In the first part of his monumental work The Beginnings of Islamic Theology, Josef Van Ess studied the religious situation in each of the main Islamic regions for its own sake. He did not study the comprehensive Islamic situation until later, when he focused his view entirely on the centre: that is, on the court of the caliph in Baghdad.


LATER ISLAMIC SOURCES considered the sects that appeared in distant and scattered cities as deviant or heretical. But when they arose these same sects actually considered themselves ‘orthodox’, that is, mainstream, not heretical Islam. It was only when the new capital – Baghdad – was established and cultural forces hailing from these faraway cities were attracted to it and melted into one crucible, that a new theology for the first time came into existence, one that took on a general compulsory stamp to apply to all.  This was the kalām or theology of the Muʽtazilīs.

Professor Van Ess states that he studied the century and a half process dating from the beginnings of Islam, that is, from the end of the Umayyad era until the second half of the third century AH / ninth century AD. Why did Van Ess limit his study to this relatively short period? Why did he not devote an entire chapter to the first hijra century – the century of the Prophet Muhammad himself and the Rightly Guided Caliphs – the founding century par excellence? To this question, the German Orientalist answers:

Because everything that Islamic sources tell us about the first century is suspicious and historically unreliable. We do not have texts dating back to the first century other than very rare examples. The codification of the Islamic corpus was yet to happen, and would only take place during the Abbasid period.

For this reason the author confined his encyclopedia mainly to the Abbasid period, while also addressing the end of the Umayyad era. In the first part of The Beginnings of Islamic Theology, Van Ess studied the various religious sects that appeared in different regions and cities. In the second part – making use of the far more abundant texts and information that exist – he studied many of the major theological personalities according to the methodology of ‘life and literature’. He thus first examined the life of the Muslim theologians, then their works or writings, and then linked the one to the other. This methodology for all its importance does, however, have its weakness. In focussing on famous theologians, one can forget, or overlook the religiosity of the common man. But in a study of this kind this, of course, is unavoidable.

The first sects that appeared in Islam, such as the Qadariyya, the Jabariyya, the Murjiʽa and so on, were religio-political movements

The author nevertheless sheds excellent light on the various Islamic sects that appeared in the early beginnings of Islam: sects such as the Qadariyya, the Jabriyya, the Murji‘a and so on. This itself is a significant achievement, but the reader should not forget that the author’s goal was not to study the entire cultural life of early Islam, but only one aspect – its theology as it related to society. This, rather than a study of literature or poetry or philosophy, is the main goal of the Van Ess Encyclopedia.

One should note that the first four parts are devoted to analysis and the drawing of conclusions and lessons. As for the last two parts, these are devoted to translations of many traditional Arabic texts into German. On this Claude Gilliot commented:

This monumental work constitutes not only a historical milestone in the field of Islamic studies, but also reestablishes the relationship between religious theology on the one hand and society on the other. In fact, Van Ess has a wide cultural training, not only in the field of Islamic and Christian theology, but also in the field of philosophy. He is a philosopher as much as one who is familiar with religious theology. Hence the importance of his Encyclopedia. In addition, he is able to draw interesting parallels between Islamic/Christian theology thanks to his extensive knowledge of both fields.

Outline of the Van Ess Encyclopedia

The work begins with an opening or introduction that talks about the basic features of Islamic religiosity in the first hijrī century (seventh century AD). This preface takes up the first fifty-six pages of the book. This is a very important element because it comes from a senior researcher. We are here confronted with a historical discipline, not a reverence for the heritage in the style of conservative Muslim writers. It is unfortunate that this immense book, which resembles an encyclopedia, has not yet been translated into Arabic. Had it been translated, Muslims would by now have understood the extent of difference between sober historical research and the prevailing reverential treatments of the heritage.

As for the second part, this deals with the Islamic regions and how the sects were spread there over the second hijrī century (eighth century AD). The author talks about Syria and Iraq, focusing on Kufa, Basra, Wasit, Jazira, Iran, Arabia and Egypt. This topic occupies the first and second parts of the book.

As for the third part, the discussion focuses on how Islamic thought became unified when theological speculation attained its peak. Here, of course, the focus is on the central capital, Baghdad. He then goes on to talk about al-Ma’mūn in Baghdad and devotes some impressive, extended pages to presenting a portrait of this great caliph and of the Muʽtazilī theology subsequent to its peak of maturity and productivity.

It is unfortunate that this immense book, which resembles an encyclopedia, has not yet been translated

The fourth part of this encyclopedic work takes up the issue of the Muʽtazila sect during and after the famous ‘ordeal’ (the miḥna). What is meant by the ordeal here is the intellectual and political battle that took place between the Mu‘tazilīs and the Hanbalīs during the era of al-Ma’mūn and those who succeeded him. Here he focuses his attention on studying the Mu’tazila thinkers in the city of Basra up the middle of the third century AH, after which he deals with its senior representatives in Baghdad. Then follow the struggles that took place around the Qur’ān: is it created or not? It is known that the Muʽtazila held that it was created,[1] while the Hanbalīs maintained that it was eternal and uncreated. This section also talks of how Muʽtazila thought spread, the crisis of Baghdadi Sufism, and the issue of Abū ʽĪsā al-Warrāq[2] and Ibn al-Rāwandī[3].

In conclusion, Josef Van Ess addresses the image of God in Islam, the image of man, knowledge of the afterlife or eschatology, the concept of faith in Islam, of sin and repentance, the Prophet and the Qur’ān, the doctrine concerning the nature of knowledge that was prevalent at the time, theology and society, political theory, and how education was organized in that period. As for the fifth and sixth parts of the encyclopedia, these are devoted to the translation of Islamic heritage texts into German – texts that the author relied on in his long research on the various Islamic sects.

Islamic sects and the struggle for power

If we depart a little from Josef Van Ess’s work we might here pose this question: what was the first sect that appeared in Islam? The answer is the Qadariyya (‘fatalism’)[4] sect that arose in opposition to the rule of the Umayyads, in contrast to the Jabarī sect or even the Murji‘a. In fact, those who were prosecuted during the Umayyad era on charges of Qadariyya were advocates of freedom, who argued that man is responsible for his actions, that he has a choice, not a set path, contrary to what the Jabriyya claimed. They were thus not deniers of God’s judgment and destiny, as their opponents and defenders of Umayyad power accused them of, but simply argued that God cannot be held responsible for the bad deeds of men – far be it from God to be the cause of evil.

They were thus advocates of freedom and denial of coercion, and for this reason the Umayyad jurists attacked them and even went so far as to declare them unbelievers. To understand this basic point we should explain that it was in the interest of the Umayyads to support the Jabirī sect. The reason for this is that this sect held that man is constrained to a set path, he does not have a choice, and that everything that happens in society happens by God’s will and destiny. Thus, the victory of the Umayyads was by God’s will and destiny, and so to object to their rule constituted an objection to the will of God Himself. Even if the Umayyads were to commit heinous and unjust acts, the Muslims should remain silent and accept it, because it is God who has willed this. We can thus see a direct relationship between religion and society, or more accurately between religion and politics.

In this sense the first sects that appeared in Islam, such as the Qadariyya, the Jabariyya, the Murjiʽa and so on, were religio-political movements. Among the most prominent proponents of the doctrine of Qadariyya was Ma`bad ibn ‘Abd al-Juhanī al-Maṣrī (m. 80 AH), Ghaylān ibn Muslim al-Dimashqī (who was killed and crucified by the Umayyads in 105 AH), and ‘Aṭā’ ibn Yasar (m. 103 AH). The struggle of these three in the Umayyad era was a struggle against unjust rulers who commit horrible acts and attribute them to God’s will and destiny.

As for the Jabariyya doctrine, it is the opposite of the Qadariyya doctrine. Its leader, Al-Jahm ibn Ṣafwān, used to say that man is directed and has no choice, that he is forced to do his actions, has no ability to do other than what he does. God has pre-destined him for acts and these will inevitably occur. For it is God who is the author of any action by man, it is not the man who creates his own actions. In this sense, fate – good or evil – comes from God Almighty. Thus, if a person does good, that is from God; and if he does evil, that is also from God! It is this that the Mu‘tazila categorically rejected: Evil cannot come from God. The Mu‘tazila, in this sense, are simply a continuation of the Qadariyya sect: those who believe one’s own agency and freedom of choice. The leader of the Qadariyya doctrine was Ghaylān al-Dimashqī, as we said, and the leader of the Jabariyya doctrine was Al-Jahm ibn Ṣafwān. On these two figures Abū Ḥanīfa commented:

Ghaylān exaggerated in affirming choice, and Jahm exaggerated in affirming coercion.

Hence, the best lies in the middle of these, in the sense that man is not completely free, nor is he totally forced, but lies somewhere in between.

There is also the Murjiʽa sect, another one of the first religious sects to appear in Islam.[5] These used to say that whoever believes in God and His Oneness cannot then ever be judged a disbeliever, no matter what he does, since the judgment as to whether one is a disbeliever or not is something only for God Almighty alone to decide. Thus, their fundamental belief was that no person, whoever he may be, cannot be a kāfir so long as he embraces Islam and pronounces the twin testimonies of faith – ‘There is no God but Allah, and Muḥammad is His Messenger’ –  regardless of the sins he may have committed, the decision on this being left  to God alone on the Day of Resurrection. Hence their dictum:

Disobedience does not harm one’s faith, and obedience cannot palliate one’s disbelief

The Murjiʽa ideas were supported by the Umayyad rulers because they postponed any decision on whether the Umayyads were infidels, unlike other sects. They therefore worked to spread the ideas of this group, so as to justify their caliphate and the legitimacy of their rule, despite all the bloodshed they had caused. They were called the Murjiʽa  because they ‘postponed’ judgment on man until the Day of Judgment.[6]

[1] The adherents of the Mu‘tazilī school held that ‘the Speech of Allah Most High is created, invented, and brought into being’ in that, because of the perfect unity and eternal nature of God, the Qur’an must therefore have been created, as it could not be co-eternal with God. See Glossary: ‘Mu‘tazila’. (Ed.)

[2] Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq (ob. 861-2 AD/247 AH) was a skeptic scholar and critic of Islam and religion in general. He doubted the existence of God on the grounds that “He who orders his slave to do things that he knows him to be incapable of doing, then punishes him, is a fool”. He also challenged the notion of revealed religion as such, arguing that one should not heed the claims of self-appointed prophets, if what is claimed is found to be contrary to good sense and reason. Al-Warrāq admired the intellect for its inquisitiveness towards the wonders of science. (Ed.)

[3] Ibn al-Rawandī (827–911 AD) was held by his opponents to be an atheist. Van Ess argued that Ibn al-Rawandi, although eccentric and disputatious, was not a heretic, and that his notoriety stems from the fact that after he left Baghdad, “his colleagues … profiting from his absence … could create a black legend.”  (Ed.)

[4] Qadariyya – The doctrine of Islamic theologians who rejected the concept of qadr (‘pre-destination’)  and believed that man is entirely the free agent of his fate, independent of God’s will and knowledge. See Glossary: ‘Qadariyya’.

[5] See Glossary: ‘Murjiʻism’.

[6] For more on this point see Mohamed Arkoun, La Pensée Arabe p. 38 and foll.

Main image: The early Umayyad Palace complex at Amman, dating from 720-750 AD.

Read Part 1 of this essay here

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here