Dear `Abd al-Matin,
In the name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
as-Salaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatu Llahi wa barakatuh.
Thank you for your question about the notion of the “universal validity” of all religions and its relation to the Sufism of Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn al-`Arabi and Emir `Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri. I do not have all the English books you mentioned that ascribe this notion to them, but I believe that some kind of an answer can be given on the basis of the books I have seen in English, and traditional Islam as I have taken it from my shiekhs in fiqh and Sufism.
I will try to touch on some general considerations about the universality of the message of the prophets (on whom be peace), the finality of Islam, the validity of non-Islamic religions, and the positions of Ibn al-`Arabi and Emir `Abd al-Qadir versus that of some of their modern interpreters. Some of the material included has been drawn from Tariqa Notes, and some from a letter last year to Christians in the Ukraine.
Allah sent mankind and jinn His prophetic messengers (upon whom be peace), who were trustworthy, intelligent, truthful, and fully conveyed their messages. He protected them from sin, and from every physical trait unbecoming to them, though as human beings, they ate, drank, slept, and married. They were the best of all created beings; and the highest of them was him whom Allah chose to be the final seal of prophethood, our prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace).
Though the Sacred Law of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) superseded all previously valid religious laws, it was identical with them in beliefs, such as tawhid or “oneness of God”, and so on, a fact that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) emphasized by saying, “Let none of you say I am superior to [the prophet] Jonah,” (Bukhari, 4.193: 3412), for the illumination of Jonah’s tawhid (upon him be peace)–under the darkness of the storm, the darkness of the sea, and the darkness of the belly of the fish–was not less than the illumination of the Prophet’s tawhid at the zenith of his success as the spiritual leader of all Arabia (Allah bless him and give him peace). The light of their message was one, in which sense the Qur’an says, “We do not differentiate between any of His messengers” (Qur’an 2:285), showing that previous religions were the same in beliefs, and though differing in provisions of works, and now abrogated by the final religion, were valid in their own times.
As for today, only Islam is valid or acceptable now that Allah has sent it to all men, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said,
“By Him in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, any person of this Community, any Jew, or any Christian who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with will be an inhabitant of hell” (al-Baghawi: Sharh al-sunna 1.104).
This hadith was also reported by Muslim in his Sahih by `Abd al-Razzaq in his Musannaf, and others. It is a rigorously authenticated (sahih) evidence that clarifies the word of Allah in surat Al ‘Imran
“Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam will never have it accepted from him, and shall be of those who have truly failed in the next life” (Qur’an 3:85)
and many other verses and hadiths. That Islam is the only remaining valid or acceptable religion is necessarily known as part of our religion, and to believe anything other than this is unbelief (kufr) that places a person outside of Islam, as Imam Nawawi notes:
“Someone who does not believe that whoever follows another religion besides Islam is an unbeliever (like Christians), or doubts that such a person is an unbeliever, or considers their sect to be valid, is himself an unbeliever (kafir) even if he manifests Islam and believes in it” (Rawda al-talibin, 10.70).
This is not only the position of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence represented by Nawawi, but is also the recorded position of all three other Sunni schools: Hanafi (Ibn ‘Abidin: Radd al-muhtar 3.287), Maliki (al-Dardir: al-Sharh al-saghir, 4.435), and Hanbali (al-Bahuti: Kashshaf al-qina’, 6.170). Those who know fiqh literature will note that each of these works is the foremost fatwa resource in its school. The scholars of Sacred Law are unanimous about the abrogation of all other religions by Islam because it is the position of Islam itself. It only remains for the sincere Muslim to submit to, in which connection Ibn al-`Arabi has said:
“Beware lest you ever say anything that does not conform to the pure Sacred Law. Know that the highest stage of the perfected ones (rijal) is the Sacred Law of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). And know that the esoteric that contravenes the exoteric is a fraud” (al-Burhani: al-Hall al-sadid, 32).
As for the abrogation of all religions by Islam, many of us know Muslims who believe the opposite of orthodox Islam, perhaps due to a literary and intellectual environment in which any and every notion about this world and the next can be expressed, in which novelty is highly valued, and in which tradition has little authority. Many have even sought backing for their emotive preference for the validity of other religions from the books of famous Sufis who are far from such a beliefs, such as Ibn al-`Arabi or `Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri. In a recent work for example entitled “Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-`Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity”, Professor William Chittick says:
“The Shaykh [Muhyiddin Ibn al-`Arabi] sometimes criticizes specific distortions or misunderstandings in the Qur’anic vein, but he does not draw the conclusion that many Muslims have drawn–that the coming of Islam abrogated (naskh) previous revealed religions. Rather, he says, Islam is like the sun and other religions like the stars. Just as the stars remain when the sun rises, so also the other religions remain valid when Islam appears. One can add a point that perhaps Ibn al-`Arabi would also accept: What appears as a sun from one point of view may be seen as a star from another point of view. Concerning abrogation, the Shaykh writes,
“‘All the revealed religions (shara’i’) are lights. Among these religions, the revealed religion of Muhammad is like the light of the sun among the lights of the stars. When the sun appears, the lights of the stars are hidden, and their lights are included in the light of the sun. Their being hidden is like the abrogation of the other revealed religions that takes place through Muhammad’s revealed religion. Nevertheless, they do in fact exist, just as the existence of the light of the stars is actualized. This explains why we have been required in our all-inclusive religon to have faith in the truth of all messengers and all the revealed religions. They are not rendered null (batil) by abrogation–that is the opinion of the ignorant.’([al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya,] III 153.12)
“If the Shaykh’s pronouncements on other religions sometimes fail to recognize their validity in his own time, one reason may be that, like most other Muslims living in the western Islamic lands, he had little real contact with the Christians or Jews in his environment, not to speak of followers of religions farther afield. He had probably never met a saintly representative of either of these traditions, and he almost certainly had never read anything about these two religions except what was written in Islamic sources. Hence there is no reason that he should have accepted the validity of these religions except in principle. But this is an important qualification. To maintain the particular excellence of the Qur’an and the superiority of Muhammad over all other prophets is not to deny the universal validity of revelation nor the necessity of revelations appearing in particularized expressions” (Religious Diversity, 12526).
Chittick’s claim above that Ibn al-`Arabi “does not draw the conclusion that many Muslims have drawn–that the coming of Islam abrogated (naskh) previously revealed religions” is false, and could have been corrected by a fuller translation of the passage he has quoted from the Futuhat:
“The religious laws (shara’i’) are all lights, and the law of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) among these lights is as the sun’s light among the light of the stars: if the sun comes out, the lights of the stars are no longer seen and their lights are absorbed into the light of the sun: the disappearance of their lights resembles what, of the religious laws, has been abrogated (nusikha) by his law (Allah bless him and give him peace) despite their existence, just as the lights of the stars still exist. This is why we are required by our universal law to believe in all prophetic messengers (rusul) and to believe that all their laws are truth, and did not turn into falsehood by being abrogated: that is the imagination of the ignorant. So all paths return to look to the Prophet’s path (Allah bless him and give him peace): if the prophetic messengers had been alive in his time, they would have followed him just as their religious laws have followed his law. “For he was given Comprehensiveness of Word (Jawami’ al-Kalim), and given [the Qur’anic verse] ‘Allah shall give you an invincible victory‘ (Qur’an 48:3), ‘the invincible’ [al-‘aziz, also meaning rare, dear, precious, unattainable] being he who is sought but cannot be reached. When the prophetic messengers sought to reach him, he proved impossible for them to attain to–because of his [being favored above them by] being sent to the entire world (bi’thatihi al-‘amma), and Allah giving him Comprehensiveness of Word (Jawami al-Kalim), and the supreme rank of possessing the Praiseworthy Station (al-Maqam al-Mahmud) in the next world, and Allah having made his Nation (Umma) ‘the best Nation ever brought forth for people‘ (Qur’an 3:110). The Nation of every messenger is commensurate with the station of their prophet, so realize this” (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, III 153.1220).
The passage, when read carefully, is merely an affirmation that Allah’s messengers (upon whom be peace) were true, and everything they brought was true, which is believed by every Muslim. It further suggests that everything their laws (shara’i’ means nothing else) contained has not only been abrogated, but is thereby implicitly contained in the new revelation, in which sense “their religious laws have followed his law.” A familiar example cited by ulama is the law of talion, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which was obligatory in the religious law of Moses (upon whom be peace), subsequently forbidden by the religious law of Jesus (upon whom be peace) in which “turning the other cheek” was obligatory; and finally both were superseded by the law of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), which permits victims to take retaliation (qisas) for purely intentional physical injuries, but in which it is religiously superior not to retaliate but forgive. This is the absorption of the stars’ lights into that of the sun, of “what, of the religious laws, has been abrogated by his law (Allah bless him and give him peace) despite their existence, just as the lights of the stars still exist.” This is the sense in which Ibn al-`Arabi is interpreting Comprehensiveness of Word (Jawami’ al-Kalim) here.
What the passage does not say is that non-Islamic religions are valid now that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has been sent with Islam. Professor Chittick’s omission of the second half of the passage (which is plainly punctuated in finish by the words “so know this”) is puzzling, for it is highly material to the topic, and in spirit and in letter (“because of his being sent to the entire world (bi’thatihi al-‘amma)”) plainly contradicts the professor’s suggestion that Ibn al-`Arabi does not believe that the coming of Islam abrogated (naskh) previously revealed religions. The wrongness of this notion is clear to anyone who reads the second half and knows what the expression bi’thatihi al-‘amma means from having read it in similar contexts from other works of the traditional Islamic sciences that formed Ibn al-`Arabi’s education.
In fact, one looks in vain in the works of Ibn al-`Arabi for the belief of the validity of currently existing non-Islamic religions, for this is kufr, as Imam Nawawi and the other Imams mentioned above unanimously concur. Traditional Islam certainly does not accept the suggestion that
“it is true that many Muslims believe that the universality of guidance pertains only to pre-Qur’anic times, but others disagree; there is no ‘orthodox’ interpretation here that Muslims must accept” (Religious Diversity, 124).
Orthodoxy exists, it is unanimously agreed upon by the scholars of Muslims, and we have conveyed in Nawawi’s words above that to believe anything else is unbelief. As for “others disagree,” it is true, but is something that has waited for fourteen centuries of Islamic scholarship down to the present century to be first promulgated in Cairo in the 1930s by the French convert to Islam Rene Gunon, and later by his student Frithjof Schuon and writers under him. Who else said it before? And if no one did, and everyone else considers it kufr, on what basis should it be accepted?
My point is that it would have been one thing to say it under their own auspices, but to project their views onto great Muslims of the past is a mistake that should be corrected. Another example is found in Islam and the Destiny of Man, in which Charles le Gai Eaton (omissions are his) says:
“According to the great mujahid (the ‘warrior in the path of Allah’), the Emir `Abdu’l-Qadir, our God and the God of all the communities opposed to ours are in truth One God . . . despite the variety of His manifestations . . . He has manifested Himself to Muhammad’s people beyond every form while manifesting Himself in every form . . . To Christians He has manifested Himself in the form of Christ . . . and to the worshippers of whatever form it may be . . . in the very form of this thing; for no worshipper of a finite object worships it for its own sake. What he worships is the epiphany in the form of the attributes of the true God . . . Yet that which all the worshippers worship is one and the same. Their error consists only in the act of determining it in a limitative manner. [Quoted from Mawqif 236 in the Mawaqif of `Abdul-Qadir (French translation by M. Chodkiewicz published by Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1982).] `Abdul-Qadir fought the Christians who invaded his land, Algeria, because he was a Muslim. Exiled in Damascus, he protected the Christians against massacre by taking them into his own home because he understood. Those who would challenge him or accuse him of heresy should be prepared to face his sword and accept death from its blade since small men risk their necks when they challenge great ones”(Islam and the Destiny of Man, 53).
The passage quoted from the Mawaqif is interesting, not only because scissors seem to have been harder at work on it than sword, but because the reference suggests it has been translated from Arabic to French to English, something of a journey from the original words of the author. I don’t know who arranged the French original, but the above passage has not been quoted from Mawqif 236 of the Arabic Mawaqif that I have, which was printed in 1329/1911 in Damascus from the copy of Sheikh `Abd al-Razzaq al-Bitar, a manuscript read by `Abd al-Qadir himself, with emendations in his own handwriting in the margins.
The idea, however, is familiar, and is mentioned in a number of places in the Mawaqif, and is also mentioned in the Chapter of Hajj toward the end of the first volume of the Futuhat of Ibn al-`Arabi, whom `Abd al-Qadir follows closely. Ibn al-`Arabi feels that while God consigns idolaters to hell eternally (if a prophetic warner has been sent to them, for otherwise they are not responsible to do or refrain from anything), their worship is not completely amiss, in that everyone, whether Christian, Jew, fire-worshipper, or idolator, consider what they worship to be the Divine (Ar. al-Ilah, “the Deity”), and do not worship what they worship except for this reason, in which sense “your Lord has ruled that you shall worship none except Him” (Qur’an 17:23), in which “ruled”, according to `Abd al-Qadir, means “brought about”; namely, that Allah, in virtue of this motive and this name (al-Ilah) and His jealousy for its prerogative, often answers the supplications of such worshippers and fulfills their needs; though as said before, their worship is not valid, for “Allah does not forgive that any should be associated with Him, but forgives what is other than that to whomever He wills” (Qur’an 4:48): From one side they do worship the God, but from another they have associated with Him the specific objects that they believe He inheres in, so their worship is invalid, because it does not conform to the absolute tawhid brought by the prophets, upon whom be peace, who taught that Allah is absolute in manifestation, not bound by any created form.
No matter what the religion, then, for Emir `Abd al-Qadir, Allah cannot not be “worshipped” in the limitary sense of the basic impetus of the worshipper towards the Divine. But this does not mean it is acceptable or valid in Allah’s eyes. Whoever confuses these two things, as the above passage does, has done violence to `Abd al-Qadir. He says:
“Since the manifestings of Him Meant by Worship are manifold, so are sects and creeds. For the aim of worship is to exalt with reverence, and the lowliness and humility of every worshipper is only rendered to someone able to harm or benefit, give or withhold, to give sustenance, to lower or raiseand these attributes are not in fact, those of anyone except one alone, who is Allah Most High, and He is absolutely beyond perception (ghayb mutlaq). “So every worshipper of a form, be it sun, star, fire, light, darkness, nature, idol, phantasm, jinn, or other, maintains that the form he worships is of Him Meant by Worship, and he ascribes the attributes of the Diety (al-Ilah) to it, of harm, benefit, and so on. Such a person would be right, in a way, if only he had not made Him finite and conditional. For no worshipper intends by adoring the form he worships anything except the Reality Deserving Worship, which is Allah Most High, and this is what Allah has ruled (Qur’an 17:23) and brought about. But they have proved ignorant of this Reality’s absolute manifestation, unsullied by conditionality or limitariness, and have proved ignorant of the Reality in point of fact, though they do know it in general terms, this being innately possessed knowledge” (al-Mawaqif, 1.33:8).
What is the consequence of their proving “ignorant of the Reality in point of fact?” Does it mean that every worshipper, whether he associates others with Allah or not, is acceptable to Allah? `Abd al-Qadir answers this question in another section of the Mawaqif in his exegesis of the words of the Meccan idolators quoted by Allah in surat al-An`am, “Had Allah not wanted, we would not have associated anything with Him, nor our fathers, nor would we have prohibited anything” (Qur’an 6:148):
“This is truth intended as falsehood, that is: ‘If Allah had willed us not to associate others with Him, we wouldn’t have associated them with Him; and if Allah had not willed that we prohibited anything, we wouldn’t have done so, for nothing we do occurs except what He wills.‘ And it is true; but the way this truth is intended as a falsehood is that they claim that everything Allah has willed for His servants is acceptable and liked by Him. “And this is a falsehood, for Allah Most High wills for His servants whatever He knows from them pre-eternally. And that which He knows from them pre-eternally is whatever is entailed by what they most truly are, which they seek through their primal disposition, be it good or evil, pure monotheism (tawhid) or unbelief (kufr). For His will is subject to His knowledge, and His knowledge is subject to what He knows, and what He knows includes both the guided person and the lost, the affirmer of pure monotheism (muwahhid) and the associater of others with Him (mushrik), the damned and the saved, the truthful and the liar. The beings that He Most High has created are the sites of manifestation (madhahir) of His names, and there are those of His names which entail beauty and mercy, this being the share of those who are saved, the ‘People of the Right Handful‘; and there are others of them that entail rigor and subjugation, this being the share of those who are damned, the ‘People of the Left Handful.‘
“So Allah’s willing something is not the sign of His love for it and acceptance of it, for ‘He does not accept unbelief for His servants‘ (Qur’an 39:7), though He has willed the unbelief of many of them. His will is only a sign of His beginningless eternal knowledge of that which He would will for endless eternity. If everything He willed for His servants were goodness, it would entail that His sending the prophetic messengers and appointing their laws was futile. For they came with commands and prohibitions, and explained the Right Handful and the Left Handful, as He says: ‘Of them [humanity], there are the damned and the saved‘” (Qur’an 11:105) (al-Mawaqif, 1.46970: 236).
So at the level of creation and destiny, everything is the will of God, and in a sense, all religions, according to `Abd al-Qadir’s viewpoint, are “worship” of the Deity. But at the level of validity and salvation, only the worship that conforms to what the prophets (upon whom be peace) have brought is acceptable to Allah.
In the first passage I have translated above from the Mawaqif, `Abd al-Qadir explains that the mushrik who associates others with Allah is in a sense “worshipping” God by the fact that he ascribes attributes of the Deity to the object of his worship, which he only worships for their sake, though he has proved “ignorant of the Reality [Deserving Worship] in point of fact” (al-Mawaqif, 1.33: 8). And in the second passage quoted, `Abd al-Qadir contrasts the will of God in creating the mushrik and his “worship”, from the acceptance of Allah, which applies to neither, for he mentions “both the guided person and the lost, the affirmer of pure monotheism (muwahhid) and the associater of others with Him (mushrik), the damned and the saved, the truthful and the liar” (al-Mawaqif, 1.469: 236). There is little doubt here as to who is who: the muwahhid is saved, the mushrik is lost. Whatever exception may be taken at the above use of “worship”, one thing that it certainly does not entail is the validity and acceptance of God for all forms of this worship. In the whole discussion, Emir `Abd al-Qadir closely follows Ibn al-`Arabi, who says,
“Allah says, ‘Your Lord has ruled that you shall worship none except Him‘ (Qur’an 17:23), that is, has determined, and for His sake have the gods been worshipped, for no one is intended by the worship of any worshipper except God, since nothing is worshipped for its own sake but Allah. The associator of others with Allah (mushrik) but makes the mistake of setting up for himself a worship in a particular way not given to him by God, and so is damned for that (fa shaqiya li dhalik). For they say of those they associate with Him, ‘We but worship them that they may bring us closer to Allah‘ (Qur’an 39:3), thus acknowledging Him” (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, I 405.3133)
It is difficult to agree completely with Ibn al-`Arabi and `Abd al-Qadir’s interpretation of “Your Lord has ruled” (qada Rabbuka) as meaning “Your Lord has determined” (hakama, i.e. brought about), as opposed to meaning “amara” or “commanded”, the interpretation of other exegetes, for the latter is attested to by the remainder of the verse:
“[Your Lord has ruled that you shall worship none except Him,] and show goodness to parents” (Qur’an 7:23),
where if “ruled” (qada) meant “determined” (hakama), it would entail that every behavior in the created world towards parents may be termed “goodness”, which is not the case.
Ibn al-`Arabi ascribes his interpretation to “kashf” or “spiritual intuition” (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, III 117.8) rather than linguistic or other conventional exegetical evidence–a private understanding that few ordinary readers can follow him in–but in any case his explicit words “and so is damned for that (fa shaqiya li dhalik)” leave little doubt about the acceptability of such worship in his eyes. If there were doubt, the same thought can be found many other passages of the Futuhat such as his description of the four groups who shall never leave the hellfire, the second of whom is those who associate others with Allah (al-mushrikun), a mushrik being someone who “affirms the existence of Allah, being unable to deny it, but Satan makes him associate others besides Allah in His divinity” (ibid., I 302.9), a sin which he notes in another section is “among those enormities that are never forgiven” (ibid., 749.16).
The upshot of these texts is that Ibn al-`Arabi, like `Abd al-Qadir (and virtually every other Muslim), clearly distinguishes between the divine will, which pertains to every created thing, and the divine acceptance, which only pertains to things the Sacred Law deems good. This brings us back to our starting point, the word of Allah in surat Al ‘Imran that
“whoever seeks a religion other than Islam will never have it accepted from him, and shall be of those who have truly failed in the next life” (Qur’an 3:85).
The reason that contemporary writers affected by the writings of Gunon and Schuon, such as Chittick and Gai Eaton (or such as Martin Lings, Titus Burckhardt etc.), seem to want the universal validity of all religions at any price, even to the extent of attributing it to masters like Muhyiddin ibn al-`Arabi (“in principle“) or Emir `Abd al-Qadir (“he protected the Christians against massacre by taking them into his own home because he understood” [as if other scholars considered massacring them halal]) would seem to be the emotive impalatability of followers of other religions going to hell. Where is the mercy? Would Allah put someone in the hellfire merely for worshipping in another religion besides Islam? This question is answered by traditional Islam according to two possibilities:
(1) There are some peoples who have not been reached by the message of the Prophet of Islam (Allah bless him and give him peace) that we must worship the One God alone, associating nothing else with Him. Such people are innocent, and will not be punished no matter what they do. Allah says in surat al-Isra’,
“We do not punish until We send a Messenger” (Qur’an 17:15).
These include, for example, Christians and others who lived in the period after the spread of the myth of Jesus godhood, until the time of the prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), who renewed the call to pure monotheism.
The great Muslim scholar, Imam Ghazali, includes in this category those who have only been reached with a distorted picture of the Messenger of Islam (Allah bless him and give him peace), presumably including many people in the West today who know nothing about Allah’s religion but newspaper stories about Ayatollahs and mad Muslim bombers. Is it within such people’s capacity to believe? In Ghazali’s view, such people are excused until after they have had an opportunity to learn the undistorted truth about Islam (Ghazali: “Faysal al-tafriqa,” Majmu’a rasa’il al-Imam al-Ghazali, 3.96). This of course does not alter our own obligation as Muslims to reach them with the da’wa.
(2) A second group of people consists of those who turn away from God’s divine message of Islam, rejecting the command to make their worship God’s alone; whether because of blindly imitating the religion of their ancestors, or for some other reason. These are people to whom God has sent a prophetic messenger and reached with His message, and to whom He has given hearing and an intellect with which to grasp it but after all this, persist in associating others with Allah, either by actually worshipping another, or by rejecting the laws brought by His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), which associates their own customs with His prerogative to be worshipped as He directs. Such people have violated God’s rights, and have accepted to go to hell, which is precisely what His messengers have warned them of, so they have no excuse:
“Truly, Allah does not forgive that any be associated with Him; but He forgives what is less than that to whomever He wills” (Qur’an 4:48).
In either case, Allah’s mercy exists, though for non-Muslims unreached by the message, it is a question of divine amnesty for their ignorance, not a confirmation of their religions validity. It is worth knowing the difference between these two things, for one’s eternal fate depends on it.
A final question arises here; namely, that since Allah alone is absolute, and all forms (presumably including religious ones) are relative, why could He not transcend the forms given in the Islamic Revelation; that is, if He can do anything, why should it be impossible for Him to simply “forgive everyone”?
The answer involves the concept of al-wajib al-‘aradi or “the contingently necessary,” which is part of traditional Islamic aqida (tenets of faith), and hence well known to scholars like Ibn al-`Arabi and Abd al-Qadir, but perhaps not familiar to many contemporary Muslims. It is arguably among the most important points one can learn from classical works of aqida.
The possible or impossible for Allah Most High involves the divine attribute of qudra or omnipotence, “what He can do”. This attribute in turn relates exclusively to the intrinsically possible, not to what is intrinsically impossible, as Allah says, “Verily Allah has power over every thing” (Qur’an 20:29), “thing” being something that in principle can exist. For example, if one asks “Can Allah create square circle?” the answer is that His omnipotence does not relate to it, for a square circle does not refer to anything that in principle could exist: the speaker does not have a distinct idea of what he means, but is merely using a jumble of words.
Similarly, if one were to ask, “Can Allah terminate His own existence?” the answer is that the divine omnipotence does not relate to this; it is intrinsically impossible (mustahil dhati), for the divine nature necessarily entails the divine perfections, of which Being is one. It is impossible that Allah could cease to have this perfection or any other, for otherwise He would not be God.
There are thus things that are necessarily true of God (that He cannot not be); and their opposites, things which are necessarily impossible of God. In terms of the question above, the choice to forgive everyone, that is, to simply suspend the implications of the Qur’anic verses and hadiths that indicate that some classes of people will never leave hell, is not intrinsically impossible (mustahil dhati) for Allah, in that it does not involve something inherently impossible as does the square circle, or negate something inherently true by the very nature of the Divine. Then why didn’t any scholar ever think of it? Because for Islamic orthodoxy, there is another class of both the necessary and the impossible that the divine attribute of omnipotence (qudra) has no relation to; namely, that which is necessary or impossible because, although not so a priori, it has become necessary or impossible by being connected with the knowledge (‘ilm) of Allah and His beginninglessly eternal attribute of speech, in His informing us of it.
For example, Abu Lahab was born with apparently the same chance as anyone to hear the Prophet’s message (Allah bless him and give him peace), enter Islam, and reach paradise. But when he persecuted the Muslims, and surat al-Masad (Qur’an 111) was subsequently revealed, and Allah manifested His beginninglessly eternal knowledge that Abu Lahab was of the people of hell. Although initially this outcome was merely contingent and possible, when the eternal Word of Allah connected with it, it became necessary, final, and inabrogable, for Allah only informs of what is in His knowledge, and His knowledge only conforms to what truly is, which is why no one alters the words of Allah (Qur’an 6:34), for otherwise His words would express ignorance, an attribute impossible for God, or lies, which equally contradict the nature of the Divine.
Abu Lahab is thus necessarily of the people of hell, necessary not logically or inherently, but contingently necessary, because of the contingent event of Allah having informed us of it. Everything that Allah has informed us of is of this class of thing, and divine omnipotence (qudra) does not relate to their contrary, for His Word shall be realized exactly as He has said, and it is impossible that any of it be nullified.
This is why for Sufis like Ibn al-`Arabi and Emir `Abd al-Qadir, the revealed law in a sense partakes of the Divine, for it returns to Allah’s attribute of speech, in the Qur’an, and to the unrecited revelation of the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) which is Allah’s act of inspiration-both of which are inseparable in principle from Allah’s entity. For such Sufis, the sharia is the haqiqa, and this is, after all, the position of Islam itself. To answer our question above, the first premise that Allah alone is absolute, and all forms are relative, is plainly wrong, and contradicted by the manifold existence of Allah’s determinations, which, though contingently necessary (wajib aradi) rather than inherently so, are no less absolute than the Divine itself.
I remain your brother,
Nuh Ha Mim Keller
Was-Salamu alaykum wa rahmatu Llahi wa barakatuh.