In 2014, in a bombing raid on the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jordanian air force pilot Muath al Kasasbeh crashed his plane near Raqqa in Syria. He was promptly captured and ISIS used the social media platform Twitter to crowdsource suggestions on how to execute him. Finally, they trapped him in a cage, doused it in gasoline and burned him alive.
This barbaric and graphic event was filmed and the video was widely circulated, horrifying audiences all over the world. And, as if to hammer home the stark disconnect between humanity and darkness, the video starts with the Bismillah invocation: ‘In the name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate.’
This gruesome incident raises the obvious questions: what kind of deity would sanction such barbarism? What kind of mercy is this? Who exactly is this God?
This is the starting point for a new study by scholar Gabriel Said Reynolds titled Allah: God in the Quran. But this book is no Orientalist polemic. Reynolds is prompt to note that the overwhelming majority of Muslims disavow the theology and savagery of ISIS. A more honest representation, he suggests, is ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’, the famous open letter written in October 2007 by Muslim leaders to the Christian community, emphasising fundamental commandments of the two faiths: to love God and to love one’s neighbour.
Reynolds’s interest is in building a detailed portrait of God using God’s own words — that is, the Quran. For instance, consider mercy. We acknowledge it to be one of God’s foremost attributes, but what exactly are the parameters of this mercy? As per Reynolds: “Is God’s mercy unconditional, or does it extend only to certain people? Is God merciful only to Muslims or also to Jews and Christians? How about polytheists, atheists, or apostates from Islam? Is God merciful only to the righteous or also to sinners? Is sincere contrition, or an act of penitence, a condition of gaining God’s mercy? Are there other ways to receive mercy, for example, by giving alms or fighting in a holy war? Can mercy be earned? What does the Quran mean, in other words, when it describes God as ‘the compassionate, the merciful’?”
A scholarly Western study of God and His attributes, as delineated in the Quran and Hadith, is a surprisingly accessible read
Reynolds is well suited to address these questions. He secured a PhD in Islamic Studies from Yale University and is now Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has authored and edited numerous books on Islam and Muslim/Christian relations. He has also undertaken scholarly studies of the Quran, and co-directed The Quran Seminar, an academic collaboration with several international Quranic scholars.
Reynolds starts his investigation with God’s names and attributes in the Quran. But this approach can only take us so far, because several of these attributes are contraries. For instance, God is “the One who honours”, but also “the One who humiliates”; He is “the One who guides” and also “the One who leads astray.” What these names indicate is that God is omnipotent. His nature is still shrouded in mystery.
Moreover, there is also heated debate about which attributes take precedence over others. Reynolds quotes Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman, who taught for several years at the University of Chicago: “The immediate impression from a cursory reading of the Quran is that of the infinite majesty of God and His equally infinite mercy.” In contrast, another Pakistani scholar, Daud Rahbar, in his 1960 book God of Justice: A Study in the Ethical Doctrine of the Quran, contends that God’s foremost attribute is His “stern justice.” Let us not forget that God is also vengeful (dhu intiqam); He hardens unbelieving hearts and His punishment is severe, He ambushes the enemy and His wrath is terrible.
This tension is palpable throughout the Quran. Rahbar notes that “God’s forgiveness, mercy and love are strictly for those who believe in Him and act aright. Wherever there is an allusion to God’s mercy or forgiveness in the Quran, we find that within an inch there also is an allusion to the torment He has prepared for the evildoers.”
Encountering descriptions of this ‘torment’ can be a jarring experience for readers, even in this day and age. The Quran is replete with apocalyptic imagery, of skies rent asunder on the Day of Judgement, mountains tossed about like fluffs of wool, scattered stars and overturned graves. There are myriad stories of punishment, accounts of ancient communities having been utterly destroyed by God, and graphic portrayals of hell with bubbling lava and molten rocks.
Reynolds, however, suggests that, terrifying as these images are, they too may be considered a manifestation of God’s mercy. Much like the gruesome images of disease splashed across packets of cigarettes, this vivid imagery can be a deterrent, keeping believers on the right path.
In his explorations, Reynolds quotes copiously from the Quran and the Hadith and his frequent comparisons to Christian and Judaic perspectives lead to many an interesting insight. For example, we have a common contention that Muslims emphasise mercy as God’s defining attribute, whereas Christians claim it is love. Reynolds suggests that these distinctions are not really that far apart.
He quotes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, who points out that one of God’s divine names in the Quran is ‘the All-Loving’ (al Wadud). More importantly, however, both love and mercy alike ultimately bear the same fruit, which is God’s generous forgiveness for the sins of humankind.
God in the Quran is aimed primarily at Western readers, but we, too, will find much of interest here. There is value in foreign perspectives and sometimes certain details that we tend to take for granted are highlighted. As a systematic study of God, His attributes, their qualifications and the resulting complexities, this book is a surprisingly accessible read. And at the end of the day, we also end up with a renewed appreciation for the art of the scholar, an indispensable profession.
Reynolds’s investigation concludes on the same note of paradox: God’s mercy versus His justice. One wonders though, is this really much of a paradox? This impasse highlights a key limitation of Reynolds’s rationalist approach, and is a general critique of purely exoteric studies of religion. Many philosophical knots tend to untangle with maturity and experience. Indeed, those of us who have discovered the complicated art of parenting may intuitively recognise the fundamental unity between mercy and justice.
“Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox,” writes C.S. Lewis, famous author, scholar and, arguably, the most influential Christian writer of the last hundred years. “As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice.”
The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Allah: God in the Quran
By Gabriel Said Reynolds
Yale University Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 7th, 2021