Letter 6: What is God like?

Firstly, I like to mention creation. I am speaking of the sum of everything that exists. Nature gives the information that something infinitely greater, more powerful and intelligent than what we can perceive, must be the designer of everything.


Yet creation does not reveal anything more. It cannot tell us whether this powerful intelligence is just a force of some kind, or whether it has a personality. So while I can safely state that ‘God’ is almighty and super-intelligent, I could not conclude from observing nature that He is personal, holy, righteous, merciful or loving. Both Christians and Muslims rightly claim that He has these attributes. Our Books say so, and so do our theologians. And yet, we differ in our perception of the nature of God.


Take the word righteousness. Does that mean that God is totally good and therefore will always act rightly? If God is good, can He create evil? If He is righteous, can He cause someone to commit sin and then punish that person for doing so? If God is love, can He be indifferent to our eternal wellbeing? Intuitively both of us will answer without hesitation that God could not have created evil or induced a person to sin and punish him for that, and that He cannot be indifferent to His creatures. Our innate perception of God causes us to think this way. Incidentally, what you and I intuitively believe, is in full agreement with the Bible.


Yet this cannot be said of Islam. According to Imam al-Barqavi (died 1135), the famous theologian and Qur’an commentator:


“He (Allah) receives neither profit nor loss from whatever may happen. If all the infidels became believers . . . He would gain no advantage. On the other hand, if all believers became infidels, He would suffer no loss. He can do what He wills, and whatever He wills come to pass. He is not obliged to act. Everything, good or evil, in this world exists by His will. He wills the faith of the believers and the piety of the religious. If He were to change His will there would be neither a true believer nor a pious man. He willeth also the unbelief of the unbeliever and the irreligion of the wicked and, without that will, there would neither be unbelief nor irreligion . . . He is perfectly free to will and to do what He pleases. In creating unbelievers, in willing that they should remain in that state; in making serpents, scorpions and pigs; in willing, in short, all that is evil. God has wise ends in view which it is not necessary that we should know.”

(‘Haft sifat’ as quoted in Hughes ‘Dictionary of Islam’ p.141).


Quite obviously, what al-Barqavi and most other Muslim theologians want to convey by formulations like this is the greatness of God. Of course, this is based on the Qur’an and the Traditions, else no one would have accepted such a statement: