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An illustration from al-Biruni's astronomical works, explains the different phases of the moon. (Persia, circa 1000's)

Feature Articles


Apr 28, 2017

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Eiyad Al Kutubi

Eiyad Al-Kutubi

Zaytuna College

Eiyad Al-Kutubi's research interests include Islamic philosophy, theology, Qur'anic studies, usul al-fiqh, and Sufism.

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Al-Ghazālī on Cause and Effect

If God Is the Only Cause, Can We Have Certainty Fire Will Always Burn?

The notion that effects follow causes is fundamental to how we understand and experience the world. We conduct our lives, explain present events, and anticipate future events, without ever doubting cause and effect. Moreover, without their inseparability, neither could there be moral responsibility nor could we establish laws or pursue scientific inquiries. In short, every interaction humans have with the things and events around them is based upon the belief that, at minimum, there is some form of regular connection between causes and effects; otherwise, our perceptions and our knowledge of the world would become impossibly discordant.

This seemingly uncontroversial notion, however, has been the subject of extensive exploration by philosophers of all faiths since the ancient period. A crucial difference represented by two Muslim scholars—the philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037) and the theologian Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111)—reveals how the concerns of theology can challenge and even shape our understanding of something as elemental as cause and effect.

Avicenna, the philosopher, never questioned the connection of causes to effects, or what is called causality in philosophical discussions. He also did not deny that things occurring in nature are endowed with powers that make them efficient causes—that is to say, agents inherently capable of producing their effects. For Avicenna, water itself is what makes something wet. Finally, he viewed the connection between a cause and its effect as that of necessity: if a cause exists, its effect necessarily follows.

But al-Ghazālī rejects Avicenna’s theory of causality—the notion that causes themselves produce effects—because he views it as incompatible with the belief that God is the only true cause.1 He also sees that affirming the connection between cause and effect led philosophers such as Avicenna to reject the possibility of certain miracles that, by definition, break the causal relationship of events in nature. Instead, al-Ghazālī argues that what we perceive as causes and effects are ordained by God not to be connected but only to be associated with each other in the course of events. Here, he succeeds in providing an argument for the possibility of miracles because effects now depend only upon God’s will, not upon apparent causes.

Al-Ghazālī’s solution, however, is not without its own difficulties; namely, it raises doubt about our perception of the apparent uniform course of events. Without cause and effect, what reason is there to believe that anything about our world is predictable?

Avicenna: The Fire Burns Cotton  

In The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifah), al-Ghazālī presented his most comprehensive discussion of causality; though this did not attract the attention of some Muslim theologians or philosophers after him for some time, contemporary scholars have given al-Ghazālī’s discussion renewed focus, something that can be explained by the rising popularity of the connection between cause and effect in philosophical discussions after it became the object of a serious attack by the Scottish empiricist David Hume (d. 1776) and because al-Ghazālī is the only Muslim theologian who provided theological and philosophical arguments in his rejection of the necessity of causes. Al-Ghazālī wrote The Incoherence to defend Ash¢arī theology, an orthodox school in Sunni Islam, and to show how the philosophers (mainly Avicenna)2 deviated from many core Islamic beliefs, such as their denial of the possibility of miracles that violate the course of natural events.

Avicenna, meanwhile, based his understanding of causality on Aristotle’s theory of the four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final.3 What concerns us here is his view about natural efficient causes—that if a natural cause exists, its effect necessarily follows. Avicenna distinguishes between natural efficient causes and metaphysical efficient causes. The first are things in nature that cause changes in other things in nature, while a metaphysical cause—such as God—gives existence. “When philosophers discuss the efficient cause, they do not mean by ‘agent’ (fā¢il) only the principle of motion (change), as the naturalists mean, but the principle and giver of existence, as in the case of God with respect to the world.”4 As for the conditions that determine the connection between a natural cause and its effect, Avicenna explains that “the existence of the effect (al-ma¢lūl) depends on the cause insofar as the cause is in a condition that makes it a cause either by nature or by will or something else that is needed from outside that has an influence in completing the cause and making it a cause in actuality,” and when “the required condition exists, then it is necessary that the effect exists.”5

It is clear, then, that Avicenna views the nature of the relationship between natural causes and their effects in the light of the nature of objects, through which they either become active causes or recipients of the effect of causes. Natural causes, however, are always conditioned by their internal natures and by external factors, which are equally important in order for a cause to be a complete cause. Hence, when the cause actually exists with all the required internal and external conditions, its effect necessarily follows; otherwise, denying that the cause necessitates its effects is a contradiction because it amounts to denying its very nature. For example, that fire has an active power to burn and that cotton has the nature to be burned are both internal conditions. If an external condition is also met—for example, by fire coming into contact with cotton without any impediments, such as something that makes the cotton wet—then burning would necessarily follow.6

Al-Ghazālī: God Is the Only Cause  

In The Incoherence, al-Ghazālī rejects Avicenna’s theory about natural causes because he considers it to be incompatible with God’s omnipotence and also because it implies the impossibility of miracles that upend natural order. Al-Ghazālī affirms that many conclusions and ideas of the Muslim philosophers (i.e., Avicenna) concerning physics do not contradict religion, but he asserts that four of their metaphysical claims in physics must be rejected. The first of these is about causality; he writes, “Their judgment that this connection between causes and effects that one observes in existence is a connection of necessary concomitance, so that it is within neither [the realm of] power nor within [that of] possibility to bring about the cause without the effect or the effect without the cause.”7

Al-Ghazālī’s rejection of this claim is motivated by the assumption that believing in the necessary connection between natural causes and effects would suggest that the presumed necessity makes it impossible, even for God, to bring about an effect without the existence of its own specific cause. This would contradict the belief in an omnipotent God. But al-Ghazālī mainly wants to prove that certain types of miracles described in the Qur’an are possible. According to al-Ghazālī, Avicenna rejects miracles such as “changing of the staff into a serpent, the revivification of the dead, and other [miracles of the kind]. For this reason it becomes necessary to plunge into this question to affirm miracles and [to achieve] something else—namely, to support what all Muslims agree on, to the effect that God has power over all things.”8

Al-Ghazālī thus starts his discussion about the nature of causality by affirming that “the connection between what is usually believed to be a cause and what is believed to be an effect is not necessary.”9 In this view, things by their nature have absolute independence from each other, and the belief that different things are bound to each other through necessary connection is no longer sustainable. Therefore, for any two different things, “it is not a necessity of the existence of the one that the other should exist, and it is not a necessity of the nonexistence of the one that the other should not exist.”10 Al-Ghazālī presents a few examples, such as “the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire, light and the appearance of the sun, death and decapitation, healing and the drinking of medicine” and concludes these include all that is “observable among connected things in medicine, astronomy, arts, and crafts.”10 The events described in these examples do not reflect the nature of the objects involved nor do they indicate that there is a necessary connection between them.

Why, then, do things occur in a certain sequence and constant pattern, despite the fact that nothing in their nature dictates such a pattern? According to al-Ghazālī, “Their association is due to the prior decree of God, who creates them side by side, not to its being necessary in itself, incapable of separation.”11 And, because there is no necessary connection between them, it is possible that God “creates satiety without eating, and … continues life after decapitation, and so to all other things.”10

In sum, our idea of causality does not depend on any known quality of the object; rather, it is God who chooses to ordain things “side by side.” Thus, our belief that there is a necessary connection between objects that, in turn, determines the stable course of nature is not based on the nature of things themselves. Rather, God is the immediate cause of all there is in nature, and all things in nature are devoid of any principle that makes them efficient causes. Al-Ghazālī illustrates his idea with a classic example:

Let us, then, take a specific example—namely, the burning of cotton, for instance, when in contact with fire. We allow the possibility of the occurrence of the contact without the burning, and we allow as possible the occurrence of the cotton's transformation into burnt ashes without contact with the fire. [The philosophers], however, deny the possibility of this ... [and] claim that the agent of the burning is the fire alone, and it is an agent by nature not by choice. And this is one of the things we deny. On the contrary, we say:
The one who enacts the burning by creating blackness in the cotton, [causing] separation in its parts, and making it cinder or ashes is God, either through the mediation of His angels or without mediation. As for fire, which is inanimate, it has no action.12

Al-Ghazālī also argues that philosophers have no proof that fire inherently causes burning, because all that we observe is the occurrence of burning when the fire makes contact with the cotton, but observation “does not show that the occurrence of burning is by the fire,” and observation also does not show “that there is no other cause for it.”13 This argument, based on epistemology, or on the nature and sources of knowledge, is presented only in The Incoherence. Al-Ghazālī asserts that what we observe is only a spacio-temporal relationship between objects, and we do not have any perception into the relationship beyond the immediate testimony of our senses. The simple observation of an object or event on its own gives us no knowledge of necessary connection with another. In other words, there is nothing in the observed object or event that accounts for the presumed necessary connection.

Is There Any Certainty without Causes?

We would expect this kind of reasoning from someone who believes that our knowledge is derived only from our senses, through which we can discern the true proposition from a false one. But al-Ghazālī is far from being an empiricist. Otherwise, the same objection could be applied to his theological argument, which affirms the principle of causality. Seemingly, he presents this argument only for the sake of offering as many objections as possible to undermine the coherency of Avicenna’s view of causality. This is why we do not find him pursuing such reasoning in his other works.

Al-Ghazālī was well aware of the skeptical implication of his view about causality, and so he posited a hypothetical objection, saying, “It may be said that this leads to repugnant absurdities. For if one denies that the effects follow necessarily from their causes and relates them to the will of their Creator, the will having no specific designated course but [a course that] can vary and change,”14 this scenario puts us in a state of absolute uncertainty about the stability of things and events around us and about our expectation of future events, because there is nothing in the nature of things themselves that allows us to expect regularity and continuity from them. In fact, denying causality, according to al-Ghazālī, allows anything to produce anything. For example, “if one looks at a man one has not seen before and is asked: ‘Was this man born?’ one must remain uncertain and say: ‘It is conceivable that one of the fruits in the market turned into a man and this is he, for God has power over all possible things, and this is possible,’ so there is no avoiding uncertainty in this regard.”10 These absurdities are possible not only because God has power over things, but also because things are not endowed with inherent causal power and are, thus, not connected; they are simply created side by side.

Al-Ghazālī offers two answers to remove this uncertainty. First, he argues, “We are not, however, rendered skeptical because God created for us the knowledge that He did not enact these possibilities. We did not claim that these things are necessary. On the contrary, they are possibilities that may or may not occur. But, the continuous course of their occurrence repeatedly, one time after another, fixes unshakably in our minds the belief in their occurrence according to past course.”15 We must notice that al-Ghazālī admits that these absurdities are possible, which means that the course of nature, without any causal glue that holds it together, can be shifted into strange and absurd directions. But such chaotic possibilities do not occur, because we know through experience that God will not cause them to occur, although He does occasionally interrupt nature to produce miracles. Nevertheless, these miracles are only isolated incidents that should not affect our certainty about the natural events we usually experience.

It seems al-Ghazālī noticed that this first explanation is insufficient to remove our skepticism because the uncertainty about the course of natural events remains, despite our belief that God created them in such a way that gives the impression of stability, although in reality they are not connected. In other words, our certainty is not grounded on how things are really related to each other; rather, it is based only how we think they are related, which leaves the possibility of doubt, despite our trust in God’s will. Therefore, al-Ghazālī offers another solution through which we “find a way out of all these absurdities”:16

We admit (Innā nusallim) that fire is created in such a way that, if two similar pieces of cotton come into contact with it, it would burn both, making no distinction between them if they are similar in all respects. With all this, however, we allow as possible that a prophet may be cast into the fire without being burned, either by changing the quality of the fire or by changing the quality of the prophet. Thus, there would come about either from God or from the angels a quality in the fire which restricts its heat to its own body so as not to transcend it or else there will occur in the body of the prophet a quality which will not change him from being flesh and bone [but] which will resist the influence of the fire.10

This paragraph, which is the most ambiguous passage in The Incoherence, led scholars to offer varied interpretations of al-Ghazālī’s view about causality.17 In one interpretation, it seems that he accepted the idea of a necessary causal connection by saying “Innā nusallim,” which can be translated as “we admit” or “we agree”; this gives the impression that al-Ghazālī abandoned his earlier argument and adopted the view that there is indeed a causal relationship between objects.

Alternatively, one might conclude that he did not abandon his first view but instead also accepted Avicenna’s theory because, as he himself acknowledges, it avoids the absurdities and doubt that results from the first view. Indeed, he could conceivably accept both views, especially if we keep in mind his assertion that both views are possible.18 The problem with this understanding, however, is that the two views are mutually exclusive: either there is a causal connection between objects or there is not. But, we can adopt both views as explanatory principles for certain events or issues, especially when they concern controversial theological beliefs, such as the possibility of miracles or reviving the dead.

This is precisely al-Ghazālī’s objective. He is only showing that miracles can also be explained in the light of Avicenna’s understanding of causality; he is not presenting an alternative understanding of the nature of causality. In other words, the main objective of his second solution is to prove that miracles are possible even if we admit that the connection between causes and their effects is necessary. Moreover, al-Ghazālī used the expression “Innā nusallim” at the beginning of his discussion. A common expression among theologians, it means accepting the premises of your opponents only for the sake of argument; this is almost certainly al-Ghazālī’s intention when he says “Innā nusallim.” It is only a dialectic style employed to prove that miracles, including those miracles the philosophers denied, are possible even if we accept the idea that there is a necessary causal connection between objects. An indication of the likelihood of this interpretation is al-Ghazālī’s remark that this second explanation “is consistent with the drift of what they (the philosophers) say.”16

Why al-Ghazālī Does Not Doubt Natural Events

What about al-Ghazālī’s acceptance of both explanations? In order to understand what exactly he means by asserting that both views are possible, it is necessary to understand the context of his assertion. Al-Ghazālī devoted the Twentieth Discussion of The Incoherence to refuting the philosophers’ denial of bodily resurrection. In this discussion, he states it is possible that God revives the dead body after it becomes dust, either immediately or through stages of new creation. If it happens through stages, one might ask whether it takes a short time or long time for resurrection to occur. According to al-Ghazālī, both scenarios are possible because “it has not been made plain to us that the resurrection takes place in the shortest possible time.”19 But, continues al-Ghazālī, this issue is not important; rather, what needs to be examined is whether “the progress of these stages occurs purely through the power (of God) without mediation or through some cause.”20

In answering this question, al-Ghazālī asserts that both explanations are possible. The first explanation is possible because “the connection of connected things in existence is not by way of necessity, but that of habitual [patterns] so it can be disrupted, and thus these matters would come about through God's power without the existence of their causes. The second [view] consists of our saying that this is due to causes, but it is not a condition that the cause [here] would be one which we have experienced."10 Al-Ghazālī’s main objective here is to provide a satisfactory explanation for the possibility of reviving the dead and to show that it is also possible even if we accept causality as an explanatory principle. But he is not concerned with expounding his own view about causality because he already presented it in the Seventeenth Discussion of The Incoherence, where he rejects Avicenna’s idea of the necessary casual connection between natural objects in favor of a relationship between them that is only an association (iqtirān).

But in The Scale of Knowledge (Mi¢yār al-¢Ilm), a book on logic he wrote after The Incoherence, al-Ghazālī presents a more detailed account of the reason behind our belief in the efficacy of natural objects that is reflected in general statements, such as bread satiates, fire burns, alcohol intoxicates, and so forth. Although al-Ghazālī relied heavily on Avicenna’s works on logic in writing The Scale of Knowledge, he was careful to infuse it with his own belief about causality, as presented in The Incoherence. He devoted a chapter to discussing the role of empirical premises in syllogisms (qiyās), which, following Avicenna, he called al-mujarrabāt. He first defines empirical premises as those premises that we “believed in through senses with the help of a concealed syllogism (qiyās khafī) such as our judgment that … decapitation causes death, bread satiates, and fire burns.”21

Al-Ghazālī asserts that what we perceive through senses is always a particular event, and to experience an event one time does not give rise to general knowledge, but if the event happens repeatedly, this will lead to an “unshakable strong belief and certainty which we do not need to explain after we know that it is certain.”22 However, al-Ghazālī goes on to explain the role reason plays in the certainty we have about empirical premises, by saying that we have “a concealed syllogistic power” through which we reason that “if what we experienced only happened by chance or accidentally, it would not have happened in most of the events uniformly.”23 It must be noticed that all of this is primarily based on Avicenna’s theory of inductive reasoning, but al-Ghazālī extends the discussion by including an objection based on the belief that God is the sole efficient cause:

If someone says: how do you believe this (natural objects have causal power) while the theologians [al-mutakallimūn] doubted it and assert that … decapitation is not a cause of death, bread is not a cause for satiety, and fire is not a cause for burning—rather, it is God who creates satiety and burning when things follow certain course, not by it [things?]. We say: We have carefully pointed to the depth of this issue and its truth in the book Tahāfut al-falāsifah, but what is needed to be addressed now is that if someone is told that his son is decapitated, he will not doubt his son’s death, and no one of sound reason will doubt it…. Now, examining whether it [the association between decapitation and death] is a necessary concomitant that cannot be changed or it is according to the course of God’s way … that it is not possible to be changed or replaced, is an examination of course of the association but not the association itself. Understand this and know that doubting the death of one who is decapitated is purely a devilish insinuation.24

It is important to notice how al-Ghazālī stresses that we cannot in practice doubt or undermine our natural human tendency to draw causal inferences and to form beliefs—with certainty about the relationship between objects and events—even though our theological commitment points to the contrary. Here al-Ghazālī is careful not to retract anything from his previous argument in The Incoherence. Now he emphasizes, however, that it seems unnatural to doubt the operation and activity of reason because our regular experience favors it and leaves no room for doubt. Although our inference is based only on particular limited observations, al-Ghazālī still considers it legitimate reasoning because it is derived from the irresistible role reason has in our practical lives. In other words, it is through the hidden syllogistic power of reason that we are content with our conclusion that events will follow a stable course.

Al-Ghazālī, moreover, does not answer the question concerning the nature of the connection. He simply refers the reader to The Incoherence, in which he explicitly denies the necessary connection between associated objects. This might indicate that al-Ghazālī thinks it is practically insignificant to settle our belief about the kind of connection between objects because our practice, regardless of our belief, is based on causal inference that we derive from experience. This is a significant addition al-Ghazālī made that is clearly constructive or positive in character.

Clearly, then, al-Ghazālī adopted Avicenna’s explanation of inductive reasoning to justify our certainty in causal inferences. But is inductive reasoning, despite its significant role in our practice, a sufficient reason to remove skepticism about natural events if we don’t believe in the necessity of a causal connection?

There are several reasons to answer No: First, inductive reasoning yields only a probable judgment that reason renders as certain through, according to al-Ghazālī, the premise that the frequent occurrence of an event cannot happen by chance. But this premise is not a self-evident notion, which means it can be denied without contradiction. Second, it cannot explain our certainty about future events. In other words, we cannot through inductive reasoning infer that future events will be similar to the present, especially if we believe that things are not connected. Third, al-Ghazālī emphasizes that this certainty is a product of the mind, according not to how things are in nature, but to the apparent regularity of the natural events we experience.

Causality and the Existence of God

In The Incoherence and The Scale of Knowledge, al-Ghazālī neglects discussing the widely accepted belief among Muslim theologians and philosophers that the concept that every effect must have a cause is self-evident. Neither does he present an account of the nature of the connection between objects, other than describing things as co-existents. Rather, he focuses on refuting Avicenna’s claim of the necessary connection between natural causes and their effects. But in The Median in Belief (al-Iqtiśād fī al-i¢tiqād), which is an essential theological work he wrote after The Incoherence, he presents the following argument for the existence of God: “Every originated thing (ĥādith) must have a cause for its origination, and the world is an originated thing, therefore, it necessarily must have a cause.”25 It is clear that the validity of this argument depends on the truth of the first premise; namely, “every originated thing must have a cause.” According to al-Ghazālī, “this principle must be affirmed since it is a self-evident (awwalī) and necessary (đarūrī) principle according to reason.”26

This argument elicits an immediate question: Is it possible to affirm that it is necessary that for every event, or originated thing, there must be a cause, while at the same time denying there is causal connection between natural objects? Although al-Ghazālī did not address this self-evident question in his discussion of causality, one can surmise that al-Ghazālī might argue that, because God is the only true cause, the notion of causality is true only for God. In other words, the phenomenon of cause and effect exists, but there is only one cause: God. But this answer means that al-Ghazālī would not believe that denying natural causality while affirming a necessary cause for every originated thing is a contradiction. On the surface, however, this apparent contradiction causes a tension in al-Ghazālī’s view of causality that he ideally should have addressed.   Despite this tension, al-Ghazālī’s main objective behind his discussion of causality is to provide a rational explanation of the miracles mentioned in the Qur’an. To this effect, he made it clear that miracles are possible, whether we believe that natural events follow a course that is determined by the very nature of objects or we believe that God is the sole immediate cause of all events and that natural objects are devoid of efficacy. He also affirms that the denial of causality would not cause us to doubt our knowledge of the world. According to al-Ghazālī, our practical commitment about the course of events and the connection between natural objects is based on our natural inclination and reasoning, which play a valuable and essential role in removing doubt about the regularity of natural event.