Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

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Abū Hāshim al-Jubbā’ī

  • Jan ThieleEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_608-1


Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʾī (b. 861 or, more likely, 890; d. 933) was one of the most influential representatives of Muʿtazilism, a school of “rational theology” – or ʿilm al-kalām (literally “science of speech”) as the discipline is termed in the Islamic intellectual tradition. He significantly developed the doctrinal system of the “School of Baṣra,” and his followers are sometimes called after him “Bahshamiyya” or “Bahāshima.” The most important element of Abū Hāshim’s metaphysical thinking was his development of the so-called theory of “states” (pl. aḥwāl, sing. ḥāl). According to this doctrine, the qualifications of beings have an ontological reality that is neither described by existence nor nonexistence. The theory helped him to explain the nature of God’s attributes without asserting the existence of co-eternal beings in God. Abū Hāshim also claimed that the very being of things does not collapse into their existence. It was therefore debated whether or not his teaching had an influence on Avicenna’s essence-existence distinction.

Biographical Information

Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʾī (b. 861 or, more likely, 890; d. 933) was one of the most influential representatives of Muʿtazilism, a school of “rational theology” – or ʿilm al-kalām (literally “science of speech”) as the discipline is termed in the Islamic intellectual tradition. He lived and taught in the early period of what modern scholars have called the “scholastic phase” of Muʿtazilism. This periodization describes a shift from an earlier stage, in which Muʿtazilite teaching was an endeavor of merely independent thinkers, toward the emergence of real schools of thought with an established and comprehensive doctrinal system. Abū Hāshim’s father Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʾī (d. 915) was the founder of one of the major schools of Muʿtazilism of the “scholastic phase,” namely the so-called “School of Baṣra.” Abū ʿAlī had made significant contribution to the systematization of the doctrines of the “School of Baṣra,” but a number of central theories were only developed, refined, or revised by his son. Therefore, the later followers of Abū Hāshim’s teachings were also called “Bahshamiyya” or “Bahāshima.”

Most historical reports about Abū Hāshim actually focus on his teachings. We therefore possess only very limited biographical information about him. He appears to have spent most of his life in ʿAskar Mukram in Khusestan and in the city of Basra. He was trained in kalām theology by his father. The sources report that Abū Hāshim already developed independent ideas while studying with Abū ʿAlī. Controversial issues that came up in the discussions between the two Jubbāʾī’s were later recorded in a lost treatise entitled al-Khilāf bayn al-shaykhayn (“Differences between the two teachers”) by the Bahshamite theologian ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Hamadhānī (d. 1025). After the death of his father in 915, Abū Hāshim claimed the leadership of the Baṣran Muʿtazila. Because of his young age, and apparently also because he disagreed with some of his father’s doctrines, Abū Hāshim’s claim raised some opposition among several fellow students. His most important antagonists formed a group called “Ikhshīdiyya.” Yet the historical significance of these adversaries is quite marginal, specifically as compared to Abū Hāshim’s influence even beyond his own school. Sometime between 926 and 930, he settled in Baghdad, where he spent the rest of his life. He died there in 933 and was buried in the city (Schmidtke 2016).

Abū Hāshim’s thought was transmitted via his disciples, including Abū ʿAlī Ibn Khallād (d. 961?) and Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Baṣrī (d. 980), who were among his most important students. During the tenth and early eleventh century, the school saw a blossoming under the Buyid dynasty, with the city of Rayy as its intellectual center. In the twelfth century, Bahshamite theology was adopted by Yemen’s Zaydite community, a minor sect of Shīʿi Islam. The Zaydites of Yemen continued transmitting this intellectual tradition down to modernity, and so they significantly contributed to the preservation of the school’s literature in the country’s manuscript libraries. In addition, Bahshamite literature has survived in Jewish, specifically Karaite manuscripts, that have been preserved in Cairo’s Geniza store rooms (Adang et al. 2007).

Abū Hāshim’s numerous writings themselves have not survived. The most important source for reconstructing his body of works is the later Bahshamite literature, which includes copious references to it (a list of his works was compiled by Gimaret 1976, 1984). Important summaries of Abū Hāshim’s teachings – and specifically his ontological theories – are embedded in fragments of a commentary by ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Hamadhānī upon a work by the Buyid vizier al-Ṣāḥib Ibn ʿAbbād (d. 995). Al-Ṣāḥib’s summaries rely in particular on Abū Hāshim’s Kitāb al-Jāmiʿ, one of his major works (Madelung and Schmidtke 2016). Apart from comprehensive textbooks, Abū Hāshim also dedicated a number of treatises to the discussion of more specific issues, and he also wrote refutations against theological opponents, proponents of a natural causality or Hellenizing philosophers (falāsifa). Due to the lack of primary sources, any reconstruction of Abū Hāshim’s teaching has to rely on scattered reports from later literature and therefore remains to a certain degree speculative.


Although generally described as a form of theology, ʿilm al-kalām was centrally concerned with a wide range of philosophical problems. Metaphysics was one of them, and Abū Hāshim made some significant contributions specifically to this field. His reflections departed from notions that were widely shared by kalām theologians (that is, not only by Muʿtazilites like him). They had developed an understanding of beings that was conceptualized by two almost synonymous terms: shayʾ and dhāt. Shayʾ means “thing” and was defined as that which can become an object of knowledge and the subject of a predication. The translation of dhāt is somewhat more problematic: the medieval translators of Hellenistic philosophical works chose this term as the Arabic equivalent for “essence,” and so the falsafa tradition used it with this specific Aristotelian connotation. Yet this is not the case with kalām, where the term’s understanding was different and the translation “essence” would therefore be misleading. In this context, the notion of dhāt means that which can be described by properties and can consequently be distinguished or said to be similar or alike. Apart from “thing”, appropriate translations in the context of Abū Hāshim’s teaching for shayʾ/dhāt are “entity”, “self”, or “object” (Dhanani 1993).

The Baṣran Muʿtazila accorded the status of “entity” to three kinds of beings. The first two are those types of entities of which the world was assumed to be made up: (1) atoms (pl. jawāhir, sing. jawhar), i.e., indivisible particles that occupy space and from which bodies can be composed; (2) accidents (pl. aʿrāḍ, sing. ʿaraḍ) that inhere in atoms and determine their changeable qualities, including color, taste, their position in space, or their movement. Finally, the third of the three kinds of “entities” transcends the physical world, it is God.

An important element of Abū Hāshim’s metaphysical thinking was that he considered both the existent and the nonexistent as “entities” or “things.” This in turn means for him that the true reality of things does not collapse into their existence: rather, Abū Hāshim conceives of existence as a property supplemental to the things’ very being. “Things” or “entities” that are predicated to be nonexistent are identified with the possible, and their number was believed to be infinite. An important argument in support of this theory of the nonexistent was that only “things” or “entities” can be objects of knowledge. Hence Abū Hāshim concluded that God’s omniscience necessarily implies that He has knowledge of the particular objects before they exist, and that without His antecedent knowledge He would be unable to create them (Frank 1980).

Now, when Abū Hāshim came to analyze what properties (such as existence) actually are, he developed his arguably most important theory. The question of the ontological reality of properties was particularly relevant – and difficult to resolve – with regard to the eternal qualities attributed to God. Several generations of theologians had already struggled with this issue, because their affirmation of God’s multiple qualities was, from a logical perspective, difficult to reconcile with the monotheistic idea that He is one. The problem was consequently very much linked to the claim that whatever we conceive of has the ontological status of entities.

In order to resolve this dilemma, Abū Hāshim overcame the limitations set by an ontology that only admits the reality of either existing or nonexisting things. He introduced a new category of so-called “states” (pl. aḥwāl, sing. ḥāl). “States” were a concept borrowed from the grammarians, who used it to describe predicates that express a manner of being or circumstance of a subject in a predicative sentence. Abū Hāshim applied this analysis to the properties we attribute to beings and then reinterpreted such predications as “Zayd is knowing”: “being knowing” would accordingly not refer to “knowledge” (that is an entity distinct from the entity described as “knowing”). Rather, the predication means that Zayd is (or exists) and that his being is further qualified by a circumstance or manner of being, i.e., the “state” of “being knowing.” Abū Hāshim conceived of these “states” as something real. Yet, unlike “things” or “entities,” they are not said to be real because they exist (wujida, yūjadu). Rather the reality of “states” – or their becoming actual – is described by the term thubūt (or referred to by the verb thabata, yathbutu, “to be actual/real”).

As against theories that admitted a description of the very nature of entities by a set of properties, Abū Hāshim believed that the identity of things finds its expression in one quality (or “state”) specific to it. The “state” that describes atoms as that which they are in and by themselves is their “being an atom.” It distinguishes atoms from other kinds of things, e.g., accidents of the color black, whose specific quality is their “being black.” Similarly, God has also His “most specific attribute” that distinguishes Him from all other beings. Abū Hāshim’s conceptions of these qualities as being real now allowed him to explain the foundation of other properties by arguing that one “state” is grounded in another. He could therefore claim that such eternal attributes as God’s “being knowing,” “being powerful,” “being living,” and “being existent” are entailed by His very being. Rather than by virtue of eternal knowledge, power, life, and existence, He deserves these qualities because He himself is eternal. This view helped Abū Hāshim to avoid positing a multiplicity of entities in God. The same principle of correlation between “states” was also applied to specific properties of things in this world. Abū Hāshim argued that whenever an atom comes into existence (here the property “existence” is caused by an agent, namely the atom’s creator), it must occupy space. Its quality of “being an atom” entails that it occupies space whenever it exists, so that Abū Hāshim concluded that “occupying space” is caused by (the “state” of) “being an atom.” Atoms then may acquire additional properties: they may exist at different locations (and also change their locus), be composed to bodies, be white or black, etc. These additional properties are contingent and subject to change, and so Abū Hāshim posited that the “state” of moving from locus A to locus B or of being composed with other atoms is caused by accidents of movement or composition that inhere in atoms – reasoning that accidents themselves are contingent beings (Frank 1978; Thiele 2016).

Abū Hāshim’s doctrines had a significant impact even beyond his own school of kalām theology. His theory of “states” was later adopted by representatives of Ashʿarism, a rival school of kalām that later came to be the predominant strand in Sunni Islam. In addition, Abū Hāshim’s teachings were of significant relevance to debates on Avicenna’s essence-existence distinction, and it was discussed in this context to what extent the latter’s reflections built upon Abū Hāshim’s thought.



Primary Sources

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centro de Ciencias Humanas y SocialesConsejo Superior de Investigaciones CientíficasMadridSpain