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Last Updated: 2010/08/01
Summary of question
Can God bring into existence a stone so large that he himself is not able to lift?
Can God bring into existence a stone so large that he himself is not able to lift? If he is able to do such a thing, then it shows an imperfection in him and if he can’t, then again it shows an imperfection? How can this issue be explained?
Concise answer

One of the attributes of God is his unlimited and boundless power and omnipotence. This question has been asked and answered in fields such as philosophy and scholastic theology. It has also been explained multiple times in the Holy Quran. Yet, this belief in the unlimited power of God has brought up, since ancient times, certain issues and questions. One of these, is this very same question which is being asked now. This question has been asked in different forms and arrangements; yet the essence of the question still remains the same and probes the mystery of absolute divine power. In order to answer this question, we must first explore the various types of impossibilities. Impossibilities, from one angle, can be divided into two sections. These are: 1. Logical impossibilities, and 2. Regular impossibilities.

Then, logical impossibilities are themselves divided into 2 sections, which are: A- 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. B- Things which aren't impossible in their essence, but their coming about necessitates something which is impossible in its essence (impossibilities in occurrence). For example, the existence of an effect without having a cause.

Ordinary impossibilities are matters, which are impossible according to natural laws, but they are not impossible logically. For example, the miraculous changing of a staff into a serpent or the curing of the sick without medicine, or various other miracles. None of these are impossible logically, but it is our ignorance about their causes which makes us count them as practical impossibilities.

The power of God, as well as the power which people possess, is related to all things which are possible, while impossibilities are essentially outside of this circle of possibility. Therefore, in answering this question of whether God can create such a rock, which he cannot lift, it must be said that however great someone’s power may be, whether it is a lot or a little, and whether it is finite or infinite, it is a matter which relates to the world of possibilities (regular impossibilities being part of them) and not to impossibilities (the logical impossibilities).

Here, it may be said that if this is the case, then the power of God has become limited or finite and cannot be considered as infinite and limitless. In answering this question, we must keep in mind that God not being able to do an impossibility (in essence or in occurence) does not count as bringing any sort of limitation on the threshold of divine power. This is because these sorts of actions are in essence impossible to enact and don’t bear the potential to come into being. To summarize, these are things which are self limiting, in and of themselves; they are beyond being able to be done or not; power to do them or not isn't even applicable to them and this is because of the deficiency they have in their own essences.

Imam Ali (a) was asked a similar question when someone said: “Can your God put the whole world into an egg, without making the world smaller or making the egg larger?” Imam (a) answered: “Weakness or inability are not characteristics which can be attributed to God, but what you have asked is something which is not possible to come into existence (it does not have the possibility of existence).”

Detailed Answer

Power and ability are amongst the characteristics of God. What is meant by these, is his capability in doing actions and his creation of things. Of course, in affairs which relate to the active power of intelligent and intellect possessing creatures (opposite to physics in which it is tantamount to the power of work and energy) we must also pay attention to the will and intention of the doer. So to summarize, in the discussion of comprehending God, we say that He is a being whom, when he wishes, can do an action, and when he wishes, can stop doing that action.

As with His essence and other qualities, Allah’s (swt) power is also limitless and endless. This point has been proven in the intellectual sciences of philosophy and scholastic theology[1] and there are also narrations which support it. The Holy Quran has also testified multiple times to the unlimited nature of the power of God and says: (ان الله علی کل شیء قدیر)[2], which means in its original Arabic: “…for Allah hath power over all things”. The belief in the limitless power of God is a concept, which has been questioned and pondered over since ancient times. One of the most important of questions has been this very same one mentioned in the article.

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. For example people have asked: “Can an all powerful God create something which he cannot later destroy?” or, “Can God create another God like himself?” or just like the question that was asked in this article, “Can an all powerful God create a stone so large that he is unable to move it?” 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 and, 2- Regular Impossibilities.

Logical impossibilities are impossible matters which are completely impossible to even imagine, and these themselves, are divided into two groups: A-  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).[3] B- 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.

Ordinary 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 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 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 in. 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: (ان الله علی کل شیء قدیر), 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 of 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.”[4]

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 that 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 Imam Ali (a): “Can your God put the world into an egg, without making the world smaller or the egg larger?” Imam Ali (a) answered him by saying: “Certainly God cannot be characterized as unable or incapable, but what you have asked about never comes into existence (does not have the potential of existence).”[5]

According to Imam Ali (a), this matter is impossible but it does not mean that God is unable or limited in his power. What is being asked of cannot happen and is a logical impossibility, not that Allah (swt) has any limits in His power. 2150

[1] See: Shirazi, Sadruddin Muhammad, Al-Asfarul-Arba’ah, vol.6, pp. 307-320; Tusi, Nasruddin, Sharh Tajrid, pp. 390-394 (farsi translation of Allamah Sha’rani); Misbah Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi, Amuzesh Aqa’ed, vol. 1, pp. 99-100.

[2] Surah Baqarah:20, 106, 109, 148 and 259 (and other verses).

[3] What is meant by the co-existence of contradictions is for one thing to both be and not be (under certain conditions that have all been listed in philosophy) at the same time. According to most philosophers, the impossibility of the co-existence of contradictions is one of the most axiomatic intellectual principles which if denied, results in the destruction of the structure of knowledge in man.

[4] Of course this example and other similar ones are significantly different than the matter we have at hand (which is the power and ability of Allah (swt)). In any event though, in order to get an idea of what is going on, because some of the similarities between the two, these examples are still beneficial.

[5]ان الله تبارک و تعالی لا ینسب الی العجز و الذی سألتنی لا یکون”, Sheikh Saduq, Al-Tawhid, chapter 9, hadith 5.

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