In 1989, Ian Netton published a provocative monograph on the concept of God in Islamic philosophical traditions entitled Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology. Apart from the rather voguish method of the work (semiotics and deconstruction no less), Netton put forward two challenging theses. First, the Qurʾanic account of the nature of God and his creative agency, which he entitled the ‘Qurʾanic creator paradigm’ was gradually discarded and at odds with developing philosophical and mystical notions of God in classical and medieval Islamic traditions. The God of the Qurʾan was an absolute, transcendent existent who created ex nihilo at will. The God of the falāsifa, on the other hand, was a causal principle from whom the ‘creation’ issued necessarily. Creative philosophers in the Islamic tradition sought to provide a defensible account of the nature of God and his relationship with the cosmos based on sound philosophical (broadly Neoplatonising Aristotelian) principles, which require a creative hermeneutics of the scripture and at times an almost summary dismissal of the literal warrant of the text. Second, Netton recognised that the doctrine of a divine cause of the cosmos implied and was underscored by a thickly descriptive account of the very nature of the divine, which in itself assumed certain parameters for the possibilities of god-talk.
While it is surprising that Rahim Acar, in the revised version of his Harvard PhD dissertation of 2002, does not refer to Netton’s work, his concerns in understanding the problematic of the God-world relationship are consistent. In the book under review, he attempts to examine, in a comparative framework, the efforts of two different philosophers, Avicenna from the Islamic tradition and Aquinas from the Christian tradition, to make sense of the nature of God and its implication for how the creation, a scriptural and ontological given comes about. In the introduction (page 1), he tells us that his initial research interest was to examine the nature of divine creative action and the medieval debate concerning whether the cosmos was eternal or had a temporal incipience. However, he soon realised that the examination of this problematic requires a preliminary examination of the nature of the divine in the thought of the two philosophers.
Acar’s method is to divide the study into two parts, the first on the nature of our language about God and the second on the language of creation. Within each section, there are a number of chapters which first examine Avicenna and then Aquinas’ views on the issue. The introduction gives the background broadly in terms of Aristotle on the eternity of the cosmos and then the de æternitate mundi debate between Proclus and the Christian John Philoponus. While this is critical for the common source of the debates in Avicenna and Aquinas, there is much missing: where does Plotinus and the remainder of the Neoplatonic traditions fit? More significantly, where is the theological background? Avicenna’s argument requires an initial appreciation of kalām positions on the problem. Another central issue that needed emphasis concerns the role of these arguments in proving the existence of God. Avicenna explicitly distinguishes his mode of talking about the nature of God and his creation by arguing in al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt that his method is ‘nobler and better’ (ed. Maḥmūd Shihābī, rpt.,
Part one is divided into two chapters. Chapter One considers the nature of theological language. Is God knowable? On this issue, he follows the propositions of an earlier comparative study by one of his doctoral advisors, David Burrell in his Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas in denying the knowability of God. God can only be known through his creation and then only because of the analogy between creatures and the divine. Acar’s evidence for this is equivocal. That God is utterly unlike anything else is a common point in Avicenna. However, his famous proof for the existence of God that begins with an analysis of the notion of existence itself which is its pure and necessary manifestation is God suggests that God can be known through himself and through analogy with contingent existents. One suspects that Acar is trying to make a clear connection between Aquinas and Avicenna on this issue even though Avicenna is less of a negative theologian. But why not argue in a different direction along with the Thomist philosopher Barry Miller who argues in A Most Unlikely God in favour of a God of limit cases with respects to existence, goodness and other perfections? But the pivotal issue is whether existence, essence or any property be predicated of God? Central to this discussion is the question of the ‘analogy of being’ (or the problem of tashkīk al-wujūd in the Arabic debates), a raging debate in medieval studies that ultimately could be said to be triggered by Avicenna’s famous distinction between the existence (the fact that something is) and the essence (the nature of what it is) of contingent entities in opposition to the absolute simplicity of the Necessary God. This is the key link for Acar between Avicenna and Aquinas. It is perhaps odd then that Acar is a bit reticent about tashkīk and states that nowhere does Avicenna explicitly state that existence (I prefer this term to the Thomist and slightly vaguer ‘Being’ that Acar and others use) is predicated of God and creatures bi-l-tashkīk. But the Avicennan tradition, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274) for example in his commentary on al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt (vol. III, p. 2), is very clear that this is precisely what Avicenna meant. Tashkīk al-wujūd in later Iranian philosophical traditions, most notably with Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. c. 1635), becomes the lynchpin of metaphysics. The chapter continues with the examination of Aquinas and deals in detail with three philosophical interpretations of it.
Chapter Two develops the argument by analysing components of the conception of God, and outlining the ‘formal features’ of the divine essence. The commensurability of Avicenna and Aquinas’ views on these aspects are not only indicative of the influence of the former upon the latter but also the common Neoplatonic paradigm of their inquiry, a point that again Acar does not make explicit. These formal features of the divine on which the two thinkers agree (and significantly draw rather different conclusions) are: God is simple (his quiddity or essence is identical to his existence), God is necessary and immutable (what is necessary cannot have a quiddity, only contingents are composites of quiddity and existence), God is eternal, and God possesses self-knowledge. All of these features are then examined for Aquinas as well. What they all indicate is divine simplicity. They also imply a number of issues that Acar does not treat in any detail. What is the nature of divine attributes? How does an immutable, eternal God act in a mutable, transient world? What is the nature of God’s knowledge of others (the notorious problem of God’s knowledge of particulars)? One of the drawbacks in Acar’s method is the over-reliance upon the metaphysics of al-Shifāʾ; other important works such as al-Ishārāt are rarely cited. While Acar is careful to show Avicenna and Aquinas’ convergence on these formal divine features, he does insist on the different ways in which each of these features is understood and these differences account for the divergence on the nature of God’s creative agency that is the subject of the next part.
Part Two moves onto the issue of creation. Chapter Three examines the question of whether God is a volitional creator. We begin to see the emergence of a divergence (whereas arguably the first part shows the broad consensus of Avicenna and Aquinas on theological language). Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) famously anathemised Avicenna on this issue. But Avicenna was careful to insist, perhaps paradoxically, that God was both a volitional and a necessary agent; the creation is both a necessary emanation from him and a chosen object of creation. Central to this is the notion of the divine will. Avicenna argues that the divine will is an eternal aspect of the divine essence and it is the cause of existence and the order of the cosmos. As the divine will is eternal so the cosmos must be eternal as the effect co-exists with its cause. But overall creation is natural and necessary and one could not imagine the cosmos not existing. Avicenna’s concept of the divine will is thus quite different from theological accounts available to him. Aquinas insists on God’s volition. He shares with Avicenna the medieval conflation of will and nature is determining action. But for him, the cosmos is neither necessary nor is God devoid of free choice in determining what the cosmos is (and indeed whether it is). Acar’s presentation of Avicenna’s position does seem somewhat apologetic in response to the theological critique. But the thorough determinism of Avicenna’s cosmology from its principle through to every little entity in the hierarchy of existence leaves a cosmos largely devoid of any volition.
Chapter Four makes the difference more explicit. On one side of the argument, Avicenna puts forwards the position of the eternity, that is, sempiternity, of the universe and adduces three arguments for it. Aquinas, on the other, opposes the eternity of the universe, much like al-Ghazālī, on grounds of theological and scriptural reasoning and refutes the three arguments, although he is willing to countenance the possibility of an eternal universe. It might be worth objecting that Aquinas’ refutation has clear theological import while Avicenna’s arguments are philosophical motivated; nevertheless, for Aquinas, Avicenna’s position is not rationally demonstrable. Acar concluded by insisting that the comparison is a fair one and both can be ‘philosophically assessed’. Avicenna’s notion of creation is richer than Acar suggests – what, for example, is the distinction between ibdāʿ which he does discuss and ṣunʿ which he does not? Avicenna’s arguments do not place God and creation at the same ontological level. While they extract time from the equation of difference, they insist upon the ontological and logical priority of the divine. This explains Acar’s judicious adoption of sempiternity to describe the cosmos instead of a simple eternity that is only predicated of God. The monograph begins with accord and ends in philosophical discord. But that is quite sound. It seems that Acar’s main purpose is to pose a dialogue of great thinkers within a wider context of dialogue between philosophical theologians of the two traditions, sketching a history of ideas within them. Dialogue requires the presence of difference and alterity. Agreement does not allow for dialogue. Within the objectives and constraints that Acar has set himself, this is a worthwhile and scholarly monograph that will contribute to our understanding of medieval philosophical theology. It makes significant allusions to linkages with current debates in the philosophy of religion about the nature of God, the possibilities of god-talk and the relationship between the divine and the created. One would, however, have wished for more ambition on the part of the author, to think ‘outside the box’ and go beyond the confines of the doctoral dissertation and present us with the bigger picture of the real significance of these debates and their persisting relevance to us today. That would amount to a true dialogue, not just juxtaposing two medieval thinkers but also presenting them within a contemporary debate about the possibilities of philosophical theology and a new scriptural reasoning.
[i] On this point, see Toby Mayer, ‘Ibn Sīnā’s burhān aṣ-ṣiddīqīn’, Journal of Islamic Studies vol. 12 (2001), pp. 18–39, and his contribution in Before and After Avicenna, eds. D. Reisman and A. al-Rahim (Leiden: Brill, 2003), both of which seem to have eluded Acar.