Sixth Letter

Dear Abdallah,

Thank you for your very interesting remarks in your last letter. What you write is all too true. One so easily gets side-tracked from the real issues—and you bring us right on track again.

You say that both of us speak about God and have a certain perception of him. Yet when we speak about him, we discover that our perceptions differ, and with it our worldview and lifestyle. Why is that so, since we both acknowledge that there is only one God? You provided the answer already: Because we base our understanding of God on differing premises. I deem it necessary to try to define what—or better who—we mean when we say ‘God’.

Observing the many often severely differing perceptions people have of God, one cannot help feeling that many follow a figment of their imagination. We will have to think about that.

Who is God? Is Allah as portrayed by Islam, and Jahveh Elohim, as He is presented in the Bible, the same? If yes, why do we get conflicting information about him? Let me share my view of this with you.

While around the world thousands, if not millions of deities are venerated or even worshiped, you and I believe there is one God, one God only. I also believe that any seeming differences about God in the one or other religion are not reflecting a division within God, but are the result of a false or incomplete information about Him. I believe wholeheartedly that all true knowledge about God must essentially come from God Himself. What can we know about Him?

Firstly, I like to mention creation. I am speaking of the sum of everything that exists. Nature gives the information that something infinitely greater, more powerful and intelligent than what we can perceive, must be the designer of everything.

Yet creation does not reveal anything more. It cannot tell us whether this powerful intelligence is just a force of some kind, or whether it has a personality. So while I can safely state that ‘God’ is almighty and super-intelligent, I could not conclude from observing nature that He is personal, holy, righteous, merciful or loving. Both, Christians and Muslims rightly claim that He has these attributes. Our Books say so, and so do our theologians. And yet we differ in our perception of the nature of God.

Take the word righteousness. Does that mean that God is totally good and therefore will always act rightly? If God is good, can He create evil? If He is righteous, can he induce someone to commit sin and then punish that person for doing so? If God is love, can he be indifferent to our eternal well-being? Intuitively both of us will answer without hesitation that God could not have created evil, induce a person to sin and punish him for that, and that he cannot be indifferent to his creatures. Our innate perception of God causes us to think this way. Incidentally, what you and I intuitively believe, is in full agreement with the Bible.

Yet this cannot be said of Islam. According to Imam al-Barqavi (died 1135), the famous theologian and Qur’an commentator,

He (Allah) receives neither profit nor loss from whatever may happen. If all the infidels became believers... he would gain no advantage. On the other hand, if all believers became infidels, he would suffer no loss. He can do what he wills, and whatever he wills comes to pass. He is not obliged to act. Everything, good or evil, in this world exists by his will. He wills the faith of the believers and the piety of the religious. If he were to change his will there would be neither a true believer nor a pious man. He willeth also the unbelief of the unbeliever and the irreligion of the wicked and, without that will, there would neither be unbelief nor irreligion... He is perfectly free to will and to do what he pleases. In creating unbelievers, in willing that they should remain in that state; in making serpents, scorpions and pigs; in willing, in short, all that is evil. God has wise ends in view which it is not necessary that we should know.

(‘Haft sifat’ as quoted in Hughes ‘Dictionary of Islam’ p. 141)

Quite obviously, what al-Barqavi and most other Muslim theologians mean to express by formulations like this is the greatness of God. Of course, this is based on the Qur’an and the Traditions, else no one would have accepted such a statement:

If Allah so willed He could make you all one people: but He leaves straying [should read: leads astray] whom He pleases and He guides whom He pleases: but ye shall certainly be called to account for all your actions. (Surah 16:93 — translated by Yusuf Ali; see also Surah 16:37, 6:149)

The greatness of Allah, it looks, is overruling righteousness, mercy and love. These are attributes we certainly expect from God. Verses like the above, and they are many, are, in fact, contradicting many other passages in the Qur’an—including the Shahada. I indeed fail to see an execution of righteousness and justice, when a person is punished for something he was compelled by God to commit. This is not an isolated passage. It is verified by verses like:

Whom Allah doth guide—he is on the right path; whom He rejects from His guidance—such are the persons who perish. Many are the Jinns and men We have made for Hell. (Surah 7:178)

If We [i.e. Allah] had so willed, We could certainly have brought every soul its true guidance; but the word from Me will come true, 'I will fill hell with Jinns and men all together'. (Surah 32:13)

Allah leads astray those whom He pleases, and guides whom He pleases. (Surah 14:4. See also Surah 9:51, 5:18, 16:93, 37:96, 76:29-30, 4:88, 16:36, 6:149 and 7:158.)

He forgiveth whom He pleaseth and He punishes whom He pleaseth. (Surah 5:18. Read also Surah 37:96; 76:29-30; 4:88; 16:36; 6:149; 7:158.)

Such statements are strongly supported by the Hadith. Let us just look at two passages:

Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Allah fixed the very portion of adultery which a man will indulge in. There would be no escape from it. (Sahih Muslim IV, p. 1396-1398)

Abu Darda's reported that the Holy Prophet said: Allah created Adam when He created him. Then He stroke his right shoulder and took out a white race as if they were seeds, and He stroke his left shoulder and took out a black race as if they were coals. Then He said to those who were in his right side: Towards Paradise and I don't care. He said to those who were on his left shoulder: Towards Hell and I don't care. (Mishkat vol. 3, p. 117)

Any person with a darker complexion believing that would certainly be terrified at this prospect.

Al-Baqawi explains the principle that led to such doctrine:

Not only can he (Allah) do anything, he actually is the only one who does anything. When a man writes, it is Allah who has created in his mind the will to write. Allah at the same time gives the power to write, then brings about the motion of the hand and the pen and the appearance upon paper. All other things are passive, Allah alone is active.

The overruling question that arises is where the love of God fits in here, and his mercy and grace, on which we all depend. I reflect again on our imperfection and lack of purity. If you take the trouble to analyze this in the Qur’an, you will find that Allah only loves the righteous and good. And what about us, who did wrong, who trespassed God’s commands? Frightening is what al-Ghazzali once wrote, and I don’t need to introduce him to you:

Love is to sense a need of the beloved, and since Allah cannot be said to have a need or an experience of a need, it is therefore impossible that Allah should love.

Such a view of God is absolutely contrary to the Bible. As a core statement about God in Islam is Allahu akbar, so the Bible states that God is Love. Yes, He is holy and righteous in his judgments. We do realize that this knowledge by itself is severely threatening to us, because we are unrighteous. But God’s righteousness is bonded with his mercy and love. Have a look what the Bible teaches:

About his Majesty:

This is what the Lord spoke, saying:

‘By those who come near Me
   I must be regarded as holy;
and before all the people
   I must be glorified.’
(Leviticus 10:2)

Exalt the Lord our God,
and worship at His footstool—He is holy.
(Psalm 99:5)
I dwell in the high and holy place. (Isaiah 57:15)

He is the blessed and only Potentate,
   the King of kings and Lord of lords,
   who alone has immortality,
   dwelling in unapproachable light,
   whom no man has seen or can see,
   to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen.
(1 Timothy 6:16)

Holy, holy, holy, [is the] Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!
(Revelation 4:8)

About God’s expectation from us:

What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good. (Deuteronomy 10:12-14)

About God’s view of mankind:

They have turned their back to Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble, they will say, ‘Arise and save us.’ (Jeremiah 2:27)

About God’s efforts to draw us to himself:

Oh, that you had heeded My commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea. (Isaiah 48:17-18)

‘I will not cause My anger to fall on you, for I am merciful,’ says the Lord; ‘I will not remain angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God, ... and you have not obeyed My voice,’ says the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:7)

Incline your ear, and come to Me.
Hear, and your soul shall live;
and I will make an everlasting covenant with you.
(Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-9)

I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins. ...Return to Me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)

He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young. (Isaiah 40:11)

For thus says the Lord God: ‘Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out... I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,’ says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34:11)

Jesus 600 years later said:

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. (Luke 15:3-7)

I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep...
I am the good shepherd and I know My sheep...
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again...
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.
And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.
(John 10:11-17, 27-30)

You will have realized that my writing is not a theological paper on the doctrine of God. But you will have picked up some ‘vibes’ from the heart of God. But you will also have detected the intrinsic difference between our views of God, and probably also begin to understand or even appreciate my enthusiasm for Him. Of course, in a letter like this one can only touch on minute aspects of the nature of God, and even that all too briefly.

Let me in closing try to sketch with a few words the essence of our differing perceptions of God:

In an effort to honour God, you, as a Muslim, emphasize his power and might. Islam demands submission under the rule of God, and you try to oblige by submitting to its many rules. Yet due to your view of God, you cannot have any assurance whatsoever about your standing before God—until Judgment Day.

While Islam predicates God as being tansih, that is aloof in his majestic glory, and detached from all else, the Bible depicts God as the condescending one, whose love and compassion toward man creates a way to rescue him.

From the Bible, I know that God is holy, and I know that I am not. I also know that God is justified by demanding righteousness from us, but that He actually gives us his own. In His love He gives himself for us. In Jesus he is our ‘good shepherd’, who goes after the lost sheep until he finds it and then gives his life for his sheep. This indeed reflects God’s love for us, and such love expresses the value God attaches to each of us. We are not like rats or lice in His sight. If we accept His outstretched hand, we are His beloved children!

There is one restriction, however. With obvious sorrow of heart Jesus, just before his death on the cross, uttered these heart-rendering words to those who opposed him:

How often have I longed to gather your children together,
as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings,
but you were not willing!
(Matthew 23:37)

The obstacle for God is not our sin, for his love has overcome that already, but our unwillingness to receive his gift of love, forgiveness through Jesus.

There is a proverb that says,

out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks
Isn’t this true? Well, that’s the way it is with me when writing about God. (By the way—that proverb also originated from the Bible in Matthew 12:34).

But now I must apologize for the length of this letter! However, you will agree that this is not inappropriate for the topic we touched on.

Fond greetings!