God, anthropomorphic descriptions of


God, anthropomorphic descriptions of
   Numerous passages in the Qur’an known as the ambiguous or anthropomorphic verses describe God in strikingly human terms. One finds anthropomorphic characterizations of (1) God’s external appearance (e.g. God possesses a face, eyes, hands, etc.), (2) actions (God sees, hears, speaks, sits on His throne, etc.), (3) emotions (God feels mercy, wrath, satisfaction, etc.) and (4) perceptible qualities (God is visible, audible, etc.). Such passages posed a considerable problem for Islamic theologians and philosophers. When taken at face value, they seemed to imply that God is a corporeal being with the same physical aspects and constraints as finite, contingent, created beings. But not only is this conceptually incoherent, it leads to the sin of assimilating God to His creature (tashbih, lit. ‘making similar’), which amounts to a kind of paganism or idolatry. Hence, extreme traditionalists who subscribed to this kind of literalism were sometimes pejoratively referred to as mushabbiha (those who make God similar [tashbih] to created things, e.g. human beings) or mujassima (those who attribute to God a corporeal body [jism]). In order to avoid these problems, Mu‘tazilite theologians, Isma‘ilis and falasifa tended to emphasize God’s radical otherness (mukhalafa) and transcendence (tanzih, lit. ‘removing’ or ‘withdrawal’) – in a word, His incomparability to created beings.
   Considered on a more fundamental level, the very idea that God possesses a plurality of attributes in the manner that created things do threatens to undermine His absolute unity (tawhid ), and with it, His divinity, making Him similar to a created being. Thus, some thinkers went so far as to deny that God has any attributes at all, over and above His unitary essence. Both the rejection of anthropomorphic language and the denial of divine attributes as distinct entities required that they rely a good deal upon interpretation (ta’wil ) in order to bring revelation into accordance with the claims of reason. However, traditionalists, as well as the relatively more moderate Ash‘arite theologians, were quick to criticize this strategy, not simply because of the apparent primacy it granted to human reason, but because it amounted to stripping or divesting God of His attributes (ta‘til ), which itself is a sin and leads to atheism. Accordingly, they advocated the affirmation (ithbat) of God’s attributes, although without necessarily construing them as essentially similar to human qualities and traits. Ostensibly anthropomorphic descriptions of God should be understood ‘without (asking) how and without comparison’ (bila kayf wa la tashbih), i.e. without further specifying their modality. While for Hanbalites and other traditionalists, such affirmation oftentimes veered dangerously close to a kind of literalism, Ash‘arites sought to navigate a middle course between characterizing God in creaturely terms and overindulging in metaphorical interpretation, such that one divests God of attributes altogether. However, by the fifth/eleventh century, most orthodox theologians (excepting the Hanbalites) had abandoned the traditional bila kayf strategy and accepted metaphorical interpretations of anthropomorphic terms. Yet another conciliatory approach was put forth by Isma‘ilis and falasifa such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd, who recast the question by distinguishing what was appropriate in common, popular discourse from what was appropriate in expert, learned discourse.
   Further reading: Abrahamov 1998; van Ess 2006; Watt 1948

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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