The Existence of the “Cause of the Universe” in Ghazālī’s Iqtiṣād
By Yusuf Sulaiman
A theologian (mutakallim) aims to establish the creed of Sunni orthodoxy and refute any erroneous ideas about the tenets of faith. Revelation (waḥī) informs us of those tenets upon which mankind’s salvation is contingent. However, revelation cannot substantiate the authenticity of revelation due to the apparent circularity. Therefore, theologians seek to validate revelation in its epistemic merit through rational means. Subsequently, revelation presupposes the existence of a God. Accordingly, the first and most crucial doctrine a theologian argues for is the existence of a creator (wujūd al-ṣāniʿ), for one cannot attest to revelation, its veracity, and consequent tenets expounded on within unless God’s existence and His attributes – specifically omnipotence (qudrah), omniscience (ʿilm), volition (irādah), and life (ḥayāt) – are first demonstrated.
Abū Ḥāmīd al-Ghazālī (505/1111), a well-respected theologian of the early Ashʿarite school, also follows the same procedure. He introduces God’s existence in the first treatise (al-quṭb al-awwal) of his Moderation in Belief (al-Iqitiṣād fī al-Iʿtiqād). This article analyzes Ghazālī’s argument for God in his first treatise. Before surveying his case for God, examining the various arguments for God’s existence employed by theologians and philosophers will be helpful for our discussion.
Typology of Arguments for Gods’ Existence
Ayman Shihadeh maps out four genres of rational proofs for God’s existence: (1) teleological arguments, (2) arguments from creation ex nihilo, (3) arguments from particularization, and (4) arguments from contingency. Arguments (3) and (4) are variations of what is now commonly known as the Kalām Cosmological Argument; a term made prominent by William Lane Craig in his book titled the same. Craig says in his preface:
Although its roots go even further back, the kalam argument as a proof for God’s existence originated in the minds of medieval Arabic theologians, who bequeathed it to the West, where it became the centre of a hotly disputed controversy.
Argument (1), the teleological argument, takes inspiration from the Qurʾān’s spur to ponder on His “signs” (ayāt). The Qurʾān invokes the awe of God through his Divine providence and design that radiate from His Divine Wisdom. The arguments from design, for some theologians, are stronger not only because they appeal to the intellect but also the heart of the believer. The paradigmatic figure who espouses this sentiment is Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210). In his magnum opus, al-Maṭālib al-ʿĀliyah, after extensively elucidating the apodictic arguments for God’s existence produced by theologians and philosophers alike, Rāzī concludes with his own personal take,
We conclude these chapters with a resolution of great benefit. The proofs that the theologians and philosophers have mentioned are conclusively impeccable (kāmilah qawiyyah). However, in my opinion, this methodology mentioned in the Qurʿān is closer to the truth and more accurate. This is because those (conclusive) proofs are nuanced; therefore, the doors of doubts are swung open, and the contentions are numerous.
Rāzī concludes the chapter by mentioning that these teleological arguments are more impactful in resonating within the heart. Therefore, for him, the teleological arguments should be primary and foundational, yet unfortunately, they are neglected. He says in an earlier paragraph within the chapter:
There is nothing within the books [of kalām] that explain these proofs [teleological] as in the Qurʾān, which are ubiquitously found throughout.
He then quotes verse 164 of Sūrah Baqarah, showing eight teleological arguments. Three of which argue from cosmology and the rest from God’s creative power in the elements (ʿālim al-ʿanāṣir). Ultimately, for Rāzī, the Quran’s arguments for God’s existence is a superior and wholesome approach to the discussion.
Arguments (2) and (3) are both cosmological, as they prove the existence of God starting from the existence of the universe itself. Argument (2) demands God’s existence from the vantage point of the universe’s temporal origination (ḥudūth al-ʿālam). Anything temporally originated requires an originator. And in the case of the universe, this originator is God. Argument (3) turns to the notion of particularization (takhṣīṣ). It presupposes the theories of Ashʿarite Atomism and occasionalism. Respectively, things do not have a natural necessity that causes them to be the way they are, and all things are composed of identical atoms and accidents which inhere within them, coming in and out of existence at every moment. Therefore, an external factor is required to determine a body’s property through the re-creation of its accidents, as the possibilities are endless. And this external factor is none other than God. Another version of the particularization argument departs from Atomistic physics. In this version, Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085) upholds that the universe is a mere possibility. Therefore, its existence and non-existence are equally conceivable. Yet, it exists. Thus, it requires a factor of particularization (mukhaṣiṣ), viz., God.
The last argument is the proof from contingency (imkān), a novel addition of Avicenna. His focus is on existence qua existence; one does not need to consider the physical world to establish God. Existents (i.e., things that exist), Avicenna claims, are either possible or necessary. If an existent is possible, its existence depends on something else. This chain of dependence must stop at a being that does not depend on anything else, namely, the Necessarily Existent. If not, it would lead to an infinite regress of dependents. In this way, Avicenna has concluded the existence of a God on contingency without bringing any discussion of the universe.
To borrow modern terminology, Avicenna might have claimed his contingency argument is an ontological proof. Its premises are not demonstrated from any a posteriori experience of the world itself. However, Rāzī contends that all arguments for the existence of God stem from facts about the world, including Avicenna’s. Rāzī maintains that the contingency argument presupposes two premises: the world is contingent, and the necessary existent is not something within the world. These two premises have to be argued for in terms of facts about the world as its point of departure for the contingency argument to be valid. Therefore, Rāzī asserts all arguments are ultimately cosmological in essence.
Ghazālī’s Argument for God’s Existence
Ghazālī also uses argument (3) for his discourse on God’s existence. He presents it in a syllogism of the first figure (AAA-1):
- Every occurrent has a cause
- The universe is an occurrent
- Therefore, the universe must have a cause.
Ghazālī then argues for the validity of each premise. Interestingly, he upholds the first premise based on particularization. He says that something non-existent could not come into existence unless some agent of preponderance acts upon it (murajjiḥ). It is an axiomatic principle that needs no further elucidation.
The second premise is what Ghazālī spends a significant portion of the first treatise engaging. He concedes that it is not intuitive and requires an apodictic proof (burhān). He clarifies that the intended usage of the universe (ʿālam) is bodies and substances, then proceeds to lay out his evidence:
- Bodies (jism) are not free of occurrents
- All that is not free of occurrents is an occurrent
- Therefore, all bodies are occurrent.
He then continues, like before, to substantiate each premise. He argues for the first premise because all bodies have the accident of movement (ḥarakah) and rest (sukūn). These accidents are occurrents; they exist and cease to exist. Although he recognizes that a long-drawn-out treatment of movement and rest is not deserving of such an embrace, Ghazālī does so to some extent. He introduces two contentions to the proposition that all bodies have the accidents of movement and rest. The first is the doctrine of latency (kumūn) – the accidents have always been in potential and materializes later. Ghazālī does not attempt to refute the notion as it does not undermine his argument, albeit he says he could turn this contention on its head.
The second contention Ghazālī entertains: What if these accidents merely transfer from one place to the next, never ceasing to exist? He posits that one who properly comprehends the denotation of an accident would never consider the possibility of its transfer (intiqāl). Ghazālī illustrates that this contention stems from misunderstanding an accident as a substance. Spatial location (ḥayyiz) is extraneous to the essence of a substance (zāʿid ʿalā dhāt al-jawhar). Therefore, it can move from place to place. One may naively think that the case is similar to accidents. However, for an accident, spatial location is necessary for its existence; it cannot exist without it. Hence, movement from one place to the next would be impossible as, during the transfer, the accident would not have a spatial location.
Ghazālī offers additional support for his claim. A substance, such as Zayd, can be conceptualized (taʿqqul) without its spatial location. However, an accident cannot be conceptualized except with its place of inherence. The “tallness of Zayd” cannot be abstracted without Zayd.
Afterward, Ghazālī advances the second premise: Whatever is not free of occurrents is also an occurrent. If something, such as the universe, were pre-eternal despite the fact it possesses occurrents, then occurrents without a beginning would exist (ḥawādith lā awwala lahā). Thereby, this would mandate that the revolutions of the celestial spheres be infinite in number. Ghazālī argues that this is an absurdity as it leads to several absurdities. And what leads to absurdity is, thus, also an absurdity (ma yufḍī ila al-muḥāl, fahuwa muḥāl).
To summarize, the entire argument is as follows:
- Every occurrent has a cause
- The universe is an occurrent
- The universe contains occurrents
- The universe has movement and rest
- Both are occurrents
- Therefore, the universe contains occurrents
- Whatever contains occurrents must be an occurrent
- If not, it would lead to multiple absurdities.
- Whatever leads to absurdity is also an absurdity.
- Therefore, the universe must have a cause.
Notice throughout, Ghazālī employs his methods of argument (manāhij) as he explained in his introductory chapters. He uses the third method, a reduction ad absurdum (dalīl al-khulf), to prove the untenability of an “infinite, eternal world.” He hypothetically accepts it as accurate and takes it to its logical conclusion, and those conclusions are absurd. Therefore, the original assumption must be absurd. And, of course, the entire argument in totality reflects his second method of valid conclusive syllogisms (qiyās).
It is also important to note that Ghazālī is keen on substantiating the existence of God from the created nature of the universe (ḥudūth al-ʿālam). In his efforts to do so, he is shunning the argument from contingency and subtly refuting its effectiveness. Ghazālī opines that the contingency argument of Avicenna undermines the proposition it seeks to justify. Stating that the universe merely depends on a Necessary Existent, and is thus eternal, has contradictorily established the universe as a Necessary Existent in itself. The contingency argument does not explain the difference between a world without God and a world with God. Thus, Ghazālī is determined to argue for God’s existence from the creation of the universe. For him, an eternal universe is a stone’s throw away from Atheism, a distance he dares not traverse.
Additionally, the Qurʾān explicitly describes God as the creator of the heavens and earth in multiple verses. Perhaps, Ghazālī in using the cosmological argument intends to bring the Quranic exposition of God to the forefront. God in the Qurʾān is not described as Necessarily Existent, but as the One who created and fashioned the cosmos. Therefore, establishing the temporality of the universe may serve two purposes for Ghazālī: proving God’s existence and His actuality of creating the universe (khāliqiyyah). Not only is there a superior Being, but also One who created all of existence from ex nihilo.
The Arguments of Negation: Sifāt Ṣalbiyyah
Thus far, this account proves the existence of a cause for the universe, which is Ghazālī’s intent in the first chapter. To know more about this cause requires subsequent arguments. These arguments he provides are in the next chapters of the first treatise. The ensuing nine chapters of the first treatise can be summarized under five types of attributes. These attributes are not attributes of additional meaning (sifāh zāʿidatu al-maʿnā) but rather attributes of negation. They negate erroneous and improper meaning from God. In the later Ashʿarite tradition, these attributes are termed the Sifāt al-Ṣalbiyyah, and they are: pre-eternality (qidam), everlasting (baqāʾ), independent subsistence (qiyāmuhu bi al-nafs), transcendence (mukhālafah bi al-ḥawādith), and unicity (waḥdāniyyah). Ghazālī’s chapters four to nine in the First Treatise can be subsumed under transcendence and are likewise related to independent subsistence.
These attributes of negation are of prime importance to Ghazālī. These attributes, if otherwise not established, would lead to several absurdities. Pre-eternality is a necessary attribute of this Creator, as a created creator would lead to an infinite regress of causes (tasalsul). Everlasting asserts that this Creator does not cease to exist. A creator that ceases to exist is absurd, for what has not been brought into existence cannot, due to the same logical reasons for pre-eternality, be taken out of existence. Transcendence disassociates the Creator from any temporal occurrents. For something with occurrents, as discussed before, is itself an occurrent, which contradicts his pre-eternality. And His unicity prevents the existence of any other being like Him, as it would lead to the impossible consequences of a mutual hindrance. Again, for Ghazālī, God is not just a Necessarily Existent, but a God that is absolute and perfect. In the subsequent treatises, Ghazālī will further prove this point, establishing additional attributes of meaning (maʿnān zāʾidan). Such attributes that are in accordance with Revelation and reason. For Ghazālī, God is much more than just “mere existence.”
In this first treatise of the Moderation, Ghazālī makes a case for the existence of a creator. To this aim, he employs a cosmological argument, taking his point of departure from facts about the universe, namely, its temporal nature. For him, an argument of creation ex nihilo is better suited to describe the God of Islam. A contingency argument is not as effective and may even be detrimental to our tenets of faith. Therefore, God, for Ghazālī, is known as the creator of the universe, in line with the Quranic language that ubiquitously expresses God’s creative acts.
 Ayman Shihadeh, “The Existence of God.” In The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, Tim Winters, Cambridge Companions to Religion (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 201 – 214.
 William Lane Craig, The Kalām Cosmological Argument (London: Macmillan, 1979).
 Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī, al-Maṭālib al-ʿĀliyah min ʿIlm al-Ilāhī, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām al-Shāhīn, vol. 1, (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1999), 139.
 al-Rāzī, al-Maṭālib al-ʿĀliyah, 138.
 Imām al-Ḥaramayn Abū al-Maʿālī al-Juwaynī, Lumʿ al-Adillah fī Qawāʿid Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamāʿah, Fawqiyyah Ḥusayn Maḥmaud (Beirut, Lebanon: ʿĀlim al-Kutub, 1987) 91.
 Ayman Shihadeh, “The Existence of God”, 213 – 214.
 William Lane Craig, Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 1980), 98 – 99.