MESA Book Awards
University of Cambridge
2009 Albert Hourani Book Award Winner
Moral Agents and Their Deserts: The Character of Mu’tazilite Ethics
Princeton University Press
The Mu`tazilites were the first fully institutionalized theological school in Islam. They were enormously influential from the ninth through the eleventh centuries, although they ultimately disappeared under the weight of attacks from more conservative opponents. Adopting a strict moral objectivism, they maintained that God commands us to do good because it is good, not that something is good because God commands us to do it. In this context, the concept of moral "desert" (istihqāq [dot underneath “h”]) was crucial, and it is this concept to which Vasalou devotes her study. Rather than simply reporting Mu`tazilite views on deserts, however, she approaches her subject as a philosopher with her own questions, values, and assumptions that differ in crucial ways from those of the theologians she is examining. The result is an illuminating "conversation" that teases out implications of Mu`tazilite thought in a manner that strict reportage would never accomplish. Her dense but elegant prose makes considerable demands of the reader, but by the end of the book one has a distinct sense of understanding the Mu`tazilites better than they understood themselves.