Front Page Titles (by Subject) HUMAN FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY 1 - Some Religious and Moral Teachings
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HUMAN FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY 1 - Al Ghazali, Some Religious and Moral Teachings 
Some Religious and Moral Teachings of Al-Ghazzali (Baroda: Lakshmi Vilas P. Press Co., 1921).
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HUMAN FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY1
Actions are either voluntary or involuntary. The difference between them is not of kind but of degree. Analyse the the process of an involuntary action and you will find that if, for example, a man intends to thrust a needle in your eye or draws a sword to strike on your head, your eye in the former case will at once close and in the latter your hand will suddenly be raised up to shield your head. This prompt action on the part of your eye and hand is due to your consciousness of the evil to be evaded, and this gives rise to volition which moves the eye and the hand without the least delay. There are, however, cases the desirability or rejection of which needs meditation, but the moment mind decides, the decision is carried out as promptly as in the above example. This meditation translated into choice or rejection constitutes will. Now will makes its choice between two alternatives and takes its cue either from imagination or reason. For example, a man may be unable to cut his own throat, not because his hand is weak or a knife is not available, but because will is lacking which would give the stimulus to suicide. For man loves his own life. But suppose he gets tired of his life, owing to having harrowing pains and unbearable mental sufferings. He has now to choose between two alternatives which are both undesirable A struggle commences and he hangs between life and death. If he thinks that death which will put an end to his sufferings quickly is preferable to life with its lingering intolerable pains, he will choose death although he loves his life. This choice gives rise to will, the command to which, communicated through proper channels, would then be faithfully executed by his hand in the manner of suicide. Thus, though the process from the commencement of mental struggle for the choice between too alternatives down to the stimulus to physical action is uniformly determinate there is at any rate a sort of freedom tracable in the will.
Man holds the balance between determinism and freedom. The uniform succession of events is on the lines of determination but his choice which is an essential element of will is his own. Our Ulamas have therefore coined a separate phrase: Kasb (acquisition), distinguishing it from Jabr (necessity) and Ikhtiyar (freedom) They say that fire burns of necessity (Jabr) but man may acquire fire through the appropriate methods, while in Almighty God is the ultimate cause of fire (Ikhtiyar). But it must be noted that when we use the word Ikhtiyar for God, we must exclude the notion of choice, which is an essential element of will in man. Let it be here recognised once for all as a general principle that all the words of man’s vocabulary when used for God’s attributes are similarly metaphorical.2
The question may be asked: If God is the ultimate cause why should there be a causal connection in the orderly succession of events? The answer to this lies in the correct understanding of the nature of causation. Nothing causes anything. Antecedents have consequents.3 God alone is the efficient cause, but the ignorant have misunderstood and misapplied the word power. As to the orderly succession of events, let it be understood that the two events are conjoined like the relation between the condition and the conditioned. Now certain conditions are very apparent and can be known easily by people of little understanding, but there are conditions which are understood only by those who see through the light of intuition: hence the common error of miscalculating the uniformity of events. There is a divine purpose linking the antecedents to the consequents and manifesting itself in the existing orderly succession of events, without the least break or irregularity. “Verily”, says the Quran. “We did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them in sport. We did not create them both but with truth, but most of them do not know”.4
Surely, there is a set purpose pervading the universe. The uniform succession of events is not at random. There is no such thing as chance. Here again it may be asked: If God is the efficient cause, how will you account for actions attributed to man in the scriptures? Are we to believe that there are two causes for one effect? My answer to this will be that the word cause is vaguely understood. It can be used in two different senses. Just as we say that the death of A was caused by (1) B. the executioner, and (2) C the king’s order. Both these statements are correct. Similarly God is the cause of actions as He has creative power and efficiency. At the same time man is the cause of actions as he is the source of the manifestation of uniform succession of events. In the former case we have a real causal connection, while in the latter a relation of the antecedent to the consequent after the manner of the connection between the condition and the conditioned. There are passages in the Quran where the word cause is used in different senses.
“Fight them: Allah will chastise them by your hands and bring them to disgrace”.9 “So you did not slay them, but it was Allah who slew them, and thou didst not smite when thou didst smite, but it was Allah who smote, that he might confer upon the believers a good gift from himself”.10
These passages show that the word, cause, signifies creative power, and must be applied to God alone. But as man’s power is the image of God’s power the word was applied to him figuratively. Yet, just as the death of a culprit is caused by the actual killing by the hand of the executioner and not the king’s order, so the word cause actually applied to man is contrary to fact. God alone is the real efficient cause, and the word must be applied to him in its root sense of power.
It may be asked then, why man should be rewarded for his good actions and punished for his misdeeds. Let us consider first the nature of reward and punishment. Experience tells us that things have natural properties and that physical laws operate in a uniform manner. Take, for example, the science of medicine. Certain drugs are found to possess certain qualities. If a man swallows poison of his own accord he has no right to ask why poison kills him. Its natural property has simply operated in his system and caused his death. Similarly actions make an impression on mind. Good and bad actions are invariably followed by pleasure and pain respectively. A good action is its own reward of pleasure and a bad one of pain. The former works like an elixir; the latter like poison. The properties of actions have been discovered, like discoveries in medicine, but by the physicians of the heart, the saints and the prophets. If you will not listen to them you must suffer the consequence. Now hear a parable:
A certain king sent a horse, a robe of honour, and travelling expenses to one of his suzerains in a distant land. Although the king had no need of his services, the royal gift was a favour shown to his suzerain, so that he might come to the king’s court and be happy in his presence. If the suzerain understands the king’s intention from the nature of the gift and utilizes it properly with a grateful heart, he will wait on the king and live happily, but if he misuses the gift or takes no heed of it, he will prove an ungrateful wretch.
It is thus that the boundless mercy of the omnipotent and omniscient God bestowed on us the gift of life, providing us with bodily organs, mental and moral faculties, so that we uplift ourselves by utilizing them properly, and be worthy of being admitted into his holy presence. If we misuse them or pay no regard to them, surely we shall be (Kafirs) (literally “ungrateful”) for his blessings bestowed on us for our good, and thus be doomed.
The Allegory of the Pen
A certain devotee who was on the way to illumination saw a piece of paper with lines written on it. “Why”, said the devotee, hast thou blackened thy bright face?” It is not fair to take me to task replied the paper, “I have done nothing”. “Ask the ink why she has sallied forth from the inkstand where she was quite at ease, and forcibly blackened my face”. “You are right” said the devotee. Then he turned to the ink and enquired of her. “Why do you ask me”, she said, “I was sitting still in the inkstand and had no mind to come out but this truculent pen rushed at me, drew me out and scattered me over the page. There you see me lying helpless, go to the pen and ask him”. The devotee turned to the pen and interrogated him about his high-handedness. “Why do you trouble me”, answered the pen, “Look, what am I? an insignificant reed. I was growing by the banks of silvery streams amidst shady green trees, when lo: a hand stretched at me. It held a knife, which uprooted me, flayed me and separated my joints, hewed me, cleaved my head then, chopped it off. I was sent headlong towards the ink, and have to serve abjectly. Do not add insult to my injuries, go to the hand and ask him”. The devotee looked at the hand and said: “Is it true? Are you so cruel?” “Do not be angry, Sir” replied the hand, “I am a bundle of flesh, bones, and blood. Have you ever seen a piece of flesh exerting power? Can a body move of itself? I am a vehicle used by one called vitality. He rides on me and forces me round and round. You see, a dead man has hands but cannot use them because vitality has left them. Why should I, a mere vehicle, be blamed? Go to vitality and ask him why he makes use of me.” “You are right”, said the devotee, and then questioned vitality. “Do not find fault with me”, answered vitality, Many a time a censurer himself is reproved, while the censured is found faultless. How do you know that I have forced the hand? I was already there before he moved, and had no idea of the motion. I was unconscious and the on-lookers were also unaware of me. Suddenly an agent came and stirred me. I had neither strength enough to disobey nor willingness to obey him. That for which you would take me to task I had to do according to his wish. I do not know who this agent is. He is called will and I know him by name only. Had the matter been left to me I think I should have done nothing.” “All right”, continued the devotee, “I shall put the question to will, and ask him why he has forcibly employed vitality which of its own accord would have done nothing”. “Do not be in too great a hurry”, exclaimed will, “perchance I may give you sufficient reason. His majesty, the mind, sent an ambassador, named know, edge, who delivered his message to me through reason, saying: ‘Rise up, stir vitality’ I was forced to do so, because I have to obey knowledge and reason, but I know not why. As long as I receive no order I am happy, but the moment an order is delivered I dare not disobey. Whether my monarch be a just ruler or a tyrant, I must obey him. On my oath, as long as the king hesitates or ponders over the matter I stand quiet, ready to serve, but the moment his order is passed my sense of obedience which is innate forces me to stir up vitality. So, you should not blame me. Go to knowledge and get information there”. “You are right,” consented the devotee, and proceeding, asked mind and its ambassador, knowledge and reason, for an explanation. Reason excused himself by saying he was a lamp only, but knew not who had lighted it. Mind pleaded his innocence by calling himself a mere tabula rasa. Knowledge maintained that it was simply an inscription on the tabula rasa, inscribed after the lamp of reason had been lighted. Thus he could not be considered the author of the inscription which may have been the work of some invisible pen. The devotee was puzzled by the reply, but collecting himself, he spoke thus to knowledge: “I am wandering in the path of my enquiry. To whomsoever I go and ask the reason I am referred to another. Nevertheless, there is pleasure in my quest, for I find that everyone gives me a plausible reason. But pardon me, Sir if I say that your reply, knowledge, fails to satisfy me. You say that you are a mere inscription recorded by a pen. I have seen pen, ink, and tablet. They are of reed, a black mixture, and of wood and iron, respectively. And I have seen lamps lighted with fire. But here I do not see any of these things, and yet you talk of the tablet, the lamp, the pen and the inscription. Surely you are not trifling with me?” “Certainly not”, returned knowledge, “I spoke in right earnest. But I see your difficulty. Your means are scanty, your horse is jaded, and your journey is long and dangerous. Give up this enterprise, as I fear you cannot succeed. If, however you are prepared to run the risk, then listen. Your journey extends through three regions. The first is the terrestial world. Its objects pen, ink, paper, hand etc. are just what you have seen them to be. The second is the celestial world, which will begin when you have left me behind. There you will come across dense forests, deep wide rivers and high impassable mountains and I know not how you would be able to proceed. Between these two worlds there is a third intermediary region called the phenomenal world. You have crossed three stages of it, vitality, will, and knowledge. To use a simile: a man who is walking is treading the terrestial world: if he is sailing in a boat he enters the phenomenal world: if he leaves the boat and swims and walks on the waters, he is admitted in the celestial world. If you do not know how to swim, go back. For, the watery region of the celestial world begins now when you can see that pen inscribing on the tablet of the heart. If you are not of whom it was said: ‘O ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’13 prepare thyself. For, by faith you shall not simply walk on the sea but fly in the air”. The wondering devotee stood speechless for awhile, then turning to knowledge, began: “I am in a difficulty. The dangers of the path which you have described unnerve my heart, and I know not whether I have sufficient stength to face them and to succeed in the end”. “There is a test for your strength”, replied knowledge, “Open your eyes and fix your gaze on me. If you see the pen which writes on the heart you will in my opinion, be able to proceed further on. For he who crosses the phenomenal world, knocks at the door of the celestial world, then sights the pen which writes on hearts”. The devotee did as he was advised, but failed to see that pen, because his notion of pen was no other but of a pen of reed or wood. Then knowledge drew his attention, saying: “There’s the rub. Do you not know that the furniture of a palace indicates the status of its lord? Nothing in the universe resembles God, therefore his attributes are also transcendental. He is neither body nor is in space. His hand is not a bundle of flesh, bone, and blood. His pen is not of reed or wood. His writing is not14 from ink prepared from vitriol and gall. But there are many who ignorantly cling to an anthropomorphic view of Him, there are few who cherish a transcendentally pure conception of Him, and believe that He is not only above all material limitation but even above the limitation of metaphor. You seem to be oscillating between these two views, because on the one hand you think that God is immaterial, that His words have neither sound nor shape; on the other hand you cannot rise to the transcendental conception of His hand, pen and tablet. Do you think that the meaning of the tradition “Verily God created Adam in His own image’15 is limited to the visible face of man? Certainly not: it is the inward nature of man seen by the inward sight which can be called the image of God. But listen: You are now at the sacred mount, where the invisible voice from the burning bush speaks: ‘I am that I am;16 “Verily I am thy Lord God, put off thy shoes”.17 The devotee, who listening with rapture, suddenly saw as it were a flash of lightning, there appeared working the pen which writes on hearts-formless. “A thousand blessings on thee, O knowledge, who hast saved me from falling into the abysm of anthropomorphism (Tashbih). “I thank thee from the bottom of my heart. I tarried long, but now, adieu”.
The devotee then resumed his journey. Halting in the presence of the invisible pen, politely he asked the same question. “You know my reply” answered the mysterious pen, “You cannot have forgotten the reply given to you by the pen in the terrestial world”. “Yes, I remember,” replied the devotee, “but how can it be the same reply, because there is no similitude between you and that pen”. “Then it seems you have forgotten the tradition: Verily God created Adam in his own image”. “No, Sir”, interrupted the devotee, “I know it by heart”. “And you have forgotten also that passage in the Quran: “And the heavens rolled up in his right hand.”18 “Certainly not”, exclaimed the devotee, “I can repeat the whole of the Quran by rote”. “Yes, I know, and as you are now treading the sacred precincts of the celestial world I think I can now safely tell you that you have simply learnt the meaning of these passages from a negative point of view. But they have a positive value, and should be utilised as constructive at this stage.19 Proceed further and you will understand what I mean”. The devotee looked and found himself reflecting upon the divine attribute omnipotence. At once he realised the force of the mysterious pen’s argument, but goaded by his inquisitive nature he was about to put the question to the holy being, when a voice like the deafening sound of thunder was heard from above, proclaiming: “He is not questioned for his actions but they shall be asked”. Filled with surprize; the devotee bent his head in silent submission.
The hand of the divine mercy stretched towards the helpless devotee; into his ear were whispered in zephyr tones: “Verily those who strive in our way we will certainly show them the path which leads to us”20 . Opening his eyes, the devotee raised his head and poured forth his heart in silent prayer. “Holy art thou, O God Almighty: blessed is thy name O Lord of the universe. Henceforth I shall fear no mortal: I put my entire trust in thee: thy forgiveness is my solace: thy mercy is my refuge.”
(Light may be thrown on the matter by consideration of the unity of God.21 )
[1. ]Ihya IV. 5.
[2. ]It is interesting to note here the following: is age from a modern European author: If we form a conception of a Perfect or Infinite Mind it is in this sense that we must speak of such a mind as free. To speak of choice between alternatives is to suggest that another than the best might be chosen and this would be inconsistent with the idea of perfection.
[3. ]Ghazzali here anticipated Hume. “Seven hundred years before Hume, Ghazzali cut the bond of causality with the edge of his dialectic”. Journal of the American Oriental Society. vol XX 103.
[4. ]Quran XLIV 38, 39.
[5. ]Quran XXXII 11.
[6. ]Quran XXXIX 42.
[7. ]Quran LVI 63.
[8. ]Quran LXXX 25-7.
[9. ]Quran IX. 14.
[10. ]Quran VIII 17. This passage refers to the battle of Badr, the first battle of the Prophet. The Muslims slew the enemy but it is affirmed that really they did not slay, but it was Allah who slew them; the meaning apparently being that Allah’s hand was working in the battle, which is also clear from the fact that three hundred Muslims mostly raw and equipped with neither horses nor sufficient arms, prevailed against a thousand of the most renowned warriors who had come to crush the growing power of Islam. ”And Thou didst not smite when thou didst smite”. Ghazzali points out that negation and affirmation for one and the same action throw new light on the nature of causation. Negation affirms God as the efficient and real cause; affirmation establishes man’s free-will faithfully executing divine order.
[11. ]Quran XCV 4-6. Whether man is by nature good or bad is a question which has vexed great thinkers from ancient times. Various answers have been suggested, which are summed up in three distinct theories:
[12. ]It is interesting to note a parallel passage from the Masnavi of Jal al uddin Rumi, who was born in 1207 ninetyseven years after the death of Al Ghazzali:
[13. ]St Matthew XIV 55-31. “And in the fourth watch of the night he came unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled saying, It is an apparition and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying: Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said: Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the water. And Peter went down from the boat and walked upon the waters to come to Jesus. But when he saw the wind he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried, saying,: Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and took hold of him and said unto him; O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
[14. ]Comp. Quran XLII 11: Nothing is like a likeness of Him. He is the hearing, the seeing.
[15. ]Comp. Genesis I 27.
[16. ]Exodus III 14
[17. ]Quran XX 12. It is generally supposed that Moses was ordered to take off his “leather shoes” out of respect for the sacred place. But Razi in his Commentary calls it an idiom and says that the Arabs used the word Na’al (shoe) [Editor: missing word] wife and family. The command to put off the shoes is therefore a metaphorical expression for making the heart vacant from care of family. See Tafsir-i-Razi vol. VI. 19. Stamboul edition.
[18. ]Quran XXXIX 97. The full text runs: And they have not honoured Allah with the honour due to him: and the whole earth shall be in his grip on the day of resurrection and the heavens rolled up in his right hand; glory be to him and may he be exalted above what they associate with him.
[19. ]Ghazzali has dealt with the question fully in his work entitled ‘Iljamal awam’. He says that every object has four stages of existence. To use a figure: “Fire” is (1) written on paper: (2) pronounced as Fire (3) burns; and (4) is perceived by the mind to be inflammable. The first two are purely conventional but have an educational value. Similarly the anthropomorphism of the passages of the Scriptures should be studied in the light of the above stages.
[20. ]Quran xxix 69.
[21. ]See Section vi of this book.