Attributes Of God

  • Category: Religion
  • Words: 2202
  • Grade: 60
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 difference 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 to the ideas of some influential western philosophers, some of whom were themselves believers. Nonetheless, they argued in such a way as to made people at least doubt , if not reject, some of the 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 heart of the new thinking was the view that our world is in every respect a closed system which 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 which claimed that it was 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, since it 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 atheist 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 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 creation, has received a serious blow from the steady state 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 a creator cannot support their claim by any scientific facts. But mere belief in the existence of a creator is not of much consequences. 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-steady state 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 we 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 are three major views concerning the nature of divine attributes among Muslim believers. These are the views of the mujassima or anthropomorphist, mu'attila or negators, and the muttbita or affirmers:


(a) The physicalistic or anthropomorphistic view thinks of God as a huge human being, and thus attributes to Him things like hearing, seeing, speaking, having eyes, etc., in a humanistic sense. 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 exist, and since God exists He must be physical and have the attributes 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 existence. But God is not physical. When He attributes to Himself, in the Quran, things like hearing, seeing, being above this world, 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? 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. 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' (learned men) who followed in their foot steps. 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, it that it is confused with the anthropomrphistic 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 ascribe Him as existence. What is He then? We cannot say anything positive about Him, they say: we can only say what He is not. Against this view, the affirmer view asserts that by refusing to liken Him to any physical existent, you end up likening Him to non-existence because it is only non-existence about which 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. Moreover, the affirmers might continue, the claim that a categorical 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. Admittedly, there is a verse in the Qur'an which says that "Nothing is like Him." The Jahmiyyah took this to be string 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 creatures. But you do not liken Him to them by merely saying that He exists and they exist, or that He knows and some of His creatures know. You do so only if you take His existence to be as ephemeral and dependent as the existence of His creatures and His knowledge to be as limited as theirs is limited.


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 one 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 that God sees or hears, what is meant is that He knows, because seeing and hearing in their real senses apply to animals only. There are three objections to this view.

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