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Exploring Causality: The Intersections of Islamic Philosophy and Divine Will

The translation of works on Greek philosophy initiated a robust discussion and debate on the concept of cause and causality within the Islamic world, leading to the formation of a rich intellectual heritage on the subject. Due to the complexity and breadth of the ideas proposed by Muslim philosophers on causality, it will be challenging to express all the details here. Thus, we’ll focus on outlining the main approaches.

Kindi discussed causality in various sections of his Treatises, not in great detail, but providing some explanations. He accepted the relationship of cause and effect among entities but distinguished between true actions/effects and metaphorical ones. True action is creating entities from non-existence, an act unique to God, referred to as creation (ibdâ’). The true agent (el-fâilü’l-hak) performs actions without being influenced. Following this, second-degree actions and agents are metaphorical, inherently passive, and their passivity causes passivity in others. The first metaphorical agents are influenced by the Supreme Creator, then by each other, called metaphorical because they are proximate causes of passivity. Kindi suggests that although God is the cause of all passivity, He is the immediate cause of the first passive entity and the indirect cause of the subsequent ones.

Kindi argues that the observed causes in the universe lead to the existence of God. For him, a thing cannot be the cause of its own existence, as cause and effect are distinct; the cause precedes the effect and cannot be part of it. Thus, the chain of causes cannot extend infinitely since an infinite regress of causes is logically impossible. Additionally, the cause cannot be of the same nature as the effect because entities of the same kind cannot precede each other. Therefore, the real cause of existence and its continuation must be a higher, more noble cause preceding all existence, which is the unique, incomparable Supreme Creator.

Al-Farabi was the first in the Islamic world to explain the relationship between God and the universe through the theory of emanation, rather than creation ex nihilo. His view on cause and causality closely relates to this theory. Adopting the principle that “only one can come from one,” he thought the diversity of the universe emanating from a singular Creator could only be explained through emanation. Al-Farabi aimed to interpret the entire cosmos, from the highest to the lowest, in a hierarchical order using this theory.

When explaining the emergence of existence, the deterministic character is evident, especially in the celestial realm, where everything exists in a vertical hierarchy. However, the sublunar world differs slightly. Distinguishing between physics and metaphysics, Al-Farabi utilized Aristotle’s four causes to explain generation and corruption, cause and effect, illustrating them with examples. According to Al-Farabi, entities with nature perform actions out of necessity, while beings with will act by choice, yet the influence of celestial beings on both classes of actions should not be forgotten.

Al-Farabi, like Kindi, divided causes into proximate and remote. While proximate causes are easily understood, remote causes can be challenging to comprehend and may remain unknown, sometimes leading to events being considered coincidental. Nonetheless, Al-Farabi acknowledged the existence of genuinely random events in the universe, deemed compatible with divine wisdom, as their absence would eliminate hope and fear for the future, disrupting societal order. This suggests Al-Farabi’s preference for conditional determinism over absolute determinism.

Al-Farabi divided the cosmos into the sublunar and celestial realms, with the latter consisting of nine spheres. He posited a causative relationship between celestial spheres’ movements and terrestrial entities. Celestial intellects (angels) act as intermediaries between God and material entities. For example, the intellect of the lunar sphere, governing our world, generates the four elements, which in turn form other entities.

For Al-Farabi, thinking and knowing are akin to creating, implying the universe’s eternity since God’s knowledge is eternal. This eternal matter, historically termed “prime matter,” suggests that Al-Farabi’s concept of creation is not bringing entities from non-existence to existence but from potentiality to actuality, providing form.

Well-known in the Islamic tradition, Al-Farabi categorized beings into “possible” and “necessary,” stating that while necessary beings’ existence is intrinsic, possible beings must rely on a cause. This chain of causality, logically, cannot proceed infinitely without reaching a necessary being, which is God. Everything in the universe, therefore, first and foremost depends on God for its existence and continuity.

Ibn Sina, among Islamic philosophers, most extensively and systematically examined the doctrine of causality. His views are central to Al-Ghazali’s criticisms of the philosophical principle of causality.

Like Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina distinguishes between necessary and contingent beings, stating that all contingent beings must rely on a cause. This represents the principle of causality within nature. However, since an infinite regress of causes (teselsül)

is impossible, the chain of causality must ultimately rest with a being that does not require a cause—God.

Ibn Sina’s explanations on the nature and essence of causes are significant: “Knowledge of absolute causes becomes apparent after recognizing that effects have causes preceding them in existence. We do not affirm the existence of causes for effects until we judge that the effects’ existence depends on something preceding. Sensory experience only provides us with a sequence, not the necessity of one event causing another. The conviction in our minds due to the multitude of experiences does not confer certainty. True certainty comes from understanding that events occurring naturally or by choice are indeed caused, which rests upon affirming the existence of causes and effects. The existence and causative role of causes are not immediate and self-evident truths but are widely acknowledged.”

From Ibn Sina’s explanation, it is clear that understanding something as a cause requires considering it in conjunction with its effect. Our knowledge of causality is derived from our senses, from observation and experience, which do not guarantee certainty. What we observe is merely a correlation between events, which does not necessitate an ontological link between cause and effect. Although it might seem that Ibn Sina does not propose a necessary link between the cause (illett) and the effect (malul), this is not the case. His discussions indicate that he sees natural causes as independent agents of power. While beings by their essence are contingent, their existence is necessitated by their causes. Ibn Sina did not envision any temporal gap between a cause and its effect; he posited that the effect immediately follows its cause without delay. This perspective also underpins the idea of the universe’s eternality, as the existence of everything in the universe is contingent upon its cause.

Ibn Sina, while adhering to Aristotle’s four causes (material, formal, efficient, and final), introduced new dimensions and contributions to the discussion. He distinguished between internal causes (material and formal) that are part of an entity’s essence and external causes (efficient and final) related to its existence. According to Ibn Sina, beings derive their existence from external causes. He further refined the classification of causes with distinctions such as essential-accidental, potential-actual, proximate-remote, particular-universal, and specific-general, to explore the relationship between cause and effect in greater detail.

Even though Ibn Sina affirmed the necessity of causality in existence and events, he differentiated between the material cause within the natural realm and the ultimate metaphysical cause of existence. After positioning God as the necessary being at the apex of the hierarchy of being, based on the chain of causes, he envisioned a descending order of causes with diminishing power and efficacy from the metaphysical to the physical realm. In Ibn Sina’s view, causal relationships in the celestial realm are deterministic and vertical, whereas in the sublunar (our world), they operate both vertically and horizontally. He regarded the natural disposition of inanimate objects and the soul/spirit in living beings as the principles of motion and rest. Ibn Sina’s acknowledgment of the incompleteness of matter for action and the presence of chance in nature indicates his view of causality does not strictly adhere to determinism, allowing for human freedom and the possibility of miracles.

In conclusion, the Peripatetic philosophers, through their theory of causation, asserted that the ultimate cause of existence in the universe is God, while also elucidating the nature of causal relationships within it. However, their identification of God as the “First Cause,” their insistence on a necessary connection between cause and effect, and their views on the universe’s eternality and the explanation of multiplicity in the universe through the theory of emanation were vigorously challenged and critiqued by Ash’arite theologians. (See M. F. Kılıç, “The Theory of Causation”, Metaphysics, 3/1181)

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


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