A TALISMAN FROM A MUSLIM BOOK
ON THE NAMES OF ALLAH
ON THE NAMES OF ALLAH
Jews, Christians and Muhammadans believe in one God and yet differ widely in their interpretation of this idea. Unless we know the Muslim’s idea of God we cannot understand his creed nor judge his philosophy, nor intelligently communicate our idea of God to him. The strength of Islam is not in its ritual nor in its ethics, but in its tremendous and fanatical grasp on the one great truth —Monotheism.
Our purpose in these pages is to learn the extent and content of this idea; an idea which holds the Muslim world even more than they hold it. I have found no book in English, among the wealth of literature on Islam, that treats of this subject. In Ger man there are two books on the theology of the Koran,1 but both are rare and limited, as appears from their titles, to a consideration of what the Koran teaches.
For a fair interpretation, however, of Islam's idea of God we must go not only to the Koran, but also to orthodox tradition. The Hadith are the records of the authoritative sayings and doings of Muhammad and have exercised tremendous power on Muslim thought since the early days of Islam; not only by supplementing but by interpreting the Koran. The Hadith are accepted by every Muslim sect, in some form or other, and are indispensable to Islam. For proof of these statements we refer to Sprenger and Muir. The Koran-text quoted is from Palmer's translation, together with references to the three standard commentaries of Beidhawi, Zamakhshari and Jellalain. For orthodox tradition I have used the collection known as Mishkal-ul-Misabih, because it is short, authoritative, and because an English translation of this collection exists. This collection, originally the work of Bagdwi (516 A.H.) and based on the classical works of Buchari and Muslim, was edited and issued in its present form by Abdullah-al-Khatib (737 A.H.); and Brockelmann in his history of Arabic literature calls it "the most correct and practical book of Muslim traditions." I had no access to the translation and all references are to the Arabic edition printed in Delhi.
The frontispiece is from the celebrated Shems-ulMa'arif of Muhyee-ed-Din-al-Buni, This book treats of the names of God and their use in amulets, healing, recovering lost property, etc. I am aware that in some parts of the Muhammadan world disintegration of religious ideas is in progress and that the theology as well as the ethics of Islam is being modified by contact with Western civilization, Protestant missions, and Christian morals. My idea, however, was not to sketch the theological views neither of Muslims in Liverpool nor of the reformers of Islam in India, but of the vast orthodox majority of the people both learned and illiterate.
In the comparative study of any religion the idea of God is fundamental, and if these pages give a clearer idea of what Muhammad taught and what his followers believe concerning Allah, the Christian missionary will the more earnestly preach to Muslims the Gospel of our Savior, who said, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father."
Among all the religions of the world there is none that has a shorter creed than Islam; none whose creed is so well known and so often repeated. The whole system of Muhammadan theology and philosophy and religious life is summed up in seven words: La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah. "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is Allah's apostle"—on these two phrases hang all the laws and teaching and morals of Islam. The logical development of Islam took place after the death of Muhammad in two ways: by the interpretation of the Koran and by the collection (or invention) of a mass of so-called tradition. The former is what Allah revealed by means of a book; the latter is what Allah revealed by means of a man, Muhammad. Both revelations have well-nigh equal authority and both rest their authority on the kalimet or creed of seven words. The accompanying analysis shows this relation.
Gibbon characterizes the first part of the Muslim’s creed as "an eternal truth" and the second part as a "necessary fiction." Concerning the latter statement there is no dispute, but whether we can admit the former depends altogether on the character of the Being of whom it is affirmed that He displaces all other gods. If Allah's nature and attributes are in any way distorted or are unworthy of Deity, then even the first clause of the briefest of all creeds is false. "Because Muhammad taught the unity of God it has been too hastily concluded that he was a great social and moral reformer as well. But there is no charm in the abstract doctrine of the unity of God to elevate humanity. The essential point is the character attributed to this one God." It is, therefore, not superfluous to inquire both from the Koran and from orthodox Tradition what Muslims mean by asserting God's unity and what character they ascribe to their only, true God. For there is no doubt that they themselves emphasize nothing so much as this part of their system. It is the motto-text of the Muslim’s home-life, the baptismal formula to welcome the infant as a believer, the final message to whisper in the ears of the dying, La ilaha illa Allah. These words they chant when carrying a burden or a bier; these words they inscribe on their banners and their door-posts; they appear on all the early coins of the caliphs and have been the great battle cry of Islam for thirteen centuries. By repeating these words, the infidel turns Muslim and the renegade is welcomed back to a spiritual brotherhood. By this creed the faithful are called to prayer five times daily, from Morocco to the Philippines, and this is the platform on which all the warring sects of Islam can unite, for it is the foundation and criterion of their religion. According to a traditional saying of Muhammad, "God said to Moses, if you were to put the whole universe on one side of the scale-pans and the words La ilaha illa Allah on the other this would outweigh that."
Orthodox tradition also relates that the prophet one day was passing by a dry and withered tree and as soon as he struck it with his staff the leaves fell off; then the prophet said, Verily, the words La ilaha illa Allah shake off the believer's sins as my staff shook off the leaves from this tree.
The Koran is never weary of reiterating the formula which expresses God's unity, and the one hundred and twelfth Surah, specially devoted to this subject, is, so Muslims say, equal in value to one third of the whole book. It is related by Zamakhshari in his commentary that Muhammad said, "The seven heavens and the seven earths are built on this Surah and whoever reads it enters paradise."
Now in spite of the emphasis thus put on the doctrine of God's unity by Muslims, and in spite of the fact that it is this part of their creed which is their glory and boast, there has been a strange neglect on the part of most writers who have described the religion of Muhammad to study Muhammad's idea of God. It is so easy to be misled by a name or by etymologies. Nearly all writers take for granted that the God of the Koran is the same being and has like attributes as Jehovah or as the Godhead of the New Testament. Especially is this true of the rationalistic students of Islam in Germany and England. Is this view correct? The answer, whether affirmative or negative, has important bearing not only on missions to Muslims but on a true philosophical attitude toward this greatest of all false faiths. If we have to deal with "an eternal truth" linked to "a necessary fiction" our simple task is to sever the link and let the eternal truth stand to make men free. On the other hand, if the necessary fiction is put as the foundation of a distorted truth, there can be no compromise; both clauses of the creed fall together.
To the etymologist, Zeus-Pater, Jupiter and Heavenly Father mean the same thing; but these words express widely different ideas to the student of comparative religions. Many people have a better knowledge of Jupiter, Brahma or Thor as deities than of Allah; and it is so because in the former case they go to mythology and in the latter case to etymology for the sum of their ideas. The word Allah is used for God not only by all Muslims, but by all Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians in the Orient. But this does not necessarily mean that the idea expressed by the word is the same in each case. The ideas of Muhammad regarding God's existence, character and attributes came to him from three sources. First he undoubtedly had a knowledge of God from nature, and the passages of the Koran which set forth this natural theology are some of them the most beautiful and poetic in the whole book. Then, by his heredity and environment he could not free himself from the pagan ideas of Deity current among the Arabs. Lastly, he learned something of the God of Abraham and of the teachings of the New Testament from the Jews and Christians of Arabia and Abyssinia. From these three sources Muhammad obtained his theology, and to each source we can trace some of the ideas he sets forth in the Koran and in his table-talk concerning Allah. What was the resuit? This question we will try to answer in what follows. It remains to quote a few authoritative testimonies to show at the outset that the verdict is not unanimous regarding the ethical value and the philosophic truth of Muhammadan Monotheism.
Frederick Perry Noble, an authority on Islam in Africa, writes:
'The crowning benefit bestowed upon the benighted negro by Islam, its advocate exclaims, is the belief in the one true God. Is not this an advance, an immense advance, upon fetichism and idolatry? This depends on the content and effect of the idea of God in Islam and in African paganism. If the two members of the religious equation prove of equal value, the answer must be: x — y and the gain is zero.
This is very strong language. In the following paragraphs of that chapter of his book the author puts Allah in the balances against an African fetich and the scales hang nearly even! How different is this testimony from that of Canon Taylor, and Dr. Blyden and Bosworth Smith regarding Islam's blessing to dark Africa. Major Osborne, in sketching the history of religion under the Khalifs of Bagdad, concludes:
"The God of the Muslim is not a righteous God, but an arbitrary sovereign. I know that passages in the Koran can be produced wherein the righteousness of God is strongly insisted upon. But such passages have failed to mould to any great extent the practical religion of Islam, because (as I have already observed) the Koran is a book without moral gradations. Every institution and every precept stands upon the same ground—the will of God. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link; and it is the veneration paid to a black stone, not to the One God, which denotes the high-water mark of the moral and intellectual life of the Muslim world."
Johannes Hauri, in his classical study of Islam, voices a similar sentiment and gives the clue to the favorable judgment of so many other writers. He says:
"What Muhammad tells us of God's omnipotence, omniscience, justice, goodness and mercy sounds, for the most part, very well indeed, and might easily awaken the idea that there is no real difference between his God and the God of Christianity. But Muhammad's monotheism was just as much a departure from true monotheism as the polytheistic ideas prevalent in the corrupt Oriental churches. Muhammad's idea of God is out and out deistic. God and the world are in exclusive, external and eternal opposition. Of an entrance of God into the world or of any sort of human fellowship with God he knows nothing. This is the reason Islam received the warm sympathies of English deists and German rationalists; they found in its idea of God flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone."
The following work will show whether this statement is overdrawn and whether Noble's indictment of Allah will stand.
ALLAH, THE DIVINE ESSENCE
"The interpretation of God consists of two distinct yet complementary parts—a doctrine of God and of the Godhead. God is deity conceived in relation, over against the universe, its cause or ground, its law and end; but the Godhead is deity conceived according to His own nature as He is from within and for Himself."—Principal Fairbairn.
Concerning the real significance of the Arabic word Allah there has been much speculation and endless discussion among Muslim exegetes and lexicographers. The author of the Muheet-elMuheet dictionary, a Christian, says: "Allah is the name of necessary Being. There are twenty different views as to the derivation of this name of the Supreme; the most probable is that its root is ilah, the past participle form, on the measure ji'al, from the verb ilaho = to worship, to which the article was prefixed to indicate the supreme object of worship."
When we open the pages of Ferozabadi, Beidhawi or Zamakhshari and read some of these twenty other derivations we find ourselves at the outset before an unknown God. The intellectual difficulty was a real one to the Muslim exegete, as he must discover some root and some theory of derivation that is not in conflict with his accepted idea of God. Beidhawi, for example, suggests that Allah is derived "from an [invented] root ilaha = to be in perplexity, because the mind is perplexed when it tries to form the idea of the Infinite!" Yet more fanciful are the other derivations given and the Arabic student can satisfy his curiosity in Beidhawi, Vol. I., pp. 5 and 6.
According to the opinion of some Muslim theologians, it is infidelity (kufr) to hold that the word has any derivation whatever! This is the opinion of the learned in Eastern Arabia. They say "God is not begotten," and so His name cannot be derived. He is the first, and had an Arabic name before the creation of the worlds. Allah is an eternal combination of letters written on the throne in Arabic and each stroke and curve has mystical meaning. Muhammad, they teach, received the revelation of this name and was the first to preach the divine unity among the Arabs by declaring it. This kind of argument is of one piece with all that Muslims tell of "the days of ignorance" before the prophet. But history establishes beyond the shadow of a doubt that even the pagan Arabs, before Muhammad's time, knew their chief god by the name of Allah and even, in a sense, proclaimed His unity. In pre-Islamic literature, Christian or pagan, ilah is used for any god and Al-ilah (contracted to Allah), i.e., 6 0e6f, the god, was the name of the Supreme. Among the pagan Arabs this term denoted the chief god of their pantheon, the Kaaba, with its three hundred and sixty idols. Herodotus informs us (Lib. III., cap. viii.) that in his day the Arabs had two principal deities, Orotal and Alilat. The former is doubtless a corruption of Allah Tadl, God most high, a term very common in the Muslim vocabulary; the latter is Al hat, mentioned as a pagan goddess in the Koran. Two of the pagan poets of Arabia, Nabiga and Labid, use the word Allah repeatedly in the sense of a supreme deity. Nabiga says (Diwan, poem L, verses 23, 24) :
Allah has given them a kindness and grace which others have not. Their abode is the God (Al-ilah) Himself and their religion is strong, etc.
Labid says: "Neither those who divine by striking stones or watching birds, know what Allah has just created."
Ash-Shahristani says of the pagan Arabs that some of them "believed in a Creator and a creation, but denied Allah's prophets and worshipped false gods, concerning whom they believed that in the next world they would become mediators between themselves and Allah." And Ibn Hisham, the earliest biographer of Muhammad whose work is extant, admits that the tribes of Kinanah and Koreish used the following words when performing the pre-Islamic ceremony of ihlal:
"We are present in thy service, O God. Thou hast no partner except the partner of thy dread. Thou ownest him and whatsoever he owneth."
As final proof, we have the fact that centuries before Muhammad the Arabian Kaaba, or temple at Mecca, was called Beit-Allah, the house of God, and not Beit-el-Alihet, the house of idols or gods. Now if even the pagan Arabs acknowledged Allah as supreme, surely the Hanifs (that band of religious reformers at Mecca which rejected all polytheism and sought freedom from sin by resignation to God's will) were not far from the idea of the Unity of God. It was henotheism in the days of paganism; and the Hanifs led the way for Muhammad to preach absolute monotheism. The Koran often calls Abraham a Hanif and stoutly affirms that he was not a Jew or a Christian (Surahs 2:129; 3:60, 89; 6:162; 16:121, etc.). Among the Hanifs of Muhammad's time were Waraka, the prophet's cousin, and Zaid bin 'Amr, surnamed the Inquirer. Both exerted decided influence on Islam and its teaching.
Noldeke thinks Muhammad was in doubt as to which name he would select for the supreme being and that he thought of adopting Er-Rahman, the merciful, as the proper name of God in place of Allah, because that was already used by the heathen. Rahmana was a favorite Hebrew name for God in the Talmudic period and in use among the Jews of Arabia.1 On the Christian monuments found by Dr. Edward Glaser in Yemen, Allah is also mentioned. The Sirwah inscription (A.D. 542) opens with the words: "In the power of the All-merciful and His Messiah and the Holy Ghost," which shows that, at least in Yemen, Arabian Christians were not in error regarding the persons of the Trinity. One other term often used for Allah we will have occasion to study later. It is the word Es-Samad [the Eternal], and seems to come from the same root as Samood, the name of an idol of the tribe of 'Ad and mentioned in the poem of Yezid bin Sa'ad.3 Hobal, the chief god of the Kaaba (and whom Dozy identifies with Baal), is, strange to say, not mentioned in the Koran. Perhaps he was at this period already identified by the Meccans with Allah. This would explain Muhammad's silence on the subject.
We thus are led back to the sources from which the Arabian prophet drew his ideas of Allah; namely (as for all his other teaching), from Arabian paganism, Talmudic Judaism and Oriental Christianity. Islam is not original, not a ripe fruit, but rather a wild offshoot of foreign soil grafted on Judaism. It will not surprise us, therefore, if its ideas of God are immature and incomplete.
The passages of the Koran that teach the existence and unity of God (Allah) are either those that refer for proof of His unity to creation (Surahs 6: 96-100; 16:3-22; 21:31-36; 27:60-65, etc.), or state that polytheism and atheism are contrary to reason (Surah 23:119), or that dualism is self-destructive (Surah 21:22), or bring in the witness of former prophets (Surahs 30: 29; 21: 26; 39: 65 ; 51: 50-52). The dogma of absolute monotheism is held forth first against the pagan Arabs as, e.g., in Surah 71:23, where Noah and Muhammad agree in condemning the idols of antediluvian polytheists. "Said Noah, My Lord, verily they have rebelled against me and followed him whose wealth and children have but added to his loss and they have plotted a great plot and said, Ye shall surely not leave your gods; ye shall surely neither leave Wadd nor Suwah nor Yaghuth nor Ya'ook nor Nasr,1 and they led them astray," etc. But this dogma is no less aimed at the Jews whom the Koran accuses of deifying Ezra (Surah 9:30) and Christians who believe in the Trinity. This Trinity Muhammad misunderstood or misrepresented as consisting of Allah, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The deity of Christ is utterly rejected (Surahs 19:35, 36; 3:51, 52; 43:57-65; 5:19, etc.), and His incarnation and crucifixion denied, although not His miraculous birth. (Surahs 19:22-24; 3:37-43, 47-50; 4:155, 156).
The word Allah is called by Muslim theologians Ism-ul-That, the name of the essence, or of the Being of God. All other titles, even that of Rabb (Lord) being considered Isma-ul-Sifat, i.e., names of the attributes. In this first name, therefore, we have (barren though it be) the Muslim idea of the nature of God apart from His attributes and creation (in accordance with the motto at the head of this chapter), although at the same time in sharp contrast with Christian ideas of the Godhead.
As is evident from the very form of the Muslim creed their fundamental conception of Allah is negative. God is unique, as well as a unit, and has no relations to any creature that partake of resemblance. The statement in Genesis that man was created in the divine image is to the Muslim blasphemy. Allah is defined by a series of negations. As popular song has it—
"Whatsoever your mind can conceive, That Allah is not you may well believe."
Muhammad, outside of the Koran, was silent regarding the nature of God's being. "For while traditions have been handed down in abundance which give the responses of the Prophet to inquiries concerning prayer, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage there is not one having reference to the being [and attributes] of God. This is a fact acknowledged by all those most profoundly versed in Traditional lore." The great Imams are agreed regarding the danger and impiety of studying or discussing the nature of the being of God. They, therefore, when speaking of Allah's being, fall back on negations.
The idea of absolute sovereignty and ruthless omnipotence (borrowed, as we shall see, from the nature of Allah's attributes) are at the basis. For the rest his character is impersonal—that of an infinite, eternal, vast Monad. God is not a body. God is not a spirit. Neither has God a body nor has he a spirit. The Imam El-Ghazzali says:
Allah is not a body endued with form nor a substance circumscribed with limits or determined by measure. Neither does He resemble bodies, as they are capable of being measured or divided. Neither is He a substance, nor do substances exist in Him; neither is He an accident, nor do accidents exist in Him. Neither is He like to anything that exists; neither is anything like Him. His nearness is not like the nearness of bodies nor is His essence like the essence of bodies. Neither does He exist in anything nor does anything exist in Him.
The words "There is no God but Allah" occur in Surah Muhammad, verse 21, but the Surah which Muslims call the Surah of the Unity of God is the 112th. According to Tradition, this chapter is Muhammad's definition of Allah. Beidhawi says: "Muhammad (on him be prayers and peace) was asked concerning his Lord and then this Surah came down." Zamakhshari says: "Ibn Abbas related that the Koreish said, O Muhammad, describe to us your Lord whom you invite us to worship; then this Surah was revealed." As a specimen of Muslim exegesis, here is the Surah with the comments first of Beidhawi and then of Zamakhshari; the words of the Koran are put in italics and the translation is literal:
Say, He is God, One. God is the predicate of He is, and One is in apposition to it or is a second predicate. God is 'eternal' (Samad), that is, God is He to whom men betake themselves for their needs. He does not beget, because of the impossibility of His homogeneousness. And is not begotten, because of the impossibility of anything happening concerning Him. And there is not to Him a single equal, i.e., equivalent or similar one. The expression 'to Him' is joined to the word 'equal' and precedes it because the chief purpose of the pronouns is to express the denial. And the reason for putting the word 'single' last, although it is the subject of the verb, is that it may stand separate from 'to Him.'" The idea of Beidhawi seems to be that even in the grammatical order of the words there must be entire and absolute separation between Allah and creation!
Zamakhshari interprets likewise as follows:
"God is one, unified (unique?) in His divinity, in which no one shares, and He is the one whom all seek since they need Him and He needs nobody. He does not beget, because He has none of His own genus, and so possesses no female companion of His own kind, and consequently the two of them propagate. This is indicated by God's saying, 'How can there be offspring to Him and He has no female companion.1 And He is not begotten. Because everything born is an occurrence and a (material) body. God, however, is ancient, there is no beginning to His existence and He is not a body. And He has no equal, i.e., no likeness or resemblance. It is allowed to explain this of companionship in marriage and to deny a female consort."
This, then, is the definition of the Essence of God, according to the Koran and the best commentaries. How far such negations come short of the sublime statements of revelation: God is a Spirit; God is light; God is love. I have purposely used the word God for Allah in my translation and capitalized He to show how shocking such ideas seem to the Christian consciousness.
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