Chapter 2: God

What can We Learn from Islam: The Struggle for True Religion
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 2: God

The beauty of the Taj Mahal is overwhelming. I had, of course, seen pictures of it, but when, as a young student, I first went to Agra and saw the Taj, I had a feeling of awe and wonder at the grandeur of God. Made of shining white marble, the Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jehan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. Rabindranath Tagore described it as "a tear on the face of eternity. When, later, I visited the great Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jerusalem, I felt a similar feeling. The Mosque of Omar, as it is also known, is built on the place where traditionally Abraham had tried to sacrifice his son Isaac/Ishmael and from where the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) set out for his ascent to the seventh heaven). It is magnificent with its carpets and ornamentation and uplifting with its sense of space. Whenever I have returned to these buildings, which I have done many times, something of the first experience has been renewed so I have never doubted that Islam is a genuine revelation of God.

Such experiences as I have had at the Taj Mahal and the Dome of the Rock of the numinous were called by the theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), in his book The Idea of the Holy, mysterium tremendum. The tremendum implies a sense of fear and awe and of awareness of our creatureliness as we are overpowered by Majesty. Mysterium points to the accompanying sense also of Mystery, which is a feeling of fascination and attraction, which can lead into a sense of joy and peace.

It has been said that "A God comprehended is no God". The great mosques of Islam renew in me the sense of the wonder and holiness of God, to whom the prophet Isaiah in his vision heard the seraphs call out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isa. 6, 3).

This sense of Divine glory is reinforced in Islam by the regular bowing of the head to the ground in prayer. Recently I visited Anandapur Sikhri and the Golden Temple at Amritsar, two of the Sikhs’ most holy shrines, and I was expected repeatedly to bow my head to the ground. I realized how this physical gesture reinforces a sense of humility before the greatness of God.

Christians and Muslims largely agree on their belief about God. In 1076 Pope Gregory VII wrote to Prince al-Nasir, "There is a charity which we owe to each other more than the other peoples because we recognize and confess one sole God, although in different ways." In 1734 George Sale, a translator of the Qur’an, referred in his introduction to the views of an Italian scholar, Ludovico Marracci, who was the confessor to Pope Innocent XI. Sale wrote:

"That both Mohammed and those among his followers who are reckoned orthodox, had and continue to have just and true notions of God and his attributes (always excepting their obstinate and impious rejection of the Trinity), appears so plain from the Koran itself and all the Mohammedan divines, that it would be loss of time to refute those who suppose the God of Mohammed to be different from the true God. . ."

More recently, the Second Vatican Council declared that

"God’s saving will also embraces those who acknowledge the Creator, and among them especially the Muslims, who profess the faith of Abraham and together with us adore the one God, the Merciful One, who will judge men on the Last Day."

Likewise, Pope John Paul II, addressing young Moroccans in Casablanca in 1986, told them, "We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who creates the world and brings the world to perfection."

Even so, this is by no means obvious to many Christians and it is necessary to lose time to affirm this point. Not long ago, I was asked in a BBC interview, "How can you join with members of other faiths in prayer? Surely, they worship different gods?" My answer was that I am a monotheist and believe there is only one God, who is the Creator of all people. Our pictures of that God may differ, but there is only one Divine reality.

For this reason, as I am writing in English, I prefer to use the word God rather than Allah, to emphasize that there is one Divine Reality of whom we as Christians or Muslims are both speaking, just as I dislike the use of the word "Yahweh" for God in some modern translations of the Bible. I am aware, however, that Muslims have usually preferred to use the word "Allah" rather than God in their translations of the Qur’an into English and I honor this when I quote from the Holy Qur’an. "Allah", of course, is the word that Arab-speaking Christians use for God.

Both the Bible and the Qur’an affirm and declare the reality of God. They do not argue for God’s existence. In both God speaks to human beings or is the object of their praise or the One to whom they pray. Both Christians and Muslims believe that God is One, although some Muslims in their criticisms of the doctrine of the Trinity have appeared to think that Christians believe in more than one God.

For both Muslims and Christians, God is the Creator of the world. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an has only brief references to the creation of the world -- the longest being Surah 41, 9-12:

Say: Is it that ye

Deny Him Who created

The earth in two Days?

And do ye join equals

With Him? He is

The Lord of (all)

The Worlds.

He set on the (earth)

Mountains standing firm,

High above it,

And bestowed blessings on

The earth, and measured therein

Its sustenance

In four Days,

alike for

(All) who ask.

Then He turned to the sky

And it had been (as) smoke:

He said to it

And to the earth:

"Come ye together,

Willingly or unwillingly ."

They said: "We do come

(Together), in willing obedience."

So He completed them

As seven firmaments

In two Days and He

Assigned to each heaven

its duty and command.’

Perhaps because it is less interested than the Bible in how the world was created, the Qur’an speaks more about God’s continuing work of creation. In a comment on Surah 7, 54, the Saudi Arabian translation of the Qur’an says, ‘lest we should be obsessed with the Jewish idea that Allah rested on the seventh day, we are told that the Creation was but a prelude to Allah’s work: for his authority is exercised constantly by the laws which He establishes and enforces in all parts of His creation.’ The Arabic word for creation, khalaqa, is used in the Qur’an of contemporary happenings. When the four stages of the embryo in the womb are described, it is said that God ‘created’ or ‘made’ each out of the previous one (23, 12-14):

Man we did create

From a quintessence (of clay)

Then we placed him

As (a drop of) sperm

In a place of rest,

Firmly fixed;

Then we made the sperm

Into a clot of congealed blood;

Then of that clot We made

A (foetus) lump; then We

Made out of that lump

Bones and clothed the bones

With flesh; then We developed

out of it another creature.

So blessed be Allah,

the Best to create.’

God is also Lord of history. Both the Bible and the Qur’an are "sacral history", that is to say they describe past events as evidence of God’s controlling activity. The Qur’an is less interested in chronology than the Old Testament, so that its references to past events are in no particular order and are used as examples for the present. God exercises his control by sending ‘natural’ disasters as a punishment. For example, the Flood destroyed everyone because of wickedness, except Noah and his family. Again, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a result of the evil behavior of their inhabitants. God also initiates a series of events by ‘calling’ individuals, such as Abraham or Moses, to undertake a special task. God may also strengthen men to fight in battle and to gain victory.

Muslims tend to be more conscious of God’s controlling influence on the course of events. The phrase ‘insh’Allah – "if God wills it" is common, just as some Christians often used to say "Deus vult" (d.v.) Yet this does not mean that human behaviour is pre-determined, although at one time there were heated debates on the subject. The orthodox view is that all possibilities are created by God, but that human beings have the responsibility to "acquire" actions out of the possibilities, thereby becoming accountable. Disobedience to God’s will is, therefore, a human choice for which human beings are held responsible. The believer, however, is conscious that he or she only does the will of God through God’s grace.

The Qur’an begins "In the Name of Allah, Most gracious (rahman), Most merciful (rahim)." This description is often repeated and God’s mercy is emphasized. There are said to be ninety-nine beautiful names of God. Many of them are to be found in the Qur’an. The names are recited on the Muslim rosary and according to a hadith or saying of the Prophet, anyone who repeats the names of God will be sure of Paradise.

Yet although Muslims speak so much of the Mercy and Compassion of God, Montgomery Watt, a Christian scholar with a deep knowledge of and sympathy for Islam, probably correctly assesses the views of many Christians when he says that they "would claim that God as conceived by Christians is more loving than God as conceived by Muslims." I am not sure, however, that the Christian claim is true. During the Middle Ages, Christendom was dominated by pictures and carvings of the Last Judgement. Montgomery Watt suggests that for Christians God is not only benevolent towards those who obey and love him, but God is like a shepherd who goes out to look for and rescue sheep that have gone astray. Perhaps the Christian emphasis on God rescuing the sinner relates to the belief in original sin. Muslims reject this doctrine and believe that the individual is able to obey God’s commands. Moreover, as Montgomery Watt notes, in the Qur’an, God loves all humanity and has sent to each community a prophet-messenger calling on them to serve God -- so all people are given an opportunity of attaining "the great success", which is life in Paradise.

Traditionally Christians have spoken as if heaven was reserved for Christians and that others would go to hell. There are passages in the Qur’an which suggest that those who fall away will not be given another chance, but then the Epistle to the Hebrews warns that "It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace" (Hebrews 6, 4-6). In Islam, the possibility of intercession on the Last Day was developed and with it the belief that Muhammad would intercede for the sinners of his community.

Montgomery Watt also suggests that "beliefs about God’s love are probably reflected in the treatment of sinners and criminals." Farid Esack, a radical Muslim scholar from South Africa, however, comments that ‘much of the talk of a "God of love" has become little more than Western conservative Christianity avoiding fundamental issues of structural social injustice and poverty in a society that prevents the love of Allah from being experienced in concrete terms in the daily lives of ordinary people. In condoning social suffering, [Christians], he adds, "certainly have a lot of fellow travelers among some Muslim groups." He could have added also that some radical Christians, such as those who supported the World Council of Churches’ Anti-Racism program have been vocal in campaigning against structural oppression and racism. Akbar Ahmed rightly points out that in the global civilization, true Christian, "those who follow Christ both in word and deed are few and far between" and that it is a mistake to identify Christianity with dominant Western attitudes and behavior.

Farid Esack suggests we need to walk a path between "the apolitical fuzzy love of God and the relentless coldness of a distant Transcendent Being who only cares via retribution." Perhaps this is one example of where Christians and Muslims need each other to find a proper balance and both to come closer to God’s will.

Further, even if for Christians the love of God is at the heart of the gospel, the Bible warns of the judgement of God that those who turn away from the light bring on themselves. God’s love knows no limits, but the Bible is also clear about the serious consequences of our moral failures.

In a sense the sort of comparison made by Montgomery Watt is unhelpful. There are so many variations in the attitudes and behavior amongst people in different parts of the world and in different centuries who belong to the same religion, that it is almost impossible to compare like to like. This is why the key question is "what is true religion?" What teachings and practices best promote that fullness of life that is God’s will for human beings? Christians and Muslims are both called to be vigilant in ensuring that their communities live up to the highest ideals of their faith and maybe they can spur each other to good deeds. I have found that conversations with Muslim friends nearly always serve as a balancing corrective to my own views.

The way in which members of each faith can help members of the other find a truer balance takes us back to the starting point of this chapter. I began with the sense of the holiness and majesty of God that I feel in some of the great mosques. The Bible too affirms God’s holiness and at the communion service, Christians are invited to echo the great hymn of praise:

"Holy, holy, holy, Lord,

God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest."

Yet perhaps some Christian worship today with its emphasis on fellowship and popular music has lost a sense of awe and holiness.

Christians believe that the glory of God is to be seen in the face of Jesus Christ. He awakes similar feelings of awe and fascination. Yet I wonder whether Christian worship at times in emphasizing the love of God and Jesus’ closeness to his followers may lose something of the sense of divine holiness. Islam also speaks of God who is close to the believer -- as close as the jugular vein. It is a question of balance. There are different emphases within religions, but perhaps Islam and Christianity can serve as correctives to each other. Both speak of a God who is transcendent. Isaiah speaks of God as "the high and lofty One . . . who lives for ever, whose name is holy" (57, 15) and Surah 7. 54 says that God "settled Himself on the Throne." Yet the same verse of Isaiah has God say, "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite." Likewise the Qur’an God says

"We know

what suggestions his soul

Makes to him: for We

Are nearer to him

Than (his) jugular vein." (50, 16).

Thus although I have spoken of my sense of the glory of God in Islam, there is also, especially in the Sufi mystical tradition, a profound sense of God’s intimacy and passionate love. The mystical tradition, with which I have great sympathy and about which I have written in the companion volume What can we Learn from Hinduism, unites believers beyond the differences of doctrines and ritual and stresses the longing to experience the presence of God. Sufism, like all mysticism, is essentially a journey towards Unity with God -- a journey which involves death to the self. This teaching is summed up in the apparently simple poem:

Before, as was my habit, self I claimed:

True Self I did not see, although I heard it named.

Being self-confined, true Self I did not merit,

Until, leaving self behind, I did Self inherit.

Sufism has given particular attention to the various stages of the spiritual journey. One of the earliest and best accounts is the Forty Stations of the eleventh century Sufi master Abu Sa’id ibn Abi’l-Khayr, of which a translation is reproduced in Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s Living Sufism. The thirty-ninth station is the supreme goal, to see God with the eye of the heart. The fortieth station purifies the Sufi from all desire.

There is a moving story of some Sufis who approached some Christian monks in Algeria -- monks who later to be massacred -- saying that they wanted to meet in prayer and silence. Mystics of all faiths point us to the true place of meeting which is in the presence of God, where comparisons become if not odious at least irrelevant, as the mystics sense the Divine Mystery, who is both the source and sustainer of all life and the most intimate presence in the heart and life of the believer. Deep dialogue can itself serve as a threshold to an experience of the numinous.

Where there is a real attempt to listen to the other, even the doctrine of the Trinity may not be so divisive as it appears. The Qur’an insists on the Oneness of God. It classes amongst unbelievers those who say ‘Allah is one of three’ (5, 73), but that has never been orthodox Christian belief. It may be that some heretical Christians at the time of Muhammed were teaching this. The doctrine of the Trinity speaks of ‘one substance and three persons’, but the modern English use of the word ‘person’ is likely to distort the meaning of this formula. The original Greek word, hypostasis, was translated into Latin as persona, which meant an ‘actor’s mask’ or a role in a play. It did not have the meaning of the modern English word person which suggests an independent self-conscious being. If the word person is taken in that sense, the doctrine of the Trinity can come appear to be tritheism or belief in three gods..

In my understanding the Trinity is a symbol which affirms the Christian experience that God is known as our Creator and Sustainer, that God is also known in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and that in both the fellowship of believers and in personal devotion God is present as the Holy Spirit. Further the symbol speaks of Love -- expressed in the mutual relationship of Father and Son bound together by the Spirit -- as the Ultimate dynamic reality. Yet, I hesitate to say that the doctrine of the Trinity describes God’s inner being and life. It is at best a symbol of a Mystery that we cannot fully fathom.

A little while after writing this, I came across a poem by an eighteenth century Persian poet called Hatif Isfahani, which praises Christianity for its affirmation of Divine Unity. I am glad to have the support of a ‘Christian charmer of hearts’:

In the church I said to a Christian charmer of hearts,

"O thou in whose net the heart is captive!

O thou to the warp of whose girdle each hair-tip

of mine is separately attached

How long wilt thou continue not to find the way

to the Divine Unity? How long wilt thou impose

on the one the shame of the Trinity?

How can it be right to name the one True God, ‘Father’,

‘Son’ and ‘Holy Ghost’?

She parted her sweet lips and said to me, while

with sweet laughter she poured sugar from her lips:

"If thou art aware of the Secret of the Divine Unity,

do not cast on us the stigma of infidelity!

In three mirrors the Eternal Beauty cast a ray

from His effulgent countenance.

Silk does not become three things

if thou callest it Parniyan, Harir and Parand."

While we were thus speaking, this chant

rose up beside us from the church bell:

"He is One and there is naught save He:

There is no God save Him alone.

Although Muslims say that God is one, some Muslim thinkers said that God had a multiplicity of attributes. These were chiefly, omnipotence, omniscience, will, speech, hearing, seeing and life. The Ash’arites -- followers of al-Ashari (873-935) a foremost Muslim theologian -- held that the attributes ‘were not God and not other than God.’ Some Mediaeval Christian theologians who lived in the Muslim world and who wrote in Arabic compared the Christian hypostases with Islamic attributes. One writer said that the hypostases represented goodness, wisdom and power; another that they were existence, speech and life.

The intellectual problem is that if there is only One God, if this is over-emphasized, any separate identity of the created world is dissolved. Such teaching, known as Monism, denies the reality of matter and maintains that despite appearances the natural world and human beings are part of God and have no independent being. These almost insoluble questions are those with which the Church fathers and mediaeval Muslim theologians wrestled. Some modern Christian thinkers, such as John Hick or Raimundo Panikkar, in their interpretation of the Trinity as a metaphor come close to Muslim thinking, but as the distinguished Muslim scholar Professor S. A. Ali observes, Muslims will always be uneasy with the language of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

This may all seem a little remote, although Seyyed Hossein Nasr of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at George Town University in Washington says, the basic element in dialogue is "faith in God." The discussion, I hope, illustrates my major point that when you ask the meaning of a doctrine or, in other words, what was the insight or truth of experience that those who formulated these doctrines wanted to safeguard, you find yourself grappling with them with concepts almost too difficult for words. You find also that others using quite different terminology may be grappling with similar issues. As some Muslim and Christian thinkers come close enough to each other to understand the truths of experience which are enshrined in long-held doctrines, they find themselves grappling with same mysteries. They have moved beyond religious frontiers to the frontier -- which no thinker, however, brilliant can ever cross -- to the meeting place of the human with the Divine where we find ourselves like Job speaking of things we do not understand, of things too wonderful for us to know and where, in God’s mercy, we may experience the reality of the One God whose glory passes our understanding.