Eternal world and God’s free will in Islam—A diachronic perspective

Frank Griffel, Professor of Religious Studies and Chair, Council on Middle East Studies
April 17, 2017

“When I began to become interested in Islamic philosophy, which was in the early 1990s, the eternity of the world was considered the most important philosophical question that was discussed by Muslim philosophers and their adversaries,” began Frank Griffel (Yale University) as he introduced the members, guests, students, and scholars to the two-day symposium, “Eternal World and God’s Free Will in Islam—A Diachronic Perspective,” on March 31-April 1. Convened and created by Griffel, this symposium focused more on asking critical questions regarding Islamic theological claims, than providing concrete answers. In the same way that the Sufi mystics tell us that God often reveals himself in a divine mystery, so too did this symposium embrace both curiosity and wonder as worthy and worthwhile intellectual responses to complex problems regarding necessity, creation, and existence. 

The conference began with an introduction by Griffel describing his own questions regarding God’s free will and the world’s eternity: “Does God act out of necessity? Or out of free will? Can one accept Avicenna’s proof?” Ayman Shihadeh (SOAS London) led the symposium on an historical journey, focusing on the well-known kalam proof for the temporal creation of the world from the fact that all bodies are either in motion or in rest. Shihadeh argued that one important element has been overlooked in this proof, namely the assumption that a group of things has the same attribute as all its members. Salimeh Maghsoudlou (Yale University) concluded the first panel, discussing the concept of time in eternity in the works of the famous philosopher Avicenna and the reaction by the two Muslim theologians and Sufis al-Ghazali and ‘Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadhani.

The second panel opened with Michael Rapoport’s (Yale University) presentation on the argument against the unity of being, in Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s (d. 1210) writings. He accepted Avicenna’s argument for the existence of God, but rejected its implication that God must be total unity. For al-Razi, “existence is added to essence, even in God, and hence God’s essence is the cause of existence,” according to Rapoport.

Griffel then presented his research on God’s free will and the world’s eternity in Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s philosophical summa al-Mabahith al-mashriqiayya. Griffel concluded that for al-Razi, who here departs from his predecessor al-Ghazali, an eternal world is not impossible, and hence it is impossible to know whether God has a free will or not. Scripture isn’t clear, makes no explicit claims, and neither is the world, so we are left with questions, and the freedom to press into deep inquiry on whether or not God acts out of necessity or not.

The third panel began with Cecilia Martini Bonadeo (Universita di Padova) on God’s will and the origin of the world in the writings of Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 1231), and guided the audience on a journey regarding problems and questions of causes, First Causes, and unique principles that are separate from matter. Jon McGinnis (University of Missouri, St. Louis) presented his research on eternity, necessity, and creation, arguing that “for Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the will always acts for reasons and it is the theologian’s ‘God’ that does not willfully create.”

The day concluded with Andreas Lammer (LMU Munich) discussing Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 1233) and Athir al-Din al-Abhari (d. 1264) and their arguments on the eternity of the world.

The second day of the symposium began with Ulrich Rudolph (Zurich University) discussing Abd al-Rahman al-Jami’s (d. 1492) views on the eternity of the world, focusing on the religious politics surrounding this question. Omer Maher Alper (Istanbul University) presented his work on the question “Does the eternity of contingency require the contingency of eternity?” Kemalpashazadeh’s (d. 1534) presentation of the problem reinforced earlier impressions during the conference, namely that discussions about the sheer possibility of an eternal world lead to conclusions about the nature of God.

Panel 5 opened with Shankar Nair (University of Virginia) presenting Shah Wali Allah’s (d. 1762) discussion of the problem, which in the existing literature is often connected to Hindu beliefs. He discusses what it means for matter to be “elements of things in parts” in relation to ideas surrounding perpetually sustained existence. Next, Asad Q. Ahmed (University of California, Berkeley) led the symposium on an historical journey through the problem of huduth dahri (“perpetual incipience”) in late pre-modern and early modern South Asia.

The symposium concluded with presentations by Nathan Spannaus, who presented discussions in late Sunni theology in Russia (Kazan) and Central Asia (Bukhara and Samarkand). Robert Wisnovsky (McGill University) concluded with his research on necessary and eternal existence in one of Muhammad Abduh’s early works.

In the same way that the conference began with a question, these inquiries continued as the day came to a close with the concluding panel. The question of originality and progress ensued. What does it mean for an Islamic philosophy to progress? And if that progress is continuing, is that necessarily progress? Are there criteria for what is constructive progress? At the end, a pervading curiosity endured, with insightful musings and questions on how one leverages the differences between criticality and creativity in constructive Islamic philosophy.

The event was sponsored by the Council on Middle East Studies at the MacMillan Center at Yale and the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund.


Written by Mia Tabib, Master of Divinity Candidate, Class of 2018.