By Abdur Rab*
The following is a brief preview of our new book Toward A Quranic Understanding of the Divine: Perspectives from Three Thinkers. It’s been jointly authored by myself and two of my friends Farouk A. Peru and Siraj Islam. This is the very first book that has been sponsored and published by Muslims for Progressive Values.
Our new book provides a view of God in light of the Quran that departs significantly from the traditionally conceived notions of God. It’s not an intrinsically original notion, but still should sound fresh to many readers.
Admittedly, we do not fully know God. The Quran itself states that no human vision comprehends Him (6:103). Yet we can draw a fair idea of God from the Quran. I’ll present this idea in the form of some propositions.
But before that, let me introduce our book by asking why we should really seek to know God and serve Him. The book postulates that the very act of seeking and striving to know God and to know how we should serve Him constitutes in itself a spiritual pursuit for humanity. Our book states that prophets and saints went exactly through such spiritual pursuits. By achieving spiritual transformation, they have become our role models.
In the book, we then ask the question how God exists. Science generally considers God redundant; but it has failed to disprove His existence. There are some philosophical arguments that purport to prove God’s existence. However, none of the existing philosophical explanations has succeeded in giving us a fully satisfactory proof of God’s existence. But this should not dissuade us from believing in God.
We do not see God, but as our book notes, we still can experience His presence. If we spiritually evolve we might be able to reach a point where we could feel like meeting with God… a point of liqaullah as in the Quran. This kind of religious experience is an indirect proof of God. But everybody is not in a position to replicate such experience.
Now let me present our idea of God in the following propositions.
First, we postulate that God is immanent or manifest in the universe. He resides in us and works through us, as He works through nature. He has been immanent in the very unleashing of evolutionary forces that have brought the universe and us into existence. But this does not point to simplistic pantheism, which means that everything is divine. The ideas that God is manifest in all creation and the laws of nature and that He transcends everything are nevertheless compatible with what has come to be known as panentheism.
Second, God is one and unique, and absolute. This tawhid or unity of God has important implications such as that He is most powerful and that He is independent. Since He is most powerful, He alone commands our full allegiance or submission, or worship or service. Another implication is that as His servants, we all are equal before Him. As the Quran declares, all children of Adam – all men and women – deserve the same dignity (17:70).
The idea that God is independent has one important implication for us. It implies that whatever we do, we do for ourselves only, not for God really. This is reinforced by a Quranic verse that says, “And whoever strives, strives only for his or her own soul (nafs)” (29:6). This means that whatever we do, we should do spontaneously and conscionably, rather than in seeking to please God or looking for what He wants from us. God is, of course, not unmindful of what we do (2:74) and pleased with His servants automatically when they do things conscionably (3:15, 9:21, 72).
Ironically, however, Muslims generally consider the Quran-prescribed actions and rituals as ends in themselves to please God rather than as means to an end. This attitudinal characteristic regrettably explains why Muslims do not seem to be so much concerned with the outcomes of what they actually do in real life as they are with their daily religious rituals. This often results in a disconnect between what they do inside and outside of their religious activities. This disconnect largely explains why they often engage in acts of deceit, bigotry, intolerance, and sometimes even violent extremism, not only against other communities, but even against fellow Muslims.
Third, as the Supreme Being, God also epitomizes in Himself the perfection of all conceivable qualities that are worthy of emulation. This is because less than perfect beings have no legitimate basis to command our worship and emulation. It thus makes a lot of sense for us to take Him as our best ideal to follow. The Quran itself declares that God is always on the right Path – sirat im-mustaqeem (11.56) and that He possesses all beautiful names or qualities – asmaulhusna (59:24).
Fourth, the Quranic God does not predestine our fate. Predestination is a misconceived idea that denies human freedom and the relevance of human effort and human responsibility. The Quran, on the other hand, emphatically declares that there is nothing for humanity except with effort – Laisa lil insani illa ma saa’ (53:39). Indeed God cannot make us accountable for our actions unless he has accorded us free will and freedom of action. Having said that we also concede that hereditary and environmental factors play some role in shaping human destiny.
Fifth, God does not will or act willy-nilly. He is not capricious. What He wills or acts is in perfect accord with His given sunnah or laws, which are nothing but the laws of nature. The Quran states that God’s sunnah never changes. He never violates the laws of nature.
Sixth, God does not directly will or determine our affairs. This follows from the pivotal Quranic statement that God does not change our condition until we change our nafs or soul (13:11). God is a co-worker with us when we work. He helps those who help themselves.
That God does not will our affairs is also evident from various other Quranic verses. One of them says that God rebukes those who skirt their responsibility to feed the poor, giving a pretext that if God willed He could have fed them (36:47). Another verse says that God never does any injustice to us; rather we do injustice to ourselves (3:117). Also, God says that if He willed He could have guided all of us (6:149), that if He willed He could have made humankind one nation (5:48), and that if He willed all would have believed (10:99). The import of all these verses is that God does not directly will or determine our affairs.
Finally, we closely look at the numerous attributes of God as mentioned in the Quran. In traditional Islam, we’re told that God has 99 names. But our research shows that His names or attributes are well over 99. We think that such attributes not only help us understand and clarify the nature of God, but they spell out a philosophy of who can really be divine and they are very much an integral part of the guidance the Quran gives us. The divine attributes shed light on how we should mold our own character. As we peruse the divine attributes, one thing that vividly strikes us is that God symbolizes everything that is good, true, just, wise, beautiful, kind, and compassionate. He represents the highest Ideal that we must endeavor to follow, emulate, and serve. If we all sincerely serve God, taking Him as our only Ideal, we would be able to transform this grief-stricken, messy, and troubled world into an earthly paradise.
*Abdur Rab is also the author of Rediscovering Genuine Islam: The Case for a Quran-Only Understanding. His numerous articles on Islamic topics can be read on http://quranonly.com/.