The first entry in this series can be found here.
Your God is the One God: there is no god except Him, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy. . . . Even so, there are some who choose to worship others besides God as rivals to Him, loving them with the love due to God, but the believers have greater love for God. If only the idolters could see–as they will see when they face the torment–that all power belongs to God, and that God punishes severely.— Al-Baqara 163, 1651
This text reminds us of the first and greatest commandment. In Christian theology, it is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. But what do Muslim scholars have to say about this text?
This is one of the most often recited verses of the Quran. In all three instances in this verse God renders ilāh, the general noun for “god” or “divinity,” rather than Allāh, which is the supreme personal Name of God in Arabic. God is one (wāḥid), which includes the sense of being unique, not made up of parts, without equal or like.2
This is very interesting. Prior to the elipsis in the passage quoted, every reference to “God” or “god” is a general term, and you can learn more here if you are so inclined. However, in the two verses that follow (the first has not yet been cited), all references to God are the more proper term: Allah.3
This made me wonder why it would be more generic in the first verse and more specific in the next two? How can there be one God in a more generic understanding, but then emphasize that it’s not good enough to worship a god in general–people must worship the God (Allah)? And then I realized that it’s no different than Genesis 1:1-2:4. In Genesis 1:1-2:3, all we ever see is “God,” but starting in 2:4, He is also referred to more specifically as “Yahweh God.”
And in today’s text, we see why it can be more specified. This God is “the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy,” a phrase that occurs about 173 times in the Qur’an (this number was gleaned by adding the occurrences of the nominal noun raḥmān and the nominal adjective raḥīm). This is the God more clearly described in Al-Baqara 164-165, and even more clearly described in Al Fatiha 1-5.
In the creation of the heavens and earth; in the alternation of night and day; in ships that sail the seas with goods for people; in the water which God sends down from the sky to give life to the earth when it has been barren, scattering all kinds of creatures over it; in the changing of the winds and clouds that run their appointed courses between the sky and earth: there are signs in all these for those who use their minds. Even so, there are some who choose to worship others besides God as rivals to Him, loving them with the love due to God, but the believers have greater love for God. If only the idolters could see–as they will see when they face the torment–that all power belongs to God, and that God punishes severely.— Al-Baqara 164-165
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy! Praise belongs to God, Lord of all worlds, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, Master of the Day of Judgment. It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help.— Al-Fatiha 1-5
The latter is the opening to the Qur’an, and “[i]t is very important in Islamic worship, being an obligatory part of the daily prayer, repeated several times during the day.”4 This summary of Allah helps us understand what’s going on in the text under consideration today. Only a true believer can sincerely pray this prayer, because only a true believer can honestly say, “It is You we worship,” especially because of what it says in our text today: “There are some who choose to worship others besides God as rivals to Him, loving them with the love due to God.”
Those who “worship others” cannot pray, “It is You we worship.” These are idolaters, and their love is misguided. Muslim scholars explain as it relates to God and love:
According to a ḥadīth, a man asked the Prophet, “When will the Hour come to pass, O Messenger of God?” The Prophet said, “What have you prepared for it?” The man said, “I have not prepared for it much by way of prayers or fasting or alms, but I love God and His Messenger.” The Prophet said, “You will be with those whom you love.” More often, however, dozens of times in fact, the word love (ḥubb) is used in the Quran to describe what God loves or does not love in human beings. For example, throughout the Quran God is said to love the virtuous, those who repent, the reverent, the patient, those who trust, the just, those who fight in His way, and those who purify themselves, but He does not love disbelievers, transgressors, sinful ingrates, wrongdoers, the vainglorious, workers of corruption, prodigals, the treacherous, or the exultant.5
I could be wrong, but I sense a slight contradiction in this excerpt: The man could merely love God and His Messenger, but not pray or fast or give alms, and he could make it past judgment, but God only loves those who are reverent (pray), just (give alms) and fast (purify themselves)?
I think it would be helpful to create a list: Who God loves, versus who God does not love (in Islamic thought).
Who God Loves
- Virtuous ones
- Repentant ones
- Reverent ones
- Patient ones
- Trusting ones
- Just ones
- Ones who fight in His way
- Ones who purify themselves
Who God does not love
- Sinful Ingrates
- Vainglorious ones
- Workers of Corruption
- The prodigals
- The treacherous
- Exultant ones
This is a scary set of lists. I’m sure there are texts in the Qur’an to support this, but it’s still scary. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve often found myself guilty of working corruption. Therefore, the God of Islam does not love me. But this God does love repentant ones; if I’ve repented of my corruption, does that mean God will love me, or is it a case of “once a wrongdoer always a wrongdoer”? Or, I can try to be virtuous, but how much virtue is enough for God to love me? And if my virtue accidentally makes me exult or become vainglorious, then will God stop loving me?
The Qur’an says that God loves those who purify themselves. I would assume that this means purification from the list of things on the right. The Qur’an also says repeatedly that “God is Most Merciful.” But how can God be merciful when the idolaters are basically told, “You’re hopeless, and you’re doomed to torment” (“If only the idolters could see–as they will see when they face the torment–that all power belongs to God, and that God punishes severely,” Al-Baqara 165)? Where’s the mercy in that?6
This is why the Christian Gospel is so freeing. Whereas in Qur’anic theology, “God does not love [sinners],”7 and disbelievers are guilty of “loving [other things] with the love due to God,”8 this is what sets the Christian God apart from not only the Muslim God, but from every other deity and religion on earth. The expectations are similar (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-5), but the application and mercy of God play out very differently (cf. Romans 5:8, 10 and Luke 15).
- “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
- But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! . . . For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! (Romans 5:8, 10)
- [Jesus] also said: “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him any. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:11-24)
The Law of Moses states clearly that we must love God wholeheartedly. The punishment for those who fail to love God wholeheartedly is hell. This is generally the same between Islam and Christianity.
However, as is clear from the Romans text and the Luke text (commonly referred to as the “Prodigal Son” story), there is hope for sinners. There is hope for those who hate God. There is hope for disbelievers. All we must do is believe. As Romans 5 explains, God sent Christ to die for us while we were sinners. If He could love us enough to die for us while we were sinners (because the truth is that all sinners deserve to die), then of course He can show us mercy and grace when we continue to stumble–despite striving for perfection–after becoming believers. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In fact, God is so eager for us to confess our sin and repent that He is like a father anxiously waiting to see his long lost son or daughter crest a hill in the distance. He’s waiting for us, wanting to rejoice with us; He’s not aloof and unaffected. He loves us and wants to be in right relationship with us.
In the words of Islamic scholars:
The asymmetry between God’s Love for human beings and human beings’ love for God is reflected in the Quran’s almost exclusive discussion of that love as originating with God. Because God is unlike anything in the world, love for Him is hard to encapsulate in a technical definition, and the exegetes often prefer to describe it by speaking in terms of the fruits of loving God.9
The Christian God by contrast is full of love, and His love is clear. His love is emphasized. his love is primary to ours. The emphasis in Christian thought is on God’s love for us, and only afterwards on our love for Him (which might not be too far from Islamic thought), but the Christian God moves–through the Holy Spirit–to convince sinners of His love for them. He shows them Jesus, dying on the cross and rising from the dead, as proof of His love for them.
Are you loving God with your whole being?
If not, you are in trouble. But here is the solution: Believe in God’s love for you! Believe in Jesus! Believe that He died and rose again for you!
In this with you.
Thanks for reading.
- All references from the Qur’an are pulled from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford World Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Emphasis in original.
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Study Quran (New York: HarperOne, 2021), Kindle Edition, 70.
- This means that Allah is not simply how Muslims refer to Yahweh, because there is a more generic term for “God.” These are two very different deities.
- M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, 3.
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Study Quran, 71.
- This conditional mercy is seen to be no sign of actual hope when we look back to Al-Baqara 6-7: “As for those who disbelieve, it makes no difference whether you warn them or not: they will not believe. God has sealed their hearts and their ears, and their eyes are covered. They will have great torment.” If a “disbeliever” can’t repent, then can anyone on the list above actually repent?
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Study Quran, 71.
- Al-Baqara 165.
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Study Quran, 71.