Essence and Attributes of God

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What are the essence and attributes of God? Can we describe Him?

God is absolutely other than His creation. The Creator cannot by any means be the same kind of being as that which He created. Although this is self-evident to sense and reason, some people still ask why we cannot directly see God.

But direct vision is very limited and could never be an appropriate way of seeking the Unlimited. Let us ex­plain:

There are innumerable bacteria in the human body, in­deed innumerable bacteria in so small a space as a human tooth. These creatures are quite unaware of the tooth in which they live. To become aware of it, they would have to somehow situate themselves out of the tooth, and then, through the use of artificial means (telescopes and micro­scopes and the like) they might, conceivably, obtain some very approximate notion of the dimensions of the tooth, and then, perhaps, of the larger body to which the tooth is attached. Only through such an effort, which is scarcely imaginable, could the bacteria become aware of the human body which makes up the large ground or sustaining environment of their life. And this scarcely imaginable awareness is itself an immeasurable distance away from anything remotely resembling what we would call understanding.

Though on a very different scale, the sense-awareness of human beings is similarly limited. It may indeed be that, with the assistance of telescopes and other instru­ments, we can ‘see’ across distances of millions of light years. But all that we ‘see’ in this way is insignificant compared to the dimensions of the whole of which it is a minute fragment. In fact, allowing for the difference in scale, what human beings can ‘see’ is as insignificant as the bacteria’s awareness of the living tissue within which they exist and perish, when compared to the dimensions of the body of which that tissue is a minute fragment.

Further, if we consider the matter closely, we soon realize that our ‘seeing’ (or hearing or any other mode of perception) is conditional upon our understanding. We need to have some general ideas about what we ‘see’ in order to distinguish it and recognize it. If we did not have some idea, however vague at first, of what, for ex­ample, a tree is, we should be literally unable to ‘make sense’ of that object before our eyes which we know as a tree. If our ‘seeing’ is as limited as it is, and if—even for the objects within creation, and within the reach of our ‘seeing’ or our ‘seeing’ instruments—we need some general understanding so that we can ‘make sense’ of what we ‘see’, how improper a demand it is, how absurd a demand, to ask why we cannot directly ‘see’ or directly ‘know’ the Creator of the whole.

We are created beings, that is, finite, limited in our possibilities and our capacities. Only the Creator, God, is Infinite.

We are created beings, that is, finite, limited in our possibilities and our capacities. Only the Creator, God, is Infinite. By His Mercy, the Creation is available to us as the ground or environment within which we exist and perish, strive for understanding and virtue, and seek our salvation. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: Compared with the Seat of Honor (kursi), the whole universe is as little as a ring thrown upon a desert. Similarly, compared with the Throne (‘arsh), the kursi is as little as a ring thrown upon the desert (Tabari, Tafsir, 3.77). From that comparison we gain some understand­ing of how far the Infinitude of the Creator exceeds our power of apprehending it. How can we even begin to conceive of the reality of the kursi and ‘arsh from which the All-Mighty in His Infinite Majesty sends out His Will and Command and sustains His Creation, let alone begin to conceive of God Himself?

As for God’s Essence and Attributes:

God Almighty should be ­considered from five perspectives:

  • One is His Essence as Divine Being­―Zāt, in Islamic terminology. His Essence cannot be known by anyone except God Himself. A Prophetic Tradition says: Do not reflect on God’s Essence, instead, reflect on His works and acts. For God has no partners, likes and resemblance, which is pointed to by the verse: There is nothing like or compared  unto Him.

  • The second perspective is God’s Essential, “Innate” Qualities as being God. These are the source of the Attributes.

  • The third perspective is His Attributes. The Attributes have three kinds: one is His Essential Attributes, which are: Existence, Having No Beginning, Eternal Permanence, Being Unlike the Created, Self-Subsistence. The second is the Positive Attributes, which are: Life, Knowledge, Power, Speech, Will, Hearing, Seeing, Creating. The third is the “Negative” Attributes. The Negative Attributes are innumerable but can be summed up in a definition: God is absolutely free from any defective and shortcoming. The Attributes are the sources of Names. Life gives rise to the All-Living, Knowledge to All-Knowing, Power to All-Powerful, etc.

  • God has many Names, about one thousand of which are known by human beings. The Names are the sources of the Acts. For example, giving life has its source in the All-Living; knowing everything down to the smallest originates in the All-Knowing, etc.

  • God is “known” by His acts, Names and Attributes. Whatever exists in the universe, in the worlds, material and immaterial, is the result of the manifestation of God’s Names and Attributes. For example, the universal and individual provision points to His Name, the All-Providing; the All-Healing is the source of remedies and patients’ recovering from illnesses. Philosophy has its source in Wisdom, etc. The acts, Names and Attributes are the “links” between God and the created, or the “reflectors” with which to have knowledge of God.

Although we try to know or recognize God by His acts, Names and Attributes, since there is nothing resembling Him, we must refrain to think about Him in the terms associating likeness or comparison unto Him. First of all, He is absolutely One, Single, that is, He is God without any resemblance what or howsoever. In this sense, His Oneness is not in terms of number. However, He has also Unity. He has relations with the created. In order to have some knowledge of Him through His acts, Names and Attributes, some comparisons are permissible. This is pointed to in the verse: For God is the highest comparison. For example, using the Sun as a unit of comparison to understand God’s acts, Names and Attributes should be considered from this perspective.

 

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