By Mass L. Usuf –
“To imagine something which occupies neither space nor time and is immune to alteration or change is impossible.” ~ (George Lister, Introduction to Philosophical Principles)
In one of the many recent diatribes against the Muslims, Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero calls the God that the Muslims believe in as a faceless God. The mens rea of this statement is clear. Denunciation, condemnation and hate filled much to the displeasure of the Muslims and the decent Buddhists. However, personally, I see it differently. Though his intention was patently not clean, I congratulate him for he has spoken the truth at least in stating that Allah is faceless.
We all know that there is the smallest and biggest in everything. If I say, and it is true, that the smallest country in the world is less than ½ of a square mile and it is a world-famous place; Curiosity will kick in to know which is this tiny country.
The faceless God is no exception to this curiosity. There are many things in life which we take for granted. One of which is that like everyone has a face, God also has a face. To learn otherwise, is strange and strange things evince interest. The God of the Muslims, addressed in the Arabic language as ‘Allah’, does not have a face like we humans or animals do. Gnanasara therefore, for once has uttered the truth but he is discombobulated (fanciful coinage for confusion…).
The Eternal, Absolute
Theism (Belief in the existence of God) is an interesting subject which has also courted much controversy among a few namely the atheists (do not believe in any god) and agnostics (do not know if any god exist or not). A classification of theism informs us of Polytheism (belief in multiple gods), Pantheism (belief that everything is god), Henotheism (belief in a particular god without disbelieving in the existence of others) and Monotheism (belief in only One God).
Ever since the thero’s expression of his confused state of mind about the faceless God of the Muslims, honest inquiry has occupied the thinking of many normal folks. To find an answer, I will have to seek the help of the Quran to explain this phenomenon of the faceless God. A reading of the foundation of Islam reveals that Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion. The monotheistic nature of the God in Islam and His facelessness is succinctly encapsulated in a beautiful formula, which reads as:
“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begets not, nor was He begotten;
Nor is there to Him any equivalent.”
(Chapter 112 of the Quran)
The uniqueness of Allah is in His Oneness. Therefore, in Islam there is no polytheistic, pantheistic or henotheistic beliefs. Allah is not the son of anyone nor does He have a son. Linked with the idea of monotheism is the belief in the Unity of Allah. Allah as One in person. Allah as the only Creator. He is the One who sustains and nourishes, it is only Allah who deserves to be worshipped and adored and so on.
God In A Laboratory Slide
When speaking about Allah as the Only Creator, the quick question is, “Who created Allah?”. A very fair and reasonable question. Why we ask such a question is because part of our learning includes the principles of cause and effect. Every event is an effect and has another event as a cause. What is interesting is that this law of cause and effect like everything else is philosophically bounded by time and space. Our little knowledge, intellect and perception too, are confined to these limits. Therefore, it is difficult for man to think beyond these limitations. But, Allah is not subjected to space and time. He is All Encompassing.
Science, both physical and natural, are potent tools used by man to find answers to many baffling questions. There are limitations in here too. The researches, observations, hypotheses and experiments are mostly limited only to matter. Further, the tools of weight, measures etc. used are also related to matter. Physical measures cannot be expected to yield answers about the metaphysical. Simply put, God cannot be put in a laboratory slide and microscopically observed.
The Qur’an interrogates the belief of atheists by asking:
“Did they come into being out of nothing? Or were they their own creators? Or, is it they who created the heavens and the earth? No; the truth is that they lack sure faith”. (Quran Chapter 52 Verse 35-36)
Thus, either we created ourselves: which is inconceivable; or we were created from nothing: another impossibility. Logic just leaves us a third possibility: that we were created by a creator. So, every creation must have a wise, intelligent and purposeful Designer.
Nirvana In Soteriology
In Buddhism, there is Nirvana (the cessation of the samsaric cycle of repeated birth and death). This is a thread that runs through many religions and philosophies called as the doctrine of soteriology (the theory of salvation). As humans, it is difficult to visualise this state of Nirvana. The cynics may question, “What is there after Nirvana?” According to Buddhism, this question cannot arise, because Nirvana is the Ultimate Truth. If Nirvana is the Ultimate, there cannot be anything after that. Logic would have it that if there is anything after Nirvana, then that will be the Ultimate Truth and not Nirvana.
Similarly, the question as to who created Allah does not arise for several reasons. These are easily explainable scientifically, logically, philosophically, cosmologically etc. but this is not the place for it. For the moment, the simple logic relating to Nirvana suffices. If there has been someone who created Allah, then that Creator logically supersedes Allah and it can go on infinitesimally. Our lack of knowledge and our limitations are obvious barriers for such inquiry.
The Quran helps man by giving a description about Allah. Each of these words have a broad and deep meaning in the Arabic language. It says that “Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;” (Chapter 112 above). “He is the First, the Last, the Manifest, and the Unseen and He has knowledge of everything”. (Quran, Chapter 57 Verse 3).
Islam in rationalising it’s invitation to man states:
“Has not man seen that We created him from a drop of sperm. Then he becomes an open opponent? And he makes comparisons for Us, and forgets his own creation, saying: ‘Who can revive dry bones after they have rotted away?’ Say: ‘He who created them the first time will again give them life!’ (Quran, Chapter 36 Verse 77-79).
To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the nature of human beings. Throughout history man’s imagination has led him to create anthropomorphic gods which exhibits human qualities. There are gods of fertility – Parvati, the god of love – Venus and so many others like the Sun god, Evil god, god of beauty, wisdom, anger, jealousy etc.
Man is also extremely limited by his knowledge and this little knowledge is only within the five traditionally recognized sense perceptions – Sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Add the intellect to it. Even in the use of these senses there are limitations. For example, a dog’s sense of hearing is significantly greater than that of the human. The human’s sense of smelling is so limited compared to a bear. A bear’s sense of smell is so acute that it can detect an animal carcass from several miles away.
In Islam, there is no place for human to imagine the features of God. A look at the last verse quoted above is helpful. It states:
“Nor is there to Him any equivalent.” (Quran, Chapter 112)
“There is nothing like Him” (Quran, Chapter 42 Verse 11)
Effectively, what it means is that there is nothing that can be compared with Allah or to Allah. Neither is he composed of any element (gold, silver, rock, wood etc.) nor has He resemblance to anything. He has no image. Therefore, He has no face.
Hypothetically, even if we imagine a face for God it will be anthropomorphic, as our imagination will depend or be within the range of our limited perception only. On the other hand, since God Himself says that there is nothing that can be compared with Him, we simply cannot give any form to God, as He is incomparable. It is beyond human even to think of anything.
Finally, there are references in the Quran where the Arabic word, ‘Wajh’ is translated as ‘face’, ‘countenance’, ‘essence’. This has to be understood metaphorically and not to be taken in the literal sense of the meaning as we use for the face. A parallel explanation would be idiomatic expressions like ‘show one’s face’ which means, to make an appearance or ‘give a hand’ which means, help a person.