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.
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,
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 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
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
A non-deterministic view of the universe
has the following logical consequences which are consistent with
1) Reality is radically different from
any human picture of it and, therefore, it is essentially a mystery.
The Qur`an says:
"There is nothing like unto
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:
is capable of doing all things" (3:29).
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
"For him who wills to take a
way to his Lord. But you will not will unless wills God, the
Lord of the universe" (81:28-29).
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:
"Everything on it (i.e. the
earth) perishes but abides forever in the face of thy Lord full
of majesty and honor" (55:26-27).
Even the heavens and the earth, which
look so permanent, will one day pass away through transformation
into something different:
"One day the earth would be
changed into a different earth and so will be the heavens"
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
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:
"We have not created the
heavens and the earth and what is between them as an idle sport.
We have created them for a just end but most (people) do not
"(The unbelievers say), What
is there except our worldly life? Death will put an end to us.
We are born to life and then Time destroys us" (45:24).
"(The believers say), O our
Lord! You have not created all this in vain" (3:191).
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
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
"The heavens and the earth
were once joined together and We opened them up" (21:30).
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:
74 "Behold! Abraham said to
his father, _za, do you take idols for gods? I do see you and
your people in manifest error.
75 And in this wise did We
show Abraham the dominion of the heavens and the earth that he
might have certainty of faith.
76 When the night covered him,
he saw a star. He said, This is my Lord. But when it set, he
said, I love not those that set.
77 When he saw the moon
rising, he said, This is my Lord. But when the moon set, he
said, Unless my Lord guides me, I shall surely be among the
78 When he saw the sun rising,
he said, This is my Lord; this is the greatest. But when the sun
also set, he said, O my people! I dissociate myself completely
from your practice of ascribing divinity to any but God.
79 I do turn my face
wholeheartedly towards Him who created the heavens and the earth
and I am not among those who ascribe divinity to any but Him"
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
"And (God) found you (O
Muhammad) lost and He then showed you the way" (93:7).
"(Earlier, O Muhammad!) You
did not know what is the book and what is the faith" (42:52).
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
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
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.