Islam and Process Theology

1. Introduction

Why should anyone talk about process theology and Islam in the first place? After all, Islam is a religion and process theology presupposes a certain philosophical system—process philosophy. Moreover, while process theology is a product of the Western world, Islam is more connected with the East. This requires an analysis of the Muslims’ apprehensions of the West.

Roughly, we can differentiate three types of attitudes Muslims have shown towards Western systems of thought—rejection, integration, and dialogue. The option of rejection, rooted in the idea of Islam’s perfection and self-sufficiency together with the political implications of Western dominance, is advocated mainly by conservatives, who claim that anything coming from the West is contradictory and harmful to Islam. A softer form of rejection is held by those who claim that Islam does not need to take foreign elements into consideration because it has already incorporated everything of value.

Those who advocate integration claim that Islam is or has become an anti-progressive religion. Thus, even if it leads to a loss of Islamic authenticity, the only way to make it relevant today is to re-formulate its essentials in the light of Western ideals. Both rejection and integration types are in opposite extremes. Either form is exclusively immersed in its self-identity, failing to do justice to the otherness of outside elements. I find both positions equally problematic.

Dialogue, by contrast is a modest, but more promising option. Here one assumes that both Islam and the West share certain fundamental conceptions that could be mutually improved through a non-partisan dialogue. Seeking to relate process theology to Islam in a dialogical form, my work is based on the premise that there are significant similarities between the basics of process theology and a certain interpretation of Islam, which represents its spirit more accurately; and that, therefore, both Islam and process theology can learn from each other and prove mutually enriching. The purpose of this paper is to explore the similarities between process thought and Islam. In doing so, I make no judgments as to the superior merits of either. Rather, I try to be as descriptive as possible, leaving the task of evaluation to later studies. I hope that this modest conversation between the two traditions can facilitate fruitful results in the future.

2. Religion and Science

Ian Barbour divides the possible relations between science and religion into four categories—conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (1997, 77-105). With some reservations, the same categorization can be found in the Islamic world as well. Roughly, Muslims address the issue either from a purely theoretical perspective, focusing on Islam’s emphasis on science, or from more concrete perceptions dealing with the Western origination of modern science and some of its assumptions.

On the theoretical level, Muslims generally hold that Islam is fully compatible with science, a view that corresponds to Barbour’s categories of dialogue and integration. There are two reasons supporting this view. One is that Islam extensively values and encourages science, reason, and knowledge, an attitude that is nicely expressed by Oliver Leaman: “if it is ever useful to rank religions with respect to rationality […] there is little doubt that Islam would score highly” (1999, 15). The other reason lies in Muslims’ achievements in science, especially during the peak of Islamic civilization. “[F]rom the eight century to the end of the fourteenth,” writes Toby E. Huff, “Arabic science was probably the most advanced science in the world […]. The facts, theories, and scientific speculations contained in [Arabic scientists’] treatises were the most advanced to be had anywhere in the world, including China” (1993, 48).

When modern Western science comes into the picture, however, the issue becomes more complicated. In Abasi Kiyimba’s words “the big question is whether modern science is acceptable the way it is or whether it should be applied Islamically or whether in fact the Muslims should abandon any direct relationship with modern science and strike out to develop what would be called ‘Islamic science’” (1998, 10). During the modern era, this question has become one of the most important issues Muslims have ceaselessly tried to resolve. Except for those who claim that Islam inherently obstructs any scientific endeavor, and those who find an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, the majority of Muslims have been highly critical of certain assumptions of the modern Western science.

I suggest that one of the meeting points of Islam and process thought is their awareness of some of the problematical aspects of science. In this regard, what in process thought might resonate with Muslims? One idea that corresponds with many Muslims’ views is Whitehead’s criticism of scientific materialism and its inability to do justice to our employment of our senses and our pursuit of meaning and coherence (SMW 17). More specifically, Whitehead criticizes the modern scientific cosmology that “presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations” (SMW 17).

According to David Ray Griffin, who provides a systematic elaboration of Whitehead’s criticisms, Max Weber’s phrase “the disenchantment of the world” nicely identifies the sort of worldview modernity has created (2001, vii). Griffin explains that by this phrase, “Weber meant that the world is no longer believed to contain any inherent meaning or normative values around which human beings should orient their lives” (2001, vii). According to Griffin, this disenchanted worldview was not produced by science itself, but was a by-product of modern science (1988, 1-2). There is, therefore, nothing essential to science “that is in conflict with any beliefs essential to vital religion, especially theistic religion” (Griffin 2000, xv).

What are the main characteristics of modern science that have led to a disenchanted worldview and consequently to the apparent conflict between science and religion in modern times? According to Griffin, one source of the conflict between science and religion lies in the acceptance by religious thought of supernaturalism (2001, 23). Supernaturalism refers to the idea “of a divine being who could (and perhaps does) occasionally interrupt the world’s most fundamental causal processes” (Griffin 2001, 21). The other source of conflict is the dominant modern view that associates science only with atheistic and materialistic naturalism (Griffin 2001, 20-29). As long as these two assumptions are held to be true, the conflict between science and religion cannot be resolved. By following Whitehead, Griffin proposes that a real reconciliation requires “a scientific-religious naturalism, supportive of the necessary presuppositions of the scientific and religious communities” (2001, 29).

In his assessment of modern science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a respected contemporary Muslim scholar, reflects similar insights. He maintains that the history of Islam is full of scientific achievements whose contribution to the development of the modern science is significant. However, he argues that while Islamic science did not discredit the religious and moral values of humans, modern science did. Because of discrediting these values, Nasr argues, modern science has produced enormous threats to the spiritual aspect of human life (Kiyimba 1998, 24). Basically, Nasr criticizes the positivistic interpretation of science and argues that such an interpretation has done massive damage to our civilization by cutting humans off from their spiritual sources.

Moreover, Nasr argues that modern science has also jeopardized the very existence of life on the earth by causing “directly or indirectly unprecedented environmental disasters, bringing about the real possibility of the total collapse of the natural order” (Kiyimba 1998, 24). Because of the dangers of modern science and its irreconcilability with Islamic norms, Nasr and others, while rejecting the secular and positivistic norms associated with science, have tried to develop an Islamic understanding of science. According to them, “the idea that natural science represents a system of pure, unmediated truth is no longer as popular as it was in the past, and science is often viewed as just as ideological as religion itself” (Leaman 1999, 53). These authors have tried to develop an Islamic framework within which natural sciences may also be put in its proper place.

Given the criticisms directed at modern science both from Muslims and process thinkers, it is fair to suggest that Islam, as interpreted by the majority of Muslims, and process thought meet on similar grounds with respect to science. I further believe that both sides have things to learn from one another. It seems that Muslim communities have greatly suffered from the negative effects of the disenchanted worldview. Thus, they are highly sensitive about keeping their religious identities alive. I am suggesting that process theologians can deepen their perceptions of the importance of religiosity through conversing with the Muslim experience. On the other side of the story, Muslims can learn from the process insight how to reconstruct a form of naturalism that does not conflict with their fundamental religious convictions. This, I argue, will provide them with sounder grounds on which to engage with concrete scientific phenomena.

3. Centrality of Constant Creation—Event or Substance

As I have argued elsewhere, the Indian philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal (1873-1938) endorses Whiteheadian conceptions in a significant way (Ruzgar 2005, 170-77). In rejecting sensationalism, atheism, and materialism, in recognizing the world as an organism, in emphasizing the importance of events as opposed to substances, and even in understanding the concepts of omnipotence and omniscience, Iqbal comes close to Whitehead’s process thought. In this and the following section, I deal mainly with Iqbal’s thoughts. While the present section focuses on Iqbal’s conception of the material world, the next section will address his conception of the divine.

Although Iqbal has been influenced by many Western and Eastern thinkers, the authenticity of his own system cannot be denied. While avoiding a full account of the influences on Iqbal, we cannot pass over his debt to Mulla Sadra and his dynamic account of nature. According to Oliver Leaman, Iqbal’s theory of the self “follows directly from [Sadra’s] sort of metaphysics” (1999, 29-30). Even though the extent of Sadra’s influence on Iqbal is not clear (see Rahman 1975, 108, 120), it is certain that both scholars’ understanding of reality is event-based. Contrary to the dominant view among Muslim philosophers to prioritize essence over existence, Mulla Sadra gives precedence to existence (see Leaman 1999, 89-96; Moris 2003, 88-95), which he terms wujud, translated either as “existence” or “being”(Moris 2003, 88; Leaman 1999, 89). Sadra holds the view that “Being is a unity but the existents are multiple” (Moris 2003, 92). Being has infinite modes of self-determination in various gradations of intensity that we perceive as the multiplicity of existents (Moris 2003, 92-94; Nasr 1996, 279); it “manifests itself in different ways in reality” (Leaman 1999, 92). He calls this tashkik. More precisely, tashkik refers to the process whereby “a single universal is predictable of its particulars in varying grades or degrees or alternatively, when one single reality actualizes itself in a number of things in varying degrees” (Moris 2003, 93).

At every moment, according to Sadra, there is a constant movement towards perfection. In fact, he defines motion as “the gradual movement of a thing from potentiality to actuality or from imperfection to perfection in duration” (Moris 2003, 96). Accordingly, Sadra holds that the world is in “continuous regeneration and re-creation” (Moris 2003, 96). Contrary to the narrow understanding of motion by Aristotelian philosophers, which limits it only to accidents (Moris 2003, 96; Nasr 1996, 284), Sadra argues that “it is not only the accidents but the substance of the universe itself that partakes of motion and becoming, i.e., continuous re-creation and rebirth” (Nasr 1996, 284). Sadra calls this substantial motion al-haraka al-jawhariya. The phenomena of the world are brought into existence by the perpetual operation of this process (Leaman 1999, 29).

Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains that, in Sadra’s view, “all beings in the universe are seeking perfection and are in the process of becoming and change in order to overcome their imperfections” (1996, 284). This process evolves “from the more general and more indeterminate to the more concrete, determinate types of being” (Leaman 1999, 94). What is particularly striking is Sadra’s explanation of “permanence” and “change” in substantial motion. According to Sadra, Nasr writes, “each form has two faces, one in the world of archetypes and the other in nature, the first permanent and the second in continuous renewal” (1996, 285). Moreover, “every existent in the universe which is in a constant state of becoming is related through the archetypes to God who is above and beyond change” (Moris 2003, 98). Sadra’s model marks a significantly dynamic understanding of reality. Everything in the universe is in a constant process of becoming—in permanent flux. For him, there are no fixed or finished “things.” In fact, a “thing” is “a particular ‘structure of events’” (Rahman 1975, 97). Therefore, not things but events constitute the basis of Sadra’s system.

How does Sadra’s conception of reality relate to Islam? In other words, is Sadra endorsing an Islamic point of view or is he fostering something non-Islamic? Sadra answers this question himself. By pointing to several verses of the Qur’an, Sadra argues that God is the first to talk about constant change and creation (Rahman 1975, 108). For example, verse 55: 29, which directly refers to the centrality of constant creation, reads that God is “everyday in a new mode” (Rahman 1875, 108). This and similar Qur’anic verses deeply inspired Muhammad Iqbal.

As Robert D. Lee rightly points out, Iqbal’s main mission was “to liberate humanity from the clutches of both tradition and modernity, from the mysticism of the East and the reason of the West, from the imperialism of the West and the submissiveness of the East” (1997, 58). Iqbal realized that western superiority was rooted “in the progress of natural science,” which “went hand in hand with denial of religion, morality and of God” (Dar 1956, 11). Furthermore, the sensationalistic, materialistic, and atheistic threads of modern science created irreconcilable “dichotomies such as being and becoming, man and God, mind and matter, reason and intuition, science and religion, sacred and profane, subject and object, thinking and action” (Lee 1997, 61). Iqbal’s whole philosophy can be understood as an attempt to reconcile these dichotomies. With respect to the East, Iqbal diagnosed that “the main responsibility for Oriental decadence lay at the door of those philosophical systems which inculcated self-negation, abnegation and self-abandonment” (Vahid 1959, 27). These philosophical systems, such as Greek philosophy, Neo-Platonism, and mysticism, led people to run away from the difficulties of life, to neglect concrete problems, and value passivity over action.

After diagnosing the negative features of both traditions, Iqbal turns his attention to the Qur’an and finds that the Qur’anic conception of the universe does provide a better alternative. According to such Qur’anic verses as 44:38 and 3:190, the universe is not created without any goal. While verse 44:38 emphasizes that creation serves an important purpose, verse 3:190 states that human beings can understand this purpose through the signs inherent in creation. Furthermore, Iqbal states that the Qur’an rejects “a block universe, a finished product, immobile and incapable of change” (1930, 13). This is based on the 35:1, according to which, God “adds to His creation what He wills” (Iqbal 1930, 13). After briefly mentioning the role of human beings in this system, Iqbal concludes that “God becomes a co-worker with [them], provided [they take] the initiative” (1930, 16), which is explicitly voiced by verse 13:11: “Verily God will not change the condition of men, till they change what is in themselves” (Iqbal 1930, 16).

As is not the case for modern science, God plays an important role in the Qur’anic conception of the universe. According to Iqbal, “the existence of God, the reality of the Self, its Freedom and Immortality” (Enver 1944, 3) are the most fundamental notions to be preserved. These notions can be proved by intuition, which is a unique and extraordinary experience. Iqbal justifies intuition on the basis of the subjectivity of time and space. As Alam Khundmiri argues, the East presupposed that time is unreal. This presupposition could not support the idea of progress in time, the universe as a growing self, and the significance of history (Khundmiri 2001, 177-78). In contrast, Khundmiri argues, modernity accepts time and change by preferring history against “the timeless principle of eternity” (2001, 181). Although Iqbal is closer to the modern idea in his emphasis on the importance of time, he nevertheless does not accept the view that time is only serial. According to him, there are “different orders of time, and different levels of the experience of time” (Khundmiri 2001, 188).

In the Islamic world, the scholar Fakhruddin ‘Iraqi had a dynamic conception of space, which was differentiated into three kinds—“the space of material bodies, the space of immaterial beings, and the space of God” (Enver 1944, 11). Although this view was plausible to a certain extent, Iqbal concludes that ‘Iraqi was wrong in his assumption that “space is something which is given” (Enver 1944, 12). ‘Iraqi’s assumption was presupposed in the idea of an unchanging universe, which was characteristically Aristotelian (Enver 1944, 12). Iqbal’s own argument is based on the multi-dimensionality of space, according to which there are different dimensions of space in different beings. According to him, “[t]here is no absolute space in which things are situated” (Enver 1944, 12).

With regards to time, ‘Iraqi makes similar observations: time changes in accordance with the varying modes of beings. Iqbal accepts this view and additionally argues that time is different at different levels of experience (Enver 1944, 15), even within the same being. At the level of mere perception, time appears as having a serial character. But, in relation to the inner self, time is totally different because “the past, the present, and the future all intertwine and form a unity” (Enver 1944, 15). Based on the fact that there are different dimensions of space in different beings and that time is “relative to the varying grades of beings,” Iqbal postulates the possibility of the existence of “other levels of experience than the normal level of spatio-temporal experience” (Enver 1944, 15). This is how Iqbal derives the justification of intuition.

After establishing the existence of intuition, Iqbal argues that we can intuit the self. Through intuition, we can “directly see that the self is real and existent” (Enver 1944, 35). The self is the starting point for his metaphysics. In Iqbal’s words, “there is nothing static in [our] inner life; all is a constant mobility, an unceasing flux of states, a perpetual flow in which there is no halt or resting place” (1930, 63). The main characteristics of the self are its directedness, freedom, and immortality (Enver 1944, 31). Very briefly, Iqbal argues that we intuit ourselves always as free and in a direction of purpose. Moreover, our intuition reveals that we are emotional and willful beings.

According to Iqbal, the material world is real and really does exist (Enver 1944, 50). In fact, the main reason for his rejection of Greek thought lies in his insistence on the existence of the material world. But, Iqbal rejects the materialistic claim, according to which nature is “made up of small, hard and inert substances existing in a void, called space. These substances are atoms—small, impenetrable and indivisible physical entities. Things are combinations of atoms” (Enver 1944, 50). Against such an atomism, Iqbal argues that not substances but events in their mutual relation to each other constitute the basic elements of the material world.

In his view of the material world, Iqbal fully agrees with Whitehead’s thesis that the world is an organism. Reality is not static, but an ever growing and constantly changing process. Iqbal holds that “the nature of the material world is that of the self; it is life” (Enver 1944, 56). In the whole universe, according to Iqbal, there is a “tendency to individuate and to grow as an individual” (Enver 1944, 59). Vahid notes that in Iqbal’s system, “there is a gradually rising note of egohood in the whole Universe. We are conscious of this in our own self, in Nature before us and in the ultimate principle of all life, the Ultimate Ego” (1959, 29). Thus, egohood constitutes the key term in Iqbal’s philosophy. The universe “is a constantly progressing, self-generating and self-evolving universe, whose inner possibilities of growth and evolution will never know any limits” (Enver 1944, 64).

4. Conceiving the Divine—Omnipotence and Omniscience

One of the most unique aspects of process thought involves the conception of God. This conception significantly differs from the traditional understanding of God. The traditional conception of God was based on an all-powerful and all-determining God. Accordingly, all events were the result of God’s causation (Cobb and Griffin 1976, 49). Most of these events “were understood to be caused by God through the mediation of worldly or natural causes. God was the primary cause of these events, while the natural antecedents were called “secondary causes.” However, a few events were thought to be caused directly by God, without the use of secondary causes. These events were “miracles” (Cobb and Griffin 1976, 49).

In discussing traditional theism, Griffin makes a distinction between “the all-determining version and the free-will version” (2001, 131). The former version claims that “God not only has the power to determine all events in the world but actually does so” (Griffin 2001, 131). Furthermore, argues Griffin, theism holds that God is both impassible and immutable. The immutability of God is derived from the eternality of God, which regards God as completely outside time (Griffin 2001, 131). The free-will version argues that “the creatures—at least the human ones—have freedom vis-à-vis God, being able to act contrary to the divine will, and time is real for God, so that there can be genuine interaction between God and the world, with God responding to the free decisions of the creatures (as well as vice versa)” (Griffin 2001, 132). Both versions create several problems, one of which is human freedom.

In the Islamic world, although the general and traditional view is that God is all-powerful and all-determining, there are philosophers who have adopted different perspectives. One such perspective was presented by the Ash’arites, one of the main theological sects in Islam. After arguing that atoms constitute the basic structure of reality, they held that “when we act, our action is brought about through God, and when change in the universe occurs, it is God who is behind it all, holding together the atoms in certain ways, in order to give the impression of change and also the idea that the universe operates in accordance with rules” (Leaman 1999, 34). Al-Ghazali presents similar views by arguing that “God can do anything logically possible” (Leaman 1999, 33).

With regard to miracles, the traditional conception holds that “God intervenes in nature on occasion, to overturn the normal rules by which phenomena operate” (Leaman 1999, 35). In a similar vein, Al-Ghazali argues that God is constrained only by logical impossibilities and, since God’s intervention in natural laws is not logically impossible, God can overrule these natural laws, thereby creating miracles (Leaman 1999, 35).

Against this traditional contention, Muslim philosophers tend to explain natural events in terms of causes and effects. Ibn Sina argues that since natural phenomena are subject to causes and effects, there is a rational structure of reality that is not accessible to everybody (Leaman 1999, 33). He also differs in his understanding of prophecy, arguing that “the natural states of affairs must come into being once the appropriate set of prior conditions is in existence” (Leaman 1999, 35). In sum, while the majority of Muslims believe in a supernatural God who is able to intervene in the natural laws of the world, and does intervene, Muslim philosophers have sought to explain the universe in line more with natural causes and effects.

What does Iqbal say on this issue? As we have seen, in Iqbal’s consideration of the world, there is a gradual rising of egohood everywhere, which is linked with the idea that there is a “free creative will” (Enver 1944, 65) both in us and in the universe. What is the source of this will? Iqbal says that it is either a blind force or a purposive one. He rejects the former possibility. The latter idea can be conceived in two ways: either the purposive self is directed by a being external to the universe, or the universe itself is a purposeful ego. Iqbal rejects the former possibility by arguing that if an external being gave the universe its whole purpose, then three undesirable consequences would follow. First, our freedom would be a mere illusion; second, this being would not be a creator but be a mere contriver; and third, even if it were somehow the creator, it would not make any sense for it to create a world because of the difficulties this world generates (Enver 1944, 65-66). Iqbal thus argues that “the universe itself is a Self or an Ego” (Enver 1944, 66).

Although the gradual rising of egohood reaches a significant perfection in human beings, it does not stop there. There is also an all-comprehensive ego—the Ultimate Ego. Iqbal presents three possibilities for the relationship between the Ultimate Ego and the finite egos: pantheism, deism, and his own position. Iqbal rejects pantheism because of its denial of the existence and reality of finite egos. He also rejects deism because it creates an unbridgeable gap between the Ultimate Ego and the finite egos. “The infinite reached by contradicting the finite is a false infinite” (Enver 1944, 69). Iqbal’s own position consists of the idea that the Ultimate Ego “holds the finite egos in its own self, without obliterating their existence” (Enver 1944, 68). Contrary to the other two alternatives, this position does full justice to the reality and existence of finite egos.

Iqbal’s conception of the Ultimate Ego is both immanent and transcendent. Although he puts more emphasis on the transcendence of God, according to Ishrat Hasan Enver, neither transcendence nor immanence is exclusively true of God. Furthermore, the Ultimate Ego is a person. The personality of the Ultimate Ego involves creativeness, omnipotence, omniscience, and eternity (Enver 1944, 75). Iqbal’s interpretation of these attributes significantly differs from the traditional interpretations.

Although Iqbal says that God had the initial power not to create the world, he nevertheless argues that God’s power is limited by God’s own goodness and wisdom (Enver 1944, 77). This position differs significantly from the traditional understanding of God’s power as unlimited and even capricious. While Iqbal accepts the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, he differs from the traditional understanding by seeing creativity as “the unfoldment of [God’s] own inner possibilities” (Enver 1944, 76). With regard to omniscience, Iqbal argues that while God knows both past and the future, God’s knowledge of the past is qualitatively different from God’s knowledge of the future—God knows the future only as a possibility, not actuality. Again, instead of conceiving eternity as the idea that time has “no beginning and no end” (Enver 1944, 78), Iqbal sees it as the idea that the self of the Ultimate Ego “holds the entire sweep of history as a moment in its inner life” (Enver 1944, 79).

Of course, understanding God’s attributes in this way has attracted some criticisms from Islamic circles. For example, after claiming that Iqbal does not capture the true spirit of the Qur’an, Raschid argues that he develops a finite conception of deity, which cannot be reconciled with the “supremely transcendent, but also immanent, God of the Qur’an” (1981, xiii). According to Raschid, the reason for the finitude of Iqbal’s God lies in Iqbal’s “inclusion of the created order (nature) within the being of the creator (God)” (1981, 59). After calling Iqbal’s concept of God “panentheistic,” Raschid claims that such a conception is irreconcilably against the plain doctrine of the Qur’an. More specifically, Raschid argues that Iqbal’s conceptions of creativity, eternity, omniscience, and omnipotence reinforce his fundamentally finite notion of deity.

Is Raschid’s claim about the limitedness of Iqbal’s conception of God correct? Mehmet Aydin provides the best reply. He explains that “if there was [according to Iqbal] an ontologically independent being outside of God into which God’s creativity would not be able to penetrate, then God would be limited” (2001, 99). But Iqbal does not hold such a view. The fact that the finite egos have partial self-determination does not mean that God is limited (Aydin 2001, 99). The only limitation that can be attributed to God is a self-limitation, in accordance with God’s wisdom and goodness. This is not an outside limitation, but a self-limitation.

As a general assessment, we can argue that there are significant similarities between Iqbal and Whitehead. As Aydin notes, both philosophers essentially have the same views on the relationship between science and religion; both start with experience; both are pluralists; human beings are conceived by both in their organic unity; both emphasize the importance of “events,” as in modern physics (2000, 124).

Although it is true that Iqbal does not hold a limited conception of God, we have to inquire whether his conception of God is thoroughly successful. More specifically, as Aydin asks, “if the universe is the result of God’s creation [out of nothing], how can we ascribe the power of self-determination to the finite egos?” (2001, 107). Aydin finds Whitehead’s views on creation cosmologically more consistent than Iqbal’s (Aydin 2001, 108). However, he thinks that Iqbal’s views are closer to classical theism, implying that Whitehead’s position creates theologically significant problems (Aydin 2001, 108). Therefore, it is crucial to analyze whether or not the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is an Islamic doctrine—and so we turn now to this question.

5. The Doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is one of the most important issues on which Iqbal differs from process thought. As long as one accepts this doctrine, there is no theoretical framework that will successfully reconcile the problem of evil with God’s goodness. While process theology rejects doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, Iqbal does not. On this specific issue, I disagree with Iqbal. As Harry Wolfson successfully demonstrates, there are good reasons to consider this doctrine un-Islamic.

According to Wolfson, the mutakallimun [speculative theologians] approved of the theory “which is commonly known as creation ex nihilo, but which they describe as creation ‘not from something’ (la min shay’)” (1976, 355). Wolfson claims that “[a] conception of creation expressed explicitly in terms which mean creation ex nihilo is not to be found either in the Jewish or in the Christian or in the Muslim Scripture” (1976, 355).

Those who argue for creation out of nothing take several verses in the Qur’an as definitive proofs. One of them is verse 41:10: “Then [God] applied himself to the [creation of] heaven, and it was smoke” (Wolfson 1976, 357). Wolfson notes that there are two interpretations of this verse: one claims that the smoke itself was created by God, implying that the verse supports the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, while the other argues that “the verse means that ‘the heaven was created from something,’ that is, from something eternal” (1976, 358).

Another argument developed for the support of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is the alleged distinction made between the two terms in the Qur’an—khalaqa and ibda’. The basic meaning of both terms is “to create.” Traditionally, however, ibda’ is taken to mean “to create without any tools” while khalaqa “to create with tools.” For example, Asghar Ali Engineer argues that these two terms have distinct meanings:

Bada’ refers to creation out of nothingness […]. Allah is called mubdi’, who creates without any pre-existing material or without any tools or without space and time. Such an act of creation is only for Allah; no one can assist him or participate with him in this process of creation (2001, 49).

Engineer argues that although it means “to create” as well, khalaqa has different connotations than ibda’ in that “[i]t means creation with tools, with assistance, with pre-existing material and in time and space. When it refers to Allah, however, khalaqa could be synonymous with ibda,’ i.e. creation without any assistance, without any tools or outside time and space” (2001, 49).

However, Wolfson argues that the issue is not as clear as Engineer thinks. According to him, the mere fact that the Qur’an uses both ibda’ and khalaqa in describing God’s creation does not necessarily mean that their meanings are different (1976, 358-59). It certainly does not mean that ibda’ refers to creation out of nothing while khalaqa specifies the creation of mankind. Wolfson’s argument is supported by further evidence. He argues that “while early Muslims knew that creation meant opposition to eternity and while they may have thought of it as being out of nothing, they were not aware of the problem whether creation was out of nothing or out of a pre-existent formless matter” (1976, 359). The full implications of the problem of whether the world was created out of nothing or out of a pre-existent formless matter and whether the “nonexistent” is “something” or “nothing” appeared among Muslims in the early ninth century (Wolfson 1976, 359-60). Although the Qur’an explicitly says that the world is created, the way it was created is, nevertheless, quite vague. It is not clear whether the Qur’an means creation out of nothing or creation out of something, and whether this “something” is itself created or eternal.

Considering the ambiguity of this issue in the Qur’an and considering the foreign influences of outside cultures and philosophies upon Islam specifically on this matter (Wolfson 1976, 360-62), I argue that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not a Qur’anic doctrine. It can be shown that this doctrine entered the Islamic world from non-Islamic sources and does not necessarily reflect an Islamic point of view. I agree with Wolfson in his suggestion that even “before the appearance of Arabic translations of Greek philosophic works and even before the rise of Mu’tazilism,” the Syrian Christians “transmitted to the Muslim world a creation formula,” which suggests that the world was created from the “nonexistent,” which was interpreted as “nothing” (1976, 363).

6. Conclusion

Process thought, in my view, develops the most accurate and detailed theory with regard to the science/religion relationship. After rejecting materialist, atheistic, and sensationalist aspects of modern science, process thought endorses the main point of the scientific worldview by developing a naturalistic form of theism. Islam also rejects the above-mentioned aspects of the modern science. I argue that dialogue with process thought on this matter can help Muslims recognize that science, when understood in Whiteheadian terms, does not necessarily cancel out theistic notions. Process theologians, on the other hand, can learn more about the destructive consequences of modern science from the Muslim experience.

After analyzing basic cosmological notions of process thought and Islam, it became apparent that some Muslim scholars understood Islam in more process lines, which I believe is more accurate than the dominant interpretation of Islam, which regards the Islamic conception of the universe as a static and fixed one. Both Mulla Sadra and Muhammad Iqbal disagree with this traditional understanding. Basing their theories on the Qur’an, both argue for a dynamic and event-based cosmology. Although Muslims generally accept an all-determining and all-powerful God, some Islamic theologians—I use Iqbal as an example—interpret God’s power and knowledge in ways that differ from the traditional understanding. Iqbal’s considerations constitute a more dynamic relationship between God and the world, which gives the creatures a certain power of self-determination.

Some of Iqbal’s views, however, significantly differ from process theology, one of which is the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. While process theologians do not accept this doctrine, Iqbal did. I argue that this doctrine is not rooted in the Qur’an, but entered into the Islamic world from foreign sources. The full ramifications that this doctrine is non-Islamic are left as a consideration for the readers.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Aydin, Mehmet S. 2000. Islam Felsefesi Yazilari [Writings on Islamic Philosophy] (Istanbul, Ufuk Kitaplari).

Aydin, Mehmet S. 2001. Alemden Allah’a [From Cosmos to God] (Istanbul, Ufuk Kitaplari).

Barbour, Ian G. 1997. Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (New York, Harper Collins).

Cobb, John B., Jr. and Griffin, David Ray. 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Dar, Bashir Ahmad. 1956. Iqbal and Post-Kantian Voluntarism (Lahore, Bazm-i-Iqbal).

Engineer, Asghar Ali. 2001. “Humankind’s Relationship with Nature and Participation in the Process of Creation by Technology from an Islamic Point of View,” in Nature and Technology in the World Religions, edited by Peter Koslowski (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers).

Enver, Ishrat Hasan. 1944. The Metaphysics of Iqbal (Lahore, Sh. Muhammad Ashraf).

Griffin, David Ray. 1988. “Introduction: The Reenchantment of Science,” in The Reenchantment of Science, edited by David Ray Griffin (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 2000. Religion and Scientific Naturalism (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 2001. Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, Cornell University Press).

Huff, Toby E. 1993. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Iqbal, Sir Muhammad. 1930. Six Lectures on the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore, The Kapur Art Printing Works).

Kiyimba, Abasi. 1998. “Islam and Science: An Overview,” in Knowledge and Responsibility: Islamic Perspectives on Science (Izmir, Kaynak (Izmir).

Khundmiri, Alam, 2001. Secularism, Islam and Modernity: Selected Essays of Alam Khundmiri, edited by M. T. Ansari (New Delhi, Sage Publications).

Leaman, Oliver. 1999. A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (Cambridge, Polity Press).

Lee, Robert D. 1997. Overcoming Tradition and Modernity: The Search for Islamic Authenticity (Colorado, Westview Press).

Moris, Zailan. 2003. Revelation, Intellectual Intuition and Reason in the Philosophy of Mulla Sadra: An Analysis of the al-Hikmah al-‘Arshiyyah (London, Routledge Curzon).

Nasr, Seyyed Hossain. 1996. The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia, edited by Mehdi Amin Razavi (Richmond, Surrey, Curzon Press).

Rahman, Fazlur. 1975. The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Raschid, M. S. 1981. Iqbal’s concept of God (London, Kegan Paul).

Ruzgar, Mustafa. 2005. “Islam and Deep Religious Pluralism,” in Deep Religious Pluralism, edited by David Ray Griffin (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press).

Vahid, Syed Abdul. 1959. Iqbal: His Art and Thought (London, John Murray).

Wolfson, Harry Austryn. 1976. The Philosophy of Kalam (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

Author Information

Mustafa Ruzgar
Department of Religious Studies
California State University, Northridge, CA 91330

How to Cite this Article

Ruzgar, Mustafa, “Islam and Process Theology”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.