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HomeHeadlineReevaluating Imam Ghazali’s Approach to Causality: Criticisms and Misconceptions

Reevaluating Imam Ghazali’s Approach to Causality: Criticisms and Misconceptions

Imam Ghazali has faced harsh criticism for his ideas on causality. Some researchers, starting from his expressed ideas on this subject, have thought that Ghazali denied the regularity and the principle of proportionality of causation in the universe. Therefore, they have argued that it would not be possible to base human freedom and the development of sciences in the world as depicted by him. In fact, some have even seen Ghazali as responsible for the intellectual and scientific decline experienced in the Islamic world. As we have stated before, the actual target of these criticisms are the views of the Sunni theologians, because the ideas expressed by Imam Ghazali are a summary and explanation of theirs.

To elaborate further, the explanations by Sunni theologians that center God’s knowledge, will, and power in explaining the movement, change, and transformations observed in nature have been perceived by some as a denial of order and an opening to arbitrariness. Especially, the explanations that there is no real effect of apparent causes on results, that there can be no causal necessity between entities and events, and that causes and results are continuously created by Allah, the Absolute Powerful and the Free Agent, have been seen as contrary to observation and common sense, and understood as a denial of natural causal processes. Such approaches are often said to have deterred Muslims from engaging with nature and hindered scientific work. Some have even mockingly said, “With this mindset, how can there be science?” and have trivialized these ideas as mythological rather than scientific.

However, the situation is not as it seems. Perhaps some people misunderstood Ghazali’s words, neglected to research existence, and gave themselves over to idleness. Yet, until today, many scientists who accepted the idea of Adetullah and continuous creation have emerged from Muslim societies, and Muslims who adopted these views have advanced in science, culture, and economics, and have built magnificent civilizations. Therefore, the claim that science cannot be conducted with the causality view accepted by Muslims and that this view would hold them back is historically inaccurate from the outset.

On the other hand, there is no statement by Ghazali and other theologians denying the regular relationship between cause and effect observed in nature. Essentially, they evaluate the principle of causality not in its material, objective, and horizontal aspect, but in a metaphysical and vertical manner. They focus on the nature of the causality principle. They emphasize that entities and events named as causes cannot be real causes. They call them “usual conditions,” “ordinary circumstances,” or “common causes.” According to them, the entities and events seen as causes are ordinary conditions created by the Divine Custom to produce an effect/result. The theologians reject not the principle of causality, but the necessity between cause and result. They explain the causality principle not with material causes but with concepts of Adetullah, coincidence, and continuous creation. After all, it is the knowledge, will, and power of Allah that bring forth both causes and results.

It is insufficient to try to understand Ghazali’s approach to the principle of causality just from statements he wrote in refutation of philosophers and Mutazilite scholars. Because in such places, he centers Allah, His names, and attributes in his explanations, attempting to correct misconceptions about the relationship between Allah and the world. Moreover, there are many places in his works where he emphasizes the importance of the principle of proportionality of causation and the need to adhere to causes. For example, he states that those who do not adhere to the laws of creation will see their punishment immediately and without exception in this world. According to Ghazali, some causes produce pain and sorrow, while others bring pleasure and joy. (Ghazali, Two Madmen, pp. 28-29)

Those who bring up the above criticisms are right in one aspect: Indeed, science cannot be conducted by ignoring the regularity of the universe, the principle of causality, and the principle of proportionality of causation. Because when causality is denied, only randomness remains. As many philosophers since Aristotle have said, knowing the truth of something is dependent on knowing its causes. That is, the possibility of acquiring knowledge is possible with the knowledge of causes. What is called scientific activity is the discovery of the order and mechanism behind natural events. If there was a scientific explosion in the West in the modern era, it is underpinned by the thorough examination of nature and natural events, the correct understanding of cause-effect relationships, and the discovery of natural laws. Even the natural sciences are conducted based on the principle of causality, and to some extent, the social sciences are based on cause-effect relationships.

So, are the explanations provided by Ghazali and Sunni theologians regarding causal relationships irrational, contrary to observed reality, and an obstacle to scientific activities? Firstly, let’s remind ourselves again that views similar to those of the theologians have been expressed by many Western philosophers, theologians, and scientists. We touched briefly on these views in previous writings. Let’s now take a closer look at whether the concepts expressed as “coincidence,” “Adetullah,” “continuous creation,” “instrumentalism,” or “indeterminism” really deserve the criticisms they receive:

Firstly, it is useful to underline this: The primary reason for the storm and differences of opinion surrounding the principle of causality is looking at the issue from two different windows, two different planes: the physical and metaphysical windows. Philosophers and scientists have addressed causes and effects physically, made explanations based on observation, and focused on their structure and mechanism. The theologians, on the other hand, have dealt with causes and effects more from a metaphysical front, tried to explain the nature of causes, focused on the nature of causality and the metaphysical framework. In other words, the former have looked at the horizontal dimension of events in the physical world, trying to find proximate and apparent causes; the latter have been interested in their vertical dimension, trying to find their true causes. The former base their explanations solely on reason, observation, and experience, while the latter also reference revelation.

So, have the theologians, as claimed, rejected the order in the universe by attributing everything to Allah’s creation and power, and completely eliminated cause-effect relationships? It is sad to say that there are many claims in this direction. As if the theological cosmology put forth by the theologians cancels all natural laws, puts dynamite at the foundation of the principle of causality! In other words, as if there are two opposite options in front of us, and we have to choose one of them. The first option is to explain beings and events deterministically and naturalistically without needing any metaphysical explanation. The second is to accept that they occur through Allah’s manifestation and disposition. Accepting the second option seems to deviate from a rational and scientific path.

However, reality is outside of this. A third explanation is also possible. There is no need to be an atheist to do science, to go to a deistic concept of God, or to see causes as real agents. As previously stated, the theologians do not deny that there are regular laws operating in the universe, that events occur according to certain cause-effect chains. Far from denying, they consider the existing order and operation as evidence of Allah’s existence. They just follow a different path in the interpretation of cause-effect relationships, the events seen as causes, natural laws. They attribute the regular operation, the effect and power that bring forth results; not to being, causes, natural forces, and natural laws, but to Allah. Therefore, they explain the principle of causality based on Qur’anic verses with the concepts of “Adetullah” and “Sunnetullah.” That is, they say that the existing order is a divine law and custom of Allah. Imam Maturidi, in addition to these, also approaches creation with the concept of “wisdom,” emphasizes that Allah will not perform an absurd act, states that His every act is appropriate. He says that Allah will not create anything in the universe that is senseless, meaningless, and without cause. Therefore, the world depicted by the theologians who reject necessity is not a world full of surprises, where anything can happen at any moment, where everything happens by chance, where chaos reigns. On the contrary, it is a world with a regular and continuous flow, predictable and on which scientific studies can be conducted. As can be seen, accepting or rejecting the theologians’ explanations is related to faith, not to doing science.

Some people find the explanations that beings and events come into existence through Allah’s creation and are maintained by Him irrational. Especially the modern mind shaped under the currents of positivism and materialism has difficulty accepting such explanations. It finds them contrary to the widespread and accepted understanding of the material world. It believes that the fertilized egg originates from the offspring, the milk from the breast, the egg from the chicken, the chicken from the egg, the fruit from the tree, the tree from the seed. According to it, the eye that realizes seeing, the ear that enables hearing, the stomach that digests, the heart that pumps blood, the Sun that emits heat and light, the mass that keeps celestial bodies in certain orbits is the gravitational force. Because its observations and habits tell it so.

Science does not just identify facts, it claims that there are necessary connections between events based on induction – even if it cannot observe them – and presents apparent causes as if they were creators. Ultimately, it does not consider the faith perspective on how bodies and objects made of atoms and molecules, which themselves need another cause to appear on the stage of being, can produce such artful, complex, and perfect results. It is deceived by the temporal and spatial proximity between cause and effect. It derives natural laws from the harmonious and orderly operation of being, then tries to explain this order and harmony again with these laws.

For now, let’s just say that it is not easy to go beyond existing narratives without looking with the eye of faith and without deeply reasoning about whether the events seen as causes really have the power and force, the reason and consciousness to bring forth these results.

At this point, the inquiries made by scholars who advocate instrumentalism are extremely important. In fact, what we observe in the material world is the correlation between two different events. That is, one event immediately follows the other. But we cannot observe the connection and relationship that we think exists between these two, which we think caused the latter to originate from the former. Because in causality, the connections between cause and result are not observable and sensible qualities. In addition, we do not have any rational and scientific evidence, apart from the observations we have made so far, that the cause necessarily brings about the result and the result requires the cause. We do not know how and by what means the cause affects the result. We cannot put forward rational necessities about this. With our pure logic, we can neither look at the cause and know what its result will be, nor look at the result and know what kind of cause it could have originated from.

The fact that one thing exists simultaneously with or before another does not prove that it was invented by that thing. We cannot say that A made B by showing that A came before B. For example, our observation shows us that burning occurs during contact with fire, not that it is caused by it. Similarly, the fact that B does not occur without A alone cannot prove that B is made by A. For example, the fact that a plant does not grow without water and rain does not fall without clouds does not make water and clouds effective agents. Rather, they are means employed by Allah for the growth of the plant and the falling of rain. Allah performs the act of creation on them.

If we were to repeat, what shows us A as the cause of B is that these two always occur consecutively, that is, induction; not that we have found the necessary properties in A to make B. Aware of this fact, Russell says: “There is no reason to suppose that our firmest expectations, like the sun rising tomorrow morning, are more likely to be fulfilled than not.” (Russel, History of Western Philosophy, 2/446)

In the next article, we will focus on the beings and events seen as causes, and address whether they really have the power to bring forth results.

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

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