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Causation in Islamic Philosophy


According to the Qurʾanic position, God is the voluntary creator of the universe. In causal theory, one finds an apparently necessary connection between cause and effect. Islamic philosophy experiences a profound tension between these two ideasthe Qurʾanic legacy of God's will and the idea of independent causes leading to effects. From this perspective, one may observe four stages in the concept of causation in Islamic philosophy.

The First Stage

The first stage, beginning with the rise of Islam in the seventh century and extending well into the tenth, is dominated by the Qurʾanic understanding of cosmos, which assigns God as the fundamental cause of the universe and of the events taking place within it. A cause is thus conceived as a "means" or "way" conditioned or provided by God as a blessing to achieve something, as indicated in the following verses: "Do they not look at the camels how they are created? And at the sky how it is raised? And at the mountains how they are fixed firm? And at the earth how it is spread out?" (Qurʾan 88:1720); "it is God who causes the seed and the date-stone to split and sprout. He brings forth the living from the dead, and brings forth the dead from the living " (Qurʾan 6:95104; also 67:34; 24:39; 2:118). Early philosophers of the Kalām Theology School attempted to express this Qurʾanic understanding by their metaphysics of atoms and accidents. They argue that because each atom is created and annihilated at every instance, no being can subsist by itself and have an effect on another body except through the creation of an omnipotent God. In this scheme, causation is conceived as a creation at every instance, including human actions. Abūʾl-asan ʿAlī ibn Ismaʿīl al-Ashʿarī (d. 935) argued that "God wills everything which can be willed" and that every instance of causation is to be conceived within the domain of this all-embracing divine will (1953, p. 33).

The Second Stage

In the second stage the Muslim Neoplatonic Aristotelians establish a philosophical theory claiming the necessary connection of cause and effect. Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb ibn Isāq al-Kindī (c. 801866), Abu Nar Muammad al-Fārābī (870950), and Abū ʿAlī al-usayn ibn Sīnā (9801037) are the proponents of this school. Al-Kindī and al-Fārābī thus establish an emanationist system of universe that follows from God necessarily. This world system is decidedly necessitarian, neatly elaborated by Ibn Sīnā in a causally deterministic way. In his scheme, the universe is conceived as a hierarchical order of beings, which offers a cosmic pattern for causation in general and a model for all causal interactions. Each being is connected to the next in a necessarily ordered chain of causation beginning with God through the heavenly spheres down to the remote spheres of dark and primitive matter. The philosophers of the Kalām School vehemently objected to this theory claiming that, if accepted, the Qurʾanic understanding of God's absolute will and power becomes vacuous.

The Third Stage

Three prominent philosophers represent the third stage: Abū āmid Muammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), Abūʾl-Walīd Muammad ibn Rushd, known as Averroes (d. 1198), and adr al-Dīn Muammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Shirāzī, known as Mullā adrā, or adrā (d. 1641). Against the philosophers of the Neoplatonic Aristotelian School, al-Ghazālī argues along Humean lines that people observe in existence not a necessity but two things that are contiguous. The connection, therefore, between a cause and its effect is due to the prior decree of God, who creates them side by side. What does not have a free will cannot enter into a temporal relation. When a piece of cotton burns, it is not the fire that is burning, for fire is inanimate and in itself has no action. What proof can be given that the fire is the agent? The only proof is that people observe an act of burning, not any other mediating factor. Therefore, existing contiguously with a thing does not prove causation between two things. Ghazali denies skepticism by arguing that the repeated occurrence of events fixes unshakably in our minds the belief in their occurrence according to past habit.

Ibn Rushd objected to this theory, arguing that in denying the necessity of a causal link, al-Ghazālī's motive was to defend the exclusive prerogative of God's sovereignty and efficient causal agency in all events. But the denial of this connection involves the rejection of an agent in an act, and hence, the logical ground for the idea of God as an efficient cause is destroyed. Moreover, logic implies the existence of causes and effects, and knowledge of these effects can only be obtained through knowledge of their causes. Hence, denial of causes implies the denial of knowledge, which, in turn, implies that nothing can be really known.

Mullā adrā developed an existential theory of causation based on the primacy of existence. An abstract notion of existence arises in the mind, but that notion cannot yield true reality. For, in each case, existence is a unique individual in an ongoing process of renewal. Essences arise in the mind as a result of this process when existence becomes further diversified into modes. It is existence that moves within this process; both the cause and the caused are existence; the essence is caused to arise in the mind in connection to particular beings. Causation must be considered within that existential process in which the problem of necessary connection does not arise. In each instance of causality there is a temporal emergence in which the temporal emergent, that is, the cause, is not the true cause but only a preparatory condition for it. The true cause in such an emergence is, therefore, the eternal creative act of God. In that case, this process is continuous, not discrete, involving change in the substance of everything that moves within the process.

The Fourth Stage

In the fourth stage one finds primarily the idea of causal explanation on the basis of the Qurʾanic notion that God acts regularly and that there is no change in this regular course of action, called sunnat Allah. No thinker in this stage paid more attention to the problem of causation than the twentieth century thinker, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi of Turkey (d. 1960). Nursi uses two arguments to defend al-Ghazālī's theory of causation. The first is the argument from theodicy that establishes that "might and majesty require causes to be veiling occasions of God's omnipotence for the human mind" (Nursi 1996, p. 1278). God creates things for certain good ends. If causes are not seen as veils for God's acts, the human mind will directly infer God in all natural phenomena and attribute the seemingly evil results of these actions to him. This inference harms God's might and glory. Similarly, we may not be able to see good results immediately and thus blame God for evil. The second argument claims that "God's uniqueness and glory require causes to withdraw their interference from the actual efficacy" (Nursi 1996, p. 1278). The nature of an effect exhibits a perfection that is the result of a rational planning and omnipotence. These qualities are not inherent in the causes producing their effect; hence, the true cause is outside the event, deduced by the mind and experienced by the awakened heart. There is thus only one true cause, God, who assures people of the causal nexus through the first argument by theodicy.

See also al-Fārābī; al-Ghazālī, Muhammad; al-Kindī, Abū-Yūsuf Yaʿqūb ibn Isāq; Aristotelianism; Averroes; Avicenna; Causation: Metaphysical Issues; Islamic Philosophy; Mullā adrā; Neoplatonism.


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al-Ashʿarī, Abūʾl-asan ʿAlī ibn Ismaʿīl. Kitab al-Lumaʿ. In The Theology of Al-Ashʾari. Translated by Richard J. Beyrouth: Imprimerie Catholique, 1953.

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Alparslan Açikgenç (2005)

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