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Islam and Process Thought: Some Challenges and Possibilities

Calligraphy of an Ottoman Turkish poem in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, signed by Ottoman sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839).

In his chapter entitled “Islam and Process Theology” (2008) in the book Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought (2008),¹ Mustafa Ruzgar differentiates between three type of approaches Muslim communities have expressed toward Western philosophical and scientific systems of thought: rejection, integration, and dialogue (Ruzgar 2008, 601). The first posture is rooted in the thesis that Islam is a perfect and self-sufficient entity, advocated mainly by conservatives who uphold the dichotomy between the West and Islam, claiming that Western impulses are detrimental and contradictory to Islam. The second attitude of integration is based on the thesis that Islam has become an ossified and static religion due to theological and socio-political reasons. The only path toward a revitalisation of religion in order to make it in close contact with the modern realities is to reinterpret and reformulate the essentials of religion in the light of the modernity paradigm of the West. However, Ruzgar argues that both attitudes are inadequate and problematic due to their spirit of excessive inwardness and self-identity; thus, in his words, these approaches fail “to do justice to the otherness of outside elements” (ibid.). The third posture, that of dialogue, is based on the assumption that both the Western world and Islam share some basic conceptions and ideas that could be mutually enhanced and enriched through open-ended dialogue, accepting the commonalities whilst also respecting and accepting the distinctive and complex particularities of each culture and communities.

Perhaps, with the Iranian experience of the Cultural Revolution, the term “Westoxification” (gharbzadegi) encapsulates the above-mentioned rejectionist posture. The Iranian intellectual and existentialist philosopher Jalal Al-e Ahmad (d. 1969) coined this term, whose work entitled Westoxification (1962) served as a template for revolutionary change among the Iranian intelligentsia (Jackson 2014, 151). The dominant idea of Westoxification revolves around the Heideggerian distinction between Kultur and Zivilization. That is, Kultur represents the enhancement and cultivation of spirit, and hence authenticity, while Zivilization symbolises and represents Western inauthenticity, i.e. decadence and emptiness (nihilism). According to Jackson, Ahmad refashioned and reinterpreted this Heideggerian dualism to suit the Iranian historical phase, arguing that the diseased West through modernity had infected the pure Iranian spirit or essence, and that the only remedy was to look to the authentic Iranian culture—that is, an authentic Islamic identity—to relieve itself of the toxicity of the West (Jackson 2014, 152).²

The second attitude Ruzgar notes in his book chapter, i.e. the integrationist one, can be related to the movement known as Islamic modernist, as represented by, among others, Jamaluddin al-Afghani (b.1897), Muhammad Abdouh (d. 1905), Sayyid Ahmed Khan (d. 1898), Sayyid Amir Ali (d. 1928) and Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938). The gist and essential characteristic of the project of Islamic modernism entailed attempts to revitalise and reform Islam by constructing authentic Islamic modernity, nourished by their own religious resources and cultural heritage, in touch with the modern scientific developments of their times (Parray 2011, 91). In other words, the insistence on the conjunction between modern science and religion was central to the narrative of Islamic modernism as constructed and developed by the main exponents of this position mentioned above. On this point, the criticism of the scholar of Islamic philosophy Majid Fakhry (d. 2021) launched at the representatives of Islamic modernist thought on the place science holds in their project is interesting. It is interesting primarily because it is particularly related to Muhammad Iqbal due to the eclecticism of arguments and ideas expressed in his philosophico-theological thought. To the position modern science holds in the thought of the modernist thinkers generally and Iqbal in particular, Fakhry argues that

By joining the Islamic or Qur’anic conception of man and the world to the current stage of scientific development, as Iqbal did particularly, the modernists make a… very dangerous mistake, since they subordinate the religious truth of Islam to the doubtful truth of a scientific phase. And if the history of scientific progress teaches us anything, it is the ephemeral nature of such scientific phases, whether they are associated with the venerable names of Aristotle or Ptolemy or with the modern pioneers such as Newton, Eddington or Einstein (Fakhry 2004, 355).

In other words, Fakhry is expressing a scepticism toward a scientistic mode of being involved in the scientific discourse, with the risk of degenerating the project of modernism to mere scientism. The criticism against the pitfalls of an obscurantist way of treating the scientific discourse is important. Even a cursory reading of Iqbal’s intellectual works, especially his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, tends to support the criticism of Fakhry—that of a scientist’s exegeses and reading. However, on a closer look, we can see that Iqbal’s approach avoids the pitfalls of the modernist ethos of the quest for epistemological certainty. Suffice is to note that Iqbal, in his Preface to the Reconstruction, notes that the aim of his lectures is to “reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge” (Iqbal 2013, Preface, xlv). Moreover, he also warns his readers/listeners to exercise caution in the quest for constructing more plausible responses and answers to the fundamental challenges posed by modernity. In Iqbal’s words:

It must, however, be remembered that there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking. As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these lectures, are possible. Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude toward it (ibid., xlvi).

Muhammad Iqbal Portrait 1
Muhammad Iqbal Portrait 2

Portraits of the Muslim philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938).

In the above-mentioned asserting and cautionary gesture, Iqbal is rejecting the quest for epistemic certainty. He is not claiming any inerrancy or infallibility of the scientific discourse over or against the non-fluctuating truths of Islam. Put differently, for Iqbal, the quest for inerrancy and infallibility of scientific knowledge rules out undertakings of alternative narratives and assumptions. This awareness of epistemic fallibilism and the dynamic character of human thought and interpretations in a world characterised by flux and process, constitutes the Iqbalian position. Thus, Iqbal’s posture of discourse on science and religion can better be understood as dialogical rather than integrationist in a reductive sense.

This brings us to the third approach, the dialogical one. To reiterate, the dialogical approach does not entail narcissistically wallowing in self-sufficiency, as a windowless monad. Rather, the dialogical sensibility and posture is critical of any tendency to regard one’s own history, tradition, philosophical system or worldview as pure, perfect, and unchanging. On this point, Muhammad Iqbal’s criticism against Eurocentric culturalism, in the Reconstruction, is illuminating. In this book, Iqbal, in the chapter entitled “The Spirit of Muslim Culture”, criticises the German philosopher Oswald Spengler (d. 1922) for his attitude of culturalism, implying that each culture or civilization is a living organism entirely cut-off from other cultures or traditions. The backdrop of this critique of Iqbal against cultural isolationism involves Spengler’s thesis that the anti-classical spirit of the West is solely due to the genius of Europe and thus devoid of any external influences and impulses from the intellectual culture of Islam (Iqbal 2013, 114). Iqbal labours in the Reconstruction to highlight the importance and value of cross-cultural dialogue and the openness and receptivity to “foreign” impulses in order to redefine and recreate the narrative of Islam in response, among others, to the oppressive and disruptive effects of colonialism and the intellectual imperialism of Europe.

Muhammad Iqbal’s dialogical approach to the Western philosophical systems of thought is adequately captured in what Javed Majeed describes as “cosmopolitan thought zones” (Majeed 2013, xiii). In other words, by placing both Muslim and Western thinkers in a global conversation, Muhammad Iqbal de-temporalizes the intellectual history of the West and that of the Islamic world. Thus, he brings thinkers from both worlds (for instance Al-Ghazali and Kant, Ibn Rushd and William James, McTaggart and Ibn Hazm) within a global space, as contemporaries who entertain the same intellectual issues and questions. As Majeed puts it,

By de-temporalizing the history of the engagement between Islam and European thought, Iqbal presents the encounter as a conversation among intellectual equals, lifting it above the hierarchies of power created by European colonialism (ibid.).

In other words, Iqbal, by weaving together the fragments of both European and Islamic thinkers into shared global, de-temporalized though zones, discussing shared existential questions and issues, creates a narrative involving the interplay between shared values and ideas as well as the distinctive particularities of each tradition and culture. The ideas and their illuminations are still in a state of perpetual process of being re-thought and re-appropriated.³ This brings us to the interaction between process thought and Islam.

Process thought can be divided into two categories: process philosophy and process theology. Process philosophy emerges out of the works of Alfred North Whitehead (d. 1947) and Charles Hartshorne (d. 2000) on questions and issues of purely philosophical character. Neither Whitehead nor Charles Hartshorne used the term “process philosophy” to describe their distinctive contributions. Whitehead uses the term “philosophy of organism” to refer to his cosmological doctrine and scheme of internal relations, i.e. how the identity of each actual entity is constituted by its relation to other actual entities. In this scheme of thought, argues Whitehead “the notion of material, as fundamental, has been replaced by that of organic synthesis” (Whitehead 1997, 157). Of his thought, Hartshorne spoke of “societal realism” in order to emphasise that there is a plurality of real entities internally related and that each actual entity is a self-creation arising amid a complex of many (Cobb and Griffin 1976, 7).

It needs to be noted that what falls within the category of “process philosophy” or “process thought” is not merely related to the hegemonic legacy left by Whitehead and Hartshorne. The basic thesis and intuition that process and change are more appropriate descriptors of reality than static being, has its roots, in the Western consciousness, in the pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus (d. 475 BC), who is famous for his aphorism that one cannot step in the same river twice. It is also possible to detect process philosophical sensibilities in such thinkers as Hegel (d. 1831) Henri Bergson (d. 1941), William James (d. 1910), Nikolai Berdyaev (d. 1948), John Dewey (d. 1952), and Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980), among others. From a non-Western point of view, there are in Eastern wisdom traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism ideas and notions that can be considered as process-oriented. As an instance, the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and the notion no-self (anātman) show an intimate proximity to the fundamental ideas in process philosophy that change and interdependency have primacy over a substantial self and static being.

Process theology, as an extension, arose out of the ideas expressed within process philosophy from that of the Christian theological enterprise. That is to say, the movement of process theology flourished, primarily, as a Christian appropriation of Whiteheadian thought-system and ideas. Process theology utilises the vision of a dynamic and open-ended worldview of Whitehead and Hartshorne in interpreting and understanding the basic doctrines in Christianity. It deals, among others, with theological questions and issues such as the nature of divine omniscience and omnipotence, the God-world relationship, ecological and environmental issues related to the nonhuman world, eschatology, and issues related to human freedom and responsibility (Epperly 2011, 6). That being said, one distinctive quality of process theology is that it has become a multifaith option and tradition. In the house of process thought and theology, through the emerging non-Christian ways of appropriating the insights from process thought, there are now many rooms.

In the present, there exist a range of non-Christian process-inspired forms of theology and outlooks, thus, for that matter; process theology is no longer a homogenous Christian process theology. Perhaps the most articulate form of process theology outside Christian circles comes from Rabbi Bradley Artson (b. 1959), the Jewish philosopher and process theologian, whose book titled The God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (2016) bears testimony to the influence of the process insights in articulating a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Jewish tradition. There are also Chinese expressions of process spirituality, connecting these with an East-Asian past. Moreover, in the works of Jeffery D. Long (b. 1969), he seeks to develop a Hindu process theology.⁵ And then there are the nascent works of developing and outlining Islamic process theologies. The scholar Saida Mirsadri (b. 1983), among others, intends to work out, in her chapter “Iqbal’s Process Worldview: Toward a New Understanding of the Divine Action” (2021) in the book entitled Divine Action: Challenges for Muslim and Christian Theology (2021), the salient features of an Iqbalian inspired process theology.⁶

From the vantage point of an Islamic/Muslim point of view, one possible challenge of linking Islam as a religion with the process philosophy as a metaphysical conceptual framework and tool, relates to postcolonial critique—especially in these times of academic decolonization. Expressed differently, by using a “Western” system of thought, we are merely advancing a form of intellectual and epistemological neo-imperialism. It is an important critique. However, the appropriation of the key ideas and insights of the process perspective in responding both to intra-Islamic and interreligious and global issues does not amount to, necessarily, a furtherance of intellectual neo-imperialism. In other words, the central insights of the process perspective are not alien to the Islamic consciousness. The appropriation of process insights within this thesis does not imply subduing the particularity of Islam and its non-fluctuating truths as a world religion. Rather, the insights of process thought can help us to better appreciate the wisdom of Islam in our own fluid times, for instance related to developing more organic and holistic narratives of stewardship in response to the ecological and environmental crisis.

The Faisal Mosque in the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan

The Faisal Mosque in the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

The argument for the use of the process conceptual framework within Islam is not a novelty or a radical rupture from the longstanding tradition of the creative integration of the Greek heritage of Muslims and the far-reaching influence of the Hellenistic contribution to Islamic cultures in the past. As an instance in point, the Mutazilite school, the first fully developed theological school in Islam, incorporated Greek philosophical concepts and ideas in their religious and theological reflections and teachings. These were related to the issues, among others, of the freedom of man (qadar) versus fate/compulsion (jabr), God’s omnipotence and goodness and justice, and discussions about if human reason precedes revelation or if revelation precedes human reason. As a reaction, the Asharite camp arose out of the opposition to the theological school of the rationalist theologians. This theological school also utilised Greek philosophy and its tools to undermine and suppress the theological doctrines and dogmas of their opponents. Moreover, the Aristotelian influence in the classical period of Islam is undeniable, especially within the works of the peripatetics, i.e. Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd. Their appropriation and expansion of the philosophical ideas of Aristotle, i.e. active intellect, the notion of the eternity of the world, actuality and potentiality, form and matter, essence and existence, among others, bears testimony to the profound influence of Greek philosophy upon Muslim consciousness (Groff 2007, 14-15).

Process thought is also labelled as “neoclassical theism.” This labelling is meant to cast light on the ideas and notions that are both “neo” and “classical.” The word “neo” indicates the revision and innovation in dealing with the concept and vision of God process and open theists propound and defend. The latter word is indicative of the historical fact that such innovations and revisions are, in a paradoxical manner, rooted in ancient and medieval sources (Dombrowski 2016, 5). In other words, process theism, for instance, is critical toward the classical theistic God emphasising, among other things, God’s radical transcendence, and likewise, equally critical of the strictly immanent God as in pantheism. The process alternative to radical transcendence and strict immanence is based on divine persuasion of a platonic kind, which is itself a form of fusion of the doctrines of imposition and strict immanence.

The use of process thought offers a philosophico-ontological framework to help religion find new expressions, in fidelity to their authentic sources, so that the meanings of religion do not become frozen in the past, petrified into dogmatic certainties immune to the dawn of novelty and new meanings in the present, which is a death sentence for religion. The process perspective allows for new instantiations of religion for the sake of the common good, congenial to the Islamic faith in its intra-Islamic expressions as well as interreligious. John Cobb, in entertaining the possibilities and paths for a new Christianity in response to the challenges of the extreme anthropocentrism within the Christian faith, argues that the answer to this question is not to leap into an alien wisdom tradition, but rather

To go forward in the transformation of the tradition in which we now stand. To do so, we should seek within our tradition those submerged elements whose new prominence would give us the vision or consciousness we need (Cobb 1994, 31).

In the same vein, intra-Islamically, the need is not to leap into something alien and foreign, i.e. a complete immersion in process philosophy, but rather to dig within our own Islamic heritage in order to find new elements and expressions, whose new forms, to paraphrase Cobb, can furnish us with a story we need in our own times. Intra-Islamically, Muhammad Iqbal is a figure who stands out for the participation in the global consciousness we need. In other words, as regards the feasibility of developing a process and open interpretation and understanding of Islam in our own times, the aim is not to make a complete break from the Islamic tradition and heritage, but rather to look for new ideas and resources within that very tradition.

This introduces, again, the note of the posture of dialogue. The relationship between Islam and process philosophy/thought as a philosophical system of thought, can be mutually enriched by a two-fold attitude: (1) to accept and work to highlight the commonalities while also (2) honouring the distinctiveness of each tradition and system of thought. That is, inasmuch as Islam offers a set of ideas that are universally valid, we would expect for them to surface in non-Islamic contexts, and welcome the way in which they can enrich an Islamic understanding of Islam. This approach of open-ended dialogue fits well with the German word seinlassen. It literally means to-let-be. This letting-be implies letting the other be different from me. By letting-the-other-be, I thereby show a fundamental respect toward the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the other. This position overlaps with that of John Cobb. The position Cobb holds affirms the idea that when calling for mutual respect, it does not involve fully honouring fundamentalist and totalising attitudes and opinions when they tend to preclude possibilities of mutual respect. However, calling for mutual respect also implies, as Cobb expresses it, that “we will not expect others to give up their beliefs just because we do not share them, and we will expect them to respect our adherence to our beliefs as well” (Cobb 2015, 111).

In other words, the sort of pluralism needed, is one in which the ultimate convictions and concerns of all are not such as to require the rejection of the deepest convictions of others. The power to reach the other, to learn and expand our horizons without needing to absorb them into the orbit of our own traditions and narratives, is in our time of acute importance, culturally, religiously, philosophically and existentially.

  1. The Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought, edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, has recently been republished as an open-access digital Whitehead Encyclopedia. The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.).
  2. However, the complexity of the issue lies in the fact that Ahmad and the other Iranian intellectuals were a child of their own historical context, and that their criticism is directly linked to the material and scientific developments in Europe. Furthermore, it is important to note that these intellectuals did not define themselves as anti-modern.
  3. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (b. 1931), commenting about the significance of Muhammad Iqbal’s worldview, points out that it is not only important from an intellectual point of view, but it also speaks directly to the present cultural condition of our own times. In the words of Taylor: “We… have shared reasons, Western, Muslim and Eastern merged together, in reading his remarkable man. Because our dialogues are troubled by a deep and mutual distrust. This distrust is partly derived from our own uncertainty regarding our identity, which sometimes gives us a feeling of insecurity under the gaze of others. It’s this feeling that can lead to a sort of hyper-confidence, tightening around a rigid identity, and the belligerent rejection of the other as the bearer of evil. To seek out and define oneself using references found in the other’s tradition becomes impossible, becomes treasonous… In this atmosphere of suspicion and anger, it is a joy to hear the voice of Iqbal, both passionate and serene. It is a voice of a soul that is deeply anchored in the Qur’anic Revelation, and precisely for that reason, open to all the other voices, seeking in them the path of his own fidelity” (Taylor, “Preface” in S. B. Diagne, Islam and Open Society: Fidelity and Movement in the Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal, trans. Melissa McMahmon, Dakar, Senegal, 2010).
  4. Visit the following page for the possibilities of a fusion of process insights within a Chinese context.
  5. See the chapter of Jeffery D. Long entitled “A Whiteheadian Vedanta: Outline of a Hindu Process Theology” in the Handbook of Process Theology (2006), Bowman, Donna and McDaniel Jay (eds.).
  6. A comment on Mirsadri’s chapter is given in a later section of the full dissertation.
  7. For a discussion of the points of contact and points of departure between Whiteheadian thought and the metaphysics of Ibn Arabi, see the paper entitled “Whitehead and Ibn Arabi (1165-1240): Thoughts on Process and Sufi Metaphysics” (2015) Ozgur Koca, Process Studies (2015), Vol: 44 (2): 270-281. Moreover, on the commonalities and differences on God, existence and the concept of nature in Whitehead and Mullā Sadra, see the paper titled “On Being and Nature in Mullā Sadra and Whitehead” (2021), Husain Heriyanto and Hairunnisa, Prajñā Vihāra (2021), Vol: 22 (1): 28-54.
  8. As Saida Mirsadri notes about her own project on developing a process understanding of Islam: “My goal, in the final analysis, is, however, not merely to tear down—what I would regard as the classical and traditional reading of Islam—but to offer constructive alternatives, by going back to the this very tradition. And my starting point in this thought experiment and this project of reconstructing Islam is Muhammad Iqbal’s metaphysics” (Mirsadri 2021, 120).


  1. Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  2. Majeed, Javed. Introduction to The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by Muhammad Iqbal. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  3. Ruzgar, Mustafa. “Islam and Process Theology.” In Handbook of Whiteheadian Process thought, edited by Michel Weber and William Desmond. Frankfurt, Germany: Ontos Verlag, 2008.

Farhan Shah, PhD is a doctoral fellow of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is a scholar of Islam, Muhammad Iqbal, and process philosophy. His work examines Iqbal’s reconstructed version of Islam, especially related to his concept of khalifa as God’s co-worker in the spatio-temporal order and takes an intra-Islamic and interreligious approach to what he calls organic humanism.