It has become popular to refer to God as the Universe in recent years but few know that this practice is rooted in ancient philosophical debates over ḥulūl (pantheism) and the eternity of the universe. Sabians generally argued that the universe was eternal and thus equal to God. Because of this, they accepted the concept of pantheism, i.e. that God can be found within His creation as celestial bodies, inanimate objects, living things, a man or mankind in general, etc. On the other hand, Hanifs argued that eternity was an attribute of God alone and thus the universe was not eternal but a creation of God. As a consequence of this thinking, God was an entirely different genus from His creation and this, among other qualities, made Him worthy of worship.
While these debates are not prominent in popular contemporary discourse , they nonetheless influence much of our thinking, knowingly or unknowingly. Therefore, every time we hear someone praising the universe, we are hearing the residuals of Sabian thought echoing in the current day. While some might see these debates as benign or akin to splitting hairs, they most definitely have metaphysical, if not physical consequences on the masses past, present, and future. In this post, I will present the ancient debate and identify strains of Sabian thought in the modern day.
Al-Ghazālī vs. the Muslim Sabians
In the 11th century, Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī penned his landmark work, Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (often translated as The Incoherence of the Philosophers). While the work is pivotal to Islamic theological debates as well as the intellectual history of philosophy from the ancient world to modern times, it is also relevant to the study of Sabian thought. Moreover, it allows us to understand the fallacies of Sabian thought from a Muslim perspective as well as how to recognize them and refute them in our times. He noticed a trend among the Muslim intellectuals of his day who, upon studying the works of the ancient Greeks, would adopt their philosophies uncritically. This meant that they embraced the belief of the eternity of the universe, which led to other blasphemous ideas such as the weakness of God, the possibility of two deities, and the purposelessness of existence.
In addition to this mistake having detrimental effects on the personal faith of these Muslim philosophers, they would also submerge Muslim civilization in the same theological turmoil that the Naṣārā (Christians) suffered. If we recall from Islam and the Mystery Schools Part 10, the Naṣārā of the Roman Empire, Persia, and beyond were plunged into the philosophical debates of the Mystery Schools i.e. Sabians. Although they won debates about the supremacy of the prophet of their time (i.e. Jesus Christ/ʿĪsā), they compromised on the topic of ḥulūl or pantheism, with the caveat that only Christ occupies the position of God to the exclusion of others in His Creation. In the Muslim Ummah, the likes of al-Farābī and Ibn Sīnā would spearhead this dangerous slip into Sabian philosophy. To others, it was Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of waḥdat al-wujūd (the unity of existence). Wherever the concept was raised it was refuted.
We should understand that al-Ghazālī did not categorically refute the knowledge of the Sabian philosophers. Rather he enumerated 20 points in which the philosophers went wrong and jeopardized their metaphysical futures. While seemingly benign, al-Ghazālī is serious about the magnitude of these mistakes. As I read his words, I cannot help but see some similitude to our current situation. Here, I will turn to al-Ghazālī’s criticisms that are related to the nature of the universe.
Ancient Sabian philosophers argued that it was impossible that a temporal creation emanate from an intemporal creator, i.e., that a finite universe proceed from an eternal God. Instead, they argued that the universe always existed or always had the potential to exist. So, if the universe came into existence at a particular point in time, then why? In their line of questioning, they asked: Was God incapable of bringing the world into existence before this point, thus changing from weakness to power or impossibility to possibility or futility to purpose? They contended that if God was All-Powerful and All-Knowing, then all the conditions were met to bring the universe into existence prior to its existence. So, there must have been some catalyst or cause to bring it into existence.
Al-Ghazālī responds to this conundrum by stating that the creation of the universe at the point that it came into existence was part of God’s eternal will and essentially that God sees the big picture and man does not and cannot. Man might ascribe perceived changes in God’s will to some sort of flaw based on man’s experience and dispositions but these experiences and dispositions do not apply to God. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the philosopher to demonstrate that the creation of the universe was not God’s will. (Ghazālī, 1963, 14-19) Indeed the entire debate is God’s will. We only need to choose the side on which we stand.
Sabians in the Modern Day
If we turn our attention to the current American metaphysical landscape, we find that our communities are infested with Sabian “manifestations” (or perhaps man-infestations). The New Age movements, Black conscious community, and woke culture represent Sabian thought in our day. Movements such as the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters have adopted the concept of hulūl, when they deem the Black man as God. The Nuwaubians, with their multifarious deifications of Malachi York have done the same. Some Afrocentric Egyptophiles are also guilty of this in their claims that the Black woman is God, while also postulating their pseudo-intellectual arguments for the existence of multiple gods in the form of ancestors.
Even though modern-day Sabians often pose their questions as intellectual speculation, their intent is mostly mockery of God and His prophets with the aim of leading people to confusion and disbelief in God. Their speculation into the nature of God and the universe is not aimed at a higher Truth but confusion. You will barely find one who can understand the ancient arguments of the Sabians, let alone debate an intelligent Hanif. Their solution is to embrace a multitude of beliefs because in reality they do not believe in anything.
Though modern-day Sabians go by many names, they all have similar traits, like the veneration of the creation over the Creator. Equating the universe to God is tantamount to denying God because it omits the initial Cause and opens up the gates of pantheism, which allows creation to be regarded as God or part of God. These ideas were accepted by the ancient Sabians but opposed by the Hanifs, whose strongest proponents were the Muslims. Yet, within the ranks of the Muslim world these ideas would need to be refuted when they gained traction in its societies. But few among the Muslims are debating these ideas in our times. Even among the droves of Muslim students of knowledge, who study ʿaqīda, kalām, the works of al-Ghazālī, and Muslim philosophers, we have not raised conscious minds who understand the Sabian-Hanif dichotomy and can construct strong rebuttals of the modern Sabians. Rene Guenon (Abd al-Wahid Yahya) was perhaps one of the last to champion Traditional (Hanif) religion over the aberrations of the Spiritualists (Sabians) of his time. I call on my Hanif brethren among the Muslims and the People of the Book to stand up to the Sabian confusion of the current day with knowledge and grace by which we can restore the order of the universe to its proper place.
Ghazālī, Abu Hamid. Al-Ghazali’s Tahāfut al-Falāsifah: Incoherence of the Philosophers. Translated by Sabih Ahmad Kamali, Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 1963. lib.aucegypt.edu Library Catalog, https://www.ghazali.org/books/tf/index.htm.
Ah, but there are subtleties! See the concept of Panentheism, which is similar to, yet differs substantially from, Pantheism.
A good beginning discussion of Panentheism can be found in Wikipedia.