Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1128 C.E.) (Part-5)

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In al-Mustasfa min `Ilm al-Usul, al-Ghazali stated that arithmetic and geometry are pure rational sciences that are not recommended for studying. They fluctuate between false, yet plausible guesses, and true knowledge that yields no practical applications. (Al-Mustasfa, p. 3) This shift from his early position that studying mathematics is fard `ayn might be attributed to his acceptance of the Sufi path. Al-Mustasfawas written towards the end of al-Ghazali’s life when he was deeply absorbed by tasawwuf.

Al-Ghazali did not see any practical application for the study of physics, and thus declared it useless. He knew that physics is concerned with substances and their properties, yet he stated that some of the input of the philosophers contradicted the Shari`ah. (The Book of knowledge, p. 54) Thus practical application, or rather the lack of it, caused al-Ghazali to reject a particular science as the above example, or at least criticize it (Ihya’, pp. 16-17). This position should be seen in the context of the civilizational development of the 5th century AH/11th century CE.

Regarding logic, he defined it as “the law (qanun) that distinguishes a sound premise and analogy from a false one, which leads to the discernment of true knowledge.” (Maqasid, p. 36) In reviewing the subjects of logic, which he believed to be neutral in its relationship with the Shari`ah, (al-Munqidh, p. 103) al-Ghazali stated that induction (istiqra’) could be correct only if all parts were covered. If only one part could be different, then induction in this case could not yield true knowledge.

Al-Ghazali criticized the philosophers on twenty accounts in the Tahafut. Of relevance to the discussion here is his position on issue number seventeen, causality. Long before David Hume, alGhazali said that, in his opinion, “the conjunction (al-‘qtiran) between what is conceived by way of habit (fi al`adah) as cause and effect is not necessary (laysa daruriyyan).” He provided a list of pairs that were usually thought of as cause and effect by the philosophers (e.g. fire and burning, light and sunrise, diarrhea and laxatives). For him, the conjunction between them was a result of the sequence in which Allah created them, not because this conjunction was necessary in itself. Moreover, he thought that it was possible for one of these pairs to exist without the other. He did not see any contradiction since these pairs are the phenomena of nature and nature as such, according to the philosophers own admission, does not belong to the realm of necessity but that of possibility, which may or may not exist.(Tahafut, p. 239)

Al-Ghazali criticized the philosophers’ proof of causality because it was limited to observation (mushahadah) which depends on the senses, a source of knowledge that he could not accept on its own merit. Thus his position regarding causality is consistent with his theory of knowledge. Using the example of fire and burning, he said that “observation could only prove that burning took place when there was fire, and not by the fire.” He held that inert and lifeless objects such as fire are incapable of action and thus cannot be the agent (al-fa`il) that causes burning. To prove his point, al-Ghazali used a proof, which is neo-platonic in its tone, from the arguments of the philosophers. They held that accidents (a`rad) and incidents (hawadith) emanate at the time of contact between “bodies”, from the provider of forms (wahib al-suwar) whom they thought to be an angel. Accordingly, one cannot claim that fire is the agent of burning. In addition, he argued that the agent “creates” burning with his will (bi’iradatihi). al-Ghazali reduced the problem of causality to that of “will” which makes it rationally possible for the agent, whom he held to be Allah, not to create burning even though there is contact. (Tahafut, pp. 242-243)

Al-Ghazali presented this theory of causality in order to allow room for the existence of miracles (mu`jizat) that were associated with the prophets, without resorting to allegorical interpretations as the philosophers did. One of the miracles that he chose as an example was that of Prophet Ibrahim. The story was that his people attempted to burn him for breaking their idols by throwing him into fire but no burning took place. In the Qur’an (21:69) it was Allah’s will that the fire would not harm Ibrahim. al-Ghazali maintained that Allah was the agent (fa`il) of every action, either directly or indirectly (i.e. by the angels). (Tahafut, pp. 243-247)

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