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What does the Qur’an teach about God? 

Posted October 23, 2019 by Mark Anderson 4 comments
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Isfahan Lotfollah Mosque ceiling

What does the Qur’an teach about God? 

Posted October 23, 2019 by Mark Anderson 4 comments

The question of whether the Qur’an’s Allah is the same as the God of the Bible divides Christians. But in one sense, the answer is very simple. Because by Muhammad’s time, Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians had been using the word Allah for God for centuries. And the Qur’an’s use of Allah came with the claim that its component messages came from the God of the Bible.[1] But comparing the two scriptures’ theology calls the simple answer into question. 

For while the God of the Bible and that of the Qur’an are similar in many respects, the two are also profoundly different.

That’s why Christians are divided over Allah and why Muslims explain the differences by saying that the Bible has been seriously corrupted.

Most basically, the Qur’an claims God is the source of its messages as well as the earlier biblical scriptures. God also speaks non-verbally in sun, rain and other powerful displays of his goodness. The Qur’an combined this idea of revelation with other key theological ideas to combat the thinking of Muhammad’s pagan hearers.

For the pagans too believed in Allah, but as the High God who created the world and then became too self-preoccupied to bother with humankind. They said Allah

  • Had fathered several gods
  • Was remote and unseeing
  • Had no interest in judging humankind

The pagans thus reduced Allah to the level of a glorified man.

Against this reduction of God, the Qur’an stressed that there’s only one true God, who, though highly exalted, sees all we do.

The Qur’an says God is all-powerful and needs nothing. It warns rebels of his nearness[2] and of the reality of the Last Day, when he’ll judge everyone, small and great. It also encourages believers to call on him when in distress since he’s near and responsive (Q 2:186, 11:61). But having said that, it also presents God’s uniqueness, nobility and grandeur in such a way that they leave no room for him to come down and interact with mortals, let alone live among them, as the Bible says.

The Qur’an describes God as “compassionate,” the “justest of judges” and “most merciful of the merciful” (e.g., Q 7:151, 95:8).[3] Hence, it encourages us to forgive and condemns such sins as theft and adultery. But since God is so much greater than we are, it offers the believer no certainty that he will welcome her to Paradise and has no interest in asking, On what precise basis will he grant or withhold mercy on the Last Day?

In fact, the Qur’an might counter that question by asking, Why would God disclose anything about himself that his servants don’t need to know to obey him?[4]

Emphasizing God’s otherness, the Qur’an says there’s none at all like him and that he couldn’t possibly have a son.[5] Surah 112 says,

       He is God alone.

       God, the eternal refuge.

       He neither begets nor was he begotten

       Nor is there anyone like him.

Thus, though the Qur’an honors Jesus as a great prophet, no standard reading of it leaves room for Christian belief in the Trinity.[6]

The Qur’an uses six professional images of God found in the Bible, presenting him as:

  • Master/king
  • Creator/sustainer
  • Judge
  • Guardian/protector
  • Revealer/guide
  • Deliverer

Seeing itself as divine guidance, the Qur’an calls God a guide, though it gives that title far more to his prophet. While the Bible makes God’s role as deliverer central, the Qur’an mentions it only peripherally.[7] Equally striking is the Qur’an’s avoidance of the Bible’s more personal images of God—for example, the central New Testament images of father and lover/husband of his people. The Qur’an refers to God’s being a friend only once and makes the New Testament’s casting of him as a servant seem utterly unthinkable.[8]

In the Qur’an, God makes covenants with humankind, but he answers to none and never invites us to hold him to his word. In keeping with this, the Qur’an does not

  • root God’s ethical attributes in his holiness[9]
  • base its entire call to moral renewal on our need to be morally like him
  • mention divine atonement

These are key biblical emphases.

All this makes God’s relationship to humankind in the Qur’an most basically that of an all-powerful Master to his servants and us rather disposable to him.

Muslims are united in deeming this theology God-honoring to a degree that nothing else is—certainly not the Bible in its present form. As noted above, that’s one of the main reasons they contest the Bible’s authenticity. By contrast, qur’anic theology divides Christians. Some claim that the Qur’an makes room for belief in the Trinity, emphasizing those parts of the Qur’an that agree with the Bible and explaining all the discrepancies away.[10] But most Christians lament that, though it conveys so many other great truths about God, the Muslim scripture rejects what they prize as the very best of revealed theology.

[1] It specifically names the Torah (Tawrat), the Psalms (Zabur) and the New Testament (Injil). It also names various biblical prophets, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus.

[2] Q 50:16, for example, warns that he’s nearer to Muhammad’s enemies than their “jugular vein.” This implies that he could effortlessly snuff out their lives in a second.

[3] It also says his likeness is the “loftiest of likenesses” (Q 16:60; 30:27). This means that, while qur’anic descriptions of him stretch language to its limits, we must still give the words used their normal meaning.

[4] It is very difficult to get a clear grasp on the essential difference between the divine-human relationship in the Bible and Qur’an. God has so many of the same attributes in both, and yet there is an unmistakable distance between God and humankind in the Qur’an that we don’t find in the Bible. At first glance, the statement that “God reveals his will in the Qur’an, but not himself” seems helpful. But it’s actually contradictory since any revelation of one’s will also implicitly reveals oneself. Condemning adultery, for example, expresses the values you hold, unless your command is purely arbitrary, in which case it would still reveal that you’re sometimes arbitrary. Hence, we might better say that God’s self-revelation appears to be rather incidental to his revelation of his will or, better still, that the goal of his self-revelation is categorically not the level of divine-human intimacy the Bible calls us to. For the Qur’an shows God to have no interest in having his subjects get to know him personally, which, again, is in sharp contrast to biblical theology.

[5] The Qur’an’s rejection of divine sonship typically comes in blanket statements without specific reference to Jesus. This could mean that it refers to the pagan Arab concept of divine sex and procreation. However, Q 4:171 denies that Jesus is God’s Son and Q 5:116 declares that Jesus is not to be worshipped as divine.

[6] There is no evidence to suggest that Muslims ever understood the Qur’an in any other way. Put positively, all the earliest Muslim commentary on the Qur’an shows that they have never believed God became incarnate in Jesus. In fact, the Qur’an makes associating anything created with God the unforgiveable sin. In keeping with this, the Qur’an’s creation accounts, which are similar to the biblical account in many other respects, omit the biblical account’s key feature of humankind’s being made in God’s likeness.

Nevertheless, some today interpret the Qur’an in such a way as to allow for belief in the Christian Trinity. They do this out of a desire to build bridges between Muslims and Christians. However, most Muslims consider their interpretation of the Qur’an perverse in much the same way that Christians do when members of the Bahai faith tell them they have seriously misunderstood Jesus.

[7] The Qur’an says, for example, that God delivered his people from Pharaoh under Moses (e.g., Q 26:65). But it presents the human race in need of no salvation beyond the guidance the Qur’an affords.

[8] Q 4:125 refers to God’s friendship with Abraham. But since it supplies no explanatory context, it leaves us to supply as much or as little meaning as we like here. Biblically, by contrast, Abraham’s friendship with God was marked by the intimacy and mutuality of God’s informing Abraham of his intentions and even allowing him to bargain with God over how he would effect his plan (Gen. 18:16-33).

One concept central to the New Testament is that of God’s serving his people even to the point of laying his life down to redeem them. Hence, the Bible presents God as simultaneously both servant and king.

[9] Both mentions of holiness leave us unsure if the Qur’an has God’s existential or ethical holiness in mind (Q 2:1, 59:23).

[10] This means, implicitly, that Muslims have historically misinterpreted their own scripture and need Christians to dispel their confusion and show them its true meaning. After all, the theological discrepancies I refer to are both pivotal and ubiquitous in the Qur’an. But so narrowly focused on bridge-building are those who take this approach that they seem to be unaware of both the implication and how paternalistic their approach is.

4 Comments

  1. I’m a Christian who values Muslims and is interested in learning about the Muslim faith. I’m curious. How would Muslims respond to the article above. Is it fair? Does it fit with what you believe the Qur’an teaches?

  2. I am glad you asked, Joel. As a Muslim, I would say that this article suffers from a lack of close reading of the Qur’an, and what was read was clearly interpreted through the author’s Christian point of view rather than providing an accurate picture of what the Qur’an is saying or how Muslims understand it. One of the common Christian misconceptions that was present in this article is the idea that Allah is a distant and unknowable god. Perhaps this misconception has its roots in the Protestant belief in a personal relationship with God, and then assuming that Islam must have the opposite of that. Wherever the origins of this idea may lie, Allah does not certainly describe Himself in this way throughout the Qur’an. Places like 2:186 or 11:61 are good examples to show Allah’s nearness and responsiveness to His believing slaves, though I would like to point to the end of surah Maryam [19]. From 19:88-95, Allah negates the false belief that He has any son, but then goes immediately to affirm that He has love and affection for His believing slaves in 19:96. So this denial of a son of God in an intermediary or atoning role does not entail a distant Lord, as Christians often assume, but rather Allah points out in this very passage and in several places throughout this surah and repeatedly on almost every page of the Qur’an how He apportions His mercy: those who believe and do good deeds will receive His mercy while those who associate partners with him will receive His punishment. Read surah Maryam (all of it or from 64 to the end), or other places like 7:156-158 or the beginning of surah Ghafir come to mind, but the subject of who receives Allah’s mercy and who receives His punishment is so ubiquitous throughout the Qur’an that I am amazed by the author’s claim that the Qur’an “has no interest in asking, On what basis does [Allah] grant or withhold mercy?”

    In fact, the entire Qur’an is a sign of Allah’s rahmah – mercy, love and affection – for us, just as He has described the Qur’an as a mercy and a healing for what is in the chests. As the great scholar ibn al-Qayyim said, every single ayah (verse) in the Qur’an is about al-Tawheed – Allah’s sole right to be worshipped. This is either by the information that He gives us about Himself which lets us know who we are worshipping, commanding us to worship Him so that we can put this into practice, informing us of His legislation which enables us to further actualize our worship of Him, giving us information about those who believe in Allah and how He rewards them which can serve to engender our love, hope and obedience in Allah, and informing us of those who disbelieve in Allah and how He punishes them which can serve to dissuade us from disobedience. So while the author poses the question, “Why would God disclose anything about himself that his servants don’t need to know to obey him?” – seeming to imply that information about Allah is scarce and scant throughout the Qur’an – we can say instead that every single thing in the Qur’an is telling us about our Lord and this information is either telling us who we are worshiping, how to worship Him, or why to worship Him. For the author to assert that “the Qur’an shows God to have no interest in having his subjects to get to know him, which, again, is in sharp contrast to biblical theology” shows a terrible and frankly inexcusable bias and misrepresentation of the Qur’an and Islamic belief.

    So these are some issues that the author gets wrong from the angle of interpretation. Then there are a handful of factually incorrect statements, such as that the Qur’an describes the Prophet as a guide more often than it does Allah or that it never calls us to be morally like him (see 28:77, for example). These and others are sloppy claims.

    Without going too much longer, the issue of deliverance is an interesting one. Here the author correctly points out that deliverance or salvation has a much less prominent place in the Qur’an than in a Protestant understanding of Christianity, and notes that deliverance or salvation in the Qur’an is usually used in reference to deliverance from a worldly punishment, such as saving Noah and his people from the flood or Moses and his people from the drowning of Pharoah and the Egyptians. So a shallow reading from a Christian perspective would see this as a deficiency in a key area and further affirm his notion that Islam is so opposite to Christianity in yet another way. But a careful reading would find that it is not salvation/deliverance which is used to talk about eternal wellbeing in the Qur’an, but rather the terms guidance and success are the ones he should be looking for. Rather than a focus on some singular deliverance/salvation event (such as the death of Jesus in atonement for sins), the Qur’an frequently speaks about sliding scales of guidance to misguidance and success to loss. That is because Islam does not present any sort of “one-and-done” saved event, but rather at each moment we are either moving closer to our Lord in obedience and remembrance or farther away from Him in disobedience and heedlessness until the moment we die [74:37]. The Qur’an repeatedly speaks about different levels of guidance and misguidance and different levels of success and loss, rather than any one-time spiritual deliverance event. So, we cannot compare apples to apples here.

    These are a few thoughts about this article. If you are sincerely interested in learning about the Muslim faith, then I would recommend referring to Islamic sources and Muslims going forward. Otherwise, you are liable to get a skewed picture of what the Qur’an teaches or what Muslims believe, such as what we have found in parts of this article.

  3. Thank you Khalil, for responding. It is interesting. I’ll read what you’ve written a few times and think about it for a while. If I think of any questions for the conversation, I’ll plan to post again. God bless.

  4. Thanks so much, Khalil, for all the time and thought you put into your response. I found some of your comments very helpful and have made a few revisions to my article as a result.

    Just to clarify: My one and only goal in writing the article was to present the qur’anic view of God as fairly and faithfully as possible, simultaneously showing how it relates to biblical theology. So I was sorry to see that you felt I misrepresented the Qur’an.

    Everyone reading the Qur’an or Bible has a particular perspective or bias—I no less than you—and it’s unavoidable that our bias will show when we write about it. But I had no agenda of making the Qur’an seem as unlike or as like the Bible as possible. My goal was simply to show the many similarities and differences between them. Of course, it’s only right that we compare and contrast the two scriptures because the Qur’an specifies that it’s revealed by the God of the Bible.

    But as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, attempting to do that on so central a topic as “God” in fewer than 800 words—not counting footnotes—is extremely challenging. (Not to criticize, but just to compare: your response is more than 200 words longer than my original article.) So I’m not surprised if I didn’t get it all perfect. And in response to your criticisms, I’ve tried to clarify a number of the points I was making.

    Thanks again, brother. I’ll respond directly to your specific comments as time allows.

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