God's Power & Will: Answers to Common Questions
During the Islamic Awareness Week tour, which is now coming to an end, I realised there were common questions raised throughout the lectures and presentations. As a result I felt it would be beneficial for the reader to have the answers to these questions available in short posts. The questions raised were varied and included issues pertaining to the existence of God, God’s nature, Islamic Law, and Islamic Theology. In this post I will attempt to answer two questions that frequently arise during the lectures related to God’s nature.
These questions are:
1. If God is all powerful can He do anything, including creating a stone He cannot move?
2. Can God have free will if He knows everything?
If God is all powerful can He do anything, including creating a stone He cannot move?
The Islamic theological position regarding God’s ability is eloquently summed up in the following creedal statement found in The Creed of Imam Al-Tahawi. It states,
“…He is Omnipotent. Everything is dependent on Him, and every affair is effortless for Him.”
A common contention or question regarding God’s power and ability is that if God is omnipotent then can He create a stone He cannot move? A key point to make in answering this question is to highlight that ‘Omnipotence’ is misconstrued as ‘all powerful’. What omnipotence really implies is the ability to actualise every affair, rather than raw power. So God being able to “create a stone He cannot move” actually describes an affair that is impossible and meaningless, just like if we were to say “a white black crow” or “a circle triangle” or even an “amphibian mammal”.
Such statements describe nothing at all and have no informative value, they are meaningless. So why should we even answer a question that has no meaning? To put it bluntly the question is not even a question.
Another way of looking at this is that since God is all powerful it means that He will always be able to do what He wills, as the creedal statement above mentions “…and every affair is effortless for Him.” Therefore omnipotence also includes the impossibility of failure. The questioner however is saying that since God is all powerful He can do anything which includes failure! This is irrational and absurd as it is equivalent to saying “an all powerful being cannot be an all powerful being”!
To conclude, God can create stone that is heavier than anything we can imagine, but He will always be able to move the stone, what must be understood is that failure is not an aspect of omnipotence.
Can God have free will if He knows everything?
In Islamic theology God is ‘All-Knowing’ and His will is always fulfilled. As a result people have questioned “Can God really have free will if He knows everything? Especially since that His knowledge includes things that He will do? And if He knows what He will do, doesn’t that make His actions dependent on His foreknowledge? Therefore He has no free will?”
The answer to this question is quite straight forward. The questioner has equated knowledge of the future with the cause of future events. For example if I know my daughter is going to wake up a 7:00 am tomorrow morning, and when the morning comes she does wake up at that time (usually having a good pull at my beard!), what caused her to wake up? It surely isn’t my knowledge of the fact that she will wake up at the time; rather it’s her biological ‘clock’ – not to forget that it is also due to the fact that she is hungry or wants to play! Similarly if I know I will lift 140 kilos bench press when I go to the gym tomorrow does that mean that my knowledge of being able to lift that amount made me do it? No, the fact is that my choice of going to the gym, including my physiological make up, has caused me to be able to lift that weight, and not the knowledge of the fact that I can.
So God’s foreknowledge of future events, including His own actions, doesn’t mean that His knowledge caused Him to act in a certain way. For example, the fact that He created the world and placed human beings as vicegerents on it doesn’t mean His foreknowledge of it forced him to do it. Also God’s foreknowledge of the fact that He will enter people in paradise doesn’t make Him do it, rather His mercy and love is the reason. This is eloquently summarised in The Creed of Imam Al-Tahawi,
“He guides, protects, and preserves whomever He wills by His grace. And He misguides, forsakes, and afflicts whomever He wills by justice…God has always known the total number of those who will enter paradise and those who will enter the fire. Nothing is added to or subtracted from that number.”
So His guidance will not manifest itself because He knows who would be guided, rather it is due to His grace, and God doesn’t contradict His nature. In summary foreknowledge doesn’t equal causality.
In the next posts more questions will be answered relating to varied topics. This doesn’t mean I have all the answers, I don’t. It just means that I have tried to follow the Qur’anic value of “If you don’t know ask those who know” and it is something I advise everyone to do. In Islam God is the source of all knowledge, so to ask is to learn and to learn is to free ourselves from ignorance, as the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) said,
“The cure to ignorance is to ask and learn.” I pray we all proceed in that light, ameen.