[1/2] AL-BUTI: Commentary on the Hikam (#3)
Transcribed and adapted from a live lecture by GF Haddad
Foreordained Destiny and the Inefficacy of Material Causes-and-Effects (Al-Qadar wa Lafa`iliyya al-Asbab) (Ibn `Ata' Allah, Hikam No. 3)
"The most truthful word any poet ever said is Labid's: Lo! Everything other than Allah is vain." Hadith of the Prophet - Allah bless and greet him.1
We had begun to speak about Ibn `Ata' Allah's Third hikma. In it he said - may Allah Almighty have mercy on him:
#3. The foremost energies cannot pierce the walls of foreordained destinies.
This hikma is in reality a completion for the hikma that comes before it. Ibn `Ata' Allah - rahimahullah - had asked us to conform with the reality in which Allah has placed us. The measuring-scale for this reality is the most noble Law. If you see that Allah Almighty has placed you within the screens of ambient causes which are all forbidden: then Allah is testing you with dispossession (al-tajrid). What is required of you is to move away from these causes which Allah Almighty has not authorized, and rely on Allah for the obtainment of your wants. But if you see yourself placed within the screens of ambient causes to which the Law has unlocked wide and licit paths - and the way in which you use them is licit - then know, at that time, that Allah has placed you in the world of causes (`alam al-asbab). What is required of you is to interact with these causes, and not to substitute them with complete trust (tawakkul) in Allah Almighty. Complete trust is required anyway; however, you are obligated, in such a condition, to interact with those causes that are licit and, at the same time, trust in Allah. That is the gist of the previous hikma:
#2. Your asking for dispossession when Allah has placed you in the midst of causes is a surreptitious lust, and your asking [to handle] causes when Allah has placed you in dispossession is a decline from a higher level.
When Ibn `Ata' Allah says this - we discussed it at length previously - one might infer that causes possess great efficacy (fa`iliyya) and that, when someone finds himself face-to-face with unproblematic, licit causes, he must interact with these causes in all his goals and all the essentials of life. One might therefore think that causes possess efficacy and influence, and that, therefore, one must interact with these causes and not say: "I shall substitute them with complete trust in Allah Almighty." Because of this possibility - which might arise in the mind of whoever listens to the second hikma - Ibn `Ata' Allah followed up with this third hikma and said: "The foremost energies cannot pierce the walls of foreordained destinies."
This question is related to doctrine (al-`aqida). It is the basis from which we should set forth, whether we have been tested through dispossession, or we have been tested and asked to interact with causes. In both cases, there is a doctrinal reality which we must all acquire in our very beings. What is that doctrinal reality? It is that causes, whatever they are, are subservient to Allah's foreordained destiny (qadar), and it is not Allah's foreordained destiny that is subservient to causes. This we must know.
Causes that are represented by human endeavors to work, seek sustenance and so forth - such causes are troops among Allah's other troops which all serve Allah's qadar. These causes with which you interact, lead you to whatever Allah Almighty has foreordained for you. Whenever we have recourse to physicians and their medications, which are among the causes used to remedy illness, endeavoring to achieve a cure therefrom, we must know that the use of medication, the recourse to physicians - all this is subservient to Allah's foreordainment (qada'). This means that physicians, their remedies, their prescriptions, and all their means lead you, in the end, to whatever Allah has foreordained for you or against you. All the means with which you interact, those you use and seek after in order to obtain education or degrees, marry, start a family in the way you envisage, and whatever goals other than those - the Creator has filled the earth with causes! - you must know that these causes, whether you are now tasked with deprivation of them or with interacting with them - you must know that causes are troops which revolve around a single axis: execution of Allah Almighty's foreordainment.
That is the meaning of Ibn `Ata' Allah's words: "The foremost energies cannot pierce the walls of foreordained destinies." Have the highest energy you like. Exert the greatest skills in marshalling causes to your advantage. As skillful as you may get in gathering together causes according to your wishes, that energy of yours, which has marshalled all causes for your sake, can never overcome Allah's foreordained destinies. Yes, it is as if these foreordained destinies were a kind of fortified wall - like the fortified wall around the city which everyone knows - while the causes with which we interact are like arrows we shoot at that high wall. Can the arrows of causes, whatever they may be, ever pierce the bastions of foreordained destinies and go beyond them? Never in any way whatsoever.
Each and everyone of us must know this doctrine. But first, what is the evidence for it? We do not want to open the file of doctrinal issues in the familiar style of the books of the science of Oneness (al-tawhid), theological discourse (al-kalam), and the like. Allah's Book suffices for us, and the clear words which we use and repeat every day suffice for us. The Elect One - Allah bless and greet him - has taught us a sacred phrase which he ordered us to repeat always. What is that phrase? It is la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah - "There is no change nor power except by Allah." What does this phrase mean? Reflect upon it. It means exactly what Ibn `Ata' Allah is saying: There is no change for a human being, for causes, for means, for the universe and all that is in it - there is no change for all of that, nor power, except if that power comes from Allah Almighty. Is it not so?
Among the names of Allah Almighty is al-Qayyum - "The Sustainer of All." What is the meaning of this name? "Allah! There is no God other than He, the Living, the Sustainer of All" (2:255, 3:2). That is: the Sustainer of the universes, Who controls them as He wishes and organizes them as He likes. Nothing at all moves except by His Sustainment (qayyumiyya). That is the meaning of the word qayyum. Is there any efficacy left for causes after this?
Our Almighty Lord says: "And of His signs is this: The heavens and the earth stand fast by His command" (30:35). It means that what you can behold of the movement of the celestial spheres - those we see and those we do not, - the ordering of the earth, all that is between the heaven and the earth, and all that lies within this universe, seen and unseen - it is one of His signs that "The heavens and the earth stand fast by His command." It means that if you see in them causes and effects (asbab wa musabbabat), who is the one who threaded together these causes and effects, joining the former with the latter? It is Allah Exalted and Glorified!
To elaborate: the nature of combustion in fire - so to speak, for there is no such thing as "nature"2 but we have to make what we say intelligible through approximations - that nature does not exist inside fire. It is but a divine Force (quwwa rabbaniyya) that has marshalled fire for its purpose. So it is Allah Who is the author of combustion (al-muhriq), not the fire. Our Exalted Lord says: "Lo! Allah grasps the heavens and the earth, lest they cease, and if they were to cease there is not one that could grasp them after Him" (35:41). It means that the existence of these spheres suspended in their orbits, these arrangements by which He has made these orbits stand together with the earth, these cosmic laws and patterns which we see all around us, from the farthest celestial bodies to the earth and thereunder - all that is by Allah Almighty's arrangement. "Lo! Allah grasps the heavens and the earth, lest they cease, and if they were to cease there is not one that could grasp them after Him." If you believe - and believe firmly - that this is Allah's speech, is there any efficay left for causes?
Our Exalted Lord says in His explicit disclosure: "And a token unto them is that We bear their offspring in the laden ship" (36:41). Have you reflected upon these words? The ship, externally, is a cause. Therefore it is the ship, apparently, which carries the people who board it, is it not? In our understanding, the phrasing should have been: "And a token unto them is that the laden ship bears them." However, the divine disclosure came in a different form. "And a token unto them is that We bear their offspring in the laden ship." Who, then, is the carrier for those who sought refuge in the ship? Is it the ship or is it Allah? So then, the ship possesses no efficacy.
What does Allah say? "A token unto them is the dead earth. We revive it, and We bring forth from it grain so that they eat thereof; And We have placed therein gardens of the date palm and grapes, and We have caused springs of water to gush forth therein. That they may eat of the fruit thereof, and their hands made it not. Will they not, then, give thanks? Glory be to Him Who created all the sexual pairs, of that which the earth grows, and of themselves, and of that which they know not!" (36:33-36) In all this discourse you will notice that Allah attributes all these things to Himself while we find the causes present: we find the earth, we find agriculture, but Allah attributes all this to Himself.
Allah says in Sura Nuh, as He speaks of the means by which He has saved our master Nuh ( and those who were with him: "And We carried him upon a thing of planks and nails, That ran (upon the waters) in Our sight, as a reward for him who was rejected." (54:13) Consider well these words. Notice that what we aim to do by citing this evidence is to make firm our awareness and our certitude that the causes which we see have no efficacy in themselves. That is what we are aiming for. Allah is here recounting in a succinct and quick manner our master Nuh's situation. When he was besieged and harmed by his people, what did he do? "So he cried unto his Lord, saying: I am vanquished, so give help." (54:10). Two words: "I am vanquished," and "so give help." "Then opened We the gates of heaven with pouring water And caused the earth to gush forth springs, so that the waters met for a predestined purpose. And We carried him upon a thing of planks and nails, That ran (upon the waters) in Our sight, as a reward for him who was rejected." (54:11-13) "We carried him" - He did not say: "It is the ship that carried him." Further, He did not even use the word "ship" in His wording. What did He say? "And We carried him upon a thing of planks and nails." [That is] "We carried him upon some planks and nails which were assembled" - so as to minimize the status of that ship and make it clear for you that the ship itself is less than [deserving of] being the one that rescued and the one that saved. Thus He first said: "And We carried him." He did not attribute the carrying to our master Nuh nor to the ship. Then He said "upon a thing of planks and nails" to let you see that some planks which were put together are not strong enough to save those people from a perpetual deluge unknown to humanity heretofore nor hereafter.
So then we have before us positive evidence that the creator of causes is Allah and that causes, all of them, melt under the authority of Allah's Lordship. That is a truth which you are free to express in whatever theological fashion you wish. But that is what Allah Almighty's Disclosure states. Nay, the vast majority of the Muslims hold that Allah has not deposited into these causes the least efficacy, unlike what some have said - such as the Mu`tazila - at one point. No, not at all! Allah did not deposit into fire the secret of combustion, thereafter leaving fire in charge of its mission, which consists in combustion. A simile would be a human being's disposal of artificial intelligence, which is then left by him to do its job. No! The reality is certainly not so. Yet to some people, even among Muslims, this is imagined to be true. The latter say: "Fire burns by virtue of the force which Allah has deposited in it. Water quenches thirst by virtue of the force which Allah has deposited in it. Medicine heals by virtue of the force which Allah has deposited in it. Poison kills by virtue of the force which Allah has deposited in it." Are these statements correct? Never.
We do not charge [them] with disbelief. However, even scientifically, these statements are incorrect. The reason is that, if one believes that Allah has deposited healing within medicine and then left it so that medicine heals in permanence, it would mean that Allah now has a partner, which is this secret that He deposited within the medicine. As much as the Creator disassociates Himself from that medicine, the latter [allegedly] still performs its work, without the continuance (istimrariyya) of Allah Almighty's efficacy. That is the meaning of that "deposited force." We seek refuge in Allah from such belief! What have we done with "The Sustainer of All"? Similarly, if you say: "Fire burns by virtue of the efficacy which Allah Almighty has deposited in it." The outcome of this statement is that Allah Almighty has deposited that secret - combustion - inside fire, then left fire so that the latter burns in perpetuity. So then that secret has become a partner with Allah! If Allah has left fire alone after depositing in it that secret, then [they claim] there is no problem with that: it shall always burn. That position is false, incorrect, and scientifically incorrect in any way one looks at it. Combustion only takes effect by the act of Allah at the time of contact between fire and the matter it burns.
Allah creates satiation at the time you ingest food. Who is it that created satiation? Allah. If He wished, He could make you eat, and eat, and eat, and not be sated. Allah created quenchedness for you at the time you drink beverage. There are not, in these things, forces-in-residence which Allah has left alone so that they do their work. No - it is a mistake to think so. The Pious Predecessors (al-Salaf al-Salih), the People of the Way of the Prophet and the Congregation of the Companions (ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama`a) hold otherwise.3 Just look at Allah's words: "And a token unto them is that We bear their offspring in the laden ship" (36:41). If some self-sufficient physiological force had been deposited into the ship so that ships perform their tasks always, regardless to what extent Allah disconnects Himself from them - then His saying would no longer be correct that "And a token unto them is that We bear their offspring in the laden ship." But He continues: "And if We will, We drown them, and there is no help for them, neither can they be saved" (36:43).
Dear brethren: we must deal with this reality. Many are those that stray in this matter. One of us may say: "If this is the case, then why do we have to interact with these causes? Why does the sick person seek recourse in the physician? Why does he take medicine? Why do we take precautions against fire and its burning pain? Let us plunge into fire just as we plunge into water and swim in it. Why do we go out to the market and struggle, why work in trade and farming and so forth, if, as you said, there are no causes, and the one and only Causator is Allah, around Whose might all causes revolve?" What is the answer to this?
Allah Almighty has made this lower-wordly existence stand on certain customs (sunan). He has tied together these things and those. Whatever comes first, appears to us to be a cause; whatever comes last, appears to us to be an effect. Allah has made the universe stand on that system. That is: Allah's way is that He satiates you when you take food. His way is that He quenches your thirst when you take drink. His way is that He provides you with sustenance when you knock at the door of sustenance. His way is that He cures you when you rush to the doctor and ask him for the remedy that will benefit you. That is the way of Allah. He ties things together, but without there being actual efficacy for what we call a cause. It is proper conduct (adab) on our part with Allah to respect His system in the universe.
It is proper conduct on our part with Allah to respect His universal customs. Thus has Allah Almighty willed it. If you have recognized what must be believed in the chapter of doctrine and then say: "For myself I shall not drink when I feel thirst, because Allah is the One that shall create quenchedness," know that at that time you are committing misconduct with Allah Almighty. My Exalted Lord has willed to create quenchedness in your being at the time you take drink. If you say: "I shall not take drink," then this is rebellion against Allah Almighty's system.