Analogical Language in Islamic Theology
Islam is well known for its resolute rejection of any attempt to represent God with images. It is therefore a surprise when one comes across passages in the Quran describing God in human terms. Thus, Allah has a face, hands and eyes:
But will abide (for ever) the Face of thy Lord,- full of Majesty, Bounty and Honour (Quran, 55:27).
(Allah) said: “O Iblis! What prevents thee from prostrating thyself to one whom I have created with my hands? (Quran, 38:75)
Now await in patience the command [O Muhammad] of thy Lord: for verily thou art in Our eyes (Quran, 52:48).
Muslims accept the Quranic verses that speak of God sitting and coming, and of God’s hands, face and eyes without asking `how’ (bela kayf). In the words of the Muslim scholar al-Ash’ari:
We confess that Allah is firmly seated on His throne … We confess that Allah has two hands, without asking how … We confess that Allah has two eyes without asking how … We confess that Allah has a face … We confirm that Allah has a knowledge … hearing and sight … and power [Arberry A. J., Revelation and Reason In Islam, George Allen & Unwin, p. 22].
But, the use of these images describing God seems to confirm the criticism raised by Spinoza long ago – a triangle would think of God as a super-triangle, and not surprisingly, humans imagine their gods using exaggerated language. In other words, one may be forgiven for extrapolating from these verses the conclusion that the Quranic God has a super face, super hands and super feet, whatever these means.
However, Al Ghazali, a Muslim philosopher par excellence in his magnum opus Ihya’ ‘Ulum Ud-Din warns against taking the language literally since the analogy does not have to agree in every way with that which it resembles. Indeed, classical Islamic scholars insist that God transcends all linguistic reference. The attempt to dichotomize divine reality from linguistic reference based on human experience, however, faces the danger of reverent agnosticism. Kenneth Cragg’s extended comments are pertinent.
[The eternity of the Quran is] related to the sense in which men should understand the Divine Names or attributes. When adjectives like “kind”, “gracious”, “wise”, and the rest were used of God, did the meanings hold which the terms carried when used of men? To answer with an unqualified “Yes!” seemed to bring God and men too close together and so compromise His transcendence and otherness. This might amount to a violation of Tauhiid and an indirect form of Shirk, since human descriptives were “associated” with God. But to answer with an unqualified “No!” threatened all theology with meaninglessness. In any event such terms were used in the Holy Qur’an and the Tradition. Their use must, accordingly, be valid.
Classical Muslim theology developed a form of compromise solution in effect inclining to the negative answer. There developed the idea of Al-Mukhalafah, “The Difference.” Terms taken from human meanings – and there are of course no others – were said to be used of God with a difference. They did not convey the human connotation but were used in those senses feasible of God. When the further question was pressed: What then do they convey as applied to God? No precise answer was capable of being formulated. Islam here falls back upon a final agnosticism. Terms must be used if there is to be religion at all. But only God knows what they signify. Muslim theology coined the related phrases Bila kaif and Bila Tashbih. We use there names “without knowing how” they apply and without implying any human similarity (Call of the Minaret OUP 1956), p. 55
In a real sense the Muslim awareness of God is an awareness of the unknown. The revelation communicated God’s Law. It does not reveal God Himself. He remains inscrutable and inaccessible to knowledge. Sometimes described as the negative theology, this faith that only God knows the sense of the terms in which we speak of Him has characterized Muslim attitudes far beyond the range of those who could understand its intellectual grounds. If some readers find the point under discussion abstruse, they can be assured that it attaches to the Muslim sense of God in everyday life. Only God knows
Cragg adds, “[T]o elevate the Unity of God so as to be removed from experiential relevance would be religiously barren. “A bare unity, philosophically understood, is a barren one. . . . We cannot say that “God is Love” and also say that “God is solitary” or, in this solitary sense, that “God is One.” Entire transcendence is in the end a blank agnosticism” (Call of the Minaret p. 317).
Classical Muslims are not troubled by the limitations of linguistic reference since knowledge of God is ultimately through revelation. Some aspects of this revelation may appear illogical, but the caveat bela kayf allows the believer to hold on to his belief. This does not stop the believer from trying to relieve the logical tension (contradiction) with some forms of analogical explanation. Take for example the classical Muslim belief in the eternity of the Quran and the declaration that while the Quran came from God, yet it is always with God. The question arises – how can God be the only eternal principle if the Quran is both uncreated and eternal? We are confronted by the perennial puzzle of relating to the One and the Many.
Al Ghazali responded to this puzzle by providing an analogy.
How can the many be one? Know that this is the goal of all revelations. And the secrets of this science should not be penned down in a book, for the people of knowledge said: `The unveiling of the secret of Lordship is blasphemy … The thing can be many in one sense, but also can be one in another sense. And so, as man is many in one sense if you look at his spirit and body and limbs and blood vessels and bones and members, but in another sense he is one man.[Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum Ud-Din, vol. 4, p. 263] quoted by M. Anderson, The Trinity, Pioneer Book, 1994, pp. 32-33
The presence of analogy in Islamic theology perhaps belies the linguistic veto of bela kayf (without questioning how).
Useful Reference Materials
M. Anderson. The Trinity. Pioneer Book 1994
H. Spencer. Islam and the Gospel of God. ISPCK1956.