Allah

Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah / The Cow): 255

Allah! There is no god but He,
The Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal.

No slumber can seize Him nor sleep.

His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth?

He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth.
His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).

[‘The Holy Qur’an’, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Saudi approved revision), 1985]

 

‘Allah’

The Qur’an uses ‘Allāh’ as God’s name over two and a half thousand times. The word is a contraction of ‘al-ilāh’, literally ‘the god’. The Arabic word ‘ilāh’, is derived from the biblical names for God, ‘Elohim‘, ‘Elohai‘ and ‘Elah‘, probably best known to Christians through the Aramaic ‘Eloi’, that is used by Jesus, in quoting Psalm 22   , upon the cross, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew (27.46 ) and Mark (15.34 ). Inscriptions have been discovered showing that the title ‘al-ilāh’ was in use by pagans, as well as Jews and Christians in pre-Islamic Arabia. The former seem to have originally used the term in inscriptions as a reverential form of address that might be used in prayer towards any god. In later inscriptions this seems to have become used as a name for a supreme god, and the contracted form ‘Allah’ became common in personal names such as Abd’Allah (‘servant of god‘). It also acquired a female form, al-Lat, literally ‘the goddess’, which appears on rock inscriptions and within the Qur’an as one of three pagan gods referred to in {53.19} (see 〈33.〉 and 〈35.〉). Allat was probably understood amongst pagans as supreme-Allah’s consort. However, there is no clear record of the contracted form ‘Allah’ being used as a term for the monotheistic God, other than as part of a personal name, prior to the Qur’an.

 

Those to whom the Qur’an was mostly addressed, despite being presented in the traditional Islamic narrative as polytheists, seem to have recognised the name of Allah as belonging to the sole creator of the heavens and the earth:

{29.61} Wert thou to ask them: ‘Who created the heavens and earth, and made the sun and moon subservient?’ they would surely say: ‘Allah’,

(see also {31.25}, {39.38} and {43.9}); as the source of humanity, in {43.87} which replicates the wording of {29.61} save for substituting ‘you’ for ‘the heavens and the earth’, and as the exerciser of dominion over his creation:

{23.84} Say ‘Whose is the earth…?’

{23.89} They will say ‘Allah’s

The Allah of the Qur’an distinguishes Himself from the pagan godhead or supreme-god Allah through His denouncing the association of Him with a subsidiary pantheon of minor deities, His issuing of specific commands and His warning of a coming apocalypse. On four occasions the Qur’an achieves this differentiation by a word play upon the importance of the definite article: ‘There is no god but the-God’ (‘lā ilāha illā allāh), {2.255}, {3.2}, {4.87} and {64.13}. This phrase was later incorporated into the formal, concise, declaration of the Islamic faith, called the Shahada, normally expanded to include the name of Muhammad:

There is no god but God (or Allah)

and Muhammad is His Messenger.〈52.〉

 

Tawhid

God, in Islam as in all monotheistic religions, exists outside of creation: omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent yet also transcendent, the creator and sustainer of all that is and every being’s ultimate judge. The Qur’an places a great emphasis upon the oneness and indivisible nature (‘tawhid’) of God. To ‘associate’ a partner with God is the sin of ‘shirk’, said in {4.48 & 116} to be unforgiveable. Based upon the traditional narrative of Ibn Ishaq the Quranic shirkers (‘mushrikūn’) are often rendered in translations as ‘polytheists’. It should be noted, however, that to associate a partner with God cannot be the same as being a polytheist, since to associate a partner with God must involve a belief in the existence of a monotheistic God, whereas polytheism is most commonly understood as the belief in a pantheon of which no one divinity is all powerful. It seems that the sin of shirk is the appeal to minor gods or to angels 〈14.〉 – as intermediaries, although the Qur’an’s wording is far from clear: ‘Most of them believe not in God that they ascribe partners unto him’, {12.106}.

 

Of these associations, the Qur’an in particular condemns the belief that God has taken a child, Surah 112 possibly worded to rebut the Nicene Creed.

{112.1} Say: ‘He, God, is One

{112.2} God the eternally sufficient unto Himself [‘ṣamad’: a word that is notoriously difficult to translate but which literally means ‘solid’)

{112.3} He begets not, nor is He begotten,

{112.4} And none is like unto Him.’

(Similarly {2.116}, {42.11}). This denunciation of belief in an offspring of God   specifically targets the beliefs that either angels, {16.57}, {17.40}, {37.149}, {43.16} and {52.39}, or the three pagan gods named above ({53.19-23} 33.〉) are God’s daughters; and also condemns the Jews who, the Qur’an alleges, say that ‘Ezra is the son of God’ and the Christians who say that ‘the Messiah is the Son of God’, per {9.30} 〈88.〉, also {10.68}, {18.4} and {19.88-92}.

 

The arguments proposed in the Qur’an as to why it is that God could not have offspring are probably more instructive about the nature of Allah than the denials themselves. In {6.101}, it is rhetorically asked ‘How should he have a child when He has no consort …?’ (see also {72.3}). On all five occasions when it is denied that God had daughters, He asks rhetorically how it could be that an omnipotent God should have chosen a daughter for Himself rather than a son, 〈76.〉 Moreover, it could not be the case that there were multiple gods for if there were they ‘would surely have been corrupted{21.22}, and ‘some would overcome others’, {23.91}. From these passages it seems that although, unlike pagan gods, Allah reigns over His creation in splendid isolation, He nonetheless has not changed his nature so much from his namesake, pagan Allah, so much that it is nonsensical, as opposed to merely being inaccurate, to talk of Him having had a consort and offspring and struggling with beings similar to Himself.

 

In addition to conveying God’s uniqueness, tawhid is also traditionally understood as meaning that God is indivisible. But God’s fullest exposition of His nature in the Qur’an, in which He compares himself to a lit lamp (‘al-nūr’) spectacularly fails to capture this unicity:

{24.35}  God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.

The parable of His Light is a niche, wherein is a lamp.

The lamp is in a glass.

The glass is as a shining star kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West. Its oil would well-nigh shine forth, even if no fire had touched it. Light upon light.

God guides unto His Light whomsoever He will, and God sets forth parables for mankind, and God is Knower of all things.

Seeing the light’, as a phrase for expressing an experience of the divine, was hardly novel, even fourteen centuries ago, and is deployed in several other passages of the Qur’an, with God’s people moving ‘out of darkness into light’ through their belief, {14.1 & 5} and {65.11}, the sighted and those in the light being described as superior to the blind and those in the dark, {13.16} and {35.19-20}, and the Last Day depicted as a dawn, see 〈10.〉 above, on which day the whole earth ‘will shine with the light of its Lord’, {39.69}, making the faces of those beholding him radiant, {75.22-23}. But the extended metaphor of an oil lamp in {24.35} is impossible to reconcile with the idea of God as one and indivisible, since the lamp of {24.35} is specifically described as existing through the combination of separate parts: the oil (which may itself be luminous), the wick and the glass, whilst the light that is emitted is self-evidently emanates from the lamp. The verse has provided scope for mystical interpretation of the true meaning of the elements (the Qur’an, the prophets, faith, etc) that combine to create God’s Light, but which of them represents God Himself, as the ultimate source of illumination, the metaphor is unable to identify.

 

A more innovative image for God, possibly liked to the symbolism of baptism, is that of God having a colour and acting as a dye, (in Ahmed Ali’s translation ):

{2.138} We have taken the colouring of God and whose shade is better than God’s? Him alone we worship.

See also 〈12.〉 following.

 

Anthropomorphisms

Despite the strong cultural opposition in Islam to portraying God as possessing human characteristics, the reference in {2.255} above, to the heavens and earth as God’s ‘pedestal’ or footstool, adapting Isaiah 66.1 .

Thus says the Lord:
The heavens are my throne and the earth is my footstool

is one of many anthropomorphisms of God employed in the Qur’an. After having created the heavens and the earth God is said, on seven occasions – {7.54}, {10.3}, {13.2}, {20.5}, {25.59}, {32.4} and {57.4} – to have ‘mounted His throne’, see 〈23.〉, He teaches man ‘by the Pen’, {96.4} 〈31.〉 and possesses ‘the keys of the heaven and the earth‘, {39.63} and {42.12}.and (for Yusuf Ali) oversees His creation ‘on a watchtower{89.11}. He recounts how in particular He kept each of the infant Moses, whilst adrift in his basket on the Nile {20.39}, Noah in his ark {54.14} and Muhammad {52.48}, ‘under His (watchful) Eye(s)’. Ultimately, ‘All things perish save His Face’, {28.88}, one of a dozen references to God’s Face including {2.115 & 272}, {30.38}, {55.27} and {76.9}. Among that which God hands have wrought are cattle, {36.71}, and God describes keeping His Hand over the hands of those who pledge allegiance to His messenger, {38.75}. On the Last Day 〈96.〉 the whole earth shall be ’but a handful to Him … and the heavens will be enfolded in His Right Hand‘, {39.67}, after which God will ’lay bare His Shin’ towards which the people will prostrate themselves, {68.42}.

 

God’s physical hands appear to have special theological importance, for in {38.75} God tells Iblis ‘What has prevented thee from prostrating to unto that which I created with My two Hands?’ In posing this question God distinguishes Adam from that creation, including angels and jinn, which was brought into existence at His verbal command 〈13.〉 Adam deserved the angels’ reverence because he (presumably along with cattle) was God’s personal handiwork.

 

God’s beautiful names

In addition to Allah and the more specifically Judeo-Christian Rahman, see 〈9.〉 above, the Qur’an frequently concludes a group of verses with one or more attribute of God, referred to as His ‘most beautiful names’, {7.180}, {17.110}, {20.8} and {59.24}. Two of these names, ‘the Most High/Exalted’, ‘the Supreme/Magnificent’, appear at the conclusion of {2.255} above. Based upon a hadith the Qur’an is said to contain ninety-nine such names, but although many lists of ninety-nine such names have been compiled, none is definitive. In fact, over two hundred such short descriptors of God have been identified within the Quran. Some of these names describe essential aspects of monotheistic divinity:the Almighty’, ‘the Creator’, ‘the All-seeing, All-hearing’, ‘the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward’; ’Giver of Life‘ and ‘Bringer of Death’. Through others, God provides mankind with suitably deferential terms to use when addressing Him: ‘the Absolute Ruler’, ‘the Pure One’, ‘the Beautiful’, ‘the Praiseworthy’, ‘the Greatest’.

Gabriel Said Reynolds has observed , citing Daud Rahbur,

The Qur’an on occasion gives pairs of divine names that would seem to affirm both one thing and its opposite. For example Allah is ‘the one who honours’ and ‘the one who humiliates’, ‘the one who grants’ and ‘the one who withholds’, ‘the one who offers help’ and ‘the one who causes distress’, ‘the one who guides’ and ‘the one who leads astray’. These names simply make the point that God is responsible for everything. They do not define his character or disposition in any particular way. Indeed they would seem to keep God’s nature a mystery.’

Just twice, at {11.90} and {85.14}, He is described as ‘loving’.

{59.22-23} contains a sequence of eleven such names:

He is God other than Whom there is no god,

Knower of the Unseen and the seen,
And he is the Compassionate, the Merciful.

He is God other than Whom there is no god,

the Sovereign, the Holy Peace, the Faithful, the Protector, the Mighty, the Compeller, the Proud.

Glory be to Him above the partners they ascribe.

From a practical standpoint, these periodically inserted adjectives also serve to divide the longer surahs into blocks of verses and to round off a stanza with a suitable rhetorical flourish.

 

The Qur’an’s Allah has many of the character attributes of the Hebrew Bible’s Yahweh, personality traits that led Richard Dawkins to famously describe Him as ‘arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.’ The rules of both seem capricious, often petty, bizarrely concerned with menstruation, sex and diet, and their punishments are harsh and unevenly applied, see Part V Sharia and 〈85.〉 Both present as unpredictably partisan, short-tempered and preoccupied above all, with Their own veneration, this, the Qur’an telling us, being the sole reason why He made mankind and jinn at all, {51.56}. The repeated insistence in Their justice and mercy, are frequently undermined by Their own words and acts. However, Yahweh’s irascible nature is mitigated by the knowledge that He acts and is perceived through the lore of a community recalling a thousand years of their history through the prism of a fundamental belief that, despite many hardships they remained ultimately God’s people. In Christianity, the Old Testament is treated as an extended allegory for the loving, and self-sacrificial God of the New. Allah, by contrast, through the Qur’an, writes His own self-description and as a result His character appears in sharper focus, than it does to Jews or Christians through their separating media of sacred history or theological motifs.

 

Unlike the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Qur’an openly communicates His pleasure in contemplating the comeuppance of those whom He is about to destroy. God several times asserts His primacy in through his excelling in a quality ‘makr’, that is translated as plotting, craftiness or cunning, even deviousness. So, in {3.54} and {8.30}, He states: ‘They plotted, and God plotted. And God is the best of plotters’, with similar boasts of His superlative plotting skills occurring in {7.99}, {10.21}, {14.46} and {27.50}. {13.42} asserts ‘Unto God belongs plotting altogether’. A similar attribute is referred to by ‘kayd’ (also translatable as ‘plotting’) in {86.15-16}. In {89.14} (the verse that Yusuf Ali interprets as God occupying a watchtower) is more commonly rendered ‘Truly thy Lord lies in ambush’. A curious recurring device has God express Himself as engaging in the same activity as those he is about to destroy, but more successfully, with the implicit suggestion that it is not the nature of what men do that is their sin, but only their rejection of God’s supremacy over their actions. So a mocking dark sarcasm can be detected in:

Send them glad tidings of a painful punishment’, used on no less than eight occasions: {3.21}, {4.138}, {9.3 & 34}, {31.7}, {45.8} and {84.24},

Evil indeed is the gift that will be offered them!’, {11.99},

The Qur’an … increases the wrongdoers in naught but loss’, {17.82},

They say [traditionally in relation to the expedition to Tabuk 〈49.〉] ‘Go not forth in the heat’; say: ‘The Fire of Hell is of a heat more intense’,

and following a graphic descriptions of the torments of Hell, ‘This shall be their welcome on the Day of Judgment’, {56.56}, (see also {4.97}, 〈37.〉, below.)

See also {52.14} 〈18.〉

 

In contrast to the core doctrinal message of the Qur’an that God is mighty and inscrutable, utterly removed from human comprehension, in fact the authorial voice by which that message is delivered, is more recognisably human than it protests.