By Shafiul Huq
Shaykh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani’s (may Allah have mercy on him) argument for the existence of a creator is best summarised in the brief paragraph below from his concise, yet profound, book, Nidham ul-Islam:
“The reason that things must have a creator, is because the things which are comprehensible by the mind that is man, life, and the universe, are limited, weak, imperfect, and are in need for something other than themselves. Man is limited, because he grows in every aspect to a certain limit that he cannot surpass, so he is limited. Life is limited, because it manifests itself only in individuals, and what is noticed by the senses is that it is concluded with the individual, thus it is limited. The universe is limited, because it is the sum of celestial bodies, and each body is limited; and the sum of limited things is self-evidently limited. Thus, man, life, and the universe are definitely limited. When we ponder on the limited (thing), we see that it is not azali (eternal – limitless), otherwise it would not have been limited, and therefore, it must be created by something else, which is the Creator of man, life and the universe. This Creator, is either created by someone else, creator of himself, or azali (eternal – limitless) whose existence is indispensable (wajib ul-wujood ). It is absolutely false that he is created by someone else, because he would then be limited. As for being self-created, the ramification of which would be he is created by himself and creating himself simultaneously. This is simply absurd. Hence, the creator must be azali (eternal – limitless) whose existence is indispensable. He is Allah.”
He makes a more elaborate case in his book Islamic Personality volume 1 (IP1) and instead of merely repeating the same points in their entirety in this post, I would merely like to highlight some important features of his line of reasoning, which give his argument a slightly different, yet a very effective and insightful, angle to most other common arguments we hear of God’s existence.
The important thing is to note how Shaykh Taqiuddin builds a coherent and powerful case in a somewhat unique manner.
Firstly, it does seem from the paragraph quoted above that he uses ontological categories similar to those traditionally used by mainstream sunni schools of ‘aqeedah, such as, contingent, necessary and absurd/impossible.
For example, he describes man, life and the universe as limited, the Creator who is eternal as necessary, and the possibility of a created-Creator as impossible/absurd. However, to establish the contingency of man, life and universe he points to their limitations and dependency, rather than the fact that, rationally, their existence and non-existence are both possible (which is the approach that I’ve come across in my study of some Ash’ari texts). This is not a major difference but as we will come to see a powerful articulation of the true nature of finitude and dependency is central to the Shaykh’s argument.
Given that the limits and dependence of man, life and universe are sensorially perceivable, the question arises, what do they depend on? Herein, lies the possibility of a significant misunderstanding which must be avoided.
One argument often made is that the universe is a chain of dependencies e.g. A depends on B, B depends on C, and so on and so forth, which can be a problematic affirmation to make. By arguing a chain of dependencies, we then need to refute the possibility of an actual infinite to prove the existence of a Creator. However, this approach has two major problems. Firstly, the dependence of A on B, and B on C, while each of them is limited and finite, is merely a perceived dependence and not real. Secondly, it reduces the Creator to merely being a first cause who initiates the universe and then lets it run its own course based on a relationship of cause and effect.
One does not find Shaykh Taqi claim such a chain of dependency either in Nidham or IP1. Rather, he claims that each of these dependent things, even though seemingly complementing each other, actually depends on other than any one of their own kind. Consider the below lines, for example, from IP1:
“Nor should it be said that a thing as it is, is matter and is dependent on matter, thus being dependent on itself and not on something other than itself, and thus (in reality) is independent. This should not be said because even if we concede that a thing is matter and depends on matter, this dependence by matter is dependence on something other than matter not dependence on matter itself. This is so because an entity of matter alone cannot complement the dependence of another entity of matter; rather something other than matter is needed for this dependence to be complemented, and thus matter is dependent on something else and not on itself. For example, water in order to transform into vapour needs heat. Even if we conceded that heat is matter and water is matter, the mere availability of heat is not adequate for water to transform; a specific amount of heat is needed for transformation to take place. So water is dependent on this specific amount of heat. The magnitude of this amount is imposed by other than the water and other than the heat, that is, by other than matter, and matter is compelled to behave according to it. Thus matter is dependent on that which determines the magnitude for it and so it is dependent on other than matter. Hence the dependence of matter on non-matter is a definite fact; thus matter is needy, being created by a Creator. Therefore all sensorially perceivable comprehensible things are created by a Creator.”
The above example is critical. The order, form, proportion, magnitude, timespan, and other factors that delimit everything within the universe and the universe as a whole are not inherent to them but are imposed upon them by other than them. Hence, they stand in need of other than themselves. This negates any interdependence, in any real sense, of a limited thing to another.
The fact of their dependence decisively prove their non-eternality, their finitude, their temporality, and hence their origination, their creation.
Interestingly, no sooner does Shaykh Taqi establish this premise, than he concludes that these dependent things must be created by a Creator. But what about the typical and oft-repeated question – “Who created the creator?”
The standard approach for most theists here is to prove the absurdity of an infinite regress, which might well be a good approach.
However, on this point, the Shaykh does not delve into the most commonly heard arguments against the possibility of an actual infinite. Instead he addresses the issue from a different angle by making a beautiful point about creation, and he merely replies:
“It is absolutely false that he is created by someone else, because he would then be limited.”
This seems more like a claim rather than a well-reasoned argument. But as one may increasingly realise, scholars of immense intellectual depth often pack profound messages in terse expressions.
Let’s look back at his statement, “It is absolutely false that he is created by someone else, because he would then be limited.”
So, the claim is essentially this – a limited thing cannot possibly create! But why not?
Firstly, as we have seen above, limited things, although dependent, cannot be dependent on each other because none of them, by themselves, can completely fulfil anyone’s need (including their own) in order to sustain themselves in existence, let alone bring something – anything – into existence. Hence, there is in fact no “chain of dependencies” to begin with and therefore no need to disprove the possibility of an infinite “chain of dependencies”. All limited things, by virtue of the reality that neediness and dependence entail, can only possibly depend, directly and solely, on the one who is completely independent of any need – the Creator.
Moreover, a limited thing cannot create merely because of what the meaning of creation entails. Creation means to bring into existence from nothing. By “nothing” we mean no prior substance or pre-established “laws of nature” and the like.
What we witness within the universe is merely changing of forms (e.g. in the example above, water turning into vapour). Certain pre-existing substances coming together in certain conditions to transform into a different form is merely transformation of things from one state to another. Even when we invent things, we do so using pre-existing matter, and relying on phenomena that we have become accustomed to through repetitive observation. Nothing within this universe can bring something totally different into existence out of nothing.
It is not possible that whatever we see being produced, invented, or formed within this universe does not even remotely have any prior similitude or example. At the very least the one common denominator that every existent being in this universe shares is the fact of them being delimited within time and space. Therefore, nothing in this universe is actually able to create in its true sense.
In contrast, the finitude of the universe means that it came into existence after not having existed before in any way, shape or form. Matter, time and space came into existence after not having existed at all in any way, shape or form. Therefore, their origination takes place from “nothing” in the sense described above. And this, in fact, is creation.
Shaykh Taqi explains in IP1 why a thing that cannot create in its true sense must be limited and temporal, while someone who creates must be eternal and not dependent upon anything else to create:
“…the things that exist in this world do not have the capability of creating or originating (anything) from nothing, whether individually or collectively; the ‘thing’ is incapable of creating or originating from nothing. If another thing complements it in one or more aspects, it will still be, together with the other thing or things, incapable of creating or originating. Its inability to create or originate from nothing is clearly perceivable. This means that it is not eternal, because an eternal (thing) must not be characterised with incapability; it must be characterised with ability to create and originate from nothing, that is, the effected things must depend on it in order for it to be deemed eternal. Consequently, the world is not eternal nor is it timeless because it is incapable of creating or originating. The inability of something to create from nothing is definite evidence that it is not eternal.
“…If the Creator did not create the sensorially perceivable, comprehensible (things) from nothing, he would not be the Creator, because he would be incapable of creating things on the basis of his will alone; he would rather be subject to requiring some thing with him with which he can form (things). He would thus be incapable and not eternal, because he is incapable of creating (things) by himself, rather is needy of external support: and the one who is incapable and who needs (something) is not eternal. In addition, as a matter-of-fact, the meaning of the ‘Creator’ is the one who creates (something) from nothing. The meaning of being a Creator is that things rely on him for their existence, and that He does not rely on anything. If he did not create things from nothing, or was incapable of creating when (other) things did not exist, he would be dependent on things in creating (things), then the things would not be solely dependent on him. This means that he is not the sole Creator and thus not a Creator (at all). So, a Creator must create things from nothing in order for him to be a Creator and has to be characterised with capability and will, independent of any thing; He should not depend on anything, and things should depend on him for their existence. Hence, for fiormation to be creation it must be formation from nothing, and for the one who forms to be a Creator, he must form from nothing.”
From the above paragraphs we understand the meaning of absolute neediness of creation and the complete independence of the Creator. This meaning is beautifully captured in one of the most beautiful names of Allah – Al-Qayyum (the Self-Subsisting One). Imam Ghazali explains it as below:
“If there is in existence an existent whose essence is self-sufficient, whose subsistence does not come from one other than it, and the perpetuity of whose existence is not conditioned by the existence of one other than it, (certainly) this existent is absolutely self-subsistent. Furthermore, if every other existent would subsist by means of it in such a way that the existence and the perpetuity of the existence of things are inconceivable except by it, then it is Al-Qayyum because it subsists by its own essence, and the subsistence of everything is by means of it. That one is no other than Allah Most High.” [Maqsad al asna]
To conclude, the limits imposed upon the universe prove its dependence on other than itself. This dependency necessarily implies its non-eternality, hence its origination from nothing i.e. its creation. A dependent thing cannot possibly fulfil the need of another dependent thing. Therefore, the Creator must necessarily be independent of all needs and the One on whom all things depend.
Shafiul Huq is a student of Classical Arabic and interdisciplinary studies covering the humanities and social sciences.