Series 9 - Comparisons Between Islam and Christianity
Who is Allah in Islam?
I. Allah in the Thoughts and Lives of Muslims
1. The World-Wide Worship of Islam
A Muslim's relationship to Allah can clearly be seen in the five daily prayers, which belong to the indispensable pillars of Islam. In the course of this liturgy, a Muslim will prostrate himself before Allah up to 34 times a day. Anyone who has seen a Muslim prostrating is impressed. The curve of his bent back during prayer is the best commentary on the word “ISLAM“ which translated means surrender, submission or subjugation. These words sound very pious and describe the total submission of a Muslim to Allah.
Any observer who considers this will realize that anyone who prostrates himself before Allah 34 times a day in worship is not a free person. He is no longer himself because his entire way of living and thinking is fully guided and influenced by Allah. In fact, the Arabic words for a religious service, place of worship and worshipper are derived from the word for slaves. According to Islam, everyone is a slave to Allah. No one is free. No one lives for himself. Everyone belongs to his Creator and was created to worship and to serve perpetually and unconditionally.
If it were possible to take a spaceship and fly high above the earth and observe mankind with a powerful telescope, we could see the prayer ritual of Islam sweeping across our globe like a mighty wave five times a day as millions of Muslims bow to the ground in worship.
At dawn, as soon as one can distinguish between a white and a black thread, the prayer of the Muslim begins in the Philippines. The first wave of worship surges over Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, then Iran and Turkey. Finally it reaches Europe, at which time the second wave of worship begins at noon for the Muslims in China. This new wave will have reached India and the 45 million Muslims in Central Asia just as a third wave will have started at 3 p.m. for afternoon prayers in the Far East. These three waves of worship follow each other successively, molding and determining life under the Islamic culture. At this time, as dawn is breaking on the east coast of America with its morning prayer, Muslims in the Nile Valley are bowing down in the heat of their noon prayer and in Pakistan men are gathering in their mosques for afternoon prayer. When the final wave of the Muslim night prayer begins in the Far East two hours after sunset, simultaneously the rays of the setting sun touch the worshipers in the Ganges Delta, while pilgrims in Mecca bow down for afternoon prayer before the black stone in the Ka'ba. At that moment the second prayer wave has already reached faithful Muslims in the high Atlas Mountains in Morocco, while the first waves breaks with the early morning dawn in the Rocky Mountains of America.
These five prayer waves unite millions of Muslims in worship of their God. Islam is a religion of adoration and worship. Many Muslims pray earnestly and with great reverence, disciplining themselves by repeating their liturgical prayers 17 times a day.
Very early in the morning, the muezzins call from the minarets of the mosques, often through loudspeakers, over the roofs of the houses to all the people: “Arise to prayer! Arise to success! Prayer is better then sleep!“
Unless Christians rethink their prayer practices and discipline themselves into regular and intensive prayer for Muslims, they should not be astonished that Islam defies the attempts of mission societies and rises to challenge a tired Christianity.
The call from the minaret includes a significant sentence: “Arise to success!“ Everyone who serves Allah hopes to receive a reward from him. Those who perform the prayers expect to receive earthly and heavenly blessings. Devotion to Allah and obedience to his commands deserve many gifts including salvation. Muslims do not thank Allah because he has already saved them through grace. On the contrary, they feel they must pray and keep the law in order to have the goodwill of Allah bestowed upon them. So Islam is a religion based on self-righteousness in which everyone tries to accumulate good deeds and so establish his own salvation by good works.
Prayer in Islam is not a voluntary service, but rather a compulsion, an obligation and a law. In Saudi Arabia one can sometimes observe policemen during the prayer times forcing passers-by into the mosques, so that the wrath of Allah may not descend on the country because of neglected prayer. Islam is a religion under the law of Allah. All facets of life are specifically controlled by a multitude of regulations. Allah is the centre of everything.
There is a deep longing for purity in Islam. Before each prayer time, every Muslim must follow a compulsory ablution -- the washing of hands, arms, feet, mouth, face and even hair. Everyone must be clean before entering Allah's presence to pray. Anyone who does not follow the exact cleansing procedure is considered to have nullified his prayers. Christians know that such outward rituals do not cleanse the heart or the mind. But the five-times-daily ablutions in Islam testify to a deep longing for purity on the part of those who pray.
“A sentence in the main prayer for all Muslims - from the al-Fatiha - reads, “Guide us in the straight path, the path of those whom thou hast blessed, not of those against whom thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray“ (Sura al-Fatiha 1:2,3). This cry expresses the desire for guidance and a total dependence on Allah. It would be wrong, ignorant and arrogant for Christians to deny the faithful intent of Muslims to serve God. On the contrary, their discipline, sincerity and consistency in praying can be an example to many of us. Without a doubt, every true Muslim desires to serve God with all his heart. He calls on him in his prayers. He wants to honor him; he fights for him and submits his entire being to him. In the Old Testament we read that God hears every honest prayer - even from a Muslim! (Genesis 21:17; 16:7-14).
2. The 99 Names of Allah
What concept do Muslims have of Allah? Who is he, whom they seek to worship?
In his struggle against heathen polytheism in Mecca and its surroundings, Muhammad waged a merciless campaign against all gods, idols and images. He stubbornly taught: “Allah is One! All other gods are nothing!“ He had accepted this basic monotheistic faith of the Jews who were living in the Arabian Peninsula because they had been exiled from their homeland by the Romans. Influenced by them, Muhammad freed the Arab world from idolatry in line with what the Old Testament prophets had demanded (Sura al-Ikhlas 112:1-4).
The first half of the Islamic creed makes a sharp distinction between the Oneness of God and the claims of religions and magical cults which teach that other gods exist besides Allah. Millions of Muslims daily confess, “There is no God but Allah!“ This testimony is the very core of the Islamic faith. Whoever does not assent unconditionally to this dogma is considered by Muslims a godless idolater. Every theological assertion that does not submit to this principle is rejected without question.
Muhammad did not merely testify to the uniqueness of Allah, but also described him with a variety of names. The Islamic theologians have systematized all statements of the Qur'an about Allah, including his attributes and acts, into “the 99 most beautiful names of Allah“. The names do not occur in equal frequency in the Qur'an. Several are mentioned a hundred times, others once or twice, and some are found only implicitly as we read between the lines. All Arabic adjectives can be understood as nouns, so that in the Qur'an every attribute of Allah simultaneously expresses one of his names.
Whoever painstakingly attempts to sort through these names of Allah according to their significance and frequency moves closer to the realm of Muhammad's thoughts and ideas.
Allah is the Omniscient One with infinite wisdom. He hears all and sees all. He understands all and encompasses everything.
He is Omnipotent and his strength is unlimited, powerful enough to both build up and to destroy.
Therefore, he is the sublime and exalted one above everything, great and immeasurable, magnificent and almighty. No one is equal to him.
He is the living one, ever existing, unending, everlasting, eternal, the first and the last, the one and the only one, the incomparably beautiful one.
Thus he is praiseworthy and excellent, the holy one, light and peace. He is the true reality and the foundation of everything.
Allah is the one who created everything out of nothing by the strength of his word. He brought everything into being, and to him we shall all return. He creates life and causes death (Sura al-A`raf 7:44). He will raise the dead and unite the universe.
Therefore, he is the sovereign lord and king to whom the universe belongs. He exalts and he abases. He is the defender and the destroyer. He is the guide and the tempter. He saves whom he wills and condemns whom he wishes (Suras al-A'raf 7:44, al-Anfal 8:27, al-Nahl 16:35, al-Insan 76:32).
Above all this, he is called the compassionate and merciful one, and yet he is also the avenger. He has recorded everything precisely and will be the incorruptible and indisputable witness on the day of judgment. He is the best of all judges and will present each man with an exact bill of reckoning.
His overwhelming authority may open the door to success or hinder the progress of an event. He has everything and everyone in his hand. He opens and closes the doors. Nothing takes place without his will. He does not need a mediator. Everything depends directly on him.
He is also benevolent and patient, faithful and kind to the Muslims. He is the generous giver of all gifts and abilities. From him alone comes provision for all mankind. He who possesses everything makes people wealthy and protects all who glorify him. He is favorable to them and will be a guardian over all who worship him.
He acknowledges those who repent, and forgives because he is the forgiving one. He is gracious toward the Muslims and establishes a good relationship with them. But no Muslim can be certain whether the good attributes of Allah are directed toward him personally, or whether Allah's harsh and devastating side will eventually strike him. Often, the names of Allah are merely ascribed to him by believers in wishful thinking rather than as certainties. His more oppressive and frightening attributes create fear in people and drive them to do everything possible to keep the law. Poverty and illness are regarded as signs of Allah's wrath for their hidden sins. By the same token, riches, success and people's esteem in the Muslim society are taken as indications of favor from the One who alone makes rich, and who honors his worshippers with blessings. Some Muslims today say, “Because we have remained faithful to Allah for 1,300 years, he has rewarded us with the oil.“
When we turn away from all such confusing and frustrating names of Allah and ask an ordinary Muslim, “Tell me, who is your God? What do you think and feel, when you hear the name of Allah?“ He may possibly smile, spread out his arms and only say “ALLAH!“ This means: Allah cannot be proved or described. One can only sense him and know about his existence. And then perhaps he may confirm this intuitive understanding with the phrase, “Allahu akbar!“
In this statement we have the abridged form of the Islamic creed, which is on the lips of millions many times a day. With this testimony Khomeini's revolutionary guards ran blindly into mine fields knowing they will be torn to shreds. From the loudspeakers of the minarets these words are repeated forty times a day over shops, homes, schools, factories and government buildings. Yet this phrase is not complete in itself, but is only a portion of a sentence. It does not mean, as it is sometimes translated, “Allah is great“ or “Allah is the greatest.“ Its literal meaning is “Allah is greater!“ Every listener should then, albeit unconsciously, complete the thought: Allah is wiser than all philosophers, more beautiful than the most fascinating view, stronger than all atomic and hydrogen bombs together, and greater than anything we know. Allah is the unique, unexplorable and inexplicable one -- the remote, vast and unknown God. Everything we may think about him is incomplete, if not wrong. Allah cannot be comprehended. He comprehends us. We are slaves who have only the privilege to worship him in fear.
Islam stands for a renunciation of the rationalism that prevails in Europe and America. For a long time it was one of the characteristics of Islamic theology that Allah could not be described philosophically. There was not even a desire to comprehend him and to fathom his being (Sura al-Ra'd 13:13).
Understanding this brings us to a crucial statement, expressed by the Islamic theologian al-Ghazali. He had meditated a great deal on “the 99 excellent names of God“. He wrote that these names can mean everything and yet nothing. One name of Allah can negate another and the content of one may be included in the next. No one can understand Allah. Devout believers therefore can only worship this unknown, superdimensional God and live before him in fear and reverence, observing all his laws in strict obedience.
3. Islam -- A Theocentric Culture
What are the practical consequences in the daily life of a Muslim under such a concept?
The image of a great, all-embracing Lord has conditioned the daily life of Muslims -- in the home, in education, at work and in politics. The old saying is still true, “Show me your God and I will explain to you why you live as you do.“ So Genesis 1:27 tells us, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.“ This means that the concept of God in a religion is the pattern and measure of the culture associated with it.
In Islam, the father in the family is not primarily an equal partner with his wife, who together give shape to marriage and family life. The man is more the patriarch in the house, who holds all rights and authority in his hands. The children legally belong to him alone. He is the one who supplies provisions and clothes, and he grants no one an insight into his financial situation. His wife is not necessarily a life-time companion with equal rights, but is often just a means of satisfying his physical desires. Sometimes she is regarded merely as a baby factory. There are exceptions, of course, where noble and sensitive Arabs open themselves to the influence of the world-wide humanism or where some resolute wives exert control over their husbands. Christendom has also influenced Arab customs to some extent. But in general, it is obvious that Islam is a man's world where women must stay in the background. This can be seen in the mosques, coffee bars, or in public life. Khomeini in particular used the resurgence of Islam to reduce women to medieval subjection.
Sometimes a father says, “I have one child and three daughters,“ when he explains that he has one son and three daughters. The dominance of the masculine over the feminine can be found in all aspects of life. The male is the ruler and in a figurative sense he is even called “lord of the house“.
In schools, until a few years ago, the teacher gave instruction like a patriarch, ruling over his pupils and forcing the lessons down their throats. The material had to be gulped down and memorized, but it remained undigested and generally misunderstood. The daily class schedule started with listening to the recitation of the memorized lessons. There was punishment for anyone who could not fully repeat the subject matter.
In many Islamic schools comprehension, individual thinking and development of character are not the main goals of education; rather a passive acceptance and conformity are emphasized. This is closely associated with the concept of thought in the Islamic religion. A Muslim is forbidden to think critically about the Qur'an. He must accept it passively and should memorize all of it. Being thus filled with the spirit of Islam, he instinctively walks in accordance with Allah's law in his daily life. (How many Christians know even one of the gospels by heart? Yet many Muslims have mastered the whole of the Qur'an or at least great portions of it.)
Forms of educational instruction and thought patterns in the Islamic world are based upon the picture of Allah given by Muhammad. A person is not guided to become active and responsible, but is directed to submit himself passively to his fate. This is why Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably, for their entire education amounts to a submission of will and mind and an integration into an Allah-centered society.
In politics, democracy does not appear to be the best model for the life of a Muslim. Rather Allah, the king and lord over all is the unconscious pattern for many sultans and dictators. The strong man who swept away corruption with an iron hand, the mighty victor who brought renown, honor and strength to Islam has always been hailed and admired.
In Arab schools one can find children with unusual first names, such as Bismarck, Stalin, de Gaulle and Nasser, because the parents wish and hope that there will be a glorious future for their offspring in the spirit of such historic personalities. It sounds almost macabre when one hears someone in the street of an Arab village saying, “Hitler has not yet paid his school fees.“ In other words, a father, whose name actually is Hitler, has not yet paid the school fees for his son!
Whether it be kings or dictators, sultans or caliph, the one who held the reins tight with force was admired. Complaisance and compromise mean weakness and incompetence in Islam. It is not surprising that Jamal Abdel Nasser and Ayatollah Khomeini were the dominating figures in the Near East during the last decades. While Nasser attempted to combine an Arab socialism with Islam in order to meet the attack of atheistic communism, Khomeini trod a still more radical path by attempting to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth in Shi'ite countries. The ultimate aim of Khomeini's revolution was not merely the removal of the shah or the elimination of Christian, capitalistic or communistic principles from among his people, but the reinstatement of an Islamic theocracy in which Allah prevails and dominates every area of life. This brought a “mullah state“ into existence, where, in the name of Allah and Islam, more people were killed in a few years than during the long reign of the shah. Enemies of the Islamic revolution are no longer even regarded as people. Khomeini himself announced, “In Persia no people have been killed so far -- only beasts!“
The Islamic spirit cannot tolerate other gods beside Allah. So Islam, in the core of its being, is missionary-minded and will find no rest until all people have become Muslims. This mission-consciousness is based on the Islamic confession of faith which states that “there is no God except Allah“. No real peace will reign on earth except through Islam.
In the past, the world, according to the strategy of Islam, was divided into two great areas: The House (territory) of Peace (Dar es-Salam) and the House of War (Dar el-Harb). Peace ostensibly reigned only in countries where Islam had become the state religion and where the Sharia, the law of Islam, controlled life. The “House of War“, however, encompassed the other nations who had refused to acknowledge Allah. In past months, pamphlets were distributed in a country of the Near East with the heading, “Aslim! Taslam!“ which means: accept Islam, submit to Allah, then you will not be persecuted, but can live a peaceful life! Mission work in Islam not only means to convince a person intellectually by arguments that Islam is the best religion revealed by Allah; it utilizes pressure in all fields at its disposal -- economics, politics and even the holy war! The Qur'an commands all followers of Allah to fight for victory in their religion.
We must confess however that Christians, as Crusaders in the Near East, have also left behind them a trail of bloodstained footprints. They have engraved on the historical consciousness of Muslims the image of Christians as aggressive militants. Yet all so-called “holy wars“ are in direct conflict with the teaching of Jesus. He said, “Do not resist evil! Put your sword away! Love your enemies!“ Christ never commanded his followers to fight in religious wars; rather, he forbade them any demonstration of violence. Muhammad, on the other hand, repeatedly fought in person alongside his fighters until they conquered Mecca and the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. The spread of Islam is based on the sword! The holy war in Islam is considered a direct command of Allah and is not merely an interpretation or misinterpretation of his will by the believers. Therefore, the potential of holy war in Islam still exists. This should not be under- or over-estimated (Sura al-Baqara 2:245).
Anyone who wants to understand Islam must change his way of thinking. Islam is not only a religion for the mind, soul and heart of a man, but it presents an all-encompassing culture, theocentric society where all facets of life -- child rearing, family life, economics, and politics -- are focused on Allah. There is no separation between throne and altar, between politics and religion. In fact, mosques are often the starting point for demonstrations and political upheaval. Friday sermons are not confined to the fostering of faith and spiritual life, but often contain strong appeals to stir up the people for political conflicts in the name of Allah.
This is connected with the Islamic portrayal of Allah. Nothing exists outside the sway of his omnipotence. He is absolute in everything. Anyone not surrendering voluntarily to this must be brought into subjection either by cunning strategy, economic persuasion or revolutionary force. Islam means subjection to Allah. It demands surrender of all areas of life to his spirit and the Qur'an's control over all thought and conduct.
Bedouin tribes once said to Muhammad, “We believe in Allah!“ But he replied, “You have not believed until you say, 'We have submitted!' “ (Sura al-Hujurat 49:14).
Islam is a totalitarian religion which cannot compromise with any “isms“ for any period of time. As the history of Islam unfolded, strong impulses repeatedly flowed out of the Qur'an, which overcame ideas and concepts that penetrated the Islamic culture from Europe, Persia and India, resulting in an all-pervading legalistic religion. The ultimate aim was nothing less than the establishment of Allah's kingdom on our earth.