Patheo’s “God in 100 Words”

The religion and spirituality discussion site Patheos recently asked bloggers to contribute a description of God in 100 words or less. With some trepidation, I tried my hand at it (as did Hussein at Islamicate):

My God is closer than our jugular veins yet beyond human ken. He is
quick to forgive and showers His mercy on those who seek Him, yet He
will judge all. His Message and Law are sacred and binding, but are free
of our drab 1's and 0's; their wisdom and beauty exhaust petty human
categories, uniting the heart and mind.  He sent Mankind thousands of
guides over the ages and created us in tribes and nations so that we
could know rather than fear one another. Thanks to His mercy,
many roads lead to Him, even if some meander.

I joked with somebody that I was going to pull a "Hallaj" and get myself de-linked from some Muslim blogs, but I'd argue that my warm & fuzzy universalism is an inevitable corollary of believing hell to be temporary for Muslim and non-Muslim alike.* So, that sentiment is unorthodox in a statistical sense, but hardly heretical as far as I can tell.

I'm not entirely satisfied with the "beyond human ken" line now, which oversimplified one thing in order to drive another point home. I was trying to convey the notion that in Islamic theology God's nature is unknowable and outside discussion. That's in contrast to Christianity, where rather detailed debates about God's nature that shaped Christian tradition (Nicea, Chalcedon, …) and decided some of its key divisions (e.g., the debate over the Filoque clause, which was a key factor in the split between Rome and Constantinople in 1054 ) have no counterpart in Islam. There have been debates about the significance of a few images in the Quran that could be read anthropomorphically if taken with extreme literalism (such as mentions of Allah's "throne" or his "hand") , but even these were far more circumscribed in their speculations  (not that Christians were doing it for fun–these debates naturally arose out of the complexity of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and so on, and needed to be settled).

In fact, Patheo's God in 100 Words project is from a certain standpoint, intrinsically un-Islamic, as it necessarily does an injustice to God's majesty by limiting the explanation to a paragraph. The reasons for doing so are obvious and understandable, and a thousand tomes couldn't convey the ineffable, but such a brief attempt really doesn't even scratch the surface, so something is necessarily being sacrificed to keep the discussion easy to read.

Obviously, that insight isn't unique to Islam, but I think it's fair to say that Muslims today remain by and large far more cautious about such matters than Westerners, even religiously observant ones (listening to evangelical Christian radio stations over the years, I've occasionally been a bit taken aback at the metaphors even rather conservative Christians will use for God and their relationship with him in order to get people's attention; secularization has left none untouched in America).  Whether that difference arises out of greater spirituality among the masses or to the contrary needless cultural hangups is no doubt quite open to debate.

What my too brief formulation failed to convey, of course, is the fact that in Islam God is known, but indirectly through his creation, his actions and his attributes (the famous Asmā al-Husna or "Most Beautiful Names" referred to in the Quran, traditionally numbered at 99) .

The other thing I was trying to do is hint at what I think is the non-binary underlying essence to many core ideas in Islam. There are Shall's and Shall Not's, there is Halal and Haram, Believer and Disbeliever, but there are also many shades of gray between these that Muslims often avoid considering and which only he can possibly understand. His mercy isn't constrained by our limited perspectives or insecurities, as we so often insist. To acknowledge that complexity, the exceptions,  in no way undermines the principles.

Finally, I like to remind people that Christians aren't only ones with a God of love or a personal one, even we are circumspect in describing him. I really wanted to include some beautiful beloved hadith qudsi sayings, such as "My mercy precedes my wrath." or "He who takes a step towards me, I run to him." (Paraphrased–both can be found here.)

Anyway, my theological haiku is here.

Unfortunately, they messed up my entry (and seemingly only mine) and split my entry off from my bio (which is on the next page). So many readers probably won't even realize it was by a Muslim. I've emailed asking for it to be fixed, but so far to no avail.

* This belief that has always existed among a minority of Islamic
scholars. 

Update #1: Well, as chance would have it, I just came across this interesting quote from a book on Orthodox Christianity. It makes very similar ontological and epistemological distinctions, though some stark theological differences obviously remain between Islam and Christianity. And to speak of things like "divine hypostatis" delves a bit farther into God's "internal" nature than Muslim theologians go.

From Orthodox Christianity: overview and bibliography, by Carl S. Tyneh:

The Fathers of the Church, while stressing the unknowability of God, relegate this unknowability to His essence, to his inner being, to precisely what He is, to His inner nature and divinity. They tell us that we can know God through His divine energies. St. Basil says, "from His energies – from all the good things He does for our benefit and salvation – do we know God; we do not say that we can approach Him as far as His essence is concerned". Why? Because "His energies come to down to us but His essence remains unapproachable." His actions and works reach us and we see them, yet His essence remains an unapproachable mystery. We can possess a partial knowledge of God, and this we have from His divine characteristics and energies, from His providence and care, which come down to us and by which the All-High shows us His care for our welfare and progress.

The rest of the excerpt makes some observations about the link between self-purification and knowledge that are strikingly reminiscent to me of Sufism.

Update #2: Stopped being a tease and included my entry. Do visit the site, though.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Forgot to mention that I hate the picture I sent them. Don’t know what I was thinking.

  • Sever

    “I was trying to convey the notion that in Islamic theology God’s nature is unknowable and outside discussion”
    Theoretically yes, but let’s face it, in our history we have seen Muslims divide over such matters, like the ridiculous split between Sunnis and Mutazila over whether the Quran is created or eternal, or the controversy over some of Ibn Taymiyah’s statements.
    In fact, I have personally witnessed Salafis and Sufis declare takfir on each other over whether verses about God’s hands are literal or metaphorical. I suppose it’s a reflection of our current intellectual malaise.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Salaams. Thanks for the comment.
    In a related note(and just to undermine my distinction further), that’s not even getting into some the highly metaphysical and speculative beliefs that exist within Islam (the Malakut, the Jinn, the Abdal, Tawassul, Irfan, the Nur Muhammadi, Fana, the Khatm al-Awliya, …). I’ve seen Muslims go so far as to claim that Islam doesn’t have something called “theology”, but by my lights for these even to be discussed one way or another we have theology and a lot of it–it just has a different orientation (i.e., it concerns the world of the Unseen as opposed to the Godhead).

  • http://www.patheos.com Deborah Arca Mooney

    Svend,
    Thank you for posting about our “God in 100 Words” article at Patheos. We are grateful that you offered such a thoughtful Muslim perspective to the conversation. I’m sorry your response and bio got separated due to the way our content management system reads number of words to break pages. We’ve fixed the article so that all responses and bios appear together. Thanks again for joining the conversation at Patheos!
    Best,
    Deborah @ Patheos

  • http://www.patheos.com Deborah Arca Mooney

    A follow-up to my first comment on the Patheos article:
    Due to configuring the article to fix the spacing issue, the link above is no longer working. Please use this link to read Sven’s — and others’ – responses to the God in 100 Words question:
    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/God-in-100-Words


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