ABU’L-ḤOSAYN MOḤAMMAD B. ʿALĪ B. AL-ṬAYYEB AL-BAṢRĪ, Muʿtazilite theologian and lawyer, d. 436/1044. Although he was born in Baṣra, he spent most of his life in Baghdad. His best-known theological work, Ketāb taṣaffoḥ al-adella, was a critical investigation of the various arguments and proofs presented in the writings of earlier Muʿtazilites. His best-known work on jurisprudence is Ketāb al-moʿtamad fī oṣūl al-feqh (ed. M. Hamidullah, Damascus, 1965). Since neither the Taṣaffoḥ nor the other theological treatises of Abu’l-Ḥosayn have survived, it is impossible to attempt a reconstruction of his thought except on the basis of later sources, especially those of his disciple, Maḥmūd b. al-Malāḥemī. The information presented below is drawn from three works: al-Fāʾeq fī oṣūl al-dīn by Ebn al-Malāḥemī (ms. Ṣaṇʿāʾ, Kalām 189), Ketāb nehāyat al-ʿoqūl fī derāyat al-oṣūl by Faḵr-al-dīn Rāzī (ms. Cairo, Dār al-kotob, Kalām 748), and Taʿlīq ʿalā šarḥ al-emām al-mašhūr be Mānkdīm by the Zaydite author of 8th/11th century, Qāsem Moḥallī (ms. Milan, Ambrosiana, F 192).

Abu’l-Ḥosayn belonged to the Basran school of Muʿtazilites, which in the 4th/10th and 5th/11th centuries was heavily influenced by the thinking of its two most illustrious members, Abū ʿAlī Jobbāʾī (d. 303/915) and Abū Hāšem (d. 321/933). Abu’l-Ḥosayn’s own teacher, ʿAbd-al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), was himself a prominent member of this school. Despite his identity with the Basran school, Abu’l-Ḥosayn must be considered a dissident, perhaps a heterodox, member, for he disagreed with his masters on a number of significant issues.

On the question of ṣefāt, Abu’l-Ḥosayn especially objects to the distinction made by Jobbāʾī’s disciples between essence (the thing itself, ḏāt al-šayʾ) and existence (woǰūd). For him, existence is not something superimposed on essence, or as Abū Hāšem puts it, a state (ḥāl) of his essence: essence and existence are merged (woǰūd al-šayʾ ḏātoho) (Fāʾeq, fol. 19b.8f.). This makes it impossible for him to adhere to the idea generally held by the Basran Muʿtazilites of the reality of the nonexistent, whereby essence is already constituted in its reality and endowed with its own attributes, even before existence. For Abu’l-Ḥosayn essence can not be in a state of nonexistence (al-maʿdūm laysa be-ḏāt fī ʿadameh) (Fāʾeq, fol. 37b.9ff.).

Parallel to this, Abu’l-Ḥosayn rejected all actual distinction between essence and attribute (ṣefa). Abū Hāšem held that essences differ from one another by virtue of something added to them (amr zāʾed) which is their essential attribute. Thus God differs from other essences not by virtue of His essence itself, but by virtue of a state belonging to His essence (ḥāla ḏātīya). Abu’l-Ḥosayn held, on the contrary, that it is by virtue of His essence itself, His ḏāt maḵṣūṣa, that God differs from other essences (Fāʾeq, fol. 28b.10ff.; Nehāyat II, 47b.23ff.). Likewise, to say “powerful” does not signify, as Abū Hāšem would have it, that a state by virtue of which God is capable of acting has been added to His essence; rather, God possesses this characteristic (ḥakm)—“to be capable of acting”—as an intrinsic fact of His essence. The same thing would be true of all His other characteristics (aḥkām) signified by His various attributes, all resulting from His essence itself (mūǰaba ʿan ḏāteh) (Fāʾeq, fols. 28b.12-15, 33a.14-16, 36a.10, 36b.11; Nehāyat I, fol. 128a.13, etc.). As a general rule every essence differs intrinsically from every other (kollo ḏāt yoḵālefo ḡayrahā be-nafsehā, Fāʾeq, fol. 33a.6). The similarities and differences between essences are due to the essences themselves, not to something added to them (Moḥallī, fol. 76b.4f.; Šahrestānī, al-Melal wa’l-neḥal, ed. Badrān, Cairo, 1951, pp. 123-24, 131.4-5).

Abu’l-Ḥosayn thereby disagreed with both the Ṣefāfīya (Kollābīya, then the Asḥʿarites), who held that every attribute (powerful, knower, etc.) implied an entity (maʿnā) added to an essence (power, knowledge, etc.), and the followers of Abū Hāšem, for whom these attributes implied states (aḥwāl) of this essence. For him, an attribute (ṣefa) is simply the expression of a characteristic (ḥokm) proper to any given essence. The term ḥokm (pl. aḥwāl), was central to Abu’l-Ḥosayn’s thought (Fāʾeq, fol. 14a.14-17; Nehāyat I, fols. 127a.16-19, 127b.17-18; II, fol. 41b.10-12).

Contrary to Abu’l-Ḥosayn, the Basran school, from Abū Hāšem on, developed its ontology with reference to the concepts of maʿnā and ḥāl. For Abū Hāšem, everyone described as powerful (qāder) possesses a state by virtue of which he is capable of acting. In the case of God, this state has its source in another state which is the “essential state” of God. In the case of man, he possesses, as the reason for his being powerful, an entity (maʿnā) which is power (qodra) created by God in one or another part of his body. Abu’l-Ḥosayn rejects altogether the concept of maʿnā (cf. Rāzī, Eʿteqādāt feraq al-moslemīn, Cairo, 1978, p. 42.7; Moḥallī, fol. 30a.3-4); according to him, power is not an entity, it is simply a certain condition of the “structure” (benya maḵṣūṣa), i.e., the health of a body, due to a balanced mixture of the body’s component elements (Fāʾeq, fol. 85b.14ff.; Moḥallī, fol. 133b.18-21; Nehāyat I, fol. 161b.19-21). It is the same with “positions” (akwān); movement, immobility, union, separation, proximity, distance. For Jobbāʾī’s disciples, each of these akwān is an “entity” by reason of which the substance considered is mobile, immobile, etc. For Abu’l-Ḥosayn, they are simply the substance’s ways of being, i.e., its being mobile, immobile, etc. (Fāʾeq, fol. 6a.3ff.; Nehāyat I, fol. 162a.24ff.; Šahrestānī, Melal, p. 131.3 [read here akwān instead of alwān]). Further, knowledge (ʿelm) is not an entity the result of which is the knower knowing, it is the very fact of his knowing (Fāʾeq, fol. 36b.3-6); and so forth (cf. again Nehāyat I, fols. 243b.7 to 244b.5).

Despite his reputation for having denied the concept of ḥāl (e.g., Šahrestānī, Melal, p. 131.1), Abu’l-Ḥosayn, curiously, invokes it when dealing with knowledge (Moḥallī, fol. 72a.9-12; Šahrestānī, Nehāyat al-eqdām, ed. A. Guillaume, Oxford, 1931, p. 221.9-12). Knowing, he says, represents for man a state (ḥāla) of the heart, for God a state of His particular essence (Moḥallī, fol. 63b.7-8). However, it seems that in this instance of utilizing the term ḥāl/aḥwāl, Abu’l-Ḥosayn had in mind the idea of change or variation which the root ḥwl allows. All knowledge implies the relationship (taʿalloq) of an essence with something other than itself. Abu’l-Ḥosayn defines this relationship as the fact of the knower’s having full awareness of the known (tabayyonoho le’l-maʿlūm) (Fāʾeq, fol. 33a.18-19; cf. ibid., fols. 15a.18 and 28b.13). This relationship itself is what he calls ḥāla (Fāʾeq, fol. 331.18-24). From this fact, the multiplicity of knowns occasions the multiplicity of acts of knowledge and therefore of the facts of possessing knowledge. For the appearance (taǰaddod) of every new known, there exists a corresponding new state of the knower (Šahrestānī, Nehāyat al-eqdām, p. 221.10; Nehāyat II, fol. 46b.3-4; Moḥallī, fol. 76a.7-8).

Abu’l-Ḥosayn applies this schema to God Himself. Without really denying the eternity of divine knowledge, he holds that God knows by two separate acts: first, by knowing that something will exist, and second, by knowing that it exists when it does exist (Fāʾeq, fol. 36a.5-9; Moḥallī, fols. 75b.7-14, 76a.7ff., 172b.8-9). This explanation of God’s knowledge led to Abu’l-Ḥosayn’s being accused of restating in another guise Hešām b. al-Ḥakam’s thesis that God knows things after having not known them (Fāʾeq, fol. 36a.25ff.; Šahrestānī, Melal, p. 131.6-7; idem, Nehāyat al-eqdām, p. 221.9-10).

On several questions not specifically relevant to the theory of ṣefāt Abu’l-Ḥosayn adhered to views that differed from those held by Jobbāʾī’s disciples. For example, on the proof of God’s existence—“that every originated thing (moḥdaṯ) must have an originator (moḥdeṯ)”—he takes exception to the famous argument put forth by Abū Hāšem based on the analogy of God and man (Fāʾeq, fol. 12a.16ff.; Moḥallī, fol. 49b.9ff.). On the theory of knowledge, he holds that reported knowledge (ḵabar) is acquired (moktasab) and not necessary (żarūrī) (Fāʾeq, fol. 135a.8ff.). On the question of man’s acts, he holds, contrary to the tradition of Jobbāʾī’s disciples, that God has power over the very acts that man performs (aʿyān afʿāl al-ʿebād) and not only over the same genre of acts. Therefore the same potential act can be dependent upon the power of two agents (maqdūr wāḥed bayna qāderayn) (Fāʾeq, fol. 34b.15ff.; Nehāyat I, fols. 105a.2-4, 135a.13-15, 137a.14-15, etc.).

The originality of Abu’l-Ḥosayn’s theses concerning the nature of human action was emphasized, and possibly exaggerated, by Rāzī (cf. especially Nehāyat I, fol. 142b.13ff.). On the other hand, Abu’l-Ḥosayn holds that it is by necessary knowledge (ʿelm żarūrī) that we know man is the agent of his own acts and not, as ʿAbd-al-Jabbār would have it, by demonstrable knowledge (Fāʾeq, fol. 52a.2ff.; Nehāyat I, fol. 138a.6ff.). On the other hand, at least according to Rāzī, he affirms (pushing to an extreme the theory of motivations [dawāʿī] dear to Jobbāʾī’s disciples) that every act necessarily implies a motivation and that once the motivation exists, the act inevitably follows (Nehāyat I, fols. 131b.7-11, 142b.13-16, 147b.11-13; II, fol. 67b.9-10). Rāzī says this is contradictory to the preceding thesis since it implies a deterministic conception of acts as the inevitable results of motivations which can be created only by God (on this point, cf. D. Gimaret, Théories de l’acte humain en théologie musulmane, Paris, 1980, pp. 59-60).

Some authors, Rāzī included, affirm that the positions taken by Abu’l-Ḥosayn on various issues owe much to his study of the philosophers (he was a contemporary of Ebn Sīnā) and that he was in fact a faylasūf disguised as a motakallem (cf. Šahrestānī, Melal, p. 131.8-9; idem, Nehāyat al-eqdām, p. 221.12; Ebn al-Qefṭī, Taʾrīḵ al-ḥokamāʾ, ed. J. Lippert, Leipzig, 1903, pp. 293-94). Such an affirmation seems exaggerated, and certainly S. Stern’s identification of him with a homonymous disciple of the philosopher Ebn al-Samḥ (JRAS 1956, pp. 33-41) is very doubtful.

In the domain of feqh, Abu’l-Ḥosayn belonged to the Hanafite school, as is evidenced by the fact that Ebn Abi’l-Wafāʾ Qorašī devoted an entry to him (Ṭabaqāt al-ḥanafīya II, Hyderabad, 1332/1914, pp. 93-94), and that at his funeral the celebrated Hanafite qāżī Abū ʿAbdallāh Ṣaymarī led the prayers. His al-Moʿtamad, however is not a partisan work; it deals objectively with the views of both Šāfeʿī and Abū Ḥanīfa, which explains why Rāzī (in al-Maḥsūl fī oṣūl al-feqh) and Āmedī (in Eḥkām al-ḥokkām fī oṣūl al-aḥkām [Cairo, 1347/1928-9]) found it such a rich source and drew upon it freely.



See also Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād III, p. 100.

Ḥākem Jošamī, Šarḥ al-ʿoyūn, in Fażl al-eʿtezāl, ed. F. Sayyed, Tunis, 1974, p. 387.

Ebn Ḵallekān (Beirut) IV, p. 271.

Ebn al-Mortażā, Ṭabaqāt, pp. 118-19.

A chapter of al-Moʿtamad has been translated and commented upon by M. Bernard, L’accord unaime de la communauté comme fondement des statuts légaux de l’Islam d’après Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī, Paris, 1970.


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(D. Gimaret)

Originally Published: December 15, 1983

Last Updated: July 21, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 3, pp. 322-324

Cite this entry:

D. Gimaret, “Abu'l-Hosayn Basri,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/3, pp. 322-324; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abul-hosayn-mohammad-b (accessed on 31 January 2014).