‘God is near us, God is in our heart’. This has been the surprising discovery of some of us as we seek to understand how our Muslim women friends experience God.
In the Qur’an it is said: And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein (Surah Qaf 50:16). Women have used other images as they seek to describe the presence or nearness of God: ‘God is in our bones’ ‘It’s like a fog that’s all around me.’ ‘As if we were between the hands of God’, something that has been said about their experience of prayer.
The image that has been fostered of a God who is distant and unknowable seems disconnected from the desires of many of our Muslim friends. ‘The ultimate aim of the journey of a believer is to get close to Allah. To have a position with Him that is special… Every action carried out, every deed performed is a step forward in that direction. Human beings have been given life in this world, as an opportunity to achieve the pleasure of Allah, to serve and worship Him and to achieve nearness to Him’.
One woman reflected on her conversation with one of her friends: ‘The main difference is the essence of our relationship with God. For my friend, her God requires submission, the tenets of her faith are done to please him, so that he is pleased with her. God tests humans, he created the devil to test humans, to test whether or not they will follow his ways. When I asked if God helps humans to do what he requires, she could not really answer that question. It is up to us to please God. This is contrary to Christianity where we know that God is pleased with us through the work of Jesus.’
What is pleasing God? A colleague in South East Asia noted: ‘Simply following all the rules is enough. When I mentioned to one friend my desire to know God more and draw closer to Him through prayer and fasting, my friend… replied that it is the same for Muslims, and yet, her account of fasting and other duties always goes back to reward and rules. Every duty is described either matter-of-factly or positively, never negatively, as if it is a burden.’
The Qur’an describes seeking nearness to Allah. Surah Al Ma’idah 5:35 says: O you who have believed, fear Allah and seek the means [of nearness] to Him and strive in His cause that you may succeed. Commentaries and sermons speak of nearness to God being achieved through utter dedication, through pursing desires for Allah and his prophet, through trials. Tawassul or meditation is a means of gaining nearness or access to Allah, and an expression of dedication to him. Performing the acts of a the faithful is the means of achieving this.
The presence of God is central to the Biblical narrative. The Old Testament history of the God’s presence with his people leads into the New Testament where ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). Today we experience the presence of God in the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. And Revelation 21:3 brings this great climax of the dwelling place of God being with men.
On the basis of this sweeping story of God’s presence with his people told through the Bible, Ida Glasser notes a number of fundamental differences in understanding the presence of God. She says that while the Qur’an speaks of God as near to his people, nowhere does it refer to his ‘coming’ to his people. Nor does it allow for the absence of God, something the Biblical story speaks of. (Genesis 4:13-14, Exodus 33:3, Psalm 22:1, Lamentations). She says of the possibility of absence that it ‘adds a different kind of ‘presence’ that human beings experience as his coming to us’.
She makes the following suggestions on what God’s ‘coming’ and ‘absence’ mean in understanding Islamic notions of God’s nearness:
1. The Islamic focus is on how human beings can realize the presence of God that is everywhere; the biblical focus is on God making himself known to people.
2. ‘Nearness’ is about God’s knowledge of us; ‘coming’ is about our getting to know God.
3. Getting ‘near’ to God is something that we have to do; ‘coming’ is what God does, on his own initiative.
4. Omnipresence refers to what God is: it is his very nature to be everywhere. ‘Coming’ refers to what God does, what is, to his actions in space and in time.
We need the presence of God. The account of the Garden of Eden is a reminder that what was lost was the presence of God, Adam and Eve’s relationship with him.
There is a longing for the presence of God in the hearts of all women. Reflecting on her conversation with a Muslim one, a colleague noted: ‘My general conversations with women here about God give me the impression that the key attribute that they have affinity to is his kindness. If they are relating their troubles, the conversation usually ends with “God is kind”. It is sometimes said in a fatalistic manner, but often it is said in hope – hope that God will make things right for them. They want God to help them. ‘
When God’s nearness does not include his presence, when it is only experienced in what he does for a woman, then there is no comfort and strength in God’s kindness. She must realise God’s closeness to her world and so accept the experiences of life, whatever they bring to her in suffering and pain.
Many of our Muslim women friends desire closeness with God. We can build on this. ‘When we take one step towards God he runs towards us,’ is a commonly-quoted hadith. The story of the Prodigal Son gives opportunity to story God coming to us and embracing us. Hannah, Hagar and Ruth, the Woman at the Well, the woman with the issue of blood, and the woman accused of adultery are just some of the stories that speak of God’s coming hear to women and meeting them with his presence.
Previous blogs on this site, https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/in-their-own-words-revealing-their-hearts/ , https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/how-do-muslim-women-do-theodicy/ and https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/the-woman-who-saw-god/ explore this in other ways.
And what about our own story of God coming to us. God sees us and watches over us. How might we share that story with our friends?
What of your story tells of the presence of God coming to you?
What story in the Bible can you tell to build on that?
 Glasser, Ida, with Hannah Kay, Thinking Biblically about Islam: Genesis, Transfiguration and Transformation. Langham Global Library, Carlisle, 2016. p. 132
 ibid. p133
Glasser, Ida, with Hannah Kay, Thinking Biblically about Islam: Genesis, Transfiguration and Transformation. Langham Global Library, Carlisle, 2016.
© When Women Speak …, May 2017