The Realms of God’s Divinity and Sovereignty
Why does the text of the Book designate different terms for ‘Allah’? In some instances, He is called rabb (sovereign or lord), in others ilah (god). What is the difference between the two terms?
1- Allah as Sovereign (rabb): (He is) Lord [rabb] of the two Easts and Lord of the two Wests (Rahmaan:17). The term rabb in Arabic denotes a form of supremacy as it conveys the notion of a master or lord, even ruler or king, who possesses high status and prestige. We say in Arabic that someone is the ‘master of the house’, which signifies a position of power over the dependents of his family.
Applied to the term rabb or lord in the Book, we infer that this stands for the concept of Allah’s sovereignty (al-rububiyya), that is, His lordship over the objective reality of existence outside human consciousness. It connotes a relationship of Allah with all of His creation, which is a relationship of dominance, power, and possession. This relationship is objective, absolute, and unalterable.
In studying the laws of nature, the cosmos, and history we become aware of the realm of Allah’s sovereignty which governs the universe independent of the human mind. In this capacity, Allah is the Lord of all creatures, be they believers or unbelievers, Arabs or non-Arabs, learned or ignorant, humans or animals.
Allah transferred this sovereignty to humanity when he installed Adam as His vicegerent on earth, indicating that a thorough study of His sovereignty, of objective reality, will enable humankind to rule over His creation, the earth and the skies, the plants and the animals—in His manner. When, for example, humankind learned how to master the force of gravitation they took possession of the moon and Mars, fulfilling His word:
Do you not see that God [Allah] has subjected to your (use) all things in the heavens and on earth, and has made his bounties flow to you in exceeding measure, (both) seen and unseen? Yet there are among men those who dispute about God [Allah], without knowledge and without guidance, and without a book to enlighten them! (Luqman:20). And He [Allah] has subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the heavens and on earth. Behold, in that are signs indeed for those who reflect. (Jathiyya:13)..
The concept of God’s viceregency on earth is inclusive: it transfers power to both believers and unbelievers. It requires good and responsible governance over the earth’s resources by everybody regardless of their beliefs. It is a universal task for all humankind, unaffected by religious affiliations.
2- Allah as Divine God (ilah): Know, therefore, that there is no god but God [Allah]… (Muhammad:19).
But your God [ilahukum] is one God [ilahun wahidun]… (hajj:34).
In contrast, the concept of Allah’s divinity ( al-uluhiyya), derived from the term ‘God’ (ilah), refers to Allah’s demand to follow His rules and commandments in return for having bestowed upon humankind the freedom of viceregency. It is less inclusive as it only requests ‘those who understand’ to witness His unity and to follow His rules: He [Allah] has commanded that you worship none but Him: that is the right religion, but most men understand not. (Yusuf:40)
Note that this verse acknowledges that most men are ignorant about ‘the right religion’ and do not worship Him (uluhiyya). In contrast, His sovereignty (rububiyya) is all-inclusive, nobody cannot not worship Him: In sum, Allah’s sovereignty pertains to a relationship of power and domination that is unchangeable and essentially irresistible. It can neither be undermined nor limited; it is a matter-of-fact substance of reality. Allah’s divinity, however, is the realm of voluntary worship by ‘those who understand’. It is a matter of choice, since one can choose to opt out or opt in; there is no coercion in matters of worship.
As for the relationship between the two realms, undeniably Allah’s sovereignty always assumes priority over His divinity, since the latter is dependent on a variable; that is, the existence of rational people. There is no divinity without ‘those who understand’. Hence, no verse in the book refers to ‘the God of the worlds’ or ‘the God of the heavens and earth’, but only to ‘the Lord of the worlds’ and ‘the Lord of the heavens and earth’.
Likewise, no verse requires believers to witness that ‘there is no lord (rabb) but Allah’ but, as in the shahada, that ‘there is no god (ilah) but God’. This is because Allah is their Lord, whether they witness it or not. No testimony is required because its truth transcends all human testimony. Allah is the Lord of both the believers and the unbelievers, He nourishes them all, He gives all humankind rain, light, and food, and all His laws of nature apply equally to everyone: Of the bounties of your Lord [rabbuka] We bestow freely on all. These as well as those: the bounties of your Lord are not closed (to anyone). (Isra”:20)
Allah’s rules and commandments are stated in the umm al-kitab, Muhammad’s messengerhood. We infer from this that the umm al-kitab belongs to the book of divinity (kitab al-uluhiyya). The universal laws of nature, cosmos, and history are contained in the quran, the realm that exists outside the human mind. Hence, the quran belongs to the book of sovereignty (kitab al-rububiyya).
historically, the stories of the quran tell us how people have interacted with objective reality (the realm of sovereignty) by studying the prophet hoods and how they coped with the rules of divinity by following the rules of messengerhoods. These stories are invaluable historical material and need to be studied in much detail.