A 9th-century Description

This passage is from Yaʿqubi, a Persian bureaucrat who lived in the 9th century. He is talking about the ‘Abbasid caliph Muʿtasim, who imprisoned the traditionalist Ahmad b. Hanbal.

Source, pp. 1242.

A 10th-century Description

The Persian historian Tabari, who wrote his history in Arabic in the 10th century, included a long passage purporting to be a letter from the caliph Ma’mun to order the mihna. It is too long to reproduce here in its entirety, but it hits on three main points:

The caliph’s role:

God has made incumbent upon the imams and caliphs of the Muslims that they should be zealous in establishing God’s religion, which He has asked them to guard haithfully; in the heritage of prophethood of which He has made them inheritors; in the tradition of knowledge which He has entrusted to their keeping; in acting justly with the government of their subjects; and in being diligent in obeying God’s will in their conduct towards those subjects. Now the Commander of the Faithful asks God to direct him to firmness and resolution in the right way, and to just actions in the exercise of political authority over his people which God, with His compassion and grace, has entrusted him.

The Problem:

The Commander of the Faithful has realized that the broad mass and the overwhelming concentration of the base elements of the ordinary people and the lower strata of the commonalty are those who, in all the regions and far horizons of the world, have no farsightedness, or vision, or faculty of reasoning by means of such evidential proofs as God approves along the right way which He provides, or faculty of seeking illumination by means of the light of knowledge and God’s decisive proofs. [These person are] a people sunk in ignorance and in blindness about God, plunged into error regarding the true nature of His religion and His unity and faith in Him; [they are] too far off the right track from His clear marks for guidance and the obligation of following in His way; [they are] a people who fall short of being able to grasp the reality of God as He should be recognized, to acknowledge Him exactly as He should be acknowledged and to distinguish between Him and His creation. This is because of the feebleness of their judgment, the deficiency of their intellects and their lack of facility in reflecting upon things and calling them to mind; all this arises from the fact that they consider as perfectly equal God Himself and the Qur’an which He has revealed.

The Caliph’s Answer to the Problem

Therefore, summon together all the judges in your sphere of jurisdiction and read out to them this letter from the Commander of the Faithful to you. Begin by testing them out concerning what they say and by finding out from them their beliefs about God’s creating and originating the Qur’an in time. Inform them too that the Commander of the Faithful will not seek the assistance in any of his administrative tasks to anyone whose religion, whose sincerity of faith in God’s unity and whose own religious beliefs are not deemed trustworthy.