The Nature of God

From the Archives: God in Islam

The Review of Religions, January 1932 Edition

The fundamental doctrine of the religion of Islam is that of the existence of Almighty God and His Unity. The Holy Qur’an teaches us that in the Unity of God are crystallised all the perfect attributes to an infinite capacity. It also teaches us that the attributes of God are all-inclusive and inter-dependent. It is not logical according to Islam, that any single attribute or perfection could be distinguished from any other attribute or perfection so as to justify a separate God. We cannot, therefore, in believing that a God exists, further believe in a multiplicity of gods. The God-head cannot be triply decentralised for example, into a Creator, a Preserver and Sustainer, and a Destroyer. For, according to Islamic doctrine, we should find it ridiculous and illogical to conceive or believe in a deity who was all-powerful to the exclusion of other attributes, for in everything else that deity would command a status inferior to that of mankind. It is therefore wrong to stress the fact that God is Love, or Fear-inspiring, or All-Merciful, or All-Knowing, to the detriment or exclusion of other necessary and essential attributes.

If Almighty God, such as we believe in, were in any way to be deprived of any attribute or perfection, He would cease to command our total submission to His Will. To the Muslim it is essential that God should possess every moral attribute conceivable. If Almighty God is to command our everlasting love, submission and worship for all time, in all climes and in all conditions, it is positively necessary that we delegate to Him the highest qualities conceivable.

The attributes of God, which we consider to constitute His Perfect Essence, are innumerable.  Although the Holy Qur’an quotes many of them in explaining how they are applicable to the actions of human beings, it by no means claims to mention them all. The attributes of God are such that often their subtlety and wisdom are lost on the ordinary human being, and there are millions of factors working for our good for which, although Almighty God is responsible, we never really appreciate or realise in our life-time.

It is interesting here to remark that the pious Muslim can find more workings of God in this world than can any other mortal, for, the Muslim constantly attributes to God what obviously cannot be attributed to man.

Close-up of front cover of the Holy Qur’an

The belief in Almighty God, whilst a natural one, is a very involved belief. It is really a stupendous mental task to conceive Him fully in the correct light, and it is difficult to conceive by one mental expression the vast perfection embodied in Him. We must not conceive God through the channels of His Love rather than through the channels of His Mercy or His Justice, but one must conceive Him collectively through as many of His attributes as possible. The clearer we perceive His attributes the clearer image we have of Him. The magnitude of each attribute is far beyond the bounds of mortal perception, and we can only basically define it and partially realise it. To know to what depths and to what extent these attributes are employed, is too subtle a task for our poor brains. But, the Muslim has a great consolation. The Muslim believes that God so employs His capabilities that if we take advantage of His Grace, we cannot but raise ourselves in an ever nearing position to His Throne. We know, too, in a positive way that the purposes and the methods of Almighty God are so wonderfully combined, interlaced, inter-dependent and consistent, that the huge superstructure of our physical and metaphysical laws is ever respondent to our lawful needs, and ceaseless in its sameness.

In our concept of God we must at first understand His existence introspectively. It must be from inside us that we find the spark of the realisation of the existence of God. Although we are surrounded by the wonders of nature, from the infinitesimal protozoa to the complex structures of matter, this material should not be the source of our belief in God. In other words, we should not believe in God because we believe in a Creator. It can be argued logically or metaphysically that God exists, but these arguments must not convince the Muslim that God exists. The Muslims must believe in God because his soul, his innermost being naturally impels him to that belief. Man should be able to believe in God without God’s manifestation in this world. I want to stress this point because it is important to understand that we should not necessarily believe in God because of His creation, but because we instinctively, by the nature of our soul, find that we know Him to exist. When we have fired the spark of realisation within ourselves, we can feed it by our good actions and cause it to glow when we look about and see His wonderful creation. By realising more deeply the outward manifestation of God and by doing good deeds to all men and by constantly remembering Him, we no doubt feel within us the fire of the truth of His existence. The realisation of the existence of God grows more deeply in us as we deal uprightly and remember Him, for it is thus that the attachment between God and a human being is made more sweet and enduring. The manifestations of God can only deepen our belief in Him and His Will.

The existence of God is the only existence about which a man can be certain, for if philosophers could convince us that we ourselves are not realities, they could never convince us otherwise as to the existence of God. To the Muslim the only reality worth investigating is the reality of God Himself; for if the universe and its glory were to vanish in a trice, the true Muslim would find God just as real as before.

The Orion Nebula is 24 light years across and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth, visible to the naked eye from earth. Credit: NASA/ESA

The Holy Qur’an as the Word of God is not, however, the primary proof of His Existence. A man may believe sincerely in the Existence of God without having ever heard of the Holy Qur’an or the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw), or indeed of any scripture or prophet. But his belief will not bear fruit, neither will his actions reap any reward unless he knows how to practise his beliefs and what constitutes good actions. Just as the theorist is a poor practitioner, if he possesses no instruments wherewithal to make an experiment, so a man who merely believes that there is a God, unless he makes use of that belief for his moral uplift, cannot benefit from it. Islam always, as a religious principle, upholds the theory that if a thing is to be believed in, it must be of some use to humanity.

Muslims uphold the Holy Qur’an in as much as they claim that fired with the belief in Almighty God, any man can benefit by that belief by accepting the injunctions laid down in the Holy Qur’an. Islam is essentially a practical religion, for in exchange for the acceptance of its doctrines it offers an everlasting reward.

The Muslim, therefore, is told in the Holy Qur’an what to do with himself in his actions towards his fellow creatures and towards God. Islam holds that God has not only infused into our minds a belief in Him, but that God has given us a book wherein we can find out how to use that belief to our profit. It is foolish merely to profess by lip our belief in anything, unless we can show to the world what that belief means to us. It is a unique point that in Islam there are no injunctions which, if practised, do not reap a spiritual reward. We therefore find a double tie with God. For, not only does He teach us but gives us the means with which we should use our knowledge to our benefit.

The imparting of knowledge of spiritual guidance from God, called Divine Revelation, is an essential doctrine. Our belief in Almighty God evolves into a belief in a Living God, a God in everlasting contact with His creation. The Muslim believes in an Ever-Watching Deity and Ever-Helping Master.

We believe that God, in His Love for mankind, constantly communicates to His creatures in all ages. To call Him a God of Love and at the same time to believe that after Jesus Christ(as) He has not spoken to the world by means of a Messenger, is to believe in opposite and contrary doctrines. Those who are fond of citing that that love is best of all, are usually those who with the same breath deny a Guide after the prophet Jesus(as). A shepherd who loves his flock of sheep will keep them from wandering astray at all times of the day, for he sleeps not. Muslims do not believe in the power of Jesus Christ(as), to foster righteousness in man for all time. History has repeatedly shown to the world the disastrous effects resulting from man believing in the powers of a man, rather than in the Power of God.

The basic communication from God to mankind is the Holy Qur’an, and it is really the covenant between man and God. For if a man is conscious of the existence of God, he will next become conscious of the nature of God, and finally of His Wishes and Prohibitions; for, all these consciousnesses are contained in His Word—the Holy Qur’an.

A Muslim not only sows a good seed by his beliefs, but reaps a fruitful harvest from them. The Holy Qur’an is an inexhaustible mine of spiritual treasures, and whoever troubles to stoop before His Throne, cannot fail to find the most precious of gems. The Holy Qur’an is the reflections of God’s thoughts and ideas. Because it is His Word, His Ordinance, it is natural that we should know more of Him by studying His Word. Muslims, born after the desire of God, must live to earn His Pleasure and must die to claim His Paradise. Truly, it is said that if all the sea were ink there would not be enough wherewithal to write of His Glory.

High altitude view of earth with the moon visible

If we meditate sincerely for a fraction of time and really endeavour to concentrate our attention upon Him, we shall always realise how much we are indebted to Him, and the infinite extent to which we owe Him gratitude.

Whilst we shudder at the magnitude of the universe and at the multitude of thoughts flowing therein, and we gaze at the beauty of this world, and realise the comparative insignificance of a single man, we should also realise that, incapable as man is, sinful and corrupting and vile as his actions are, yet the love of God for mankind goes beyond our wildest thoughts. He is the Almighty Deity Who hears the prayers of both the wretched and the rich, Who is cognisant of the destruction of even the smallest of the animal world, Who is cognisant of all ideas and intentions and actions of mankind, since  creation began and to all futurity. It is enough for the good man that he understands the significance of His attributes, for to comprehend them deeply overwhelms our faculties with awe.

We have found the material of this earth a ready servant to our desire, for we have harnessed most of nature’s forces—the air, the land and the sea—to our whims, yet there are men who are ungrateful. A Muslim believes, in this respect, that God could, if He so willed, either cause this huge machinery of National or Scientific Laws to cease functioning or to function otherwise. He is therefore essentially one who relies on the constancy of scientific laws, and on Him Who created or conceived those laws.

It is as well to understand what a Muslim believes as regards his relations with God. A Muslim lives a life of consolation. Consolation on the one hand because he is created by God and bears the stamp of God on his soul, and consolation on the other hand because he must ultimately return to his Maker. For, it is absurd to suppose that those mortals whom God has created shall ever be consigned to eternal damnation. It would be admitting that the power of evil, as opposed to God, has won against Him. The religion of Islam plainly points out the ridiculous and absurd conclusion that is to be drawn from the Doctrine of Eternal Damnation. All mankind, according to Islam, must, of necessity, return to the Essence from which it sprang, for it is the Muslim’s belief that in the battle between Good and Evil, no life can be lost forever. As Good must ultimately prevail, it will prevail with each and every individual that has ever been born. It is a beautiful doctrine and a great consolation to know that God will never repudiate mankind whatever vileness it commits, for while our ultimate return to His Grace may be preceded by an agonising physical or mental operation or treatment, we shall nevertheless return to Him.

In the face of this doctrine, Islam has been accused by our Christian contemporaries of stressing the God of Power rather than the God of Love. Might I point out that if the Christian God of love is content to allot to the non-Christian eternal damnation, then the Muslim concept is ten thousand times more justifiable, and infinitely more lovable and loving.

The soul of man, since it is created by God, bears the stamp of God upon it, and there is no shadow of doubt that all human beings possess in them an instinct which, if developed, would cause them to do good constantly and act uprightly and shun evil, and to try to seek the Pleasure of God, and imbue themselves with the attributes of God, so that they are constantly drawing nearer to Him.

Man is like a mirror and if he would turn towards the light which emanates from the Divine Being, he would reflect that light in his person, in his actions and in his heart. Indeed, there is nothing as natural and pleasing to the soul of man as the capability of reflecting, however imperfectly, the attributes of God. With all men, even with the vilest of mankind, there exists that potential, that capability to reflect the Divine Light of God. The Islamic idea is that if man endeavours to turn towards God, God will help him. If any man sins, he does so under an influence which cannot emanate from the Divine Being. God can prevent sin, but the great purpose of the free-will of man is lost if he were to become a machine of the Divine Will. The true believer is one who constantly treads the path leading to God. If a man dallies, or loiters, or looks back, or retraces his steps then he himself is the loser. God is a magnet for all mankind and whoever moves away from that magnet is necessarily using a force to do so. The path leading to the Throne of God brings to one the realisation of what is good and what is evil, and also prompts one to bear good-will to one’s fellow creatures. It promotes hundreds of virtues and extinguishes thousands of vices. Such is the path of righteousness.

The Muslim believes that God judges each and every man by his relative and comparative morality, for it is known that all men have not had the same opportunity to manifest what is best in them. But it shall be enough that a man who cannot bestow charity, act charitably and has the intention, should he ever be in the position to do so, of bestowing charity. A man is judged by his thoughts, especially if he cannot realise his good intentions through no fault of his own. In this light, according to Islam, a man who has never heard of the religion of Islam cannot ever be ranked so low as a Muslim who, whilst he knows them, neglects to follow the precepts laid down in the Holy Qur’an. A rich man has more opportunity and more time to help others, yet a Muslim believes that a poor man shall not be the loser on this account. He who has abundant time all day to read and imbibe the Holy Qur’an and glorify God, shall not be counted by God higher than he, who, by force of necessity, is working in a busy place and has not so much time to give to religious knowledge. God judges a man by what he makes of the life that is given him, whether he is a prince or a sweeper. This is a truth that is more clearly brought home to us in the mosque, the House of God, where we all stand shoulder to shoulder before the Majesty of God, equal in His Sight. It is unique in Islam that in the House of God all men are equals, for who shall speak of values in the presence of God, and what an absurd status that of emperor becomes in the presence of the Master of Judgment. All pomp and display with which men herald the great among them, appears so insignificant in the mosque. To earn the Pleasure of God a rich man may spend a thousand pounds and a poor man but a penny. It is comforting to realise that whatever we may be, we can all achieve the greatest ambition of our life—that of having earned the Pleasure of the Divine Being. The mosque expresses relations between God and man better than anything else, for it is in that place that our souls are clothed in the best light.

It is our duty to depend upon the Mercy of God, for we cannot ever dispense with it. It is our duty to depend upon God for all the success that should accrue from good works. Furthermore, we should ever treat Him as our Helper, as a loving Guardian and as a Judge.  Whilst we feel His proximity, we should realise His altitude and while we reflect His attributes, we must remember that our reflection is incomparable with His Light.

We are comforted as Muslims to know that while God is so infinitely removed from us His presence is nearer to us than our jugular vein. Whilst He is remote, He knows all our most trivial thoughts and ideas. It is, therefore, according to Islam, foolish to think or to intend evil, for God knows all thoughts and intentions. A judge condemns a man only after a crime, but God knows the criminal before the crime is committed. Also, if we advance towards the Throne of God we shall be divinely assisted, but if we turn from His Throne we shall never profit by our worldly actions.

This fundamental doctrine of the existence of God, therefore, is to a Muslim nine-tenths of his religion. A Muslim can reveal his respect and submission to the Divine Will by sincere prayer and prostration, whilst other men must spend hours in chant, helped by organs, exotic music and instruments of gold. A Muslim can pour out his heart before a Potent Deity with serenity and tranquillity, whilst others must hire a confessor. A Muslim can summon his brothers to prayer with an intelligent and beautiful call from his lips, whilst others must use jangle bells. A Muslim can lavish his surplus money on the poor, whilst others lavish theirs in adorning their places of worship. A Muslim cannot find a sentence in his Scripture which does not ring with purity and truth, whilst others must search their books from beginning to end to find justifiable statements. Shall not then the Muslim find pleasure in prostrating himself in gratitude before the Lord of the Worlds? Shall not a Muslim hold his head high among the people of mankind? For, in his belief in the Existence of Allah, a Muslim finds the perfect expression of the Soul, and thus evolves as the most contented of mankind.