There is nothing more wondrous to say to a Muslim than saying that God does not exist. One can reject religion and make all kinds of claims about how terrible it is or how manmade it is and why it should be done away with, and a Muslim might entertain the conversation about that. But the proposition that God does not exist will probably earn the atheist the most surprised look.
Before entering into any discussion, it’s crucial to define the terms used. Without an initial agreement on what the words mean, you and I might find ourselves talking about different things without realizing it. I hope you can appreciate how wasteful such a dialogue would be.
When it comes to the issue of God, I’ve now come to understand that if we define what we mean by “God” when we contemplate His existence or lack thereof, most conversations would take a very different direction. It’s not about a Supreme Being per se. It’s not about a Deity that is greater than us per se. Such an approach to the term is overly simplistic.
Being in the West, it’s quite expected that whenever God is brought up, an anthropomorphic image comes to one’s mind. How can it not when we’re dealing with a Christian background and culture, which constantly forces the mind to think of God as an “old white man with a long white beard and wearing a white robe that is looking over His creation”. Statements referring to the verses from the Old Testament about man being created in God’s image, and the Doctrine of the Son that talks about Jesus Christ peace be upon him being the Son of God “begotten not made” are all in the back of one’s mind if the subject of “God” is to be addressed.
While I can appreciate where this type of understanding about God, I’d have to respectfully reject this notion as a Muslim. I do not mean to offend my Christian brethren by pointing this out, but from my personal experience and observation, most atheists that I know of come from a Christian background. When they talk about God, that’s the understanding they have in their minds. Unfortunately, the few ex-Muslim atheists I know about rejected the existence of God being influenced by the writings and arguments of ex-Christian atheists, thereby indirectly adopting the anthropomorphic understanding of God before becoming atheists themselves.
The problem with an anthropomorphic God is in the floodgates of inquiry such a proposition opens. To explain what I mean I’ll need to pre-empt you with a very brief explanation about the Law of Non-Contradiction in logic. It simply means that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time. For example, if I say that something is black and it’s not black, I would not be making very much sense. The two propositions here are mutually exclusive; it’s either black or it’s not.
Where this matters with the “God” conversation is in the propositions put forth according to Christianity. On the one hand, God is the Alpha and Omega without a beginning or an end. He was not created and He does not die. He’s transcendent beyond His creation. Yet on the other hand man is made in His image. There is also the unwavering emphasis on the “begotten not made” bit about Jesus Christ peace be upon him as God’s son. Not to mention the mystery of the Trinity that requires one to believe that God is 3 in 1 and 1 in 3. He’s the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. But the Father is not the Son and the Holy Spirit is neither. To top it all off, the entertainment industry has solidified the anthropomorphic qualities with all the portrayals of God on screen and many think that God sounds like Morgan Freeman!
Basically, if I were a Christian I would have to hold some contradicting beliefs at the same time. Most importantly here, that God is transcendent and not like the Creation, but He has a son and humans look like him. Aside from their grievances about suffering and trouble in the world and apparent “randomness” of events, it seems that this is a major point of departure from Christianity for those who eventually become atheists; their intellects could not accommodate the contradictions.
Despite the increasing number of atheists that were not raised as Christians, the very culture they come from is quite filled with Christian theology when it comes to speaking about God. Hence, to be specific about what an atheist in the West rejects, in most cases it seems to be the Christian theology on God than God Himself. For anyone to make the general bold statement of “I don’t believe God exists”, they should first make the effort to study what “God” means from different perspectives before coming to such a conclusion. It might just be a problem of theology more than anything else.
Although Muslims and Christians are speaking of the same God whenever we have our interfaith dialogues, we’re not necessarily talking about the same thing. Muslims can be considered as extreme and radical monotheists. This belief entails not simply believing in only one God without partners. It goes much further than that. God is not only one in His essence, but also one in His qualities, one in His actions, one in uniqueness. The verse in the Quran says:
There is nothing like a likeness of Him – Ash’Shoora 42:11
ليس كمثله شيء – الشورى ١١
Anything that comes to your mind, anything that you can comprehend, anything that you can picture – God is other than that. There is absolutely nothing that can be imagined that can be likened to God. In fact, the only reason “Him” is used is a shortcoming in language, because God is not a He and not a She. Muslims do not refer to God as “the Father” (or “the Mother” for those who have a problem with patriarchy). The closest companion of the Prophet peace be upon him Abu Bakr As’Sidiq may God be pleased with him said in beautiful Arabic poetry what translates to:
Your inability to comprehend God is your comprehension of God
And delving into the nature of God is a type of polytheism
عجزك عن إدراكه إدراك
والخوض في كنه الإله إشراك
From a Muslim perspective, there a principle to be upheld whenever one speaks about God, and it’s the abovementioned verse. The very first question an atheist must answer before asking his or her question about God is whether the question rests on a premise that applies qualities that are unbefitting to God, which are based on human comprehension and intellect. If that is the case, then the God the atheist is asking about is not the same God the Muslim is speaking of.
Muslims speak of a God that is infinitely greater than anything or any mind can come close to grasping. One of the most ridiculous ideas being perpetuated by scientilous atheists is that science can answer the question of whether God exists. As if God is some being that can be measured using lab equipment or seen using some telescope. Take this back to the abovementioned verse and see how this notion measures up against the precondition of having no likeness to God.
The response I typically get when I request that any question asked about God must be put through this test of whether the question is resting on a premise that violates the principle of “there is nothing like a likeness of him” before I can answer is: I guess I can’t ask anything! I’ve usually found this to be the very first time for whomever I’m speaking with to be faced with the limits of their intellectual capacities. To be told that while you might be a smart individual, getting all the academic awards and scholarships, reading all these philosophy books and delving into the arguments on the existence of God, you still don’t even have the intellectual capacity to formulate and ask a question, let alone speculate the answer. Yet, you’re still filled with all this unjustified ego and arrogance. Sadly, that’s the state of man when it comes to God.
According to the Muslim tradition, Ibn Ata’illah As’Sakandari mentions three types of believers. The first type is ones who in their hearts believe in God out of their own nature and inclination without delving much into any proofs or evidences. The second type refers to students of knowledge who investigate the matter and believe in God out of having worked out the rational arguments and proofs. The third type of believers is on the highest level of belief in God, in that they have passed through the rational arguments stage and have experienced their own unveilings. People of the last type see the need of the created to its Creator and wonder how can such a lacking and needy thing be given innate power to lead to the One upholding it from perishing. To them the question of whether God exists is as ludicrous as asking for evidence that the sun exists when one is standing outside at noon and has perfect eyesight.
What’s bewildering is that the arrogance of man has made him forget his place and what he can handle. He can’t even handle sustaining his gaze at the sun, a magnificent albeit created object, for longer than a couple of seconds. Yet he audaciously asks about the Creator of it as if he’ll be able to deal with Him. How fascinating indeed!