Topic: History of Muslim explorations of God’s nature & Christian intersections

[Draft: Feb 20, 2012]



In this document (basically an appendix to the article on the Trinity: “Are there 3 Gods in One God, in the Trinity?”—howtrin.html), I want to show that the Muslim theologians and philosophers had the same/similar problems with their doctrine of tawhid (e.g., relationship between God’s essence and attributes) as the Christians had with the Trinity (e.g., God’s essence and internal hypostatic agents), and to overview the various solutions the Muslim scholarly tradition explored/came up with (and perhaps, why).


The form of this will basically be an outline – generally chronological – of the developments.


Opening comment on metaphysical explorations of this type


Only God can tell us what He is ‘like’ on the ‘inside’. Muslims and Christians both assert that some things about God can be known from nature & history. This is explicitly stated in both the Bible and the Quran.


We know He is ‘more than us’ in every aspect of existence, and this would include both His unity and His robustness. As a human, I am an integrated unity (a unity of body, soul, spirit) but God is more integrated than I—He is a unit of no ‘parts’. I am also a bundle of various attributes, capabilities, aspects, perspectives, elements (a plurality of internal states) but God is more robust than that--He has many more attributes, perspectives, internal states than do I. I am a simple being--but God is 'more simple'. I am a complex being--but God is 'more complex'.


He is beyond comparison with humans, so we should not think of Him as bound to our limitations of number, logic, or psychology [with some possible exceptions, to be considered later]. As humans, we cannot be “three full persons sharing one body” or “three full persons inside of each other”, but God could be, in His greatness, robustness, and otherness.


We are dependent on His revelation about such matters, and human reasoning (although created by God, and used by God) may easily err in trying to analyze the very being of God!


I am not terribly far away from the position described in an old Hanbalite creed (smile):


“They [true Muslims] are not upholders of analogical reasoning and reasoned opinion, for analogical reasoning in religion is worthless, and reasoned opinion is the same and worse.” [WR:ICAS, p39; Hanabalite creed, article 16]


I personally am convinced that we do know really know what creaturely ‘existence’ and ‘essence’ and ‘attributes’ ARE, enough to reason confidently from them to the existence, essence, and attributes of a transcendent God (see my doubts in The Linguistic Wall, phil0615.html). More technical terms such as hypostases, subsistence, and ‘modes’ inspire even greater epistemic unease in me. But within the spheres of discourse about this subject, I will be using the terms as others seemed to have used them—and they seemed to believe that they knew what those terms denoted, with a surprisingly (to me) high level of precision. [I have no quarrel with the precision of the various symbolic calculi and logics, of course, but only with the precision of the terms which we populate those symbols with—something along the lines of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Container metaphors (X is inside Y), for example, cast quite a veil over statements like “His attributes inhere in His essence” for me.]



Definition of tawhid


Modern definitions/descriptions and some of the creedal statements of tawhid are generally metaphysical statements about the ‘insides’ of God, and the current emphasis on tawhid as the decisive attribute of Islam is a recent phenomenon, and not reflective of earliest Islam.



“TAWHID. An Arabic term meaning literally "making one" or "unifying," is considered by many twentieth-century Islamic activists to be the axial or defining doctrine of Islam. Although tawhid has traditionally been recognized as a fundamental doctrine of Islam, its popularity as Islam's defining characteristic is a modern development. Indeed, the term is not mentioned in the Qur'an. Early theologians used it in their interpretations of the relationship between divine essence and divine attributes, as well as in their defense of divine unity against dualists and Trinitarians… [WR:OEMIW, s.v. “Tawhid”, 4:190ff]



The understandings of tawhid has been many and wide in the history of Muslim thought:


TAWHlD (a.), infinitive II of w-h-d, means literally "making one" or "asserting oneness" (Lane, p. 2927"). In consequence, it is applied theologically to the oneness (wahdaniya, tawahhud) of Allah in all its meanings. The word does not occur in the Kur'an, which has no verbal form from this root nor from the kindred *-h-d, but in the Lisan (iv. 464, „ to 465, , from below) there is an elaborate philo­logical statement of the usages of the different forms from these roots as applied to Allah and to men. Technically "the science of tawhid and of the Quali­ties" (‘lm al-tawhid wa 'l-sifat) is a synonym for "the science of kalam'' and is the basis of all the articles of the belief of Islam. In this definition the Mu'tazilites would exclude the quali­ties and make the basis tawhid alone. But unity is far from being a simple idea; it may be internal or external; it may mean that there is no other god except Allah, who has no partner (sharik); it may mean that Allah is a Oneness in himself; it may mean that he is the only being with real or absolute existence (al-hakk), all other beings having merely a contingent existence; it may even be developed into a pantheistic assertion that Allah is All. Again, knowledge of this unity may be reached by the methods of systematic theology (‘lm) or by religious experience (ma’rifa, mushahada); and the latter, again, may be pure contemplation or philosophical speculation.  In  consequence,  tawhid  may mean simply ‘There is no God but Allah’, or it may cover a pantheistic position.” [WR:SEI, s.v. “Tahwid”, 586f]





Earliest expressions in the history of Muslim theology


The Quran does not discuss the actual ‘insides’ of God. It describes God’s actions (past, present, and future), God’s will or law for His creatures (for example, to believe in His Scriptures and to do good to the poor), God’s character (for examples, Merciful and Just), and God’s attributes (for examples, All-knowing, all-powerful, and eternal).


The earliest Muslims had no problem talking about the multiple perfections within the one God. They simply accepted what their Scripture said, and those sayings were not twisted into meaning something other than what they appeared to say. When the Islamic scriptures said that God was One, they were understood to mean that there was only one God—only one being that could correctly be called God. It meant that there were not two gods, or three gods, or ten gods, or hundreds of gods. It meant that God had no partner gods, wife goddesses, or offspring gods -- sons or daughters. There were no other gods in existence to even be partners, wives, or children gods.


To say that God was One was to say that God was alone, that God was different from everything else, and that God had no equals or rivals.


For the first generation of Muslims, it did not mean that God had nothing inside His being. It did not mean that God did not have some kind of multiplicity or diversity or differentiations within His infinite being. They accepted – on the basis of their understanding of their scripture—that God had both knowledge and power within His being, that God had both mercy and justice within His character, and that God was both Creator and Sustainer of an external creation. But they did not think that these everyday expressions in prayers or praise somehow made them into polytheists! They used these expressions because God had used those expressions in the former scriptures (the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) and they read these in their Quran, in describing His actions in history, His attitudes toward us, and His wonderful character.

“This doctrine of the divine unity, of the inalienable quality of God's divinity, was a tremendous passion in Muhammad's heart. By virtue of remoteness beyond all intermediaries, God was half unreal to the pagans. To Muhammad Allah was the only real God, whom the Meccans might acknowledge and yet ignore, sav­ing their intimate worship for familiar substitutes. Did not God say (Surah 50.16): "We know what man's soul whispers and are nearer than his neck artery"? The messenger was dominated by the divine reality and spoke of God and for God in the burning language of conviction. … The strictly theological problems were all postponed, to be taken up in the centuries after Islam's expansion by thinkers other than Arab with more inquiring minds and less intensity of pur­pose. Indeed "postponed" is perhaps an inexact term. The prob­lems were not consciously deferred. They were not even felt. They had no place to develop in a mind that was fully possessed with its single mission. There is no valid understanding of Muslim theology that does not first strive to enter into this vivid awareness where it had its genesis.” [WR:Cragg, 33]



A Selective Timeline of Muslim Theology until Modern times


For purposes of our discussion, we should note the rough sequence and time lines of theological development in Islam (and some of the figures we will refer to in this discussion). [The time periods/descriptions here come from Nagel’s The History of Islamic Theology, (WR:HIT, 285ff).]



Beginnings: 40-130 / 660-750ad. Umayyad dynasty.


This period reveals the beginning of theological thought, as the crises of understanding the varying geo-political events challenged mainstream Islam. The dominant issue of the day was of sovereignty of Allah (mediated through His rulers) versus freedom of the human will. These were specifically connected with the political realm, in the very practical question of whether one should submit to an ‘evil’ or ‘non-authenticated’ ruler.


“It was the tension between free will and determinism that gave rise to the first properly theological dispute in Islam” [WR:CCCIT:38]




The first major name that shows up in our period is that of the Qadarites, who held to the freedom of the will:


“The earliest document of the movement is the Risala of Hasan al-Basri; it was certainly composed between 75/694... and 80/699.... From it the moderate wing of the Qadariyya drew its argument: God creates only good; evil stems from men or from Satan. Man chooses freely between the two; but God knows from all eternity what man will choose. He only “leads him into error” if man has first given him occasion for this through his sin. Hasan viewed this thesis, which he supports with subtle Quranic exegesis, as “orthodox” (p. 68, 9 ff.). In fact this was certainly no “innovation”, but it was only now systematically formulated for the first time. [EI, s.v. "Kadariyya"]


Nagel points out that this issue came to the forefront, because of the ‘non-prophetic’ status of the Umayyad caliphs:


“The idea that the obedience demanded of Muslims was based on God's express wish, which is often emphasized in the Medinese suras, was certainly fascinating to the Umayyads and their eulogists, for it gave more clout to the Quraysh's claim to power, which they had expressed even in pre-Islamic times. The "successor to God's messenger" became "God's deputy," the executor of the supreme will, to which the "herd" had to succumb without protest.


“The Umayyad caliphs, however, were not prophets, nor did they ever claim to be. It was this lack of authority that led up to the question of the content of their sovereign commands, which was difficult to answer: Why was it that God wanted exactly this and nothing else? There was still no Islamic law, not even in rough outlines. Under such circumstances, could obedience to the rulers really guarantee their subjects' salvation? Did the caliphs convey the "guidelines to righteousness" that were so fervently sought? The charge leveled at the Umayyads time and again by a broad movement of discontent, that they were nothing but "kings," proves that that question had to be answered in the negative if one compared the situation with the ideal image that was painted of the Prophet's original community. Indeed, being a prophet and being an Umayyad caliph were two entirely different matters. Muhammad had always held that ruling the believers was by no means his ultimate goal; he was the conveyor of a message, a warner who did not even have the power to enforce the commands God had revealed to him: "Say: 'He is able to send forth upon you chastisement, from above you or from under your feet, or to confuse you in sects and to make you taste the violence of one another.' Behold how We turn about the signs; happily they will understand. Thy people have cried it lies; yet it is the truth. Say: I am not a guardian over you. Every tiding has its time appointed; you will surely know.'" That is how the late Meccan sura 6 puts it (verses 65-67).


“In Mecca the political and social situation had forced Muhammad to show such restraint; yet the same concept determined his self-image in Medina as well. If he demanded obedience from the believers, he always did so in the name of God, and even as a prophet he was subject to the law the Supreme One had him proclaim, just like all other members of the community were. In that sense, Muhammad was always on the same level with all the other believers. Quite differently, however, the Umayyad ruler as "God's deputy"! He acted on God's behalf and—to use the phrase in sura 6, verse 67—was certainly the guardian of all his subjects, the "herd."


“In the young community of followers of the new belief, a community that was barely held together by clearly defined tenets or a binding tradition, this momentous shifting of weights was felt very keenly. For lack of clear concepts, the community members argued heatedly about the caliphs' tyranny and injustice (zulm), all the more so since, under 'Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705), profitable expeditions were hardly possible any longer, and he established a strict order at home, where there was so much destruction after extended civil wars. That is the historical background for the earliest specifically theological documents Islam has produced. These sources center around the Arabic term qadar, which in the Koran refers to the measurement of something, a measurement determined by God; as a verb, the root qadar expresses God's determining measures that irrevocably influence human fate: as far back as when He created the world, He determined once and for all the food supply for each individual (sura 41, verse 9); he also determined the stations of the moon (sura 36, verse 39). Thus the verb qadara refers to God's independently disposing of what He has created, about which man can do nothing; in relation to God the idols worshiped by the Meccans—which were created, just like those worshiping them were—were pathetic slaves who could not determine anything of their own volition." In other words, the concept of divine qadar occupies that area of meaning where God's ever-active care merges with the predetermination of the individual's fate.


“Where do we find that gray area in real life? This was the question which stirred up fierce arguments at the time; there were some scattered audacious men who did not want that area to begin until far beyond all human activities and endeavors, men who tried to maintain that the individual was endowed with a large degree of self-determination. They granted human beings virtually their own, independent qadar, and we find them in the history of Islamic dogma under the name of "Qadarites."


“Obviously, "God's deputy" could not be pleased with views of this sort. To be sure, the Qadarites did not assail the Umayyad ideology of power directly, but people who are convinced they have their own qadar are bad sheep in a herd that is supposed to wait passively for the orders of "God's deputy”. [WR:HIT, 36-38]




But we also see specific reflection on the nature of God and His attributes, and the issue of how to understand anthropomorphic references in the Qur’an. Some of the positions espoused very literal interpretations of the Quranic text, while others—at the peril of their proponents—taught a strong transcendentalism, not unlike positions later taken by Muslim philosophers (e.g. that God was unknowable, could not be related to creation, was not a thing/shay…). It is during this time that the ‘problem’ of the anthropomorphic passages becomes acute.


The Medinans show a simplistic approach, which anticipates many later pronouncements:


“Led mostly by descendants of the Companions, some of whom were descended from Abu Bakr and 'Umar I, the Medinans kept alive the memory of those men as exemplary rulers, against the opinions of the ShI'a and others. They also perpetuated a simple and literal-minded understanding of the verses describing God in the Qur'an. Thus, in interpreting Qur'an 20:5: "The All-Compassionate is established on the throne," Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), the eventual systematiser of Medinan legal thought, is said to have commented: "This establishment is known- but its mode is unknown- belief in it is a duty-but inquiring about it is a [reproved] innovation." Too much metaphysics, for Malik, was clearly a bad thing. As is indicated by the many deterministic traditions that came to be circulated, even in the earliest major work of such traditions, the Muwatta' of Malik, the Medinans also tended to uphold the predestinarian view that was being endorsed by the Umayyad caliphs.” [WR:CCCIT:42]



Islamic theology was widely divided on God’s nature during this period (and the one after it), and some of the early statements about God’s nature sound almost bizarre. Some of the early sources mentioned are called the ‘likeners’, since they ‘liken’ God to humanity.


“Muslim theologians faced the problem of anthropomorphism on account of the equivocal teaching of the Qur'an and on account of philosophical considerations. The Qur'an states, on the one hand, that there is nothing that equals God, and that He has no like (Qur'an 42.11, 112.4), but on the other hand, it describes Him as having a face, hands and eyes and as talking, and sitting on the Throne and as having feelings (Qur'an 55.17, 38.75, 54.14, 2.153, 20.5, 2.26). Traditions also support the claim that God is a body. Those who are supposed to have advocated anthropomorphism (likening God to man- tashbih) brought forward rational arguments in addition to their literal interpretation of the sacred texts. On the assumption that only bodies have existence, they argued that since God exists, He is a body. Also whoever acts must be a body, according to reality and reason. Since God acts, He must be a body. The counter arguments were that since any body is composed of parts, whereas God is one, and since any body is produced in time whereas God is eternal, it is inconceivable to liken God to a body. … The question of the identification of the likeners (mushabbihun) is difficult, for no Muslim theologian declared openly that he was a mushabbih. The same is true concerning the opposite view. Thus, the following reports must be cautiously examined. According to al-Shahrastani, those who adhered to tashbih were a group of extreme Shi'ites (jama'a min al-shia al-ghaliya) and a group of gross traditionists (jama'a min ashab al-hadith al-hashwiyya). Al-Ash'ari, however, seems to be right in stating that the early Rafidites adhered to tashbih, whereas the later ones rejected it. But there were also exceptions, such as Hisham ibn al-Hakam, a proto-Shi'ite theologian and a contemporary of the Imams Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765) and Musa al-Kazim (d. between 797 and 804), who appear in the sources either as a mushabbih or as rejecting tashbih. There were individuals whom some sources called mushabbihun without reservations, but their writings show them in a different light; such a one is Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767), a Qur'an exegete, who is reported as saying that God is a body, flesh and blood. The case of Muqatil needs further examination, because it demonstrates the unreliability of the sources where we learn about his views. His exegesis of the Qur'an which is now available presents him in a different way.” [WR:AIQ, 1f]



“The Kuran mentions God’s face (wadjh), His eyes (though never in the dual, only in the plural and in the singular), His hands, in a certain way His side ( sura XXXIX, 56), and possibly His leg ( LXVIII, 42). But all the passages involved had a primarily metaphorical meaning; in the two last cases, the connection with God had even intentionally to be established first. Some of them were further elaborated in Hadith. Sura XXXVIII, 75 which implied God’s having created Adam “with His own hands” was filled out by saying that He kneaded Adam’s clay for forty days; XXXIX, 67, “the earth altogether shall be His handful on the Day of Resurrection”, was made more concrete by asking which part of it will be on each finger; when, in VII, 143, God was supposed to have made Mount Sinai “crumble to dust”, people thought that He achieved that by merely putting out the tip of His little finger. In this way, even a new limb was added; since, according to L, 30, Hell is going to ask “Are there any more (sinners) to come?”, one could imagine God putting his foot (kadam) into the fire in order to quench its heat. The most important addition, however, was the statement of Gen. i. 27, according to which God created Adam in His image (‘ala suratihi); this was not found in the Kuran and became now, via hadith, the basis of theological speculation. The word sura (for Hebrew demut, which simply meant “likeness”) referred to sura VII (sawwarnakum “We shaped you”), and LXIV, 3 (ahsana suwarakum “He shaped you well”); the question then was how man’s beautiful shape reflected God’s own appearance. … The question had two sides. One could speculate about the similarity in man; then one could say, e.g., that Adam, as long as he was in Paradise, had been a lot taller than later human beings since God is immensely big. But normally, one concentrated on the similarity in God: He looks like the blessed in Paradise, young and with curly hair, perhaps 32 years old (like Jesus!), perhaps only about 15, like a youth who has not yet grown his beard. His size is seven spans, as said Mukatil b. Sulayman and afterward Hisham b. al-Hakam, ideal spans which were not necessarily identical with human ones. In order to link these popular conceptions with the Kuran, the theologians discovered the enigmatic attribute samad in CXII, 2. They understood it as “solid, massive” and saw in it the description of a bodily constitution which guarantees unity (the topic of the entire sura). God is not hollow or porous, as said Mukatil b. Sulayman; only man is hollow, and he is porous because he consists of clay. Man has a cavity ( djawf ), namely, his chest and his belly; God does not. God therefore does not need food; He has neither digestion nor sexuality. He “does not beget nor has He been begotten” ( CXII, 3). But He speaks and He thinks, for He is wise. This is why Dawud al-Djawaribi pretended, in contrast to Mukatil, that God can only be massive in His lower part. He has to be hollow from His waist upward, since His speech, i.e. revelation, comes forth from His mouth and His wisdom, namely, the Kuran, from His heart, i.e. from His chest. Shi’i theology tried to attenuate this approach by conceiving God as a luminous being which has a different and much more subtle matter than man. Hisham al-Djawaliki, though still thinking of God as having a “form”, imagined Him to consist of white light which only changed into black when His profuse hair had to be described. Hisham b. al-Hakam then gave up the sura concept altogether and merely ascribed to God an ideal geometrical shape which he called a “body” (djism ) in the philosophical sense of the word (like soma in Stoicism). ” [EI, s.v. “tashbih”]




But in the more mainstream of Islamic theology would be the writings of Muqatil b. Sulayman during this period. Muqatil was a traditionalist and his tafsir (commentary) is the earliest extant one we have.


“Muqatil b. Sulayman al-Balkhl (d. 150/767). A mawla of the Asad, a traditionist and an exegete, Abu l-Hasan Muqatil b. Sulayman b. Bashir al-Azdl al-Khurasani al-Balkhi (d. 150/767) was born in Balkh (in modern-day Afghanistan) and lived in Marw and Iraq. His scholarly activities took him as far afield as Beirut and Mecca. Muqatil's case is very special within the field of Quranic tafsir, as his tafsir of the Qur'an is most likely the earliest extant commentary. Given the general sensitivity surrounding the issue of early Islamic texts, scholars tend to be sceptical about the authenticity of early commentaries on the Qur'an, but they are less so with Muqatil's tafsir. The case for its authenticity is based on the consistently uniform nature of the author's approach in his commentary, and the conformity of these characteristics to what we know about Muqatil as an exegete and theologian from later sources that make reference to him. First, he makes fairly abundant use of Biblical narratives (isra’iliyyat) for his comments on any Qur'anic reference to pre-Islamic Judaeo-Christian figures or events. Second, he does not hesitate to interpret anthropomorphic verses about God literally, so that for him God has a hand, an eye and sits on a throne, etc.…The exegetical corpus ascribed to him is rarely, if at all, acknowledged in the works of later Sunni traditionists (ashab al-hadith); often exegetical reports are reproduced without explicit mention of his name as transmitter or narrator. It seems likely that this was on account of his disregard for isnads, his perceived exaggerated dependence on the Biblical isra’liyyat material, and his proclivity to interpret Qur'anic anthropomorphic verses in a quite literal manner. Despite these 'blemishes', and even though he is not explicitly cited by later commentators such as Tabari, it is clear that his work was always a source for Qur'anic exegetical material.”[WR:AAQC1, 21f]



“Muqatil's interpretation of the word "eye" (‘ayn) is twofold; in one place (Qur'an 11.37 "Make the Ark under Our eyes and Our revelation") he understands it as knowledge, presumably according to the context. In three other places (54.13-14, 20.39 and 52.48) he just says that it is "God's eye". Thus, in the first example he uses the device of figurative speech (ta'wil), and in the three other examples he simply states that it is God's eye without stating either that it is a human eye or other kind of eye which means that he believes in the sacred text but cannot know its meaning. In other words, only God knows its interpretation. Qur'an 20.5 ("The All-compassionate sat Himself upon the Throne" tr. Arberry) is literally interpreted by Muqatil so that "He sat Himself upon" equals "He established Himself on". He does not state that this act is like a human act. Likewise, Muqatil affirms man's vision of God without stating its modality. In doing so he may be regarded as the forerunner of the theory of bi-la kayfa. To sum up, according to his exegesis, Muqatil was not a mushabbih contrary to the reports on him, made by later sources. Very probably, these sources blamed him of tashbih on the grounds of his Murji'ite tendencies. An accusation of tashbih seems to have been an efficient weapon in Islamic theological struggles.” [WR:AIQ, 5]




And the various transcendentalist positions—much closer to the ‘remote/Other’ Allah of the philosophers-- were also condemned early.


“Unrestricted anthropomorphism did not withstand the onslaught of the Mu’tazilis; their theology in this respect shaped the Islamic identity until today. Before their time, transcendentalism had a precarious stand; Dja’d b. Dirham and Djahm b. Sufwan were both executed, though probably for political rather than dogmatical reasons. At that time, in the late Umayyad period, part of Islamic theological thinking may still have been tinged by a Neoplatonic spirit. Dja’d b. Dirham pretended that God could never have taken Abraham as His “friend” (khalil; cf. IV, 125) or have spoken to Moses; possibly he also denied Muhammad’s having seen God during the mi’radj. Djahm b. Safwan rejected God’s being heard or seen, too; for him, God was simply the absolute Power. God is not only beyond any form, but also beyond being as such; he is not anything (shay). This was more than the Mu’tazilis later on admitted.” [EI, s.v. ‘tashbih’]



For example, we see the (heretical) position of the Jahmites in this period:


“Jahmites. The followers of Jahm ibn Safwan Abu Muhriz (d. 128/145), a radical heretic who taught that God had no attributes, i.e. a God beyond any comprehension and apprehension, but who also followed to an extreme the opinions of the determinists, and apparently held that man had no free-will. This implied that salvation was pre-determined and that man, in effect, could not work either for, or against, his salvation. The Jahmites were condemned by Abu Hanlfah in his Fiqh Akbar.” [WR:NEI, s.v. Jahmites]


“As soon as questions were asked about the exact meaning of the words by which the Koran describes God, these difficulties were bound to come to the surface. On the one hand, the one God is supposed to always be present in His creation, giving it direction. The Koran wants us to perceive with our senses, apply our names to, and consider the way He guides His creation; God has many different ways of recognizing the world and acting in it. Furthermore, these ways are comparable to humankind's, except that they are far superior to them inasmuch as they comprise everything there is and, owing to God's universal responsibility, cannot be thwarted: He sees and hears everything, no one can defy Him, especially not the idols the Meccans worshiped! He pervades everything, in which regard He is comparable to the "natures" of the ancient traditions, and at the same time He is supposed to be entirely different from His creation. He is a person with human features, and yet this is exactly what He must not be—a disconcerting dilemma! … This dilemma could be avoided most easily by de-emphasizing one aspect in favor of the other, which was attempted as early as the end of the Umayyad era. A certain Ja'd ibn Dirham, whom tradition connects to the last Umayyad, Marwan II (r. 744-750), is supposed to have said that Abraham could not have been God's friend, and God could not have talked to Moses either. Statements like this must have been perceived as shocking denials of what the Koran stated. Whether they are the reason Ja'd was executed in Kufa or Wasit around 743 is uncertain. What is clear, however, is the thrust of his arguments: God's transcendent character did not allow direct contact with Him; consequently, the truth of statements in the revelation claiming the opposite was eminently doubtful. The awareness of contradictions of this kind inevitably led to the nature of the revelation itself becoming a subject of debate. … Jahm ibn Safwan (d. 746) was given to similar reflections. He was from Tirmidh or Samarkand and was active in the eastern part of the Islamic empire. Tradition has it that he conducted disputes with the so-called Sumaniyya, a movement that apparently did not believe in a personal god. The Sumaniyya may have been Buddhists; at that time Tirmidh was the center of Central Asian Buddhism, which was still in full bloom. It is certainly conceivable that in his discussions with the Buddhists Jahm ibn Safwan felt compelled to struggle for a rational and transcendent concept of God. … In his theology Jahm made a clear distinction between God and everything he termed a "thing" (shai'). One must not call God a "thing." This was entirely in agreement with the Koran, for in sura 39, verse 63, we read that God is the Creator "of every thing," and sura 42, verse 9, states that "like Him there is naught." … By definition, God's being absolutely transcended the being of every "thing." One must by no means ascribe the quality of a "thing"—which was created in time—to God; this would imply a similarity between God and the created things….The theological movement of the Jahmiyya blossomed particularly in the Islamic world's eastern part in the second half of the eighth century. We are familiar with it especially through the polemical statements leveled against it that disparaged them as "deflating" (al-mu'attila), precisely because it divested the concept of God of all conceivability” [WR:HIT, 101f]


Early Islam may have rejected transcendentalism early (only for it to rise again later), but it took a while and a lot of battles before it accepted that God did not have a body!


“After a long fight among the theological schools the incorporeality of God was recognized by Islam.” [EI, s.v. “djism”/body]



But it is during this early, pre-formative period that the Christian doctrine of the trinity influences (or even ‘raises’?) the issue of the relationship between God’s essence and His attributes.


This period ends at 750ad, and we know that Muslim-Christian debates occurred before the death of the Christian leader John of Damascus in 754. 


Hoyland [WR:SIAOSI] has a chapter on the “Apologies and Disputations” written by non-Muslims about their (alleged) encounters with Islamic theology.


“The roots of these controversies between the Muslims and their subject peoples went back to the late seventh and early eighth century, when Islam first began to present itself as "the religion of truth," so challenging other faiths. But the debate only gathered momentum once Arabic, established as the administrative language of the empire by late Umayyad times, had become accepted as the international medium of scholarship. Whereas only eight authors are known to have polemicised in Syriac against Islam from the seventh to the thirteenth century in Muslim-ruled lands, and even fewer in Greek, as many did so in Arabic in the first Abbasid century (750-850) alone. The emergence of Arabic as a lingua franca and the patronage of scholarship by the early Abbasid rulers sponsored a kind of Islamic "enlightenment," fuelled by the transmission of Greek learning into Arabic, and made Iraq of the ninth and tenth centuries a centre of lively altercations amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans and pagan philosophers over the nature of truth and knowledge.” [WR:SIAOSI:457]


Here are the major ones/dates he lists (pre-10th century), remembering that many of these would be literary fictions, but still representative of real interactions between the Muslims and their subject peoples:


Syriac texts:

·        Patriarch John I and an Arab Commander (possible event in 639 or 644; text in early 700s)

·        A Monk of Beth Hale and an Arab Notable (text before 750)

·        Timothy I and caliph Mahdi (between 780 and 785)

·        Story of the monk Bahira (pre-850)


Greek texts:

·        John of Damascus (writing in the 730s)

·        Correspondence of Leo III (717-41) and Umar II (717-20)


Christian Arabic Texts:

·        On the Triune Nature of God (737 to 788)

·        Papyrus Schott Reinhard no. 438 (late 700s)

·        Questions and the rational and religious answers thereto (late 700s)


Jewish texts:

·        The Ten Wise Jews (750-800)


Persian/Zoroastrian texts:

·        Debate before caliph Mamum (813-33)

·        Doubt-Dispelling Exposition (pre New Persion, c.820s)


Latin texts:

·        Istoria de Mahomet by John of Seville (based upon pre-750 Greek text)



Several of these texts and/or events occur before the rise of the Muslim rationalists (Mutazila) in the 770-847ad timeframe, and as such, demonstrate that early debates about the unity of God, His essence and attributes, and revelatory language played a major role in the very emergence of the Islamic ‘problem of the attributes’.


Wolfson describes what such a dispute might have looked like [WR:POK,129-132]:


“Now from the Disputatio Christiani et Saraceni by John of Damascus (d. ca. 754) we learn that in Syria, after its conquest by the Muslims in 635, there were debates between Christians and Muslims on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Let us then sketch some such typical debate between a Christian and a Muslim. In such a debate the Christian presumably begins by explaining that of the three hypostases in the Trinitarian formula, namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by Father is meant what is generally referred to by both Christians and Muslims as God and by Son and Holy Spirit are meant the properties life and knowledge or life and power or knowledge and power. Turning then to the Muslim, the Christian asks him if he has any objection to the Christian application of these properties to God. Immediately the Muslim answers that he has no objection, adding that the Koran explicitly describes God as "the living" (al-hayy), as "the knowing" (al’alim) and as "the powerful" (al-kadir).


“The Christian then goes on to report how among the Christians there is a difference of opinion with regard to the nature of the second and third hypostases, by which, as he has already explained, are meant various combinations of the properties life, knowledge, and power. Some Christians, branded as heretics, maintain that these two hypostases are mere names of God. Most Christians, however, and they are the people of right belief, regard these two hypostases as real things which, while distinct from the essence of God, are inseparable from it. Turning again to the Muslim, the Christian asks him whether he has any objection to the view that life, knowledge, and power, as properties of God, are real things inseparable from the essence of God. After some deliberation the Muslim answers that there is nothing in the Koran which could be taken to mean opposition to such a view and consequently he is willing to agree with the people of right belief among the Christians that life, knowledge, and power as properties of God are real things.


“The Christian continues by reporting that among those Christians who regard the second and third hypostases as real things there are some, again branded as heretics, who maintain that these two hypostases are created, whereas all the others, and they are again the people of right belief, maintain that the second and third hypostases are coeternal with the first hypostasis. Turning once more to the Muslim, the Christian asks him what his view is with regard to the origin of life, knowledge, and power as properties of God. Immediately the Muslim answers that, inasmuch as Muslims believe that God is eternally living and eternally knowing and eternally powerful, these three properties, already admitted by him to be real things, are also admitted by him to be coeternal with God.


“The Christian is then about to conclude his argument. First, he says, inasmuch as Christians believe that anything eternal is to be called God, the second and third hypostases are each to be called God, thus the three hypostases are to be called three Gods. Second, he says, he is going to prove by arguments that these three Gods are really one God. But at this point the Muslim interrupts him by saying: Spare your arguments, for whatever they may be, the Prophet has warned us against them by his statement that "they surely are infidels who say, God is the third of three, for there is no God but one God."


“Thus gradually in the course of such debates Muslims came to admit that life, knowledge, and power as properties of God are real things but to deny that they are to be called Gods, which admission and denial constitute the Muslim belief in real attributes as distinguished from the Christian belief in the Trinity.


“This is how the doctrine of real attributes was introduced into Islam.


“Originally, as we have seen, only three terms, variously arranged in lists of two terms, were declared to be real attributes, and this because these three terms in various combinations were, to the knowledge of the Muslims, used by Christians, in their formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, as designations of the second and the third persons, namely, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Two other terms, speech (or word) and will, were soon added, as we shall see, to the original list of real attributes, and this, again, because these terms were used by Christians as designations of one of the persons of the Trinity, the Son, and were thus brought into play in the debates between Muslims and Christians. Gradually other new terms were added and various lists of attributes were drawn up, all of them based, as says Maimonides, upon "the text of some book," that is to say, some text of the Koran or of the Sunnah as recorded in a Sahih. From (al-) Bagh-dadl we may further gather that while the orthodox Attributists confined their lists of attributes to those terms by which God is described in the Koran and the Sunnah — and any term so used in them could be included in a list of attributes — the Basra Mu'tazilites allowed description of God by terms not found in the Koran and the Sunnah, and one of them, al-Fuwati, on the other hand, forbade description of God even by some terms found in these two sources.


“Thus the orthodox Muslim belief in the reality of attributes is traceable to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.




Beginnings: 150-227 / 770-847ad. Dominance of Mutazila/problem of Oneness.


This period reveals the development of rationalist Islamic theology, partly from self-reflection, but perhaps predominantly from its encounter and polemic with other religions – mostly notably Christian Trinitarian thought (in its varied formulations of the time).


The rationalists (Mutazila, also called anti-attributists in our literature) arose to dominance early, with the traditionalists (aka atttributists in our literature) reacting to their positions in the next period.


“The early emphasis on divine unity among Muslim rationalists appears to have resulted from the perceived influence of Manichaean dualism on some groups of Shi’Is. But rational arguments for divine unity were more fully developed in the context of arguments over the status of a sinner, made famous by the Qadarlyah, Khawarij, and Murji'ah, and particularly in debates re­garding the status of the Qur'an as created or not cre­ated, and how the multiplicity evident in the world could have proceeded from a creator who is essentially one. … The Muctazilah, among the earliest groups of thinkers identified by their rationalist approach to Islamic doc­trines, held that the Qur'an was created. As such, it is to be distinguished from the divine essence, which is unitary (simple), eternal, and unchanging. The Qur'an is the word of God, created in time for humanity. Oppo­nents of the Muctazilah held that the Qur'an was uncre­ated, part of the essence of God. To the Mu'tazilah, this position appeared to compromise divine immutability, and thus divine simplicity, and ultimately divine unity itself. Indeed, divine unity (tawhid) became, with divine justice, the Mu'tazilah's first principle. They were known as "the people of justice [‘adl] and unity [tawhid]." … Ninth-century cAbbasid caliph al-Ma'mun (r. 813— 833) gave official sanction to the Mu'tazill position; be­lief that the Qur'an was created was proclaimed an arti­cle of faith. However, that position was perceived as a threat to the traditionalists' position. The divine es­sence, according to the Muctazilah, is beyond human comprehension, whereas the Qur'an, the divine word, is accessible to human reason. Therefore, the anthropo­morphic references to God in the Qur'an must be considered allegorically. The traditionalists, however, fa­vored a literal interpretation of the Qur'an and reliance on the practice of the early Islamic community—both without rationalist interpretation—as the model for community leadership. Al-Ma'mun's position, there­fore, sparked a rebellion of sorts among their ranks. Traditionalist Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) was impris­oned, both for his vocal opposition to the doctrine of the created Qur'an and for his insistence that human reason and authority are to be resorted to only in the rare instances where the Qur'an is silent on a subject and there is no precedent to be derived from early Mus­lim practice. … By the middle of the ninth century, the caliph's au­thority was severely weakened, and the traditionalists gained dominance in positions of doctrine and jurispru­dence. [WR:OEMIW, s.v. “Tawhid”, 4:190ff]



Closer to our topic, the Mutazila specially rejected the position that God had qualities or attributes which were ‘distinct from’ God’s essence. They maintained that any such quality or attribute (especially those in the 99 Names) were identical with God’s essence and not something independent ‘inside’ God.


“The first of the five points of the Mu'tazilites was that of "unity" or rather "assertion of unity" (tawhid), since the Arabic word means literally "the making one". This implied for them much more than the mere assertion that God was one and that there were not many gods. The Muslims were accustomed to say that God had ninety-nine "beautiful names", most of which are mentioned in the Qur'an; seven of them received special attention from the theologians: the Knowing (or Omni-scient), the Powerful (or Almighty), the Willing, the Living, the Hearing, the Seeing, the Speaking. Some theologians held that God had certain attributes (sifat) corresponding to these names, namely, Knowledge, Power, Will, etc. To the Mu'tazilites, however, this seemed to be introducing an element of multiplicity into the unity of the divine nature or essence (nafs, dhat), and in insisting on "unity" they were asserting that these attributes had no sort of independent or hypostatic existence, but were merged in the unity of God’s being. In so far as God knew, he knew by himself or his essence, and not by any hypostatic Knowledge. [WR:IPT, 63f]


“On the doctrine of Allah, they, as we have seen, especially objected to his qualities. These were contrary to his unity; at least they must be described as being his essence, not as in his essence. But they tended to reject them altogether, and to reduce Allah to a vague unity. [WR:SEI, s.v. “Allah”, 37f]



But the Mutazila rejection of the (independent or hypostatic) reality of the attributes was connected polemically against Christian thought:


“A suggestion as to the Christian origin of the belief in the reality of divine attributes is to be found in the discussion of that problem in the literature of the time when the problem was still a vital issue. The belief in the reality of divine attributes was characterized by those who were opposed to it as being analogous to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Abul-faraj, also known as Bar Hebraeus, speaking of the Mu'tazilites, who denied the reality of divine attributes, says that thereby they steered clear of "the persons (akanim) of the Christians,"  the implication being that the belief in the reality of divine attributes indirectly steers one into the belief of the Christian Trinity. 'Adad al-DIn al-Iji similarly reports that the Mu'tazilites accused those who believed in the reality of divine attributes of having fallen into the error of the Christian belief in the Trinity. And prior to both of them, among the Jews, David al-Mukammas, Saadia, Joseph al-Basir, and Maimonides, evidently reflecting still earlier Muslim sources, whenever they happen to mention the Muslim doctrine of the reality of divine attributes, compare it to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It is thus in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity that we must look for the origin of the Muslim doctrine of divine attributes. [WR:POK:112f]



The Mutazila were brilliant, but their thought led to extreme transcendence of God, and separated Him from the worshipper:


“One of the major difficulties that confronted Mu'tazilism was manifested in the denial of the personal, intimate and uncanny "rela­tion" of the worshipper with God, as what grounds the realities of religious experience. By reducing the attributes to the essence, the Mu'tazila seemed to deny worshippers the object of their praise, exalt­ation and piety. On their view, God is no longer truly seen as the Beneficent, Ever-Merciful Almighty, to whom believers turn in their supplications and invocations in seeking mercy and salvation. Unlike the traditionalists, the Mu'tazilites might even have subverted the obligatory nature of prayer by indirectly emptying it of its content. By replacing the personal character of the Exalted One with a neuter qualification, their opinions became unintentionally closer to the out­look of the pagan Greeks than to the fundamental perspective of monotheism. One wonders how some qur'anic verses would be mean­ingfully interpretable if God's attributes and names were reducible to His essence. How would a believer heed, with intimacy, fear and hope, verses like: "He is the Beneficent [al-barr), the Ever-Merciful [al-rahman]" (52:28), "God warns you against His Chastisement" (3:28), "All praise belongs to God" (17:111), "Ask forgiveness of God, surely God is Most Forgiving" (4:106)?” [WR:CCCIT, 124f, Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes”]


The last Mutazila to exercise any significant influence on the developing orthodoxy of the Sunni’s was Abu Hashim (d. 933). He realized that the standard Mutazila stance that the attributes were ‘mere names’ of God—and not real ‘attributes’—was unacceptable. He advanced a theory of ‘modes’ (or ‘states’) which tried to find a ‘half-way point’ between the two:


“Then, in the course of this questioning by "our fellow orthodox," Abu Hashim seems to have begun to apply his theory of modes to the problem of divine attributes and to speak of "the abwal of the Creator" and, in answer to a direct question with regard to the modes in their application to the Creator, he said that "they are neither He nor other than He."  This, as we shall see later, is an old formula, which had been used by the Attributists as a denial of the Christian belief that the second and third persons of the Trinity are each God but to which Abu Hashim gave a new meaning as a denial of both the reality of attributes as conceived of by the Attributists and the verbality of attributes as conceived of by the Mu'tazilites. Undoubtedly in the course of his answers to the various challenging questions he also had occasion to say that the modes in their application to divine attributes, like the modes as a general theory of predication, are "neither existent nor non-existent," for elsewhere it is directly reported that "Abu Hashim posited modes as attributes which are neither existent [nor nonexistent]."  Thus Abu Hashim by his theory of modes has placed himself in opposition to the conception of attributes of both the Attributists and the Mu'tazilites. But here a question arises in our minds. Inasmuch as Abu Hashim's theory of modes is a denial of the verbality of attributes as conceived of by the Mu'tazilites, it must follow that the differences between the various modes predicated of God are not mere nominal or verbal differences, and hence also the plurality of modes in God is not a mere nominal or verbal plurality. How then would Abu Hashim have met the Mu'tazilite argument that, inasmuch as the unity of God includes internal unity in the sense of absolute simplicity, a plurality in God of modes like those conceived of by Abu Hashim would be incompatible with the internal unity and simplicity of God? Now, as we have seen, when the Attributists were confronted by the Mu'tazilites with this argument, they downrightly denied that the unity of God includes internal unity in the sense of absolute simplicity, maintaining that the unity of God, according to their own conception of it, does not exclude from Him a plurality of parts which from eternity have been united with each other and with the essence of God. … In his Milal, after stating that Abu Hashim "posited modes as attributes which are neither existent [nor nonexistent] and neither cognizable nor incognizable,"  he [Shahrastani] adds: "Then Abu Hashim posits of God another mode (halah) which necessarily causes (aujabat) these modes." Almost in the same words he says in his Nihdyat that "Abu Hashim posits another mode (halah) which necessarily causes these modes." In another place in his Nihdyat, he quotes Abu Hashim as saying: "Knowingness is a mode and powerfulness is a mode, and benefiting both of them is a mode (hal) which necessarily causes all the modes."  In still another place in the same work, he makes an opponent of modes say: "Did not Abu Hashim posit of God a mode (hal) which necessarily causes His being knowing and willing?" [WR:POK, 171-173]


“According to these statements, then, the theory of modes introduced two innovations. … First, it gave a new meaning to the old formula "neither God nor other than God" and it also framed the new formula "neither existent nor nonexistent," using both of these formulae as a description of modes in their contrast to attributes as conceived by both the Attributists and the Mu'tazilites. Second, it introduced the view that modes, the new name for attributes, are related to God as effects to their cause. That was something new, for to the Attributists there was no causal relationship between God and His attributes. From the earliest times the attributes are spoken of as being coeternal with God or as subsisting in His essence or as being superadded to His essence, without any suggestion that they were proceeding from Him as from a cause. Only with reference to the attribute of word or speech, in the sense of the eternal Koran, is God conceived of as the cause of that attribute. The absence of any conception of causal relationship between the essence of God and His attributes among the orthodox Attributists is clearly implied in Ibn Kullab's description of the divine attributes as being "ceaselessly uncreated,"  that is to say, eternally uncaused. It is more clearly brought out in Ghazali who openly discusses the problem of the relation between the attributes of God and His essence. The view which he maintains in effect is that the essence is not in need of the attributes for its existence, whereas the attributes are in need of the essence for their existence, for as attributes they are in need of a subject (mausuf) in which to exist. But the existence of attributes in a subject, he goes on to explain, does not establish between them a causal relationship in the true sense of the term, that is, in the sense of the relationship between an effect and its "efficient cause" ('illah fa'iliyyah), even though, he adds, philosophers in their artificial terminology call the subject of which an attribute is predicated a "receptive cause" ('illah kabliyyah) and the attribute predicated of the subject a "caused thing" (ma'lul).” [WR:POK, 174f]



The problem of ‘how there can be attributes and there still be oneness’ remains unsolved. The rationalist and anti-attributist position of the Mutazila—affirming that God is a monadic ‘point’ without any internal differentiation or complexity—fails to match the experience of the believers and the wording of their Scripture.




Orthodoxy emerges: 230-320 / 850-940ad. Rise of Asharite Compromise


In this period, the Traditionalist/Attributist opposition to Rationalist Mutazila thought becomes focused and embodied in the position of Ahmad b. Hanbal, and then refined and championed by a convert from Mutazilism, Abu Hasan al-Ashari. It eventually triumphs over Mutazilite thought and becomes the dominant Sunni orthodox position until modern times.


The Mutazilite position on the attributes-equal-essence and on non-literal interpretation soon led them into conflict with the Traditionalists. This brought the difficulties of each position further into the light:


“In addressing the question of divine essence and attributes, the Mu'tazilites typically stressed the equivalence between sifa (attribute), wasf (description) and ism (name). Based on this principle of same­ness, the Mu'tazilites held that if we converse about divine attributes we ultimately describe divinity. The Hanbalites, and most Ash'arites, opposed this claim by drawing a thoughtful distinction between sifa and wasf, positing the former as being "what is intrinsically in something", while taking the latter to denote "what is given as a descriptive report [khabar] about something". However, any account of the attributes has to pass by a hermeneutic or exegetical position with regard to scripture. … Given that the Qur'an (as God's Word) mentions the divine attri­butes in conjunction with His "most beautiful names" [asma' Allah al-husna), one could easily assert that this entails an affirmation of the ontological reality of these attributes. However, this will require a par­ticular method of reading the Qur'an that affirms the attributes without undermining transcendence and unity, or implying anthropomorphism. Inevitably, one wonders how successfully anthropomorphism can be avoided when accounting for verses like "your Lord's Face ever remains" (55:27), or "I created with My own hands" (38:75). In addition, it is hardly evident how the multiplicity which is implied by any affirmation of the attributes might be reconciled with the idea of God's absolute unity. … From a religious perspective, the Qur'an sets canonical measures for the human condition, while being the locus of textual hermeneutics. Hence, faith is grounded by textuality along with its determining semantics and semiotics. Yet the Qur'an, as God's Word, is manifested in a "language" that is grasped religiously as being unlike any human idiom. As a divine "language", revelation is not part of the created world of composite substances or contingent beings that are subject to gener­ation and corruption. Any account of the question of God's essence and attributes thus requires some uneasy meditations on the reality of divine speech (kalam). Centrally, the essence-attributes question calls for thinking about the nature of the Qur'an as God's Word. Historically, this tension soon broke surface in the radical disputes that occurred between the Mu'tazilites and the early Sunni theologians. [WR:CCCIT, 122, Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes”]




The position of Hanbal (born 855ad) was not the first traditionalist response/rejection of Mutazilite rationalism (and their denial of literal interpretation and of the reality of the attributes), but it was the first successful one.


“THE HANBALITE POSITION. The Hanbalites believed that God's revelation is there to be recited, and that no interpretations will exhaust its sense. The ontological status of the attributes will remain concealed, and the most that one can affirm about them is their existence, on the grounds that they are mentioned in the Qur'an….Prior to the concretisation of the Ash'arite school the Hanbalites opposed speculation in religious matters. However, with Ash'arism, theological inquiries were encouraged, although there was no presup­position that they necessarily yielded definite clues about the nature of the divine essence or readily facilitated the acquisition of real knowledge about God. Yet the Hanbalite line continued to maintain that any such moves would be mere linguistic, grammatical or conceptual verbiage, which might well lead to repugnant errors in matters of faith. The truth of the divine essence is veiled, and the principle of transcendence is not to be compromised by speculation. Even if attributes are disclosed in a language accessible to humans, their meaning is not exhaustible by reasoned explications. Given that the divine names and attributes are revealed through God's words in the Qur'an, it becomes religiously obligatory to affirm their reality with conviction and sincerity in belief. [WR:CCCIT, 124f, Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes”]


“This is also confirmed in the Hanbalite position, which according to Ibn Batta is best defined by attributing to God what He attributed to Himself in the Qur'an, and following what the Prophet attributed to Him in the hadith, without asking lima (why?) or kayf (how?). One thus ought to submit to God's qudra (power) by way of having simple faith in what is absent and unseen (al-ghayb): "sights cannot attain Him; He can attain sights" (Qur'an 6:103). The Hanbalite tradition ultimately affirms a belief in all that is mentioned in the Qur'an, be it in its definite [muhkam] senses or its equivocal ambiguities (mutashabih), while fundamentally consigning [tafwid] the "meaning and howness" of the attributes to God alone. [WR:CCCIT, 127, Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes”]


Hanbal was very anti-rational, as is clear from the quote (cited above):


“They [true Muslims] are not upholders of analogical reasoning and reasoned opinion, for analogical reasoning in religion is worthless, and reasoned opinion is the same and worse.” [WR:ICAS, p39; Hanabalite creed, article 16]



But in the process of refuting the Mutazilites, the Traditionalists/attributists (beginning with the Hanbalites, but continuing on to the current time) end up ‘dancing around’ the problem of God’s oneness. Their rejection of Mutazila theological positions were more by ‘vagueness’ (i.e. we do not know how) than by a theological position. And the internal arguments within Islam mirrored the SAME arguments within Christian Trinitarian debates:


“Since the arguments used by the Mu'tazilites for the denial of the reality of attributes were based upon their own particular conception of the meaning of "eternity" and of the meaning of the "unity of God," the Attributists, in their refutation of the Mu'tazilites, attack the Mu'tazilite conception of the meaning of these two terms. … First, they reject the Mu'tazilite claim that eternity means deity. To quote: "Your argument that if a real attribute is eternal it must be God is a bare assertion and is subject to dispute, and your assertion that eternity is a description most peculiar to God is an assertion for which there is no demonstration."  This exchange of opinion between the Mu'tazilites and the Attributists with regard to eternity is, in its historical context, a debate over the question whether to accept the established Christian view, inherited from Philo, that eternity spells deity. For the Church Fathers, as we have seen, without any recorded opposition, adopted this Philonic view, so that John of Damascus, in a debate supposed to be held between a Christian and a Muslim, makes the Christian force the Muslim to admit that the Word of God is uncreated, that is, eternal, and then, on the basis of this admission, forces him to admit that the Word of God is God, on the ground that "everything that is not created, but uncreated, is God."  The Mu'tazilites accept this Christian principle and hence argue that the attributes of the Attributists must be Gods, whereas the Attributists reject this Christian conception of eternity and hence refute the Mu'tazilite argument…. Accordingly, just as the Mu'tazilites rejected the reality of attributes by arguments by which Christian heretics rejected the reality of the second and third persons of the Trinity, so the orthodox Muslims defended the reality of attributes by arguments by which Christian orthodoxy defended the reality of the second and third persons. The orthodox Christian defense of the reality of the second and third persons of the Trinity consisted in rejecting the Philonic conception of the absolute unity of God and by maintaining that the unity of God is only a relative kind of unity, a conception of unity which does not exclude from God, who is one, the composition of three elements which from eternity existed together and were never separated. So also the orthodox Muslim defense of the reality of attributes, as it was ultimately given expression by Ghazali, reduces itself to an insistence upon a relative conception of the unity of God, which does not exclude its being internally composed of real attributes which existed together from eternity and were never separated. … And so, the views of the orthodox Muslims and the Mu'tazilites on the problem of attributes, as well as the arguments employed by them, correspond exactly to the views of orthodox Christians and the heretical Sabellians on the question of the persons of the Word and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. The issue between the Attributists and the Antiattributists was thus clearly defined. It was an issue whether the unity of God was absolute or only relative. To the Attributists the unity of God was a relative unity, and hence they assumed in God the existence from eternity of real attributes. To the Antiattributists the unity of God was an absolute unity, and hence the terms attributed to God were mere names. There were, however, some modified views among the Attributists as well as some modified views among the Antiattributists. Among the Attributists, there were some who, while believing in the reality of attributes, denied that they were uncreated. …  Among the Antiattributists there were some who, while denying that attributes were real things, denied also that they were mere names and advanced a theory known as that of modes.” [WR:POK, 137-140]


So, within the pre-Asharite traditionalists were other attempts to refine the semi-agnostic position of the orthodox attributists (e.g. through the concept of modes/abwal), but these only introduced more problems.





The definitive step toward a ‘normative’ Islamic theology was introduced by a Mutazila who ‘converted’ to a Hanbalite position and eventually modified the position into what we know today as Sunni orthodoxy. This key thinking was Abu Hasan al-Ashari, who lived 873-935. He converted from Mutazila rationalism in 912, spending most of his life in Basra and Baghdad.


He introduced a compromise between the strong anti-rationalism of Hanbal and the strong pro-rationalist positions of the Mutazila.


“THE ASH'ARITE POSITION. Unlike the Hanbalite view, the distinctive position of al-Ash'ari is best expressed by way of his support of kalam methods in elucidating the essence-attributes question. After all, he disapproved of unreflective deference to doctrinal dogmas by way of mimetic assent [taqlid], given his firm belief that Muslims have the duty to reason about what it means to know God, since knowing God amounts to knowing the truth [al-haqq).

In response to the Mu'tazilite reductive overemphasis on tran­scendence, Ash'ari argued that God's words about God, as manifested in the Qur'an, set up the directives by virtue of which reasoned judgements about the essence-attributes question are to be measured. The affirm­ation of God's attributes should be coupled with the negation of implied anthropomorphic determinations. Analogy is problematic when it hints at any form of similitude between God and anything in His world of creation. Authentically to believe that "nothing is like Him" (42:11) obligates a refutation of tashbih and tamthil. If the attributes are examined through a radically literal reading, heretical innovation may ensue, as exemplified in the unsustainable doctrines of anthropomorphists [mushabbiha] and corporealists {mujassima). Yet some attributes retain the semblance of carrying anthropomorphic meanings when judged from the standpoint of generic resemblances. … Strict literal exegesis [tafsir], or excessive hermeneutics [ta'wil], may result in groundless extremisms. In emphasising the literal exoteric meaning [zahii), the exegete might present anthropomorphist accounts that compromise transcendence [tanzih], while the stress on the esoteric hidden sense [batin] might lead the hermeneutic interpreter to accord with the outlooks of the various batiniyya sects. Moderation in scrip­tural readings is to be situated between two extremist poles in inter­pretation that might lead to heresies, in the form either of a literal anthropomorphism or of the overcoming of its entailments through an excessive allegorical overemphasis on transcendence. This semantic tension characterises the reception of revealed texts and their multi-layered readings.

Faced with the difficulty of interpreting expressions like "God's hand" ("I created with My own hands" [38:75]) or "God's face" ("your Lord's Face ever remains" [55 '.27]), Ash'ari does not question the realities to which they point, since these are qur'anic statements. However, he again seeks a middle path, refusing to affirm that the referents of God's "hand" or "face" are either corporeal members or mere metaphors. Again he is guarding against excess in literal exegesis, while being sus­picious of allegorical hermeneutics. Despite this desire for a median position, however, he proclaims that any departure from literal readings must be based on valid reasons. When any form of resemblance, similitude or analogy between God and anything in the world of His creation is refuted, this applies to linguistic, ontological and logical reflections on the essence-attributes question. There is an unbridgeable existential-essential gap between creator and created. To hint that God resembles worldly beings is absurd. A semblance of linguistic affinity in reference to attributes does not affirm a similitude in signification. As Ash'ari holds, "God is not in His creatures nor are His creatures in Him." In his Letter to the Frontiersmen [Risala ila ahl al-thaghr), he refutes any mode of equivalence between the divine essence and the divine attributes. Yet while the attributes are not reducible to the essence, they are not accidents that are other than it. This ontological difference is not simply a mode of separation in being. In elaborating his thesis, Ash'ari considered with care and thoughtfulness the conditions by virtue of which inferences may be drawn with respect to what is absent and transcendent, on the basis of what is phenomenally experi­enced; following in this the classical method known as "al-istidlal 'ala al-gha'ib bi'l-shahid". [WR:CCCIT, 128,9; Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes”]



His compromise, however, will be yet another case of recognizing-but-avoiding the problem. It will use the traditional escape clause of “without asking HOW”. This respects the mystery of God, of course, but it solves no problems. It avoids contradictions and logical inconsistencies by not taking a propositional stance. For Hanbal, the words of the Quran and hadith are merely ‘pronounced’, but Ashari allowed for some reflection upon the meaning—subject to the constraints of perceived orthodoxy of the time.


“Some idea may be gained of the theological position of al-Ash'ari by considering under four heads his differences from the Mu'tazilites. This will also reveal his affinity to Ahmad ibn-Hanbal. Firstly, he held that the Qur'an was uncreated and was the very Speech of God, and that it, like his other attributes, was eternal and in some sense distinct from his essence. He does not here appear to have added anything of note to the doctrine of Ahmad ibn-Hanbal, though there is greater subtlety in his arguments. Something similar may be said about the second point, the anthropomorphic expressions in the Qur'an. The Mu'tazilites had held, for example, that where the Qur'an speaks about God's "hand" what is meant is his "grace"; this could be supported by metaphorical usages of the word "hand" in Arabic, comparable to the English "lend a hand". On such points al-Ash'ari opposed the Mu'tazilites, and insisted that such Quranic phrases must simply be accepted "without specifying how ". Under the third head come various eschatological matters, which al-Ash'ari insisted must be taken as they stand and not explained as metaphors. Most discussion was devoted to the vision of God in Paradise by the faithful. Here the tendency of the Mu'tazilites was to say that this meant they would know him in their hearts (the heart being the seat of knowledge); but al-Ash'ari argued forcibly that the phrase "looking to their Lord" could mean only looking in the normal sense. He understood the vision of course "without specifying how", and would have rejected the attribution to God of anything resembling corporeality. [WR:IPT,85f]


In the same way Ash'ari applies Hanbali formulae to the anthropomorphic verses of the Qur'an, which speak of God's hands, eyes, face, of his 'seating himself upon his throne'. Here, it is necessary to use the expressions of the Qur'an and hadith, while indeed denying that God has hands like our human limbs, which was the error of the extreme literalists who 'corporized' God (mujassima); but refusing to interpret these expressions as metaphors, according to the ta’wil of the Mu'tazilites. For example, to interpret the 'sitting upon the throne' as explaining the majesty of God and his rule over the world would lead to the statement that God sits upon all that he rules. It must be said that these verses indicate real attributes, but 'without asking how' (bi-la kayfa, the balkafa already formulated by Malik b. Anas and adopted by the Hanbalis). [WR:HIIT, 205]


“His names and his attributes (asma' wa-sifat) are firstly those attributed to him by the Qur'an and hadith, as Hanbalism demanded. But also those demanded by the rules of the language: to say that a being knows ('alim: a 'knowing' being) requires him to have knowledge ('ilm); to be powerful (qadir), to possess power (qudra); willing (murid), to possess a will (irada); hearing (sami) to possess hearing (sam); seeing (basir) to possess sight (basar); speaking (kalim) to possess speech (kalam). Thus the Qur'an often says that God is 'seeing' (basir) but never speaks of God's 'sight' (basar). However, from the rules of human language, it is possible to deduce from the Qur'anic name 'seeing' the attribute of 'sight' and apply it to God, although the Qur'an does not mention it and the Hanbalites rejected it. … These names and attributes, revealed or deduced, correspond to realities in God and are not to be identified simply with his essence, as the Mu'tazila declared. However, they are not something other than God, who is one and indivisible. Ash'ari uses the Zaydi and Hanbali formula: they are 'neither God nor anything other than God' (la 'aynuhu wa-la ghayruhu). A simplistic formula, inadequate for the theologian, but which has the merit of respecting the mystery of God.” [WR:HIIT, 204]


“But did they have to confine themselves to repeating Qur'an and hadith, excluding all rational elaboration based on human experience and language, as the Hanbalis demanded? Ash'ari, accustomed by Mu'tazilism to rational theology, did not think so. On the one hand, the doctrines of the Qur'an and hadith had to be defended against opponents who used rational argumentation. On the other hand, the Qur'an affirms that the existence and harmony of creation are the sign of God's existence and of his unity.” [WR:HIIT, 202f]



But this position also leaves the problem unsolved—their view of the attributes as something ‘extra’ in/from God’s essence would be an affront to doctrines of extreme unicity/simplicity.


“The traditionalists' position was eventually sys­tematized under the influence and name of its main thinker (who had actually begun his career as a Mutazili), Abu al-Hasan al-Ashcari (d. about 936). Ac­cording to the Ash'ari interpretation, the Qur'an is the uncreated word of God, coeternal with God. But, as noted above, the createdness of the Qur'an had been asserted in order to protect the unity of God. Therefore, the Ashcari thinkers were compelled to demonstrate that their position did not compromise divine unity. It was for this reason that Ash'ari thinkers became insistent on divine unity and transcendence. God is one, unique and eternal, and there is no god but the almighty God. They believed that divine unity could be preserved by viewing the divine attributes, including speech and action (or will, power, and knowledge), as additional (za'idah) to the divine essence. In this context, they ar­gued that if the divine will is an attribute and is identi­cal with the divine essence, as in the Mu'tazili position, then God's freedom of choice is called into question. God would be compelled by his very nature (essence) to act. The Mu'tazilah, however, believed that their asser­tion that the divine will is created would preclude such a conclusion. … Yet ultimately, for the Ashcariyah, the divine essence is inaccessible to human reason. God is known to hu­man beings only through revelation; indeed, the verses of the Qur'an are called ayat ("signs") of God, and reve­lation should be accepted at face value. Ashcari doctrine holds, for example, that God is truly on his throne (ac­cording to Qur'an 20.5) and that God has hands (Qur'an 38.75 and 5.64). … . However, the Ashcari interpretation continues, in none of these cases (i.e., on the questions of apparent anthropomorphization of God, the lack of free will, and God's creation of evil) are hu­mans to question the modality, or how it is that these things are true. All revelation is to be accepted literally but bi-la kayf ("without [asking] how"). Later Ashcari thinkers allowed that some things about God are accessible to human reason ('aqliyat), such as that God's attributes do not compromise divine unity (tawhid), but regarding the nature of those attributes, we know only what the prophets taught (sam’iyat). In this way, Ash'arism, which dominated Sunni Islamic or­thodoxy from the tenth to the nineteenth century, in­sisted on divine unity, but it rejected interpretations of revelation that would make that unity accessible to hu­man reason in favor of assertions of ultimate divine tran­scendence. ” [WR:OEMIW, s.v. “Tawhid”, 4:190ff]


It is interesting to note that Ashari uses a ‘logical absurdity’ argument against his fellow-student Abu Hasham, while being vulnerable to it himself (in his view of the attributes ‘being neither God nor not God’)…


“The chief exponent of the opposition to modes from among the orthodox attributists was Ash'ari. As restated by Shahrastani in his Milal, Ash'ari begins with a statement that all those in Islam who participated in the discussion of the problem of attributes begin with the common premise that there is a Creator who is to be described as powerful and knowing and willing. He then proceeds to argue that these three terms predicated of God must differ from each other in meaning, whence, he wants us to conclude, they must differ also from the essence of God of which they are predicated. The question, therefore, is only as to what the nature of that difference is. Three alternative answers are enumerated by him. The predicates may be each either (1) a mere word (lafz), which is the view of Jubbal, or (2) a mode (lhl), which is the view of Abu Hashim, or (3) a real attribute (sifah), the view which he himself is going to defend, after he has refuted both Jubbal and Abu Hashim. … In his criticism of Jubbal, Ash'ari contends that distinctions conceived by the mind reflect certain realities which are quite independent of the words by which these distinctions are expressed, and so distinctions cannot be mere words. To quote: "The intellect determines what difference of meaning there is between two concepts, and were it supposed that there was no word at all, the intellect would still be in no doubt [as to the meaning of the differences] in its conceptions."  This is exactly like the Modalists' argument against the view that universals are mere words as quoted by Razi. … In his criticism of Abu Hashim, Ash'ari repeats the argument already raised by the Mu'tazilites against the theory of modes, namely, that it is contrary to the Law of Excluded Middle. His argument, as reported by Shahrastani, reads as follows: "The assumption of an attribute which can be described neither by existence nor by nonexistence is the assumption of something which is in the middle between existence and nonexistence, between affirmation and negation, but this is something absurd." … With the elimination of these two alternative possibilities, Ash'ari is left with the third possibility, namely, the old orthodox conception of attributes as being real things subsisting in God from eternity.” [WR:POK, 204f]


Might not this charge also be fairly made against the Asharite position: the attributes are neither God nor anything other than God—what is ‘in the middle’ here?



Orthodoxy dominates: 320-480 / 940-1100ad. Apex of Sunni/Asharite Rationalism


By the time we get here, the question of the relationship of God’s essence and attributes is frozen. The Asharites continue to develop refinements to their views of the attributes as ‘additional’ and/or ‘real’, but the position begins to look more and more like the original Christian position.


So, Ibn Hazm (944-1064ad) can fault Asharite reasoning as being no different from Christians!


“In the problem of attributes, as we have noted, while Islam had taken over from Christianity the conception of the existence of real persons or hypostases in God, which it transformed into attributes, it constantly insisted, in opposition to Christianity, that they are not God. This was the fundamental distinction between the Christian Trinity and the Muslim attributes. In the course of time, however, among certain Muslims, who were regarded as orthodox, this difference be­tween the Christian Trinity and the Muslim attributes was somewhat blurred. We gather this from the following state­ment in Ibn Hazm: "To one of the Ash'arites I said: Since you say that coexistent with God are fifteen attributes, all of them other than He and all of them eternal, why do you find fault with the Christians when they say that God is 'the third of three'? He said to me: We find fault with the Christians only because they assume that there coexist with God only two things and do not assume that there coexist with Him a greater number of things. Indeed, one of the Ash'arites has already told me that the name 'God,' that is, our use of the term 'God,' is a word which applies to the essence of the Creator and the totality of His attributes, and not to His essence without His attributes."

From these answers of the followers of the Ash'arite teachings, we may gather that somehow within this orthodox group there were some who forgot that the original opposition to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was on the ground of the application of the term "God" to the second and third persons. Quite oblivious of this fundamental opposition, they were willing to apply the term "God" as a common appella­tion of God and His attributes, which is only an adoption of the Christian view that the term "God" is to be used as a common appellation of the Father and the two other persons, though, I imagine, these Ash'arites would still balk at calling each individual attribute "God." The emphasis that the term "God" is not to be applied to the essence alone without the attributes and the statement that the difference between their belief and that of the Christians consists only in the fact that the Muslim attributes are more numerous than the Christian persons indicate that in all other respects their attributes assume the character of the Christian persons.” [WR:POK, 312-315]




Greek philosophy invades: 455-600 / 1075-1220ad. Aristotle and Avicenna (d.1038)


In this period, Aristotelian logic influences Asharite orthodoxy, and the philosophers (falasifa) revert back to a Mutazila-like rejection of the attributes of God. Often this looks like a via negativa – only negative statements about God can be made.


“Another influence was Greek philosophy. The students of it in Islam were going to the roots of all things, and, with it as guide, they attacked the problem of the nature of Allah. Unity (tawhid), religiously and philosophically, they had to preserve; but, in preserving it, the nature of Allah himself was gradually reduced to a bare, undefinable some­thing, described in negatives. For example, Allah for Muhammad was the Knower (al-calim). There­fore, he must have the quality ‘ilm, "knowledge". But of what was his knowledge, of something within himself or without ? If the first, there was a duality in himself; if the second, his knowledge depended upon something outside of himself and was not absolute; therefore he himself, the possessor of this quality, was not absolute. Evidently, if Allah's unity and independence were to be preserved, he could not be given any positive description. [WR:SEI, s.v. “Allah”, 37f]


“This conflict is connected with the refusal of some theologians and the Muslim philosophers who were strongly influenced by Greek philosophy to give positive attributes to God. Al-Kindi, for example, the first Muslim philosopher, was not willing to confirm certain qualities in God for fear of violating His unity, since attributes mean adding to God different qualities, which would show Him in different and changing states, from being known to creating, hearing, seeing, punishing and so on. However, Muslim theolo­gians including the Mu'tazilites follow the Qur'an, in considering that God has positive attributes and can be described. Although the Qur'an predicates to God many human attributes such as those mentioned above, it declares that "nothing is like unto Him." This divine transcendence made many theo­logians question and reflect on the manner in which the divine essential attribute can be related to God's essence while retaining His transcendence. Again, the difficulty here is how it is possible for God to know or to be able without possessing knowledge or ability? For if He has knowledge and ability then they must be eternal like Him. Muslim theologians discussed all the possibilities: are these qualities eternal notions which have always existed with God? This would mean that God is not the first eternal. Or are they part of His essence? This would mean that since God is (a unitary) One, then all His attributes must be dissolved into one quality. Or are these qualities neither in God nor independent of His essence? But this is in a way absurd. [WR:GAHIIT, 43]



The great Muslim philosopher Avicenna held to a very strong anti-attributist view, and was taken to task by al-Ghazali:


“Nevertheless, according to Ghazali, Avicenna's views result in a contradiction. This is the case given that, according to the philosophers and the Mu'tazila, the affirmation that God possesses the attribute of knowledge implies multiplicity. And, following in Mu'tazilite footsteps, the philosophers exaggerated their strict avoidance of plurality to the point of claiming that "if the First were to have a quiddity characterized by existence this would constitute multiplicity". This position is based on the widespread Avicennan view that the "Necessary Existent" is without quiddity (that its essence is none other than its existence). Attributes need a subject to which they are attributed, which is called al-mawsuf. To say that the essence of the First Principle is His intellect, knowledge, power or will is to say that these attributes are self-subsisting. However, it is impossible that the attributes are self-sustaining because they would then be multiple necessary existents, and as Avicenna has shown, this is not possible. Consequently, attri­butes subsist in the divine essence; and as Ghazali asserted, the First Principle cannot be denied His attributes, quiddity or reality.” [WR:CCCIT, 134, Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes”]


This is again the same phenomenon we have seen before: to take a position (on the relation between essence and attributes) either leads to contradiction, or to a denial of either the attributes or of the ‘featureless nature’ of God.


………………………………………….. …………………………………………………….


Now, at this point we can stop and compare these Islamic positions/statements with Christian statements—and we can see that the same problems (unity and diversity) lead to the same kinds of statements.


The Muslim can state that God is one and yet has more-than-one attribute subsisting within the divine nature—and yet admits that they have no clue ‘how’ this could be. So too can the Christian:


“But our inability to understand how God is both one and three tells us far more about ourselves than it does about God. The Bible presents God as both one and three; that suffices for us to know that He is so, regardless of whether we understand the how of it. [Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (1459). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.]


The Muslim can state that the attributes of God are revealed truths and not rationality-based, and as such, they are beyond full comprehension. So too the Christian:


“TRINITY Theological term used to define God as an undivided unity expressed in the threefold nature of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As a distinctive Christian doctrine, the Trinity is considered as a divine mystery beyond human comprehension to be reflected upon only through scriptural revelation. The Trinity is a biblical concept that expresses the dynamic character of God, not a Greek idea pressed into Scripture from philosophical or religious speculation. … A proper biblical view of the Trinity balances the concepts of unity and distinctiveness. Two errors that appear in the history of the consideration of the doctrine are tritheism and unitarianism. In tritheism error is made in emphasizing the distinctiveness of the Godhead to the point that the Trinity is seen as three separate Gods, or a Christian polytheism. On the other hand, unitarianism excludes the concept of distinctiveness while focusing solely on the aspect of God the Father. [Brand, C., Draper, C., England, A., Bond, S., Clendenen, E. R., Butler, T. C., & Latta, B. (2003). Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1625–1627). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.]


The Muslim affirms that describing God as ‘a being’ does NOT ‘liken Him to His creation’, because His type of existence is unique (cf. “And the first consequence of this discovery is that God cannot be regarded as an existent among other existents. In the metaphysical realm, there can be no democratic and equal sharing of being between the Original, the Creator, the Self-Necessary, and the borrowed, the created, the contingent; such a "sharing" rather exists within the second category itself. [WR:MTOTQ2 , 4]). So too the Christian:


He is not a being alongside other beings but the infinite being who is himself the source and ground of all finite beings.” [Bloesch, D. G. (2006). God, the Almighty : Power, wisdom, holiness, love (34). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]


“The unity of God is unique. It is the only unity of the kind. An individual man is one; and any individual creature or thing is one. But there are others like it, each of which is likewise numerically one. God is not merely one, but the only one; not merely unus (one), but unicus (unique). He is not one of a species or one in contrast with another of the same kind. God is one God and the only God. The notion of the unique must be associated with that of unity in the instance of the Supreme Being. [Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. (2003). Dogmatic theology (3rd ed.) (222). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub.]


Biblical faith, by contrast, does not shrink from viewing God as an existent being (Heb 11:6), though he exists not in the way the creature exists—as dependent and contingent—but as independent and unconditioned. He exists by his own power and is the cause of his own being (meaning that the mystery of his being resides in himself, not that he must create his own being). Having no need of any other power or reality, he is the uncaused ground and source of all finite being.” [Bloesch, D. G. (2006). God, the Almighty : Power, wisdom, holiness, love (39). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]


The Muslim confesses that the attributes of God are distinct—yet united with—God’s nature. So too the Christian:


“In scholastic theology (both Catholic and Protestant) a distinction is generally made between God’s essence and God’s attributes, the former referring to the abiding or core feature of God’s being and nature. Yet these theologians were also emphatic that there can be no hard and fast lines between divine essence and the divine attributes, since the latter are simply the expression or manifestation of the former. In summarizing the Reformed position Heinrich Heppe contends that “the divine attributes are not something different from the nature and existence of God, so that the latter may be thought of as distinct from the former… Rather the attributes of God are the divine nature itself in its relation to the world.” Indeed, “No elements in God are distinguished essentially. All the things in God are one indivisible and most single essence.” [Bloesch, D. G. (2006). God, the Almighty : Power, wisdom, holiness, love (40–41). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]


The Muslim affirms that the attributes of God—like His Names—display the One God in His many ways of manifesting His glory. So too the Christian:


“If we continue to speak of essence and attributes, we must insist that the essence of God is reflected in his attributes; the attributes, on the other hand, are manifestations of his essence. The God of the Bible is not monochrome. He radiates his splendor in myriad ways.” [Bloesch, D. G. (2006). God, the Almighty: Power, wisdom, holiness, love (40–41). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]


The Muslim can discuss the essence/attributes problem, and attempt a ‘solution’, but in the end they will admit that it is eludes human understanding. So too the Christian:


While the theologians of the church were willing to make the attempt to define the Trinity, they were unanimous in acknowledging the Trinity as a mystery that eludes rational comprehension. The Trinity can be stated in paradoxical and symbolic language, but it cannot be resolved into a rational system. It reminds us that the mysteries of faith stand above reason though not necessarily against reason. … Reason cannot penetrate these mysteries, but it can respect them and try to make them intelligible.” [Bloesch, D. G. (2006). God, the Almighty : Power, wisdom, holiness, love (167). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]


Muslim theologians sometimes took one of the two sides of the essence-attributes problem as being the ‘correct one’, and erred in denying the ‘other side’. So too have Christian theologians erred in this way:


As in all theology, we are on a knife edge, or, we might say, a narrow path with precipices on each side. On one side, we deny the unity of God, and make it appear that there are three gods; on the other, we cause the distinctions of the three to disappear into some underlying undifferentiated deity. On the whole, our Western tradition has tended to the latter, so to stress the unity of God’s action that it becomes difficult to do justice to its diversity. ” [Gunton, C. E. (2003). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit : Essays toward a fully trinitarian theology (79). London; New York: T & T Clark.]


Muslim theologians affirmed that human language was inadequate to describe God, but also that God had used this language to describe Himself (or His will). They affirmed that the language terms DID apply to God, but not in the way those words applied to creatures (cf. “Thus no human language, necessarily making use of created concepts and words, can validly speak of God. However, God himself has spoken to mankind, using their language, in the Qur'an revealed 'in completely clear Arabic'”. [WR:HIIT, 202f]). So too did Christian theology affirm that terms used in common with God and creatures applied to each in their own distinctive ways (i.e. modus significandi varies with modus essendi):


“Since the attributes were expressed by terms also applicable to human beings, care was taken to maintain the otherness of God from everything human. Early discussions had been about whether the terms were to be understood literally or metaphorically, with the latter word taken in a somewhat rigid sense. It was probably Ahmad ibn Hanbal who tried to break the deadlock by saying they were to be taken bi-ld kayf, 'without (asking) how'. In the translations, the term 'amodally' has been coined for this important conception. This is in line with the recognition by Christian thinkers that human language never applies precisely to God, and that he is only 'something like' what we call Him. [WR:ICAS, 15f]


“Thomas Aquinas [Catholic theologian] was inclined not only to limit God’s acts to what is not incompatible with his being but also to limit them as to what does not contradict logical coherence. Yet Thomas also denied univocal predication for God and insisted that even in analogical predication what we do not know exceeds by far what we are able to glean even from the resources of faith and tradition.” [Bloesch, D. G. (2006). God, the Almighty : Power, wisdom, holiness, love (34–35). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]




But there seems to be one very fundamental difference still…


However, in probing the mystery of God’s nature and of His revelation to His creatures, Islam seems to have gone further toward agnosticism than Christianity did. By emphasizing the ‘alien-ness’ of the uniqueness of God so strongly, they muted the Divine voice in His revelation. Indeed, mainstream Islamic theology arrived at the conclusion that God did NOT reveal Himself at all—only His law and/or His will.


Creatures were only required to state (actually only ‘recite’ the sounds) that God was ‘merciful’ (whatever ‘merciful’ meant—and only God knew the content of that word), but were not allowed to believe that this Name was a true description of God’s character. God did not reveal that He was truly merciful in His nature—but rather that creatures were required to believe something like that anyway.


For example, in addressing the question as to whether God’s will is an expression of His nature, modern Muslim apologist al-Faruqu can write:


 “The will of God is God in percipethe nature of God in so far as I can know anything about Him. This is God’s will and that is all we have—and we have it in perfection in the Qur’an. But Islam does not equate the Qur’an with the nature or essence of God. It is the Word of God, the Commandment of God, the Will of God. But God does not reveal Himself to anyone. Christians talk about the revelation of God Himself—by God of God—but that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam. God is transcendent, and once you talk about self-revelation you have hierophancy and immanence, and then the transcendence of God is compromised. You may not have complete transcendence and self-revelation at the same time.” [   Isma‘il Al-Faruqi, “On the Nature of Islamic Da‘wah,” International Review of Missions 65 (1976): 405-6; cited in The Predicament of Islamic Monotheism , Imad N. Shehadeh. Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 161. 2004 (642) (161–162). Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary.]


This is a consequence of Muslim views of theological/revelatory language:


“This is also called tanzih, "removing", that is removing Allah from any danger of confusion or association with his creatures. In general, this process stopped at a point where it was still possible to form a con­ception of Allah. He was different, it was conceded; but still, Allah must be thinkable, and these names and phrases gave a thought of him not essentially wrong; we could not get from them what he was, but something like what he was. Others, however, went further and argued that from these expressions we could gain no conception of Allah's real nature. That nature must always be a mystery to us, and we need not think that even the Names gave any light. The Kur'an calls Allah "the Most Merciful of them that show mercy" (vii. 151; xii. 64, 92; xxi. 83); but that cannot mean for us that he has the human quality of mercy, of or anything in any way similar. The course of things in the world dis­proves that. He has only given himself that Name, and what the Name means we cannot know and should not enquire. The great division here lies in admitting or rejecting the possibility of any dis­covering of the nature of Allah other than purely negative — he is not this, he is not that.  [WR:SEI, s.v. “Allah”, 37f]


“Classical Muslim theology developed a form of compromise solution in effect inclining to the negative answer. There developed the idea of Al-Mukhdlafah, "the difference." Terms taken from human meanings—and there are of course no others—were said to be used of God with a difference. They did not convey the human connotation but were used in those senses feasible of God. When the further question was pressed: What, then, do they con­vey as applied to God? no precise answer could be formulated. Islam here falls back upon a final agnosticism. Terms must be used if there is to be religion at all. But only God knows what they signify. Muslim theology coined the related phrases Bila kaif and Bila Tashbih. We use these names "without knowing how" they apply and without implying any human similarity. … In a real sense the Muslim awareness of God is an awareness of the unknown. Revelation communicated God's law. It does not reveal God, who remains inscrutable and inaccessible to knowl­edge. Sometimes described as the negative theology, this convic­tion that only God knows the sense of the terms in which we speak of God has characterized Muslim attitudes far beyond the range of those who can understand its intellectual grounds. If some readers find the point under discussion abstruse, they can be as­sured that it attaches to the Muslim sense of God in everyday life. Only God knows. The problem of meaning in language belongs with all religions and is not unique to Islam. It can be solved only within the conviction that the divine and the human are truly meaningful to each other, only in the confidence that the relation­ships God has with us are really indicative of the divine nature. Christians only put these convictions more shortly—and sublimely—when they say: "God is Love." Islam has never felt able to say that. The pressure of these problems [i.e. trying to maintain God’s unity while asserting the reality of His attributes] is the measure of its reluctance.” [WR:Cragg, 48f]




But this view of language—even that of the Quran for the Muslim—leaves the Muslim theologian with the emptiness of equivocal language:


“The inability to know anything about God’s nature is made very clear in the words of Ahmed Deedat, a contemporary Islamic apologist. He said, “God is not like anything you can think or imagine. Anything you think or imagine is not Him.  Zwemer sums it up well when he said, “Islam is proud to write on its banner, the Unity of God; but it is, after all, a banner to the Unknown God.” … Unfortunately, this rigid adherence to the absolute unity and singularity in God’s essence naturally leads to an agnostic position which is, at best, untenable, and at worst, self-defeating; for to claim that something is unknowable requires one to know enough about it to declare it unknowable. The Muslim is stuck in his view that the only possible way to talk about God is equivocally (totally different from the way God is) and this leads him to a total ignorance about God.

[“God And Allah: Are They The Same?, Kevin Staley”, Christian Apologetics Journal Volume 3. 2004 (1) (68–69). Matthews, NC: Southern Evangelical Seminary.


The Muslim theologian asserts that God gives very practical revelation in Scripture—but it still leaves the Revealer veiled:


“Surrender implies the revelation of the will to which obedience is rendered. The Quranic account of the relation between God and humankind hinges upon the fact of revelation. The Holy Book is the climax of a long sequence of volumes of revelation with which it is continuous, granted to a long succession of prophets of whom Adam was the first and Muhammad the last. Belief in God, therefore, for the Muslim involves also belief in God's prophets, angels, and books. For these are the agencies of God's making known the divine law to humankind. Revelation is conceived of, not as a communication of the divine Being, but only of the divine will. It is a revelation, that is, of law, not of personality. God the Revealer remains unrevealed. The Qur'an is a guide for the world. It brings that which humans need to know in order to relate themselves to God as servants. … Revelation is not a personal self-disclosure of the divine. It is for this reason, apart from its fear also of compromising unity, that the Qur'an does not use the term "Father" in relation to God, or children in relation to believers. It allows only Rabb and 'abd. In either case, the terms require each other. If God is not addressed as Father, neither is it as children that Muslims come to God. [tanknote: but Cragg points out elsewhere that one of the divine names is Al-Wali, sometimes translated as Friend or Patron, p.37] There remains beyond the revelation the impenetrable mys­tery of the divine. Revelation tells how God wills that humanity should live. It has a practical intent. It is true that intellectual curiosity has apprehended the Qur'an in many more senses than the practical. Revelation, too, whatever its intent, is necessarily involved in im­plications beyond law…. Nonetheless it remains broadly true that the substance of what God reveals is the divine will rather than the divine nature, and that the end of revelation is obedience rather than perfect knowl­edge. God sends rather than comes. The God who makes plain remains above.” [WR:Cragg, 41f]



……………………………………. ………………………………


Strictly speaking, much of what the Muslim theologians affirm can be understood as being similar to Christian understandings on this:


·        God does not reveal His ‘essence’ if we mean by that ‘the stuff He is made of’.

·        We do not know anything about God ‘exhaustively’ or ‘perfectly’.

·        God reveals what He wants (wills/desires) us to profess about Himself and His creation.

·        There are limitations in our use of human language—even Scriptural language—since the descriptions of God are not univocal.


But where the Christian can agree with these statements, there are important qualifications to them that not all Muslim theologians could accept:


·        “God does not reveal His ‘essence’ if we mean by that ‘the stuff He is made of’”-- But God’s character is ‘inside’ His essence and God does reveal His character to us.

·        “We do not know anything about God ‘exhaustively’ or ‘perfectly’”—But we still know truly, just like we can know other people truly-not-exhaustively.

·        “God reveals what He wants (wills/desires) us to profess about Himself and His creation”—But God wants us to KNOW (not just ‘profess’) His beautiful character and His power for redemptive and sustaining works;

·        “There are limitations in our use of human language—even Scriptural language—since the descriptions of God are not univocal”—But God has designed language and creation to allow language to be analogical, and not equivocal (if all language in revelation was equivocal, btw, this would destroy the Muslim claim that God revealed His will—for there would be no cognitive content to His commands).


God is powerful enough to reveal ANYTHING to us—even His essence, if He wanted to. If it be objected that we are too finite/human/limited to receive such transcendent truth/knowledge, this statement would directly contradict modern Muslim theology (e.g. God is not limited to the possible or to the non-contradictory).


The Christian does not need to know the ‘whatness’ (essence) of God. It is more than sufficient to see His loving-but-just heart displayed in history and at the Cross, His unfathomable power in creation and redemption—displayed at the Empty Tomb of the resurrected Jesus, and His faithfulness to His self-revelation (e.g. He keeps His promises, and He is the paradigm of morality for His creations).




The Problems are the same—so why the slander?



In the opening centuries of the birth/rise/height of Islam, the Muslim theologians were wrestling with these issues and were very cognizant of the similarity of these issues with Christian theological thought. These Muslim thinkers interacted with their Christian counterparts with fairness and civility, even though they generally out-argued their Christian opponents in most cases (largely because the Christians did not understand the Muslim position well enough before arguing…typical…sounds like me too…sigh… see [WR:CDIIT] and [WR:IIOC, chapter 4 for discussion of how the Christian arguments failed).


The arguments used against the doctrine [of the Trinity] by these and other Muslims reflect a sense of incomprehensibility. … Abu 'Isa demonstrates at great length whatever way the doctrine is expressed, the attempt to identify three entities with one leads to confusion and incoherence. The fundamental problem which each polemicist differently raises is that since in any description of the doctrine more than one divine entity is listed, some form of plurality is entailed and the simple unity is obliterated. So the insistent claim made by the Christians that God is one becomes meaningless. … Yet this problem of unity and multiplicity was not peculiar to Christianity in the period we are discussing. Within Islamic thinking itself, the problem of how systematically to set down the teachings of the Qur'an about God produced difficulties that, to many minds, itself affected the strict oneness of God's being in a way that parallels the issues concerned with the Trinity. … The matter of the divine attributes is very old in Islam. Some scholars think that it may, in fact, have been raised through discussions with Christians. It arises from the problem of how to categorise the descriptions of God given by revelation and reason, whether these refer accurately to God's actual being or are human approximations of an unknowable divinity. …But this was the nub of the problem. According to the generally agreed perception at this time, the descriptions that could pertinently be made of a being were understood to refer to attributes that qualified the being itself. For example, if a being could be called living it was qualified by the attribute of life, and if it could be called seeing it was qualified by the attribute of sight. The attribute itself qualified the being as a whole, and in that respect was said to be of or in the being. This relationship between description and attribute was expressed according to the grammatical logic which was generally accepted at this time by paraphrasing a statement such as "he is living” as he has life," the two statements being regarded as equivalent. Thus, within the structure of this thinking to describe a being in any way was the same as saying that the being possessed attributes which were real and in some way additional to the being in its own actuality. … In applying these ideas to God, obvious problems arose. For if he possessed attributes which were both real and distinct from his being, he could not be the dense unity upon which the Mu'tazills insisted…. The other side of the debate was equally problematic, since those who maintained the reality of the attributes were confronted with the difficulty of explaining how God was one in any meaningful sense. … But the resulting problem is that since the attributes are not identical with God's essence but rather of it Ibn Kullab cannot easily explain how the being of God is a simple unity.” [WR:IIOC, 86-88]




Muslim theologians up until the modern age recognized that the Christian ‘version’ of multiplicity-in-unity (i.e. the Trinity) was technically a ‘full’ monotheism:


“Recall the crisply formulated conclusion that Nicholas of Cusa [an ancient Christian teacher and church leader of the 15th century] reached after examining Muslim and Jewish critiques of the doc­trine of the Trinity: "In the manner in which Arabs [Muslims] and Jews deny the Trinity, assuredly it ought to be denied by all.” The Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers reject dividing the divine essence no less adamantly than do Muslims and Jews. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a preeminent contemporary Muslim scholar, agrees: "The doctrine of the Trinity certainly does not negate Divine Unity in mainstream Christian theology." [Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “We and You: Let Us Meet in God’s Love,” a lecture delivered at the ‘Common Word’ meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, November 6, 2008. P2; cited in WR:AACR,135f]


“Certain earlier authors, such as Ghazali and especially modern Muslim theologians in dialogue with Christian theologians, can go as far as to recognise that, if one considers the precise statement of Christian doctrine, Christianity is an authentic monotheism. But they would certainly add that it is in form different from the Islamic monotheism…” [WR:HIIT, 80,81]


“From the Muslim perspective, the relatively crude perception of the Christian Trinity as three gods has gradually been replaced by a deeper appreciation of the complexities of the Christian understanding of three distinct persons in one essence. [WR:HTRQ, 28-31]



But more modern Muslim writers sometimes seem to be unaware of this, and seem to construct caricatures of the Christian belief—unlike their medieval Muslim counterparts:


“The most outspoken critics of Christianity are not always the best ambassadors for Islam. … Al-Faruqi's treatment of some of the traditional areas of tension in Islam, such as the relationship between God's grace and human deeds, between God's justice and His mercy, or between God's determining of history and human free will, is superficial and somewhat dismissive of the rich legacy of Islamic thought in these areas. …The study of Christianity by modern Muslims does not, on the whole, compare favourably with that of the medieval Muslim scholars. The intellectual tools derived from Aristotelian philosophy have been exchanged for those of modern Western critical scholarship, which, whatever their intrinsic merits, are applied in a far less sustained and rigorous way. These Muslims show less awareness than did the medieval scholars that some of the philosophical problems arising in Christian theology, concerning, for example, the Incarnation and the Trinity, have their counterparts in Islam in the areas of the attributes of God, the eternality and Uncreatedness of the Qur'an, and the need to reconcile the fact of God's absolute transcendence with His commmunication with humankind." [WR:MACF2F, 172f]



“The “mathematics” of the Trinity seems to baffle Muslims! How can 1+1+1=1? This point is illustrated by reviewing the words of Mish’al ibn Abdullah, a Muslim author. Abdullah defines the Trinity as:  “the merging of three entities into one similar entity while remaining three distinct entities. In other words: Three bodies fold, blend, or merge into one body so that they become one entity while at the same time exhibiting the characteristics of three distinct and separate entities. “ He then goes on to give a caricature of the way the Trinity inter-relates by wondering how “one” can be “three.” … Abdullah is a reflection of the manner in which Muslims approach the Trinity. From his writings it becomes very apparent that he does not comprehend what Christians mean by the Trinity. In a way, Christians can relate, for to them the doctrine of the Trinity is very much a mystery and beyond our comprehension. However, it is also a truth revealed by God and a reasonable doctrine. [“Explaining the Trinity to a Muslim”, Daniel Janosik, Christian Apologetics Journal Volume 4. 2005 (2) (71–74). Matthews, NC: Southern Evangelical Seminary.]



Even a modern commentator can brand Christian theology as illogical and full of contradiction—while seemingly unaware (?) that Muslim theology has historically ‘owned’ the same problems but not addressed them successfully either…


“The Church, on the other hand, adheres to beliefs and doctrines that are paradoxical and totally self-contradictory. Jesus is God, and Mary is the mother of God. But God is the Eternal Father, who sent His son, Jesus, to save the human race, and Jesus is therefore the son of God. However, there is also the Holy Spirit who is also God. So, although there are three Gods, they are in fact one God, or rather God is three-in-one, a Trinity, and so on. …The great religious debate in the world today is in essence between Islam, which upholds the absolute oneness of God, the one and only creator and controller of the whole of life and the universe, on the one hand, and a brand of Christianity with illogical, inconsis­tent, and incomprehensible doctrines that are being modified and remodified by self-serving institutions, on the other.” [WR:TCQ,110f]





Muslim theologians and philosophers worked very hard to avoid admitting that there were some kinds of distinctions within God, putting forth theoretical terms like “modes” and “states”, internal and external attributes, attributes of essence and attributes of description, and so on. But no real solution ever appeared. The God who is all-knowing and compassionate and creative—and Who speaks into history(!)-- simply cannot be some kind of featureless, homogenous, unknowable and undifferentiated substance—without attributes or characteristics or internal relations. We must submit to God’s revelation, not our philosophical or theological commitments. Let God be God! Let God speak His word and let us listen!


What God has told us in Scripture about His nature and His life, is to be accepted and trusted as honest and accurate statements from Him. He never tells us about how His nature could be such, and it is presumptuous, foolish, fruitless, distracting, and dangerous for us to speculate on this.


There is not a whisper in the Bible, the Quran, or the Hadith about God being some kind of featureless, homogenous, unknowable and undifferentiated substance/something—without internal attributes or characteristics or internal relations. It is only the philosophers, theologians, and polemicists that say such about our glorious and grand God.


Sura 112 is sometimes put forward as being a pure statement of God’s ‘singularity’, but Muslim exegetes go “way beyond what is written” in their exposition of this text.


The Sura simply says this:


Say: “He is Allah, the only One (ahad),

“Allah, the Everlasting (samad).

“He did not beget and is not begotten,

“And none is His equal.”



“THE OPENING VERSES of this very short sura encapsulate the central tenet of Islam: the oneness of God (tawhid). Alongside the final two suras (Q. 113 and Q. 114) and the Fatiha, the surat al-Ikhlds is one of the most well-known passages of the Qur'an; it is familiar to almost every self-professing Muslim, and even those with a minimal familiarity with the Qur'an would still be able to recite its opening verses. This declaration of God's oneness can be found on some of the earliest Islamic materials: first-/seventh-century Islamic coins. This is earlier than the oldest extant copies of the Qur'an. Despite the sura consisting of four verses and being one of the shortest passages of the Qur'an, Muslim commentaries have appended to it lengthy exegetical narratives. This is mainly due to it being considered by Muslims to be emblematic of the Muslim faith and its fundamental doctrine: the absolute oneness of God. For the authors of these commentaries, this sura also serves to distinguish between Islamic monotheism and other forms of monotheism. The Abrahamic traditions are acknowledged by all Muslims as sister-religions whose geo-historical and spiritual continuity with Islam is obvious; but the qualification of the nature of 'God' and how this 'God' is to be conceived of, or not, has always been a sensitive issue, both within Muslim scholarship and in inter-confessional dialogue between the three faiths. What is interesting about the commentaries on this sura is their discussions on the idea of 'uniqueness' or 'singularity' as these relate to the Arabic term ahad: God is One because He is unique, bearing no relation - physical or otherwise - to creation nor any similarity with which comparisons may be made of Him; He transcends all comparisons and all similes such that, in the words of Fadl Allah, "The mental faculty cannot reach Him in His elusive and hidden mystery.' [WR:AAQC1, 491f]



I find it curious that, for a verse that is to encapsulate the central tenet of Islam, the main word tawhid is not mentioned in the verse—even though early reciters apparently ‘smuggled it in’ without textual warrant and without fear of changing (tahrif) the wording of their Quran:


“In the commentaries an important distinction is made between al-ahad and al-wahid, even though the latter term is not used in the canonical text itself — although Hud has a citation that Ibn Mas'ud used to recite the verse using al-wahid instead of al-ahad, and Razi cites the same about al-A'mash. Both names denote oneness and unicity and singleness. Literally, al-ahad denotes an 'internal oneness', while al-wahid denotes an 'external oneness'; in other words, God is indivisibly One within Himself and He is exclusively one of a kind, respectively. While the name al-ahad is used in the first verse of the sura (in the standard text) to state the indivisibility of the divine oneness, the incomparability of God is stated in the last verse of the sura. [WR:AAQC1, 491f]


Notice how much content a learned commentator can “find” in the single word ahad:


“In Mecca the Quraysh had said to the Prophet, 'Describe your Lord for us that we might know Him and thus worship Him.' God, blessed and exalted, then sent down to the Prophet, Say: He is God, One, meaning [that He is] neither divisible (muba'ad) nor subject to partition (mujazza') or modality (mukayyaf), nor can the notion of numbers (ism al-'adad) or increase (ziydda) or decrease (nuqsan) be applied to Him. …  Nor is there anyone equal to Him, meaning that He has no resemblance, no likeness and no equivalent and none of His creatures is able, with whatever blessings He has bestowed upon them from His bounty, to match Him.” (tradition cited by Qummi [4th century], in [WR:AAQC1, 501]


But this more-theology-than-exegesis commentary leaves God very far out of the reach of worshippers and recipients of revelation. If one compares that fairly ‘sterile’ description of God, with this beautiful one by ‘Ali (WR:MTHQ):


“The nature of Allah is here indicated to us in a few words, such as we can understand…The first thing we have to note is that His nature is so sublime, so far beyond our limited conceptions, that the best way in which we can realize Him is to feel that He is a Personality, ‘He’, and not a mere abstract conception of philosophy, He is near us; He cares for us; we owe our existence to Him. Secondly, He is the One and Only God, the Only One to Whom worship is due; all other things or beings that we can think of are His creatures and in no way comparable to Him. Thirdly, He is Eternal, without beginning or end, Absolute, not limited by time or space or circumstance, the Reality before which all other things or places are mere shadows or reflections. Fourthly, we must not think of Him as having a son or a father, for that would be to import animal qualities into our conception of Him. Fifthly, He is not like any other person or thing that we know or can imagine: His qualities and nature are unique.”


God is a “Personality” who “cares” for us… can you imagine what the tanzih-purists would do to this?!





Debates about the internal workings of our great God have sabotaged many beautiful lives and created significant discord in both Christian and Muslim theology.


In Christian theology, the debates about this in the early centuries of the church were often impure—they were tainted by political ambitions and by social pressures. Sometimes they stopped arguing and admitted the reality of mystery, but sometimes they did not.


And the same is true for the internal Muslim debates. One writer (Nader El-Bizri), discussing the internal Muslim arguments over essence and attributes, said this:


“Although the question concerning God's essence and attributes has primarily remained a classical madrasa problem that has been peripheral to modem reformist deliberations, it nevertheless confronts us with exacting metaphysical riddles. Attempts to advance a definite thesis in this regard are likely to be part of a call for a conversion to one doctrine or another. The atmosphere is one of ideological indoctrination pre­occupied with historicity rather than a commitment to the uncanny realities of this question. This should, as a minimum, be replaced with a restraint in taking conclusive positions, and by resisting intellective haste, given that the doctrinal unfolding of this question did not always maintain, with purity, the indeterminacy, indecision, openness and submission that befit a genuine experience of the holy.” [WR:CCCIT, 137f, Nader El-Bizri, “God: essence and attributes”]



This overview of the history of internal Muslim theological debate about the mystery of the relationship between essence and attributes suggests that criticism/dismissal of Christian statements about the mystery of the Trinity should be based on something OTHER THAN perceived logical contradictions, inconsistencies, and statements about realities ‘of which we do not know the how thereof’.


Debate about Christian claims should rather be focused on the content of revelation—not extreme extrapolations of logic or language… No historical monotheism is exempt from this problem of how ANY Absolute can be personal, related to creatures in time, and self-aware…



[Just a reminder: this is basically an appendix to the article on the Trinity: “Are there 3 Gods in One God, in the Trinity?”—howtrin.html. It is not a stand-alone document per se.]



Glenn Miller, Feb 2012


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