God’s Power and Impossibility in al-Ghazālī and Thomas Aquinas Cover Image

Gazâlî ve Thomas Aquınas’ta Tanrı’nın Kudreti ve İmkânsızlık
God’s Power and Impossibility in al-Ghazālī and Thomas Aquinas

Author(s): Özcan Akdağ
Subject(s): Philosophy, Islam studies, Comparative Studies of Religion
Published by: Cumhuriyet Üniversitesi İlahyat Fakültesi
Keywords: al-Ghazālī; Thomas Aquinas; Impossibility; Necessity; God’s Power;

Summary/Abstract: During the Middle Ages, most of theological and philosophical works, like Avicenna’s eş-Şifā: Ilahiyat (The Healing: Metaphysics), al-Ghazālī’s Maqāsıd al-Falāsifa (The Aims of Philosophers), and Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle’s books were translated into Latin language. Through these translations, many controversial issues in the Islamic thought, like “whether God knows partials in their essence”, “whether God acts necessarily because of His nature”, and “whether reason and revelation can be reconciled or not” were conveyed into Latin West. In addition to these issues, the problem of scope of God’s absolute power has been known by Latin thinkers as well. In this paper, I tried to show the idea of “God can do logically possible affairs and this does not limit God’s absolute power” conveyed in to Latin West through translations of Avicenna’s al-Şifā and al-Ghazâlî’s Makāsıd. As far as I can see, there is a drastic textual similarity between the ideas of al-Ghazâlî and Thomas Aquinas about this matter. Based on the similarities between al-Ghazâlî and Thomas Aquinas, it should be assumed that it is highly probable that Thomas Aquinas’ idea about God’s power goes back to Islamic tradition.SUMMARY: Is there any limit to God’s Power? Many theist thinkers argue that God is omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good. Like other theist thinkers al-Ghazālī and Thomas Aquinas approve that God is omnipotent. But the problem is whether God’s power has a limit or not. If God is omnipotent, then He can do whatever He wants, like a square-circle or another logically impossible state of affairs. However, most of theist thinkers argue that God can do logically possible state of affairs. If He cannot do a square-circle, it does not limit God’s absolute power. According to some contemporary authors, the idea that “God can do logically possible state of affairs” is accepted since Thomas Aquinas time. According to them, since the time of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), it has been recognized that the exercise of God’s power must be limited to what is logically possible. Looking at this assertion, there is no one asserting that God can do logically possible state of affairs before Thomas Aquinas. In this study, I tried to show that these debates have their roots in Islamic tradition.The eminent Muslim thinkers Avicenna and al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) evaluated the issue whether God can do logically impossible. According to Avicenna, if something is possible itself, it should be connected with power. He writes “It is, hence evident -clear- that the meaning of a thing possible in itself is other than the meaning of its being enactable by power, even if, in subject, the two are the same. Its being enactable by power is necessary concomitant of its being possible in itself.” It is clearly seen that, for Avicenna, possibility and impossibility do not depend on an agent’s power.In order to explain this point, al-Ghazālī makes a distinction between propositions. According to him, some propositions are first principles (awwaliyāt), like “The number two is more than one” and “The whole is greater than its parts.” This kind of beliefs cannot be attained via senses, but they can be attained by the intellect. Some of the propositions are the judgment of perception (maḥsūsāt), like “The sun shines” and “The light of moon increases and decreases”; the judgment of experience (tajrubiyāt), like “The fire burns”; generally accepted opinions (mutawatirāt), like knowing that there is a city called Mecca; estimative opinions (wahmiyāt), like “everything that has no place, either in the world or outside of it, is impossible”; customary beliefs (mashḥūrāt), like “falsehood is improper”, “the justice is necessary”, “God is omnipotent”, etc.It is clearly seen, al-Ghazālī counts the proposition “God is omnipotent” in the customary beliefs. These beliefs are based on habits and depend on the socio-cultural situations. According to al-Ghazālī, while some of these propositions might be true, some of them are false. For this reason, we need to make a detailed examination of the proposition “God is omnipotent” in order to determine whether this proposition is true or not. Many people suppose this proposition is absolutely true, but for al-Ghazālī, this proposition is not absolutely true. When we closely examine the proposition, we can clearly see that God cannot create a being like Himself. For this reason, we need to say that “God can do everything is possible for Him to do”. Similarly, when we say that God is omniscient”, we need to understand that God can know everything that is possible for Him to know. Because God cannot know a being like Himself. He writes “…when we say that ‘God is omnipotent’, we cannot see immediately that there might be something over which He did not have power until we realized that He could not create another being like Himself. Then we became aware of the error of our assertion. But the true assertion is that ‘He can do everything that is possible for Him to do. This has no contradictory that is true.”It can be seen, al-Ghazâlî obviously states that the proposition “God is omnipotent” is not a first principle but a customary belief. He also states that the proposition “God is omniscient” can be understood as “God can know everything that it is possible for Him to know”. However, al-Ghazālī keeps on the same idea not only in Maqāsıd but also in his other works, like Mi’yār al-ʿİlm (Criterion of Knowledge in the Art of Logic) and al-Iqtisād fī al-İʿtiqād (Median in Belief).My suggestion is that al-Ghazālī might get this idea from Avicenna. According to Avicenna, the proposition “God is omnipotent and omniscient” is a customary belief, like “justice is necessary” and “falsehood is improper.” In this course, he writes in his work Dānişname-i Ālai (The Highest Knowledge), “It is impossible to say that “God can do impossible things” and “God is omniscient and knows everything because of an assistant.”Similarly, Thomas Aquinas, like Avicenna and al-Ghazālī, states that God can do everything that is possible. He says in Summa Theologica, “All confess that God is omnipotent; but it seems difficult to explain in what His omnipotence precisely consists: for there may be doubt as to the precise meaning of the word “all” when we say that God can do all things. If, however, we consider the matter aright, since power is said in reference to possible things, this phrase, “God can do all things” is rightly understood to mean that “God can do all things that are possible” and for this reason He is said to be omnipotent.”As we can see, there is a similarity between al-Ghazālī’s understanding of God’s absolute power and Thomas Aquinas’s. It is well known that Thomas Aquinas reads -Ghazālī’s Maqâsıd. Based on the textual similarity, it is possible to argue that Thomas inherited this idea from al-Ghazālī’s Maqasıd. Consequently, we can assert that the idea that “God can do possible itself and this cannot limit God’s absolute power” began with the Islamic tradition rather than Thomas Aquinas, unlike Micheal Peterson, William Haskers, and the others argued. Therefore, it is possible to say that Thomas Aquinas thanks to his reading of al-Ghazâlî’s Maqāsıd about this matter.

  • Issue Year: 20/2016
  • Issue No: 1
  • Page Range: 147-166
  • Page Count: 20
  • Language: Turkish