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Islam: conceptions of God

God in Islam is singular, unique, supreme above all and utterly other than all else. God is unlike anything we know. The fundamental essence of God is his Oneness, his unity. One of the central dilemmas addressed by Islamic theologians over the centuries has been how to assert the Unity of God while ascribing all the many attributes to Him.

Some have sought to preserve God’s absolute unity by denying the possibility of divine attributes, which would introduce multiplicity into the nature of God. Others note that although the Qur’an says “naught is there anything like Him” it is yet filled with rich descriptions of God’s qualities. In fact one of the most beloved prayers of Islam is the repetition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God, which praises His numerous wonderful attributes. Some say these are metaphorical, others that they are real, but do not attempt to reconcile this with the essential Oneness of God which they also hold inviolable.

In other words, like Christian theologians, Islamic religious scholars have struggled with comprehending the incomprehensibility of God’s divine nature. Yet like the Jewish sages and rabbis, they devoted the majority of their efforts to ascertaining what is the proper way for a person to act in the world in light of the Godhood of God.

Al-Ghazali, one of the great Islamic theologians, asserted that in fact the essence of God can never be known, defined, or described by the human mind. Yet, we must accept the words and example of the Prophet in speaking of God as knower, willing, powerful, living, hearing, speaking, and seeing. Al-Ghazali says that these are not the essence of God, which is without attributes, but are added to the essence.

The Essence of God, his complete otherness, rests in his incomparable Existence itself. The attributes do not constitute a plurality but rather modes of expression of God’s essential Being which is radically singular.

For al Ghazali the attributes of God exist eternally in the essence of God but they have no existence outside the essence of God. On the other hand, the essence of God does not require any attributes. The further attributes of God, the names of God derived from his actions, are secondary, emerging out of the seven primary attributes.

God is the only originator of all things and all events, both material and immaterial. God is spirit, having no physical form and no association with any substance with restrictions or limits. He is knowledge itself, invisible and indivisible, not limited by space or time. He is the only self-existent self-living reality.

Ibn Arabi, another important figure in Islam sees the names of God sometimes distinguished from the attributes and sometimes inclusive of them. These are those attributed to God by himself in the Qur’an such as Merciful, Creator, Independent, Tremendous, Faithful, Vast, Sustainer, Restricter. Each of these names of God is not an existent thing but names a particular relationship of God with the created order.

The names allow us to understand what God does in the world, the manifestation of his names in the created domain: he creates, nourishes, restricts, and so on. But just as light is neither multiplied nor destroyed when refracted through a prism into its spectrum of colors, the names of God merely designate a particular mode, relation or act of the One Existence.

The multiplicity of the created order requires a multiplicity of responses from God; each being, thing and phenomena has a different relationship with God derived from its own nature and characteristics. God has himself, through his messengers, given the names by which his creatures can know him. But the names do not multiply the essential unity of God’s existence.

Ibn Arabi, like al Ghazali before him, distinguishes between primary and secondary names of God. For him the distinction lies between those which refer directly to essential Existence itself, and those which refer to relationships. The former, such as Life and Knowledge, manifest continually from essential Being in itself, irrespective of the created order; whereas the latter only manifest in relation to created things.

God also knows eternally every possible existent thing, every possible way that created existence can exist. Though the divine Names and possible existent things both exist eternally in the knowledge of God, neither exist in actuality, until he brings creation into existence. God brings things into existence because of his love and longing for that thing to exist, to see its manifestation in the existent order.

It is from the existence of God as such that everything receives existence and from the names of God, which are his attributes, that each receives its particular qualities and attributes.

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