what isn't God?
In my post from two weeks ago, I explored what the soul is. The conclusion that I came to the conclusion that the soul isn't an entity on its own, but is in fact a summation of the intangible attributes of an individual. But in the Islamic understanding, the soul is of and from God. But with my changed understanding of the soul, my understanding of God changes as well.
is God a person?
When I think of "God" one of the most prominent ideas that comes to my mind is this verse from Genesis 1:27 "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." In Christianity, this usually means God is depicted as a human, but like a "perfect human". Basically, Morgan Freeman:
But growing up as an Ismaili, I was also taught that God didn't have an image. However, upon further research, I learned that God (in Islam) is considered to have a face, including eyes and ears, hands, a butt, and definitely an image. And while Muslim scholars urge those reading the Quran not to equate these features to their humanoid counterparts, it's really hard to envision a hand as anything other than a hand.
On one of the many days I rocked up to religious education classes (بيت العلم "bait ulIlm" in Canada) unprepared, I'd asked my grade three students to draw a picture of God. Because we were learning about prophets and divine command, I could justify it even though it's super not in the curriculum. Most of the students (all but one, actually) drew a very similar picture: a slightly giant dude floating in the sky with a crown and butterfly wings. Below is an artist's rendition:
I then asked my students if they've ever seen in real life what they drew on paper. They said that they hadn't ever seen it, but those are the kinds of descriptions they've gotten (from their parents, apparently). But they were also taught that "God is everywhere" (like from the apple story) so it didn't make sense that they would have never seen Butterfly Man.
Saint Thomas (the dude, not the island) allegedly said "seeing is believing" in relation to divinity. In his time, people had seen Jesus, but not really believed it. Now we have the opposite problem: we're expected to believe something we can't see. I think that's why, throughout history, people have jumped to depict their divinity as a (sometimes animal-headed) human: it gives them something tangible to believe in.
Idol worshipping is kind of a big deal in any Abrahamic faith: both Abraham and Muhammad (allegedly) destroyed a Kaaba-load of idols in order to get their "one God" message across. Despite the titular holy cow from the Quran (and the Bible), most times when an idol is used for religious purposes, the idol is only an effigy of the actual deity, who remains distant and unseen. Worshippers aren't actually praying to the idol, but instead through the idol to the deity it represents. Similar practices of iconography have even been adopted in Christianity and even Islam.
is God a light?
Like I said in my previous post, I used to think of the soul as a tiny "piece" of light from a larger light source. And while I'll write a post about how light is a good metaphor for the divine, later, this post isn't looking for metaphors. Even the Verse of Light from the Quran uses light as a simile (مثل meaning like or such as in Arabic) and not an explanation.
As far as we know, there isn't a light that does the things that God's said to do (like be ever present or even all-encompassing). We can't see anything like with our eyes or even with our fancy telescopes. The closest we've had in the times of revelation would be the sun: a big burning ball of gas responsible for all life on earth? And while it's important and shines all the time (as far as humans are concerned), Muhammad specifically said that the sun is not God.
Just like imagining God as person, imagining God as light sort of limits the explanations that we have. Would it mean that God doesn't exist in the dark? Should we start incorporating fire into our prayers like the Zoroastrians do? In my opinion, for the same reasons as the personification of God don't work, the light-ification of God doesn't work either.
is God one?
Because all the explanations of God I'd had growing up failed to stand up, I was tempted for a long time not to believe in God, at all. However, after studying a bit of Ismaili philosophy, I've come to a realization that what can be considered God is not only far from these sort of metaphors that we commonly use, but also closer and more relatable. One of the most important concepts in Islam (if not the most important) is “oneness” (توحيد “tawhid” in Arabic). In Justice and Remembrance, author Reza Shah Kazemi draws an important distinction in vocabulary. While learning numbers in Arabic class, we learned that “wahid” means 1; but Sincerity Chapter in the Quran (and part 6 in the Ismaili Du’a) uses the word “ahad” is used to describe God’s oneness. Kazemi describes the difference between these two words. “Wahid” is used to describe one as a number, either a piece of something or a collection of something. For example, if you have a whole pizza and you take a slice, you have “wahid” slice. And if you put all eight slices together, you have “wahid” pizza. “Wahid” is defined by what’s excluded. “Ahad” on the other hand describes a complete unity without parallel. You can’t have “ahad” slice of pizza because there’s other slices. You also can’t have “ahad” slices of pizza because the slice is made of different ingredients.
[Imam Ali] refutes the notion of God’s oneness being in any way a ‘numerical’ or ‘countable’ oneness. He tells the bedouin that it is not permissible to say ‘one’, while having in mind any numerical conception, for ‘that which has no second does not enter into the category of numbers’.
Justice and Remembrance (p. 24)
Kazemi continues to describe this notion of unity, bringing in other seemingly contradictory Quranic descriptors of God, like “First”, “Last”, “Hidden”, and “Manifest”.
Which brings me back to what I learned as a young Ismaili. Whether intentional or not, I grew up with this notion that God is separate from the world: God would reside in some other realm, a realm that we strive for by praying and doing good deeds. The separation between “spiritual” and “physical” realms had been heavily emphasized. But Kazemi continues:
there is nothing in being but this one Reality… On the other hand, apparent multiplicity is to be ‘brought back’ to real oneness…
Justice and Remembrance (p. 25)
Reflecting on the words of the Imams and Ismaili scholars when they talk about the spiritual and physical aspects of life, they’re always described as united: “inextricably linked” by Imam Shah Karim alHusseini, “interpenetrative” by Nasir adDin Tusi, etc. The consensus in this field seems to be that God isn’t an “entity” so much as a “totality”: the unity of the entirety of existence, instead of some separate, overwatching, presence.
Throughout history, religion has been used to “find” the divine. But for me, looking for God is as easy as looking in a mirror, or looking out a window, or looking at all, or not looking and just thinking.
وَلِلَّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ ۚ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ
And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah . Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.