God, attributes of

God, attributes of
(sifat Allah)
   Various theoretical problems are raised by the Qur’an’s portrait of God. One question is how to reconcile its insistence on God’s transcendence, uniqueness and radical otherness with its oftentimes human-like descriptions of His actions and characteristics. Another more fundamental problem is how to understand the ontological status of God’s ‘beautiful names’ (al-asma’ al-husna), or as they came to be known in theological and philosophical circles, God’s attributes. Certain attributes seemed relatively unproblematic because they denoted ‘negative’ qualities that clearly emphasized God’s unquestioned transcendence, e.g. His eternity (qidam), permanence (baqa’), dissimilarity to the created (al-mukhalafa bi al-hawadith) and selfsubsistence (qiyam bi al-nafsi). However, other more positive essential attributes such as God’s power (qudra), knowledge (‘ilm), life (hayat), will (irada), hearing (sam‘), sight (basar) and speech (kalam) did not square well with the idea of divine unity (tawhid ), regardless of whether or not they seemed explicitly anthropomorphic. For how could God be one and simple, yet at the same time possess a multiplicity of attributes? To admit multiplicity within God’s essence would be in effect to efface His very divinity, likening (tashbih) Him to an imperfect, finite creature. The Mu‘tazilite theologians, seeking to preserve God’s absolute oneness and transcendence (tanzih) against such crypto-anthropomorphism, denied the independent reality of the divine attributes, arguing that they signified nothing over and above God’s unitary essence (dhat). Traditionalists (committed to the unquestionable veracity of revelation as well as a robust, personalistic God) accused the Mu‘tazilites and their ilk of stripping (ta‘til ) God of His attributes, thereby reducing Him to a vague, abstract unity without content or character, in effect little more than an empty concept. While more extreme, literal-minded traditionalists contented themselves with simply asserting the reality of God’s attributes as expressed in the Qur’an, moderate traditionalists such as the Ash‘arite theologians affirmed them as real in a more cautious, qualified way, ‘without asking how’ or specifying their modality, yet also without comparing them to human qualities (bila kayf wa la tashbih). Their general strategy was to deny that the notion of multiple divine attributes necessarily compromised God’s essential unity. Later Ash‘arites such as al-Ghazali and Fakhr al- Din al-Razi found subtle methods by which to have their cake and eat it too, e.g. the theory of modes (ahwal ), according to which an attribute is attached to an existent but itself can be said neither to exist or not to exist. In this way the mainstream theologians attempted to uphold divine transcendence without allowing an overly enthusiastic human reason to divest God of His attributes altogether. In different ways, the Isma‘ili and Aristotelian philosophers furthered the path initially laid down by the Mu‘tazilites. The former interpreted the divine attributes as Neoplatonic hypostases or emanations of God (who remained the unknowable, mysterious One), while the latter generally resisted the idea that the divine attributes were ultimately something distinguishable from God’s unitary essence. One philosophical strategy was to cast the apparent multiplicity of God’s attributes as a function of human epistemology (i.e. the nature and limits of human knowledge) rather than any actual ontological multiplicity in God. Ibn Sina in particular argued powerfully against the notion of God as a composite being, since that would entail that He is somehow caused or conditioned – either by His components (final causes) or by that which composed Him (efficient cause). And to admit that God Himself is caused would be to admit that He too is a contingent (mumkin) rather than Necessary Existent (wajib al-wujud ). Indeed, in a bold effort to preserve God’s absolute unity from being infected with multiplicity, Ibn Sina maintains that God as First Cause and Necessary Existent has no essence as traditionally understood, since even that would entail that He is caused. Unlike merely possible or contingent created beings, in whom essence (mahiyya) and existence (wujud) are distinct and separable, God’s very essence is to be (anniyya, lit. ‘thatness’).
   Further reading: Burrell 1986; van Ess 2006; Watt 1962/85; Wisnovsky 2003; Wolfson 1976

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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