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God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part III

May 6, 2012

III.  Allah the Honorable King: Getting Our “Picture” Right

            As mentioned earlier, it is necessary to begin with a doctrine of God to form a conception of a doctrine of man.[1] This will not, of course, be the primary focus of this essay, but it serves an important introduction as to what proceeds.

In my investigation of the religion of Islam, it has been my goal to find an adequate “image” or “model” of God that truly reflects who Allah is to faithful Muslims.  Far too often, the image of Allah—and Islam—presented by Christian teachers of religion has been that of the stoic God, far removed from any semblance of a relationship with human beings, creating human beings for nothing other than obedience and worship.  Moreover, Allah, in many descriptions by non-Muslims, seems cruel—deriving pleasure from torturing the unfaithful—and as having no other end in mind than the desire to show forth His power by creating some for a heavenly reward and others for a torturous hell.[2]  Yet is this the most generous way of describing Allah, by Islam’s own standards?  Taking full consideration of Quranic teaching and Islamic theology into account, may we arrive at a more faithful picture of Allah and especially his relationship with humanity?  I believe so.

Though it is often expressed that there is no relationship between Allah and humanity in Islam, it would be more appropriate to consider that there is a highly qualified relationship between them.  It is most similar to that between a powerful king and a trusted servant.  Perhaps a parallel might be found in the western legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table.  In this legend, we have come to praise Arthur for his benevolence, justice, fairness, and courage.  He is certainly the king, and as such, wields considerable power over his subjects.  Yet he is fair.  His servants are expected to serve him faithfully, and as a king, Arthur would certainly punish rebellion or insurrection.  However, his servants (i.e. knights) are not some insignificant persons that mean nothing to Arthur; rather, they are cared for by him, given responsibility, and will be rewarded for faithful service  We might even say that in a limited sense, they are his friends.  Above all, we value Arthur for his fair and just reign.  He is not some “despot” that tyrannically rules over his subjects.[3]  He reigns, certainly with complete power, but with fairness and equity.

I would imagine it is something like this picture of Allah that Muslims have in mind when they consider Him master and themselves servants.  This is not to say there are not criticisms to the concept of relationship between Allah and man, but a fair criticism cannot be made without the attempt to describe Allah in way that Muslims would find faithful to their own view.  With that being said, we now turn to an Islamic understanding of a doctrine of humanity.

 


[1] Harold Spencer accurately explains this necessary starting point:  “It has been said by a modern Muslim that ‘Allah is the essence of Islam.’  This is to be expected for in every system of theology the nature of the deity worshipped must determine the details of the entire system and impart to that system its specific characteristics.”  See his, “Man and His Destiny,” in Islam and the Gospel of God: A Comparison of the Central Doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Prepared for the Use of Christian Workers Among Muslims.  Anwering-Islam.  (I.S.P.C.K.: Printsman, New Delhi, 1956), http://www.answering-islam.org/Books/Spencer/God/chap4.htm.

[2] It is true that there are Quranic scriptures that speak of Allah creating angels and men to fill hell with, and creating others to cause them to ‘enter his mercy (See Surah 7: 178; 11:120, and 76:31).  However, as with the Christian scriptures, verses like these must be nuanced with the whole of scripture.  Hans Kung effectively explains the difficulty of both the Quran and the Biblical teachings:  “Aren’t there statements in the Bible, as in the Qur’an, which emphasize God’s omnipotence as God’s supremacy, to which human beings seem simply to be handed over?  Aren’t human beings here  so totally subordinated to the will of God that they can do nothing without God’s will?”  He answers, “Initially, it is enough to say that in the Qur’an, as in the Bible, the statements about divine omnipotence and human responsibility are juxtaposed and nowhere balanced.”  See Islam: Past, Present, and Future, trans. John Bowden (Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2007), 83-84.

[3] Sachicko Murrata and William Chittick suggest that the “oriental despot” may be the best picture in viewing Allah’s power:  “The king–the ‘oriental despot’ if you will–possesses absolute power over his subjects.  They are in effect his slaves.  The King is mighty, majestic, tremendous, awe-inspiring, inaccessible, powerful.  The subjects are pitiful in the extreme.”  Yet, they conclude, “Suppose this king is a true and worthy king.  Then the stereotype is not so bad.”  See, The Vision of Islam (St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1994), 126.  I think this provides almost the same balance I am attempting to provide.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kat permalink
    May 6, 2012 9:26

    I appreciate your encouragement to my input. Your analysis is interesting, particulalrly the comparision with King Arthur. The theme of Camelot (ideal/utopia) may also have parrellels…?….

    Kingship—When Christians write about the Muslim Concept of God, they use the terms “Majesty/Majestic”. I suppose the term may have connotations within the Christian worldview which I may be unaware of…. but in my opinion, it may be more appropriate because it is gender nuetral. This is because in Islam God does not have a gender neither male nor female…nor is he both male and female.

    Equality—We touched on this previously. Because everyone is equal under God, Islam denies the “chosen people”/chosen person concept. That is, a leader is not chosen by God, nor are a group of people chosen by God over another group of people. Therefore, a leader is no different than his citizens except that he has been given authority/responsibility by his citizens/subjects to lead them. This is another reason why the idea of God=King is inadequate. What Muslims mean in this concept is that God is unique, there is none like him—as creator of all creation, he is Most Superior and if there is none like him—then all else is equally inferior to God.

    99 names—To say God is x or y is to limit the concept of God. Therefore, if we are to say God=king/Majesty and leave it at that, it is to limit God’s attributes to only this one aspect. In order that Muslims do not fall into this habit—we have the 99 names. This reminds us that God’s attributes are not limited to one or two (or 99) qualities and that any discourse about God must leave his attributes open-ended.

    to summarize, God=King/Majesty means God as Creator has authority over all his Creation.

    You have put a lot of effort and thought into this which I appreciate. I look forward to your thoughts and research on humanity/human nature.

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      May 7, 2012 7:53

      Kat,

      I just got back my comments from the professor and the thing he was most concerned about in my paper is that I kept referring to “Man” rather than humanity or man AND woman. He is very particular about that, and I should have been more careful. I mention this, because I realize how important that would be in the light of the Islamic emphasis on equality.

      May I ask something though? Obviously I attempting (especially in the comparison to Allah as a type of King Arthur. I was simply trying to find a “model” in order to draw an analogy. This would be necessary in order to bust some of the stereotypes westerners have of Islam and Allah…anyways, I digress). My question is, why do we see women treated so “UNequally” by Muslim men in the news? Just from an outsiders perspective, it would seem that there is very little equality between men and women.

      What are your thoughts? As always, thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Kat permalink
    May 7, 2012 10:10

    gendered language—Grammatical gender is a limitation of human language systems and gender neutral language can sometimes become unwieldly or awkward. We just have to work with it.

    Equality—This concept came up in the context of King/servant relationship framework but other concepts such as Justice, Compassion and Mercy, Liberty……etc are just as important. However, getting into all of them will get too complicated for your project…….

    Inequality—Today we take the idea of equality for granted—but approx 1,400 years ago–this was a very radical idea! Those days, people had slaves, they lived in societies that had hierarchies—inequality was the normal way to understand the world. So, ofcourse there was resistance. Yet, for a while the idea did take hold and it transformed society…nevertheless human ingenuity managed to chip away at it over time. What was left of this principle was further erased by colonialism and laws that made inequality normal.(because at that time it was the norm in the “west”). Yet, this principle still exists in the Quran….so men and women in oppressive, unjust societies are reviving this idea and pushing back against oppression.

    Gender Concept in Quran—-Because the Quran is Guidance for humans—its concepts and principles are based on human nature. (a nature that God created in “goodness”). Both men and women are equal under God, Yet, God has created them biologically different. The most obvious difference is that women get pregnant and give birth. The Quran explains this as a God-given responsibility (self-evident—since God created our biologies) This creates an imbalance of responsibilities between men and women—with women having and extra (biological) responsibility that men do not have. In order to balance/equalize this—men have been given the primary responsibility of providing for and protecting their families. This does not mean women are incapable of providing for and protecting their families (and the Quran points this out too)—it just means they have options.

    Law—this idea of “protection” has been used/misused as an excuse to chip away at women’s rights and liberties.

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