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Did the Mutazilites reject punishment of the grave (azaab al-qabar)?
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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English Language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Mutazilites accept belief in the punishment of the grave (azaab al-qabar), however, some individuals like Dirar ibn Amr and Bishr al-Mirisi rejected the notion, but the Mutazilites condemn their views and attribute them to the Jahmiyyah. Some Sunni scholars incorrectly considered Mutazilites as rejecting punishment of the grave.

Background

There is a widespread misconception concerning Mutazalite rejection of the punishment of the grave (azaab al-qabar).

The classical Sunni scholars cite Mutazalites as having rejected azaab al-qabar. For instance, the theologian Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, the founder of the Ash'ari theological school, said:



وَاخْتَلَفُوا فِي عَذَابِ القَبْرِ، فَمِنْهُمْ مَنْ نَفَاهُ وَهُمْ الُمُعْتَزِلَةُ وَالَخَوَارِجُ.
"They differ on the notion of the punishment of the grave, some rejected it such as the Mutazilites and the Khawarij." (Abu al-Hasan, Maqalat al-Islameen, p. 430)
The Shafi'i jurist al-Amidi said:

ِوذَهَبَ ضِرَارُ بنُ عَمْرو وبِشْرُ المِريسِي وأَكْثَرُ المُتَأَخِرِيينَ مِنَ المُعْتَزِلَةِ إلَى إِنْكَارِ ذَلِكَ كُلِه.
"Dirar ibn Amr (a Mutazilite judge, d. 190 A.H.) and Bishr al-Mirisi (a Mutazalite jurist, d. 218 A.H.) and most of the later Mutazilites rejected all of this (the notion of punishment of the grave)." (Amidi, Abkar al-Afkar, Vol. 4, p. 332)

The Asharite jurist Adud al-Din al-Iji (Ash'ari jurist d. 756 A.H.) said:

وأَنْكَرَهُ ضِرَارُ بنُ عَمْرو وبِشْرُ المِريسِي وأَكْثَرُ المُتَأَخِرِيينَ مِنَ المُعْتَزِلَةِ.
"Dirar ibn Amr, Bishr al-Mirisi and most of the later Mutazilites rejected the notion of punishment of the grave." (Al-Iji, al-Mawaqif, p. 382)

But this claim is misleading as the major books of Mutazilites typically contain a section for proving, discussing and teaching the notion of punishment of the grave.

Only two Mutazalites, Dirar and Bishr, rejected it, however, they are not generally known to be Mutazilites (having adopted Jahmiyya views in their later scholarship).

Ibn Hazm realised this mistake and said:

ِذَهَبَ ضِرَارُ بن عَمْرُو الغَطَفَانِيّ أَحَد شُيُوخِ المُعْتَزِلَة إِلَى إِنكَارِ عَذَابَ القَبْرِ وذَهَبَ أَهْلُ السُنَةِ وبِشْرُ ابن المُعْتَمِر والجِبَائِيّ وَسَائِرُ المُعْتَزِلَةِ إِلَى القَولِ بِه.
"One of the scholars of Mutazilites called Dirar ibn Amr al-Ghattafani rejected the punishment of the grave, but Sunnis (Ahlu-Sunnah), Bishr ibn al-Mu'tamir (Mutazilite theologian and jurist, d. 210 A.H.), al-Jiba'i (Mutazilite theologian and philosopher, d. 915) and the rest of Mutazilites accept it." (Al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa an-Nihal, Vol. 4, pp. 117)

Ibn Hajar also realised this mistake and commented on the rejection by Dirar and Bishr and said:

ْوخَالَفَهُم فِيِ ذَلِكَ أَكْثَرُ المُعْتَزِلَةِ وجَمِيعُ أَهْلُ السُنَةِ وغَيْرِهِم.
"Most of Mutazilites, all the Sunnis, and others disagreed with them (on the rejection notion)." (Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol. 3, p. 298)

The Mutazilites consider Dirar as one of the Jahmiyyah who believed and preached some unusual beliefs concerning Allah's attributes on the Day of Judgement, azaab al-qabar and others which Mutazilites reject. (Sana'ani, Jam' at-Tashtit, pp. 33-34)

Views of Mutazilite Scholars

The major theological books of Mutazilites usually contains a chapter relating to azaab al-qabar. Whilst they may disagree on some details, such as the time of such punishment, they believe in its trial and most of them believe in the return of the soul to the body albeit in an incomprehensible manner.

In one of their theoretical and historical books 'Fadl al-I'tizal wa Tabaqat al-Mu'tazilah' written by three of the most outstanding Mutazilites scholars: Al-Balkhi (d. 348 A.h.), Qadi Abdul Jabar (d. 415) and Al-Jashmi (d. 494). It argues:

َفَصْلٌ فِي تَشْنِيعِهِم عَلَيْنَا بِذِكْرِ عَذَابِ القَبْرِ ومُنْكَرٍ ونَكِير ... إنّ هَذَا الأمرَ إنَمَا أَنْكَرَهُ أَوَلًا ضِرَارُ بن عَمْرُو، وَلَمَّا كَانَ مِنْ أَصْحَابِ وَاصل، فَظَنُوا أنّ ذَلِكَ مِمَا أَنْكَرَتْهُ المُعْتَزِلَةُ، وليَسَ الأَمْرُ كَذَلِك.
"A chapter on their reproach on us in the matters of azaab al-qabar and munkar wa nakeer (the two angels of the grave) … This notion (of azaab al-qabr) was firstly rejected by Dirar ibn Amr. People thought he was one of the Mutazilites because he was one of the friends of Wasil (the founder of Mutazilite theological school), but it is not the case." (Qadi Abdul Jabar, Faddl al-I'tizal wa Tabaqat al-Mu'tazilah, p. 201)

Qadi Abdul Jabar in his 'Sharh al-'Usul al-Khamsah,' in which he elaborates the major five principles of the Mutazilites, writes an entire chapter one azaab al-qabar claiming:

وَجُمْلَةُ ذَلِكَ أَنّهُ لَا خِلَافَ فِيهِ بَيْنَ الأُمَةِ إِلَا شَيء يُحْكَى عَنْ ضِرَارِ ابن عَمْرُو وكَانَ مِنْ أَصْحَابِ المُعْتَزِلَةِ ثُمَ التَحَقَ بِالمُجَبِرَة.
"There is no dispute on the general concept (of azaab al-qabar) except what is stated by Dirar ibn Amr. He was a Mutazilite, in the beginning, but he eventually became one of the Jabriyyah (who believe every action is done under Allah's compulsion)." (Qadi Abdul Jabar, Sharh al-'Usul al-Khamsah, p. 730)

Regarding the revival of the body in the grave (bringing back to life), Qadi Abdul Jabar said:

فَاعْلَمْ أَنَّهُ تَعَالَى إِذَا أَرَادَ تَعْذِيبِهم فَلَابُدَ مِنْ أَنْ يُحْيِيهِم لأنّ تَعْذِيبِ الجَمَادِ مُحَال لا يُتَصَوَّر.
"Know that if Allah wants to punish them, it is necessary to bring them to life because punishing the non-living things is impossible and unimaginable." (Qadi Abdul Jabar, Sharh al-'Usul al-Khamsah, pp. 731-732)

Zamakshari, the famous Mutazilite commentator, d. 538 A.H., commented on the verse:

كَيْفَ تَكْفُرُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَكُنتُمْ أَمْوَاتًا فَأَحْيَاكُمْ ۖ ثُمَّ يُمِيتُكُمْ ثُمَّ يُحْيِيكُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ
"How can you disbelieve in Allah when you were lifeless and He brought you to life; then He will cause you to die, then He will bring you (back) to life, and then to Him you will be returned." (Qur'an 2:28)

He also said:



فَإِنْ قُلْتَ مَا المُرَادُ بالإحْيَاءِ الثَانِي؟ قُلْتُ يَجُوزُ أنْ يُرَادُ بِهِ الإِحْيَاءَ فِي القَبْرِ.
"If you ask: what is the second bringing back to life? I would answer, it may mean the resurrection (reviving) in the grave." (Zamakshari, al-Kashaf, Vol. 1, p. 249)

Conclusion 

The Mutazilites as a theological school accept the notion of punishment of the grave. Individuals like Dirar ibn Amr and Bishr al-Mirisi rejected the notion, but the Mutazilites condemn their views and attribute them to the Jahmiyyah.

References

Abu al-Hasan, Maqalat al-Islameen.
Amidi, Abkar al-Afkar.
Al-Iji, al-Mawaqif.
Ibn Hazm, Al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa an-Nihal.
Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari.
Sana'ani, Jam' at-Tashtit.
Qadi Abdul Jabar, Faddl al-I'tizal wa Tabaqat al-Mutazilah.
Qadi Abdul Jabar, Sharh al-'Usul al-Khamsah.
Zamakshari, al-Kashaf.

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