The Modern Mu’tazila

In the name of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful []

Introduction: The Shock-and-Awe of Western Knowledge, created by their global conquest, colonization, and apparent success, has created a deep sense of inferiority among the Muslims today. This is what I have called the Second Crisis of Knowledge in the Islamic Civilization. This crisis is all encompassing, and requires a massive and multi-dimensional effort on many different fronts to counter-act and cure. Some aspects are discussed in the post below. This post is the FIRST of a series designed to develop and articulate an Islamic World-View, to counteract the poisons of a Eurocentric worldview which we all imbibe during the course of a Western education.  I plan to make weekly postings on different aspects of this problem on this blog, which I have re-named to An Islamic WorldView — for subsequent posts on this topic, see: Re-Learning Islam

The Second Crisis of Knowledge in the Islamic Civilization:

There is universal agreement that the teachings of Islam created a revolution in history. The Quran emphasizes the importance of the final message of God, the greatest Gift of God to humanity, in several verses; for example:

This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion

The message of Quran, planted in the hearts of men, transformed ignorant and backwards Arabs into the leaders of the world. The civilization that they created dominated the Earth for a thousand years. The Enlightenment Quran (by Ziad Al-Marsafy) documents how Islamic teachings, acquired via the re-conquest of Andalus, ended the Dark Ages of Europe. Thomas Jefferson’s Quran (by Denise Spielberg) describes the deep influence of the Quran on Jefferson, and on the shaping of the Constitution of the USA. A large amount of recent research shows both the strong influence of Islamic ideas on shaping modern civilization, and also, the suppression of this fact in standard Eurocentric accounts of human history.

The burning question of central importance is: Does this message have the same value today as it did 1400 years ago? Can it create a revolution within the hearts of men, and can it turn the tides of history, like it did once before?

The European answer is a clear and definite NO – The message of Islam was perfect for its own time, but is now seriously obsolete and out-of-date.

The position of the Modern Mu’tazila is similar to that of the Europeans. They argue that if Islam had solutions to offer to our modern problems, then we would not see the Ummah in the desperate conditions that we find it today. They argue that all that was good and perfect in the teachings of Islam has already been incorporated into the Western corpus of knowledge. Furthermore, the West has made substantial progress and advances, while we have slid back into ignorance, and today our salvation lies in following them. We Muslims are living in the Dark Ages of Jahilliya again, and the only path to our enlightenment lies in learning from the West.

The problem of the Modern Mu’tazila (MM), like that of the Ancient Mu’tazila, is that they have become deeply impressed by a corpus of knowledge alien to Islam. The MM have accepted the knowledge claims made by West, that their knowledge is JTB – Justified, True, Belief. It is objective, factual, based on solid reasons, and undeniable. Once this is accepted, then at all points where Islam conflicts with Western knowledge claims, Islamic teachings have to be modified to match them. The MM cannot accept claims that Islamic teachings conflict with Western knowledge, since that would mean that Islamic teachings are wrong. Thus, their energies are spent in harmonizing the two bodies of knowledge. This is the explicit goal of many groups of Muslims seeking to align Western and Eastern Knowledge. In particular, some of work on the “Islamization of knowledge” creates the false impression that Western knowledge is more advanced, and the Quran and Hadeeth must be brought into line with it.

The idea that the Knowledge of the West on par with, or superior to, the Quran in terms of providing solutions to the problems facing the Muslim Ummah today, is what I have called the Second Crisis of Knowledge in the Islamic Civilization. As per Hadeeth, Islam came as a stranger, and will become a stranger; the original teachings of Islam are strange and unfamiliar to most Muslims today. HOWEVER, most Muslims and especially the MM, believe the OPPOSITE: that we are already very familiar with these teachings, and, since they do not find anything in these teachings which matches the brilliance of the West, they consider these teachings to be obsolete and out-of-date, not relevant to our contemporary problems, except in a marginal way. A 10 minute video-talk on YouTube which summarizes and explains this further is linked below — Also, the problem is articulated and discussed in the remaining portion of this post after the video link.

(Continuation of Post on the Modern Mu’tazila — DIFFERENT articulation from the 10 minute summary above. For the full hour-long video, see: Second Crisis)

Allama Iqbal, Poet Laureate of the Islamic Civilization, has expressed this problem facing the Ummah as follows:

My eyes were not dazzled by the brilliance of the West – (Kheera na kar ska mujhay, Jalwa’ Danishe Farang)  They were protected by the dust of Medina & Najaf – (Surma hay mairy ankh ka, Khak-e-Medina o Najaf)

Although Iqbal was protected from it, the rest of the Ummah was not. The superficial dazzle of Western knowledge has blinded them to the depths of wisdom hidden in the Quran. This puts in the Ummah into Double Darkness, termed Jahl-e-Murakkab (or compound ignorance). Not only are the teachings of Islam strange and unfamiliar, but the Ummah believes that they already know these teachings – so that have no incentive to try and learn them; that would be useless Tahseel-e-Hasil (acquisition of that which is already owned). Ignorance can be cured by learning, but there is no cure for Jahl-e-Murakkab, since people will not make effort to learn that which they believe they already know.

In fact, the teachings of Islam are just as revolutionary, fresh, original, and unfamiliar to the world today as they were 1400 years ago. They have the same potential today to change the tides of history. They are indeed complete and perfect, sufficient for our guidance today [see: The Quran: Complete and Perfect Guidance]. HOWEVER, MM believe them to be seriously incomplete, since our guidance today requires heavy supplementation of Islamic teachings by the latest Western knowledge. MM also believe them to be imperfect and in need of updating – For instance, Islam allows polygamy, slavery, brutal punishments, and prohibits interest. In these areas, and many others, we can improve on the original teachings of Islam.

The claim that teachings of the Quran are sufficient for our guidance today, baffles, frustrates and severely angers and annoys the Modern Mu’tazila. This is because they believe that it is precisely this type of sentimental attachment to the past, and a refusal to face the realities of the modern world, which led to the decline of Muslims. Furthermore, to remain engaged with contemplation of the Quran and the faded glories of the ancient Muslims, in face of the pressing need to modernize and catch-up, making up for lost centuries, is a beyond-hopeless ostrich-strategy, doomed to failure.

The Quran warns us not be deceived by the apparent success of the non-Muslims. Even though the West has been tremendously successful on the front of material wealth and power, they have been spectacularly un-successful on the front of human development. The Final Message of Allah, brought to mankind by our Prophet Mohammad SallAllaho Alaihe Wa-sallam, teaches us how human beings can achieve the full potential buried within the hearts of all humans. It tells us that we all have the capacity to rise above the angels, as well as the capacity to be lower than the beasts. It teaches us the spiritual, mental and emotional practices requires to transforms the seeds of humanity within out hearts into the tree of Eeman, which is solidly planted in the ground and has branches reaching out to the skies. This message — how to develop our human potential — is contained nowhere within the teachings of the West. By learning physics, chemistry and mathematics, we can acquire power over the external world, but we cannot acquire self-control, discipline and spiritual progress. Islam teaches us how to use the material world to make spiritual progress, while the West teaches us the reverse — how to damage our souls, in order achieve material gains. Man is the greatest creation of Allah, and the spectacular progress of Islam occured when our civilization learned to cultivate and nurture the potential of human beings to be fully human. Decline occurred when we lost this skill, and the associated institutional structures. Today, our progress again depends on learning to be human beings, which only Islam can teach us. If we can learn to do this, we can show the world the way out of the current morass, where greed for riches has led to destruction of millions of lives of humans and animals, destructions of treasures of environmental resources, and brought the planetary ecology to the brink of collapse. May Allah T’aala help us to accomplish the mission that the Ummah was created for, which was to guide all of Mankind towards to good, and to prevent them from the evil. Ameen.


A one-hour video on “The Second Crisis of Knowledge in the Islamic Civilization” which expands further on the themes discussed briefly above.

Islamic Approaches to Knowledge This links to the first, 90-minute, lecture in the course: Introduction to Statistics: An Islamic Approach, which explains how and why an Islamic approach completely changes our approach to education. The meaning of “knowledge” is different within the Islamic and Western traditions. Acquisition of knowledge is the highest form of worship, but this acquisition must be done with the correct intentions, obeying the orders of Allah, and the Sunnah of the Prophet Sallallaho Alaihe Wassalam. The Western methodology of teaching and learning must be replaced by Islamic methods, which requires radical changes in the educational process.

See also, The Ghazali Project: Revival of Deen and The Greatest Challenge Facing the Ummah.

An e-book which provides a lot of details and a collection of various articles on different aspect of the Islamic WorldView is available from: An Islamic Worldview: Essays on the Conflict between Islam and Modernity.



This entry was posted in Islamic Knowledge and tagged by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

33 thoughts on “The Modern Mu’tazila

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  2. Assalam u Alikum. I think the discipline, self control and power over external world are the outcomes of spiritual progress. if it is true then how do we comment on western societies which are (as reported by those Muslims who are living there) much better in discipline, self control and power over physical world?

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  6. The Mu’tazila’s effect on the Islamic world is saying the Koran’s man made and Mu’tazila’s use of reason. This happened in the late Middle Ages when Muslims changed the religion from the Five Pillars and there was no special clothes or special food needed, just tolerance of people’s differences. The prohibition of wrong and God’s unity and justice make this non-violent and more rational.

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