Belief in God
Belief in God
by Dr. Khalid Zaheer
Before we venture into exploring the rationale offered by Quran to support belief in God, a basic question that needs to be answered is this: ‘Are we Muslims allowed to raise questions on religious matters?’ There are many Muslims who carry the understanding that the message of Islam requires believers to accept faith and its requirements without questioning. They believe that Islam calls its adherents to have what is called ‘blind faith’. There are basically two arguments presented from the Quran to support this understanding:
1. The Quran mentions in the very beginning that true believers are those who believe ‘bi’l-ghayb’ (2:3); the expression ‘bi’l-ghayb’ is translated by some to mean ‘blind faith’.
2. The other reason mentioned from the Quran is that the book of Allah, it is claimed, discourages believers from asking questions. It is mentioned in the Quran, for instance, thus:
O believers, do not ask about things which if revealed to you would cause you trouble. (5:101)
We shall see from the correct understanding of the two passages that the book of Allah is not discouraging Muslims in either of these verses from asking genuine questions. However, quite apart from that, it is worth considering that we are told in the Quran that when Allah Almighty announced His decision to create man, an independent creation, Khalifah (commonly translated as vicegerent), the angels, who are normally considered as a creation that would most obediently acquiesce to all commands of Allah, raised a few questions. The tone of those questions suggests that initially they were not quite appreciating fully the divine scheme. Allah Almighty, it seems from the Quranic description of the occasion, instead of admonishing them for having dared to raise those questions, went ahead with the task of providing them with satisfactory answers. (See Quran 2:30-33).
As for the claim that the Quran has urged its believers to have blind faith is concerned, the truth is that the verse referred to above (2:3) is requiring the believers to have faith ‘bi’l- ghayb’ ie, in the unseen. In other words, according to the book of Allah, true believers are those intelligent people who acknowledge that apart from the seen world there is an unseen world as well which cannot be denied simply because of the reason that it cannot be seen. They acknowledge the unseen realities because the arguments behind their existence are so strong that there is no way out for an intellectually honest person but to believe in them. The second argument for the ‘blind faith theory’ mentioned above (5:101) is, in fact, a verse mentioning a requirement which is only situational. It requires the believers to be careful about asking questions about the contents of the Shari’ah at the time when the Quran is being revealed, because that is an occasion when all the concentration of the believers should be devoted to the understanding of the requirements of the revelation. Asking questions about the details of the injunctions getting revealed would amount to suggesting that Allah is unaware of the needs of His servants. Moreover if, in response to the questions raised, Allah would answer them, those details of the answers would also become a binding part of the religious requirements – something which Allah didn’t want to do out of His mercy for the humans. In Surah Baqarah, the Quran mentions the incident of a group of people from amongst the Children of Israel who were asked by the Prophet Moses (sws) to sacrifice a cow. The people instead of obliging by responding to the requirement, started asking irrelevant questions about the specifications of the cow to be sacrificed. This was done by them to ensure that somehow the requirement of the injunction would either be withdrawn or else its implementation would at least be delayed. As a consequence of their questioning, God Almighty kept on narrowing down the options of the solution that were available to them. In other words, a simple injunction became unnecessarily difficult because of their own unreasonable attitude of asking unnecessary questions about a simple matter. (See the Quran 2: 67-71). It is basically questions of this type which have been discouraged, not the kind of questions which do naturally crop up in one’s mind regarding the important elements of faith. The Quran itself has answered many questions in its various passages regarding the important elements of faith. (See, for instance, verses 17:90-95 and 25:32).
The other question that needs to be addressed up front is this: Is it unscientific to believe in the unseen? The only correct answer to this is that it most certainly is not. There are realities which are acknowledged by the present-day scientists without even asking for their arguments, even though they are beyond the reach of the five senses. The phenomenon of gravity is a case in point. Nobody has ever seen or touched it, and yet it still remains an indisputable scientific reality, simply because it makes logical sense that there has to be an ability in the earth which always makes objects fall on the ground instead of allowing them to move towards the sky. In other words, the data available through sense perception (all objects having a tendency of falling on the ground) was analysed to bring forth a conclusion (the presence of gravity) that was considered acceptable because of the strength of the intellectual argument (recurrence of the same phenomenon with uninterrupted regularity). Thus if there are other unseen realities the existence of which is attempted to be presented in much the same manner as that of gravity, their arguments too should be considered equally objectively, and the claims should not be rejected merely on the plea that the claim is requiring us to believe in something that cannot be seen.
Before we talk about the arguments mentioned in the Quran about the existence of God, it would be useful to mention the sources of knowledge which are normally considered acceptable.
Intuition is one of those sources. We are born with the knowledge of a few things. They are with us a priori (in born). For instance, we already know the understanding of a whole from a part, right from wrong, and certain things aesthetically pleasant while others unpleasant etc. It is claimed, likewise, that God is part of our intuitional knowledge. People of all ages have believed in God. Their description of God may be different, but in all nations there has been a clear understanding of an ultimate Creator. It is an almost unanimously accepted reality about which there are only a few people who dispute. Those who do not believe in God at all have always been a very small minority.
Sense perception – the ability of the five senses through which we perceive information – is another source of knowledge. Anything perceived through the five senses is normally considered to be authentic information and is considered an undeniable part of our knowledge. For instance, we see the sun, we touch the smooth surface of a table, we taste a sweet mango etc. and we get information about these objects which is not doubted. Another way we learn about realities is through the experiences of others who either live in other parts of the world or else who lived in this world before us. Their experiences are recorded and passed on to others to form a part of the commonly shared knowledge of all human beings.
Intellect is the third source of our understanding. It analyses the data already available to us through our intuition, sense perception, and historical records and draws conclusions. The process involves application of what is called common sense as well as logic. If the arguments in the presentation are strong, the idea is accepted as a convincing piece of information like any other source.
Let us now see how the Quran employs our knowledge of the seen world to lead us to believe in the one that is unseen.
When one looks around the physical world one is struck by the fact that there is amazing harmony and order in the creation. Whether it is the alternating appearances of days and nights, monthly appearances of the moon, growing of crops, or the functioning of human body, everything seems to be following a strict ‘code of conduct’. There isn’t a danger in this world – or at least it hasn’t been experienced in the recorded history – that heavenly bodies, for instance, would bang against each other and thereby cause the whole existence to collapse. So precisely planned seems to be the functioning of this world that the scientists now justifiably claim to have the ability to predict with utmost accuracy the exact time of the next appearance of the moon. This confidence of the scientists in the future events of the cosmos is effectively a very strong verdict of their confidence in the tremendous discipline in the system; it is effectively a belief that things are not happening in this world haphazardly, and that the discipline experienced hitherto will continue to remain likewise. Thus the present scientific understanding is in conformity with the Quranic understanding that there is order – Qudrat – all around in this world.
Another aspect of our worldly experience towards which the Quran draws our attention is the reality that it is not just a display of raw power that we observe in our surroundings; what is more directly significant for our appreciation is the fact that a good part of the immediately observable natural phenomena is serving us. The mountains and rivers, the sun and the moon, the alternating days and nights, the rainfall, the air we breathe, the plants, the crops and vegetation we get – all happening within a controlled system – are all, as if, performing in unison to ensure our survival. It is amazing, for instance, that the rainfall that we need for our crops and to get water for the purpose of our own survival is caused by a harmonious interaction of different elements of nature. It is puzzling to learn that the sun is distanced from our earth by exactly the margin that is good enough for our survival to be possible. It can simply not be written off as a fluke happening that the air we breathe continues to maintain the right mixture of nitrogen and oxygen gases to enable us to survive – the combination if it were to be disturbed only by a slight margin, we would have perished. Likewise, there are numerous other examples that can be shown to convincingly prove the fact that the miracle of life owes itself to the peculiar form in which this world of ours appears. The Quran points towards many of these facts, claiming them to be attributable to the presence of the manifestation of another attribute, providence – Rububiyyat.
A third aspect of our present worldly life pointed out by the Quran is that while on the one hand we deeply love our worldly life, on the other we know that we were not entitled to get it ie, we didn’t do anything to get this life. In other words, we also experience in this world, according to the Quranic jargon, the display of mercy – Rahmat. This mercy enables all of us to continue to benefit from the blessings of this world undeservingly. If there are instances where life doesn’t appear to be a blessing, those are only exceptions meant, as if, to prove the rule. Most of the people consider most part of their lives a blessing and not a curse. That is why each new arrival in this world is celebrated as a priceless gift and each departure mourned as a tragedy. Thus in this existence of ours, we are getting huge benefits without deserving them. In other words, we are being treated mercifully.
Another aspect pointed at by the Quran is the fact that it is not mere manifestation of order in the universe, nor existence of simple arrangements meant to ensure our survival that one experiences, what is also observable to a keen viewer is the fact that the system is functioning extremely intelligently. It seems that there are objectives set forth on the one hand and there are measures adopted to achieve them in extremely subtle, complex, and ‘miraculous’ ways on the other. Survival of the human existence for a certain while, for instance, seems to be one of the important objectives of our system. However, a human child, while it goes through the process of creation and even a few years after the birth, is so vulnerable that it needs utmost attention and care. The manner our system arranges to ensure not only the survival but also, normally, the proper upbringing of the child is amazing. Even before the child is born, there is ‘arranged’ the availability of an overwhelming presence of sympathy and love for the child in the heart of the mother – who as a consequence goes through an otherwise difficult ordeal with unmistakable willingness -, father and other members of the family. Likewise, we are not only given to merely exist in this system through the availability of a bland mechanism of survival. What we have been given to experience is that while on the one hand we have the ability to enjoy the tastes of different varieties of food, on the other hand the potential of the resources of this world has been made rich enough to make available the amazing variety that could satisfy that innate demand. These subtle arrangements and numerous varieties are only an indication of the presence of immense wisdom – Hikmat – in this world.
Thus, for a individual living in this world, it is not possible to deny the existence of control (Qudrat), providence (Rububiyyat), mercy (Rahmat), and wisdom (Hikmat). One needs to be just living as an intelligent observer of the surroundings to notice the abundant display of all these attributes. What is the source of these attributes? How exactly can this mystery be solved? It is, as if, bits and pieces of a jig-saw puzzle have been thrown around without any solution in sight. But lo! there is a solution – the only solution that can help solve this riddle. There is only one light that can effectively enlighten the darkness caused by the absence of any proper answer to this puzzle. This light is belief in God. The Quran says thus:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light, Allah guides unto His light whom He wills. And Allah speaks to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things. (24:35)
In other words, it is only belief in God that takes you out of the pitch darkness of the anxiety of unbelief. You acknowledge the existence of the Almighty God and everything would seem meaningful; all scattered pieces of the puzzle would fall into their respective, proper places. All immediately relevant, intriguing questions would get answered. In the words of a scholar: ‘The mystery of this world to me was like a lock that wouldn’t open. I applied various keys, but they didn’t work. Then I applied the key of faith in Allah, and it spontaneously opened. That to me is the most convincing reason for my belief in the existence of God.’
Another way of looking at the question of the possibility of existence of God is to look at relative strengths of the suggestions that are offered as alternatives to belief in God. It is considered, at least by some people, that the alternatives to the belief in one God Who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth are found in the concepts of polytheism, atheism, the theory of evolution, and the big bang theory. Let us examine each one of these claims to find out whether these alternative solutions do also offer reasonable arguments to be considered as worthy in explaining the existence.
Polytheism (Shirk) is a belief that entails that apart from the One Big God there are many others gods who are entrusted with different affairs by the Him. However, only a casual analysis would reveal that polytheism is no alternative answer to the mystery of life because it is only a degenerated form of monotheism. Polytheists also believe that the ultimate Creator is only One; however, that One, they some how think, has decided to delegate some part of His authority to His self-appointed ‘partners’.
Another important alternative understanding of our existence is explained through the concept of atheism, which essentially means an understanding that there is no God. However, a little deeper understanding of atheism leads one to conclude that it is in truth no real, intellectual understanding in its own right. Some of the well known atheists of the modern times are either agnostics1 or negative atheists.2 Agnostics are those who fancy that it is not possible for us to know about the first cause (God) of the creation of this existence. Negative atheists, contend that the arguments presented by the believers in God are too weak to be acceptable. Thus, both approaches are essentially negative. There is hardly anyone amongst the atheists who can claim to be a positive atheist – the one who claims that he can argue convincingly that there is no God.
There are some people who think that since Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has helped in unfolding the process that got underway in the creation of our present existence and since the starting point of this process has also been identified by the Big Bang theory, there is now no need to look for a god to explain the mystery of our existence. This explanation as a potential alternative to the belief in God suffers from two basic flaws: 1) Both Theory of Evolution and Big Bang Theory are as yet, at best, only intelligent assumptions, requiring much to be done to be conferred the status of established scientific facts. 2) Even if the two theories are accepted for the sake of argument to be valid explanations of how this world was created, they still are not even claiming to answer the real questions. The basic questions that religion answers are: Who created this world and why? In other words all these scientific theories only answer the question ‘how’ and not ‘who’ nor ‘why’. Thus although the domains of scientific enquiry and religious guidance are different, there are some people who were naively led to believe that the present-day scientific information has precluded the necessity to believe in God.
This basic difference in the two approaches can be explained by an example. We have been informed by our modern scientific enlightenment about the entire process of rainfall, right from the evaporation of water in the oceans and cloud formation till the flowing back of the same water back to the seas where it originated from. Learning the working of this process leads some people to the erroneous, superficial conclusion that all relevant learning about rainfall has been done. However, going by the same logic, let us examine the description of a person who informs us about his experience of a particularly sultry day when his throat and tongue were parched and he was desperately looking for water. What impression would the description create on us if the individual narrates his story thus: I at last found the entrance door of a house and knocked at it. Someone opened the door. I requested for water. In response, a hand reached a fridge door and opened it, bringing out a bottle of cold water. The hand then poured water from it into a glass and offered the glass to me. Obviously, the entire description would be painfully absurd, because it isn’t the unnecessary details of the process of getting water which we would be interested in learning. On the contrary, we would have liked to know the person who was kind enough to come to the aid of our story teller. Likewise, is the case of the scientific descriptions explaining the phenomena of nature. They are a bland description of the process, without even a mention of the one behind it.
There is thus no explanation other than the existence of an Almighty, Perfect God behind our existence that claims to explain the mystery of our creation. That in itself is a very important, additional reason why belief in God is inevitable. If there were two different explanations vying to explain the same mystery, one might have given the less convincing one some chance to influence us. In the case of God, however, there are no challengers at all in the entire record of human understanding.
The immediate question that one is confronted with on acknowledging one’s belief in Allah is this: How can I know Him more? How can I appreciate and come closer to Him? It has been clarified in the Quran that we can neither see God’s physical existence nor can we know anything about it. All efforts in that direction would prove to be not only futile but even misleading as well. The Quran says:
And when Moses came to Our appointed time and his Lord spoke to him, he said: ‘My Lord! Show Thyself to me that I may look at Thee’. Allah replied: You shall not see Me, but look at the mountain! If it remains in its place, then you can see Me. And when his Lord manifested Himself on the mountain, He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless. And when he woke he said: ‘Glory unto You! I turn to You and I am the first to believe’. (7:143)
In another verse the Quran says:
No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all visions. (6:104)
If we can neither see Him nor can His physical existence be described, there perhaps could be another possibility: to get informed about Him indirectly through analogy by reference to the description of someone who was similar to Him. But the Quran rules out that possibility as well, saying:
There is nothing whatever like Him. (42: 11)
Since God is unique, any attempts to draw similarities to help form opinion about His physical appearance would be misleading.
How then can we appreciate God beyond the mere information of His presence? The answer that emerges from the Quran is that the only way to know Him more and more is through increasing our understanding of His attributes. The more we concentrate on appreciating His capabilities and potentialities, the more we’ll be able to come close to Him. His attributes are the only way of knowing God. The Quran says:
Say: Call on [Him] by Allah, or call on [Him] by Al-Rahman (the Beneficent) by whichever name you call on Him, His are the most beautiful names. (17:110)
All the names of Allah (with the probable exception of Allah) are indicators of His different attributes. Since all knowledge about Allah is based on the proper appreciation of His attributes, it is important that some important principles about His attributes be recognised. Those principles are: 1) All good attributes belong to Him. The above-mentioned verse clarifies this truth. In other words, all important virtues we can imagine of are present in Allah. 2) All His attributes are perfect: they are both qualitatively supreme and quantitatively infinite. For instance, while our knowledge is limited, His knowledge is limitless, ie, it encompasses all past, present, and future information. 3) All these attributes are simultaneously operative. It is not that on some occasions He is Powerful, for instance, while on others He is Knowledgeable, and on still others He is Merciful. Instead, he effectively possesses all these attributes all the time. If we ignore this understanding, we are very likely to adopt a one-sided, misleading view of God. For instance, He is simultaneously Merciful and Just. If one were to ignore His justice and over-emphasise His mercy, one may end up falling into the trap of imagining that there is no harm in going on committing sins since, after all, God is Merciful. The danger of just concentrating on His justice at the expense of mercy is that it creates desperation amongst individuals, and on committing sins one gets resigned to believing that one’s case is hopeless and there are no prospects of getting pardoned even on performing repentance. Similarly, many people have been misled into forming distorted opinions by not taking a balanced position about their understanding of Allah’s attributes of Authority and Wisdom: The balanced view is that although Allah can decide whatever He chooses to, He will always decide only on the basis of His Wisdom. Some people have been misled into believing that God can take unwise decisions as well, for, after all, He has all the Authority, He decides whatever He wishes to. It is important to note that the only source of knowledge of God’s attributes is the messages of the Prophets. All attributes of God have to be confirmed by those messages. There is no other source that can lead us to any further understanding in that area. Providing incorrect, misleading information about God is one of the favourite ways through which Satan, the devil, tries to deceive humans.
We learn from the Quran that this world of ours is a manifestation of God’s attributes. Thus the more we reflect upon our surroundings in the light of the understanding of God’s attributes, the more we are likely to develop His true Ma’rifat (cognisance). The process is in actual fact a potentially endless chain of observations and confirmations – observations of God’s Ayat (signs) and spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of the existence God’s attributes.3 Thus, Dhikr (remembering Allah), which is mentioned as an important requirement in the Quran for the believers to undertake, involves both remembering Allah through the understanding of His attributes and observing those attributes manifesting themselves in His signs (Ayat) spread all across the surroundings. The Quran says:
In the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the day there are indeed signs for men of understanding – those who remember Allah standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and ponder over the creation of the heavens and the earth .(3:190-1)4
There are two important expressions relevant to God’s remembrance mentioned in the Quran and the Hadith literature which, in a way, give a concise understanding of His attributes. One expression is Subhan’Allah and the other is Alhamdulillah. While the former means that God is free from all flaws, the latter means that He has all the good attributes in Him. The understanding of the two expressions put together lead us to some realisation of the perfection of our God. That is why it has been mentioned in a Hadith that when the two statements are chanted together, they, as if, fill up all the scales of the heavens and the earth.
1. Bertrand Russell, for instance.
2. Anthony Flew, for instance.
3. This spiritual confirmation of God’s attributes through one’s experiences is sometimes referred to as enhancement of faith.
4. Also see Quran 2: 164.