Islamic History, part 25: early Islamic theology

We’re getting into a potentially sensitive area (or back into one, since we’ve been down this road before), so I want to preface this by saying that I am not a theologian, I never went to divinity school, and I’m not here to assess the truth claims of any particular religion or sect. I’m covering the development of Islam because it’s impossible to talk about Islamic history without doing that, and my intention is to cover these topics from a historical angle only. In other words, I hope I can limit myself to telling you who practiced what, what their beliefs were, and what they did, without really delving into questions about whose interpretation of Islam makes more spiritual or logical sense. I come at religious topics from an an agnostic perspective, which I would argue is the only one that a historian can really take while he or she is doing history. I don’t claim to know or particularly care whether one or another religion or sect is “better” than any other, but I recognize that you can’t understand human history or culture without understanding the many different ways we’ve worshiped the supernatural over the millennia.

OK, that’s out of the way. Now on to the early development of Islamic theology (or kalam). We’re going to bust out of a strictly chronological view of things and go with a topical approach instead. We’re going to focus primarily on the different schools of early Islamic theology: the Kharijites, the Qadaris, the Murjiʾites, the Muʿtazilites, the Ashʿarites, the Maturidis, and the Atharis. The advantage of this format is that we can break up this very long piece by topic, but the downside is that you may need to refer back to earlier stuff to put things in context.

We’re specifically dealing with the Sunni side of the religion, or rather the non-Shiʿa side — it would be inaccurate to label each of these movements “Sunni” since what we know as Sunnism came in part out of a reaction against some of these early schools of theology. At any rate we’ll talk about the Shiʿa next time. I’m drawing a mostly artificial (though necessary at least for this purpose) distinction by calling what these groups were doing “theology” and putting “philosophy” and “jurisprudence” in separate categories. The thing is, at the time it would have been hard to figure out where one ended and another began (frankly we have a hard enough time doing that today, and that’s after centuries of specialized development within each subject). So keep in mind that these intellectual categories were all talking to each other, knew about each other, built on and reacted to each other’s advances.

I guess the first thing to talk about is why kalam developed in the first place, though that’s a discussion that goes beyond Islam and into, well, every other organized religion that’s ever existed. People are naturally inquisitive, thinking beings, so they like to ask questions. Some of those questions are about Big Things: who we are, why we’re here, how we should live our lives, that sort of thing. For believers in any religion, many of those Big Questions are about the god(s) whom they choose to worship. Any collection of religious believers will have questions: what is God like, how does God want us to act, what will happen to our souls when we die, etc., and they’ll also find themselves in need of answers when challenged by believers in a different, competing faith. Some believers will find answers in their religion’s core text or texts, but as those texts are inevitably products of the times and societies in which they are written, later generations of believers will have more and different questions that require some interpretation or extrapolation from the text rather than a direct reference to the literal text (though even “refer back to the book” is itself a theological statement). For as much as modern Western discourse likes to portray Muslims as all borderline crazy, deeply devout and unthinking believers in some singular and unchanging Islam, the fact is that Muslim thinkers have wrestled with Big Questions with as much sophistication as Western thinkers have, including major questions about their faith, and “Islam” has meant many things to many people at different times in its history.

So with that said, let’s look at how some early Muslim thinkers began to try to understand the contours of the new religion.


We’ve run into the Kharijites a few times in our history, most prominently when they split from, and later assassinated, Ali. It’s a bit misleading to treat the Kharijites as one single thing (although that’s pretty much what I’m going to do anyway), because in reality Kharijism was almost by definition susceptible to a lot of splintering and branching off. Ultimately it wound up as a sort of loose ideological underpinning to a number of divergent leaders and factions throughout the Islamic world (Kharijite leaders had a lot of success amongst North African Berber tribes, for example).

The core tenet of Kharijism was that human authority was ultimately meaningless so long as sinners were permitted to hold it. They took the radical position that anyone who committed a sin put himself or herself outside of God’s ummah (community) and therefore could not be considered a Muslim. Given that the Caliphs were sinners (and most of them clearly were, though you could legitimately argue — lots of philosophers have — that it’s impossible to be a temporal ruler without sinning), as far as the Kharijites were concerned they were not part of the community and therefore could not lead it. They vested power in the Qurʾan, adopting as their slogan the Qurʾanic phrase “The judgment is only God’s” (see Qurʾan 6:57 or 12:40, among other verses), which specifically referred to Ali’s decision to accept arbitration in his dispute with Muʿawiyah but also served to denigrate all Earthly authority.

You can’t have a movement without a leader, though, so despite their supposed rejection of human authority any organized Kharijite faction would have to appoint a leader of some sort. The criteria tended to be simple: the most morally upright should rule, and if he became morally compromised in some way then he should be replaced. You’ll note the absence of any ethnic requirements for the office, and it was Kharijism’s implicit rejection of Arab-ness as a requirement for political authority or advancement (the “most pious” person in the group could be anybody, right?) that made the ideology popular among disenchanted non-Arab groups like the Berbers. On the other hand, the fact that a leader could be supplanted (or could have his followers peeled away by a splinter group) by even the suggestion that he’d sinned meant that Kharijite groups weren’t exactly the most stable organizations around, and oddly enough Muslims who weren’t Kharijites (which is to say the vast majority of Muslims) didn’t care for these zealots running around calling them non-Muslim and then attacking them. As a result, most Kharijites never were able to gain enough traction to flesh out their ideology into a real theology, but they still have to be mentioned in any discussion of early Islamic theology.

The one Kharijite group that did have some staying power was Ibadism, which astute readers will note is the predominant form of Islam in modern Oman. The Ibadis relaxed the harsh condemnation of sinners, treating them as “ingrates” rather than “apostates” as more extreme Kharijites would. The major contribution that Kharijism made, particularly via the Ibadis, was to introduce the concept of “free will” into the Islamic framework. A just God wouldn’t severely punish sinners if they’d been pre-ordained to commit their sin, right? So it must be that those sinners freely chose to do wrong, that they were responsible for their own moral failings. Early Islam seems to have been pretty deterministic, so this was a genuine new theological development, and the free will/pre-determined debate would permeate Islamic theology right up to the present day.


Part of the reason that determinism was so popular in early Islam was that it let the early caliphs — i.e., the Umayyads — off the hook for a lot of their abuses and deviations from the example of Muhammad and the Rashidun caliphs. Whenever the Umayyads’ credentials for governing were questioned, they could simply point out that they were, in fact, in power as evidence that God must have wanted them to have power. That’s a pretty specious case for political legitimacy, and it may help to explain why the Umayyads couldn’t even manage a full century in power.

The Kharijites obviously disputed this interpretation of the cosmos, but so did less extreme groups like the followers of Hasan al-Basri (d. 728). He was frequently critical of the Ummayad caliphs’ various moral failings, albeit more gently than the Kharijites, and while this occasionally caused him trouble the authorities seem to have concluded that, all things considered, it was better to allow his brand of mild, pietistic criticism to continue. Among his other teachings, Hasan taught that God was the source of all good in the world, but only the good; evil, on the other hand, was a product of human action and Satan’s malign influence. For Hasan, a sinner couldn’t get away with “God made me do it,” the way they could under a deterministic theology. He backed up his assertions in this regard with reference to several Qurʾanic verses (the most famous of these is probably 2:256, “there is no compulsion in religion”).

The problem with ascribing free will to humans in the context of a religion like Islam is that, while it solves the problem of eternally punishing people for their sins (which, again, would be sadistic if those sins weren’t actually of their own doing), it risks diminishing God on some level. A God that predetermines our actions is a God who’s in total control of His creation; conversely, if people have free will, maybe it’s because God allows it, but maybe it’s because there’s nothing He can do about it. At any rate, omnipotence kind of loses some of its luster if any old Joe Blow can come along and do whatever he wants, even if it’s not what God wants him to do. Hasan argued that God knows everything that we humans will elect to do in our lives, but He doesn’t force us to do them, which seems like a bit of a cop out to me (if God already knows what I’m going to do next, aren’t I constrained to do whatever it is that God knows I’m going to do?), but certainly manages to dodge, or at least mitigate, the problem of diminishing God.

However, there were other free will advocates (and the boundary between Qadari and Kharijite in these early days was probably pretty fluid) who went so far as to claim that God had no control or foreknowledge of human actions at all. These folks were generally not acceptable to the political authorities, nor did they get a lot of traction with the rest of the community. They took on the name “Qadari,” which derives from the Arabic root Q-D-R, meaning “decree” or “power.” Confusingly, the word qadr actually means “fate” or “predestination,” but the “free will” side of the free will/predestination debate became known as Qadariyah. The majority, deterministic, view became known as Jabariyah, derived from jabr (also “power,” but more elemental/physical — a giant or strongman could be called jabbar). As with the Kharijites, the Qadaris didn’t do much on their own to shape Islamic theology, but their ideas on free will had a considerable impact on important groups that arose later on.


The Qadaris and (especially) the Kharijites developed out of the violent disputes that surrounded Ali’s accession to the caliphate and the subsequent civil war, but even putting those radical groups aside the whole community was caught up in what on some level amounted to a dispute between supporters of the Umayyads and supporters of Ali. As inevitably happens any time two opposing factions violently disagree, a third faction forms out of the folks who either genuinely believe that the two sides should compromise, or who may agree with one side over the other but reject the violence on principle. By the time the Second Fitna was over, these middle-of-the-road types were joined by the dispirited followers of the late Ibn al-Zubayr, who had really been fighting on behalf of the compromise candidate in the Umayyad-Alid dispute.

These middle-grounders condemned both the Umayyads, for ordering that local prayer leaders curse Ali in their sermons, and the Alids, who treated Uthman with the same contempt. They argued that, contrary to the beliefs of the Kharijites (who hated Ali and Uthman pretty much equally), it was not the place of Muslims to judge the worthiness of their fellow Muslims. Their belief in a deferred judgment that belonged to God alone at the End of Days is what gave them their name (murjiʾah derives from the Arabic word irjaʾ, “deferred”). This didn’t mean that they thought everybody should be free to do whatever they wanted because God would sort it out later; they were law-abiding folks who furthermore believed that contemporary rulers should be held to standards of morality and justice. They just didn’t believe it was the community’s place to judge past rulers, or to go around defining who was or wasn’t a “true” Muslim based on their deeds. Faith alone determined who was or wasn’t Muslim as far as the Murjiʾah were concerned; if you believe, then you’re in the club.

The Murjiʾah, like the Kharijites (which is ironic, since their teachings were really at odds with one another), tended to be popular among non-Arab converts to the new faith, because their refusal to apply judgmental criteria to a person’s “Muslim-ness” meant that they rejected the idea that non-Arabs were somehow “lesser” Muslims than Arabs. They also tended to be popular in places with a lot of potential for sectarian violence (Iraq, basically). Some Murjiʾah, like the 8th century Central Asian rebel leader al-Harith b. Surayj (d. 746), also tackled the question of predestination vs. free will, mostly coming down on the side of predestination. In al-Harith’s case, he apparently got around the sadism of a deity who eternally punishes sinners who had no choice but to sin by arguing that punishment in Hell wasn’t actually eternal. A later Murjiʾah, Dirar b. Amr (d. ~800) argued that God “created” human actions but that humans somehow “acquired” them from Him, along with the responsibility for them; he also argued that human beings couldn’t only be considered “believers” or “non-believers,” saying that there must be a third category for “believers who have committed serious sin.”

Murjiʾah also began to tackle other cosmological questions, particularly the question of God’s attributes. There are deep theological debates running through Islamic history over the nature of God and the way He is described in the Qurʾan and other religious texts. For example, when a text describes God “sitting on His throne,” is a reader to take that literally? What about references to, say, the “Hand of God” or to God “seeing” this or that? Should we imagine God having hands and eyes more or less like human beings do? The Murjiʾah view on this question was that these references are figures of speech, that anthropomorphizing God in a literal sense limits God and is therefore inappropriate. Talking about God’s intangible attributes (His “wisdom,” for example) must similarly be allegorical; some Murjiʾah explained that such descriptions must be understood in negative terms (so then a mention of God’s “wisdom” really means that God is not unwise, rather than positively identifying a particular attribute of God). The final question, which was only beginning to be considered in the 8th century, was the nature of the Qurʾan itself. Was the Qurʾan created by God or was it His eternal Word? How could the Qurʾan be co-eternal with God; wouldn’t that make the Qurʾan somehow God’s equal? Here mainstream Sunnism held (and still holds) that the Qurʾan was co-eternal with God, but the Murjiʾah (to the extent that they tackled this question at all) seem to have gone with the idea that it must have been created by God and was not, therefore, co-eternal with Him.

The most famous early Murjiʾah is a man named Abu Hanifa (d. 797), who founded one of the four major Sunni legal systems (the Hanafi school) that came to predominate Islamic Law. We’ll be talking about him in greater detail later, when we get to the development of jurisprudence.


We’re getting into second-order theological schools now, since the Muʿtazilah really developed out of some of the ideas that were pioneered by the Qadaris and the Murjiʾah. They believed in free will like the Qadaris and rejected anthropomorphism like the Murjiʾah, but to these basic beliefs they added a strong overarching belief in the idea that the precepts of the faith must accord with what human beings know to be rational, something they developed from the Greek philosophical tradition that began to penetrate Islamic thought in the 8th century. The movement’s origins are usually traced back to a disciple of Hasan al-Basri named Wasil b. Ata (d. 748), who fell out with his teacher (over that Murjiʾi idea of an intermediate category of sinful believers) and was then called a muʿtazili (“someone who withdraws”). It was a later figure, Abu al-Hudayl al-Allaf (d. 841), though, who really formalized Muʿtazilah doctrine into five core beliefs, probably the first formal declaration of doctrine in Islamic history:

  1. tawhid (“unity”): monotheism but on steroids; an absolute belief in God’s oneness and uniqueness
  2. adl (“justice”): belief that God is completely just and would never act in an unjust manner
  3. al-waʿd wa al-waʿid (“the promise and the threat”): belief that whatever a person’s final disposition may be (Heaven or Hell), it was eternal and unchangeable
  4. al-manzilah bayn al-manzilatayn (“the position between the two positions”): belief in the intermediary status of believers who commit grave sin (they’re not quite full believers, but they’re not unbelievers either)
  5. al-amr bil maʿruf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar (“commanding the good and forbidding the evil”): the belief that all Muslims are responsible for seeing that good is done and evil is stopped

The Muʿtazilah really stressed the idea of God’s unity. You can’t literally apply attributes to God, like “wisdom” or a “hand,” according to the Muʿtazilah, because in theory those attributes could be separated from the whole, so they were rationally incompatible with a God whose chief characteristic was His inseparable oneness. They were so categorical on this issue that other Sunnis, even those who were inclined to see descriptions of God’s “physical attributes” as allegorical, at times accused Muʿtazilites of denying that God had qualities like wisdom, kindness, etc.

Where the Muʿtazilah sharply diverged from other Muslims was over the creation or eternal existence of the Qurʾan; rationally, they insisted, God must have created the Qurʾan, since it is His Word, and so it could not have eternally existed. Most other Sunnis fundamentally disagreed with this position, and produced lots of evidence (mostly Hadith) supporting the idea that God’s Word had been with God all along. Unfortunately for those other Sunnis, the Muʿtazili position found favor in the Abbasid court, particularly beginning with the reign of al-Maʾmun. By the time his brother, al-Muʿtasim (d. 842), succeeded him, Muʿtazilah was so entrenched at court that the new caliph began what amounted to an inquisition, called the mihna, to root out and punish non-Muʿtazilah thinking. We’ll talk much more about this later.

The Muʿtazilah also really stressed the idea of God’s justice, and also in ways that alienated most Sunnis. See, the idea that God would never act in an unjust way can be rephrased as “God is constrained to always act justly,” and the idea of constraining God is something that doesn’t sit well with mainstream Islamic thinking. The reduction of God’s judgment to a sort of rote box-checking also arguably precludes interventions (like praying for the souls of the departed), which is a bummer at least and definitely doesn’t accord with how most monotheists imagine the afterlife is run. On the other hand, this is absolutely a free will doctrine. People can do as they will and God will judge them accordingly in time. Rationally (there’s that word again), the Muʿtazilah believed, this position was the only one that could reconcile the idea of eternal judgment with the idea of a God who was good. This theology was prepared to downplay or even sacrifice the idea of an all-powerful God if it conflicted with the idea of an all-good God.

Muʿtazilah isn’t really found within Sunni Islam nowadays, but many of its tenets migrated over to (or were shared with) Shiʿi Islam, as we will see.


The direct reaction to the Muʿtazilah came in the form of the Athari, who rejected all of this kalam stuff as nonsense and innovation, and insisted that everything a person needed to know about Islam could be found in a strict, literal reading of the Qurʾan. Human reason, the Atharis say, is useless in matters of faith, so it makes no sense for humans to try to study their faith in this way.

During the mihna, as we will see, a group rose in strong opposition to the Muʿtazilah, called the Hanbalis after their leader, Ahmad b. Hanbal. The Hanbalis, who morphed into another of the four major Sunni legal schools (so, like the Hanafis, we’ll spend more time on them later), rejected the idea that the Qurʾan was created and believed in the literalism of anthropomorphic descriptions of God. If the book says God has a hand, for example, He must have a hand.

The teachings of Ibn Hanbal not only led to the creation of an entire, hyper-conservative legal school, but they also led to this strange theology that really rejects the very idea of theology altogether. It became known as athari after an Arabic root that can mean “works,” “relic,” or “writings” (in the sense of ancient writings), but here means “textualism” for obvious reasons.


Now we’re really getting into something that begins to look like modern mainstream Sunnism. Whatever mainstream “Sunni” theology was before the advent of the Ashʿaris was largely defined in the negative — it’s not Shiʿi, it’s not Khariji, it’s not Muʿtazili, etc. — and it was the Ashʿaris who finally expressed what mainstream Sunnism (at least part of it) actually was. The Ashʿaris grew out of a reaction to the Muʿtazilah just as the Atharis did, but without the Atharis total rejection of rationality. While Ibn Hanbal was arguing that the idea of an anthropomorphic God must be taken literally, other thinkers were trying to, let’s say, massage the implications of that idea.

Here’s the thing: most people like the idea of a literally anthropomorphic God. He’s a lot easier to understand that way, for one thing, and for another thing all those scriptural references to His anthropomorphic attributes can be read literally instead of esoterically. But anthropomorphizing God does, let’s be honest, limit the guy, sticking him in some recognizably human form with defined hands, eyes, feet, a chair, etc., and serious theologians often struggle with rationalizing that figure with the notion of an all-powerful supernatural deity. Ibn Hanbal outright rejected the idea that God must be bound by rationality, so he didn’t really care that his position was irrational. But while his ideas on this front had a lot of popular appeal, there were still scholars who rejected the Muʿtazili argument that the Qurʾan somehow doesn’t really mean what it says, yet were uncomfortable with the implications of Ibn Hanbal’s teachings, which amounted to saying that a true believer should check his or her brain at the door. For them, the whole thing was a bit confounding.

The solution that stuck to the present day was presented by a fellow named Abu al-Hasan al-Ashʿari (d. 936), who broke from the Muʿtazilah and adopted a lot of Hanbali beliefs, but tried to make them more rationally cohesive with the view of God’s unity and power. How did he do this? Well, he did it by basically punting on the whole question. Al-Ashʿari borrowed and modified Ibn Hanbal’s concept of bi-la kayf (“without how”). When the omnipotent, omnipresent God is described as having human features in the Qurʾan, the believer (according to Ibn Hanbal and al-Ashʿari) should accept that as true, bi-la kayf — without understanding how it’s true. Can the Qurʾan, as the Word of God, be co-eternal with the God who is to have spoken it? Sure! How is that possible? Who knows? Can people be held eternally responsible for their actions even if their actions are predetermined? You bet; people could be said to have the power to act, but not the choice to act in a different way from what was preordained! How could anybody be held responsible for their actions under a framework like that? Uh, bi-la kayf, man! It all makes sense, we just don’t understand how, and we don’t have to. Contrary to the Muʿtazilah, who valued God’s goodness over His power, the Ashʿaris emphasized His power over His goodness. God had to be omnipotent, even if that made Him a jerk.

Now, you may say that this sort of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ treatment of the question “how” isn’t rational at all, and I’d be inclined to agree, except that al-Ashʿari sort of intended bi-la kayf as a middle ground (well, not exactly in the “middle,” but you get the idea) between a group that was demanding the complete reconciliation of faith and rationality (well, as complete as you can get when you’re talking about religion) and a group (Ibn Hanbal and the Atharis) that explicitly rejected rationality as incompatible with faith in any way. The position that “it’s rational, but we just don’t know how, so take it on faith” is definitely more rational than the position that rationality itself is straight BS.


Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 944) was an Iranian man born in Samarkand (in modern Uzbekistan), and he expanded upon the work of Abu Hanifa, the Murjiʾ/Muʿtazili scholar whose work we’ll look at in greater detail when we talk about jurisprudence. This took him toward a sort of middle ground between Muʿtazilah and the Ashʿaris. Maturidis, for example, have no issue with ascribing attributes to God (something that extreme Muʿtazili would largely reject), but unlike the Ashʿaris they argue that anthropomorphic descriptions of God are to be taken more or less allegorically. Maturidis are also closer to the Muʿtazilah in their view of the capacity for human reason to discern right from wrong (the Ashʿari view is that unaided human reason could not make those judgments for itself). The Muʿtazilah would argue that reason alone is powerful enough to understand God and to discern right from wrong, but the Maturidis would come down sort of in the middle, arguing that reason is the path to knowing God and understanding right and wrong, but only because God made it that way.

Another point of contention between the Maturidis and the Ashʿaris has to do with the concept of sin as it relates to faith versus piety (the outward manifestation of faith). The Maturidis, again more like the Muʿtazilah and even the Murjiʾah, argue that sin affects piety but not faith, while the Ashʿaris (and the Atharis, see below), argue that sin impacts the level of one’s faith itself. This comes back to the question of free will, where the Maturidis again were closer to the Muʿtazilah than the Ashʿaris (they argued, for example, that the Ashʿari tenet that a person can have responsibility for an act that he or she didn’t choose to commit was nonsensical).

The question of the creation or eternal nature of the Qurʾan keeps coming up in these disputes, and in the more nuanced formulations of the Ashʿaris and Maturidis it begins to depend on how you define “the Qurʾan.” Is it God’s word? Is it the specific words that God related to Muhammad? Is it the written text that was transcribed from Muhammad’s recitation of those specific words? For the Atharis the whole shebang was co-eternal with God, and for the Muʿtazilis all of it was created by God at some fixed point in time. The Ashʿaris held that the revelation to Muhammad and the transcription of the text couldn’t possibly have been co-eternal with God (they knew when those things happened, after all), but that the Qurʾan-as-Word-of-God was co-eternal. Al-Maturidi himself mocked this position as having “even less validity than the opinion of the Muʿtazilah,” mostly because, again, it sort of hashes out part of the issue (the revelation must be created) and then punts on the rest.

The Maturidiyah benefited greatly from later political developments in the Islamic World. The movement was virtually unknown outside of Central Asia, while the great theological dispute of the Caliphal period was between the Ashʿaris and the Muʿtazilis. But it happened to become the version of Islam to which the Saljuq Turks would convert in the 10th century, and when those guys and their confederated tribal army swept west through the Islamic world in the 11th century, all the way into what had been Roman Anatolia, they carried the Maturidiyah along with them. Most modern Sunnis will fall somewhere in the range from Athari on the one end to Maturidi on the other, though the Ashʿari school is the most influential. They’re all closely linked to particular legal schools (especially the Maturidiyah, who are aligned tightly with the Hanafi legal school), but we’re not ready to talk about those yet so let’s table them.

Next time: The early Shiʿa

Further Reading:

Theology most definitely isn’t my bag, so I relied pretty heavily on a couple of scholarly works:

The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, edited by Tim Winter, is really quite good, and I relied here on the second essay, “The Early Creed,” by Khalid Blankinship.

As usual, Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam, vol 1 was part of my reading for this piece.

Islamic Philosophy and Theology, by W. Montgomery Watt.

Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, by Ignaz Goldziher

Also helpful was the Encyclopaedia of Islam, though I definitely wouldn’t recommend you go read that unless you have to.


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