ABŪ MŪSĀ ʿĪSĀ B. ṢOBAYḤ (or ṢABĪḤ) AL-MORDĀR, theologian and ascetic, early representative of the Baghdad branch of the Moʿtazela (d. 226/840-41). His surname al-Mordār is frequently transmitted in a corrupt form: Mozdār (Ḥākem al-Jošamī, Šarḥ ʿoyūn al-masāʾel; cf. Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl al-eʿtezāl, ed. F. Sayyed, Tunis, 1974, p. 227, n. 511); Mordād (Baḡdādī, Farq [Cairo1], p. 102.8); Morād (Jāḥeẓ, Ketāb al-borṣān wa’l-ʿorǰān, ed. M. Morsī al-Ḵūlī, Cairo, 1392/1972, p. 89, n. 3); Medrār (Lesān al-mīzān IV, p. 398.4); Farrāʾ (Masʿūdī, Morūǰ VII, p. 233, bottom). But “Mordār” is well attested in Ḵayyāṭ’s Ketāb al-enteṣār (manuscript of the year 311/923-24; ed. Nader, Beirut, 1957, pp. 53.15 and 54.17) and in Samʿānī’s Ansāb ([Leiden], fol. 521a6ff.). The name evidently derived from Persian mordār “carrion.” Baḡdādī alludes to its derogatory meaning (Farq [Cairo1], p. 151.7ff.; [Cairo2], pp. 165.2ff.; cf. I. Goldziher in ZDMG 65, 1911, p. 363). Abū Mūsā was apparently of Iranian origin.

In contrast to other Muʿtazilites of his time (e.g., Abu’l-Hoḏayl ʿAllāf or Abū Esḥāq Naẓẓām), Abū Mūsā Mordār kept contact with the lower classes (Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 72, bottom). When his later pupil Jaʿfar b. Ḥarb was still a soldier, he used to make fun of Mordār’s followers (Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl, p. 278.7f.). This explains Mordār’s abhorrence of government service (Baḡdādī, Farq [Cairo1], p. 151.15f.; [Cairo2], p. 165.9ff.) and his ascetic tendencies (see anecdote, Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 55.17ff., from which may derive the designation “monk of the Moʿtazela” found in some later sources). He seems to have tried to make kalām acceptable to the common people by presenting it in the form of anecdotes (qeṣaṣ)—e.g., by comparing God’s mercy with human wickedness. Abu’l-Hoḏayl felt reminded, in this respect, of the direct approach of the founding fathers Wāṣel b. ʿAṭāʾ and ʿAmr b. ʿObayd (Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 54.10ff.; Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl, p. 227.22ff.). Like his fellow Muʿtazilites, Abū Mūsā detested the taqlīd of the simple people (cf. Jāḥeẓ, Ḏamm aḵlāq al-kottāb in Rasāʾel, ed. ʿA. M. Hārūn, Cairo, 1964-65, II, p. 196.1ff.); but in contrast, he attempted to win them over by an active mission. This is why Muʿtazilite influence expanded in Baghdad more through his efforts than those of the founder of the Baghdad branch, Bešr b. al-Moʿtamer (cf. Fehrest [Tehran1], p. 206, bottom). Mordār had been the latter’s pupil (ibid.; Kaʿbī, Maqālāt al-eslāmīyīn, ed. F. Sayyed, Tunis, 1974, p. 74.1f.); but he also knew Abu’l-Hoḏayl and Ṯomāma b. al-Ašras, whom he visited at the latter’s house (Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 20.3). Jāḥeẓ mentions him only rarely (Boṣrān, p. 89.4). Wealthy state officials such as Ebrāhīm b. al-Sendī did not like his style (cf. Šahrestānī, p. 48, bottom; Jāḥeẓ, Ketāb al-boḵalāʾ, ed. Ṭ. Ḥāǰerī, Cairo, 1958, pp. 289f.). But in his old age his reputation had become so high that Ebrāhīm b. Yaḥyā Yazīdī, a foster-brother of the caliph Maʾmūn with Muʿtazilite leanings (cf. M. Fleischhammer in ZDMG 112, 1962, pp. 304ff.), mentioned in a poem one of Mordār’s pupils as the most suitable counter-candidate to Bešr b. al-Walīd Kendī, who had just been nominated qāżī (year 213/828-29; cf. Sīrāfī, Ṭabaqāt al-noḥāt al-baṣrīyīn, ed. F. Krenkow, Algiers, 1936, p. 46, bottom, and ff.; and for the most complete version of the poem, Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl, p. 278, bottom, and ff.). Among his disciples were Jaʿfar b. Mobaššer and Jaʿfar b. Ḥarb, but also ʿĪsā b. al-Hayṯam al-Ṣūfī, the teacher of Ebn al-Rēvandī (Fehrest [Tehran1], p. 216.5). Through him and through Jaʿfar b. Mobaššer, the ascetic and anti-government tendencies were carried into the next generation, when the movement became known by the term ṣūfīyat al-moʿtazela (Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, pp. 63.4f., 72, bottom; Nāšeʾ, Oṣūl al-neḥal, ed. van Ess in Frühe muʿtazilitische Häresiographie, Beirut, 1971, secs. 82f., etc.). Mordār’s pupil Abū Ẓofar (cf. Kaʿbī, Maqālāt, p. 74.11f.) brought his ideas to Nīšāpūr (ibid., p. 74.17; Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl, p. 303, bottom; Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 54.1f.).

Mordār was a prolific writer; Ebn al-Nadīm provides thirty-four titles of books, none of which is preserved (Fehrest [Tehran1], p. 207.5ff.). In accordance with his popularizing activities and his consciousness, he did not deal with subtle side issues, but only with the clear lines of Muʿtazilite doctrine (Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl, p. 278.1; Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 53.16f.). Hi did not shun polemics. He anathematized non-Muʿtazilites who defended an anthropomorphic or predestinarian concept of God (Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 54.19ff.), and he disagreed with his own Basran colleagues (see Fehrest, title no. 22). He attacked explicitly Naẓẓām (on the problem of God’s omnipotence, see title no. 21), Ṯomāma b. Ašras and Šaḥḥām (on questions of epistemology, see titles no. 18 and 19), Abu’l-Hoḏayl (on his doctrine concerning the finiteness of movements in paradise; see Baḡdādī, Farq [Cairo1], pp. 102.8f., 152, bottom; [Cairo2], pp. 122.3f., 166.17f.), Naǰǰār (on predestination, see titles no. 13 and 17), and the Christian Theodor Abū Qorra (d. ca. 820; see title no. 7). Besides the Christians (see also title no. 6), he criticized the Jews and the Magians (on theodicy, title no. 10).

His teaching was almost completely forgotten in later generations. In contrast to thinkers such as Abu’l-Hoḏayl and Naẓẓām he was not interested in the philosophical foundations of Muʿtazilite thought, especially not in atomism. He concentrated, as many titles of his books show, on the problems of God’s justice and omnipotence. Against Abu’l-Hoḏayl he insisted that God’s omnipotence is not limited by the finite number of contingent things to be realized in the future (maqdūrāt), because it is an inalienable quality (a point Abu’l-Hoḏayl would not have denied) and because this assumption leads to ridiculous consequences (cf. Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 19.17ff. and Baḡdādī, Farq, [Cairo1], pp. 103.6ff.; [Cairo2], pp. 122f.; R. M. Frank, “The Divine Attributes according to Abu’l-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf,” Muséon 82, 1969, pp. 473ff.). God can even do justice and lie, because His freedom of decision implies that His power comprises both contraries. But as His perfection is at stake here, this can only be affirmed theoretically; in reality we can prove that He will never do evil. If He did, He would have to be called unjust; but since we do not have any proofs for that, we should avoid such unseemly speculations (cf. Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 53.15ff.; Ašʿarī, Maqālāt, p. 555.9ff.). The only limit imposed on God’s omnipotence is His own essence. He can (theoretically) perform ignorant actions, but He can not be essentially ignorant (Ašʿarī, Maqālāt, p. 556.1ff.). He does not even perform any injustice which could be compensated for afterwards; he would, e.g., never punish children for the sins they might have committed in the future, as Bešr b. al-Moʿtamer had said in order to solve the problem of theodicy (Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 53.15).

God wills the sins of man only insofar as He does not prevent them (cf. D. Gimaret in Stud. Isl. 40, 1974, p. 11). He creates sins; creation, however, is not the thing created itself, but something else (probably an accident of the thing), which is itself in turn created. This does not lead to an infinite regress (cf. Ašʿarī, Maqālāt, pp. 190.8ff., 541.16f.). Man sins through his capacity; this capacity is, however, not identical with health, Bešr b. al-Moʿtamer had believed (ibid., p. 229.13f.). From him Abū Mūsā took over the idea that man may generate actions in another person through tawlīd. If, for example, somebody beats somebody else, the latter becomes aware of the blow. But whereas Bešr had claimed that this awareness is “done” by the first person (ibid., p. 401.15), Mordār seems to have believed that, in this case, one action proceeds from two agents (Ḵayyāṭ, Enteṣār, p. 54.1f.). Furthermore, he does not accept Bešr’s theory that the sense perceptions are generated (e.g., vision, by lifting one’s lids), or even the perceptible accidents, colors, odors, etc. In this case he may have sided with Abu’l-Hoḏayl (cf. Ašʿarī, Maqālāt, p. 401.14ff.; Baḡdādī, Farq [Cairo1], p. 152, bottom; [Cairo2], p. 166.18f.; van Ess, Erkenntnislehre des ʿAḍudaddīn al Īcī, Wiesbaden, 1966, p. 167ff.). Man may obey God without being aware of it, immediately after he had reached mental maturity, during his first attempts at speculation (naẓar) which lead him to the knowledge of God; but in all other cases obedience presupposes this knowledge (Ḵayyāṭ, op. cit., p. 59.10ff.). This is derived from an epistemological theory developed by Bešr b. al-Moʿtamer (van Ess, Erkenntnislehre, pp. 349f.) and probably meant that non-Muslims too could acquire recompense in the hereafter.

The spirit of the mehÐčna, which was initiated when Mordār was at the peak of his prestige, manifests itself in his uncompromising standpoint about the Koran. The Koran is created, and whoever thinks otherwise believes in the existence of two eternal entities (i.e., in something eternal besides God, like the dualists) and has to be considered an unbeliever. Abū Mūsā did not, however, uphold the doctrine of the inimitability of the Koran (eÑ—Ðřāz; cf. Baḡdādī, Farq [Cairo1], p. 151.11f.; [Cairo2], p. 165.4f.; Šahrestānī, p. 48.15ff.). This attitude, still quite natural in his time, when the eÑ—Ðřāz dogma was being conceived by NazÐčzÐčām, seems to have discredited his later followers among the sÐčūfīyat al-moÑ—tazela.

Politically he kept himself at a distance from Sunnite as well as ShiÑ—ite views. He abstained from any judgment about Ñ—OtÐŞmān; but he condemned Ñ—OtÐŞmān’s murderers, because murder is not exculpated by great sin in the victim. He dissassociated himself from MoÑ—āwīa (cf. KЁayyātÐč, EntesÐčār, p. 74.6ff.; Baḡdādī, OsÐčūl al-dīn, Istanbul, 1346/1928, p. 288.15f.). In jurisprudence, he did not agree with the asÐčhÐčāb eÐřtehād al-raÑŞy, i.e., especially the Hanafites (see Fehrest, title no. 20). Like NazÐčzÐčām, he rejected qīās, the conclusion from analogy, probably for the same reason; it was not reliable enough (cf. Ebn Ḥazm, al-EhÐčkām le osÐčūl al-ahÐčkām, Cairo, 1345/1926-27, VII, p. 203.17ff.; van Ess, Das Kitab an-NaktÐŞ des NazÐčzÐčām [Abh. Ak. Wiss. GÑṱtt., Phil.-Hist. Kl., III. Folge, 79, 1972], pp. 137ff.).


See also Ebn BatÐčtÐča, Ebāna, ed. H. Laoust, Damascus, 1958, p. 91.15.

A. S. Tritton, Muslim Theology, London, 1947, pp. 119f.

H. Laoust, Les Schismes dans l’Islam, Paris, 1965, p. 105.

W. M. Watt, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, Edinburgh, 1963, p. 223.

J. van Ess, “Eine Predigt des MuÑ—taziliten Mordār,” Bulletin d’études orientales 30, 1978, pp. 302ff.

(J. van Ess)

Originally Published: December 15, 1983

Last Updated: July 21, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 4, pp. 347-349

Cite this entry:

J. van Ess, “ABŪ MŪSĀ MORDĀR,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/4, pp. 347-349; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abu-musa-isa-b (accessed on 31 January 2014).