Who or what is “God”?

Many years ago, I was living in Senegal, W Africa. I lived on a beach between two shanty towns. I was on very friendly terms with the son of the imam of one of the two shanty towns, and one Sunday afternoon I decided I would go to the imam’s home and ask him how Islam defined God. At the time I was a member of a small Christian movement which claimed to represent the highest, if not ultimate revelation of truth, so I was cocksure that I had the “highest” views on the topic.

As I strode across the beach to Imam Sall’s little shack, my frame of mind closely reflected the Japanese proverb which states: “It is difficult to describe the vast horizons of the ocean to the little frog sitting at the bottom of his well.” My well was solidified with its glue of spiritual smugness – not exactly the ideal situation for the spiritual explorer I have since then become! Imam Sall greeted me with his usual kindness and gentleness, and after the customary exchange, I sat down and asked him my question: How does Islam define God ?

The little frog in me was in for the surprise of his life when he said : “Pierre, if you took the water of all the oceans and seas, all the rivers and lakes and streams of the world as ink, if you took all the branches of all the trees on the planet as pens, you could not write out all the names of God.” In other terms, no words can encompass something as extraordinary, as unfathomable as the Godhead. And then he added: “You know, Pierre, you are a better Muslim than most of the Muslims who surround me.” By that he meant that I did not drink alcohol, I didn’t chase women, I was generous with my giving.

The poet Ed Markham wrote a lovely little ditty which goes:

“He drew a circle that closed me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
Love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that closed him in.”

Thank you, Imam Sall, for teaching me one of the great lessons of my life. Thank you, Imam Sall, for including me.

At a time when mentalities in the West are so often up in arms against Muslims, it is good to remember that there are many Salls among our Islamic brothers and sisters. There is a translation of the Second Commandment from an old Aramaic text (the language Jesus spoke) which says: “Love your neighbour because he is yourself.”

As I curse my neighbour, I curse myself. When I bless my neighbour, I bless myself. So, let us choose blessing.

Pierre Pradervand

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