Mutazilite Fantasies: Dross in Islam’s “Golden Age of Reason”

(originally published as “Dross in Yet Another Islamic ‘Golden Age’ ”, The American Thinker, September 5, 2010; Revised in 2012 and re-published in Sharia Versus Freedom, pp. 383-89)

The myth of a golden age of Islamic rationalism plays a critical role in maintaining the somnolence of America’s establishment in grasping the implacability of jihad. Currently, the Mutazilites, typified by the Abbasid Muslim rulers al-Mamun (reigned 813-833) and al-Mutasim (reigned 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. 1

These views are a contemporary repackaging of idealized portrayals initially put forth by Heinrich Steiner in 1865 and reiterated afterward by late 19th- and early 20th-century writers. 2 All such romantic and apologetic portrayals –past and present—maintain that 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 preeminent Western scholars of Islam. 3

Goldziher acknowledges the “one salutary consequence” of the Mutazilites’ ruthless endeavors was bringing “aql,” reason, “… to bear upon questions of belief.” 4 But he also demonstrates 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.” 5 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. 6

The Caliph al-Mamun … acting as kind of high priest of the state, ordered his subjects, under pain of severe punishments, to adopt the belief in the created Koran. His successor al-Mutasim, 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.

[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. 7

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 were followed out to the conclusion that territories in which the Mutazilite beliefs 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: “[T]he faith (Islam) must be spread by the tongue, the hand, and the sword.” 8 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. 9 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 Hisarkoy) by the Abbasid Mutazilite Caliph al-Mutasim, who succeeded Al-Mamun, and ruled from 833-42: 10

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.

Moshe Gil notes how in the later stages of Al-Mamun’s rule, he “used a strong hand” in his dealings with the subjected non-Muslim dhimmis, Jews and Christians, living under the Sharia, especially the former. 11

A contemporary, Patriarch Dionysius of Tell Mahre, 12 tells in his chronicle, in a large fragment preserved in Michael the Syrian 13 and Bar Hebraeus 14, about the destruction of the Jews’ and Christians’ houses of worship by Al-Mamun’s chief assistant, the military commander, al-Tahir b. al-Husayn. There is also information concerning the expulsion of many Jews from Baghdad; the worst nation, says the order, issued in the name of the caliph, are the Jews…There is also mention of an order of Al-Mamun’s to execute a Jew who was visiting the caliph’s palace, and of whom a poet complained that he believed Muhammad was a false prophet.

Haggai Ben-Shammai recounts the events which ostensibly led to Al-Mamun’s ordering the execution of the visiting Jew. 15 The Jews’ Muslim accuser, 16

…sent a note to al-Mamun on which the following verses were written: “O Son of him, obedience to whom was incumbent upon all people, and whose truth was decree and law binding (Upon us), He whom thou honorest claims that the father of your fathers (=Muhammad) is nothing but a Liar.”

Al-Mamun reportedly answered him: 17

“You are right!”—ordering at once that the Jew be drowned.

Then, as additional Islamic religious “justification” for this execution, al-Mamun is said to have related to those who were present, 18

…the story of al-Miqdad ibn al-Aswad, a friend of the Prophet- how, (when he was on one of his journeys), he was accompanied for a whole day by a Jew. When evening came, al-Miqdad remembered the saying handed down from the Prophet: “No Jew meets with a Muslim in privacy unless he has some scheme to trap him.” (Incidentally, this is one version of this tradition. There are tens of parallel versions with variations.) After al-Miqdad promised the Jew that he would not hurt him, the Jew confessed to him: “I did in fact have a trap in mind. All day I have been planning to tread upon the shadow of your head.” (Stepping on the shadow here apparently has some magical significance: the shadow is the soul and stepping on it is a symbolic act of trampling on the soul, i.e., a kind of killing.)  “How right was the Prophet of Allah,” rejoined al-Miqdad.

Notwithstanding the latest Mutazilite revisionism, 19 Nyberg’s authoritative Encyclopedia of Islam entry states plainly, 20

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, Ignaz Goldziher’s even more sobering conclusions, published a century ago, and gleaned from informed, serious, and thoughtful analyses of the Mutazilite’s doctrine and history, merit particularly careful review. 21

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 rewrite past history as a prologue to perceived modern “solutions.”

Robert Reilly’s contemporary Mutazilite hagiography opens—and closes—with a paean to the 20th century Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988), credited with tracing Islam’s purported “intellectual suicide” to the predictably bloody rejection of this violent, autocratic 9th century movement’s so-called rationalism. 22 Reilly concludes his modern re-packaging of the mythical construct of “Mutazilite rationalism” with these observations by Rahman: 23

If  I had a choice of what intellectual path Muslims should follow—a choice I do not have looking at Islam from outside—I would start over again at the points where the early jurists and the Mutazilites left off, and work to develop a system of Islamic law which would openly make use of judgments of equity and public interest, and a system of ethical theology which would encourage judgments of right and wrong by the human mind, without having to look to scripture at every step. The Mutazilites were correct in their doctrine that we can make objective value judgments, even if their particular theory of ethics had weaknesses, which would have to be revised by modern ethical philosophers and theologians. So I think this is the best way for Muslims to revive Islam, and I wish them success in a formidable task.

Who can deny the nobility of Fazlur Rahman’s sentiments, at least as expressed by these words, even if one understands—and rejects—his ahistorical premise, based upon a thoroughly bowdlerized view of “Mutazilism”? But we also have Rahman’s own additional writings—apparently unknown to Reilly, and regardless not cited by him—to gauge how Rahman, this paragon of the modern Muslim philosopher, “revised” the admitted “weaknesses” in the ostensibly noble, rationalist legacy of his Mutazilite forbears, to comport with “modern ethical philosophy and theology.” Unfortunately, Fazlur Rahman’s Weltanschauung, expressed for example in his 1986 essay “Non-Muslim Minorities in an Islamic State” is profoundly disconcerting. 24 Rahman declines, specifically, to discuss Koran 9:29, and its classical, mainstream exegesis for almost 1400 years. 24a Moreover, in lieu of such an honest discussion he repeats the dishonest modern Muslim apologetic that, 24b

The Muslim jurists in the early centuries of Islam conceived of the jizya as a tax imposed upon the people of the book [i.e., the Bible, originally non-Muslim Jews and Christians, and later expanded to include Zoroastrians, and even “idolatrous” Hindus] in lieu of military service [Note: This is a completely false claim as non-Muslims vanquished by jihad, and living under the Sharia were prohibited from bearing arms, or defending themselves against Muslims]…Jizya, per se, does not have any insinuation or consequences of a person being a second rate citizen [emphasis added; Note: another patently false claim]

This doctrinally whitewashed and historically deficient apologetic even includes the remarkable (and remarkably mendacious) claim that the well-known 20th century Muslim traditionalist ideologue Mawdudi was “…on record that in the modern state all citizens should be regarded as equal citizens…before the law.” 25 Contra Rahman, as per Koran 9:29—the Koranic jihad verse which underpins Islamic law mandates vis-à-vis non-Muslims, but is not discussed at all in Rahman’s disingenuous presentation 26 —Mawdudi openly supported dhimmitude, for non-Muslims. Thus, Mawdudi’s exegesis of Koran 9:29, reaffirmed the classic formulation of dhimmitude 27 in an Islamic state—replete with payment of the debasing, often pauperizing jizya or Koranic poll-tax (etymologically,  jizya is “the tax paid in lieu of being slain” 28), and maintained with full bellicose and discriminatory medieval resonance: 29

The purpose for which the Muslims are required to fight is not as one might think to compel the unbelievers into embracing Islam. Rather, their purpose is to put a end to the sovereignty and supremacy of the unbelievers so that the latter are unable to rule over men. The authority to rule should only be vested in those who follow the true faith; unbelievers who do not follow this true faith should live in a state of subordination. Unbelievers are required to pay jizyah (poll tax) in lieu of the security provided to them as the Dhimmis of an Islamic state. Jizyah symbolizes the submission of the unbelievers to the suzerainty of Islam. “To pay jizyah of their own hands humbled” refers to payment in a state of submission. “Humbled” also reinforces the idea that the believers, rather than the unbelievers, should be the rulers in performance of their duty as Allah’s vicegerents. Initially the rule that jizyah should be realized from all non-Muslims meant its application to Christians and Jews living in the Islamic state. Later on the Prophet (peace be upon him) extended it to Zoroastrians as well, granting them the status of Dhimmis. Guided by the Prophet’s practice the Companions applied this rule to all non-Muslim religious communities living outside Arabia. Some nineteenth century Muslim writers and their followers in our own times never seem to tire of their apologies for jizyah. But Allah’s religion does not require that apologetic explanations be made on its behalf. The simple fact is that according to Islam, non-Muslims have been granted freedom to stay outside the Islamic fold and to cling to their false, man-made ways, if they so wish. The have, however, absolutely no right to seize the reigns of power in any part of Allah’s earth, nor to direct the collective affairs of human beings according to their own misconceived doctrines. For if they are given such an opportunity, corruption and mischief will ensue. In such a situation the believers would be under an obligation to do their utmost to dislodge them from political power and to make them live in subservience to the Islamic way of life…One of the advantages of jizyah is that it reminds the Dhimmis every year that because they do not embrace Islam, they…have to pay a price—jizyah—for clinging to their errors…The amount so received should be spent on the administration of that righteous [Islamic] state…

Reilly’s championing of the 9th century Mutazila, and his updated, modern apotheosis of their “rationalist Islamic legacy”, Fazlur Rahman—absent the requisite expansive, critical investigation of either—illustrates a dangerous trend in Western analyses of Islam identified 90 years ago by Louis Betrand, a French historian, and essayist. Bertrand warned such naïve Western analysts, with firm eloquence: 30

The times are too serious for us to engage any longer in the antics of dilettantism and played-out impressionism.


1. Robert R. Reilly. The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist, Wilmington, Delaware, 2010; reviewed 9/2/10 at by Joshua Gelder as “Why Islamic Moderates Are So Scarce”,  the National Review Online {}

2. Heinrich Steiner. Die Mutaziliten als Vorlaufer der islamischen Dogmatiker und Philosophen: nebst Anhang, enthaltend kritische Anmerkungen zu Gazzali’s Munkid, Heidelberg, 1865

3. Ignaz Goldziher. Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, Princeton, New Jersey, 1981, translated from the German, Vorlesungen Uber den Islam, Heidelberg, 1910

4. Ibid, p. 103

5. Ibid, pp. 86, 101

6. Ibid, pp. 98, 101; See also, Ibid, p. 163, and “Mihna”, pp. 535-537, in The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, Edited by H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers, 1953 (Ithaca, New York)/2008 (New Delhi, India)

7. Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, p. 102

8. H.S. Nyberg. “Al-Mutazila”, p. 605, in in The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, Edited by H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers, 1953 (Ithaca, New York)/2008 (New Delhi, India)

9. Bat Ye’or. The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1996, pp. 112, 131-132

10. Cited in Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad, Amherst, New York, 2005/2008, pp. 598-599

11. Moshe Gil. Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages, Leiden/Boston, 2004, pp. 284-285.

12. Dionysius of Tell Mahre (d. 848) was the patriarch (supreme head) of the Syrian Orthodox Church. He was the author of an important historical work, which has apparently perished except for some passages including those cited by Bar Hebraeus (see below) and Michael the Syrian (also see below), the latter, in particular. According to Michael the Syrian, Dionysius’s Annals consisted of two parts each divided into eight chapters, which covered the 260 years between the accession of the Byzantine emperor Maurice (582), through the death of emperor Theophilus (843).

13. Michael the Syrian (d. 1199 AD), was a patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church from 1166 to 1199. He is renowned as the author of a monumental Chronicle of the Middle Ages, composed in Syriac.

14. Bar Hebraeus [Abul-Faraj] (1226-1286), was a  Syrian Orthodox bishop, philosopher, poet, grammarian, physician, Biblical commentator, and historian. He was the son of a Jewish physician, Aaron, who converted to Christianity, hence his surname of Bar Hebraeus, “Son of the Hebrew.” Bar Hebraeus composed a voluminous historical work called Makhtbhanuth Zabhne, “Chronicon”,  which characterizes the history from the Creation down to his own day. It is divided into two portions: the first deals with political and civil history and is known as the “Chronicon Syriacum”; the second, “Chronicon Ecclesiasticum”, comprising the religious history, begins with Aaron and treats in a first section of the history of the Western Syrian Church and the Patriarchs of Antioch, while a second section is devoted to the Eastern Church.

15. Cited in Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, Amherst, New York, 2008, pp. 221-222.

16. Ibid, p. 221

17. Ibid, p. 222

18. Ibid.

19. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist

20. Nyberg, “Al-Mutazila”, p. 601

21. Goldziher. Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, pp. 98, 102-103

22. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist, pp. 2-3, 203-204.

23. Ibid, pp. 203-204.

24. Fazlur Rahman. “Non-Muslim Minorities in an Islamic State”, Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs,

Volume 7, Issue 1, 1986, pp. 13-24

24a. Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad, pp. 127-135

24b. Ibid, p. 20

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid, pp. 13-24

27. See Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad, pp. 29-37, 178-179, 196-198, 199, 200-201, 205-211, 213-215, 216-220; and also The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, pp. 481-488

28. Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad, p. 29

29. Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi. Towards Understanding the Quran, English translation by Zafar Ishaq Ansari,  Leicester, UK,  1988, vol 3, Surahs 7-9, p. 202

30. Louis Bertrand, from his Preface to  Andre Servier, Islam and the Psychology of the Musulman, Paris, 1923, translated by A. S. Moss-Blundell, London, 1924, p. x – cite_note-1

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