Islamic Rationalism: A Missed Opportunity?

On one of my visits to Germany, while walking in the streets of Munich, I bumped into a sheikh whom I know very well. He is famous preacher who began his lectures in mosques and then transitioned to social media. He regularly posts written content and videos that spread through the Muslim community, educating them on Islam. In this article, however, I will refer to him as my friend.

I invited him to have a drink in one of the nearby cafes under a rare Bavarian sun for that time of year.

While we were talking, a poor, shabby, and likely-homeless man who seemed to be of non-German origin walked between the tables and tripped on the ground, almost falling into a table where a woman over sixty was sitting. The lady flew into a rage and shouted at the man, using some racist words that he apparently understood, because he shyly retreated.

Those sitting at the tables near to him hurried to heroically defend him, and rejected the women’s bad treatment. As there was no need for more people to intervene, my friend and I continued observing from a distance.

I expressed to my friend my sadness over this matter and at the same time my joy of witnessing these strangers standing up for this man against what was clearly a discriminatory act.

My friend said: “This is normal, as non-Muslims do not have morals or values, they do not understand that all people are equal, there is no difference between the rich and poor, and God has deprived their hearts of mercy.”

I was shocked by my friend’s words and looked at him in surprise. I couldn’t understand why that was his opinion. Seeing as he is a preacher of knowledge and therefore one who truly understands Islam, I respected his answer.

Yet curiosity got the best of me, so I decided to ask him a question to confirm if I correctly understood his response.

After a few minutes of gazing at the homeless man who slowly proceeded to continue on his way, I turned to my friend and asked him: “Do you think that morality comes from religion?” He looked at me cautiously for a few seconds, then he said, stressing on his words: “Yes, there are no morals without religion, how do you expect morals from someone who does not believe in God? He who does not know God does not fear Him, he has nothing to deter him from doing whatever his lust guides him to.”

The tone of our conversation then became sharp and serious, thus, I had to interrupt him:

“Calm down, Sheikh, this is a conversation, not an interrogation. I am trying to understand your reply in more detail, which is why I have some other questions to truly grasp the meaning of your words.”

“Ask”, my friend replied.

I said: “Is not good and evil the standard of morality, so what is good represents great ethics while what is evil is blameworthy?”

“Yes,” he replied, “the good-doer is rewarded for it, and the evildoer is punished.”

I said: “Yes, this is from God’s justice who enjoins rewards and punishments, yet, what I want you to reach an agreement with me regarding is that good is right and evil is wrong.”

He replied: “Yes, good is right and evil is wrong, and God has commanded us to do right and forbade us from doing wrong.”

“Indeed, God is good, He only commands what is good and does not accept anything but good, so can you please tell me the source of good and evil? Is it the religion that God has revealed or the mind that God has bestowed upon human beings to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong?”

Without considering or thinking of an answer, he rushed to say “Religion is the only source for right and wrong, because a man’s mind is limited and thus, errors are possible. Also, it is subject to forgetfulness and omission, and different minds will lead to different judgments, not to mention people who may be controlled by their whims and desires, so they deviate from the mind, therefore, they are left with nothing except religion as a reliable and trustworthy source.”

These were the exact words of my friend, and I know that the meaning of these arguments makes those who hear them understand that they are undoubtedly correct.

Still, I replied: “What you’ve said is good, but I have one more question: Is religion right and disbelief in God wrong?”

He said “yes,” so I continued: “When a person chooses to be a Muslim or to convert to Islam, has he not chosen correctly and renounced the wrong by distinguishing between the two with his free will? Doesn’t that mean that the mind’s awareness of right and wrong preceded his conversion?”

To my surprise, my friend insisted on his position and categorically dismissed what I said. He told me that this matter is related to guidance because God blesses and honors people with guidance, and thus, He guides whom He wills.

I opposed his statement by pointing out that there are many Muslims who lack good manners and many non-Muslims that are good mannered. Hence, with mindfulness, God’s guidance is to know right and wrong, whether they are believers in God or not.

Then, I returned to the talk about the lady who had not yet left the cafe, “She is apparently not Muslim, but those who stood against and blamed her for what she did, and defended the poor man are also non-Muslims.”

I thought what I’ve said would make my friend reconsider his idea, but perhaps it was wishful thinking.

He instead said: “These are situations that you may encounter, but they do not make a difference or change the basic rule. Actions are done with intentions, and every action that is not sincere to God is rejected, as God created us to worship Him, and we must seek His pleasure in every action, behavior, and attitude.”

I replied: “How easy it is to try to prove your weak opinion by attributing it to religion, while I am trying to make a mindful, wise statement. If the Mu’tazila [a rationalist school of Islamic theology] still existed, perhaps we would not need this debate?”

He was shocked at the mention of the Mu’tazila (the Isolationists). He proceeded to denounce my quotation of a misguided sect, as he put it.

I ignored his opposition and wanted to end the conversation. I looked away from him, thinking of history; the history of the Islamic state and the era of al-Ma’mun, in particular.

History informs us that, despite Wasil Ibn Ata’s admiration and great love for his teacher Al-Hasan Al-Basri, he disagreed with him about whether “the perpetrator of a grave sin” is a believer or an infidel?

The elder scholar considered that he was a “disobedient believer,” but Ibn Ata opposed him, considering the perpetrator of grave sin is between two positions, that is, between disbelief and faith, and that he is neither a believer nor an nonbeliever, but rather merely disobedient.

Furthermore, if he chooses to repent, he returns to his faith, if not, he joins the inhabitants of Hell, an opinion that was neither in the Qur’an, Hadith, nor from any of the Imams.

Therefore, it was the subject of a dialogue between the student and his teacher, in which Ibn Ata preferred to withdraw from his teacher’s study circle to avoid escalating the argument. Al-Basri’s remark? “Wāṣil has withdrawn (iʿtazala) from us,” therefore giving the Mu’tazila their name, even though they referred to themselves as “people of monotheism and justice”.

The Mu’tazilites adopted free opinion as an approach, where nationalism was their path to fight superstition and sorcery. They gave superiority to the mind, stressing that man is responsible for his actions.

This led to the thought that activating the role of the mind in individual, social, and political life as reason, is the first asset in faith and life. The mind can therefore distinguishe between good and evil, and by it the arguments of the Qur’an, Sunnah and consensus are known.


In contrast to prevailing Islamic thought, the Mu’tazilites considered the Abbasid arrival to power a seizure, as the Abbasids aspired to transfer power from the royal Umayyad state to a Shura (consultation) caliphate that would be assumed by Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Hasan, a Mu’tazili imam known as al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (The Pure Soul).

Consequently, the Muʿtazilites rejected the Abbasid Caliphate and revolted against it, which led to their death and imprisonment until the era of Harun al-Rashid, who ordered their release for political and intellectual reasons related to opposing the populist influence of Baramkeh.

Their release led to the change of positions in the eras of al-Mamun, al-Mu’tasim, and al-Wathiq.

However, al-Mutawakkil removed them from state positions, refused their testimony before the judiciary, and cursed them on the pulpits. They prohibited their teachings and debates and forbade them from believing in their principles: monotheism, justice, unity, the warning and the promise, the intermediary position, and the injunction of right and the prohibition of wrong.

Muʿtazila therefore started to fade when al-Mutawakkil assumed power in 846 AD, as he forbade arguing the Qur’an and delving into the major theological debates.

Additionally, Imam Al-Ash’ari, who was one of the Muʿtazila’s major scholars for forty years, turned to the Sunnis and announced his repentance and his apostasy from Muʿtazila. His actions played the final role in eliminating the thought of the Mu’tazila.

Thus, the last generation of Muʿtazila chose to reconcile after two centuries of conflict between them. They found in their alliance with the Buyids an opportunity to regain their lost power, thus violating their basic principles.

This resulted in losing their opportunity to reconcile with the Sunnis. Nevertheless, Muʿtazila lost its core, leaving nothing but a showcase. Thus, the chapter of this sect was ended in the intellectual and political history of Islam. Was eliminating them good, or a lost opportunity that one should regret and grieve?

In fact, the free and rational thought that the Mu’tazila had was an unprecedented intellectual and progressive privilege. Their opinions were reviving and represented developing Islamic thought, especially when it came in defense of the faith to save it from stagnation and fundamentalism.

The Mu’tazila mind, contrary to ancient Greek thought, was not tyranny over everything other than it, and it was not sanctified and made a substitute for belief, as is the case in the West with radical modernity and secular radicals.

The Mu’tazila utilized reason in understanding, clarifying, and interpreting the Al-Shara’, playing a pivotal role in evaluating between right and wrong.

It was able to distinguish between what is “absolute” from the values that the mind holds without scripture, and what is “relative”. These aspects of good and evil are not clear, so it is referred to the scripture and Al-Shara’.

Finally, if it had continued, the humanistic tendency of the Mu’tazila school of thought, which rejects trends based on coercion, could have contributed to the renaissance and progress of human civilization.

However, it must be recognized that the decline of rational intellectual trends, of which the Mu’tazila was its best example, is the main reason for the loss of the East’s progress and civilization “compass”, and the reason for the migration of science to the West.

Perhaps today, we should rethink this lost opportunity by restoring our intention and vision, so that we may return and gain what we lost before.

As for me, perhaps my personal gain at such a time would be having a more enjoyable encounter than the one I had with my friend, a more open conversation in which we defend the human mind and man’s freedom to choose over a a warm drink in a cafe in Munich on a clear day under the Bavarian sun.

Related Articles

Back to top button