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Causality in Islamic Thought: Navigating Between Faith and Determinism

With the changing of times, some topics related to Islamic sciences have also lost their relevance. There are topics that were extensively deliberated in the past centuries, causing fervent debates among scholars, but have largely lost their relevance for today’s people. For example, topics such as whether the Qur’an is created, the debates on substance-accident, and whether the divine names are identical with the Essence of God, from the perspective of the science of kalam, are among these. In contrast, some topics have not lost their relevance from the past to the present, and their importance has even increased. The principle of causality (causality, determinism, causation) is one of the most beautiful examples of this and seems to continue to occupy humanity for many more years.

The views on causes and the principle of causality, first put forward by the Presocratic philosophers and gained more importance with Aristotle, have been addressed much more broadly and systematically by Islamic scholars. Discussions around the topic by Islamic philosophers and some Sufis, including theologians, and the analyses and syntheses they put forward, have continued to influence up to the present day. Although rich discussions have been made around the topic in the Islamic thought tradition and different opinions have emerged, it is possible to follow the views of theologians through Imam Ghazali’s works, the views of Islamic philosophers through Avicenna and Averroes, and the views of Sufis (especially the tradition of the unity of existence) through Ibn Arabi’s works.

The subject of causality, though not as detailed and profound as the views and interpretations expressed by Islamic scholars, has also seriously occupied Western thinkers and philosophers. Especially the criticisms of philosophers like John Locke, David Hume, Emile Boutroux, Nicholas D’autrecourt, Berkeley, Malebranche, and Kant towards the principle of causality and their views contrary to coercive determinism have ignited fervent discussions around the topic. While the metaphysical debates conducted by religion and philosophy regarding the nature of causality still maintain their actuality, it should be noted that today, this topic is mostly addressed by scientists, especially physicists, in terms of its material and mechanical aspects.

Why is causality important from a religious perspective? So, what aspect of the topic concerns us theologians, i.e., relates to religion? It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that almost all of the debates around religion today are related to this topic. The topic is primarily directly related to the nature of being and becoming, creation, and the attributes of God such as knowledge, will, and power, and the dispositions and manifestations of God over existence. The thought of deism also emerges depending on the explanations given regarding the nature of being and becoming and their relationship with God. Similarly, stating that the creator of causes is God, in a way, could mean attributing “evils” to Him as well, so the topic is directly related to the problem of evil (theodicy).

The subject of causality not only involves the events that occur in the universe but also encompasses the nature of human will and the actions resulting from this will, thus directly concerning human freedom. When we start discussing how free a person is and their capacity to act, we also enter the realm of ethics. For a person to be held responsible for their actions, they must be granted the freedom of choice. From this perspective, numerous studies have been conducted on determinism and the principle of causality in terms of the problem of free will.

Especially today, the problem of causality is at the very center of the debates on the relationship between religion and science. This is because what makes scientific inquiry possible is the cause-and-effect relationships that operate in the universe, the regularities known today as laws of nature. The expectation that the same causes under the same conditions will produce the same effects enables scientists to make predictions, develop scientific theories, and make inventions. For example, when the causes of diseases are found, medicines are developed to address them. Therefore, in general, modern scientists find explanations that everything, including causes, is created by God and that there is no necessary relation between cause and effect problematic, arguing that such a perspective is contrary to scientific thought.

One of the fundamental topics associated with causality by Islamic scholars is miracles. In a strict determinist view of the universe, there is no room for miracles. In addition to this, how we explain the subject of causality will also affect our perspective on topics such as the eternity of the world, fate, prayer, reliance on God, beauty-ugliness, and our perception of history. In short, this topic is related to the conception of God, the overall view of existence, and the relationship between human-existence-God.

All these explanations might seem too theoretical to some. Therefore, we can make the issue more concrete and say that Islamic scholars have tried to answer questions such as: How did the vast universe come into existence? How have different objects formed from the same type of atoms (substances)? What is God’s role in the natural events that occur? What owes the observed order in nature? Are the cause-and-effect relationships in the cosmic universe an epistemological acceptance, or do they stem from the nature of beings (ontological)? How have miracles occurred? Is man the creator of his own actions? What is the relationship between universal will and individual will?

Worshiping Causes as a Form of Polytheism

What makes the subject of causality even more important for a believer is its close relationship with monotheism and polytheism. A person who cannot maintain balance in their view of causes can become an esbabperest, which means worshiping causes. When we say idolatry, we refer to people who worship idols. There are many different forms of idol worship. Attributing divinity and lordship to idols, showing them reverence and honor, presenting wishes and requests to them, offering sacrifices, holding feasts, making special visits, circumambulating them – each of these actions is a form of idol worship, i.e., polytheism.

When we talk about esbabperestlik (worshiping causes), it implies attributing a kind of lordship to them, seeing them as a reliable and trustworthy authority apart from God, thinking that they have the power to influence and affect outcomes, i.e., attributing a kind of creativity to them. However, as Bediüzzaman stated, since Islam is the religion of true monotheism, it establishes pure worship by rejecting all means and causes. (Bediüzzaman, Letters, p. 491) There is an Almighty Creator who has created nature and causes. What need does He have to make powerless intermediaries partners in His lordship and creation? (Bediüzzaman, The Rays, p. 232)

Therefore, for a believer to maintain their belief in monotheism, i.e., the absolute and transcendent unity of God, depends on their ability to see the power acting behind the veil of causes, to look at existence and events not for their own sake but on behalf of God; this, in turn, depends on their use of reason and contemplation on existence.

People living in the world of causes generally are deceived by appearances, believe what they see, trust their senses. When they see fruit, they think of the tree; when they look at honey, they think of the bee; they see the animal as the source of milk. They attempt to explain the falling of rain, the formation of clouds, the dropping of a leaf with apparent causes. When they attribute the stunning beauties, wise outcomes, orderly functioning, harmonious unity, and strong relationships to certain laws, they think they have explained them; especially today’s modern man, influenced by positivism and naturalism. Therefore, when they turn to nature, they believe that the formations and decompositions, changes, and transformations operate on their own, like a factory or clock, based on a certain mechanism, through fixed cause-and-effect cycles.

Why have we lost the feelings of wonder and admiration? Is it possible for a person who views existence in this way to be filled with feelings of gratitude towards God? If a person attributes their hunger and satisfaction, illness and healing, sadness and joy, aging and death to certain causes, why should they offer praise and thanks to God?

In a person who cannot see that the wheels turning in the universe and the gears working are brought about by God’s creation and invention, does a sense of wonder and admiration arise? There is a saying attributed to Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”

For someone who attributes existence and events to causes and is a victim of their habits, unfortunately, everything becomes ordinary, normal. A person who sees a seed as the cause of a huge tree, a sperm and egg as the cause of a perfect living being, atmospheric phenomena as the cause of rain falling, thinks they have understood and explained these complex events by looking at these simple causes, trivializing the astonishing miracles in front of them.

Moreover, someone who considers apparent causes as the real agents, do they feel the need to pray to God? Even if they pray, how much do they believe that their prayers will be answered? If the events that happen to a person occur within the framework of a mandatory causality principle, what is the point of praying?

After all this, we can easily state: As much as causes are today’s greatest element of polytheism, today’s human’s greatest test is also with causes. Influenced by the naturalistic understanding of science, causes have become such a thick curtain, even insurmountable walls, that many get stuck on them and cannot go beyond. They fail to discover the names and attributes of God manifested in the inner and outer worlds. They do not become curious, do not experience wonder, do not lose themselves in the face of thousands of miracles they witness every day, do not express their appreciation in the face of the divine will and power that orchestrates these, cannot do so.

After this general introduction, we will try to delve into the details of the subject in future articles and will discuss the concepts of cause and causality in the next article.

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.


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