Tahafut al-Falasifa

(Incoherence of the Philosophers)


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE)

Translated into English from Urdu Translation by Sabih Ahmad Kamali


Problem XIII
Refutation of their doctrine that God (may He be exalted above what they say) does not know the particulars which are divisible in accordance with the division of time into 'will be', 'was', and 'is'


THEY are all agreed on this. Those who believe that God knows nothing but Himself are obviously committed to it. But even those who hold that He knows the Other-the position adopted by Ibn Sina — assert that He knows things by a universal knowledge which does not fall under Time, and which does not change through the Past, the Present, and the Future. And in spite of this, it is asserted (by Ibn Sina who represents the latter) that "nothing — not even as much as a particle of dust, in the heavens, or on the earth — is hidden from His knowledge" — only that He knows the particulars in a universal manner!

First of all, we must understand their position ; and then we will proceed to criticise it.

This position can be explained by an illustration. When the Sun is, after it had not been, eclipsed, and when later its brightness re-emerges, it has passed through three states (i) There was a state when the eclipse did not exist, but its existence might be anticipated — i.e., one might say: 'It will be.' (ii). In the second state, it was actually existing — i.e., one might say: 'It is.' (iii) In the third state, it is again non-existent; but a short while ago, it had been — i.e., 'Was.' Now, corresponding to these three states, we have three different cognitions. For at first, we knew that the eclipse does not exist, but that its existence might be expected. Then, we knew that it is. And, finally, we know that it was, although at present it is not. Now, a succession (in the same place) of these three different and multiple cognitions necessitates a change in the cognisant being. For if, after the re-emergence of the Sun, one were to say that the eclipse is existing at present, this would not be an act of knowledge, but of ignorance. Similarly, at the time of the existence of an eclipse, it would be ignorance to say that it is non-existent. This shows that no one of these cognitions can be substituted for another.

Now, (they assert) God can have no different states corresponding to these three states; for that would amount to change. He whose state does not differ cannot conceivably know these three aspects. Knowledge follows the object of knowledge. When the object of knowledge changes, knowledge changes as well And when knowledge changes, the knower must also change. But change is impossible in the case of God.

In spite of this, however, it is asserted by them that God knows the eclipse, and all its attributes and accidents by a knowledge which characterises Him from eternity to eternity, and which never changes. For instance, He knows: that the Sun and the Moon exist (for both have emanated from Him by the intermediation of angels whom the philosophers call pure intelligences)

that the Sun and the Moon make revolutions

that their spheres intersect at two points — viz., the Head and the Tail:

that sometimes the two are simultaneously stationed in their nodes; and

that, as a result, the Sun is eclipsed — i.e., the body of the Moon comes between the Sun and the (terrestrial) observers, thus hiding the Sun from their eyes.

Also, He knows:

that, when the Sun has passed beyond the node by a certain amount-say, one year-it will be eclipsed again

that the eclipse will cover the whole body of the Sun, or one-half, or one-third of it

that the eclipse will last an hour or two; and so on, and so forth to all the conditions and accidents of an eclipse.

For nothing is hidden from His knowledge. But His knowledge of these things remains the same before an eclipse, or during it, or after its expiration. And since it does not differ, it necessitates no change in His essence.

The same holds of His knowledge of all temporal events.

He knows that they are the effects of certain causes, and that the causes have some other causes, and so on, till the series stops at the rotatory motion of the Heaven. And He knows that the cause of celestial movement is the Soul of Heaven, the cause of whose movement is the desire for assimilation with God and with the Favourite Angels. Thus, All is known to Him — i.e., is laid bare to Him — in a single discovery which is homogeneous, and uninfluenced by Time. However, at the time of an eclipse, it cannot be said that He knows that it exists now. Nor, after the eclipse, can it be said that He knows that now it has cleared away. For nothing which is necessarily defined in relation to Time can conceivably be known to Him, for such knowledge would necessitate a change in the knower.

This much in regard to what is divisible into periods of Time. The same line of thought is taken by them in regard to what is divisible into Matter and Space — e.g., individual men or animals. They say that he does not know the accidents of Zaid or 'Amr or Khalid; but knows the Man-in-general, and his accidents and properties — by a universal knowledge. Thus, He knows that Man should have a body comprising various organs which are used to grasp, or walk, or apprehend, etc., and some of which are single, while others are in pairs — and that his faculties should be distributed among his physical parts, and so on, and so forth, to every attribute inside man: everything which belongs to his appurtenances, qualities, and inseparable accidents. So nothing is hidden from His knowledge, and He knows every thing universally. As far as the person of Zaid is concerned, it is distinguishable from that of 'Amr only for the senses, not for the Intellect. For the basis of distinction is the designation of a particular dimension; whereas the Intellect apprehends only the absolute and the universal dimension, or the universal space. When we say 'This, and this,' we allude to a relation which is possessed by the perceptible object vis-a-vis the percipient because of its being near to, or far from, him, or being situated in a particular direction. And this is impossible in the case of God.

This, then, is the basic principle in which they believe — and by which they have contrived the total destruction of religious laws. It implies that, for instance, whether Zaid obeys God or disobeys Him; God cannot know his newly emerging states, since He does not know Zaid as an individual — i.e., as a person whose actions come to be after they had not been. So if He does not know the person, He cannot know his states and actions. Nor can He know of Zaid's infidelity or Islam, since He knows only the infidelity or Islam of Man-in-general in the absolute and universal manner, not in specific relation to individuals. Even so, they are bound to say that Muhammad (may God bless him and grant him peace) proclaimed his prophecy, while God did not know that he had done so. And the same will be true of every other prophet, for God only knows that among men there are some who proclaim prophecy, and that such and such are their attributes; but He cannot know a particular prophet as an individual, for that is to be known by the senses alone. Nor can He know the circumstances arising out of an individual's particular character. For such circumstances are divisible in Time which measures his particular person. And the apprehension of those circumstances in all their diversity necessitates change in the cognisant being.

So this is what we intended to mention firstly to intro­duce their doctrine; secondly, to elucidate it ; and thirdly, to point out its repulsive consequences. Now we will expose the fallacies involved in it, and show how they can be refuted.

Their fallacy lies in the assertion that

These three states are different. And when different things pass in succession over the same thing, a change in that thing is the necessary result. If at the time of an eclipse, it were to be said that it 'will be' (as ought to be said before the eclipse), then he who makes this asser­tion must be an ignorant man, not a knower. But if he knows that it 'is,' while before it, he knew that it 'is not' but 'will be,' then his knowledge — and, consequently, his states — must have differed. Hence change necessarily follows; for change means nothing but a difference in the knower. He who did not know something, and then comes to know it, does undergo a change. He who had no knowledge that the eclipse 'is,' and then (at the time of an eclipse) acquires that knowledge, has undergone a change.

They re-enforce this thesis by saying that:

The states are of three kinds: (i) There is a state which is purely a relation, like your being on the left or the right side. This, being purely a relation, can by no means be termed an essential attribute. If something on your right is shifted to the left, it is only your relation, not your essence, which changes thereby. It is but the removal of one relation from the essence, to be succeeded by another — not the replacement of the essence itself by something else. (ii) Comparable to the first is the second state. If you have the power to move certain bodies which lie at hand, then the disappearance of all or some of those bodies will not change your vital energy or your power. For your power is the power to move, primarily, body-in-general; and, only secondarily, to move a particular body, insofar as it is body. Hence the relation of power to a particular body is not an essential attribute, but purely a relation. Therefore, the disappearance of bodies will necessitate only the severance of the relation, not a change in the state of the powerful one. (iii) The third state is one wherein the essence does undergo a change. This happens when, for instance, one who did not know becomes a knower, or one who had no power becomes powerful. This amounts to change. And a change in the object of knowledge necessitates a change in knowledge itself. For the reality of a particular knowledge consists in its relation to a particular object of knowledge as such. The relation to that object in a different way, evidently, forms a different knowledge. And the succession of such cognitions necessitates a difference in the knower's state. It is not possible to say that the essence has one knowledge which becomes the knowledge of 'Is' after having been the knowledge of `Will be'; and which will become the knowledge of `Was' after having been the knowledge of 'Is.' Knowledge is one, and all its states are similar. If its relations are replaced, then — because, in the case of knowledge, relations form the reality of its essence — their replacement necessi­tates the replacement of the essence of knowledge as well. Hence follows change — which is impossible in the case of God.


Objections from two points of views:

Firstly, how will you disapprove someone who says:

"God has only one knowledge of an eclipse at a parti­cular time. Before the eclipse, this knowledge is the knowledge of 'Will Be'; at the time of the eclipse, this very knowledge is the knowledge of 'Is'; and after the clearance, it is the knowledge of the expiry of the eclipse. All these differences can be considered as relations which do not replace the essence of knowledge; and which, therefore, do not necessitate a change in the cognisant being. For such differences must be ranked as pure relations. If a person on your right comes in front of you, and then to the left, it is the relations which pass over you in succession; and he who changes accordingly is the moving person, not you. The same is true of Divine knowlege."?

We do admit that He knows things by a knowledge which is one from eternity to eternity; and that His state is unchange­able. The philosophers only desire to reject change; and to that extent, everyone will agree with them. But their state­ment that change is necessarily inferred from the affirmation of the knowledge of 'Is' at present, and of expiry after is not indisputable. Whence came to them this idea? Nay, if God creates for us a knowledge about Zaid's coming here tomorrow at sunrise, and then this knowledge is prolonged (so that neither another knowledge nor the lapse of this one is created) still at the time of the sunrise we will know — by the original knowledge — of Zaid's coming 'now,' and afterwards of his having come. And this one continued knowledge will be sufficient for the encompassing of the 'three states.'

There remains the position that

The relation to a particular object of knowledge enters into the reality of knowledge. With the difference of the relations, the thing to which a relation was essential becomes different. And change results from the eventuation of difference and its successive occurrence.

Now, we will say: If this is true, you must follow in the foot­steps of your brethren among the philosophers who say that

God does not know any thing other than Himself. His self-knowledge is identical with His essence. Should He know the Man-in-general; the Animal-in-general; or the (inorganic) Matter-in-general-which are, obviously, diverse things — then the relations to these things would be different relations. Therefore, it would not be fit for the one knowledge to be the knowledge of different things. For that which is related being different, the relation must be different. The relation to the object of knowledge being essential to knowledge, there necessarily follows multiplicity and difference — not mere multiplicity with qualitative similarity. Of the qualitatively similar things, one may be substituted for another. But the knowledge of Animal cannot be substituted for that of (inorganic) Matter; nor the knowledge of whiteness for that of black­ness. For the two cognitions are different things.

Besides, these Species and Genera, and the universal Accidents, whose number is unlimited, are different things. How can the different cognitions of these different things be compressed into one knowledge? And how can that one know­ledge be identical with the essence of the Knower, without any thing being added to it?

Would that I could understand how any intelligent person can allow himself to disbelieve the oneness of the knowledge of a thing whose states are divisible into the Past, the Pre­sent, and the Future; while he would not disbelieve the one­ness of knowledge which relates to all the different Genera and Species. Verily, the difference and the disparity among the diverse Genera and Species is more marked than the difference which may actually be found to exist among the states of a thing divisible in accordance with the division of time. If that difference does not necessitate multiplicity and difference, how can this do so either? Since it can be proved by a rational argument that the difference of the periods of Time is less significant than the difference of the Genera and Species and because it has been maintained that the difference of the Genera and Species does not necessitate multiplicity and difference, it must be recognised that the difference of the periods of Time cannot do so either. And since it does not necessitate difference, it follows that All can be encompassed by His knowledge which is one and runs from eternity to eternity, and whose relation to its objects does not necessitate a change in the Knower's essence.


The second objection may be stated as follows:

What in principle prevents you from believing that God knows the particular things, even if that introduces change? Have you not held that this sort of change is not impossible in His case? Jahm the Mu'tazilte believed that His knowledge of the temporals is in Time. And some of the later Karramiyah believed that He is subject to temporal events. Now, the only reason why the generality of the People of Truth reject this view is that, once change occurs, the subject can never be free from changes. And that which is never free from changes is not eternal. But you believe that the world is eternal; and that, at the same time, it is subject to changes! So if you can lend credence to the changeable­ness of the eternal, nothing should prevent you from believing that the Divine knowledge does produce change in God.


If it is said:

We find this impossible, because God's knowledge, if in itself originated, will either originate from God, or from someone else. It is false to say that it can originate from Him. For we have shown that from the Eternal nothing which is temporal can proceed, and that he does not become an agent after not having been one (for that would necessitate change). (This we have conclusively shown in the problem of the creation of the world.) But if knowledge originates in Him from someone else, how can the Other be the cause of influence over Him or change within Him? If we admit such a thing, His states will change under compulsion or constraint emanating from the Other.


we will answer:

On your principles neither, of the two positions is impossible:

As regards the opinion 'that it is impossible for an originated thing to proceed from the. Eternal, we have refuted it in the problem of the creation of the world. Why do you say so, since it is the first originated thing alone whose emanation is impossible in your view? The ground of impossibility is an originated thing's being the first thing of its kind. Otherwise, the temporal events have no temporal causes in an endless series, but there is an end-through the intermediacy of rotatory motion — at something which is eternal — viz., the soul of heaven, and its life. So the heavenly soul is eternal, and rotatory motion originates from it. And each one of the parts of motion originates and expires, and is therefore obviously renewed afterwards. Hence in your view, temporal events do proceed from the Eternal. But, it is stipulated, the states of the Eternal being similar, the perpetual flow of temporals from it has likewise similar states. So the states of motion are similar inasmuch as it proceeds from the Eternal. This shows that if the procession is recognised to be homogeneous and perpetual, everyone among the philosophers can admit the possibility of the procession of the temporal from the Eternal. Let God's temporal cognitions be of this kind.

As regards the procession of God's knowledge from the Other, we say : Why do you consider it to be impossible? It has only the following three (unexceptionable) implications:

Firstly, change. We have shown that it does follow from your principles.

Secondly, one's being the cause of change in another. This, too, is not impossible — in your view. So the origination of a thing may be the cause of the origination of God's knowledge about it-as, according to you, the appearance of the form of a coloured object within the range of vision is the cause of the impression of that form upon the vitreous humour by means of the air which intervenes between the seer and the pupil of the eye. If it is possible for inorganic Matter to be the cause of the impression of forms upon the eye-in other words, the cause of seeing — why should it be impossible for the appearance of the temporal phenomena to be the cause of God's knowledge about them? Just as the faculty of vision is prepared to perceive, and the appearance of a coloured object and the raising of the eyelids is the cause of the actual perception, so you might say the First Principle is prepared to receive knowledge, and there is transition from potentiality into actuality when the temporal object of knowledge comes into being. If this results in a change in the Eternal, then a changeable eternal is not from your point of view impossible. If you assert that it is impossible in the case of the Necessary Being, then you will have no argument to prove such a being. As has been shown, all you can prove is that the series of causes and effects must stop somewhere. And it can stop at an eternal who is changeable.

Thirdly, the implication is that of the Eternal's changing under the influence of the Other, and the comparability of such a thing to constraint and external compulsion. Again, we will say: Why do you consider it to be impossible? You may believe that God is through intermediaries the cause of the appearance of temporal events; that the appearance of the temporal events is the cause of the appearance of His knowledge of them — or, in short, that He is the cause of His own acquisition of knowledge — but through intermediaries.

If you think that this looks like subjugation or external influence, then let it be so. For it does fit into the framework of your theories, since you have asserted that whatever proceeds from God does so by way of necessity and through nature, and that He has no power not to do it. This looks like subjugation or external influence, and points to the conclusion that in regard to what proceeds from Him, He is under compulsion.


If it is said:

This is no compulsion. For His perfection consists in His being the source of the procession of all things.


we will answer:

Then there is no compulsion in the former case either. For His perfection consists in that He knows all the things. Should we have a knowledge of all temporal phenomena, it would be a sign of perfection, not of deficiency or subjugation, on our part. The same may be true of God.


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