Islamic Faith & the Question of Eternity
  • Fri, 05/08/2009
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The dispute about whether the world – by which we mean created existence and not the planet on which we live – could have existed eternally in the past is a dispute that came about purely due to some "rational" and "logical" arguments. The most important of these is the philosophical "proof" of the impossibility of an eternal succession of causes.

We should, from the outset, clarify that scholars of the Sunnah take their beliefs from the Qur'ân and Sunnah, and not from the speculations of scholastic theology and the theories of philosophers and logicians.

The issue of whether a succession of created causes (or created things) could have existed eternally in the past and, likewise, that they will continue to exist eternally in the future, is relevant to a Muslim's belief in Allah and His attributes, and therefore it behooves a Muslim to understand the issue and distinguish truth from falsehood regarding it.

The idea that a succession of created things might have existed fore eternity in the past means simply that for every created thing, there may have existed an earlier created thing that predated it.

People have disagreed about the possibility of this. Their opinions can be divided into three groups:
1. There are those who claim it is impossible for a series of causes to have existed perpetually in the past and likewise for a series of causes to go on perpetually into the future. Because these people hold this view about the future as well as the past, they say that even Heaven and Hell must come to an end.

2. There are those who claim it is impossible for a series of causes to have existed perpetually in the past but that a series of causes can certainly go on perpetually into the future. This is the view held by the scholastic theologians.

3. There are those who claim it is possible for a series of causes to have existed perpetually in the past and that it is also possible that a series of causes can go on perpetually into the future. This is the correct position, since it conforms with our belief that Allah is capable of all things.
Allah's omnipotence is eternal. It knows no boundary of past or future. Allah says: "Do you not know that Allah is capable of all things?" [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 106]

Allah did not become omnipotent after not being so. In other words, He did not acquire the power to create after not having the ability to do so. Since Allah is eternally capable of creating, it follows He is capable of creating causes and objects at any time. Whatever created thing we can conceive of, we must accept that it is possible for Allah to have created something else in some time that preceded it, and likewise to create something that preceded in time that thing as well, and so forth, without limit.

Since Allah is eternally capable of creating, it is possible for Him to create things to exist in succession over an eternal stretch of time, whether past or future.

Those scholastic theologians who deny that this is possible for Allah are either ignorant or confused by their arguments and "proofs". The reason they so vociferously deny the possibility of an eternal succession of causes in the past is because they believe that this would mean the universe as we know it must have existed forever in the past without having need of a Creator!

This is not the case at all. Their argument would only be true if those causes came from one another directly, not by way of Allah creating them.

If we understand that it is always possible for Allah to create a thing to precede another created thing in time, then all of those things – throughout eternity – are created things. Each created thing or cause originated only by way of Allah specifically creating it. Before Allah created it, it did not exist, regardless of where Allah willed to place it in the sequence of time. Therefore, nothing in Creation is eternal or independent, even if Creation as a whole has been sustained by Allah for an eternity in the past.

Only Allah is eternal and independent, whose existence is not created. He is as His Messenger (peace be upon him) described him: "You are the First, nothing preceded You." [Musnad Ahmad (8879)]

Those theologians who believe it is impossible for created things to have existed in succession for an eternity in the past – they are in fact limiting Allah's power. Their belief implies that for a certain created thing in the very distant past, Allah is incapable of creating something else to precede it in time. If they deny this is what they mean and admit that Allah is eternally capable of creating, then they are contradicting themselves by saying that it is impossible for things to have existed in succession for an eternity in the past.

As for the continuation of created things for an eternity in the future, this is attested to by what Allah says about Paradise: "Underneath it rivers flow; its food is everlasting, and (likewise) its shade." [Sûrah al-Ra`d: 35]

And: "Most surely this is Our sustenance; it shall never come to an end." [Sûrah Sâd: 54]

It should be clear from what preceded that the question of whether it is possible for created things to have preceded each other for eternity in the past – and likewise forever into the future – is intrinsically connected in our Islamic beliefs regarding Allah's Lordship and our asserting His eternal ability to create whatever He wills whenever He wills it to be.