It has been said that ‘Allah is the essence of Islam.’ This is to be expected, for in every system of theology the nature of the deity worshipped must determine the details of the entire system and impart to that system its specific characteristics. Allah’s distinctive nature determines the range and interests of Islamic theology and, just as every Christian doctrine is based upon what we know of God in Christ, so every Muslim doctrine is related to Allah.
Muslim theology will not admit that Allah had any fixed purpose in his act of creation which might condition or restrict the operation of His will, the work of Allah is entirely unconditioned while the Christian doctrine of salvation cannot find its source in an indifferent and unconditioned divine will. It would be nonsense for the Muslim to speak of Allah as One who is working out a purpose of salvation, and that He has sent His prophets over the centuries in order to prepare men in the fullness of time for a great sacrificial act of self-emptying and self-giving. Allah does not work out such a plan, or submit to the conditions which such a purpose of grace and righteousness imposes; He does ‘as He pleases.’
Man exists only by Allah’s decrees
The creation of man as described in the Quran and the Bible is similar however, they diverge, not so much in their accounts of that initial act but in their different approach to the doctrine of man. Allah has subjected to man all things, seen and unseen, in the heavens and on earth for the use of man (Luqman 31:20) and Allah has conferred on man “special favours, above a great part of our creation” (Al-Isra 17:70). Yet, man was created weak (An-Nisa 4:28) and is hasty and rash by nature (Al-Isra 17:11, Al-Anbiya 21:37, Al-Ma’arij 70:19-22).
Both Adam and Eve sinned in obeying Satan and were expelled from the Garden, but Allah accepted Adam’s repentance” (Al-Baqarrah 2:35). In the light of this and other considerations, Muslims hold that there was no taint of original sin which could be passed on by Adam to his descendants. All that is in man is the direct and immediate creation of Allah. He it is who fashions each soul and teaches it its sin and its piety. Each person is responsible for his/her own actions and no soul can bear the burden of another (Al-Isra 17:15, Fatir 35:18). Apart from the souls of prophets and martyrs, which go directly to Paradise, the souls of men stay in the grave until the Resurrection. In this latter connection the Quran teaches that there will be a resurrection of the physical body.
The underlying central and fundamental doctrine of man is all is as Allah wills. The teaching of the Quran takes more formal and definite shape in the books of traditions. In such books there is always a section dealing with Allah’s decree and in the famous Mishkat al Masabih there are many traditions dealing with this subject.
We read for example ‘Allah wrote the fates of created things fifty thousand years before He created the heavens and the earth.’ We also read what Muhammad said when he was questioned about the verse (Al-Ar’af 7:172): Umar said, “Verily, Allah created Adam and then stroked his back with His right hand and brought forth Adam’s descendants from it, and He said: I have created these for Paradise and they will perform the acts of people of Paradise. Then Allah stroked Adam’s back and brought forth (other) descendants from it and He said: I have created these for the Fire and they will perform the acts of people of the Fire.’ Then a man said, ‘Of what use, O apostle of Allah, will deeds of any kind be?’ Then the apostle of Allah replied, ‘When Allah creates a servant for Paradise, He bids him perform the actions of the people of Paradise until he dies doing the actions of the people of Paradise, and thereby He causes him to enter Paradise. And when Allah creates a slave for the Fire, He bids him to perform the actions of the people of the Fire until he dies doing the actions of the people of the Fire, and thereby He causes him to enter into the Fire.’”
Allah in relation to others
The commentators assert that Allah is the necessary being besides him, nothing may exist. Muhammad may not have thought this subject through. Man’s relationship to Allah is that of dependence. He needs Allah’s forgiveness and patience. He is a watcher and reckoner over him yet, is also a faithful protector and guide. He does everything directly and everything is by his will. Each one can but hope that Allah will guide him aright, submit himself to Allah in absolute fear, and trust that Allah will not cause him to forget and be one of the losers of the fire. (Al-Hashr 59:19)
Muhammad never evidently thought about antinomies between predestination and free-will, whatever later tradition may have put into his mouth. So Allah is kind, loving and patient on one side yet he is haughty (al-mudakabbir) and the Tyrant (al-Jabbar). If he aids, he also distresses (darr); if he guides, he also leads astray (7:178 c/f 4:155, 7:100,9:87,93; 10:74,16:108,30:59,40:3547:16, 63:3). Certain ideas and phrases dominated Muhammad and he neither thought nor cared where they might lead. Allah, was for Muhammad, the Reality (al-Haqq), but he never asked what that meant. In pushing certain phrases regarding the absolute existence of Allah Pantheistic developments in theology later emerged.
Metaphors of the poet and consequences – the intense personality of Allah
The problem Muhammad left behind was the intense personality of Allah found in the Quran yet a clear separateness of Allah from the world which amounts to immanence is also found. For example ‘the face of Allah’ (Al-Rad 13:22, Al-Lail 92:20) is a reoccurring term but what does it mean? Or what does it mean by the expression ’seeking his face’ (Al-Ana’am 6:52, Al-Kahf 18:28, Ar-Rum 30:38). Muhammad believed that there will be a time when there will be nothing except the face of Allah (Al-Qasas 28:88, Al Rahman 55:26,27)
Other examples of anthromorphic language can be found in the Quran: While the Meccans evidently had no fear of him he was terribly near to Muhammad at every moment. ‘ nearer to him than (his) jugular vein.” (Qaf 50:16). Allah had hands (Al-Maidah 5:64, Sa’d 38:75, Az-Zumar 39:67); eyes (Al Qamar 54:14) and a throne (Ta-Ha 20:5, Hud 11:7).
Muhammad in describing Allah at first sight sometimes seems to use anthromorphic language. When Muhammad describes physical aspects he does so as a poet.
The problem that these metaphors caused was that it had to reconcile the separateness of Allah from the world with the intense personality of Allah which amounts to immanence.
1) The scholastic theologians separated Allah from his creation to a point where it was hard to explain how he could affect the world and they developed the doctrines of tanzih (removal) and mukhalafa (difference) i.e. removal of Allah from all qualities of impermanence, and the assertion of the essential difference of his qualities and the similarly named qualities of human beings.
2) The history of Sufism on the other hand gradually merged the world in Allah, until it could be asserted that Allah is all in all.
3) A third line was made by Aristotelian-Neoplatonic philosophers who worked in independence of the Quran reached a Pantheistic view that all was Allah and it was left to Ghazalli to mediate on the present position of orthodoxy.
The later Islamic theology disapproved of anthropomorphisms, but this involved explaining away a great many texts which speak of Allah’s face, hand, hands, right hand. Indeed, where the divine being is thought of as a king, issuing orders, reacting to obedience and disobedience, loving and hating, hearing and seeing, planning and even plotting, it is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate Him from the human form which in our experience invariably accompanies the greater number of these activities.
There is indeed no assertion in the Quran so decidedly anthropomorphic as Allah writes, and seats himself on a throne, which we learn was supported by angels and surrounded by certain beings: on the Resurrection Day it will be supported by eight angels. His throne has indeed the width of the heaven and the earth: when these were created, the throne was on the water; the heaven, when he retired there was smoke. The time taken for Him to ascend was a day equal to a thousand years “of your reckoning”; the angels take five times as long. On Resurrection Day He will grasp the whole earth and the heavens will be folded in His right hand.
Such passages may indeed be allegorical: given their literal meaning they represent the deity as similar in many respect to a human monarch, only on a colossal scale. He is indeed immortal and neither slumbers nor sleeps. He has no consort; like human monarchs He ordinarily communicates His will through messengers. He has favourites and enemies. He can even utter curses: “May Allah fight with them.” Like human monarchs He permits intercession on behalf of offenders.
Verses resembling Pantheism
But though the presentation of Allah in the Quran includes anthropomorphic language, there are passages which resemble pantheism. Such are to be found in a Surah of uncertain date, where Allah is said to be the first and the last, the manifest and the hidden, who is with you wherever ye are. Being omnipresent, wherever three are talking, He is the fourth; where five are, He is the sixth. There is not a quadruped but He has hold on its forelock. “We are nearer to man than the vein of his neck.” He intervenes between a man and his heart.” “To Allah belong the East and the West, and whithersoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.” At the battle of Badr it was Allah, not the fighters, who slew the enemy: Allah, not the Prophet, who threw pebbles.
Conflicting qualities in Allah’s unity in relationship to mankind
In the Quran Muhammad naively developed two separate views of Allah’s working (this was due to a real duality in Muhammad‘s mind); one was rigidly predestination while the other left scope for free-will. The first centuries of the Traditions record this dogmatic strife the contradictory traditions reflect the views of opposing schools who freely forged and fathered them on the Prophet in support, each of their own views. There are traditions which say that Muhammad objected to all such discussions and there are those which say he entered into the subject for long periods.
In the traditions Allah becomes more picturesque and his relations to the angels and devils more detailed as the working of Allah becomes more obscure. The Face of Allah and his throne occurs and the cosmography of the heavens and the earth is worked out. He descends to the lowest heaven and cries: “Is there any suppliant? Is there as seeker of forgiveness?” (Kitab al-Tauhid Sahih al-Bukhari Cairo edition 1312 4179) Then there is a story of a man who is last in Paradise and of how he will make Allah laugh (Ibid 4:172,173). In the end Allah will take the earth on one of his fingers and the heavens on another and cry out ”I am the king where are the kings of the earth.” (ibid 4, 167,168) He will press his foot down in hell to make more room (ibid 4. 167,175) His eyes, mentioned both in the singular and the plural in the Quran are opposed to the one eye of al-Dajjal (ibid 4.169).
His qualities become still more flatly contradictory. A saying frequently occurs: “My mercy overcomes or precedes my wrath” (e.g. 4. 169,175) and on the other hand there is the monstrous tradition “These to heaven and I care not; those to hell and I care not” (Ihya ed with commentary of Sayyid Murtada vol 7 p. 308) It is precisely in the areas of salvation that the most glaring contradictions appear.