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17. Understanding Islam

3.1. AXIOM 1: Belief in the existence and oneness of God (Allah)

As noted in the previous chapter, many of Mohammed’s early teachings were not entirely contradictory with the teachings of the Christians and Jews around him (though it is to be remembered that most Christians in the peninsula at the time followed heretical teachings), and in fact Judaism heavily influenced the early development of Islam. To this day we see many similarities between the two, though many of these ideas have been taken out of the context of the Old Testament and do not sit as coherently within the context of Islam. And so we see that even though the final concept of God in Islam is radically different from the God of the Bible, Mohammed initially claimed to follow the same God as the Jews and Christians. While he was still trying to win them over to follow him, he is quoted in the Qur’an as saying:

“And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say, ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.’ ” (Qur'an 29:46)

And although Mohammed’s new religion was not appealing to the pagans of Mecca, there were certainly some elements which he had taken from existing beliefs.

The name Allah, for example, was in use before Islam. In fact, it was part of the name of Mohammed’s father, Abdallah (the slave of Allah). There is some debate as to exactly what or who it referred to; one theory is that it referred to a lunar deity, while another holds that it was used to refer to a specific pagan idol. Still another theory is that it was used to describe a supreme, creator god, which outranked all other pagan gods. At first, Mohammed even tried to convince the local people that Allah was no new god but someone they already worshipped. This does not mean that Mohammed agreed with everything practised before him either by the Arabs or Christians or Jews – he appeared to pick and choose depending on the circumstances on any given day – and certainly the final concept of Allah as presented in the Qur’an is very different from the God of the Bible, but his early ideas of Allah were to a certain extent shaped by the beliefs of those around him.

To understand the Islamic view of Allah, we must first understand two fundamental doctrines taught in the Qur’an: his transcendence, and his contrariety to created order. These underpin a Muslim’s entire understanding of the nature of Allah.

In Islam, Allah is so far removed from his creation that there is nothing like him. Muslim theologians say that whatever comes to mind when you think about Allah, he is something else. This doctrine is known as tanzih, or transcendence. This is of crucial importance, as it means that saying anything about Allah is impossible as this will not be true about him and he will always be something else. This essentially makes Allah completely unknowable. In one collection of Hadith, Mohammed is reported to have said: “Think about Allah’s creation and don’t think about Allah.” This is, of course, in complete contrast to what the Bible teaches about God, namely that we were created for a relationship with God, with the express purpose of knowing Him.

The second doctrine, that of contrariety to created order (or mukhaalafa), holds that there is no similarity in any way between Allah and his creation. It is unclear in Islamic theology if this applies to everything including Allah’s actions, or if it applies only to Allah’s nature. For example, if we say that Allah hears prayers, do we understand this in the way that we would normally understand the word hear? Muslim theologians do not agree on whether we should or not. This therefore makes it doubly difficult to understand any statement made about Allah.

For example, Muslim theologians say when the Qur'an talks about Allah’s hand, this does mean that Allah has an actual hand; however, it is not what we think of as a hand but it is whatever is befitting to his majesty and in whatever way he means it to be. Unfortunately that doesn’t tell us anything more than: Allah means whatever he means (but we don’t know what that is).

We can see then that as a result of these two key principles, we can make no sense of any other teachings on Allah as it is impossible to state anything about him without violating these two principles and rendering untrue what has been stated.

Bearing these two principles in mind, let’s look at some other teachings about Allah. In the Qur’an, we see reference to “the most excellent names” of Allah (Qur’an 7:180). Muslims generally say that he has 99 names, but there is no common agreement on what these 99 actually are, and in fact some Muslim scholars have counted up to a total of 276 different names given to Allah in the Qur’an and Hadith. One reason for the discrepancy is that not everyone agrees on the reliability (or authenticity) of the different collections of Hadith. As noted above, some collections are more or less accepted by all Sunni Muslims (e.g. those collected by Muslim or Bukhari), but others are not as widely accepted. The names of Allah must be explicitly stated as such in the Qur’an or Hadith, not derived from an action or a verb. For example, Muslims can call Allah “al-Qahhar” – the Subduer – as this name is in the Qur'an (Qur'an 39:5), but they can’t call Allah “al-‘Aati” – the Giver – as this specific name is not in the Qur'an or Hadith even though Allah is described as giving in several places. One reason Muslims say names can’t be derived from actions is because some of Allah’s actions in the Qur’an would not represent Him immutably, as they may only apply to the contexts in which they took place. For example, it cannot be said that Allah is the Deceiver, even though he is reported as deceiving hypocrites in the Qur’an (Qur’an 4:142).

Another difficulty is that (as with almost every subject in Islam) there is no agreement between scholars about what can or should be discussed; some scholars say that Allah’s nature shouldn’t be discussed at all, while others see no problem with it.

Thus we end up with a whole host of seeming contradictions and unknowns. Allah is not a physical being, yet Muslims will literally see him in paradise and moreover, he sits on a throne – which Muslims believe to be an actual throne. He is not incarnate, yet he has a hand, a face, eye, feet, side – which Muslims all believe to be actual literal body parts. He is everywhere and yet he comes and goes. Such beliefs would frustrate anyone trying to make a coherent system out of it. As a result many Muslims end up accepting contradictions as something which is simply unexplained.

As for the practical application of such an understanding of Allah, you will find that, because Muslims believe that everything is decided beforehand by Allah and that there is nothing any human can do to change that their actions are created by Allah, Islam is one of the most fatalistic belief systems in history. It hinders human aspiration because Muslims are fully convinced you can never achieve anything more or less than what has been fated to you, regardless of what you do.

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