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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.2, “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Al-Ash’ari issues several criticisms of the Mu’tazilites, but we’ll focus on those relevant to DCT. According to one story, he was persuaded to attack them by three dreams in which Mohammed himself spoke to him and commanded him to defend Islam as it had traditionally been taught. In chapter seven of Kitab al-Luma, he answers the charge that God’s unjust in relation to unbelievers, since he wills their perversity. Basically his answer is that God is gracious to some and not to others, and it’s all justice on God’s part. It wouldn’t be wrong for God to do whatever he might choose. God is the Supreme Monarch, subject to no one, with no superior over him who can permit or command or chide or forbid or prescribe what he will do. So nothing can be wrong on the part of God.

Al-Ash’ari is committed to the view that there is no standard for wrongness among human beings other than God’s setting a bound or limit for us, and there is no one to set a bound or limit for God, so there is no such thing as a wrong that God could so.

The objector then asks whether this means that lying is wrong only because God has declared it to be wrong. Al-Ash’ari thinks yes. If God declared it to be right, it would be right. If God commanded it, no one could gainsay him. This does not mean, though, that God can lie. There is a difference, al-Ash’ari maintains, between what God can do and what God can command. Thus God can command us to pray and to be submissive, but this doesn’t mean that God can pray or be submissive. God can’t lie, but that is not because it is wrong, but simply because that is not a power God can have. It is like the power to be ignorant, which is another power God can’t have. (My thought: God can’t be submissive because of his perfection; but likewise God can’t command us to do irremediable evil because of his perfection. God’s commands are part of what he does; I think al-Ash’ari misconstrues the import of disanalogies between us and God.)

Al-Ash’ari holds that our human perception of what is wrong is a reception of God’s command, and not (as for the Mu’tazilites) a faculty of reason independent of revelation. This is a point about Mu’tazilite moral epistemology, and not their moral ontology. God controls who hears the command and who does not. Al-Ash’ari uses the Qur’an extensively to make this point. God hardens the hearts of the infidels.

He presents a dilemma to the Mu’tazilites. According to the Qur’an, knowledge of the command comes with a gift of power to the faithful. The dilemma is that the Mu’tazilites have to say whether God gives the infidels the same sort of gift. If they say no, they are no longer maintaining that we humans have the power to determine our acts. If they say yes, then they have to say how the “settlement” produces for the Prophet the state of being settled, but for the infidels it does not produce this. Al-Ash’ari’s conclusion is that, since it does not produce this result, this means the divine settlement is not given to them.

His critics may quote the Qur’an to the effect that it gives guidance both to the infidels and to the faithful. But such a verse, al-Ash’ari claims, has particular meaning. Elsewhere it says it doesn’t guide the infidels, and the Qur’an doesn’t contradict itself. So the particular interpretation is justified. His principle of interpretation is that the Qur’an interprets itself, so that we can legitimately choose a particular meaning over a universal meaning if there are texts elsewhere that prohibit the universal meaning. One of the frequent refrains against the Mu’tazilites is that they are not careful about this principle of interpretation, and pick out verses independently of the sense of the text as a whole.

The next section will consider al-Maturidi’s attempt to stake out middle ground between al-Jabbar’s extreme natural law account and al-Ash’ari’s radical DCT.

Image: “Quran  4” by Themeplus. CC License. 

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