Understanding the Nature of God
Koran says: “there is nothing in existence like unto Him.” But (I’ll cite just one name here, Big Brother has 99 names), Allah’s name is “the King.” So… either He is like a king or not. If so, then Surat Al-Ikhlas is invalid, for He IS like something. If not, why call Him King in the first place?
To understand this concept, we need to understand that Muslims believe that in the noble Qur’an it is Allah Almighty Who addresses humans. And Muslims also believe that Allah is the All-Powerful, All-Knowing, Sovereign God of everything in existence.
Allah is Transcendent (that is, existing beyond our mundane world of space and time), and it is He Who created humans having a body and soul, and placed them on earth as His vicegerents or ambassadors.
Humanity’s Progress… or Not
As humans have been appointed as Allah’s vicegerents on earth, He bestowed on them special powers and capabilities like reason, imagination, memory, inquisitiveness, etc.
It is these powers of humans that have enabled them to make huge progress in the fields of science, technology, and art.
Yet, humanity’s achievements as moral and spiritual beings are quite dismal. Muslims believe that this is because of their negligence of the divine guidance Allah Almighty has given them.
In the noble Qur’an, we find the Transcendent God of the universe addressing temporal humans through revelation. Revelation of the divine message takes place in human language, whether it is Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic.
Language: A Part of History and Culture
We know that a language used by a people is part and parcel of the history and culture of that people. And for this reason, the best medium of expression for a particular people is their own language. So we do not have verbal equivalents in one language for certain ideas easily expressed in another language.
For instance, the Eskimo language has a wide range of words to describe the subtle changes in snowfall.
The Arabic language may not have equivalents for all those words. But Arabic has words for different kinds of desert winds, which the Eskimos cannot imagine.
The foregoing means that people in one culture do not understand aspects of life in another culture. If so, how can we humans who are confined within the narrow bounds of this world clearly understand the nature of God whose existence transcends our world of space and time?
Conveying Ideas through Similes and Metaphors
The only possibility is to use similes and metaphors based on our life experiences to convey some ideas of the transcendent reality. That is what we see in the noble Qur’an, when God speaks about Himself.
God has no beginning, no end; while humans have a beginning and an end; so humans have difficulty in conceiving a Being so entirely different from them, while the truth is that there is nothing in the world like God.
As part of the divine guidance in the Qur’an, God teaches us what our role in the world is. To put the whole subject in perspective, He tells us about Himself in the first place, as far as we humans can understand His transcendent nature, which is unique and so unlike anything we know of.
If people have a good idea of the many styles and devices writers adopt to convey abstruse and difficult ideas, they can easily find an answer to the question you raised.
In fact, creative writers employ many literary devices to drive home their ideas or to appeal to people’s aesthetic sense. For instance, there are figures of speech like similes and metaphors commonly used in language for effective expression.
A simile is used for comparison highlighting some point of similarity in essentially different things. Here is the definition of “simile” as given in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:
n. A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as, as in “How like the winter hath my absence been” or “So are you to my thoughts as food to life” (Shakespeare).
Look at the two examples of simile quoted from Shakespeare: In both cases, the comparison is between essentially unlike things, but the word “like” is used for suggesting some comparable aspect between the things being compared.
There is another figure of speech called “metaphor” which is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary:
n. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare).
In the first example above, troubles in large number are compared to a sea, and in the second example, the world is called a stage (that is, a stage for dramatic performances). We know the differences between numerousness and the sea; as well as between the world and a stage. But we do not take those expressions literally.
The Apparent Contradiction in Question
In the light of the foregoing, let us look at the way the comparison you mentioned is used in the glorious Qur’an. Here is a translation of Surat Al-Ikhlas:
“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begets not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.” (Al-Ikhlas 112:1-4)
But in Surat An-Nas, we see that Allah calls Himself:
“The King (or Ruler) of Humankind.” ( An-Nas 114:2)
You pointed out that there is a contradiction between the verse “there is none like unto Him” and the verse, “the King of humankind.”
But let us see how expressions of that kind work. For instance, see the following pair of sentences:
1. There has never been a poet like Kalidasa.
2. Kalidasa was the Shakespeare of India.
By way of explanation, we can say: Kalidasa was the greatest poet of India as Shakespeare was the greatest poet of England.
We do not see any incompatibility between the above two statements.
Now see the following:
1. There is no one like Allah.
2. Allah is the King of Humankind.
By way of explanation we can say:
There is no one like Allah.
There is no king like Allah.
And there is no king like the King of Humankind, that is, Allah.
What Does God’s Being a King Mean?
And when we say that Allah is the King of Humankind, we do not mean that Allah has the same limitations as a king on earth has. It is clear as crystal (another simile!) that Allah is the King without any limits, Whose throne encompasses everything in creation.
When used about Allah, the word king means the Source of all Power, the Ultimate Authority, the Unquestionable Ruler, the Law-Giver, etc.
In all these senses, He is a king, but He is so different from all human kings. Thus it is true that He is a king in this special sense. The word king is used because it conveys a concept that we can understand and is useful to give us some idea of God.
This is the way Allah can be described in a human language, as far as He can be described. So there is no contradiction between Surat Al-Ikhlas and Surat An-Nas. That is to say, both surahs convey ideas that are perfectly valid.
This article is based on a question and its answer that was published on onislam.net in 2012 by Professor Shahul Hameed.
Professor Shahul Hameed is a consultant to Ask About Islam. He was previously the Head of the Department of English, Farook College, Calicut University, India. He also held the position of 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. Professor Hameed has published poems and articles in various magazines. He has also presented papers and given talks on topics related to Islam in several conferences and seminars.