There are different forms of existentialism, even within theistic traditions. The theistic existentialisms of Kierkegaard, Tillich, Buber or Marcel differ from that of Muhammad Iqbal. All of these thinkers appropriate existential themes such as freedom, responsibility, sacred readings, revelation, God, existence, authenticity, bad faith, ethics, humanism, etc. But they do so in different ways, each in their own peculiar way. The same can be said of non-theistic forms of existentialism: Sartrean, Camusian, or Nietszchean existentialism. Among existentialist thinkers, we best speak of family resemblance rather than a single size that fits all definitions of existentialism. We offer an overview of Iqbalian existentialism.
Iqbalian existentialism offers a vibrant alternative to the twin evils of religious authoritarianism and stale secularism. It offers a way for Muslims (1) to proudly claim the rich heritage of Islam without making a god of the past (retrospective stubbornness); (2) to embrace the depths of a faith in a way that includes critical thinking and epistemic openness; (3) to enjoy rather than deny the vitalities, freedom and sheer goodness of human life; (4) to recognize that human life is part of a wider web of life that likewise contains such freedom, goodness or value; (5) to trust that the God to whom Islam and other religions rightly point is worthy of that trust, because merciful and compassionate, not arbitrary or self-centred; and (6) to contribute to the common good of the world in cooperation with people of other faiths and no faith. It also (7) appreciates the eternal or timeless wisdom of God who both knows all possibilities and seeks the well-being of all creatures, and it also (8) appreciates and finds special value in the temporal side of God which feels the feelings of creatures and responds to creaturely decisions as they happen. Finally, it (9) recognizes that the Qur'an, while carrying the timeless wisdom is always, and necessarily, interpreted from finite, temporal points of view, such that no interpretation can claim any finality. In short, Iqbalian existentialism offers a philosophy of human life, of scriptural interpretation, and also a way of thinking about the universe itself. It offers a cosmology of perpetual emergence and our place within it as significant and responsible creatures. Here are twelve key principles.
Every moment in a person`s life is an act of creativity: creating something new out of a settled past.
Existence precedes essence. Human beings have no pre-existing essence, understood as an unchanging substance. Class, gender, sex, or historical circumstances do not predetermine our destinies, because we are, moment-by-moment free and self-creating processes.
Creativity goes all the way down into the depths of matter. The universe itself is a vibrant upwelling of creative energy, not a static aggregation of inert matter.
The universe is an evolving network of inter-becoming. We live in a universe of mutual becoming; each event in the universe carries the influence of, and influences, all others.
The building blocks of the universe are moments and relationships, not “things”. All 'things' are acts of being related to others.
Life reaches fruition through ethics: that is, respect for the dignity of the self and others. To respect the dignity of people is to respect them as subjects who experience the world, and respond to it, moment by moment, in their own unique ways. Freedom is enhanced by working to enhance the freedom of others by pursuing an open future (the maximization of their possibilities of choice as well as our own).
It is important to be biocentric even as we are humanistic. Other living beings likewise deserve respect and care. Each living being is a subject of its own life and not just an object for others, with intrinsic value. Intrinsic value, like creativity, is universal.
Injustice lies in denying the power of transcendence of others, and their future as an open possibility. It harms all involved.
Our existential calling is to enjoy life as best we can, in community with others, and to help to build communities that are free, just, humane to animals and good for the earth as a living organism.
The existential calling is our human way of participating in God`s vision of Beauty. We experience this vision and its inwardly felt beckoning toward the fullness of life for each an all.
God is not a tyrant but is instead infinitely merciful and compassionate. Images of God as a self-absorbed, narcissistic and omnipotent ruler whose primary concern is with reward and punishment are harmful to the human soul and insulting to the very unity of the universe: God. God is a creative companion to the world`s becoming, deserving our deepest trust and appreciation. God is good.
To orient a life around this goodness is to transcend the vicissitudes of the isolated ego and, at the same time, to claim the vibrancy and dignity of being an individual in community with others, guided by a mercy and compassion that mirrors God's own.
Two systematic articulations of this kind of thinking are (1) the Islamic existentialism of Muhammad Iqbal, and (2) the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and its many amplifications developed by thinkers around the world. There are many other expressions: Asian and African, Latin American and European. Iqbalian existentialism is an attitude, an approach to existence. It can be communicated through many cultural traditions, both religious/theistic and secular/atheistic. We offer an Iqbalian version.
"Across much of the Islamic world, many Muslims are disillusioned with the ugly things done in the name of their religion. Islam, at its core, has many virtues to inspire humanity — such as compassion, humility, honesty and charity. But they have been eclipsed for far too long for the sake of power and the dictates of bigotry." (Mustafa Akyol, NY Times Opinion, Dec. 23, 2019)
More on Iqbalian Existentialism
An Alternative to the Rigidity of Religious Authoritarianism Commentary on Akyol's Essay by Farhan Shah and Jay McDaniel
The existentialism of the 20th century can seem outdated and outmoded in many respects. It had an impact on many Christian theologians: Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, for example. And an early version of it, with Soren Kierkegaard, was a powerful corrective to objectifing forms of theology and social life that denied the truth of subjectivity and the primacy of individual choice. Still, it can seem like a thing of the past, and rightly so. Too often it ignored the more than human world, neglected the intersubjective nature of existence, and spoke primarily for a Eurocentric, middle-aged elite who believed that their own experience of existential isolation and angst was normative and universal for the world.
Nevertheless, in light of the emergence of a new secularism in Islam, as described by Mustafa Akyol in the Opinion piece for the NY Times, we can wonder if a new kind of existentialism might emerge that retains and extends the wisdom of the old movement. We might call it Open and Relational (Process) Existentialism, because aspects of it resemble the Open and Relational Thinking championed by the Center for Open and Relational Theology. Or, more simply, we might call it Process Existentialism, since our version is influenced by the philosophies of Muhammad Iqbal and Alfred North Whitehead.
Almost all forms of existentialism, Process or otherwise, are based on personal responsibility and the idea of an open future that is not determined in advance. Rather, for Process thinkers and for us, the future is an open possibility, influenced by not entirely determined by decisions and actions in the present. In Process Existentialism this idea is combined with a unique understanding of God based on nurturance not authoritarianism. In Process Existentialism God is not understood as a self-absorbed, narcissistic and omnipotent ruler whose primary concern is with reward and punishment, but rather as a creative companion to the world's becoming.
This kind of existentialism can be appealing to post-evangelical Christians who are disillusioned with the rigidities and hypocrisies of the church, but who want to continue in their walk with Jesus; and also to the new, somewhat disillusioned, generation of Muslims who are struggling - in a fluid world - to construct a hybrid identity, transcending the binary oppositions as "Muslims" versus "Europeans", "religious" versus "secular", "islam" versus "human rights" etc. Existence Precedes Essence
The fundamental premise of Process Existentialism as we conceive it is that existence precedes essence. This means that human beings have no pre-existing essence, understood as an unchanging substance. Our destinies are not predetermined by race, class, gender, or historical circumstances, because we are, moment by moment autonomous and self-creating. That is to say, we become self-created agents by virtue of our freedom and actions and our intersubjectivity, i.e., our interpersonal relations. This fact is adumbrated by the well-known existentialist proposition "existence precedes essence".
Here a special word is important for contemporary Muslims. Intra-islamically, "existence precedes essence" implies, among other things, that as Muslims, we have real possibilities in the world. To be sure, we find ourselves embedded in situations that deeply influence who we are, for good and for ill. But once we understand how we became who we have become, and once we understand that we are in fact activities of process, of self-becoming, we realize that it is actually possible to change much of our mode of existence. We can become something new.
More specifically, our fate is not sealed by the decisions of the past, be they decisons we ourselves made, or decisions that were foisted upon us by society, including religious orthodoxies and cultural norms. This can help us to understand that there is no "essence" as a colonized subject, as a woman who has internalised patriarchal modes of exsistence, or even as a "Muslim" who has been socialized into rigid forms of Islam. These are all contingent and contextual conditions. We are all always in the process of happening, of creative unfoldment, always engaged in the task of accomplishing ourselves as a person.
With freedom comes responsibility. To always be in becoming means that we have to choose between the conscious possibilities despite the burden of our facticity, i.e., natural properties such as weight, height, skin colour; historical facts such as schooling, familiy background, ethnicity; social facts such as class and nationality; and intra-psychological properties such as desires, hopes, fears, feelings, and set of beliefs. In some circumstances these factical problems are blessings. We can rightly take pride in the circumstances into which we are born and that shape our lives. But these different qualities of our embodied existence can become "rigidities" when they function in oppressive ways.
These rigidities are a petrification of dynamic existence. Often they are the outcome of socialisation and internalisation, by people in places of power, who have imprinted in people's mind that essence precedes existence; that there are no real possibilities of change and reconfiguration; and that the universe is a closed reality in which the future, predetermined by God, is simply held in store, ready to be parceled out according to a pre-fixed schedule of events. The universe, as Iqbal asserts, is not a "blocked universe, a finished product, immobile and incapable of change." For Iqbal, an authentic living and mode of existence lie in novelty and innovation, not in reproduction, repetition and rigid identities. Authenticity is the active and commited engagement of transcending human facticity when it becomes oppressive, given our realistic possibilities of transformation.
The crux of Iqbal`s religious philosophy can be captured in the notion of the "trust" confided to humanity. For Iqbal, God elected Adam (the human agent) to be, despite all his/her faults and shortcomings, God`s co-creator on earth because it has received the trust that the human being alone among created beings accepted, to his/her risk and peril. Iqbal interprets the acceptance of "trust" that of personality, creativity and freedom. In his view, the human subject is the agent whose vocation is to take active part in the life and freedom of the Creative Self (God) that accorded human beings this latitude. This thought correlates with the Islamic notion of "Amanah", i.e., personal responsibility and trustworthiness.
Existence as Concrescence
Iqbal's ideas are themselves an example of Process thinking, Islamic style. They are grounded in the Qur'anic revelation of a dynamic universe, of a cosmology of emergence, in which God is continuously active in situation-specific ways, always for the good. They resonate with ideas developed by process thinkers influenced by Whitehead.
In Whitehead's philosophy, 'existence' is an activity: a moment of experiencing and responding to the world, creating something novel in the very act of experiencing and responding. Whitehead calls it "concrescence." Concresence is an act of being-in-the-world, always finding itself "thrown" (Heidegger's word) into an already-given past and beckoned by a not-yet-determined future, with responsibility for how it creates itself in the present.
Our suggestion, then, is that existence precedes essence and that existence is concrescence. We recommend a kind of process existentialism that is different from other forms of existentialism in the following ways:
Process Existentialism places much greater emphasis on relationality/mutuality, whereas many forms of existential philosophy lean toward solipsism.
Process Existentialism places greater emphasis on the body, whereas many forms (other than Merleau-Ponty) neglect the body.
Process Existentialism sees human 'existence' as embodied, not only by human beings, but by all beings who have any kind of sentience. Animals and living cells, too, are being-in-the-world; they, too, are world-makers.
Process Existentialism affirms the reality of God, who likewise 'exists' as an ongoing activity of concrescence, whereas many forms of existentialism neglect God. In a sense God, too, is being-in-the-world. In God's case the world is the universe as a whole, as gathered into an ongoing activity of concrescence; and God's world-making is the provision of energy and guidance to the many entities in the world as they perpetually unfold.
None of these difference neglect the core wisdom or "article of faith" of religious existentialism: that we create ourselves even as we are richly connected to others and to God, and that we need not be colonized by socializations from the past, secular or religious. We are, or can be, deeply free, deeply human, and deeply religious - which are three ways of saying the same thing.
The question emerges for all of us, Muslim or Christian or otherwise: And how might be create ourselves? This is the question of authenticity. A Process existentialism proposes that we create ourselves in freedom from the excesses of socialization, and in freedom for responsiveness to the will of One in whose very life the universe unfolds. This One is not an entity among entities in the sky; it is the subjective unity of the universe itself, understood as having a life of its own: the Soul of the universe.
For Christians and for Muslims the life of this One was revealed uniquely, but by no means exclusively, in the life and ministry of Jesus. For Muslims the callings of the One are supplemented and completed in the beauty and wisdom of the Qur'an, understood as a liberating call toward freedom, love, and responsibility. These callings are what process philosophers call 'initial aims' or 'possibilities for fulfilled existence.' They are not rigidities; they are possibiliies. And it is we, moment by moment, who choose and actualize them. Such is our freedom.
And such is our dignity. The 'existence' of a person consists of his or her act of experiencing (prehending) the world, consciously and unconsciously, and responding to what is experienced. This response includes the self-creativity that is at the core of the act of experience: what Whitehead calls the act of decision. This entire activity is the "subject" of the experience; the experiencer is the experiencing.
The experience, and thus the subject, has value "for itself," not just for others, and thus "in" itself. To respect the dignity of a person is to respect him or her as a subject who experiences and responds to the world, moment by moment, in his or her unique way. The same applies to self-respect.
Note that the subject is different moment to moment, because he or she is a series of momentary acts of concrescence, each of which build upon predecessors but adds something new. This means that respect for dignity includes respect for a person's changing over time. His or her "essence" changes, and in each moment he or she has, or better is, dignity incarnate: that is self-enjoyment with value for himself or herself.
This value is paralleled by the value that other people likewise have, and also, for process thinkers, the more-than-human world: the hills and rivers and trees and stars. All are, in their unique ways, dignity incarnate, expressing their own creativity. Our task as human beings is to realize and express our dignity in ways that complement and enrich the dignity of others, in a spirit of gratitude and creativity. This is the vision of Iqbal; this is the vision of Whitehead. This also the vision of Islam and of Christianity at their best. It is our hope that both traditions, cousins to one another, can help people walk in dignity and self-creativity, for the world's sake and for God's sake.
Of course, our emphasis on self-creativity raises an important question for many Muslims and Christians: What are the implications of this view for considering divine omnisicience? For process theologians God knows all that is actual and all that is possible. God is all-knowing. With regard to the future, the future is knowable as possible, but not as actual until it is actual. As soon as it is actual, God knows it. God is omniscient.
The future becomes 'actual' when actualized through the decisions of human beings and other creatures. The addition of the phrase 'other creatures' is very important. Often we might think that humans are the only creatures on Earth or in the wider universe that make decisions, but process theologians offer an alternative view, partly based on the ideas of quantum mechanics. They believe that other animals and living cells and even the momentary quanta within the depths of atoms make decisions, albeit not necessarily in a conscious way.
In process theology the word 'decision' refers to the activity on the part of a given entity of responding to what influences it in the situation at hand. This response involves cutting off certain possibilities for responding while at the same time actualizing others. While the influences from the past may determine much of what is decided, there always remains an element of spontaneity, which in human life we call freedom. In the inorganic world this spontaneity is seen in the indeterminacy of events at the submicroscopic level: the quantum level. In the organic world (living cells, other animals) this spontaneity is seen in the ways they respond to their environments while seeking to survive with satisfaction in the immediacy of the moment. Decision is the very essence of actuality, human or more-than-human. It is also the essence of God's actuality.
The Primordial Decision At the heart of God's own life is a timeless activity of 'deciding' to call the universe into forms of order and novelty that form what we call the universe. It is also a decision to love, to care for, the universe thus called. This is the God who was revealed in the Qur'an and in the wisdom of all the prophets - including Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him; Prophet Moses. peace be upon him; and Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him. A prophet helps us understand the primordial creativity and imageless transcendence of an ultimate Awe and Beauty beyond our imaginations, and to recognize that this Awe and Beauty, without our even asking, loves and cares for us and for the entire universe.
We experience this ultimate Awe and Beauty in an inwardly felt calling which process theologians call the "initial aim." All creatures experiencing the calling in some way. The calling is within them as a lure to survive with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand; a call to life. For humans it is a calling toward optimal self-realization in relation to others, and to help build communities that are are just, sustainable, and joyful for all involved.
The Call to Goodness
Existentially, it is also a call to moral goodness: that is, to compassion, courage, respect, hospitality, forgiveness. and kindness. As we learn from the Qur'an, the Bible, and from life experience, God lures or beckons or calls humans to actualize possibilities for these very traits in our daily and corporate live. And as we also learn from the Qur'an, the Bible, and life experience, we humans may not choose these divinely-preferred possibilities. We may choose evil over good, destruction over constructive, violence over peace.
We fall short of the calling to be vicegerents, ambassadors, for God's love on earth. We fall short of the calling to be good muslims, good people, who have surrendered their lives to a wider Life in whose life the universe lives and moves and has its being. In contrast to other creatures, who obey the will of God much more easily, we sin. Even as the other creatures carry capacities for spontaneity, they do not need or seek the guidance of prophets. They are, as the Islamic tradition puts it, involuntary muslims. We humans, by contrast, must be voluntary muslims, given our high degree of freedom.
God cannot and does not choose for us. In the words of Muhammad Iqbal: "my pleasures, pains, and desires are exclusively mine, forming a part and parcel of my private ego alone. My feelings, hates and loves, judgements and resolutions, are exclusively mine. God Himself cannot feel, judge, and choose for me when more than one course of action are open to me."
The Open Future
This means that for God at any given moment in human history, the future is open. That is, it is filled with possibilities which God knows, but not yet filled with the outcomes of our self-determing decisions, because we have not yet made them. God's calling us presupposes the idea that we may, or may not, respond to the calling.
This emphasis on divine calling rebuffs the idea that God has preplanned the world and the lives of human beings down to each detail, while at the same time honoring the obvious order of the universe. On the one hand God did choose to call a universe into existence that has order and we human beings are born into it. The order includes the chemistry of the universe, as instantiated among other places in our bodies and also the most general laws of the universe: the laws of gravity and electromagnetism. We are born into an order we did not ourselves choose. We could not be or become without this order. And yet we find ourselves free or self-determining amid this given order. A recognition of order itself must be balanced by a recognition of freedom.
How might this balance be achieved? Certainly it must avoid the idea that the social circumstances into which we were born are utterly definitive of our destinities. Some people wrongly see God's action in the world on the analogy of chess game. From their point of view we are born into a world with already existing kings, queens, knights, rooks, bishops, and pawns. We have no freedom to determine our destinies. We are born into a closed world with a closed future. We are mere puppets.
Omniscience without Predestination
A process understanding of omniscience rejects this idea. It rejects predestination, offering the alternative image of a creative universe with an open future, embraced by an all-knowing God who works with the universe, and with human beings on our planet, to bring about optimal circumstances.
An open future is a future what has not yet been decided, not even by God. It is filled with possibilities for good or evil, for construction or destruction, for violence or peace, for joy or for tragedy.
For us humans, these optimal circumstances include individual self-realization, where, in community with others, we realize our own capacities for reflection, imagination, pleasure, justice, and joy. And these circumstances include community well-being itself, such that the very communities we help build are good for all, respectful of human dignity and also the dignity of other creatures and the earth itself.
Back, then, to the question. Does God know everything? Our answer is "yes." God knows all that can be known. God knows all that is possible for us, and God knows which possibilities we might best actualize for our sakes and for the world's sake. God calls prophets to help us discern these possibilities. God offers guidance through holy books. God seeks our well-being and that of all living beings.
God also knows that we ourselves, not God, can make the decisions for what it best. If our hearts are to be surrendered to the will of the holy, it is we ourselves who must make the decisions, and even God must wait and see what we decide, hoping we choose what is best for us.
This primordial hope is itself a form of wisdom. It is the wisdom of knowing what is "open" in the open future. This hope, on God's part, is the beauty of divine omniscience.