Is Allah “Personal,” “Impersonal,” or None of the Above?

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A not-infrequent complaint from Christians about Islam is that the Islamic idea of Allah is not personal enough. Another complaint from people in arguments against religion generally is that God is too impersonal. There is this general belief that God created the universe (if they even believe that), then left it alone to fend for itself, retiring into abstract glory to answer, perhaps, a prayer or two. The first idea, of a personal God, seems based on human interpersonal relations. The second on possibly kings or dictators. Neither idea is true of Allah, the Almighty, All-Merciful, who describes Himself in the Quran as being “closer than your jugular vein.” (Surat Qaf 50:16)

وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ وَنَعْلَمُ مَا تُوَسْوِسُ بِهِ نَفْسُهُ وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ الْوَرِيدِ

NOW, VERILY, it is We who have created man, and We know what his innermost self whispers within him: for We are closer to him than his jugular vein.

Is this a “personal” God? Well, we certainly have the closeness one would want from interpersonal relations. In fact, this aya describes a far greater closeness than that of human interpersonal relations. This is unequivocally not an impersonal God, not an abstract or disinterested dictator or king. Allah here is clearly not an idea either. This is not a God who created the universe and then left it alone. On the contrary, creation is an ongoing process. Allah (swt) is continually creating.

وَالْخَيْلَ وَالْبِغَالَ وَالْحَمِيرَ لِتَرْكَبُوهَا وَزِينَةً وَيَخْلُقُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

And (it is He who creates] horses and mules and donkeys for you to ride, as well as for [their] beauty: and He creates what you do not know.

(Surat al-Nahl 16:8)

Here it is present continuous “He creates,” not past tense. The last phrase “He creates what you do not know” is commonly quoted in the Muslim world whenever some new creature or fact of nature is discovered, acknowledging that creation is not a static act of a static past, but the continuous process of creation by the dynamic, living Supreme power, Allah (glory to Him in the highest). And in this next aya, Jibreel, the trustworthy spirit (al-rohh al-ameen in Arabic, Gabriel in English) has come to Maryam (Mary) with the news that she will deliver a son by Allah’s will:

قَالَتْ رَبِّ أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لِي وَلَدٌ وَلَمْ يَمْسَسْنِي بَشَرٌ قَالَ كَذَٰلِكِ اللَّهُ يَخْلُقُ مَا يَشَاءُ إِذَا قَضَىٰ أَمْرًا فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ

She said: “O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me.” He said: “So (it will be) for Allah creates what He wills. When He has decreed something, He says to it only: “Be!” and it is.

(Surat al-Imran 3:47)

This is an historical reference to an actual event in which Allah created Aissa (Jesus) as He created Adam, an example of ongoing creation after the creation of the heavens and the earth, which itself was also in stages/epochs referred to as “days”. And in fact, creation was never described in the Quran or for that matter in the Bible or Torah as one instantaneous “poof!” after which things started rolling along on their own. All divine revelations from the Abrahamic tradition state that the cosmos was created in six days. The Quran, unlike the Bible, does not describe a “seventh day” and certainly no day of “rest.” On the contrary, the Quran emphasizes the fact that Allah does not rest, or even experience the slightest lapse in continuous and dynamic, active aliveness and wakefulness, and has no need of sleep or replenishment.

اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ لَا تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ لَّهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مَن ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِندَهُ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ وَلَا يُحِيطُونَ بِشَيْءٍ مِّنْ عِلْمِهِ إِلَّا بِمَا شَاءَ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ وَلَا يَئُودُهُ حِفْظُهُمَا وَهُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْعَظِيمُ

Allah—there is no god except He, the Living, the Sustainer. No slumber or sleep overtakes Him; to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth. Who will intercede with Him except with His permission? He knows their present and their future, and they do not have any of His knowledge except that which He allows. His Throne encompasses all of the heavens and the earth and it is easy for Him to preserve them. He is the Most High, the Great.

Our relationship to Allah is unique, vital, essential, and deeper and more consequential than any other relationship, including human interpersonal relationships. When we die, we return to Him. Before we were born, He created us in our mothers’ wombs. Of course, I can hear the chorus protesting, “but what happens in the womb is a natural process.” To which the Quran counters that all natural processes are Allah’s creation, which is continuous.

خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍ وَاحِدَةٍ ثُمَّ جَعَلَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَأَنزَلَ لَكُم مِّنَ الْأَنْعَامِ ثَمَانِيَةَ أَزْوَاجٍ يَخْلُقُكُمْ فِي بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ خَلْقًا مِّن بَعْدِ خَلْقٍ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ ثَلَاثٍ ذَٰلِكُمُ اللَّهُ رَبُّكُمْ لَهُ الْمُلْكُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ فَأَنَّىٰ تُصْرَفُونَ

He created you from one person, then He made from it its mate. And He sent down to you eight pairs of the livestock. He creates you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation in three darknesses. Such is Allah your Lord. To Him belongs the sovereignty. There is no god besides Him. How is it then you turn away?

(Surat al-Zumar 39:6)
(Note: the “three darknesses” match the three trimesters of gestation in the womb.)

Can one then describe Allah as a “personal” God? Indeed, what is meant here by “personal?” If it means relating directly to a particular person, are they expecting God to be in some way “theirs?” As in “belonging” to them? Jesus is often referred to as a “personal savior.” The relationship with God has been turned over, in this case, to a human being, a supposed “incarnation” or “physical manifestation” of God. This, of course, blurs the all-important distinction between Creator and creation. It means that, in this view, the Almighty has been cut down to size, diminished to a creature of creation, stripped of His power and authority and even mocked, tortured, and condemned to hell. For what? To be a “personal savior” for humankind, to absolve people from the consequences of their sins and mistakes, in return for their doing what? For their “acceptance” of this Creator/creature, this man-God (notably excluding women, whereas with Allah [swt], women are equal with men, but not with a “man-God”), as their “person savior.”

In this scenario, God has been, in their consideration, reduced from His Almighty status as judge on the Day of Resurrection, and joined by a human-yet-divine “son” who took over the reins, so to speak, of judgement, in direct contradiction to previous scripture (and even the Bible itself), and changed God’s system of justice to another “new” system whereby all people have to do is say “I believe in/on Jesus” and they will circumvent Judgment Day altogether and be given a Carte Blanche to paradise to show to St. Pete, a deceased human, at a “gate” from which they will enter “heaven,” a blissful nonstop church service with a harp in every hand.

Did it occur to anyone that this is completely absurd? Yes, of course it did. So a new requirement, a “leap of faith,” if you will, has been instated by the “church:” the requirement of suspension of logic. Therefore, we are asked to deny our God-given minds and follow an abstract teaching that makes no intuitive sense with the lure and promise of being let off the hook of responsibility for our actions and beliefs. One can say the password “I believe” and pass directly to paradise without an accounting of our deeds in this life. Now that’s “personal service.” And a lie. It is also blasphemy—a direct insult to the Almighty, All-Merciful. Is not Allah’s mercy sufficient and everlasting? Why invent a man-God to supposedly provide the mercy a supposedly cruel Almighty didn’t have? Is that not a vile slander against our own Creator who is closer to us than our jugular veins?? In Islam, in the Quran, Allah encompasses the utmost of both power and mercy, and there is no contradiction here between them.

Of course, the idea of a “cruel”
God is, in the biblical and Quranic sense, Satanic: God cursed Satan and therefore Satan views God as “cruel.” “Satan-like” people——mass murderers, torturers, child abusers on a massive scale, and oppressive dictators, for example——view God as cruel, because they are condemned in His religion and His revelations. Condemned criminals often hate the judges who presided over their trials or sentencing, and consider them cruel. But the punishment of wrongdoers is a mercy to the oppressed, the victims. The deposing of a cruel dictator is a mercy to his people. The locking up of murderers and rapists makes society safer from their attacks and abuse. This is a part of mercy, not cruelty.

And would it be just for all those who simply mouth some words to go to paradise without being questioned, the murderer or thief equal in paradise to the faithful, charitable, compassionate whose whole life was spent helping others lead better lives? Of course not.

Not only is the Christian myth of Jesus as a “personal savior” a destructive and corrupting idea, but in a similar way, many Muslims consider Prophet Mohammad as the “intercessor.” The “intercession” myth is a belief held by many Muslims, possibly even a majority, whereby the Prophet Mohammad intercedes (Shifaa in Arabic) on behalf of all Muslims who declared the shahada or declaration of faith that there is no god but Allah and Mohammad is His prophet. Bang! Supposedly as long as one believes in this intercession, regardless to how they lived or acted as Muslims, this intercession will supposedly add to Allah’s mercy and judgment on Judgment Day another mercy, that of the Prophet, which “intercedes” between the implied “stern” or “harsh” judgment one could expect from Allah, and the “victim”-Muslim awaiting that decision. This is in direct contradiction with the Quran, which repeats and emphasizes that only Allah will be the sole judge on Judgment Day, that no one can intercede for anyone that Day except by Allah’s will. There is no mention of any prophet, even Prophet Mohammad, interceding on anyone’s behalf in this way. Al-Shifaa is only done by the angels, and only with Allah’s permission. Therefore this is a mercy from the Most Merciful. Not from any human being. Allah is repeatedly described in the Quran as “the most merciful of those who show mercy.” To say that we can get out of the “harsh” judgment of Allah by the “mercy” of Mohammad implies that Mohammad’s mercy is the greater since it supercedes that of Allah in this scenario. It seems humans will go to any length to get out of responsibility for their own actions. That is why the Quran also frequently mentions those who will achieve paradise are those who blame themselves and contemplate their own misdeeds (nafs al-lawwama). Mohammad did not come to be a “personal prophet” or “savior” to help Muslims out of that tight spot of Judgment Day. No, each person must be their own “personal savior” by putting their best efforts toward being accepted by Allah.

Our relationship with Him is neither personal not impersonal, but unique and central to out lives. If we equally believe in His responsiveness and His authority and power, we can work more sincerely toward the balance of faith in His love and mercy, and reverence and fear of His wrath. Nobody is a shoo-in to paradise, and yet all have an equal chance to receive His infinite mercy. The way to start is by recognizing that Allah has no mediators and needs none. He hears our prayers and responds to us. We in turn must hear His revelations, both the warnings and the promises contained therein, for guidance as to how to live this brief life in the best and most meaningful and fulfilling way. We too are in fact neither personal — all individual selves and nothing more — nor impersonal –mere concepts. We cannot “control” Allah. But we can control ourselves: no small accomplishment. We were created to learn from our mistakes. And to learn how to worship our Maker. There is nothing more fulfilling, should one care to find out.

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