Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Concept of God in Islam: An Introduction

Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

The starting point for the understanding of the Islamic concept of God are the phenomena or events that take place in nature and the world of man. Again and again, the Qur`an points to observable things and happenings — to heavens, with their decorative starts (50:6-8), to the earth, with its majestic, stabilizing mountains (31:10-11), to the sun and the moon and their movements on their well-defined courses (34:38-40), to the alternation of days and nights and the accompanying cycle of work and sleep (3:190, 27:86), to winds that, on the one hand, bring clouds and rain (30:48) and, on the other hand, make possible the movement of ships (10:22), to the great variety of life-forms such as plants that produce fruits and grains, each with a different taste (13:4, 34:32-35), to cattle out of whose bellies comes healthy milk from between blood and refuse (16:66), to bees and their production of honey, in which there is healing for men (16:69), to the fire that is ignited by man (56:71-72), to the birth of a human baby and the various stages that lead to it (23:12-14), to the variety of colors and languages found among human beings (30:22) and to events that take place within man, his mind and heart, and those that take place in human history (41:53).
Contrary to what is said sometimes, the Qur`an does not point to events in the universe as part of a theological argument for the existence of God. It no doubt often points to the order and beauty in the universe (67:3-5, etc.), but never as a burhan or hujjah (proof or argument) for God's existence. In fact, it often points to phenomena of nature in a language which assumes the existence of God: "WE send winds...", WE give life..." Moreover, the Qur`an rarely, if ever, concerns itself with the question of the existence of God.
But while the Qur`an does not make natural phenomena a basis or a proof of the existence of God, it does refer to these phenomena as _y_t all_h, or signs of God, which means that they do in some way point to God.
One way that events in the universe are signs of God in the Qur`an is that they point away from the worship of idols and of great deified human beings. Man can turn to these false gods only by ignoring the awesome reality of the universe and the tremendous variety, complexity and consistency of events that take place in it. An idol made and put in a temple by man with his own hands who cannot even remove a fly if it sits on it or a deified human being who himself depends for his existence "on daily bread" (5:75) cannot be in any way responsible for the awesome reality that we see in the form of the universe and its events. If we ask idol worshippers who sends down the rain and through it brings about life-forms which sustain us, not many of them will seriously point to one of the idols or deified human beings as the initiator of these phenomena, especially when they are in some very serious trouble (10:22, 31). Some of them might say that such and such a god or goddess is a god or goddess of rain or some other phenomenon and is thus its initiator, but looking at the universe around us, we can see the falsehood of this claim. For there is such a consistency in the highly varied and complex phenomena in the universe that we cannot attribute them to separate gods and goddesses (21:22, 23:91-92), unless those gods and goddesses work in such perfect harmony as to completely lose their independence and individuality, in which case it would be better to give them a single corporate personality instead of talking of them as separate gods and goddesses. Idol worship is man's ultimate escape from a vast and complex reality. Through idols man replaces this reality by a simple and cozy world of visible symbols. A fresh look at nature can free his mind and spirit from this ultimate prison of his own making.
Another way in which natural phenomena act as signs of God and help lead man to God is that if their obvious implications are duly faced, they provide a cure for man's tendency to egocentricity and self-sufficiency. For, by looking at the natural phenomena, man can quickly see that he is ultimately completely dependent for everything, including his existence, on a reality other than himself and that no matter how important, he is only one of many wonderful phenomena in the universe. Egocentricity and self-sufficiency are the root cause of many diseases of the human spirit and many errors in thinking and they are a hindrance to man's realization of God. They may be one of the causes of idolatry, since idols and deified human beings may be projections of man's own ego and their worship may be a way by which man makes himself the ultimate object of his adoration and concern. By curing man's egocentricity and self-sufficiency, reflection on natural phenomena can remove a big hindrance in the way of his realization of God.
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