|All throughout the 1st century there existed, alongside the teachings of the school of Ahl al-Bayt (PBUH), a school of non-Shi`ite scholars which dominated the learned circles of Medina, one which may be referred to as the school of the Seven Jurists. In place of the asceticism advocated by the school of Iraq this approach focused on the notion of wara` (the spirit of scruple) which causes one to observe religious obligations and steer clear of unlawful actions. Among the Seven Sa`id b. Musib placed particular emphasis on contemplation. None the less, the traditional atmosphere of Medina was impervious to new theories, as compared to that of Iraq, and thus it proved an arid soil for the growth of theological ideas. This was in spite of the fact that the idea of remaining silent with regards to the disputations of the Salaf (the predecessors) and refraining from their condemnation (sabb) had precedent among the Hijazi scholars of the time of Successors, such as the Meccan jurist `Ata’ b. Abi Rabah. None the less, the discussion of this idea within the framework of a theological theory, i.e. the first irja’, and its elaboration in one of the first Islamic theological works by Hasan b. Muhammad Hanafiyyah, a descendent of Imam `Ali (PBUH), is a unique example of the fruits of labor of Medinese scholars.
Hasan has been named in historical sources as the first propagator of the idea of irja’ (to defer judgment). He was the first scholar to write a treatise on the subject, a fact uncharacteristic of the members of his lineage. His work underscores the tendency which advocates the wilayah of the Shaykhayn and suspension of judgment about a number of other companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). This approach tends to adopt a position of waqf (refraining from judgment) as regards a number of Companions over whom sectarian disputes have raged or those who have become subjects of censure and believes that decisions on such issues should be left to the divine wisdom. This belief served as a basis for a theological movement which flourished in the 1st and the early 2nd centuries AH, whose followers came be known as the “early Murji’ah”. They adopted a position of waqf regarding the controversial aspects of the history of the Companions and even went as far as refraining from judgment regarding the faith or infidelity of Imam `Ali (PBUH) and `Uthman.
In spite of the fact that Hasan’s theory encountered the opposition of two of the Kufan Successors Zadhan and Abu Salih Maysarah as well as scholars such as Ibrahim Nakha’i it went on to attract a sizable following in Kufah. The eminent Kufan scholar `Amir b. Sharahil Sha`bi (flourished late 1st century AH) though not a Murji’ite by confession did subscribe to the idea of Hasan b. Muhammad regarding the need to suspend judgment on issues about which there was insufficient grounds and to leave the matter to God.
It should be noted that the term irja’ has another connotation than the one applied to the early Murji’ites. The second sense of irja’ is the antinomian belief in referring (irja’) action to faith, i.e. that actions do not count in determining one’s faith (iman). To shed more light on the background which gave rise to this idea – which considers one who has committed a kabirah (grave sin) not as an apostate – one should look back to the second half of the 1st century AH and the formation of three distinct groups: the Muhakkimah who considered the committer of a carnal sin as an apostate, the majority who did not deem such person as an apostate and postulated various degrees of faith, and finally the Murji’ites who not only did not consider the person as an apostate but believed that actions in no way affect the degree of one’s faith. However, it should be borne in mind that notes about the Murji’ah in ancient theological and historical sources are marred with ambiguity, a fact that makes the task of distinguishing between these two tendencies rather difficult. What further complicates the situation is that in certain strains of the Murji’ah the two tendencies appear to have been present at the same time.
Without mentioning any of the Successors by name many ancient sources make repeated reference to extremist groups under the title of the Murji’ah who were of the opinion that the realization of faith was independent of action and that no sinful act called for punishment in hell. None the less, the historical evidence points to the fact that this extremist wing comprised a small minority within the Murji’ah as a whole. The main body of the sect held the moderate view that one’s faith was not destroyed upon committing a sin, in spite of its theological of consequences, and were opposed to the views of the extremist Murji’ites. Talq b. Habib, the eminent Basran Successor and pupil of Ibn `Abbas, numbered among the moderate Murji’ah. In spite of his belief in irja’, he led a life of asceticism and preached the virtues of piety and fear of God. Another noted Murji’ite scholar of the late 1st century AH is Dharr b. `Abd Allah b. Hamdani who was a great teacher of ethics in Kufah. He took part in the rising of Ibn Ash`ath against Hajjaj.
The germs of the idea of irja’, in both its senses, date back to the teachings of the first generation of the Qurra’ in Kufah, such as Rabi` b. Khaytham, Abu Wa’il and Abu `Abd al-Rahman Salmi, as well as to a an influential group of second generation Successors of Kufah, such as Ibrahim Taymi. Sa`id b. Jubayr, with an established Successor status, was another one of Ibn `Abbas’s long-standing pupils in Kufah who harbored Murji’ite views. A common characteristic of the members of this group is their steadfast struggle against oppression. In fact, the campaign of Sa`id b. Jubayr against Hajjaj secured him a place in history as a great hero. It is important to note that the moderate view of irja’ has never been an impetus to immorality. In fact the proponents of this idea have been scholars whose private lives have been models of self-restraint and piety and whose public careers have exemplified the fight against oppression.
In the later years of the 1st century a hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), reported by `Akramah from Ibn `Abbas, was making the rounds in which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is quoted as saying that “two groups in my ummah, Murji’ah and Qadariyyah (determinists) – in some versions they are referred to as the Partisans of Irja’ (ahl al-irja’) and the Partisans of Qadar (ahl al-qadar) – will not benefit from the religion of Islam.” The existence of numerous chains of transmission (isnad) for this hadith which through Nazar b. Hayyan and Salam b. Abi `Umrah reaches back to `Akramah makes it quite likely that `Akramah himself was the originator of this tradition, a fact that points to the escalating controversy between the Murji’ah and their opponents. An example of such disputations is the trip to Syria by three Kufan scholars, including `Awn b. `Abd Allah Mas`udi, to engage in discussions with `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz (reigned 99 – 101 AH). The combination of factors such as the widespread acceptance of the hadith propagated by `Akramah as well as other traditions of anti-Murji’ite content, and the rise of extremist factions among the movement resulted in the title of Murji’ite becoming a term of abuse and thus many scholars of Murji’ite orientation chose to shun the appellation and to restrict its usage for the extremist wing of the movement.