A Brief Study of the Principle of Lutf – Development and Challenges


As Muslims we believe that every aspect of our life has been governed by God and that He has not left any area of human life without consideration. It is a core belief, taken to be axiomatic, that humans have not been left to their own fate or will but rather God has sent Prophets to ensure their success and salvation in both this world and the next. Yet the question has always intrigued scholars: why did God have to send Prophets? Was God bound to send Prophets? How did the early theologians tackle these question and understand the necessity of God’s guidance? These questions led a group of theologians to establish the principle of lutf and employ it as a rational maxim that became, for many, a cornerstone in a coherent and sound systematic theology.

The need to better understand and grasp the conceptual grounding upon which Shia kalām (Islamic theology) has been based on is a pressing matter. While numerous books and articles have been written in English expositing the theological debates between the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites, or looking exclusively at particular Shia scholars, there remains much more work to be done on understanding the development, unique particularities and dialectics of Shi’a theology, in particular looking at the principle of lutf. The aim of this research will therefore attempt to bring familiarity to this principle by looking at its historical context, its development and then focusing on the critiques raised on its major and minor premises.

Lutf, its Challenges and Importance

The word lutf literally means kindness, grace and benevolence. It has been used by the theologians to denote God’s action, more specifically the necessity of Him acting in a way that motivates humans to stay away from what has been forbidden and perform what is obligated. In addition some scholars have mentioned that lutf has two conditions, firstly it should not impact a person’s capacity to act (tamkīn)[1] and secondly it should not undermine the person’s volition and force him to act against his will (i.e. be compelled).[2] We will look at this definition and the two conditions in more detail later on.

This principle has been traditionally utilised in the following syllogistic form:
Minor premise: X is an instance of lutf.
Major premise: All instances of lutf are obligatory upon God.[3]
Conclusion: X is obligatory upon God.

The conceptual foundation underlying the major premise has been hotly contested since the discussion surfaced in the Islamic world. The notion that something external to God could be “obligatory” upon God (wājib ‘ala’ al-Allāh) generated controversy amongst many theologians and led to the infamous split between the Ash’arites and the Adliyya, the former arguing for Divine Voluntarism and the latter arguing for Divine Justice. It is for this reason that it has been mentioned that the principle of lutf is predicated on accepting God’s justice[4] however the accuracy of this opinion has been questioned.[5]

The major premise has been critiqued on two levels, firstly on the meaning of obligation and what that means or entails, and secondly, on it being absolute, whereby every instance of lutf is considered obligatory, not just some or a few.

Investigating the minor premise involves understanding just how lutf has been defined. Once the definition has been made clear it will elucidate the jurisdiction and extent of which the principle covers.

This principle was initially used by Muslim theologians in explaining why it was necessary for God to obligate humans and send Prophets, as both of these, the act of obligating (taklīf) and sending Prophets (irsāl al-rusul) were considered instances of lutf. However, after this, Shia theologians utilised this principle for other areas of belief, such as proving Imamate, the infallibility of the Imams, the authority of the scholars in the time of Occultation and even the obligation of certain acts (such as commanding the good and forbidding the evil).[6]   

Historical Context – Mu’tazilites, Sheikh Mufīd and Sharīf Murtadha

This principle emerged as a by-product of the theological debates between the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites on the scope and ability of speculative reasoning. The subject of the debate that laid the groundwork for most if not all of the ensuing theological discussion, (one of which was the principle of lutf), was whether it was possible for humans, using their reason alone, to determine the innate goodness or badness of an action. In other words, “Did reason precede revelation or not?”[7] If this is the case, as the Mu’tazilites argued, then there are certain things that can be known prior to revelation, for example, the obligation to thank a benefactor (wujūb shukr al-mun’im). From this idea it was then concluded, (albeit formulated differently by different theologians), that humans have been morally obligated to seek God, as He was the greatest of all Benefactors.[8]

Having therefore established the existence of rationally deduced and scripturally independent obligations (taklif aqlī), the Mu’tazilites concluded that given the limitations on what speculative reason can understand and that God has the best interests of the creation in mind (al-aslah), He would have to help provide the necessary assistance, lutf, to ensure that people can indeed fulfil the obligations placed on them. Here a question was asked: “Is God’s act of lutf necessitated by His justice, and if so, if He fails to do so could He be considered to be unjust? Or is it necessitated by His generosity and nobility (al-jūd wa al-karam)?”[9]

The Mu’tazilites of Baghdad argued that the basis of this lutf was God’s justice, and now that God had decided to impose moral obligation on people, His justice would necessitate he fulfils this pledge. Amongst the Shi’a theologians who adopted this view was Sharīf al-Murtadhā, who gave the following example to illustrate his point:[10] if a person intended to invite another person to a meal, and he knew that the person who was being invited would only attend after being smiled at or spoken politely, if the person doing the inviting failed to smile or speak politely then he would be considered blameworthy. Rather, in Murtadhā’s analogy, failing to smile or speak politely would be akin to closing the door on them as in both scenarios the person failed to attend; especially keeping in mind how effortless those two acts of smiling and speaking nicely would have been for the host. To bring this now back to God, God, for whom everything is easy, would similarly be considered blameworthy if He obligates humans but does not provide lutf to ensure they fulfil those obligations. For Murtadhā it is God’s Justice that provides the foundation for Him to act.[11]

The Mu’tazilites of Basra argued differently. They were of the opinion that lutf arose from God’s generosity and not His justice, and therefore, in the hypothetical absence of such lutf God would not be considered unjust. Sheikh Mufīd, who agreed with this view, says the following:

“The reason why the proponents of the necessity of lutf argued such was that they recognised that this necessity arose from God’s generosity and magnanimity, and not what has been assumed [by the Mu’tazilites of Baghdad] that justice has forced God (to act) and had He not acted He would be unjust”.[12]

Elsewhere Sheikh Mufīd slightly differ on this and mentions that lutf is obligatory based on God’s wisdom:

“If it is asked, on what basis is lutf obligatory in [light of God’s] wisdom, the response is that because the objective of creation is predicated on it. It, therefore, becomes obligatory.”[13]

From this brief historical snapshot we can see the development of a few things. Shi’a theologians had adopted the position of explaining the concept of obligation (taklīf) via the principle of lutf yet they differed in the basis of it. One group were of the opinion that the basis of the obligatory of lutf is God’s justice whereas the other argued that it is God’s generosity, albeit Mufīd also relied on the notion of God’s wisdom. Here onwards the principle of lutf was discussed between these two conceptual foundations of God’s justice on one side and His wisdom on the other.[14]

Types of lutf – Development in Classifications and Meaning

Lutf has been generally described by the theologians as the act of God which “motivates a person to obedience and keeps him away from disobedience”. Additionally this lutf had two conditions, it should not affect the persons capacity to perform the obligation neither should it remove the individuals free will. Some of the early theologians spoke of lutf in two distinct categories, muqarrib and muhassil. Lutf muqarrib referred to the act of God which simply pushed a person to obedience and kept him away from disobedience. Once this lutf is provided by God the person may choose to obey and he may choose not to obey however, through the lutf, the choice of obedience has been made “easier”.

On the other hand, lutf muhassil referred to the act of God which if provided would definitely result in the person’s obedience. By this it was not inferred that the person would lose his free will, rather God, in His wisdom, was aware that such a lutf would definitely result in the persons obedience through the persons own free will.  On this basis the idea of lutf muhassil was further split into two, if the lutf made a person perform his obligation it was referred to as success (tawfīq) and where it made a person refrain from sin it was referred to as infallibility (‘isma).

This categorisation proposed by the theologians was focused purely on the reaction of the person (mukallaf) and not on the lutf itself and what was common between the two is that they both provided some form of motivation. A certain type of lutf could be muqarrib but not muhassil but every lutf muhassil would be muqarrib. While the term muqarrib was used by the theologians to describe that type of lutf, the term muhassil was not, rather it was introduced later in an attempt to name the second type of lutf,[15] however what can be seen in the words of the early theologians is the description of these two types of lutf. For example, Sharīf Murtadha says: “Lutf is that which calls a person to obedience. Lutf is of two types [muhassil and muqarrib]: that which makes a person choose to obey, and if it was not there, the person would not have obeyed. The other is that which takes a person closer to obedience.”[16]

This definition can be found more or less repeated by Sheikh Tusi in his Iqtisād and their students Abu Salāh al-Halabī and Karājakī. As noted earlier, it was believed that lutf muhassil would lead to either success (in the instance of obedience) or infallibility (in the instance of avoiding disobedience). This led Sharīf Murtadhā (and some other earlier theologians) to propose the idea of generic infallibility, that is, in the instance where God knows that if He provides lutf then a certain person would avoid disobedience, in such a scenario it is obligatory upon God to do so. In his Āmālī he mentions two types of infallibility that God grants, qualified (muqayyad) and unqualified (mutlaq), arguing that the former is available to all people (and is obligatory upon God in certain circumstances) whereas the latter is exclusive to the Prophets and Imāms.[17]

When it comes to the time of Khwāja Tūsī he doesn’t mention the two types of lutf and in all of his theological treatises just focuses on lutf muqarrib. In his magnum opus Tajrīd al-I’tiqād[18] he doesn’t expand on the definition of lutf, however in his Qawā’id al-I’tiqād he says: “Lutf is obligatory [upon God], and it is that which takes a servant closer to obedience and keeps him away from disobedience”.[19] He repeats this in his Naqd al-Muhassal[20] and does not mention lutf muhassil either.

Some of reasons have been given as to why this category of lutf was not mentioned (despite it being mentioned by Murtadhā and others), the most important being that lutf muhassil has no role to play in the theological discussions, as it is just referencing the reaction of the recipient of lutf, this is unlike lutf muqarrib which has been the type of lutf referenced in most theological arguments. Additionally it was difficult to demonstrate that lutf muhassil is obligatory upon God unlike lutf muqarrib (which could be demonstrated by basing the argument on God’s wisdom or justice).[21] In this fashion, ibn Maytham al-Bahrānī also mentions lutf muqarrib in his works and makes no mention of lutf muhassil.[22] A survey of Allāma Hillī’s works shows that in quite a few he only mentions lutf muqarrib with the exception of Kashf al-Murād[23] where he mentions both. Additionally in his Anwār al-Malakūt[24] he attributes the two-fold division to the Mu’tazilites.

However recently, in the past few decades, a change in the definition of lutf begun to emerge first appearing in Tawdhīh al-Murād by Hussaynī Tehrānī. There he offers an entirely new meaning for lutf explaining that lutf is every matter upon which God’s objective depends, and that the absence of it, of the lutf, will consequently defeat the purpose that God had in mind. If God’s objective in creating humans is to take them to felicity, anything that helps them in fulfilling that purpose will therefore be considered lutf. [25] Tehrānī explains the reason behind this change is to avoid an argument against the principle of lutf as this argument would only be valid if the principle is understood in its traditional definition (which we will look at in the next section).

Another explanation given[26] for the change in the meaning is that Allāma Hillī’s definition of lutf no longer allowed for this principle to be used in proving obligation or prophecy. In Kashf al-Murād, Allāma Hillī defines lutf as a relative concept, meaning prior to the arrival of lutf an obligation should already exist, and this lutf should not impact a person’s ability to perform that obligation so that without that lutf there should still be the possibility for a person to perform it.[27] This would render the principle invalid as its principle usage since inception had been to support the concept of obligation and the need for God to send Prophets.

If the sending of the Prophets is to be considered a lutf then according to this definition there should already be a related obligation that the person could act on without that lutf, as the lutf should not create the obligation but merely complement it. However in this scenario, how would it be possible for a person to act religiously without the Prophets? The drastic consequence of this definition would mean that the accepted maxim which the theologians had unanimously accepted of “religious obligations are a lutf on rational obligations” (al-takālīf al-shar’iyya altāfun fī al-takālīf al-aqliyya) would be brought under question. This issue was also recognised by Sheikh Subhānī to be problematic and in his commentary on Kashf al-Murād he comments that a path of reconciliation needs to be found between Allāma’s definition of lutf and what has traditionally been understood (that religious obligations are indeed an instance of lutf).[28]

This change of meaning has been met with differing reactions in contemporary times. Some have rejected it and referred to it as weak and having no precedent in theological discourse[29] while others have accepted and endorsed it. Amongst those who have accepted it is Sheikh Subhānī[30] who in his Ilāhiyāt explains lutf as follows: “Lutf in the usage of the theologians has two meanings, lutf muqarrib and lutf muhassil…as for lutf muhassil, this is the providing of the foundations and preliminaries upon which are predicated the purpose of creation, and through which creation will be protected from being purposeless and aimless, from the perspective that were it not for God providing these foundations and preliminaries, His action [of creation] would be rendered free of any purpose and such will contradict His wisdom, for His wisdom requires that He is free from all that lacks purpose. An example of such is explaining the obligations upon humans, and giving them the ability to fulfil them. In this light the sending of Prophets to make clear the path of success [is an instance of such lutf]…as for lutf muqarrib,  that is providing all that upon which the purpose of obligation is predicated, like threats [of Hell] and promises [of Heaven]…”[31]

To summarise then, the meaning of lutf was initially defined into muqarrib and muhassil. Lutf muhassil was then split into success and infallibility, and this division featured commonly in the works of Sharīf Murtadha and Sheikh Tūsī. This continued up until the time of Khwāja Tūsi where no mention of lutf muhassil can be found in any of his works. After him Allāma Hillī similarly mentions only lutf muqarrib except for in two places where he makes mention of lutf muhassil. A few centuries later a number of scholars, in response to the mounting objections facing this principle, offered an entirely new meaning for lutf.

Major Premise – Meaning of wujūb

The biggest critique levied against this principle has to do with the notion of something being obligatory upon God. For the Ash’rites it was blasphemous to posit that something external to God could have dominion over His actions as this would limit His omnipotence. For the Ash’arites, what made God God was His ability to do whatever He wishes and pleases, and therefore limiting Him was an impossibility. This belief of theirs became the foundation of their theology and influenced the theological landscape for the next hundreds of years. For this reason they rejected the principle of lutf (just as they did many other rational maxims) and argued that God was not obligated to send Prophets as He is free to do as He pleases[32].

The Mu’tazilites and Shia theologians responded to these misconceptions by explaining what they meant when they used the term “obligation upon God”. For some scholars the argument can be traced back to a misunderstanding in terminologies as the word wujūb carries with it a jurisprudential connotation that gives an initial impression that God has been commanded by something external to Him to do something. Khwāja Tūsi says on this: “The wujūb here isn’t a religious ruling as is popularly used by the jurists, rather it means that the act is [wājib] in so far as the one who does not perform is considered to be blameworthy”.[33] In addition to the difference in terminology the theologians also relied on the maxim they had previous established in relation to Divine Justice (al-husn wa al-qubh aqliyayn) whereby they argued that God’s obligation is predicated on the necessity of Him being Just.[34]

For some Shia scholars the traditional explanation provided by the theologians was not satisfactory and it was considered better if it was explained philosophically.[35] These scholars argued that all acts of God are manifested from and directly correlated with His attributes, and since perfection and wisdom are amongst His attributes, it is necessary therefore that His actions reflect that. From here we can understand that the wujūb being referred to is the necessary relationship between God’s action and His attributes, and that God will never act in a way that contradicts His attributes. With this preliminary in mind, it can then be concluded that since obligation without lutf would violate His wisdom, the act of lutf cannot be separated from obligations, and in so far as there are obligations there will always have to be lutf. For this reason certain philosophers have argued that it would be better to change the term traditionally employed by the theologians of “obligation upon God” (wājib ‘ala Allāh) to a more accurate description of “obligation from God” (wājib ‘an Allāh).[36]

Given that the notion of lutf being wājib on God has been unanimously accepted by Shia scholars throughout history there isn’t much discussion or thought to add here, and this objection is not worthy of consideration. While there are internal differences between the theologians and philosophers in how best to explain this concept, unfortunately exploring the subtleties and nuances of the various approaches that have been demonstrated in the works of intellectual sciences is beyond the scope of this paper.

Major Premise – The Problem of Infinite Instances of Lutf

Another of the critiques levied against the principle of lutf has to do with the absolute nature of the major premise. Theologians have often argued for this principle by emphasising its universal and encompassing nature which is demonstrated by the use of the qualifier “all”. It isn’t the case that it is necessary for God to provide some instances of lutf, or just one or two instances that are of extreme importance in the grand scheme of creation, rather what is being argued and insisted on by the theologians is that God is responsible for providing every and all instances of lutf. The objection brought here is that if this is the case then this would mean there would be infinite instances of lutf that God would have to provide. For every instance of lutf that would motivate a person to obey and refrain a person from disobedience, an instance of lutf greater than that can be conceived of and this leads to a succession of lutf that would stretch on to infinity. Additionally the existence of disbelievers demonstrates that God has not provided every type of lutf conceivably possible, as if He had, disbelievers would not exist. Therefore the non-existence of these instances can be deduced from the existence of disbelievers, and this consequently indicates that God is not obligated to provide every instance of lutf.

The above objection can be formulated in the following propositional forms:

First formulation

Minor premise: If the principle of lutf was true, every possible conceivable instance of lutf would exist (conditional statement)
Major premise: There are some instances of lutf that do not exist (consequent)
Conclusion: The absolute nature of this principle is invalid

Second formulation
Minor premise: If the principle of lutf was true, there would be no disbelievers (conditional statement)
Major premise: Disbelievers exist (consequent)
Conclusion: The absolute nature of this principle is invalid

This objection was first put forth by the Mu’tazilite Bishr b. Mu’tamar[37] and since then it has been frequently utilised by those who either do not accept the principle or who challenge its absolute nature. The critique has also been accepted by Shia scholars, Hussayni Tehrāni himself accepted it and he quotes from Muqaddas Ardabillī who accepted it also.[38] Tāliqāni in his Kasfh al-Asrār mentions a group of scholars who have unfortunately succumbed to this objection however it is not clear who exactly it is that he is referring to.[39]

There are two responses that are generally found in the works of systematic theology in response to this critique. One I would call the traditional response and the other non-traditional or innovative. The traditional response does not accept the objection and attempts to refute it by re-emphasising the conditions of lutf, implicitly accusing the interlocutor of not understanding lutf properly. On the contrary the innovative approach accepts this objection and as a response tinkers the formulation of the principle of lutf in one of two ways, either by changing the meaning of lutf or by adopting a qualified major premise instead of an absolute one.

The traditional response to this objection is that all instances of lutf have two fundamental and inviolable conditions.[40] Firstly they should not interfere in a person’s capacity to perform the obligation and secondly it should not infringe on his free will. The presence of free will is what makes the entire system of reward and punishment intelligible and if this free will was to be taken or infringed upon in any way then it will lose any meaning, as rewarding someone for something they did not do out of their own volition is nonsensical. It is for this reason that despite God providing every form of lutf conceivably possible you will still find disbelievers and wrongdoers, and these groups of people, using their own freewill, have chosen to ignore the lutf given to them. Therefore the presence of such disbelievers cannot be used as evidence to undermine the principle. Another point that has been mentioned is that this objection isn’t accurate as given the condition of freewill for lutf you can’t possibly have infinite instances of it.[41]

On the other hand, a few scholars recognised the gravity of the objection and attempted to salvage the principle by proposing a new meaning of what was intended by lutf. Sheikh Subhānī in his commentary on Kashf al-Murād says the following: “It is evident to see that accepting [the claim] that all instances of lutf are obligatory [on God] in both of its categories is a difficult matter. This is because of the different ways people are motivated to fulfil obligations. This claim entails that God is required to provide every single person something that will motivate them to get closer to Him. Everyone’s motivation differs according to their temperament and preferences. So we can assume there may be a person who would find it easier to obey God if he was wealthy, a second person if he was poor, a third person if he had an attractive wife, and so on, just how many obligatory things will God have to provide so that they can be closer to worshipping Him? The correct position is what we explained in [the book] al-Ilāhiyāt, that only whatever is involved in creating motivation for obeying and keeping a person from disobedience in most people is obligatory upon God, and this is to protect God’s act of obligating people from becoming pointless. If we are to consider what is required for people on an individual basis [and not collectively] then the required lutf will have no limit.”[42]

In this passage it shows that Sheikh Subhānī agrees with the objection that if every conceivable form of lutf was obligatory this would lead to the potential instances of lutf being infinite. Whilst previously it was argued that since lutf is limited to preserving a person’s freewill its instances could not be infinite, on closer inspection this argument isn’t very convincing. If we consider the subjective nature of motivation and look at just how many people have lived in the past and are living now, the possible number of motivations relevant to them all would be far too great to even conceive, even if from a technical point it may not be infinite. Yet insisting that because it isn’t infinite the objection is invalid would appear to be pedantic and missing the point of what is being argued.

Elsewhere, after mentioning the views of a few scholars who believed in the absolute nature of the principle of lutf, Sheikh Subhānī says: “These are the views of those who believe in the obligation of lutf, and if it is absolute then it is incomplete. Rather what is correct is the differentiation between those instances of lutf that help in establishing obligations and are common amongst people, this type is obligatory from the perspective of God’s wisdom. Instances other than these are from God’s generosity and bounty and there is no obligation [on God providing it or not].”[43]

From this passage (and others previously mentioned) we can see that Subhānī has classified lutf into different types:

1. Lutf muhassil: those instances upon which the objective of creation are based on and without which creation would become purposeless, such as sending Prophets.
2. Lutf muqarrib (generic for all people): those instances upon which the objective of God obligating people are based on and without which it would become purposeless. These instances are common amongst all people, such as being motivated by promises of heaven and threats of hell.
3. Lutf muqarrib (unique to each person): those instances upon which the objective of God obligating people are based on and without which it would become purposeless. These instances are unique to each individual person and would depend upon the person’s preferences and disposition, such as being wealth, poverty, comfort etc.

For Sheikh Subhānī, the first two types of lutf are obligatory upon God, as if God did not provide for them it would undermine His wisdom. As for the third type, that is up to God to decide to provide or not, and if He does decide to provide it to an individual it is from His generosity that He does so. The problem Subhānī has with the traditional viewpoint proposed by the theologians is that they include type 3 within their major premise and deem that God’s obligation includes that type of lutf too, which according to him is not correct.

In my opinion Subhānī’s response is an acceptable one and one that is reasonable. If one accepts the obligation of lutf then it would be quite clear for them to see that there are plenty instances of lutf which would make us more motivated to worship God whilst at the same time not effecting our free will, yet they haven’t occurred. Even though this view has been criticised by some scholars as innovative and new, its a place for deliberation on whether such charges alone are enough to consider it problematic. Sometimes a new opinion can demonstrate intellectual courage and strength in recognising shortcomings in traditional answers and posit new ones, something that in my opinion should be applauded rather than criticised.  

Minor Premise – Critique of establishing instances

Even if one accepts the major premise that lutf is obligatory upon God, there still remains critiques posed to the minor premise that need to be investigated. The minor premise is where certain acts have been classified as instances of lutf, for example the act of God sending Prophets or the act of God appointing an Imām. The main challenge here is in overcoming the limitations of the human mind in understanding what exactly an instance of lutf is and what isn’t. As our knowledge is limited, it could be the case that something we consider to be a lutf isn’t one in reality and therefore we actually are not capable of instantiation. This would then make this principle ineffective in proving anything. While some have considered this critique to be a critique on the major premise I think it would be more accurate to consider it a critique on the minor premise, as this critique deals with our ability of specifying instances of the concept of lutf and not with universals or categorisations. One scholar who accepted this critique and used it to argue against the principle of lutf was Ahmad Narāqi. In his Awā’id al-Ayyām he brings the following arguments[44]:

Firstly, when we say that instance X is obligatory upon God, we need to clarify whether or not we are referring to obligations in reality (fī nafs al-amr) or obligations according to our understanding. If it is the former, then there is no way of knowing whether or not this instance is actually an obligation in reality or not as every time we speak of lutf it is merely from the limitations of our understanding. If it is the latter then there is no evidence that can prove that whatever we have understood to be an obligation is actually an obligation in reality, there is no correlation between the two.

To illustrate the difference between the two realms of our understanding and reality, Narāqi gives the example of two phrases. Imagine God says “the disbeliever will be in Hell”, or “the disbeliever is impure”, the first has to do with reality and our knowledge of someone being a disbeliever will have no impact in them being in Hell or not, that is a decision for God to make and there could be a scenario where someone we consider to be a disbeliever may in reality not be one. Similarly for the second statement with the only difference that we now have an obligation in respect to our knowledge, even though our knowledge may not be correct in reality (as again we may assume someone to be a disbeliever and stay away from them yet in reality they are not one). Narāqi uses this to explain how statements relating to lutf are like the first sentence, they have no correlation with reality neither do they require us to do anything about it.

Secondly, in order for us to be certain that something is an instance of lutf, we need to have knowledge on its conditions and obstacles. Given that something does not occur without the fulfilment of its necessary conditions and absence of all obstacles, it is not possible for us to assume that instance X is an obligation unless we can also be sure that the conditions are in place and the obstacles are removed, otherwise we would be imposing something impossible on God. Here he gives the example that while we can argue that religious obligations are a lutf, we have no knowledge as to what the conditions and obstacles of it are, and why, for example, a boy younger than 15 and a girl younger than 9 are excluded. Also for sending the Prophets, while we might argue this to be an instance of lutf, we have no knowledge of why the Prophet was not sent sooner than he was, or even sent later. Knowledge of such conditions and obstacles for each instance is simply beyond our ability.

Thirdly, we should know whether or not God’s objective can be carried out by this instance alone or not. If it is possible to conceive that God could fulfil his purpose through instance Y or Z, then to say God is obligated to bring about instance X would be incorrect.

As it can be seen Narāqi’s arguments against the principle are to do with the limitation of our knowledge. In order for us to say X is an instance of lutf we need to know three things: (1) it’s status in reality, (2) its conditions and barriers and (3) if it has an alternative. If we fail to know any of these it won’t be possible for us to conclude something to be lutf. Given that human beings do not possess the encompassing knowledge required to satisfy the three-fold criteria explained above, it then stands to reason that our path to instantiate lutf is closed.

Prior to Narāqi this critique was not as developed and was worded differently. What was emphasised instead was that the criteria to considering something as lutf was that we should also know the benefit and harms that it relates to (masālih wa mafasid). Failing to know these means we would be prevented from instantiating something as lutf. Traditionally the response given to this is that if lutf is to be understood as whatever brings us closer to God and away from disobedience then there are some instances we can be absolutely sure of that have no associated harms, and even if they were to have some associated harms it would be from another perspective not that of it being lutf.[45] Given the strength of this objection it would be fair to say that the response is slightly underwhelming. This aside, I was also unable to find any responses to Narāqi’s critiques in any of the books or articles I referred to. Rabbānī Gulpayghani[46] mentions 5 different critiques of the principle of lutf but does not include the critique of Narāqi amongst them. No response to this can be found in the works of Sheikh Subhānī or of other scholars/journals that I looked at[47]. It would be fair to say that this argument has hitherto gone unanswered, and it is easy to see assume why, as Narāqi’s critique doesn’t just strike at the principle of lutf but rather takes aim at the elephant in the room, our limited epistemic capability.

Concluding Remarks

The principle of lutf emerged as a successful innovative solution to some of the most pressing theological issues of its time, however as time elapsed it started to come under tremendous critique and criticism. Whilst initially the challenges posed against the principle came from the Ash’arites who outright rejected this principle due to the rational presupposition upon which it was predicated, over time opposition to the principle started to surface within Shi’i scholarly circles too. This was while the jurisdiction of the principle was constantly being broadened as theologians utilised the principle to establish more and more tenets of their belief system.

This article only touched on three of the main arguments levied against the principle yet there is much more that could be analysed, and as has been shown, the challenges presented are, at the least, worthy of deliberation. Despite the centrality this principle occupied in works of theology it has now become commonplace for scholars to overlook it in their doctrinal discussions, resorting to philosophical formulations to provide the evidential support once taken from this principle. What was once the advantage of this principle, in that it was fixed on numerous preliminaries that were taken to be axiomatic, is now perhaps the cause of its own undoing. There are far too many foundational issues that a person has to navigate before they could utilise the principle in the fashion it was conceived for.

While the efforts of scholars who have tried to salvage whatever they could of this principle should be commended, more work should be done to continue to find a way to combine and synthesise the principle, which represents the heritage of many great minds of the Shi’a tradition, with the latest developments in philosophy.


Non-English Sources

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[1] An example given is that of physical strength, this is because lutf is predicated on the existence of taklif, and one of the conditions of taklif is the ability to perform it, such as strength. Without strength then there would be no taklif, and by consequence, no lutf. So in this example the giving of strength to perform an act cannot be considered a lutf. Sanity is another example that would be amongst the conditions of taklif and not considered lutf.

[2] Sheikh al-Mufid, al-Nukat al-I’tiqādiyya, p. 35

[3] Fādhil Miqdād, al-I’timād fī Sharh Wājib al-I’tiqād, p. 88, ibn Maytham al-Bahrānī, Qawā’id al-Marām, p. 175

[4] Rabbāni Gulpaygāni, al-Qawā’id al-Kalāmiyya, p. 110

[5] Mahdi al-Kharrāzī, Qaīdat al-Lutf, Mujalla Intidhār, n. 8

[6] Rabbāni Gulpayghāni, al-Qawā’id al-Kalāmiyya, p. 114

[7] Mohamad Nasrin Nasir, The Concept of “Taklif” according to Early Ash’arite Theologians, Islamic Studies, Vol. 55, No. 3/4, p. 292

[8] Hussein Ali Abdulsater, Reason, Grace and the Freedom of Conscience: The Period of Investigation in Mu’tazili Theology, Studia Islamica, Vol. 110, No. 2 (2015), p. 238

[9] Martin McDermott, The Theology of Shaikh al-Mufid, p. 63

[10] This example has been used repeatedly in the works of theology and I have not found anyone use it prior to Sharif al-Murtadhā.

[11] Sharīf al-Murtadhā, al-Dhakhīra, p. 190-191

[12] Al-Mufid, Awā’il al-Maqālāt, p. 59

[13] Al-Mufīd, al-Nukat al-I’tiqādiyya, p. 35

[14] While it has been argued that there are up to 6 different conceptual foundations for the principle of lutf, a close inspection demonstrates that they can all be brought back to the main two of justice (theological approach) and wisdom (philosophical approach), see Hassan Dīn Panāh, Aqlāniyat Āmūze yeh Lutf az Dīdgāhe Imāmiyya

[15] According to Dr. Mūsa Mullāyarī, the first use of the phrase “lutf muhassil” (lutf muhassil) is found in Minhāj al-Yaqīn by Allāma Hillī, refer to Tatawur Mazmūn va Madlūl Qā’ida Lutf dar Kalām Shī’a.

[16] Sharīf Murtadha, al-Dhakhīra, p. 186

[17] Sharīf Murtadha, al-Āmālī, v. 2, p. 348

[18] Khwāja Tūsī, Tajrīd al-I’tiqād, p. 204

[19] Khwāja Tūsī, Qawā’id al-I’tiqād, p. 65

[20] Khwāja Tūsī, Naqd al-Muhassal, p. 342

[21] Refer to Dr. Mūsa Mullāyarī, Tatawur Mazmūn va Madlūl Qā’ida Lutf dar Kalām Shī’a

[22] Ibn Maytham al-Bahrānī, Qawā’id al-Marām, p. 117

[23] Allāma Hillī, Kashf al-Murād, p. 324-325

[24] Allāma Hillī, Anwār al-Malakūt, p. 153

[25] Hussaynī Tehrānī, Tawdhīh al-Murād, p. 600-601

[26] Refer to Mūsa Mullāyarī, Tatawur Mazmūn va Madlūl Qā’ida Lutf dar Kalām Shī’a

[27] Allāma Hillī, Kashf al-Murād, p. 325

[28] Sheikh Subhānī, Kashf al-Murād, p. 108

[29] Rabbāni Gulpaygāni, Qawā’id al-Kalāmiyya, p. 99-100

[30] 3 different views as to the meaning of lutf have been extracted from Sheikh Subhānī’s various works, however his final position seems to be a change in meaning. Refer to Mūsa Mullāyarī, Mafhūm sāziyeh Jadīd az Qā’ida Lutf

[31] Sheikh Subhānī, al-Ilāhiyāt, v. 3, p. 51-52

[32] Ghazzālī, al-Iqtiṣād fī al-I’tiqād, p. 102

[33] Khwāja Tūsi, Talkhīs al-Muhassal, p. 342

[34] Allāmah Hilli, Kashf al-Fawā’id, p. 68, Ja’far Subhāni, Husn wa Qubh Aqli yā Payeh hāyeh Akhlāq Jāvidān, p. 12

[35] Mohsin Kharāzi, Bidāyat al-Ma’ārif, p. 148-149

[36] Jawādi Āmulī, Wilayat Faqīh, p. 140

[37] Rabbāni Gulpayghāni, al-Qawā’id al-Kalāmiyya, p. 111

[38] Hussaynī Tehrānī, Tawdhīh al-Murād, p. 601,

[39] Tāliqāni, Kashf al-Asrār, p. 95

[40] Abul-Hassan Shi’rānī, Kashf al-Murād, p. 463, Allāma Hillī, Kashf al-Murād, p. 326

[41] Rabbāni Gulpayghāni, al-Qawā’id al-Kalāmiyya, p. 111

[42] Sheikh Subhānī, Kashf al-Murād, p. 108

[43] Sheikh Subhānī, Buhūth fi al-Milal wa al-Nihal, v. 3, p. 377

[44] Ahmad Narāqī, Awā’id al-Ayyām, p. 706-709

[45] For example, giving charity to a poor person might have some harms but that is not because of the generosity itself but due to other secondary issues. See Abul-Hassan Shi’rānī, Kashf al-Murād, p. 463

[46] Rabbāni Gulpayghānī, Qawā’id al-Kalāmiyya, p. 110-114

[47] Hassan Dīn Panāh in his Bar-rasī chālesh hā-yeh qā’ida lutf mentions 9 critiques of the principle but does not include Ahmad Narāqi’s.