Islamic history, religion

The mysteries and histories of Sunni Islam: Mu’tazila, ibn Taymiyyah & the Hanbali movement, al-Ashari, Wahabi and the house of Saud.


I owe a lot of the post’s content to the writings of Karen Armstrong, Peter Mansfield, and Albert Hourani.

It’s useful to point out, that the philosophies under discussion are not the only ones to influence present day Islam but do reflect alternative approaches to interpreting the Qur’an. They are particularly relevant because some are adopted, by the mercenary forces in Syria and Iraq as well as the proponents of ”Islamic fundamentalism” in Europe. The depth of knowledge of groups like Islamic state is debatable but the western media certainly wax lyrical about the motivation of such groups.

Some of this entry incorporates information from an earlier post, which is worth re-iterating to cast a light on events in Paris and Saudi Arabia. The examination of the above philosophies, I believe, contribute to the understanding of the divisions between Arabic nationalism and Islamic nationalism and to Islam’s aversion to imagery, which is deeply ingrained, throughout the Muslim world.

As the Khalifas extended their power and more people converted to Islam Qur’anic teaching was corrupted by state rule as it tended to absorb more diverse ideas on how to govern. This becomes manifest in the later discussion, the origins of the Saudi royal family. It was inevitable too, that doctrine would be blurred by other religious practices and philosophical texts, an example of this is the Mu’tazila (I believe it is the Arabic for divorce), discussed below.


The Mu’tazila Doctrine

The Mu’tzila doctrine was formulated in the 8th century and like any other, has many strands. Broadly speaking it promoted free will and equality, if a person did not have free will then they could not be judged and injustices would go unpunished, even though God was just. This concept of free will enabled people to do good deeds and if they were truly faithful they would. Those who didn’t were not classed as infidels but as misguided and thus had the power to redeem themselves. The doctrine denies, that God or Allah has a human form or more precisely any human attributes. According to Mr. Hourani, later Mu’tzali thinkers, were influenced by the Greek philosophers and by the 11th century, its rationalist approach was marginalised by the Sunni sects but remained prominent in Shia ”schools of thought”.

The Hanbali School

The critics of the rationalist approach adopted a more literal stance and doubted, that truth could be achieved through reason. They were less concerned with reaching an agreement on doctrine, than ensuring the word of God was adhered to. Hanbali, born in 780, saw God as an essence or non physical and the Qur’an as absolute law, where the attributes of God were divine, rather than human. Concepts such as justice, which are contained in the Qur’an, are separate from human existence. The Prophet Mohammed is a kind of walking embodiment of God’s word as Muslims are expected to live, through the Sunnah (his teachings).


al-Ashari, born in 935, continued in much the same vein as the Hanbali school. His doctrine rejected rationalist theory, which incorporated reason and free will. It necessitated a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, whereby all events are the will of God and the divinity of God is universal. As a result the external realities of its followers developed a mystical or transcendental quality. Despite this al-Ashari and other theologians saw a need for a more identifiable version and conceded God had some physical attributes but as a concession to the Mu’tazila doctrine, they were said to differ from those of humans. The creational elements of the doctrine professed, that God and the Qur’anic teachings were not created but the physical appearance of the Qur’an, its pages and the pen, that wrote it were God’s creations.

Ibn Taymiyyah

The doctrine of al-Wahbi is said to originate from, that of Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century reformer, who followed the Hanbali tradition. His views were troublesome to the authorities as he rejected many contemporary schools of thought; he was eventually gaoled in Damascus, Syria and died there. Readers have to remember, that this was a troubled time and many middle eastern countries were recovering from the devastation inflicted by the Mongol invasion. Ibn Taymiyyah was a man of the people as he sought to re-unite the Muslim world, through strict adherence to the word of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Perhaps the mercenaries now operating in Syria expect the same acclaim but as far as I can see Ibn Taymiyyah did not plunder, rape or behead the local populace. In fact, according to the encyclopaedia Britannica, his incarceration was due to an accusation, that he rejected the premise, that a man could easily divorce his wife. Prior to this he had defended a Christian accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammed. As for those journalists, who defend ‘Islamic State’, please bear this in mind. That was a bit off the point but hey ho.

One of the most revolutionary and relevant (to this post) doctrines of Ibn Taymiyyah was political concerned the Ummah (A common ideology and culture). He believed the unity of the Ummah, which depended on synchronicity between a belief in God and an acceptance of the Prophet’s message, ”did not imply political unity” and the authority of the Umma could be asserted by more than one leader at a time. This assertion undermined the power of the Khalifa to an extent and enhanced agreements between the Ulama or religious elite and an individual ruler, as to what was just and good. In the middle east, where the Turkish population was a majority, it gave a voice to the Arabic population.

As is usual the theories of Ibn Taymiyyah were submerged in time but were revived in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab. Much like Ibn Taymiyyah, who opposed the expansion of the Khalifa, al-Wahab objected to the Ottoman Empire, which had grown so large, the teachings of Islam were saturated with other cultural, political and theological doctrine. He also rejected all forms of ritual and idolatry and advocated a return to a more fundamental interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah but paradoxically, his reforms were designed to encourage ordinary people to engage in critical thinking and not depend on the word of the ulama. To further his doctrine, al-Wahab allied, with Muhammed ibn Saud at the the small market town of Dir’iyya, an alliance, that resulted in an upsurge of violence as the word was spread.

The next entry, FLags at half mast/my part in the uprise of Saudi Arabia, explores the complex relationship between Britain and Saudi.




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