Laws of nature as ‘laws of God’
The Turkey of today, honestly speaking, is a depressing country. The political scene is madly polarized, and the language of hate and vengeance dominates the public scene. Certain civil liberties are shrinking and there is a visible political tendency to diminish them even more. This certainly is not the Turkey people like me hoped to achieve at the end of a decades-old Kemalist hegemony and military tutelage. It is, in that sense, a great disappointment.
But all these negative facts stem from politics and are valid in the political realm. Yet, we can see more positive signs for the future, when we look at society, culture and even religion. Within the latter, especially, there are growing narratives of a more rational and individualistic understanding of Islam, compared to the more dogmatic, super-naturalist and communitarian strains that have been powerful in Islamic circles.
One such refreshing narrative was recently voiced by Prof. Mehmet Görmez, the very head of Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs. (Yes, the “secular” Republic of Turkey has had this huge directorate since its beginning, because it wants to control religion just like it does with every other aspect of life.)
In a speech given to 81 muftis from every province of Turkey, Görmez focused on the horrible accident in a coal mine in Soma, a poor town in western Turkey that killed 303 workers. Notably, he opposed the view promoted by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan that such accidents are a matter of “fate.” “Producing excuses about ‘divine power’ for human guilt and responsibility is wrong,” Görmez said, adding Muslims should rather focus on improving the safety measures and conditions of the miners.
Görmez’s talk was summarized in the English-language press, but a key part was skipped. He touched upon the matter of “laws of nature” too, and said the following:
“The laws of nature are the laws of God. God has given us the ability to understand these laws and asked from us to act accordingly. What is suitable for God’s will is to take the necessary precautions against the physical causes for disasters. The strength of the believer against the consequences of disasters is important. But similarly important is the believer’s comprehension of the causes.”
You can wonder what is so revolutionary in these words. Well, if you compare it to the Asharite theology that had a big impact on Sunni thought from the late medieval period, they are somewhat revolutionary. Because that particular theology, which was devised by Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari of the 10th century as a response to the “rationalism” of other Islamic thinkers, denied the existence of natural laws. Accordingly, every occurrence in nature was independently created by God, and therefore causality was mere illusion. Some historians think the ascendance of this particular view hindered the progress of science in the Muslim world, which in fact had a very bright era thanks to the influence of rationalist theology schools such as the Mutazila.
In the more practical world, Görmez’s comment implies that the ordinary Muslim should not try to explain disasters as “fate” or “divine punishment,” and not seek for miracles to avert physical dangers.
He should rather try to understand the causality within natural phenomena, and work actively to improve his conditions. This is a message that is both very helpful, and much needed, for the Muslim world.