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 XV
Refutation of what they consider to be the purpose which moves the heavens


They say:

Through its movement, the Heaven obeys God, and seeks to be nearer to Him. For all volitional movement is directed towards a purpose. It is inconceivable that an action or a movement should proceed from a living being, unless doing it be better than not doing it. If to do something is the same as not to do it, no action will conceivably take place.

'Seeking to be nearer to God' does not mean the winning of His favour, or the avoidance of His displeasure. For in His holiness, He is above favour and displeasure. Whenever such words are used, they have a metaphorical significance, designating the will to grant rewards or the will to inflict punishment.

Nor is it possible that the 'seeking to be nearer' should express itself through an effort for proximity in space. Such a thing is impossible.

The only explanation which remains is the explanation in terms of an effort for closer relationship in respect of attributes. For His being is the perfect being in contrast to which all other beings are imperfect. And this imperfection has within itself differences of degrees. The angels are the nearest to Him in respect of attributes — not in space. So the term 'Favourite Angels' (close to God) means those intellectual substances which are unchangeable, imperishable and immutable; and which know things as they are. When man comes closer (in respect of the attributes) to the angels, he comes closer to God. The highest limit to which man can attain is similarity to angels.

So it has been established what the 'seeking to be nearer to God' means. It has been shown that it envisages a close relationship only in respect of attributes, and that it is possible in the case of man, if he knows the realities of things, and remains for ever in the most perfect state which is possible for him. Remaining in the state of the highest state of perfection is possible only for God. As regards the Favourite Angels, all the perfection possible for them is actually present for them — insofar as there is nothing potential in them which should advance towards actuality. Therefore, among beings other than the Divine, the angels have the highest perfection.

By the heavenly angels are meant the souls which move the heavens, and which are in the heavens — not merely potentially. The perfections of the heavenly souls are divided into those which are actual — e.g., the round shape and appearance which is present — and those which are potential — e.g., the appearance in any position or lace. There is no ascertainable position, but it is possible for the Heaven to encompass it. Actually, all the positions are not occupied at once; for the simultaneous occupation of so many of them is impossible. However, the complete and incessant occupation of individual positions being impossible, the Heaven aims at occupying them by species. So it goes on incessantly seeking one position after another position: one place after another place. This possibility never comes to an end. Therefore, the heavenly movements never come to an end. What the Heaven aims at is the assimilation of itself to the First Principle by attaining the highest perfection which it possibly can. And that is what the obedience of the celestial angels to God means. The assimilation is achieved in two ways

Firstly, by complete occupation by species of all the positions which are possible for it. That is the object of its primary intention.

Secondly, the cumulative effect of the movements of the Heaven (which includes difference of relations-e.g., three-sided or four-sided formations, or conjunction or opposition — and the difference of celestial aspects in relation to the Earth) is the overflow of Good towards things under the sphere of the Moon. Thence originate all the temporal events. So this is the way how the heavenly soul derives perfection; for every intelligent soul is by nature interested in having perfection.


Objection to this:

Even in the premises of this theory there is something to which objection may be taken. But we would not linger over them. Let us pass on to the purpose by reference to which you concluded the whole thing. We can disprove it in two ways

Firstly, the desire to gain perfection by being in all the places may be regarded as an indication of stupidity, rather than devotion. For one might compare it to the behaviour of a man who, having nothing to do and with all his needs having been satisfied, stands up and begins to turn round and round in his house or in the city, thinking that this will bring him nearer to God. Will he be on the way to perfection, since he is trying to be in all the places possible for him? If he says

Being in all the places is possible for me; but I cannot combine all of them by number. So I am taking them all by species. For in any event that is the way to perfection and to nearness to God.

then such an assertion will be attributed to stupidity. The rejoinder to him will be: Movement from one place to another is no perfection worth contending for. And there is no difference between this case and the situation described by the philosophers.

Secondly, we will say The purpose you have mentioned could be achieved by a Westward moment. Why, then, is the first movement Eastward? Are not the movements of the universe in one direction? If there is a purpose behind their difference among themselves, could not the same purpose be achieved by reversing the course taken by the difference? Thus, if the Eastward movement were Westward, and vice versa, the reversal could still produce all those effects which have been mentioned by them — namely, the phenomena resulting from the difference of movements, such as three­sided or four-sided formations, etc. The same applies to the complete occupation of all the places and positions. For all that is possible for the Heaven is that it should move from one place to another. What, then, has happened to it to prevent it from moving now from one side, now from another (so that it could uitilise all that is possible — if the utilisation of all that is possible were an index of perfection) ?

All this points to the conclusion that such theories are mere speculation which leads nowhere. The secrets of the kingdom of Heaven cannot be discovered through such speculations. Only the prophets and the saints discover these secrets by inspired wisdom, not by rational methods. This is why the philosophers, who take up the discussion where the prophets left it, have been unable to explain the directions of movement, and to show the cause of the choice of particular directions.


Some of the philosophers said:

The Heaven could not derive perfection from indefinite movements in any direction. The systematic character of the terrestrial phenomena requires the difference of movements and the definiteness of directions. That which impels the Heaven towards movement as such is the desire to be nearer to God; but that which impels it towards movement in a certain direction is its desire for the overflow of Good to the lower world.

[But this is false for two reasons Firstly, if such a thing can be imagined, it will have to be maintained that by its nature the Heaven should seek rest, and avoid motion and change. For, as a matter of fact, seeking rest would be the cause of its assimilation to God, who is not susceptible to change. And motion is change. But He selects motion for the Heaven in order that Good may overflow. This would benefit all other beings; while motion — however repugnant to His nature — cannot be burdensome or tiring to Him. What can prevent you from taking this view?

Secondly, no doubt, the terrestrial phenomena originate from the difference of relations (which results from the difference of the directions of movement). But then let the first movement be Westward, and let the subsequent movements be Eastward. That, too, can produce difference whereby different relations would be established. Why should one particular direction have been specified? What these different relations require is that there should be difference of directions as such. But as far as this purpose is concerned, no direction can be shown to be preferable to the opposite direction.]


Table of Contents