121 - This is a Test: the Mu'tazilites

Posted on 24 March 2013

A first look at the philosophical contributions of Islamic theology (kalām) and its political context, focusing on the Mu'tazilites Abū l-Hudhayl and al-Naẓẓām.

Further Reading

• P. Adamson, “Arabic Philosophy and Theology Before Avicenna,” in J. Marenbon (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy (Oxford: 2012), 58-82.

• R.M. Frank, Early Islamic Theology: The Muʿtazilites and al-Ashʿarī (Aldershot: 2007).

• G.F. Hourani, Islamic rationalism: the Ethics of ʻAbd al-Jabbār (Oxford: 1971).

• W. Madelung, The Origins of the Controversy Concerning the Creation of the Koran. Orientalia Hispanica vol.1, ed. J.M. Barral, (Leiden: 1974), 504-25.

• J. van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra: eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam (Berlin: 1991-95).

• J. van Ess, The Flowering of Muslim Theology, trans. J.M. Todd (Cambridge MA: 2006).

• T. Winter, The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: 2008).


Ollie Killingback 24 March 2013

Fascinating podcast today... made me realise how incredibly thin the course I attended given by Lord Combermere in the '70s was. And it is so interesting to glimpse the relationship between Islamic philosophical disputes and Christian ones. Very much looking forward to the next year of podcasts.

Khalil Habib 24 March 2013

The two podcasts on Islamic philosophy are excellent, Peter! Very informative and engaging -- as always, thank you for your efforts. Am I right in assuming that Al Ghazali will get a podcast (or two?) devoted to his thought?

Peter Adamson 24 March 2013

In reply to by Khalil Habib

Yes, I was planning to devote two episodes to him -- one based mostly on the Munqidh al-Dalal (Deliverer from Error), the other on the Tahafut, but of course I'll mention other texts too. I am also doing an episode on the Asharites which will be a kind of partner episode to this one on the Mu'tazila.

Abdellatif 26 July 2015

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you Peter. The best way to understand the muatazila would be to.compare their ideas and methodology to those of other mutakallimiins, particularly Al Achaira. Great work

Peter Adamson 27 July 2015

In reply to by Abdellatif

I assume you mean al-Ash'ari (the usual English transliteration)? He and his school are covered in episode 137.

Rhys W. Roark 24 March 2013

Hey Peter,

Great show--several points were brought up that will require a re-listening. I was esp. intrigued by the later part of the show when you brought up the idea of distinguishing between God's essence vs. his energies.

I am interested in this, not only in its Greek ancestry (viz., Plotinus), but in how it also plays out in the Byzantine vs. Late Medieval Latin Christian traditions (with the corollary on how to understand the interplay between apo- and kataphatic theologies).

Given the Arabic / Muslim influence upon later Latin theology and philosophy (which I'm currently trying to tease out), I am looking forward to hearing more of this.

On another note, if I may--gingerly--ask: several Arabic phrases where given out with the episode, which I tried to get down as best as possible. How much would it put you out to provide an transliterated English list of at least some of these? (You can be completely honest here).

I was trying to comprehend the full phrase from which derives the word "caliph" and a few others. I have an Islamic e-dictionary, but while defining the word, it doesn't provide the full (transliterated) phrase nor its etymology. (If you ask me to buy something--let it be really cheap--still affected over here by the recession . . . )

Again, great show!

Thank you much!


Dear Rhys,

That's a very good idea especially as my pronunciation may not be perfect. I'll add a comment of this nature to each episode from now on (see above for this one).


Rhys W. Roark 26 March 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson


Thank you so much for doing this. Didn't mean to put you through more work, but these lists are really nice to have.



Hey Peter,

Me again--slightly off topic. When checking my email account and opening the e-mail from you, I accidentally clicked on the wrong link, the one that disables the comment notification.

I assume resuming this just requires a new comment by me (like this one now) and making sure the "Notify me when new comments are posted" box is checked?

Or have I overlooked anything?



Peter Adamson 24 March 2013

To help people follow the unfamiliar names and terms in this podcast here is a list:

shīʿat ʿAlī, meaning “the party of ʿAlī.” Basis for the term "Shiism".

khalīfat rasūl Allāh, “successor to the Prophet of God.” Basis of the term "caliph."

ʿilm al-kalām or kalām: literally “the science of the word” or just “word,” refers to rational Islamic theology. Theologians are hence called mutakallimūn, practicioners of kalām.

miḥna:  the “test” or “inquisition” which required acceptance of the createdness of the Koran, imposed by the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn

ahl al-tawḥīd wa-l-ʿadl: “the upholders of oneness and justice,” as the Muʿtazilites referred to themselves

ḥadīth: reports of sayings and deeds of the Prophet

• Muʿtazilites and other theologians mentioned in this episode: Wāṣil b. ʿAṭāʾ, Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, ʿAbd al-Jabbār, Abū l-Hudhayl, al-Naẓẓām

I think I'd better open a vocabulary book, like at school! By the end of the year there will be a host of them. Thanks.

Zeke 27 March 2013

So excited that you're finally getting started with Islamic philosophy. It's going to be a great year!

Just two typos I've noticed on the page. I believe it should be "shi'at Ali" with a "t". And it should also be "miḥna" and not "mihna". Sorry about that, but seeing the podcast is so great, it would be a shame for there to be these little mistakes in it.

Anyways, I'm waiting impatiently for the next podcast, and good luck with this year of podcasts!

Peter Adamson 27 March 2013

In reply to by Zeke

Thanks Zeke -- I had actually decided against the t on shi'a to help people see the connection to the word "shiism" (and it's always a tricky issue how to handle ta marbuta) but I guess you're right that in the whole phrase it is better to have the t in since that would be the right pronunciation. So I made both changes.



Peter Adamson 29 March 2013

Incidentally I've been remiss in not thanking David Bennett for his valuable comments on the script for this episode.

Soroush 15 May 2014

Hello Peter,

First and foremost, I must thank you for your excellent podcast.
I only recently began listening to podcasts in general. However, amongst the few that I have listened to, I find your podcast quite informative and in line with my interests.

As I was listening to your podcast on Mu'tazilites, I noticed that you defined "Aql" as "reason." I have looked into this matter previously, and, in my opinion, the correct meaning for "Aql" is "intellect." As you know there's a significant difference between reason and intellect, especially in Islamic philosophy.

I just wanted to quickly point this out. In my opinion, if we misunderstand the meaning of "Aql" we may encounter many complications, when we study Islam or Islamic philosophy.

That is all

Thanks again for your great podcast

Hi there,

Glad you enjoy the podcasts. I would say that 'aql can be translated as "reason" or "intellect" depending on context. I actually have often (more often in fact) used "intellect" as a translation in the podcast, like when Averroes or whoever is talking about what in Greek would be called nous. However in other contexts, like ethics, it seems clear that "reason" is the right translation (e.g. when they say the highest part of the Platonic tripartite soul is 'aqli, using this synonymously with natiq). I don't remember the exact context here but I may have been thinking that I didn't want to assume too close a relation between the Mu'tazilites and Aristotelian discussions of intellect.

Thanks for the comment!


Xaratustrah 8 June 2016

Hey Peter,

thanks for another nice episode. The opinion of Dschahm ibn Safwan seems to stem from the common misconceptions that usually arise when interpreting corresponding verses like [29:21], [17:54], [48:14], [76:31], [9:27], [10:25] and [35:8].

The fact that Augustine has come to the same conclusions is very interesting, possibly a sign of biblical influence.

I wonder if in the coming episodes some other philosopher deals properly with this issue. (All eyes on Ibn Sina!)


Well, as you'll see questions about determinism and human freedom will indeed come up a lot, in the Asharites, Avicenna, Ghazali etc. Let us know what you think!

said azraf 23 February 2017

thank you  for this awesome lesson and i am very suprised because i am from an arabic country and i am glad that you search in our culture with objectivity i want to communicate with you please and sorry for my bad english because i speak arabic and thank you again 

A.H. 19 May 2017

If theology is 'discussion related to deity', as Augustine of Hippo defines it, to what extent can we call kalam theology? I personally feel that it's common translation as 'Islamic theology' or 'classical Islamic theology' is at times anachronistic and unhelpful. Ibn Khaldun gives a simple definition of kalam as the discussion of Al-Aqai'd Al-Imaniyya, the basic axioms of Iman or faith. But these don't always have to do with the deity. For example Al-Taftazani, in his commentary on Nasafi's creed, often discusses things such as physics, succession to Muhammad, rudimentary political philosophy and even touches on some topics in jurisprudence, such as on mujtahids. Secondly, Sharastani uses terms such as 'the kalam of Aristotle' and other figures, such as Averroes, Ibn Khaldun and Maimonadies also use the term mutakallimun in ways that imply that it was not just reserved for Muslims; Yahya Ibn Adi refers to Christian mutakallimun. Wolfson also points out that the hellenic term for psychist is translated in Arabic as 'Ashab Al-Kalam Al-Tabi'i (masters of the kalam of physics). Personally, I feel that the term 'kalam' was initially used for any kind of scholastic discourse that's subject was not necessarily fiqh or hadith. I also think its a mistake to jump ahead to Mutazili'ah and see them as the first real Muslim philosophers, it overlooks many of their predecessors, such as the Murji'ah, who often discussed and approached simmilar issues as Wasil and his followers did.

Source: Wolfson's book on Kalam and an English translation of Taftazani's commentary

Yes, that's difficult and in fact many scholars (including me sometimes) just leave kalām untranslated. However, though you are right that the term is sometimes used in a broader sense, there is plenty of evidence that the word was claimed for the sort of thing done by the Mu'tazilites and Ash'arites (in fact another text by Ibn 'Adī is a great example: he makes fun of the theologians for calling themselves mutakallimūn, pointing out that other people also have things to say!). There are even texts that ask why this is called kalām, for instance in al-Ījī. So, it is a well-attested usage even if potentially confusing.

I also agree on early philosopher-theologians; actually the idea of describing most early theologians as Mu'tazilites is itself a bit of a retrospective thing and obscures the complexity and diversity of early kalām.

Actually that's not true,  Muʿtazilism is still going strong in subsequent centuries and especially in certain areas it held on for a long time as a dominant approach. Gregor Schwarb and Sabine Schmitdke and her team have done a lot of work on this.

dukeofethereal 23 March 2018

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Politically speaking, it was their end. Theologically speaking, Twelver Shiites took their line of thinking.

Alejandro 5 May 2020

Hi, Peter!

You say that al-Naẓẓām denied the atomic theory of other Mu'tazilites but faced the problem posed by Zeno regarding the impossibility of motion if intervals are infinite divisible. As a solution, he proposes that, when bodies move, they don't have to complete an infinite number of tasks but instead only have to “leap." You say that this means that the world is then like a motion picture, "with seemingly continuous motion in fact emerging from a more fundamental reality of discontinuous bodily arrangements." Two questions: isn't he contradicting himself here? First he says (or you say, I'm not sure), that the world is continuous and later that it is discontinuous. Also, a question about this leaps: does he mean that when moving, a body disappears from point A and reappears at point B without "touching" the infinitely many points that can result from the division of the A-B interval? Or do you mean that it literally leaps as one would leap over a puddle water? If the latter, doesn't this also involve the possibility of traversing an infinite number of points?

Peter Adamson 5 May 2020

In reply to by Alejandro

With the caveat that any reconstruction of his view is speculative, I think it is pretty clear he thought the first: it is more like teleporting than "leaping", so it moves without touching intermediate points. And on the first point, he may have understood space as continuous, but not bodies or motion.

Alejandro 5 May 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you! This is extremely fascinating to me. Do you find this "teleporting" coherent? I know most associate it with science fiction and dismiss it tout court, but I can't find any objection to it, although I’m not entirely sure that the idea makes sense. It’s literally mind-blowing!  It would pose problems of identity, though. How would we be sure that it is the same object at points A and B? And how can bodies not be continuous if they occupy space, which is continuous? Wouldn’t they be divisible in virtue of this?

Yes I agree that there are various problems that arise if the idea is like teleportation. On the other hand maybe it is not all that counterintuitive, as people seem to have no problem with Star Trek - we instinctively accept that is still the same Kirk and Spock after they teleport.

Re. continuity, I would here distinguish between divisibility and continuity. Some atomists (though not usually mutakallimūn, since they have point-like atoms) would say that an atom is continuous but not divisible, i.e. it simply cannot be divided into parts. But if the atom is like a point then it could occupy space, i.e. have a position, without itself being continuous.

Eamon 29 July 2020

Hi Peter,

Would Muhammad have been considered to have perfect knowledge of the Quran as he is the one who recieves the divine message from the angel Gabriel or would Muhammad be more considered as a vessel of the divine message of god and therefore even he must try to understand the Quran?


Interesting question! Perhaps it would depend who you ask and I am not necessarily the right person to ask here, but I think at least all of the philosophical accounts of prophecy I know would definitely assume that Muhammad had perfect knowledge of the Quran's meaning. And even in Kalam I have never seen that put into question.

Navid Rashidian 3 March 2021

Reading about mutakallimun's atomism, I found out that the main objection to Ibrahim Nazzam was that his denial of the existence of atoms made his theory unable to allow motion in the universe. The argument, which seems like an imitation of Zeno, goes as such: a mover needs to reach all points before a point in order to reach that point, hence the number of points before a point must be finite. On the other hand many mutakallims believed that the atoms are neither extended in place, nor in time and they form an extended body when joined together. I cannot reconcile these two views. It seems to me that if atoms are not extended there is no way out of accepting their infinitude in number. Do you have any idea how this is possible?

Yes, that's a good question. The first thing to say here is that views on the details of the atomic theory vary by group and author. Al-Naẓẓām in particular had an unusual view where he solved the problem you refer to (Zeno motion paradoxes) by postulating his notorious "leap" whereby bodies effectively teleport over small distances to avoid passing through an infinity of intermediary points.

But looking at more orthodox theories, it's pretty much always accepted that atoms are "space occupying" but this really just means that atoms have location, as I understand it. The idea is not necessarily that atoms aggregate to form larger, complex bodies: since atoms have no "parts" (they are, indeed, in Arabic called "parts that have no parts" or "parts that cannot be partitioned") the mutakallimūn don't really like to think of the atoms as lining up in rows with their edges touching one another, like very small marbles or whatever. Rather they are more like points that, as I say, occupy space, can move or be at rest, and are seats for other properties. Nonetheless they do qualify as "parts" because God can conjoin the atoms to make a composite body: it might be better to think of them as like points on a grid with a certain region of the grid representing a body. One idea that is important here is that two atoms will not occupy the same location, so as soon as you have two atoms you must have an extension - you might want to imagine empty space between the two atoms here. Opponents of atomism, like Avicenna, really press the mutakallimūn here by challenging them to explain how exactly unextended, or rather partless, atoms could produce a magnitude by being combined.

Navid Rashidian 3 March 2021

In reply to by Peter Adamson

So they'll get a continuous theory of space and a discrete theory of matter. Am I right? (A good question would be that how many atoms fit into the space between two atoms, finite or infinite?) If so, I think they are again susceptible to the Zeno-ish argument. There will be an infinity of points between any two atoms in the continuous space and again motion is deemed impossible. I think some version of the "leap" theory is inevitable anyway. Either space is discrete in which a mover just jumps from one place to the next one, or any mover should carry through an infinite number of places in order to reach B from A.

Peter Adamson 4 March 2021

In reply to by Navid Rashidian

Yes I think that is right conceptually; historically, I believe some kalām authors did accept space atomism too. But it's worth flagging that the problem of how a body can pass through an infinitely divisible space would be equally a challenge for atomists and non-atomists: anyone who rejects space atomism has to deal with the Zeno paradox.

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