Knowledge is one of the attributes of God and its opposite, ignorance, cannot be applied to Him, as there is nothing that can be known which is beyond God’s knowledge. He is described as being al-ʿAlim - The All-Knowing:
هُوَ الْأَوَّلُ وَالْآخِرُ وَالظَّاهِرُ وَالْبَاطِنُ ۖ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
He is the First and the Last, and the Evident and the Hidden; and He has full knowledge over all things. (Qur’an, Surah al-Hadid, 57:3).
God’s knowledge encompasses both the hidden and the apparent realities, as the realities are hidden from our perspective but not from Him:
وَعِنْدَهُ مَفَاتِحُ الْغَيْبِ لَا يَعْلَمُهَا إِلَّا هُوَ ۚ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ ۚ وَمَا تَسْقُطُ مِنْ وَرَقَةٍ إِلَّا يَعْلَمُهَا وَلَا حَبَّةٍ فِي ظُلُمَاتِ الْأَرْضِ وَلَا رَطْبٍ وَلَا يَابِسٍ إِلَّا فِي كِتَابٍ مُبِينٍ
With Him are the keys to the Unseen; none knows them but He. And He knows whatever is on land and in the sea; and not a leaf falls but He knows it; and neither is there a grain in the dark layers of earth, nor anything wet or dry, but is (recorded) in a Manifest Book. (Qur’an, Surah al-Anʿam, 6:59).
God is also aware of our secret glances and what is in our thoughts which we have not expressed to anyone:
يَعْلَمُ خَائِنَةَ الْأَعْيُنِ وَمَا تُخْفِي الصُّدُورُ
He knows the stealthy looks and that which the chests conceal. (Qur’an, Surah al-Mu’min, 40:19).
God is not only All-Knowing (al-ʿAlim), but He is also All-Capable or All-Powerful (al-Qadir) and He exercises His authority over everything:
اللّٰهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ وَمِنَ الْأَرْضِ مِثْلَهُنَّ يَتَنَزَّلُ الْأَمْرُ بَيْنَهُنَّ لِتَعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللّٰهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ وَأَنَّ اللّٰهَ قَدْ أَحَاطَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عِلْمًا
God is He Who has created seven heavens and of the earth the like of them; His commands (concerning the creation and its operation, and the life of the inhabitants of the heavens and earth) descend through them, so that you may know for certain that surely God has full power over everything, and that God indeed encompasses all things in (His) Knowledge. (Qur’an, Surah al-Talaq, 65:12).
أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا أَنَّ اللّٰهَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ وَلَمْ يَعْيَ بِخَلْقِهِنَّ بِقَادِرٍ عَلَىٰ أَنْ يُحْيِيَ الْمَوْتَىٰ ۚ بَلَىٰ إِنَّهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
Have they (the unbelievers) not considered that surely God, Who has created the heavens and the earth, and never wearied with their creation, is able to bring the dead to life? Certainly He is; He has full power over everything. (Qur’an, Surah al-Ahqaf, 46:33).
Omnipotent does not mean that He can do whatever we want Him to do, or do irrational acts, e.g. come to earth in the form of a man or eat Himself1 as some have suggested. Omnipotent denotes that He can do whatever He wants to do - as nothing can stop Him from carrying out His intention. However, the acts have to be consistent with basic pattern of existence and reason e.g. expecting God to eat Himself is illogical as God is not a body and He does not eat. These are frivolous and nonsense expectations, He is above what they attribute Him with.
With this understanding that God has knowledge and control over all things, the question arises that how does God exercise this knowledge and authority in the universe and in the lives of individual human beings?
In terms of God’s knowledge and actions, various terms have been used in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Ahlul Bayt (‘a). The terms include God’s mashiyya (will), irada (want), qadr (allotment or measure), qada (decree) and His afʿal (acts). Let us look at some narrations to understand these in further detail.
Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) said:
When God wants something He allots it, and when He allots it, He decrees it, and when He decrees it, He enacts it.2
Imam al-Kazim (‘a) said:
Nothing will happen except that which God wills, wants, allots and decrees. Explaining these further, he said: The will is when He decides to do something. The want is perfection of His will. The allotment is giving proportions in terms of length, width and duration. He then said: Surely, when God wills something He wants it, and when He wants it He allots it, when He allots it He decrees it, and when He decrees it He enacts it.3
Imam al-Kazim (‘a) was asked: “How is God’s knowledge?” He replied:
He knows, wills, wants, allots, decrees and enacts. That is He enacts what He has decreed; He decrees what He has allotted; He allots what He has wanted. Therefore, His will is according to His knowledge; His want is according to His will; His allotment is according to His want; His decree is according to His allotment; and His enactment is according to His decree. Therefore, first is knowledge, second is will, and third is want. Allotment is realized by a decree that has been enacted. It is for God to change what He has willed as He knows, and what He has allotted as He wants; but once His decree is enacted then there is no change.4
To understand these concepts, reflect on the following example. In one instance, Imam ʿAli (‘a) moved from an unstable, dilapitated wall to another wall which was stable and sturdy. He was asked:
O Commander of the Faithful! Are you fleeing from God’s decree?
I flee from God’s decree to God’s allotment.5
In the light of the above narration, we understand that God’s knowledge is unlimited and without any bounds. Within God’s knowledge is His will which can be thought of as All-Encompassing knowledge, a grand scheme about all things and all affairs and nothing can happen outside of what is already in God’s will or fore-knowledge.
وَمَا تَشَآءُونَ إِلَّا أَنْ يَشَآءَ اللّٰهُ رَبُّ الْعَالَمِينَ
But you cannot will (to do so) unless God wills, the Lord of the worlds. (Qur’an, Surah al-Takwir, 81:29).
Another fine point is that the Arabic root word for will and things (shayʾ) is the same (ش ي أ), pointing to the fact that if a “thing” exists, then it must be within God’s will.
قُلِ اللّٰهُمَّ مَالِكَ الْمُلْكِ تُؤْتِي الْمُلْكَ مَنْ تَشَآءُ وَتَنْزِعُ الْمُلْكَ مِمَّنْ تَشَآءُ وَتُـعِزُّ مَنْ تَشَآءُ وَتُذِلُّ مَنْ تَشَآءُ ۖ بِــيَدِكَ الْخَيْرُ إِنَّكَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
Say: O God, absolute Master of all dominion! You give dominion to whom You will, and take away dominion from whom You will, and You exalt and honor whom You will, and abase whom You will; in Your hand is all good; surely You have full power over everything. (Qur’an, Surah Ale ʿImran, 3:26).
An important clarification here is that all that happens within God’s will does not necessarily mean that it is also what God approves of as His want is different from His will.
For example, a person is unjustly murdered by another person. Now if it has happened then it must be within God’s will/fore-knowledge. If it was not in God’s will, then it could never have happened. But it is not the same as God’s approval, or He wants it to happen, because He forbids the unjust killing of anyone.
Another example is that of a couple who are trying to conceive a child but are unable to do so. If it is in God’s will that they do not have children, then it will be impossible for them to have children, as it is not in the grand scheme of things:
لِلَّهِ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ يَخْلُقُ مَا يَشَاءُ ۚ يَهَبُ لِمَنْ يَشَآءُ إِنَاثًا وَيَهَبُ لِمَنْ يَشَاءُ الذُّكُورَ أَوْ يُزَوِّجُهُمْ ذُكْرَانًا وَإِنَاثًا ۖ وَيَجْعَلُ مَنْ يَشَآءُ عَقِيمًا ۚ إِنَّهُ عَلِيمٌ قَدِيرٌ
To God belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. He creates whatever He wills. He grants to whom He wills daughters and grants to whom He wills sons. Or He mingles them, both sons and daughters (granted to whom He wills); and He leaves barren whom He wills. Surely He is All-Knowing, All-Powerful. Qur’an, Surah al-Shura, 42:49-50).
God’s will is conditional and changeable depending on how an individual acts - e.g. the lifespan of an individual can increase or decrease depending on his conduct towards his relatives as reported in some narrations.
In this regards, Prophet Muhammad (S) has been quoted as saying:
Verily (it happens that) a person joins his relationship while only three years have remained from his life, so God increases his life to thirty-three years; and verily (it happens) that a person severs his relationship and thirty-three years have still remained from his life, and God shortens that life to only three years.6
Maintaining our relationship with our relatives increases our life span and cutting off relationships decreases our life. Multiple social studies have also shown strong causal relationship between social relations and longevity and health.7
Think of the changeable will of God as different algorithms determining course of our life. If we act in a certain way, we move in a particular direction but if we act in another way, a different course of events happen in our lives.
لِكُلِّ أَجَلٍ كِتَابٌ يَــمْحُو اللّٰهُ مَا يَشَاءُ وَيُــثْبِتُ ۖ وَعِنْدَهُ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ
For each period is a Book (revealed). God blots out or confirm what He pleases: with Him is the Mother of the Book. (Qur’an, Surah al-Raʿd, 13:38).
Thus, the will is the all-encompassing boundary within which we can operate and cannot go beyond it no matter how hard we try, though we have room to maneuver within that boundary and course of our life can take different turns depending on what choices we make.
God’s want/desire is when God also wants something to happen, not that He only has the knowledge about it.
وَنُرِيدُ أَنْ نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَّةً وَنَجْعَلَهُمُ الْوَارِثِينَ
But We wanted to bestow Our favor upon those who were humiliated and oppressed in the land, and make of them exemplary leaders (to guide people on the way to God and in their lives), and make them inheritors (of the glory of the Pharaoh and the land in which We produced blessings for people). (Qur’an, Surah al-Qasas, 28:5).
يُرِيدُ اللّٰهُ أَنْ يُخَفِّفَ عَنْكُمْ ۚ وَخُلِقَ الْإِنْسَانُ ضَعِيفًا
God wants to lighten for you (your burdens), for human has been created weak (liable to err). (Qur’an, Surah al-Nisa, 4:28).
إِنَّ اللّٰهَ يَحْكُمُ مَا يُرِيدُ
Assuredly, God decrees as He wants. (Qur’an, Surah al-Ma’idah, 5:1).
The next point to understand in regards to the knowledge of God is qadar or allotment which can be thought of as measure, estimate, details of how things will happen, to what extent and at what time. Qadar involves the needed components, ingredients and conditions for something to happen.
وَإِنْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ إِلَّا عِنْدَنَا خَزَآئِنُهُ وَمَا نُنَزِّلُهُ إِلَّا بِقَدَرٍ مَعْلُومٍ
There is not a thing but the stores (for its life and sustenance) are with Us, and We do not send it down except in due, determined measure. (Qur’an, Surah al-Hijr, 15:21).
أَنْزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَآءِ مَآءً فَسَالَتْ أَوْدِيَةٌ بِقَدَرِهَا
He sends down water from the sky and the valleys flow (in abundance) each according to its measure… (Qur’an, Surah al-Raʿd, 13:17).
After qadar comes qada or decree, which is a decision which when it is passed about something, is final without any change in it, and is thus executed:
هُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُمْ مِنْ طِينٍ ثُمَّ قَضَىٰ أَجَلًا وَأَجَلٌ مُسَمًّى عِنْدَهُ ۖ ثُمَّ أَنْتُمْ تَمْتَرُونَ
He it is who has created you from clay (in the beginning, and the material origin of every one of you is clay), and then decreed a term (of life for you), and there is with Him another unchanging term determined by and known to Him. Yet, you are in doubt (concerning these manifest truths, some of which you experience and some others you can deduce). (Qur’an, Surah al-Anʿam, 6:2).
إِذَا قَضَىٰ أَمْرًا فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ
…when He decrees a thing, He does but say to it ‘Be!’ and it is. (Qur’an, Surah Ale ʿImran, 3:47).
God has All-Encompassing knowledge about everything and He acts based on His knowledge. He acts without a need to fulfill any personal needs. He acts without a need to think or plan or to consult or take assistance from anyone. His knowledge about something is the same before it has come into existence, as it is after it has come into existence.
Broadly speaking there are two acts which are repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an attributed to God, one is His act of creation and the second is His act of command.
God is a self-existing necessary being who is independent of everything. Everything else has been created by Him and is totally dependent upon Him for not only coming into existence, but also for its continued existence:
ذَٰلِكُمُ اللّٰهُ رَبُّكُمْ خَالِقُ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ۖ فَأَنَّىٰ تُؤْفَكُونَ
Such is God, your Lord (Who creates you, and maintains and provides for you), the Creator of all things. There is no deity but He. How then are you turned away from the truth (and adopt false deities to worship)? (Qur’an, Surah al-Mu’min, 40:62).
يَخْلُقُ مَا يَشَاءُ ۚ وَاللّٰهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
He creates whatever He wills. God has full power over everything. (Qur’an, Surah al-Ma’idah, 5:17).
أَوَلَا يَذْكُرُ الْإِنْسَانُ أَنَّا خَلَقْنَاهُ مِنْ قَبْلُ وَلَمْ يَكُ شَيْئًا
Does (that) human not bear in mind that We created him before when he was nothing? (Qur’an, Surah Maryam, 19:67).
God has created the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them. There is duality and multiplicity in His creation. There is male and female, day and night, hard and soft, up and down, near and far, black and white. God is the only being that is truly Unique who has no equal. Each creation is a unique manifestation of God and is not repeated. Take for example any human being, each of us is a unique being as there has never been a person like us before, nor will there ever be a similar person in the future. Each individual has a unique appearance, voice, fingerprints, and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) - identical twins have the same DNA, but different fingerprints. Every one of us is the first and the last example of us as we are all a manifestation of the One who is “The First” and “The Last.” The act of creation is perpetual as contingent beings are unable to exist on their own for even a moment. There is constant renewal of creation.
The other action attributed to God is His command:
بَدِيعُ السَّـمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَإِذَا قَضَىٰ أَمْرًا فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ
The Originator of the heavens and the earth with nothing preceding Him to imitate. When He decrees a thing, He does but say to it “Be!” and it is. (Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:117).
وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللّٰهِ مَفْعُولاً
(Bear in mind that) God’s command is always executed. (Qur’an, Surah al-Nisa’, 4:47).
One example of the command of God is about the operation and working of the natural phenomenon. It represents His authority and control over them through which objects of nature operate and function. The nature of things as they are, is due to the command of God. The laws through which nature works (what is referred to as the natural laws) are due to the command of God.
إِنَّ رَبَّكُمُ اللّٰهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ فِي سِتَّةِ أَيَّامٍ ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ يُغْشِي اللَّيْلَ النَّهَارَ يَطْلُبُهُ حَثِيثًا وَالشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ وَالنُّجُومَ مُسَخَّرَاتٍ بِأَمْرِهِ ۗ أَلَا لَهُ الْخَلْقُ وَالْأَمْرُ ۗ تَبَارَكَ اللّٰهُ رَبُّ الْعَالَمِينَ
Surely your Lord is God, Who created the heavens and the earth in six periods of time, and He is firm in power; He throws the veil of the night over the day, which it pursues incessantly; and (He created) the sun and the moon and the stars, made subservient by His command; surely His is the creation and the command; blessed is God, the Lord of the worlds. (Qur’an, Surah al-Aʿraf, 7:54).
At another instance, the Qur’an describes how each sky (there are 7 mentioned) receives its command:
فَقَضَاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ فِي يَوْمَيْنِ وَأَوْحَىٰ فِي كُلِّ سَمَاءٍ أَمْرَهَا ۚ وَزَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِمَصَابِيحَ وَحِفْظًا ۚ ذَٰلِكَ تَقْدِيرُ الْعَزِيزِ الْعَلِيمِ
So He ordained them seven skies in two periods, and revealed in every heaven its affair (command); and We adorned the lower sky with brilliant stars and (made it) to guard; that is the decree of the Mighty, the Knowing. (Qur’an, Surah Fussilat, 41:12).
The command of God can also be a general command to mankind who exercise free will giving them instructions on how they should conduct themselves, encouraging them to act in a certain way and to avoid other ways - what moral choices they should make and what they should avoid. Ultimately howver, it is up to us to act according to God’s command to our benefit or go against it for our own detriment:
إِنَّ اللّٰهَ يَأْمُرُ بِالْعَدْلِ وَالْإِحْسَانِ وَإِيتَاءِ ذِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَيَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنْكَرِ وَالْبَغْيِ ۚ يَعِظُكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ
Surely God enjoins the doing of justice and the doing of good (to others) and the giving to the kindred, and He forbids indecency and evil and rebellion; He admonishes you that you may be mindful. (Qur’an, Surah al-Nahl, 16:90).
The entire system of existence works based on these two acts of God, one is the act of creation and the second is the act of command. One produces a structure and the second gives it function, one is the body and the other is the soul, one is like “hardware” and the other is like “software.” In my opinion, the laws of nature as deciphered by the scientists are a manifestation of the commands of God. He is the source of their origin and implementation. We understand them using empirical knowledge from our perspective and call them the laws of nature.
Based on God’s acts of creation and command, two systems in existence have been described. One is related to the existence of natural phenomenon called the system of “takwin,” and the second is the system of guidance is called “hidaya.” The “natural system of existence” – “takwin” – is created by God and operates by His command and there is no possibility of it working outside of the command of God:
وَآيَةٌ لَهُمُ اللَّيْلُ نَسْلَخُ مِنْهُ النَّهَارَ فَإِذَا هُمْ مُظْلِمُونَ وَالشَّمْسُ تَجْرِي لِمُسْتَقَرٍّ لَهَا ۚ ذَٰلِكَ تَقْدِيرُ الْعَزِيزِ الْعَلِيمِ وَالْقَمَرَ قَدَّرْنَاهُ مَنَازِلَ حَتَّىٰ عَادَ كَالْعُرْجُونِ الْقَدِيمِ لَا الشَّمْسُ يَنْبَغِي لَهَا أَنْ تُدْرِكَ الْقَمَرَ وَلَا اللَّيْلُ سَابِقُ النَّهَارِ ۚ وَكُلٌّ فِي فَلَكٍ يَسْبَحُونَ
And another clear sign for them is the night: We withdraw the day from it, and see, they are plunged in darkness. And the sun runs the course appointed for it for a term to its resting-place. This is the measured determining of the All-Glorious with irresistible might (to Whose omnipotent ordering the whole universe is submitted), the All-Knowing. And for the moon We have determined phases until it returns like an old shriveled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor does the night outstrip the day. All (the celestial bodies and systems) float in an orbit (determined for each). (Qur’an, Surah Ya Sin, 36:36-40).
So if the sun, the moon, the stars, the plants and animals behave in a certain way what we call “nature” then it is due to God’s system of creation and command operating in them. Everything in the natural world is according to His acts of “Creation and Command.” It is wrong to say that God is only involved in those phenomenon for which we don’t have a good explanation and there is a gap in our knowledge, so called “god of gaps”. He is involved in every aspect of nature through various determining factors some of which we can understand and manipulate and others are beyond our grasp.
The second system is the “system of guidance” – “hidaya” – which represents what God wants us, humanity, to do for our own benefit. The guidance to mankind can be in the form of our instincts or conscience which tells us what is right and wrong. Each one of us already have these. We already know if what we are doing is “right” or “wrong”.
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا
And the human selfhood and that (All-Knowing, All-Powerful, and All-Wise One) Who has formed it to perfection; And Who has inspired it with the conscience of what is wrong and bad for it and what is right and good for it. (Qur’an, Surah al-Shams, 91:7-8).
Other important components of the system of guidance are the prophets and the revelation which were sent down to us detailing what is the purpose of our creation, what action is good for us to perform in terms of its effects, and what actions are harmful for us in terms of its consequences, so that we should avoid them – almost like a user manual for us.
This system of guidance in common terminology is also known as “religion”. This system operates with a caveat that mankind has “free will”, thus, we may choose to act based on what has been commanded or prohibited, or choose not to act - with the understanding that the consequences will be only ours to face.
إِنْ أَحْسَنْتُمْ أَحْسَنْتُمْ لِأَنْفُسِكُمْ وَإِنْ أَسَأْتُمْ فَلَهَا
If you do good, then you do good for your own souls, and if you do evil, it shall be for yourself too. (Qur’an, Surah al-Isra’, 17:7).
In this chapter, I have given some details about God’s knowledge and His acts which will help us to understand the practical aspects of monotheism (Chapter 8). However, before we can get to that stage we have to understand what the extent of our own life span is!
- 1. Graylihng, A. C., The God Argument:The case against religion and for humanism, Bloomsbury, London, UK.
- 2. Taba’taba’i, Sayyid Muhammad, S Husayn al-, Tafsir al-Mizan, v. 25. pp. 97-99. Tawheed Institute Australia 2015.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Rizvi, Sayyid Saeed Akhtar, Islamic Family Life, Published by World Organization of Islamic Services, as found at: https://www.al-islam.org/islamic-family-life-sayyid-saeed-akhtar-rizvi
- 7. Yang, Claire Yang et al., Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2016, 19;113, 3, 578-583.