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Who is Allah?

The first post in this series will look at the nature of Allah.  Let’s start with the question, ‘Why does it matter?’  The answer to that question is straight-forward.  To be successful in the long-run, all societies must have an underlying moral basis.  Our Founders understood this in establishing the framework for this country.  But a few more questions are in order.  What is the moral basis of a society based upon Islam?  Does that moral foundation differ from a society based upon Judeo-Christian tenets?  If so, how does it differ? These are some of the questions we will try to answer as we go through this series.

Finally, why start with morality when looking at Allah’s nature?  This can be answered in two parts.  First, Allah is considered to be First Cause within Islam, and First Cause is the source for all existence, morality, and knowledge.  So Allah’s nature should have a direct bearing on the underlying morality of a society based upon Islam; the remaining areas will be the subjects for later posts.  Second, our Founders chose to create a society founded upon Judeo-Christian values after they had completed all of their research into historical governance models and how they worked.  So if the moral underpinnings of societies based upon these two ideologies differ, then those differences likely matter.  And if Islam does present the next Great Awakening, then how we address its resurgence will likely shape our society for a long time to come.

We’ll start with a quick look at Neoplatonism.  Neoplatonic thought developed during the Middle Ages, and has had a great influence on Islam.  The influence of outside forces on Islam’s development, particularly through Roman law on shari’a and Neoplatonism on its theology, were noted in the early twentieth century by Ignaz Goldziher in his book Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law.  Augustine also wrote extensively about the short-comings of the neoplatonic thoughts of Plotinus and his student Porphyry in The City of God, several hundred years before Muhammad’s birth.  So how has Neoplatonism influenced Islamic theology?  Allah is an absolute simple unity; so absolute it leaves no room for distinctions as provided by Aristotle, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, or many others.  Allah is transcendent in nature and pure will.  Therefore, He cannot be known by man.  As He cannot be known by man, He is also extrinsic, He can only be known from His actions.  Any names given to Him are what he causes, but they are not a part of His nature.

In their book, Answering Islam, Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb developed the following list of characteristics to describe Allah as:  (1) absolute oneness, (2) absolute will, (3) absolute justice, (4) absolute mercy, (5) absolute inscrutability, and (6) absolute ruler.  To this list I have added absolute foreknowledge, for a First Cause without absolute foreknowledge cannot truly be First Cause.  Each of these will be briefly outlined in the following sections.  However, it should be noted that Neoplatonism has led to differing beliefs in the nature of Allah even within the different sects of Islam.  It is therefore not possible to find a single universal view on Allah’s nature.

Absolutely One

Surah 112 says, ‘Say:  He is Allah, the One!  Allah, the eternally Besought of all!  He begets not nor was begotten, and there is not comparable to Him.’  Allah is beyond all being, time, and space.  There is no knowable nature or essence.  This view of unity is so strong that it leaves no room for plurality at all; it is nominalism.

This view creates several inconsistencies, some of which will be discussed later.  The first has to do with the Qur’an itself.  Orthodox Islam teaches that the Qur’an is uncreated.  It is the eternal speech of Allah.  It is Allah, but separate from Him.  This distinction presents a plurality that is inconsistent with the notion of Allah as a simple unity.  Incidentally, this type of distinction is the same as that used to describe the relationship between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which Islam denies as being false teaching.

Absolute Will

The simple unity that is Allah consists of pure will.  It is this will that gives unity to His actions.  It is the effects of these actions which may be used to identify His will, but that will is itself unknowable.  Allah is extrinsic in that He can only be known from the actions of His will.  This leads to a second inconsistency, that is how can this will give so many things that it does not have?  Plotinus answered this by describing the One as an overwhelming power, the only power capable of performing such acts – but even Plotinus in the end was not very satisfied with that answer. 

Two relevant passages from the Qur’an are, ‘And if We had so willed, We could have given every soul its guidance, but the word from Me concerning evildoers took effect that I will fill Hell with the jinn and mankind together.’  (Surah 32, 13)  And, ‘As for the disbelievers, whether you warn them or you warn them not it is all one for them; they believe not.  Allah has sealed their hearing and their hearts, and on their eyes there is a covering.  Theirs will be an awful doom.’  (Surah 2, 6-7)

Absolute Justice and Absolute Mercy

The Judge and the Merciful are two of the names of Allah. As He is pure will and extrinsic, He can only be known by His actions – the things that He wills.  Surah 2, 210 states, ‘Wait they for nothing else then that Allah should come unto them in the shadows of the clouds with the angels?  Then the case would be already judged.  All cases go back to Allah (for judgment).’  And Surah 3, 31, ‘Say (O Muhammad, to mankind):  If you love Allah, follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your sins.  Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.’

Allah being pure will leads to a serious moral problem.  From Answering Islam, ‘if God is pure Will, without any real essence, then he does not do things because they are right; rather, they are right because he does them.  In short, God is arbitrary about what is right and wrong.  He does not have to do good.’ This leads to another question.  If Allah’s will is responsible for good through its actions, then is it not also responsible for evil?  Further, Allah is capable of changing His will over time.  The changes in the revelations received by Muhammad form the basis for abrogation of verses within the Qur’an, that later verses abrogate, change, or cancel out earlier ones.

Absolutely Inscrutable

As Allah is pure will, His nature is unknowable.  We mentioned above that He is named by the effects He causes, but He is not identified with any of those things.  This leads to a core tenet of Islam, that it is not our purpose to know Allah, but only to obey Him.  We are not to meditate on his essence, but instead to submit to His will.  Indeed, that is the meaning of the word Muslim, it is one who submits to the will of Allah. 

‘If Allah afflicts you with some hurt, there is none who can remove it save Him; and if He desires good for you, there is none who can repel His bounty.  He strikes with it whom He will of His bondsmen.  He is the Forgiving, the Merciful.’  (Surah 10, 107)

Absolute Ruler

Allah is the creator and absolute ruler of all.  Two verses from the Qur’an.  ‘The Originator of the heavens and the earth!  When He decrees a thing, He says unto it only; Be! And it is.’ (Surah 2, 117) And the second is, ‘Allah!  There is no God save Him, the Alive, the Eternal.  Neither slumber nor sleep overtakes Him.  Unto Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth.  Who is he that intercedes with Him save by His leave?  He knows that which is in front of them and that which is behind them, while they encompass nothing of His knowledge save what He will.  His chair includes the heavens and the earth, and He is never weary of preserving them.  He is the Sublime, the Tremendous.’ (Surah 2, 255).

Allah needs nothing, but everything needs Him.  The relationship between Allah and man is not one of love between Creator and creation, but rather one of master and slave.  Judeo-Christian worship involves a relationship between two persons, the worshiper and God.  Within Islam, how can one worship what they cannot know?  This leads to the last characteristic of absolute foreknowledge.  

Absolute Foreknowledge

Orthodox Islam teaches absolute predestination of both good and evil.  Indeed, within Islam it is believed that we are born with our fate hung around our neck, and that fate will be revealed to us on the Day of Judgment.  Yes, the Qur’an has verses supporting both free will and predestination, but the views supporting predestination dominate most of Islam.  This determinism leads to several problems.  First, Allah performs contradictory actions based upon His will.  Second is a moral problem, as noted in one of the earlier Qur’an verses, Allah could have chosen to save all of mankind – but chose not to do so.  Finally, a third problem has already been mentioned.  That is that this view makes Allah responsible for both good and evil. 

Relevant verses from the Qur’an in this area include the following, ‘Say (unto them):  Would you teach Allah your religion, when Allah knows all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, and Allah is Aware of all things.’ (Surah 49, 16).  Another is, ‘On the day when Allah will raise them all together and inform them of what they did.  Allah has kept account of it while they forgot it.  And Allah is Witness over all things.’ (Surah 58, 6).

We started this post by asking questions about the morality which underlies a society formed around Islam, and whether that moral basis differs from one based upon Judeo-Christian tenets.  From the information above, we can point to several differences, which include:

  • God is responsible for good.  Man's turning away is the cause of evil.  Allah is the only one in existence who can cause things through His will.  Therefore, good and evil comes from what He wills.

  • God is consistent.  Through His providence, He has taken the bad decisions made by men and turned them to His good.  Allah is inconsistent as His will changes over time.  Right and wrong become a matter of what Allah wills.

  • God has offered the opportunity for redemption to all man.  Allah is capable of saving all mankind, but has chosen not to do so.

  • Man predestines himself through the decisions he makes.  Allah has determined one’s fate since before the beginning of time.

  • There is a relationship between God and His worshippers based upon love.  There is no relationship between Allah and his followers as He cannot be known, only obeyed.

There are many implications for society, but two are as follows.  First, as outlined by Augustine, a society turned toward God is properly oriented toward good and requires virtue to be developed within its citizens.  In a society turned toward Allah, morality is still important, but that importance is trumped by the expediency of implementing His will.  As His will is inconsistent, both good and bad actions are appropriate, and dependent only on the outcomes achieved.  What matters is obedience to His will.  Second, a society turned toward God is hopeful, as man can better himself by improving the decisions that he makes.  A society turned toward Allah has in store for it whatever fate Allah has already determined.  It is rooted in a kind of fatalism as Allah’s will determines their fate.
Posted in: Islam

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About Dan Wolf

Dan WolfMy goal is that my writing will help you to get started on your own journey of discovery, or help you along the way on a journey you may have already begun. Our Founders considered education, religion, morality, and virtue to be the cornerstones for any successful society. Being successful requires understanding both the languages of reason and faith; reason alone is insufficient.