islamic] view of life.” Moreover, the Mutazilites’ own orthodoxy was accompanied by fanatical intolerance—they orchestrated the “Mihna”, or Muslim Inquisition under their brutal 9th century reign during the Abbasid-Baghdadian Caliphate.

[p. 98] The Caliph al-Mamun…acting as kind of high priest of the state, ordered his subjects, under pain of sever punishments, to adopt the belief in the created Koran. His successor al-Mutassim, followed in his footsteps. Orthodox theologians and those who refused to make open declaration of their position were subjected to harassment, imprisonment, and torture. Docile qadis and other religious authorities ready to assume the office of inquisitors, in order to vex and persecute the stiff-necked supporters of the orthodox view, and also those who were not sufficiently unambivalent in declaring themselves for belief in the created Koran, the sole belief in which salvation lay.

[p. 101] [T]hey were intolerant in the extreme. A tendency to intolerance lies in the nature of the endeavor to frame religious belief in dogma. During the reign of the three Abbasid caliphs, when the Mutazilites were fortunate enough to have their doctrines recognized as state dogma, those doctrines were urged by means of inquisition, imprisonment, and terror…

And Goldziher has also shown how the Mutazilites advocated jihad in all realms where their doctrine was not ascendant, while being fully prepared to assassinate those who refused to abide their formulations.

[p. 102] How some of them [the Mutazilites] envisioned matters appears, for instance, from the teachings of Hisham al-Fuwati, one of the most radical opponents of the admissibility of divine attributes and predestination: “He considered it permissible to assassinate those who rejected his doctrines, and to lay hands on their property in violence or in secrecy; for they were unbelievers and their lives and goods were free for all to take.” These were naturally only theories from a schoolroom, but they weer followed out to the conclusion that territories in which the Mutazilite beliefes did not prevail were to be regarded as dar-al-harb, “lands of war.”

H.S. Nyberg, summed up the Mutazilites more general call for jihad in his Encyclopedia of Islam essay (p. 605): “[T]he faith (Islam) must be spread by the tongue, the hand, and the sword.” Thus the Mutazilites jihadism was hardly confined to their internal Muslim antagonists. The Mutazilite Caliph Al-Mamun brutally subdued a Coptic Christian uprising in Lower Egypt, exterminating those who were not among the thousands enslaved and deported. (see,  Bat Yeor’s, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, pp. 112; 131-2) And below is a prototypical example of a Mutazilite-led bloody jihad against the non-Muslim infidel in a neighboring area of the Dar al- Harb—Byzantine Christian Anatolia—written by the medieval chronicler Michael the Syrian. He is describing the 838 CE Muslim conquest of Amorium in Byzantine Anatolia (the current Turkish village of Hisarköy) by the Abbasid Mutazilite Caliph al-Mutasim, who succeeded Al-Mamun, and ruled from 833-42 (see, my The Legacy of Jihad, pp. 598-99):

The sword of the Taiyaye [Arab Muslims] began the slaughter and heaped them up by piles; when their sword was drunk with blood, the order came to massacre no more, but to take the population captive and to lead it away. Then they pillaged the town. When the king entered to see the town, he admired the beautiful structure of the temples and palaces. As news came which worried him, he set the town on fire and burned it down. There were so many women’s convents and monasteries that over a thousand virgins were led into captivity, not counting those that had been slaughtered. They were given to the Moorish and Turkish slaves, so as to assuage their lust: glory to the incomprehensible judgments of God! . They burned all those who were hidden in houses or who had climbed up to the church galleries. When the booty from the town was collected in one place, the king, seeing that the population was very numerous, gave the order to kill four thousand men. He also gave the order to take away the fabrics and the gold, silver and bronze objects and the rest of the yield from the pillage. They also began to take away the population: and there was a clamor of lamentation from the women, men and children, when children were separated and removed from the arms of their parents; they shouted and howled.

Pace the latest Mutazilite revisionism, Nyberg’s authoritative Encyclopedia of Islam entry (p. 601) states plainly,

Nothing could be less justifiable than to regard the Mutazila as philosophers, freethinkers, or liberals. On the contrary, they are theologians of the strictest school; their ideal is dogmatic orthodoxy…

However, Goldziher’s even more sobering conclusions (pp. 98,102-3), gleaned from informed, serious,  and thoughtful analyses of their doctrine and history, merit particularly careful review.

Authors of sophistic fantasies about hypothetical developments in Islam at times draw pictures of how salutary it would have been to the evolution of Islam if the Mutazila had successfully risen to spiritual dominance…

It was truly a piece of good fortune for Islam that state patronage of this mentality was limited to the time of those three [Mutazilite] caliphs. How far would the Mutazilites have gone if the instruments and power of the state had been longer at the disposal of their intellectual faith!

[T]he inquisitors of liberalism were, if possible, even more terrible than their literal-minded colleagues. In any case their fanaticism is more repugnant than that of their imprisoned and mistreated victims.

Ignaz Goldziher’s sagacious words remind us that in our zealous desire for an Islamic Enlightenment we must not re-write past history as a prologue to perceived modern “solutions.”

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