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Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages

Daniel Gimaret


Mu'tazilism was a Muslim theological school whose positions were, on a number of fundamental points, directly antinomial to the Sunni positions.

The school took its name from an Arabic verb meaning to stand aside. It owes this name probably to the fact that, on the first theological question raised in Islam, that of faith and works, its followers chose to “stand aside” equally from two opposed doctrines – that which called the Muslim sinner a miscreant, and that which maintained that he was still a believer – in favour of an intermediate solution.

The school arose in Iraq in the first half of the 8th century. It was, to a great extent, heir to a movement called the Qadarites, which had opposed the doctrine of predestination (qadar) and affirmed man's responsibility for his faults – a position that remained characteristic of Mu'tazilism, which maintained the non-creation by God of any voluntary human act. At first limited to a small group of believers, the school expanded in the first decades of the Abbasid caliphate (founded 750), even becoming, for some thirty years, a sort of official school. The reversal of the established authorities in favour of Sunni positions (c.850) did not prevent it continuing to prosper for another two centuries, its period of glory only ending approximately with the coming to power of the Seljuk dynasty (c.1050). And it was only with the Mongol conquest (c.1250) that Mu'tazilism, as such, finally disappeared.

Among Muslim theologians taken as a whole, there have been numerous divisions of all sorts. Mu'tazilism itself did not escape this rule. The main division within the movement was geographical: first there was the school of Basra (home of the founder); then, half a century later, the school of Baghdad. To begin with, both these were little more than a collection of individuals united by a common doctrine. It was in the period after 850 that “Basrians” and “Baghdadians” represented true schools, each defending a complete and coherent system. Of the two, the most important was incontestably that of Basra, to which belonged the two greatest Mu'tazilite theologians, Abū Alī al-Jubbā᾽ī († 915) and his son Abū Hāshim († 933).

The Mu'tazilite positions did not remain the exclusive property of theologians of that name. In Islam itself, they were adopted relatively early by the two main tendencies of Shi'ism: Zaydites, then duodeciman imamites (the Shi'ite commentaries on the Koran are Mu'tazilite commentaries). Outside Islam, they exercised a decisive influence on Rabbanite and especially on Karaïte Jewish theology.


J. van Ess, “Mu'tazilah”, EncRel(E), 10, 1987, 220-229.Find this resource:

    D. Gimaret, “Mu'tazila”, EI(E), 7, 1993, 783-793.Find this resource:

      Daniel Gimaret