137 - God Willing: the Ash'arites

Posted on 14 July 2013

Al-Ash'arī puts his stamp on the future of Islamic theology by emphasizing God’s untrammeled power and freedom.

Further Reading

• M. Allard, Le problème des attributs divins dans la doctrine d’al-Ashʿarī et de ses premiers grands disciples (Beirut: 1965).

• R.M. Frank, “Bodies and Atoms: the Ash'arite Analysis,” in Medieval Islamic Thought, ed. M.E. Marmura (Toronto: 1984), 39-53.

• R.M. Frank, Early Islamic Theology: the Muʿtazilites and al-Ashʿarī (Aldershot: 2007).

• R. McCarthy (trans.), The Theology of al-Ashʿarī (Beirut: 1953).

• P.E. Walker (trans.), Imām al-aramayn al-Juwaynī: a Guide to Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief (Reading: 2000).

• H.A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalām (Cambridge MA: 1976).


Dave Martin 22 July 2013

Hi Peter,
Thanks for another very interesting episode. There was one thing I didn't quite get.
At one point, you say that these guys denied the possibility of something having two causes, but you don't give an explanation of why they believed this. Surely, they do believe in actions that can have both an enabling component and an executive component, where both components have to be present for the thing to happen and where the two components can themselves have separate causes. Their whole theory of acquisition seems to depend on this (i.e. God provides the power, man provides the power to use the power, therefore both must be present to make the thing happen. As I see it, you either say that both are causes because both are needed to make the thing happen, or that neither are causes because taking the other one away always prevents the thing from happening, but if you look at it in this latter fashion, then you will have things happening that have no cause at all.)
Yours slightly baffled,
Dave M

Dear Dave,

Well, you're putting your finger on the crucial issue there. This is quite difficult I think, if you really get into the details, but what I was trying to say in the episode is that if you think of a cause as something that is sufficient for the effect to be produced, they want to deny that there can be more than one cause. (Because then God could be trying to cause something to happen but He would need our cooperation to make this occur.) That's actually quite plausible - contemporary philosophers often speak of wanting to avoid "overdetermination" which is when you have more than one sufficient cause for the same event.

So, what they want to say is that God is the sole (sufficient, and in fact also necessary) cause of everything, including human actions. The mysterious part is how it happens that we "acquire" the action if we're not causing it, but I understand that to mean that we are carrying out the action which God causes to occur. So to use the analogy I mentioned in the episode, if God makes the sky blue it is the sky that is visible, not God, and likewise if He causes me to sin I am morally responsible, not Him.

What you are envisioning is a different situation, which might be held by other theologians or philosophers (perhaps some Mu'tazilites) in which God and the human agent are _jointly_ sufficient, i.e. together they constitute the cause but if either refuses to play ball, the effect will not occur. The Ash'arites can't live with that because they think it compromises God's omnipotence, and you can see why -- He needs my help in order to create my action.

Does that help?


Dave Martin 23 July 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Dear Peter,
Thanks for the reply and yes, it does help to understand the Ash'arite position, but I must say, I don't buy into it. They seem to be using verbal gymnastics to fudge around the real problem, and not doing a particularly convincing job of it either.
As a physicist, I guess I can just about swallow the one-event-one cause premise. Most events in nature appear to be interactions between things which have at least two elements that have to co-operate by being in the right place at the right time, but - as long as we believe there is a universal equation somewhere that drives everything - I guess we could believe that all those elements eventually trace back to the one 'cause'.
I think my real problem with the Ash'rite position comes if I look closely at your analogy. OK, God makes the sky blue and it is the sky that shows the colour, but does that make the sky 'morally responsible' for its own blueness? The human concept of 'morality' seems to me to require that 'responsibility' is assigned to the sufficient cause, not to the mechanism by which an event becomes manifest. To think otherwise would require that we make a bullet (or perhaps even the victims inner organs) morally responsible for a murder rather than the person who pulled the trigger.
In fact, the more I think about it, I can't see how I would define 'responsibility' as anything other than 'being part or all of the sufficient cause'.
Thanks and Regards,
Dave M

Peter Adamson 24 July 2013

In reply to by Dave Martin

Hi Dave,

Well, your verdict is shared by lots (maybe even most) people who look at the Ash'arite position. Even within Ash'arism there are some who accept the possibility of "secondary causation" which is what you suggested in your original post (i.e., I can cause something to happen, but God has a veto power). Some think this was Ghazali's view. My hope in the podcast was to make the view intelligible, not to defend it! Of course the key point, as you rightly say, is whether there is any rationale for retaining a notion of moral responsibility that can belong to the human agent if this agent is not the genuine cause. Here it might be helpful to think about why exactly the responsibility is not like the visibility in the sky case; remember that in general moral responsibility is not the same as causal responsibility (since it has to do with things like "being fittingly rewarded/punished") and in most cases causal responsibility doesn't even bring up issues of morality (e.g. if a rock randomly falls off a cliff onto a car and dents it, issues of reward and punishment don't arise). So there is more to moral responsibility than just being causally responsible; however I agree that it is plausible to think causal responsibility is a requirement for moral responsibility.

Remember too by the way that as far as the Ash'arites are concerned, God could in any case punish the good and reward the bad without being unjust, so this issue of moral responsibility is just an initial skirmish before that further battle.


Hi Peter,
OK, let me thank you again. I think I do now understand their position, even though I find it irrational to define 'responsibility' such that a sentient being can be 'responsible' for something in which their body partakes but their mind and will does not. It seems a better term would be 'allocated to' or 'attached to'. Never mind.
Keep up the great work. Really looking forward to more on Avicenna, about whom I knew nothing before last week.
Dave M

Felix 15 August 2013


In general, if you were trying to put the best case possible for these theories then, allowing for your brilliance, the theories really suck!

The "ingenious" argument about pulling the trigger and dying is pathetic. It does not seem in the slightest bit absurd to suggest that the hunter is causing Hiawatha's death even though 'she [the hunter] does not exist at the point that she [the giraffe] expires'.
The act of pulling the trigger sets in motion a series of events which result in the death of the girafe.
The continuing existence of the hunter at the time the girafee dies is irrelevant.

For example, the hunter could put in orbit a weapon designed to re-enter the atmosphere in 1,000 years time and kill all humans and/or giraffes on the planet. The fact that they are dead long before this does not change their intent.

If there can be no unrealized power, and God puts the power to do evil in to me and, furthermore, via "occasionalism", he is responsible for the continuing existence of every atom at every moment along with the properties of that atom, then I am no more than a robot, that is a computer program that has been written to believe that it is experiencing pain but for which the sense of self-awareness is merely illusory.

God is definitely responsible for all the 'evil' in the world under this view.

However, it could be argued that shooting a 'robot' giraffe or torturing for enternity a 'robot' 'person' is not evil and therefore god is acquited.

Regarding your example: "if a rock randomly falls off a cliff onto a car and dents it, issues of reward and punishment don't arise".

However, if the rock is large and kills the occupants of the car then if there is an agent who is responsible for the falling of the rock (rather than just blind luck - which in the Asharite universe doesn't exist) then the agent, i.e. god, is morally responsible.

Are these models of ethics/morality still current in Islam today or are they of purely historical interest?


I think the arguments are better than that, though I wouldn't go so far as to say they work in the end.

Regarding the chain of causation, consider the following argument:

1. Causation is a relation between a cause and effect

2. The existence of a relation requires the existence of its relata (=the things that are related)

3. Therefore, there can be no causation unless both cause and effect exist

Premise 1 looks hard to deny and premise 2 is at least plausible. In fact I think it is false but the fact that it is false is surprising. (To see that it's false consider this: if a star millions of light years away exploded and stopped existing 100 years ago, when we see it now we are seeing something that no longer exists, and seeing is a relation, in fact a causal relation.) I think the Ash'arites are presupposing an argument like this, so although they are wrong it is clever and convincing at first, and rejecting it is going to require giving an account of causation that doesn't commit us to premise 2; not easy.

Regarding moral responsibility, that of course is the key issue: whether God can have all the causal responsibility and none of the moral responsibility. Again I tend to agree with you but the point that God can in general cause creatures to "acquire" properties He lacks does seem to me a strong one (e.g. He can cause something to be visible without being visible). So again the onus is on us to explain why moral responsibility can't work that way.

Regarding your last question I suppose that this sort of Asharism is more a historical than current phenomenon but certainly questions of divine power and fatalism are still relevant to Islam and indeed all the Abrahamic faiths.

It seems to me that, on the question of causation, it is the second part of the argument that needs qualification: 'the existence of a relation requires the existence of its relata at some time'. (In the words of your most recent podcast, they must be either necessary or contingent, they can't be impossible).

I think you're wrong that seeing is a relation between the person seeing and the thing seen. It's a relation between the person seeing and light emitted by the thing they are seeing. It's only causal in the sense you describe between star and viewer if you are going to allow that causality can be a chain of cause and effect, rather than one discrete interaction, in which case where are you going to stop in an infinite regress back to the creation of the universe?

Further, it seems to me, two things related by causation only need to exist simultaneously if we believe that causation must be an instantaneous effect.

However, modern physics will surely provide us with a neat proof that causation can never be instantaneous between two material things: material things can never be in absolutely the same place and interaction between them is ruled by the limitations of relativity, and therefore can never take no time. Thus, there must be a finite time in any causation between the action and its effect. Thus there is no reason why the cause must still exist when the effect occurs. (This argument could also be used to show that the cause must in fact exist before the effect.)

Dave M

Thanks, that's really interesting. I agree that physics is throwing out some pretty surprising things about causation for instance that two things can act on each other at a distance. Your last point is particularly fascinating; unfortunately as I have admitted before I stopped paying attention to physics in the 13th century, so I can't venture to say anything about what contemporary physics is establishing about these questions.

I'm not sure I do agree about seeing, though; obviously you're right that the light coming off the visible object is an instrument by which the seen object is seen. Still, even if we are being careful to be precise, don't we still want to say that when I see an apple, I am seeing the apple and not the light waves coming off the apple? At least, I find that intuitive. It would be like person A hitting person B with a stick: person A is doing the hitting, not the stick, even though without the intermediary of the stick no hitting would be going on.

Dave M 17 August 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

When it comes to the 'seeing' thing, think about it in terms of what happens if you put a distorting lens in the way of the light coming from the apple. Now you can see the apple as bigger, smaller, upside down, or even squashed in the middle. Are you seeing the apple, or an image of the apple caused by light hitting the back of your eye? It might have left the apple as a perfect representation of the apple, but, by the time it's reached you, what it causes is influenced by the intermediate cause-effect chain (i.e. a lot of factors about the refractive index of glass and air). The fact that normally (without the distorting lens) the intermediate chain doesn't do a lot of distorting and it still looks like the apple when it reaches you doesn't mean you're 'seeing' the apple.

Isn't this a bit like Plato's cave allegory? Even if the shadows seen in the light of the fire didn't distort the original image, you still wouldn't be seeing the 'real world', but an image of it.

Another way to think about it, I guess, is like a page of writing and the copy I get from a photocopier. I can look at the copy and know exactly what the original document looks like, but that doesn't mean I'm looking at the original. It also doesn't mean that the original still exists (it might have been shredded by now.)

Dave M
P.S I've been thinking about Avicenna and God as well, so I'm going to send a comment about that episode separately.

Peter Adamson 17 August 2013

In reply to by Dave M

Right, the more we talk about this the more obvious it is that this is a tricky issue. I think I would want to distinguish between the case where I am looking at an apple through a distorting lens, and one where I am seeing the apple's shadow or, say, a photo of the apple. I would be more tempted to say that I am seeing the apple in the lens case than the shadow case, the photo case is rather less clear to me but I guess I lean towards thinking you don't see the thing in the photo, but rather the photo. Certainly I wouldn't say that I am looking at a piece of paper if I am looking at a photocopy of it, so I agree with you there. In cases where the object I am "seeing" no longer exists I guess that would push me towards thinking I am not seeing it (e.g. a photo of a dead person) but I don't think it's a decisive consideration, since as I say I would tend to think that we are indeed seeing far-away, now dead stars.

But I'm only reporting on my own intuitions here, really what is needed is a precise account of what it means to see something, and then an analysis of each of these cases in terms of that account. Philosophy is hard!

Physics is hard too, and the answer here isn't perfectly clear because we don't exactly understand the nature of light. Your podcast no 132 showed pretty accurately that light has to pass from object to eye, rather than the eye in some way directly reaching out and interacting with the apple. The verb 'to see' has to be describing something that works by a somewhat different and more complex interaction than 'to hit'.

However, I think the question we're debating really comes down to what you think 'I see Object A' actually means. Is it sufficient that Object A emits or reflects light that is turned into an accurate understanding of its form and colour by a combination of my eye and brain? If yes, then it doesn't matter how long the chain of cause and effect is between the apple and your eye as long as the information is received and reconstructed as knowledge accurately by the brain.

Of course, if this is our accepted definition of seeing, then it's going to be harder to say that seeing a photograph, or perhaps a live TV broadcast, isn't seeing the thing depicted. To take it further, is, for example, seeing an X-ray plate 'seeing' the bones that are shown there, even though the X-ray radiation that produced the images isn't directly visible by the eye, and despite the fact that the bones we'd be seeing are actually the shadows where the radiation didn't get through?

I think we can agree, though, that - however you define seeing - cause and effect don't have to be coexistent. Seeing long dead stars or images caused by long dead stars, if you prefer to think about it that way, seems to prove that point either way, which I think is where we started this discussion.

Dave M

Yes, I think I agree with all that: in general, a cause can be connected to an effect by some sort of intermediary chain, and this needn't take away the cause's status as a cause. It may depend on the nature of the chain, of course, but it seems like there are some such chains anyway (the hunter shooting the giraffe for instance: here the hunter is pretty clearly the cause of the death). And in those cases we probably want to say that the cause can no longer exist when the effect obtains. That, I think, is why the Ash'arite argument is wrong; but I still think it isn't obviously wrong, because this point about causes no longer existing yet still being causes is quite subtle and, at first blush, rather paradoxical.

David Taylor 21 May 2014


I've been loving these podcasts since I started listening to them a few weeks back.

I was wondering about the popularity of atomism among these early Islamic thinkers (both the Mu'tazilites and the Ash'arites). I take it that what they have in mind is not the "geometrical atomism" of the Timaeus, but then where exactly are they getting it from? Is it Epicurean-influenced? If so, how was it transmitted?

Just something that I was curious about while listening to these episodes.



That's an excellent question and as it happens I have done some research on the issue. I could go on about this at some length but here are the main points:

1. Plato's Timaeus was known in the Arabic world but does not seem to be the source for kalam atomism. As you say they aren't using the idea of geometrical solid "molecules." However in my forthcoming book on al-Razi I argue that his main inspiration for his atomism is the Timaeus.

2. Kalam atomism seems to be closely related to developments in mathematics; they often conceive of atoms as "points." On this check out Marwan Rashed's piece about physics in the Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy.

3. Other possible Greek sources are Aristotle (since he attacks atomism in the Physics) and Galen (also attacked atomism in works known in Arabic). There seems to be little or no transmission of Epicurean atomism, so that is not a likely influence.

4. One shouldn't rule out atomist ideas coming from India but I've never seen an argument for influence from that quarter.

So summing up it may be that the kalam atomism is a (nearly) autonomous development applying mathematical ideas of the period to physics; in any case it doesn't respond directly to the kind of Eleatic puzzles that inspired Democritus. Incidentally the best study of the whole issue is probably the monograph by Alnoor Dhanani, "The Physical Theory of Kalam."

Thomas Mirus 30 March 2015

They say justice is whatever agrees with God's will. But then, if God is also the cause of all actions, all actions must be just, and there is no such thing as sin. (BTW St. Justin Martyr made a similar argument against the Stoic teaching on fate - the result would be that "neither good evil are anything," or something like that.)

It seems like this school of thought is missing any notion that God, while not bound by some external moral law, has a nature of His own which He cannot contradict. This is not a limitation on God, since His nature encompasses all good, and I don't buy into the Ockham/modern view of freedom as being indifference toward both good and evil. Also missing is the idea that some things are "willed" by God only in the sense that He permits them.

I agree, these are some of the central problems for the Asharite view. A few points:

1. When you say they are missing the idea that God's nature might prevent Him from certain things, the Asharites aren't missing that point but emphatically denying it; the only exception would be that they might say God can't perform logically contradictory actions (Ghazali makes this exception for instance).

2. Your first objection is exactly what the Mutazilites would have said: if God does everything, how can God not be ultimately to blame for our "sins" (so that either God sins, or no one ever sins if we just counterintuitively say that anything done by God is good)? This is where their "acquisition" theory comes in, but I tend to agree with the Mutazilites, and probably you, that it seems unsatisfactory.

3. The idea that God only permits sins is again something that they consider but emphatically reject; that is in fact precisely the Mutazilite position.

yunus 17 May 2015

In reply to by Peter Adamson

First of all Thank you for the great Lectures! Iam a great admire and follower of them!  However something what has been left out in the understadning of this Episode is that in Islamic tradition "actions" are with intensions!

According to the Hadith the Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: "Actions are according to intentions, and everyone will get what was intended..." (Narreted by Bukhari and Muslim) 

Two things strike out here: On the on hand the intention of an act has a value of its own right and on the other hand, also the action itself has its own value to be accountable of. Which might be not as clear in this example but becomes more prominent with further sources of text. 

So a Muslim has to be accoutable for his or her intention and furthermore for the proper realization of the intended act! God (swt) playes not the role to blame for someones action but has the function of Creating and Sustaining the intentions and the actions to come into physical exitance.  God (swt) is Just also becasue God (swt) creates what was intented and carried out by an individual. This Justices plays an important role for the "free choice" of that individual and therefore for the individual's accountability to be responsible for his or her own actions and intentions. 

The central points which you mentioned causing problems are not really problems but look like problems, due to the choice of language referred to them.

for instance: God (swt) "does" everything is already wrong to begin with. God (swt) does not do someones actions but is creating them. The difference is that if I create for instance a weapon like a gun for hunting purposes and someone else is missusing the gun for terrible unjust actions, Iam not accountable of that person's action becasue he decided to choose to missuse the gun to kill innocent civilians. 

Hi, thanks for your comment. That's an interesting point, and one that would need extensive discussion. Two quick points: I actually discuss the issue you're raising in other episodes, not really on Islamic kalam but in the one on Ibn Paquda (159) in the context of Judaism, and more recently in the episode on Abelard's ethics (209). So there are resources there that one could draw on to defend the Ash'arite position. (And going further back it was even important in the Stoics, especially Epictetus.)

Second, I'm less inclined than you are to say that just distinguishing action from intention is going to solve the problem for the Ash'arites. This is because intentions are, in a sense, themselves actions. If I form an evil intention to do an evil act, then we can pose all the questions about this intention-formation that we posed about the action: did God create the intention in me? Did I create it? Could God override it or am I totally free with respect to these intentions? As a historical matter I think you are right, and that both Mu'tazilites and Ash'arites tried to build in a theory of intention into their moral theory. I'm just doubting that it will solve the problem as quickly as you are suggesting.

yunus 18 May 2015

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thanks you I will look into these lectures! God willing :) Yes that's right. The question is quite complex and most likely non solvable in one or two sentences. That's why i was just referring to intentions and actions

Why I broad up this distinguishing element is because due to its abstract meaning. Nature always needs a potential first to realize something. An "intention" functions similar to a “potential”.What do I mean by this? Actions are never carried out without a cause. Every action therefore needs its preliminary cause which in abstract terms is "the potential"of it to developed the action! an intention functions therefore as “the potential” or the cause of an voluntary act!  God (swt) creates in us the potential first to develop an intention (or action). Which requires for instance a thinking process, desire, free choice and external inputs forming an individual opinion\idea.  With this potential and its product, we are able to build our intention which is not the same as creating them from scratch. Because humans don't have the power to "create" things but rather produce things from potentials!  Like energy can never be created only transformed, it is important to see our actions or intentions not as being “created" by us but rather produced by us from a potential platform into a realization state of having that particular intention or action. That particular intention or action is not produced or done by God(swt) but is being created for instance into physical existence by the quantum fluctuations principle while its carried out by the intended actor. Which makes us again accountable of what we choose to realize into an intention or an action!  I don’t want to deny the capacity of humans to be creative and “invent" new things which were not present before but I am focusing the point rather on the concept that we cannot create something which was not already possible to begin with! so its potential is already exiting even though it has not been realized before!

I think that makes a fair amount of sense - but unfortunately, your defense of the Ash'arite position sounds almost exactly like the Mu'tazilite position they are attacking! Have a listen to the episode again, the bit about whether there can be unrealized powers (Juwayni argues against this). So you might be right but it is definitely not a solution the Ash'arites will accept.

And by the way thanks for your other note on Ibn Paquda, I agree that there is quite a bit of interchange across religious divides (indeed that is one of the main points of the Andalusia episodes).

yunus 20 May 2015

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Well almost is not exactly :) their is a key difference towards the Mutazelites argument and an overlapping agreement with the Ash’arites.

 The Acquisition Theory states that for example God,(swt) is not murdering the Giraffe but He (swt) creates that moment and necessary power to occur while the Human who murders the Giraffe is performing that particular action or producing it from a potential platform into a realization state (as I mentioned before). Well in case not properly understood, it could be argued that the Human is forces to act in such a way because God (swt) created in him that power to realize the murdering! Which can be defended by the Ash’arites position, that this is not the case!  If we take your example: Peter wants to hit David but in the last moment does not act on its intention and rather shakes Davids hand. The Asharis position is not that God (swt) creates the Power of Realization when Peter is merely just forming its intention to hit David, but only creates in Peter the Power to form an Intention. At the moment right before the hit should be realized, Peter does not act on it but rather chooses, for what purposes so ever, not to hit and threfore NECESSARY changes and forms a new intention to shake Davids hand! Which in turn will be realized with its creation by the Power for God (swt). So therefore God (swt) is not forcing anyone to move in that certain example! God (swt) simply created the potential to hit David but that doesn’t mean that God (swt)will also create at the same time the move! (thats why and differentiation of Intentions and actions are worth bringing up)    The creation of the Power to realize the hitting of David is only created when Peter really wanted it to occur (which is the threshold of what Asharies are talking about). That is also why there cannot be such an thing as an unrealized Power! Because that Power will be only created in concordance with the subject's will to realize it and not before the subject has time to change it! In addition to that there is also no need of a 3rd Power after the 2nd realization Power is created because the action is now already performed and created by God (swt). Thats why there is also no Principle of alternative possibilities of carried out actions! Because either Peter carried out that action or not. This principles doesn’t focus on the choice Peter had before into going into the state of realization! Peter always has the choice to choose one or the other action! but He also has to chose one and when one option is chosen for example “shaking the hand” this will be realized by the creation of God's (swt) Power. The Problem what the Mutazilites and also  later to a lesser extend Al-Juwayni did not comprehent is that God (swt) does not create simultaneously what was intended by Peter and than not wanted to carried out. The caring out or realization of a particular action is the 2nd creation of God (swt) if that Person wants it to carry out and reaches an threshold. If the Person does not want to carry out the intended action, God (swt) just created the intentions but not the realization. I would even argue that if Peter really wanted to Hit David in the first place, peter would have included also the realization part in his intention. But we see in the example that Peter changed his mind of hitting David so therefore changed his intention and therefore what was intended now will be realized!  The question would be also why should God(swt) who is All- Knowing create the realization of a NON 100% intended and wanted to realize move? This would downgrade the All Knowing and All Omnipotent nature of God(swt) himself. That would mean that God (swt) didn’t know what was intended by that Person but just assumed and created that false action. Which would inturn downgrade the All-Powerfull God(swt). Which is an anti Ash'arites position. But rather God (swt) knows what the  person really wants to realize and therefore creates the power which proofs that there is no such thing as a unrealized Power of actions. Because the Power of the action, meaning the realization of the reaction is realized and cannot therefore be unrealized at the same time! This would be an paradox and would create an infinite set of series of realization and than non realization and again realization (because it was realized) and again unrealization (because it was unrealized). Which would continue infinitely creating nothing of these two options but an set of potential not really realizing the one or the other option and causing time and causation to stop. As time and causation is not stopped, as far as i know in physical reality, we have to conclude again that there cannot be such a thing as an unrealized Power or occurrence of a realized action!   The capacity of action? in the view of the Mu’tazilite is not the same as the potential theory I put forward. I was describing the potential first to develop an intention mainly and this intention which is wanted to carried out, will get carried out if it was potentially possible to begin with and being created by God (swt) into the intended act. The capacity Mu’tazilite are referring to in their theory includes that the person is creating the existence of what that person wanted to create, which in turn I differ again and use the word of producing and transforming the created Energy from a mental state into an realization state by the help of God (swt). Which comes closer in the understanding of the Acquisition Theory of the Ash’arites.  The Power the Ash’arites are talking about can be seen as Action Potentials (AP) in the Central Nervous System and in the Peripheral Nervous System. The first Power describes the AP within the CNS, where the planning of a moment and its virtual realization is being formed. When that person wants to realize it the AP travels down from the CNS to the PNS and activates the effector muscles. Once activated the muscles cannot get inhibit again because the latest AP fired out from the CNS was already modified and fixed to activate certain muscle groups to carry out that intended action! This is a fundamental law of teshold activation of receipts opening channels  within the muscle to carry out the specific function of the specific activated muscle. Once a certain threshold is reached in the muscle it cannot be stopped. Which in turn shows again that there cannot be such a thing as a unrealized Power and no principle of alternative possibilities of carried out actions! This Principle is not focusing that humans can choose in-between two intended actions and realize one of them but what the Ash’arites denying is that two opposing actions can be carried out by one muscle group at the same time. Which is in modern concepts of the Human Anatomy and Physiology not possible and therefore making the Ash’arites once more again right. I don’t know the whole background history of the discussion but Iam assuming that Juwayni did not fully understand what the former Ash’arites actually wanted to point out. Or Iam conjecting my own understanding into the Theory of the Ash’arites. To make life easy we can classify intentions and actions into voluntary actions and involuntary: The voluntary actions can be classified into: 

  1. intentions included actions + (a) specific reason to get activated (time dependent realization)
  2. intentions included actions + (b) no specific reason to get activated (non time dependent)
  3. intentions non including actions + (ac) specific reason to get activated but possible for modification (time dependent non realization till modification is over)
  4. intentions non including actions + (bc) no specific reason to get activated but possible for modification (non time dependent non realization till modification is over)

 Furthermore intentions can be of two forms:-active thought (cortical activation)-non active thought (without cortical activation)  

Ok, that's quite a detailed view you're putting forth; my impression is that it is not quite the Mutazilite or Asharite theory since you are distinguishing between the causal situation for intentions and for actions, and as far as I know that wasn't done in these texts. But I still think your view sounds closer to the Mutazilites, since you have the idea that it is up to the agent to form an intention or not.

A. 15 October 2017

The work of  Darir Ibn Amr on acquisition (kasb) seems to have preceded Al-Ashari, consider also his view that accidents must be created and recreated by God in every instance. Consider also Hussein Al-Najar's determinism, which seems on the surface to resemble early Asharite views. It seems that many later murjite thinkers seemed to have laid the foundations for early Asharism. But to what extent did the Murjite separation between internal expressionless faith and external piety influence later Islamic theologians; if it did so at all? 

Alexander Johnson 7 December 2018

So if I understand this correctly, it starts with the premise that God is all powerful, and then the other assumptions follow from that.  When you look at a chain reaction of events, the hunter shooting Hiawatha (rip :'( ) Hiawatha had to be there, the hunter had to be there, the hunter had to choose to shoot, the hunter had to have a loaded gun, et cetera.  There are seemingly many causes, but all of those causes have a chain reaction leading to God's will so that is the only cause (so would they reject Aristotle's 4 causes, or do they think all 4 causes are "God"?).

Further, then, if God is all powerful, he decides morality.  So saying God is good would be deceptive, because it is the other way around, God chooses what is good, and so good can not be applied to him (unless perhaps he wills it so?).  So then, he decides that the hunter shoots, he decides where the gun was precisely aimed, he decided if Hiawatha dies.  Then, he also decides the morality of the entire thing, because he is all powerful.  So the hunter's actions aren't good or bad, but God can decide that they are.  God could even decide that Hiawatha, who all people would accept was innocent and majestic, was evil, and assign it the quality of evil.  Or it could decide the Giraffe was good, but that killing it was good.  To suggest otherwise would be to suggest a limit to God's power, which goes against the assumption of God's absolute power and authority. 

Is that in essence a good summation of the Ash'arites?

Peter Adamson 7 December 2018

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Yes I think that is mostly right. Small quibble: it's not clear we are talking about chain reactions leading back to God's will, rather my understanding of the classical Asharite position is that God creates each substance and accident directly at each time.

Of course your summary also leaves out what is for them all important, namely that morally responsible creatures (us) can "acquire" the actions God creates for us, so we are implicated and in fact carry the blame. But as far as the causal situation and divine command theory I think everything you say is accurate and in particular you are right that the whole thing is meant to safeguard divine omnipotence.

Ryan W 18 June 2019

The idea of "acquisition" raised a question for me. Is the Asharite view really occasionalist? As I understood the explanation, the idea is that God does really give the "power" to carry out the act to the person who acts. God is the true cause in that the person acts if and only if God gives the power, but the person really does act, at least as an instrument of God's action. It seems to me that this view sees human action as having at least an instrumental sort of real efficacy. On this view, the human who acts is like the stick that I hit you with. It's not the cause per se, but it's a genuine part of the causal story. On the other hand, as I understand it, on the normal occasionalist view (eg. as found in Malebranche), there's no actual connection between my action and its effects at all. My hitting you and your being hit are connected in the same way as the hitting and being hit that occur in a projected image (eg. in a movie theatre). There's actually no causal connection whatsoever. Both the hitting and the being hit (or rather, the appearances of each) are caused by the projector, and the photons that generate one image have nothing to do in reality with the photons that generate the other. Do you think this is a real difference between the Asharites on one side and Malebranche on the other?

Great question, and the answer depends on how one interprets the Asharites - of course maybe they don't all take the same view on this, either. But my understanding of their fundamental position is that humans should not be the "creators" of their actions, because only God creates. Thus God is not merely giving humans a capacity or power to excercise causal influence, but is also Himself causally involved and maybe the only cause involved, but not morally responsible. If this is right then I think it is indeedc quite similar to Malebranche.

Jim Mortensen 28 September 2019

This seems a grace/works question but w the ashorite trying for grace () pure will of God) , but retaining human moral responsibility.

Ali Amir 21 March 2020

I wonder what Ash'arites would say if asked the following question:

Can God, if He so wills, condemn prophet Mohammad to hell? 

I don't know if any muslim can answer yes to this question. How have Ash'aris responded to this question?

I think their answer to this is actually straightforward: sure, because God can do whatever He wishes and is not bound to any external code of justice. So God could do this but He will not, in fact, do it. Here they would remind you about the "promise and the threat" which God has voluntarily offered, and which clearly indicates that God will not damn the Prophet or other faithful Muslims but give them their due reward.

Ozgur Will 18 May 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson

As far as i have researched the Asharis belief is a fatalistic system.

Jordan 2 December 2021

I'm really surprised to hear the idea that more than one thing can't cause an outcome. I'm used to hearing the LegalEagle Youtube channel where juries determine to what percentage each party is responsible for - the example court case, I think, was someone tried for a violent crime who was being negatively affected by pharmaceuticals, and determining the amount of fiscal responsibility held by the pharma. (I want to say the case was fictional but the case law is real.)

I feel like you could do some old-timey thought experiments to prove it. Like, heck. Which of the giraffe's parents is responsible for her birth? 

In any hypothetical about God and free will/morality, I always think of the analogy of an author writing a novel. The villain is moustache-twirling, ties people to railroad tracks, cackles all the time. Would you say that the villain isn't evil because they didn't CHOOSE to be in a novel? No, you'd look at their in-universe actions and characteristics and you'd rightly conclude that they're a bad dude. If they magically came to life with no author around, they would immediately dash off to find someone to murder via railroad-tying because that's who they are. Sure, they were created to be evil, but that doesn't mean you feel bad when they get put in jail at the end of the story, because they deserved it regardless. 

I do think that philosophers sometimes get lost in the weeds, re: the power to hit or not hit you. Not to be a Socrates but we really need to dial down on our terms. Like there is the idea of power/will/choice, which is how we casually use it to mean that you take an action (or inaction) that you think will get you a beneficial outcome as opposed to taking a different action (or inaction). Or, the way they're using it here, there is "power" that is more like a physics concept of "potential energy" and then a single, correct simulation of future events due to a chain of causation.

I'm still kind of bitter whenever I hear someone acting like events being fixed and/or having an identifiable cause means that the action is somehow outside of someone's control. If you're in a linear timeline with cause and effect, you gotta live by those rules! Maybe when you're grown up and you move out to your own universe, you can get a non-linear timeline, but the way you're at it, kid? I doubt it. 

Peter Adamson 2 December 2021

In reply to by Jordan

I like your analogy for the Asharite view, comparing God to an  author of a novel in which people still make free choices or are to blame for what they do.

On the first point, we need to be careful here: no one is denying that a cause could be made up of multiple elements, the classic example (in Aristotle) being where a group of people push a ship which would be too heavy for any one of them to push. So here the cause would be the group of people, collectively. That is not "overdetermination," which is what I was talking about in the episode if I remember rightly. Overdetermination would be where there are two "complete" causes, as the Arabic tradition calls it, for instance the group of people, and then God also making the boat move. Here, both causes are sufficient to cause the ship to move, so there is a puzzle about how they could both be fully recognized as a "cause". Here one could think about it counterfactually: usually if the genuine cause had been absent, then the effect would not follow. But in a case of overdetermination this is not so: if A and B are both sufficient causes, then either A's or B's absence would not prevent the effect from following, because the other cause could take care of business.

Jordan 7 December 2021

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you for the clarification! So for the giraffe, both parents might be the cause, but the COMPLETE cause might be said to be the biological forces that govern giraffe mating, or maybe just go back to the cause of giraffes in the first place?

The boat moving is a little weirder... but it sounds like you're saying there is 200% power for the boat to move. (I'm not a math person - I'm talking about like in video game stats with your percentage to hit...) Each cause has the power to move the boat on their own. So if the boat moves, it could be because of A or B or both. Thanks for explaining. I'll make a note to relisten to this... once I get to the end of the podcast... So, someday!

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