The Concept of God and Its Relevance to Human Beings (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

(The Concept of God – Part 1)

In Part 1 of this article, we will examine how different people hold different subjective concepts of God, which, in turn, lead to conflict and contradiction not only in our lives as individuals but as peoples and nations as well.  In Part 2, we will strive to show how the objective concept of “One” God can remove the conflict from our minds and hearts, can transform our characters to become harmonious with the most beautiful colors (2:138) represented by the most beautiful attributes of Allah (7:180).  These attributes, based on the Quranic concept of God, serve as a complete and perfect model for attaining peace and harmony within our selves and with our outside world.

In examining the prevailing concepts of God with a series of questions, the intent is enquiry rather than criticism.  God commands us to examine and analyze, even the Quran, with knowledge (12:108, 34:46, 16:44).  God also commands us to respect other faiths (6:108), other prophets (3:84, 4:164, 16:36), and other places of worship (22:40).

Questions about the nature of God, the creation of the Universe, the creation of mankind, the purpose of creation and the relationship of humans to God and the universe have fired human curiosity and imagination from times immemorial.

Nature of God:

·         Is God immanent? Or is He transcendent? Or is He both? How can God’s presence be felt?

·        Did God create human beings in His image? What is meant by the image of God? Does God have an image or is it just in our imaginations?

·        Does God sit on a throne above the heavens? Abu Dawud and Thirmidhi in Hadith No. 5480 Mishkat give physical details of the throne of Allah. According to them, Allah’s throne rests on the back of mountain goats that are standing in an ocean above the seventh heaven!

Creation of the Universe:

·        How did God create the Universe? Did He get tired and need rest? The Bible states that after creating the Universe in six days, God rested on the seventh (GENESIS 2:2). Tafseer Ibn Katheerin interpreting Sura Fussilat says, in a story similar to the Biblical story of creation, that God created the earth on a Sunday and Monday and the stars, sun, moon and angels on Friday.  One is left to wonder how the days of the week occurred before the creation of the planets and the stars?

·        Is the Universe real or imaginary? According to Plato, the Universe is imaginary in that it exists only in the imagination. In Hinduism, the Universe is considered to be Brahma’s dream while he is asleep. Brahma is the Hindu God of creation—Hindus have different gods for different things, for example, the goddess of money is called Lakshmi.

·        Is the Universe a shadow of God? This concept has led to a branch of Muslim mysticism called Wa‘hadt-ul-Shahood.

·        Are God and the Universe one and the same?  Is God matter and is matter God?  Is God human?   The concept of God and the Universe being the same is called Pantheism in western philosophy, Wa‘hadt-ul-Wajood in Sufism (Muslim mysticism), and Vedanta in Hindu Mysticism.

Relationship of Humans to God and the Universe:

·        Can human beings comprehend God? Is the human mind even equipped to comprehend God?  The Quran states that God cannot be comprehended (6:103) but Sufi mystics claim they can comprehend God. They claim they can even establish dialogue with God.

·        Is there a purpose behind the creation of the Universe and the creation of human beings? How does God exercise control over His creation? How are human beings related to the Universe and to God?

The human mind, although limited in its potential, is nevertheless, curious about the unknown. It is no wonder, then, that many of the greatest minds in the fields of religion, classical literature, poetry, philosophy, mathematics, and modern science having been preoccupied with the above questions, have produced mountains of literature. However, without a proper concept of God, the human mind will not be able to understand the mystery of God’s true relationship with human beings.

Before we can understand God’s relationship to his creation, it is important to differentiate between the concept of God and our concept of God.

Idea of God

Anthropologists tell us that the idea of God first arose in the human mind when primitive humans felt threatened by the violent forces of nature. They say that an idea of God  (or some higher power) has always existed and was often expressed through prayers and other rituals. A more formal expression of the idea of God occurs in religion. Congregational prayers performed weekly, daily, or, in some cases, multiple times a day, are all done for God.  In addition, within religions, people tend to stay with the same concept of God bequeathed by their forebears; people are resistant to re-evaluation of inherited concepts of God. Further, a closer examination of the lives of people reveals that the God they pray to is very different than the God they believe rules their lives.   Why is this so?  This is because people hold a personal and subjective relationship with God.

Subjective Concept of God 

Most of us think of God (or a higher authority) only in moments of crisis. When the misfortune ends, we tend to forget God (10:12, 16:53-54, 31:32, 39:8). This cycle continues until old age when, anticipating death, we turn to God for spiritual support.

However, such a concept is bound to create conflict among people having different concepts of God. A Christian’s concept of God as Father is different from a Muslim’s concept of God as Allah. George Bush’s concept of God when he claimed he was “…doing the Lord’s work” was quite different from Saddam Hussein’s concept of God, who also claimed war (jihad) in the way of Allah. Billy Graham’s night vigil in the White House before the Gulf war sought help from the Lord to keep the oil flow to America. The Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades are other examples of war that was waged in the name of God. Hitler’s concept of God was quite different than Churchill’s, both of whom also waged war in the name of God.

With so many different subjective concepts of God, it becomes impossible to achieve oneness of God. Oneness of God requires oneness in the concept of God. Otherwise, humanity will remain forever divided over God, and human conflicts and suffering will continue.  Among Muslims, the prevalence of the subjective concept of God is best illustrated through the presentation of real life scenarios than through abstract concepts.

Real Life Scenarios which Impact our Concept of God

·        A Muslim family is struggling to survive in the absence of a welfare system (as is the case in most Muslim countries). Many nights the children sleep hungry. The father cannot find a job. In desperation, he begs for food in the name of God. What is his concept of God?

·        A Muslim born in a rich family leads a life of luxury and comfort without much effort. He thanks God for everything he has. His dogs and cats are pampered with gourmet food while human babies in his neighborhood die of malnutrition and hunger. He is satisfied in his belief that everything comes from God. What is his concept of God?

·        A Muslim woman in a Muslim country is happily married and has a comfortable life. Her husband dies unexpectedly in an accident. Thereafter, she faces untold misery and hardships. What is her concept of God?

·        Muslims in many Muslim countries can divorce their wives by what is called, in Shari‘ah, triple talaaq. This means the husband can simply utter the word “talaaq” three times to make the divorce final and complete. What concept of God do these Muslim husbands and the enforcers of this Shari‘ah have?

·        In clear violation of the Quran and Sunnah, many Muslim girls are, nevertheless, killed in the name of family honor, by their fathers or brothers. Instead of being ashamed, they feel honored by these killings! Yet these fathers and brothers are very particular about their daily prayers. Which God are they praying to?  Certainly not the God of the Quran. Remember! Our Prophet (PBUH) saved girls from being killed by the pagan Meccans in the name of family honor. (Nowadays there are, on the average, more than one honor killings per day in Pakistan [Pakistan Link, April 24, 2000])

·        Many Muslims feel superior on the basis of being born in a particular clan, tribe or caste (e.g. Khans/Pathans, Syeds/Hashemis, Chowdharies/Siddiquis in the Indian subcontinent). What concept of God do these Muslims espouse?  Which Sunnah do they profess? Certainly not the Prophet’s Sunnah, for he demolished these distinctions of superiority based on birth.

·        Muslims in many Muslim countries have also created differences based on profession. For example, a doctor is held in higher regard than a cobbler.    (Remember! Our Prophet repaired his own shoes.) What is the concept of God here?

·        In Muslim countries, Muslims with disabilities are treated poorly and with disrespect. They face humiliation and deprivation on a daily basis. As a result, most of them turn to begging. What is their concept of God? What about those Muslims who treat them badly but pray to God. What is their concept of God?

·        In many Muslim countries, the landowners treat their workers worse than animals. Obviously, a landowner and his workers have different concepts of God even if they pray together. What about a king’s concept of God? Will his subjects have a different concept of God than him? The same applies to religious, political, and economic leaders and their followers.

·        While going around the house of Allah during ‘Hajj, most pilgrims strive to kiss the black stone called ‘Hajr-e-Aswad. Many pilgrims, in their zeal to kiss the black stone, trample on other pilgrims. What concept of God do such pilgrims have?

·        Some people go through a process of spiritual transformation after a serious disease strikes them.  What is their concept of God?

From the above examples, it is obvious that Muslims in different life situations view God differently.  In addition, because of this subjective and personal concept of God, both Muslims and non-Muslims, view God as someone to be feared and someone who can be influenced to change His decisions in their individual, familial, or national favor through prayers, rituals, and sacrifices.

Influencing God through Prayer/Worship

Belief in God and prayer are the backbone of most religions. As we have seen, in the life of an individual, a subjective concept of God keeps changing with time and circumstance. People with such a concept of God think they can influence God by their prayers, rituals, and sacrifices.

For example, suppose two Muslims are in court. Both of them pray to God to win. Can God be influenced through prayer? Obviously, the court can only decide in favor of one plaintiff. So, how will each person’s prayer affect the court’s decision? If it depends on the quantity of prayer, then the person who prays more will be victorious. But then the concept of justice becomes meaningless. On the other hand, if the decision depends on justice, then why pray to God to win the case? Justice is going to be served regardless of prayer. In this case, the concept of prayer to influence the decision becomes meaningless.

This same example can be extended to peoples and nations.   Whose prayers should God listen to: Muslims or Jews, in their claim to Jerusalem? If God decides matters based solely on prayers, then Muslims, one billion strong, should win overwhelmingly. Each year during the ‘Hajj, the holiest of times and places, Muslims, by the millions, pray to God for Israel’s destruction.  But the result so far has been extremely disappointing. While a few million Jews have been proactive, have gained strength and dictated their will, Muslims have only reacted, have been sidelined and forced into humiliating compromises.

Muslims claim that God has cursed the Jews and that He will ultimately punish them.  But such statements alone cannot ease the present or future misery of Muslims. Instead of punishing the Jews, it seems God is punishing us—through them. When the Jews taunt the Muslims that God is not listening to their prayers, what answer do they have? Here, the dilemma posed by a subjective concept of God becomes very obvious. [For the Quranic concept of the meaning and essence of prayer, see MONITOR, September 1998 pages 6-10, and December 1999, pages 7-12.]

Fear and Helplessness in the Face of Predestination

Another concept prevalent among Muslims is that God has preordained everything.  This concept is taken from the Zoroastrian Persians who accepted Islam en masse after the conquest of Persia during Khalifa ‘Umar’s reign. This idea of predestination has paralyzed Muslims ever since. (For a detailed discussion on predestination, see a two-part article in MONITOR, March/April 1997, pages 6-9, and June/July 1997, pages 6-9.)

This idea implies we cannot change our future no matter how hard we try. So why should we pray? Why offer sacrifices? Why change something that God has already fixed?  Once again, the idea of predestination based on the concept of a God who preordains every circumstance, poses an obvious dilemma.

Appeal to God’s Miraculous Powers 

Miracles are occurrences and events that are against the laws of nature, and therefore, beyond human conception. In strained circumstances, people “hope” for miracles from God, the expectation arising from the belief that God can do anything and everything.  However, when people demanded miracles from the Prophet (PBUH) he pointed only to the Quran. He emphasized that faith (iman) should be based on knowledge and reason and not on miracles (8:22, 7:179, 25:44, 12:108, 17:36, 10:100, 39:9, 4:82, 47:24, 38:29, 25:73). From this it becomes clear that the concept of a God who works miracles to save us is very different from one who asks us to use reason to come to an understanding of why events occur in our lives.

Whether we believe in miracles or predestination, or we personally try to influence God’s decision through prayers, there are bound to be conflicts or paradoxes because these concepts of God are products of the human mind. However, these conflicts do not occur in the concept of God presented by the Quran.

Quran – the Source for the Objective Concept of God

The Quran presents a concept of God that is not a product of human imagination or thought. Since the human mind can only conceive of God subjectively because it cannot see Him or describe Him (6:103, 42:11) it is necessary to look to an objective source to provide knowledge about the true concept of God.  Obviously that source can only be God Himself.  However, God does not talk to everyone directly. He chooses, instead, certain individuals (Prophets) to whom he gives His revelation (14:11, 16:2, 22:75, 40:15).  Thus revelation is an objective knowledge given by God to His Prophets. And since revelation from God ended with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), no one can now receive any such knowledge be it called inspiration, kashf, or ilham. 

Even though the prophets received this revelation, the Quran tells us clearly that we should not blindly accept the revelation given to the Prophet (4:82, 25:73, 38:29). The Quran challenges those who do not accept it as the word of God to provide proof for their argument (2:111). Otherwise, they should accept the Quran as a truthful source, which guides humanity to the objective goals for its physical and spiritual success.

The Arabic Quran is the only extant Book of God, which is unaltered in word since it was revealed more than 1400 years ago. This is the consensus of scholars, Muslims and non-Muslims, who have investigated the authenticity of the Quran. Proponents of other religions admit that the original books given by their Prophets are not extant in their original forms. (See Maurice Bucaille’s book, entitled, “The Bible, the Quran and Science,” for a detailed discussion of this topic.)

Furthermore, Al-Qur’an is the only revealed Book Allah has taken the responsibility to protect (15:9). It is unchangeable (6:34, 18:27, 10:64). It is the only book that cannot be challenged (10:38, 11:13, 52:34). It is complete (6:115). Nothing essential has been left out of the Qur’an (6:38, 6:59, 10:61, 34:3). There is no doubt in it (2:2, 10:37, 32:2). And those who do not judge their life affairs by the Quran or what Allah has revealed are Kafirs or Unbelievers (5:44).  Regarding the absolute Truth of the Quran, Allah says:

And say: “The Truth (Quran) is from your Lord.” Then whosoever wills, let him believe, and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve. (18:29) [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

Implicit in this verse is the idea of choice.  Even though God tells us unequivocally that the Quran is the Truth, no one, not even the prophet, is to force acceptance of it. The same applies to interpretations of the Quran, no matter which famous scholar said so in a tafseer.

Other verses in the Qur’an proclaiming it to be the only absolute Truth from Allah are:  2:147, 2:252, 3:3, 3:60, 6:5, 6:66, 6:115, 8:32, 10:94, 10:108, 11:120, 13:2, 13:19, 17:105, 27:79, 28:3, 28:53, 32:3, 34:6, 34:43, 34:49, 35:31, 39:2, 39:41, 43:30, 45:6, 47:2, 57:16, 60:1.

Thus there exists now only one source, the Quran, from which to derive the true concept of God.  It may be emphasized here that an interpretation or tafseer of the Quran is not The Quran. The Quran cannot be held hostage to a particular interpretation or hadith. While the Quran is beyond space and time, the same cannot be said of an interpretation and tafseer. A two-part article about the Prophet’s Sunnah provides more details about this issue (MONITOR, September/October 1999, pages 7-12, December 1999, pages 9-14).

Say you (O Prophet): “This is my way; I invite unto Allah (i.e. to the Oneness of Allah—Islamic Monotheism) with sure knowledge, I and whosoever follows me (also must invite others to Allah i.e. to the Oneness of Allah—Islamic Monotheism) with sure knowledge.” (12:108) [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

 

This verse enjoins us to find the concept of God in the light of the sure knowledge contained only in the Quran. 

The Quranic Concept of God 

According to the Quran, God has an objective existence. God exists whether or not anyone believes in Him. God was present when human beings did not yet exist and He will be there when they will no longer exist on earth.

Moreover, according to the Quran, God has certain permanent and absolute attributes, which have their own objective existence whether we believe in them or not. These permanent and absolute attributes are not changed by time or by anyone’s wishes. 

On the other hand, while belief in God is almost universal, the concept of God among people varies from time to time and place to place.  This variation is the cause of difference in the way of life and the goal of life of people. Can it be claimed that there is a tangible difference in the way of life of a believer and a non-believer?  Does it matter whether or not one believes in God?

In answer to this question, God tells us in the Quran that human life has a serious goal (20:50), which is centered around belief in God.  For this reason, it becomes very important to have a clear and unambiguous concept of God.

Human beings lead their lives at two different levels: one at the animal or physical level, and the other at the human or spiritual level. At the animal level our goals are standard: self-preservation and procreation.  At the spiritual level, too, we require an absolute and permanent standard. “Then He fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him His roo‘h”(32:9). This roo’h or divine energy or soul (“self” or “khudi” as termed by Allama Iqbal) is an exclusive gift from God to every human being. This is what separates humans from other animate and inanimate objects in the Universe. However, this divine gift of “self” is given as a latent potential and the aim of human life is to develop it.  This development of “self” is the spiritual dimension of human existence, which requires an absolute, permanent standard to measure its growth.

This permanent standard is the objective tool to measure the progress of the “self”, just as there are objective tools to measure the state of health or sickness of the physical body.  It makes sense to accept this objective standard from God who gave us the “self” in the first place.

God’s Attributes – A Measure of the Development of “Self”

The absolute and permanent standard that can serve as a litmus test for the development of the “self” is the attributes of God called Asma-ul-‘Husnaa, the most balanced attributes (7:180). This is because humans carry the seed of the divine energy as an exclusive gift from God (32:9). They are the only ones who, within human limitation, have the potential of emulating God’s attributes (not including those attributes which are exclusive to God’s infiniteness (57:3)). We can know how much of our “self’s” latent potential has been actualized by testing against this divine touchstone of Asma-ul-‘Husnaa which are independent of space and time and circumstance. Without this objective test, belief in God is meaningless.  Allama Iqbal says:

It is no use saying with your tongue: ‘There is no god but God’
If your heart and mind are not believers, then your belief is meaningless. 
What is the use of claiming with your tongue the oneness of God?
You have sculpted an idol of your own ego and taken it as your God. 

Dear Brothers and Sisters. In Part 2 of this article we will show how God’s attributes, based upon the Quranic concept of God, can serve as a perfect and complete model for attaining peace and harmony within the world and within our own selves. Let us pray to Allah to give us the strength and courage to continue the journey.  O Allah! Let this journey never end—even after death.

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