This is the fourth in a series of essays on Islam and religion in general, which the author wrote to his daughter many years ago, while she was a teenager studying in the UK. There are six essays in total written roughly a week apart over a period of about two months. Surkhiyan is pleased to publish them exclusively.
Four: The Concept of God
A few words need to be said about the concept of God in Islam. The Quran puts it succinctly: “There is nothing in existence like Him”. This means simply that it is not possible for us to envision Him. He is beyond the capacity of our minds to imagine or conceive. And why should this be surprising? In our era we are privy to the nature of the universe. Its sheer immensity astonishes us. There are millions of galaxies and billions of stars. Stars are born and die in such extreme conditions that the ‘laws’ of physics cease to apply.
At the other end of the scale, here on Earth, there are creatures visible only under a microscope or a magnifying glass. Insects such as the ant or bee or fly are marvels of engineering. The Quran tells us that if all of humanity were to come together to create a single fly, we would not be able to do so.
Do our minds really have the ability to imagine what the Creator may look like? I think not. Yet at the start of the Renaissance in Europe something strange started to happen. We see the start of what is called the anthropomorphism of God – God represented as though he was a man.
Look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and you will see what Michelangelo thought of Him: A bearded, kindly avuncular figure, covered with a mantle, reaching out tenderly to a nude Adam. Is this the Creator of the Universe, the Lord of the worlds?
Yet, amazingly, this is the image that came to dominate the European mind. God became an elderly, mild mannered, benevolent gentleman. And from there it was only a short step to deny Him. After all, if He was just like us, then what possible help could He be to us? When tragedy or bereavement struck it became easy to ask: How could God have let this happen? Or to ask: If there really is a God how could there be so much wickedness on Earth?
All of this just because of an image on a church ceiling?! Maybe this is why we Muslims are wary of images of the human form. It does not take long for us to start to worship what our hands create.
But back to our subject: The god of Michelangelo is not the God of the Quran. The God of the Quran – exalted may He be above any description – does as He pleases. His actions are not subject to the judgment of His creatures. As humans we are necessarily creatures of limited vision and intelligence. What may seem as wickedness to us – and God alone knows the truth – may in fact be a blessing. And who are we to say, when we are bereaved of someone we love: How could God have let this happen? Is not the person we love returning to the Creator? Do we not all return? Does the Creator not know what is best? And this is why in Islam when we are bereaved, we say:
إنٌ لله وإنٌ إليه راجعون
‘Verily we belong to Allah, and to Him we return’. Don’t mistake what I mean: Yes, we are sad, and yes, we will dearly miss the departed, but to say that we have been wronged or that injustice has been done is to step beyond the pale of Islam.
It is instructive to note that the Quran never seeks to describe God. Instead it conveys His power and glory and absolute authority by referring to His ‘signs’. We are reminded constantly to contemplate these ‘signs’ – the mountains, the oceans, the rain, the birds, our bodies, the alternation of night and day, the sprouting of crops and their decay. And since these signs are everywhere, we never, in a sense, escape from contemplating Him. And this is precisely the meaning of what Muslims call ‘taqwa’ – the constant unrelenting awareness of Him; that He is here, He is watching, and He knows.
In my next essay, number 5 in the series, God willing, I’ll take up an issue that has suddenly become very topical in your neck of the woods.
To be continued
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