, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 255–265

A critique of causality in Islamic philosophy


    • Department of Philosophy, The College of Literature and Foreign LanguagesAllameh Tabataba’i University

DOI: 10.1007/s11245-007-9014-z

Cite this article as:
Yasrebi, Y. Topoi (2007) 26: 255. doi:10.1007/s11245-007-9014-z


After the problems of epistemology, the most fundamental problem of Islamic philosophy is that of causality. Causality has been studied from various perspectives. This paper endeavors first to analyze the issues of causality in Islamic philosophy and then to critique them. A sketch is provided of the history of the development of theories of causality in Islamic philosophy, with particular attention to how religious considerations came to determine the shape of the philosophical theories that were accepted. It is suggested that outstanding philosophical and theological problems that have plagued the tradition of Islamic philosophy require a new approach to the issue of causality.


CausalityCreationEfficient causeEx nihiloIbn RushdIbn SinaIslamic philosophyPersistenceTeleology

1 How Islamic philosophy turned to causality

Formative Islamic philosophers, from Kindi and Farabi to Hajj Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, did not discuss causality as a specific chapter heading in their books of philosophy. Only relatively recently, did Tabataba’i—perhaps under the influence of contemporary Western philosophers—turn his attention to causality under its own topic heading. He is of the conviction that we understand causality through experience. Before examining the views of Tabataba’i, it is necessary to mention that Ibn Sina, from among the Islamic philosophers, has explicitly stated that causality is imperceptible to the senses. He says, “The senses only perceive the sequentiality of things. The sequentiality of two things does not indicate that one is the cause of the other.”1

If causality is imperceptible to the senses, then how does the human mind comprehend it? Tabataba’i says:

We first look at ourselves and at our internal workings and we look at the relation between ourselves and our own actions. Then we look at actions that take place outside ourselves and our volition. We notice a similar relation between these things. For example, we know that heat, coldness, taste, and color are intrinsically tied to a substance, which is the object of these effects. It is from here that the foundations of a universal law of cause and effect were derived and that man knows with certainty that no action can be without an agent and that every effect needs a cause. Thus, through repeated observation of different kinds, this hypothesis is strengthened and by each test it becomes more concrete.2

If we examine this statement, we reach the following conclusions about the view expressed:
  1. (1)

    The notion of causality is derived from experience.

  2. (2)

    Our internal experience precedes our external experience and forms its basis.

  3. (3)

    The hypothesis that is formed from experience is statistically reinforced.


At this point we face several problems. Human senses and experience only perceive the sequentiality of events, and do not perceive anything called causality, just as Ibn Sina has emphatically stated.

It is debatable whether or not internal experience precedes external experience, as is assumed in Islamic philosophy. It seems rather that the human being perceives external actions before arriving at an understanding of the self and the relation between the self and its internal states.

A statistical and inductive look at this issue does not accord with the exclusively logical basis of Islamic philosophy. In particular, is it not possible for us to have purely rational foundations for a hypothesis and yet to support it with observation and experimentation?

In any case, we would only be able to derive the notion of causality from experience if experience were able to perceive causality. However, with respect to this issue, Ibn Sina, like Hume, points out that experience perceives nothing but the sequentiality of events. If this is the case, then how and from where do we perceive causality?

In my opinion, Tabataba’i, in his aforementioned views, has gleaned one very important point and ignored another. Without a doubt, the conceptions of the human mind begin with perceptions, and all our other abstract concepts have their roots in inner or outer perception. However, what he has failed to explain adequately is how the mind constructs the principle of causality. In particular, based on what justifiable way of thinking does the mind base this principle on perceptions?

Shahid Mutahhari, in his annotations to Tabataba’i’s ‘Usul-e Falsafah, says that causality is extrapolated from our empirical observations on the basis of the principle of the uniformity of nature.3 But from where does the principle of uniformity enter our mind? What could justify the claim that such a principle—that in reality requires much deliberation—is self-evident and innate and consequently to be taken for granted? Yet philosophers accuse anyone who cannot accept such principles as self-evident of intellectual inadequacy or sickness in their bodies or spirits.4

Some contemporary Muslim scholars claim that such principles are known through “knowledge by presence” and take the very fact that this type of knowledge is by presence as support for its self-evidence.5 This view is problematic for numerous reasons; however, we will let a sampling of these problems suffice.

Granted that one’s perception of oneself and one’s own inner states and actions is by presence, this does not imply anything about causality, because there is always room for doubt about whether the sequentiality is coincidental or not. Even if we suppose that these relationships are in fact based on causality, by what logic may we extrapolate this to the relationship among occurrences external to the self? We must not ignore the fact that the formulation of the Aristotelian “four causes,” without a doubt, was based on considerations of human agency. For this reason, from the very outset, in the Metaphysics of Aristotle, before all else, human actions were mentioned to illustrate the four causes. Consequently, we may find that this attention to causality was based on consideration of human actions in the external world, and not on anything immediately evident within the self as is assumed in Islamic philosophy.

2 An opinion and conjecture

We must also reassess our explanations of how the mind moves from particulars to universals with precision and deliberation, and if need be, correct them or improve them. In the past it was explained like this: by seeing particulars, our mind becomes prepared to receive universal concepts or propositions from the “active intellect.” When the mind is thus ready, the active intellect adds to it these universal ideas.6 We consider these universal realities to be immaterial beings that yet reside in a physical place. It is for this very reason that Islamic philosophy considers the human mind to be immaterial, at the level of thought.7

In contrast to our Islamic tradition of philosophy, there are those who explain causality in such a way that it ultimately becomes non-existent. In the words of Jean Wahl:

The history of the concept of causality in the sight of these [philosophers] is one of a decrease in the number of causes and in the end a total expunging of the concept of causality, thereby replacing it with the concept of a “law.” Similarly, the concept of a “law” has also undergone change in the last two centuries, and ultimately, for the scholars of today, is in the meaning of a statistical law that applies in the macrocosm, but not the microcosm.8

Therefore, before we can draw any conclusions about how we perceive causality, we are in need of a fundamental revolution in which we examine the findings in various fields of modern science, including neuroscience, biology, and psychology. With such an examination, it is possible to reconsider our past opinions and very simply solve problems like “the imprinting of the larger in the smaller” based on the results of modern research, not based on the immateriality of ideas. Today, such problems do not exist for philosophers.9

We should solve the riddles of the process of attaining knowledge with respect to the capabilities of the mind instead of relying on the convoluted notion of the “active intellect” to explain the attainment of intellectual knowledge and its preservation.

As our predecessors have said, causality is one of the “secondary intelligibles”;10 however, it is one of the philosophical secondary intelligibles, which describe objects in the external world. Where do these intelligibles come from? What all can agree to is that although the senses have a role to play in their origination, they are not perceived by the senses. Now the question arises: are they among the a priori intelligibles of the mind or does the mind invent them? In my opinion, by construing them as a priori, only one purpose is served: a justification of their existence. Likewise, it seems that Kant considered statements about causality to be synthetic a priori only to justify the existence of certain products of the mind not experienced directly by the senses. Kant provides a basis for metaphysics by interpreting as a priori the ideas that were criticized by the hairsplitting arguments of Locke and Hume as having no corroboration in human experience. Kant says,

I did succeed in solving the Humean problem, not merely for a particular case of the cause-effect connection but with respect to the whole faculty of pure reason. With that done, I could safely—though always slowly—go on to map out the whole domain of pure reason, establishing its boundaries and its contents. I did all this completely, and from general principles, which is what metaphysics needed if its system was to be securely built.11

In my opinion, if we could explain the process of moving from sensory perceptions to universal concepts in a precise and acceptable manner, we could explain intelligibles better than Kant, and more to the liking of Hume, that is, with respect to experience.12

3 What is causality?

Aristotle described the opinions of the previous ancient philosophers as inadequate and discussed the four causes: the efficient cause, the final cause, the material cause, and the formal cause. These four causes have also been discussed in Islamic philosophy. Muslim philosophers made two fundamental changes in the kinds of causes and one fundamental change in the purposes for which causes are studied. The fundamental change in the purposes of this discussion is that Aristotle’s purpose in studying causes was to understand and explain changes in existence, generation and corruption. However, Muslim philosophers focused more on the issue of existence from a theological point of view. For this reason, they brought about the two fundamental changes in the discussion of the types of causes.

One of these changes relates to the efficient cause. In particular, the meaning of efficient cause changed from “mover” to “originator.” And the meaning of “the natural end” (i.e., the natural telos of changes) became “the end of an efficient, conscious cause,” meaning the purpose for making a change. This was an important redirection of the discussion. Generally speaking, in the Islamic world philosophers and theologians considered the cause of existence to be an immaterial being. Similarly, they attributed the cause for motion and change to physical beings or to immaterial beings (souls) that are attached to the material. As a result, the definition of cause and causality took on two very different meanings in the Islamic world. In Islamic philosophical circles both creation and composition were discussed. However, creation was only attributed to God and other immaterial beings, while—following Aristotle—composition was only attributed to physical beings, that is, to matter and form. In Islamic theological circles, on the other hand, discussions of causation were limited to creation, and this is considered exclusively God’s activity. Both philosophers and theologians held that all things are subject to the will and power of God, but for the theologians, causality was limited to this divine influence, while the philosophers considered causation to be at work throughout existence.

4 Recommendations

Logic and good methodology are the most important impetuses for success in the discipline of thought. The West has inaugurated its new thought with logic and contemporary methods discovered and expounded by enlightened forerunners. People like Bacon (d. 1625 C.E.) criticized its own traditional logic and uncovered its weak points with precision and integrity and, at the same time, with courage. We must also look for a new logic and methodology for an even greater revolution than theirs—for we also have access to their experiences—so that we may focus on problems, obscurities, and superficial ideas about fundamental issues like causality, and pave a path for ourselves to greater understanding and the advancement of religion and the material world.

Our present philosophy (the philosophy of Mulla Sadra) is to a large extent determined by religious experiences. To be influenced by such ideas, which—even if they be true—are not conceivable, much less verifiable, for those at a lower level of spiritual refinement who are not of the gnostic ilk, is not only without benefit, but also encourages ignorance and is misleading.

For the simple reason that causality is one of the issues in which we differ greatly with the West, I make the following recommendations to increase our own precision and to encourage mutual understanding with thinkers of the West: let us not look at causality as one single entity; rather let us research each division separately. In this way, we will undoubtedly come upon points of agreement with Western thinkers, and on other points, we will have well thought-out recommendations to improve their opinions.

5 Cause and quiddity

In accordance with the above recommendations we shall research causes—as per Ibn Sina’s opinion—in two categories, namely the causes related to existence and the causes related to quiddity or whatness.

The causes pertaining to quiddity are the following:
  1. (1)

    Material cause. The material cause of a phenomenon is that which has the potential to become that phenomenon. In particular, if another series of causes is actualized, this material can assume the form of that phenomenon in actuality.

  2. (2)

    Formal cause. The formal cause of a phenomenon is the actual state of that phenomenon in the matter specific to it.13 This issue of matter and form, in the way that it is presented in our philosophical works, is no longer discussed by modern Western philosophers. Thus, this in itself is the first difference between us.


To shed further light on this matter, it is best to briefly mention the Greek and Islamic justification for thinking that matter and form exist. The Greeks discussed the interplay of opposite forces at the beginning of the cosmos. In order to accept the idea of opposites, they postulated prime matter as something that was none of the opposites and had the potential to take on any form.14 However, in the Islamic world, prime matter was justified by the existence in physical matter of the two opposite traits of cohesion (wasl) and repulsion (fasl).15

The Greek postulation of prime matter was based on opposing elemental forms, and changes in state from one form to another. Matter had to exist prior to informed substance in order for there to be something to take on the varying forms. However, Islamic philosophers based the idea of matter and form on the cohesion and repulsion within composite entities, so that matter was not seen as fundamentally that which stays the same despite different forms, but that upon which the opposing forces of cohesion and repulsion act in order for there to be a stable material substance. Form does not arise from the arrangement of formless atoms, but as a condition of the existence of substance with an appropriate arrangement of cohesive and repulsive forces. Islamic philosophical texts argued against atomism, because indivisible atoms would not have parts that could cohere with or repulse one another.16 To the contrary, there was a strong tendency toward atomism among the earliest Muslim theologians.

A retreat from the Aristotelian understanding of matter and form in favor of a focus on mereology would have the following benefits. First, we could exchange imaginary parts for real parts. For example, to say that water is composed of matter and form is to speak of an imaginary composition that could never be broken down into its two parts. However, this very water, which is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen, can very simply be hydrolyzed into these two parts. Second, we could exchange a system of definition based on genus and differentia—neither of which has a counterpart in the external world—for a system based on a thing’s parts, characteristics and effects. Third we could identify things according to their parts instead of according to their species. Finally, in this way we could abandon a conceptualism that is too rationalistic and out of touch with empirical reality. A species, insofar as it is an immaterial, universal entity, only exists in the mind and, according to Islamic philosophy, is a product of the active intellect, and is for this reason preserved in the active intellect even when forgotten by human beings. Parts, on the other hand, are tangible and are empirically observable in the external world. For this reason, by replacing the genus and differentia with parts, we are in essence bringing our understanding of things from the lofty heights of the immaterial to the firm ground of the material. It was by a similar process that the nominalists of the Middle Ages cleared the way for the advancement of the empirical sciences and transferred the brunt of thought from universal mental concepts to external particulars by detracting from the value of universals.

6 Cause and existence

According to Ibn Sina, there are two existential causes: the agent,17 which brings a thing from non-existence to existence (also known as the bestower of existence or the creator); and the purpose, which is what causes the agent to act.18

While in Greek thought there was no place for creation ex nihilo, this was propounded by the earliest Muslim theologians on the basis of their interpretation of the Qur’an, which says that all phenomena in the world are the result of the divine will. From the movement of stars to the sprouting of seeds, from the birth and death of organisms to the rise and fall of governments and civilizations, all follow the laws of God.19 All of these laws along with all phenomena in the world are the creation of God and the result of his existential will.20 God has begun creation and adds what he wills to it. Whatever he wants, he simply says, “Be,” and it most certainly is so. [He is a] creator who knowingly nurtures and has power over all things.21

This very thought, which was fundamentally different from Greek thought, became a fundamental principle of Islamic philosophy from the outset. Kindi, the first Muslim philosopher who died around the middle of the third century hijri, mentioned Aristotle’s four causes. Despite the fact that he is totally focused on the Greek tradition—and in particular Aristotle—in a separate treatise he divides agents into two kinds: veridical and figurative. He recognizes veridical action to be creation, which is the transformation of non-existence into existence, and is limited to God.22 Kindi’s discussion and clarification of causality and related issues is very limited.23 More than being affected by Greek philosophers, at the forefront of whom is Aristotle, he has been affected by the religion of Islam and Mu‘tazali theology.

Like the Mu‘tazilites he understands the agent or the creator ex nihilo to be the basic explanation for existence and change in the world. Although he does mention the terms material and formal cause, he does not take them seriously. Furthermore, the titles of his discussions of dogma are the same as the Mu‘tazilite theological classification. However, while the Mu‘tazilites defended atomism, Kindi rejects it.

After Kindi, the discussion of causality was expanded by Farabi. In addition to God, Farabi also discussed the ten intellects as agents. However, this discussion was refined more in the works of Ibn Sina. Ibn Sina separated agents from preparatory conditions and named the physical agents “preparatory agents” whose only role is to prepare the way for the work of immaterial agents who are the bestowers of existence. Ibn Sina believed creation to be limited to immaterial intellects and believed physical bodies to be preparatory agents for new forms of objects and effects.24

Ibn Sina divided agents into two kinds: the divine agent who bestows existence; and natural agents that cause movement and change in bodies. Theologians considered creation to be solely the function of a Necessary Existent. Kindi, who usually shares his views with the Mu‘tazilites, considers the veridical actor—the bestower of existence—to be God.25 However, Farabi and Ibn Sina also considered other immaterial beings to be creative causes along with God. It is for this reason that Ibn Sina did not mention “the Necessary of Existence” in his definition for cause when he said, “A cause is anything that comes into existence by itself or by means of other causes and then becomes a source for the existence or continued existence of other phenomena.”26

The discussion of agency commenced with Aristotle, and continues very seriously throughout Islamic philosophy. In essence, this discussion is composed exclusively of four fundamental, though controversial, problems that we must address with renewed intensity so that we may arrive at clear, justifiable solutions and at the same time engage with Western thought. These four problems are: (1) the problem of the need for an agent in addition to material causes. This was a bone of contention between Aristotle and the atomists of ancient Greece, and remains a serious problem. (2) Interpreting the agent as divine. Here Islamic philosophy departs from the Greek tradition. (3) The disagreement among Muslim thinkers about whether there exist intermediaries like the intellects between God and the material world. (4) The debate among Muslim thinkers as to whether preparatory causes act in conjunction with divine agency.

As for the divine agent, the Greeks considered matter and motion sufficient to explain coming to be and passing away. Muslims, however, guided by the Qur’an, construed the cosmos to be contingent, and accordingly considered it necessary to posit a cause for each and every phenomenon, and for the cosmos as a whole.

The idea of creation ex nihilo was somewhat relaxed with the admission by such Islamic philosophers as Ibn Sina and Mulla Sadra that no phenomenon can exist without pre-existing matter and every contingent being needs prime matter and time.27 They admitted the eternity of the material world and pushed creation ex nihilo to a metaphysical domain that would not interfere with the historical succession of physical phenomena.

This, however, is only a half-step. What is needed today is an abandonment of Aristotelian matter and form in favor of an atomism based on modern scientific findings. We note that Aristotle and his followers—among whom are Ibn Sina and Mulla Sadra—in their discussions on nature have only chosen matter and form based on the conjecture that bodies are not made up of atoms.28 However, now that it is an indubitable fact in modern science that bodies are composed of parts, there is no room left for Aristotelian matter and form.

To my knowledge, no Islamic philosopher other than Ibn Sina has discussed and argued the need for accepting the efficient cause in addition to the material cause, formal cause, and purpose. Yet, this “discussion” is limited to the following brief passage:

The creative cause of a thing for which there are preparatory causes of its quiddity, is the cause of some such causes such as the form or its composition in existence, and it is the cause of both of them together.29

Of course, one could argue that Islamic philosophers’ discussions about the need of contingent beings for a cause is the same as an attempt to prove the existence of an efficient cause. But it must be noted that the issue of the need for a cause includes not only a divine cause, but also material and formal causes and natural and preparatory causes. This is because both a contingent being and an effect are in need of a cause. But can’t this cause be a cause in the sense of internal causes (parts) and the cause of change and motion in these parts? To answer this question we must return to the discussion of the efficient cause. It was often argued that the contingent is “a being that is equidistant from existence and non-existence.” This is not a precise meaning because a contingent quiddity, in itself and without existence, can only be supposed in the mind; for in the real world, every contingent is preceded by time and matter. In the tangible world, no phenomenon exists without time and matter. Ibn Sina also emphasizes this point and argued it with a logical proof.30 This matter extends to infinity, and this infinite regression of causes, because they are not co-existent, is not void in the eyes of the Muslim philosophers. Thus, it is always the case that one thing comes from another, not from nothing.

If the existence of an efficient cause is not proven, we will have nothing but consecutive chains of phenomena, and in such chains, an infinite regress is not logically impossible. Based on this, we will never reach such a thing as a beginning that is the fountainhead of creation. It is for this reason that the proof of an efficient cause is itself fundamental to the proof for the existence of a Necessary Existent, for if it were possible to prove the existence of a Necessary Existent that is the fountainhead of existence, one should seek it out in a chain of efficient causes that end with the divine being. Ibn Sina for one laid great emphasis on this point.31

7 Cause and creation

The notion of creative causality is only defensible if the world is contingent; and that means concrete contingence preceded by non-existence that is not contemporaneous, just as the theologians held the world to be contingent—not essential contingence, which is the view of philosophers. If this could be known in the future with scientific evidence, then we would be able to attribute existence and its unceasing change to God, who has created the world.

However, if this issue is not clear, and we want to justify the role of an efficient cause in everyday events, we must come up with the proper foundations. This foundation could be the “continuous creation” scenario of the theologians, or the “generation and corruption” scenario of the philosophers, or something else.

Greek thought—especially some of the Eleatic schools—posited pseudo-divine intermediaries between God and creation. Muslim thinkers differ about this. Theologians do not accept such intermediaries, while prominent Islamic philosophers such as Farabi, Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra and his followers defend such a view.

In the Greek literature, discussion of intermediaries was mainly to keep God at a distance from the material world because the tangible world is a degenerate level of the realm of existence, full of problems and limitations. The insistence on the exalted nature of God—as is later seen in the works of Pliny (Albiunus Aflatuni Mutawassit) and the Neo-Pythagorean Numinius—was guided by a belief in intermediaries.32 Among these intermediary beings, the intellect (logos or nous) is greater than all others. In the works of Philo, the Jewish philosopher of the first half of the first century C.E., the intellect was the first creation of God, the most ancient and pure being. In the works of Plotinus, these intermediaries are called intellect and soul; and in the works of the Sufis, there is a “realm of fixed entities” in which the jabarut (the realm of divine power) and malakut (the angelic domain) are intermediaries.

It is important to note here that Muslim theologians rejected the existence of such intermediaries to preserve the immaculate nature of God because the concept of an intermediary does not accord with the unity of God. The basis of the necessity of the issuance of one intellect created by a Necessary Existent is the Law of Singularity (qa’idah al-wahid) on the basis of which it is impossible for more than one effect to issue from any single given cause. Theologians considered this postulate to contradict the omnipotence of God. They also considered it to contradict the teachings of the Qur’an, and have thus pounced upon its proponents.33

I personally believe that the immaterial intellects postulated by the Muslim philosophers are myths that should be omitted from contemporary Islamic philosophy. There are several good reasons for rejecting the doctrine of the intellects. First, the philosophical foundations of Islamic philosophy do not provide an adequate explanation for them. The argument on the basis of the Law of Singularity leads us to question the validity of this law. The arguments in favor of the Law of Singularity turn on the principle of the agreement (sinkhiyat) of cause and effect. This principle itself is not adequately grounded; those who accept it do not define it with sufficient clarity; and even if it were accepted it would seem to conflict with the idea that non-material causes can have material effects.

Instead of positing intermediaries, one may accept any of the following suggestions. Multiplicity could be derived from God’s attributes, just as the Sufis have done with regard to the multiplicity in the world—including the multiplicity of the spiritual realms they termed jabarut, malakut, and mulk. The Sufis held that this multiplicity was due to the realm of the fixed entities as truths of the knowledge of God, and this multiplicity in divine knowledge was explained in terms of the multiplicity of the divine attributes.34 If we can thus consider Allah—with his infinite names and attributes—as the source of all phenomena and the cosmological order, why should we make Him dependent on intermediaries for the creation of things? Why do we taint the monotheistic cosmological order with the hue of polytheism?

Another route suggested by Sufi writings relies on a principle referred to as “that with a simple reality is everything.” Why can we not use this principle to prove the inclusiveness of God’s will, just as those who believe in this principle use it to explain God’s omniscience? It is claimed that God’s knowledge is simple, yet includes all details in a condensed manner; likewise one could hold that, with a single act of will, God creates the entire multiplicity of things. The multiplicity of creatures does not require the postulation of a multiplicity in God’s will that would compromise divine simplicity and unity.

Again, we could begin with the view of Ibn Sina, that a multiplicity of implications does not necessitate multiplicity in the essence (dhat). And because the creation and also the knowledge of God are implications of His essence, the multiplicity of the former does not necessitate multiplicity of His essence. In this way we may consider all of creation as the direct effects of God’s will. Within Islamic philosophy, Ibn Rushd looked at the Law of Singularity as a myth. He is astonished at Farabi and Ibn Sina for accepting it.35

Furthermore, we should not leave unquestioned the assumption that multiplicity always indicates contingency. Of course, if a contingent being like a table is composed of multiple parts, and the carpenter who assembled it progressively put it together, certainly that table is a thing that is dependent on its parts. Such dependence is in contradiction with necessity. However, if a being is composed of parts, the existence of this being is the same as the existence of those parts, its parts do not exist prior to it, and the two are inseparable, in such a case, both the being and its parts are dependent on their efficient cause, and there is no separation—in theory—between the parts and the whole.

Now if a Necessary Existent, along with its various parts and attributes, exists from the beginning, the dependence of the whole on its parts would be merely theoretical; while in reality, the whole and its parts would be inseparable. If we were able to solve this issue clearly, many other problems would be solved; among these: the problem of an intermediary between God and creation.

In my opinion, we should completely separate preparatory causes from efficient causes in the divine sense of the term because of the chronic problem of terminological misunderstandings in conversing with the modern world. Even Islamic philosophers do not accept the existence of active causality in the divine sense between material beings. If Hume and others reject causality and see events only as sequentiality, Islamic philosophers also believe events in the material world to be no more than sequentiality. There is no reason for any dispute here.

Modern Western philosophers do not accept causal necessity. With respect to material beings, we also do not accept any such necessity. Muslim philosophers do not accept necessity in the effects of material beings. Farabi does not consider the effects of natural things like the burning of a fire to be necessary. Ibn Sina believes the only effect of material actors to be to give preference to the existence of a thing.36 And Mir Damad only considers the interaction between a Necessary Existent and its effect to be necessary.

In the first few centuries after the founding of Islam, theologians were more concerned with defending religious beliefs than with understanding nature. However, because we cannot know the supernatural correctly until we know the natural, we must examine nature very seriously. The only way to the metaphysical is through the physical.37 And the only way to know God is to know his extra-human and intra-human signs. And nature is nothing but the extra-human and intra-human.

8 God and causality

Probably the most fundamental issue that plays a determining role in many other issues such as the contingency or the necessity of the cosmos, the essence and attributes of God, creation, generation and corruption, etc., is the issue of God’s relation to causal laws. We have two mutually contradictory views of the nature of this relationship. One is the view of those theologians who believe God to have a determining role in the laws of causality. In their opinion, the existence of the cosmos, its order, and its laws are all the effect of God’s will; and nothing can happen to the contrary of this will. The other is the view of philosophers who believe that the laws of causality rule over every part of existence—even the essence, attributes, and actions of God. According to this view, it is the laws of causality that determine the framework for the existence of things. From proving God’s existence and determining the relationship of His essence and His attributes to the creation of the cosmos and the generation and corruption of beings, all happen according to causal laws, and nothing can be done contrary to these laws, even by God!

There is a precedent in Greek thought for the idea that the gods are also subject to destiny. The concept of determinism in ancient Greece had religious roots. However, in Islam free will is attributed to God. It is perhaps for this reason that in Islamic theology there is more talk about God’s will than about any unchanging causal laws. In Islamic philosophy—and in a way in theoretical Sufism38—because of the effect of Greek thought, God’s will is not discussed as much as the causal law, and God’s will is subordinated to divine knowledge.

In a religious worldview and in the conception of the faithful, prayers can be always answered and miracles can always occur because of God’s absolute free will. However, in philosophy, a thing can only happen when the time and conditions are right. Similarly, in Sufi theory, it can only happen if there is an appropriate potential.

In my opinion, divine knowledge, which is the foundation of existence and change in Islamic peripatetic philosophy, has its roots in causality. If we could find another foundation for divine knowledge, we could let God’s will take precedence over causality. In brief, God’s omniscience is based on causality because His self-knowledge implies omniscience given two premises: (1) God is the cause of everything else; and (2) knowledge of the cause necessitates knowledge of the effect.39

The view of the philosophers is that intellects, like God, can bring something from non-existence to existence. If this is the case, then God is only an actor in the creation of the first effect, the First Intellect. Then the effect of each intellect is limited to its direct effect—that is, one intellect and one sphere. The creatures of the material world are the effect of the Tenth Intellect, the Giver of Form. In the words of Mulla Sadra and his followers, the governance of the material world has been turned over to the Tenth Intellect. According to such a view, in reality God will have the status of the unmoved mover of Aristotle, and only the Tenth Intellect will be active.

9 Cause and persistence

In today’s world, when we emphasize the truth of religion so much, and even the political system of our society is religious, we must find a strong and defensible answer to the age-old question about the nature of God’s interaction with the world. In a discussion on causality, God must be investigated from different angles insofar as He is the cause of causes.

In the eyes of Aristotle, the unmoved mover has nothing to do with the world except that he has excited the sentient celestial actors to move. The creation and sustenance of the world are subject to the laws of causality, and there is no creation ex nihilo. Creation is no more than the actualization of potentiality. However, Islamic thinkers fundamentally differ with the Greeks for three reasons: (1) in the oneness of God; (2) in God’s creation ex nihilo; (3) in God’s continuous and direct interaction with the world. We have already examined the question of creation ex nihilo. We now turn to the issue of continuous interaction.

Theologians and philosophers take differing stances on God’s continuous and direct interaction with the world. Based on their principle that everything depends on a cause in order to enter existence, the theologians usually insist on the contingency of the world. However, according to this principle, this very world, once it has entered existence, should no longer be contingent because bringing something that exists into existence a second time is dismissed as “the accomplishment of what has already been accomplished” (tahsil al-hasil). Accordingly, after coming into existence, the world should no longer need an agent cause to persist. Philosophers have always reprimanded the theologians for this opinion and have engaged in its refutation.

In fact, however, Muslim theologians have in some way explained the continuous active role of God. Theologians who do not think that things are in need of an actor to continue to be believe the continued existence of contingent beings to be impossible, and thus that all things exist only momentarily. What we consider to be continuous existents only appear to be such, and in fact God must recreate all creation over and over again at every instant. The famous theologian, Nazzam, holds that there are two kinds of creation: (1) the creation of things from nothing; and (2) the continuous recreation of that thing that has already been created. Based on this theory, bodies never continue to exist at two moments, just as accidents do not persist through time. Both the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites use the same basis to prove and explain God’s continuous and direct interaction with the world.

Theologians have coupled this principle with another, and have explained that the world is governed by God’s will according to these two principles. That other principle is that existence and the laws that govern it are subject to God’s will, so no necessity constrains God. The only difference between the Mu’tazilite and Ash’arite schools of theology is that the Mu’tazilites hold that God’s goodness and wisdom require divine actions always to be for the best, while the Ash’arites consider even good and evil to be distinguished by an arbitrary act of divine will, so that God is free from any kind of necessity. The result of these two principles is that God can do anything He wants anytime He wants. The only condition is that the action must be logically possible.

For the philosophers, however, there are various sorts of restrictions on the will of God that can be traced back to the laws of causality. To make this issue clear, consider the following example. A farmer needs rain for his crops. He begs God for rain. At this point, the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites say that God has the power to instantly create a cloud and make it rain on his field, for it is not logically impossible for this to happen. If it does not rain, this is not because God could not bring the rain; rather, according to the Mu’tazilites, it is because God does not see the greater good in bringing rain, and according to the Ash’arites, God just does not want it to rain. Why is it not for the best to bring rain? The Mu’tazilites tell us that we may never know the secret to this. And why does He not want to bring rain? This has nothing to do with us, the Ash’arites tell us. In the opinion of the philosophers, however, if it does not rain, it is because the necessary conditions did not exist. In particular, there was no cloud, and if there is no cloud it is because of specific atmospheric conditions that prevented water vapor from rising to the sky. In conformity with this, God’s infinite knowledge knew nothing of rain in this place and at this time. Given these conditions, it is not possible for God or the active intellect to make it rain. The result is that God does not play an active role on a day-to-day basis in the workings of the world. Rather his role is from the beginning of time in accordance with the laws of causality.

There is no need for us to accept an Aristotelian worldview, which is ultimately materialistic, except for the fact that while materialists like Democritus thought that matter contained its own ability to move, Aristotelians held that there must be a non-material first mover of matter. We should not think of causality like destiny was to the Greeks in that it governs everything including God. Causality, which has paled into a mere statistical law through the precision of the West, and is accepted by theologians as a divine habit, deserves to be reexamined in Islamic philosophy.

Causality is not a concrete independent reality; rather it is among the secondary intelligibles of the human mind, but the mind has no basis for this abstraction except its observations of the stream of external events. Therefore, causality is an abstraction of the relationships between events and nothing more. Existence and the relationships between events are raw materials for the intellect’s abstraction of causality. Had events gone differently, the mind would not have abstracted the concept of causality it now employs.

Surely that reality that we call the cause of all causes, the source of all existence, who brought the cosmos out of non-existence into existence, is the one who created these interactions as well. In other words, God who created the cosmos created it with these interactions. Thus we have no reason to believe that the creator of a thing is restricted by the framework of his creation. If causality is one of our arguments for God’s existence, there is no contradiction between causality itself being an effect (a creature) and its being evidence for the existence of God. Of course, as I have repeated numerous times, this is just a suggestion. Perhaps, if we put our minds to it, we could come up with an even better solution.

We ought not to detract from the importance of God’s attributes and their role. For the sake of avoiding multiplicity of accidents and the like, we have sought to make God’s attributes one with his essence, and like the Mu’tazilites, to disprove the attributes. All this is done while Ibn Sina never mentions this unity of attributes and only emphasized the necessity in the relation between the attributes and the essence. He repeatedly states his opinion that the attributes are necessary consequences of the essence. Mulla Sadra and his followers are the ones who have pushed for unity. In the Aristotelian order, we have an essence and attributes. Essence is something that can exist without attributes. However, does this system of substance and accidents govern everywhere? By what principle do we extend this to the divine?

The Sufis believe that the attributes of God manifest at the “station of unity” have an important role to play in the creation of concrete entities, the cosmos, and its order. They even consider opposition to begin in the realm of God’s names and attributes as opposed to the Islamic philosophers who consider opposition to exist only in the material realm. We can grant that all God’s attributes, such as knowledge, power, and will to create and govern have a prominent role in explaining the world order. In addition to emphasizing the presence of these divine attributes, one must also realize that they are active.

If we are to understand divine creative activity, it would be best for us to base this on a view of the divine attributes that will offer a way to explain divine agency. Since God possesses the attribute of free will, it is only fitting that He be considered to be constantly utilizing this attribute, in addition to His knowledge. Islamic philosophy has extended a Greek concept of knowledge so far as to leave no room for divine free will. In Greek thought—in both the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions—knowledge has a divine component to it. Knowledge directs its attention to what is higher, and the divine beings of the Greeks took Platonic ideas or the Aristotelian principles as the objects of their knowledge, with no opportunity for any attention to the lower material world. The objects of knowledge are changeless, while the beings of the material world are dynamic. This sort of conception may be suitable for the deities of the Greeks, but not for the God of Islam, and yet we find that this conception of knowledge has infiltrated Sufism and Islamic philosophy to varying degrees.

If we can explain knowledge in light of particulars and the concrete world, we will have given knowledge an active status. A model of divine knowledge directed to finite changing beings will in turn give free will, creation, and governance an active status. We will thereby instigate an enormous revolution in Islamic theology. This will also enable us to bridge the gap that now exists between the god of philosophy and the concept of the divine shared by other believing theists so that God can become an object of love and affection for people. Finally, this would allow us to explain God’s creation and governance of the world in one of the following two ways.

First, science might corroborate the idea of creation ex nihilo advocated by Islamic theology and philosophy by abandoning the principle of the conservation of matter and energy, for example, if at the atomic level signs of creation and destruction were observed. Of course, in our current philosophical worldview, the creative act of the efficient cause acts on the form of a pre-existing object. So, in order to find philosophical support for creation ex nihilo, we would have to put aside our Aristotelian theory of matter and form and search for another object for creation.

Second, we could abandon creation ex nihilo in favor of creation as combination (tarkib). Kindi, the first Muslim philosopher, sought to prove the existence of a Necessary Existent based on the argument that any complex being needs something to bring about the complexity.40 Of course, what is meant by complexity should not be merely that two or more elements are brought together in a mixture, but rather that a new compound should be made that is different than the separate elements. In this way the components would be “preparatory causes,” in the language of past Islamic philosophy, while the agent cause or efficient cause would be that which brings about an appropriate combination.

Ibn Sina says, “In the concept of creation lie three things: non-existence, existence, and the fact that this existence comes after non-existence.”41 This means that when b is created by a, this act of creation can be broken down into three stages: one is non-existence at the time when b did not exist; the second is existence when b was created by a; third, that the existence of b comes after its non-existence. Because it first was not, and then was, this existence is described as occurring after non-existence. Ibn Sina then asks the following question: “In which of these concepts is the effect in need of a cause?” He concludes by saying that the part of an effect that is dependent on its cause is nothing but the existence of the effect.

Ibn Rushd did not accept this explanation and considered it to be a logical fallacy because Ibn Sina left out one possibility, and that is that the object of an effect’s dependence on its cause could be its existence mixed with non-existence—in other words, its potential to exist.42 Based on this, the conception of existence coming out of non-existence—meaning the coming of pure existence out of pure non-existence—would be an incorrect conception. Rather, potential existence always changes to actual existence in the course of time, and it is in this way that every being comes from another being; although the former may be totally different than the latter in essence, definition, name, and effect.43

Based on this theory, one could explain the dependence of an effect on its cause because the entire cosmos is in a constant state of change in which all beings are passing from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality.

What I want to say here, just with all my other suggestions, is simply to encourage us to discuss these issues. We might reach very important conclusions. Since this paper has dealt with the sanctified essence of our Lord, I beg the hearts of all believers for forgiveness from God, and may they consider that my minuscule effort is not satanic impetuosity, but rather a small step toward attaining proximity to truth, and that he who promised to guide44 will take this insignificant seeker by the hand.


Ibn Sina (1376/1997), first article, first section.


Tabataba’i, ‘Usul-e Falsafah, vol. 5, 184.


Tabataba’i, ‘Usul-e Falsafah, vol. 5, note on p. 226.


Ibn Sina (1404/1983), vol. 3, 111.


Ibn Sina (1376/1997), article 1, Sect. 1.


For an example, see Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 3, Sects. 14 and 15.


Ibid., Sect. 16.


Wahl (1371/1992), p. 332.


One of the arguments used for the immateriality of the soul in Islamic philosophy was that if the soul is a part of the body, it is smaller than the body, and what it contains must also be smaller than the human body. When we perceive large objects, however, e.g., mountains, stars and seas, these bodies exist in the soul in all their immensity. Hence, the soul is not a part of the body (Ed).


In Islamic philosophy, concepts divide into primary and secondary. Primary concepts (or intelligibles) are, roughly, the descriptive properties of an object in the external world, including (immediate) genus and species. Secondary intelligibles divide into the philosophical and the logical. Philosophical intelligibles apply to entities in the external world while logical intelligibles apply only to concepts. See Misbah Yazdi (1999), p. 119ff (Ed).


Kant (1370/1991), p. 90. [English translation by Jonathan Bennett at:]


In this regard, I have presented my initial proposals in my book, Yasrebi (1383/2004), Sects. 7–9.


Ibn Sina (1375/1996), article 1, Sect. 11, on the division of causes. See also Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 4, Sect. 5.


Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 12, Sects. 1 and 2.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 3, Sects. 6–9.


E.g., Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 3, Sects. 1–5.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 4, Sect. 5.


Ibid.; Ibn Sina (1375/1996), article 1, Sect. 11.


Qur’an 3:83, 13:15, 7:54, 16:12 and other verses.


Qur’an 1:4, 7:54.


Qur’an 1:35, 30:27, 6:83, 36:82, 16:77, 57:2–3.


Kindi (1950), p. 118; 34ff.


Just as I have stated here explicitly, this evaluation only applies to Kindi’s treatment of causality. It does not apply to nature (tabi‘iyyat), medicine, mathematics, and other issues of philosophy.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 6, Sect. 26.


Kindi (1950), p. 34.


Ibn Sina (1375/1996), article 1, Sect. 11.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 5.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982) begins the section on nature with the refutation of the theory that bodies are composed of atoms. Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 1, Sects. 1 and 2.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 4, Sect. 7.


Ibn Sina (1375/1996), article 1, Sects. 15 and 16; Ibn Sina (1404/1983) the first division, article 2, Sect. 11; Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 5, Sects. 4–6.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 4, Sect. 8.


Copleston (1375/1996), vol. 1, 44.


For an example see Razi (1401/1981), vol. 1, 589f.; Miqdad (1405/1985), pp. 169–170.


Ibn ‘Arabi (1366/1987), Sects. 1–4.


Ibn Rushd (1421/2000), pp. 164–165.


Ibn Sina (1375/1996), article 2, Sect. 35; Ibn Sina (1376/1997), article 9, Sect. 6.


Yasrebi (1383/2004), Sects. 7–9.


In Sufi theory, it is quite clear that the destiny of man is deterministic, for there is nothing in existence to rival the will of God. However, the free will of God is constrained because of the predestined manner in which God’s knowledge is made manifest with the instantiation of fixed entities in the sensible world.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 7, Sects. 15 and 22.


Kindi (1950), pp. 199–207.


Ibn Sina (1403/1982), namat 5, Sect. 2.


Ibn Rushd (1421/2000), p. 116.


Ibn Rushd (1421/2000), p. 150.


Qur’an 29:69 “If anyone strives toward us, we shall guide him to our path.”


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