A Compilation of Islamic Philosophy and Theology [edited]

Chapter Five: Necessity, Impossibility, and Possibility

In this chapter terms such as ‘necessity’, ‘impossibility’, ‘necessity by essence’, ‘impossibility by essence’, ‘possibility by essence’, ‘necessity by others’, and ‘impossibility by others’ are introduced.

Therefore, we start our discussion by giving a brief and indefinable concept in philosophy, and then we will try to explain these terms in the light of the two self-evident concepts of existence and non-existence.


If we consider such items as ‘flower’, ‘even’, ‘white’, ‘sweet’, and ‘eight’, we will see that among these items only ‘even’ can be related to ‘eight’, and ‘white’ to ‘flower’, and these relationships are reflected in the mind of man in the two statements of ‘eight is even’ and ‘flower is white’. No doubt because ‘even’, ‘sweet’ or ‘eight’ have nothing in common with ‘flower’, or ‘flower’, ‘white’, or ‘eight’, or finally ‘white’, ‘sweet’, and ‘even’ with each other, there can exist no statement in our mind describing their relationship, such as ‘eight is sweet’ and so on. In other words, the statement ‘eight is an even number’ expresses the relationship between the attribute ‘even’ and the number eight and the statement ‘the flower is white’ indicates the relationship between the attribute ‘white’ and the flower.

Now we turn our attention to the two mentioned relationships. It is clear that the attribute ‘even’ and the number eight, unlike the attribute ‘white’ and the flower are inseparable related to each other. We cannot imagine any number eight that is not even. However, we can imagine a flower that is not white, or even imagine certain states and conditions where the white flower loses its whiteness and acquires another colour. In philosophical terms it is said that the relationship between ‘white’ and ‘flower’ is unnecessary. We can also put the necessity or non-necessity of this relationship in a statement, and say, for example, “Eight is necessarily even,” and “Flower is white but unnecessarily.” In these two statements, besides showing the relationship, we have identified its kind. In technical terms, words such as ‘necessity’ or ‘non-necessity’, which show the kind of relationship, are called ‘modes’.

We should know that concept such as necessity and non-necessity, or necessary and unnecessary are evident and certainly need no definition for their presence in the mind, and even such concepts cannot be defined. These concepts are gradually and automatically are formed in the human mind. Therefore, we do not intend here to define these concepts, and have only tried to show to which concepts of the mind the philosophers refer by the terms ‘necessity’ and ‘non-necessity’.

Necessity and impossibility

The above-mentioned necessity and nonnecessity were not specific to any special attribute. In general, the relationship f each attribute with the thing it describes is either necessary or unnecessary, that is, it is either an attribute inseparable from that thing, or it is a separable attribute.

‘Even’, for example, is the necessary attribute of number eight, whereas whiteness is the unnecessary attribute of the flower. Now we turn our attention to existence and non-existence.

As the relationship of one thing and its attributes could be either necessary or unnecessary, the existence or nonexistence of one object could be necessary or unnecessary. In other words, the existence of one things can be necessary or unnecessary, and its non-existence can also be necessary or unnecessary. In technical terms, things that have a necessary existence are called ‘necessary’, and those whose non-existence is necessary are named ‘impossible’. The necessity of existence is also named ‘necessity’, and the necessity of nonexistence is called ‘impossibility’. So, when we say something is necessary, we mean its existence is necessary, it must exist, and its non-existence is impossible.

On the other hand, when we say something is impossible, we mean its non-existence is necessary, it should not exist, and its existence would be impossible.

For further clarification of the issue, let’s consider one of the phenomena, the storm, for example. Suppose that we know all the factors responsible for the existence of the storm, and decisively judge that the storm must exist. In other words, with this supposition the storm will necessarily exist, and, in philosophical terms, it is necessary. Now, suppose that some or all of these factors do not exist; then, according to the judgment of the intellect, the storm should not exist. In other words, with this supposition the storm would be necessarily non-existent, and in philosophical terms it would be impossible.

Impossibility by essence and impossibility by other

If we suppose that the causes and factors necessary for the existence of a storm do not exist, the storm will never exist. With this supposition, the storm should be impossible. Moreover, we are all familiar with concepts of ‘circle’ and ‘angle’, and we know that a circle can never have and angle. Therefore, an angled circle or a circle with an angle would be impossible.

Here we are faced with two impossible things; the storm and an angled circle. Is there any difference between these two impossible things? No doubt there is a difference. Although the storm is now impossible, we can do something to remove this impossibility; in other words, its impossibility is removable and separable, whereas the impossibility of an angled circle can never be lifted.

What is the origin of this difference? What is its cause? Its cause is that the impossibility of an angled circle emanates from its essence. What we mean by the essence of a particular thing is the thing itself, regardless of the existence or nonexistence of other things. Therefore, if we want to consider the essence of a thing, we must consider only that thing, irrespective of the existence or nonexistence of any other thing. The essence of an angled circle, then, would be impossible. Why? Because it is contradictory in its essence, circle being a closed equidistant curve that has no angle. An angled circle would be, then, a curve that both possesses and does not possess an angle. This, obviously enough, is a contradiction, and every contradiction, no doubt, in essence and in itself would be impossible. The storm, however, is not contradictory in itself; its impossibility is not a part of its essence so that it should be inseparable from it and make its existence automatically impossible; rather, its impossibility is caused by external factors, that is, things outside it have caused its impossibility.

There are certain obstacles, for example, preventing its existence, or there are certain factors that are necessary for its existence and have not been realized yet.

It is clear that once those barriers are lifted or those necessary causes are made available the storm will no longer be impossible. This is why philosophers argue that the existence of an angled circle would be ‘impossible by essence’ and its impossibility would be ‘an impossibility by essence’ or ‘essential impossibility’, whereas the existence of the storm, whose causes do not exist yet or there are certain obstacles preventing it, is ‘impossible by other’ and its impossibility is ‘impossibility by other’.

From what has already been said it becomes clear that the impossible by essence can never exist, and it is impossible to find any extension for it in the external world. It would not exist simply by changing states and situations, by stipulating new conditions, or by changing particular factors. The impossible by essence is absolutely nonexistent in any state, unlike the impossible by other, which though in the present state and situation and in the present condition cannot exist and can never have an extension, in certain cases by changing the state, situation or condition, and, in short, by changing the factors responsible or its impossibility, it can exist.

Necessity by essence and necessity byother

We are already familiar with the philosophical term ‘essence’. The essence of a particular thing is the thing itself regardless of other things; therefore, our conception of the essences of a thing would be equal to our conception of the thing without conceiving or stipulation the existence or non - existence of any other things. Considering the meaning of essence and the explanation given on the impossible by essence and the impossible by other, we can easily understand at the meaning of the necessary by essence and the necessary by other.

If there essence of a thing is necessary that is if exist necessary without the mediation of any other the influence of any other factor, dependence on any cause or condition or in short if it exists necessary by itself and in more simple term, if its non- existence is self-contradictory , such a thing would be necessary by essence it is evident that if the essence of a thing is not necessary , but it becomes necessary on stipulating certain causes and factors , such as thing would be necessary by other , for in fact , it is made necessary by external causes and factors ; it’s necessary is the result of those cause Therefore necessity by essence is that necessities which results from the thing itself and is dependent no on external factor necessity by other however result from something other than the thing itself.

From what has been said we may after that it impossible to annihilate the necessary by essence. We cannot make it non-existent by simply changing some states situation as or conditional or my producing certain factors the necessary by essence enjoys absolute existence under all circumstances. However though in the present situation , state and condition the necessary by other is necessary and con not be annihilated once the situation , state and condition change or in short as soon as the removal of the cause of it necessity become possible , it may lose its state of necessary existence and become non-existence .

We many mention many examples of the necessary by other. All the existent we may observe in our surroundings, such as different kinds of element, plants animal and men are necessary by other. The tree that we see is the effect is a claim of cause, such as water, air, certain, degree of temperature and many other factors that may not be easily enumerated. If this chain of cause stays as it is and none of the cause change, this tree will necessary continue existing, and it will never become non-existence. To destroy it, certain changes have to take place in this chain. In that case, the tree would not be necessary and is would become nonexistent.

This means that it the chain of these causes that makes the tree necessary and its non - existence impossible. Accordingly, by changing this claim its necessary might be lifted and it would become non-existent. The necessary by essence is limited to the existence of God. Philosophers have proved that it is only God who is necessary by essence.

Possibility by essence

So far we have understood that the impossible by essence is the thing which when conceived without conceiving the existence or non-existence of any other thing with itwe understand that is existence is self - contradictory, and therefore impossible In itself rather than because of any other factor. On the other hand, the necessary by essence is that which is necessary by itself - contradictory and is impossible and therefore its existence is caused by essence, that is it essence is necessary neither in its existence nor non- existence and neither its existence nor selfcontradictory such a thing would be possible by essence Possibility then means that neither existence nor nonexistence is necessary.

Therefore in order to understand whether a thing is possible by essences or not we have to conceive only that thing without considering the existence or non - existence of other things and examine it in regard to existence and non-existence and consider it position. If we find that it not contradictory i its existence that is tots existence is not impossible and also it is not contradictory in its non- existence, that is it non-existence is not impossible it will be possible by essence.

We can mention many examples of the possible by essence. All the things we find in our surroundings, including ourselves are possible by essence. However let us take the aforementioned storm as an example. you may be asked to consider only the existence of it cause or factor , or, in more philosophical; term to conceive only the essence of the storm, say if the thing you have considered can ever find an extension band whether its existence is self - contradictory. Your answer will be negative, and your reason will be that in the past there have been many storms. You might also be asked whether the non-existence if the thing you have considered is impossible, and if is non- existence will be lf contradictory.

Once again your answers will be negative, for usually she weather is claim and there is no storm. Therefore, the storm is essentially neither necessary nor impossible or in other words it possible by essence.

Compatibly of possibility by essence with necessity or impossibility by other

There is no doubt that possibility by essence is incompatible with necessary or impossibility by essence. In other words, the possible by essence can never become necessary or impossible by essence, for the possible by essence is that which in itself is necessary neither in its existence nor in its non- existence, whereas the necessary by essence or the impossible by essence is that which is necessary in its existence or in its non -existence , respectively. Therefore , there would be a contradiction and an impossibility if a thing could be both possible and necessary in its existence , Similarly there would also be a contradiction and an impossibility if a single thing could be both possible and impossible by essence , that is its non = existence be both necessary and unnecessary .therefore the possible by essence cannot be necessary or impossible by essence , that is possibility by essences in incompatible with necessity or impossibility by essence.

Now is possibility by essence also incompatible with necessity or impossibly by other? In other words, will there be any contradiction if the possible by essence could be the necessary or the impossible by other? The answer is no!

from the rational perspective there is no contradiction if a thing whose existence or non- existence is essentially not necessary to become necessary in its existence or non-existence by external factors just as it is not impossible for a thing that is not luminous in itself to become luminous by external factors, like iron for example which is itself is not luminous and becomes luminous through heating. Thus possibility by essence is compatible with necessary and impossibility by other. However this is not all for as we shall demonstrate in chapter eleven by priming the law of ‘causal necessary ‘everything that is possible by essence is simultaneously necessary or impossible by others.

Turning to the example of the storm mentioned above, this is why once we know that all the causes and factor of the storm are realized we will judge at once that the weather must necessary be stormy, and that is impossible for it to be otherwise. In other words the storm is necessary, by which of course, we mean it is necessary by others for allegedly this necessary is imposed on it by the cause and factors that create it. Now if at the time we proclaim the necessity of the storm we are asked if the same storm, irrespective of the causes of it creation, necessarily exists and is necessary in it, we will definitely reply in the negative at say that in itself it is still only possible.

The meaning of theses two simultaneous judgements made you the intellect is that from the rational point of view the mentioned storm is simultaneously possible by essence and between these two. In the same way, possible by essence is show to be compatible with impossibility other.


1- What is the meaning of necessity, impossibility or possibility?

2- What is the difference between the necessary by essence and the necessity by other?

3- What is the difference between the impossible by essence and the impossible by other?

4- Can the necessary by essence be possible by essence, too? Why?

5- Can the impossible by essence be possible by essence too? Why?

6- Which of the following items have necessary relationship with each Earth and the situational movement Equilateral triangle and equal angles Man and existence A man whose factors of creation have all been realized and existence Dinosaurs and non- existence in the present states of nature Edible salt and saltiness.

6- Can the possible by essence be necessary by other, too? If so, demonstrate it by giving an example beside the one mentioned in this book.

7- Can the possible by essence be impossible my others, to? If yes, demonstrate it by giving an example besides that given in his book.

8- Give three example for things that are possible or impossible by essence.

8- Which of the following is necessary by essence impossible by essences our possible by essence and which are necessary or impossible my others?

A monster whose head alone is bigger than the earth, Phoenix, you dinosaur and equilateral triangle with three unequal angles, earth the movement of the earth round the sun, the movement of the sun round the earth.

Notes For further explanation

1- M. Motahhari, Najmooh Asar (collected works) vol. 10, pp. 77-83

2- We will try to prove this claim in the chapter on causal necessity we will show there that the cause and factors that make one thing necessary in its existence or nonexistence are the same cause and factors that make it existent or existent or non-existent In other words, when the cause of a thing exists that thing will necessarily exist and will be necessary and naturally, it will become existent. When its cause does not exist, it will necessarily be non-existent or impossible and certainly will not exist.

3- This is one of the meanings of ‘essence’ in philosophy. there are other meaning for this term in philosophy ,too, including quiddity, which will be explained later (see Najmooah Asar vol. 10 notes p. 190)

4- Perhaps some may object that by definition the necessary b essence is the thing whose essence necessarily exists, that is, it is necessary in its existence without the mediation of anything else; in other words, it is that essence whose nonexistence would amount to a contradiction. Therefore, to realize that a thing is necessary by essence, we have to imagine its essence and compare it with existence and nonexistence; know that is existence is necessary and its nonexistence an absolute impossibility. Now how have philosopher conceived the essence of God? After all, can the essence of God be conceived so that it could be consequently compared with existence or nonexistence? This objection arise from the fact that they believe the way to understand that a thing is necessary by essence is to conceive its essence and then compare this conception with existence and nonexistence, whereas philosopher have not understood the existence of the essential Necessary in that way; rather, they have understood demonstrably that pure existence and the existence our world would be impossible unless that which is necessary by essence should have existed already. Therefore, no philosopher has ever claimed that in conceiving the essence of different things he has come across a certain thing that has necessary existence and whose non-existent is an absolute impossibility. Perhaps this mistaken conception emanates from the fact that concerning many things that are impossible by essence we usually realize their impossibility by essence by simply conceiving them.

5- For further explanation of the terms discussed in this chapter, see Majmooah Asar, vol. 5. pp 180 and also pp. 367, 368.

6- Ibib. Vol 6, pp. 535, 536

7- Ibid. Vol. 10, pp. 97 - 104.

8- See Collected works, vol.10,pp.126

Chapter Six: Ashariyya and Mu‘tazila

The M ‘tazila -literally ‘those who withdraw themselves’- movement were founded by Wasil bin ‘Ata’ in the second century AH (eighth century AD). Its members were united in their conviction that it was necessary to give a rationally coherent account of Islamic beliefs. In addition to having an atomistic view of the universe, they generally held to five theological principles, of which the two most important were the unity of God and divine justice. The former led them to deny that the attributes of God were distinct entities or that the Quran was eternal, while the latter led them to assert the existence of free will.

Ash‘ariyya-named after its founding thinker, al-Ash ‘ari-was the foremost theological school in Sunni Islam. It had its origin in the reaction against the excessive rationalism of the Mu‘tazila. Its members insisted the reason must be subordinate to revelation. They accepted the cosmology of the Mu‘tazilites but put forward a nuanced rejection of their theological principles.

  1. Historical Survey

The Mu‘tazila originated in Basra at the beginning of the second century AH (eight century AD). In the following century it became, for a period of some thirty years, the official doctrine of the caliphate in Baghdad. This patronage ceased in AH 238/AD 848 when al-Mutawakkil reversed the edict of al-Ma’mun, which had required officials to publicly profess that the Qur’an was the created word of God. By this time, however, Mu‘tazilites were well established in many other centres of Islamic learning, especially in Persia, and had split into two rival factions, the Basran School and the Baghdad School. Although their links with these two cities became increasingly tenuous, both schools flourished until the middle of the fifth century AH (eleventh century AD), and the Basran school only finally disappeared with the Mongol invasions at the beginning of the seventh century AH (thirteenth century AD). After the demise of the Mu‘tazila as a distinct movement, Mu‘tazilite doctrine - by now regarded as heretical by Sunis - continued to be influential amongst the Shi ‘ites in Persia and the Zaydis in the Yemen.

Al-Ash ‘ari (d. AH 303/AD 935) was a pupil of Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i (d. AH 303/AD 915), the head of the Basran School. A few years before his master’s death, al-Ash ‘ari announced dramatically that he repented of having been a Mu‘tazilite and pledged himself to oppose the Mu‘tazila.

In taking this step he capitalized on popular discontent with the excessive rationalism of the Mu‘tazilites, which had been steadily gaining ground since their loss of official patronage half a century earlier. After his conversion al-Ash ari continued to use the dialectic method in theology but insisted that reason must be subservient to revelation. It is not possible to discuss al-Ash ‘ari’s successors in detail here, but it should be noted that from the second half of the sixth century AH twelfth century AD) onwards, the movement adopted the language and concepts of the Islamic philosophies whose views they sought to refute. The most significant thinkers among these later Ash ‘arites were al-Ghazali and Fakr al-Din al-Razi.

  1. Cosmology

Popular accounts of the teaching of the Mu‘tazilites usually concentrate on their distinctive theological doctrines. To the philosopher, however, their cosmology, which was accepted by the Ash‘ariyya and other theological schools, is a more appropriate starting pint.

To the Mu‘tazila, the universe appears to consist of bodies with different qualities: some are living while others are inanimate, some are mobile while others are stationary, some are hot and some are cold, and so on. Moreover, one and the same body may take on different qualities at different times. For instance, a stone may be mobile when rolling down a hill but stationary when it reaches the bottom, or hot when left in the sun but cold after a long night. Yet there are some qualities which some bodies cannot acquire; for example, stones are invariably inanimate, never ability to combine living. How are the differences between bodies, and between one and the same bodies at different times, to be explained?

The answer given by the Mu‘tazilites is that all bodies are composed of identical material substances (jawahir) or atoms (ajza’), on which God bestows various incorporeal accidents (a‘rad). This view was first propounded by Dirar ibn Amr (d. c. AH 200/AD 815) and elaborated by Abu al-Hudhayl (d.c.AH 227/AD 841 or later), both of whom were early members of the Basran School. Abu al-Hudhayl held that isolated atoms are invisible mathematical points. The only accidents which they can be given are those which affect their ability to combine with other atoms, such as composition or separation, motion or rest. Conglomerates of an atoms, on the other hand, can be given many other accidents such as colours, tastes, odours, sounds, warmth and coldness, which is why we perceive them as different bodies. Some of these accidents are indispensable, hence the differences between bodies, whereas others can be bestowed or withdrawn, thus explaining the differences between one and the same body at different times.

This account of the world gained rapid acceptance amongst Islamic theologians, although to begin with it was rejected by two Mu‘tazilites of the Basran School, al-Nazzam (d.AH 221/Ad 836) and Abu Bakr al- Asamm (d. AH 201/AD 816?). The former, who was Abu al-Hudhayl’s nephew, argued that atoms which were mere mathematical points would not be able to combine with one another and that, rather than being composed of atoms, bodies must therefore be infinitely divisible. Abu al-Hudhayl replied that Gods bestowal of the accident of composition on an isolated atom made it three-dimesional and hence capable of combining (see Atomism, ancient). Al-Asamm, on the other hand, objected to the notion of accidents, arguing that since only bodies are visible their qualities cannot have an independent existence. Abu al-Hudhayl retorted that such a view was contrary to divine laws because the legal obligations and penalties for their infringement were not directed at the whole person but at one of his accidents’, such as his prostration in prayer or his flagellation for adultery.

  1. The Five Principles

According to the Muslim heresiographers, who are our main source of information about the Mu‘tazila, members of the movement adhered to five principles, which were clearly enunciated for the first time by Abu al-Hudhayl. These were (1) the unity of God; (2) divine justice; (3) the promise and the threat; (4) the intermediate position; and (5) the commanding of good and forbidding of evil.

The first and second principles are of major importance and will be discussed in detail below. The third principle is really only an adjunct of the second, and is here treated as such. The fourth principle is a relatively unimportant doctrine which probably only figure in the list because it was thought to have been the reason for the Mu‘tazila’s emergence as a distinct movement; it is said that when Hasan al-Basri was questioned about the position of the Muslim who committed a grave sin, his pupil Wasil bin ‘Ata’ said that such a person was neither a believer nor an unbeliever, but occupied an intermediate position. Hasan was displeased and remarked, ‘He has withdrawn from us (i’tazila ‘annal’), at which Wasil withdrew from his circle and began to propagate his own teaching. The historicity of this story has been questioned on the ground that there are several variants: according to one version the person who withdrew was Wasil’s successor Qayada. Moreover it is noteworthy that at least one influential member of the Basran school, Abu Bakr al-Asamm, rejected the notion of an intermediate position and argued that the grave sinner remained a believer because of his testimony of faith and his previous good deeds. This was also the view of the Ash‘arites.

The fifth principle, which is derived from several passages in the Qur’an (for example, Surah 9: 71), and which the Mu’tazilites understood as an obligation incumbent on all Muslims to intervene in the affairs of state, was rarely put into practice. For the Ash’arites, the commanding of good and forbidding of evil was the prerogative of the head of state, who acted on behalf of the Muslim community.

  1. The Unity of God

The first half of the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, is the testimony that there is no god besides Allah. Thus the numerical unity of God is axiomatic for all Muslims. Nevertheless, although the Qur’an explicitly asserts that God is one, and equally explicitly rejects polytheism and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it speaks of God’s ‘hands’ (Surah 38:75,) ‘eyes’ (Surah 54: 14) and ‘face’ (Surah 55:27), and of his seating himself on his throne (surah 20:5), thus apparently implying that he has a body.

Moreover, in describing the radiant faces of believers ‘looking towards their Lord’ on the Day of resurrection (Surah 75:23), it suggests the possibility of a beatific vision.

However, the Mu’tazilites emphatically rejected such notions, insisting that God is not merely numerically one but also that he is a simple essence. This led them to deny that he has a body or any of the characteristics of bodies such as colour, form, movement and localization in space; hence he cannot be seen, form, movement and localization in space; hence he cannot be seen, in this world or the next. The Mu’tazila therefore interpreted the Qur’anic anthropomorphisms as metaphors-God’s hands’ are his blessing God’s ‘eyes’ are his knowledge his ‘face’ is his essence and his seating himself on his throne is his omnipotence - and argued that, since the Qur’an elsewhere asserts that ‘sight cannot reach Him’ (Surah 6: 103), the phrase ila rabbiha nazira means ‘waiting for their Lord’ rather than looking towards him.

Some of the later Ash’arites accepted the Mu’tazilite position on the Quranic anthropomorphisms. In al-Ash’ari’s own view, however, they are neither to be dismissed in this way nor understood to imply that God has a body like human beings. They are ‘rvealed attributes’, whose existence must be affirmed without seeking to understand how (bi-la kayfa).

Furthermore, the possibility of beatific vision depends not on God’s embodiment, but on his existence. God can show us everything which exists. Since he exists, he can therefore show us himself. Hence the statement that ‘sight cannot reach Him’ must apply only to this world, where he impedes our vision.

Much more problematic than the Qur’an’s anthropomorphisms are the adjectives which it employs to describe God. He is said, for instance. To be ‘living’, knowing’, powerful’ and ‘eternal’. If we deny these qualities to God, we must then attribute to him their opposites, which are imperfections. But God is by definition free from imperfections; therefore God must always have had these qualities. But does this mean that he possesses the attributes of ‘life’, knowledge’, ‘power’, and ‘eternity’ and that they are distinct from his essence?

The Mu’tazilites reasoned that this was impossible because it would imply plurality in the Godhead. When we speak of God as ‘living’, knowing’, ‘powerful’ and ‘eternal’, we are, in their opinion, merely considering him from different points of view. God’s ‘attributes of essence’ (sifat al-dhat), as they are generally called, are a product of the limitations and the plurality of our own intellectual faculties; in reality they are identical with God’s essence. Thus, according to al-Ash’ari (Maqalat: 484), Abu al-Hudhayl maintained that ‘God is knowing by virtue of a knowledge which is His own essence’ and that he is likewise powerful, living and eternal by a power, a life and an eternity which are none other than his own essence. Al-Nazzam expressed this even more forcefully when he said. ‘If I say that God knows, I merely confirm the divine essence and deny in it all ignorance.

If I say that God is powerful living and so forth, I am only confirming the divine essence and denying in it all powerlessness, mortality and so forth (Maqalat: 484).

Al-Ash’ari himself rejected this reductionist account of the ‘attributes of essence which made them artifacts of human reason, but his arguments for doing so are far from compelling. He alleged that since in the case of human beings knowing implies possessing knowledge as an entity distinct from compelling. He alleged that since in the case of human beings knowing implies possessing knowledge as an entity distinct from the knower, the situation with God knew by his essence, he would be knowledge.

Finally, al-Ash’ari’s assertion that attributes of essence’ are neither other than God, nor identical with him is simply a retreat into paradox. However, al-Ash’ari was not alone in wishing neither to affirm the independent existence of these attributes nor to deny in outright.

Al-Jubba’i’s son Abu Hashim (d. AH 321/AD 933) attempted to resolve the problem by introducing the idea of ‘state’ (hal). A state is not something which exists or which does not exist; it is not a thing and it cannot be known in itself, only with an essence. Nevertheless it has an ontological reality.

According to Abu Hashim, there are in God permanent states such as his mode of bring knowing’ (kawnuhu ‘aliman), ‘his mode of being powerful’ and so forth, which give rise to distinct qualitative. This compromise was accepted by many of Abu Hashim’s fellow Mu’tazilites of the Basran school, but was unanimously rejected by those of Baghdad.

In addition to the attributes of essence, the Qur’an employs a whole series of adjectives such as ‘providing’ and forgiving’, which describe God in relation to his creatures. It is easy to imagine a time when God did not have these attributes. The Mu’tazilites called these attributes of action’ (sifat al-fi’l) because they deemed them to come into being when God acts. In their reckoning, God’s ‘speech’ belongs to this category of attributes, for it does not make sense to think of his commandments as existing before the creation of the beings to whom they are addressed. Thus the Qur’an itself, although the Word of God, is temporal and not eternal. It was created initially in the guarded tablet’ (Surah 85:22) and subsequently recreated in the hearts of those who memorize it, on the tongues of those who recite it and on the written page.

Although not denying the existence of attributes of action, al-Ash’ari insisted that ‘speech’ -along with ‘hearing’ and ‘vision’- was an attribute of essence. He argued that if God’s word were not eternal, it would have had to have been brought into being.

Furthermore, since it is an attribute, it could not have been brought into being other than in an essence in which it resides. In which case either God brought it into being in himself, or he brought it into being in another. Bur if he had brought it into being in himself, he would be the locus of things which come into being, which is impossible. If, on the contrary, he had brought it into being in another, it is the other, and not God, who would have spoken by the word.

  1. Divine Justice and Human Destiny

In addition to championing the unity of God, the Mu’tazilites stressed his justice. They held the good and evil are objective and that the moral values of actions are intrinsic to them and can be discerned by human reason. Hence God’s justice, he is thus bound to stand by his promise to reward the righteous with paradise and his threat to punish the wicked with hellfire.

More importantly, the reward and punishment which he metes out must be merited by creatures endowed with free will (see Free will). Thus although the Qur’an says that God guides and leads astray those whom he wills (Surah 14:4) it cannot mean that will happen after the judgment, when the righteous will be guided to paradise and the wicked will be caused to stray far from it. With regard to our acts in this world, God creates in us the power to perform an act but we are free to choose whether or not to perform it. Many of the Mu’tazilites held that the principle of justice made it requisite for God always to do for people what was to their greatest advantage. Al-Jubba’i went as far as to claim that God is bound to prolong the life of an unbeliever if he knows that the latter will eventually repent. In view of this, al-Ash’ari is alleged to have asked him about the likely fate of three brothers: a believer, an unbeliever and one who died as a child.

Al-Jubba’i answered that the first would be rewarded, second punished and the third neither rewarded nor punished. To the objection that God should have allowed the third to live so that might have gained paradise, al-Jubba’i replied that God knew that had the child lived he would have become an unbeliever. Al-Ash’ari then silenced him by asking why in that case God did not make the second brother die as a child in order to save him from hellfire!

For al-Ash’ari, divine justice is a matter of faith. We know the difference between good and evil solely because of God’s revelation, and not by the exercise of our own reason. God makes the rules and whatever he decrees is just, yet God himself is under no obligation: if he wished, he could punish the righteous and admit the wicked to paradise (see Voluntarism).

Moreover, to suppose as the Mu’tazilites did that human beings had free will would be to restrict the sovereign freedom of the creator. On the contrary, God creates in his creature both the power and the choice; then he creates in us the actions which correspond to these. Nevertheless, we are conscious of a difference between some actions, such as the rushing of the blood through our veins which are involuntary, and others, such as standing up or sitting down, which are in accordance with our own will Al-ash’ari argues that by approving of these latter actions, which God created in us, we ‘acquire’ them and are thus held responsible for them.

See also: Causality and necessity in Islamic thought; Free will; Islam, concept of philosophy in, Islamic theology; Karaism