ʿAMR B. ʿOBAYD B. BĀB, early Muʿtazilite theologian and traditionist (d. probably 144/761, in Marrān near Mecca, on his way back from the pilgrimage). His grandfather had been captured when the Muslims conquered Kabul under ʿAbdallāh b. Samora in 43/663 and again in 45/665; probably he was among those who were mobilized by ʿAbdallāh b. Samora in order to build a mosque at Baṣra “in Kabulian style.” ʿAmr’s father had served as a sergeant under Ḥaǰǰāǰ, but by profession was a weaver; ʿAmr had learned the same craft and thus may early have made the acquaintance of Wāṣel b. ʿAṭāʾ, a cloth merchant at Baṣra with whom ʿAmr is normally considered one of the founders of the Muʿtazilite movement. Their close personal relations are attested by the fact that Wāṣel married his sister. Doctrinally, they had disagreements at the beginning; Wāṣel is said to have converted ʿAmr to his own “Muʿtazilite” opinion in a long discussion. More than Wāṣel, ʿAmr had belonged to the circle of close disciples around Ḥasan Baṣrī (d. 110/729), whose Tafsīr he transmitted. After his master’s death he seems to have contended with Qatāda b. Deʿāma (d. 117/735) for the leadership of the school. The fact that he lost this competition may explain, to a certain degree, why he became a Muʿtazilite and created a circle of his own. But the date of his conversion remains obscure, and it seems almost certain that he did not start playing a role in the Muʿtazilite movement until after Wāṣel’s death in 131/749. In about 142/759 he had to negotiate, as the doyen of the Muʿtazilites, with the caliph Manṣūr concerning the attitude of his adherents towards al-Nafs al-Zakīya, who had begun propaganda for the cause of the ʿAlids in Iraq. Although there were strong sympathies for al-Nafs al-Zakīya among the Muʿtazilites (probably not so much because the members of the movement believed in the ʿAlid pretendent as the true Mahdī, but because of their frustration with ʿAbbasid rule), ʿAmr b. ʿObayd managed to remain neutral. He died before the outbreak of the rebellion. When his authority no longer retained his adherents, some of them, perhaps the majority, joined the ranks of al-Nafs al-Zakīya and his brother Ebrāhīm who, in 145/762, led the insurrection in Iraq. After the rather ignominious end of the enterprise ʿAmr’s cautiousness was fully rehabilitated, though there remained the urge to take away the blemish of his submission to the will of the government. Therefore his visit to Manṣūr, which he had undertaken only because he had been summoned, was glorified by legendary stories which present him as a preacher and a critic of governmental mismanagement who successfully offered his exhortations to the sovereign.

These embellishments correspond to the image he had left to posterity. He was mainly an ascetic who hated all signs of luxury and who disapproved of too deep an involvement with the state. He was famous for his nightly prayers, and he declared himself against the admissibility of music. But as a theologian, he remains a rather pale figure. His publications were small in number and are, in any case, not preserved (with the exception of a few fragments from his Tafsīr, i.e., the Tafsīr he handed down from his teacher Ḥasan Baṣrī). He lacked the presence of mind and, obviously, also the experience necessary for dialectical discussions. Even the Muʿtazilite sources are not able to conceal the fact that he was frequently defeated by his theological opponents: By Abū Ḥanīfa who confronted him with Murjiʾite ideas about faith, by Hešām b. Ḥakam, the much younger representative of Shiʿite thinking, and even by the philologist Abū ʿAmr b. al-ʿAlāʾ, who bested him in a disputation about free will and predestination. When, in a few rare cases, the heresiographers trace some theological opinion back to him, they normally bring him together with Wāṣel b. ʿAṭāʾ or with Ḥasan Baṣrī, from whom he seems to have taken over his opinions (cf. Našwān Ḥemyarī, al-Ḥūr al-ʿīn, ed. K. Moṣṭafā, repr. Tehran, 1972, p. 256.10ff. for his doctrine about the status of children of unbelievers; Ašʿarī, Maqālāt, p. 222.13ff. on the definition of moḥkam and motašābeh). A certain difference with Wāṣel appears in his political ideas: Wāṣel disliked ʿOṯmān, and ʿAmr ʿAlī (cf. J. van Ess, Das Kitāb an-Nakṯ des Naẓẓām, Göttingen, 1972, pp. 82ff., 124-25). The sources, however, do not quite agree (cf. W. Madelung, Der Imām al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm, Berlin, 1965, pp. 25-26; add to the sources mentioned there al-Nāšeʾ al-Akbar, Oṣūl al-neḥal, ed. van Ess in Frühe muʿtazilitische Häresiographie, Beirut, 1971, par. 85-86, 90).

ʿAmr’s forte lay obviously in Hadith and jurisprudence. In both domains he depended strongly on Ḥasan Baṣrī. He transmitted Ḥasan’s fatwās (e.g., on the law of divorce; cf. Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl al-eʿtezāl, ed. F. Sayyed, Tunis, 1974, p. 242.4ff.), and he stressed the qadarī character of Ḥasan’s Hadith. But he seems to have brought some progress in juridical theory (e.g., his definition of the category of ḥarām, in Tawḥīdī, al-Baṣāʾer wa’l-ḏakāʾer, ed. E. Kaylānī, Damascus, 1964-66, II, p. 742.1ff., and his speculations about analogy in connection with the problem of the admissibility of nabīḏ, ibid., p. 741.4ff.). In Hadith, he seems to have reacted violently against traditions which were used in support of predestinarian views (cf. Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād XII, p. 172.1ff.), but he also rejected other prophetical logia on the basis of their contents. In this he met the resistance of some colleagues who had also been disciples of Ḥasan Baṣrī, but who understood the heritage of their master in a different way and who especially advocated a strongly predestinarian outlook; these included Ayyūb Saḵtīānī (d. 131/748-49), Yūnos b. ʿObayd ʿAbdī (d. 139/756 or 140/757), ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAwn (d. 151/768), and others. Political disagreements may have come in: ʿAmr had supported the cause of Yazīd III in l26/744; ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAwn was blamed by certain Muʿtazilites for having restrained people from joining Ebrāhīm b. ʿAbdallāh in 145 (cf. Ebn Saʿd, VII2, p. 27.5-6). The standpoints were polarized in the following generation; ʿAmr b. ʿObayd was accused of having suppressed Koran 74:11 and the beginning of Koran 111 because they seemed to predict and therefore predestine the damnation of people whose free decision about their destiny in the hereafter had to be saved for the sake of Qadarī/Muʿtazilite doctrine (cf. van Ess, Traditionistische Polemik gegen ʿAmr b. ʿUbaid, Beirut, 1967, pp. 16-17, nr. 3 and, for the broader doctrinal context, idem, Zwischen Ḥadīṯ und Theologie, Berlin, 1975, pp. 167-68 and before). In the field of Hadith, the future belonged to the predestinarians. ʿAmr b. ʿObayd, who still enjoyed considerable prestige among Basrian moḥaddeṯūn up to the late 2nd/8th century, was finally rejected as authority, while the Muʿtazilites lost almost all interest in Hadith. Thus ʿAmr became what he has remained up to now for the historians of Islamic thought: one of the founding fathers of the Muʿtazilite movement. He seems to have contributed to it mainly its strong emphasis on divine justice and human free will.


See also Jāḥeẓ, al-Bayān wa’l-tabyīn, index. Ḵayyāṭ, Ketāb al-enteṣār, index.

Kaʿbī, Maqālāt al-eslāmīyīn, ed.

F. Sayyed, Tunis, 1974, pp. 68-69.

Qāżī ʿAbd-al-Jabbār, Fażl al-eʿtezāl, ibid., pp. 242ff.

Šarīf Mortażā, Amālī, Cairo, 1954, I, pp. 169ff.

Ebn Saʿd, VII2, p. 33.1ff.

Fasavī, al-Maʿrefa wa’l-taʾrīk², ed.

A. Żīāʾ-al-ʿOmarī, Baghdad, 1394/1974, II, pp. 259ff.

Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād XII, pp. 166ff. (strongly dependent on Fasavī).

Ḏahabī, Taʾrīḵ al-Eslām, Cairo, 1367-/1948-, VI, pp. 107ff.

Baḡdādī, Farq bayna’l-feraq, Cairo, 1328/1910, pp. 100ff.

A. S. Tritton, Muslim Theology, London, 1947, pp. 59ff.

W. M. Watt, “ʿAmr b. ʿUbayd,” EI2 I, p. 454.

Idem, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, Edinburgh, 1973, index.

H. S. Nyberg, “ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd et Ibn al-Rāwendī, deux réprouvés,” in Classicisme et déclin culturel dans l’histoire de l’Islam, Paris, 1957, pp. 125ff.

Van Ess, “L’Histoire de la Muʿtazila lue en arrière,” chap. 5, Revue d’Etudes Islamiques 47, 1979, pp. 56ff.

Idem, “Die Herkunft des ʿAmr B. ʿUbaid,” Mélanges Allard-Nwyia, Beirut, forthcoming (differing in certain points from the view proffered in the previous article).

(J. van Ess)

Originally Published: December 15, 1989

Last Updated: August 3, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 9, pp. 991-992

Cite this entry:

J. van Ess, “ʿAMR B. ʿOBAYD,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/9, pp. 991-992, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/amr-b-2 (accessed on 30 December 2012).