The relationship of the individual to God is the most significant dynamic in Islam. There is no disagreement that God is immutable, omnipresent, indivisible, and eternal. Belief in the oneness, completeness, and perfection of God is central to the Islamic faith. God has no partners, associates, or equals, and He is neither begotten nor a begetter. God has many attributes, but it is fair to say that the attributes most emphasized in the Qur’an are the mercy and compassion of God. God is the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Kind, the Indulgent, and the Gracious. God is the Forgiver and the Avenger— the Just and the Punisher. God is Serenity and Peace and the Lover and the Beloved. God is purified and unadulterated Light; God is Beautiful and loves beauty. God is the Generous Giver and the Majestic Inventor; God is the Creator and the source of all goodness; the Sustainer, the Protector, the All-Powerful, and the All-Knowing. [Most of these attributes are mentioned in the Qur’an, and they are known as the names of God (asma’ Allah al-husna)]
The Qur’an emphasizes that human beings must submit to God and yield to God’s commands, and it warns that people should not subjugate God to their own whims. In other words, human beings should seek to understand God as God is, and not invent God as they would like God to be and then whimsically follow their own desires. There is no question that in this relationship, God is the Superior and Supreme, and human beings must approach God with submission, humility, and gratitude.
This much is clear, and I believe that conservatives, puritans, and moderates would be in agreement. But what follows from this? What is the nature of the relationship between God and human beings, and what is the potential of that relationship? What does God want from human beings, and what is the ultimate objective behind submitting to God?
The Puritan Conception vs. The Moderate Conception
Puritans treat the relationship between God and humans as straightforward enough. Humans were created to submit to God through worship, they say. Ritual practice is the demonstrative proof of total submission to God, and so perfection of ritual practice is the ultimate objective. Importantly, since submission to God is hinged on correct ritual practice, submission is not possible unless one accepts Islam. The road to submission is available only through Islam and therefore, only by becoming Muslim does one gain the opportunity to submit to God.
In the puritan conception, the rules of submission are found in the sacred law (the Shari’a). Therefore, it is imperative that the Shari’a be precise and exact on most points. The Shari’a must set out the code for submission in precise and exact terms so that Muslims may obey it, and attain salvation.2 Through meticulous obedience, Muslims will avoid punishment in the Hereafter and will enter Heaven. On this point, the puritan conception is nearly mathematical. By performing acts of submission, Muslims earn good points, and by disobeying God they earn sins (or bad points). In the Final Day, God will total up the good points and the sins. Heaven or Hell is determined by the balance of points so that a single point can make the difference between Heaven and Hell. Puritans also dwell on Prophetic traditions that claim that in the Final Day people will be made to walk on a thin rope, and then, losing their balance, people will fall into either Hell or Heaven. Moderates, however, challenge the authenticity of these traditions, which make the fate of human beings in the Hereafter a by-product of mathematical equations or the end result of acrobatics performed on a thin rope. While moderates consider these traditions to be inconsistent with the Qur’an, and no more than historical fabrications, puritans accept the historical veracity of these traditions and read and understand them in a rigid and literal way.
In the puritan paradigm, the relationship with God is formal and distant; it is strictly the relationship between a Superior and an inferior. God is to be feared and obeyed, and it is the fear of God’s vengeance that defines true piety. As for God’s mercy and compassion, the puritans believe that these two qualities have already been incorporated into the law. And since God’s mercy and compassion are already contained in the law decreed by God, by definition the law must be considered compassionate and merciful. In the puritan view, it is not up to humans to reflect upon or think about the nature of God’s mercy or compassion or the implications of this Divine mercy and compassion. All humans need to do is study the law, because the law is already the full embodiment of both God’s mercy and compassion. It is as if God took whatever mercy and compassion that human beings might need in life, and put it all in the Divine law. Therefore, if one needs to find, experience, or feel this Divine mercy, all one needs to do is to obey and follow the law. By applying the Divine law, human beings attain a full measure of God’s mercy and compassion— through obedience to law, humans will necessarily enjoy God’s mercy and compassion.
The actual social impact that the law might have upon people is considered irrelevant. Although people might feel that the law is harsh or that its application results in social suffering, this perception is considered delusional. This is why, for instance, the Taliban in Afghanistan were oblivious to the social suffering caused by the laws that they enforced—since they believed that the law was Divine, there was no point to evaluating its actual impact upon the people they governed.
The approach of moderate Muslims to the relationship with God is materially different in several respects. Explaining the moderate approach must begin with the idea of trust between God and humanity. The Qur’an describes the moment of creation as the moment in which humanity was entrusted with a heavy responsibility. God gave humanity the blessing of rationality and the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. God made human beings God’s agents or viceroys on the earth and entrusted them with the responsibility to civilize the land.
In the moderate conception, God is inherently and fundamentally moral. Puritans give God a whimsical quality—God is just, but justice is whatever God wills it to be. Similarly, God is merciful, but mercy is whatever God wills it to be. So, for instance, if God in the Final Day decides to damn all women or all Caucasians regardless of their actions, that would be just and good, simply because God willed it.
For moderates, this would be impossible. God is moral and ethical, in the sense that God shares with human beings an objective standard for goodness, morality, and beauty. Civilizing the earth does not mean constructing buildings or paving roads. It means striving to spread on the earth the Divine attributes such as justice, mercy, compassion, goodness, and beauty. In doing so, human beings spread Divinity itself upon the earth. In contrast, corrupting the earth—spreading violence, hatred, vengeance, and ugliness—means failure in discharging one’s obligations toward God. The Qur’an teaches that the act of destroying or spreading ruin on this earth is one of the gravest sins possible—fasad fi al-ard, which means to corrupt the earth by destroying the beauty of creation, is considered an ultimate act of blasphemy against God. [For instance, see Qur’an 2:27; 2:205; 5:32] Those who corrupt the earth by destroying lives, property, and nature are designated as mufsidun (corrupters and evildoers who, in effect, wage war against God by dismantling the very fabric of existence. [Qur’an 2:27]
The earth was given to human beings in trust, and humans share the burden of establishing Godliness—in spreading attributes that constitute the essence of Godliness. The more the earth is permeated with justice, mercy, compassion, and beauty, the nearer the earth is to the Divine ideal. The more corruption permeates the earth, the further away the earth is from Godliness.
The purpose of the gift of rationality given to human beings is to investigate the meaning of Godliness and the nature of the opposite of Godliness—evil. God charges Muslims with a sacred and central obligation: the duty to enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and to bear witness upon humanity for God. Conservatives, puritans, and moderates do not dispute that this is a fundamental and basic obligation upon all Muslims. In the puritan interpretation, enjoining the good and forbidding the evil means applying the Divine law and then bearing witness on the Final Day that the majority of humanity refused to submit to God. Moderates believe that the enjoinment of good and forbidding the evil imposes an obligation to investigate the nature of good and evil, and by necessity investigating the nature of Godliness and the absence of it. The enjoinment of good is part and parcel of the duty to civilize the earth and resist the spread of corruption. But the enjoinment of good and avoidance of evil is an ongoing, everlasting obligation to investigate the nature of Godliness and to attempt to make this Godliness, as much as possible, a part of the reality on earth. Human beings will never be able to reach the perfection of Divinity, but they must relentlessly seek to fulfill the attributes of Godliness. To bear witness upon humanity means that Muslims have an added obligation and a greater burden. Muslims must set an example for the rest of humanity in their diligence and persistence in seeking the perfection of Divinity. If Muslims fail in setting an example for humanity in their fidelity to justice, mercy, compassion, and beauty, then Muslims have failed God.
In moderate thought, God is too great to be embodied in a code of law. The law helps Muslims in the quest for Godliness, but Godliness cannot be equated to the law. The ultimate objective of the law is to achieve goodness, which includes justice, mercy, and compassion, and the technicalities of the law cannot be allowed to subvert the objectives of the law. Therefore, if the application of the law produces injustice, suffering, and misery, this means that the law is not serving its purposes. In this situation, the law is corrupting the earth instead of civilizing it. In short, if the application of the law results in injustice, suffering, or misery, then the law must be reinterpreted, suspended, or reconstructed, depending on the law in question.
Moderates agree with puritans that submission to God is the pivotal obligation of human beings, individually and collectively. Only by submitting the self to God can a human being liberate himself/herself from his or her base and whimsical desires. Submission to God means refusing to submit to any other person or thing. For a Muslim to be dominated or subjugated by a human oppressor is fundamentally at odds with the duty of submission to God. Human free will cannot be surrendered or submitted to anyone but God, and a Muslim is commanded to accept no master other than God.
However, the moderate conception of submission is different from the puritan notion in very important respects. Moderates differentiate between levels of submission. It is possible to obey God without submitting to God. It is possible to obey God’s commands while remaining narcissistically self-centered and selfish. In other words, it is possible to obey God, for whatever reason, while caring little about God, and while being entirely motivated by self-interest and without developing any emotional attachment toward God and without bothering to invest the time and effort in coming to know God by reflecting upon God’s attributes, which are reflected in God’s wondrous creation. Obeying God out of fear of punishment or out of a desire for a reward keeps one vested in the paradigm of self-interest and the artificiality of the mundane physical world. If this constitutes submission to God, it is formalistic and superficial because it does not attempt or even seek to internalize the sublime nature of the Divine. To submit to the Divine in a meaningful and genuine way is to elevate oneself to the transcendental and the sublime, to overcome the artificial physical world and to seek union with the ultimate Beauty. As one struggles to purify and cleanse oneself—as one engages in what is known as the inner jihad (jihad al-nafs), and struggles to know oneself and know God, one is able to achieve higher levels of submission.
Submission to God through fear and obedience, for moderates, is considered a primitive and even vulgar stage of submission. Submitting to God through fear means that the worshipper has a tenuous relationship with God—a relationship that is driven by human self-interest or by the primitive desire to avoid pain or seek pleasure. In the moderate conception, submission to God means to have a relationship with God that is marked by absolute trust and confidence in God. Islam means to surrender oneself, but linguistically, Islam means a particular kind of surrender. It is a surrender in which one is in complete tranquility and peace with that who is the object of the surrender. The dynamic of this surrender is to know God and to seek Godliness in oneself. Submission is meaningful only if one strives to internalize and reproduce the qualities that make God deserving of our gratitude. These qualities are the same qualities which a human being is charged with spreading on this earth: justice, mercy, compassion, and beauty.
The ultimate stage in this process is to love God for what God is. First, God consistently sets out in the Qur’an the types of people that God loves—God loves those who are just, fair, equitable, merciful, kind, and forgiving, those who persistently purify themselves, and so on.5 At the same time, the Qur’an repeats that God does not love those who are aggressors, unjust, corrupters, cruel, unforgiving, treacherous, liars, ungrateful, arrogant, and so on.6 This addresses the types of people that God loves or does not love because of their actions, regardless of how those people feel about God. In this first instance, what triggers God’s love is certain acts and qualities that are appealing to God. God loves those who act in particular ways or possess certain qualities even if some of these people do not love God back.
Second are those who have a reciprocal love relationship with God. Through gratitude one will inevitably love God for God’s kindness, generosity, mercifulness, compassion, and beauty. In true gratitude, the only appropriate sentiment would be love. God describes God’s self as appreciative for this love, and makes a commitment to those who love God that their love will be reciprocated.7 To love God, a person must love all that God loves and dislike all that God dislikes. In the terminology of the Islamic tradition, one’s desires and whims become consistent with the Divine will and desire. Therefore, to love God in an honest and genuine way, a person would necessarily desire and even covet attributes such as fairness, justice, mercy, compassion, equity, forgiveness, and purity. The converse is also true. To love God in a genuine and true fashion, a person would dislike what God finds offensive, such as aggression, injustice, cruelty, treachery, dishonesty, and arrogance, among others.
The highest stage of submission is to love God more than any other, even more than oneself, and for those who achieve this lofty position of loving God absolutely and completely, they become God’s beloved, endowed with true perception, wisdom, and compassion.8 For human beings to love God necessarily means that they must love all that God has created and represents. It would make little sense to love God but hate God’s creatures and creation. To truly love God, one must love all human beings, whether Muslim or not, and love all living beings as well as all of God’s nature. To truly love God means that one must also detest the destruction of what God has created. For those who reach the lofty stature of being God’s beloved, their hearts will be full with love for justice, and full of compassion and love for all. As the classical scholars used to put it, if you find a man full of anger, resentment, hate, and cruelty toward human beings, animals, or nature, then know that the love of God has not entered his heart. In short, it is impossible to love God or be beloved by God and not to exhibit the characteristics of Godliness.
Another important aspect to this relationship with the Divine is the notion of partnership. Puritans place God beyond any emotion such as love. As an absolute master, God rewards the obedient and punishes the disobedient, but this is the extent of the relationship. Moderates emphasize the Qur’anic discourse that reminds human beings of the nearness of God to them. God is ever-present and always interacting with His creation.9 In fact, the Qur’an explains that God often intercedes to save human beings from the consequences of their follies. Hence, the Qur’an asserts that if it had not been for Divine benevolence, many mosques, churches, synagogues, and homes would have been destroyed because of the ignorance and pettiness of human beings.10 The Qur’an also states that often God mercifully intervenes to put out the fires of war and save human beings from their follies.11 The notion that God intercedes to prevent human beings from destroying each other through wars and other acts of violence is of central importance to understanding the nature of Divine benevolence in Islam. God is a savior and caretaker of human beings.
Furthermore, a well-known tradition teaches that if a human being takes one step toward God, God reciprocates with ten steps. Therefore, moderates believe that God’s relationship with human beings is not simply the act of judgment. Rather, if people seek God, God reaches out to them as well. Most importantly, for those who strive after Godliness, and through gratitude reach the point of loving God, God reciprocates their love. It is through love that union with the Divine becomes possible, and the manifestation of this union is a partnership between the Creator and the created.
In a well-known tradition the Prophet is reported to have said: “That who knows himself/herself knows his/her God.” For moderates, this tradition is of pivotal importance for achieving partnership with God. Only by knowing oneself, which is achieved by self-critical reflection and struggling against one’s base and selfish desires, can a person know who or what one honestly and truly worships. A person might believe that he/she worships and has submitted to God, but through critical self-reflection and by engaging in persistent inner jihad such a person will come to realize that in reality he/she worships and has submitted to no one but himself/ herself. Critical self-reflection and self-knowledge are necessary to overcome the self-deceptions of the ego that lead to self-idolatry. For moderates, the worst self-deception is for one to slip in the pitfall of self-idolatry while pretending, or while deceiving oneself into believing, that he/she has submitted to God. The ego (al-nafs), if not disciplined by critical introspection, can easily deceive human beings into believing that they worship God, while in truth their real god and genuine source of guidance are self-centered desires such as a sense of self-promotion, the love of material gain, the intoxications of power and dominance over others, or, in extreme cases, it is possible to become enslaved and submit oneself to the unadulterated epitome of evil and true source of ugliness and corruption on the earth, Satan himself. This is why the Qur’an asserts that it is in a state of heedlessness and self-forgetfulness that people come to forget God. Often the converse is also true: forgetting who the true God is causes people to forget themselves by pretending to be who they are not and by demanding to be or have what is not their due or right.12
The process of critical introspection and self-knowledge, which enables a person to ascertain the true object of their submission and the real identity of their god, is necessary for building a partnership with God. But it is also a very private and personal undertaking. Unlike puritans, moderates insist that this process of self-edification and purification is a dynamic that is entirely within the purview of one’s private relationship with God, to be evaluated and adjudged only by God and the individual involved. In the moderate conception, no person has the right to judge whether any worshipper is honestly and genuinely submitting to the One and Only God or, in the alternative, worshipping some other god. This point is critically important because, as will be recalled, puritans like Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab used to accuse Muslims of associating partners with God, which in effect was another way of saying that Muslims did not worship the One and Only God, but worshipped someone or something else. As a result, engaging in the practice of takfir—whether calling a Muslim an idolater, a polytheist, an apostate, or an infidel—‘Abd al-Wahhab and other puritans were able to justify murdering many Muslims. According to moderate Muslims, no person or institution is authorized to judge the piety of another or evaluate the closeness of any particular individual to God. In this regard, moderate Muslims rely on the Prophet’s teachings, which emphasized that people should not be so arrogant as to presume that they know what is concealed in a person’s heart. The Prophet Muhammad did emphasize that ethical individuals ought to behave in a fashion that is consistent with their avowed beliefs, and it is hypocritical for people to claim that they believe in Islam and then act in ways that are fundamentally inconsistent with the teachings of the religion. But in numerous traditions, the Prophet Muhammad also warned Muslims against the immorality of thinking ill of others and the arrogance of presuming to know how or what God thinks about any particular person. Furthermore, in addressing the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an, God emphasizes time and time again that he (Muhammad) was sent but to deliver a message and not to subjugate or dominate people. Accordingly, as the Qur’an stresses, even God’s Messenger does not have the right to presume to know what is in the hearts of people. Repeatedly, the Qur’an informs the Prophet that it is up to God, not the Prophet, to forgive whom God wishes and punish whom God wishes, and God also draws near and endears whom God wishes. The Prophet’s duties end when he truthfully preaches God’s message to the best of his ability.13
Knowledge of the self is significant for building a relationship with God in one other important regard. Sufi Muslims or mystical orientations within Islam contended that if one truly knows himself/herself, one will discover that the only true and genuine inner reality is nothing but the Divine. Through persistent and systematic remembrance of God, and strenuous spiritual exercises, people will uncover the genuine luminous substance within, which then makes union with the Divine truly possible. Moderate Muslims, however, have a different point of emphasis. For moderate Muslims, the issue is not so much whether the Divine is truly within; rather, the point is to maintain the integrity of the individual self and the singularity of the Divine, and in doing so to safeguard the integrity of the partnership between the individual and God.
In the course of building a partnership with God, one of the worst risks is that the individual will invent and construct God in his/her own image by projecting himself/herself onto God. The Qur’an persistently warns Muslims against the danger of transforming God into a source of validation instead of a force for moral elevation. Without critical introspection self-knowledge is not possible, and knowing oneself is necessary if a person is to avoid the risk of, through self-projection, transforming God into simply what validates one’s own base desires and whims. Thus, instead of God elevating people to a higher moral existence, God is transformed into a force justifying whatever follies human beings wish to do, all in God’s name. Paraphrasing the language of the Qur’an, through the guise of piety, God should not be made to rubberstamp the whimsies of people.14
A modern-day example will clarify this point. Take, for instance, the case of honor killings.15 In the case of an honor killing, the male family member committing the act of murder feels no shame or remorse, because he has convinced himself that killing his sister or daughter is the will of God. That is, he believes that God wants him to kill his sister or daughter for having, for example, fornicated with her lover. Thus the male family member engages in blatant justification—he justifies his heinous act by convincing himself that this is God’s will, when in reality, it is the male family member’s own anger, vengeance, and shame that are driving his actions. Very often the male family member strongly believes that the death of the woman is satisfactory or even pleasing to God. Assuming that the perpetrator is a devout and religious man, as a necessary prelude to the murder, the perpetrator had in effect projected his own human sentiments onto God, and therefore he was able to assume that what made sense to him, what shamed him and his family, and what vindicated him and his family were identical to what God wants. Rather than thinking of God as merciful, forgiving, and compassionate, he imagines God to be angry, enraged, and vengeful. This imagined view of God was possible only because this supposedly pious and devout man heedlessly projected his own emotions and attributed them onto God.
Furthermore, if through lack of self-awareness people project themselves onto God and see God through an entirely idiosyncratic and subjective lens, they will in all probability not love God at all. Rather, they have fashioned a god in their own image and then have fallen in love with that image. In this case, God is exploited in an entirely narcissistic process, and the purported partnership with the Divine becomes the means for egotistical empowerment and arrogance.
When it comes to the topic of God and creation, it is not surprising that moderates and puritans have much in common. However, in many ways, the differences between the two focus on their very different understandings of the meaning of submission to God. Their different conceptions of submission revolve around their variant and competing conceptions of Divine Will or, put differently, what does God want from human beings. In contrast to the puritans, moderates do not believe that the law is a sufficient or complete expression of the Divine Will. God is too grand and majestic to be fully expressed and manifested in a code of law. For moderates, to truly submit means to understand and to love—to understand oneself and understand God and love completely, fully, and without reservation. In the moderate conception, what God wants from human beings is to love—not because God needs human love but because through Divine love human beings are elevated to a higher level of moral existence in which they partake in the attributes of God. In the moderate conception, it is fundamentally inconsistent and even impossible for one to truly love God and fail to reflect, among other attributes, some of God’s vast mercy, compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, and beauty. If a person fails to demonstrate the heavenly attributes of God, according to moderate theology, then they have not truly submitted and have not learned to love the Creator of all things.
A further earmark of moderate theology is its anxiety about and even fear of power. More specifically, moderates are mindful of the many historical abuses and atrocities committed by individuals in God’s name. Moderates understand God’s supremacy and the Divine demand for submission to mean that only God and no other than God is entitled to absolute authority and power. And because authority and power are at the heart of any religious relationship, the often intellectually and practically difficult question is: What are the implications and appropriate parameters to be drawn between the sovereignty of the Divine and the autonomy of the individual?
Nowhere are these parameters more critical and pertinent than in the spheres of law and morality, for it is these two higher sources of governance that have historically reigned over human behavior. Thus the central inquiry becomes: With respect to law and morality, does God’s sovereignty eliminate individual autonomy; and if not, what is the appropriate balance to be drawn between God’s will as law and individual law-making? Are law and morality solely within the jurisdiction of God, or do human beings have a role to play within these two spheres as well?
Many of the questions raised in this context, whether they relate to the Divine Will, power, supremacy, and the danger of people subjugating or exploiting others in God’s name, are inextricably intertwined with the challenging issue of the extent to which the devout followers of Islam are entitled or empowered to act on God’s behalf.
(Excerpted from The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists)