Causality and necessity in Islamic thought

Discussions of causality and necessity in Islamic thought were the result of attempts to incorporate the wisdom of the Greeks into the legacy of the Qur''an, and specifically to find a philosophical way of expressing faith in the free creation of the universe by one God. Moreover, that article of faith was itself a result of the revelation of God's ways in the free bestowal of the Qur''an on a humanity otherwise locked in ignorance, which a purportedly Aristotelian account of the necessary connection of cause and effect might be taken to rule out. Thus free creation of the universe and free gift of the Qur'an formed a logical unit. The challenge, therefore, was to compose an account of metaphysical and ethical matters which permits rational discourse about them, without obscuring their ultimate source or precluding divine action in the course of world events and human actions.

The scheme of emanation elaborated by al-Farabi sought to give 'the First' the place of pre-eminence which the Qur'an demanded for the Creator, but did so by modelling creation on a logical system whereby all things emanated necessarily from this One. It was this necessity, further articulated by Ibn Sina, which al-Ghazalii took to jeopardize the freedom of God as Creator and as giver of the Qur'an. al-Ghazali's objections were honed by a previous debate among Muslim theologians (mutakallimun), who had elaborated diverse views on human freedom in an effort to reconcile the obvious demand for free acceptance of the Qur'an with its claims regarding God's utter sovereignty as Creator over all that is. Natural philosophy was also affected by these debates, specifically with regard to the ultimate constitution of bodies as well as accounts that could be given of their interaction. However, the primary focus was on human actions in the face of a free Creator.

  1. Metaphysical issues
  2. Human action and divine action
  3. Natural philosophy

1. Metaphysical issues

The understanding of causality that prevailed among the classical Islamic philosophers was decidedly Neoplatonic in character (see Neoplatonism §3). Intellectual coherence was assured by a scheme of emanation itself modelled on the necessity inherent in a logical system. Thus the connections between events shared in the connections between propositions that followed logically from one another. In this fashion, al-Farabi's emanation scheme offered a cosmic pattern for all causality as well as a master metaphor for causal interaction (see al-Farabi §2). All that is and all that happens was conceived as depending, for its being and its intelligibility, ultimately on the first cause (or 'the One') by way of intermediary influences which are cosmic in character yet linked together by an intellectual inherence assuring necessary linkage between cause and effect. Aristotle's ideal of 'scientific explanation' in the Posterior Analytics could only have been projected, after all, if the world itself was so constructed that things and events were properly connected with one another so as to form a coherent whole (see Aristotle §3).

That is the sense to be made of Ibn Sina's division of 'being' into 'necessary being' and 'possible being', with 'necessary being' restricted to the One from which all the rest emanates while the remainder is characterized as 'possible in itself yet necessary by virtue of another' (see Ibn Sina §5). In this way the order of the natural world is assured, since it derives from the one principle of being in a way that is modelled on logical derivation. In this way also, the necessity of causal interaction becomes virtually identical with that of logical entailment, thereby linking the entire universe in a necessary order with the first cause. Furthermore, the pattern of logical entailment extends to the action of that first cause as well: the universe comes forth from it necessarily, as premises from a principle.

Such a model for causal activity cannot be easily imported into a world believed to be freely created by one God. The order described by the emanation scheme threatened the hegemony of the God revealed in the Qur'an, by removing the freedom of that God to reveal as well as to create. Accommodation with Neoplatonic thought required too much by way of concession from believers in the Qur'an, and it was only a matter of time before this effort to harmonize creation with emanation was challenged. That challenge came notably from al-Ghazali, whose frontal attack, entitled Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) was in turn countered by Ibn Rushd in his Tahafut al-tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence). But while Ibn Rushd's defence of a repristinated Aristotle would continue to influence Western thought, al-Ghazali's spirited attack succeeded in virtually marginalizing such philosophical reflection on metaphysical matters in the Islamic world to the activities of an elite who would come to be known as 'the philosophers', and whose adherence to Qur'anic faith would often be suspect.

2. Human action and divine action

If such quasi-logical necessity attributed to causality in the universe ran counter to the freedom of the divine agent, it also threatened by implication the freedom of human beings to respond to divine revelation; and such freedom is clearly presupposed by the very structure of the Qur'an, which calls constantly for a response to its warnings and means to elicit wholehearted response to the guidance it offers (see Islamic theology §3). Yet the controversy here was not carried out on the terrain staked out by the philosophers but rather among expressly religious thinkers (called mutakallimun because of their desire to articulate the faith by way of argument). The earliest among these, the Mu'tazilites, could only see their way to securing human freedom by considering free human actions as utterly autonomous, and so as the creations of human agents, not of God. These early Islamic thinkers fashioned their position on such matters without benefit of the later philosophical reflections noted above, and appear to have conflated notions of origination, causation and creation in an effort to assure that humans bear complete responsibility for the actions for which they will be rewarded or punished. Their concern was for justice, as it can be applied to human beings and to the God of the Qur'an.

Again, however, to withdraw a sector of creation from the purview of the creator of heaven and earth, and to insist that human actions be our creation and not God's, could hardly be sustained in Islam. The challenge this time came from one of the theologians' own number, al-Ash'ari, who shared their conceptual conflations; he developed a purportedly intermediate position, whereby human actions are created by God yet performed by us. The key notion introduced was kasb (or iktisab), which attempts to distinguish responsibility for one's actions from their sheer origination. Originating in the marketplace to describe transactions, it alludes to the fact that actions which God creates are 'acquired', or perhaps better, 'performed' by human beings as created agents (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila §§1, 5).

While this position obviates the removal of human actions from the domain of God's creation, it seems to complicate unduly the issue of human agency and responsibility. The conceptual question turns on the extent to which the notion of 'agent' can be used of both creator and creature. Can there be an authentic agent other than the creator?

This is a question, of course, which touches every religious tradition which avers the free creation of the universe by one God: how does the first cause relate to other causes? Indeed, can there even be other causes in the face of a sovereign 'First'? The response of kalam thinkers to this question was complicated by their commitment to an atomistic metaphysics, which seemed designed to remove all causality other than the divine from the realm of nature: this is the celebrated 'Islamic occasionalism'. Later, however, the question was debated by al-Ghazali without reference to any such metaphysical theses. Rather, the terms were those introduced by 'the philosophers', turning on the necessity of the connections between events in nature, specifically between those which we recognize as causes and their effects. Clearly these connections could not be akin to logical necessity, or there would be no room whatsoever for miracles like the 'descent' of the Qur'an; yet if the universe is the result of God's free action and not of necessity, the creator will continue to be free to act within creation. Thus the account given of causal agency in general, and of personal agency in particular, will have to allow for just that: a kind of agency proper to creatures, yet always subordinate to the influence of a free creator. al-Ghazali responds to this challenge by comprehending created causes under a patterned regularity of the sunna Allah, action willed by God: creatures do indeed contain such powers, yet always subject to the will of the One who so created them. In this way, a key Islamic religious thinker such as al-Ghazali can simultaneously insist that God alone is the only agent and yet, by God's power, others are agents as well. Thus causality can be attributed to creatures, but not causal connections of the quasi-logical sort demanded by the emanation scheme.

3. Natural philosophy

Early kalam thinkers, as noted above, presumed an atomistic conception of nature by which the universe was divinely sustained by being freely created at 'each moment' by God. This conception is clearly an attempt to affirm the omnipresence of divine causal action in the universe God creates, and just as clearly evacuates created causal efficacy. It also runs foul of Aristotle's refutations of atomism in terms of the irreducibility of the continuum of time, space and matter to discrete moments (see Atomism, ancient). It is these arguments which persuaded al-Ghazali that the Ash'arite presumption of the atomistic constitution of nature was gratuitous and unnecessary as a ploy to assure the omnipresence of the creator's action in nature. Thus Islamic thought has not been caught between the two extremes of 'occasionalism' (whereby all action is effectively God's) (see Occasionalism) and the pervasive necessity associated with the Neoplatonic emanation scheme of its notable philosophers; there is a middle course, intimated by al-Ghazali and explicitly developed in the early twentieth century in Egypt in the celebrated Qur'an commentary al-Manar, whereby the sunna Allah is evoked to explain the consistency of a created world of nature.

In summary, Islamic thought must always reconcile the assertion that the entire universe is the free creation of God, who neither requires anything in order to create it nor stands to gain anything by creating it, with the fact that this created world has a consistency associated with causes and effects as we observe them and as we use them to explain natural phenomena. If that causal consistency is articulated in terms which presume a necessity inimical to the free action of a creator, either in the beginning or at any moment of the universe's duration, then Islamic thinkers will feel constrained, as some indeed have, to deny created causality in favour of divine sovereignty. However, as might be expected, developments internal to Islamic thought on this matter have found a way of affirming the free creation of the universe together with its causal consistency, and in doing so have suggested a pattern for causal connections in nature which distances them from the quasi-logical while respecting their reality, specifically by invoking an analogy with the patterns which the God who reveals the Qur'an sets up between human actions and their recompense: the sunna Allah. In this way the world of nature can be seen to have a consistency proper to it, yet at the same time is affirmed to be the result of an intentional agent whose order it reflects in the operations proper to it (see Intention §4). The pattern to be found by scientific investigation will be a reflection of that with which the natural world has been endowed by its creator: the celebrated ayat, or 'signs' of divine wisdom and ordering available to human reason.

See also: Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Causation; Causation, Indian theories of; Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of; al-Ghazali; Islamic fundamentalism; Islamic theology; Natural philosophy, medieval; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy; Occasionalism; Omnipotence

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Alon, I. (1980) 'Al-Ghazali on Causality', Journal of the American Oriental Society 100 (4): 397-405. (A clear expositions of al-Ghazali's options.)

al-Ash'ari (873-936) Kitab al-luma' (The Book of Radiance), ed. and trans. R. McCarthy, The Theology of al-Ash'ari, Beirut: Imprimérie Catholique, 1953. (Edition of al-Ash'ari's major work.)

Fakhry, M. (1958) Islamic Occasionalism, London: Allen & Unwin. (Origin of the cliché.)

al-Farabi (c.870-950) al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), trans. R. Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State, Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. (Clear presentation of the emanation scheme.)

Frank, R. (1983) 'Moral Obligation in Classical Muslim Theology', Journal of Religious Ethics 11: 210, 228 n.19. (Argues that kasb should be translated as 'performance'.)

Frank, R. (1992) Creation and the Cosmic System: Al-Ghazali and Avicenna, Heidelberg: Carl Winter. (A careful study of al-Ghazali's relation to Ibn Sina.)

Frank, R. (1994) Al-Ghazali and the Ash'arite School, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (Very innovative argument that al-Ghazali is in many ways closer to Ibn Sina than to the Ash'arites on a number of topics, including causality.)

Gardet, L. (1950a) ''illa' (Cause), in Encyclopedia of Islam 3: 1127-32. (A classic compilation of sources on this topic.)

Gardet, L. (1950b) 'Kasb' (Acquisition), in Encyclopedia of Islam 4: 690-4. (A classic compilation of sources on this topic.)

* al-Ghazali (1095) Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), ed. M. Bouyges, Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1927; trans. S.A. Kamali, Al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifah, Lahore: Pakistan Philosophical Congress Publications, 1963. (Al-Ghazali's refutation of Islamic philosophy.)

Gimaret, D. (1980) Théories de l'acte humain en théologie musulmane (Theories of Human Action in Islamic Theology), Paris: Vrin. (A comprehensive study of human actions, with attention to kasb.)

Gimaret, D. (1990) La doctrine d'al-Ash'ari, Paris: Éditions du Cerf. (Places the work of al-Ash'ari in the perspective of mutakallimun.)

* Ibn Rushd (1180) Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of Incoherence), ed. and trans. S. Van den Bergh, London: Luzac, 1978. (Also contains the complete text of al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-falasifa, which it criticizes.)

Goodman, L. (1978) 'Did al-Ghazali deny Causality?', Studia Islamica 47: 83-120. (Examines a number of texts to find a coherent thread in his assertions.)

Schwartz, M. (1972) '"Acquisition" (kasb) in Early Kalam', in S.M. Stern and A. Hourani (eds) Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. (A careful tracing of Qur'anic and other early sources of kasb.)

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