ANTHROPOMORPHIC CONCEPTIONS OF GOD
No one can read the Qur'an with attention without being struck by the bold literalism of its descriptions of heaven and hell; for Muhammad's graphic power of description is never used to more purpose than when he is describing the sensual delights of heaven or the physical tortures of the damned. The descriptions of the enjoyments promised the faithful in paradise, as given in the Qur'an and Traditions, are exceedingly minute, and rivers of wine which inebriate not, together with the Huris with large black eyes, fill up the main outlines of the picture. Hell, on the other hand, is a place where “the damned shall have garments of fire fitted unto them” and where “boiling water shall he poured upon their heads; their bowels shall be dissolved thereby and their skins, and they shall be beaten with maces of iron.” (Qur'an Al-Hajj 22:19-21.) The food of the unhappy inhabitants of this place of torment will be “matter mixed with blood,'' whilst serpents and scorpions will sting and torment their victims. “Muhammad's fancy could not reach beyond the common bodily burning for sage and fool alike which many a martyr has been able to support with a smile; the torment of the mind finds no place in his Gehennom, nor that most exquisite of punishments inferred in the words,' He that is impure, let him be impure still.'” 12
It is not strange that, with such conceptions of heaven and hell floating in his mind, 'Muhammad should have carried the same literalism into his descriptions of the Deity Himself. Thus the Qur'an contains many passages which speak of God's face, hands and eyes, and represent Him as sitting upon a throne, which, says the commentator Husain, has 8,000 pillars, and the distance between each pillar is 3,000,000 miles!” These passages have caused no little difficulty to the commentators whose favorite method has been to accept them without comment. The famous remark of Malik ibn Anas with regard to God's sitting upon the throne may be taken as a classic example. He says:—“God's sitting upon the throne is known; how it is done is unknown; it must be believed; and questions about it are an innovation.” It is worth noting here that the whole Muslim doctrine of tanzil or descent of a literal book, which was written upon a literal table in heaven, seems to demand a literal throne as its depository. Once let a literal throne be posited, and it becomes, manifestly, only a step to the idea of a corporeal Deity. Islam seems to have taken that step, and, as we shall show below, seems to conceive of God as having a material form and shape. Yet Muslim theologians have been greatly puzzled about the matter, as may be seen from the remark of the eminent jurisconsult at-Tirmidhi, who, having been asked about the saying of the prophet that God descended to the lowest of the seven heavens, replied. “The descent is intelligible; the manner how is unknown; the belief therein is obligatory; and the asking about it a blamable innovation.” 13
The Mut'azilas and other heterodox sects repudiated all such literalism, it is true, and interpreted all such anthropomorphic terms in a spiritual sense, but they were severely reprobated by the orthodox doctors, and not a few of them paid the penalty of their rashness with their lives. During their own exercise of power at Baghdad they in turn persecuted the orthodox. Of their severity a good illustration is furnished by Jalalu'd-din as-Syuti who tells us that the Khalifa al-Wathiq summoned the Traditionist Ahmad bin Nasru'l-Khufa'i to Baghdad, and questioned him regarding the creation of the Qur'an, which he denied, and the vision of God at the day of judgment. Ahmad replied, Thus goes the tradition:—
«سَتَرَوْنَ رَبَّكُمْ يومَ الْقِيامَة كَمَا تَرَوْنَ هَذَا الْقَمَرَ».
“Ye shall see your Lord on the day of judgment as ye see the moon.” Al-Wathiq said, Thou liest; to which Ahmed replied, Nay, it is thou that liest. The Khalifa added, What! will He be seen as a circumscribed and corporeal form which space can contain and the eye observe? Then the Mut'azila leader arose and slew the offending Ahmad with his own hand. 14 Yet the orthodox party finally triumphed. and every good Muslim is, consequently, bound to believe that God will be seen literally on the day of judgment. This belief is based upon the distinct words of both the Qur'an and the Ahadith. Thus, in the former we read:—
«وُجُوهٌ يَوْمَئِذٍ نَّاضِرَةٌ. إِلَى رَبِّهَا نَاظِرَةٌ».
“Faces on that day shall be bright, gazing on their Lord.” (Qur’an Al-Qiyamah 75:22-23.) The Traditions record many sayings of Muhammad concerning the vision of God which are of a grossly literal nature, and leave no room for doubt as to what his ideas were on the subject. Thus in the Mishkatu'l-Musabih, Kitibu'l-Fatan, Babu'l-Royatu'llah we read:—
«قَالَ إِذَا دَخَلَ أَهْلُ الْجَنَّةِ الْجَنَّةَ يَقُولُ اللَّهُ تَبَارَكَ وَتَعَالَى تُرِيدُونَ شَيْئًا أَزِيدُكُمْ فَيَقُولُونَ أَلَمْ تُبَيِّضْ وُجُوهَنَا أَلَمْ تُدْخِلْنَا الْجَنَّةَ وَتُنَجِّنَا مِنْ النَّارِ قَالَ فَيَرفع الْحِجَابَ فَينظُرونَ إلى وجه الله تعالى فَمَا أُعْطُوا شَيْئًا أَحَبَّ إِلَيْهِمْ مِنْ النَّظَرِ إِلَى رَبِّهِمْ».
“(The Prophet) said, when the people of Paradise enter Paradise, God most high will say, Do ye wish me to give you anything more? Then they will say, Hast Thou not whitened our faces, hast Thou not caused us to enter Paradise and saved us from hell fire? Then He will raise the veil, and they will look upon God's face, nor shall they be given anything more dear to them than to behold their Lord.” One has only to read the Muhammadan descriptions of the Mi'raj or night journey to heaven in order to learn to what lengths Moslem authors have gone in their endeavours to exalt the Prophet. Nor can these extravagances be put down to the fancy of the chroniclers alone, for they are based upon the authentic traditions of the Prophet. Thus we read, for example, “My Lord came to meet me and stretched forth His hand to greet me, and looked into my face, and laid His hand upon my shoulders, so that I felt the coolness of His finger-tips.” On another occasion Muhammad related how his Lord came to him when he was asleep and:—
«وَضَعَ كَفَّهُ بَيْنَ كَتِفَيَّ حَتَّى وَجَدْتُ بَرْدَ أَنَامِلِهِ بَيْنَ ثَدْيَيَّ».
“He placed the palms of His hands between my shoulders until I felt the cold of His fingers between my breast.” (Mishkatu'l Masabih, Kitabu's-Salat, Babu’l–Masajed wa Mawadha's-Salat.)15
That this is the orthodox teaching of Islam is clear from the following paragraph from the celebrated author of the Jowhara (pp. 107-112). Where he says:—“It is possible to see God in this world as well as in the next. In this world it has been granted to Muhammad only. In the future world, however, all believers will see him; some say with the eyes only, others with the whole face, others with every part of their whole body.” 16
There is a famous passage in the Qur'an dealing with the rewards of the faithful, in which the commentators, on the authority of authentic traditions of the Prophet, see a reference to this “vision of God.” It is found in Qur’an Yunus 10:26, and runs thus:—
«لِّلَّذِينَ أَحْسَنُواْ الْحُسْنَى وَزِيَادَةٌ».
“To those who do what is good, shall be goodness and increase.” The term “goodness” here signifies Paradise and the forgiveness of sins, say the commentators; but the “increase” is nothing less than the beatific vision! Thus the author of the Khalasatu't-Tafasir, commenting on this passage, (p. 334), says:—
حسنیٰ سے مراد جنت اور مغفرت ۔۔۔ اور زیادتی دیدار الہٰی"۔
“Goodness signifies paradise and the forgiveness of sins, .... increase means the vision of God.” 'Abbas, commenting on the same passage, says:—
«الْحُسْنَى: الجنة. وَزِيَادَةٌ: يعني النظر إلى وجه الله».
“Goodness (which means) Paradise; and increase, that is, looking upon the face of God.”
It may possibly be retorted that all the passages mentioned above may be matched by similar passages from the Bible which likewise speaks of God's face, hands, and so on. This is, in a sense, true, but the grossly literal interpretation of such passages in the Bible is amply safe-guarded by clear and precise statements regarding the being of God which leave no alternative but to interpret all such passages in a purely spiritual and allegorical sense. Thus, for example, we have the express statements of Holy Scripture that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and “No man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18) whilst in another place (Colossians 1:15) He is called the “Invisible God.” Even in the theophanies of the Old Testament the needful corrective is provided in the express statement that it was the “Angel” of the Lord who walked and spoke with men. How different is this from the wild exaggerations and mad speculations of the Moslem commentators based upon the express words of Muhammad, who seems to have pictured both God and the devil as possessed of a material form. Concerning the latter a well-known saying of the prophet has been preserved to the effect that:—
«وَوَقْتُ صَلاةِ الصُّبْحِ مِنْ طُلُوعِ الْفَجْرِ مَا لَمْ تَطْلُعْ الشَّمْسُ فَإِذَا طَلَعَتْ الشَّمْسُ فَأَمْسِكْ عَنْ الصَّلاةِ فَإِنَّهَا تَطْلُعُ بَيْنَ قَرْنَيْ شَيْطَانٍ»
“The time of the morning prayer is from the opening of the dawn until the rising of the sun; but when the sun rises abstain from prayer, for verily it rises between the two horns of Satan”!! (Mishkatu'l-Masabih, Kitahu's-salat, chapter II, part I.)
Another authentic saying of Muhammad which contains grossly anthropomorphic conceptions of God, and at the same time teaches the boldest doctrine of fate, is preserved in the Mishkat, and runs as follows:—
«َقَالَ: إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَلَقَ آدَمَ ثُمَّ مَسَحَ ظَهْرَهُ بِيَمِينِهِ فَاسْتَخْرَجَ مِنْهُ ذُرِّيَّةً فقَالَ: خَلَقْتُ هَؤُلَاءِ لِلْجَنَّةِ وَبِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ يَعْمَلُونَ. ثُمَّ مَسَحَ ظَهْرَهُ بيده فَاسْتَخْرَجَ ذُرِّيَّةً فقَالَ: خَلَقْتُ هَؤُلَاءِ لِلنَّارِ وَبِعَمَلِ أَهْلِ النَّارِ يَعْمَلُونَ».
“He (Muhammad) said, Verily God created Adam; afterwards He stroked his back with his right hand, and brought out from him descendants and said, These I have created for Paradise, and they will do the works of the people of Paradise. Afterwards He stroked his back with His hand and brought out descendants and said, These I have created for the fire (of hell), and they will do the works of the people of the fire.” (Kitabu'l-Iman, Bahu’l-Qadar.)
From the above quotations, and they could be multiplied, it is difficult to see how Islam can escape the charge of gross anthropomorphism. It seems, indeed, a natural corollary to the exceedingly minute and literal descriptions of heaven and hell which are found in both Qur'an and Hadith. There can be no doubt that these descriptions, which all orthodox Muslims interpret literally, help to fix the idea of a localized God; and the exceedingly graphic account of Muhammad's celebrated night journey to heaven, where he is in turn introduced to Adam, Moses, Jesus and other Prophets, and at last is ushered into the presence of the Deity Himself to plead for a reduction in the prayers commanded his people, contributes not a little to the idea of a God far removed from His creatures and seated upon a literal throne in the highest heaven.
The practical fruits of this conception of the Supreme are clearly seen in the Muhammadan idea of worship. The “Lord of the Throne” has ordered prayers five times a day; it is, then, the believer's duty to obey, and, however irksome the task or weary the round, perfect obedience alone can secure a blessing. It matters not that the prayers are not understood; the Prophet has affirmed that they are “the Key of Paradise,” and he who is wise will enter in. The idea of communion with God is thus necessarily absent, and nowhere, we make bold to say, in either Qur'an or Traditions is there a sentence to compare with the words of the Apostle John, “Our fellowship is with the Father.” 17 “God is love, and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him.”18 The God of the Bible is “not far from each one of us,” 19 and He “dwelleth not in temples made with hands” 20 either in heaven or on earth “for in Him we live and move and have our being.” 21 When our Moslem brethren learn the great lesson taught by Jesus that, “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and truth,” 22 then, and not till then, will true spiritual worship take the place of mechanical routine, and heart fellowship with a God near at hand supersede the chilling conception of a Deity seated upon a distant throne in heaven. Then, too, will Moslems learn to conceive of the Sonship of Christ as a spiritual doctrine, and will find in the Trinity a solution to many of the dark enigmas which surround the Being of God.
12. Stanley Lane Poole, “Studies in a Mosque,” p. 310.
13. Quoted in Osborn's “Islam under the Caliphs of Baghdad,” p. 135.
14. Quoted in Sell’s “Faith of Islam,” (3rd Ed.). p. 197.
16. Quoted in Klein's “The Religion of Islam,” p. 55.
17. 1 John 1:3
18. 1 John 4:16
19. Acts 17:27
20. Acts 17:24
21. Acts 17:28
22. John 4:24