The below was initially written as a response to two objections made by an individual writing on the internet. Since it brings much-needed clarity to the Deobandi position on this subject, and briefly addresses some of the most common objections to it, the response is being reproduced here.
Note: Some small additions/alterations have been made to the original response; and direct reference to the individual who was responded to has been removed.
Did the author of al-Muhannad claim it is possible for Allāh to act against what He promised?
It is necessary to differentiate between two different concepts:
One is the logical or rational possibility (imkān ‘aqlī) of a proposition, and the other is its occurrence or materialisation.
For Allāh to act against what He has promised is rationally possible, but its occurrence is impossible. A “rational possibility” does not preclude the impossibility of actual occurrence. It only means that the proposition is not in itself inconceivable: the mind does not preclude its possibility a priori.
Allāh’s power connects to everything that is logically/rationally possible. To say otherwise would be to attribute a deficiency to Him. As the mutakallimūn said: “قدرته تعالى يعم سائر الممكنات” “كل ممكن مقدور” “المقتضي للقادرية هو الذات والمصحح للمقدورية هو الإمكان”. Al-Dawwānī said to not have power of some things that are possible (mumkin) is an imperfection, which is not possible for Allāh. (العجز عن البعض نقص وهو على الله تعالى محال)
Consider the propositions: “a wicked and wretched disbeliever like Fir‘awn is put into Jannah” or “a pious believer is put into Jahannam.” There is no rational absurdity in these propositions. The mind does not regard these as inconceivable or impossible in themselves (unlike, for example, the propositions: “the number 2 is odd”, “8 is a prime number” and so on). Hence, the Qudrah of Allāh connects to them as Allāh has the power to do everything that is rationally possible. Similarly, the mind does not preclude the possibility of these things even after Allāh’s promise. Allāh’s promise that a pious believer will not enter Jahannam does not make it rationally impossible for a pious believer to enter Jahannam. Hence, the Qudrah still connects to it. Yes, the promise makes its occurrence impossible.
This was precisely the response of the Ash‘ari theologians to the arguments of the Mu‘tazila (particularly, the followers of Naẓẓām) that “punishing a pious believer” and other apparently ugly acts are not in Allāh’s power. In response to this argument of the Naẓẓāmiyya, it states in Sharḥ al-Mawāqif: “The response is that there is nothing ugly in relation to Him because everything is subordinate to Him, thus He may do with it as He pleases. And even if it is accepted that the act is ugly in relation to Him, the most that can be said is that it won’t occur due to the presence of something stopping it, i.e. its ugliness, and that does not negate power over it.” (والجواب أنه لا قبح بالنسبة إليه فإن الكل ملكه فله أن يتصرف فيه على أي وجه أراد، وإن سلم قبح الفعل بالنسبة إليه فغايته عدم الفعل بوجود الصارف عنه وهو القبح وذلك لا ينفى القدرة عليه)
The same thing is mentioned in other works, like Sharḥ al-Maṭāli‘, Ṭawali‘ al-Rūmi and Sharḥ al-Ṣaḥa’if. Quotes can be found at the following link:
The mistake of the Mu‘tazila (Naẓẓāmiyya), in the words of Sharḥ al-Mawāqif, is as follows: “They presumed that purifying Allāh from despicable and ugly things is only by negating His power over them. In doing so, they are like one who flees from rain and stands under a drain!” (توهموا أن تنزيهه تعالى من الشرور والقابئح لا يكون إلا بسلب قدرته عليها، فهم في ذلك كمن هرب من المطر إلى الميزاب)
This is precisely the mistake made by those who say Allāh does not have the power to act against what He has promised or He does not have the power to create a speech that does not conform to reality. They say: We can only say He is free from these things by negating His power over them. But the Ash‘ari theologians responded that by negating His power, you are limiting the power of Allāh. There is no rational absurdity or impossibility in these propositions, so they must fall under His power. Yes, their occurrence from Him is impossible because His divine intent does not connect to them on account of His wisdom, fairness and so on.
On the question of kidhb/kadhib itself, it is first necessary to understand the nature of kidhb. Kidhb is defined as the act of producing a sentence that does not conform to reality. As the Deobandi author of Juhd al-Muqill states, we all agree that after Ādam (‘alayhissalām) ate from the tree, it was in the power of Allāh Ta‘āla to produce the sentence “Ādam disobeyed His Lord” (عصى آدم ربه) and then to send it down to a chosen prophet. Not only does everyone agree that it is in His power, but they agree that it actually happened, as it is in the Qur’ān. Now, if hypothetically Ādam (‘alayhissalam) actually did not eat from the tree, would producing this sentence and sending it down on a chosen prophet be excluded from the power of Allāh? It is obvious that if it is in His power after Ādam (‘alayhissalam) ate from the tree, it would also be in His power before this, and it would also be in His power in the hypothetical situation that he never ate from the tree. The Qudra of Allāh does not change. It does not become limited or constrained. Yes, there are things that are within the Qudra of Allāh which will actualise and others that will never actualise. But this is due to the divine will (irāda), and not due to any limit in the Qudra.
It is important to understand what “kidhb” means in this context. (See: muqaddimas 4 and 6 from the link given above). “Kidhb” does not characterise a person. Nor is it an intrinsic characteristic of speech. A “speech” in and of itself is not described as “truthful” or “false.” It is only described in this way relative to its context. For example, the proposition “Zayd is standing” in one context would be described as “true” and in another context as “false.” Hence, “true” and “false” neither (primarily) characterise a person, nor are they intrinsic qualities of speech. In our context, kidhb means: producing a speech that does not conform to reality. In other words: does Allāh have the power to create a speech that is untrue, and then send it down to a chosen prophet or angel? It is clear that since “kidhb” is not primarily a characteristic of a being/person, nor intrinsically a characteristic of the speech itself, it does not entail any change within the Dhāt (Being) of Allāh. Moreover, there is nothing in this proposition – i.e. “words/sounds coming into existence that give a meaning that does not conform to reality” – that is intrinsically impossible. Hence, the Qudra definitely connects to it, based on the fact that the Qudra connects to everything possible.
A question that some people have at this point is the nature of Allāh’s “speech.” For a full discussion on this issue, refer to muqaddima 4 from the link given above. In brief, there are two kinds of speech as it relates to Allāh:
- One is a single, undifferentiated, simple attribute subsisting within the essence of Allāh. This is commonly known as “Kalām Nafsī.”
- The second is the words and sentences arranged by Allāh, created into sounds or letters, and then brought down to one of His creatures. This is known as “Kalām Lafẓī.” [وليس كلام الله تعالى إلا ما رتبه الله تعالى بنفسه من غير واسطة والكلمات لا تعاقب بينها فى الوجود العلمي حتى يلزم حدوثها وإنما التعاقب بينها فى الوجود الخارجي، وهو بحسب هذا الوجود كلام لفظي]
It is important to understand that the single undifferentiated attribute of “Kalām Nafsī” does not itself consist of statements, whether declarative, imperative or otherwise. Rather, these statements exist only within the “Kalām Lafẓī.”
[A technical point: Allāh’s knowledge of the meanings of, as well as the contents of, the “Kalām Lafẓī” is eternal, but the Kalām Lafẓī itself is originated. Sometimes, Allāh’s eternal knowledge of the Kalām Lafẓī is also referred to as “Kalām Nafsī”, which can be a source of confusion. The term “Kalām Nafsī” therefore sometimes refers to the eternal attribute of speech in Allāh’s Dhāt, and sometimes to Allāh’s knowledge of what is contained within the Kalām Lafẓī.]
Hence, the Kalām Nafsī itself – that is a single, undifferentiated, attribute within the Dhāt – does not consist of “meanings”. It only “connects” to the meanings and words found in the Kalām Lafẓī just as the Qudra connects to creation. The Kalām Lafẓī also “points to” the Kalām Nafsī just as creation points to Qudra. It doesn’t “point to” it in the sense of words pointing to their meanings, but in the sense of an effect pointing to its cause or to its point of origin. [أقول: ليس معنى كونه عبارة عنه أنه عينه كما قال بعد هذا: أن القرآن عبارة عن هذا المؤلف المخصوص والنحو عبارة عن القواعد المخصوصة، وذلك ظاهر ولا أنه دال عليه بالوضع لأن المدلول الوضعي له هو المعاني الوضعية الحادثة، بل معناه أنه دال عليه عقلا، ودلالة الأثر على مبدئه فإن النطق الظاهر فى الإنسان كما يدل على مبدء له يغاير العلم والقدرة والإرادة كذلك فى الباري تعالى يدل الكلام اللغظي على مبدء له يغاير سائر الصفات]
[For a more thorough discussion, with extensive quotes from the Ash‘ari theologians, refer to muqaddima 4 from the link given above].
The point to take away from this technical discussion is that the speech that is an intrinsic attribute of Allāh Ta‘āla (i.e. the Kalām Nafsī) is not under discussion here, as “ṣidq” and “kidhb” do not even enter into the realm of possibilities when we talk about “Kalām Nafsī”. “Kalām Nafsī” is neither “inshā’” (imperative, interrogative etc. statements) nor “khabar” (declarative statement). It only connects to these types of statements, in just the same way the “Qudra” connects to creation. Hence, “truth” or “falsehood” are inconceivable (ghayr mutaṣawwar) when we talk about “Kalam Nafsī.”
The speech we are talking of in this context is, thus, the created speech that is arranged by Allāh Ta‘āla without the intermediary of any other sentient being, which is then brought down to one of His creatures. This is also part of Allāh’s “speech” as it is not the speech of any other being. Now, this speech is always true because Allāh is truthful, but that does not mean His power over producing an untruthful statement in this speech is negated. This in a nutshell is the Deobandi argument.
Does this not mean we cannot know if Allāh is truthful in any particular passage of the Qur’ān?
There are two ways in which something can be said to be unbefitting of Allāh. One is that it entails a contradiction and absurdity. For example “ẓulm” with the meaning that Allāh meddles in another’s ownership without his consent (التصرف في ملك الغير بغير إذنه). This is impossible and does not fall in the Qudra of Allāh since it entails an absurdity. Nothing falls outside the ownership of Allāh, so ẓulm with this meaning cannot apply to Allāh. Such things are intrinsically impossible. Other examples are creating another “God” (how can something created be uncreated?), eating/drinking (how can a Being without body or need eat/drink?) etc.
[Note: ẓulm also has another meaning: to increase a person’s punishment beyond what his crime demands, or to lessen a person’s rewards. This meaning of ẓulm is not excluded from the Qudra of Allāh as it entails no absurdity. Yet, ẓulm even in this meaning will not occur from Allāh for reasons explained below. Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī explains these two different meanings of ẓulm, clarifying that one is intrinsically impossible, while the other is not. (Jāmi‘ al-‘Ulūm wa l-Ḥikam, Dār Ibn Kathīr, p. 513)]
Another way in which something is unbefitting of Allāh is that it is against His nature. Despite being technically possible and being included under His Qudra, such things cannot emanate from Him on account of His nature of fairness (‘adl), wisdom (ḥikma), truthfulness (ṣidq), mercy (raḥma) etc.
An ordinary example is a very pious person who is known to be very pious. Now if an allegation was to be made against this person, our immediate response would be: “he couldn’t have done such a thing!” Not that it is not possible (i.e. he had the ability to do it), but it goes against what we know of his nature and of the way he behaves and conducts himself. In the same way we know Allāh is fair and truthful. This is our experience and knowledge of His nature. He will not punish a pious believer though He has the power to, and He won’t reward a wretched disbeliever though he has the power to. In the same way He will never issue a statement that does not conform to reality, though it is within His power to do so. The Ash‘ari theologians who said doing so is within His power clearly mentioned that it is known by necessity that it will not occur from Him based on our knowledge of His nature.
It states in Sharḥ al-Ṣaḥā’if:
قلت: إن فعل القبيح من غير حاجة محال، فإن أردت أنه محال لذاته فذلك غير مسلم لأنا نعلم ضرورة أن ذلك الفعل لا يقتضى عدمه لذاته، بل نعلم أن نسبة وجوده وعدمه إلى ذاته واحدة، وإن أردت أنه محال لأن الله تعالى قادر حكيم لا يريد أن يفعل مثل ذلك الفعل، فذلك مسلم، لكن ذلك لا يوجب انتفاء القدرة عليه، بل تركه بقدرته وإرادته
“If you mean that an ugly act is intrinsically impossible, we don’t accept that, because we know that there is no intrinsic necessity of that act being non-existent. In fact, we know that to attribute its existence and nonexistence to His Dhāt is one and the same. But if you mean that it is impossible because Allāh is a Wise Agent, and He would not intend to do something like that – this is accepted. But this does not entail He lacks power over it. Rather, He avoids it by His power and His will.”
It states in Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid:
فإن قيل: التمسك بالكتاب والسنة يتوقف على العلم بصدق كلام الله تعالى وكلام الرسول عليه السلام ودلالة المعجزة وهذا لا يتأتى مع القوم بأنه خالق كل شيء حتى الشرور والقبائح وأنه لا يقبح منه التلبيس والتدليس والكذب وإظهار المعجزة على يد الكاذب ونحو ذلك مما يقدح في وجوب صدق كلامه وثبوت النبوة ودلالة المعجزات، قلنا: العلم بانتفاء تلك القوادح وإن كانت ممكنة في نفسها من العاديات الملحقة بالضروريات
“If it is argued: Adhering to the Book and Sunnah depends on knowledge of the truth of the speech of Allah & the Messenger (upon him peace) and the evidence of miracles. This will not be possible if we believe that He is Creator of everything, even ugly things, and that deception, trickery, lying and producing a miracle at the hand of a liar and such things… are not ugly for Him. We answer: Knowledge of the negation of these things that are possible in themselves is based on our knowledge of the normal way [that Allāh operates] (‘ādiyyat) which are annexed to those things that are known by absolute necessity.”
For other similar passages, refer to the link given earlier.
One more point that needs highlighting is that while the Naẓẓāmiyya amongst the Mu‘tazila limited the Qudra of Allāh, and said He does not have the Power to punish a pious believer or to reward a wretched disbeliever etc., another group amongst the Mu‘tazila, known as the “Mazdāriyya,” said that not only does He have power over these things but He may even do them! They believe it is possible for a lie or injustice (in the sense of punishing a pious believer) to actually occur! The Ahlus Sunnah are in between these two extremes. While they do not negate Allāh’s power over these things – as they are rationally possible, and everything rationally possible is included within Allāh’s Qudra –, they clearly state that these acts are unbefitting of Allāh and thus their occurrence from Him is impossible.