‘Occasionalism’ in the thought of Al-Ghazali & The Bhagavad Gita

A curious 7 a.m thought for a Sunday morning, about the nature of ‘Causality’.

Now, the standard paradigm for understanding why things happen is a non-metaphysical one. It basically goes “somebody/something performs an action, it has an effect”. This is so straightforward it doesn’t even really require stating. We just *know* it implicitly.

But as with almost any seemingly ‘straightforward’ statement, there’s always the potential for a Philosopher somewhere to come along and bugger it all up.

Enter a chap by the name of Al-Ghazali – an Iranian thinker who may singlehandedly have changed the course of ‘Islamic’ cultural and material development.

Prior to his influence, it is well-known and attested that the Islamic World were the illuminated inheritors of much of the Greek scientific and philosophic tradition. Little wonder then, particularly part and parcel with what they had managed to uplift [in some cases, arguably by stealing] from the Vedic peoples to their own immediate East, that they lead the world in scientific understanding and development for so long.

However, there is always something of an innate tension between the ‘foreign bodies’ which are taken into a culture or religion’s literary corpus, and the authentic indigenous elements of belief. And with Islam, it was no exception. Despite the continued prominence of the ‘Greek Learning’ across the Islamic world for quite some time [with the Andalusians keeping the fires burning in particular prominence – perhaps ironically continuing to possess European knowledge and actively implementing same long after these kernels had faded from European understanding, and before they had been reintroduced in strength following Byzantium’s hard times in the East], there was a determined push-back against these thinkers and their thought lead by men such a Al-Ghazali.

In his ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’, Al-Ghazali made the case for what is today known as ‘occasionalism’. A way of thinking about ‘causality’ which dispenses with the ‘ordinary’ approach of understanding things happening as being the result of peoples’ actions or natural causations … and instead interposing the hand of teh Divine into pretty much everything.

WIth this in mind, to use Al-Ghazali’s own example, if I were to set a piece of cotton alight, it would not be the case that the fire is burning it and producing smoke as a result of flame, combustion, and a complex set of chemical procedures.

Instead, it is something which happens because *God Burns The Cotton*.

A moment’s consideration will reveal why this becomes essentially problematic for anybody attempting to adhere to the rigorous standards of the scientific method … although in fairness to Al-Ghazali, he was actually attempting to argue that the observable laws of the Universe are not so much ‘not there’ [with The Almighty doing things on a whim instead], but instead strictures which Allah places upon himself in order to govern his own conduct [hence why things generally happen in the same way each time if the same conditions are applied/in place], but which are breakable as and when they are needed to be [thus explaining how ‘Miracles’ occur].

Following so far? Good.

Because I recently realized that there’s actually a vaaaguely similar element of doctrine to be found in Hindu metaphysics, specifically from that most excellent of philosophical treatises, the Bhagavad Gita.

In Chapter 11, Arjuna asks to be shown Lord Krishna in His Divine Magnificence – and is granted an experience of Vishvarup Darshan [‘Divine Appearance/Theophany of the Whole-Universe Form’], wherein exactly what it says on the tin, Arjuna winds up beholding Krishna pretty much *as* the Universe. And, importantly, in Verse 32 as ‘All-Destroying Time’ [this is the bit which everybody often quotes from Robert Oppenheimer about becoming ‘Death, Destroyer of Worlds’ – for you see, in Sanskrit, the term used for ‘Death’ here, Kala, can *also* mean Time … which is some brilliant use of language, if you ask me, because it is after all Time that ultimately kills all of us in the end 😛 ].

Now, the meaning of this phrase is easily misconstrued [you can find my explication of some better approaches to its meaning other than the strictly literal in a previous posting of art of this scene], but by rendering it as ‘Time’ and understanding that the context is a battlefield, something becomes clearer. Krishna is of course saying that *he* is ‘causality’. And that ultimately, that which results from one’s actions is *his* doing. [this is, again by way of context, the advice Lord Krishna hands down to Arjuna about why he should not feel strong compunction about acting to kill his kin on the battlefield of Kurukshetra – both because, on one level, the warriors he fights are dead anyway [with ambiguity in some interpretations as to whether this is simply because they are by their very nature ‘mortal’ and thus condemned to die – or whether they are, as stated later in the text, [already] dead because God wills it].

What does this mean in practice, in context of this writing I am doing? Well, it would appear that philosophical doctrine often thought to have come first from Iran in 11th Century A.D. … might actually find earlier, greater expression in Indian literature from many, many centuries earlier than that 😛

Although there is more.

You see, it is never implied in this part of the text that God will simply decide to break rules of causality in manner that Al-Ghazali contends is how ‘Miracles’ happen. Instead, inexorable march of ‘Time’ – of events following causes, and the like, is just presented as-is. Which some might think of as somewaht ‘fatalistic’ … but instead [for reasons I won’t go into in depth here – future commentary-piece, perhaps] may arguably be thought of as the opposite.

In any case, worthy of quoting is the follow-up line to be found in Verse 33. Which states that now Krishna has shown Arjuna the nature of Causality for this particular battle … he must “Get Up And Attain Glory” – recognizing his role as an implement/instrument of Divine Willl, and Doing The Things to make the Events which must happen … happen.

If this was the God of Al-Ghazali, one presumes that the divinity in question might simply have directly intervened instead of first showing a man his ‘position/role’ in the Divine Plan, and telling him to carry it out.

What I am basically arcing towards, then, is notion that despite the fact that ‘occasionalism’ is ARGUABLY present in causationary-metaphysics of Bhagavad Gita, what we find here is rather different in pracice. Perhaps due to differences in understanding of ‘God’ concept between Indo-Europeans and Abrahamics [there’s a fascinating piece I will have to write up at osme point in the near future concerning role of Odin in all of this…} – which means that in effect, events DO still follow proximate causes [hence the requirement for Arjuna to do his Duty] rather than the sort of ‘break in the chain of causation caused by ineffable divine fiat’ which Al-Ghazali’s doctrine can turn on in potentia.[an ironic turn of phrase, but you presumably get what i mean]

Odd thoughts for a little after 7 on a Sunday morn 😛

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