Stories & Commentaries

Confusion: Who is Allah? Part 1

Hand of God

iStock/ Dimitrios Stefanidis

Allah, Muslims, and Violence: Exploring Difficult Themes in Conversation

Muslims voices speak

I have invited several Muslim friends to address the issue of "Who is Allah?" There is enough trust among us that I can ask questions that otherwise may be deemed offensive. I hope this Q&A helps others understand how they view God, and His relationship to "sacred violence."

I first explained to my Muslim friends that Jesus taught His followers to apply the principle of loving reciprocation: treating others the way we desire to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Thus, if Muslims were to have questions regarding Adventism, I would welcome that they would give us the primary voice to explain ourselves (not former Adventists, nor Adventist haters). And since many Christians are troubled by whole notion of "Allah," I wanted to hear what they, as Muslims, have to say about this, and how they explain the rising violence perpetrated in Allah's name.

Those who are included in this conversation are: Kassim, from Iran; Bassam, a Palestinian American; Abdul and his wife from Iraq; and Atif, a Turkish man who became an Adventist (his contribution was via email). Three of them have taken formal Islamic studies and all of them are conversant with the Qur'an in its original language.

Q: Allah: Who is He?

A:  Kassim, a Shia with Sufi leanings, protests my question. "You cannot try to explain the Almighty with words. When we say 'Allahu Akbar' we are not saying 'God is the greatest,' but rather: 'God is greater than.' When you think you 'get it,' He becomes elusive for He is even greater than that. And then He continues to become greater and greater every time you think you have defined Him. Can a cup contain the ocean?"

The others do not necessarily think the same. "If you want to know who Allah is, you need to go to the Qur'an and get acquainted with His names. Allah has 99 beautiful names: the Most Merciful, Most Compassionate, Master of the Day of Judgment, Creator, Forgiver, Subduer of the proud, Generous, Avenger…"

Q: Can you tell me any particular portion of the Qur'an that may offer some definitions — portions that are well-known among Muslims?

A: "Say: 'Who is it that Sustains you (in life) from the sky and from the earth?

Or who is it that has power over hearing and sight? And who is it that brings out the living from the dead and the dead from the living? And who is it that rules and regulates all affairs?' They will soon say, 'Allah.' Say, 'Will you not then show piety (to Him)?’ (Yunus 10:31).

"Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal; He did not beget (give birth) and He was not begotten (given birth to); And there has never been anyone equal to Him" (Al-Ikhlas, 112: 1-4).

"Allah — there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the Earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His kursi (throne) extends over the heavens and the Earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great."  Al Baqara 2:255

Allah and violence

Q: Why is Allah associated with extreme violence? Why, when a bomb spreads its destruction, do we hear: "Allahu Akbar!"? Why do Muslims in the Middle East wage war in the name of the religion of peace? Isn't that blasphemy?

A: "You need to distinguish between revelation and history," says Abdul. "Not everything Muslims do is Islamic. Look, the majority of the victims of ISIS are Muslims who do not agree with their extreme ideology. We ourselves have lost several relatives. For many of us, ISIS is making us question the way we had understood the history of the expansion of Islam…. For if this is how Islam conquered the world, we have to apologize to many people."

God written out

Q:  Then let's look at the Qur'an, especially chapters 8 and 9. How do you understand the Verse of the Sword, Tauba 9:5, just to mention one?

A: "These were wars of survival, commands for a particular time and place, not universal laws. At the time of the revelation of those verses, the new Islamic people were under the threat of extermination so they were given permission to protect themselves, and yet they were not to go beyond their limits. In our history, it is only now that fundamentalist groups are using those verses to justify their murderous acts."

"You see, violence in the name of God is not the monopoly of Muslims," adds Bassam. "Christians, too, practice violence in the name of God."

I correct them: "True, we have bloody pages in the history of Christendom, especially medieval history. But today, drone operators are not quoting Old Testament commands to justify striking Pakistani tribes or Iraqi lands. President Obama speaks openly in terms national interest, or other political reasons."

A long pause and then Bassam says, "Yes, but what about those who supported the South African apartheid? What about the Zionist Christians? Their funding still supports violence to displace Palestinians because of how they read Bible prophecies."

My response: "This is a loaded argument: We both (Adventists and Christian Zionists) find in the same text (the Bible) our ultimate source of authority, and yet our readings of prophecies land us on opposite sides of history. For if Paul is right that all prophecies find their yes in Jesus (2 Cor 1: 20) then the dispensationalist theology of land misses not only the centrality of the Messiah, but God’s intent all along to rise Israel for the sake of the nations.

"We have no problem recognizing Christian Zionism, apartheid theology or the Christian Right as extreme, fringe. This is possible because we are familiar with the Christian faith and its core tenets; but for millions of Christians, Islam first came into the scene the morning of 9/11 drenched in blood, and since then it remains entangled in politics and power struggles.  Therefore is hard to see Islam otherwise.

"Sacred violence can be found in all of the sacred texts, therefore, the question remains to what extent is violence/power core to the way in which God advances His purposes in history (and thus justifiable)? To what extent is violence presented as darkness, needing to be restrained, and ultimately defeated with good? Does God require violence as His preferred method for governing the universe?" 

Q: So, is Islam an inherently violent religion?

A: No, no religion has violence at its core. It goes against the grain of the very idea of religion.

Abdul offers a more nuanced answer: "Well, it depends who is Islam… The Wahhabi Islam of the terrorists and Saudi clerics is; the Islam of the majority of Muslims is not.

"The biggest struggle today is not Islam vs. the Western world, but intra Islam. Which version of Islam will prevail? Who speaks for Muslims today?"

Terrorism: is faith the antidote?

Q:  How come a peaceful religion seems to have become a factory of so much terrorism? Accepting that Islam/Allah is not the cause of terrorism, it surely should act as a strong deterrent. But how can this be when the only path to salvation is martyrdom?

A: Extremists are not listening to us. They are not listening to the religious leaders sanctioned by the Muslim community. They are pretty much isolated. Young people are hungry for a meaningful place in society, for a life with a purpose that makes a difference in their community. This is no different than most youth around the world. So they go to the Internet and find self-appointed imans, sheikhs who promise them honor, a spouse, a home, the possibility of creating a "perfect world," power, and salvation. Everything the youth cannot get otherwise. These days our youth are speaking literally to the whole world without filter, and their understanding of faith in general, is pitiful.

Final words

In the next section, we will address the theological issues regarding the Islamic concept of God. As a final reflection, I wish to suggest that in recognizing that sacred violence in Christian Europe triggered the secularization of society and the displacement of God, we should reflect more deeply on which lessons we learned from those bloody centuries, and offer that wisdom to the Muslim world instead of dismissing the whole of Islam as purely satanic or suggesting secularization.

NOTE: Part 2 on this topic will be available at a later date.