Ode to the unknown God: Reflection on the Allah of Islam. by Rudolph P. Boshoff.

It was Theologian A.W. Tozer, in his book “The Knowledge of the Holy” that stated “What comes to into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, a man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like”.[1]

As we move forward as a global community we seemingly witness a great opportunity for ideas, customs, and beliefs to be searched and scrutinised. There is no more hiding from our own hqdefaultcherished ideals and opinions, and all seem to be ‘fair play’ on social media and public platforms. There are obvious benefits as well as unfortunate disadvantages, and almost all of us have been witnesses or victims of belittlement and other forms of abuse as individuals expressed their opinions. This post grows from a curious engagement with Islam and their understanding of their own deity. In a recent conversation a Muslim friend recited the following rhyme to me when we spoke about our mutual understanding of God: “Kullu ma khatar fi balik fahwa halik, wallahu bikhilafi thalik” which can be translated as ‘whatever you conceive in your mind, God [Allah] is not that!’ It could therefore be affirmed that the Allah that Muslims worship is ‘above’ them in all aspects. “Nothing that can be said of any of His creatures could be used to describe him…” (Maqalat al-Islamiyin). 

“Ibn Al-Qayyim, may Allah grant him His mercy, said, “All Muslims in the past and in the present, when supplicating Allah or imploring His help, they always raise their hands with palms towards the heaven. They do not lower their hands with palms towards the earth, nor do they turn them right or left, nor towards any other direction. They raise their hands up, knowing that Allah is above them[1]”.

For some time now I have read and tried to ask who Allah of Islam is. I agree, in all monotheistic traditions to express any definition of God seems impossible. If Anselm of Canterbury is correct in his book “Proslogion”, God by His very own self-definition should be the greatest conceivable being. When we look at the God of Islam from a biblical perspective, we unfortunately recognize a God who has no ‘face’. A formless deity that is only seemingly comprehended by his expressed will. Rev. W.H.T. Gairdner describes the dilemma as follow:

“Muslims have this dilemma: if they affirm their one-sided estimation of transcendence they have a God about whom you cannot assert anything, leading to agnosticism and secondly, a god that ‘leans’ on creation to make himself ‘known’ [known is applied as rather Allah’s desire to make his will known and not his person]. In fact Islam can therefore only reduce Allah to pure will or power. He is known purely by the expression of His will. Anthropomorphic attributes and any ‘personalized’ act of relation is a mere manifestation of Allah’s power or will. The soul end of man is therefore not to know God but rather to submit to god”[2].

In this article, I do not want to ask the central question if the God of Islam and Christianity are essentially the same. In fact, Karen Armstrong mentions that “Muhammad had come to believe that al-Lah, the High god of the ancient Arabian pantheon, whose name simply means “the God”, was identical to the god worshipped by the Jews and the Christians”[3]. Even though I will look at various scholars from different backgrounds within the scholarly Islamic context, we need to understand that the central issue of the knowability of Allah is problamatic to all Muslim traditions because it leaves Islam essentially theologically Agnostic! This will become more apparent as we look at the following themes:

  • Allah: In a word.
  • Allah: The wholly transcendent.
  • Allah: The Unconceivable.
  • Allah: The Unknown.
  • Allah: the dependent.
  • Allah: the Solitary Monad.

“Allah”:  in a word.

unnamedThe very name of Allah is a generic expression of God or as Helen Louise Herndon writes “Western Christians do not normally use Hebrew terms for God in their languages. They cannot expect Arab Christians to use any other term or word for theirs. Allah is equivalent to the English God, the French Dieu, or the Spanish Dios”[4]. The name Allah is therefore not synonymous with the sole deity of Islam, but rather mentions the existence of a cosmic force that is seemingly the Sustainer and governor of everything. The obvious intention is that Allah is simple a nameless/faceless God, an impersonal entity that nothing is really known about. In the end, one is left with a sustained agnosticism, because God is not what can be conceived. And the name of the Muslim God does not note any form of attribution.

One, cannot but pause for a moment and ask what the Biblical conception is about their God. The central claim of the Christian bible is that it proclaims a “known” God that desires intimacy. This is an essential difference, the Christian God warrants ‘intimacy’ and ‘closeness’, where the god of Islam demands absolute ‘submission’ and ‘obeisance’. The late Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple writes in an essay “The wise question is not ‘IS Christ Divine?’ but ‘What is God like?’[5]. The Psalmist purports, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The Prophet Daniel says “the people who do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits” (Daniel 11:32). The Biblical God is a “known” entity, and not a distant force. The Biblical God makes Himself known through Jesus Christ for the sure purpose of relationship (John 1:18.17:3-5, 14:9). In fact Jesus is the sole proprietor when it comes to our full knowledge (John 14:6b) and the full embodiment of God (Col.1:15-19, 2:9). Jesus is therefore the expressed mediator establishing intimacy and expressed will of God in motion (1 Tim.2:5, Joh.4:34, 6:38, 14:13). D.M. Baille aids us in a clarification to this statement when he says; “God is like Jesus’, ‘Jesus reflects the character of God’, ‘Christianity gives us a Christlike God[6]’. What is the Christian God like? One Word… “Love” (Joh.3:16-21, 1 Joh.4:8) and another “Abba Father” (Isa.64:8, Matt.6:9 & 26, 11:27, 1 Cor.8:6). What is the God of Christianity setting us up to know? Late Bishop of Winchester Frank Theodore Woods writes; “Jesus is the image of God, then God is like Jesus, and that means that He [God] is knowable, understandable, [and] loveable”.[7] What about Allah? What is Allah like?

Allah: Wholly transcendent:

As stated before, even Christians hold to the fact that there is just one God! Moses affirms in Deuteronomy 4:39 that we can “Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other”. Interestingly enough the Christian God is presumed to be acquainted both ‘above’ [transcendently] and ‘below’ [immanently]! For us it is not through a pantheistic realization where God is perceived through all things tangible, but for the Christian God is clearly seen through the expressed revelation of the Son (Joh.1:18, 14:7). So, who is Allah? Ibn Abbas related a story that will relate a bit more clarity in our pursuit when he writes:

“A bedouin once came to the Messenger of Allah and said, “O Messenger of Allah! Teach me of the most unusual of knowledge!” He asked him, “What have you done with the peak of knowledge so that you now ask about its most unusual things?!” The man asked him, “O Messenger of Allah! What is this peak of knowledge?!” He said, “It is knowing Allah as He deserves to be known.” The bedouin then said, “And how can He be known as He ought to be?” The Messenger of Allah answered, “It is that you know Him as having no model, no peer, no antithesis, and that He is One and only: He is the One Who is Apparent yet Hidden, the First and the Last, having no peer nor a similitude; this is the true knowledge about Him.[8]

Medieval Theologians have solely tried to rather express who God was through trying to say what he was not. This is known as ‘negative theology’ or ‘apophatic theology’. This is exactly what fuelled that Mu’tazilis understanding of Allah in the second century of the Muslim era who held that God’s attributes where not ‘in’ the Divine essence of Allah but clearly ‘were’ the Divine essence of Allah.[9] Dr. Billal Phillips writes: “Allah is above and beyond His creation. He is neither enclosed by the creation nor is any part of the creation above Him in any way. He is not part of the created world nor is it part of Him. In fact, He is totally distinct and separate from His creation. However, His attributes function without restriction in His creation. He sees, hears and knows all, and He is the prime cause of all that happens within the worlds of creation. Nothing happens without His will. Consequently, it may be said that the Islamic concept of Allah in relationship to His creation is essentially dualistic”[10].

Where does this leave the adherent and the devotee? Interestingly enough it was Paul who declared the radical idea that God is in fact not ‘unknown but known’. Acts 17:22-23 says:

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you”.

Now Paul did not mention a God present in all reality that would be polytheism, Paul expresses a God relationally, known through Jesus Christ! This is something that cannot be afforded to Islamic Monotheism. Dr. Billal Phillips cautions us “That God and His creation are distinctly different entities. God is neither equal to His creation nor a part of it, nor is His creation equal to Him or a part of Him. This might seem obvious, but man’s worship of creation, instead of the Creator is to a large degree based on ignorance, or neglect, of this concept. It is the belief that the essence of God is everywhere  in His  creation  or  that His  divine  being  is  or was  present  in  some  parts  of His creation, which has provided justification for the worship of God’s creation and naming it the worship  of  God.  However,  the message  of  Islam,  as  brought  by  the  prophets  of  God,  is  to worship only God and to avoid the worship of His creation either directly or indirectly”[11].images

Again the heart of Christian transformation is to know their God! What is the highest expression of worship in Islam? Thralldomy! Sayed Mahmoud Hamed writes: “Thralldom [A state of subjugation to an owner or master: bondage, enslavement, helotry, serfdom, servileness, servility, servitude, slavery, thrall, villeinage, yoke] is the highest rank of submission. It is the soul of worship to fill the heart with Allah’s fear, respect, and pleading. All this emits anonymously from the hearts sensation of the greatness of Allah, and its belief of an authority, the form of which is unknown. All that man knows of such authority is that it surpasses his will and that it surrounds him”[12].

Essentially the worshipper is left in the dark! He is called to submit and enjoy that which he does not know. Paul sketches another picture though of the Christian conception of God, He adds in Acts 17:27-28:

God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’

In fact there is a form of Islam that ventured out and aspired to perceive Allah even through mystical experiences, Sufiism. Robert Caspar mentions that “This one God [Allah] is transcendent, in the exact sense of the term. He is the totally other and nothing is like Him. The idea of creation introduces a radical division between the creator and creatures, in contrast to religions based on emanation or mystical experience.”[13]

Some Muslim Scholars have ventured to explain to me that ultimately the Islamic definition of transcendence does not note a distance between Allah and man. In fact they will purport that Allah always sought man to be close to him. They will mention Surah Qaf [50:16] – “And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.”

وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ وَنَعْلَمُ مَا تُوَسْوِسُ بِهِ نَفْسُهُ ۖ وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ الْوَرِيدِ

What should be understood though is that this seeming mediation and actualization of Allah is purely by and through the mediation of the Quran. In fact the ‘tashbih’ (Arabic: تشبيه‎‎) or closeness of Allah is mediated through Allah’s eternal uncreated speech of the Holy Quran. Allah is therefore not distant but immanent in it and through it! We need to emphasize that Allah is above all and “nothing is like him” (Surah Ash-Shuraa [42:11].

فَاطِرُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۚ جَعَلَ لَكُم مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَاجًا وَمِنَ الْأَنْعَامِ أَزْوَاجًا ۖ يَذْرَؤُكُمْ فِيهِ ۚ لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ ۖ وَهُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِيرُ

When describing the absolute transcendence of Allah Dr. Billal Phillips speaks of this attribute as “al-‘Uloo” which means ‘highness or transcendence’. He mentions “When it is used to describe Allah, this attribute refers to the fact that Allah is above and beyond His creation. He is neither enclosed by the creation nor is any part of the creation above Him in any way. He is not a part of the created world nor is it a part of Him. In fact, His being is totally distinct and separate from His creation… it may be said that the Islamic concept of Allah in relationship to His creation is essentially dualistic, but in relationship to Allah alone or creation alone it is strictly Unitarian[14]”.

In fact Allah’s essence is distant from all things, yet, immanent in his attributes: Christian Apologist Anthony Rogers writes, “Allah exists only above the seven heavens and only his attributes of power and knowledge, etc. are present with creation” Anthony makes it more disasterous for the Islamic conception of Allah when he writes; “Aside from the fact that this explanation means that Allah so conceived is not omnipresent and thus lacks an attribute of the true God proclaimed by all the prophets (e.g. Genesis 28:15-16; Deuteronomy 4:39; Joshua 2:11; Psalm 139:7-12; Jeremiah 23:23-24), an attribute believed in by Jews and Christians from ancient to modern times, it also raises several questions that in turn point up several theological and philosophical problems: How is an attribute of Allah, whether his knowledge, or hearing, or seeing, etc., said to be present with creation if Allah himself is not? Is there a separation between Allah and his attributes? If so, would not this bifurcation between the essence (dhat) and attributes (sifat) of Allah undercut the notion of Allah’s unity (tawhid) as Muslims perceive it? And if Allah’s essence can be thus separated from Allah’s attributes, doesn’t this entail that Allah in his essential being is a mere blank, an indefinable and therefore unknowable being? And if Allah’s attributes can dwell in creation among men, which already implies a kind of incarnation, what objection could Muslims have against something like an incarnation of Allah’s attributes in a human being?”[15].

We can therefore recognize Allah by his effects and will. “Allah is above His ‘Arsh [The Throne of Allah] and separated from His creatures, also believes in the rest of the attributes of Allah, and believes as well that the heaves and the earth submit to His will, and that He is the Great Rabb of the worlds”[16].

The problem that arises is that, Allah, even though known to be absolutely beyond or above this world is seemingly evident within his prescribed attributes within the world. In fact the Sunna affirms that:

“There is no doubt that the denial of the attributes of Allah clashes with the clear Qur’anic verses in which the unique essential attributes and beautiful names of Allah confirmed. These attributes must be affirmed as identical with Allah”.[17]

The conundrum sounds astounding if you think it through, Allah is apparently identical to his attributes yet, Muslim scholars tell us distinct and above the world. This clearly violates the principle of non-contradiction[18]. If Muslims try to preserve the absolute uniqueness of Allah and said Allah is not identical to His attributes and distinct, it would still create a dilemma, because Allah is then not known at all and can also not be truly worshiped? Fortunately the Quran shows us that Allah is present everywhere. Surah Al- Mujida [58:7] says:

“Do you not see that Allah knows all that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth? There is no secret counsel of three, but He is their fourth, nor of five, but He is their sixth, nor of fewer than that, nor of more, but He is with them wherever they may be. Then on the Day of Resurrection He will inform them of what they did. Surely, Allah knows all things full well.”

أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَعْلَمُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۖ مَا يَكُونُ مِن نَّجْوَىٰ ثَلَاثَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ رَابِعُهُمْ وَلَا خَمْسَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ سَادِسُهُمْ وَلَا أَدْنَىٰ مِن ذَٰلِكَ وَلَا أَكْثَرَ إِلَّا هُوَ مَعَهُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كَانُوا ۖ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا عَمِلُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

importance-of-the-sunnahThe Sunna affirms that:

“The above verse, they contend, signifies that Allah is essentially everywhere. This argument is refuted by the prominent exegete, Ibn Kathir who says, “This means that Allah is well acquainted with their utterances, and private talks and thoughts.” Al-Qurtubi commented on this verse saying, “He knows and hears their private counsel. This is evidenced by the fact that the opening and concluding clauses of this verse confirm the knowledge of Allah.”Al-Qasimi says, “The scholars among the Prophet’s companions, who transmitted the meaning of the Qur’an to their successors, held this verse to mean that Allah is above His ‘Arsh, but His knowledge is everywhere.” [19]

Allah is therefore transcendent in his “being” yet immanent in His “knowledge” of things on earth. Allah and His knowledge is not synonymous, Allah is therefore not knowledge. Because Allah is above all that which is conceived. This leads us to our third point:

Allah: wholly inconceivable:

Ahmed Hulusi speaks of Allah as “The limitless, infinite ONE denoted by the name Allah is free from concepts such as explicit and implicit. These concepts are only so according to our assumptions. Indeed, how can the One who is beyond conceptualized limitations, such as explicit-implicit and beginning-end, possibly end somewhere at which point a second form of existence begins? Clearly this is not possible! Therefore, every point to which thoughts or imagination can reach contains only the Essence of Allah, the Ahad, with all of His compositional qualities and attributes![20]He adds: “Since Allah exists absolutely in every point and instance of existence, it follows that Allah does not have a reflection! Reflection (tajalli) denotes manifestation, visualization or materialization. All of this, however, implies duality. We know that existence is ONE and everything transpires within this ONE. Hence, a reflection of this ONE cannot be conceivable”[21].

When we really look at who Allah is we find an impenetrable, incomprehensible, arcane, inscrutable, mysterious, deity that is simply unfathomable and unintelligible because he is the greatest unknown!

Hulusi adds: “Allah is SAMAD… If we take an extensive look at the meaning of this word, we will see that Samad means the following: A whole without any void or emptiness, impermeable, nothing penetrates into it, nothing extends out from it, pure and only!” [Abdullah Ibn Burayd narrates: “As Samad allazi la jawfa lah” in reference to this. The meaning of this can be found in the 9th volume of Elmali Hamdi Yazir’s construal of the Quran, on pages 6306-6307].[22]

Samuel Zwemer is therefore not unfair in his appraisal of Allah when he comments:

god“We will find in this study that orthodox Islam is at once deistic and pantheistic. Theologians and philosophers have pantheistic views of Allah, making Him the sole force in the universe; but the popular thought of Him (owing to the iron-weight of the doctrine of fatalism) is deistic. God stands aloof from creation; only His power is felt; men are like the pieces on a chess-board and He is the only player. Creation itself was not intended so much for the manifestation of God’s glory or the outburst of His love, as for a sample of His power.[23]

I posted the following quote on my Facebook page and it caused quite a stir but it still rings true what Zwemer says: 

“Mohammedanism “the worst form of monotheism in that it makes of God pure will, will divorced from reason and love.” Islam, instead of being a progressive and completed idea, goes to a lower level than the religions it claims to supplant. “Mohammed teaches a God above us; Moses teaches a God above us and yet with us; Jesus Christ teaches God above us, God with us and God in us.” God above us, not as an Oriental despot, but as a Heavenly Father. God with us, Emmanuel, in the mystery of His Incarnation, which is the stumbling block to the Moslem. God in us through His Spirit renewing the heart and controlling the will into a true Islam, or obedient subjection by a living faith”[24].

The very progressive revelation of the Old and New Testaments is a God who longs to be amongst His people. The sad reality is that when we look at the God of Islam, we are left with god that is beyond comprehension, and therefore beyond notice. Geisler and Saleeb affirms that “For Islamic theology, God has willed and has acted in many ways, but these actions in no way reflect the divine character behind them”[25]. Sirajuddin Ali (AD 1173), author of the renowned book Emali, affirms that: “The attributes of God are not God Himself. But neither are they distinct nor independent from His being. Rather, his attributes, as manifestations of his being and works, are eternal (qadim) and impersonal”.[26] The adherents of Islam can be truthful about who they worship, and the worship rendered to this being is purely a gamble with the unknown! Close friend and mentor John GilChrist writes, “Many scholars of Islam in past centuries, when seeking to define the character of Allah, invariably concentrated on what he is not. Abu`l Hasan `Ali Al-Ash`ari, the famous theologian born in Basra in the third century after Muhammad’s death, gave a very negative description of Allah in his Makalat al-Islamiyin. He said he had no body, nor object, nor volume. No place could encompass him, no time could pass by him. Nothing that could be said of any of his creatures could be used to describe him. Nothing, either, that could be imagined in the mind or be conceived by fantasy resembles him. Eyes cannot see him, harm cannot touch him, nor can joy or pleasure reach him. Nothing moves him. Another early Muslim scholar perhaps summed up the Muslim position in saying that, whatever you might conceive Allah to be, he is not that!”[27].P1240300

Allah: the unknown:

Karl Gottlieb Pfander correctly observed of Muslims, “If they think at all deeply, they find themselves absolutely unable to know God…. Thus Islam Heads to Agnosticism.[28]  Karen Armstrong reminds us that “the Divine attributes of knowledge, power, life and so on were real; they had belonged to God from all eternity. But they were distinct from God’s [Allah] essence, because God [Allah] was essentially one, simplicity itself; we could not analyse him by defining his various characteristics or splitting him up into smaller parts”[29]. How does Allah relate to his adherents? Geisler and Saleeb help us when they write: “God is named from his effects, but he is not to be identified with any of them. The relation between the ultimate cause (God) and his creatures is extrinsic, not intrinsic. That is, God is called good because he causes good, but not because goodness is part of his essence. Despite all the names of God in the Qur’an, in orthodox Islam we confront a God who is basically unknowable. These names do not tell us anything about what God is like but only how God has willed to act. God’s actions do not reflect God’s character”[30].

Al Ghazali, one of the most prolific thinkers of his own time understands the daunting task of thinking of Allah. He wrote: “The end result of the knowledge of the arifin [those who know] is their inability to know Him, and their knowledge is, in truth, that they do not know Him and that it is absolutely impossible for them to know Him”[31]. Geisler and Saleeb affirms that “Fadlou Shehadi, a contemporary scholar of AI-Ghazali, after analysing Al-Ghazali’s arguments about the transcendence of God, concludes, If God is a unique kind of being unlike any other being in any respect, more specifically, unlike anything known to man, it would have to follow by Ghazali’s own principles that God is utterly unknowable. For, according to Ghazali, things are known by their likeness, and what is utterly unlike what is known to man cannot be known. Furthermore, God would have to be unknowable, completely unknowable, not only to the man in the street,’ but to prophets and mystics as well. This is a conclusion that Ghazali states very explicitly and not”[32].

The gauntlet is laid down and the jury is out, Allah is far removed that what man could ever conceive. Al Faruqi says:

“He [God] does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. God reveals only His will. Remember one of the prophets asked God to reveal Himself and God told him, “No, it is not possible for Me to reveal Myself to anyone.” .. . This is God’s will and that is all we have, and we have it n perfection in the Qur’an. But Islam does not equate the Qur’an with the nature or essence of God. It is the Word of God, the Commandment of God, the Will of God. But God does not reveal Himself to anyone. Christians talk about the revelation of God Himself—by God and of God—but that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam. God is transcendent, and once you talk about self-revelation you have hierophancy and immanence, and then the transcendence of God is compromised. You may not have complete transcendence and self-revelation at the same time”[33].

Karen Armstrong mentions that “the single deity is not a being like ourselves whom we can know and understand.”[34]When we speak of who Allah is we can only do so on the basis of “Impersonalism”. As a noun, Impersonalism is defined as the policy of being impersonal in relations with other persons or of maintaining impersonal relations among a group. This is essentially the reason the Triune God of Christian Orthodoxy makes so much sense, first, He is sufficient in Himself to such a degree that He does not need man nor is He dependent on creation. Also, the God of the bible need consideration because the essential promise of this God is His relation to us! He comes to us on basis of His initiative not ours! He is beyond us, yet, God with us!  Robert Letham explains this point beautifully when he writes, “Only a God who is Triune can be personal. Only the Holy Trinity can be love. Human love cannot possibly reflect the nature of God unless God is a Trinity of persons in union and communion. A Solitary Nomad cannot love and, since it cannot love, neither can it be a person. And if God is not personal, neither can we be-and if we are not persons, we cannot love. This marks a vast, immeasurable divide between those cultures that follow a monotheistic, unitary Deity and those that are permeated by the Christian teaching on the Trinity. Trinitarian theology asserts that love is ultimate because God is love, because he is three persons in undivided loving communion. By contrast, Islam asserts that Allah is powerful and that his will is ultimate, before which submission (Islam) is required.[35]”  

images (5)While Christianity is Trinitarian (3 persons in one BEING=GOD), Islam is Unitarian (1 person in one BEING=GOD). At first glance, the Unitarian view caries simple, and therefore attractive, explanatory power. Careful reflection regarding God’s attribute of “love”, however, shows how the Unitarian view comes up short. In order to have selfless, unconditional love, there must be at least one other person to love. As we can clearly esteem Allah is not essentially love. Karen Armstrong writes “in the Koran, however, al-Lah is more impersonal that YHWH. He lacks the pathos and passion of the biblical God. We can only glimpse something of God in the “signs” of nature, and so transcendent is he that we can only talk about him in “parables”[36]. Now we just need to be clear about this, we are not postulating that Allah cannot express love, we just acknowledge that by Islam’s own self-definition Allah does not do so essentially or qualitatively, but volitionally and attributively. Shabbir Akhtar makes the point emphatic as he says: “The Koran, unlike the Gospel, never comments on the essence of Allah. ‘Allah is wise’ or ‘Allah is loving’ may be pieces of revealed information but in contrast to Christianity, Muslims are not enticed to claims that ‘Allah is Love’ or ‘Allah is Wisdom.’ Only adjectival descriptions are attributed to the divine being and these merely as they bear on the revelation of God’s will for man. The rest remains mysterious”[37].

For the Muslim reader when we speak of a “loving” Deity in Christianity, we are not just attributing love to the God of the Bible, but we surmise that the god of the Bible is essentially and qualitatively love! C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” Richard of St. Victor, a 12th century Scottish theologian, put it like this: “One never says that someone properly possesses love if he only loves himself; for it to be true love, it must go out towards another. Consequently, where a plurality of persons is lacking, it is impossible for there to be love.”

The simple theological problem of God in Islam being the greatest good/morally perfect/all-loving/having unconditional love just becomes more apparent when we realise that for God to be by definition love, God must be the greatest good or love IN HIMSELF. The greatest good would be all-loving (impartial, unconditional, and universal). As Jesus said, “If you love those who love you what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them.”(Luke 6:32). Jesus is speaking here about the virtue and truth of unconditional love.  This virtue stems from the very nature of God.  According to Islam, Jesus is a prophet.  If Jesus is a prophet, then what he says is true.  If this statement is true, then it applies to God as well.  But this is not how the Qur’an describes God. The God of the Quran only loves Muslims who believe Muhammad is his messenger, and those who do enough good deeds to earn his love. Just to mention two ‘conditional’ Surah’s:

Surah Al-Imran [3:31-32] cautions us: “Say [O Muhammad]: If you love Allah, then follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your faults, and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. Say: Obey Allah and the Apostle; but if they turn back, then surely Allah does not love the unbelievers”.

قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللَّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

قُلْ أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَالرَّسُولَ ۖ فَإِن تَوَلَّوْا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْكَافِرِينَ

Surah Ar-Rum [30:43-45] goes further: “Then turn thy face straight to the right religion before there come from Allah the day which cannot be averted; on that day they shall become separated. Whoever disbelieves, he shall be responsible for his disbelief, and whoever does good, they prepare (good) for their own souls, that He may reward those who believe and do good out of His grace; surely He does not love the unbelievers”.

فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ الْقَيِّمِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يَأْتِيَ يَوْمٌ لَّا مَرَدَّ لَهُ مِنَ اللَّهِ ۖ يَوْمَئِذٍ يَصَّدَّعُونَ

مَن كَفَرَ فَعَلَيْهِ كُفْرُهُ ۖ وَمَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلِأَنفُسِهِمْ يَمْهَدُونَ

لِيَجْزِيَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ مِن فَضْلِهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الْكَافِرِينَ

 Close friend and mentor John GilChrist mentions: “The famous theologian Abu Hamid at-Tusi al-Ghazzali, who lived in the fifth century after Muhammad, wrote a book on the ninety-nine names of Allah, which he titled al-Maqsad al-Asna. Speaking of the Qur’anic title al-Wadud (“the Loving One”) which appears twice in the book (Surah 11:90, 85:14), he states that while it is Allah’s intention to do good towards mankind and be compassionate, he himself remains above the feeling of love. His “love” must be determined solely as his purpose to approve of and show favour towards those who seek him. He is above the empathy associated with human compassion, thus his love and mercy are desired in respect of their objects only for their own prosperity and benefit and not because of any sympathy or emotion”[38].

An impersonal God is unknown. In Islam, you cannot know what Allah is going to do or who he is because he is wholly other. God being wholly other is the same as those who believe in pure chance because god is ultimately unknowable. Unitarianism defaults essentially into an impersonal worldview. A worldview that is not governed by relationship but by the unknown. Kenneth Cragg writes; “In a real sense the Muslim awareness of Allah is an awareness of the unknown”. [39] Islam talks of the tanzih (separateness) or the Mukhdlafah (otherness) of Allah. In both these instances Allah is a misplaced entity that is seemingly not postulated not meditated upon. Gregory Boyd writes; “Pure Unity” is equivalent to “nothingness”, and is therefore neither picturable nor conceivable. It is in short, meaningless… A God who existed throughout eternity in his own unrelated ‘onliness’, a God who eternally existed in “relationship” only to the utter blackness of nothingness, would be a God who was eternally loving. This, rather, is a God whose essence is solitude… for what belongs to God’s essence belongs to God eternally. God does not, for example, choose to be omnipresent or omnipotent, for these are things that God eternally is. He could not be otherwise.”[40]in a desperate quest we can affirm with Martin Goldsmith that “Allah is utterly removed from us.”[41] In fact, the Quran reveals the will of Allah but not Allah Himself. What is the essential difference between the God of Islam and the Bible? John Gilchrist writes; “The God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is not a soulless Deity. He is not devoid of emotion, feeling, longings or yearnings… Even though the Quran gives him titles such as compassionate, the merciful and the forgiving, Muslim scholars have always held that these are only attributes he chooses to manifest and not part of his essential being. He can forgive whom he wills and withhold forgiveness from others as he chooses. It matters not to him how he does so, he has no feelings or emotions. Not so the God of the Bible. He has a heart”[42]. download

Allah: depending on His creation.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr mentions an early Hadith tradition has Allah say to Muhammad “I was a hidden treasure; I wanted to be known. Hence, I created the world so that I might be known”.[43] When we look at Allah, even though He claims to be ‘above’ the known created world, he is surely dependent on created means to make himself known: We see the Quran as a created entity (even though it is also deemed as the uncreated speech of Allah), we recognize the Angel Gabriel as Allah’s sole mediator, and Muhammad as the final spokesperson and supposed intermediary for Allah’s new self-disclosure! In fact this is a problem to all forms of Unitarianism. The belief that there is “One” solitary monad/god (Islam, J.W, Unitarianism, and Oneness Pentecostalism) which maintains a strict line between God and his creation creates an essential problem because any strict unitary deity ultimately needs his creation to be what he is [or in the case of Islam the quran to explain who Allah is]. If I say; “Allah is righteous alone”. How can someone be righteous alone? “Allah is faithful.” Faithfull to what? Allah cannot be the pinnacle source of our morality and the source of all our ideals if he cannot be what he is until he has created another being to manifest those ideals. John Calvin concludes that; “Generic forms of monotheism terminate in an ineffable god for whom we can form no idea of his ontological character, so that in speaking of god, “there is nothing but the bare and empty name of God… floating in your brain.” [44]

This is exactly the logical conclusion Averroes (1126-1198) & Avicenna (980-1037); Arabic philosophers expose! They hold that Allah is a correlative to the Universe which means Allah and his creation always co-existed together in some form because Allah inevitably ‘needs’ the Universe to display his attributes & the universe needs Allah to uphold it. This was the Basis of Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina) metaphysical Doctrine. Avicenna, influenced by Al Farabi’s metaphysical ideas, asked the questions surrounding the meaning of “being” which leads him to distinguish between “essence” (mahiat) and “existence” (wajud). He postulates that the fact of existence could not be inferred from or accounted for by the essence of existing things and that form & matter by themselves cannot interact & originate the movement of the universe or the progressive actualization of existing things. Existence must, therefore; be due to an agent-cause that necessitates; imparts; gives, or adds existence to an essence. To do so; the cause must be an existing thing coexisting with its effect.

This leads Christian Scholar Brant Bosserman to write; “Unitarians of many different stripes-Deists, Muslims, Arians, etc.-profess belief in an ultimate personal deity who governs the cosmos as its sovereign Creator. However, Unitarian theology is beset with the basic problem that it must locate the relationship between God and creation in the context of an impersonal sphere.”[45]

The conclusion Muslims tend to miss is that ultimately a dualistic God self-discloses exactly as a “special form of polytheism. It certainly describes very well the universe as this presents itself in our ordinary experience. But as an explanation of the prevailing state of affairs it is really as unsatisfactory as any other form of polytheism”.[46] Samuel Zwemer explains that “We will find in this study that orthodox Islam is at once deistic and pantheistic. Theologians and philosophers have pantheistic views of Allah, making Him the sole force in the universe; but the popular thought of Him (owing to the iron-weight of the doctrine of fatalism) is deistic. God stands aloof from creation; only His power is felt; men are like the pieces on a chess-board and He is the only player. Creation itself was not intended so much for the manifestation of God’s glory or the outburst of His love, as for a sample of His power.[47] The point is simply “how [can] Islam, or any religion based in a belief in a unitary god, can possibly account for human personality, or explain the diversity –in-unity of the world. It is not surprising that Islamic areas are associated with monolithic and dictatorial political systems”.[48] Brant Bosserman drives the point firmly home when he writes; “Once God is made dependant on an open-ended temporal universe He ceases to be the “presupposition of possible experience,” and becomes Himself subject to the ultimate unknown.”[49] “[A] Unitarian deity. Allah may be said to possess ninety-nine, or any other number of attributes. But the Muslim is forced to conclude that these attributes either cannot be expressed apart from his extra-divine activity (and so, implicitly, his dependence on the creation), or they must be thought of as existing potentially within Allah, as they await his interaction with creation. In either case, Allah is not the fullness of himself in himself and cannot, therefore, function as a self-contained authority. Islam’s God-concept is, therefore, a contradiction.”[50]

Allah: The solitary Monad.

download (1)The problem with an absolute Unity is that “ontologically” pure unity equates essential “nothingness” and renders the concept of Divinity neither picturable nor conceivable and leaves it thereby meaningless. The idea that God was “alone” before creation is inconceivable and foreign to the Scriptures simply because this seems incompatible to the personal revelation of Himself (Gen 1:1, 26-27). This was not a mere statement of the “royal plural” or the plural “we.” Another important fact is that love is essentially relational and thereby necessitates relationship. Any Deity eternally existing before time without relations captivated by His own “onliness” cannot existentially deemed to be relational, personal or loving but is simply a Deistic god. This Deity is simply expediently a solitary nomad void of qualities we should see as a person. Reverberating Richard of St Victor’s conception of a personal Deity. The Quran deduces that Allah is absolute one:

Sura 85:21-22 declares “No indeed, (but) it is an Ever-Glorious Qur’an, in a preserved Tablet” (Ghali).

بَلْ هُوَ قُرْآنٌ مَّجِيدٌ

فِي لَوْحٍ مَّحْفُوظٍ

Sura 43:3-4 reads “We have made it a Qur’an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand (and learn wisdom). And verily, it is in the Mother of the Book, in Our Presence, high (in dignity), full of wisdom (Ali)”. (cf. Sura 13:39).

إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

وَإِنَّهُ فِي أُمِّ الْكِتَابِ لَدَيْنَا لَعَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ

RBMuslims agree that the Quran in heaven is uncreated perfectly expressing the mind of Allah yet, not in essence Allah. In other words, Allah is deemed as the only volitional “eternal” yet the Quran is quintessentially also deemed as being “eternal” without violating the idea of the One. Orthodox Muslims attribute speech to Allah as an eternal attribute like his knowledge or might[51]  but do not allow Trinitarian Christians the same courtesy when explaining the Unity of God’s being yet being “Three” in His personal revelation without violating His essential unity. Christ is therefore the expression of the “Divine Will” without being the same person as this “Divine Will.” 

I have milled over a few points and would like to conclude here as I have already written so much! I didn’t really anticipate that this will be so long or even written in such detail, but, it is what it is! I have written before about the essential problems with Islamic monotheism here and will definitely write again about the other concerns in the future. Hope you enjoyed it!

Rudolph P. Boshoff.    


[1] http://sunnahonline.com/library/beliefs-and-methodology/180-where-is-allah

[2] The Muslim idea of God. Rev. W.H.T. Gairdner. Pg.13.

[3] “A History of God” .Karen Armstrong. Pg. 135. 

[4] http://www.equip.org/article/allah-does-not-belong-to-islam/

[5] Foundations: Pg.259

[6] God was in Christ. Pg. 66

[7] What is God like? Pg.112.

[8] Allah The Concept of God in Islam(a selection) Yasin T. al-Jibouri pg.10.

[9] Islam in the modern world: A Christian perspective. Pg.20.

[10] Fundamentals of Tawheed. Pg. 134. B Phillips.

[11] The true religion of God B. Phillips Pg.3

[12] Allah exalted is He, Why man was created by Sayed Mahmoud Hamed. Pg. 13.

[13] Robert Caspar, “The permanent significance of Islam’s monotheism,” in Concilium, (Edinburgh: T and T. Clark Ltd., 1985), Pg.69.

[14] Fundamentals of Tawheed. Dr Billal Phillips. Pg. 134.


Also refer to Anthony Roger’s excellent post: http://answeringislam.net/authors/rogers/allahs_attributes.html 

[16]  http://sunnahonline.com/library/beliefs-and-methodology/180-where-is-allah

[17] http://sunnahonline.com/library/beliefs-and-methodology/180-where-is-allah

[18] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-noncontradiction/

[19] http://sunnahonline.com/library/beliefs-and-methodology/180-where-is-allah

[20] Muhammad’s Allah. Ahmed Hulusi. Pg.26.

[21] Muhammad’s Allah. Ahmed Hulusi. Pg.27.

[22] Muhammad’s Allah. Ahmed Hulusi. Pg.29.

[23] Samuel Zwemer. The Moslem Doctrine of God. Pg.80-81.

[24] Samuel Zwemer. The Moslem Doctrine of God. Pg.87.

[25] Answering Islam. Geisler & Saleeb. Pg.141.

[26] Turan Dursan, Allah (Istanbul:Kaynak Yayinlari, 1993) Pg.50.

[27] The Quran the Scriptures of Islam. Pg.54.

[28] Pfander, 187.

[29]  “A History of God” .Karen Armstrong. Pg.166.

[30] Answering Islam. Geisler & Saleeb. Pg.141.

[31] Fadlou Shehadi, Ghazali’s Unique Unknowable God (Leiden: E. I. Brill, 1964), 37.

[32] Fadlou Shehadi, Ghazali’s Unique Unknowable God (Leiden: E. I. Brill, 1964), 21-22.

[33] AI-Faruqi, Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wah: Proceedings of the Chambesy Dialogue Consultation (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1982), 47-48.

[34] “A History of God” .Karen Armstrong. Pg.149.

[35]  The Holy Trinity: Robert Letham Pg. 446

[36] “A History of God” .Karen Armstrong. Pg.143.

[37] Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith for Ail Seasons (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 1990), 180-181.

[38] The Qur’an the scriptures of Islam. Pg.55.

[39] The Call of the Minaret Pg.39.

[40] Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity.  Pg.191. 

[41] Islam and Christian witness Pg.55.

[42] Designed for a purpose Pg.181.

[43] “God” in Islamic Spirituality. Pg.321.

[44] Calvin 1:13.2. Institutes. Pg.18.

[45] The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox. Pg.178.

[46] Introduction to religious philosophy. Pg.71. Geddes MacGregor.

[47] The Muslim Doctrine of God Pg.69-70.

[48] The Trinity – Yesterday, today, and the future Pg34.

[49]The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox. Pg.77.

[50] The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox. Pg.195.

[51]  I. Golziher: Introduction to Islamic Theology pg.97


4 thoughts on “Ode to the unknown God: Reflection on the Allah of Islam. by Rudolph P. Boshoff.

  1. Rudolph: You say: “In this article, I do not want to ask the central question if the God of Islam and Christianity are essentially the same.” You then proceed at considerable length to attempt to show they different am in doing so miss an essential subtlety; The very nature of unity qua unity is that it is neither same nor different.

    • Hi Lindsay, you are 100% right, yet the intention was not a correlation between two Theistic perspectives rather the investigation of a central one (Islamic Monotheism). Unfortunately even the understanding of essential unity is different in the Islamic and Christian perspectives!

  2. Excellent article, Rudolph! I just discovered your article here. I heard about you by Dr. James White mentioning you when he goes to South Africa. Keep pressing on, brother! (Philippians 3:7-14)

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