Why I wrote a Book about God?

This book is the culmination of a long and complex journey, full of the twists and turns that make up the narrative of my life. I was born to a conservative Muslim family in which the words Allah, Muhammad and the Qur’an were highly revered and deeply sacred. Pushed to memorize the Arabic text of the Qur’an at a young age, without incidentally understanding a word of it, it increasingly seemed to me, by the time I reached middle school, that the words Allah, Qur’an, and Muhammad were an impediment to my fun and a clear sense of resentment began to present itself. These frustrations compounded as I entered my teen years and the passions of youth began to assert themselves. I felt that Allah was too intrusive, Muhammad was invasive and that Islamic manners were a hindrance to my freedom and autonomy.

College afforded the freedom I so deeply longed for. As every action has an equal and opposite reaction so it was in my case as the pendulum of religion swung firmly in the other direction during my college years. At this time, I had somehow gotten into the habit of watching English movies, which opened a whole new horizon for me, and not surprisingly levels of fascination with the Western world and its civilization and values, grew swiftly. And just as the fragmented Muslim society of Pakistan, so I surmised, was the product of Islamic religion, likewise, I reasoned, Western civilization must have been the product of Christianity and Judaism. This sheer appreciation for Western civilization brought me exuberantly to the doors of the only Catholic Church that stood on the college premises and as I met its gentle priest I was presented with a copy of the Holy Bible and offered the Jesus solution as the ticket to salvation and Paradise. Now, the Bible was quite different from the Qur’an both in its language, style and exhortations and to me it felt like a storybook with real people, genealogies, dates, places and history. More importantly, there was a sense of continuity, consistency and completeness vis a vis some of the prophetic stories quite familiar to me as a Muslim. Where I had been ruffled by the missing links, lack of historical and geographical details and continuity in the Qur’anic stories, the Bible seemed to have filled the vacuum very well.

Then things took an interesting turn. During one of his surprise visits to my lodging, my father saw the Bible lying innocuously in my room and was appalled. He insisted that I learn the Qur’an before exploring the Bible and sought the help of some family friends to make of me a conscious rather than a traditional Muslim. These individuals were more open than my parents to questions, discussions and arguments. The gist of their discussion revolved around the fact that Islam was the only true religion, the sole gateway to salvation and Paradise, that Christianity and Judaism were considered corrupted faiths due to the historical corruptions of their scripture, that Christianity had really compromised the monotheistic legacy of the prophets by introducing a Trinitarian fallacy etc. Further, how could God, they logically reasoned, have a “Son” while He did not beget? How could He save humanity when He was unable to save His own “Son” from Jewish and Roman persecution? How could someone remain in the womb of the mother for nine months, eat, drink, have normal human needs and still be called God Almighty? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus were, they pointed out, not Jewish or Christian but in reality Muslim prophets; and Islam was the only faith which God had ever revealed since the creation of Adam.

That brought me to the pragmatic question of what Islam truly entailed? During the discussions it appeared that for some, Islam largely revolved around acts of worship such as the five daily prayers, fasting, alms giving, Hajj, whilst for others the focus was more upon regulations such as dress codes, dietary laws, social norms, customs and values. It seemed to me that there existed no single agreed upon definition of what Islam truly was and that in its many facets it represented everything that life had to offer but, one could not quite put one’s finger on, or pinpoint exactly, what it was. Islam I surmised was different things to different people. One of the less assertive teachers described it as the divine guidance regulating human relationships. To him, Islam denoted a voluntary submission to the commandments of Allah, the Wise, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Merciful Creator and Compassionate God, for the sake of peace in this world and eternal happiness in the life to come. He focused more upon the moral values Islam sought to inculcate, such as honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness etc. as well as social values which it sought to promote such as caring for and about others, fair dealing, human equality, safeguarding one’s sexuality etc., moving it away from the realm of outward observance such as performing the daily prayers, Qur’anic recitation, dress code or dietetic restrictions to something more inwardly sacred. He summed up his differences with the others by stating that the essence of the Islamic faith was essentially human interaction, how one treated the other. Put simply treat others the way you wish to be treated. This was the overarching goal with the rest of Islamic teachings subservient to it. His seemingly benign statement startled everybody. Was Pakistan an Islamic country then? Without hesitation he declared that Pakistan was a Muslim country but not an Islamic country. Islam and Muslims were two different animals. Pakistan, he observed, needed implementation of the Islamic Shari`ah to become an Islamic state. Further, he argued, the inherited man-made laws of the old colonial empire and the modern West were the real sources of Pakistan’s internal fiasco. The Qur’an if we followed it would guarantee prosperity, as well as economic, social, political and legal justice. To others his interpretation of Islam carried political overtones.

The college pre-med program was exhausting. My frustrations were intensified by the complete absence of Muslim names from the course books assigned for the various scientific disciplines under study including chemistry, biology and physics. It seemed to indicate that Muslims had made little or no contributions to modern science and technology. My curiosity about this scholarly void was often met with supernatural, spiritual, moral, epistemological and, at times, absurd answers. The golden era of the Islamic civilization was overemphasized. Or, rather strangely, it was argued that Islam was a religion of eternity, and it was more important to focus upon eternal salvation rather than the material gains of this temporal existence, Western faiths and civilization had fallen into the trap of becoming too materialistic achieving material success at the price of the hereafter etc. It seemed like a hollow excuse to me for there was too much talk about the grave and what would happen six foot under while the most pressing issues and problems of this earthly existence were conveniently being ignored. No convincing answer was given vis a vis lack of scientific development, technology, political stability and institutionalization, in Pakistan in particular and the Muslim world in general. I was introduced to a college professor of Islamic Studies to pacify my concerns.

The professor was adamant about Islam’s superiority over other religions. He informed me that Muslims had ruled two thirds of the then known world for thirteen consecutive centuries. The Islamic caliphate had continued from 632 AC to 1923, when the Ottoman Caliphate, the longest continuous dynasty in human history, was formally abolished by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). During its golden age and at the height of its power, the Muslim world made incredible strides in scientific knowledge and achievement and indeed all forms of knowledge, whilst pre-renaissance Europe remained mired in fragmented city states in what was termed the dark ages. In fact, not only had Islam as a faith come as an empire but it had also come as the great herald of knowledge; a knowledge which the world had not experienced before, and which gave new life to Greek scholarship. Other extant faiths had failed in this regard. Ironically it was only when humanistic secularism held sway in Europe and after the Islamic catalyst had swept into the continent did the West develop the knowledge and expertise for which it is the envy of the world today. Whereas, it was only when Muslims turned away from their faith, failing to abide by the teachings of the Qur’an did their era of backwardness and decline begin to take shape. So I learned that Muslims had been connoisseurs of geo-politics, law, science, philosophy and many other fields for centuries whilst at the same time Christian Europe had been paralyzed in the quagmire of internal strife and the anti-science stance of Church dogmatism. Today’s modern scientific, political and social progress is largely the result of Renaissance thought and Enlightenment rather than Judeo-Christian religious traditions. Renaissance thinkers were more liberals than traditional Christians and were in turn influenced by the medieval Muslim scientists and philosophers of the Islamic world, scholarly giants such as Ibn Sina, al-Tusi, Ibn Rushd and al-Farabi. During medieval times, I was amazed to learn, Arabic had in fact been the lingua franca of science, medicine and philosophy. Scientific Arabic manuscripts had been translated into Latin and English all the way to 17th century England. Further, the majority of the American Founding Fathers such as George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been against traditional Christianity. They denied Jesus’ divinity, abhorred the Trinity, refused biblical inerrancy, disliked Church hierarchy and despised traditional Christian political concepts such as submission to the authorities as a religious duty. They envisioned a non-Christian, non-religious liberal United States of America with a complete wall standing between the Church and State. Many of the Founding Fathers were influenced by Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and other English thinkers who in turn were influenced by Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Tufayl, al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd.

The present downfall of the Muslims I concluded was not due to their religion but their betrayal of it. Islam does not play second fiddle in our lives and requires more than mere lip service. One of the symptoms of this decline is intellectual bankruptcy as envisaged by the centuries long stagnation in Muslim critical thinking. For so long now thinking outside of the box has been punished by our religious leadership, without regard for the serious socio-political consequences which have resulted. Analytical reasoning has been replaced by mere imitation. The Shari`ah has been used as a form of control rather than a force for justice, to whip and coerce people into socio-political conformity. There has been a complete disconnection between the original Islamic legacy and modern Muslim institutions. Ironically it is we who now require a Muslim Renaissance and Reformation. The Qur’an, which miraculously transformed 7th century desert Bedouins into harbingers of empire, has the potential to bring about this Renaissance reversing present day decline. Unlike earlier and other scriptures it has remained unchanged for the last fourteen centuries. Allah will support the Muslims just as He did in the past if they would only go back to the Qur’an and the Qur’anic principle of using reason.

Going back to my meeting with the Catholic priest it was interesting to see that he held a very different assessment of the situation. To him, the West’s success had largely been due to Christian faith and values, while Muslim failure was seen to be a result of backward Qur’anic teachings. It seemed to echo socio-political and economic realities. Further, I was told, the Christian God was a loving Deity, loving enough to die for the sins of mankind, while Allah was a wrathful God, enough to punish people for small mistakes. The priest’s message was simple, easy and attractive. Accept the trinity and believe that Jesus as the Son of God died for your sins, and you would receive salvation and be saved for eternity. The Christian road to Paradise seemed a lot easier than the Islamic one! I was perplexed for years. For further exploration of the subject, I joined the International Islamic University in Islamabad, a newly established institution whose patron was the then (now late) President of Pakistan, General M. Ziaul Haq.

The University had a diverse international faculty with specializations ranging from Qur’anic Exegesis, Hadith Sciences, theology, philosophy, comparative religions, law, Arabic language and much more. The higher level World Religions courses, led to theological discussions and term papers which brought old memories of the Catholic priest to the surface. I now perceived that Christian theology and views on salvation were not that simple or as straightforward as I had originally imagined. For a start, the historical aspects of Christian scripture and Christian dogma were fairly complex and convoluted. The triune conception of the Deity, the Chalcedonian formula of Jesus being a perfect man and a perfect God, the two nature theories of Jesus, the simultaneously Almighty Creator and mercilessly crucified Jesus, all such fundamental Christian concepts now appeared utterly confusing. In stark contrast, the history of Islamic scripture and the Islamic God paradigm seemed simple, straightforward and logical. Had the priest oversimplified Christian theology, or had the course book authors missed the mark? Were the Muslim professors showing bias concerning Christian and Jewish theological discourses? A sense of objectivity, my appreciation for Western civilization and a respect for the gentle priest demanded that I find out for myself. I decided to take a different route i.e. through understanding Christianity from believing Christians rather than outsiders. I established contacts with the leadership of an influential Church in Islamabad.

This priest was far more educated, articulate and daring. To him, the Church came before the scriptures, selecting the very books of the Christian New Testament. One would be at a loss, he stated, to understand, comprehend or truly believe the scriptures without the help of the Church, its traditions and teachings. Further, important terms such as the “trinity”, “Divine Person or Persons” and the “Divine Substance” were not scriptural terminologies. They had been introduced to Christian thought by the Church Councils in conformity with the spirit of the scriptures. There were three co-equal, co-eternal, autonomous “Persons” in the Godhead but, God was One. Likewise, acceptance of Jesus was a precondition to understanding the Christian mysteries such as the Trinity, divine persons and nature as well as the necessary corollaries to it.

These lengthy and contorted commentaries made me confused and impatient. How could I believe in something so incomprehensible I asked? God was unknowable, mysterious and arcane, replied the priest. Why did the Old Testament not mention Jesus’ incarnation or the triune God even once? The answer was labyrinthine. The Old Testament addressed Jesus with the title “Lord”; the Trinity was meant whenever God used the plural “us” i.e. “Let us make man” etc.; God the Father was transcendent; it was God the Son Who appeared to Abraham, Who ate and drank, Who wrestled with Jacob, rested and was refreshed, incidents the Old Testament mentions in relation to God. The theophanous and anthropomorphic passages of the Old Testament were proofs of Jesus’ incarnation. The Old Testament “I AM” statements were proofs of Jesus’ divinity. His crucifixion and resurrection proved that Jesus was God Almighty. Jesus reconciled humanity with God. He paid with his blood for our sins. The theological complexities were compounding with every additional question, discussion and meeting.

Islamabad was host to an annual book fair which drew people from all over. There I came across a group of missionaries, mostly physicians from the USA. They were Protestants with a visible preference for the scriptures over the Church. Their God consisted of the three independent “Persons”, each one of them equally and eternally God, the three autonomous modes of existence, consciousness and will united in the essence. It seemed as if there were three equal gods and the Godhead was an aggregate of them. One of them differed with the others and insisted that it was the same one God coming in different modes: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The variety of their biblical interpretations regarding the Christian God paradigm was quite obvious. The Bible was the inerrant Word of God to some, inspired not inerrant to others and divinely inspired but culturally conditioned to the few. Such an obvious difference of opinion regarding the fundamental doctrinal issues, among an otherwise congenial group of missionaries, was amazing. Consult the theologians and not the preachers, was their sincere advice to me. The group graciously put me in touch with a Protestant theologian.

During my Master’s at IIUI, I concentrated mostly upon the comparative study of Jewish, Christian and Islamic theology. The program also exposed me to some international conferences on world religions. I was lucky to meet with Professor Houston Smith and Professor Ninian Smart in one of these conferences in Rome. My theological instincts were enthusiastically encouraged and appreciated by Professor Smith. As a competent teacher, he simplified for me many complicated theological concepts in a matter of a few hours. To my surprise, he was quite uncomfortable about traditional Christian theology especially in its incarnation garb and hesitated delving deeply into it. He proved to be a Christian without conventional Christianity. He promised to help me with admission to some leading theological programs in the US and with his recommendations, I obtained acceptance letters from Harvard Divinity School, Pennsylvania University’s Religious Studies program and some other schools.

Meanwhile I had joined IIUI’s Comparative Religions department as a full time lecturer. The university’s study leave formalities for a new employee were quite stringent. While in the final preparations of my intended travel, I was suddenly involved in a life threatening car accident. The impact of a head on collision left me paralyzed from the neck down with multiple injuries all over my body. Unable to move any part of my body except the head I was left wondering about my destiny. The long months of complete helplessness, sheer dependence upon others and a sense of total despair brought me face to face with the ultimate questions I had hitherto shrugged off. What was this life all about? Where did I come from? What was the purpose of my existence? Who was directing my life affairs? Where was I headed to? What was true happiness?

Mostly staring at the roof in a lonely hospital room, I was left to ponder upon these painful realities. Many worthy and unworthy thoughts crossed my mind during these long tiring months. Why would Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate, strike me with such a dismantling blow? How could I beseech Him to give me another chance by curing me of this disability? The doctors had already indicated that my spinal cord injury could be life threatening. Was it a result of me not searching for the true God? Could Jesus be the true God and save me at this difficult juncture of my life? Whom should I be calling upon? God the Father whom Jesus called to on the Cross or Jesus himself? What could the Holy Spirit do for me now? There were times when these mere thoughts bothered me a great deal. I felt that I was committing shirk by associating partners with the One and Only Allah, the true Master.

This was also a time of deep reflection upon the realities of life. What about my degrees, accounts, articles and everything else that I had cared so much about? Were they of any use to me now? All the modern theories of the origins of religion and God, discussions about atheism, agnosticism, relativism, pragmatism and skepticism at once became utterly irrelevant. Suddenly the issue of life after death became of great interest. I sincerely promised to myself and God that I would truly search for the meanings if given the chance.

After almost two years of a slow but miraculous recovery I was finally able to stand up and walk. In spite of some health challenges, my life started getting back to normal. By now the TOEFL and GRE scores, university admissions and visa papers were outmoded. I applied to Saint David’s University College, University of Wales, mostly because of its strong theology program and teaching opportunities. The academic environment at Wales was quite different to that of the academic institutes in Pakistan with a different teaching methodology, research tools, approaches and processes. There was openness, boldness, fairness and objectivity. Further, faith as such was in a more dramatic climate of suspicion, attacks and bewilderment than initially envisaged. It was clear that organized Christianity had become visibly weakened while the traditional notions of God were fast disappearing. The God Who was very much with me, was radically absent from the society at large, at least so it seemed to me. The gulf between the sacred and the profane was quite wide. The dichotomous bifurcation of faith and reality and a personal sense of loss and alienation were quite apparent. After the initial cultural shock and a few months’ work with an advisor, I transferred my work to a Professor Paul Badham, an accomplished author and a renowned Christian theologian. This scholarly soul made it clear to me from the outset that objectivity (not subjectivity) would be the ruling standard. No claims were to be made without proper documentation and substantiation. The scholarly Jewish and Christian sources were to be depended upon while addressing the issues connected with these traditions, and respectable Western sources were to be explored while discussing matters related to the Qur’an and its God paradigm. This methodology was essential to shun possible suspicions of bias, prejudice and bigotry. This was what the sensitive nature of the subject demanded. Professor John Kelsay of Florida State University, a profuse author and an expert on Islam, was requested to co-supervise the thesis which he readily accepted. I was extremely pleased that Professor Ian Richard Netton, Head of the Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Leeds, chaired the viva committee as the external examiner. Professor Netton, originally of Jewish origins, was a prolific writer on a variety of Islamic subjects such as philosophy, theology, Sufism, Arabic and Islamic bibliography, comparative textuality and semiotics. It added a great deal to the validity and significance of my work.

This book is the result of seven long years of research, discussions, debates and friendly fire engagements. In the first chapter I discuss the problems of atheism, skepticism and anthropomorphism, give an account of the historical background and define the relevant categories. The second chapter traces the issues related to authenticity, authority, textual purity and validity of the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian Old Testament. It continues by exploring the transcendental and anthropomorphic tendencies within the text of the Hebrew Bible with some significant discussions of the same in Rabbinic theology. The third chapter explores some of the crucial points related to the origins, compilation, canonization, authority, authenticity, reliability and textual purity of the New Testament. The crux of the chapter deals with the multiple Christologies, i.e., the New Testament theologies and their historical development. It culminates in some contemporary traditional as well as liberal interpretations of Christology. The fourth chapter delves into several significant and controversial matters connected with the historical authenticity, authority and purity of the Qur’anic text. It culminates in an excursion into the transcendental and anthropomorphic tendencies in the Qur’an. It also explores some of the main Islamic sects in relation to their anthropomorphic, literal or metaphorical dispositions. The book ends with a conclusion and bibliography.

It is my fervent wish that this study generates positive scholastic and general debate and dialogue between followers of the three Semitic traditions. These traditions enjoy many commonalities with some fundamental distinctions. These distinctions represent the variety of perspectives, historical contexts, cultural settings and realities which they have faced over the centuries. These distinctions must not be ignored but discussed with a sense of understanding and composure to enhance mutual respect, appreciation, coexistence and tolerance. Such dialogue and debate could spell the return of the Abrahamic God to the consciousness of modern alienated man, who is sorely in need of His moral commandments and spiritual guidance.

Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah

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