Our Beacon Forum

Islam and Divine Omnipotence: a relational view
By:Farhan Shah, Norway
Date: Sunday, 30 December 2018, 6:41 pm

One of the urgent tasks of Muslim philosophers and theologians, with a genuine desire to foster creative Islamic theology in a postmodern world, promoting human agency and responsibility, is related to the issue of God's omnipotence. Of course we Muslims have always wanted to say that God is the supreme power in the universe: more powerful than hurricanes, more powerful than cancer, and more powerful than human greed. We have said this, not out of fear of punishment but rather out of honesty and awe in the presence of God’s goodness. We have recognized that God is the most powerful reality there is: that God is maxi-potent.

But the idea of omnipotence is stronger than this. “Omni” means “all,” thus suggesting that God has all the power. This is a very bold claim and can mean different things. What it means partly depends on what is meant by power.

We best begin with the power we know most intimately: namely human power. In relation to human life the word “power” typically refers to the power of a human being to influence other people and the natural world, and the power of a human being to receive and respond to the influence of others. The Qur’an speaks of God as having both kinds of power. God acts in the universe and in human life as an inwardly felt call to holiness and God responds to human actions with reward and punishment.

With this in mind, we turn to the questions: How might God influence the world? How might God receive influences from the world? And what can reward and punishment mean?

Relational Omnipotence: God as Infinite Guide and Infinite Compassion

Some might assert that God can influence the world without any regard for the power of the world itself. God can act unilaterally without being limited in any way by the world itself. Certainly, many Muslims have thought this way. The theological debate on pre-destination and free-will between the rationalistic school of Islamic theology, the Mu`tazilite, and the more traditionalistic-oriented school, the Asharite, is a point in instance, which was and still is of great import.

I propose by contrast to the more traditional theologies, that God influences the world relationally not unilaterally, which means that God seeks the cooperation of the world itself in order for the intentions of God to be actualized on earth. Thus, I advocate what might best be called relational omnipotence rather than unilateral omnipotence. By relational omnipotence I do not mean that God has “all” the relational power. We have such power, too. But I do mean that God’s relational power is and can be the central organizing principle of our temporal lives, such that we live from God’s power and not from our own personal and fleeting preferences (hawa). If Islam means submission born out of our own freedom of choice, then we “submit” to God’s relational power and find ourselves empowered in the process of becoming in a relational world.

It seems to me that, if we presuppose that God acts or can act unilaterally, then we must also acknowledge that all the tragedy and suffering in the world, whether caused by human beings or by the more than human world, could have been prevented by God through acts of unilateral power. God could have prevented the holocausts, pogroms, the suffering of children from terrible diseases, the violence of men over women, the tsunamis and diseases. At the very least, God could have created a universe in which there was less suffering than there is. And the fact that God did not create such a universe thus suggests, ever so problematically, that God lacks compassion. God may be king-like, devoid of compassion, but not parent-like, throbbing with compassion and love.
By contrast, if we presuppose that God acts relationally, and further assume that this is the only way that God can act, given the power of the universe, then we can recognize that there are many injustices and tragedies in the world that are not willed or desired by God, but that are suffered by God in some deep and divine way, and that God is continuously at work in the world to help bring about good from evil, wholeness from tragedy, and to help transform hatred into love. God is truly parent-like: a parent to the world and to all who suffer physically and mentally; individually and collectively.

Which of these views is Qur’anic? I am sure that scholars can argue for both, as the theological history of Islam shows, but I favor the second approach. This means that, for me, God’s power is that of love, empowerment and compassion, and that an important part of this power is God’s capacity to receive influences from the world in a loving and empathic way. God’s relational power is that of “luring” or “guiding” the world actively and sharing in the world’s joys and suffering compassionately. Both poles of this power – the active and the receptive – far surpass any kind of power we humans know.

Thus we humans can and should feel grateful to God and awe in God’s presence. This awe is not paralyzing fear, in the sense of fearing retributive punishment, but a profound sense of humility in the sense of being amazed by something much more powerful than anything we ever experience -- more powerful than hurricanes and cancers, and more powerful also than our more finite attempts at human love. And if we are punished by God, in this life or one to come, the punishment is rehabilitative and transformational, not retributive, by a revengeful archaic God. It is aimed at helping us grow into the vicegerents we are called to become: vessels of justice and compassion, vessels of creativity and creational dignity.

My mention of vicegerency is meant to accent the fact that we humans, too, have the power of self-determination, even though it might be limited in effectual range. God is not jealous of our power; God celebrates it, when we use our power in constructive ways.

Such is the view of the Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal struggled with religious dogmatism, and flatly rejected religious systems and modes of interpretation that downplayed humanity`s power of decision and freedom. Following his existential experiences, the best of his intuitions, and his vast study of both Islamic and non-Islamic philosophical literature, Iqbal began to re-visit and re-examine the traditional understandings of the Divine. While Iqbal, in a true Socratic spirit, emphasized the tentativeness of religious doctrines, Iqbal discovered and felt the need for a vision of God congruent with the evolving understanding of the universe described by biology and physics. For Iqbal, God is the ultimate source of human creativity and freedom, that is the reason why Iqbal flatly rejects the doctrine of omnipotence as conventionally understood (in terms of unilateral power) by redefining it as supporting and even empowering human self-determination. According to Iqbal, God is powerful, but the nature of divine power is persuasive, or, directive, rather than coercive. This persuasive power is not merely a decision that could be reversed at any point in time so that human beings are led to wonder why God has not intervened coercively before or during atrocities acts. Iqbal interprets God's power in a way that empower human beings; supporting us in our free choices for the true, the good and the beautiful; it gives decision-making power in order become God`s co-companions in breathing new life into broken spirits and pathological institutions and structures.

​For Iqbal, God lures us to use this innate power for the larger good of all life. However, as Iqbal reminds us, we often resist these initial aims. In the biblical language, we often "miss the mark". God can only use power in the concrete situations of the world, influenced extensively by human decisions and their immediate environment. God can generate some healing, novelty and transformation if humans become receptive and thus allow that to happen, because, in the words of Iqbal, "God cannot choose for me when more than one course of action are open to me." This does not imply that God is passive in the human realm, watching from sideline human beings committing destructive acts. God always calls for a different mode of action, but human agents are too often blinded by their narrow and destructive impulses. As Prophet Muhammad made clear, God inspires us toward the expansion of our humane tendencies and toward those effective forms that express that expansion.

If we continue to resist God's initial aims of creative transformation when our world is growing more interwoven, the practical implications of our willful blindness and hardness of heart will be catastrophic. The notion of God's relationality has shocked the religious sensibilities of many conventional Muslims, socialized in a religious culture emphasizing restrictive and dictator-like visions of the Divine. They tend to assume that the idea of God's omnipotence/controlling power is central to the Qur'anic vision of God. But they are mistaken. One must acknowledge that the Qur'an is open-ended, and hence capable of many interpretations. There is no definite interpretation of the scripture. Furthermore, the interplay between the prior text (the attitude, perspectives, memory and experiences of the exegete), context and text cannot be downplayed either. The notion that God is all-powerful in a unilateral sense was mainly manufactured by theologians living in dynasties emphasizing absolute control because this notion of God served the ruling political powers rather well. However, by a careful reading of the Qur'anic scripture, sensitive to metaphors and the Qur`anic Weltanschauung, there is nothing much that warrants it.

Muslim philosophers and theologians influenced by Iqbal believe that he understood the nature of God's power in line with the Qur'anic wisdom, which emphasizes in a forceful manner the individuality of the human entity, and that the human being is, in the language of Iqbal, “a free personal causality”, capable of private initiative. Thus, the vision of God's power as absolute controlling is rather discordant. God's power is the power of empowerment, of possibilities. The power to be with humans through offering possibilities is a greater power than controlling humans coercively, without human input. In its ideal form persuasive power is a uniquely divine power, through which human beings are invited to freely participate in the creative life of the Divine, as God's co-companions in opening new horizons of healing energy and wholeness of all life. Indeed, the journey is adventurous, always in process of becoming. For God. And for us.

How did the journey of the universe begin? And where will it end? These are questions important to theologians of all persuasions: including those who affirm relational omnipotence. With regard to beginnings, some who speak of relational omnipotence will aver that, prior to the beginning of the universe, there was nothing whatsoever but God, and then add that God created the universe out of nothing. Certainly the notion of creatio ex niihilo is a deeply embedded notion in Islamic theology. This means that it is only after the creation out of nothing that God begins to act relationally not unilaterally. Iqbal also seems to see things this way . For him the divine exercise of relational omnipotence -- we might also call it an omnipotence of love -- is an act of self-limitation on God's part. Others will speak of a pre-existing energy within or apart from God, from which God creates the universe as we know it, adding that this energy -- we might call is creative nothingness -- existed into the beginningless past, such that God created the universe as we know it by calling or luring the energy into its current form. For them, God's exercise of persuasive or relational power was present even in the beginning. On his view omnipotent love, not omnipotent unilateralism, was God's mode of creating from the outset, and is essential to God's nature. The latter perspective, while not characteristic of much tradition, is not a total alien idea in Islam's philosophical-theological history. What is important for the relationalists is that God's power in the universe as we know it is, and always has been persuasive or relational; speculations on ultimate origins are best left for further discussion, amid which there can be different points of view and healthy dialogue.

And the end? We Muslims have always believed that the end of the universe is in God's hands. Our hope is that this end, however imagined, is as God wills it. Is it a resurrection of the dead? Is it a new creation? Is it a final resting place? Is it an ongoing process that is enveloped in divine love? We can trust; but we need not know with certainty. What we know, as relationalists, is that the end comes about as the world itself comes about, in response to the lure of a compassionate God, not the unilateral control of dictaotorial God. Even the end requires and invites our cooperation, For Iqbal, the future is open even for God. God knows perfectly well the potentialities as potentialities, not as actualities.. This is the reason that our own actions -- our own capacities to be vicegerents of divine compassion, respect of one another's dignity, and caring for the whole creation -- is so important today. We help enable the will of God to be accomplished on earth, for the earth's sake and for God's sake.