Abdur Rab

A Theological Perspective On What Is Actually Said In The Quran

[The lead author discusses their new book Toward A Quranic Understanding of the Divine: Perspectives from Three Thinkers that has been jointly authored by him, Farouk A. Peru and Siraj Islam and sponsored and published by Muslims for Progressive Values.]

This may seem rather very strange but it’s true that the God of the Quran significantly differs from what traditional Muslims believe in.

God appears vividly different in the Quran than in traditional Islam in four distinct ways: (1) As a Force immanent in the very process of evolution rather than being conceived of as a creator literally; (2) as One working in accordance with His own natural laws rather than behaving capriciously; (3) as One Who does not directly determine our affairs and seal our fate but allows us free will, responsibility and freedom of action; and (4) as One Who possesses more attributes than a limited number of 99. These points get reflected in the following discussion.

The book’s primary premise is 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.

The book then looks at the question how God exists. “As the precise methodology of science covers only the observable things of the temporal world, science doesn’t discuss God and therefore doesn’t attempt to prove or disprove His existence. Rather, it is a philosophy that promotes the discussion.” (Cf., p. 30) The book briefly reviews the existing philosophical arguments that purport to prove God’s existence and concludes that none of these explanations provides us a fully satisfactory proof of God’s existence. We think, however, that we can experience His presence through religious/spiritual experience. 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 achieve such an experience.

The book presents the Quranic idea of God in the following seven propositions.

First, even though all scriptures, including the Quran, present God as the creator, the book notes, “this creation idea should be taken figuratively because God does not really create in the strictly literal sense. His creation of the universe should be understood in the same sense as can be applied to other texts in the Quran that speak of God doing various things such as the following: He gives life and death (2:258); He feeds us (6:14); He sends winds, clouds and rain, and thereby brings forth fruits of all kinds (7:57). We know that these things happen when the forces or laws of nature and humanity and other agents of God are in action in the universe.” (Cf., p. 21) Furthermore, the Quran accepts evolution by explicitly stating that the universe and everything in it have been created in six ayyums or stages (32:4).

Thus in the wisdom of the Quran rather than going by its literal accounts, we conceive of God as immanent in the universe – manifest in the laws of nature as well as in many actions of His free agents, including human beings. He resides in us and works through us, as He works through nature. He has been immanent in the very unleashing of the evolutionary forces that have brought the universe and us into existence. But this does not lend itself to a pantheistic interpretation, which simply 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.” (Cf., 26)

Second, the Quran’s central and distinctive idea is that God is one and unique, and absolute. This monotheism sets Islam apart from some of the existing major religions. The book notes that this conception of God generates important implications about Him and lessons for humankind. One important implication is 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 Quran 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 He is 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, often resulting in a disconnect between what they do outside of their religious functions. 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.” (Cf., pp. 35-36)

Third, “[a]s 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).” (Cf., p. 37) 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 own given sunnah or laws, which are nothing but the laws of nature. The Quran states that God’s sunnah or ways of dealing with things never change (35:43, 17:77, 30:30, 46:19). He never violates the laws of nature. Just think about it. Even scientists do not know why such laws exist. But one thing is clear. Such laws are a great blessing to humanity. It’s precisely because of such laws that we know what works and what does not work for us. Without them, all scientific inquiry and all progress would have come to a standstill.

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 directly will or determine our affairs is also evident from various other Quran 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).” (Cf., p. 55) All this points to God not directly interfering in our affairs.

Seventh and finally, we closely look at the numerous attributes of God as mentioned in the Quran. Our research shows that His names or attributes are well over 99 as traditionally believed. In the traditional list, such glaring attributes of God are missing as Rab or Rabb (The Sustainer, The Cherisher 1:2, 6:45,164) and Nasir (The Helper 2:120, 3:150, 4:45, 8:40, etc.). The attribute Rab appears in the very first chapter of the Quran, which is recited in everyday Muslim prayer, and appears in the Quran 978 times. 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 provides 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.” (Cf., p. 85)

An additional excerpt from the book:

“Furthermore and most importantly, God represents the Universal Ideal that all humans need to emulate. Despite all the progress made by science and the material amenities of modern life we’re enjoying, we’re living in a grossly inequitable and dangerous world. Humanity has lost trust in humanity. Nations are all suspicious of one another. The arms race, accumulating arsenals, and on the top of everything, the atom bomb, have set humanity on a path to a perilous tipping point. What is going to save us from this grim prospect except firing up of the nobler human values that the prophets of religion and spirituality have brought us?” (Cf., p. 7)


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