The ‘What is Islam?’ Podcast brings you a whole new world of understanding Islam and religion through social commentary and analysis.
In this podcast episode we explore the question ‘Is God Dead?’ by providing a practical understanding from the foundations of Islamic principles. Featuring Imam Sabahat Ali, Editor of the Existence Project and Imam Hadi, Executive Producer of True Islam AU & Muslims Down Under, we delve into the practical implications of this age-old philosophical query.
From the writings of Nietzsche to the modern-day discourse on religion, the quest to prove the existence of God continues to spark debate in our world today. Join us as we unpack the role of God in the modern world and understand how belief in God is still relevant in transforming your life today.
Click below to listen to the full episode, watch the video podcast on our YouTube channel above, or read through an abridged transcript below.
Imam Hadi: I am pleased today to be speaking with Imam Sabahat Ali. Imam Ali is a Missionary of the Worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Currently serving as the Minister of Religion for Silicon Valley in California. He is also the Imam of the Milpitas Mosque in Silicon Valley and the Editor of the Existence Project for the Review of Religions magazine – one of the world’s oldest running comparative religions magazine, which dates back to 1902. Imam Ali is also part of the team of Editors which produced the last two international God Summits. In this episode, we’ll be speaking to Imam Ali about the relevance of God in our contemporary lives. Thank you so much for joining me today for today’s episode. It’s such a pleasure to be speaking with you!
Imam Ali: Thank you very much. Peace be upon you.
Imam Hadi: Peace be upon you, too. So, in our recent podcast we were asking the question, so you think you are not religious? And the reason we began with this question is because usually people usually hold this idea that they are spiritual but not religious. And we were basically questioning, what does that even mean?
What does it mean when you say that you’re not religious?
And we presented the proposition that in actuality, though you may think you’re not religious, but most people today are religious. And the idea behind it was if you are trying to live a life which is fulfilled, you’re trying to live your life in an appropriate manner, in a balanced manner.
And nowadays we live in the age of self-help. And, you can openly see in society today that there are a lot, if not millions of people, who are very much invested in living the best life they can. If that is how you live your life, then technically, and in my understanding of Islam, you’re very much religious because that’s what religion ultimately teaches.
So, naturally the conversation would lead to the foundation of religion itself, which is believing in a higher power or having some sort of concept of a higher power. And ultimately, as religious people, as followers of Islam, we believe in the Oneness of God – the supreme Creator.
So, hence the episode today. And we’re just so privileged to have you with us to talk to us, because obviously you’re an expert in this field. So, what do you believe is the current state of belief in God among people today?
Imam Ali: It’s always a little bit overwhelming for me sometimes when I think about how people have attempted to delineate religion from the concept of God.
The trend is that you take God out of the equation, and all of the wonderful things that religion has always taught since time immemorial, and we want to try to keep them and still rebrand them.
Whether it’s a trend on Tik-Tok or on Instagram or whatever. Every day there’s another epiphany that someone is having somewhere in the world. For example, the minimalist movement. Everyone suddenly said, declutter, get rid of everything. Live a very simple, basic, austere life. And that was one of the great epiphanies of the 21st century. But actually, that was something that was taught in seventh century Arabia as being a hallmark characteristic of being religious.
Then suddenly people were saying, fasting is another great epiphany of science. And no, actually it’s not. Yes, science has made strides, indispensable strides, in showing us the data to verify the validity of fasting and its multiple benefits. But fasting is ancient. It literally is found in religious scripture first, and not just the Holy Quran.
I mean, being a hundred years before your time in technology is a big feat. Being a thousand years ahead is inconceivable. Being 1400 years ahead in every sphere of life – and this is what we argue in terms of what the Islamic concept of God gives us. It’s a point for reflection. So, everyone is, as you said, religious, because any person who is trying to improve themself, is on a journey to find the best way to do that. Just the other day on Twitter there’s a gentleman who says, I’ve realised after 30 years of health and wellness training and advice and as an author of many books, nothing happens after eight, nine or 10 p.m.
And I was just sitting there smiling thinking, 30 years of your life went into this when the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, taught 1500 years ago that after the Isha prayer, which is the prayer once it’s dark, don’t make any idle talk, don’t go out, stay in your home, remember Allah, serve your family, and sleep early. The huge craze of sleeping early, waking up early. It’s like the designer drug of lifestyle. Each and every one of these things are things that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said.
Imam Hadi: Absolutely, that’s such an incredible example that you’ve given. Now, there is the whole artificial intelligence debate and when you’re talking about being years ahead in time and how that’s a feat or technological feat.
And to be 14 centuries ahead is definitely something that you can’t ignore at all. And we’re also talking about efficiency, aren’t we? I mean, we live in an age where we understand that time is a commodity, it’s a resource. It needs to be correctly used. Time can sometimes be equated with money.
And ultimately, if there’s a way to speed up this process where you’re not taking 30 years to realise a basic and fundamental truth of life, then why on earth would you ignore it?
So, I guess the next question would be, how do you think we should be thinking about God?
What does Islam actually even say about the nature of God? I give the example of how Sam Harris, one of the leading atheists, was presented with an idea of God, which I believe was quite close to the idea of God that Islam presents. And he completely agreed that, if that’s what you think God is, then I have no issues with that. So, it’s important to now decipher and understand, how does Islam actually even present the nature of God?
Imam Ali: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this question because if God exists and in the sense that all the major religions put forth. But for now, let’s take what Islam says, because Islam says it agrees with the fact that fundamentally the version of God that was presented by Prophets, and we believe in all of them, was accurate. But it disagrees with the claim that the version of Christianity espoused by Christ, peace be upon him, is the same as what we find today.
And I want to start with the Prophets because they’re the first point of contact. Historically speaking, we can sit here, you know, in 2023 and philosophise and theorise as to why God should be or should not be, or the arguments for His existence. How should we think about God? But the people who first brought this idea of God to humankind were the Prophets of God. And this is a historical fact in every nation throughout the ages. So, the first thing we have to think about is, okay, what’s the first point of contact?
Where did this idea of God come from? When we go back to the original version of God espoused by each and every one of the great Prophets, it’s the same thing.
And it’s interesting. It’s as if they were connected, and we’re not talking about the technological age today where one prophet can just text another prophet and be like, ‘hey, this is my version’ across the world, and say ‘you should espouse the same thing.’ I mean, at what point is it scientific to mark off, to dismiss, the fact that each and every Prophet that ever came espoused one God and after that said that this is the God who created the heavens and the earth.
Everything that you see, this is the God that controls every particle of the universe. This is the God that had a mission for you and intent for you in mind. So, He created you. The Bible says that God created human beings in His own image. The Holy Qur’an says something very similar, but I believe in a much more profound way, where Allah the Almighty says that God created you so that you could, by knowing Him, become the most beautiful, perfect version of yourself.
He created you like pieces of mirror, and if we’re willing to undergo that struggle of polishing up that mirror, which is not easy, emptying ourselves of the lower animal-based self, that we can reflect the attributes of God. This is what the Prophets of God did.
They said, ‘here’s the ingredients, here’s the recipe, here’s my claim. You use these 14 ingredients, or these 600 ingredients, you use them in this way, and if you use them correctly, this is the cake that you’ll get.’ Now, what people have done is they’ve changed the recipe and then point at the recipe and say, ‘oh, this recipe doesn’t work.’ Or what they’ve done is they haven’t actually used all the ingredients in that recipe.
And they say, ‘well, this recipe doesn’t work.’ Imagine if a person came up to you and wanted to bake a cake. Its rising is predicated on the right amount of baking soda to flour ratio. And the person’s like, ‘I didn’t use baking soda, I only used the flour and it just didn’t rise. The recipe is a failure, a disaster!’
So, we talk about claiming to be rational. That is why I’ve met very few people who genuinely – actually, I don’t think I’ve ever met a single person who sincerely practiced Islam from the bottom of their heart, and they tried and tested it with the rigor that a scientific experiment demands, not to subject God to the crucibles of our microscope, where we become the almighty scientist and we say, ‘God, you better react to this, or else!’, but, with the humility that is required for someone as lowly as us to request access to the single highest frequency of the music of the spheres.
So, I just wanted to get that out of the way, where I know a lot of people would be thinking, I’ve done this before, religion doesn’t work. The Holy Quran says a number of things about God. Number one, the Holy Quran says that God is the one that made everything that you see around you happen, the cause of all causes. The onus then falls on the person who wants to claim the opposite of what is observed in the universe. The extreme level of complexity in everything that we manufacture requires someone.
Imam Hadi: There are people baking this cake all the time in Islam. 1400 years ago, the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, said, ‘Here’s the Holy Quran, let me show you what happens when you follow the Holy Quran. In fact, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, peace be upon him, he said, if a person sincerely follows the Holy Quran for seven days, they will undergo an unrecognisable transformation. So, I really like that attitude that you pointed out, when it comes to spirituality, we immediately say, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong with this book.’, If we’re not seeing the spiritual gains, we should at least have the same measuring stick and attitude toward our spiritual bodies and our spiritual regimen as we have toward our physical.
Imam Hadi: It gives me particularly a lot of hope in humanity, because, as I said, I believe today people are just as religious as they were in the past. And what Islam is, what Islam tries to direct our attention to, and what a lot of people have got right today and have a good understanding of is what matters is an objective truth and an objective reality of yourself
which you need to curate with your decisions.
And what I love about Islam and particularly the Holy Quran, is it literally begins with an introduction on how God can meet you. There’s no beating around the bush.
Imam Ali: There’s no dillydallying.
Imam Hadi: Literally, you get straight to the point about who God Almighty is. And I know it’s very difficult for us to maybe try and illustrate that because, though these are seven verses, but these seven verses are concise, comprehensive and an ocean of knowledge. But I think we can give a slight intro to the concepts that are presented in this chapter, beginning with the whole idea that fundamentally the cause of all causes that, as you mentioned as well, is God Almighty.
And due to being the Cause of all causes, being the Ultimate Cause, so then all good and all praises are associated with Him, right?
It’s like a universal truth and from a mystical point of view, you can even look at it where the more you realise that all praise belongs to God Almighty, the more you rise in your gratefulness of Him. Equally, you will rise in God consciousness as well.
Imam Ali: Any human being who realises and reads these three words, whether it reaches their tongue or not, it will come out of their heart that all praise conceivable, every beauty that I see in the universe, every single good thing that has ever happened that will happen, that is happening, that I’m capable of, that other people are capable of, the wonders that we see in the nebulae of the stars, down to the microbial ecology, and all the universe that we haven’t even discovered yet. All praise belongs to Allah, who is the Lord of every single world. The ones that you know of and the ones that you don’t know of.
Imam Hadi: Absolutely. And, you know, the other way I like to look at it is, when understanding the nature of God, fundamentally, having understood this one thing, that Islam teaches is that every experience is an experience with God, because fundamentally, though God Almighty is distinct from His creation, but the understanding that the Holy Quran provides us of God Almighty is that He’s very much interwoven within the very fabric of the universe.
Imam Ali: And that’s enough to have any unbiased onlooker who opens the Holy Quran for the first time to consider. Is this a God that I would like to have a connection with? Is this something worth pursuing, if this is the fountainhead of all mercy and goodness?
This section may not do justice to the full discussion due to being abridged. To understand the attributes of God discussed by Imam Ali and Imam Hadi, read our article: An Introduction to God.
Then looking to the words Rahman and Rahim -no one, including the most hardened atheist in the world, with due respect, cannot disagree that it would be an amazing thing if whatever began this universe and has ultimate power and is claimed to have existed by whoever believes in Him is the single highest point of benevolence and compassion and magnanimity, clemency, love and mercy.
You can’t deny wanting that. And that want and that desire is something that I think furnishes enough evidence to at least sincerely investigate. Oh God, if you exist, I want in on it!
Imam Hadi: And then rounding up that whole concept of God Almighty presenting His four fundamental attributes. The fourth is that He’s the Master of the Day of Judgment. And the way the Promised Messiah, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community puts it is he says that, well, ultimately, through these three experiences of God, understanding that He’s the ultimate cause and the very being which provides progress, He’s provided you the fundamental building blocks and your usage of those building blocks appropriately and according to His design, will result in further progress. You are basically curating and creating for yourself, or refining, I think is a better word. You’re refining your being, your spirit. And he explains how that well, fundamentally, that spirit, its full expression cannot take place within this finite world. And it requires the existence of another realm which is infinite for the expression of that infinite spirit, which is, resembling God Almighty to a much minor degree, but resembling God Almighty, nonetheless.
So, the reason why I mention that is that, you know, that experience of God is not limited to this world, and it transcends this world. And there’s a reason why it transcends this world, that spirit that you’re carefully curating over time, ultimately it needs to express itself and it cannot really express itself in its entirety in this universe or in this finite existence.
It needs to do that, and you know it. This points to the need for a hereafter.
And I think fundamentally, we as human beings to our very core know this very well. We know this to be true. We know that this existence in itself is not sufficient. And we, in the large scale of things, are contributing to something more. And fulfilment is found in life by contributing towards that, towards that hereafter.
Imam Ali: I think what you said about this realm not being enough, as Muslims, it’s something that we kind of grew up with hearing. It was kind of a privilege to have within our purview the idea of an afterlife, the idea of a parallel spiritual realm. But for a lot of people, that’s very difficult, very difficult to swallow, that’s very difficult to envisage.
And a couple of examples that demonstrate that we are extremely spiritual beings is, for example, the space race. The idea that there are certain people who have a vested interest, government and other establishments, in looking up to the cosmos and they see real estate. But that’s not what the average person sees when we look up, there’s a sense of wonder and awe within that beauty that has no evolutionary benefit. If anything, it’s detrimental to our evolution. And it’s interesting, those qualities that are woven into our being that have no evolutionary benefit apparently often have to do with our thirst for water that we cannot see. And that’s why here in the Existence project we often say sometimes the greatest evidence for water isn’t water, it’s thirst. Because where there’s hunger, or thirst or a need, there must be a need for something.
So basically, this idea of looking up at the cosmos and feeling what we feel is this level of awe. It’s interesting. We have these telescopes within us and they have us reaching for the stars, literally. And then there’s a level of existential epiphany that we feel in certain moments in life when we realize whether we describe it as I realise how small we are in the grand expanse of the universe. And what Islam says is that human beings – we’re always right here. We are the micro verse; we are a summary of the entirety of the universe.
That’s why Islam has always emphasised the telescope that everyone has forgotten that they have, which is the telescope that looks within. And because of the hyperstimulation, the hyper activation of what I call micro happiness, tiny iterations of dopamine, epinephrine, other neurotransmission of kicks that we get, we jump as though we’re on tadpoles surrounded by lava from one kick to another, trying to get through life, one micro happy, happy iteration to another. And we forget the macro-happy. We forget that we have telescopes in-built within us.
Imam Hadi: And I think that that’s like a perfect segue way to the next question which I think is very important and pertinent. And it’s a question that’s often raised and received and that is, well now having understood that Islam doesn’t present an idea of God, which is nonsensical, unreasonable, Islam presents a God which is supreme and perfect, worth knowing, one who is worth creating a relationship with for our own fulfilment and progress. Well, then how do we actually establish that connection with God Almighty? And how do we know when that connection is even being established?
Imam Ali: I think this is actually such an important question. So, when we go to the gym, we want to get fitter physically. When we go to the mosque, to the church, to the synagogue, when we pray anyway, wherever we are, we want to get spiritually fitter. How do you know after three weeks, if your biceps have gotten stronger, you can lift more? And that is where when a person begins to pray and he says, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to talk to God for 30 seconds before I go to bed, and that’s it.’
If that is sincere, that will increase your capacity to pray, that will increase your capacity to lift more. And that is where there’s a direct relationship between when you go to the gym, when you can lift more, and each week you’re increasing your reps or you’re increasing the weight and you see the physical gains. In the soul, you’re not going to see those gains because it’s a soul.
But the soul is like a perfume. It has an impact on your mind, your behaviour changes over time, the way you do things, the way that you meet people. And eventually what happens when you reach the highest level of fitness? You’re able to impact other people. Once you get to a certain level of fitness, you become a means of inspiration for a lot of other people because you just walk past them and they’re like, wow, this person is, you know, putting in the work – looks great.
And that is why, to say that, how do you see whether you’re getting closer to God or not, the heart that brought you to the water and enabled you to drink your first sip of faith will testify to whether or not it is growing in its appetite or not. And at first it is like bitter medicine.
Prayer is like bitter medicine for the soul because the soul is so frail and weak. But eventually, as a person starts to get better, as the founder, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has used this example several times and the tongue and the taste buds start to realign. Then actually you realise, ‘hey, what I’m eating, it didn’t have any taste at first, but this is delicious.’
Imam Hadi: And that’s such a practical way of looking at it, though, isn’t it? Because and that’s where a lot of the times we get it wrong and that’s why you can’t blame society that moves away from religion when you don’t look at having a relationship with God in this manner, when everything is purely dogmatic, purely ritualistic, and it’s not about that transformation in behaviour, but more of a service that you render, without due reason or cause on maybe a Sunday or even for Muslims on a Friday.
Obviously it will be very difficult for you to enjoy the process. And initially, as you begin, obviously it’s difficult. But as time goes by, you understand, and you enjoy the process in itself. And any successful person that does anything will tell you that.
Ultimately, it’s their identity that matters. What matters is not the goal but enjoying the very process in itself.
And this whole idea of behavioural transformation, it’s incredible because the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Promised Messiah, actually said that the greatest miracle is not, the miracles that you hear in the form of mythology or fairy tales, the greatest miracle that the Holy Prophet and the Prophets prior to him, but particularly the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, provided to the world, was that of transformation, was that of being able to reflect the very attributes of God in your personality and being.
And that in itself is an indication that, as you quite eloquently put it, that you are developing in that relationship with God Almighty.
Listen to the full episode where Imam Hadi and Imam Ali continue discussing how to transform your life by understanding concepts around belief in God, as well as personal anecdotes and experiences shared through the Existence Project and much more!