Ali Altaf Mian: Who is Allah? Islamic Diversity for Muslims and non-Muslims

Today we welcome a guest post from Ali Altaf Mian, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Seattle University.  Today he writes about Who is Allah? by Bruce B. Lawrence, a book he has been assigning students in his courses.  The paperback edition of Who is Allah? will be released in July by UNC Press.


Who is Allah? Islamic Diversity for Muslims and non-Muslims 

Who Is Allah? by Bruce B. LawrenceBruce B. Lawrence’s sustained reflections on Allah have repeatedly helped me to introduce students to the affective texture of lived Islam. Lawrence invites us to listen attentively to diverse embodiments of Islam. He studies how Allah is invoked by tongues, defined by minds, and remembered by hearts but also how Allah is debated in public, in print, and online, by writers, by artists, by ideologues.

Who is Allah? models important habits of thinking critically but also creatively about religion and the key terms we often associate with it, from belief and ritual to violence and evil. The book never fails to generate productive conversations in the classroom because it encourages Muslims and non-Muslims readers alike to look for Allah, to study how religious signifiers matter, often in unexpected places.

Can you see Allah in embodied settings that transcend theological arguments and jurisprudential dicta? How does Allah reside in the mystic’s heart but also in the terrorist’s cell? How does Allah flow on the poet’s tongue but also on the ideologue’s website?

The bodies that invoke Allah are many; yet, they all draw from an inexhaustible reservoir of images and ideas that students of religion must attend to if we want to understand what makes Islam resilient. To unpack the links between Muslims as human agents and their imaginations of the absolute—that which transcends all limits—is to study the aspirational, affective drives of religious self-fashioning and world-making that permeate all religions. Islam is here the case study, Allah the marker, for a phenomenon that is universal.

In my classroom I use chapter 1, “Allah Invoked,” to introduce students to the key themes of Muslim belief and ritual. An added bonus is the content students encounter in the text boxes on Muhammad’s final revelation, the first chapter of the Qur’an, and the multiple meanings of sadaqa or charity.

Chapter 2—“Allah Defined”—serves as an excellent introduction to the traditions of philosophy and theology in Islam. While students can feel overwhelmed by encountering Ibn Sina, Ghazali, and Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari for the first time, Lawrence gives us digestible snippets of their teachings that are ideal for close reading exercises.

My favorite chapter of the book is “Allah Remembered” (chapter 3); its lyrical depth is matched by diversity-affirming breadth. Read Lawrence’s beautifully crafted discussion of Allah’s 99 Names, which dovetails Qur’anic citations with his own insights into divine dialectics. As he deftly notes: “The ‘two hands’ embody benevolence and anger, fear and hope, intimacy and awe, but also knowability and unknowability, so that what might seem like apparent contradictions are not contraries but instead dyads—mysterious to humans yet part of faydAllah, the expansive surplus of the Lofty, the Exalted” (97).

One of my students was so inspired by this chapter of Who is Allah? that for her final project she wrote 24 haikus on 24 of Allah’s 99 Names. For al-Rahim, the Merciful One, she offers:

Mercy is given
With eyes closed, heart unending
Boundless, limitless

Another student was moved by Lawrence’s discussion of Islamic art and Allah being “the Light of Lights.” This led her to create a 3-D art work. She then wrote a reflection paper on what the experience of creating a work of art in response to a reading on Islam taught her about the creative potential of relating to notions of infinite light.

Chapter 4 expands beyond Islam and everyday Muslim perceptions of Allah. It introduces readers to the challenges posed by the proliferated name of Allah in the age of globalization. This chapter serves as an excellent survey of the diverse deployments of jihad at key moments in Islamic history; it also underscores the need for contextualizing scriptural passages. The take-home lesson here is pithy but profound: “The Qur’an, like the Bible, has a deep, long, and complex history; it has been subject to myriad, often conflicting interpretations; it cannot, and does not, have a single, monolithic perspective on truth” (120-121).

“Allah Online” (chapter 5) similarly emphasizes diversity: “The message in cyberspace is clear: there is no single Islamic orthodoxy that can claim the mantle of virtual authority. In the name of Allah, rival orthodoxies have proliferated, each claiming to show what devout Muslims must do to conform to their sacred trust” (146). I should also add that this is a fun chapter to teach and discuss in the classroom; it reveals how the nature of religious knowledge and authority is being reconfigured as we post and tweet! (Try giving your students assignments entitled, “Twitter Interventions” or “The Afterpost Paper,” in which they reflect on using Who is Allah? to intervene in online discussions about Islam and its representations).

In my experience Who is Allah? never elicits a single answer from students; each one replies in her, his, or their unique way and each response beckons further elaboration. Who is Allah? is more than a question to be asked, it is a journey to be explored, one that should be, and with this book can be, launched through an “Introduction to Islam” course.


Who Is Allah? by Bruce B. Lawrence is available in both print and ebook editions.  The paperback edition will be published in July.

Ali Altaf Mian is assistant professor of Islamic studies at Seattle University. His articles have appeared in Islamic Law and Society, Islamic Studies, and Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies. His forthcoming books include Muslims in South Asia (Edinburgh University Press) and The Bruce B. Lawrence Reader: Islam beyond Borders (Duke University Press). For more info, visit his website

Bruce B. Lawrence is Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University.  You can read his UNC Press Blog posts here.