Is it easy to fill the God shaped hole at the center of our souls?

By Aasem Bakhshi

Contrary to common Muslim perception, Islamic tradition does not hold a unanimous conception of God; furthermore, being able to believe in an omnipotent, perpetually creative and law giving Deity demands clarity of conception, which is intellectually laborious and demands extraordinary dedication.

The foremost act in religion is the acknowledgment of Him. The perfection of acknowledging Him is believing in Him; the perfection of believing in Him is acknowledging His oneness; the perfection of acknowledging His oneness is pledging loyalty to Him and the perfection of pledging loyalty to Him is denying attributes pertaining to Him, because of the qualities of His creation that could be attributed to humans. Everyone of them is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute. Thus whoever assigns attributes to Allah recognizes His like, and who recognizes His like regards Him as dual, and who regards Him as dual recognizes parts of Him, and who recognizes parts of Him has mistaken Him.

holeThe above statement by Ali ibn abi Talib, recorded in the very first sermon of Nahj al Balagha, is perhaps the earliest recorded pointer towards the problematic of conception of God in Islamic theology at personal as well as academic level. While characterizing the boundaries of this conception for an ordinary believer, this statement carries the historical burden of metaphysical and dialectic issues that are now an important part of Muslim tradition of Kalam. In a subtle way, it also depicts the textual obscurity that has become an inherent part of Muslim discourse regarding essence and attributes of the Divine.

Interestingly, Quran already acknowledged this abstrusity in the seventh verse of the third Chapter when it says that there are clear as well as allegorical verses in it and only those who have deviation in their hearts attempt to interpret the latter; an admonition that at least served well initially and earliest interpreters of Quran after the time of Prophet placed all the statements (may it be Quran or Hadith) regarding essence and attributes of Allah under the ambit of allegorical verses. An often quoted example is of Imam Malik, who when asked about God’s rise above the Throne replied:

God’s rising above the throne is well known but how it occurs is not understandable, the belief in it is obligatory, and asking questions about it is innovation.

Nevertheless, Quran is still a text and had to be accessed by an unbiased reader through usual discursive methods of textual criticism. Hence, with the influx of Greek philosophy and logic, formalization of interpretive disciplines and academic (as well as polemical) exchanges with Christian and Jewish scholars, speculation regarding ultimate nature of God slowly got formalized under the ambit of a separate theological discipline.

According to all well known historical accounts, originators of this speculative tradition – besides raising other theological and eschatological issues – first negated the eternal attributes of God almighty on the pretext that attributes belonging to the creation cannot be ascribed to God as this would lead to negation of God’s unity. In the past, lot of orthodox criticism has been directed against Mutazilites (for their alleged innovation); but many modern scholars – for instance Fazlur Rahman – have asserted that the primary motivation behind Mutazilite discourses was to guard Muslim faith against the onslaught of Christian and Jewish criticism of the time.

Mutazilite conception of God entailed specific stands regarding creativity, nature and will of God which were reacted strongly by Asharites who represented the mainstream orthodoxy of that time. But Asharite doctrine, though momentarily successful in countering naturalism of Mutazilites, eventually resulted in extreme determinism, thereby constructing a belief paradigm in which God, with his absolute will, seemed totally indifferent to individual human morality.

Besides historically less noted opinions of Sufis, orthodox Shi’a and Illuminationists, there were some highly audible solitary voices who tried to bridge gaps between medieval rationalistic trends and orthodox religion. One such individual was Spanish jurist and humanist Ibn Hazm who claimed that foremost sources of all human knowledge are sense perception, faculty of reason and correct understanding of language. Ibn Hazm aptly realized the contemporary trends of his time and differentiated between the methods of accessing revelation between the earliest generation of Muslims and later. The most interesting original observation by him was that the relations between causes and effects as experienced in this world cannot have a direct import in Divine realm. As noted by James Palvin, the synthesis which Ibn Hazm sought to achieve was not realized fully till the time of Ghazali who formalized the principles of Sunni Kalam to full extent.

Iqbal was the first one to comment upon major classical views of medieval times in the light of philosophical and scientific theories of early 20th century. In particular, Iqbal focused on four elements of Quranic conception of God – namely Creativeness, Knowledge, Omnipotence and Eternity – and rendered a reinterpretation within the framework of modern realm of time and space. Iqbal’s primary aim was to frame a set of right questions which can lead towards a coherent understanding of God and the nature of His attributes; an understanding not susceptible to perturbation by modern understanding of the universe. For instance, commenting upon the nature of Divine creativity, he wrote:

The real question which we are called upon to answer is this: Does the universe confront God as His ‘other’, with space intervening between Him and it? The answer is that, from the Divine point of view, there is no creation in the sense of a specific event having a ‘before’ and ‘after’. The universe cannot be regarded as an independent reality standing in opposition to Him.

Despite having profound implications for classical Asharite atomism and traditional discourses of predestination / determinism, Iqbal clearly showed proclivity towards mystic unity of self which he tried to deconstruct afresh. Albeit premature and speculative, he tried to present a road map for future development of Islamic theological discipline and his musings were really illuminating and thought provoking.

In recent times scholars like Karen Armstrong have erroneously observed – perhaps inadvertently – that Muslim conception of God, on the whole, has historically remained symbolic. An indirect import of Armstrong’s thesis – which is primarily focused on Christian and to some extent Jewish discourse – on Muslim theology is that “Unknowing” is an inherent part of Muslim conception of God. Quoting Paul Tillich, a 20th century Prussian military chaplain, she makes her concluding point:

The concept of a ‘Personal God’, interfering with natural events, or being ‘an independent cause of natural events’ makes God a natural object besides others, an object among others, a being among beings, may be the highest, but nevertheless a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God.

One can hurriedly infer similarities among Tillich’s statement, Ali’s sermon and Iqbal’s description of the problem; yet the actual import of Tillich’s argument necessitates realization of God as a distant abstract symbol whose essence or existence cannot be commented upon, a concept which is quite contrary to classical as well as modern Muslim discourse.

The single most important cornerstone is the value of Divine revelation as a common denominator running across various shades of Islamic theology throughout history. The understanding of Quran as a unique metaphysical phenomenon – being authentically originated from the Divine Self – automatically establishes basis to envision an always communicating, guiding God. Therefore, in its incessant endeavor to make sense of God, the intellect must proceed further from this single starting point.


Filed under Islam, Philosophy, Religion

9 responses to “Is it easy to fill the God shaped hole at the center of our souls?

  1. Alien_From_Outer_Space

    Is there any way to make this intelligible to an alien from outer space, viz., me?

  2. no-communal

    Well, you need to work harder if you want to fill the hole in your soul.

  3. Amaar

    “perhaps the earliest recorded pointer towards the problematic of conception of God in Islamic theology at personal as well as academic level”

    It is not problematic – rather it shows the eloquence and the deep and impressive understanding of God’s attributes by Ali bin abu Talib. Let us not forget that Ali was one of the closest companions of the man whose heart, in Islamic mysticism, was the throne of God.

    People of understanding always have a deeper perception into the divine. Lesser mortals only like modern day ulema only wander in darkness.

  4. Mustafa Shaban

    Great article, glad we are discussing such things, however the language should be adjusted to the understanding of the common man, not everybody is educated in Oxford. Nice article!

  5. Hira Mir

    There is another major concern of religion and responsibility that is towards the state. The Taliban surely have failed to understand this fact and led youth to a wrong path.

  6. Amna Zaman

    There is a need for us to understand the true teachings of the religion which teach tolerance and affection. We must come out and try to help our fellow brethren who are being trapped by the terrorist.

  7. Bin Ismail

    God has been best introduced to man by God Himself. Most lovingly, mercifully and graciously He introduces Himself to Humanity by reveling to us His principal four attributes, in the opening verses of the the opening chapter of the Quran. These four principal attributes, known also as “asmaa al-arba’a” or “the four names”, together serve as the four posts of the Throne on which His Presence manifests Itself. These Asmaa al- arba’a or four principal attributive names are as follows:

    1: Rabb
    2: Rahman
    3: Raheem
    4: Maalik-i yaum-id deen

    “Rabb” (Quran 1:2), pronounced [rubb] has three meanings, all of which are simultaneously manifest – the Creator, the Sustainer and the Perfecter. Hence, God creates, sustains and perfects His creation by causing it to pass through a a course of evolution. He speaks of Himself as “Rabb-ul aalameen”, commonly translated as ‘Lord of all the worlds’. A more elaborate translation, would however be, ‘Creator, Sustainer and Perfecter of all the worlds. The term ‘world’ has several connotations. It can refer to an astronomical unit, such as a body, a system, a galaxy and so on. It can refer to a community, such as the world of Muslims, the world of Hindus, the world of Jews, the world of Christians, the world of Buddhists, the world of Zoroastrians, the world of agnostics/atheists and so on. The word ‘aalam’ or world is also applicable to ‘a certain class of creation’. Thus He is the Rabb of humans, animals, living, non-living, extra-terrestrials and so on. As Perfecter, He not only tutors and burnishes His creation, but also causes them to pass through the threshold of death, to enable them to move along the higher pathways and dimensions of evolution and perfection. It is in this context that the concepts of ‘wrath’, ‘punishment’ and ‘hell’ need to be understood. It is actually His will to burnish us, that at times, from our viewpoint appears to us as chastisement.

    Rahman (Quran 1:3), pronounced [rahh-maan] means someone who will show mercy even when it is not deserved or has not been earned. All bounties of God, that we have been blessed with, without any input from our side, are a manifestation of this attribute.

    Raheem (Quran 1:3), pronounced [ra-heem] means someone who shows mercy disproportionately greater than the merit that arouses that expression of mercy. Man takes a single step towards God and God reciprocates by taking ten steps towards man. This is Raheem.

    Maalik-i yaum-id deen (Quran 1:4) means Master of the Day of Judgement. He alone will judge man because He alone has absolute knowledge of man’s faculties, shortcomings and circumstances. Hence, He alone has the right to judge.

    These four attributes are like the four pillars of the Throne. Since, it was the heart of Muhammad, that had the deepest insight into the unfathomable reality of these attributes. Therefore it was his heart that became the “Throne” itself, upon which God seated Himself.

  8. excerptprovider

    Prof. B writes:

    “Consider, for instance, a baptised, church-going Catholic. He attends the mass regularly, participates in all/most activities organised by his parish priest, and such like. Despite these, his fellow-Christians suspect that he is not ‘truly’ religious and merely acts as though he is one. His actions appear mechanical, his assent to ‘doctrines’ formal, and he does not appear to be guided by the state of mind that the believers call ‘faith’. As a result, this individual’s fellow-Congregationalists suspect that he does not ‘really believe’.

    The tension between the acts of this Christian and his state of mind, I would like to suggest, arises not because there is some mysterious, additional something called ‘faith’, which only the ‘truly’ religious have and their less devout brethren miss, but because of the nature of religion itself.

    Religion does not merely explain the origin of the Cosmos or of human life by postulating God as the cause. It also makes the world intelligible by making the Will of God into the cause of the universe in such a way that the world expresses His purposes.

    One cannot possibly accept that everything – including one’s own life – has a purpose, which is God’s purpose, and still be without faith in Him. Faith, as we have seen earlier on, involves accepting precisely His purposes. To accept such an account as true is to have faith in Him.

    In the case at hand, this is how I would make sense of the individual Christian: indeed, he does not ‘truly believe’. Maximally, he perhaps believes that God created the universe (i.e. sees God as the cause) and, in believing this, grasps religion as an explanatory account. However, he does not ‘see’ that it is also an intelligibility account. Believing that God exists and that He created the universe does not make some person religious or these doctrines into religious doctrines, any more than their denial makes someone into a nonreligious person. It is only when an indissoluble link is postulated between the cause of the world and the Will of the creator God that an explanatory intelligible account comes into being. I have argued that this makes some accounts religious.

    Why does this Christian not ‘see’ the intelligibility of the religious account? Better put, what is involved in seeing it also as an intelligibility account? One has to appreciate a relation between reasons and actions. Our Christian is willing to accept the statement that God is the cause of the universe is true, but he is unable to see that this cause is God’s purpose. That is to say, he does not see that God is a person. To him, God has become a vague entity, an abstract conception, some kind of an Urkraft. His God, if you like, is not Allah, the Holy Trinity, or Jehovah. It is the de-Christianised God, the truly ‘universal’ God, a God who progressively loses Gestalt as He is generalised to include and incorporate all the ‘manifestations of the divine’ across all cultures and at all times. …. This human being is a truly tolerant Christian, who is willing to concede that all religions are equally true.The price he pays for this admission is also in proportion: he ceases being a Christian. He does not anymore believe in God as a personal entity, as someone whose purposes are expressed in the Cosmos. In short, he does not ‘believe’. To him, God has become a variable capable of different interpretations, all of which are equally true.

  9. O J DEEN

    God guides mankind towards the cure of physical ailments why would He not do so in the sphere of spiritual ailment? In every age He sent Prophets for this reason and when human life became an amalgamation of spiritual ailments He sent the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) and revealed His perfect teaching which made beastly people into godly people. After an age, when even the Muslims forgot to put this teaching in practice, in accordance with His promise, God sent the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) who discovered pearls of knowledge in the existing teaching of the Holy Qur’an and cured spiritual ailments. He asserted that the cure of the ailments of the ummah was in this teaching. In medical field doctors make discoveries after long and arduous research, however God gave the cure for spiritual ailments 1400 years ago in the perfect Shariah and pious people in every age availed of it. In the latter-days, the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) informed us of the cures for the new ailments. He removed all doubts about any form of abrogation in this teaching and then alone the real cure and antidote could be appreciated.

    Those who say that there was no need for a Messiah to come are increasing in their spiritual ailments but they are not prepared to acknowledge the Imam of the age who is sent by God and they do not accept him. All this enmity, suicide bombings, terrorism the teaching of Islam? Is oppression in the name of God and religion the teaching of Islam? Most certainly it is not. These people have declined to understand the teaching of Islam due to their unawareness or obstinacy and are committing all these acts to please their ‘temporary lords’ whereas the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) calls people to the One and Only Lord by virtue of that teaching which was revealed to the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him).