Names & Attributes of God
An Islamic Point of View
In Sontage, Frederick and M. Darrol Bryant, editors, God, the Contemporary Discussion. The Rose of Sharon Press Inc., New York, 1982. Updated by Dr. Idris. August 2001.
Dr. Jaafar Sheikh Idris
Prior to the modern age very few people disputed the fact that the world has a creator. This fact was for them as obvious as a logical truth or an observed phenomenon. They only differed about the nature of this creator and about the appropriate attitude people should have towards Him. But now the very existence of a creator is disputed. Why? This is not an easy question to answer. However, I tend to agree with those contemporary writers who trace the origins of modern atheism in the West to the ideas of some influential Western philosophers, some of whom were themselves believers. But these ‘believer’ argued in such a way as to make people at least doubt , if not reject, some of the facts belief in which used to be considered of the essence of being rational . Good reasons for belief in the Creator, whether they be strictly rational or otherwise, used to be related to those facts. Belief in God was based on the fact that there was something in our nature and in the nature of the world which points to a transcendent Creator whom we should worship. The claim of the new thinking was that our world is in every respect a closed system that cannot therefore point to anything outside itself. The first step toward this separation of heaven and earth was perhaps Descartes' mechanistic conception of the world in which it is claimed that it is possible to explain natural phenomena by reference to matter and motion and their laws. Hume widened the distance between heaven and earth by claiming that the causal principle by which we make such explanation of natural phenomena was nothing but observed regular succession. God cannot therefore be a cause since His creation or effect, is not observed to occur after Him. Kant took the final step by arguing that the concept of causation cannot apply to anything outside the world of our experience. This atheistic philosophy then became, as it were, the official philosophy of science. And since ordinary people, and even many scientists, do not see the distinction between the facts which science establishes and the philosophies which scientists adopt, especially when such philosophies become popular among great scientists, this atheistic philosophy was believed by the public to be the philosophy which science demands or even the philosophy whose truth it has establish.
Many believers accepted the atheistic assumptions of this philosophy but nevertheless maintained their belief in God hoping to find a place for Him in the realms which science could not yet conquer. But the atheists argued, with some strength, that since science was rapidly progressing in giving us "rational" explanations of phenomena which we used to believe to the works of God, it was only a matter of time before everything would be so explained, thus driving God completely out of our world.
The severance of the relation between God and the world was thus, on the one hand, a result of a new conception of the nature of our world. But on the other hand it led some believers to a new conception of the nature of God. God, as a result of this new thinking became more and more of an abstract idea rather than a living person. But this in its turn strengthened the atheistic trend. Who is interested in a God that is a mere idea, who has no active role to play either on the level of our intellects and behavior or on the level of nature.
But the idea that our world is a closed system, that it does not point to transcendent creatior, has received a serious blow from the big bang theory, which is being more and more accepted by scientists as the most plausible scientific cosmological theory. According to this theory our natural world had a definite beginning. And if so it would not be illegitimate to ask: Who started it? But this means that the world itself is telling us that it is not self-sufficient, i.e., it is pointing to something beyond itself. But this fact, as we said earlier, was taken for granted by early thinkers. They did not have to wait for a twentieth-century scientific theory to prove it. Almost everything around them pointed to the fact our world had a beginning, and could not therefore be self-sufficient.
I think that it will soon be obvious that those who denied the existence of the Creator cannot support their claim by any scientific facts. But mere belief in the existence of a creator is not of much consequence. We need to know who this creator is so that we can establish appropriate relations with Him, relations that would make a difference in our life.
It is to this end that thinking believers should henceforth direct their energies. We must overcome the pre Big Bang complex which induced many of us to think of God as an abstract idea, and start expounding and defending the ordinary believer’s conception of Him as a living and loving Person.
I believe that there is much in the writings of early Muslim theologians, especially those of the Sunnite School, from which all those who believe in the existence of the Creator can benefit in this respect. And it is towards this end that I am writing the rest of this paper. I shall attempt to give contemporary believers an idea about the way early Muslim theologians thought about an issue in which we are still interested, namely, the nature of God and His attributes.
There were three major views concerning the nature of divine attributes among Muslims. These are the views of the mujassima or anthropomorphists, mu'attila or negators, and the muthbita or affirmers:
(a) The physicalistic or anthropomorphistic view likens God to a huge human being, and thus attributes to Him the human form of attributes like hearing, seeing, speaking, having eyes, etc. The difference between Him and ordinary human beings, according to this view, is not of kind but of degree. Only a few influential people held such a view in the history of Islam, and they were immediately condemned as idol worshippers. Since this view is no longer taken seriously by any contemporary believers, it need not detain us. The only important point to mention here, because it relates to the two following views, is the reason behind such a view, i.e., the assumption that only physical things with which we are familiar exist, and since God exists He must be physical in this sense, and his attributes cannot but take the forms of those of physical things.
(b) The negators' view assumes that all the attributes we express in the Arabic language or any other human language are attributes of physical existents. But God is not physical. When He attributes to Himself, in the Quran, things like hearing, seeing, being above His throne, having hands or eyes, etc., He is addressing us in the only language we can understand, but He is not using words describing these qualities in any real sense. What are we then to understand by such words and expressions when we use them in relation to God? Nothing, according to the extreme advocates of this view. This view, though it was not known until about the third century of Islam, soon became, especially in its milder forms, very influential and popular among many theologians and educated Muslims. It is sometimes wrongly assumed to be the only alternative to the first view.
(c) The affirmers' view says that when God describes Himself as being capable of seeing, hearing, etc., He is using these words in a real sense, because God really sees and hears. He has a real face and real hands. But since "nothing is like Him", His attributes, though real, are not like the attributes of human beings or any other created things. This is the view of the early generations of Muslims and of all the great Sunnite 'ulama' who followed in their footsteps. It is, I believe, the view of all believers in their hours of worship. But it is no longer popular among theologians and "modernist" believers. One reason for this, as I have said, is that it is confused with the anthropomorphist view, which is obviously untenable. It is this view which I am going to briefly expound and defend against the second view.
Does God exist ? The extremist advocates of the second view would refuse to answer in the affirmative, because existence in the real sense is ascribed, in their view, to natural things only. Since God is not like them we cannot even describe Him as existent. What is He then? We cannot say anything positive about Him, they say: we can only say what He is not. The affirmer says that by refusing to liken Him to any physical existent, you end up likening Him to non-existents because it is only in reference to non-existents that we cannot say anything positive.
A contemporary philosopher might think that what the negators are saying is that it is a categorical mistake to describe God as existent and therefore it would be equally wrong to describe Him as non-existent. The affirmers may respond that: we did not say that negators liken God to non-existents merely because they refused to describe Him as existent, but because of their argument for doing so, namely, that nothing positive can be said about God. Our claim is that this description applies only to non-existents. The affirmers say, more over that the claim that a category mistake is being committed must be supported by showing that the nature of the thing to which a certain attribute is wrongly applied is different in at least one relevant aspect from the things to which this attribute is rightly applied, i.e., that they belong to different categories. But to claim that two things belong to different categories you must know something positive about each one of them. If the only thing you know about one of them is that nothing which applies to anything applies to it in a real sense, you are saying that it belongs to the category of nothingness. That is why the famous Imam Ahmad said in replying to the Jahmiyyah, a very influential school of negators, that a thing which is not like anything else is not a thing at all.[i] Admittedly, there is a verse in the Qur'an which says that "Nothing is like Him".[ii] The Jahmiyyah took this to be a Qur'anic support for their negativist view, but this verse does not say that nothing which is said of other things can be said of God, in any real sense. That is why after saying that "Nothing is Like Him," it goes on to say "He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing." All that the verse is saying is that God is not to be likened to His creation. But you do not liken Him to them by merely saying that He exists and they exist, or that He knows and some of created things know. You do so only if you take His existence to be as ephemeral and dependent as the existence of created things and that His knowledge is to be as limited as theirs.
The Affirmers' second objection to the negator's refusal to describe God as existent is that anyone who takes such a belief seriously cannot really worship God. How can a person worship, love, fear, turn for guidance to, depend on, or pray to something about which he cannot say, even to himself, that it exists? This is not to say that they do not actually worship God; many of them do, but only at the expense of their theoretical standpoint.
The third objection is that since as Muslims you read the Qur'an and believe in its divine source, what do you understand by expressions which attribute to God things like knowing, hearing, acting, creating, speaking, seeing, etc.? Some negators would say that since God is completely different from anything we know, His real attributes cannot be couched in human language because human languages are necessarily confined to things which fall within our sense experience. But since this language is the only one we understand, God is using it to give us a glimpse of something which is really beyond our comprehension. The question is how our human language can succeed in giving us even such a glimpse. If the words and expressions of our language do not apply to God in any real sense, then they cannot convey to us anything about Him. And in that case, God would be revealing to us a mere string of words which have no meaning. But no one who really believes in God would attribute to Him such a folly. On the other hand, if they do convey to us even a glimpse, there must be a relationship between them and the real attribute of God.
Other negators would acknowledge the existence of such a relation, but would say that the words are used in their metaphorical and not in their real sense. For example, when it is said in the Qur'an of God that He sees or hears, what is meant is that He knows,[iii] because seeing and hearing in their real senses apply to animals only. There are three objections to this view.
(a) It can easily be shown that to see is linguistically different from to hear, and both are different from, though related to, knowing.[iv]
(b) If it is claimed that all the words of our language are used in the metaphorical sense when they apply to God, this would lead either to an infinite regress or an impasse. If every word or expression in our language had a metaphorical sense, then once a word, say X, is used in a sacred book to describe God, we must look for its metaphorical sense, but that metaphorical sense must be expressed in yet other words whose metaphorical senses are expressed in other words and so on, ad infinitum. But if you stop the regress by giving some words their real meanings, you violate your principle.
(c) If the claim is that this applies to some and not all words and expressions describing God, then a valid argument must be given to the difference between the two. But no such argument exists. The truth is that, as Ibn Taymiyyah showed clearly in his ar-risalatu at-tadmuriyyah, whatever is said of some Divine attributes can be said of the others, as we will presently show.
This leads us to a milder version of negationism. Propounders of this milder version are ready to attribute to God things like existence, knowledge, life, power, will, seeing and hearing in their real sense, but would take as metaphorical attributes such as love, pleasure, anger and hate. The reply to a person who makes such a distinction between these two classes of attributes - affirming the former and denying the latter - is to say "there is no difference between what you affirmed and what you denied. What applies to one of them does indeed apply to the other. If you say that His will is like the will of human beings, so also would be His love and pleasure. But this is anthropomorphism. But if you say that He has a will that suits Him just as a human being has a will that suits him, it will be said to you: He also has a love that suits Him, and an anger that suits Him; and the human being has an anger that suits him."[v] "If one interprets things like love, hate and anger in an anthropmorhistic way, we say that the same can be said about will, knowledge and power."[vi]
People like Ibn Taymiyyah, the author of the above quotations, are often mistakenly described by their opponents and by some modern scholars as being literalists, or even worse, anthropomorhists. Those who say this assume that the only alternative to negationism or allegoricalism is literalism or anthropomorphism. But it is clear from Ibn Taymiyyah's statement that when he affirms that God loves or hates in a real sense and not in a metaphorical sense, he is not, thereby, likening Him to human beings. He rejects the view that language cannot be used in a real sense except when it applies to created things. He thinks that some descriptive words have general meanings which as abstract meanings do not apply to anything in particular, whether it be human or divine. But when they are used to describe a particular, then they describe something which is peculiar to the particular in question.[vii] For example, if we describe two persons, X and Y, as "learned", the connotation of "learned" when it applies to X is not the same as its connotation when it applies to Y. Does this mean that all words are equivocal? No, by no means. Ibn Taymiyyah thinks that though the referents are different, the word has an abstract meaning that is common to both referents. This, he thinks, applies even in the case of God. When we describe Him as loving, for example, we are not likening Him to Human beings, i.e., we are not saying that he loves in the same way as humans love. It is wrong, he insists, to think that the real meanings of such words are their meanings when they apply to human beings. Descriptive words, as such, are neutral. They take their specific forms according to the particulars which they describe. And just as there are differences between particular created things, there are differences - and greater ones - between God and the world of created things.
How do we know about the attributes of God? According to the school of Ahl as-Sunnah, also called the "people of affirmation," some of the Divine attributes can be known by reason alone, though most of them are known by revelation also. Other attributes of God are not known except through the Divine revelation to God's chosen Prophets or Messengers. Those which can be known by reason alone may be divided into three categories: God's attributes as existent, His attributes as a living being, and His attributes as a creator and the object of our worship.
It is of paramount importance to see the difference between the attributes of something as an existent and its attributes under other descriptions or headings. Failure to see this has led both believers and atheists into confusion about their conceptions of God. The mistake starts when either the theist or the atheist assumes that all the attributes of the physical are limited to its attributes under this physical description. Once this mistake is committed, it is easy to argue from it that since God is not physical, nothing which is said of physical things can be said of Him in any real sense. Thus, Lenin, seeing that the progress of science was creating havoc for the materialists' conception of matter, thought of defining the latter in a way which no scientific discovery could render obsolete. He came to the conclusion that the material was anything that existed objectively, i.e., outside our mind.[viii] But, this is not a definition of the material; it is a necessary condition of every existent. If communists took Lenin's definition seriously, the difference between them and the believers would be only verbal, i.e., whether it is proper to say of God that He is material or not. But they do not take their own view seriously. In fact, they insist on having their cake and eating it. Thus, if you tell them that you are ready to say that God is material according to their definition of this word, because you believe that He exists objectively, they would react by asking you to show Him to them, thus reverting back to an earlier definition of the material.
Because material things exist objectively, and God is not material, then His existence must be only subjective. It seems that Lenin argued in this way. Some theistic theologians argued in a manner that is rather similar to this. In their attempt to exalt God above all material things, they ended up depriving Him of the very necessary attributes of the existent thus making Him a mere word that designates nothing. The Ahl as-Sunnah were very much against this trend, and they dubbed the people who followed it mu'attila, i.e., negators. In contrast the Ahl as-Sunnah called themselves the people of ithbat, i.e., affirmation. The negators talk of God only in negative terms: All they say about God is that He does not have the attributes that material things have. The affirmers, on the other hand, believe that the basic attributes of God are positive ones. The negative attributes which God is said not to have are only the negations of these positive attributes and what is logically implied by these negatations. They think that as a Creator, God must exist and exist objectively. To exist objectively God must have all the attributes of objective existents. God must therefore be somewhere and cannot thus be everywhere. Why not? Because to be everywhere is to fail to be distinguished from other existents and thus not to have a special identity. To believe that He is everywhere leads, moreover, to yet other absurdities. If God was everywhere before He created some things, then where did He create them? To say that He created them inside Himself is absurd. To say that He created them outside Himself contradicts the statement that He is everywhere. To say that God shrank to leave some space for them is absurd. At least it contradicts the assumption that He is infinite. It also leads to the absurdity that whenever anything passes out of existence God extends Himself to fill the empty space.
Where is God then? The Ahl as-Sunnah do not hesitate to answer that He is above His throne in heaven. Does this mean that He is limited? If by this is meant His person, then the answer is yes. But although His person is confined to a particular "region", His power, knowledge and other attributes are not so limited. God is in heaven, but His power and knowledge are everywhere. He cannot in this sense, therefore, he said to be limited.
The negators believe that God cannot at all be known by the five senses because they thought that to be thus known is to be physical. The affirmers agreed that He cannot be observed by us while we are in this world. But this is not because it is in His nature not to be observed; it is rather because of our own present nature. There are verses in the Qur'an and the authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad which affirm that believers shall behold God in the Hereafter. In fact, beholding Him would be their greatest joy. They would be able to behold Him because their nature would be different from what it is now.
The affirmers do not depend on this religious argument alone. They also believe that it is a contradiction in terms to say that something exists objectively and yet cannot in principle be observed. It is only non-existents which cannot in principle be observed, or as al-Darimi says, "a thing which cannot be observed, yudrak, by any of the senses, is nothing."[ix] As an existent, then, God must exist outside our minds, i.e. He cannot be a mere idea or an abstract concept. Secondly, He must have some defining qualities.[x] Thirdly, He must exist in a "place", that is distinct from places occupied by other existents.[xi] Otherwise, He would be one with them and hence could not be anything in His own right. Fourthly, He must be in principle observable.
God is not only an existent. He is a Living existent. And as a Living existent He must have the attributes of willing, knowing, seeing, hearing, etc. In short, God must have all the attributes which living things necessarily have as living things, and not because of their materiality or animality.
But God is the Creator of everything. As such He must be eternal and hence self-sufficient, unique and perfect. All the other attributes that He has must be seen in the light of these basic attributes. Thus if we say that He knows, His knowledge must be different from that of any of His creatures in that it must be knowledge which is not preceded by ignorance and thus acquired through the senses or any other means. And so on. The same must be said of all the other attributes. That is why it is one of the pillars of the Muslim faith to believe that God is unique in His person as well as in His attributes. Just as none of His creation resembles Him, so none of their attributes resemble His attributes. And so while we know the meanings of the divine attributes, we do not know their modality or the form which they take when they apply to His unique person.
Some of the attributes of God we cannot know except through His own words revealed to chosen prophets. In Islam these words are confined to the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. These sources attribute to God things like being above His Throne, having hands, smiling, etc.. The negators take all these attributes to be metaphorical, but the Ahl as-Sunnah's position is to affirm about God whatever He affirms about Himself in the Qur'an or through His prophet without tashbih, i.e., likening Him to created things, or ta'til, i.e., explaining away His attributes as metaphorical. We understand them, affirmers say, in the light of the principle stated in the verse "Nothing is like Him, the All-hearing, the All-seeing."[xii]
Let me end this paper by quoting some famous Qur'anic verses about God's attributes which every practicing Muslim knows by heart and repeats on many occasions as an expression of his devotion to God:
Say: He is God, one God the Everlasting Refuge, Who has not begotten, and has not been begotten, and equal to Him is not any one.[xiii]
God, there is no God but He, the Living, the Everlasting, slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep; to Him belongs all that is in the Heavens and the earth. Who is there that shall intercede with Him save by His leave? He knows what lies before them and what lies after them, and they comprehend not anything of His knowledge save such as He wills. His throne comprises the heavens and the earth; the preserving of them oppresses Him not; He is the All-High, the All-Glorious.[xiv]
 By person I do not of course mean that God is a human or like a human person. Person is used here in the general sense of an actual existent with definite characteristics in contradistiction to an abstract idea. Allah is described in some ahadith of the Prophet as being that and as having a shakhs (personality).
[i] Imam Ahamd, ar-rad ‘ala-az-zanadigati wa-ljahmiyyah, p.68.
[ii] The Qur’an ayah (verse) 11: Surah (Chapter) 42.
[iii] See Ibn Qurtayba, Kitab al-ikhtilaf fi’l-lafaz ar-rad ‘ala’-ljahmiyya Wa-l-mushabbiha, in the collection, Aqa’id as-salaf, ed. Ali Sami Nashshar and ‘Ammar Jam’I Talibi (Alexandria, 1971), p.233.
[iv] Ibid. p. 233.
[v] Ibn Taymiyyah, op. cit., p. 21.
[vi] Ibid., p. 22.
[vii] Ibid., p. 80.
[viii] V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empiro-Criticism (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publ. House, n.d.), pp. 269-70.
[ix] Abu Sa’id Ad-Darimi, Kitab al-rad ‘ala-l-jahmiyyah, Aqa’idus-Salaf and Kitab ar-radi-l-Imami-d-Darimi, ‘Uthman Ibn Sa’id ala-l-marisil-‘anid, p. 570.
[x] Ibid., p.508.
[xi] Ibid., p. 249.
[xii] The Qur’an ayah 11: Surah 42.
[xiii] Chapter CXII of the Qur’an, trans. Arthur J. Arberry, The Qur’an Interpreted (Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 667.
[xiv] Ibid., trans. Verse 255, chapter 11, p.37.