Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Quran Project - God

According to Fazlur Rahman, the Quran’s main task is to open our eyes and hearts to God. If that is achieved, everything else is achieved, because everything in Islam (which literally means “surrender” to God) follows from the belief in God. However, the Quran doesn’t try to philosophically prove God’s existence. It offers reminders of God in signs that point to Him. These signs, though, can only be seen by those who have opened up their minds and hearts and are willing to see them.

In going through the first chapter of Rahman’s book, I was able to come across three major points that summarized the discussion of God: the necessity of God, the difference of God, and the mercy of God.

[Note: I’ll be using the male pronoun “He” to refer to God, as this is what has been traditionally used to imply gender neutrality. But this in no way associates God with the male gender. God is above gender.]

The Necessity of God

“The only straight path leads to Him – all other paths are deviant.” (16:9)

Why should we have the concept of God? This is the question Rahman poses at the beginning of his chapter. Why not just nature and the universe? Why complicate things with talk about a God?

Rahman answers this with the following.

According to the Quran, all of nature (meaning the universe) is one system. It works according to laws, which make it seem to exist on its own without outside support. But where do these laws come from? How were they put into place? In fact, where does nature itself come from? Although nature exists, it doesn’t explain its own existence. Citing the Quran, Rahman says that thinking about how nature originally came into being forces you to “find” (rather than prove) God.

The role of God in the Quran, according to Fazlur Rahman, is “strictly functional” – God exists because He must exist as the creator and sustainer of the world.

The Difference of God*

“Everything thereon is vanishing, there remaining only the Face of Your Lord.” (55: 26-27)

When we “find” God and recognize He exists, there are certain consequences that immediately arise from that conclusion. The most immediate and important of these show the difference of God.

God, by definition, can’t be an existent among other existents – or, as Rahman says, “an item among items.” According to metaphysics (the study of being and knowing, or the study of what is beyond physics) the Original and the Creator can’t share “being” with the borrowed and the created. This means that God is not a being that exists – that would make Him like us, which is shirk (“assigning partners with God”), the greatest sin to commit in Islam. Existance, as we understand it, is a human quality.

I found this last point jarring when I understood it properly. I always understood that God is not a person, or an animal, or a tree, or anything that I saw around me in the world. But as humans, we can’t understand God without using some human qualities to describe Him. So God, in my mind, was always some thing out there, to communicate with and experience. Some thing that existed out there, beyond the borders of the world. But God is not a thing, and God does not exist (at least in our understanding of existence). Being a thing and existing are qualities of this created world. God is above that.

So if God is not a thing, and does not exist, then what is God? Rahman says that God can best be described as a “dimension that makes other dimensions possible.” He gives meaning and life to everything. He is the all-enveloping, the infinite. He is “with” everything. According to Rahman, God is “the very meaning of reality.”

The Mercy of God

“He has imposed the law of Mercy upon Himself.” (6:12)
“My mercy comprehends all.” (7:156)

All of the above focuses on God’s majesty, greatness, power, and lordship over the world. But God, according to the Quran, is no distant bundle of power. God is much more intimate, “closer to [man] than his jugular vein.” How? Through His mercy.

God’s lordship and power over the world is expressed through His mercy. In fact, Rahman says that the Quranic worldview implies that God’s power, creation and mercy are the same one thing.

God’s mercy is exercised through creation, the sustenance of creation (especially man), and recreation in new forms. Creation is the most basic expression of God’s mercy, because it gave us existence, the greatest gift. (What we make of that existence later is up to us.) In addition to creating, God sustains His creation – in the case of man this sustenance is physical (providing the Earth as a source of food, shelter, etc.) and metaphysical (guidance and revelation). As for recreation in new forms, one example is how God returns to creatures who had purposely separated themselves from Him but now want to be reconciled with the source of their being.

Personally, I think that the idea of expressing power and ownership through mercy is something worth noting. We often think that when we have something, it’s our right to have it because it’s ours – and that’s that. But to really own something, according to the Quran, you have to care for it and nurture it – be it a house, a relationship with a friend, or your own body. True power and ownership is deeply connected to mercy and care. (Sounds a bit like feminist ethics to me!) With all of the wars and violence we see today, I think we could use a lot more of this understanding of power.

So that’s all for the first post. I hope you enjoyed it. Till next time!

----------

*Some readers have claimed that this section of the post is problematic and may need to be to be reworked. Please read the comments for clarification on the issue.

25 comments:

shuhada said...

Hi Nour!

My two cents on the difference of God...

There are many references on the physical qualities of God ie face, hands, as well as the associated objects in use ie throne, kursi in the Qur'an.

If I remember correctly, the explanation is that we can take literally that God has these attributes, but His hands and face has no resemblance over what we understand as hands or face etc.

It's a strong metaphor to enable people to relate to Qur'anic text, but I've heard instances where ppl just read it the wrong way. And it's a struggle to try and explain things without going all academic.

Great write-up though. I really miss these kind of study sessions from uni days, and it's great that you're doing this now. Old ppl like me have a reason to dig up old books :)

Katharine C said...

Hi,

interesting post! I don't fully understand the authors point thought. If God does not exist, who or what exactly is doing the being merciful and nurturing? Is God supposed to exist on a different level or really not to exist at all, anywhere, in any way? Does existing in our minds count? Or does He not exist seperately from His creation?

Is this an orthodox Islamic viewpoint?

Anonymous said...

Hey Noor! :D :D

I read this post yesterday but I thought I’d give myself some time to think about it a bit before commenting. I was also hoping I’d be able to come up with another theme to add to the three Fazlur thought up of. The one that I thought up of is directly related to the Difference of God (and I’m pretty sure Fazular thought of it as a part of it) but it is essentially the most fundamental idea in the Quran and that is the Oneness of God. It might seem obvious but when we dwell over how many ayas in the Quran emphasize this point, it becomes clear that it is one of the most important themes in the Quran. Not only, then, is God Different, but He is One. Repeatedly the Quran tells us that God was not begotten and He did not beget any children.

About the Difference of God….
As Fazlur says, God is beyond compare. There is nothing or no one like Him. This explains, in fact, why in every prayer Muslims say “Allaho Akbar” or “God is Greater” almost 16 times, essentially after completing every motion.

I got the impression that out of Fazlur’s respect for God he thought that it would be wrong to describe God as sharing any quality or characteristic that humans have and that’s why he said God does “not exist”. Of course, since he said the whole point of the Quran is to open our hearts and eyes to God, Fazlur recognizes that God does exist. To me, Fazlur was essentially trying to differentiate between our existence and God’s Existence. Obviously, our existence is a gift from God. If God had not decreed it, then, we would not have been born. Moreover, there was a point at which we did not exist (before our lifespan) and after we die, when we will be in our graves, we will exist but be utterly powerless to do anything. God, however, has always existed and will always exist. His existence does not depend on any power and is not limited to any time. His Existence then is completely different from ours.

You know what this reminds me? “Asmaa Allahoo Al Husna” or “The Beautiful Names of God”….a show by Sheikh Mohammed Nabulsi, who basically tries to tackles God’s Names to show the Difference of God. It’s an amazing show! One example Nabulsi gives relates to the fact that God is Just. Nabulsi says that as humans we call a person who judges 90 out of 100 cases correctly a fair judge. However, when we say God is Just, we do not mean that He is just 90 or even 99.9% of the time as we do for humans. We mean that God is Just 100% of the time. God is able to judge fairly among the billions of creatures He created, without ever making a mistake.

This is actually why some scholars proposed the idea of creating new words to use to describe human behavior which are currently used to describe God- essentially, they didn’t want to use the same words that God uses to describe Himself because they felt that could potentially make people forget the difference between God and us. In other words, since God describes himself as “Kareem” (or the Generous), for instance, these scholars did not think it was appropriate for us to use the same word (“kareem”) when we wanted to describe a human as being generous. Instead, they advocated creating new words. Most people, however, felt this was too big of a burden…(to essentially separate language so that only some words could be used to refer to God and others used for humans) so the idea never took off and we still use the same words.

Anonymous said...

About Fazulur saying Allah is with everything. Allah is with us in His Hearing, His Seeing, His Protection, His Omnipotent Power, and His Divine Will. However, Allah, Himself, is not a part of His creation and nothing of His creation can encompass Him. Where is Allah? To Ahl Al Sunna Wa’l Jumaa (or those who follow the Sunnah), God is in the sky.

Well, that’s my two cents. Great job, Noor. Can’t wait for your next post :D I especially loved the first paragraph! :D

P.S. I write Fazular instead of Rahman because I heard someone say Rahman is used only for Allah. Basically this Arabic / Quran scholar said that just like you wouldn’t call someone “Hayy” because that’s a characteristic that belongs only to Allah, you can’t call someone Rahman. (it’s not like kareem or aziz, for example) I dunno if he’s right or not but I thought it would be better to be safe than sorry. :P

Mariam and Amina
Sorry- I had to do it in two posts.

Anonymous said...

The last note about mercy is so.. Elegant
It is unfortunate that it did not receive the attention it deserves especially with its numerous evidences in the Prophet's Sirah (who even used to name his belongings).

Nevertheless, like everyone else I will be commenting on the Difference of God because IT IS PROBLEMATIC.

What makes Islam unique in this regard is its amazing balance & simplicity when it comes to describing God. As human beings we are equipped to deal with abstractions on a high level. However, there is still some effort in doing that and we can exercise it just to an extent before losing touch with reality. In order to relate to something we need to symbolize it, to project some attributes on it so we can reach a better understanding. Islam acknowledges this fact in most of its rituals and teachings (take the Ka'ba for example) and it strikes the ultimate balance when it comes to God.

Unlike ALL other current religions, Islam puts strong emphasis on separating God from his creatures especially with the human tendency to personify him (as in most religions) or to equate him with the universe (as in Eastern Religions). Allah is not contained in any of his creatures and even if he shares some physical attributes with them (which is a big debate in Islamic theology), this sharing is limited only to names but the characteristics are distinct. The problem with a statement like "dimension that makes other dimensions possible" (though scientifically alluring) is that it abstracts God to a mere concept and the argument that was initially used to separate God from his creatures can, by a certain path of logic, lead to monism and saying that Allah is in everything (Hallaj is a good example in Islamic History).

When describing God, I lean towards simplicity. Similar to what you mentioned in the post, Quran does not delve into a laborious theological argument when discussing the subject. As a practical religion that is supposed to transform the world, it recognizes the limitation of the human mind in perceiving the complete nature of God and instead it gives brief guidelines here and there and fills the gaps by describing the characteristics (Sifat) and actions of his; something that everybody can understand and relate to. I cannot –personally- relate to a dimension; talk to it, love it, and ask it for guidance and forgiveness. For me Allah is beautiful, knowing, merciful, just, and generous. And when we say he is in the sky we don't mean it literally. It is just an Arabic expression to say that he is separate form his creatures. In simple words & as scholars say: Whatever comes to your mind (when thinking about the actual nature of God), Allah is.. NOT.
مهما خطر ببالك..فالله ليس كذلك
Or even better: "There is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that hears and sees (all things)". Quran 42:11
"ليس كمثله شيء وهو السميع العليم"

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Correction:
"ليس كمثله شيء وهو السميع البصير"

Nour Merza said...

Hello all!

Thanks so much for your comments. I especially appreciated the bits on the difference of God. I felt a little worried writing that section, because I was afraid it could be taken the wrong way. Because just like Katharine said, "If God does not exist, who or what exactly is doing the being merciful and nurturing?"

One of the things I find fascinating while discussing God is how different God is from us, but how we have to work with the limitations of our minds and languages to understand Him. Nothing we say can really explain Him fully, but like many of you said God can be understood enough for us to work according to His Will.

About that existance issue, of course Muslims hold that God exists - because if He didn't, where would the Quran (or indeed all revelation) come from? But what I think I was trying to say is that even the way God exists is different from our understanding of existance. Perhaps saying "God doesn't exist" isn't a good idea - even if I do try and explain that what I mean by the phrase is God's existance is very different from our own.

I think I'll try and rework that section, keeping in mind what you all said. I really appreciate the feedback you all gave. I don't know as much as I should about Islam, and I'm far from being a scholar. These are just notes I'm sharing with you, and thanks for your patience with any problematic aspects they may have.

Salaams.

Manar said...

hey nour !

thanx for sharing, I like this project a lot..

anyhow, I agree with Shuhada about what s/he said about difference of God..

does God exist physically ? well, Quran told us: yes
when the prophet ascended to Him in Alisra' wal Mi'raj night

"فكان قاب قوسين أو أدنى"

and I remember a Hadeeth when the prophit ask a little odalisque girl where is God and she pointed into the sky. then he said : release her, she is a believer
"or faithful".

don't know maybe other comments said the same, but i didn't read them..

Assia said...

Hello all,
All this talk about how different Allah is and him being so different made me think of one thing. It's not about literal description but general description that enables us to realte. When we tlak of God's hand its not the hands is what we symbolize with hand.. for example the warmth you get from holding someone's hand or the emotions that are felt when you put your hands together in plee. Also there was something I heard Imam Alnwar Al Awalaki say.. that mercy (the quality of being raheem) was divided into 100 parts, only 1 part was distributed around the world throughout generations and generations and 99 parts was left with Allah for the day of judgment. So if you think about this one point you can realize that however we try to think of Allah we will never be able to even come close to understanding a 1/99th if it. As kind and merciful some one can be that might .000001 of mercy that ahs been created. Just something to think about.

- Assia Merazi

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