The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought

By Gerhard Bowering | Go to book overview



The verb qadara in Qur’anic usage means God’s power to determine all events; the noun qadar denotes the eternal decree of God. Oddly enough, the term Qadaris (qadariyya) was given in early sources to a group of theologians in the late seventh and early eighth centuries, mainly from Basra and Syria, who believed the opposite: that evil cannot be created by God but is determined by the human being, and accordingly, if humans have free will then God’s foreknowledge is at variance with this freedom.

The debate on this subject has its roots in Qur’anic discourse, where it is ambivalent whether divine guidance entails enforcement: “God thereby leads many astray, and guides many. But the dissolute alone He leads astray” (Q. 2:25–26; 2:7; 4:109; 99:8). Moreover, it carries on the pre-Islamic fatalistic view—namely, that everything is predestined by the forces of time (dahr). But it also shows hints of the acculturation process of Muslims within the multicultural Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Iranian milieu. The Qadari movement could be seen both as a political reaction against the Umayyad dynasty, who maintained that their rule was decreed by God, and as a group of pious individuals reflecting on the design of God’s salvation plan. Their doctrine spread in various centers of the empire and underwent a process of elaboration, ultimately leading to more intricate theological systems during the later part of the eighth century.

Hadith compendia attest to the existence of this group and the controversy over predestination or “free will” as early as the last quarter of the seventh century in Syria during the reign of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-’Aziz (r. 717–19). Ṭabaqāt books and history works from the early ninth century give the impression that these issues were ardently debated in Syria and in Basra before a consensus was reached concerning belief in divine decree and determination during the late eighth and early ninth centuries, mainly among Sunni scholars. Nevertheless, most of the material and reports are of doubtful authenticity and represent later views of historians and heresiographers.

The earliest advocates of the tenet of “asserting the value of human activity” (that evil cannot be created by God and thus the human being is responsible for his or her actions) include Ma’bad al-Juhani al-Basri (executed in 704), Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), Ghaylan al-Dimashqi and Salih b. Suwayd (both executed ca. 732), and Makhul al-Dimashqi (d. 731). Two of these thinkers are from Basra; the others are Syrians. The origins of this tenet are obscure. The Syrian religious scholar Awza’i (d. 773) claims that Ma’bad and Ghaylan were the first to speak of qadar and that this precept was formulated under Christian influence. Modern scholarship also argues to that effect, finding similarities with John of Damascus on the issue that human beings had been created with their own power by God.

All these names are related in one way or another to Hasan alBasri and his circle. Yet Hasan al-Basri was a quietist, whereas Ma’bad joined the revolt of Ibn al-Ash’ath in 702, and Ghaylan and Salih b. Suwayd were politically active against Umayyad rule in Syria. The Qadaris did not form a homogeneous group but should rather be seen as a loose collection of political activists as well as early rational theologians.

The qadar controversy in Syria was seen primarily as a political movement calling for egalitarianism and for social and political justice, thus threatening the social order with its opposition to the Umayyad ideology. Later, the Umayyad caliph Yazid III (d. 743), who came to power as a result of an insurrection backed by the Syrian Qadaris, formulated a radical program that threatened the foundation of Umayyad legitimacy. However, Murad argues against an exaggerated association of Qadarism with political activism. In Basra, on the other hand, Qadari ideas spread mainly among pious ascetics; later, during the eighth century, it became to a large extent the “ideology of the middle class,” as the prominent scholar of Islam Josef van Ess maintains.

Modern scholars agree that Hasan al-Basri held Qadari views, although later Sunni scholars made great efforts to rehabilitate his image by claiming that he held some Qadari ideas early in his life but that he turned away from them soon after. Later Mu’tazilis see him as their major forerunner. The alleged exchange of letters between Hasan al-Basri and some of his contemporaries concerning the issue of qadar are most probably a later forgery. The authorship of the two anti-Qadari epistles attributed to ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Hasan b. Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya is also contested.

See also Mu’tazilis; theology

Further Reading

Michael Cook, Early Muslim Dogma: A Source-Critical Study, 1981; György Fodor, “Some Aspects of the Qadar-Controversy in Early Islam,” The Arabist: Budapest Studies in Arabic 1, no. 57–65 (1988); Richard M. Frank, “The Structure of Created Causality According to al-Aš’arī,” Studia Islamica, 25, 13–75 (1966); Suleiman Ali Mourad, Early Islam between Myth and History: Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110H/728CE) and the Formation of His Legacy in Classical Islamic Scholarship, 2006; Hassan Qasim Murad, “Jabr


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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Alphabetical List of Entries xxi
  • Topical List of Entries xxv
  • Contributors xxix
  • A 1
  • B 60
  • C 80
  • D 125
  • E 141
  • F 164
  • G 189
  • H 211
  • I 230
  • J 268
  • K 292
  • L 313
  • M 320
  • N 385
  • O 401
  • P 404
  • Q 440
  • R 457
  • S 480
  • T 539
  • U 573
  • V 587
  • W 592
  • Y 600
  • Z 603
  • Index 607


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