in category Arabic

What is the difference between the Arabic words sabab and illah as both seem to refer to cause?

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Ozgur Koca in his book "Islam, Causality and Freedom" provides a good explanation.

The word for cause is sabab or illa. Sabab in classical dictionaries means a bond,a rope, or a way that is used to connect or tie two things together. Cause (sabab) is that to which effect is tied or with which one could attain or arrive at effect (musabbab, muʾaththir).

The word sabab is used in the Qurʾan in both singular (sabab) and plural form (asbaab). In the Qurʾanic context, it usually means that which relates two things to each other for example: 22/15; 18/84-85, 89-92; 2/166; 38/10, 40/36-37.

Illa on the other hand means illness, cause, genesis, excuse etc. The term is not mentioned in the Qurʾan. Ashʿarite and Muʿtazilite theologians generally use the concepts of sabab and illa interchangeably. Qahi Abduljabbar and Nısaburı, however, make a distinction between sabab and illa on the basis of the notion of necessity. Illa implies a necessary relationship between cause and effect, whereas sabab refers to a volitional relationship.Likewise, Ibn Hazm (994-1064) argues the concepts of sabab and illa can be distinguished on the basis of their separability from the effect. Sabab can be separated from effect, as is the case in the relationship of an agent and his acts. Illa however occurs necessarily together with its effect such as fire-flame or fire-heat.

It thus appears that illa has more necessitarian implications than sabab. Sabab refers to an agent who could exist separately before and after its effect, whereas illa necessitates and occurs together with its effects.

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