Lesson 12: The Attributes of God

Name (ism) and Attribute (ṣifah)

The word ism has different applications. In its broadest function, it means any word which implies certain meanings. In this application, ism is synonymous with kalimah (word) and it also includes ḥarf (particle) and fi‘l (verb) in the parlance of the Arabic grammarians.

The second application of ism is that which is used in Arabic syntax, and it is one of the types of kalimah, ḥarf and fi‘l being the other types.

Its third application is that which is intended in the parlance of the theologians (mutakallimūn) and it means any word which indicates the very quiddity (māhiyyah) or essence (dhāt) of an attribute (ṣifah) without considering its qualification (ittiṣāf); examples are the words samā’ (heaven), arḍ (earth), rajul (man), and jidār (wall).

The word ṣifah has also different applications. The theosophers (ḥukamā’) call the origins of derivatives (mushtaqqāt) as ṣifah and the derivatives as ism. According to them, ‘ilm (knowledge) and qudrah (power) are ṣifah while ‘ālim or ‘alīm (knowledgeable) and qādir or qadīr (powerful) are ism. Meanwhile, the theologians call the derivatives as ṣifāt (ṣifahs or attributes) and the origins of derivatives as ma‘nā (concepts). For this matter, ‘ilm and qudrah are ma‘nā while ‘ālim or ‘alīm and qādir or qadīr are ṣifāt. In other words, whenever we take into consideration the essence or quiddity in the sense that it is qualified by a specific quality (waṣf) or meaning, the word ṣifah is used.1

اَلصِّفَةُ هِيَ الإسْمُ الدّالُّ عَلىٰ بَعْضِ أحْوالِ الذّاتِ، وَ ذٰلِكَ نَحْوَ طَويلٍ وَ قَصيرٍ وَ عاقِلٍ وَ غَيْرِها.

Ṣifah (attribute) is an ism (noun) which indicates some states of the dhāt (essence), in the case of ṭawīl (long), qaṣīr (short), ‘āqil (intelligent), and the like.”2

إنَّ الصِّفَةَ فِي الْحَقيقَةِ ما أنْبَأَتْ عَنْ مَعْنى مُسْتَفادٍ يَخُصُّ المَوْصوفَ وَ ما شارَكَهُ...

“In reality, ṣifah refers to the meaning which is exclusive to the qualified (mawṣūf) and what shares with it [in the said description (waṣf)].”3

It must be noted that such technicalities are not much observed in practice, and they (ism and ṣifah) are used interchangeably.

The only word which has no descriptive meaning and is known as the exclusive Name of God is His Name of Glory (ism jalāluh), i.e. Allāh, whereas other words such as Al-‘ālim (the All-learned), Al-qādir (the All-powerful), Al-ḥayy (the Ever-living), Al-rāziq (the Sustainer), Al-bāqī (the Everlasting), and the like are used both as Names and Attributes of God. For instance, in well-known traditions (aḥādīth), it is said that God has Ninety-nine Names. With the exception of His Name of Glory, all are derivatives and attributes.

Classifications of the Divine Attributes

The Attributes (ṣifāt) of Allah are classified in various ways:

1. The Attributes of Beauty and the Attributes of Glory

The Attributes of Beauty (ṣifāt al-jamāliyyah) or the Positive Attributes (ṣifāt al-thubūtiyyah) are attributes which indicate the Perfect Being of God; examples are ‘ilm (knowledge) and Al-‘ālim (the All-knowing), qudrah (power) and Al-qādir (the All-powerful), khalq (creation) and Al-khāliq (the Creator), rizq (sustenance) and Al-rāziq (the Sustainer), and the like. The Attributes of Glory (ṣifāt al-jalāliyyah) or the Negative Attributes (ṣifāt al-salabiyyah) are attributes which indicate deficiency and lack of perfection and are thus negated from God. Examples are compositeness (tarkīb), corporeality (jasmāniyyah), space (makān), direction (jahat), oppression (ẓulm), absurdity (‘abath), and the like. In this regard, Ṣadr al-Muta’allihīn comments:

“These two terms (the Attributes of Beauty and Glory) are consistent with the expression dhū ’l-jalāli wa ’l-ikrām (the Majestic and the Munificent) in the holy verse, “Blessed is the Name of your Lord, the Majestic and the Munificent!”4 for the Attributes of Glory (ṣifāt al-jalāl) are those attributes which make the Essence of God immune from similarities with others. And the Attributes of Munificence (ṣifāt al-akrām) are those with which the Essence of God is adorned. Thus, God is described with the Attributes of Perfection, and immune from deficiency with the Attributes of Glory.”5

The Negative Attributes have another function, and that is, they are attributes which indicate God’s negation of deficiency; for example, Al-ghanī (the Self-sufficient), Al-wāḥid (the One), Al-quddūs (the All-holy), Al-ḥamīd (the Praiseworthy), and the like.6

2. The Attributes of Essence and the Attributes of Action

In dividing the Divine Attributes into the Attributes of Essence and the Attributes of Action, there are two terminologies and two views involved:

1. In abstracting an attribute from the Divine Essence or describing the Divine Essence with that attribute, whenever conception (taṣawwur) of the Essence is sufficient and there is no need for any conception of God’s agency (fā‘iliyyah), the said attribute is an Attribute of Essence or Essential Attribute; examples are ḥayāh (life) and Al-hayy (the Ever-living), irādah (will) and murīd (the Willing), ‘ilm (knowledge) and Al-‘ālim (the All-knowing), qudrah (Power) and Al-qādir (the All-powerful). And whenever conception of God’s agency is needed [in abstracting an attribute], that attribute is called an Attribute of Action or Agency Attribute; examples are khalq (creation) and Al-khāliq (the Creator), rizq (sustenance) and Al-rāziq (the Sustenainer), amātah (death) and Al-mumayyit (the Life-taker), aḥyā’ (living) and Al-muḥayyī (the Life-giver), maghfirah (forgiveness) and Al-ghāfir (the Forgiver), intiqām (vengeance) and Al-muntaqim (the Avenger), and the like.

2. Whenever the opposite or reverse of an attribute can be attributed to God, it is called an Attribute of Action and whenever the opposite or reverse of an attribute cannot be attributed to God, it is called an Attribute of Essence. Therefore, power, knowledge and life are among the Attributes of the Divine Essence, because God cannot be described with the opposites of these attributes as their opposites denote existential deficiency. But will (irādah) is not one of the Attributes of Essence because describing God with its opposite is not possible. For instance, it can be said that God does not will any form of injustice toward His servants:

﴿ وَمَا اللَّهُ يُرِيدُ ظُلْمًا لِلْعِبَادِ ﴾

“And Allah does not desire any wrong for (His) servants.”7

On this basis, justice (‘adl) is one of the Attributes of the Divine Essence but according to the first terminology, it is one of the Attributes of Action.

Of the two stated terminologies, the first is more popular and prevalent in the books of philosophy and theology. In his Al-Kāfī, Muḥaddith al-Kulaynī has adopted the second terminology.8

The traditions which have regarded irādah (will or willpower) as one of the Attributes of the Divine Action have been interpreted on this basis. Sayyid Sharīf al-Gurgānī has also adopted this terminology in his Al-Ta‘rīfāt.9

3. The Real and the Relative Attributes

The Attributes of Essence have been divided into Real (ḥaqīqī) and Relative (iḍāfī) Attributes. A Real Essential Attribute is that which can really be ascribed to the Divine Essence; for example, knowledge and power. A Relative Essential Attribute is that which can be abstracted from the Real Attributes, but it is in itself not really one of the Attributes of Essence; for example, the attributes of ‘ālimiyyah (the state of being the All-knowing) and qādiriyyah (the state of being the All-powerful) which can be abstracted by taking into account the relation of knowledge and power to the Essence, and they have no reality beyond the Essence and the attributes of knowledge and power.

The Real Essential Attributes are divided into the Purely Real (ḥaqīqī-ye maḥḍ) and the Relationally Essential Real (ḥaqīqī-ye dhāt al-iḍāfah). The Purely Real is that which pertains to no other than God; for example, the attribute of life. The Relationally Essential Real is that which can also be applied to other than God; for example, knowledge and power.

4. The Transmitted Attributes

Some attributes are called the Transmitted Attributes (ṣifāt al-khabariyyah).10 They are the attributes which have been transmitted in the Heavenly Account (the Qur’an and the Sunnah), and if they were not mentioned in the Heavenly Account, they could not have been established for God in a rational discourse. Meanwhile, if we subscribe to their outward meaning, it will be tantamount to [the belief in] anthropomorphism (tashbiyyah) and incarnation (tajassum).

In other words, such attributes are Attributes which are mentioned in allegorical Qur’anic verses and traditions about the Divine Attributes; for example, wajh (face), yadd (hand), istiwā’ (to settle) and mujī’ (advent) which are mentioned in the following verses:

﴿ كُلُّ شَيْءٍ هَالِكٌ إِلَّا وَجْهَهُ ﴾

“Everything is to perish except His Face.”11

﴿ يَدُ اللَّهِ فَوْقَ أَيْدِيهِمْ ﴾

“The hand of Allah is above their hands.”12

﴿ الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى ﴾

“The All-beneficent settled on the Throne.”13

﴿ وَجَاءَ رَبُّكَ وَالْمَلَكُ صَفًّا صَفًّا ﴾

“And your Lord and the angels arrive in ranks.”14

Are the Names of Allah Tawqīfī?

The Names of Allah are said to be tawqīfī when we apply to God the Names and Attributes which are mentioned in the religious sources (the Qur’an and the Sunnah) and we do not apply other names and attributes. Most Sunnī theologians and some of their Shī‘ah counterparts subscribe to this view, but others do not believe in the Names and Attributes of God to be tawqīfī, considering it permissible to apply any name or attribute which denotes God’s existential perfection and does not ascribe any deficiency or fault to God.

Even in cases, therefore, where a name or attribute is mentioned in the Qur’an or traditions, yet its application to God without any qualification or indication bespeaks defect or fault, these are not permissible. For example, God is called zāri‘ (planter or grower) in this noble verse:

﴿ أَأَنْتُمْ تَزْرَعُونَهُ أَمْ نَحْنُ الزَّارِعُونَ ﴾

“Is it you who make it grow, or are We the grower?”15

This indicates God as the Originator of plantation and not its conventional meaning in human usage. However, since the use of this term without any qualification or indication suggests its conventional meaning which is not suitable to God, it is not permissible to apply it to Him. On the other hand, the use of such terms as ‘the Necessary Being by essence’ (wājib al-wujūd bi ’dh-dhāt), ‘the Cause of causes’ (‘illat al-‘ilal) and the like which are terms in theosophy, is permissible as they indicate the sense of God’s perfection and negate any defect or fault in Him.

Here, one may demand for elaboration, and that is, if the application of a name or attribute to God is in the context of an intellectual discussion or discourse and not in supplication or any act of worship, the contention of those who deny God’s Names and Attributes as being tawqīfī is valid. In the context of supplication and any similar act of worship, it is safer to use the Names and Attributes mentioned in the Qur’an, traditions and transmitted supplications. In this regard, the late ‘Allāmah al-Ṭabāṭabā’ī has some remarks which include the said elaboration:

اَلإحْتِياطُ فِي الدّينِ يَقْتَضى الإقْتِصارُ فِي التَّسْمِيَةِ بِما وَرَدَ مِنْ طَريقِ السَّمْعِ، وَأَمّا مُجَرَّدُ الاِجْراءِ وِالإطْلاقِ مِنْ دونِ التَّسْمِيَةِ فَالْأمْرُ فيهِ سَهْلٌ.

“Precaution in religion necessitates restriction in calling [God] to that which is received through transmission. However, if a name is applied to God without calling Him by it, making decision in it is easy.”16

In another place, the ‘Allāmah has regarded naming (tasmiyah) and calling (nidā) as among the supplements of worship (‘ibādah): 17

وَالتَّسْمِيَةُ وَالنِّداءُ مِنْ لَواحِقِ الْعِبادَةِ.

At any rate, a reliable proof on the Names of Allah being tawqīfī has not been established. The main argument put forth by those who support that view is the noble verse 180 of Sūrat al-A‘rāf:

﴿ وَلِلَّهِ الأسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَى فَادْعُوهُ بِهَا وَذَرُوا الَّذِينَ يُلْحِدُونَ فِي أَسْمَائِهِ سَيُجْزَوْنَ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ ﴾

“To Allah belong the Best Names, so supplicate Him by them, and abandon those who commit sacrilege in His names. Soon they shall be requited for what they used to do.”18

That the noble verse implies how the Names of Allah are tawqīfī depends on two things. One is that the letter lām in the phrase al-asmā’ al-usnā (the Best Names) is lām ‘ahad; these are the Names which are mentioned in the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions (aḥādīth). Another is that ilḥād means violation of those Names and applying other names to God although those names or attributes denote perfection and do not imply any defect or fault.

Yet, none of these two points has been proved because the function of the [definite article] al in the first case is absorption (istighrāq) and not ‘ahad. And its purport in the holy verse is that all the names known to be the Best Names exclusively belong to God because there is no being more perfect and superior to Him.

In every sort of perfection, therefore, its highest level belongs to God and ilḥād (violation) here may possibly mean that the polytheists have committed sacrilege with regards to the Names of God and through a slight change of terminology, they would apply those Names to the idols. For example, they would change the word Allāh into Al-lāt and name one of their idols with it. They would alter the word Al-‘aẓīz (the Most High) into Al-‘uzzā and call another of their idols with it.19

Another possibility of committing sacrilege against the Names of Allah is that some ignorant individuals would call God with names which are below His Sublime Stations; for example, invocative phrases such as Yā aba ’l-makārim (O father of generosities!) and Yā abya al-wajh (O white-faced!).20

Review Questions

1. Write down the meanings and applications of ism and ṣifah.

2. Elucidate the Attributes of Beauty and Glory of God.

3. Write down the remarks of Ṣadr al-Muta’allihīn regarding the Attributes of Beauty and Glory of God.

4. Explain the two views regarding the division of the Divine Attributes into the Attributes of Essence and the Attributes of Action.

5. State the Real and Relative Attributes of God.

6. What is meant by the Declarative Attributes (ṣifāt al-khabariyyah)?

7. Explain how the Divine Names are being tawqīfī.

  • 1. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Sharḥ Asmā’ Allāh al-Ḥusnā, p. 27.
  • 2. Sayyid Sharīf Gurgānī, Al-Ta‘rīfāt, p. 95.
  • 3. Shaykh al-Mufīd, Awā’il al-Maqālāt, p. 61.
  • 4. Sūrat al-Raḥmān 55:78. [Trans.]
  • 5. Ṣadr al-Muta’allihīn, Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 6, p. 18.
  • 6. Amīn al-Islām al-Ṭabarsī, Majma‘ al-Bayān, vol. 3, p. 503.
  • 7. Sūrat Ghāfir (or al-Mu’min) 40:31.
  • 8. Muḥaddith al-Kulaynī, Uṣūl al-Kāfī, vol. 1, section (bāb) on willpower (irādah), p. 86.
  • 9. Sayyid Sharīf al-Gurgānī, Al-Ta‘rifāt, p. 95.
  • 10. ‘Abd al-Karīm Shahristānī, Al-Milal wa ’n-Nihal, vol. 1, p. 92.
  • 11. Sūrat al-Qaṣaṣ 28:88.
  • 12. Sūrat al-Fatḥ 48:10.
  • 13. Sūrat Ṭā Hā 20:5.
  • 14. Sūrat al-Fajr 89:22.
  • 15. Sūrat al-Wāqi‘ah 56:64.
  • 16. Al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān, vol. 8, p. 354.
  • 17. Ibid., p. 345.
  • 18. Sūrat al-A‘rāf 7:180.
  • 19. Ṭabarsī, Majma‘ al-Bayān, vol. 3, p. 503.
  • 20. Zamakhsharī, Al-Kashshāf, vol. 2, p. 180.