John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.3, “Al-Maturidi”

Al-Maturidi reflects about life together with people with whom one has religious disagreement, and his situation is like our own in this respect. Each party will hold that its own belief is valid, and its opponents’ beliefs are invalid. The only way to get agreement in such a situation is for one party to have reasoned proof that can persuade any fair-minded person. If it does have such proof, the other parties ought to submit. This shows that his conception of theology is not confined to working out the implications of authoritative texts.

Al-Maturidi acknowledges that God gives to human reason an understanding both of the divine speech in general in the Qur’an, and of divine commands in particular. If God didn’t give this understanding, he says, humans would be excused from complying with the commands. But this needs to be qualified. Al-Maturidi also holds that we very often do not know whether something is wise or foolish, just or unjust. The central Mu’tazilite error, he thinks, is to suppose that God’s actions are like human actions. Al-Maturidi doesn’t deny that God has a reason for the divine command, but he does deny that we always have access to it, even in principle. How can we hold these two parts of al-Maturidi’s view together, that God causes our reason to understand His commands, and that very often we do not know God’s reason?

Al-Maturidi gives us a composite picture of human nature. We have both a rational understanding that responds with attraction to the right and with repulsion to the wrong, and we have a tendency towards what is bad in its results. Both are properly described as belonging to our nature. He is referring to an actual tendency in our reason to avoid bearing difficulty and to prefer illegal actions. This is a key point. Like the Mu’tazilites, al-Maturidi can affirm that God gives us in creation a rational understanding, which responds to the right. But this doesn’t mean that our actual decision-making about what to do accurately tracks what is in fact right and wrong. To the contrary, we tend towards what is in fact, in its results, wrong, because our human reason avoids bearing difficulty. This is why we need testing, and why God gives us commands and encouragement, to counteract this tendency. When al-Maturidi says that God causes us to understand His commands, he is referring to God’s creation in us of the rational understanding that is attracted to the right and repelled from the wrong. But when he says that very often we do not know God’s reason, one explanation is our natural tendency to avoid bearing difficulty.

An example he gives of this deplorable natural tendency is that we do not like taking bad-tasting medicine. He thus points to the same range of phenomena that we found described by ‘Abd al-Jabbar in terms of the genus of action. But al-Maturidi analyses the phenomenon differently. Of the same thing, he says, we can predicate both benefit and harm, justice and injustice, wisdom and folly. He writes, “If, then, the beauty of wisdom and justice is established as a general principle as well as the ugliness of foolishness and injustice, God must be described with every and each action. He creates by wisdom and justice and righteousness because it has been established that He is good, generous, self-sufficient and knowing.”

 The Mu’tazilites are described as holding that what makes a thing wrong is not Scripture but what Hare has called the “aspect,” for example, “injustice,” which is not simply the same as wrong itself. But if the thing is only made wrong by its aspect, and it’s not wrong because of God’s prohibition, then it can’t be made wrong by the aspect unless that aspect is itself wrong, either in its essence or in its quality. In other words, the aspect “injustice” can’t make an act wrong unless “injustice” is already named together with the wrong. But if it’s already wrong, then it is divinely prohibited, according to the divine command theorists Hare’s considered in this chapter. To say that the action is made wrong by the aspect and that therefore it’s not made wrong by God’s prohibition, as the Mu’tazilites do, is simply to beg the question.

Al-Maturidi considers whether we can talk about an action having right and wrong in itself. The rightness and wrongness of an action depend on the limit and bound set for us, in al-Ash’ari’s language, a limit and bound to which we do not have reliable access, and which is continually maintained by God’s will. Now, the Mu’tazilites might object that al-Maturidi, by denying that our actions are right or wrong “in themselves,” has denied the objectivity of morality. But recall what Hare said of Adams: that, contra Adams, we should be more modest about our abilities, holding with al-Maturidi that we have by nature a tendency towards the wrong as well as a tendency towards the right, and we should not “compare God’s actions with people’s actions.” Al-Maturidi also says every human governor in the perceptible world is a candidate for doing something wrong. The Mu’tazilites are liable to the same objection as Adams. Holding that what we judge by reason has the role they assign in justifying a claim that something is right and wrong denies the full objectivity of morality.