Al-Ma’mûn, the Inquisition, and the Quest for Caliphal Authority

By John Abdallah Nawas


The "inquisition" (Mihnah) unleashed by the seventh Abbasid caliph, 'Abdallah al-Ma'mun (r. 813-833), has long attracted the attention of modern scholars of the intellectual, political, and religious history of the early Abbasid era. Because this event, which began in 820 and stretched through the reigns of two of al-Ma'mun's successors, appears at a convergence of prominent currents in systematic theology, rationalist thought, theocratic politics, and nascent trends in Shiism and Sunnism, historians have seen it as the key to a wide array of puzzles and problems in early Islamic history. In this incisive study, John Nawas subjects the various proposed explanations of these events to a sober and searching analysis and, in the process, presents a new interpretation of al-Ma'mun's political and religious policies, contextualized against the background of early Abbasid intellectual and social history.


Appended to the volume is a reprint edition of Walter M. Patton's Ahmed ibn Hanbal and the Mihna (Leiden 1897), which still has much that is useful for modern scholarship, including one enormous additional benefit; it contains most of the relevant passages in Arabic from the primary sources.

Al-Ma’mûn, the Inquisition, and the Quest for Caliphal Authority

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    RAIS 4

    356 pages

    7x10 inches

    ISBN 978-1-937040-55-0 (paperback)

    November 2015

  • Table of Contents

    Series Editors' Preface
    Author's Preface

    Chapter 1: Introduction
    1.1 Aim of This Study
    1.2. Previous Explanations of al-Ma'mun's Motives
    1.3 The Approach of This Study
    1.4 Sources
    1.5 The Caliphates
    1.6 The Sunnites and the Shi'ites
    1.7 The Mu'tazilites
    1.8 The Doctrine of the Createdness of the Qur'an
    1.9 The Mihna

    Chapter 2: 'Abdallah al-Aa'mun: His Life and Reign
    2.1 Early Life
    2.2 The Civil War
    2.3 Al-Ma'mun's Reign

    Chapter 3: The Mu'tazilism, the Shi'ism, and the 'Alid Hypotheses
    3.1 The Mu'tazilism Hypothesis
    3.2 The Shi'ism Hypothesis
    3.3 The 'Alid Hypothesis

    Chapter 4: The Caliphal Authority Hypothesis
    4.1 Modern Scholars' Formulations of This Hypothesis
    4.2 The Argument of This Study
    4.3. Al'Ma'mun's Vision of the Caliphate
    4.4. The Mihna Letters
    4.5. The Timing of the Mihna
    4.6. The Strategic Value of the Doctrine of the Createdness of the Qur'an
    4.7. Interrogated Individuals

    Chapter 5: Conclusion

    Appendix 1: Chronological Information, by Genre, on the Compilers of the Sources Used
    Appendix 2: Information on Those Interrogated
    Appendix 3: Timetable of Key Events during al-Ma'mun's Reign
    William Patton, Ahmed ibn Hanbal and the Mihna (1897)