Naẓẓām, Al-

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Editor: Lindsay Jones
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of Religion
From: Encyclopedia of Religion(Vol. 9. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: 782 in Basra, Iraq
Died: c. 840
Nationality: Iraqi
Occupation: Theologian
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NAẒẒĀM, AL-. Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm ibn Sayyār al-Naẓẓām (c. AH 165–221/c. 782–836 CE) was an early Muslim theologian of the rationalist Muʿtazilī school.

Born in poverty in the city of Basra, al-Naẓẓām rose to literary prominence through his keen wit and rhetorical skills, and eventually moved to Baghdad where he was granted a large salary by the state. His most notable poetry employed abstract theological terms and metaphors in praise of wine and the beauties of youths, but he was remembered (and criticized) especially for his theological views. He studied theology under his uncle, Abū al-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d. c. 841 CE), the founder of the Basra school of speculative Muʿtazilī theology. He is also said to have applied his prodigious memory to the study of traditions (ḥadīth), Jewish and Christian scriptures and commentaries, Greek philosophy, and Iranian dualistic traditions. In Baghdad he caused a stir with his "new philosophy," a non-atomistic system in which infinitely divisible bodies move by discrete instantaneousPage 6445  |  Top of Article leaps. He attracted a proverbially large number of disciples, who perpetuated aspects of his teaching for a century or so; but although the Baghdad school of the Muʿtazilah drew on some of his ideas, his physical theory soon lost out to Abū al-Hudhayl's atomism, and his thought was largely rejected by the Basra school. His own books are lost, but Josef van Ess has pieced together a broad, if still partly tentative, sketch of his thought from citations by later writers, including most notably his famous pupil, the celebrated litterateur and theologian, al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 869 CE).

Seeking common ground from which to debate dualists such as the Manichaeans, al-Naẓẓām adopted an ontology akin to their view of the world as a mixture of opposites. He rejected Abū al-Hudhayl's view that the world consists of indivisible atoms in which qualities inhere as accidents, proposing instead that objects are combinations of perceptible, corporeal qualities that pervade one another and become hidden or manifest as things change. For example, coldness is among the normally manifest qualities of wood, but when it is set ablaze the previously latent quality of fire, itself composed of warmth and brightness, becomes manifest. Human beings cannot create or destroy such qualities, but the human spirit is capable of initiating changes in their arrangements (i.e., movements or actions, which are the only accidents recognized by al-Naẓẓām). The spirit, a subtle body, by nature wills only what is good, but because it is trapped in a perceptible body permeated by conflicting motivations, it can choose evil. The body implements the actions willed by the spirit, and God creates the effects of those actions in their objects, in accordance with the qualities he gave each object at creation.

Although al-Naẓẓām's ontology had many points in common with Stoic philosophy and Iranian dualistic traditions, he employed it in the defense of Islamic doctrines, citing the intermingling of opposite qualities, for example, as proof of a creator who brings them together. He proposed radical formulations of several cardinal Muʿtazilī principles: God's justice, God's oneness, and the createdness of the Qurʾān. Prompted by debates with dualists over the problem of evil, al-Naẓẓām went beyond the disputed Muʿtazilī thesis that God always does what is best (aṣlaḥ), to claim that God is not even capable of injustice, or indeed of anything less than what is most salutary for his creatures (including animals). God does not will or create either good or bad human actions, except in the sense that he commands certain acts, and creates their effects in their objects. Against Christians, dualists, and even some Muslims who seemed to vitiate God's oneness by ascribing to him eternal partners, al-Naẓẓām adopted an extreme form of the Muʿtazilī teaching that God does not have real attributes coeternal with himself. He argued that to affirm one of God's attributes is not to ascribe a positive quality to God's essence, but merely to affirm that essence and to deny that it has the opposite quality. Only God's actions upon the created world can be described positively. One such action is his speech, the Qurʾān, which the Muʿtazilah claimed is created rather than eternal. Al-Naẓẓām agreed, but whereas he considered human speech an attribute of the speaker (an accident and a movement by which the speaker breaks up and articulates a previously existent but formless sound), he claimed that God's speech is itself sound created in articulated form. Thus he could not describe God as speaking, or say that human recitation of the Qurʾān is itself the Qurʾān. Although he formalized the doctrine that the Qurʾān is a miraculous proof of Muḥammad's prophethood, he did not claim, as would later theologians, that its rhetorical style is intrinsically inimitable; instead he argued that Muḥammad's opponents had failed to match the Qurʾān's eloquence only because God had temporarily rendered them unable to do so. What he considered probative was the Qurʾān's content—its revelation of things that a human being could not otherwise know.

In theology al-Naẓẓām insisted that knowledge of God be arrived at through doubt and reason, but on rationally inscrutable points of law he insisted on following the letter of the Qurʾān. He blamed the prevailing chaos of conflicting legal opinions on those prominent companions of the prophet Muḥammad who had followed their own opinions in their rulings. His older contemporary, the famous jurist al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820 CE), had sought to bring Islamic law into full harmony with the Qurʾān by interpreting the Qurʾān almost exclusively in light of reports from the Prophet himself, by extending the reach of its provisions through reasoning by analogy, and by exploiting its linguistic ambiguities to resolve contradictions. Al-Naẓẓām took a diametrically opposite approach. He rejected the independent legal authority of reports (ḥadīth)—even those that the Muslim community accepted by consensus (ijmāʿ)—arguing that reports give certainty only when corroborated by rational or perceptual evidence, regardless of how many people transmit them. He also rejected most, if not all, analogical reasoning (qiyās), and insisted that the language of the Qurʾān be applied absolutely literally in the absence of specific qualifying evidence (which may, however, include reports or consensus). Some aspects of this approach were soon taken up by the Ẓāhirī school of law (now institutionally defunct), and he was much quoted by Shīʿī legal theorists, who shared his rejection of analogy and consensus and his antipathy for certain companions of the Prophet. Mainstream Sunnī legal theory, however, followed al-Shāfiʿī's lead.


The only comprehensive European-language study of al-Naẓẓām is in Josef van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra: Eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam (Berlin, 1991–1997), vol. 3, pp. 296–418. Vol. 6, pp. 1–204, provides an annotated German translation of the citations on which van Ess based his study. The most detailed English overview is van Ess's article "Abū Esḥāq…Naẓẓām" in Encyclopaedia Iranica, edited by Ehsan Yarshater (New York and London, 1982). Helpful works on specific aspects of al-Naẓẓām's thought include:

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Bernand, Marie. "Le savoir entre la volonté et la spontanéité selon an-Naẓẓām et al-Ǧāḥiẓ." Studia Islamica 39 (1974): 25–57.

Ess, Josef van. "Ein unbekanntes Fragment des Naẓẓām." In Der Orient in der Forschung: Festschrift für Otto Spies zum 5. April 1966, edited by Wilhelm Hoenerbach, pp. 170–201. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1967. On al-Naẓẓām's legal theory, principally reports and consensus.

Ess, Josef van. Das Kitāb al-Nakṯ des Naẓẓām und seine Rezeption im Kitāb al-Futyā des Ǧāḥiẓ: Eine Sammlung der Fragmente mit Übersetzung und Kommentar. Göttingen, Germany, 1972. On al-Naẓẓām's legal theory, principally his criticisms of companions of the Prophet.

Ess, Josef van. Theology and Science: The Case of Abū Isḥāq an-Naẓẓām. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1978. On al-Naẓẓām's theories of bodies and movement.

Ess, Josef van. "Wrongdoing and Divine Omnipotence in the Theology of Abū Isḥāq an-Naẓẓām." In Divine Omniscience and Omnipotence in Medieval Philosophy: Islamic, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives, edited by Tamar Rudavsky, pp. 53–67. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1985. This is followed by a response by Richard Frank entitled "Can God Do What Is Wrong?" (pp. 69–79).

Wolfson, Harry Austryn. "The Ḫāṭirāni in the Kalam and Ghazālī as Inner Motive Powers of Human Actions." In Studies in Mysticism and Religion, Presented to Gershom G. Scholem, edited by Efraim E. Urbach, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, and Chaim Wirszubski, pp. 363–379. Jerusalem, 1967.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424502192