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

August 30th, 2013 by Andrew Bostom |
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(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.” 5Moreover, 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.

Andy has more here.

2 Responses

  1. Good piece. I could even expand on some of the issues presented, but in order to do that I would have to reread a few sources first.

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