Sunday, February 20, 2011

Allah: Who is the god of Islam?

This is the first in a series of articles that are designed educate Christians about the nature and essence of the god and core teachings of the third great religion of the world, Islam. Efforts will be made to treat this subject solely from a spiritual perspective and to resist the urge to politicize the issues. As a conservative, reformed believer in the Christian community, I am primarily interested in helping fellow-believers arrive at a basic understanding of the teachings and claims of the Muslim faith. The content of these articles begins with a description of the god in Islam, Allah, and moves from there to the history of Islam, its teachings, its challenges, and the evangelistic strategy for reaching Muslims.

The name of god in Islam is Allah. Etymologically, the word Allah or Al Lah means the same thing as the English word God. The Arabic meaning for Allah is ‘the Divinity.’ Even when Christian Arabs say the word God in Arabic, they say Allah. Norman Geisler, in commenting on the etymology of the word Allah says, There are twenty different views as to the derivation of this name of the Supreme; the most probable is that its root is illah, the past participle form, or the measure fi’al, from the verb ilaho = to worship, to which the article was prefixed to indicate the supreme object of worship.” Therefore, we should understand that when a Muslim says Allah, he is simply saying god in Arabic. Now this does not answer the question, “is this the same God of Christianity?” For that we will have to understand how the Islamic faith describes and defines the nature and essence of Allah.

As Geisler points out, Sura 112 is dedicated to answering the question, ‘who is God?’ It reads, Say: He is God alone. God the eternal! He begetteth not; and He is not begotten; And there is none like unto Him. This definition describes a god who is both eternal and absolute. Like Judaism and Christianity before it, Islam is expressly monotheistic. In fact, it can be said that the entire point of Islamic faith is the expression of the unity of the one true God. However, as far as Muslims are concerned, Christianity is polytheistic. We will return to this issue later. Suffice it to say that Islam is staunchly monotheistic in it’s understand of God. The consequences of this view amounts to an outright rejection of the Christian Trinitarian formulas of God. God is not three persons in one being according to the tenets of Islam. There are numerous differences in how Muslims understand God and how Christians understand Him. This is to be expected since the sources for God’s revelation for the two religions are fundamentally different and diametrically opposed to one another.

To the Muslim, God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-merciful, and all compassionate. He is one. He was and is supreme (Rausch & Voss. World Religions: Our Quest for Meaning. 180). While there appear to be similarities between Christianity and Islam, there is a huge gulf between their respective understanding of who and what God is. For instance, “Islam has God divorced from His creation, so unified to Himself that He can not be associated with creation. His transcendence is so great that He acts impersonally (McDowell & Stewart. Handbook of Today’s Religions. 393). This view of God would reject the Christian doctrine of immanence.” One Muslim scholar writes, “He is unique and nothing resembles Him in any respect.” (Geisler) It is also said that God’s speech is an eternal speech that does not resemble the speech of created things. (Geisler) Geisler points out that Muslims insist on learning and remember the following thirteen attributes of God: “Existence, Eternity, Perpetuity, Dissimilarity, Self-Sustenance, Unity, Might, Will, Knowledge, Life, Hearing, Sight and Speech. There is clearly an issue with how Islam knows these attributes about Allah since it also asserts that God is unlike anything we know in the created order. For instance, humans understand “will” to refer to a person’s volition, their desires carried out by acts. If God’s will is entirely different from our will, what can Islam offer as a referent for understanding how God wills? After all, if God’s speech, being eternal and entirely different from all created speech, is so unique, how then can we hope to understand what God means when he says “will?” Claiming that Gabriel provided Mohammad with this divine communication fails to provide a rational explanation. After all, angels are created beings and by Islam’s own admission, cannot understand God’s eternal speech any more than created humans. We will return to a more detailed evaluation of Islamic beliefs later.

The absolute unity and transcendence of God leads to a kind of agnosticism in the Islamic religion. After all, the real aim of Islam as we will see later is not to know Allah, but to submit to His will. For the Muslim, submission to the will of Allah is the ultimate function in life. In fact, one of the greatest and most distinctive differences between Christianity and Islam is located here. Islam denies that God has revealed Himself to mankind. According to Islam, God cannot reveal Himself to man. He can only reveal His will. Hence it follows that in Islam man cannot really know anything about God Himself, but only His will. (Al-Faruqi, Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wah: Proceedings of the Chambesy Dialogue Consultation (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1982), 47–48.) Christianity takes a fundamentally different view of God’s revelation. Geisler remarks, This is a fundamental point of difference between Islam and the Christian faith (as Al-Faruqi has also pointed out) in regard to their doctrine of God. We must not easily pass over this tension. The logical outcome of Orthodox Islamic theology is agnosticism in regard to the character of God. For Islamic theology, God has willed and has acted in many ways, but these actions in no way reflect the divine character behind them.

In summary, Islam denies any plurality in the being of God by denying that God has essence. God is absolute unity. Of course unity, by definition implies plurality. Otherwise, how can we speak of unity? Unity is, after all, unity of something. What Islam means by absolute unity is better understood as absolute oneness in my opinion. Islam holds to such an extreme view of transcendence that it leads to a form of agnosticism. The Qur’an is a revelation of God’s will, not of God Himself. According to Islam, we really have no way of knowing what the character of God really is. We can only know His will. And from that we cannot deduce what God is actually like. For God is unlike anything we know. There is nothing like Allah. Moreover, the Christian doctrine of immanence is rejected by Islamic theology. This means there is no such thing as God’s covenant presence in human relations with God or anyone else as far as that goes. In conclusion then, Allah is absolute oneness, and so transcends creation that we cannot know anything about Him because He cannot reveal Himself to creation. He is not personally involved in relationships with mankind as Christianity asserts. Humans have a mechanistic duty or obligation to submit to the will of Allah above all else. That is our duty. Of the 99 names listed for God in Islam, not one of them is father. That God should have a son is unthinkable.

Jesus says, “from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” John 14:7 He also prays, “That they may know you, the only true God…” John 17:3 John writes, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” 1 John 2:3 John also says, “I have written to you children, because you know the Father.” 1 John 2:13 Clearly Christianity teaches that we can and do know God. Moreover, Christians relate to God as Father. The Lord’s prayer demonstrates this without ambiguity. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Matt. 6:9 Christianity holds to the God of Scripture who is both sovereign over all creation and intimately involved in their lives. This stands over against Allah, the god of Islam.

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