Istiṭāʿa (ability) in the Qurʾān is synonymous with qudra (power) but, unlike it, is used only for creatures and never for the Creator because it necessarily implies a process on the part of the agent. It is the infinitive noun of istaṭāʿa, the tenth derivative form of the root ṭ-w-ʿ (to comply) which means aṭāqa (to be capable) as Ibn Sīda (398-458/1007-1066) defines it (Muḥkam 2:225a) or, more literally, istaṭāqa (to try to make oneself capable), per Abū Ibrāhīm al-Fārābī (d. 350?/961?) (Dīwān al-adab 3:451), primarily in the physical but also in the moral sense as in “bearing with something.” Its nominal synonyms ṭawq, ṭāqa, and iṭāqa all derive from ṭ-w-q whose literal meaning is to encircle, ṭāqa (capability) being the ṭawq (circle) of one’s power: “if one can bear something (aṭāqahu), it is as if he has encompassed it and encircled its sides” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs 3:433) although “with exertion,” al-Rāghib (d. ca.502/1108) specifies (Mufradāt, sub ṭ-w-ʿ). Thus ṭ-w-ʿ and ṭ-w-q are linguistic affines in the context of “greater etymology” (al-ishtiqāq al-akbar), where the sharing of any two root letters in respective etymons signals a semantic commonality as well; and that is how they are used in the Qurʾān.
Istiṭāʿa is used 42 times in the Qurʾān:
- mostly in the first lexical sense of physical ability, whether in this world in the past, present, or future: They have no power to help them, neither can they help themselves (Q 7:192, cf. 7:197); And they worship beside Allah that which owns no provision whatsoever for them from the heavens or the earth, nor have they any power (Q 16:73, cf. 36:75). It behooves them not, nor is it in their power (Q 26:211); Then they will not be able to make any bequest, nor will they return to their people (Q 36:50); And they (the Thamūd) were unable to rise up, nor could they help themselves (Q 51:45); or
- in hypothetical propositions: They will not cease to fight against you till they turn you from your religion, if they are able (Q 2:217), the first mention of the word in the Qurʾānic sequence; But if he who owes the debt is of low understanding, or weak, or unable himself to dictate (Q 2:282); Pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto Allah from all people able to make their way there (Q 3:97); Except the feeble among men, and the women and children, who are unable to devise a plan and are not shown a way (Q 4:98); You will not be able to be equitable between your wives, as much as you wish to (Q 4:128), that is, trying to love them both or all equally (cf. Jalālayn, Tafsīr); And had We willed, We verily could have fixed them in their place, making them powerless to go forward or turn back (Q 36:67).
- or in the next world: If those who disbelieved but knew the time when they will not be able to drive off the fire from their faces and from their backs, and they will not be helped! (Q 21:40); and you can neither ward off [your punishment] nor obtain any help (Q 25:19); and they shall be summoned to prostrate, but cannot (Q 68:42);
- twice in the shorter form isṭāʿa as in the first “unable” in the verse So they were unable to scale it and unable to pierce it (Q 18:97), a shorter, disyllabic cognate connoting faster action as opposed to the trisyllabic, so that the meaning would be that they were unable to scale it swiftly and they were unable to pierce it no matter how long they tried;
- but also in that of mental and spiritual predisposition, aptly translated by Pickthall (1875-1936) as They could not bear to hear, and they used not to see (Q 11:20); Behold, how they coin similitudes for you, and go astray, and cannot find a way! (Q 17:48, 25:9); Those whose eyes were covered against My remembrance, and who were not able to hear (Q 18:101);
- or one’s utmost power, whether in the sense of military resources as in Make ready for them all you can of armed force and steeds of war (Q 8:60), or the implementation of the Prophetic mission as in I only desire betterment to the best of my power (Q 11:88), or Godwariness (taqwā, see Fear) as in fear Allah as far as you are able (Q 64:16);
- or to express rhetorical incapacitation (taʿjīz) as in seek, if you are able, a tunnel in the ground or a ladder to the sky by which you can bring them a sign (Q 6:35); O tribe of jinn and of men, if you are able to pass through the confines of heaven and earth, pass through them! You shall not pass through except with an authority (Q 55:33);
- and scoffing (tahakkum): Or do they say, “He has forged it?” Say: Then produce a sura like it, and call on whomever you can, apart from Allah, if you speak truly (Q 10:38, cf. 11:13); Rouse with your voice whoever you [Satan] are able to from among them [human beings](Q 17:64).
First al-Zarkashī (745-794/ca.1344-1392) and later, in more precise terms, al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-ca.1505) mentioned three main meanings of the denial of ability:
- the utter denial of ability and possibility, as in the verse of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj already mentioned due to the barrier’s height, length, thickness, and hardness (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Qurṭubī, sub Q 18:97);
- an expression to signify absence of objection or denial of its taking place in actuality although one knows it is not impossible in itself, as in is your Lord able to send down to us a table out of heaven? (Q 5:112); and
- the suggestion that something is possible only with the greatest difficulty, as in al-Khiḍr’s prediction to Mūsā that the latter will not bear with him (Q 18:67, 18:75, cf. 18:78) (Burhān 3:407; Itqān Type 57). To the latter example can be added the verses or in the morning its water will be sunk into the earth, so that you will not be able to seek it out (Q 18:41) and whosoever finds not the means, let him fast two successive months, before the two of them touch one another. And if any is not able, then let him feed sixty poor persons (Q 58:4).
The word and its denotation are not used for Allah Most High and His acts, since the morphological form istafʿala and its shortened variant isfaʿala imply starting a process and surmounting a difficulty. This is illustrated here by the semantic connection with ṭāʿa, infinitive noun ṭāʿatan, “compliance” put forward by al-ʿAskarī (fl. 395/1005) in his Furūq (p. 103) to show the difference from qudra, “power”: “Istiṭāʿa is when you say, ‘his limbs complied with the act’ (ṭāʿat jawāriḥuh lil-fiʿl), and Allah cannot be described that way” although, he points out, a third, elliptical sense of supplication does apply istiṭāʿa to Allah Most High to mean “can He (grant you this request)” in the verse And when the Apostles said, “O ʿĪsā son of Maryam, is your Lord able to send down to us a table out of heaven?” (Q 5:112).
Cognates of ṭ-w-q are found in four verses of the Qurʾān as sayuṭawwaqūna to mean they shall be collared (Q 3:180); al-ladhīna yuṭīqūnahu, in reference to those who [break their fast although they] could have endured it (Q 2:184); and mā lā ṭāqata lanā bih, meaning that we cannot bear (Q 2:249, 286).
Legal Theory and Credal Doctrine
In legal theory, ability is the pivot and precondition sine qua non of legal responsibility (taklīf) , since Allah never tasks a soul except within its capacity (Q 2:233, 2:286, 6:152, 7:42, 23:62). Here the Arabic original for the latter term, wusʿ, is used synonymously with ṭāqa and its cognates, or restricted in the context of a particularized meaning such as necessary expenditure out of one’s wealth in the verse Allah asks nothing of any soul save that which He has given it (Q 65:7). Similarly, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said:
“Whenever I command you to do something, do it to the extent you can” (Bukhārī, Iʿtiṣām bil-Kitāb wal-Sunna, al-iqtidāʾ bil-sunan; Muslim, Ḥajj, farḍ al-ḥajj marratan fī-l-ʿumr). These three textual proofs are the basis for the legal axiom that “whoever is charged with certain acts of obedience and proves able to do some but is incapable of (ʿajaza ʿan) doing others must do what is in his power, and whatever he is incapable of doing is no longer an obligation for him” as cited by al-ʿIzz Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (577-660/ca.1181-1262) in his al-Qawāʿid al-kubrā (2:10).
- In credal doctrine, ability is discussed within the purview of human acts and human free will and their created nature and relation of dependence to foreordained Divine Decree (al-qaḍāʾ wal-qadar) as elaborated by Imam al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (419-478/1028-1085) in the long chapter on istiṭāʿa in his Irshād (p. 195-225). The chapter was intended as a refutation of two heresies: on the one hand that of the Jabriyya determinists who negated human responsibility by advocating pure fatalism, and on the other that of the Muʿtazila isolationists and Qadariyya libertarians who advocated absolute human free will and the power to create acts autonomously and, in their particulars, unbeknown to Allah Most High.
In between the two extremes of determinism and libertarianism, mainstream Sunni doctrine holds that human ability is all relative and metaphorical, subsumed under the higher, ontological reality of all-encompassing and absolute Divine power—for human ability can never be, in spite of Allah or autonomously, outside His Will or Knowledge—and, at the same time, a Divinely-sanctioned psychological reality that goes hand in hand with the full human accountability dictated by the Sacred Law. The Ashʿarīs and Māturīdīs attempted to strike a credal balance between human ability and Divine power by affirming this psychological reality in the ontic context, thus reconciling the verses on human responsibility and those on Divine power.
The Ashʿarī and Māturīdī Codification
Because of their stance on the mutually probative relation of human ability to human autonomy, the Muʿtazila authored books on istiṭāʿa which induced their former doctor and subsequent arch-opponent, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (260-324?/874-936?), to refute them in detail in many of his own works, in the process codifying the following principles that are by and large endorsed by the Māturīdīs:
istiṭāʿa in its literal sense—although not applied to Allah for lack of Divine edict (tawqīf) thereunto—is the lexical synonym of qudra (power) and quwwa (strength), as evinced by their figurative Qurʾānic usage to refer to material entities such as provisions and mounts (Q 3:97), weapons (Q 8:60), and horses and property (Q 9:42) (Ibn Fūrak, Maqālāt p. 109; cf. al-Ashʿarī, al-Lumāʿ p. 65; Abū Ḥafṣ al-Nasafī, al-ʿAqāʾid p. 23).
With regard to human beings, the exercise of such ability/power/strength does not extend to creation ex nihilo (iḥdāth), as the libertarians claimed, but only to acquisition (iktisāb), that is, of personal benefit or harm in the record of deeds: For it is what it has earned, and against it is what it has deserved (Q 2:286), as it is Allah first and last Who both creates (Q 37:96) and foreordains (Q 25:2) the acts of His slaves (cf. Ibn Fūrak, Maqālāt p. 109). The Alexandrian Sufi master Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh (d. 709/1309) referred to this great rule in the third of his Sapiential Aphorisms (ḥikam), “The foremost energies cannot pierce the walls of foreordained destinies,” which the Syrian scholar Muḥammad Saʿīd Ramaḍān al-Būṭī (1929-2013) expounded in a lesson entitled “Foreordained Destiny and the Inefficacy of Material Causes and Effects” (al-Qadar wa lā-fāʿiliyyat al-asbāb), in which he states:
The Almighty said: And shake the trunk of the palm tree toward you; you will cause ripe dates to fall upon you (Q 19:25). Imagine, what can that weak hand of hers do to that trunk, which is very much like that column [in the mosque]? You all know the strength of the trunk of a date-palm. What can one do? So then: Has the hand any efficacy? Yet Allah ordered her to do something; to exert some effort; to knock at Allah Almighty’s door. If Lady Maryam had said: “The God Who created the rivulet for me, and created those fresh, ripe dates for me, is able to let some of them fall in front of me just as He wishes; therefore I shall not move my hand or move the tree-trunk;” if she had said that, it would have been misconduct towards Allah Almighty. She actually moved her hand, after which Allah Almighty made them fall. Was the fall of the ripe dates effected by the moving of the hand or by Allah’s subtle kindness? It was effected by Allah’s subtle kindness (lutf). (al-Būṭī, Ḥikam, Third ḥikma)
When referring to material entities istiṭāʿa can exist before, during, and after an act in the sense of a condition of “haleness of means and instruments and limbs;” but when referring to acquisition (i.e., a creature’s appropriation of moral responsibility) it can never take place except at the time of the act exclusively, since “istiṭāʿa is a means (sabab) for acquisition and the means can no more temporally precede the mediated (musabbab) than the cause (ʿilla) can precede the caused (maʿlūl).” Since, in the final analysis, only Allah is the arch-effective agent of His will (faʿʿālun li-mā yurīd, Q 11:107, 85:16), then the relation between what is perceived to be the means/cause (sabab/ʿilla) and what is the mediated/caused (musabbab/maʿlūl) can only be one of conjunction (iqtirān), not one of efficacy or influence (taʾthīr), or engendering or existentiating (ījād) (see Acquisition; Will, Want, and Volition). This credal stance is in logical congruence with the rejection of nature (ṭabīʿa) inherent in things as autonomous causal agent, and with the consequent theological conclusion that all causation (taʾthīriyya), in the final analysis, is “vertical” and never “horizontal” (Ibn Fūrak, Maqālāt p. 111; cf. al-Ashʿarī, al-Lumāʿ p. 58-61; Abū Ḥafṣ al-Nasafī, ʿAqāʾid p. 23; Abū al-Muʿīn al-Nasafī, Tabṣira [“by consensus in that sense”] 2:541-543; cf. al-Samarqandī, Sharḥ al-Fiqh al-Akbar p. 8; al-Būṭī, Kubrā al-yaqīniyyāt p. 155-169).
The latter two points presuppose that at the time of the Divine command, literal ability is still missing and continues to be missing until the act takes place. Hence the rule that “legal responsibilities in their entirety befall in contravention of [independent] ability” (al-takālīf kulluhā wāqiʿa ʿalā khilāf al-istiṭāʿa) as stated by Imam al-Ḥaramayn (Burhān 1:102-105) and elucidated by al-Āmidī (d. 630/1233) in the opening of the third Aṣl of his Iḥkām (1:179-192).
The Ashʿarīs and Māturīdīs thus posit that there are two possible scenarios wherein one can be commanded to do something that one is unable to do: (i) physical inability, in which case legal responsibility (taklīf) is cancelled; here, the legally responsible person (mukallaf) is psychologically aware of his physical inability and thus cannot conceive of fulfilling the command, and so the inability is not willful; (ii) willful avoidance and opposition, as with those like Abū Jahl and Abū Lahab who were commanded to believe although Allah knew they would not, and who will be plunged in a flaming fire (Q 111:3); here, the mukallaf is psychologically aware of his ability and thus can conceive of fulfilling the command, so that their inability is wilful. The latter category of inability, moreover, is the general status of all disbelievers. It also shows that ability for disbelief differs from ability for belief, and that the inner reality of this matter remains hidden lest volition (ikhtiyār) turn to coercion (jabr) although, ontologically, both scenarios derive directly from the Divine will and power (Ibn Fūrak, Maqālāt p. 110-113; cf. al-Ashʿarī, al-Lumāʿ p. 62-63; al-Ashʿarī, al-Ibāna p. 134-135; Abū al-Muʿīn al-Nasafī, Tabṣira 2:544-545; al-Taftāzānī, Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid p. 145-150; al-Bannānī, Ḥāshiya on al-Maḥallī’s Sharḥ on Ibn al-Subkī’s Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ 1:206; and al-Haytamī, al-Fatḥ al-mubīn p. 180-181 and al-Minaḥ al-Makkiyya 2:822).
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