Chapter 7: Islam A Challenge to Religion
By Allama Ghulam Ahmad Parwez
I. God as a Dictator
Man has conceived God in different ways at different stages of his mental development. The primitive man’s crude anthropomorphic idea of God is in direct contrast to the abstract concept of the religious thinkers of today. We cannot, however, argue on this basis that God exists as a mere idea in the human mind. Our conception of the world too has exhibited similar changes. The savage looked on the world as the playground of capricious spirits, while the modern physicist analyses it into an infinity of transitory events grouped in various ways. Numerous conceptions of the world intervene between these extremes. Yet no one would give serious consideration to the view that the world exists as a mere subjective idea. In both cases, we are witnessing an apprehension of an objective reality. With the gradual development of his knowledge and mental powers, man brings his ideas into closer correspondence with external reality. His encounter with the world, as with God, is direct and immediate. He instinctively believes that both exist independently of him. But at first his idea of God is as imperfect and deficient as his idea of the world. He may never arrive at an absolutely perfect concept of God or the world, and yet his efforts in this direction never cease and are not wholly futile. In the case of God, Revelation helps us to form an idea which meets the needs of our intellectual and moral life. It will help us to grasp this idea clearly, if we first consider a view which was generally accepted in the past and still colours our mental outlook.
For ages men lived under the monarchical form of government. Having known no other type of political organisation, they naturally believed that the only alternative to monarchy was anarchy and lawlessness. Kings were usually tyrannical, oppressive and capricious. If a king fell a victim to the fury of his oppressed subjects, his place was usually taken by a tyrant who might be worse. People brought up under such conditions naturally associated power with wilfulness and capriciousness. Believing God to be all-powerful, they also believed that He was more wilful and irresponsible than any earthly king and that His actions were as unaccountable as those of a dictator. In short, God was regarded as a glorified King, or rather as a magnified Dictator. He differed from the earthly dictators only in possessing immensely greater power, and in no other respect. Men of immature mind are impressed by power, especially when it is exercised to satisfy a passing whim. They suppose that God destroys any one, good or bad, for no better reason than to demonstrate His absolute power. The chief preoccupation of such people was the appeasement of God as they conceived of Him, and yet they could not think of any plan of action which would always succeed in appeasing an utterly capricious Being. No wonder that men felt helpless. They despaired of discovering, through reason, a way of life which would be in accordance with the Will of God, because they believed that God acted in an arbitrary manner and reason had no influence over His actions.
Men, no doubt, feared such a God but they could not possibly love and respect Him. This idea of God provided no incentive to seek a better way of life or to set about understanding the world in which they lived. In fact, there could be no way of life which was better than another—because the same action might at one time please God and at another time provoke His wrath. They saw that a sudden passing fancy might induce a despot to punish the man who had rendered a great service to him and reward one who had been refractory. There could also be no question of seeking to understand a world which was brought into existence in an arbitrary way. It could have no law or order, no rhyme or reason. At best, it would be the scene of fortuitous events which could neither be foreseen nor controlled. Such are the implications of the idea that God is an absolute despot. This idea held sway over the mind of the savage.
With the increase in knowledge and growth of mental powers, the orderly succession of events around him could not fail to impress man. Gradually he sought and discovered the laws which governed natural events in the external world. Much later, he turned his attention to the inner world of the mind and in the course of this, discovered the harmonies which lie hidden behind the inner experience. Man, however, is much more conservative in the sphere of religion. The old idea of God, in an attenuated form, still lingers in the mind of the religious people and obscures their vision. The task of emancipating religion lies in casting aside this idea from our mind and accepting the idea presented by the Divine Revelation (Quran). In order to grasp this new idea, however, it is necessary to give some thought to a few aspects of the Divine Will. The Will of God has an infinity of aspects, but three of them are of special interest to us as moral beings. What we have to say is based wholly on the Quran which contains significant remarks on the Divine Will and its modes of working in different spheres. In fact, we shall only be expounding the views set forth in the Quran as to the way the Will of God functions in itself, and in relation to the two main parts of the created world.
II. Divine Will according to the Quran
Firstly, the Divine Will will be considered as it is in itself, in other words, as pure Will. Can we say anything more about the Divine Will than that it must be radically different from the will which we experience in ourselves? The answer is that, within certain limits, we can characterise it with the help of Quran. The first thing we note about the Divine Will is that it is absolutely free, subject to no restraint from outside itself. Again, it is incessantly and spontaneously active, not being dependent on any environment either for stimulation or for an outlet to its activity. It is self-subsistent and self-sufficient. It does not act upon a pre-existing material confining itself to merely fashioning and rearranging it. Its activity is essentially creative. Indeed, it is the fountainhead of creative power. As a fountain-head, it is constantly exuberant with creative energy. Every moment mew forms spring into existence at its behest:
But His command, when He intends a thing, is only that He says to it: Be, and it is (36: 82).
Allah does what He will (14: 27).
Allah does what He intends (22: 14).
God's Will is also free in the sense that it is above law. It is a law unto itself. It cannot be judged by an external criterion. Law, of course, flows from it and regulates its creation, but leaves it untouched. So the questions, why and whereof, cannot be legitimately asked of the Divine Will. It is accountable to none outside itself:
He will not be questioned as to that which He does, but they (everything in the universe) will be questioned (21: 23).
The sphere of pure will is the sphere of absolute freedom. To subject it to law is to rob the Creator of His creative freedom, and of His omnipotence, and to reduce Him to the status of a created being. Turning to the nature of His creative activity, we find that it consists in self-expression. The Divine Will in creating is really expressing itself. Out of the infinite reservoir of its being, the Will of God is ceaselessly projecting and sustaining a myriad forms sharing reality in some measure and reflecting, to some extent, the urge for self-expression which characterises their source. By regarding creation as an act of self-expression, we dispose of many questions which exercised the minds of former philosophers such as: What was God's purpose in creating? What induced Him to create? And so on. It is in the nature of an ego to express itself, and as God is the Absolute Ego, in His case, every act of self-expression is, at the same time, an act of creation. The reason and justification for self-expression must be sought within the being concerned and not outside it. It is wrong to look upon the Divine Will as an impersonal force. Will can exist only as an aspect of some ego. The- Divine Will is really God engaged in disclosing the infinite riches of His being.
After creation, the Divine Will does not withdraw and leave the created world to shift for itself. Priests of the eighteenth century advocated some such view. However, it springs from a misconception of the relationship between God and the world. This relation is not by any means analogous to the relation between the producer of a mechanical device and his product. In the first place, the activity of the Divine Will is not intermittent: it is incessant. Secondly, the Will does not merely create the world but continues to sustain and foster it. These are not disjointed activities but aspects of the same composite, integral activity. Conceived in this way, the Divine Will is seen to be organically and vitally related to the world which literally exists and lives in God, the source of all being and the fountainhead of all life. The world, therefore, and all things in it are in direct and intimate contact with the Will every moment of their existence. The world contains two different categories of beings the impersonal inanimate objects and the conscious and self-determining egos. The Divine Will is related in different ways to the two classes of beings, as each needs a different kind of support. The Quran sets out these relations in clear terms. In Iqbal, we find a lucid exposition of the Quranic distinction between Khalq and Amr. The following quotation from him throws valuable light on this point:
In order to understand the meaning of the word 'Amr,' we must remember the distinction which the Quran draws between 'Amr' and 'Khalq.' Pringle-Pattison deplores that the English language possesses only one word - ‘creation’- to express the relation of God and the universe of extension on the one hand, and the relation of God and the human ego on the other. The Arabic language is, however, more fortunate in this respect. It has two words-'Khalq' and ‘Amr’ - to express the two ways in which the creative activity of God reveals itself to us. 'Khalq' is creation and 'Amr' is direction.1
Let us look at these relations a little more closely:
(i) The Divine Will and the Phenomenal World. The dependence of nature on the Divine Will is absolute and unconditional. Determinism prevails throughout nature. Every physical object has been created with certain properties which condition its movements and its relations to other objects. Moreover, all material things are held in the firm grip of inexorable natural laws. These laws flow from the Divine Will and are at the bottom of the immutable order we find in nature. It is an orderly world because the Divine Will manifests itself in it as a controlling and regulating agency. Nothing can over-step the limits set by the natural laws. The behaviour of everything is rigidly determined by the laws. Defiance is impossible. These laws are predetermined and unalterable. It is a world which freedom has no meaning. It is a world which is ruled by an unconditional "must." Everything behaves in conformity with its natural properties and in obedience to the laws which govern it. Left to itself, water must flow downwards and warm air rise. Planets must move in their prescribed orbits and clouds must seek atmospheric regions of lighter density. The dominion of law extends even to seemingly fortuitous and catastrophic events such as thunderbolts and earthquakes. In several verses of the Quran our attention is drawn to the rule of law and to the order exhibited by nature. We are exhorted to ponder on the regularity of natural phenomena. This regularity is the reflection of the Divine Will which is free from any trace of internal conflict or dissonance.
And unto Allah maketh prostration (submits to His laws) whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth of living creatures (16: 49).
In the words of the Quran, therefore, there is no object in the heavens and earth which is not subject to His Will and to the Law which He has decreed for it.
Man, by making use of his reason, can discover the natural laws, and, equipped with this knowledge, can control the natural forces and exploit them for his purpose. A lawful and orderly world is the appropriate stage for a rational being like man to play his part and achieve his objects. Man can live purposefully, and can fulfil his self only in a world which he can understand and control. The following verse tells us that the world is a suitable place for a free rational being:
And He has constrained the night and the day and the sun and the moon to be of service unto you, and the stars are made subservient to His command (16: 12).
The conquest of nature is, therefore, not a pipe-dream but an attainable objective for man. He can understand the world because the order exhibited by it is intelligible and he can bring it under control for the same reason. The great strides made by science during the twentieth century testify to the fact that the world is amenable to human reason. As he ceaselessly explores the world and probes its nature, he brings to light hitherto hidden aspects of the laws that govern its working. No part of nature has been found to be impervious to reason. Recent advances in science have considerably increased and expanded man's control over nature. The entry into outer space, probes into the stratosphere and the discovery of atomic fission are magnificent achievements of which man can be justly proud. The point to note in this connection is that the minutest particles as well as heavenly bodies of stupendous magnitude are equally subject to fixed laws, and by discovering these laws man is able to predict their behaviour with accuracy. No doubt, modern physicists, such as Niels Bohr, suspect that the heart of the atom may be the citadel of indeterminism. The behaviour of the electrons as they jump from one orbit to another, is still unpredictable and does not seem to be subject to any law. Nevertheless, it would be rash to accept it as an established fact. With the progress of nuclear physics and the invention of more sophisticated instruments, laws which underlie the behaviour of electrons may be discovered and indeterminism may be dislodged from its last stronghold. In any case, man, in his practical life, has to deal with molar objects, and nobody yet doubts that they are subject to unalterable natural laws. When physicists are able to decide that indeterminism lies at the core of the atom, the bearing of this view on man will be considered in all its implications. At the moment, we can only advance the surmise that even if freedom turns out to be at the root of the universe, at the formation of matter it enters upon a long period of latency, only to blossom out again with the emergence of Man.
(ii) The Divine Will and Man. How does the Divine Will function in the sphere of man? To answer this question, we must not lose sight of man's dual nature. By virtue of possessing a body, man is a part of the physical world. As such, he is as much subject to natural laws as any other physical object. Birth and death are natural events, growth and decay are natural processes and these are governed by the laws of nature. But he is also endowed with an ego or self, and freedom is the breath of life to it. Freedom of choice is inherent in the self. It is free to choose alternatives. The Divine Will has conferred on man a measure of freedom which is sufficient for his needs as a rational responsible being. Of course, this freedom has its limitations. It has to be so for a finite being: but in so far as his action is determined, not by any external agency, not even by a fragment of his self, but by his whole integral self (which is essentially rational), he is acting freely and is expressing himself. This is the freedom which man has a right to demand and which the Divine Will has granted him. This is indeed man's most precious possession. He can rise to his full stature only in a social and political environment which puts no curbs on the freedom to which he is entitled. The achievement of this environment, however, still eludes humanity. It is extremely difficult, some would say almost impossible, to maintain proper balance between individual freedom and social stability. For centuries man has been trying to devise a social system which might reconcile the two. He has been experimenting with various forms of government and. diverse types of social organisation. The search is still on, but we can discern the broad outlines of a stable and progressive society composed of really free members. We can also discern the guiding and supporting hand of Divine Guidance through the ages in this quest.
In the physical world, the Divine Will operates as a constraining and controlling force. The Quranic term "Khalq" refers to this aspect of the Will's working. In the world of autonomous egos, on the other hand, it performs the function of guidance. It leaves them free to decide what is best for them, but they are not left to grope in darkness with equal chances of turning to the right or the wrong direction. An indication of the direction in which they ought to proceed is provided to them. They are, however, free to accept or reject the guidance as they like. The Quran makes this point clear:
The truth has come from Allah. Then whosoever will, let him accept it, and, whosoever will, let him reject (18: 29).
However, man, though free, is subject to the Law of Requital. Every action recoils on the doer. Right action has consequences which are beneficial to man and enrich and strengthen his self. Wrong actions invariably weaken and debase him. Right actions accelerate his progress towards the goal of self-fulfilment, whereas wrong actions drag him down to a lower plane. So, man is free to act in a wrong way but he cannot escape the penalty of wrong-doing. If a man chooses wrong he must meet the consequences thereof. The Law is relentless in its working like other Laws of God, and man cannot evade the results of his own actions. As the Quran puts it:
Verily, the grip of thy Rabb is severe (85:12).
At every moment in his life, man faces a number of possibilities, every one of which is "taqdir," in the terminology of the Quran. His freedom is limited only to the number of possibilities open to him. He is free to choose any one of them but he cannot go out of their range. He cannot, himself, enlarge the range of possibilities. He enjoys freedom within the prescribed range but not outside it. On this view, the apparent contradiction between the freedom with which man is credited and the destiny to which he is supposed to be subject disappears. Destiny must not be understood in the sense that each and every act of man is predetermined and preordained. The Quran does not lend support to the belief that what man becomes—a saint or a villain—does not depend on his free choice but on the decrees of an impersonal inexorable Fate. In the Quran’s scale, destiny is not synonymous with necessity (or fatality, as they generally call it); it only denotes the range and reach of his capacities. It indicates in what directions he can go. Flow far he can go is determined by his destiny; how far he will go depends on himself alone. God does not dictate to man what objective he should have; He just gives him the helping hand in his efforts to attain the goal he has set for himself. Iqbal has expressed this relationship in a poem of exquisite beauty. We give the translation of a few lines from it:
The secret of the Ego's destiny is unfolded in these words
'If thou changest, it changes in relation to thee.
If thou feelest like dust, it consigns thee to the wind.
Wantest thou to be a stone? It hurls thee against glassware.
Art thou a dew drop? Thou art destined to fall downwards.
Dost thou become an ocean? Permanence is thy destiny.'2
We see, therefore, that in the sphere of free egos, the Divine Will operates as a directive agency, a guiding force. The Quran designates this function of the Divine Will as "Amr. " If we ask in what form this guidance is made available to us, the Quran replies that it is provided in the Revelation:
This is Allah's "Amr" which He has revealed unto you (65: 5).
The physical world is subject to inflexible laws which reflect the Divine Will in its aspect of "Khalq"; "Amr" is the source of moral laws which have meaning for and are obligatory on only a free self. By acting in conformity with the "Amr," man creates values and appropriates them. When he dies, man does not shed the values he has realized during his earthly life. They are carried over and remain an integral part of the self, fitting it to function on. The different plane of existence which it has entered. Values are imperishable. God not only guards and protects but enhances them for the benefit of the ego which has produced them through its own efforts.
III. The Quranic View of God
It is thus clear that God, as He is conceived in the Quran, is far different from an arbitrary ruler or a wilful despot. Of course, God is omnipotent and His Will, in its creative activity, is not subject to and restrained by any external law or rule. His Will is not a blind force, terrific and irresistible, which sweeps over the universe, destroying everything in its tempestuous course. It is the Will of an omniscient, all-wise, compassionate and benevolent Being. As such, it is intimately associated with wisdom and goodness, compassion and benevolence. In short, the Divine Will does not exist and operate in isolation. It is an aspect of the Divine personality. It may seem presumptuous to apply the term "personality" to God but there is no other word appropriate to the unique unity in the midst of infinite diversity which is God. The unity is transcendental and, to our finite mind, incomprehensible, but a few of its infinite aspects are accessible to our senses and reason.
To sum up, there are three distinct spheres in each of which God's Will works differently. In the realm of "Amr," it is not subject to any laws: it is a law unto itself. In the universe which He has created, His Will assumes the shape of immutable laws to which all physical beings are subject. These laws—the Laws of Nature—are called "Kalimat Ullah" in the terminology of Quran, and, as already stated, are immutable. "There is no changing the Kalimat of Allah" (10: 64). It is the unchangeability and immutability of these laws on which the entire edifice of science and the predictions we make in the realm of physical world are founded. So far as man, a being endowed with freedom is concerned, there are also laws governing the development of his self, but man is free either to obey them or go against them. In this domain, the will of man operates. Here the initiative lies with man and, in the words of Iqbal, "God Himself cannot feel, judge and choose for me when more than one course of action are open to me. He has, by permitting the emergence of a finite ego capable of private initiative, limited the freedom of His own free will."3 There is thus no place for fatalism in Islam.
Man is free to choose for himself the course he likes. Once this discretion has been exercised, his freedom ends. The results are related to the course adopted. He is not free to make one choice and bring about results of another. His every action bears a definite result in accordance with the immutable laws of God. This is the Law of Requital which works inexorably in the entire universe, including the world of man. In the latter case, the result may come out in his present life or in the life Hereafter.
Finally, the world has been created by God who is both all powerful and all-wise. It, therefore, exhibits order and harmony, purpose and benignity. It is the home of values. It is amenable to reason. It provides man with opportunities for progress and development. In such a world, man can achieve knowledge and happiness. He can work out his destiny by making full use of his intellectual powers and by seeking guidance in the Revelation. It would be a grave error to suppose that there can be any conflict between reason and Revelation—they are complementary. Over-emphasis on either will lead man astray. Often there has been a conflict between science and the deadening dogmas of a barren theology but there cannot be conflict between science and din. Ouspensky's remarks on this point merit careful consideration:
A religion which contradicts science and a science which contradicts religion are both equally false.4*
(*Religion always contradicts science, and vice versa. It is Din which neither contradicts science nor science contradicts it.) always contradicts science, and vice versa. It is Din which neither contradicts science nor science contradicts it.)
Man needs the help of both science and din, if he wishes to bring himself into a meaningful relationship with God and the world.
1. Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought In Islam p. 97
2. Iqbal, Javed Nama (Persian), p. 123.
3. Iqbal, Reconstruction, pp. 95; 103.
4. P.D. Ouspensky Tertium Organum, p. 208.