Islam knows no creed, no formal profession of faith that every Muslim is required to proclaim as a sign of his membership in the Islamic community. A number of Muslims have attempted to elaborate such a creed (aqidah) to supply the immediate doctrinal needs of some moment of Islamic history, but none has won the ecumencial support enjoyed by the simple and powerful “testimony” (shahadah), the first of the so-called Pillars of Islam, and the only one of the five that has to do with faith and belief. “I testify,” the Muslim says, “that there is no god but The God…” (la ilaha illa-llah), and Muhammad is His envoy.” The God of that testimony, in Arabic Allah (a contraction of al-ilah), is God of . Allah is God, the same God worshipped, to the exclusion of all others, by the Jews and the Christians, and the deity is described clearly and succinctly in the famous “Throne Verse” (2: 255) of the Quran:
God! There is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsistent. Slumber seizes Him not, no, nor sleep. To Him belong all that in the heavens and upon the earth. Who is there who interecedes with Him except with His permission? He knows what has appeared as past and as yet to come, and there is no share in His knowledge except by His will. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation wearies Him not. He is the All-sublime, the All-glorious.
The cult of a deity termed simply “the god” (al-ilah) was known throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia in the days before Islam –Muhammad’s father was named Abdullah, “Servant of Allah,”– and was obviously of central importance in Mecca, where the building called the Kacba was indisputably his house. Indeed, the Muslims’ shahadah attests to precisely that point: the Quraysh were being called upon to repudiate the very existence of all the other gods save this one. It seems equally certain that Allah was not merely a god in Mecca but was widely regarded as the “high god,” the chief and head of the Meccan pantheon, whether this was the result, as has been argued, of a natural progression toward henotheism or of the growing influence of Jews and Christians in the peninsula. The most convincing piece of evidence that it was the latter at work is the fact that of all the gods of Mecca, Allah alone was not represented by an idol.
How did the pagan Meccans view their god Allah? The Quran provides direct and primary evidence:
And if you ask them [that is, the Quraysh] who created them, they will certainly reply, “Allah.”…
Quran 43: 87.
Say: Who is that sustains you from the sky and from the earth? Or who is it who has power over hearing and sight? And who is it who brings out the living from the dead and the dead from the living? And who is it who rules and regulates all affairs? They will soon answer, “Allah.”
If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth, they will certainly say “Allah.” Say: Those (female) things you call upon apart from Allah, do you think that if God wills evil to me, they can remove this evil, or, if He wills mercy to me, they can hold back this mercy?
Quran 39: 38.
In this latter verse Allah appears quite clearly as the “high god ” of Mecca. On the one hand there is Allah, the creator, sustainer and ruler of the universe, and on the other, a host of minor deities –the “daughters of Allah” among them– who intercede with the lord of the gods, and this is precisely the view that is attacked in the Quran:
They serve apart from Allah that which what neither harms nor benefits them, and they say “These are our intercessors with Allah.” Say: Are you informing God of something He knows not in the heavens or on earth? Glory be to Him! He is far above any partners.
Quran 10: 18.
The Quran is our most certain testimony to the religious life in Mecca before the appearance of Islam since at the least in the beginning of his career Muhammad’s concern was not, as it was later in Medina, with regulating the life of a community of believers but rather in reforming the beliefs and practices of his fellow Meccans. “Reforming” is a more appropriate term than “converting” since the Quran also reveals, as we have seen, that the worship of Allah was already well established there before Muhammad. What was at question, then, was not simply belief in or worship of Allah, which the Quraysh certainly did, but the Meccans’ “association,” as the Quran calls it, of other deities with Allah, an issue that seemed to accept the existence of other gods in the “exalted assembly,” while at the same time denying that they had any autonomous power, though perhaps they could help men if God so willed (Quran 34:22-23).
Some verses of the Quran seem openly to concede the existence of such gods, simply pointing to the fact that they are Allah’s creatures (25: 3), and that rather than being Allah’s partners, they are His servants (7: 191-195). Those deities falsely associated with Allah will even appear at the Judgment Day to disavow the worship of their devotees (10: 28-29). Finally, Allah’s position vis-à-vis the other gods is illuminated by one of the epithets applied to him, together with a self-gloss, in the Quran’s 112th Sura, itself a basic statement of Quranic monotheism:
Say: He is Allah: One;
He is Allah: the Eternal.
He has neither begotten, nor was He begotten,
And no one is equal to Him.
Thus Allah was neither an unknown nor an unimportant deity to the Quraysh when Muhammad began preaching His worship at Mecca. What is equally certain it that Allah had what the Quran disdainfully calls “associates,” other gods and goddesses who shared both His cult and His shrine. On the prima facie witness of the Quran, it was Muhammad’s preaching that introduced a new monotheistic urgency into the Meccan cult: the Quraysh are relentlessly chastised for “partnering God,” and from what we otherwise know of Muhammad’s Mecca, the charge is not an unjust one. But a closer look reveals that the matter was by no means so simple. While he was still at Mecca, Muhammad had begun to invoke the example of Abraham, as in this verse that establishes the continuity of the “religion of Abraham” through the line of the prophets to his own monotheism:
He has established for you the same religion that He enjoined on Noah –and which We revealed to you– and that He enjoined on Abraham, Moses and Jesus– namely, that you remain steadfast in the religion and make no divisions in it…
Quran 42: 13.
Whatever his beliefs before his prophetic call, the Muhammad who began to preach the “warning” and the “good news” of Islam in Mecca had a bold new understanding of God, which unfolds in the early suras of the Quran. Muhammad’s God was no longer the Allah of the pagan Quraysh, to be sure, but what is chiefly remarkable, perhaps, is that in those same suras Muhammad almost invariably refers to the deity not as “Allah” but as “Lord,” or since God is often the speaker, “your Lord.” It is patently not the name of some new divinity, some god whose presence at Mecca was previously unknown; rather, it is an appelative, a reference to a familiar. Who is Muhammad’s “Lord”? It is not at all clear, not at this point at any rate, though later it is unmistakably the Allah of the Quraysh, and, of course, of the Jews and Christians.
Sometime after the beginning of his preaching Muhammad also began to use the name al-Rahman, “The Merciful One,” for his God, and conspicuously, in Suras 56, 68, 78, 89 and 93, “Lord” and “Rahman” are used together, with no mention of Allah. Unlike “Lord,” Rahman appears to be a proper name, always used with the article and quite different from the other appelatives applied to God in the Quran. The name al-Rahman appears more than fifty times in the suras of the so-called “second Meccan period,” and often with explicit reference to the fact that the Meccans found the name strange or the deity somehow unacceptable (21: 36; 25:60; 13: 30). Thus Muhammad’s choice of the name al-Rahman to designate the “Lord” who was sending him revelations caused confusion and objections among the Quraysh. Some may have thought that Muhammad’s Rahman and their own Allah were two distinct gods, and we can see the beginnings of a reconciliation in 17: 110 (“Pray to Allah or pray to al–Rahman; whichever you call upon, to Him belongs the beautiful names…”), but after that, there are no more mentions of al-Rahman, not, at any rate, as the unique name of God. Thenceforward that name was the familiar Allah of Mecca, and Rahman became one of His characterizations, enshrined in the formula which stands at the head of every sura of the Quran: “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”
Muhammad apparently had a direct experience of God (53: 1-18; 81: 19-27), but the Muslims’ understanding of Allah is based not upon that personal vision, which the Prophet did not share with his followers, but on the Quran’s public witness. Allah is Unique, the Creator, Sovereign and Judge of humankind. It is Allah who directs the universe through His direct action on nature and who has guided human history through His prophets, Abraham, with whom He made His covenant, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, through all of whom He founded His chosen communities, the “Peoples of the Book,” His Book. Indeed, His guidance descends even to the most particular actions: “He turns astray whom He wishes and guides whom He wishes” (14: 14 , 16: 93, etc.). From the Quranic portrait Muslim piety later extracted the Scriptural ninety-nine “beautiful names of Allah” (7: 180, 17: 110, 20: 8), which became in turn the ground for prayer, particularly of the repetitive Sufi type known as “remembrance” (dhikr), and of theosophical speculation on which of them was the “true” name of Allah and so might reveal the divine essence.
The Quran provided the revealed base upon which later Muslims built their own expanded understanding of God, and in two different directions. Under the clear influence of Greek and Christian prototypes there came into existence in the ninth century the Muslims’ own version of sacred theology, what they called “dialectical discourse” (kalam), and it was one of the objectives of this science to investigate the nature, attributes and operations of God. The traditionists, who wanted to affirm all the Scriptural predicates of Allah, held for the reality of God’s attributes (knowledge, power, speech, etc.); the early theologians, however, saw this as compromising the divine unity (tawhid) and reduced the Quranic attributes to nominal or created status. Thus God’s speech, that is, the Quran, was for the rational theologians something created, while the traditionists regarded it as uncreated and eternal, no matter what the theological consequences, and it was their view that eventually prevailed.
One attribute, God’s power, led off into another debate on divine omnipotence vs. human free-will. The Quran asserts the first on many occasions (“It is God who has created you and all that you have done” (37: 96), but at the same time insists on human responsibility for moral acts (“Every good which comes to you comes from God; every evil which comes to you comes from yourself” (4: 79).). Neither side ceded, and the issue remained non liquet, though with an inclination to assert the appearance of human liberty: the human agent “acquires” the sense of responsibility. There followed from this another dispute, with perhaps more profound consequences, on the efficacy of all secondary causality, with philosophers asserting the existence of natural causes and the traditionists arguing against them for both a moral and a physical universe under the immediate control of, if not actually determined by, God alone.
The mystics too got caught up in speculation about God, though more often in the wake of an experience of the divine than as the term of a logical demonstration. Many Sufis claimed to have experienced oneness with Allah –one, the notorious al-Hallaj (d. 922), was executed for the boldness of his claim– which they described in a variety of metaphors and attempted to explained by a number of technical terms (“vision,” “infusion,” “identity”). And some Sufis, notably Ibn al-Arabi and his school, announced, on the basis of this experimental insight, a kind of existential monism under the rubric “the oneness of being,” God’s, that is, and the universe’s. These Sufi insights into the nature of God, which often stood in explicit opposition to the traditionalist theologians’ more reasoned discourse and even the simple piety of the ordinary believer. According to Ghazali (d. 1111), the great mediveval standard-bearer of Islamic orthodoxy, it was the Sufis’ approach to God that finally brought a healing certitude to his doubting heart, while others were abashed and scandalized by the freedom –almost the licentiousness– of the mystics’ language in describing that totally transcendent Other.
Formal Sufism has either disappeared or become secularized or gone underground in contemporary Islamic circles, but its legacy remains deeply embedded in Muslim spirituality. While Muslims no longer argue the question the relationship between Allah’s essence and attributes, and the profound debate between God’s omnipotence and man’s creative freedom to act has been stilled for many centuries, the devotion to the “beautiful names of God” still has an important place in Islamic devotion, and the Muslims’ primary virtue is tawakkul, total trust and reliance on God. And despite the energetic and devoted attempts of Muslim theologians, theosophists, lawyers and mystics to enlarge, enhance or simply explain, the Muslim’s portrait of that God, besides which there is no other, is still the Quran’s, drawn in its opening verses:
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Sovereign of the Day of Judgment. Truly, it is You we worship and You whose aid we seek.
Quran 1: 1-5.
Austin, R. W. J, (trans), Ibn Al’Arabi. The Bezels of Wisdom, New York, 1980. An easily accessible version of Ibn Arabi’s meditations on God and man.
Peters, F. E., Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, Albany, 1993. The Meccan’s notion of God and that announced in the Qur’an.
Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Chapel Hill, 1975, espec. pp. 259-286, “Theosophical Sufism,” which describes the main line of mystics’ speculations about God.
Watt, W. Montgomery. Free Will and Predestination in Islam, London, 1948. The Quranic evidence and the later discussions on the omnipotence of God and human free will.
Watt, W. Montgomery, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, Edinburgh, 1973. The continuing Muslim discussions on the nature and attributes of God.