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What are the Essence and Attributes of God? Can we describe Him? How can we respond to those who ask, ‘Why can’t we see God?’, and ‘Given that God created everything, who created God?’

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.

Why can’t we see God?

The Quran teaches: Vision comprehends Him not, but He comprehends all vision (al-An’am, 6.103).

After the Prophet’s ascent to the heavens, peace be upon him, his Companions asked him if he had seen God. It is reported on the authority of Abu Dharr that, on one occasion, he answered: He is the Light. How do I see Him? (Sahih al-Muslim, ‘Iman,’ 291; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5, 147). And on another occasion, he answered: I have seen a Light. (Muslim, Iman, 292). These statements clarify the well-known saying, The light is the limit or veil of God (Muslim, ‘Iman,’ 293; Sunan Ibn Ma’ja, ‘Muqaddima,’ 13; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 4, 13). Between us and God is the light which He created. All that we see we see by that light, within that light-the light is the ground and environment and the limit of our seeing, and that light shields or veils us from God. In fact, we see but a part of that light of creation, we see but a part of what veils Him.

Let us consider the matter from another direction. Ibrahim Haqqi says: ‘In the whole universe of creation there is nothing that is either the like or the equal or the contrary of God. God is Exalted above all form, indeed immune to and free from form.’

It is only because existing things have a like or an equal or a contrary that we are able to distinguish them and perceive them. We know what is ‘long’ only against what is ‘short’ by comparison or contrast; similarly, we know ‘light’ only against what is ‘dark’. How then should we distinguish or perceive One who has neither like, nor equal, nor contrary? This is the meaning of the statement that God is Exalted above form.

Whatever conception of God we form in our minds, He is other than it.

The reader will certainly have understood that the question of those who ask to directly perceive God is but an image of the question of those who ask to directly ‘think’ or ‘know’ His Being. But, in truth, we can no more ‘think’ or ‘know’ His Being, than we can ‘see’ Him. Just as He is beyond all measures of form or qual­ity or quantity, He is also beyond all our powers of con­ception or reasoning. As the Muslims learned in kalam (theology) put it: ‘Whatever conception of God we form in our minds, He is other than it.’ And the Sufis say: ‘God is beyond; and beyond all our conceptions; and we are surrounded by thousands of veils.’

Men of wisdom have said that God exists and He can­not be comprehended by human reason, nor perceived by human senses. The only means to knowledge of Him is through the prophets, that is, the men whom God ap­pointed as bearers of His Revelation. Where perception and reason have no access, we need to, indeed we must, accept the guidance of Revelation.

Imagine that we are in a closed room and hear a knocking at the door of that room. We may well form some vague impressions about who is knocking, but we can no more than guess at his attributes. We know for certain only that there is knocking at the door, and that we are free to go to the door and, on opening it, ask the person to make himself known to us so that we obtain thereby a more secure knowledge of his true attributes.

This poor analogy may help us to more usefully ap­proach the question of how to seek God. The fact of Creation, the immensity of it combined with an essential unity of form, the sheer beauty and harmony of it, and its usefulness to us as well as its demands upon our la­bor and our understanding, all make us aware of the existence of the Creator. In just the same way as we de­duce from the manufacture of a wonderful diversity of fabrics out of a single material that there is certainly an agent who spins and mixes and dyes and weaves and otherwise prepares the final product, so we deduce from the stunning evidence of the Creation that there is a Creator. While a manufacturer of fabrics can be got hold of and may be persuaded to make himself known to us, no such impertinent curiosity can be addressed to the Creator. Indeed, it would be most incorrect to do so-as well as being impossible-just as impossible as it would be for the fabric to address such curiosity to the fabric-maker. Thus, without assistance from the Creator him­self, we can get no further than when, hearing the first knocking on the door, we began to indulge hopelessly vague surmises about who was knocking.

But the reality is that, by the Mercy of God, the Creation of mankind was accompanied by Revelation. Through God’s Revelation to the prophets and their teaching, the door is held open for us. We are enabled to respond to the Creation around us as signs manifesting not only the fact of the Creator’s existence but also His Attributes. Through the prophets we learn to contemplate His Attributes and to call them-the One, the All-Merci­ful, the All-Compassionate, the All Knowing, the All-Powerful, and so on. A true understanding of these At­tributes requires inward experience and contemplation, which are achieved only after sincere and total obser­vance of the Divine decrees, objective study and long, profound meditation, according to the pattern of the prophets. Only if a person has developed the inward faculties will he be able to grasp the meaning of the Di­vine works, that is, the Creation, and then rise to con­templation of the Divine Attributes manifested in it.

His Names are known, His Attributes are comprehended, and His Essence exists

Even then, it is by no means possible for any person to comprehend the Divine Essence. That is why it is said-‘His Names are known, His Attributes are compre­hended, and His Essence exists.’ In the words of Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, may God be pleased with him: To com­prehend His Essence means to confess that His Essence can not be comprehended.

What falls to us is to remain committed to our covenant with God, and to beseech Him in this way: ‘O You, who alone are worshipped! It needs no saying that we are unable to attain to true knowledge of You. Yet we be­lieve that You are indeed nearer to us than our neck-veins. We feel Your existence and nearness in the depths of our hearts through the universe which You have cre­ated and opened to us like a book, and through the won­derful harmony of form between the least and the largest of what You have brought into being. We come to per­ceive that we are integrated into the whole realm of Your theophanies, and by that perception our souls are rested and consoled, and our hearts find serenity.’

But there are some who do not seek any such serenity or indeed any inward life at all. They are of a mechanical turn of mind and readily fall into a mechanical kind of sophistry which entraps and paralyses their reason. They ask:

Given that God created everything, who created God?

When I first heard this question, I straightaway con­fessed again ‘and Muhammad is His Messenger’, for the Prophet, peace be upon him, predicted that this question would be raised. Indeed, he predicted a great many futu­re events of importance-all have come true and will continue to do so as time unfolds. On one occasion he said: A day will certainly come when some people will sit with their legs crossed and ask: ‘Given that God created everything, who created God?’ (Bukhari, ‘I‘tisam,’ 3).

Of course, those who put such questions are atheists or inclined to atheism and seek to lead others astray also. The purpose of their question is to avoid the responsibil­ity owed by a creature to the Creator, to avoid belief and worship. At best, the question is derived from the obser­vation of (what are taken to be) ‘cause and effect’ rela­tionships. Every circumstance can be thought of as an ‘effect’ and attributed to an antecedent circumstance or ‘cause’ which, in turn, is attributed to some circumstance antecedent to it, and so on. In the first place, it is obvi­ous to anyone who reasons objectively that the notion of ‘cause’ is only an hypothesis, it has no objective exis­tence: all that objectively exists is a particular, often (but not always) repeated sequence of circumstances. Sec­ondly, if this hypothesis is applied to existence as a whole, we cannot find a creator of it because each cr­eator must have a creator before that creator, in a never-ending chain. (In fact, the futile notion of a never-ending chain of creators was one of the arguments used by Mus­lim theologians to explain the necessity of believing in God.)

It is self-evident that the Creator must be Self-Subsistent and One, without like or equal. If any created being can be said to ‘cause’ anything, that capacity to ‘cause’ was itself created within that being. Thus, no being in the universe can be said to be self-existent; rather, it owes its existence to the Creator who alone is Self-Exis­tent as well as Self-Subsistent.

It is self-evident that the Creator must be Self-Subsis­tent and One, without like or equal. If any created being can be said to ‘cause’ anything, that capacity to ‘cause’ was itself created within that being. Thus, no being in the universe can be said to be self-existent; rather, it owes its existence to the Creator who alone is Self-Exis­tent as well as Self-Subsistent. It follows from the fact that the Creator alone truly creates that for each and every being He has determined all possible ‘causes’ and ‘effects’, all things whatever that come before or after it. Therefore, we speak of God as the Sustainer, who holds and gives life to His Creation from first to last. All ‘causes’ have their beginning in Him, and all ‘effects’ find their ending in Him. In truth, created things are no more than so many ciphers or zeros which, no matter how many we put in a series, add up to nothing, unless a positive ‘one’ is placed before the series to give it value. In just this way, the creation could have no real exis­tence, nor any value, except by God.

What we call ‘causes’ have no direct or independent influence in existence, no direct or independent ‘effects’. It may be that we need to speak of ‘causes and effects’ in order to understand how, in a short space and over a lit­tle period of time, some part of the Creation is made (by the Mercy of God) intelligible to us and available to us for our use. But even this but confirms our dependence upon God and our answerability before Him. It is not God who needs ‘causes and effects’ to create; rather it is we who need ‘causes and effects’ to understand what He has created. He alone is the First and the Last, the Eternal, the Initiator and the Determiner-and all our busy little efforts after cause and effect are but veils be­tween ourselves and His Majesty.

Let us then affirm once more: He, God, is One; God, the Self-Subsistent, Eternally-Besought-of-All; He neither begets nor was begotten; and nothing whatever is like unto Him.

O you who believe in the Unity of God! I have not been able find any evidence in the universe to prove my cause. But how can you prove the existence of a single One Who has infinite power? What are your grounds for rejecting the interference of other hands in the creation and operation of the universe besides His Power?

All of the creatures from particles to stars are each a clear proof for the necessary existence of the Necessarily Existent Being, the Absolutely Powerful One. Each link in the chain of the creation is a decisive evidence for His Unity. Among the numerous arguments which the Quran sets forth for the attention of all people, particularly in verses like,

If you ask them who has created the heavens and the earth, they will certainly say: God. (39:38)

Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors. (30:22)

it presents the creation of the heavens and the earth as an evident proof for God’s existence and Unity. A conscious man who considers the creation of the heavens and the earth will be compelled to confirm the existence of the Majestic Creator and when asked who their creator is, he will answer: God.

The Quran rejects any kind of partnership with God in the whole of the universe, from the stars and heavens down to particles. It means:

(Since like a human being the universe is an organism all parts of which work together and are interrelated with one another), the Absolutely Powerful One, Who has created the heavens and the earth in such perfect order, must be holding in His grasp of Power the solar system which is an amazing system.

Since that absolutely All-Powerful One holds the sun together with its planets in His grasp of Power, managing it and regulating its movements, the earth, which is a part of the solar system, moving in orbit round the sun, must be in His grasp of Power and management. Since the earth is in His grasp of Power and management, evidently, all of the creatures, which are created on it as its fruits and may be regarded as the goal of its existence, are in His grasp of Lordship (raising, administering and sustaining). Since all of the creatures, which are spread one by one or group by group successively over the whole face of the earth, and after adorning it for some time, are replaced by new ones, filling and then emptying the earth in a continuous cycle, are in His grasp of Power and Knowledge and are managed and arranged according to the measure of His Justice and Wisdom, then certainly, all the individual members of their species, which are each a well-designed and perfectly formed miniature of the universe, a pattern or specimen of its species, and a tiny index of the book of the universe, are in His grasp of Lordship, invention, raising and management. Since each living being is in His grasp of management and upbringing, then certainly the cells and blood corpuscles, and the limbs and nerves, which form the body of that living being, are under His command and at His disposal, and they move according to His laws. Lastly, the particles or atoms, which are essential building blocks constituting all those creatures and their parts and the means for their design and formation, will mostly certainly and necessarily be in His grasp of Power and in the sphere of His Knowledge, and will be moving most regularly and performing perfect duties by His command, permission and strength.

Since every particle moves and functions by His law, permission and command, certainly it is by His Knowledge and Wisdom that the face of each individual has special marks to distinguish that one from the others and like the faces, the sounds and tongues are all different from one another. Consider this verse which, in mentioning only the first and most universal link and the last and most individualized one, points to this chain of creation and the series of His signs in creation:

Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors. Indeed, in this are signs for those who know. (30:22)

Now we say: O representative of the people who associate partners with God! These are evidences as strong as the chains of creation, which point to an Absolutely Powerful One, and prove His Unity.

Since the creation of the heavens and the earth demonstrates an All-Powerful Maker and His boundless and infinitely perfect Power, most certainly He will be absolutely independent of partners. That is, He does not need partners in any way. While He has no need for them, why on earth do you follow this dark way of associating partners with Him? As He has no partners in His Divinity, so also any kind of partnership in His Lordship and creativity is impossible. For the Power of the Maker of the universe and the earth is boundless and infinitely perfect, before which the big or small, the universal or particular, the whole or the part, are equal. Supposing there were a partner, then this would require that a limited power should defeat boundless and infinitely perfect power or put a limit to it and infect it with incapacity. This is the most unreasonable of impossibilities and the most manifest inconceivability.

While there is no need for partners and the existence of any is inconceivable, it is merely a forced and arbitrary judgment to claim partnership with God. That is, since there is no justification whatever, either logical or reasonable or practical, for associating partners with God, it is a mere, insubstantial claim to make such a nonsensical assertion.

Any probability or possibility which does not arise from evidence is not to be considered, and does not injure conviction or certainty based on knowledge.

It is one of the principles of theology and methodology that any probability or possibility which does not arise from evidence is not to be considered, and does not injure conviction or certainty based on knowledge. For example, it is theoretically conceivable that Lake Van might change into oil or grape juice boiled to a heavy syrup. But since this is a mere possibility raised on the basis of no circumstantial evidence, it does not harm our certainty that it is water.

Similarly, we have inquired of all the parts of the universe: from particles to stars, and from the creation of the heavens and the earth to the individual differences of faces in the Second, whichever part we have asked of, it has testified to God’s Oneness and shown the stamp of His Unity. Since this is so, there is no circumstantial sign in the creatures of the universe, that any possibility or partnership with God could be founded on it. Therefore, since it is a mere, forced, meaningless and insubstantial claim to ascribe partners to God, any such claim is clear nonsense and pure ignorance.

Recommended Reading
Everything depends on a cause in the universe and takes place according to the cycle of cause and effect. since causality is apparent through the universe, it means that causes have an actual part in the creation and operation of things. if they have a part, they may be partners.

Last Updated on August 01, 2000

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