The Islamic Conception of Causality and Scientific Progress

Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan

Question: I have some questions concerning causality and ‘natural laws’ in the view of orthodox Islamic theology.

As I understand it, established cause and effect relationships are affirmed, however, we firmly believe that Allah is the one who is creating the causes and producing the effects, and if it was not for the act of Allah there can be no causes or effects, and to believe that Allah has simply created things with certain attributes without actively producing the effects of natural phenomena is contrary to true Islamic monotheism. Is this a correct understanding?

Would it then be correct to say that what is reflected in nature as ‘laws’ or ‘constants of nature’, such as the constants of gravity and electromagnetic forces etc. are only manifestations of a very high level of consistency in Allah’s act of creating causes and effects.

Is this a correct understanding?

Some people object that such an understanding breaks down the principles of causality and predictability and makes a scientific enterprise difficult or impossible. Of course I do not agree with such contentions and I believe that the accusations of Islamic orthodox doctrine destroying the basis for the predictability of natural phenomena, and thus science, to be completely false and I know that some of the most accomplished Muslim scientists in history held orthodox Islamic doctrines. Nevertheless I wonder if you could clarify these issues more in detail.

Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,

I pray this finds you in the best of health and states.

The short answer to your question is yes, your understanding is sound. According to our masters, laws of nature and causality in the world are examples of ‘normative judgments’ (hukm `adi), not logical necessity (hukm `aqli), yet affirming them as normative judgments does not undermine the enterprise of science or scientific progress.

Logical Necessity Versus Normative Judgment

A logical necessity cannot not be. One cannot conceive of its nonexistence. An example is a physical entity being either moving or still in one moment, from the same perspective. Negating a logical necessity is logically absurd/impossible/inconceivable, such as something being moving and still at the same time, from the same perspective.

A normative judgment is defined as a proposition (affirmation or negation) of mere ‘conjoining’ or ‘being bound’ (rabt), that is empirically established by observing its repetition, yet with complete validity of being ‘unbound’, and without any real causation whatsoever. Negating a normative judgment is completely valid and possible, as the original proposition can be ‘unbound.’ [Shaykh Muhammad al-Hashimi, Miftah al-Janna]

An Example: The Burning of Fire

For example, the proposition that ‘fire burns.’ The predicate ‘burning’ is affirmed of the subject ‘fire’ as a normative judgment, meaning the two are merely conjoined or bound together, due to this repeatedly observed phenomenon – every time one lights a fire, one can observe the perceived effect of burning.

However, there is complete validity in the two being ‘unbound’, in that it is logically possible for fire to not burn, as well as for burning to occur without fire. And there is no real causation whatsoever. What is observed is only correlation, and it is a logical fallacy to assume correlation entails causation. While we affirm the phenomenon of ‘burning’ as conjoined to the phenomenon of ‘fire’, based on empirical observation, we do not believe fire creates burning. The creator of all that exists is but One – Allah Most High.

He Most High creates the fire, He Most High creates the burning, He Most High creates the conjoining between the two, and He Most High creates our perception of it. He Most High creates it all. In fact, His creation of the burning is not even ‘by means of’ the fire, but rather ‘at the same time, or with the fire’. The same would apply to any perceived causality in the world: the satiation of food, the pain from a strike, the illumination of the sun, the disease of germs, the healing of medicine, etc. In the words of the Qur’an, “This is the creation of Allah” (31:11).

However, this doctrine does not preclude scientific advancement, as it still affirms a conjoining based on empirically observed repetition, which is the basis of experimentation and the enterprise of science. A person can still fully engage the world and function therein, based on perceived causes and their perceived effects, as the conjoining between them represents the ‘normal pattern’ with which Allah chooses to bring things into existence. The means in the world are used for benefit, while actual causation, i.e. creating effects, is affirmed for Allah alone and none besides. Moreover, effects are not logically bound to their perceived causes, thereby allowing for defiance of the laws of nature (such as with miracles).

The Basis of Occasionalism

This doctrine (called Occasionalism) is the classical Sunni position on causality in the world. It is based on both reason and revelation.

As for revelation, in more than one verse, Allah Most High describes Himself as “Creator of every thing” (13:16, 39:62, 40:62), and indeed, the word ‘thing’ includes every substance, accident, cause and effect that exists in each moment.

Allah Most High also states about Himself, “Every day, He is engaged in a matter” (55:29). ‘Day’ in this context simply refers to a unit of time, as the great exegete Imam Baydawi comments, “That is, in every moment, He creates persons and delineates states and situations, based on His preeternal decree.” [Anwar al-Tanzil wa Asrar al-Ta’wil]

As for reason, no logical absurdity is entailed by separating perceived cause from perceived effect. Moreover, what are perceived as causes and effects in the world are logically possible and temporal, and therefore by definition in need of a determiner or specifier.

This is because logical possibility is the basis of need, i.e., of an outside determiner to specify its existence or nonexistence. One can imagine every logical possibility to be akin to a scale that is balanced at 50/50, one side representing its existence, the other its nonexistence. It is inconceivable for a scale to be ‘tipped’ on its own accord without some tipping ‘force’. So every logically possible thing needs a determiner, i.e., a force to tip the scale.

Furthermore, the notion that causes independently create their effects is absurd as it contradicts divine oneness in action, allowing for a co-sharer with the Divine in producing something in the world. And the notion that causes create effects by divinely endowed power contradicts the divine attribute of ‘differing from creation,’ since only creatures need intermediaries and means when carrying out acts.

It would also affirm ‘need’ for the Divine, Who needs nothing. Allah differs from His creation, and hence acts without intermediary and and without aid. Only created things need intermediaries, while Allah has no need whatsoever. The world at every moment is a direct creation of Allah.

Opening One’s Spiritual Insight (Basira)

Our masters emphasize that ignorance of the normative judgment (hukm `adi) could lead to believing in a logically necessary connection between normative causes and effects, such that it does not accept disconnection. Such a belief could lead the person to disbelief, e.g., by rejecting prophetic miracles, states of the afterlife, and other beliefs that entail defying laws of nature, i.e., the ‘disconnection’ of normative causes from their perceived effects. This is certainly the mistake of modern atheists, who deem miracles to be ‘impossible’.

Historically too, much disbelief resulted from affirming real power to normative causes, what some theologians call the ‘polytheism of causation’ (shirk al-asbab). Philosophers used to believe that celestial bodies ‘created’ effects on earth, and the Meccan polytheists rejected the afterlife and bodily resurrection as they saw these as logically impossible. They conflated logical necessity with normative judgment, and hence rejected truth.

The basis of such ignorance is blindness of spiritual insight and delusion by what is apparently perceived in the world, which the Sacred Law came to eliminate and remedy. Much of the Qur’an and sunna exhorts the listener to see the divine act in the world rather than any intrinsic power of the world itself. Rain is from Allah, wind is from Allah, shadows are from Allah, the night and day are from Allah, the movement of ships in the sea is from Allah, etc.

Believers granted tawfiq do not perceive causes as actually making their effects, whether naturally or necessarily, or by a divinely endowed faculty, or due to some special property, or due to logical necessity. Rather they believe that a perceived cause is merely an indicator or mark of its perceived effect, bound together by a mere normative conjoining (rabt `adi), with no real power and that can be unbound at any moment. They still take the means, yet assign real power and creative ability only to the Divine. “This is the creation of Allah.”

This realization is the gift Allah grants His elect (awliya’), who see His creative act in every movement and stillness in the world. This is illumination of spiritual insight and knowledge of the realities of things, as they really are. [Shaykh Muhammad al-Hashimi, Miftah al-Janna]

And Allah knows best. May He open our insight and bestow on us His good pleasure.