Al-NAZZAM, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Sayyar b. Hani', Mu'tazili theologian, who died between
220/835 and 230/845 while still, as it seems, at the height of his powers. He had been trained
in Basra, mainly in the circle of his maternal uncle Abu 'l-Hudhayl al-'Allaf [q.v.], but he
succeeded in getting access to the court at Baghdad after 204/819 when the caliph al-Ma'mun
[q.v.] had returned from Marw. He may have owed his career to his poetical and rhetorical
talent as well. His poetry, though not copious, was highly appreciated for its modernity. Like
Abu Nuwas, whom he admired, he excelled in celebrating wine and the ethereal beauty of
youths. His poetical style combined an imaginative use of metaphors with a certain intellectual
touch which was due to the introduction of abstract terms taken from theology and
metaphysics. While still in Basra, he had already taken part in debates which were arranged in
bourgeois circles and which went far beyond a mere theological purpose; this is why he appears
in al-Jahiz's K. al-Hayawan as one of the two speakers who, in the first part of the book, vie in
defending the precedence of the dog and the cock respectively.
Al-Jahiz was his pupil also in theological matters. But in this field, al-Nazzam's reputation waned rather quickly. He fell victim to his own wit and imagination; some of his ideas were regarded as wild, and even al-Djahiz rejected them. He had built his theology on a broad speculative basis of natural philosophy which was more elaborate than and differed from that of Abu 'l-Hudhayl. Abu 'l-Hudhayl had been an atomist; he had regarded bodies as aggregates of juxtaposed, isolated particles which are held together merely by God's omnipotence. Al-Nazzam, on the contrary, thought that the elements which make up the body permeate each other and may be either visible at its surface or hidden in its interior [see kumun]. God created them all at once; when bodies undergo a change they do normally not add on a new accident but rather bring a hitherto hidden component to the surface. Change is therefore not abrupt, but slow and imperceptible. The only accident which al-Nazzam acknowledged was movement; here the transition from rest is abrupt. Even rest, though, results from an inherent force (i'timad) which may be interpreted as movement without locomotion and which sets the body in motion once all obstacles are removed. Movement has a wider range than locomotion, anyway; it comprises 'all actions depending on man's will: Praying and fasting, acts of willing, knowing and ignorance, speech and silence (!), etc.'. Al-Nazzam thus makes a sharp difference between the realm of man, which is dominated by free will, and the realm of nature where everything acts and reacts bi-idjab al-khilqa, i.e. according to an inherent mechanical impetus which was added to it by creation. His idea of locomotion, however, was affected by his rejection of atomism. If a finite distance cannot be subdivided into a finite number of fractions but is subject to infinite divisibility, locomotion has to include a leap (Tafra) since not every imaginable point on the surface on which it proceeds can be touched. This concept which, as many of his other ideas, was suggested to al-Nazzam by speculations prepared in Asiatic Hellenism did not catch on in Islam; it was rejected by the theologians (mutakallimun) as well as by philosophers like Ibn Sina.
For al-Nazzam, this outline of physical theory was, in spite of very elaborate discussion, not a purpose in itself but part of his theology. He shared a good number of the aforementioned axioms with Iranian dualism, especially with Manichaean opponents whom he used to attack, but he differed from them in assuming that the ingredients contained in the physical bodies do not mix by themselves but through an independent force which brings them together, in spite of their diversity and opposition, namely God. Therefore he called the element which guarantees the identity of acting bodies khilqa and not only Tabi'a 'nature'. In the same way, it is God who is responsible for good and bad effects in the things He has created. His omnipotence only stops in front of man's free will. But even man's ability of choosing between good and evil is only a result of an enforced mixture between his body and his 'soul' or 'spirit' (ruh) which is a 'body', i.e. a material entity, too. For if the spirit were left alone it would only perform the good; it is merely through the integration into the body which acts as a harm (afa) to it that it discovers the possibility of evil and is able to do it. Permeation implies that not only is the body penetrated by the soul, but the soul, for its part, invaded by 'bodies' perceived by the senses, e.g. sounds contained in the air. The soul therefore serves as a sensus communis. It is not located at a specific place, e.g. in the heart; it has rather to be equated with life which is 'interlaced' with all limbs. Life guarantees capability of acting (istita'a), but during the actual performance man has to take into account the khilqa of the object which is affected by it, for instance by profiting from the weight or the 'movability' of a stone when throwing it.
The act of knowing is a 'movement', too; as an accident it has no permanence. But it may lead to rest; this is why al-Nazzam defined truth as 'tranquillity of the heart' (sukun al-qalb). His criterion of truth was therefore a subjective one, namely, inner certitude. But the truth itself is completely independent of the person pronouncing it. Therefore an isolated saying of the Prophet (khabar al-wahid) may well be true, whereas a tradition of multiple attestation (mutawatir [q.v.]) may be false if external criteria prove it to be so. Man should argue on the basis of free ijtihad; even the fatwas reported from the Companions are not binding. Al-Nazzam showed that they contradict each other; the material he collected was later on especially appreciated by Shi'i writers.
In his concept of God, al-Nazzam advocated a rigorous via negativa. He did not therefore develop a doctrine of attributes as elaborate as that of his uncle Abu 'l-Hudhayl; he devoted closer examination only to God's will and power, in connection with the problem of theodicy. He limited God's omnipotence by saying that He not only avoids doing evil but is not even capable of it. In spite of that, God is just and good not out of necessity but by free choice; His power still extends to unlimited possibilities, the only restriction being that all of them would be equally good for man, a benefit (lutf) of the same magnitude as the one realised in creation. God always does what is most fitting (aslah), but there is an infinite number of alternatives. His power is on line with His always being most perfect. The miracles He produces serve to prove the veracity of His prophets. In the case of Muhammad, this was not achieved through the rhetorical insuperability of the qur'an but through the predictions contained in it. Muhammad's pagan adversaries were not permanently incapable of producing anything linguistically comparable to his revelations, but temporarily 'averted' from using their rhetorical and poetical skill (sarfa).
Al-Nazzam's works are lost except for a few fragments. Most of them come from his K. al-Nakth (see J. van Ess, Das Kitab an-Nakt des Nazzam und seine Rezeption im Kitab al-Futya des Gahiz, GKttingen 1972; another ca. 35 fragments are now found in Fakhr al-Din al-Razi's Mahsul fi 'ilm usul al-fiqh, ed. Taha Djabir Fayyad al-'Alwani, Riyad 1399-1400/1979-80, ii/1, 438 ff.). Others belong to his K. al-Tafra, his K. al-Djuz', possibly his K. al-Radd 'ala ashab al-ithnayn, and to a treatise in which he criticised the ashab al-hadith (see J. van Ess, Ein unbekanntes Fragment des Nazzam, in Der Orient in der Forschung, Festschrift O. Spies, 170 ff.).
(J. van Ess)
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Source: from the Encyclopedia of Islam --© 1999 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands