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The Miḥnah (Arabic: محنة, English: "trial" or "testing") refers to the inquisition first instituted by the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun in 218 AH/833 AD in which religious scholars were punished, imprisoned, or even killed unless they conceded the doctrine of the created nature of the Qur'an. The policy lasted for fifteen years (833–848 CE) as it continued through the reigns of al-Ma'mun's immediate successors, al-Mu'tasim and al-Wathiq, and two years of al-Mutawakkil who reversed it in 234 AH/848 (or possibly 851) AD.
The abolition of Mihna is significant both as the end of the Abassid Caliph's pretension to decide matters of religious orthodoxy, and as one of the few instances of specifically religious persecution in Medieval Islam.
al-Ma'mun died in 833, but his policy was continued by al-Mu'tassim. In that same year the famous religious scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal was put to the question, to which he answered that the Qu'ran was uncreated. Al-Mu'tassim removed him from his post, imprisoned him, and had him flogged until he was unconscious. However, the people of Baghdad threatened to riot at the news of ibn Hanbal's arrest, and al-Mu'tassim had him released. al-Mu'tassim was afterwards preoccupied with the construction of the new capital at Samarra and with military campaigns, and did not pursue the Mihna as anything more than a courtroom formality (the testimony of a person who answered in the negative was inadmissible in court.)
The Orientalist sources disagree whether or not ibn Hanbal recanted under duress. According to Sunni tradition he held fast, and for that reason is still regarded as a hero of religious orthodoxy.
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It is important to note that in classical Islam, it was private individuals and not the caliphate who undertook the mission of developing the various Islamic sciences including the law. That is, the law, contrary to what happens in modern nation states, was not the exclusive preserve of the state. In fact, the jurists developed it in conscious opposition to the state (e.g., Jackson, 2002). From early on, there was a religious order in classical Islam that was distinct from the political order. The semi-autonomy of the scholars resulted in the interesting phenomenon of the emergence of different, and regarding some issues, diametrically opposed schools of jurisprudence — all considered Islamically valid and authentic. The Mihna, within this context, reflects the caliph's frustration with the powerful and influential juristic culture. It lasted about fifteen years, after which the domains of authority of both the political and religious orders became more well-defined. This does not mean that confrontation was the hallmark of the relationship between both orders. The relationship was more nuanced and involved not only confrontation but also collaboration. Generally speaking, the religious order stood as a buffer between the political order and the common people.
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