Concept of God in Judaic, Christian and Islamic Traditions

The book is an extensive exposition of the issues of anthropomorphism and corporealism (the description of God in physical human terms, categories or forms inappropriate to His Majesty) in the three Abrahamic Faiths, as viewed through the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is in addition, a detailed examination of later developments in theological thought, scriptural interpretation, and exegetical criticism with regards to anthropomorphism, and how these have significantly influenced perceptions of God by followers of all three Traditions.

Throughout history Christianity and Judaism have tried to make sense of God, accepting anthropomorphic images (whether verbal or physical) of the Divine, yet disagreeing as to what these mean, whilst at the same time attempting to save the transcendent God from notions of corporeality and anthropomorphism. The book addresses the worldview of both faiths, and fundamentally how each has chosen to framework its own understanding of, and encounter with, God – how each views God’s personality and nature – and how much of this has been the result of scripture and how much supplemental additions of later theological debate, absorption of Hellenistic philosophy, and church decrees of later centuries.

Muslims too have historically debated the few mildly anthropomorphic expressions contained in the Qur’an, albeit strictly confining discourse to issues of metaphorical versus literal interpretation, whilst simultaneously taking an unequivocal anti-anthropomorphic, anti-corporeal stance to safeguard Islam’s concept of a unique, transcendent and monotheistic God. The book examines in great detail Islamic theological discourse on the three kinds of al-Tawhid and Ninety-Nine Names of God and what these have meant in relation to God’s essence and attributes, situating this analysis in its proper historical setting. It also explains the importance and impact of S‰rah al-Ikhl¥s (Qur’an 112) and its maxim “there is none like unto Him [God]” as setting the benchmark for pure monotheism and taw^Ïd and governing all aspects of debate.

As agnosticism, atheism, secularism and modern philosophy debate whether God is dead, the issue of anthropomorphism has become of immense importance, primarily because it is connected directly to the decline of religion and belief in God in the first instance and the general degeneration of spiritual thinking in the second. Religion to modern man, now simply reduced to the question of whether God exists or not, has become largely irrelevant, forgetting that religion’s primary goal was to solve problems of ultimate meanings in this life and to answer questions relating to life after death, and not just to satisfy man’s immediate needs. It is the contention of this book that a crude, anthropomorphic or corporeal notion of God is partly to blame, standing resolute between modern intellectual thought and belief in God, and that at best this has weakened the authority of God and religion and at worst annihilated it in favor of a more meaningless view of existence.

In response to the creation story found in the Bible someone once quipped, “God created humans in his image and then humans turned around and returned the favor.” In the Abrahamic traditions, the ability (and even the necessity) to slightly anthropomorphize God for the sake of a communicative modality has too often gone beyond the mere need or attempt to talk about God in some human terms and has instead led to a disturbing tendency to enlist God in support of human agendas and prejudices, and this latter with ethically disastrous results. The very human God of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament who favors one nation over all others authorizes the wanton slaughter of the indigenous Canaanites, men, women, children and everything that breathes under the leadership of Joshua in history’s first-recorded genocide simply because the Canaanites happen to be living on land God had promised to his chosen people, a paradigm that plays out again in early American history as largely Christian European colonialists begin making an appeal to the biblical conquest narrative as a source of divine authorization to remove the indigenous inhabitants of North America from the new “promised land” in the doctrine known as Manifest Destiny. The same biblical concepts of the “Divine Covenant”, “Chosen People” and “Promised Land” are still contributing to the un-abating spiral of violence in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The original and ancient inhabitants of the land look invented to the otherwise learned politicians like Newt Gingrich just because God has supposedly promised that land to His chosen people.

Of course, recent history should not be ignored in this regard as God has become enlisted as the pre eminent supporter of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy designed to extend western hegemony over many parts of the world – not the least of which are the oil-rich lands of the Middle East – via the deployment of “shock and awe” military campaigns. And in many cases those Muslims reacting to the effects of these policies (though some might have legitimate economic, political and territorial grievances) have enlisted God in support of spectacular displays of barbaric violence unprecedented in the Islamic history and unauthorized by the authentic Islamic dictums. They are willing to kill innocent men, women, children, Muslims and non Muslims just because their screwed understanding of scripture and God demands them to do so. These examples could be multiplied many times over but the problem is clear. When one talks about God in unqualified human terms it is all-too-easy to enlist God in support of human concerns and agendas.

God created Man in His moral image meaning that He wished humanity to live a life marked by justice, equality, fair dealing, mutual respect, sympathy, love, compassion, and charity etc. Humanity on the other hand chose to violate even the most basic moral commandments of God and returned the favor by creating God in Man’s own image rather crudely bringing the ineffable transcendental Other into the realms of structure and space, to serve nothing but hidden agendas and selfish desires. Indeed, the children of Abraham (by this is meant the Semitic consciousness) so personalized, nationalized and anthropomorphized the transcendental Deity that He in effect became just a larger, more powerful and lethal version of themselves. As such they did not hesitate to impart onto God their varied individual, communal and national agendas, practices, ideas, likes and dislikes etc., to thereby create an absolute out of finite ideas of nationhood, ethnicity, race, polity, ideology and even theology.

In a world of violence and injustice, much of it perpetrated in the name of God, perhaps the way forward is by coming to recognize the level to which we humans have for millennia been recreating God in our image and allow this to motivate us to work to restore the divine/human relationship to its proper place. This will not happen without first understanding how we got to where we are today.

In sum it is the opinion of this author that the postmodern and postsecular longing for God will not be quenched by pre modern anthropomorphic and corporeal concepts of the Divine which have simply brought God down to this cosmos, with a precise historical function and a specified location, reducing Him to a lowercase god, and causing the soul to detract from the great sense of awe and reverence that it should and has been created to feel at mention of Him. It needs a majestic, just, universal and transcendental God who is satisfactory to human intellect and answers to humanity’s quest for ultimate meanings.

Chapter 1: Problem of Anthropomorphism and Defining Categories

Secularism, philosophic materialism, agnosticism and blatant atheism have bewildered the 21st century’s religious landscape to the extent that the devoutly religious theists have become a small minority. Currently there are billions of agnostics and atheists in the world. An old joke said that American atheists could all fit into a Manhattan phone booth but no more. Likewise, in most of the modern secularized democracies the large majorities qualify as agnostics and atheists to a level that the death of God looks imminent. The future of Western faith is grim as the nations undergo the secularization process. This death of faith and God is one culmination of centuries of research and inquiry concerning the God of theism in general and of Judaism and Christianity in particular.

For centuries, philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists have argued that the theistic conception of God is too anthropomorphic, primitive, confusing and complicated, and that the transcendental God and his institutions have become irrelevant to man and his surroundings. This “death of God” was necessary to liberate man from the unlimited restrictions or so-called religious interpretations of man and the universe, which were imposed in the name of God upon the scientific and cultural products of men. In this view, men were autonomous, unlimited creators of their cultures and destinies. They used to accomplish this task by projecting their fears and aspirations into the cosmos by creating their gods, but now they could achieve this autonomy through science and philosophy. Science and rationalism have killed God and removed the need for Him from human culture and activity. In other words, the God who used to be worshipped as the Creator of the universe was no longer accepted as the creator of man and his surroundings. Instead, it was man who created God in his own image and likeness.

Projection theories or claims concerning the human origins of notions relating to the divine are not recent. They can be traced back to the Greek philosopher-poet Xenophanes (570-470 BC), around six hundred years before Jesus Christ. It has also long been claimed that religions and gods stem from man’s desires and attempts to explain and control the natural environment around him, and its disturbing and puzzling phenomena. The gist of these theories is that man anthropomorphizes and hence religion and the idea of God is nothing but anthropomorphism.

In light of these observations, and when we examine the known faith traditions of the world, we see that anthropomorphism is embedded in the scriptures of almost all with varying degrees. Theologians of most of these traditions vainly try to eliminate anthropomorphism from their scriptures, but very often, scriptural text refuses such treatment. On the other hand, religion as such with an anthropomorphic understanding of God has been scolded and refuted by many scholars, philosophers, and scientists of modern times. In addition to scientific developments or scientific metaphysics, and a mechanical interpretation of nature, such apathy towards religion as mentioned earlier can partly be attributed to the over-anthropomorphic nature of theistic notions of God especially in the case of Judaism and Christianity.

The projection theories of religion allude to two distinct charges against the theistic understanding of God. The first is anthropomorphism. These charges do not mean total denial of God’s existence, but that any material description of God is conditioned by and derived from man’s understanding of his own nature. The other charge is that of ‘invention’. The supporters of this charge contend that God is fictional with no real existence. He depends ontologically on human beings as they invent him by a cosmic projection of their nature, characteristics, and qualities.

To understand the depth and reality of the charge we need to discuss the history of the conflict between religion and science and define the related terms such as anthropomorphism, incarnation, immanence and transcendence. That is what this chapter does.

Chapter 2: Anthropomorphism and the Hebrew Bible

The understanding of God distinctive to the Hebrew Bible and hence to Judaic tradition is an amalgamation of anthropomorphic and transcendental tendencies. God, in the text of the Hebrew bible, is presented as the transcendent reality and at the same time He is often described in concrete anthropomorphic and corporeal terms. These two polar tendencies or strands go side by side in the entire Hebrew Bible. Though visible efforts are made by the classical prophets to reduce the usage of anthropomorphic expressions and to lay more and more emphasis on the transcendental elements in the deity, there is hardly a page in the Old Testament where anthropomorphism or its vestiges cannot be found. There is a manifest progressive element in the theistic notions of the Hebrew Bible. Various kinds of concepts can be located in regard to the deity in various parts of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Animism, polytheism, henotheism, monolatry, national monotheism and universal and ethical monotheism, all these ‘isms’ are reported to have been practiced by Israelites during various stages and periods of their early history and overlooked in most cases if not sanctioned by the biblical writers.

Some modern scholars do not see the affirmation of God’s unity, uniqueness and transcendence even in the First Commandment (Shema). They argue that it may prove monolatry or mono-Yahwism rather than strict monotheism. Evidently most of the western anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and scientists who have interpreted religion either as a psychological illusion or a sociological need, are clearly interacting with the local, national, anthropomorphic and progressive concept of God as presented by a majority of the Old Testament writers. Indeed amongst the Scriptures of all the developed religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam it is the Hebrew Bible which depicts God in the most local, anthropomorphic and corporeal terms

In the Bible God appears in human form, eats, drinks, rests and is refreshed. So, most human organs are ascribed to God with the exception of sexuality. For example, in a well known biblical encounter, God wrestles with Jacob, dislocates Jacob’s thigh and is even shown to be weak, unable to physically dominate Jacob, to the point of finally asking Jacob to let Him go as the dawn breaks. As a result of this wrestling encounter God changes Jacobs’ name to Israel meaning “he struggles with God.” No one can read the Hebrew Bible without coming to the conclusion that the authors supposed that God physically resembled man and that man was created in the physical likeness of the Deity.

Moreover, the Jewish community at large did not seem troubled by the presence of these anthropomorphic expressions in their scripture, until the onslaught of Greek philosophy especially in the first century bc. Even later Rabbinic thought embodied in Talmud, though not without exceptions, appears to be accepting of biblical anthropomorphisms. In the Talmud God is depicted as seated upon a high and exalted throne in the innermost part of the Sanctuary. He asks Rabbi Ishmael, “My son, bless Me”. The Midrash depicts the Hebrews as seeing God as a warrior or as a learned scribe. The Hebrews on the Red Sea are able to point at God with their fingers, ‘They beheld His image as a man is able to look his friend in the face.’ God wears traditional Tefillin, he prays to himself and studies Torah. He roars like a lion and says: Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world. God follows a fixed day schedule and sports with Leviathan. He also has a night schedule and he listens to the song of Hayyoth. He repeatedly laments and sheds tears over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Israelites and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other. He smites his hands together to satisfy his anguish and fury. He weeps over the destiny of Israel and the destruction of His temple in secret chambers. He daily weeps over three failures. Finally God himself comes to appease Jerusalem and is judged through fire. It is difficult to find such an example of God’s punishment and purgation in any other Semitic tradition.

Hellenistic thought moved a number of Jewish scholars to interpret anthropomorphic expressions figuratively. The medieval Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides seem to have been really bothered by these anthropomorphic expressions, and this was mostly due to the polemic offensive of Muslim speculative theologians against them. Despite the authoritative esteem with which Maimonides and others were held among many Jews, their intellectualization of the Hebrew God failed to receive acceptance from among their coreligionists who rejected their incorporeal deity because it was neither sanctioned by the Hebrew scripture nor by the Jewry at large. Consequently, the same anthropomorphic trend continued in the later generations.

The source of the tension is the Hebrew Bible itself. Traditionally it has been considered to be the word of God verbatim, and not the work of primitive Hebrews. Jewry for centuries had regarded Moses as the compiler, or more correctly as the mediator, of the laws of the Pentateuch which issued from God himself. That tradition was taken over by the Christians. The Jews till the beginning of our era had a strong belief in the divine origin and Mosaic authorship of the entire Torah and in its infallibility, immutability, and eternity. Though voices against such a literal view of the Torah were raised in the previous centuries, it was only in the age of reason in the eighteenth century that the stage was set for the loss of biblical authority as inspired Scripture. Finally it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that biblical scholars like Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) were able to analyze, oppose and finally shatter the idea of the divine and supernatural origin of the Torah and Mosaic authorship of it. At present, claims R. E. Friedman, “there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem who would claim that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses-or by any one person.”

Topics such as the traditional view of the Torah, Christian views of the Old Testament, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform perspectives of the Torah, anthropomorphic, corporeal and transcendental tendencies of the biblical writers are explored in this chapter.

Chapter 3: Anthropomorphism and the New Testament

The distinctively Christian understanding of God is based on the claim that God is most fully revealed through his self-revelation in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the essence of Christianity is that God has revealed himself most fully in the language and reality of a human life, it inevitably follows that the Christian understanding of God is essentially and literally corporeal and anthropomorphic. To say that the historical human person, Jesus of Nazareth, was simultaneously God and man requires as its necessary condition that divinity is able to find self-expression and self-exposure through the “form of a man” which is what the two Greek words “morphe” and “anthropos” translate to. To show that this is really implied in the claims of historic Christianity, it is necessary to emphasize two things: first, that the New Testament documents are essentially focused on the life and works of Jesus Christ as the center of the Christian religion; and second, that the historic formulations of Christian doctrine – as set out by the early Christian Fathers, and recognized as normative by subsequent generations of Christians – teach a doctrine of salvation which makes it necessary that Christ be truly God and truly man and truly one. This popular incarnation theology is corporeal through and through and in reality the pinnacle of corporeal thought in the Semitic consciousness.

The New Testament is not centered on God Almighty. It is Christocentric. God the Almighty/Father occupies a sum total of just 2.5% of the Gospels while the rest of the Gospels are concerned with Jesus in various capacities i.e. his person, teachings, his disciples, his recipients, his dialogue with Jewish leaders etc. (Mark gives only a 0.2% place to the verbs whose subject is God/Father in his Gospel, with Matthew 0.6%, Luke 1.1% and John 0.6%). There is, then, a tremendous concentration on one man, Jesus of Nazareth. He is described in different terms, concepts and ways. He is addressed as the Son of man, Son of God, the Word, the Prophet, the Messiah, the Kyrios or Lord and perhaps even as God.

There are many Christologies in the New Testament. The fundamental issue is the Christology of Christ’s person and divinity. The Church as well as the general Christian population has always contended that Jesus proclaimed himself to be the Son of God, the second person of a divine Trinity, who lived a completely mortal (yet sinless) life amongst humanity. In this God in Christ, traditional incarnation theology, we reach the apex of an anthropomorphic and corporeal conception of the deity. If God becomes incarnate as flesh in the person of Christ, eating, drinking, sleeping, feeling grieved and eventually being crucified, then in this physical embodiment we have the strongest case for the reality of divine corporeality in its purest sense. The main problem with traditional Christianity throughout the centuries has been how to maintain the transcendence of God and at the same time attain salvation through the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ as God. This is an awkward paradox from which there is no escape. Reason defies it.

The fact of the matter is that the traditional Trinitarian Christian theology has been at a loss to satisfactorily solve the central problem i.e., the relationship of Jesus Christ’s person with the transcendent God. There are many speculative works and guesses regarding this thorny issue but they are definitely not satisfactory to the human logic. Whether one accepts the ultra Cappadocian movement’s social Trinity or Barth’s union Trinity one is still left unable to detach the Trinity from corporealism, concrete anthropomorphism and in certain cases tritheism. The incarnation of God in the human figure of Christ, whether in one mode of His existence or through one person of His Godhead, are crystal clear cases of corporealism. Jesus is full God, God the Father is full God and the Holy Spirit is full God. They are independent, eternal and self conscious persons with independent will, knowledge, wisdom, existence, consciousness and actions and still God is One. This is a logic which bewilders the human intellect.

Additionally, the one Being God is either the aggregate of the three collective essences i.e, a complex entity made up of three smaller parts or each one of the three is possessor of full essence of the divinity and Godhead is three times over. In the first instance there will be four Gods (divine quaternity and not trinity) with the fourth God higher than the three constituent elements as the aggregate Being is superior in essence and luminosity than the individual three Gods. In the second scenario there are three independent Gods with full personal divine essence which differentiates one person from the others plus an intensified shared generic divine essence. Again there is a fourth entity the three times over of the individual Gods. It places the three persons in the genus “deity” while each one of them in a different species from that of the other two. There is no escape from tri-theism or polytheism in any of the above scenarios as both present the dilemma of plurality of persons and essence in the Being, God. The popular social Trinity scheme clearly degenerates into personalistic tri-theism. One wonders about the whereabouts of oneness of God in the threeness of the divine society where the threeness seems more real than the oneness.

The illogical, the impossible, the contradictory cannot be justified in the name of paradox. Faith is the exposition of Truth, and must be substantiated by facts, it cannot create them. To hide behind the smoke screens of mystery, blind faith, mysticism, spirituality and/or the Spirit’s providence etc. is to make nonsense of scripture and simply create awe for that which pays homage to a primitive, superstitious mentality. Furthermore, it is the prerogative of faith that it is made available to all and not just a select few, able to understand the intellectual contortions of mystery based doctrines. In reality, the history of the Trinitarian dogma is so saturated with political intrigue, the overriding needs of the State, exploitative elements moving through the corridors of power and so on, that actual scripture seems to have paid second fiddle to political expediency. And the monolithic impress of the doctrine has existed for so long that the whole is now taken for granted.

Throughout their history, Christians have been trying to save the transcendent God from corporeality and anthropomorphisms, but their desire for salvation has very often resulted in the opposite.

In this chapter, the compilation, canonization and textual purity of the New Testament along with the doctrinal development of a God-Man incarnation theology is discussed in details.

Chapter 4: Anthropomorphism and the Qur’an

In Islam God stands alone: transcendent and majestic. The faith is marked by a strict and uncompromising ethical monotheism, signifying the absolute Oneness, Unity, Uniqueness and Transcendence of God, in its highest and purest sense, and which formally and unequivocally eliminates all notions of polytheism, pantheism, dualism, monolatry, henotheism, tritheism, trinitarianism, and indeed any postulation or conception of the participation of persons in the divinity of God. Thus, it is a universal truth that mainstream Islam has always emphasized the absolute transcendence and unity of God, avoiding corporeal notions and anthropomorphic images of His being. However, this understanding of transcendence is not abstract in the philosophical sense of the term for many poetical expressions are used in the Qur’an to establish a kind of divine yet vague modality with regards to God, so as to make the transcendent deity immanent and live, and to allow for the provision of ample opportunities to develop a meaningful relationship with Him. This vague modality is sufficient enough to cater for human communicative needs. There are few Qur’anic expressions, which if taken absolutely literally, could lead to mildly anthropomorphic perceptions of the Deity, and these seemingly anthropomorphic expressions have been the center of debate for Muslim theologians for centuries. Hence, phrases referring to the ‘hand,’ ‘face,’ ‘eyes,’ of God, though very few in number, are taken as mysteries by the majority of Muslim scholars and are either often accepted as they stand with the pronouncement bilā kayf (literally, “without how” but figuratively as “in a manner that suits His majesty and transcendence”) or interpreted metaphorically. The acceptance bilā kayf of these phrases is always accompanied with the absolute denial of any similarity between God and His creatures (anthropomorphism) and with repeated emphasis upon the divine otherness and transcendence of God. The total submission to the moral will of this transcendent and unique God is Islam.

Divine transcendence is the essence of the qur’anic message. The qur’anic worldview divides reality into two generic realms, God and non-God. God is the Eternal Creator and nothing is like unto Him. He remains forever the transcendental Other devoid of any resemblance, similarity, partnership and association. Allah, the Arabic word for God, is semantically the highest focused word of the Qur’an. The qur’anic worldview is theocentric to the core. Ontologically nothing can stand equal or opposed to Him. He always remains the transcendental Other who presides over the entire system of existence as its Master and Creator. Everything other than Him is His creature and stands inferior to Him in the hierarchy of being.

The second realm consists of everything other than God. It is the order of time-space, creation and of experience. Ontologically these two orders always remain disparate. The Creator neither descends to the realm of space-time and experience to be united, incarnated, diffused or confused with creatures nor can the creatures ascend to be ontologically united or diffused with the Creator. Such is the qur’anic concept of divine Unity. Moreover, the qur’anic concept of “Monotheism” is neither progressive nor ambiguous. It is neither confusing nor contradictory. It is simple, monotheistic and theocentric to the very definition of the word. It is negative, affirmative, rational, normative and self-explanatory.

The Qur’an categorically rejects the Christian concept of the Trinity or division of persons in the Godhead. The Qur’an claims to have come as a rectifier of Jewish and Christian excesses against God. The Christian tradition claimed to have believed in monotheism, but, to the Qur’an, the Christian dogma of the Trinity and incarnation was a clear violation of the divine unity and transcendence.

In addition to insisting upon the unity and transcendence of God the Qur’an aggressively attacks all forms of idolatry, monolatry and polytheism. Shirk, the act of associating anything or anybody with God, is according to the Qur’an, the only unforgivable sin. In addition to the appalling warnings against Shirk, the Qur’an has vehemently denied the existence of gods as divinities other than the Almighty. Therefore gods worshipped besides Allah are nothing but human inventions having no independent reality of their own. No one possesses any iota of power or ability to benefit or harm human beings except by the permission of God.

The Qur’an uses various arguments both logical and cosmological to substantiate such claims. The Qur’an implies a variety of methods, processes, techniques, thought processes and cognitive categories to hammer home the point of the transcendental uniqueness of God Almighty. It safeguards an already self-explaining and convincing concept with additional measures and parameters so as to allow no doubt or confusion to enter concerning it. This external as well as internal unity of God is described in Islam by the word al-tawḥīd.

When the term tawḥīd is used in reference to God Almighty it means realization of the divine unity and transcendence in all of man’s actions directly or indirectly related to God. It is the belief that Allah is One and Unique, without partner in His dominion and His actions (rububiyyah), One without similitude in His essence and attributes (asmā’ wa åifāt), and One without rival in His divinity and in worship (uluḥiyyah/`ibādah). The science of Tawḥīd revolves around these three constituent elements so much so that omission of any of these at times overlapping categories will nullify the essence and mission of the science as well as the creed. These three categories of tawḥīd, are sometimes referred to as Tawḥīd al-Dhāt (unity of the Being), Tawḥīd al-Ṣifāt (Unity of the Attributes) and Tawḥīd al-Af`āl (Unity of the Actions). The Unity of God, according to the Qur’an, implies that God is the Absolute One in His person (dhāt), Absolute One in His attributes (åifāt) and Absolute One in His works (af`āl). The Oneness of His person means that there is neither plurality of gods, nor plurality of persons in the Godhead; the Oneness of attributes implies that no other being possesses one or more of the Divine attributes in the absolute sense; His Oneness in works implies that none can do the works which God has done, or which God may do. It may be added here, that this tripartite division of Tawḥīd owes its origin to the Qur’an, as its material is wholly qur’anic, though the specific names mentioned above have resulted from later theological expositions.

The special emphasis upon the Divine transcendence is what the third category of al-tawhīd is designated for. God is One in His Names and Attributes. His Names, Actions and Attributes surpass human names, actions and attributes as much as His Being surpasses their beings. The Absolute Creator utterly transcends the relative actions and attributes of His creatures. This is implied in the first assertion of the Islamic creed that “There is no god but God”. In addition to being a denial of any associates to God in His worship, rule and judgeship of the universe, it also contains a denial of the possibility of any creature representing, personifying, or in any way or form expressing the divine Being. The Qur’an prescribes the fundamental transcendental criterion in the following verses: “There is nothing whatever like unto Him” (42:11). “And there is none like unto Him” (112:4). While establishing the fundamental principle of divine otherness by the words “nothing is like unto Him”, the passage also institutes the basis of a possible divine modality. The One and Unique God is the most Merciful, the Compassionate. His knowledge extends to everything seen and unseen, present and future, near and far, in being and not in being: in fact these relative contrasts do not even apply to the Absolute God. He is unknowable in His being yet knowable through His names and attributes. These beautiful names and attributes are the only source and basis of a possible divine modality. This is perhaps the reason why the Qur’an and Hadith have taken upon themselves to fix the boundaries of this modality (Beautiful Names of Allah) to avoid confusion and excesses.

It is this notion of the absolute transcendence of God that has been reflected in Islamic art, language, and indeed so many other aspects of Islamic civilization and culture. Islam is, and always has been, unceasingly on guard, constantly on high alert against any corporeality, anthropomorphism or any form of comparability, injecting the divine with the non-divine. Unlike Christian art and in some rare cases Jewish art, Islamic art has always avoided sensory images, anthropomorphic depictions or corporeal portrayals of God in all times and places. No mosque has ever contained any object, depiction or statue even remotely connected with divinity. The same strict precautions have been taken with regards to the Islamic language. Islamic theological discourse (God-talk) revolves strictly around Qur’anic terminology, despite the existence of, and in fact serving as an interface between, the tremendous geographical, linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversities that span the Muslim world.

Al-Tawḥīd, with all its multiplex emphasis, is not meant merely to exalt God and chant His glories. It is also not meant to claim special privities with God, enjoy special privileges in His name or assert superiority over His creatures. None of these elements are implied in the qur’anic understanding of monotheism. It is a responsibility rather than a privilege. It is meant to create the proper response in man, the response that is essential to encourage man to work towards transforming the human society of time and space in accordance with divine moral rules. The unity of God leads to the unity of His creation. No superiority is granted based upon origin, ethnicity, color, creed or financial or social status. The basic human rights of dignity, freedom, equality and justice are universally granted to all humans because of their humanity. A right relationship with God is the sole guarantee of a just and right relationship between men. A loving connection between man and his God will assure a morally equipped caring human society. On the hand, any wrong understanding of who God is or a wrong relationship with Him will cause imbalance in man to man relationships. The Islamic transcendental monotheism if understood properly and applied in spirit can warranty an ethically balanced and caring human society. It is grounded in human responsibility, socio political and economic accountability and universal justice.

Furthermore, the qur’anic concept of transcendental monotheism is not evolutionary. It is original and universal. The Qur’an gives this moralistic understanding of monotheism a universal dimension by claiming that this was the same message revealed to all the prophets and nations since the beginning of time. “For We assuredly sent amongst every People a Messenger, (with the Command), “Serve Allah, and eschew Evil”” (16:36; 35:24). The message is timeless, unchanged, and universal. The Ten Commandments given to Moses were rehearsed by Jesus on the Mount and reiterated by Muhammad in the Qur’an. The Shalome of the original Hebrews is the Salām and Islam of the Qur’an. Jesus’ original message of salvation was nothing but “follow the commandments”. Love your God and love your neighbor we can therefore state is the essence of this universal monotheistic consciousness.

It is significant and worth noting that the term “anthropomorphism” is used here as a rough equivalent for the Muslim use of the terms tashbīh and tajsīm. The two possibly interchangeable terms take material or sense perceptions as their point of reference, and can also be differentiated on a higher more refined level. The term tashbīh denotes the act of comparing God with non-God beings while tajsīm mainly focuses upon the object of the comparison. The Muslim concept of tashbīh and tajsīm is also at variance with the contemporary western use of the term “anthropomorphism”. The western usage generally covers all attempts to conceive of God in human categories whether corporeal, emotional or rational. The Islamic terms focus more upon the sensual, material and corporeal aspects of the term though not completely ignoring the rational or emotional similarities. God’s emotional or rational attributes are absolute while the same in humans are relative and finite. They are used regarding God for the sole purposes of existential confirmations, modality and a meaningful relationship between man and God. They are linguistic necessities, the result of human limitations, and must be taken as metaphorical expressions or figures of speech rather than reflections upon the divine nature or essence.

In conclusion, the qur’anic Creator Paradigm does maintain a wonderful demarcation line between God and whatever is non-God by holding fast to the concept of His transcendence, uniqueness, and otherness. This concept is no bare unity or abstraction, but a vivid, alive, and demanding concept which does make God relevant to the ‘here and now’ by means of emphasizing His immanence through the modality it provides by the countless qur’anic verses. The modality and the language are essentially structured in such a way so as to allow many possibilities of communication without making God resemble or disappear in the world He has created. This type of transcendental concept is pervasive throughout the Qur’an, the authentic hadith literature, and also throughout the history of Islamic civilization. All mainstream Muslim thinkers, even the philosophers and literalists to an extent, seem to have followed the same line: the sense of and a belief in the transcendental Deity who is mysterious, ineffable, and unknowable in His essence, but at the same time very close to His creatures by dint of His knowledge, power, mercy, and love. There is a rupture of language though in some of the qur’anic terms. It is meant to admit the inadequacy and imperfection of the human language, the ineffable mystery of God, and humanity’s utter dependence upon God and His revelation to achieve any authentic knowledge of His being.

The systematic qur’anic God paradigm is a proof of the Qur’an’s authenticity. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an was canonized from its inception. Its compilation process was not spread over centuries but over a small span of few years and within the life time of its original recipients. The authenticity, purity and universality of its text are historical facts admitted by Muslim as well as non-Muslim scholars and sources. Many questions and objections about various aspects of the Qur’an have been raised by many non-Muslim scholars over the centuries. Currently, there seems to be a sort of consensus among those who are actively involved in the field of the Qur’anic studies that the unity, universality and purity of the Qur’anic text are the historical facts beyond doubt.


This study has attempted to demonstrate how humanity has managed to envision God in human terms bending religion to the service of this cause, and the various strange dimensions this has led to with regards to perceptions of the Divine. There seems to be a direct and inverse relationship between anthropomorphism, the ascription to God of human characteristics and emotions, the visualization of God whether in verbal imagery or physical form, and strict monotheism. It is my contention that in an age of intellect and scientific inquiry, an anthropomorphized God spells in fact, and as the opening lines of this study indicate, the death of God. This gulf between religious consciousness and intellectual thinking can be narrowed considerably by emphasizing and insisting upon the moral transcendent God. The difficulty in believing today is not due to belief as such but rather a concept of God that is anthropomorphic and corporeal, which does not appeal to the intellect and which appears at once weak, without strength, vigor or transcendence. Yet there is a solution.

The Qur’an provides the authority, God, that people are looking for and can accept, couched in a language and underscored by a logic that allows for an immediate, complete and intelligent understanding of the Divine. As such it is the Qur’an which can contribute more than the Bible to a revival of global belief in a transcendent Deity and religion itself.

Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah

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