One of the most striking positions of the process theological tradition, from Whitehead up through contemporary process thinkers, is its rejection of the traditional doctrine of divine omnipotence. The context of this rejection is often theodicy — dealing with the problem of evil. Process theologians are adamant in affirming God’s Goodness (and God’s relationality), and suggest that this can be best maintained by renouncing the traditional formulations of omnipotence altogether and thus avoiding all the philosophic problems that come with the doctrine. See Tom Oord’s excellent recent book The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence for a contemporary exploration of these ideas, or Charles Hartshorne’s Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes for a classical process approach to the topic.
Process thinkers, however, are not only developing their theology in response to these issues, but also find specific ontological and cosmological justifications for viewing God as having a different role to play than a cosmic compeller of creation. These justifications feature strongly in the trailblazing thought of Alfred North Whitehead, whose later work provides an incredibly intricate process ontology and cosmology, laying the philosophic foundation for mant of the process thinkers who followed him.
While it is difficult to understate Whitehead’s influence, especially in the fields of process philosophy and theology, it is important to note that a positive reception of his work amongst theologians occurred most significantly in Protestant circles, and to this day process theology has developed much more within the walls of Protestant denominations (though, admittedly, across a wide variety of these different forms of post-Reformation Christianity) than in either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox circles. More recently, process thought has come to find a home in a wider variety of contexts, even outside of the confines of the Christian religion entirely. As examples, see the work of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson for a Jewish articulation of process theology and the work of Roland Faber for visions of Bahá’i process thought. Within non-Protestant Christianity, see the recent anthology Process Thought and Roman Catholicism: Challenges and Promises, eds. Marc a. Pugliese & John Becker, (Lexington Books, 2022). For an exciting and fresh Buddhist-process synthesis, see “Emptiness, Creativity & Feminist Ecology: An Introduction to Process Buddhism” in Process Perspectives 44 by Kazi Adi Shakti.
The important point here, however, is to realize that many of the dominant articulations of process theology emerged from a specific context, responding to various trends in 20th and now 21st century Protestant thought. The Protestant understandings of God, humanity, and religion that the process thinkers were responding to are, of course, not the only Christian understandings of these topics. And while certainly any intellectually serious theologian would acknowledge this basic historical point, I think there can be a slight tendency among process theologians to suppose a bit more uniformity in traditional Christian theology than actually exists, assuming that in Christianity as such the problems resulting from the doctrine of omnipotence are equally acute at all places and times. But certainly taking the theology of the Church Fathers as a starting point gives a very different starting point than Calvinist Reformed theology.
As such, scholars and theologians with robust knowledge of traditional theologies where God is primarily conceived of as Being itself rather than as a deity external to the cosmos who has power over creation often brush off the process critiques of omnipotence, saying that in the fuller expressions of their own theology, the problem of evil is successfully solved by other means without needing to sacrifice this core doctrine.
The traditional theological perspective stated above is often termed classical theism and this is something typically considered as shared by the major Abrahamic religions in its basic articulation. This is important context for any discussion of an Islamic process theology, as the starting point differs greatly from the modern Protestant theological milieu of the early process thinkers.
In each of the so-called Abrahamic traditions there is a unique form of classical theism, each of which coincide on certain central points but which differ in specifics due to the particular scriptural and non-scriptural religious sources in conversation with which they have developed their theologies. Likewise, process theologies within each of these traditions will also have their own unique character, despite a certain common orientation shared amongst them.
Now, as mentioned, process theology has primarily had influence within the Christian world, but Islamic process theology is beginning to blossom now as well. The first and predominant exemplar here being of course the South Asian Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who was contemporary with Whitehead and cited him extensively, along with other Western philosophers of his day such as Herni Bergson. Much of contemporary Islamic process philosophy and theology takes Iqbal as a source text, or at least a starting point, though some alternatives are developing as well. One of these is putting process thinking into conversation with progressive Muslim hermeneutics, as is exemplified in the work of the Bosnian scholar Adis Duderija. Another alternative is to turn to the Shaykhī school of Shi’i theology founded by Ahmad bin Zayn al-Dīn bin Ibrāhīm al-Ahsā’ī, often simply referred to as Shaykh Ahmad. For this strand of Islamic process thinking, see the work of Idris Samawi Hamid. Finally, one may examine some of the mainstream panentheistic theologies found within philosophical Sufism and other niches of Islamic intellectual history — this approach is what will be explored in the present article.
While a Protestant process theologian such as John B. Cobb Jr. is happy to reject divine omnipotence wholesale, seeing this dogma as absent from the Biblical text and antithetical to the core Christian vision of God disclosed in the life of Jesus of Nazarath, Islamic process theologians will likely develop a different relationship with this concept.
Within the Qur’an itself and within the basic forms of Islamic liturgical life, one finds myriad references to the absolute power of God. Perhaps the most striking of these, due to its sheer ubiquity, is the takbir — “Allāhu ‘Akbar” — God is Greater. What, then, are the options for Islamic process thought?
Ultimately, I believe Muslim process theologians will retain a notion of Divine omnipotence, contra many of their Christian and Jewish colleagues. But, this will be a necessary move if their theology is to be taken at all seriously amongst both the religious authorities (‘ulamā’) and the common believers. Despite the marked pluralism of theological (and legal) orthodoxy within the Islam (at least in the faith’s traditional forms — this feature being notably absent amongst Wahhabi/Salafi interpretations of the religion), the understanding of God’s omnipotence is so central to basic Qur’anic theology that outright denial of this feature of God is tantamount to disbelief (kufr).
However, this doctrine will not be without qualification for the Islamic process theologian. For an example of how this doctrine might be qualified, see Farhan Shah’s essay on Open Horizons “Islam and Divine Omnipotence: a relational approach” where he presents a relational as opposed to “unilateral” vision of God’s power. “If Islam means submission born out of our own freedom of choice, then we ‘submit’ to God’s relational power and find ourselves empowered in the process of becoming in a relational world.”
Thankfully, the Qur’an itself, along with the developed philosophical and theological traditions of the religion provide ample resources for this task. Let us look first at the Qur’an.
Within the sacred scripture of Islam, one encounters God through God’s Attributes, as revealed through the Most Beautiful Names (al-ʾAsmāʾ ul-Ḥusna). While the diversity of these various qualities are striking, providing an immediate sense of the breadth and complexity of Divinity, what stands out the most are perhaps the names of God included in the basmalah — the formula which begins every sūrah of the Qur’an except one. “In the name of God, the All-Compassionate, the All-Merciful.” These Divine names, ar-Raḥmān and ar-Raḥīm, show how central an orientation of Love is to God’s very nature.
To this end, Islamic process theology has the benefit of being able to understand God’s power as always related to God’s Compassion and Mercy, offering a bulwark against a kind of theology of coercive power that process thinkers seek to dismantle.
Along this line of discussion, a largely extinct school of Islamic theology, the Muʿtazila, may offer some concrete resources. The Muʿtazila were an important school of Islamic thought in the early period of development following the death of the Prophet ﷺ. Often described as more “rationalist” in orientation and remembered for their doctrine that the Qur’an is created rather than being co-eternal with God, this school eventually died out, with some of its insights either being integrated into other theological schools (particularly early Shi’ism) or simply abandoned due to preference for the competing schools of Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī and Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī. Many Muslims today view the Muʿtazila in an extremely negative light due to the historical trauma of the Mihna — an inquisition of sorts, enacted by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun, where scholars who did not confess to Muʿtazila dogma will persecuted, imprisoned, or killed. However, this is not the only time in Islamic history where political power intersected with theological doctrine to attempt to systematically suppress alternative beliefs. But since established Sunni orthodoxy identifies with the persecuted in this instance, the incident remains psychologically evocative. Nonetheless, I would argue for a more cosmopolitan approach to the various movements throughout Islamic intellectual history and considering how instrumental the Muʿtazila were in developing many of the basic theological dialectics in early Islamic history — which thoroughly conditioned the discourse — it is well worth examining their particular positions.
One of the basic theological perspectives of the Muʿtazila was that God’s acts are essentially qualified by God’s essence (dhāt). “In principle, the Mu‘tazila believed that God’s ‘ilm (omniscience), ḥayāt (life), qudra (power), irāda (will), baṣar (sight), sam‘ (hearing), and kalām (speech), are all reducible to the dhāt (essence)” (Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, 124). So, God commands what is Good because it is Good; it is not that something is Good simply because God commands the thing in question, as the later Ashʿarī theology would maintain. Both these positions come with their own unique problems, but I would venture that the Muʿtazila perspective offers a helpful touchstone for Islamic process theology. Namely, God’s power (qudra) would never be coercive in the sense implied by a decadent understanding of omnipotence, as God, considered from the attribute of essential Goodness, would only ever relate with creation in such a way that draws towards positive outcomes.
There are two evident issues with this perspective. The first being a very typical paradox around theodicy in traditional theologies: that if God is truly omnipotent in the strongest meaning of this term, while simultaneously being pure Goodness, whence cometh evil? Certainly our basic experience of life seems to include instances of tragedy, suffering, and pain which seem as though they could be otherwise. If God is, in some sense, author of these actions, one either comes to question the basic Goodness of God, or one intuits a basic disconnect between what appears as good from a human perspective and what is Good from the divine perspective.
The other problem, which the Ash’arites identified, is that in such a situation God’s actions become fully subservient to principles, leaving no room for Divine action of Mercy in a situation where it is undeserved. A theology which is formulaic to this degree does not seem to accord well with a process perspective, which seeks to find in God a deep and personal relationality.
These basic tensions are very difficult to overcome — which is why many process theologians have largely decided to do away with the problem very simply by rejecting the doctrine of omnipotence all together. But, a more holistic reading of the Qur’an, along with later perspectives within philosophic Sufism, offer certain solutions.
Besides the intense emphasis on the merciful attributes of God within the sacred scripture of Islam, one is also presented with a perspective of deep connection between the myriad Divine Names and creation itself. Things don’t exist merely because God, as omnipotent agent outside of the space and time of the created world, simply willed them to be; rather, all things in creation are participating in the existence of the various Divine Names, allowing them to come into being through being immediately connected with God’s Nature. Instead of a picture of an external agent involved in intentional creation, the Qur’an presents a perspective of creation as a logical extension of God’s nature, actualized by God’s Mercy and deep desire to be known, as is articulated in the famous Ḥadīth Qudsi where God speaks through the Prophet ﷺ to say “I was a hidden treasure. I longed to be known, so I created creation so that I may be known [through it].”
So here we have a vision of creation and the relationship between God and the myriad beings of the cosmos where it is not so much God as external agent acting upon the world, but rather creation itself merely being a logical extension of the Divine Being self-existentiating. In this perspective, all of creation becomes theophanic, with God’s Nature being disclosed in unique ways by each existing thing as they come into being, develop, and eventually perish throughout time.
While all of this dynamic creative process is fundamentally under the control of God, since it is none other than the process of God’s Nature revealing itself, there can be no coercive power at work, as ultimately there is no self and other, no compeller and compelled is distinct from one another from this perspective. Here, an option for solving the problem of evil is that for the Unity (Tawḥīd) of God to truly be actualized, there must necessarily also be multiplicity, for a unity which is merely an undifferentiated singularity does not really have the same degree of integration as a unity which is united in the midst of multiplicity, or even through multiplicity.
One grounding for this understanding which has been proposed by the Sufi master Ibn ‘Arabi is a rejection of the creatio ex nihilo paradigm in favor of a vision of creatio ex deo:
The Divine Breathing exhales what [Ibn ‘Arabi] designates as Nafas al-Raḥmān or Nafas Raḥmānī, the Sigh of the existentiating Compassion; this Sigh gives rise to the entire ‘subtle’ mass of a primordial existentiation termed Cloud (‘amā). … This Cloud, which the Divine Being exhaled and in which He originally was, receives all forms and at the same time gives beings their forms; it is active and passive, receptive and existentiating (muḥaqqiq); through it is effected the differentiation within the primordial reality of the being (ḥaqīqat al-wujūd) that is the Divine Being as such (Ḥaqq fī dhātihi).
Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ʻArabī, 185.
So, multiplicity is a logical extension of the Divine Nature, but multiplicity also implies the conflict between different actually existing things. As such, there will be moments of tragedy, or specifically in the case of human beings, genuine evil. But now even what appears to us human beings as tragedy takes on a theophanic character — some mystical Divine disclosure is happening in instances of death, or through hurricanes, or in the case of terrible genetic disorders. What are the natures of these disclosures? This is something which is likely veiled for the large majority of people, as the degree of intimacy required with these things in order to reveal their innermost reality would likely be psychologically and spiritually devastating except in the case of a saintly person who has already prepared themselves for annihilation (fanāʾ) on the spiritual path. So, it is ultimately a mercy that such things are veiled and that tragedy primarily presents itself as shrouded in mystery.
One Islamic answer for why this situation exists at all, though, is that it sets the stage for human beings to spiritually self-actualize, which would be the highest form of theophany and Self-disclosure of God within creation, fulfilling the longing of the Hidden Treasure Ḥadīth above. While the Islamic perspective is that all things participate in existence through being given their being through and in the Divine Names, it is only in the case of the human being that the entirety of the Divine Names may be actualized. To fully realize the Divine Names in oneself is to become al-Insān al-Kāmil — the Perfected Person — and for Muslims this has been most fully realized in the example of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
But for the beauty of this perfection to be truly realized, which is the demand of the Trust which humanity accepted from God after the other beings of creation all refused it (Qur’an, 33:72), then it is necessary for a stage to be set where this form of development can take place and where it will be properly contextualized.
Importantly, what we have here is not a situation where God, imagined as some kind of paternalistic judge, set up a complicated and messy creation merely to test human beings (thus instrumentalizing all other creatures) in order to obtain sufficient information to be able to effectively sort each individual to a final resting place in either heaven or hell. Instead, all of creation is brimming with theophany in every moment, but the human being has a unique role to play in this schema in that only the human can fully realize all of these Divine Qualities in a single being with full intensity and harmony, and only the human can do this from the standpoint of self-conscious free agency, with all other creatures naturally falling totally in line with their participation in the Divine Nature by default.
Beyond these particular issues of theodicy in an Islamic context, Muslim process theologians would also do well to turn to the basic categories of their metaphysics, as these differ in important ways from those of traditional Western religious and philosophical systems. Namely, the Arabic word for being, wujūd, does not carry the same connotation of stasis that our English term has. The great Japanese scholar of Islam and comparative religion, Toshihiko Izutsu, occasionally renders wujūd as the Latin actus essendi — the act of existing (see The Concept and Reality of Existence, 71). From this perspective, it is not that particular beings with their unique essences have existence, but rather that individual things are adjectival of existence as the basic ontological reality. This provides a very different starting point than the Aristotelian-Cartesian substance metaphysics against which Whitehead and other process thinkers have taken aim.
Sufi mystics and metaphysicians such as those in the lineage of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Akbarian school present a perspective known as waḥdat al-wujūd — the unity of existence — a term which never appeared in Ibn ‘Arabi’s own writing but which is certainly consonant with the thrust of his metaphysics. This is a radically non-dual but dynamic monism that offers an excellent foundation for Islamic process theology. However, this doctrine in particular is something which is controversial in mainstream Islam, particularly following the dominance of the puritanical Salafi articulation of the religion.
Taking all these resources together, Islamic process thinkers have a strong foundation for developing a theology which achieves many of the aims of the process thinkers of other faiths, all while preserving a certain vision of omnipotence that is deeply ingrained within the very fabric of the tradition in its most basic sources.
As with any theology we seek to create as human beings, it is important to remember Allāhu ‘Akbar — God is greater than any of these representations we fix through our language — and also Allāhu ‘a’lam — God knows, and while we can expect that God will be merciful to us for earnest theological exploration, perhaps even appearing to us initially in the hereafter through a Form we recognize (a Form which ultimately, the Divine placed in our hearts out of bountiful Wisdom and Compassion), it is ultimately only God who truly perceives the Divine Nature in Its totality, at least until, Inshallah, God removes the veils between us in our final resting place.
Corbin Henry. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ʻArabī. Princeton University Press, 1998.
El-Bizri, Nader. “God: essence and attributes” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology ed. Tim Winter. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Mistakes. SUNY Press, 1984.
Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Stanford University Press, 2013.
Izutsu Toshihiko. The Concept and Reality of Existence. Islamic Book Trust, 2007.
Oord, Thomas Jay. The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence. SacraSage Press, 2023.
Pugliese, Marc A., and John Becker, editors. Process Thought and Roman Catholicism: Challenges and Promises. Lexington Books, 2022.
Shah, Farhan. “Islam and Divine Omnipotence: A Relational Approach.” Open Horizons. Accessed 13 November 2023. https://www.openhorizons.org/islam-and-divine-omnipotence-a-relational-approach.html