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Contrasting Islamic Revelation

Derke Bergsma

The subject of divine revelation ought naturally to begin the discussion of any significant doctrine in both Islam and Christianity. Both religions are revelational; that is, they both claim to be based upon divine revelation.

Initially, we must understand the Muslim idea of Revelation against the background of a thoroughly atomistic view of reality. The essence of this view is that time is a succession of unconnected moments, and space is a series of unrelated atoms. These atoms come into being by the free, creative activity, of Allah and immediately cease to exist, being replaced by new atoms similarly called into existence. Thus, the illusion of motion, change, secondary causality, and apparent continuity are determined by the manner in which new atoms are created to replace the old.

This theory of reality has been developed into an elaborate system to explain the origin and working process of the universe and is accepted with minor variations by all orthodox schools. It serves well to uphold that most crucial tenet of the Muslim faith with reference to the idea of Predestination, namely, that the exercise of Allah's sovereign will is both free and arbitrary, unhindered by natural law or eternal necessity. Sensusi, a fifteenth century Muslim writer, presents the orthodox point of view, maintaining that apparent causes are temporal and have no effect on that with which they are associated either by their nature or by a power created in them. Speaking of the appearance of apparent causes he says,

God has created them as signs and indications of the things he wishes to create without any logical connection between them and that of which they are the indications. Thus God can break the accustomed order of things whenever he wishes and for whomsoever he wishes.[1]

Such a view of reality, while it explains the appearance of causality in the world and preserves divine freedom, allows no room for the responsibility of man or for secondary causality. Man, as a part of the created order of things, even if he is recognized as the highest form of creation, is hopelessly and passively dependent on the moment by moment creative will of Allah. Allah has created and is constantly recreating man so that nothing endures to serve as the basis for responsible human action. Nothing apart from Allah possesses any enduring quality apart from his creative activity.

In this emphasis we see the absolute qualitative difference which obtains between Allah and all creatures. Allah exists uncreated, eternal, transcendent and distinct from all. He is the only power, or energy, or actor, existing throughout the universe, and all other existence is pure passivity. From the simplest atom to the highest level of created being, all is characterized by complete inertia. W.S. Palgrave in The Muslim Idea of God sums up this system by calling it

the Pantheism of Force or Act, thus exclusively assigned to God, who absorbs it all, exercises it all, and to Whom alone it can be ascribed whether for preserving or for destroying, for relative evil or for equally relative good.[2]

This point of view is significant for the idea of revelation since even in revelation Allah remains aloof. He is never associated with creatures in any direct communicative sense. Man is never a partner in the revelational process. Even Allah's most specific commands are mediated through the angel Gabriel. Divine transcendence and human submission are everywhere maintained and the proper attitude and response of man is always quiescence.

Muslim thought allows for no causality as operative in the world except the primary cause of Allah's creative will. Secondary causes are illusory, simply a name for the observations we make concerning the manner in which Allah chooses to call into being new atoms to replace the former which ceased to exist as quickly as they had been created. Nothing can be said to have any kind of separate existence or predictable continuity. History is therefore reduced to illusion. All activity and, consequently, all responsibility rests solely in Allah.

Biblical Revelation, by contrast, presents the created order as existing separately but always dependently in relation to God. It possesses an enduring reality in which secondary causes are real and in which moral creatures may enter into voluntary fellowship with the Creator. While God, as primary cause, has established and continues to uphold the universe, secondary causes must be recognized and man's responsibility maintained. In view of this position, the doctrine of Predestination, for example, is a much more complex issue in Christian theology than in Islam.

Special Revelation and History

Special revelation in Islam is non-historical. The Qur'an was not unfolded within a historical process, but was "handed down"[3] from a supra-historical realm. This does not mean that the Qur'an was revealed whole to Muhammad at one time, for it was received by him over a period of time equal to one-half of his life. Individual sections and even individual Surahs were received on many scattered occasions. But for Islam, an historical event never has revelatory significance. Revelation is always an intrusion from a supra-historical realm.

In its emphasis upon the non-historical character of special revelation, Islam is simply being consistent with its atomistic view of reality in which Allah is the sole Cause. History, from this point of view, is illusion, simply the impression we receive of the manner in which Allah calls everything into being in rapid, successive, creative activity. The only means open for special revelation, therefore, is direct delivery of the eternal message. The eternal nature of the Qur'an is not threatened by historical transciency, since it is a deposit of Allah's speech from the heavenly realm.

In contrast, special revelation for the Christian has been gradually unfolded in the process of history. To be sure, it includes verbal communication in the law and the prophets, but it also includes revelation in the redemptive acts of God in the history of Israel, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the work of the apostles in the early church. History serves as the medium of disclosure through which God reveals himself.

The Nature of God as Revealer

Of crucial significance for the idea of revelation in Islam is its conception of the nature of Allah. In view of the Islamic emphasis upon the utter transcendence and wholly otherness of the deity, it is difficult to describe the Muslim conception of Allah's nature in positive terms with any measure of specificity.

The name Allah itself underscores and emphasizes the qualitative difference between creator and creation. Allah is a contraction of Al-Lah which, translated literally, means, "The Deity." The definite article emphasizes the absolute uniqueness of Him who is the only independent reality, who shares his likeness with no other. This is the keynote of Muslim theology and stands at the center of every believer's faith. The Shahade, the declaration of faith recited daily by all the faithful, begins: "There is no god except Allah." Thus there is impressed upon every mind, the absolute distinction between Allah and everything else. To blur the distinction between Allah and his creation is the ultimate blasphemy. No aspect of creation may be associated in any way with Allah as equal, nor even in the capacity of subordinate partner or assistant.

This awesome awareness of divine transcendence has the effect of developing a religious attitude of complete submission on the part of man. Unquestioning acquiescence to the divine will alone is the proper response. Absolute predestination is the logically consistent point of view from which only the heretic dares to retreat. Divine transcendence and human submission are consistently and intimately linked in Muslim thought.

Wensink in his book, The Muslim Creed, says, "The prevailing feature of Allah in the Qur'an is His absoluteness, His doing as he pleases without being bound by human rules."[4] To this quotation we can add the observation that Allah exercises his will without regard to any rules, human or divine, and man is not to question him as if he is accountable to any established standard. There is no criterion outside of him to which his activity must conform nor within his nature with which his activity must be consistent. Everything is brought to pass by a sovereign will unmotivated by any consideration, and anything could have been willed in any other fashion or manner. Thus the Muslim conception of Allah's will is one of complete voluntarism. Wensink continues:

Thus immeasurable and eternally exalted above, and dissimilar from, all creatures which lie levelled before Him on one common plane of instrumentality and inertness, God is One in the totality of omnipotent and omnipresent action, and acknowledges no rule, standard or limit, save his own absolute will.[5]

The Reformed faith, of course, also speaks of God as Sovereign. But when it speaks of God as Sovereign, Calvinism reminds us that this should not be meant to imply that He is a being who is arbitrary in the exercise of His will, unmotivated by any considerations whatsoever. God always acts in conformity to the law of His own Being. Charles Hodge says, "The authority of God is limited by nothing out of himself, but it is controlled, in all of its manifestations, by His infinite perfections."[6] His will is not blind, and the exercise of it is not indifferent or capricious. God has reasons for willing as He does, so that the means chosen as well as the goals accomplished are determined by him in harmony with his being. God cannot will anything that is contrary to this nature, to his wisdom or love, to this righteousness or holiness. God's attributes represent laws of the divine nature to which He is bound to conform. Herman Bavinck observes that we can seldom discern the reason why God wills one thing and not another, and that it is not possible nor even permissible for us to look for some deeper ground of things than the will of God, but we can, nevertheless, be assured that the exercise of his will is not arbitrary, but is in perfect harmony with his essential being.[7]

Hence, the activity of God as Revealer therefore, can be expected to be orderly, consistent, and uncontradictory because it is based upon the constancy and immutability of His own nature. He never denies his own essential being.


1. Sensusi, quoted in Guillaume, Islam, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, p. 141.

2. p. 70.

3. The Arabic word for "Revelation" literally means "handed down".

4. p. 64.

5. Ibid.

6. C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I (New York: Scribners, 1923) p. 441.

7. H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Vol. II (Kampen: Kok, 1911) p. 241.

Derke Bergsma is professor of Pastoral Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California and author of Redemption: The Triumph of God's Great Plan (Redeemer Books).
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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