A quick glance at the list of God’s names in the Bible (refer to link above) shows that most of them depict God’s Might and Power (including Lord of Armies, which depicts his might on the battlefield), but only very rarely is God described as loving, peaceful, merciful, forgiving, and beneficent.
Contrast this to God’s names in the Quran. Here are the twenty-five most frequently used names for God found therein:
Twenty-Five Most Frequently Used Names for God in the Quran
1. God (Allah, Al-Iah): over 2,700 times
2. Lord (Al-Rub): over 950 times
3. The All-Merciful, The Most Merciful (Al-Rahman, Al-Rahim): 306 times, another 4 times as The Most Merciful Among the Merciful (Ar-Hamu Ar-Rahimeen) and 11 times as The Extremely Merciful (Al-Ra’ouf)
4. The All-Knowing (Al-Alim): 162 times
5. The Wise (Al-Hakim): 114 times
6. The Forgiving (Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar, Al-Ghafir): 93 times, another 1 time as The Vast in Forgiveness (Wasi’u Al-Maghfirah)
7. The Mighty (Al-Aziz): 64 times
8. The All-Hearing (Al-Sami’u): 46 times
9. The All-Seeing (Al-Basir): 46 times
10. The All-Aware (Al-Khabir): 46 times
11. The All-Capable (Al-Qadir): 46 times
12. The Self-Sufficient (Al-Ghaniy): 21 times
13. The Witness (Al-Shahid): 20 times
14. The Knower of the Unseen (Alimu Al-Ghaybi, Alimu Al-Ghaybi wa al-Shahada, Allam Al-Ghiyoob): 17 times
15. The Patron (Al-Wakil): 13 times
16. The Acceptor of Repentance (Al-Tawwab): 11 times
17. The All-Able (Al-Qadir): 11 times
18. The Clement, Forbearer, Forgiver (Al-Halim): 10 times, another 5 times as The Pardoner (Al-’Afuw)
19. The Praised (Al-Hamid): 10 times
20. The Truth (Al-Haq): 10 times
21. The Powerful (Al-Qawiy): 9 times
22. The Vast (Wasi’u): 9 times
23. The Creator (Al-Khaliq): 8 times
24. The Great (Al-Adhim): 8 times
25. The Peace (Al-Salam): 7 times
One immediately notices a theme here: the God of the Quran is The All-Merciful, The Most Merciful, The Most Merciful Among the Merciful, The Extremely Merciful, The Most Compassionate, The Most Beneficent, The Most Forgiving, The Acceptor of Repentance, The Clement, The Forbearer, The Pardoner, etc. As Prof. William Schweiker notes on p.52 of Humanity Before God that “…the Qur’an frequently emphasizes God’s mercy, pardon, and forgiveness…”
Prof. Harold A. Netland writes on p.78 of Dissonant Voices that “the early preaching of the prophet [Muhammad] ‘spoke of God’s power and his goodness to human beings.’” Prof. Caesar E. Farah writes on p.133 of Islam: Beliefs and Observances:
In the early days of Muhammad’s preachings he stressed rahmah (mercy) and Rahman (the merciful) so much that his listeners believed he was calling upon them to worship a god called al-Rahman…
The Qur’an contains numerous revelations on mercy, ending with the words “Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”
In fact, every single chapter of the Quran aside from one starts with a verse calling on God the All-Merciful, the Most Merciful.
This emphasis on Allah’s Mercy is altogether unlike Yahweh’s emergence as Israel’s war-god; the Canaanites came to fear the terror of Yahweh, such that even seeing the Ark struck fear in their hearts. For example, as Henricus Oort’s Bible for Learners (vol.1, p.337) so presciently notes, Rahab (a Canaanite) cooperates with the Israelite army ”because she feared Yahweh,” as she had seen what Yahweh had done to the surrounding nations. Indeed, the Israelites benefited from portraying their god as particularly brutal and cruel, which caused Israel’s enemies to be paralyzed by fear.
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Most of the other names of Allah refer to His Power (such as the All-Hearing, All-Seeing, All-Knowing, etc.), but without any association to war. In fact, not a single name or description of God in the Quran attributes war to God. Unlike the Bible, one simply cannot find in the Islamic holy book a name of God such as “Lord of Armies,” or a description such as a “man of war” or “warrior.”
There is a reason for this: Allah was never understood to be a “war-god.” Quite simply, there is no “divine warrior god” theme found in the Quran. Unlike Yahweh who entered the Judeo-Christian tradition as a war-god, Allah was known during Islam’s birth as a creator God. Writes Prof. Harold A. Netland on p.76 of Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth:
Above all the gods, distant and remote, was Allah, the God, creator of the world.
As Prof. Jonathan P. Berkey notes on p.42 of The Formation of Islam, Allah “represented a remote creator god.” Unlike Yahweh, Allah was not thought to march out on the battlefield alongside the soldiers. Instead of Allah, the pagans brought along idols such as Hubal to the battlefront. Dr. Malise Ruthven writes on p.28 of Islam in the World that “the pagans carried some of [their] idols as standards into battle,” but this was not the case with Allah as there were “no images of Allah” (p.21 of Prof. William E. Phipps’ book Muhammad and Jesus).
In their battle against other tribes or against the Muslims, the pagans of Mecca did not carry with them the “remote, creator God” that was Allah, but instead took with them ”Hubal, a war god” (p.13 of Prof. Matthew S. Gordon’s Islam). This did not change with the early Muslims, who never believed that Allah was ever physically present on the battlefield. Instead, the Prophet Muhammad and early Muslims would point upwards to the sky when they referred to Allah. Whether or not this meant that the Islamic God was literally “above the heavens” or merely otherworldly (a matter of intense debate among Muslims today), the fact is that Allah was never thought to reside on earth, an idea that has always been considered blasphemous to Muslims.
In other words, the Israelites acquired a war-god, whereas the early Muslims acquired a creator god. Yahweh, a war-god, later acquired the ability to create; Allah, a creator god, later acquired the ability to assist in wars. But, there is a difference between being a war-god and being a god that can assist in wars. The former defines the god’s primary role to be war, whereas the latter holds war to be one function of many. It is the difference between being a chef by occupation and being a journalist who sometimes cooks. Stated another way: Yahweh was principally a war-god, whereas Allah was principally a creator god who also had the capability to assist in wars.
Additionally, it should be noted that although Allah did come to assist the early Muslims in wars, He only did so through divine agents. It was believed that He dispatched an army of angels to fight for the faithful. Nowhere does God Himself become a “divine warrior” and march out onto the battlefield. This is an important difference, and one that explains why Allah is not understood to be a “warrior god” like Yahweh.
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As noted in my disclaimer to this Series, nowhere is this information meant to be used to vilify Judaism or Christianity. Suffice to say, there are plenty of “tricky issues” in the Islamic faith that should make the Muslim believer think twice before lobbing polemical grenades against people of other religions. There is almost nothing I find more odious than adherents of a religion viciously attacking other religions.
Yet, it is completely appropriate in our very specific and particular context–in which Muslims and Islam are vilified by the majoritarian religious group–to chop anti-Muslim demagogues down to size. One of the easiest ways to do this is to subject their own religion to the standards that they themselves foist upon Islam. When this is done, what can they do but choke on their own medicine?