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THE EMERGENCE OF THE SCHOOLS OF ISLAMIC THOUGHT

By Mufti Yaseen Shaikh

Differences in views and opinions are something that is found naturally in every Community, Religion and Nation. Likewise, this also took place in the Religion of Islam. Sometimes they were of a different nature i.e merely due to prejudice reasons and also some were of a political nature. In this essay I will try my utmost to outline the major differences that occurred in the Theological aspects of the Religion of Islam. Also, I will outline the main groups, their ideologies and basic beliefs and how they emerged in the society.

The groups I will speak about are, Kharijites, Shiites, M’utazilites, and also the Sunnis. I will start with the Kharijites.

1.KHARIJITES or KHAWARIJ: This is derived from the root word ‘kharaja’ which means ‘to go out’.[1]

In literal terms, the word Khawarij may refer to any group, which has separated themselves from the majority or any group who rebels against the government. We come to now this from the letter sent by Ibn-Ibad to the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik’.

Montgomery Watt writes: “According to this the Caliph seems to have meant by the term ‘Khawarij’ all those groups actively engaged in risings against the government”. [2]

The first group of Kharijites emerged in the time of ‘Ali’ the fourth Caliph. They were a group of people who were supporting Ali in the fierce battle that erupted between Ali and Mu’awiyah. The battle they say was due to a political reason. Some say that Mu’awiyah didn’t recognize the leadership of Ali and for this reason didn’t pledge allegiance to him. On the other hand, some say that the war took place because Mu’awiyah, a kinsman of Uthmaan and also the governor of Syria during his leadership wanted to take revenge on those people who took part in the killing of the previous Caliph, ‘Uthmaan’. Whatever the case, this battle took place in ‘Siffin’ on the upper Euphrates. The war occurred because there was a difference of opinion on the killing of Uthmaan as to, was it just or unjust. There was no result to the war except the fact that both parties agreed to send one man from amongst them who will try to end the dispute according to the principles of the Qur’an. It was on this occasion that the Kharijites emerged saying that there is no reason to have men making the decision. Only the Book, i.e The Qur’an will decide. These were people who were from the supporters of Ali.

Shahrastani writes: “The Khawarij themselves were the ones who initially prepared Ali to send a person from amongst them to try and end the dispute. When Ali appointed Abdullah Ibn Abbas these people were not pleased. They said, “He is from your family.” Then they persisted to send ‘Abu Musa Ash’ari’. Even though Ali was not pleased with this decision the matter settled on his sending. Due to the unhappiness of Ali, the Khawarij left claiming ‘No judgment but Allah’s’. Then they left the battle and gathered at a place called ‘Nahrawan’.” [3]

When separating from Ali, the leader of the Kharijites was ‘Abdullah Ibn al-Kawa’ but the first leader they appointed upon themselves was Abdullah Ibn Wahab al-Rabisi al-Azdi. [4]

Some of the early famous Kharijites were: Ikrimah, Abu Harun al-Abdi, Abu Sha’saa, Ismail Ibn Samee’. From the later famous Kharijites were: Al-Yaman Ibn Rabab, Abdullah Ibn Yazeed, Muhammad Ibn Harb and Yahya Ibn Kamil. [5]

This was just a brief note on how they emerged. Now I will outline their basic beliefs and doctrines.

The reason for their separation was that they believed that Ali and Mu’awiyah were making men as the authority to make judgments and to do so while the Qur’an is present is not permissible. Therefore, both Ali and Mu’awiyah are wrongdoers in the eyes of the Kharijites.

They also believe that a person who commits a major sin termed ‘Kabira’ in Arabic immediately leaves the fold of Islam. He no longer remains a Muslim and instead enters into disbelief. [6]

Also one of their beliefs is that one must claim that he is free from the actions of Uthmaan and Ali. This is also a condition for getting married according to them. 7]

They also believe that if the Ruler is opposing the ‘Sunnah’ in any of his rulings then to leave him and oppose him openly is an obligatory right. [8]

The Azaariqa are one of the major groups from amongst the Khawarij. Shahrastani has outlined their beliefs. He writes: Their belief is that Ali had committed an act of disbelief. Also, Uthmaan, Talha, Zubair, Aaisha and Abdullah Ibn Abbas and all the other Muslims with them are non-believers and therefore will stay in the hell-fire forever.

It is allowed to kill the children and wives of the people who oppose them from amongst them.

An adulterous person shouldn’t be pelted to death due to the fact that there is no mention of this in the Qur’an and also the children of the Polytheists that die before reaching the age of puberty will be with their parents in the hell-fire. Also, to sit and ignore war is an act of disbelief. [9]


2. SHIITES: The meaning of the word ‘Shia’ means party or group. In Islamic terms, Shia refers to that group who exaggerated in their love and support of Ali, the fourth Caliph. Aaisha Bewley writes defining the term ‘Shia’: lit. A party or faction, specifically the party who claim that Ali should have succeeded the Prophet as the first Caliph and that the leadership of the Muslims rightfully belongs to his descendant. [10]

This group started to emerge from the time of Uthmaans martyrdom in 36 A.H. Some scholars say that they started to emerge from the battle that took place between Ali and Aaisha or from the battle of Ali and Mu’awiyah in 37 A.H. Whatever the case, their claim was that Ali was treated unjustly in aspects related to the leadership. He was the rightful Caliph instead of those who preceded him in taking up this post. This belief that occurred in the hearts of some were brought through Abdullah Ibn Saba, a shrewd and notorious Jew from Yemen. He resided Madinah with the intention and motive of observing the weaknesses that were coming about in the Muslims and then to spread some of his own ideas amongst the weakened ones. He outwardly embraced Islam but at heart was a Jew. He claimed that the succession to the Caliphate belongs solely to the family of the Prophet.

The weakened Muslims were influenced by his ideas and they started to spread them throughout the Islamic empire. His followers were known as Saba’is.

Now I will briefly mention some of their ideas and beliefs.

1. Imamate: Imamate means leadership. The shi’as have differed from the mainstream in this belief more than anything else. This is the core element of shi’ite doctrine. They believe that Ali, the son in law of the Prophet was the rightful successor of the Prophet.

Moojan Momen writes: “To the Shi’is, however, the succession to the Prophet is a matter of the designation by the Prophet of an individual (Ali) as Imam. Each Imam designates his successor during his lifetime.” [11]

2. Taqiyyah (Dissimulation)

Tabatabai has defined Taqiyya saying: Our aim is to discuss that kind of Taqiyya in which a man hides his religion or certain of his religious practices in situations that would cause definite or probable danger as a result of the actions of those who are opposed to his religion or particular religious practices. [12]

3. Tabarra- (To free or to exempt)

This is one of the practices adopted by the Shiites in relations to the Companions of the Prophet Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthmaan and many more. They believe that these people were merely there for power and nothing else and after the death of the Prophet they renounced Islam. For this reason the Shi’as exempt and free themselves from them.

The Shi’as like to slander the rightly guided Caliphs that preceded Ali and also they slander Aaisha the wife of the Prophet with all sorts of abuses.

4. Mut’ah (Contract or temporary marriage)

According to Shi’as this is not only lawful but also recommended that a man can marry a woman with the intention of divorcing her after a period of time which could even be a couple of days. According to the Sunnis, this is totally unacceptable.

Tabatabai has tried to justify this by saying that even people in permanent marriages sometimes fall into illegitimate sexual relations. So for this reason the way out is that we make this legal for him by making the contract marriage permissible.

3. MU’TAZILITES (Rationalists)

This is the third school I will like to discuss. The word ‘Mu’tazili’ stems from the root word ‘a’zala’, which means to separate. Aisha Bewley writes defining a Mu’tazilte: “Someone who adheres to the school of the Mu’tazila which is rationalist in its approach to existence. The term means ‘ withdrawers’ because they withdrew to an intermediate position as regards the evaluation of grave and lesser sins, holding to the position that someone who commits a wrong action is neither a believer nor an unbeliever. They also opposed the view that the Qur’an was eternal and uncreated, believing that this would compromise the uniqueness of Allah.” [13]

They call themselves ‘Ahl al-‘adl wa’t-tawhid’ (The people of justice and unity). ‘Justice’, because they say that human actions are not predetermined by Allah or it would be unjust for god to reward or punish people; ‘unity’, because they reject the attribution of any physical and human qualities to Allah, saying that Allah not only is unique, but also he has no multiplicity within him. They hold the view that all anthropomorphic expressions in the Qur’an must be interpreted as metaphors and images, and must not be understood literally. [14]

Montgomery Watt explains the origins of this school in his book ‘The formative period of Islamic thought’. He says, “The account of the origins of Mu’tazilism given by ash-Shahrastani is widely accepted as the standard one, not least among occidental Islamists. According to this account someone once asked al-Hasan al-Basri whether they should regard the grave sinner as a believer or an unbeliever. While al-Hasan hesitated, Wasil ibn Ata’, one of those in the circle, burst into the circle with the assertion that the grave sinner was neither, but was in an intermediate position (manzila bayn al-manzilatayn) literally a position between the two positions. He then withdrew to another pillar of the mosque, followed by a number of those in the circle, whereupon al-Hasan remarked ‘Wasil has withdrawn (i’tazala) from us’. From this remark came the name Mu’tazila. [15]

Now I will highlight some of their beliefs. Some of their beliefs are apparent from the definitions provided above. There are five main principles that are called the ‘Usool al-Khamsah’ (The five principles). These are the fundamental beliefs of the Mu’tazilites. All their other beliefs stem from these five. Doctor Ahmad Mahmud Subhi has highlighted them in the contents of his book ‘Fi I’lm al-Kalam’. He has also gone into depth whilst discussing them in which he has provided us with some valuable and useful information. The Principles are: 1. Tawhid (unity). 2. ‘Adl (justice). 3. Al-Wa’d wal-Wa’eed (the promise and the threat). 4. Al-Manzila bayn al-manzilatayn (the intermediate position). 5. Al-Amr bil-Ma’ruf wal-Nahy an al-Munkar (commanding the good and forbidding the evil). [16]

Here is a brief commentary on the five principles.

Tawhid: The oneness of god. The Muslims unanimously agree upon the oneness of Allah whereas the Mu’tazilites take another meaning. For Allah unity means that he is free and pure from all of the physical and human qualities according to them. [17]

They interpret all those verses of the Qur’an in which the literal meaning shows that Allah has a hand or face or eyes. [18]

From this view of theirs comes the belief of the Qur’an being created. They say this because they do not believe that the Qur’an is a quality of Allah like his other qualities that are uncreated and eternal. They believe that the Qur’an is created because it contains threats and also rewards and orders. If we take the Qur’an to be eternal, then it is necessary that there be such people who the orders and the laws of the Qur’an apply or imply to at all times, where as, in believing that the Qur’an is uncreated, this is impossible, because there has always been a particular time in which there was no one but Allah. Now, if we take the Qur’an to be eternal then whom will the laws apply to in those times. [19]

‘Adl: Justice. This means that Allah is just and will treat his servants in a just manner. The belief of predestination comes from this. That is, Allah hasn’t destined the actions of a person. Otherwise if he did then on the Day of Judgment he would have no right to reward or punish him, as he would be going against the quality of justness. From this also stems the belief of freewill, that man has a choice to do as he wishes. He is not forced to do what Allah has destined for him. If he was forced into his actions then how can he be made responsible for his actions and also accountable for them? If these were predestined and man was forced into his actions then this will be pulling Allah towards being an oppressor, something that is impossible for Allah.

The promise and the threat: This is a subsidiary of the previous belief and principle. I.e. Now that we know that Allah is just and that man is not forced into his actions, instead he has freewill we come to a stage where we will say that Allah has rightfully promised for those who fulfill his commandments a great reward and also threatened those who went against them.

The intermediate position: This is their belief in regards to a person who has indulged in a major sin. He will not be classified an unbeliever nor will he be called a believer. Instead, he is in a stage between the two. So this is exactly in the middle of the belief of the Kharijites and the Sunnis.

Commanding the good and forbidding the evil: This is the only principle from the five that is related to actions. All the others were related to ideologies. The Mu’tazilites apart from Abu Bakr Asamm have agreed upon the necessity of this action for the purpose is that good should not be wasted and evil should not occur. [20]

4. SUNNIS: This is the fourth and last group I will like to mention. They existed ever since the beginning of Islam and their beliefs are in line with those of the companions of the Prophet. Also, they are the mainstream of the Muslim nation. The beliefs of the Sunnis have always been dominant throughout the Muslim empire and all the early rulers of the Muslims were of these beliefs. The parties that opposed these rulers were the ones that started to differ in beliefs also.

Above was a brief discussion on the early schools of Islamic thought.
  1. The Hans Wehr Dictionary of modern written Arabic. P. 231. Published in New York 1976
  2. The formative period of Islamic thought. P. 16. Montgomery Watt. Published in Oxford 1998
  3. Al-Milal wal-Nihal. P. 92. Shahrastani. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 2000.
  4. Footnotes 5 and 6 of Al-Milal wal-Nihal. P. 92. Shahrastani. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 2000.
  5. Al-Milal wal-Nihal. P.109&110. Shahrastani. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 2000.
  6. Sharh al-Aqaa’id al-Nasafi. P. 83. Published in Multan, Pakistan.
  7. Al-Milal wal-Nihal. P. 92. Shahrastani. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 2000
  8. Ibid
  9. Al-Milal wal-Nihal. P. 96&97. Shahrastani. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 2000
  10. A Glossary Of Islamic Terms, p. 21. Aaisha Bewley. Published in London 1998.
  11. An Introduction to Shi’i Islam. P.147. Moojan Momen. Published by Yale University Press 1985
  12. SHI’A, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, p. 223. Published in Qum, Iran
  13. A Glossary Of Islamic Terms, p. 190. Aaisha Bewley. Published in London 1998.
  14. A Glossary Of Islamic Terms, p. 179. Aaisha Bewley. Published in London 1998.
  15. The formative period of Islamic thought. P. 209. Montgomery Watt. Published in Oxford 1998
  16. Fi I’lm al-Kalam, p.355. Ahmad Mahmud Subhi. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 1985.
  17. Fi I’lm al-Kalam, p.121. Ahmad Mahmud Subhi. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 1985
  18. Fi I’lm al-Kalam, p.126. Ahmad Mahmud Subhi. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 1985
  19. Fi I’lm al-Kalam, p.131. Ahmad Mahmud Subhi. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 1985
  20. Fi I’lm al-Kalam, p.166. Ahmad Mahmud Subhi. Published in Beirut, Lebanon 1985