God is Too Big by amina wadud


amina 2014 - cropped

In my current casual reading, a novel, the answer to the question “and where is God for you?” was expressed this way:

“Definitely in the car with us as we talk and exchange things, and change each other in the process…People have things they want to give away, or they want things they don’t know where to look for, and they need containers to pool their information. This night is far too large for us to rattle around in on our own. It’s a perfect fit for God, but we need our container. We need one another for God to work through us: that’s something I experience every day. The concept of God is way too big for me to get my mind around, but despite that, maybe even because of it, the relationship keeps growing and changing.  Sometimes it grows so slowly it seems it’s stopped. Or gone in reverse. Then when I least expect it, it takes a big leap forward.”

I was struck by this first because of the concept of God being “way too big.”  I struggle with this and yet would have it no other way. I have gone out my way to kill off the childhood concepts of God, referred to in that book Your God is Too Small. It explains that for many people, their concept of God has not advanced far from the one they had as a child – from the Big Bad Punisher to the tooth fairy God of requisition. As a strict monotheist, I constantly fight to smash the idols of my own imagination or preoccupation. To get God out of any box.

But as Ibn al-Arabi, the 13th century Andalusian mystic and philosopher, said, sometimes this abstract God is not easy for a person to love. So I sometimes feel envy for people whose faith is intimately wrapped into a very personal God: A God whom they expect to respond to their slightest whims and wants!  Overall, I find such a personal God a tad bit too contained.  For one thing, I’m not sure all my whims and wants are necessarily good for me or for my higher goal of synchronizing my mind, body and soul to the whole of the universe, in both what is created and uncreated.

I guess you could say: I grapple with God.

Still, more than any other topic, I love to talk about God. (Yet only once in my life have I ever been accused of trying to proselytize.)  As a religious studies professor (emeritus) I worked hard to create a space for conversations about the phenomena of the sacred, without offense or defense.  That meant space for even diametrically opposed ideas about God and a multiplicity of intimacies to genuinely share and to avoid erecting walls.

I’m also clear that I cannot talk about this subject with everyone.  For some people only silence is an acceptable level of God-talk; they oppose any kind of reference, no matter how obscure.  For some it is only as God the Father in relationship to God the Son that they can speak—or hear.  To accommodate variations from Nothing to Everything, I probably talk less about what interests me most and more just to pass the time and be polite in conversation.

Then on certain occasions, or with certain persons with whom I share the greatest intimacy, the theme of God returns to its all time high point of my discourse.  When I read this passage I understood a little bit more how this love of God as a subject of discourse would impact on the very nature of my relationships. People who know me best know how central is my personal, professional and political relationship with the Ultimate—it IS my reason for living, the motivation behind my life’s work.  What a paradox to want to talk about God, while mostly recognizing that few people really want to hear about that subject.

So I do not consider myself a person with many friends.  I know a lot of people, and many more people seem to know me.  But I am drawn closely only to those with whom I can discuss my favorite subject.  This is even true with my children.  I once complained that they don’t know about my work, to which I was told, I love you for who you are not for what you do.  Sounds great, right?  Actually it left me feeling more alone because what I do is who I am and it is likewise connected to my deep motivation to conceptualize God as a Living Force in the life of human justice and dignity. Can anyone love me, who does not know me and this burning attachment to continued and ever changing dialectics with God?

This passage further impressed me, because this conversation conceives of that dialectic as a construct between a very big God and those persons in whatever circumstance they are able to have such a conversation.  By the very act of engaging in the discourse somehow both God and the circumstances of life are manageable. “People have things they want to give away, or they want things they don’t know where to look for.”

“…and they need containers to pool their information.”  I guess this is the crux of it.  With whom can we make such an exchange except in the very boxes of our lives that change and grow with each second let alone each encounter with awesome mysteries and terrible sublimity? But notice: the boxes are our interactions NOT our God. God “fits” perfectly in each such encounter.

Without ones to share this kind of encounter (like Alice Walker said in the Color Purple: “people don’t come to church to find God, they come to church to share God.”), then the very encounter with the Sacred can itself be empty.  “We need one another for God to work through us…”

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.



Categories: General, Islam, Spiritual Journey

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25 replies

  1. I too like to talk about God, and often find my friends either spouting platitudes — negative or positive — or rolling their eyes. Guess that is why we became friends despite the distance.

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    • Great observation Carol. And I must confess, I especially love that we honor our differences in those talks across the distance. So I learn from your sincere engagement and that is really the butter on my bread (forgive the non-vegan metaphor…)

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  2. To share God. We need one another for God to work through us. I love these and this post. I feel like I can do this silently with some people because I see their living expression as this kind of conversation. But on the whole, yes, there is a real loneliness with people when part of you is off boundaries for conversation or understanding. That’s something I don’t like to think about too much.

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  3. Thanks Amina, I resonate with this post!! If our concept of Deity includes all the physics of Nature or is Nature, and we consider how exceedingly vast the universe is, then how can we even begin to imagine such an all-encompassing divinity? One scientific truth that helps me though: the chances of any one planet in the cosmos evolving the conditions able to support life is infinitely small, and so that requires innumerable chances, innumerable planets and solar systems in place, endlessly, in order to beat the odds.

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  4. I would so love to sit down with you and drink gallons of tea and talk about God! Also sit quietly together in the Presence of the One. It’s lonely being able to explore, to change vision and understanding, for what is central to my life. So many people seems afraid to even think that their previous, and present, understanding of God might benefit from further scrutiny. Thank you for this post Amina, and if you are ever on Vancouver Island, please look for me!

    Thank you too, to all the people responsible for this blog and the opportunities for growth it provides.

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  5. What is the novel and who is the novelist that inspired your reflections? Maybe you included the information somewhere in your post, and I missed it. If so, thanks for letting me know again.

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    • I didn’t include the novel or the author on purpose, because I do not want this to sound as a blanket endorsement. I am only half way through and like all casual reading the point is usually just to enjoy the unfolding of the story. surely some stories mean more to me when they are done unfolding but I am not yet beyond the experience of decent writing that allows me to pick it up in my idle time, especially 3 am for insomnia. I was, as they say, surprised by joy at two quotation within a page of each other and wrote one of them to a friend and the other as this blog. If you are really just curious I can send it to you in a private message awadud@vcu.edu but I would rather not say yet what the book is.

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      • Thanks for the response, Amina. I am a novelist, so I was taken aback by the lack of a citation. I don’t think citation implies endorsement. It’s a courtesy. I also read novels and take fiction seriously as well as enjoying it for pleasure. I would like to know the title of the book that gave you such rich food for thought, so I will write to you, so that you can answer privately. Thanks!

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  6. I seldom talk about the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god, whom I generally call the standard-brand god. But, like you, I like to talk about the deity I believe created and runs and grows with us and the universe. This is the Goddess. I also talk about the classical pantheons. Just the other day at my tax appointment I was explaining some differences between the Greek and Roman pantheons to my tax preparer, who is also a good friend and a very liberal Christian. I think it’s good to talk about our gods and goddesses. Occasionally someone will not only listen, but they’ll even pay attention! As usual, you wrote a very interesting blog.

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  7. Thank you for writing this. Having been in academia, especially in a discipline which I once heard had a very high proportion of atheists, this really resonates with me. Of course, I respect the beliefs of atheists, but it means I have been surrounded by people who would rather not discuss God at all (and if they do it is often negative). Which is fine with me – I don’t want to engage in debates, just uplifting conversations. God has always been important to me and I’ve found that over my years in grad school I’ve had to work harder to remain spiritual, often unsuccessfully, because of that lack of social presence of God in my life. I hadn’t realized how powerful that social function really was.

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  8. This post comes right as I am pondering the meaning of my wife’s recent such observation to me: “you only seem excited when you are talking about God, or about the links you find between the Quran and every day occurrences.” I protested much at that, claiming that I have many other things that excite me, until further reflection revealed that any other thing that excites me, excites me solely for its link, however indirect and tenuous, to God.
    The awareness that there is a God, and that everything is His/Her reality, and that we are but, and at best, chess pieces in this divine game whose field and rules are all His/Her, demands that we cannot separate God from the expression of His/Her divinity, which is creation/everything.
    I like to say that the space between human beings is sentient, being the umbilical cord that holds everything together and sustain it. Human beings, by nature, aren’t able to escape these ties, for it is these ties, this invisible web that manages the divine giving and taking, the divine commerce with humanity, the one through which everything happens.
    My excitement in thinking and talking about God then, is the expression of my awareness of how ill-defined God is, how unconstrained and limitless God is, how He/She is found in the mountain and the pebble, within and without, is mine yet yours too, is everyone’s. That is humbling beyond belief, and drives the constant search and reflection, and talking, each symptom of the state.
    The opposite state, and main symptom of constrained, personal God syndrome, is the tendency towards religious intolerance.

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  9. I remember when I had trouble with the standard brand “god” and with the words “god” or “goddess”.. but I am over that now. I endeavor to make space for difference, as I tried to say here, since I cannot reduce ANY one’s conception and experience simply to my analysis of it.

    I do try at least not to flaunt my conception above another’s. I have an extensive eschatological rationale for this since I had to engage popular Muslim thinking that said my father, a Methodist minister, was going to hell because he died believing in the Trinity.

    My favorite word is ineffable. Until I can go beyond the forms of any language construct for the divine, then I have yet to go beyond the divine itself. Language is so limiting. Don’t know WHY I delight so in grappling with it.

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  10. Actually I think God is more known than unknown, in other words God is love or compassion, and God is not in favor of injustice. The unknown God, who knows if she he or it is love or hate or both or if she he or it cares about something like what we think of as suffering and cares about ending unnecessary suffering. Just to throw another iron into the fire, hee hee.

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    • I chose my name Wadud from one of the 99 “attributes” of Allah, al-Wadud. It means Loving. Still I confess, I grapple most with that one..for want of a more loving world perhaps? So while I assert that God lives through us, I also find us wanting. I guess I have to both hope for and participate in making a better world, inspired by MY love of the divine while sometimes I am waiting to see that love manifest…

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  11. Thanks, Amina, for this reflective essay about “God.” It’s such a difficult topic to get a handle on. I like that word–ineffable–one is not able to capture/contain in word or image whatever God is. I think of the word, God, as a symbol. Symbols, including words, get their meaning/power from whatever we (humans) ascribe to or inculcate into that symbol. I think this is why the late Nasr Abu Zaid would say that we (humans) can be said to have co-written the Qur’an with “the Divine.” We have no way to access God, he said, other than through our own humanity (we are not “Divine”) and that humanity is forged through our enculturation, personal history, and need. (Don’t like feeling so limited!)

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  12. Thank you my coven sister. I especially remember our conversations about God/dess in the back office. Those were the things that kept me going. I liked that each one brought something to the discussion and that we were never none of done once and for all, neither in our personal growth about relationships, with others and with the divine and that we were none of us side tracked by what may have appeared a difference in our perceptions.

    We indeed gave power to our words.

    I am of course smitten by Nasr’ description. It is crucial to my work on the Qur’an and the meaning making projects that are on-going in empowering the lives of Muslim women through radical textual re-reading, which CREATES new meaning as we live it!

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  13. I have followed your story for awhile now and I just want to tell you as a modern, forward thinking, progressive muslim woman, I so appreciate your courage..

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  14. Peace be upon you Amina!! I converted to Islam about 7 years ago when I was 15/16 years of age. In my last year of my undergrad year, I was heavily into feminism and the intersectionality of it with religion, gender, and capitalism. I’m struggling lately with my own feminist convictions and Islam. Islam is a beautiful way of life. I’m just struggling. Recently, I was agnostic for a few weeks and didn’t know where to go, so I just labeled myself as an agnostic. I hate labels. I do. However,I felt lonely in my feelings. After 7 years, I removed the headscarf because I believe it is steeped in patriarchy. I was taught that a woman’s beauty is for her family and only her husband should see her beauty, as well. I believe that the act of covering can become just as objectifying as a woman that may not cover. I believe in choice. bell hooks stated that “oppression is the absence of choices”. I will fight for a woman’s choice to cover or uncover. However, I am struggling with this act of being modest. I believe that a woman’s sexuality shouldn’t be controlled, so that she can maintain a reputation that is untainted due to the standards of men. I believe that a woman’s choice in dress should be her’s and no one else’s. Just because she doesn’t cover her head doesn’t mean she is ‘asking for it’ as I’ve been told before. I’ve been told that a woman that doesn’t cover is naked, but we know this isn’t true. This a fallacious statement. Also, I’m not into submission int a man that isn’t in submission to me. If both beings are mutually equal than you do not have a power-struggle within a relationship. I’ve been told that as a Muslim woman, I should obey my husband, give him sex whenever he pleases, get my father to agree to my choice in husband (wali), to stay out of social-clubs because Muslim woman do not roam the streets and etc.Also, I believe 4:34 has been interpreted poorly through mainstream translations, but as I was being taught the deen I was told that my husband could lightly hit me if I disobeyed him.The biggest thing for me is the woman’s place in Islam. I love God Allah. Im just struggling. I took my shahada last night again because I wanted to be Muslim…again. However, I feel agnostic still at the moment. I’m just really hungry to get answers about meshing Islam with Feminism. How can I be a feminist Muslimah?

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  15. Certainly these are extremely important questions. I do not think I could or should answer them in a public forum. So if you wish for me to provide you with a more detailed response, please feel free to email me awadud@vcu.edu

    I must say, that these are the sort of questions I have been working on with others for a very long time now. First, to distinguish between cultural inflections of Islam that do not resonate with our own culture or personality.. “They say..” “I was told that”

    Then to FREE your own encounter with the divine from these cultural communal expectations: “I love Allah” versus “a woman’s PLACE in Islam..” as IF THERE is only one place!

    There is also a plethora of available research on these same topics and if you are not able to email me please at least do a cursory search even on line starting with http://www.musawah.org Because women have struggled with these and similar questions where their faith in Allah is made subject to the patriarchal circumstances surrounding them.

    Islam is way more than just those circumstances. Sometimes we just have to clear our vision so it is not fogged by the restrictive lens that surrounds it.

    all the best

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  16. I like that a lot. As my faith has matured, I have come to be God comes to us through people and situations.

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  17. “I guess I have to both hope for and participate in making a better world, inspired by MY love of the divine while sometimes I am waiting to see that love manifest…”

    Fantastic, fascinating reflections and Ameen to that! :)

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  18. Amina —

    I’ve been out of town for several weeks and out of contact with the internet. I’m glad I looked over the FAR offerings that were posted while I was gone, because this one speaks very strongly to me. As panentheist, my God/dess is also “too big,” is ineffable, and I love this about Her. She encompasses all of life and more, life, death, rebirth, the moon and stars, the tiny sandfleas that tried to bite me while I was away and the dolphins with which I swam. Her “everythingness” makes me ecstatic when I catch even a glimpse of it, and as you say, it’s not something that I can live with at every moment of my life, so I need containers for the experience. One of the containers that works for me is ritual, where I “share God” with the others in the ritual. I’m also a conversation lover, which is the reason I come back again and again to this site, since the conversation is so rich, so feminist, and hovers around the ineffable, which is impossible to name.

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  19. Dr. Amina … you are a woman after my own heart … every time i read something you wrote or watch a lecture i feel this connection … you speak the words that are in my mind and heart … THANK YOU

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