DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 03, 2022, from

1. Medieval occasionalism

The first thinker clearly to articulate an occasionalist position was the Muslim theologian al-Ghazali. He wrote in defence of orthodox Islam against the philosophers al-Farabi (§2) and Ibn Sina (§5), both of whom propounded emanationist systems based on a combination of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism (see Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of §3; Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy §2; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy §§2–3). One of al-Ghazali’s fundamental objections to the emanationist scheme was that it was necessitarian and denied God the freedom due to him as creator and as the author of miracles. (For al-Ghazali, as for other orthodox Sunnis, human freedom was not a major concern.) Over against this, he affirmed the teachings of orthodox Ash‘arite theology, according to which all natural beings are completely inert and the true and sole agent in nature is God (see Ash‘ariyya and Mu‘tazila). Thus, there is no necessity in nature itself which could constrain or limit God’s omnipotent will. Unlike the Ash‘arites, however, al-Ghazali presents a philosophical argument for this position. The only form of necessity he recognizes is logical necessity, and he has little difficulty in showing that causes do not logically necessitate their effects. The relation between what we take to be causes and effects is merely one of correlation and is purely contingent; the one real, productive cause of all things is God. In addition to this philosophical argument based on a critique of causality, al-Ghazali appeals directly to the theological dogma of God’s absolute omnipotence. Indeed, al-Ghazali’s vision of God is such that God is virtually the only true existent: ‘There is no other being with Him, for Him to be greater than it…. [N]one has being save through His Face – so that His Face alone is’ (quoted in Fakhry 1958: 72).

Al-Ghazali’s rejection of philosophy was disputed by Ibn Rushd, but his views became widely accepted throughout Sunni Islam. His occasionalism was sharply criticized and rejected by both Maimonides (§4) and Aquinas, and never enjoyed wide support during the Christian Middle Ages. It was, however, embraced by the late medieval Ockhamist philosophers Pierre d’Ailly and Gabriel Biel.

Citing this article:
Hasker, William. Medieval occasionalism. Occasionalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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