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Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation

The Call of the Minaret, Kenneth Cragg, 1956, 35-41

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Islam: Truth or Myth? start page



The Call of the Minaret, Kenneth Cragg, 1956, 35-41

God-There Is None Save He

IN THE Muslim confession of God there are seven syllables and six occurrences of the I consonant. LA-ILAH-ILLA-ALLAH. The first three of the Is are what the phonetics writers call "clear" dentals. The second three are "dark" alveolars for which, as Gairdner says, "The tip of the tongue comes back and touches the teethridge, and at the same time the back of the tongue is raised towards the back of the soft palate or velum." A heavy sound is then produced which, if not unique to the Divine Name, occurs there most notably.

If the reader is alarmed at this linguistic beginning he will relent on recalling that the muezzin is our theme. There is a quality about the authentic pronunciation of the first clause of the Muslim creed, which impresses itself upon every sensitive hearer. The "clear" consonants run into the emphatic final syllables of the word Allah: the latter cast their force forward into the consonant of the particle "except" (illa), and the result is a kind of powerful climax which matches the emphasis of the sense. It is true, of course, that the diction of many muezzins is raucous and strained and that the Divine Name often loses its forcefulness in certain grammatical or other situations. But there can be no mistaking the insistent and incontrovertible character of the affirmation within the utterance. No English rendering quite captures the Arabic enunciation of the Muslim witness to God. "La-ilah-illa-Allah".

It is for this very reason that we avoid in all that follows the use of the Anglicized Allah. It is so far from its Arabic original, when pronounced with a thin English consonant and feeble vowels, that many an Arab Muslim would find it unrecognizable. But more important, there have grown up associations with the English usage of Allah that are sentimental, having to do more with melodrama than theology. These should be shunned. There may also be the idea in the user's mind that in referring to God in Islam as Allah he is distinguishing that Deity from the God Whom Christian English denotes. When the word Allah is intentionally used in this way it raises a serious implication we wish here to reject.

Since both Christian and Muslim faiths believe in One supreme sovereign Creator-God, they are obviously referring when they speak of Him, under whatever terms, to the same Being. To suppose otherwise would be confusing. It is important to keep in mind that though the apprehensions differ, their theme is the same. The differences, which undoubtedly exist, between the Muslim and the Christian understanding of God are far-reaching and must be patiently studied. But it would be fatal to all our mutual tasks to doubt that One and the same God over all was the reality in both. Those who say that Allah is not "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" are right if they mean that He is not so described by Muslims. They are wrong if they mean that He is other than the One Christians so understand. The source of the confusion of thought encountered here is that to say who God is necessarily goes beyond saying that He is. If men agree on the second what they say relates to the same theme or subject, even though they differ markedly as to the first. No faith or believer, of course, can say that God is without being involved to some degree in what He is. But unless there is radical inconsistency within the very concept of existence itself as applied to God-the sort of difference which does not obtain between Muslim and Christian-they are speaking of the same subject. Perhaps we put the matter concisely if we say predicates about God may differ widely but that God as the subject of differing predicates is the same subject.

Before, however, leaving the Arabic term Allah in order to keep to the English equivalent God, we must investigate its precise literal meaning. The Arabic form ilahun meaning "a god" is similar to the Hebrew and Aramaic words for deity. When used with the definite article Al-Ilahu meaning "T ' he God" the I consonant of the article coalesces with the same letter in the first syllable of the word eliding the sound to make Al-lah. If we take the word to be of genuine Arabic form this is the obvious origin. If, as some scholars believe, the word does not have this origin but is historically derived from a sister language, its significance is the same. Allah means "God" with the connotation English achieves by dismissing even the definite article and using the capital letter-a device which Arabic lacks.

It is clear from the negative form of the Muslim creed, "There is no god except God," that the existence and lordship of Allah were known and recognized in pre-Islamic Arabia. The Prophet's mission was not to proclaim God's existence but to deny the existence of all lesser deities. The fact that Muhammad's own father bore the name 'Abd-Allah, slave of God, demonstrates that God was known by that name prior to Islam. The Qur'an in many passages refers to Muhammad's adversaries in Mecca, swearing by God, invoking Him, and recognizing His sovereignty as Creator. The name Allah is also evident in archaeological and literary remains of pre-Islamic Arabic. But the people of Mecca did not understand or allow that God alone should be worshipped. Indeed they contended against Muhammad that if God had willed it they would have refrained from believing in other deities (Surah vi. 148), clearly implying that God approved of their concurrent idolatry. When, however, Muhammad came bringing precisely that Divine claim to exclusive worship they refused the Messenger.

There can be no doubt then that the Prophet's contemporaries knew of a Supreme Being, but He did not dominate their minds. Rather they thought more directly and frequently of the lesser gods, the daughters, perhaps even the sons, of Allah who were far more intimately related to their daily lives, their wars, their harvests, and their fertility. They were also much concerned with a multiplicity of demons and jinns who inhabited natural phenomena, especially winds, hills, and wells. The fascinating theme of Muhammad's inner revolt against these notions and the pattern of his crusading controversy with the Meccans in the name of the Divine Unity must concern us in the chapter to follow, on the second clause of the muezzin's witness.

Here in the context of God and His Oneness we are faced with the supreme sin in the Muslim reckoning, itself the corollary of its great negation. This is the sin of associating with God. The Arabic term is Shirk. Its significance must be clearly understood if we are to enter validly into the meaning of the confession. Associating is the belief that God has co-existents or partners. There must be no alienation of His Godhead, or God-ness. It is not merely that He has no co-equals. He has no associates of any kind or rank. This was the gist of the Prophet's contention against the Meccans. God and idolatry were incompatible. It was not enough to confess that God was; He must be recognized as God alone. All the partners whom the pagan Arabs associated with Him were truly nonentities. They did not exist and they had no right to recognition. Muhammad, it is true, continued to believe in the existence of angels and jinns, but he repudiated any notion that these were deities. This tremendous breaking of the idols, dramatized by the physical cleansing of the central sanctuary in Mecca after its conquest by Muhammad, was the supreme achievement of Islam. It was an iconoclasm which came tragically to include in its great negation also the Christian faith about Christ. In abolishing the daughters and sons of Mecca's Allah, Muhammad failed to distinguish the wholly different meaning of the Christian Sonship. To this day the Muslim principle of Unity stubbornly refuses to accept any understanding of unity which it thinks at error by the criteria needed to purge Mecca of multiplied divinities. It has not distinguished between pagan men alienating God's prerogatives and God in His own undivided glory working according to them. But the Christian problem of Muslim attitudes in this realm is to be faced below.

So it came that Muhammad, son of 'Abdallah, Messenger of God, proclaimed the Divine Unity and disqualified all other worships, annihilating in word and in action the partners whom the pagan Arabs associated with God. The word Allah itself is grammatically incapable of a plural. It is a proper name. Repeatedly the Qur'an refers to God as Al-Wahid - the One. The Surah of Unity (Surah cxii) declares:

He is God alone, God the Eternal [undivided] He does not beget and He is not begotten There is none co-equal with Him.

It may be that this brief Surah is a reply to a question from Jewish or Christian doctors as to the Muslim doctrine of God, though tradition regards it as a very early utterance before such questions could have been formulated. It is held to be worth a third of the whole Qur'an and the seven heavens and the seven earths are founded upon it. To confess this verse, a tradition affirms, is to shed one's sins as a man might strip a tree in autumn of its leaves.

This doctrine of the Divine Unity, of the inalienable quality of God's Divinity, was a tremendous passion in Muhammad's heart. By virtue of His remoteness beyond His intermediaries, God was half unreal to the pagans. To Muhammad He was the only real. The Meccans might acknowledge and yet ignore Him saving their intimate worship for familiar substitutes. Did not God Himself say (Surah 1. x6): "We know what man's soul whispers and are nearer than his neck artery." The Messenger was dominated by the Divine Reality and spoke of Him and for Him in the burning language of conviction. The strictly theological problems were all postponed, to be taken up in the centuries after Islam's expansion by thinkers of other races than the Arab with more inquiring minds and less intensity of purpose. Indeed "postponed" is perhaps an inexact word. The problems were not consciously deferred. They were not even felt. They had no place to develop in a mind that was fully possessed with its single mission. There is no valid understanding of Muslim theology that does not first strive to enter into this vivid awareness where it had its genesis.

"There is no god except God." Except God. The negation was the form in which Mecca could most arrestingly be given the affirmation. Muhammad proclaimed God to them in a sequence of descriptives which have been called, on Quranic ground, the Beautiful Names, Al-Asma' al-Husna. These number ninety-nine though the collections are not always quite identical. Most of them are found in the Qur'an itself, the remainder being traditional. Their variety is explained in part by the poetic style of the Qur'an, which tended to the use of rhyming endings, derived from a much smaller number of original roots with nuances or shades of adjectival meaning. The Names have been variously classified and interpreted by theologians. Edwin Arnold's Pearls of Faith is one familiar English rendering. The well known Muslim "rosary" (sibhah) or chain of beads, in thrice thirty three arrangement, is a means of recollecting serially the Ninety-nine names of God. They may also be seen in the Arabic numerals 81 and 18 adding up to 99, which can easily be read in the left - and right-hand palms.

The most important of the Divine Names in Islam are the twin titles, Al-Rahmin al-Rahim, usually rendered into English "The Compassionate, the Merciful." They derive from the same verbal root, meaning mercy or compassion, but the first should probably be regarded rather as a noun than an adjective, with the second qualifying it: "the Merciful Mercier" or "the Compassionate Compassionator." The sequence is not mere repetition. The Rahmin is the One Who is in His character merciful. The Rahim is He in merciful action. He Who is merciful behaves mercifully. His mercy is of His essence, and also of His deed. This double title is used as an invocation at the head of all the 114 Surahs of the Qur'an, with the exception of Surah ix. The Basmalah: "In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful," is, after the Shahadah, the most familiar epitome of Muslim devotion. It is used in the, recognition of God in all the ventures and vicissitudes of life even more widely than the confession itself.

Before pondering further the quality of the Divine mercy, it is necessary to study the more significant of the Beautiful Names. The next most familiar are the contrasted pairs: "The First and the Last: the Outward and the Inward" sometimes called "the mothers of the attributes" since they comprehend all else. They suggest God's eternity, omniscience, and self-sufficiency. The same attributes are affirmed in: "the Living," the "Comprehending," "the Self-sufficing," "the Abiding ... .. the High," "the Mighty," "the All-Powerful," "the Exalted," "the Great," "the Praiseworthy ... .. the All-Compelling," "the Guardian," "the Victorious." Another title used only twice in the Qur'an, Al Qayyfim, may be translated as "the Self-subsisting," though Al-Baidiwi, the most famous Muslim exegete, suggests the physical sense of "the always Erect"-"the Standing." The term graphically conveys the idea of God in alert relationship to the world.

This eternal and all-encompassing God is described as "the Creator ... .. the Fashioner ... .. the Life-Giver," "the Provider," "the Opener," "the Bestower .. .. the Prevailer." He brings to life and He brings to death. He is "the Reckoner" and "the Recorder," He is "the King of Kingship' and "the Lord of the worlds." It is repeatedly declared in the Qur'an that there is no strength and no power save in Him. "He is over all things supreme." His also is the final knowledge. For the Muslim who has entered into this understanding, all problems end in, or are lost in, the phrase: "God is the Knowing One." He is the One Who is always "Aware." He hears, sees, and discerns. Nothing escapes His watchfulness or eludes His gaze.

The actions appropriate to these names, most of which are participial or adjectival forms, are frequently noted in the events and situations of the Quranic story. The relation of God to His Prophet, to His believing community, and to His adversaries is depicted in the active sense of these attributes. The Names are far, then, from being mere attributes to be listed in a theology: they are awesome realities of daily life. For God is Al-Haqq- "the Real," "the Veritable." He is the Supreme Reality of all existence, Whose nearness, judgment, and will are the great facts of human life.

The relative frequency with which the different names occur is a matter of deep interest. The terms, or their corresponding

(The Call of The Minaret, Kenneth Cragg, 1956, 35-41)

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