AṢAMM, ABU BAKR ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān b. Kaysān (d. 200/815-6 or 201/816-7), Muʿtazilite of Baṣra. All of his writings are lost and, despite his prominence in his day, they have left less of a residue in later literature than those of other leading Muʿtazilites of the period. Ebn al-Nadim’s Fehrest (ed. Tajaddod, p. 214.11 ff.) attributes 26 separate works to Aṣamm.

Aṣamm distinguished himself as a scholar of the Koran (Ebn al-Nadim, ed. Tajaddod, p. 214.11-12; van Ess, 1979, pp. 54 ff.). In other respects his work resembled that of his predecessor Ḍerār b. ʿAmr (Ebn al-Nadim, ed. Tajaddod, p. 215.2 ff.; van Ess, 1968, pp. 16-21). He is most often remembered for his “denial of accidents” (e.g. Baḡdādi, pp. 36.17-37.2), and for maintaining that Muslims were under no obligation to appoint rulers. He was singled out for holding this view by later writers on constitutional law. But in the early ninth century, since it was still so alive among Muʿtazilites, a contemporary source omits to mention Aṣamm in connection with it (Ps.-Nāšeʾ, par. 82 ff.).

Aṣamm susbcribed to the elective principle jointly championed by Muʿtazilites and Kharijites. He accepted the need for government on the grounds that, without its restraining hand, people would engage in mutual oppression (Ašʿari, p. 460.10). His prime consideration was the good of the community. He abhorred the prospect of civil strife (fetna) and for this reason made the unanimous support of the community the condition of legality for both insurrection (Ašʿari, p. 451.12ff) and government: ʿAli’s appointment had failed to gain unanimous support and with it legality according to Aṣamm (Ps.-Nāšeʾ, par. 101; Ašʿāri, p. 456.9ff.).

Goldziher notes that there is a Kharijite background to Aṣamm’s constitutional thought; and as van Ess points out (“Aṣamm,” EI2 S,p. 90a), this renders the assumption of foreign influence unnecessary. What Goldziher did not know is that Aṣamm was distinctly hostile to foreign ideas, and that he wrote in the 8th, rather than the 9th century. The availability to Aṣamm of Ps.-Aristotle’s epistle remains a remote possibility.

Even though Aṣamm’s assessment of the first civil war was unacceptable to Shiʿites, it was clearly designed to appeal to moderates of a broad spectrum of factions. Yet what seemed conciliatory in 8th-century Baṣra was to seem inflammatory in 9th-century Baghdad. ʿAli was finally accepted as the fourth canonical caliph of Sunnism (Madelung, 1965, pp. 225-28), while Aṣamm was disowned by his school (ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, p. 267.17-9; cf. Ebn al-Nadim, ed. Tajaddod, p. 214.10 ff.). 


Sources: Ps.-Nāšeʾ al-Akbar, K. Oṣul al-neḥal, ed. J. van Ess, Frühe muʿtazilitische Häresiographie, Beirut and Wiesbaden, 1971.

On date and authorship see Wilferd Madelung, “Frühe muʿtazilitische Häresiographie: das Kitāb al-Uṣūl des Ḡaʿfar b. Ḥarb?” Der Islam 57, 1980, pp. 220-36.

Ašʿari, Ketāb Maqālāt al-eslāmiyin, ed. H. Ritter, Beirut and Wiesbaden, 1963.

ʿAbd-al-Jabbār b. Aḥmad Asadābādi, Fażl al-eʿtezāl wa-ṭabaqāt al-moʿtazela, ed. F. Sayyed, Tunis, 1974.

ʿAbd-al-Qāher Baḡdādi, Ketāb OsÂul al-din, Istanbul, 1928.

Ebn al-Nadim, ed. Tajaddod.

Studies: Josef van Ess, “Ḍirār b. ʿAmr und die ‘Cahmīya.’ Biographie einer vergessenen Schule,” Der Islam 43, 1967, pp. 241-79; 44, 1968, pp. 1-70, 318-20.

Idem, “AsÂamm” in EI2 Supplement. Idem, “Biobibliographische Notizen zur islamischen Theologie (4),” Die Welt des Orients 10, 1979, pp. 54 ff.

Ignaz Goldziher, “Hellenistischer Einfluß auf muʿtazilitische Chalifats-Theorien,” Der Islam 6, 1916, pp. 173-77. (Goldziher observed a striking similarity between Aṣamm’s theory of the imamate and a passage from the R. Aresṭāṭāles lel-Eskandar fi’l-siāsa (ed. J. Lippert, De epistula pseudaristotelica peri basileias commentatio, Berlin, 1891, par. 2); this parallel no longer seems close, but there is a striking parallel at par. 3.) Wilferd Madelung, Der Imam al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen, Berlin, 1965. (The assessment of Aṣamm at pp. 42 ff. needs to be revised in the light of Ps.-Nāšeʾ, OsÂul.) 

(F. W. Zimmermann)

Originally Published: July 20, 2002

Last Updated: August 16, 2011

Cite this entry:

F. W. Zimmermann, “AṢAMM, ABU BAKR,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/asamm (accessed on 16 October 2012).