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The Miḥnah (Arabic: محنة, English: "trial" or "testing") refers to the period of religious persecution instituted by the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun in 833 AD in which religious scholars were punished, imprisoned, or even killed unless they conceded the Mu'tazila 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 848 (or possibly 851) AD.
The abolition of Mihna is significant both as the end of the Abbasid Caliph's pretension to decide matters of religious orthodoxy, and as one of the few instances of specifically religious persecution in Medieval Islam.
In 827 CE, the caliph al-Ma’mun issued the proclamation of the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur'an. The proclamation was followed by the institution of the Mihna six years later, approximately four months before his sudden death in 833 CE. The Mihna continued under his successors, al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq, before al-Mutawakkil abolished it between 848 and 851 CE. This particular doctrine was well known to be embraced by the Mu'tazilite school during this period.
Traditional scholarship viewed the proclamation of doctrine and the Mihna where al-Ma’mun tested the beliefs of his subordinates as linked events, whereby the caliph exercised his religious authority in defining orthodoxy, and enforced his views upon others through his coercive powers as ruler. Al-Ma’mun’s motivations for imposing his beliefs upon the members of his government (such as his judges, for the scope of the Mihna was not extended to examining the beliefs of the commoners in the manner of the European Inquisitions) were attributed to his Mu'tazilite intellectual tendencies, his sympathies towards Shi’ism, or a shrewd decision to consolidate his religious authority during a time where the 'ulama were starting to be seen as the true guardians of religious knowledge and the Prophet’s traditions.
Events and Explanations
Explanation 1: Al-Ma’mun and Mu’tazilism
Scholars who ascribe the Mihna to al-Ma'mun’s Mu'tazilite persuasion point to his close association with leading Mu’tazilites of the era. Among the Mu’tazilites al-Ma’mun appointed to high positions within his administration include Ahmed ibn Abi Du’ad, a prominent Mu’tazilite who became Chief Qadi during his rule. Due to Ibn Abi Du’ad’s background as a Kalam scholar and his rigorous advocacy of the Mihna under the subsequent two caliphs, some scholars have concluded that his influence led to al-Ma’mun finally taking action and implementing the Mihna during the last year of his life. However it remains unclear whether the appointment of Ibn Abi Du’ad is a cause or reflection of al-Ma’mun’s plans to institute the Mihna.
Explanation 2: Al-Ma’mun’s Pro-Shi’ite Tendencies
More so than other caliphs, Al-Ma’mun demonstrated a closeness with members of the Alid family and some of their doctrines, leading some scholars to suggest that he may have adopted some of their views. A distinguished religious scholar himself, al-Ma’mun’s letters to his prefects to initiate the inquisition seem to convey the notion that his knowledge and learning was at a higher level than that of the public or even other religious scholars, who were likened to the vulgar mob who have no insight or illumination on matters pertaining to God. This view is similar to the Shi’i belief that the Imam alone held the esoteric knowledge regarding the Qur'an and matters of faith. In addition to adopting the title of imam, Al-Ma’mun extended special conciliatory gestures to the family of Alids, as evident in his designation of ‘Ali al-Rida as his heir and the special reverence he held for ‘Ali that he also made into a doctrine. Shi’ism, like Mu’tazilism, embraced the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur'an, therefore some scholars construe al-Ma’mun’s declaration of this doctrine and the Mihna as reflections of his partiality to Shi’ite doctrines, whereas suggesting that al-Mutawakkil’s revocation of the edict was in part rooted in his antagonism towards the Alids.
However, this depiction of using the createdness of Qur'an as a litmus test for Mu’tazilism or Shi’ism can be misleading. While there is an overlap between the two schools of thought on this question, Mu’tazilism and Shi’ism were not the only theological currents to subscribe to this belief, therefore there may not necessarily be a link between the two in the event of al-Ma’mun’s Mihna. Furthermore, it is inconclusive whether Shi’ism during this period had fully embraced the notion of the createdness of the Qur'an, or whether it is a retrojection from later times after Sunni and Shi’ism had developed its doctrines. While some scholars argue that the prevailing view among Shi’ite theologians at this time followed the teachings of Ja’far as-Sadiq, who believed in its uncreatedness, other sources challenge whether Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq held such a view.
Explanation 3: Mihna as an Assertion of Caliphal Authority
Some of the more recent scholarship on the Mihna suggests that al-Ma’mun may have used it as an opportunity to reassert caliphal authority on matters of religious doctrine. In a series of letters to his governors, al-Ma’mun’s elaborated on the caliph’s role as the guardian of God’s religion and laws. He appeared to draw upon the Shi’ite notion that the caliph-imam alone possessed esoteric knowledge, and used this to emphasis his role as an educator to lead the people out of ignorance in religious matters. Al-Ma’mun’s Mihna appeared to be an effort to wrestle authority over religious knowledge from the scholars (‘ulama), notably from traditionalists such as Ahmed ibn Hanbal whose authority to interpret the religion was rooted in their expertise in the Prophet’s traditions. However, in the longer trend of pre-modern Islamic history, religious authority would become the exclusive purview of the scholars, while the caliph was reduced first to a political authority, and gradually to a symbolic entity. This explanation for the Mihna is the position taken up by most modern scholars.
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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