In his somewhat polemical book on early Islamic history Robert Reilly analyzes the dichotomous relationship between the Sunni theological schools of Mu’tazila and Ash’ari Islam. Mu’tazila held early primacy, and centered on rationalism as well as a sort of Monophysite understanding of the Godhead. By comparison, the Ash’arite school favored orthodoxy and dogmatism. Ultimately, Ash’arism triumphed, and historical counterfactuals abound relative to how Sunni Islam may have evolved had the Mu’tazila school prevailed.
“In 750, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads, along with their doctrine of predestination. The Abbasids had cause to embrace the Mu’tazilites, who succeeded to the Qadariyya position. The Mu’tazilites agreed with the Qadariyya that, without man’s freedom, God’s justice is unintelligible. To be held justly accountable for his acts, man must be free. The political implications of this position favored the Abbasid attempt to rein in the power of the ulema (Islamic jurisprudential scholars), whose monopoly on the interpretation of the Qur’an gave them great influence.
“The freedom to interpret revelation was based upon the Mu’tazilite teaching, shocking to the traditionalists, that the Qur’an was created in time. The standard orthodox belief was that the Qu’ran is uncreated and exists coeternally with Allah.
“The Mu’tazilites held that man’s freedom is a matter of God’s justice, as is reason’s ability to apprehend an objective moral order.
“How does reason lead man to the conclusion of God’s existence? It is through his observation of the ordered universe that man first comes to know that God exists, says ‘Abd al-Jabbar. As he sees that nothing in the world is its own cause, but is caused by something else, man arrives at the contingent nature of creation. From there, man reasons to the necessity of a Creator, an uncaused cause; otherwise one is caught in an infinite regress of contingent things, a logical impossibility. (This was a familiar argument from both Greek philosophy and Christian apologetics.) It is through the observation of nature – the ways in which the world seems to move according to certain laws – that man comes to know God. God’s laws are the laws of nature (tab’), which are also manifested in divine law, the shari’a.
“The Ash’arites were particularly offended by the Mu’tazilite claim that unaided reason could discern good and evil. They vehemently denied this, and said that the Mu’tazilites were undermining the need for scripture by saying all men had access to this knowledge. If this were so, what would be the need for the Qu’ran (even though the Mu’tazilites held that revelation was necessary for God to make His way clear to man)?
*All excerpts have been taken from The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, ISI Books.