What Is the Material Status of God in Islam?

05 September, 2016
Q Hi, I was reading a little while ago about a Cambridge professor who converted to Islam, I think his name was Timothy Winter but I could be mixing that up, and I was interested by what he said. He claimed to have converted during a sort of intense aesthetic experience, on a beach with beautiful women, eating a peach and feeling the juice dripping down his skin. It makes me think of a time when I was in a barber shop in East London, and they had Islamic aphorisms and slogans pasted to the wall, one of which said: "a woman veiled is a pearl in a shell". I see no contradiction in this necessarily, but it seems to show a particular interest in the notion of beauty, and a very powerful aesthetic which is absent in Christianity, which has thrived in the past in harsh conditions and un-beautiful environments (such as during the plague). I apologize for making the question a little long, but I also wonder about the ontology of Islam - what is the material status of God in Islam? Is it an inspirational God, like a notion of oneness and something to which worshipers direct themselves? It seems so to me from my limited knowledge, with the focus on knowledge, meditative activity and self-improvement that this is a significant aspect of the Muslim experience. I am an atheist, though oriented towards Christianity for its treatment of the question of love, but I would like to know how a convinced Muslim feels about these questions of beauty and aesthetic, and how he/she might experience their God and connect with it.


Salam (Peace) Dear Brother,

Thank you very much for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

You have referred to the conversion of Timothy Winter (or Dr Abdul Hakim Murad), who is currently the Director of Theology and Religious Studies at Wolfson College, Cambridge University. Here is what he said about the moment of his realization that the world did not have a purely material origin:

“I remember being on the beach and seeing conjured up before my adolescent eyes every 15-year-old boy’s most fervent fantasy.

There was a moment when I saw peach juice running off the chin of one of these bathing beauties and I had a moment of realization: the world is not just the consequence of material forces.

Beauty is not something that can be explained away just as an aspect of brain function…. That was the first time I became remotely interested in anything beyond the material world. It was an unpromising beginning, you might say…

In a Christian context, sexuality is traditionally seen as a consequence of the Fall, but for Muslims, it is an anticipation of paradise…” [i]

It is really remarkable that Mr Timothy Winter’s aesthetic experience of external physical beauty evoked in him an awareness of the Spiritual Reality behind creation, which eventually led him to Islam.

Presumably, this insight of Dr Murad was an authentic epiphany as it were; but we cannot generalize it and say that Muslims generally have the same kind of mystical experience to the same degree in a similar situation.

One may say, only a sensitive soul endowed with mystical or poetical sensibilities will have that kind of a profound spiritual transformation.

Against this background it is natural for you as an atheist to raise the question about “the material status” of God in Islam.

But even you should admit that matteris bound by the limitations of the space-time continuum. And God by definition is the Creator of space and time as well as matter, which are all subject to His will and command. From this point of view, to speak of the “material status” of God is utterly meaningless.

Nevertheless we cannot deny that to a large number of modern people, the advances in the field of science and technology have rendered God and religion a superstition of yesteryears.

David Hume, Ludwig Feuerbach, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud were a few of the western philosophers or scientists who dismissed the idea of God as irrelevant to the life of modern man.

Most of the western anthropologists and sociologists argue that modern religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam were developed out of primitive beliefs, such as animism, fetishism and polytheism.

To Freud, religion is“an infantile delusion”; and to Marx, “the opium of the people”. To them Godarose out of the childish imagination of a people, or out of the fears and aspirations of humans. To prove their point they often highlight the anthropomorphic qualities of God described in the scriptures of religions.

For instance, in the Jewish Bible (or the Old Testament), God is described as possessing several human qualities (such as the need to take rest), which ironically endorses the critic’s view that “man created God in his own image”.

In the New Testament, (i.e. the Christian scripture), Jesus the son of Mary is presented as “the son of God”, (or according to the Church “the divine incarnation of God”), who stood on the pulpit in the synagogue and preached to the people like a rabbi.

In fact, it is only the Quran that has effectively overruled the human tendency of visualizing God in human form, unlike the earlier scriptures.

The Quran categorically emphasizes the absolute sovereignty and transcendence of God: Allah is above and beyond His creation. He is the Eternal Creator and Sustainer of the whole of the universe and everything in it, and there is none like Him.

Note how the Quran clearly rules out any possibility of an anthropomorphic or corporeal view of God:

{Say: “He is the One God; God the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of All Being. H begets not, and neither is He begotten;and there is nothing that could be compared with Him.”} (Quran 112:1-4)

{GOD – there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being. Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep…} (Quran 2:255)

{God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp; the lamp is [enclosed] in glass, the glass [shining] like a radiant star:

[a lamp] lit from a blessed tree – an olive-tree that is neither of the east nor of the west the oil whereof [is so bright that it] would well-nigh give light [of itself] even though fire had not touched it: light upon light!

God guides unto His light him that wills [to be guided]; and [to this end] God propounds parables unto men, since God [alone] has full knowledge of all things.} (Quran 24:35)

I quote below the note given by the famous Quran translator Muhammad Asad, about the metaphor of light given in the above verse (i.e. 24:35):

In the above context it (i.e. the Arabic particle “ka”) alludes to the impossibility of defining God even by means of a metaphor or a parable – for, since {there is nothing like unto Him} (42:11), there is also “nothing that could he compared with Him” (112:4).

Hence, the parable of “the light of God” is not meant to express His reality – which is inconceivable to any created being and, therefore, inexpressible in any human language – but only to allude to the illumination which He, who is the Ultimate Truth, bestows upon the mind and the feelings of all who are willing to be guided.

Tabari, Baidhawi and Ibn Kathir quote Ibn Abbas and lbnMas’ud as saying in this context: “It is the parable of His light in the heart of a believer.” [ii]

The above verses clearly underscore the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God by ruling out the possibility of invoking any corporeal image or notion of His Being.

This means that from the Quranic point of view, Allah is the only Reality and everything other than Him derives its being from Him alone. Ontologicallyno one, and nothing at all is equal to Him.

Everything other than Him is His creation; and they belong to the order of time and space, which are subject to His laws. The Creator always remainsthe utterly sublime transcendental Other.

The Quran vehemently insists on God’s absolute transcendence and unity to such an extent that it staunchly refutes all kinds of polytheism or associationism. [iii]

Here is a quote from The Revival of the Religious Sciences by Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali:

Allah – He is the First and the Last; the Outward and the Inward – and He has knowledge of everything.He is not a body with form, nor is He a confined or quantifiable substance. He does not resemble bodies in quantifiability or divisibility.

Rather He resembles nothing existent, nor does anything existent resemble Him. There is absolutely nothing like Him, nor is He like anything.

No measure confines Him, no space contains Him, no direction encompasses Him, nor do the heavens surround Him…

He is too sublime that space should encompass Him, as He is too hallowed that time should restrict Him.

Rather He was, before He created time and space, and He is now as He was always. He is separate from His creation by His attributes. He is transcendentally holier than to be subject to change and movement.

Rather He remains in His qualities of absolute majesty, not subject to abating, and in His qualities of perfection with no need of increase.

He is Living, Almighty, Irresistible, Overpowering; deficiency does not affect Him nor does incapacity. “No slumber can seize Him nor sleep.” [iv]

Indeed Islam has always been constantly vigilant to avoid even the faintest and the remotest suggestion of investing the divine with anything that is indicative of materiality. This aspect of it is reflected in Islamic civilization and art, where the depiction of images or statues is scrupulously avoided.

The foregoing means that God according to Islam is not just an aspirational God of worshippers, nor an objective material entity. He is the Ultimate Reality behind all that exists or appears to exist.

I hope this helps address your concerns.

Salam and please keep in touch.


[ii] The Message of the Quran (The Noble Quran translated and explained by Muhammad Asad)
[iii] Zulfiqar Ali Shah: Anthromorphic Depictions of God: The Concept of God in Judaic, Christian and Islamic Traditions – (pub. IIIT – 2012)
[iv] Cited by Ahmad Saad in his article in AboutIslam.net: Understanding God’s Attributes
About Professor Shahul Hameed
Professor Shahul Hameed is an Islamic consultant. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.