I still vividly remember one of my very first Islam 101 presentations shortly after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It was in a school auditorium in one of the northern Twin Cities suburbs.
Immediately after the teacher introduced me and before I had finished my first sentence, I noticed a hand raised high from a young man who asked, “Why is your God better than my God?”
I was rather surprised by this question so early in the presentation, as I had planned to talk about the Islamic understanding of God around the middle of my presentation. I tried to explain that Muslims believe in the One and the only God, the Creator of the universe – the same God that Jews and Christians believe in. I further explained that Muslims believe in the same God that the Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him (p) believed in. We worship the same God that spoke to Moses (p), and we pray and prostrate to the very same God that Jesus (p) prayed to and prostrated to; the same God that created Adam and Eve and the same God that saved Noah (p) from the flood.
So my God is your God and your Creator is my Creator, even though we might explain God in different terms. Understanding this could have saved thousands of lives, and could have helped people of different faiths grow closer together.
“Not angoor, not aynab, I want grapes!”
While in college, a classmate and I were walking to the library after taking a test. As the topic turned from the class material to the teacher, I realized that my friend and I had opposite ideas of our teacher. In my opinion, the teacher was fair, nice and easy going, but my friend thought completely the opposite and he used some vulgar terms to describe the very same woman.
I realized that if each of us had described the same teacher, without mentioning her name, to a third person, the person would have thought that we were talking about two very different people. I think, quite often, different people explain God in very different ways, which may cause many to think they are talking about different gods.
This reminds me of a Persian poem I had read in middle school. The poem discussed three individuals, speaking three different languages, who had collectively found a pot of money. Each person wanted to buy something to eat with that money. So the first person, speaking in English, argued that he wanted to buy grapes. The second person, speaking Persian, said “No, I don’t want grapes; I want ‘angoor.'” The third person, speaking Arabic, said “I neither want grapes nor angoor, I want aynab.”
As the argument turned louder, a fourth person, who could speak all three languages, came to the rescue. He realized that all three wanted grapes but were using different words for the same thing. I think many times we can argue angoor or grapes even in speaking the same language.
“But don’t you guys worship Allah?”
Yes, we do.
Just like when Spanish-speaking people say “Dios,” or Germans say “Goth” when referring to God, Arabs say “Allah.” Twenty million Christian Arabs pray to Allah everyday. The Arabic Bible says “Allah” when talking about God. In Hebrew, one of the words used for God is “Eloh” from which “Elohem” comes. And Jesus (p) speaking Aramaic said “Alaha” when referring to God. So understanding a bit about Semitic languages might help demystify a foreign-sounding name.
Allah is an Arabic term for God, and Muslims believe Allah is the personal name of the One God, the Creator of the universe. Some have said that Allah is taken from “Al illaha,” which means “The God.” So unlike one perception revealed in a recent poll, when Muslims say Allah they are not referring to a “moon god” or some other Arab idol; they are talking about the God. The Qur’an urges people to not worship the moon, but the God who created the moon and everything in existence.
According to the Muslims’ last holy book (Muslims also believe in Torah and Gospel are revelations from God), the Qur’an, God says tell the “People of the Book,” a respectful term used for Jews and Christians, that “Our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that we [all] surrender ourselves.” Qur’an 29:46.
The Qur’an urges all believers to affirm that they will not worship anyone but the one God.
In his address to young Muslims in Morocco in August 1985, Pope John Paul II said:
“Christians and Muslims, we have many things in common, as believers and as human beings… We believe in the same God, the one God, the Living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection.”
In his book, A DEADLY Misunderstanding, former congressman Mark Siljander, a self-proclaimed “Conservative Republican congressman and Evangelical Christian” (p. xi) and someone who was dubbed “one of the biggest Jesus freaks ever elected to Congress” (p. 13) focuses on the very same issue, that Allah is the Arabic name for the God who created the entire universe.
So who is Allah?
In Islam, theology is straightforward, such that a four-versed chapter was revealed to explain this question. Chapter 112 of the Qur’an states:
In the Name of the God, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Infinitely Merciful (an opening prayer in all but one of 114 chapters of Qur’an)
Say, He is God, the One and Only. God is Eternal and Needless of everything, He was not born and he does not give birth, and there is nothing like unto Him.
In Chapter 2 verse 255, God explains about himself:
Allah! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-subsisting, the Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permits? He knows what (appears to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He wills. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).
In Chapter 59, verses 23-25, God says:
Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god;- Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god;- the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection), the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme: Glory to Allah. (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him.
He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colors). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare His Praises and Glory: and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.
Not a male god
Even though the Quranic verses use the pronoun “He” for God, Muslims do not believe that God is a male god, or a man. Muslims believe God is the creator of men and women, but God is beyond genders and transcends all other human characteristics as well. Actually, one of the reasons why many Muslims insist on using the name Allah is because it is a singular name which does not have plurals, and it is a genderless name.
Muslim scholars have agreed that it is not possible for us to understand the Infinitely Great God. Despite our amazing intellects, it is not possible for us to fully comprehend God. God is Infinitely Great, but our intellects are finite. No finite container can hold the Infinite.
As smart as a computer?
Sometimes I see some parallels in how we, as humans and the creation of the Almighty God, understand our Creator, Fashioner, Designer and Programmer and how our computers understand us. Now of course this is not to say that we are like a computer nor that God is like a human.
God is not like a human, and according to Islamic theology, there is nothing like unto God. But here is a parallel that I see: I consider my computer, Shiba (short for Toshiba) extremely smart and amazingly good at calculating, checking, and so on. Despite having a very smart “brain,” Shiba understands about me, its owner and programmer, only as much as I allow her to know.
If I tell Shiba that I am a male and my last name is Saidi, then the next morning she will say “Good Morning, Mr. Saidi.” She understands that it is morning, I am a male and that my last name is Saidi. But if I decide to tell her my weight and date of birth, she will know how old I am and how much I weigh. If I allow her and give her the necessary input she will know how I appear and could even draw a three-dimensional figure of me, but only if I allow her to know more about me.
Despite her great thinking and ultra-smart brain, she needs input to know and recognize me. I believe there is a strong parallel between this analogy and our brains’ understanding of our Designer. We need divine inspiration and revelation to know about our Creator. Shiba’s brain is not like my brain, neither is my computer’s eye (camera) like my eyes. But still there is a parallel. So to understand our Creator, we need more than our super-smart brains, we need revelation.
Leave the ass behind!
There is an ancient and very interesting Muslim understanding, perhaps another analogy or another parallel about understanding God. It is said that, when visiting a King, a peasant will have to ride his ass or horse (or, in our times, his Avalanche or his Honda) to the door of the castle, then leave his ass behind (or park his Avalanche), and meet the King on his own. Even though our super-smart brains are designed to get us pretty far in understanding our Lord; at a certain point, it cannot get us any closer to understanding the King of kings. So we have to check our brains at the door of the castle. At that point, our heart and our intuition might get us a bit closer, if allowed by the King.
Thus God is beyond our imagination, and better than the best of the best that our super-smart brains can envision.
There is a verse in the Qur’an, the last revelation from God, which says that in the Hereafter there will be certain people who believed in God and obeyed God, and submitted their will to His. Their faces will be bright and joyous for being able to see God. I hope you and I will be among those people.
In Chapter17, verse 110, The Almighty God says:
Say (to people): “Call upon Allah, or call upon the Most Gracious: by whatever name ye call upon Him, (it is well): for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names.
But as long as you believe in the ONE God, the Ultimate Creator of the entire universe, and what we discussed above, regardless of which beautiful name we call upon God, that is the same God that the Muslims believe in and worship.
A Muslim scholar had said that when we comprehend that we cannot comprehend God, that’s when we have comprehended God. I am sure that at the next stages of our lives, in this world or in the hereafter, we will have a better understanding about God. Until then, let’s see if we can work on translating “aynab” to “grapes” so that people can live in peace.