Defining God in Islam

Taken, with slight modifications, from my original blog “The Muslim Media Nerd”

How do you define God?

It’s a heavy question, no doubt, and one that you will undoubtedly receive many, many answers on. But there is a chapter in the Qur’an which sums up how Muslims view God succinctly. It’s Chapter 112, is known as Al-Ikhlas (“Purity” or “Unity”) and is only four sentences long.

“Say: “He, God, is One

the Eternal, Absolute.

He begot none, nor was He begotten.

And there is none like unto Him.”

This chapter—yes, this is an entire chapter of the Qur’an—establishes the Islamic view of God. It is merely a translation of its meaning, since the original Qur’an is in Arabic, but I chose this particular translation because it has the best flow and choice of words. It is also my personal favourite chapter of the Qur’an because of its conciseness and breadth. It is only four verses long, but Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) referred to it as “equal to one-third of the Quran.”

In Arabic, the chapter is titled “Ikhlas” which has various shades of meaning: purity, unity, absoluteness, sincerity, and so on. However, the most commonly used translation is “purity” because it reflects monotheism in its purest form. So let’s parse this down.

The first thing to note is that we are not defining God in a physical sense. In fact, to do so is considered the greatest sin in Islam. But we can come to know God through His attributes, such as what is mentioned in this chapter, or through His many names.

The first verse is pretty simple: “Say: “He, God, is One.”” Obviously, this is monotheism in a nutshell. It negates the possibility of multiple deities or multiple “facets” of one deity, such as the Trinity. The reason behind the gender-specific pronoun “He” takes some explaining, but in short it’s because Arabic (like English) has no gender-free pronoun, and the Arabic language uses “he” extensively for gender-free distinction. But that is another topic.

The next verse is a bit trickier. Most translations differ on this verse because the Arabic noun “as-samad” (here rendered as “the Eternal, Absolute”) is difficult to translate, since it has a very broad meaning.  It’s meant to define both God’s absoluteness and independence from all things, so alternate translations include “The Uncaused Cause of All Being” and “He on Whom all depend.” I prefer brevity, so I usually use the above translation because it encompasses all of the shades of definition.

Verse three states “He begot none, nor was He begotten.” What’s meant here is that God was neither born, nor is He the parent of anything created. This is why Muslims don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, as in Christianity. In pre-Islamic Arabia, it was also a common belief was that God had three daughters (Lat, Uzza, and Manat), and that the angels were God’s offspring. This verse makes it clear that Muslims don’t believe in the parenthood of God or that God could somehow be born from anything created.

The last verse is the clincher: “And there is none like unto Him.” This statement addresses the commonly-asked question: “Why can’t we see God?”. God is above any sort of likeness in His creation. As Muslims believe God is the Perfect Being, so to is He perfect in His attributes and form. It is impossible for us, in this life, to understand what God looks like.

To sum it up, everything we can observe in this world, in this universe, is a created thing. From the smallest atom to the largest galaxy, and everything in between, all things can be traced back to a single event: The Big Bang, a chaotic explosion of existence that brought forth all matter in the known universe—and, as we has recently discovered, will one day end. Basically, everything in this universe has a beginning and an end. Because everything created in our universe is a finite and definable thing, it cannot be applied to God. No drawing, carving, image or person can be defined as God, because it negates every verse of this chapter.

In essence, this short chapter acts as a litmus test of how Muslims view God, and does so with incredibly brevity and concision. Each verse builds brilliantly upon the one that precedes it, forming a magnificent and cohesive whole. Because of this, it is my favourite chapter, and my favourite collection of verses, in the Qur’an.

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