We welcome a guest post from Bruce B. Lawrence, author of Who is Allah? This vivid introduction to the heart of Islam offers a unique approach to understanding Allah, the central focus of Muslim religious expression. Drawing on history, culture, theology, politics, and the media, Lawrence identifies key religious practices by which Allah is revered and remembered, illuminating how the very name of Allah is interwoven into the everyday experience of millions of Muslims.
In the following post, Lawrence offers some insight on how Muslims view Allah and what Allah truly means to them.
In this election year Muslims have become a hot topic, but not many people–either supporters of curtailed immigration or their opponents–have drilled down to see what are Muslim views on the most important topic in their lives: Allah. Allah is more than a deity, Allah is also the linchpin for everyday sensibilities that shape Muslims from Dakar (Senegal) to Djkarata (Indonesia) as well as Western Europe and North America. One of the most popular Muslim websites is a Facebook page titled ILoveAllaah.com. It has almost 10 million likes, and daily postings that quickly garner thousands of likes, as did this one posted on 1 October:
Ya Allah, Make this day for us a better day than yesterday. Make it a day of mercy, success, victory & full of blessings & guidance from You ya Rabb. Save us from all trials, diseases and distress.
Much can be said about the wording of this prayer, but for those unacquainted with Islam the key invocation is the first: “Make it a day of mercy. . . .” The central, defining quality of Allah (phonetically spelled Allaah) is mercy. The phrase that flows through a Muslim day is Inshallah (If God will), just as the phrase that marks each meal is Bismillah (In the name of God). The immediate sequel to bismillah (aka basmala) is two qualifiers: Ar-rahmaan, ar-raheem. God the One full of Mercy, God the One ever giving Mercy.
And so to make each day a day of mercy is to look in each action and event, each moment and hour, for the source of Mercy, the fount and giver of Mercy, Allah.
It is difficult to imagine how Allah assists Muslim immigrants. The life of immigrants is unimaginably hard, but especially so since the Arab Spring of 2011. As the Arab Spring has turned to a long Arab winter, now approaching its sixth season of unrelenting hardship, Muslim immigrants continue to flee not only from Syria and Iraq, but also from Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Myanmar. Even as they uproot their families, travel forbidding distances, undergo endless challenges, they hope for a better life that includes a path to citizenship in some foreign country, one with more opportunity, more hope, more safety for them and their family.
And yet these immigrants do have a deep resource from their spiritual life as Muslims: to ask Allah to make each day a day of mercy. Many have criticized President Obama for suggesting that there are democracy-fighting Muslims, as he did this past June at the start of Ramadan when he declared: “This year, Ramadan holds special meaning for those citizens in the Middle East and North Africa who are courageously achieving democracy and self-determination and for those who are still struggling to achieve their universal rights.”
The struggle for immigrants may seem less about citizenship than about safety, but it is also about nurturing hope. And that is where Allah/Allaah is more than a safety net. Allah is the hope for mercy or kindness after unspeakable destitution, delay, and often even death. For all those who invoke basmala each day, there is also the shadow of the many other names attached to Allah. Yes, the source of Mercy; yes, the constant giver of mercy; but also the one who possesses awe as well as kindness and mercy. Did Allah/Allaah cause the horror of the modern Middle East, or the current world (dis)order? No, but in the name beyond all names, Allah, there is also another name: Dhu’l-jalal wal-ikram. It literally means: The One who possesses and projects both awe and mercy. The awe is evident in the daily misery of refugees from the Middle East and Myanmar, but the kindness, though less visible, is also there. The resilience of a parent who has lost her child, or an orphan who is cared for by distant relatives, or the smile of each boat survivor as he or she clambers onto a strange shore with seemingly no welcome and no way forward. Small moments, trinkets of mercy in a world that seems full of doom and gloom.
But if one can say I Love Allaah, and imagine the design of the One, the Absolute, the Other as present even in the cracks, one might sing the Anthem of Leonard Cohen in a Muslim key:
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in,
that’s how the light gets in,
that’s how the light gets in.
Bruce B. Lawrence, a leading scholar of Islam, is author or editor of many books, including Who Is Allah? and, with miriam cooke, Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop. He is Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Islamic Studies Emeritus at Duke University.