God in causation – readjusting our relationship with the natural world

Reason, critical thought, and (data- or evidence-) informed argumentation has always been vital in the well-being of any society. Truth seeking and truth itself demands scrutiny. Just as Muslims are exhorted to show scrupulousness (wara’) in what they engage in (‘amal), it applies equally to being selective in the free market of ideas. Historically, in Muslim civilisation, discussions on a range of different topics (like the nature of causation, free will, divine predetermination etc.) were provoked or expanded with the encounter of new ideas and people, most notably Greek civilisation. This interaction of people, of course, continues today in the safe setting of our multicultural and cosmopolitan communities of the UK, as elsewhere. Whether it’s London, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast, Luton, Manchester or Glasgow, the mixing and remixing of cultural exchange is ongoing in some shape or form. In this essay, I will explore some of my thoughts on an immensely important topic: a Muslim account of causation. Causation is simply the relation that holds between two or more simultaneous or successive events when the first event (the cause) brings about the other (the effect). A robust and proper understanding is fundamental to overcoming current points of entanglement and perceived conflict between religion and society, so that they can fruitfully engage to create the right grounds for a flourishing society. One that champions a rational discourse and maintains the ultimate source of causation as divine action.

God’s ordered system of nature and phenomena

God has structured the physical world according to laws of nature and phenomena that operate and cause effects in their own relational terms. These laws or ordered systems (nizam) operate independent of, for example, whether we believe or don’t believe in God or whether we take guidance from revelation or not. Taking gravity as an example of these laws of nature, it is a force that exists across the universe and is a consequence of mass. Because we know this to be the case with good certainty, it logically follows that we can predict the impact of gravitational force on things like motion and the shape of objects. This is because gravity itself has consequences. We can also go further and use such observable laws to define objects like “planets,” for example, if they’re spherically shaped (not irregular like asteroids), and this spherical shape arises because of gravity. Whether one believes in God or not or whether one takes guidance from revelation or not is completely irrelevant to the phenomenon of gravity which will operate on its own terms. The same can be said of viruses. Viruses infect according to conditions that support viral infection. Whether one believes in God or not or whether one takes guidance from revelation or not is irrelevant to the phenomenon of viral infection and its consequences.

Often we can’t explain phenomena and rather than rely on our senses and reasoning, we resort to a simpleton’s mentality by claiming something mystical, supernatural or superstitious involving the divine. As if to suggest that mystical action as a cause operates in a world that otherwise obeys the laws of physics, chemistry and biology.  Sometimes people seek to bring intellectual salience by substituting the word “metaphysical” for “mystical.” The irony here is that it is still left to people’s sense perception, experience, and intellectual faculties to then interpret the “mystical action in the world.” However, on this point, my argument is simply that there is no need for convoluted attempts to explain phenomena. Most believers get the point and accept that denying the existence of metaphysical activity (for example angels) is a form of kufr (disbelief), as it reduces existence to the physical world and activity to the observable. But substituting metaphysical for mystical is facile, as metaphysical is a philosophical and rational term for the non-physical, while mystical is a subjective term.

We know that God has ordered (kun fa ya kun) causal relationships on earth, in the laws of physics, chemistry and biology etc. and that God commands us to probe, explore and discover His signs (ayaath) in the world using our sense perception, experience and intellectual faculties. God speaks of precision (e.g. of the orbit of the moon in Qur’an, 36:40) and predictable, sequential dynamism (e.g. of the water cycle in Qur’an, 12:18) of natural systems in the Qur’an. Many sentences in the Qur’an such as “Do you not see…” (alam tara, Qur’an 29:31) also emphasise that our senses and intellectual faculties provide real information about the world. Taking a “systems approach” to looking at phenomena it’s possible to acknowledge that there are vast arrays of cause-and-effect relationships between direct and indirect variables in a highly sophisticated and well-balanced network of causes, effects and configurations of objects, time, and space operating in the material world. By “systems thinking” I mean here, “sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realization that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to.”[1]

Similarly, there are natural causes and effects in ethical, social, political and economic systems. For example, the universal principle of “doing good” applies to every sane human and demonstrates an innate level of moral intuition that can guide us to right or wrong in, at least, in the basic morals like killing and cheating etc. God points to this when He says that He “inspired it [the human self/sensory perception/cognitive function] with discernment of its wickedness and its righteousness” (Qur’an, 91:8). Of course, that’s not the whole explanation of morality and what constitutes “good action,” which I don’t intend to cover here, but the point is that there is a universal phenomenon of “doing good” which we perceive to be consistent that operates in all human beings to a degree. Similarly, we’ve created civilisation with societal norms, institutions, and understandings of mutual dealings because we understand relational consequences in human systems. These human systems arise fundamentally out of our effort to manage human nature, whether to meet Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or to regulate the negative aspects of human character like envy (hasad), wantonness (batar), pride (hasad), showing off (riya), hatred (bughd), fear of poverty, heedlessness (gaflah) etc. as well as positive ones like selflessness (ithar), kindness (lutf), love, empathy (ma’arifah) etc. Just like the laws governing natural phenomena, the laws for human systems need investigating and research.

Putting all of this together, only in a causal world things like fate, God’s mercy, God’s justice etc. can exist. In a causal world we can have predictability, which in turn means that God’s mercy and justice will not be arbitrary, and we’ll be able to explain the consequences of our actions and therefore can be held accountable to God for the choices we make. I would also argue that we can also conceptualise our perception of fate as: Σ(Gt +Et + St + Ct + Mt + Xt)t

Where: G = genetic predetermination, E = environmental influences; S = Social influences; C = constants in life (e.g. risks in everyday life, age, diseases, death etc.); M = multifactorial effect (the idea that the combination of each of the variables affecting each other as well as the sum of the other variables altogether will have an overall different impact); and X = unknown variables. Each of these factors will vary with time as denoted by t as well as the sum of all the variables interacting with each other will vary with time. As human beings, we don’t have the ability to perceive let alone control every variable nor can we extract ourselves from the consequences of knowing the limits of variables. Therefore, no matter how well we understand or perceive the world there will always be variables outside of human control or perception. The implication for the believer is that we will always be contingent on God (tawakkul) and the need for supplication (du’a) will always exist.

Once we conceptualise these things in a proper way, a system, it should become clearer as to why God says that “none other than God can remove” (Qur’an, 53:58) for the end of times (Judgement Day) and that it could also apply to other tribulations too. That is, for other tribulations, the system of causation can become too complex and finely balanced that a human relational exercise to modulate things may be far too difficult or impossible. The greatest calamity will of course be the end of times when the true reality of this statement of God will manifest. But we also have a view in Islamic thought the end of times draws nearer with the ubiquity of sin and heedlessness, and tribulations can be seen generally as litmus tests to see who amongst us will remain steadfast on truth and virtue. In this way, this sentence of the Qur’an can be taken to speak about compound tribulations before the end of times where the systems of causation are overwhelming. We will come back to tribulations later in this essay.

God’s revelation in a causal loop

When we speak of cause-and-effect we usually refer to the macroscopic world (this is the world of objects that we engage with) which obeys the laws of classical physics. Classical physics are all the laws that govern the macroscopic world, like Newton’s laws of motion, the laws of optics, the laws of thermodynamics, astrophysics etc. However, there is also a microscopic world, the subatomic world, where the laws of classical physics don’t operate, and instead it’s the rules of quantum physics that govern. Fundamentally, the difference between the quantum world and the macroscopic world boils down to the fact that in the macroscopic world objects are large-scale and can always be distinguished, whereas in the microscopic world, the electron for example is both a particle as well as a wave and can only measured in terms of probabilities. Now, we don’t yet fully know how the microscopic quantum world relates and interacts with the macroscopic world. A few ideas or thoughts have been around for some time, which have gained different levels of favour among scientists.

One theory is that when going from the quantum world to the macroscopic world human consciousness comes into play which imposes a level of interpretation, which then becomes part of the phenomena. This idea hasn’t gained much favour. Another idea simply states that the two worlds don’t need to be related, which is the pragmatic view. Why worry about how two systems interrelate when it isn’t necessary to understand? A similar viewpoint suggests that as we can only measure the quantum world with large-scale macroscopic world objects (e.g. detectors, amplifiers, and meters), which obeys the laws of classical physics, we can’t truly measure things as we can’t reverse or reproduce the quantum world through experimentation and observation. A fourth idea, the “many-worlds hypothesis,” suggests that, at the quantum level, the universe branches into noninteracting universes – the different expected outcomes (probabilities) apparently do occur but in parallel universes.

Quantum physics points to a different reality that we don’t directly interrelate with especially in ways that we can fully explain or comprehend. But this quantum world, nevertheless, does exist as the experiments of quantum physics prove. In a similar way, from a theocentric point of view it is God’s will or power which enables events whether in the macroscopic or quantum worlds. In this sense, we can also conceive of revelation as a set of guidance for the preservation of intelligent beings like us humans in the macroscopic causal world, with which we engage, and where cause-and-effect relations dictate outcomes, unlike the microscopic world.

If we borrow the idea of causal loop (a closed causal chain of events, where each event is the effect of another event on the chain), we can see that revelation assists human beings to ensure the preservation of human life and a “balanced world.” God knows the bounds of the causal loops within which the world is structured or fated even. And so, despite the eminent place that reason occupies in how we engage the world, it still has limits because it can be obscured and influenced by personal whims, habit, cognitive biases, tyranny, power, false association etc. and God’s revelation is precisely to help here and acts in a fitting way with the causes of the world.

Between Ghazali and Ibn Rushd

Understanding causation allows believers (of all faiths, actually) to make better sense of the goings on in the natural world and human action. Much discussion lies in a debate between two of the greatest Muslims scholars in the classical Muslim period, which we shall briefly delve into.

The great Iraqi theologian, often known as the “Proof of Islam” (Hujjut al-Islam), Imam al-Ghazali (1045-1111), was an extraordinary scholar, the like of whom, chances are, we’re unlikely to ever see again. When reading Imam al-Ghazali’s philosophic works it is sensible to keep in mind that he was responding to earlier philosophers like Ibn Sina (980-1037) and al-Farabi (872-950) who came before Imam al-Ghazali, and who were by far the most famous advocates of Greek logic in the historical Muslim world, particularly of Aristotle.

Imam al-Ghazali wasn’t responding to the famous judge (qadi) of Andalucia in Spain, Ibn Rushd (known in the West by the Latinised name “Averroes”), who was born in 1126, which was a good 15 years after his own demise. This is an important point in the discussion. By the end of Imam al-Ghazali’s lifetime philosophy had already moved on and Ibn Rushd’s contribution significantly evolved philosophical thought, and I would argue he better “systems” integrated some aspects into the Islamic paradigm. As I will go on to show, if we leave the discussion on this topic at the point of Imam al-Ghazali, and in fact forget the 900 years of the ebb and flows of thought since, we risk leaving the discussion in limbo. Future generations of Muslims will, as a result, struggle to produce religiously-inspired thought which, by today’s output, is stale and incapable of revitalising societies in comparison to outputs from elsewhere (non-faith centred).

In my view, this is generally what’s happened among many Muslims, the results of which we see most starkly in the “laity’s” religious identity. The “laity” has, by definition, always been like this. And scholars throughout all periods have lamented the simplicity of the laity. In more recent decades, the likes of Muhammad Iqbal and Taha Jabir al-Alwani lamented the waning of religiously-inspired thought among Muslims. What’s increasingly different now is that more Muslims can read and write and are educated to university degree level than ever before. It seems, therefore, overly-pessimistic to generalise them as “laity” given that, unlike in the past, they now have access to information, and can carry out a fair amount of research to find things out for themselves. In fact, it’s precisely because more Muslims are more educated and among the growing middle classes, not just in the UK but across the world, that they’re asking for clarity on many theological questions. One of these things is causation for which religious scholars – I’m talking about the average mosque imam and preacher class – don’t necessarily have the right depth and breadth of convincing answers or articulation, and which is reducing their confidence in the relevance of faith and godliness in modern contexts.

That said, before I go on, I want to emphasise two points:

My intention isn’t to rehash the age-old Orientalist trop of “decline” – which is of course complex and nuanced. No. What I specifically mean by “decline” is the use of guidance from God by probing deeper into the Qur’an and Prophetic life to directly inform, in modern vernacular, and make faith relevant in our modern socio-economic and political contexts. A good example of that for us in the UK is simply the question, “How do we apply the Shari’ thinking to deal with the pressures on the NHS?” In delving deeper into this, Shaykh Mohammed Nizami rightly points out that of course there is nothing explicit in divine writ that tells us so, “…but the values of healing the sick (shifa’a) through a communal contribution (takaful) at the point of need is there. But takaful also comes with a sense of civic responsibility that disparages waste (israf), and excessive request (mas’alah), and excessive medication (tadawi). For us, this is the essence of responsible citizenship towards the NHS, where our morality affords all citizens access to healthcare, but that access is tempered by a social responsibility not to abuse the service…”

To cite another topical question, that of “whether people are divinely obligated (dharurah) to vaccinate themselves?” to help protect themselves from, say, Covid-19, anti-vaxxers will not like the fact that this question is, quite directly, informed by the Shari’ah. The well-known legal maxim (qa’idah) to take necessary action to ward off greater harm to society, implores believers to take vaccines (and where necessary other treatments), medical advice permitting. Not doing so, would mean that the individual Muslim would be contributing to prolonging the pandemic and with that all the damaging consequences of restrictions and lockdowns that would be necessary to protect people. No doubt, a lot of vaccine hesitancy has been overcome, thanks to the many campaigns, often led by Muslims, but there is an underlying problem summed up in not taking the necessary precautions available to them and yet proclaiming protection from God. Sometimes this is out of laziness, or the risk averse behaviour, which is understandable if it is just that. However, quite often it isn’t, and individuals seek to justify their laziness and risk averse behaviour under the pretext of relying on God. Yet God’s intention, based on revelation, is to take the necessary means within one’s control, before relying on God. This is partly because God has ordered the world on a cause-and-effect structure. In this scenario, when Muslims seemingly act religious, what they are unwittingly doing is denying God’s causation.

These are just a couple of examples, but there are countless similar questions that are at play. And so, in this sense, while the development of European thinking benefited from Ibn Rushd’s commentaries (on Aristotle which mainly had to do with logic), as Muslims we seem to have ducked away from benefitting from Ibn Rushd’s philosophical works. The most prominent example is his The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafat at-Tahafat) which was a point-by-point response to Imam al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahfat al-Falasifah). Much of Ibn Rushd’s thought seems lost simply because Andalucia (Southern Spain) was in deep conflict from the 12th century, and his philosophical works weren’t copied enough to become widespread unlike his works in fiqh which could be found quoted even in South Asian Islamic literature for quite some time. With that, we seem to have forgotten Ibn Rushd’s repeatedly-made point that on many matters Ibn Sina was alone in holding certain views. In this sense, Ibn Rushd was perhaps much more simplifying and nuanced than Imam al-Ghazali on some matters, though as they lived in different eras and contexts and played different roles as scholars in society, making too many comparative judgements may not be appropriate.

My second intention isn’t to say that we should take Ibn Rushd at face value. No. Some of Ibn Rushd’s ideas are problematic for us in today’s context.

With the above said, it seems to me that in discussions on cause-and-effect Imam al-Ghazali was perhaps making the point that: the certainty with which we associate causes to effects does not factor in the overarching metaphysics (i.e. God), and this becomes apparent in the case of miracles and in upholding the reality of God’s power (Qadar) as the “source” of causation. Imam al-Ghazali pointed to many socio-psychological and perceptual traps that are inherent to human cognitive functions to argue the falsity of Ibn Sina’s position. That is, he argued, causation is contingent (dependent) on God as necessary being. And causation can therefore change if God so desired as God is not Himself bound by laws external to His being. The philosophers he attacked believed causation is not contingent but eternal and independent, as they also defended the idea of an eternal world.

I would particularly like to point out Question 17 of Imam al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers (see below), which I think has become somewhat of a trap that Muslims in their active populist religious identity today can fall into, leading to an inflated immanent reliance on God without understanding that God’s order in how variables are or aren’t interconnected reflect his Wisdom and creativity, and most importantly it is how God intended for us to perceive and experience reality, and on that basis judiciously make use of it. Anything else and we risk discounting human ingenuity, agency and becoming agnostic to observable causes and effects all around us, including the natural sciences. Not to mention, natural world or human action driven causes-and-effects don’t necessarily change over time (think malnutrition caused by the lack of food, seas sickness is caused by being at sea, cancer caused by exposure to carcinogens etc. etc.). In the religious identity of Muslims unfortunately this is what I believe has happened leading to a fatalist mindset that often curtains the believer’s faith and religiously-inspired thinking from informing their polities. If you have doubts in what I have said, Covid-19 has subtly resurfaced these issues, see, for example recent articles by Shaykh Mohammed Nizami,[2] Shaykh Akram Nadwi[3] and Shyakh Siraj Hendricks[4] (these are only the article that I have come across, but I am sure there are many others).

I also want to point out that Imam al-Ghazali’s aim in The Incoherence of the Philosophers was not to establish a positive doctrine of causation (and other things) but rather to undermine the position of Greek philosophy in the Muslim world. Imam al-Ghazali’s ideas were highly sophisticated, and he seems to be doing lots of things at the same time, which perhaps requires an equally brilliant mind to fully appreciate their intricacies. But, alas, simplicity is also important, and it seems that there are also contradictions in what Ghazali mentions in Question 17 which he later problematises in his own thinking. For example, in Question 18, Imam al-Ghazali states, “these are observed matters which God has ordained to flow according to habit.” That is, while in Question 17 Imam al-Ghazali asserts that cause and effect is a perceptual phenomenon and contingent on God, he later seems to be suggesting that there are nonetheless natural order (“habits”) of the world. Ibn Rushd thus argued against what he called the “sophistical” nature of Imam al-Ghazali’s thinking. See the discussion between Imam al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd below.

Imam al-Ghazali (1045-1111):

“The connection between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually to be an effect is not necessary, according to us. But with any two things, where “this” is not “that” and “that” is not “this” and where neither the affirmation of the one entails the affirmation of the other not the negation of the one entails negation of the other, it is not a necessity for the existence for the one that he other should exist, and it is not necessity of the nonexistence of the one that the other should not exist – for example, the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire, light and appearance of the sun, death and decapitation, healing and the drinking of medicine, the purging of the bowels and the using of purgative, and so on include all that is observable among the connected things in medicine, astronomy, arts and crafts. Their connection is due to the prior decree God, who creates them side by side, not to its being necessary in itself, incapable of separation. On the contrary, it is within divine power to create satiety without eating, to create death without decapitation, to continue life after decapitation, and do so on to all connected things. The philosophers denied the possibility of this and claimed it to be impossible.”[5]

Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) answers Imam al-Ghazali (which I agree with on this point, and I believe is vital for Muslims today):

“To deny the existence of efficient causes which are observed in sensible things is sophistry, and he who defends this doctrine either denies with his tongue what is present in his mind or is carried away by a sophistical doubt which occurs to him concerning this question. For he who denies this can no longer acknowledge that every act must have an agent. The question whether these causes by themselves are sufficient to perform the acts which proceed from them, or need an external cause for the perfection of their act, whether separate or not, is not self-evident and requires much investigation and research. And if the theologians had doubts about the efficient cause which are perceived to cause each other, because there are also effects whose cause is not perceived, this is illogical. Those things whose causes are not perceived are still unknown and must be investigated, precisely because their causes are not perceived; and since everything whose causes are not perceived is still unknown by nature and must be investigated, it follows necessarily that what is not unknown has causes which are perceived. The man who reasons like the theologians does not distinguish between what is self-evident and what is unknown, and everything Ghazali says in this passage is sophistical.”[6]

Where Imam al-Ghazali was right to assert, and which I think was his primary concern for the laity, was that it’s possible that ordinary believers start looking at the causes of the world so much so that they forget God as the ultimate source. This is a valid concern because, even if we look at the Islamic legal profession in classical periods, by Imam al-Ghazali’s era for example, it often became in many places a dry technical legal exercise and not necessarily focused on producing godly people. This was observed by many scholars and duly rebuked by them including Imam Ghazali himself in his The Revival of Religious Sciences (Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din). Similarly, on the issue of obsessing over causes without recognising God, Imam al-Ghazali in The Niche of Lights (Mishkat al-anwar) refers to people who overly sought fulfilment in their lives searching for the causes of the natural world but in doing so failed to perceive God.[7] Similarly, we have thousands, if not millions, of scientists around the world who spend countless hours in the laboratory doing experiments, wholly devoted to scientific output, but this doesn’t lead them to “seeing” signs of God, nor to increased gratitude to God or other human beings. This may not be the case with consciously Muslim, Christian or Jewish scientists (or of other faiths).

While Imam al-Ghazali had a valid point here, in our times it is not that as religious-minded Muslims we’re obsessed with searching for the causes of the world, but that we’ve become incapable of producing thought that addresses the causes of the world beyond offering rhetoric and rituals, to offering real problem-solving attitude. After all, it is a collective obligation (farida) on believers to play our part in healing our world (khulafah al-ard). Revelation demands it. This is my main point.

Modelling cause and effect

On the subject of cause-and-effect, of course with the advent of Newtonian physics, classical physics more generally, and empirical science our conceptualisation of causation has been greatly simplified in my view. I will now summarise a way of understanding causation considering some scenarios using formulae to illustrate.

Scenario 1: normal/predictable cause-effect relationships: A + B = C

Where A and B are variables which upon addition (it could be any relation, modification, subtraction, multiplication or division or space or time etc.) it results in the effect/outcome C. Equals (“=”) is God’s Qadar (divine will/power/decree). A, B, C are entities that are dependent on God’s Lordship (Rububiyyah) to maintain their integrity, character and inter-relationship. Miracles are not negated by this.

In this scenario, patterns are predictable and reproducible to, say, >95% statistical confidence. The involvement of other variables is not negated, but all things being equal, this arrangement of phenomena will always persist empirically, at least to 95% probabilistic certainty. Note, I’m only using 95% for illustration as it’s a well-known figure in probability theory used in science, but this is no to be taken as fixed.

Scenario 2: outliers or anomalies in cause-effect relationships: A + B = D

Where everything else is the same as in scenario 1 but D is a different effect. You don’t get C as the effect but D, which is sufficiently different (anomalous) to represent a distinct effect to C. However, it’s still God who effectuated D, and the integrity, character and inter-relationships are dependent on God’s Lordship (Rububiyyah). In this scenario, it’s apparent that there are other factors involved, which remain unknown or undetected (at least at that point), but their relational arrangement is such that they effectuate D and not C. So here the actual formula might be A + B (+ X + Y) = D. where X and Y remain hidden or unknown. Note that miracles aren’t necessarily negated in this scenario as they involve broader factors to do with the perception of reality.

Scenario 3: inexplicable or rare events with no apparent cause-effect relationships: A1 + A2 + Σ(An) = E

Here, variables aren’t known or remain sufficiently ambiguous to us or they’re not empirically determinable. But the effect E happens which is completely inexplicable as understood by the body of knowledge at the time. However, it’s still God who effectuated E, and the integrity, character and inter-relationships of whatever variables and their particularly rare (or unknown) arrangement(s) that are necessary are still dependent on God’s Lordship (Rububiyyah) – none of this change. Now, this scenario could be construed as a miracle or it could be merely reflecting scenario 1 or 2 which it just so happens, we’ve not been able to study or understand the cause-effect relationship involved, or perhaps because we’re unable to resolve to the level of the particular arrangement of any of the entities, due to limitations in our sense perception or through technological instruments etc. – and we may never be able to of course.

The important point here is that no one was knowingly/deterministically setting out to achieve effect E. It happened by chance or serendipity (perceived or otherwise) – the probability of it happening was too large. It could have happened because one prayed to God for God to effectuate E, and by some particular arrangement which remains unknown the prayer came true. At the time it happened, I would argue that it could be perceived as a miracle. I would argue that miracles are not fixed to just being rare occurrence or perceived to defy laws of nature, but relative to the meaning it has in the space and context that it happened, even if it looks improbably for all of time. Our understanding of the laws of nature has changed and will continue to change. Variables/causes “A1” or “A2” could conceivably be the direct interventions of angels (obeying God’s decree) – the point is that it remains empirically completely unknown – both in its mechanistic nature and metaphysically, which in turn makes us perceive that it’s a miracle. Imam al-Ghazali was suggesting Ibn Sina negated this possibility of miracles because he couldn’t see that this was possible in the way Ibn Sina had positioned it. We don’t accept this view of Ibn Sina, but we should not forget that both Imam al-Ghazali’s and Ibn Rushd’s ideas need refining for us today.

In all of this we should remember that God is ultimately incomprehensible, so the meaning of God being the only source of True, and Truth and Power, etc. are ultimately difficult to understand with our limited human minds, beyond what God has revealed about how we should understand His essence (sifat). And hence when we attempt to reconcile what we see through sense perception, or empirically, with how God fits into it, we should expect to end up with paradoxes, contradictions and confusions. I believe, Imam al-Ghazali did this so well that he had to conclude on both positions that supported Ibn Sina (as it was basically a viewpoint of the Qur’an that the physical world is made orderly, with balance) as well as supported the opposing view. This is just Imam al-Ghazali’s sincerity and professionalism coming out and what makes him a great scholar of Islam.

However, few ordinary Muslims can operate at this level of intellectual rigour, and hence there is a genuine question about how the complex position of Imam al-Ghazali to be absorbed by ordinary Muslim? The answer is that it doesn’t, and ordinary Muslims look to take shortcuts to make any dilemmas and ambiguities go away, but in doing so the unwitting tendency is to cast revelation irrelevant to their polities.

And, as I have hoped to have shown in this paper, the believers in their God-centred mode are more needed in today’s world than ever before. But huge barriers remain in getting there. If ever there was a lesson from Covid-19 for believers, it is to make it a springing board for a more inspiring God-centred future.

Calamity and loss as effects aren’t necessarily punishments

Continuing from earlier, we will now revisit the how believers can approach the problem of musibah (calamity, strife, challenges, tribulation etc.). In Islamic theology, our understanding is that divine punishment can occur on earth through pain, loss, plagues, and disasters, but that mankind has been given divine respite[8] (imhal) until Judgement Day (Qiyamah). We infer this from many proof points (adilla) in the Qur’an.

  1. The first proof is simply in the logic that God maintains a distinction of ultimate accountability and judiciousness that can only happen in the “court of God,” Judgement Day, as it were. “Man will say on that Day [referring to the Day of Judgment], “Where is the [place of] escape?” (Qur’an, 75:10), meaning there was once a place of escape, which was on earth, where “God intended ease and not hardship” (Qur’an, 2:185). If that wasn’t sufficient proof, then God spells this out, “And if God were to impose blame on people for their wrongdoing, He would not have left upon the earth any creature, but He gives them respite (you-ukhir-hum) for a specified term. And when their term has come, they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it]” (Qur’an, 16:61). Some Muslims in the past who were known as Murji’a took this view to a logical end and, as a fringe opinion, asserted that God alone has the right to judge people, and Muslims should practice postponement (irja’) of judgment while on earth.  
  2. God’s laws of nature and phenomena operating on earth do not distinguish between people based on whether they believe or don’t believe in God or whether they follow or don’t follow God’s guidance. Earthquakes are a good example of this. God has made it necessary that the movement of the earth’s crust is determined by the forces of plate tectonics, and that these plates would move in opposing directions to cause earthquakes. Under this condition, someone living on or near plate tectonic boundaries would be expected to experience earthquakes than someone who lives far from a plate boundary. But does this mean that those who take the pain of earthquakes by virtue of living near an active plate boundary are automatically to be perceived as “more sinful” (and “more” in comparison to whom)? The answer is clearly no. The same applies to someone being afflicted with a virus or flood.
  3. Sometimes when we perceive something to be a punishment it is in fact the unintended (or intended) consequences of human corruption. That is, because of our lack of insight, negligence, moral corruption, greed or overstretches we create outcomes that bring on tribulation (musibah). That is, we’ve not been able to mitigate risks. God clearly says that human corruption from poor choices and blameworthy behaviours is at the root of many disasters that afflict human beings, “And whatever disaster (musibah) strikes you, it is for what your own hands have earned” (Qur’an, 42:30). Now, while we know that God is the source of all that happens, being focussed on how God in his essence (sifat) does things for us gets us nowhere beyond self-indulgent speculation about things that nobody can possibly know or prove since we cannot comprehend God’s realm, and God Himself cautioned that no human mode of perception can fully grasp God, yet He encompasses all perception, and enables human beings to perceive (Qur’an, 6:102) and, “There is none like Him” (Qur’an, 112:4).  Instead, what we are meant to be doing is self-accounting (muhasabah) which entails taking responsibility for the variables that are within our control and choice, and on that basis perceiving the outcome insofar as our control over the variables, as the result of our own doing, knowingly or unknowingly, and simply part of what our “hands have earned.” God’s account of reality informs us of these. And of course, clarifying this further God holds us responsible only for what we bear which is fully known to God only and no one else (Qur’an, 2:286).
  4. Now, it is entire plausible to argue that Covid-19 reflects “whatever disaster (musibah) strikes you, it is for what your own hands have earned” (Qur’an, 42:30), since God has laid a natural order to the world, it follows that if we transgress certain limits, we will face consequences. Let’s take a couple of examples of diseases. BSE (or “mad cow disease” / bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was caused by the shoddy practice of feeding cows with feed contaminated with parts that came from other cows that were sick with BSE. Farmers engaged in this practice in the early 1990s to save on cost. But the result is that, as of 2019, 232 people died from vCJD (the disease caused by eating BSE infected cows), almost all from the UK. Similarly, MERS came about in 2012 due to poor practice with camels in Saudi Arabia, and the current outbreak of Covid-19 is widely thought to have originated in wet animal markets in China, as did the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002. It is entirely plausible to interpret these musibah as the result of what “our hands have earned.” Of course, what “our hands have earned” can also have the potential to bring about positive change like the ongoing repairing of the ozone layer because of world-wide ban on things like chlorofluorocarbons[9] or improved air quality in cities that have introduced vehicle emission restrictions etc.
  5. Equally, it is possible to perceive outcomes like Germany’s outlier status in the early part of the pandemic with relatively low number of Covid-19 deaths. A number of human variables, fortuitously, come together which meant that the impact of Covid-19 was much lower in Germany than other comparable countries where the right variables were perhaps lacking e.g. a combination of extensive testing and self-isolation, high levels of trust in public institutions and government, demographics, health care resources etc. Now, the good fortune of Germany could also be interpreted as a form of protection from God because, for example, Germany helped take more Syrian refugees than any other European country. Similarly, the question that also arises, is God showing us the reality of global reduction in pollution levels, or slowing down environmentally unsustainable economic paradigms to protect ecosystems and the environment?
  6. When we take calamities as punishments, there is also distinction to be made between punishments from God as a result of our ingratitude (inner working of our nafs) about which God says, “And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favour]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe’” (Qur’an, 14:7) versus perceived punishment as a result of failure to work with the order with which the natural and human systems have been created.
  7. God reminds us of stories of past peoples who were punished for their sins e.g. the people of Aa’d for arrogance and boastfulness, the people of Thamud for rejecting God, the people of Pharoah for oppression and cruelty, the people of Noah for taking false deity etc. However, the corollary to this, which most people forget, is that while some were indeed punished since they saw their plight as an affliction and resorted to crookedness of sorts―as God says, “Do they not see how many generations before them did we destroyed…?” (Qur’an, 6:6)―others from the same communities, indeed families, who were also afflicted at the same time (with flood, disease etc.) were in fact elevated by virtue of how they responded to their plight. That is, they were patient, and continued with acts of righteousness (charity, kindness, forgiveness etc.) including living a broad view of righteousness (salih) in problem solving and making use of the plentiful blessings from God that they saw they were emphatically still blessed with, and got on with their lives or sought to make things better for others etc. This establishes the paradigm for believers, that whether something should be punishment or not is entirely dependent on how as individuals we respond to them. If pain and hardship befall us, responding by being more God-conscious, could we perceive the pain as punishment or would it be a blessing, albeit in disguise? That’s not to brush off the significance of the lived experience of pain and hardship of course, but the point is that our perceiving something as bona fide punishment from God is highly suspect. This is the Sunnah (way) of God, and how it was meant to be: “And among mankind is he who worships God as it were upon the edge (i.e. in doubt): if good befalls him, he is content therewith; but if a trial befalls him he turns back on his face (i.e. reverts to doubting and heedlessness). He loses both this world and the Hereafter. That is the evident loss” (Qur’an, 22:11).
  8. The same pattern of thinking applies to the primordial (before earthly time) dialogue between the angels and God, “Will You place therein those who will make mischief therein and shed blood, human beings will cause bloodshed on earth?” (Qur’an, 2:30). However, God knew that despite bloodshed, he would also raise people of incredible virtue like the Prophets and many people will be guided and remain far from partaking in carnage or pillaging the earth. Therefore, God responded to the Angels saying: “I know that which you do not know” (Qur’an, 2:30)? The same pattern of thinking applies to many other aspects of Qur’anic dialogue, such as when God deplores the world (dunya) as a place of “amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children” (Qur’an, 57:20). God saying this does not negate the possibility of people who despite the predispositions (or natural order) of the world will still stay away from indulgence. For whom, instead, the world becomes a place of patience, gratitude, good actions (‘amal) and productive engagement etc.
  9. In fact, believers should see musibah (tribulations, loss and pain etc.) as impacts that are on a spectrum that varies in intensity, significance and duration. By doing so, it is possible to see that micro-musibah (or micro-tribulation/loss/pain etc.) occur throughout the day and throughout our lives. A setback to a plan, for example, can be perceived as a micro-musibah. But that setback has the potential to make us rethink and change direction to something more effective perhaps or even allows us to fail fast before escalating our commitment to a plan that was ultimately doomed to failure or poor outcomes. This way of rationalising micro-musibah should be completely intuitive to God saying that, “He does not burden the soul beyond what it can bear” (Qur’an, 2:286). Difficulties (musibah) generally pass with time – whether it’s because we learn to cope better or become more resilient or find a solution or someone helps us out or it’s just a temporary/seasonal effect. However, we must understand that the nature of the world is that before tests pass, they extract and expose worldly nature and character. They extract what we produce to counter it, and they expose what is deeper inside within us. What this means is that we must ponder on the lesson we should learn. If we do this properly, we stand a better chance of coming through tests, which will hopefully be that we become better people, more endowed with such things like compassion, generosity and responsibility. If we don’t, then, either the opposite happens: we become bitter and crooked, as the Qur’an says, our “hearts remain locked” (Qur’an, 47:24) from perceiving God (these are cognitive and experiential barriers that prevent us from realising the Divine), because in one sense, even as believers, we remain “deaf, dumb and blind” (Qur’an, 2:18).
  10. As believer’s we accept the deeper meaning of God’s saying, “…He does not change the condition of people until they change for themselves. It will have [the consequences of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequences of] what [evil] it has earned” (Qur’an 13:11). This verse is hinting at multiple things such as a consistent order (adda) in the world, which requires human effort to perceive and investigate. Denying this implies that nothing can ever be known. God is also hinting that this consistent order of the world also reflects how He responds to our behaviour which materialises from our inner state (hal). Based on this, most exegetes understood this verse as referring to God blessing or punishing people in relation to their inner state of their heart which may or may not be visible to the outer world. Therefore it’s important not to reduce the ways of the world purely to physical workings (“natural order”), especially when applying a systems approach, as much could be hidden and known to God only (metaphysical). This doesn’t mean that the metaphysical is irrational (as the term mystical often implies).
  11. The believer accepts that God tests believers with “…fear and hunger and loss of wealth and lives and fruits…” (Qur’an, 2:155). God also says: “And we have made some of you as tests for others” (Qur’an, 25:20). Our reality is like this because God in His Wisdom (Hikmah) has not only imposed rational order (nizam) in the physical world and human interactions but also made them necessary in our world. This means that they have natural relational consequence on us as human beings, which are intended to be a test for us. The believer accepts the nature of the world being bound to God’s order that operate equally for all human beings irrespective of religion. Having belief in God doesn’t necessarily avail one of such tests as proved by the hardship faced by many Prophets and God directly rules this out for believers: “Do men think that they will be left alone in saying, ‘We believe, and that they will not be tested’”. (Qur’an, 29:2). To make this real, the Prophet gave a “realist account” of reality to the Companions: “The Prophet drew a square and then a line in the middle of it and let it extend outside the square and then drew several small lines attached to the central line, and said: ‘This is the human being, and this, [the square] in his lease of life, encircles him from all sides, and this [line], which is outside [the square], is his hope, and these small lines are the calamities and troubles [which may befall him], and if one misses him, another will snap [overtake] him, and if the other misses him, a third will snap [overtake] him.’”[10]
  12. These “tests,” the Qur’an explains, come about to differentiate “those who are truthful” who seek to remember God and strive to be patient, useful and upright etc. from “those who are false” (Qur’an, 29:1-2), who fail to strive and recognise God. The word for steadfast in Arabic is istiqamah, which is most like the Ancient Greek word sophrosyne, describing the idea of excellent character and soundness of mind, in a well-balanced individual with temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, decorum and self-control. This is the description of the one who remains firm upon being tested.
  13. We supplicate (pray du’a) to God to acknowledge our dependence on Him as all sources of all time, matter, existence and forces. This is the normative view of believers. We are of course not in control of all variables, and God of course has not required us to be so. In fact, the prophet taught dispensations (rukhsa) to make things a little easier when things can get difficult to manage, such as when travelling or when sick etc. Not embracing these dispensations is a sign of arrogance, that we do not take the path of humility despite our obvious human weaknesses. The lack of control in determining outcomes is another reason why we seek help, protection and ease from God, and in doing so living the reality of being subservient to God (‘ubudiyyah). God reminds us that, we “are dependent on God, and God is the Independent (Al-Ghani), the Praiseworthy (Al-Hamid). If He wills, He could take you away and bring a new creation. And this is not difficult upon God” (Qur’an, 14:19-20). It doesn’t mean that we should expect God’s help to come in the form of some sort of miracle or in completely unexplainable phenomena. Thinking like this is inconsistent with having already acknowledged the possibility of other variables which we have admitted to having no control over despite our best efforts. If that is the case, as we claim it to be, it seems short-sighted to then perceive that God doesn’t have a measure for those same variables that we claim are beyond us, but which nevertheless operate in observable effects that we can perceive.
  14. It follows that our supplications being granted or not should not necessarily be perceived with disparaging questions about “why isn’t God listening?” as it were. God is independent of that, as all-Wise (Al-Hakim), all-Hearing (As-Sami’) and all-Knowing (Al-Alim), and if we look deeper it won’t take long to see that God is constantly fulfilling our needs whether we’re conscious of them or not, or whether we can observe them or not.
  15. It is evident that God provides for us from sources we could never imagine (Qur’an, Talaq:3).  In just 120 years the human population increased from about 2 billion in 1900 to 7.7 billion (yes, we’ve added 5.7 billion people in 120 years), yet there is no real shortage of food (only faulty human distribution) and no one at the start of the 20th century could have imagined how this would be possible; it was simply beyond human capability and understanding at the time. A similar question now engulfs us with climate change and moving to more sustainable models of living. It is here that God is telling us to put our trust in God but in doing so we must do our utmost in pursuit of that goal because God has made the macroscopic world causal. This paradigm operates inasmuch in our everyday life.
  16. Similarly, we often perceive failure or calamities as loss. Whilst it is natural to feel like that, it’s worth remembering that God has informed us that (to paraphrase) “…we may dislike a thing while it is good for us, and it may be that we love a thing while it is bad for us; yet only God knows for sure while we don’t” (Qur’an, 2:216).

Applying causation to everyday ethics

The above discussion leads us well into thinking about how we can apply the knowledge of causation to everyday ethics. Let’s continue to use the concept of musibah or fitna within a cyclical and holistic framework. Both words are found in the Qur’an and hadith literature. Musibah, literally translated, is “calamity,” “misfortune” or “disaster.” Fitna, literally translated, is “test,” “temptation,” “trial,” “restlessness,” “conflict” etc. We can reasonably say that musibah is a type of fitna because it brings about test/trial for the individual who must evaluate and choose how they want to act. There are other types of fitna, such as in wealth and children (Qur’an, 8:28) which test our resolve in being patient and fulfilling our responsibilities that come with being parents and possessing wealth etc.

The Prophet said many things regarding fitna in different contexts such as at times of conflict, interrelations between people, spiritual diseases of the heart, mental anguish, and physical illness etc. Here, I want to offer some general reflections to bring the meaning or guidance of the Prophetic saying into a “systems thought process” of causality and propose a model for how fitna operates and what it means for us in our response to being tested. To keep things simple, I will not go into the minutia of variant narrations (riwayah) or hadith criticisms etc. Here are some examples of hadiths:

  • “There will come tribulations in which one sitting will be better than one standing. The one standing will be better than one walking. The one walking will be better than one running. Whoever seeks these tribulations will be destroyed by them. Whoever finds a place of shelter or refuge let him take refuge in it.”[11]
  •  “If God wants to do good to somebody, He afflicts him with trials (musibah)”[12]
  • “The happy man is he who avoids fitna: happy is the man who avoids fitna; happy is the man who avoids fitna, but how fine is the man who is afflicted and shows endurance.”[13]
  • “When God wants good for his slave, He hastens his punishment in the world. And when He wants bad for His slave, He withholds his sins from him until he appears before Him on the Day of Judgement … Indeed, greater reward comes with greater trial. And indeed, when God loves a people, He subjects them to trials, so whoever is content, then for him is pleasure, and whoever is discontent, then for him is wrath.”[14]
  • “If God sends punishment upon a nation then it befalls upon the whole population indiscriminately and then they will be resurrected [and judged] according to their deeds.”[15]

These hadiths are just a tip of the iceberg of hadiths on fitna. In other words, there are several ways of dealing with fitna depending on situational context. What we do and how we do it depends on our own agency, time, space, and context, which we can sometimes know intuitively or, more often than not, by understanding a problem space. In a systems view of the world we can look at how variables are connected. Let’s take a hypothetical model I have put together below to demonstrate how we can better understand the concept of fitna and bring it into modern applications, so that we can apply Shari’ principles, and if God wills, hopefully be guided. This system reflects God’s saying, “Is, then, He Who creates comparable to any that cannot create? Will you not, then, take heed? For should you try to count God’s blessings, you could never compute them” (Qur’an, 16:17-19).

Consider a scenario where Adam experiences fitna 1 (F1 red box) which can lead to one of three outcomes O1, O2 or O3 (all red boxes). Outcome O2 resolves the fitna and the original fitna comes to an end. However, if the outcome is O1 (red box) then it has a knock-on impact on Ibrahim which then becomes Ibrahim’s fitna 1 (F1 green box), which may or may manifest in the same way as it did for Adam. The impact of outcomeO1 of Adam has now transferred to a 2nd person, Ibrahim (green boxes). OutcomeO2 for Ibrahim (O2 green box) has a knock-on impact on a 3rd person, Rebecca, who experiences the impact as a fitna F1 (blue box). But Rebecca’s outcome O1 is Adam’s fitna (F1) reproduced. Now you have a circular compound fitna that can only be broken if Adam either achieves outcome O2 or outcome O3. But outcome O3 leads to a second fitna F2 for Adam. In this system there are circular impacts and linear impacts, as well as outcomes that can stop the fitna from escalating to secondary effects or becoming systemic. Each person has choices to manage the fitna, for example if Ibrahim can achieve outcome O1 then the fitna is managed. It’s also possible for Ibrahim to strive for a different action/outcome if he’s aware of the systemic nature of the fitna and minded to put a stop to it as best as possible. Equally by the time the fitna impacts Rebecca there may only be one action possible, which can only lead to fitna F1 for Adam.

Taking account of the general corpus of Qur’anic indications (ishara), stories (qasas al-ambiya), the life of the Prophet (sirah) and lives of the Companions and in fact people of erudition and God throughout history etc. and based on this model, it means the following needs to happen:

  1. Adam must do his best to achieve outcome O1
  2. Ibrahim must do his best to achieve outcome O1
  3. Rebecca must work with Adam to resolve the problem, which may involve Ibrahim.
  4. Adam, Ibrahim and Rebecca must problem solve in their own local contexts and ought to realise how their actions have consequences beyond and that there are causes and effects happening which are impacting one another.
  5. Adam, Ibrahim and Rebecca must all be grateful when the fitna resides or they’ve not been impacted, but Ibrahim and Rebecca will need to be even more grateful.
  6. Adam and Ibrahim may need to be additionally patient, but Adam needs to be most patient
  7. Adam has the highest weight of responsibility to achieve outcome O2 and make live better for Ibrahim and Rebecca

I believe the above model was taught by the Prophet and the leading Companions understood the nature of fitna in a systems framework of causation that was relevant to their time.

End note: most of this article was written in April 2020 and published, here we have added new sections and clarified some points.

[1] See: https://thesystemsthinker.com/systems-thinking-what-why-when-where-and-how/

[2] http://nizami.co.uk/should-mosques-remain-open-for-congregational-prayer-countering-a-poor-fatwa/

[3] https://alsalam.ac.uk/guidelines-for-muslims-on-coronavirus-covid-19/, https://alsalam.ac.uk/contagion/

[4] https://seekersguidance.org/articles/featured-articles/covid-19-an-islamic-perspective-shaykh-seraj-hendricks/

[5] Al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, translated by Micheal E Marmura, p. 166.

[6] Ibn Rushd, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, translated by Simon Van den Bergh, p. 318

[7] Al-Ghazali, The Niche of Lights, translated by David Buchman, p. 45.

[8] See: Shaykh Arnold Mol’s excellent article: https://www.academia.edu/36916673/_Divine_respite_in_the_Ottoman_tafs%C4%ABr_tradition_Reconciling_exegetical_approaches_to_Q.11_117_Osmanli_da_ilm-i_tefsir_ed._M.T._Boyalik_and_H._Abaci._Istanbul_ISAR_2019_539-592.

[9] See: https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2916/the-atmosphere-tracking-the-ongoing-recovery-of-earths-ozone-hole/

[10] Hadith in al-Bukhari.

[11] Hadith in al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[12] Hadith in al-Tirmidhi.

[13] Hadith in Abu Dawud.

[14] Hadith in al-Tirmidhi.

[15] Hadith in al-Bukhari

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