Please refer to Lesson 3 of the Class 10 Madressa manual.
ʿAqāʾid Course Notes Index and FAQ – ‘Adalah
The Simple Answer
These type of questions challenging the Omnipotence of God, sometimes referred to as the “omnipotence paradox”, are nothing new and have been posed for thousands of years in various different forms, where at first glance, both a positive or a negative answer to such questions seems to negate God’s Omnipotence. Such questions were even posed to the Imāms (A), to which they provided answers. Other variations of these questions include: “Can God make a half greater than its whole?” and “Can God put the whole world into an egg, without making the world smaller or making the egg larger?” The latter was posed to Imām ʿAlī (A), to which he answered: “Certainly God cannot be characterised as unable or incapable, but what you have asked about does not have the potential of existence.”
In other words, the answer to the question “Can God create a rock that is too heavy for even Him to lift?” is that such a thing cannot take place. The limiting factor is not in God’s Power to do such a thing. Rather, the limiting factor lies with the rock. Likewise, a half cannot be made greater than its whole, as “half” and “whole” would otherwise lose their meanings. Such situations are termed “logical impossibilities” and outside the realm of being brought into existence. Allāh (SWT) says in the Qurʾān, “He has power over all things.” [2:106] However, impossibilities cannot even be called “things”, such that they can be brought from potential existence into actual existence.
For a more complete philosophical response to the “omnipotence paradox”, please refer to the detailed answer below.
The Detailed Answer
This ‘mystery of absolute power’ has been expressed in various forms and shapes; in most cases, the essence of the question is the same. The most complicated of this class of questions are those which, however they end up being answered, seem to limit the power of God directly. In order to begin answering these questions, it is necessary to first break down the various types of ‘impossibilities’. These impossibilities can be divided into two categories:
1- Logical Impossibilities
2- Regular Impossibilities
Logical impossibilities are impossible matters which are completely impossible to even imagine, and these themselves, are divided into two groups:
- Things impossible in their essence: these are matters which are impossible in their essence, without having to even come into existence in order to show their impossibility. For example, the co-existence of two contradictions (for instance, it is essentially impossible for something to both be and not be at the same time).
- Things which are impossible in their occurrence: These things are not impossible in and of themselves, but their coming about necessitates something which is impossible in its essence. For example, the existence of an effect without having a cause.
Regular impossibilities are matters which are impossible according to natural laws, but are not logically impossible (meaning that they are neither impossible in essence, nor impossible in occurrence). For example the changing of a staff into a serpent or the curing of the sick without medicine, or the speaking of inanimate objects are all examples of regular impossibilities. These are matters which are opposed to the ordinary way in which things work, but they are not in essence impossible to occur and may simply be due to our ignorance of their real cause. From this angle, it may be said that regular impossibilities are in reality not impossible or unattainable at all, but our ignorance towards their cause may be the reason we see them as being impossible. Anyways, after explaining this introduction, we will now return to the question at hand.
It must be kept in mind that the power of God does not include the two types of logical impossibilities (in essence and in occurrence) that were mentioned and these are completely outside the circle of possibility. This is not to say His Power is limited, but it is to say that the actions themselves are impossible and therefore outside the circle of what can be done. The problem is that all the questions that are usually presented in the ‘mystery of absolute power’ are ones related to these two logical impossibilities.
For example, if we were to look at the real meaning of the word creation, which in the science of philosophy is described as “causation”, then we would see that the Creator (the cause) has power over all aspects and facets of His creation. To explain this in even more precise terms, the essence of creation and all of its characteristics are completely bound to and dependent on the Creator. Now imagine a creation whose creator is unable to take out of existence or cause any change within. This will mean that in reality, he isn’t its creator, because if he was, he would be able to do all those things. This is nothing but a logical contradiction; because it means that the creator is both creator and not creator at the same time, and this is nothing but the co-existence of contradictions which is impossible.
By paying attention to the previous example, the answer to this question will become clear: the creation of a rock which God, who is its Creator, is unable to move is an impossibility. Just as we mentioned previously, God’s power does not concern things which are impossible in themselves (if something is possible in itself, God will have the power to bring it into existence).
It may be said in objection, that the answer to this question is nothing but the limitation of God’s power and the showing of Him as incapable. In answering this question, we must pay attention to a very important point, which shows that the absence of the power of God in things which are impossibilities does not at all entail the limiting of Divine Power. In reality, it simply shows that it is an impossible matter outside of the circle of potential possibility, meaning that it does not bear the potential of happening. If it did, He could do it. In other words, impossibilities (both those in essence and in occurrence) are beyond taking place; they are too low, they aren’t qualified for taking place; they don’t bear the potential. On this basis, impossibilities can’t even be called “things”, thus not being covered by the Quranic verses which state: (إِنَّ اللهَ عَلَی کُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِیر), which means: “He has power over all things”. Anything that exists or can exist can be called a “thing”. To sum this up, God is all powerful and all mighty, and in terms of things which are impossible, these are not even included in the realm of possibility and the lack in them does not entail a lack in the power of God.
In order to make this matter more clear, the following example will prove useful: “Bring into mind a master potter who is able to make the most beautiful pots out of clay. Now if we were to give him water rather than clay and ask him to build us a pot using that base material, it is obvious that he will not be able to make even the most basic of a pot. Yet, we would never say that this lack of ability was because of his inability, weakness, or inexperience and say that he was not a master potter. What he had in his possession (i.e. the water) did not have the potential of being changed into a pot and the transformation of water into a pot is impossible and inconceivable.”
To conclude, the answer to this ‘enigma of absolute power’ is that, in regards to questions such as, “Can God create a rock which even He cannot lift?”, the reality is that these are in the category of impossibilities. Due to their nature, they don’t have the possibility of coming into existence. This lack of potential existence is something which relates back to the nature of the affair and does not relate to God’s power and ability (in layman’s terms, it is “impossibility’s fault, not God’s). It is worthwhile to mention that in certain traditions, there are examples of these questions being raised and their answers. For example, in a tradition it has been narrated that an individual asked Imām ʿAlī (A): “Can your God put the world into an egg, without making the world smaller or the egg larger?” Imām ʿAlī (A) answered him by saying: “Certainly God cannot be characterized as unable or incapable, but what you have asked about does not have the potential of existence.”
According to Imām ʿAlī (A), this matter is impossible, but it does not mean that God is unable or limited in His power. What is being asked cannot happen and is a logical impossibility, not that Allāh (SWT) has any limits in His power.
Please refer to Lesson 2 of the Class 10 Madressa manual.
Please refer to Lesson 3 of the Class 10 Madressa manual.