Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The impossibility of the revelation of the Qur’an

Bassam Khoury

The Qur’an presents the concept of Allah in a way which makes the Qur’an’s revelation itself impossible. To understand this, let us have a closer look at one Qur’anic verse:

“… nothing is like him, he is the All-hearing, the All-seeing” (Q. 42:11).

To begin with, if we consider the characteristics of Allah that the Qur’an displays and the way Muslims have dealt with them, we find that they are meaningless words. The author of Nahj Al-Balagha, defining Allah’s characteristics, says:

The foremost in religion is the acknowledgement of Him, the perfection of acknowledging Him is to testify Him, the perfection of testifying Him is to believe in His Oneness, the perfection of believing in His Oneness is to regard Him Pure, and the perfection of His purity is to deny Him attributes, because every attribute is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute. Thus whoever attaches attributes to Allah recognises His like, and who recognises His like regards Him two; and who regards Him two recognises parts for Him; and who recognises parts for Him mistook Him; and who mistook Him pointed at Him; and who pointed at Him admitted limitations for Him; and who admitted limitations for Him numbered Him. Whoever said in what is He, held that He is contained; and whoever said on what is He held He is not on something else. He is a Being but not through phenomenon of coming into being. He exists but not from non-existence. He is with everything but not in physical nearness. He is different from everything but not in physical separation. He acts but without connotation of movements and instruments. He sees even when there is none to be looked at from among His creation. He is only One, such that there is none with whom He may keep company or whom He may miss in his absence. (Source)

Ibn Ishaq Al Kindy1 says: “Allah, may he be blessed and exalted, is absolutely one, and does not allow any multiplicity or composition. He is beyond description, and can not be described by any category.” (The magazine of the University of Umm-Al-Qura, Vol. 6, p. 123)

This makes all talk of Allah meaningless, not to mention that it gives rise to self-reference paradoxes like: Allah, who cannot be described by any category, is in the category of that which is not composite. Or, Allah is in a category all his own, namely, the category of that which cannot be categorized. Or, Allah may be described as that being which cannot be described.

Muslims may say that those who have such views are not the people of the Sunnah. But the views of Sunni Muslims hardly represent an improvement upon the views just mentioned. The doctrine of Sunni Islam relating to the names and characteristics of Allah states: “The names of Allah – may he be exalted – depend on the Qur’an and Sunnah, without addition or subtraction; and because reason cannot comprehend the names which Allah is worthy of, it is unavoidable to solely depend on the text.” (Al-Majla Sharh Al-Akeeda Al-Muthla – Ibn Otheimeen 1:8)

At this point the Sunni Muslims would tell us that they are confirming what pertains to Allah according to the Book and the Sunnah. But this does not explain anything; we had already admitted that those characteristics are there. The problem is that by viewing them in the light of the Muslims’ doctrines they are mere empty words. The text of Sura 42:11 tells us that, “He is the All-seeing, the All-hearing.” But what do those words mean according to the belief of Sunni Muslims? The reason for considering only the Sunni belief is the fact that others2 have exempted us from this discussion by their own admission, as the Shia, for example, put it: “the perfection of His purity is to deny Him attributes,” and in fact, “He cannot be described by any category.”

As for the Sunnis, they confirm the characteristics, but they say the fundamental belief of the Sunnis is that Allah is to be described by what he described himself or by what the Messenger of Allah (SAWS) described him without any comparison or likening, or interpretation and nullification.

The confirmation of this characteristic of Allah and other characteristics does not necessitate any attempt to liken them to the characteristics of humans. In fact they are not similar to the characteristics of human beings but rather characteristics that befit his majesty and glory: “nothing is like him, he is the All-hearing, the All-seeing” (42:11).

In order to understand a certain thing we need to know what is the meaning of the terms used.

Likening: to believe that any of Allah’s characteristics is like the characteristics of human beings.

Analogy: to believe that Allah’s characteristics are analogous to human characteristics.

Nullification: to deny Allah’s characteristics or attribute completely.

Interpretation: it means to try to understand the words in another way than the obvious meaning, like to say "hand" means power or "eye" means care or any thing of that sort.

Under these definitions it is impossible to understand any word whatsoever. Suppose we ask about the meaning of “the All-hearing, the All-seeing”. The answer should be, ‘they mean “the All-hearing, the All-seeing”’. However this meaning – according to Muslims – should not be associated with any picture perceived by human reason. Their scholars stressed this to the extent to say: “it is impossible that Allah – glory and power to him – would have in himself and his characteristics anything imagined or perceived by humans, because Allah is different from anything you could think of.” (The Explanation of the Tahawi’s belief – Saleh Al Al-Sheikh – a lecture on Saturday 13 Thee Al Kaadeh, 1417 H – quoted from the Comprehensive Encyclopaedia; source, page (1/168))

But if such words cannot be defined, then what is the difference between saying that Allah is “the all-hearing” and Allah is “the all-seeing”? On such an approach, all such “characteristics” of Allah collapse into one meaningless “characteristic”.

Even when the characteristics of Allah agree in wording with the characteristics of creatures, they do not mean the same thing according to Muslims. Thus they say: “it is not permissible for a man to say: Allah is knowing and I am knowing, Allah is existing and I am existing, Allah is living and I am living, Allah is capable and I am capable. I should not say this in a free manner but rather specifying that Allah’s knowledge, capacity, existence and life are different from our knowledge, capacity, existence and life.” (The Essence of Explaining the Islamic belief – the subject of Allah’s characteristics; source, 3rd point: The un-likeness to creation)

If we consider the above discussion logically we would find out that the Islamic doctrine makes the revelation of the Qur’an impossible.

  1. The Qur’an says about Allah “nothing is like him”.
  2. This means that Allah is other than anything that comes to your mind about him.
  3. Muslims believe in the doctrine of "Mukhalaft مخالفة" ‘unlikeness’, which means there is no likeness whatsoever between Allah, and his characteristics, on one hand and all that pertains to creatures on the other.
  4. The Qur’an is Allah’s word which is not like human words. (Arabic source for the fourth point.)

The above demonstrates that it is impossible to use human language to talk about Allah. That means if the Qur’an is credible in what it tells about Allah’s nature and characteristics, then it cannot be a revelation from that Allah. In other words, if it is false, it is false; if it is true, it is also false; therefore, it is false.

This teaching of the Qur'an leads to the impossibility of using human language to define Allah.

Therefore, since the Qur’an is written with human language, it can not be an expression of Allah, it cannot be a revelation from him, nor can it be his word.

That is to say if the Qur’an is true about who Allah is, it cannot be true about what the Qur’an is, and vice versa.

The only way, for Muslims to solve this dilemma is by considering that all words of the Qur’an are other than facts and that they are not equivalent to any human concept even if the wordings of both agree. Expressed differently, those words actually mean nothing, they are in fact only empty words.

Thus, the Muslims’ teaching that Allah is other than what comes to our minds logically means that if we have understood what the Qur’an said about Allah, He is other than what the Qur’an has said about him.


1 Ibn Ishaq Al Kindy was not a Shiite. He was a Muslim philosopher influenced by Mutazilite theology. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on Al-Kindi.

2 I.e. various other sects of Islam, the Mutazilites being the most prominent group besides the Shia.