I was reading last night, the Qur’an. I like the part about Abraham, where he goes to find what God is.

6:75 So also did we show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, that he might (with understanding) have certitude.

6:76 When the night covered him over, he saw a star. He said, ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘I love not those that set.’

6:77 When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘Unless my Lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’

6:78 When he saw the sun rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘Oh my people! I am indeed free from your (guilt) of giving partners to Allah.

6:79 ‘For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, toward Him who created the the heavens and earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah.’

Have you ever stood in the desert and looked at the stars? Felt your own smallness, a tiny heartbeat creature on an insignificant planet hurtling through space and time. Have you ever looked toward infinity?

Abraham does. He goes out and he looks, really looks.

He finds his God.

The stars, the moon, the sun, they’re not gods. They’re celestial objects, but they’re still objects, subject to ‘the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth’.

This book, it talks a lot about the wrongness of ‘joining partners with Allah’. In the Abrahamic religions, I’ve always thought that prohibition was because theirs was a jealous god, an entity that didn’t want to share its worship, its believers. Now I think maybe I’ve misunderstood. What Allah is, you can’t join other things with it; that would require it to be discrete, but it’s not. Allah is all-encompassing, indivisible. It suffuses the fabric of reality. To join something with it, to say these things are like, equals, partners, is to not understand the nature of Allah.

When Abraham goes out into the desert, he comes back with a new god. Not like the gods of his people, the sun, the moon, the stars. This is something else. Abraham’s God is not made in the image of man, with mankind’s appetites and rivalries. And when he returns to his people, he understands. He sees the gods they worship, that he worshiped, for what they are: dumb things, idols created in the imaginations and psyches of men.

The Allah of the Qur’an is a different cat altogether.

If you try to think about it literally, as a being that makes men from clay and creates the sun in a day, you end up somewhere ridiculous. You end up on a road trip with a petulant god-toddler who has the power to create a universe and destroy planets, a fickle thing that can raze cities and part seas and be lied to and bartered with and coaxed via sacrifices and prayers to find lost car keys or yield up a winning scratch-off, that creates mankind as a toy. You end up with gris-gris and sin-eating and snake handling and blood sacrifice. You end up with a God built of pedestrian superstition.

It’s only in allegory the idea of Abraham’s God begins to make sense.

It is Allah who causeth the seed-grain and the date-stone to split and sprout. He causeth the living to issue from the dead and He is the one to cause the dead to issue from the living. That is Allah. (6:95)

He it is that cleaveth the day-break (from the dark): He makes the night for rest and tranquility, and the sun and moon for the reckoning of time. (6:96)

It is He who sendeth down rain from the skies: with it we produce vegetation of all kinds. (6:99)

To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth. (6:101)

This is nature, not the physical hand of a supernatural entity manually cracking seeds and pouring rain. Abraham comes home and he rejects the superstitions of his people, but how do you describe the idea that there is a law, something invisible, indivisible, inexorable, that governs us all, from the movement of planets and galaxies to the passage of time to the creation and cessation of life?

I think maybe these things, they aren’t supposed to be read as the actions of God. That it’s not attributive, but descriptive. That maybe these things are, in part, the definition of God.

I’ve been reading The Qur’an as well as Moby Dick. I’ve been writing a lot about it also, though I haven’t posted anything. I thought I might, after I was finished with Moby Dick, but I’m not sure it’s entirely separable. Reading them in tandem, I think about them in tandem also.

It’s a complicated book to read as an atheist, The Qur’an, in part because I come it with preconceived cultural ideas about what a god is and what it does but no personal ones, and, I realize, I develop expectations, given those ideas and the parameters in the book (‘Allah hath power over all things’, ‘Allah hears and knows all things’), of what a god should be. I’m trying, really trying, to read this book and understand what it is that over a billion people on this planet believe, and not just what it is they believe, but how they believe it. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the nature of God.

In the shower, standing in the steam letting the water run over me, I was thinking about God and whales, and I brushed my arm on the wall and left an impression, a moment of clarity in the condensation.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael describes artistic representations of the whale:

But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. And, not to speak of the highly presumable difference of contour between a young sucking whale and a full-grown Platonian Leviathan; yet, even in the case of one of those young sucking whales hoisted to a ship’s deck, such is then the outlandish, eel-like, limbered, varying shape of him, that his precise expression the devil himself could not catch.

I think God, the idea of God, may be like Ishmael’s whale. Too vast, and too much obscured to depict accurately, and if you did somehow manage to extract it from its element, to separate it as a discrete being, to say this is what God is, this is what God looks like, you have lost something of its nature, some essential quality.

And there’s another thought, too. That it’s not possible, not really, to say God doesn’t exist. God patently does exist–the effect of its passing is visible. Not as a discrete being, an entity that makes men from earth and raises the dead, but God exists in the way that justice and love and mercy exist. It’s not a thing that can be hauled from the sea and examined in its physical form, but only seen in its displacement, its wake, the impression it leaves on the world.