The Istanbul earthquake: Turks between god and nature

The public debate after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Istanbul last week gave us a glimpse of how different sections of Turkish society respond to significant natural events. Unlike secularists’ devotion to positivism, Islamic groups have proposed once again that such natural events should be interpreted as acts of God.

In fact, how Islamic narrative articulates on natural events like the recent earthquake helps us detect how the trajectory of Turkish Islamic thought on nature is positioned within Islamic theology.

Islamic opinions on nature were originally formulated in the 9th century, but have passed to the Islamic faith practiced today after centuries of long transmission through religious socialisation.

In Sunni Islam, the mainstream paradigm of nature is the Ash‘ari, which was given its final form by 11th century Persian theologian and mystic Al-Ghazali. From this perspective, there are no natural laws; everything in nature is created and maintained by God. What we identify as natural law is mere illusion.

In the oft-quoted example of the burning of cotton, Al-Ghazali in his seminal work “The Incoherence of Philosophers” writes that it is God who enacts the burning each time cotton comes into contact with fire, and not the laws of nature. God is the agent of all events in nature for al-Ghazali.

To put it in different terms, unsatisfied with the traditional motto of Islam that “there is no God but God,” Ash‘arism rewrote it as “there is no agent but God.”

Alternative views in Islam recognise natural laws. Ibn Rushd, for example, is against defining God as the actor of natural events. A nature with no laws would be an arbitrary place for Ibn Rushd, which is in contradiction with God’s attributes of wisdom and justice.

In his critique of Al-Ghazali, “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”, Ibn Rushd wrote that negating the laws of nature would require a tyrannical idea of deity. 

For Ibn Rushd, Al-Ghazali’s opinions render God an “agent to rule existence like a tyrannical prince who has the highest power, for whom nobody in his dominion can deputise, of whom no standard or custom is known to which reference might be made.”

However, mostly thanks to political support, the Ash’ari view of nature loomed as the mainstream Islamic view in the Muslim world. Today, Islam as it is taught and transmitted in Turkey is also mostly in line with the Ash‘ari-Ghazali perspective, which gives little space for free will and natural laws.

Turks’ loyalty to the Ash‘ari-Ghazali view of nature is particularly interesting given that they are nominally known as the followers of al-Maturidi, whose ideas are closer to those of Ibn Rushd. 

However, the madrasa system during the Seljuk and Ottoman periods crippled the Maturidi elements in Turkish Islam, drawing it closer to the Ash’ari. That Ash’arism tends to offer a more friendly view of political authority is a major reason the Seljuks and Ottomans supported it.

Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs illustrates this in the definition of God provided in its “Encyclopaedia of Islam” – “the sublime power that created and who knows and governs the universe.” Accordingly, God has not only created the universe but continues to oversee it.

As we observe in the debates on the recent Istanbul earthquake, the Ash‘ari view shapes the widely held Turkish understanding of nature. Listening to those discussions we notice that natural law is often presented as if it were illusory, enticing human beings away from an understanding of the real power relations in the universe.

This narrative teaches either refusal to believe in causality, or the maintenance of a rigorous skepticism about it. God is not only the creator but also the agent of all events in nature. Such thinking contributes to a very skeptical stance vis-à-vis modern scientific knowledge. Thus, Turks are advised to appeal directly to God, who is the real causal agent.

On this account, the public debate on the earthquake reveals one way in which the inner tensions of Turkish modernisation linger, not only in regards to the problems of democratisation or rule of law but also in regards to relations between science and religion.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.