THE CONCEPT OF GOD IN ISLAM : AN INTRODUCTION
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
The starting point for the understanding of the Islamic concept of God are the phenomena or events that take place in nature and the world of man. Again and again, the Qur'an points to observable things and happenings — to heavens, with their decorative starts (50:6-8), to the earth, with its majestic, stabilizing mountains (31:10-11), to the sun and the moon and their movements on their well-defined courses (34:38-40), to the alternation of days and nights and the accompanying cycle of work and sleep (3:190, 27:86), to winds that, on the one hand, bring clouds and rain (30:48) and, on the other hand, make possible the movement of ships (10:22), to the great variety of life-forms such as plants that produce fruits and grains, each with a different taste (13:4, 34:32-35), to cattle out of whose bellies comes healthy milk from between blood and refuse (16:66), to bees and their production of honey, in which there is healing for men (16:69), to the fire that is ignited by man (56:71-72), to the birth of a human baby and the various stages that lead to it (23:12-14), to the variety of colors and languages found among human beings (30:22) and to events that take place within man, his mind and heart, and those that take place in human history (41:53).
Contrary to what is said sometimes, the Qur'an does not point to events in the universe as part of a theological argument for the existence of God. It no doubt often points to the order and beauty in the universe (67:3-5, etc.), but never as a burhan or hujjah (proof or argument) for God's existence. In fact, it often points to phenomena of nature in a language which assumes the existence of God: "WE send winds...", WE give life..." Moreover, the Qur'an rarely, if ever, concerns itself with the question of the existence of God.
But while the Qur'an does not make natural phenomena a basis or a proof of the existence of God, it does refer to these phenomena as _y_t all_h, or signs of God, which means that they do in some way point to God.
One way that events in the universe are signs of God in the Qur'an is that they point away from the worship of idols and of great deified human beings. Man can turn to these false gods only by ignoring the awesome reality of the universe and the tremendous variety, complexity and consistency of events that take place in it. An idol made and put in a temple by man with his own hands who cannot even remove a fly if it sits on it or a deified human being who himself depends for his existence "on daily bread" (5:75) cannot be in any way responsible for the awesome reality that we see in the form of the universe and its events. If we ask idol worshippers who sends down the rain and through it brings about life-forms which sustain us, not many of them will seriously point to one of the idols or deified human beings as the initiator of these phenomena, especially when they are in some very serious trouble (10:22, 31). Some of them might say that such and such a god or goddess is a god or goddess of rain or some other phenomenon and is thus its initiator, but looking at the universe around us, we can see the falsehood of this claim. For there is such a consistency in the highly varied and complex phenomena in the universe that we cannot attribute them to separate gods and goddesses (21:22, 23:91-92), unless those gods and goddesses work in such perfect harmony as to completely lose their independence and individuality, in which case it would be better to give them a single corporate personality instead of talking of them as separate gods and goddesses. Idol worship is man's ultimate escape from a vast and complex reality. Through idols man replaces this reality by a simple and cozy world of visible symbols. A fresh look at nature can free his mind and spirit from this ultimate prison of his own making.
Another way in which natural phenomena act as signs of God and help lead man to God is that if their obvious implications are duly faced, they provide a cure for man's tendency to egocentricity and self-sufficiency. For, by looking at the natural phenomena, man can quickly see that he is ultimately completely dependent for everything, including his existence, on a reality other than himself and that no matter how important, he is only one of many wonderful phenomena in the universe. Egocentricity and self-sufficiency are the root cause of many diseases of the human spirit and many errors in thinking and they are a hindrance to man's realization of God. They may be one of the causes of idolatry, since idols and deified human beings may be projections of man's own ego and their worship may be a way by which man makes himself the ultimate object of his adoration and concern. By curing man's egocentricity and self-sufficiency, reflection on natural phenomena can remove a big hindrance in the way of his realization of God.
REFLECTING, REMEMBERING AND REASONING
The events that take place around, and within, man do not serve as signs of God for everyone. Although everyone knows, for example, that man is made from a drop of fluid (semen) by a process with which he himself had nothing to do and that he depends on his continued physical existence on food which is not made by him, this knowledge does not cure everyone of egocentricity or self-sufficiency as completely as it could. What is needed is that, somehow, the implications of these and other facts sink into man's heart and become part of his thinking and emotional makeup. This requires reflecting on the facts (fikr), keeping them in mind or "remembering" them (dhikr) and reasoning ('aql). The Qur'an often concludes its references to natural phenomena or other happenings by saying "(in this) there is a sign for those who reflect" or "for those who remember" or "for those who use reason" or "those who possess understanding" (16:11, 13, 2:164, 3:190, etc.).
In the past few centuries, precisely when man began to show exceptionally keen interest in nature, many people have been led by a look at nature not to God but to atheism. The Qur'anic explanation of this phenomenon would be that these people have somewhere erred in the use of their cognitive faculties. The observations and experiences to which life exposes an average human being must lead a person to God unless he shuts his eyes to some facts or otherwise makes erroneous use of reason (2:171). This is, of course, not to say that man can provide with his reason a deductive proof of the existence of God, but only that if man does not make irrational assumptions, does not ignore implications of what he sees or clings to conclusions not sufficiently supported by evidence and maintains an open attitude towards fresh experience and evidence, then he would be gradually led to certain belief in the true God. It is in this sense that nature and man's own self provide signs of God only for those who reflect and use reason.
A NON-DETERMINISTIC UNIVERSE
A basic question about the universe is whether it is deterministic or non-deterministic, that is, whether or not it is possible for man to know all that exists and to develop an intellectual system which can determine all future states of the universe (i.e. all that exists) on the basis of known data about its past or present states. How we answer this question will determine whether we can believe in God or not. If we hold the universe to be deterministic, then we must inevitably deny the existence of God. On the other hand, the view that the universe is non-deterministic suggests a belief in God.
At the present time, it is not possible to settle the question one way or the other. But the following observations make the view of a non-deterministic universe more plausible:
1) It is provably impossible to show that the universe is deterministic. For, in order to prove that the universe is deterministic, we need to show that there does not exist anything that we do not know. We also need to produce a system of laws and principles that describes the universe so that nothing that has ever happened or will ever happen conflicts with this system. But this is obviously impossible, for we have no way of knowing all that will happen in the future and no way of showing that nothing exists other than what we know about. In contrast, it is not provably impossible to show that the universe is non-deterministic. It is conceivable that at some stage of our knowledge about the universe, we have at our disposal a large enough set of observations which we can show that they do not fit into any system. This situation can be illustrated by an example. Suppose that every minute or so I draw on a piece of paper a colored circle and hand the paper over to you. I ask you whether all the circles I am going to draw are red. You can never answer this question in the affirmative since you will never know what color I will use in my next drawing of a circle. But you may be able to answer the question in the negative since the circles I have already drawn may contain one which is not red.
Thus, while the view that the universe is deterministic is demonstrably indemonstrable, the idea of a non-deterministic universe may be demonstrable.
2) Continuous and radical revisions in science throughout its history also lend some weight to the view of a non-deterministic universe. The radical revision in the nineteenth-century physics by the theory of relativity shows in particular that even our ideas about such basic aspects of the universe as time and space have no a priori character.
3) Our experience of "free will" also supports the view that the universe is non-deterministic. For, in a deterministic universe, all human choices must be determined by a system knowable by man, and it is less understandable how this situation can produce the experience of "free will" than if the universe is non-deterministic.
The Qur'an, of course, assumes a non-deterministic view of the universe.
SOME CONSEQUENCES OF NON DETERMINISM
A non-deterministic view of the universe has the following logical consequences which are consistent with Qur'anic statements.
1) Reality is radically different from any human picture of it and, therefore, it is essentially a mystery. The Qur'an says:
2) Everything which does not involve a self-contradictory situation can happen. For, whenever we say that such and such a thing is impossible, we mean that such and such a thing does not fit in the picture of reality that we have accepted in our minds, and, in view of non determinism, no such picture is valid. The Qur'an expresses this by saying:
It follows that miracles are possible.
3) Revelation is possible, since revelation is a miracle in knowledge.
It needs to be stated here that the non-deterministic view of the universe does not mean that the universe does not follow any system, but only that it does not follow a system knowable by man. Also, there is a sense in which the universe is obviously deterministic and that is that it will be what it will be. We can express this by saying that while the universe is non-deterministic from the human perspective, it is deterministic from the perspective of God.
Something comparable holds for man's experience of free will. Man experiences freedom of will to the extent that he experiences the universe as non-deterministic. But from the point of view of God, man has no free will, since from God's perspective, the universe and therefore all human choices are deterministic. This makes such seemingly paradoxical Qur'anic statements as the one that follows perfectly understandable:
GOD AND THE "NATURAL PROCESS" OF SCIENCE
In the present-day scientific picture of the universe, two distinct elements can be identified:
a) objects and events;
b) something which atheistic science will describe as "Natural Process", a set of processes or principles according to which objects/events are transformed into one another (e.g. a seed into a tree, an egg into a chicken, a cloud into rain) or, somewhat more technically, according to which the universe moves from its state at one moment in time to its state at another moment.
Science aims to determine this second element, the transforming processes and principles operating in the universe. As we saw earlier, the Qur'an would regard this goal as unrealizable in totality in view of the fact that the Qur'an holds a non-deterministic view of the universe. Nevertheless, it would be interesting as well as instructive to compare the Natural Process of science and God of the Qur'an. There is a justification for this comparison. The Natural Process of science and God of the Qur'an are corresponding concepts in two different systems. If we ask an atheistic scientist who is ultimately responsible for bringing down the rain and then, with that rain, bringing all kinds of foods which nourish men, his answer would be: The Natural Process. For the same question, the Qur'anic answer would be: God. The correspondence between the Natural Process of atheistic science and God of the Qur'an is such that from a Qur'anic point of view, the Natural Process could be regarded as a false image of God.
Sometimes, even believers in God accept the Natural Process as a reality separate from God, though established and supervised by Him. But such a view cannot be supported on the basis of the Qur'an. In the Qur'an, God is given such direct responsibility for even the most ordinary and repetitive phenomena that there is left no scope for postulating any such reality as the Natural Process intermediary between God and the phenomena. We may try to understand the Natural Process in terms of the Qur'anic concept of "Sunnah (way) of God" (17:77, 33:62, etc.). But the Qur'an restricts the use of this term to God's way of dealing with wrongdoers or the righteous among men. Moreover, Sunnah of God cannot have any existence separate from God.
Thus, the Natural Process and God are corresponding concepts. And, because of this, there are some similarities between the two which tend to increase as science matures and develops. We mention here some of these similarities.
Science views the Natural Process in terms of a set of mathematical equations. The Natural Process therefore has some kind of existence in a timeless world of abstract relations or ideas. This existence is radically different from the existence/occurrence of objects/events which the Natural Process continuously transforms and which exist/occur in space and time. Also, the Natural Process is viewed in science as operating in an unchangeable way at all times and in all places, inside the tiniest of atoms as well as the largest of galaxies. In other words, its operation is eternal, unchangeable and omnipresent. In contrast, objects/events last for a limited period of time and exist/occur in a definite part of space.
At one time, science viewed the Natural Process as operating on already existing, eternal, matter which was thought to be made of atoms — eternally existing, indivisible units of matter. These atoms were believed to be perpetually moving and combining with one another according to deterministic laws and resulting in the formation of other objects, including human beings. It was thought by many that, at least in principle, even the mental events — thoughts, feelings, etc. — could be explained in terms of the movements and configurations of atoms produced by the Natural Process. In the nineteenth century, atoms were replaced by elementary particles (electrons, protons, etc.), but the basic picture remained the same.
However, in twentieth-century physics, it is shown that matter is not eternal. It can be changed into energy, which can, in turn, be changed into matter. There is no such thing as the indestructible, indivisible, unchangeable atoms of classical Greek philosophy or the indestructible, indivisible, unchangeable elemental particles of nineteenth-century physics. Nothing in time and space exists eternally in an unchangeable form. The Natural Process, therefore, must assume greater importance and reality than it was given previously. In the earlier picture, matter and the Natural Process were two basic and eternal realities. In the present picture, matter has been removed from this position; only the Natural Process remains a fixed and permanent reality. This means that even though the Natural Process is invisible, it is the most real of all the existents, for while everything else passes away by being transformed into something other than itself, the Natural Process remains forever.
Now, a number of similarities can be seen between what has been said above about the Natural Process, as it is sometimes conceived in modern scientific thought, and what the Qur'an says about God. Thus, like the Natural Process of science, God of the Qur'an exists beyond this world of space and time, yet He is present in every moment of time and every place in space. Though He is invisible, yet He is the most real of all things. Like the Natural Process of science, God is the only permanent reality. In the words of the Qur'an:
Even the heavens and the earth, which look so permanent, will one day pass away through transformation into something different:
Along with the similarities between the Natural Process of science and God of the Qur'an noted above, there are clearly enormous differences between the two. One of these differences, of course, arises from the fact that the Qur'an assumes a non-deterministic view of the universe whereas science is motivated by faith in a deterministic universe. Another is based on the fact that the Qur'an sees the universe as serving a purpose whereas science does not even concern itself with the question of whether the universe has any purpose or not.
A PURPOSEFUL UNIVERSE
The question, however, must be raised. Have totally blind forces brought about human and other life which may be forever destroyed by the same forces; or is there some ultimate purpose in life's yearnings and strivings, its pains and pleasures? Is the universe like a huge automated, eternally running factory which, on the one hand, keeps making all kinds of wonderful things and, on the other hand, keeps dismantling them; or is it more like an intelligently supervised factory which is in the process of constructing something and in which every destruction serves a constructive purpose? As in the case of the question about whether the universe is deterministic or not, it does not seem possible to give a conclusive answer to this present question, but some considerations make the view of a purposeful universe more plausible.
All studies of the universe show that events in the universe are linked together in a very consistent way. Indeed, all scientific and philosophical activity is based on the belief that everything that happens in the universe is linked together in a consistent whole. That is why, if we discover a fact that does not fit with a theory, then we feel obliged to revise that theory so as to integrate the newly discovered fact into it. In such a universe, the emergence of life and, in particular, human life, with its spiritual concerns and its willingness to sacrifice for higher goals, is more likely to say something about the universe as a meaningful reality than being a result of mere coincidences in an otherwise mindless universe. Furthermore, whatever we know about the universe at the present time suggests a general (though not linear) movement forward, manifested more clearly first by the evolution of more and more complex and skilful organisms, culminating in one direction by the emergence of man and, then, by the development of more and more organized human civilizations. We have no evidence to show that the universe ever moved backwards in the sense that there never was a reduction in the highest level of intelligent and purposeful activity in the universe. Hence, there is also no evidence of an endless forward-and-backward cyclical movement without any general move forward. The general forward movement in the universe suggests a purposefulness in the universe as a whole.
The Qur'an in any case categorically affirms that the universe has a purpose:
A CREATED UNIVERSE
One consequence of the belief that events in the universe have an ultimate meaning or purpose behind them is that the transforming "process" which moves the universe from one state to another should be spoken of in personal terms; instead of impersonal terms of science such as the Natural Process, it would be more appropriate to use a term like a "Transforming Intelligence".
But God of the Qur'an is not merely an intelligent agent of transformation. He is the "originator of the heavens and the earth" (2:117, 42:11). The Arabic terms for originator used in the Qur'an (bad_ and f_tir) imply that the heavens and the earth once did not exist and God created them out of nothing. This does not mean, however, that they were instantaneously brought into existence in their more or less present form. In the following amazing statement, the Qur'an makes it clear that the present form of the universe is the result of a profound transformation:
It is harder for the human mind to conceive of a created universe than of a non-deterministic universe or a purposeful universe. This is because the last two characteristics have greater support in our experience than the first. The idea of a non-deterministic universe is supported by our experience of limitations of our own mind and our repeated failures to fully comprehend reality. The idea of a purposeful universe is supported by our experience with our own life as a highly organized and purposeful activity. But the idea of a created universe does not find similar support in our experience. This is the point where miracles and revelations (also called "signs of God" in the Qur'an) come in. We noted earlier that the view of a non-deterministic universe implies the possibility of miracles and revelations. If we do not cling to conclusions reached through an erroneous use of reason, then the non-deterministic, purposeful reality itself guides man and reveals its creative character.
A QUR'ANIC PASSAGE ABOUT THE PROPHET ABRAHAM
It may be a fitting conclusion to this article to consider the following Qur'anic passage concerning the Prophet Abraham's journey to faith in God:
Verse 74 tells us that Abraham has already concluded that the worship of idols practiced by his father and his people was wrong. Figures made by men by their own hands, unable to benefit or harm anyone, could not be fit objects for worship by man. But what about the heavenly bodies which are neither made by men nor are capable of benefiting or harming anyone? Verses 75-79 tell us how Abraham rejected the worship of these as well, and found certainty of faith in the one true God.
Verses 75-79 have been traditionally understood as a recounting of either an argument between Abraham and his people or of his own thoughts that lead him to the one true God. The latter is clearly a sounder interpretation in view of God's words in verse 75: "And in this wise did We show Abraham the dominion of the heavens and the earth that he (i.e. Abraham) may have certainty of faith" and Abraham's own words in verse 77: "Unless my Lord guides me, I shall certainly be among the lost".
But even as a recounting of Abraham's own thoughts, the passage should not be understood in a literal way. A literal understanding of the passage will oblige us to attribute extreme naiveté to Abraham, since the main argument would then seem to be that the stars, the moon and the sun cannot be true gods since they set, but even in those days, people, especially those of Abraham's stature, must have known that the setting of the heavenly bodies does not mean that they cease to exist or to shine, an observation which takes away all seriousness from the argument. Moreover, the profound experience of realization of God just does not happen during the course of a single night by looking at the setting of three heavenly bodies, nor can such an observation of the heavenly bodies be described as showing to Abraham "the dominion of the heavens and the earth" (verse 75).
The recounting of Abraham's thoughts should be understood in a parabolic way. Abraham becomes a typical seeker of truth and his journey to faith a typical journey, which is represented as a parable. Understood as a parable, every detail in the passage begins to assume significance. The night that engulfed Abraham represents a stage of spiritual darkness in which a seeker is lost in doubt and confusion. All seekers of truth must pass through such a stage. Even the last and the greatest of the prophets, Muhammad, passed through it, as the following Qur'anic passages show:
In the case of Abraham, we can imagine how lost he must have felt, as in darkness, after he had rejected the worship of idols and cut himself off from the religion of his father and his people and had not yet found anything to fill the vacuum.
In general terms, the star, the moon and the sun and their setting mean that all phenomena in the universe are of temporary nature and a seeker reaches his main destination when he learns to look past these temporary phenomena towards the transforming and creative agent behind them. But we can elaborate this in view of the details of the parable.
After the night covers a seeker, illumination sooner or later does come to him, provided his love is true. However, before the seeker sees the real light, he sees some partial lights which he mistakes for the real one. The star, the moon and the sun represent such partial and deceptive lights on the way. The exact nature of these may be different for different persons, which is the reason why the parabolic language is used: to cover a variety of situations. The following is one meaningful interpretation.
The star represents the partial reality that is known through the senses. There is a tendency in man to view this reality as final, to say that there is nothing except what he can see, hear, smell, etc., and what he sees, hears, smells, etc., is exactly as he sees, hears, smells, etc. "The world of my senses is the reality that is responsible for bringing me about and sustaining me, in short, this reality is my Lord". The setting of the star means the inadequacy of the knowledge primarily acquired on the basis of the senses, the discovery that things are rarely as they appear to be. It also means that the part of reality which is known through the senses necessarily exists for a temporary period and must inevitably pass away. This does not satisfy a true seeker. He "loves not those that set". The ultimate reality he is searching cannot be temporary: it must be eternal.
Gradually, man's intellect develops and he learns to make better and better use of reasoning and analytical thinking. This is like the rising of the moon. With this brighter light, man's knowledge expands tremendously. He can correct many deceptive impressions created by the senses. For example, he can see a round earth behind the appearances of a flat earth. He can measure distances between, and sizes of, far-off heavenly bodies that to the senses appear so small and so near. On the basis of relatively few observations, he can erect far-reaching theories. It appears to him that human intellect is the very key to the understanding of reality. Some theory or philosophy becomes for him the final and absolute truth. He feels that he has found the equivalent of a god.
But the moon also sets. A true seeker sooner or later realizes that the human intellect can provide no secure foundation for knowledge. Every picture of reality built by the intellect must sooner or later pass away through the process of revision. At this stage, a seeker gets concerned. He had two sources of knowledge within him: his senses and his intellect. Both have failed him. He has nothing left within him to depend on. He turns to the very reality he is seeking and seeks for help: "Unless my Lord guides me, I shall surely be among the lost".
He then undergoes a spiritual experience. He sees the brightest light of all, which, like the sun, seems to illuminate everything. The seeker thinks that this must be it. But, alas, this is not it. The illumination does not last. The sun, too, sets.
This is followed by the final stage in which man realizes that the ultimate reality is a transcendental reality. But despite its transcendence, man is very vividly aware in this stage of the purposeful presence and creative power of this ultimate reality. He experiences it as a person and wholeheartedly devotes himself to Him, so much so that he can stand in His name before the entire nation. This is the stage of that certain faith to which God intended to lead Abraham by showing the dominion of the heavens and the earth.
It is noteworthy that in the Qur'anic passage, Abraham does not concern himself with the question of whether he has a Lord, but only with the question of who is his Lord. This is because there has to be a reality which is ultimately and completely responsible for bringing man into existence and sustaining him; even an atheist assumes such a reality which, for him, is something like the "Natural Process". Thus, the real question is not whether such a reality exists but rather what its nature is.
First published in Al-Ummah, Montreal, Canada. Copyright © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. The article may be reproduced for Da'wah purpose with proper references.