The falasifa on origination

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The clearest picture here is given by Farabi, whose adaptation of Plotinus' Neoplatonic scheme whereby all things emanate from the One offered an enticing model for articulating the qur'anic creator para-digm.15 (It was also his commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics which succeeded in unlocking its secrets for Avicenna.16) In the spirit of Plato's Republic, Farabi's Virtuous City holds up the pattern of cosmic origination for the ideal leader of a human polity to emulate. The leader whom he has in mind, of course, is the Prophet, and the cosmic scheme displays the source of the Prophet's authority: an intellectual emanation from the unique source of being and of truth. Indeed, what distinguishes the Messenger of God from Plato's ''philosopher king'', now overtly recast in Neoplatonic terms, is that the divine emanation reaches well beyond his intellect into his imagination, so that the idiom of the Qur'an will not be limited to those who have undergone a rigorous intellectual training, but is eminently comprehensible to all who hear it. Yet by adopting the emanation scheme to model creation, these thinkers were carried into a set of presuppositions which proved to be at variance with the creator paradigm they sought to use the scheme to articulate. Indeed, the very logical elegance which attracted philosophical spirits to the emanation scheme would prove inimical to parsing the key phrase ''God says 'Be!' and it is.'' For the controlling dictum ''from one only one can come'' clearly bespeaks the logical character of the model, so that the One from whom all things come will be assimilated to the unitary and immensely fruitful grounding axiom of a system from which the rest of the premises ineluctably follow. For all this, however, it remains a model, so we need not think of this One as an axiom, but could endow It with the rich intentionality of the very One who bestowed the Qur'an through Muhammad. Yet models have an inner logic as well, so the intentionality of the source could not extend to freedom of action without contradicting the very logical elegance which had recommended it in the first place.

These tensions were soon to emerge with respect to specific questions, such as the relation of this timeless emanation to time: has the universe always been or is there an initial moment of time which marks its beginning? Must the dictum 'from one only one can come'', which determined a step-wise emanation following the actual cosmological pattern of the nine planets, dictate a mediated origination of all things from the One? Can such a One ever be without the universe emanating from it? Merely posing questions like these allows any serious inquirer to query the effort of these thinkers to assimilate the qur'anic creator to this One. So it was only a matter of time before a Ghazali arose to question the orthodoxy of the Avicenna who had elaborated Farabi's scheme into a full-blown system for explaining the cosmos. Yet the infelicities of the scheme itself should not obscure its intent: to render an account of the origin of the very being of things. If kalam thinkers had been wary of presenting God's activity in creating as causing the universe to be, that was because they thought of causation as enmeshing the creator in a system of necessities. That would also be the result of the emanation scheme of the falasifa, of course, yet the philosophers' intent had been to move our minds beyond one who makes individual things come to be, to the very ''cause of being'', even while the multiple names for a creator in the Qur'an include the Fashioner (al-Musawwir), which connotes God's shaping each thing as it comes to be. Indeed, an intentional creator who acts freely cannot but be pictured anthropo-morphically, and so impedes the intellectual ascent to a ''cause of being''. So if the concerns surrounding God's freedom to create (with its corollary of utter transcendence), as well as the prophetic insistence on an initial moment of time, were to sideline this mode of thought for Islamic theology and return it to the kalaam speculation we have seen, something invaluable would have been lost. Yet that is the picture we are often given: in the wake of Ghazali's Incoherence, philosophical inquiry was rendered terminally suspect in Islam.17 We shall see, however, that there are other Ghazalis than the one intent on deconstructing the falsafa which he saw as threatening the qur'anic creator paradigm. In fact, the constructive Ghazali felt free (or was intellectually constrained) to incorporate a great deal of Avicenna in his own attempt to articulate the relation of creator to creation, notably under the rubric of tawhld: faith in the divine unity from which all that is comes to exist. Yet the negative picture of falsafa which Ghazal! was supposed to have promulgated in his work of deconstruction could well have been facilitated by the fierce opposition of Averroes to that work, evidenced in his ensuing The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-Tahafut), which contains the entire text of Ghazili's original work in order to excoriate what nefarious influence it might have. That Averroes' reaction may ironically have had the opposite effect of reinforcing Ghazili's work of deconstructing falsafa for religious purposes can be suggested from the author's inattention to creation, in this or any other work. In fact, it requires a good deal of intellectual probing to determine what creation meant for Averroes, which is perhaps unsurprising given his utter devotion to Aristotle.18 But how does Ghazali manage to incorporate the very philosophy he criticised when he proceeds in a more constructive fashion?


Ghazali's intellectual and spiritual odyssey, The Deliverer from Error (al-Munqidh min al-dalil), details his quest for an understanding which will not turn out to have been in vain: either because one has been deluded into believing what is not the case, or by reason of the vanity inherent in learning itself.19 The first fear is cast in sceptical terms, and permits us to draw parallels with Descartes's Discourse on Method; the second addresses a more spiritual issue: what is the point of it all? Reflecting in the wake of his intellectual and professional crisis on his early formation in kalam, he notes that those who have engaged in it did indeed perform the task assigned them by God: they ably protected orthodoxy and defended the creed which had been readily accepted from the prophetic teaching and boldly counteracted heretical innovation. But in doing so they relied on the premises which they took over from their adversaries, being compelled to admit them either by uncritical acceptance, or because of the Community's consensus, or by simple acceptance [taqlid] deriving from the Qur'an and the Traditions ... This, however, is of little use in the case of one who admits nothing at all except the primary and self-evident truths. So kalam was not sufficient in my case, nor was it a remedy for the malady of which I was complaining.20

Here the malady can be voiced in sceptical terms, though ''one who admits nothing at all except the primary and self-evident truths'' could hardly expect a cure in terms so stringent. In fact, as he relates it, even accept[ing] the self-evident data of reason and rel[ying] on them with safety and certainty ... was not achieved by constructing a proof or putting together an argument. On the contrary, it was the effect of a light which God Most High cast into my breast. And that light is the key to most knowledge. Therefore, whoever thinks that the unveiling of truth depends on precisely formulated proofs has indeed straitened the broad mercy of God.2i

So it was predictable that Ghazali would not find what he was looking for in any of the six parts of philosophy either: ''mathematical, logical, physical, metaphysical, political, and moral''.22 Nor could he see in the physical sciences the central point of the qur'anic creator paradigm:

that nature is totally subject to God Most High: it does not act of itself but is used as an instrument by its Creator. The sun, moon, stars, and the elements are subject to God's command: none of them effects any act by and of itself ... [But] it is in the metaphysical sciences that most of the philosophers' errors are found. Owing to the fact that they could not carry out apodeictic demonstrations according to the conditions they had postulated in logic, they differed a great deal about metaphysical questions. Aristotle's doctrine on these matters, as transmitted by Farabi and Ibn Sina, approximates the teachings of the Islamic philosophers. But the sum of their errors comes down to twenty heads, in three of which they must be taxed with unbelief, and in seventeen with innovation.23

To accuse someone of unbelief (kufr) in an Islamic society was a stark judgement, which could result in banishment or death for one found guilty; innovation (bid'a) was far less stringent a charge. The positions which Ghazali deemed tantamount to unbelief were ''[1] that men's bodies will not be assembled on the Last Day ... [2] their declaration: 'God Most High knows universals, but not particulars' ... when 'there does not escape from Him the weight of an atom in the heavens or in the earth' (Qur'an 34:3), [and 3] their maintaining the eternity of the world, past and future''.24

Yet it will not suffice to be disillusioned with philosophers who had been brought to contradict divine revelation; one must go on to ascertain the truth of that revelation in ways which the philosophers have been unable to do. So the dimensions of his crisis moved well beyond that of scepticism, and demanded of him a pilgrimage whose ''beginning ... was to sever my heart's attachments to the world by withdrawing from this abode of delusion and turning to the mansion of immortality and devoting myself with total ardour to God''.25 Now he would address the second and more telling fear: that life (and especially the life of inquiry) has no point at all. Realising that this would demand a total disengagement from his work and status, he vacillated for six months until ''the matter passed from choice to compulsion'', so that the renowned teacher found himself completely unable to say anything. As a result that impediment of speech caused a sadness in my heart accompanied by an inability to digest; food and drink became unpalatable to me ... Then, when I perceived my powerlessness, and when my capacity to make a choice had completely collapsed, I had recourse to God.26

Entering Damascus and residing there for nearly two years, my only occupation was seclusion and solitude and spiritual exercise ... with a view to devoting myself to the purification of my soul and the cultivation of virtues and cleansing my heart for the remembrance of God Most High, in the way I had learned from the writings of the Sufis.27

In consequence, ''what became clear to me of necessity from practicing their Way was the true nature and special character of prophecy''.28 That is, faith in divine revelation is a form of knowing as well, though it is hardly self-evident but requires sustained efforts at purification. After engaging in these, he can insist: ''I believe with a faith as certain as direct vision that there is no might for me and no power save in God, the Sublime, the Mighty; and that it was not I who moved, but He moved me;and that I did not act, but He acted through me.''29 It is this conviction, founded in his own pilgrimage, which he will extend to the cosmos as well: what faith in divine unity (tawhid) effectively means is that ''there is no power or might but in God''. Yet he did not turn to kalaam occasionalism to make this point philosophically; he rather had recourse to a model close to that of Avicenna's, though grounded in the sunnat Allah, the order bestowed on the universe by its free creator.30 That ordering permits a fresh approach to causality, as evidenced in the following portion from his section on ''Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence'' in his Revival:31

Now you may object: how can there be any common ground between faith in divine unity and the shari'a? For the meaning of faith in divine unity is that there is no agent but God Most High, and the meaning of the law lies in establishing the actions proper to human beings [as servants of God]. And if human beings are agents, how is it that God Most High is an agent? Or if God Most High is an agent, how is a human being an agent? There is no way of understanding ''acting'' as between these two agents. In response, I would say: indeed, there can be no understanding when there is but one meaning for ''agent.'' But if it had two meanings, then the term comprehended could be attributed to each of them without contradiction, as when it is said that the emir killed someone, and also said that the executioner killed him; in one sense, the emir is the killer and in another sense, the executioner. Similarly, a human being is an agent in one sense, and God is an agent in another. The sense in which God Most High is agent is that He is the originator32 of existing things [mukhtari' al-mawjud], while the sense in which a human being is an agent is that he is the locus [mahall] in which power is created after will has been created after knowledge has been created, so that power depends on will, and action is linked to power, as a conditioned to its condition. But depending on the power of God is like the dependence of effect on cause, and of the originated on the originator. So everything which depends on a power in such a way as it is the locus of the power is called ''agent'' in a manner which expresses that fact of its dependence, much as the executioner and the emir can each be called ''killer,'' since the killing depends on the power of both of them, yet in different respects. In that way both of them are called ''killer,'' and similarly, the things ordained [maqrurat] depend on two powers ... So the Most High clarifies it, saying: ''You [Muslims] did not kill them, but God killed them,'' and further: ''You [Muhammad] did not throw when you threw, but God threw'' (8:17). On the surface this amounts to a denial and an affirmation together, but its meaning is: you did not throw in the sense in which the Lord can be said to throw, since you threw in the sense in which it belongs to a human to throw - and the two senses are different.

So it is that ''acting'' is fraught with different senses, and these meanings are not contradictory once you understand [that fact] ... Anyone who relates all there is to God Most High is unquestionably one who knows the truth and the true reality, while whoever relates them to what is other than Him is one whose speech is laced with figurative expressions and metaphors. Figurative expression is on one side while true reality is on another, yet the author of language determined the term ''agent'' to mean the one who originates [mukhtari'], so those supposing human beings to be originators call them ''agents'' according to their power.33 For they suppose that human beings actualize [tahqiq], so they imagine [tawahhum] that ''agent'' is attributed to God Most High metaphorically, as the killing was attributed [in the example] to the emir, yet metaphorically so when contrasted with that attributed to the executioner. Yet in the measure that the truth is revealed to those inquiring, they will know that things are quite the opposite, and they will say: O linguist, you have posited the term ''agent'' to signify the one who originates, but [in that sense] there is no agent but God, so the term belongs properly to Him and metaphorically to whatever is other than Him. That is, you must bear with the way in which linguists have determined it ...

You may still object: it is now clear that all is coerced [jabr]. But if so, what can these mean: reward or punishment, anger or complete approval [ridi]?34 How can He be angry at His own deed? You should know that we have already indicated the meaning of that in the Book of Thanksgiving [Book 32 of the Revival], so we will not proceed to a long repetition here. For this has to do with the divine decree [qadar], intimations of which we saw with respect to the faith in divine unity which brings about the state of trust in divine providence, and is only perfected by faith in the benevolence and wisdom [of God]. And if faith in divine unity brings about insight into the effects of causes, abundant faith in benevolence is what brings about confidence in the effects of the causes, and the state of trust in divine providence will only be perfected, as I shall relate, by confidence in the trustee [wakil] and tranquillity of heart towards the benevolent oversight of the [divine] sponsor. For this faith is indeed an exalted chapter in the chapters of faith, and the stories about it from the path of those experiencing the unveiling go on at length. So let us simply mention it briefly: to wit, the conviction of the seeker in the station of faith in divine unity, a conviction held firmly and without any doubt: [that] all this happens according to a necessary and true order, according to what is appropriate as it is appropriate and in the measure that is proper to it; nor is anything more fitting, more perfect, and more attractive within the realm of possibility35 ... Now this is another sea immensely deep, with vast extremities and chaotic swells, nearly as extensive as the sea of faith in divine unity, and the boats of those whose capacity is limited flounder in it, for they do not know that this is something hidden, not to be grasped except by those who know. The lore regarding this sea is the secret of the divine decree which confuses the many, and those to whom it has been unveiled are forbidden to disclose its secret. The gist of it is that good and evil are determined by it, and if they were not, then what comes about would have to follow a prior volition in such a way as not to contradict His wisdom and yet not to follow upon His judgment and His command. But everything, small or large, is recorded and carried out by Him according to the divine decree as an object foreseen, and if you were not afflicted you would not make progress, and were you not making progress you would not be afflicted. But let us cut short these allusions to ways of knowing through unveiling which are themselves the basis of the station of trust in divine providence, and return to the knowledge of practices - God Most High willing - and let us praise God.36

Ghazali holds on to what he deems to be the properly grammatical sense of ''acting'' as ''originating'' or ''creating'', yet once the term has been acknowledged to be analogous, then it becomes a matter of which analogate to privilege as primary. The burden of this treatment is to attempt to articulate a created universe in relation to its creator, in the clear recognition that one will be unable to do so properly. For what is paramount is the transcendence of the creator, so that the manner of ''determining'' by the ''divine decree'' (qadar) remains inexpressible, and hence cannot be read as ''determining'' in our sense of the term. To be consistent, he will not be able to espouse either the created determining ''volition'' of Ash'ari or the necessitating scheme of Avicenna, much as he may employ that scheme to illustrate his point of divine ordering. In this case, however, he will be employing it as a metaphor, understanding that divine ordering cannot be comprehended in any human scheme.37 In the context of the book in question, which responds to Ghazili's own development, what cannot be articulated conceptually can nonetheless be worked out in the way one lives, so the faith in divine unity (tawhid) which reminds us forcibly that the prime analogate for ''agent'' is the creator, can be lived out in a life of trust in divine providence (tawakkul).

Rizi, a century later than Ghazali, resisted even the use of the terms kasb and iktisaab to refer to the human contribution to human acts, doubtless on account of their ambiguity, while he also acknowledged that the Qur'an could be cited on all sides of the question, so that rational discourse must prevail.38 In his case, that amounted to an analysis of human actions in terms of their prevailing causes, summarised in his commentary on Qur'an 6:102: ''Creator of all things'':

In this way, conclusive rational proof supports the truth of the literal sense of this verse because action depends on motivation which is created by God. And when power and motivation are joined, the action necessarily occurs. Now this requires that God be the Creator of the creatures' acts. And if this conclusive rational proof supports the literal sense, then all problems and ambiguities cease.39

Or as Gimaret puts it boldly: ''Razi does not hesitate to declare himself a Jabrite'', given his insistence that ''because these acts can be done only if God creates the power and the motivation to do them, the combination of the two necessarily brings about the emanation of the act from the creature''.40 As for the reward for good deeds, he is consistent in holding that God is in no way bound to supply this, thereby returning us to divine generosity and mercy. Evil actions, of course, make the question yet more acute, leading Razi to qualify his ''Jabrite'' position severely:

It is as though this question is located in a field of contradiction, founded on contrary evidence as well as reasoning regarding the necessity of exalting God in His power as well as His wisdom, affirming His oneness and his exemption from evil; or one simply remains grounded on the proofs issuing from revelation. For these reasons it is a difficult question, at once obscure and deep. Let us ask God Most High to bring us to the truth of it.41


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