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Chapter 2: Knowledge about God

Since the beginning of human history whether in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan and India), the Mayan Civilization (modern day Central America), Egypt or China, we find that all of the major civilizations have developed their own system of beliefs and religions. This common behavior in otherwise distinct and separate human societies points towards an inherent need or a desire in human beings to seek a higher meaning for their lives in which religion plays a fundamental role. Most belief systems or religions are founded on the idea of a higher being, a Diety, a God, or even multiple gods who exercise authority over our lives and provide a meaning or purpose to our existence.

Now who God is, or what God is and how does one even begin to answer this question is not very simple to stay the least. Also, is there only one God or are there multiple gods? In addition, there are those who completely reject the idea of God and claim that belief in God is a complete delusion affecting the majority of mankind and there is no evidence that God even exists.

The Qur’an brings forth the following conversation between the Pharaoh and Prophet Moses (‘a):

قَالَ فَمَنْ رَبُّكُمَا يَا مُوسَىٰ قَالَ رَبُّنَا الَّذِي أَعْطَىٰ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلْقَهُ ثُمَّ هَدَىٰ

(Pharaoh) said: ‘Who then, Moses, is the Lord of the two of you (Moses and Aaron)?’ He (Moses) said: ‘Our Lord is He Who gave to each (created) thing its form and nature, and further gave (it) guidance.’ (Quran, Surah Taha, 20: 49-50).

To address the question in regards to knowledge about God, let us start by going back to the first chapter in which various sources of knowledge were listed and see which ones we can utilize to answer the question of who or what God is?

Since we cannot perceive God using our ordinary senses like sight, sound and touch, then we cannot use our sensory organs to obtain knowledge about God. Experimentation on God in the lab seems rather impossible as well since no one claims to have a “sample” of God which can be used to learn more about Him. So what we are left with is communication - both verbal and written, intellectual reasoning which in a more developed form is called logic and philosophy, and direct and intuitive knowledge.

What I will attempt to do in this chapter is to describe knowledge about God as has been described by Muslim theologians, mystics and philosophers using the revealed knowledge from the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (S) and his rightful successors (the twelve Imams).

In the next chapter, I will attempt to give rational and philosophical reasonings for the existence of God. I think this sequence is important as we cannot prove or disprove something unless we first describe it.

In describing God, the Qur’an says:

قُلْ هُوَ اللّٰهُ أَحَدٌ أَللّٰهُ الصَّمَدُ لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ

Say: He is God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He has no offspring, nor is He born from anything; And there is none like Him. (Quran, Surah al-Ikhlas, 112:1-4).

God Resembles None in Creation

As one ponders over God and tries to get some level of understanding, the first thing to acknowledge is that God does not resemble anything in creation. When we try to learn about something we typically ask questions like: What is it? Where is it? Since when has it been? What caused it? What is its size, shape and color? What is it made up of?

The simple answer to the first question what God is, is that He is “Rabb al-ʿAlamin” - The Sustainer and Maintainer of all the worlds. Other questions like where is He or since when has He been, are not only unanswerable, but they are in fact wrong questions. Asking where God is, is to confine Him to a space; asking since when God has been is to limit Him to a time; asking what caused Him is to make Him an effect of something else; asking His shape, size and structure is to give Him a body. All of these are wrong questions as He is the Creator of space, time, bodies, shapes and colors, and thus none of these attributes can apply to Him.

Imam ʿAli (‘a), the first successor of Prophet Muhammad (S) has said:

Praise be to God, who lies inside all of the hidden things (affairs), and towards whom all apparent things guide. He cannot be seen by the eye of an onlooker, but the eye which does not see Him cannot deny Him, and the mind that proves His existence cannot perceive Him. He is so high in sublimity that nothing can be more sublime than He, while in nearness, He is so near that no one can be nearer than Him. But His sublimity does not put Him at a distance from anything of His creation, nor does His nearness bring them on an equal level to Him. He has not informed (human) intellect about the limits of His qualities. Nevertheless, He has not prevented it from securing essential knowledge of Him. So He is such that all signs of existence stand witness for Him until the denying mind also believes in Him. God is sublime beyond what is described by those who liken Him to things or those who deny Him.1

God is Beyond Sensory Perception

One of the main reasons that people deny the existence of God is due to their inability to “see” Him. If we cannot see Him then how do we know that He even exists? God is beyond our sensory perception as our senses are very limited in ability, sometimes even weaker than other animals. God is not a body or a physical form that our vision can perceive Him:

لَا تُدْرِكُهُ الْأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الْأَبْصَارَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ

No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision: and He is All Subtle, acquainted with all things. (Quran, Surah al-Anʿam, 6:103).

In addition, we read the following statement:

All praise be to God who cannot be sensed, felt or touched, as He cannot be perceived by the five senses. Imagination cannot grasp Him. Tongues cannot describe Him. Everything that can be sensed is a creation. All praise be to God who was when there was nothing but He. He made all things according to a design. He knows what has been and what will be.2

Our inability to see God is not because He does not exist, but on the contrary it is due to the intensity of His existence. On a typical day, we cannot stare at the sun for more than few moments because the light of the sun is very intense. So if God is the Creator of billions of stars in our galaxy, as well as billions of other galaxies then imagine His Might and Power. Can our senses withstand the Majesty of such a Being?

The Qur’an mentions an instance in which the Israelites insisted that they wanted to see God, so Prophet Moses (‘a) took them to Mount Sinai and narrated to God what his community was demanding:

وَلَمَّا جَآءَ مُوسَىٰ لِمِيقَاتِنَا وَكَلَّمَهُ رَبُّهُ قَالَ رَبِّ أَرِنِي أَنْظُرْ إِلَيْكَ ۚ قَالَ لَنْ تَرَانِي وَلَٰكِنِ انْظُرْ إِلَى الْجَبَلِ فَإِنِ اسْتَقَرَّ مَكَانَهُ فَسَوْفَ تَرَانِي ۚ فَلَمَّا تَجَلَّىٰ رَبُّهُ لِلْجَبَلِ جَعَلَهُ دَكًّا وَخَرَّ مُوسَىٰ صَعِقًا ۚ فَلَمَّا أَفَاقَ قَالَ سُبْحَانَكَ تُبْتُ إِلَيْكَ وَأَنَا أَوَّلُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

When Moses came to the place appointed by Us, and his Lord addressed him (Moses), He (Moses) said: ‘O my Lord! show (Yourself) to me, that I may look upon You.’ God said: ‘By no means can you ever see Me (directly); But look at the mountain; if it stays in its place, then you will be able to see Me.“ When his Lord manifested His glory to the mountain, He made it as dust, and Moses fell down, unconscious. When he recovered, he said: ‘Glory be to You (God)! I turn to You in repentance, and I am the first to believe.’ (Quran, Surah al-Aʿraf, 7:143).

This brief moment of Manifestation of God’s Majesty on the mountain was too intense for the mountain to bear as the creation cannot withstand witnessing God directly, for surely He is the Most High, the Magnificent (al-ʿAli, al-Adhim).

Imagination Cannot Reach Him

When we want to learn about something new we use our imagination to make a mental picture of it. Imagination is much more powerful than sensory perception, and it helps us to better understand those things also for which we have no sensory perception, such as abstract ideas and concepts.

As you are reading about God, focus on what mental picture of God is coming into your mind. Different readers may come with different mental images of God. But all of the the mental images that the readers make about God are wrong, as God is beyond imagination. Our inability to imagine him does not mean that He does not exist because we can imagine things that don’t exist suc as an animal with the head of a tiger but the body of a zebra. Our inability to imagine Him is due to limitations of our imagination. The intellect points towards Him but it is unable to grasp the reality of Him:

سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَىٰ عَمَّا يَصِفُونَ

Praise and glory be to Him! (For He is) above what they attribute to Him! (Quran, Surah al-Anʿam, 6:100).

It has been mentioned by Imam Hasan b. ʿAli (‘a) in the Islamic sources that:

He can neither be perceived by intellects or imagination, nor by thoughts and concepts.3

God is Unique and Only One

Monotheism is based on the idea that there is only One God in existence and there is no other independent and self-subsisting entity which is outside of His sphere of influence. This point however needs more clarification. When we say God is One (Arabic: wahid) it does not mean “one” in the numerical sense of the word as that would imply that there can be a second or a third god also. When we say that God is One we mean the One for which there can be no second, the only God.

وَإِلَٰهُكُمْ إِلَٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الرَّحْمَٰنُ الرَّحِيمُ

And your God is one God: There is no god but He, the most Gracious, the most Merciful. (Quran, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:163).

He is also the One (Arabic: ahad) which means that He is one entity which is not composite, has no parts, nor components to Him. He is unique beyond the grasp of our perception and imagination. Our intellects fail to comprehend Him. The Creator is totally different from creation and does not resemble anything else: He is

قُلْ هُوَ اللّٰهُ أَحَدٌ

Say: He is God, the One and Only (Unique). (Quran, Surah al-Ikhlas, 112:1).

The following two verses of the Qur’an shed further light on the concept of monotheism:

لَقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا إِنَّ اللّٰهَ ثَالِثُ ثَلَاثَةٍ ۘ وَمَا مِنْ إِلَٰهٍ إِلَّا إِلَٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ ۚ وَإِنْ لَمْ يَـــنْتَهُوا عَـمَّا يَقُولُونَ لَيَمَسَّنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

They certainly disbelieve who say: Surely God is the third of three; when there is no god save the one God. If they desist not from what they say, then a painful punishment will fall on those of them who disbelieve. (Quran, Surah al-Maʾidah, 5:73).

أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللّٰهَ يَعْلَمُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۖ مَا يَكُونُ مِنْ نَجْوَىٰ ثَلَاثَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ رَابِعُهُمْ وَلَا خَمْسَةٍ إِلَّا هُوَ سَادِسُهُمْ وَلَا أَدْنَىٰ مِنْ ذَٰلِكَ وَلَا أَكْثَرَ إِلَّا هُوَ مَعَهُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كَانُوا ۖ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُمْ بِمَا عَمِلُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ ۚ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ 7

Have you not seen that God know whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth? There is no secret conference of three but He is their fourth, nor of five but He is their sixth, nor of less than that or more but He is with them wheresoever they may be; and afterwards, on the Day of Resurrection, He will inform them about what they did. Indeed God is Knower of all things. (Quran, Surah al-Mujadila, 68:7).

Based on these two verses, it is wrong to say that God is the third of the three as it implies that the other two are similar to Him which is impossible. For example, if there are three different cars, each one of them is different from the other, but they are all still cars. On the other hand, it is correct to say that if there are three, He is the fourth, as it keeps God distinct from everything else.

God’s Essence, His Attributes and His Names

After explaining that God is not limited by time and space and is beyond sensory perception and grasp of imagination, and truly unique in existence, still the questions remain, what really is God?

God is a Nondelimited being (Arabic: al-wujud al-mutlaq) who exists through His very Essence. Knowledge of Him consists of the knowledge that He exists, and His existence is nothing other than His Essence, though His Essence remains unknown.4

His Essence cannot be known as there is nothing like Him. No one other than Him can know Him.5

It is stated in the Qur’an:

لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ

There is nothing like unto Him… (Quran, Surah al-Shura, 42:11).

Imam ʿAli (‘a), the 1st Imam is quoted as saying:

He is so powerful that when the imagination shoots its arrows to comprehend the extent of His power, or when the mind tries to reach Him in the depths of His realm, or when the hearts long to grasp the realities of His attributes, or when the intellect attempt to secure knowledge about His being crossing the pitfalls of the unknown, they will all be turned back. They will return defeated, acknowledging that the reality of His Essence cannot be grasped.6

In the famous supplication taught by the 1st Imam, ʿAli b. Abi Talib (‘a), he supplicates to God saying:

O He Whom none knows what He is, nor how He is, nor where He is, nor in what respect He is, but He!7

His Essence is unknowable, but we can know Him through His Divine names and attributes as He has made His names and attributes known to us:

He does not need to give any name to His Own Self; but He has assumed the names just for others to call Him by them. The reason is that if He is not called by any name, He cannot be known at all. The first and the foremost name that He assumed for Himself is al-ʿAli - The All-High, al-ʿAdhim - The All-Glorious, since He is Greater and Higher than every other thing.8

He is the First (al-Awwal) and the the Last (al-Akhir), the Manifest (al-Zahir) and the Hidden (al-Batin). He is the First who has no beginning so it may be said when did He come into existence, and He is the Last who has no end and everything other than Him is subject to change, decay, transformation from one form to another and annihilation. He is eternal and not subject to occurrence. He is manifest in everything and prevails over them and nothing is devoid of Him, and He is hidden from them as nothing can withstand witnessing His majesty but His knowledge, providence and plan permeates everything. He is All-Hearing (al-Samiʿ) who hears whoever calls Him; He is All-Seeing (al-Basir) as nothing is hidden from Him. He is All-Hearing and All-Seeing but without the use of sensory organs as He hears and sees by Himself:

هُوَ الْأَوَّلُ وَالْآخِرُ وَالظَّاهِرُ وَالْبَاطِنُ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

He is the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden: and He has full knowledge of all things. (Quran, Surah al-Hadid, 57:3).

He is Alive (al-Hayy) and there is no possibility of death in Him; He is the only Being who is truly Self-Subsisting (al-Qayyum) and does not depend on anything and everything other than Him is totally dependent on Him at all times:

اللّٰهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ

God! There is no god but He - the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Eternal. (Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:255).

God is All-Knowing (al-ʿAlim) and nothing is beyond His knowledge; and He is All-Powerful (al-Qadir) who exercises His authority over everything; His knowledge of a thing before it comes into existence is exactly the same as after its comes into existence:

وَعِنْدَهُ مَفَاتِحُ الْغَيْبِ لَا يَعْلَمُهَا إِلَّا هُوَ ۚ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ ۚ وَمَا تَسْقُطُ مِنْ وَرَقَةٍ إِلَّا يَعْلَمُهَا وَلَا حَبَّةٍ فِي ظُلُمَاتِ الْأَرْضِ وَلَا رَطْبٍ وَلَا يَابِسٍ إِلَّا فِي كِتَابٍ مُبِينٍ

And with Him are the keys of the unseen, the treasures that none knows them but He. He knows whatever there is on the earth and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but with His knowledge; there is not a grain in the darkness (or depths) of the earth, nor anything fresh or dry (green or withered), but is (inscribed) in a clear book. (Quran, Surah al-Anʿam, 6:59).

The attributes and names of God are innumerable, but there are the famous ninety-nine names, also known as Asmaʾ al-Husna, or The Most Beautiful Names of God.

The Names of God are different from His attributes and essence as the one who is named is different from the name. The name “Allah” is the proper name for God, the most comprehensive name which represents the essence of God:

هُوَ اللّٰهُ الَّذِي لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ۖ عَالِمُ الْغَيْبِ وَالشَّهَادَةِ ۖ هُوَ الرَّحْمَٰنُ الرَّحِيمُ هُوَ اللّٰهُ الَّذِي لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْمَلِكُ الْقُدُّوسُ السَّلَامُ الْمُؤْمِنُ الْمُهَيْمِنُ الْعَزِيزُ الْجَبَّارُ الْمُتَكَبِّرُ ۚ سُبْحَانَ اللّٰهِ عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ هُوَ اللّٰهُ الْخَالِقُ الْبَارِئُ الْمُصَوِّرُ ۖ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ ۚ يُسَبِّحُ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

God is He, other than whom there is no god; Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He is the most Gracious, most Merciful. God is He, other than Whom there is no god - the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection), the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme; Glory be to God! (High is He) above the partners that they attribute to Him. He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms. To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on the earth declares His praises and glory: and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise. (Quran, Surah al-Hashr, 59:22-24).

In describing God, we read the following in the traditions:

The word ‘Allah’ is derived from ‘Ilah’ - that is, ‘The One who is worshipped’; and the One who is worshipped necessarily implies that He must be worthy to be worshipped. The name is (always) different from what is named. So whoever worshipped the name rather than what it denotes has become a heathen and actually worshipped nothing; and whoever has worshipped the name and its meaning jointly has become a polytheist, since he has (actually) worshipped two gods (the name and the meaning). Whoever has worshipped the meaning (of the word God) apart from the name, in reality has worshipped the One God.

The Imam added: God has ninety-nine names. If each and every name was identical with the named, then each and every name would be a god. But ‘God’ is the One Reality to which all of His names point; and all of these names are other than God Himself.9

For example, Mr. Smith is a doctor and a father. This person can be called a father, a husband, a doctor, a man, an American. All these names represent attributes related to him, but his proper name is Smith and his reality is other than any of the names attributed to him.

The attributes of God are perfect, with no possibility of further improvement or increment in them nor do they lack any deficiency or imperfection. The attributes of God are not different from or in addition to His Essence, because if we consider them in addition to His Essence then it will imply multiplicity in His being which is against Unity. His Attributes are His Essence.

If we take an example of a man who is initially ignorant but later on goes to school and gets a degree, then by doing this he has acquired knowledge and has become knowledgeable. His attribute of knowledge is in addition to his essence as once he lacked knowledge but later he acquired it. Moreover, later in his life he may lose or forget his knowledge. However, God has always been knowledgeable and perfect in His knowledge with no possibility of increase or decrease in His knowledge. His knowledge is not in addition to His Essence but it is His very Essence. God’s multiple attributes do not make him complex or composite. His knowledge is same as His Mercy and His Love and His Power are all the same as His Essence. There is only one Reality and Being and the different attributes are manifested from this reality.

It has been mentioned in a tradition that:

I have heard Abu ʿAbdillah [the 6th Imam] (‘a) say: ‘The Exalted, the Glorious God, our Lord, has been throughout all of eternity. Knowledge was His Essence when there was nothing to be known; Hearing was His Essence when there was nothing to be heard; Seeing was His Essence when there was nothing to be seen; Power was His Essence when there was nothing on which power could be exercised. When He brought things into existence and the cognizable objects appeared, His knowledge applied to the cognizable objects. His hearing to audible objects, His seeing to visible objects, and His power to objects on which power could be exercised.10

In Nahj al-Balagha, ʿAli b. Abi Talib (‘a) has said:

Perfection of sincerity is to deny His attributes, because every attribute is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed, and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute. Thus, whoever attaches attributes to God recognizes His like, and whoever recognizes His like regards Him as two; and whoever regards Him as two recognizes parts for Him; and whoever recognizes parts for Him mistakes Him; and whoever mistakes Him pointed at Him; and whoever pointed at Him admitted limitations for Him; and whoever admitted limitations for Him numbered Him.11

Here the denial of attributes does not mean that God has no attributes, rather the denial of attributes, as explained earlier, means that the attributes are not in addition to the essence. His essence without His attributes and the names of those attributes cannot be known.

As one of the successors of the Prophet (S) has said:

There is no veil between Him and His creation other than His creation. He is veiled without a veil, and He is covered without a cover. There is no god but He, the Great, the Exalted.12

In the above section, I have attempted to describe various narrations which talk about God explaining Islam’s position on God, His Essence and Attributes.

God is truly a Unique Being who has no similar in existence and anyone who ponders over this matter will acknowledge His Majesty, and will be left in bewilderment, and be mesmerized by Him, develop an awe for Him, and one will be forced to bow down to Him and accept Him as the One who deserves to be worshipped:

إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللّٰهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَآءُ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ عَزِيزٌ غَفُورٌ

Those the only ones who are in awe of God, among His Servants, are those who have knowledge; for surely God is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving. (Qur’an, Surah al-Fatir, 35:28).

Acknowledging His Majesty and bowing down to Him leads to attraction towards Him, this attraction leads to the development of intense love for Him until one is consumed by this love and constantly remembers Him:

وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَشَدُّ حُبًّا لِلَّهِ

And those of faith are overflowing in their love for God. (Quran, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:165).

There are numerous other traditions on the subject of tawhid (monotheism) which the readers can access using the books mentioned in the references section.

I end this section by presenting a narration from Imam ʿAli (‘a) mentioned in Nahj al-Balagha:

Praise be to God for whom one condition does not proceed another so that He may be the First before being the Last, or He may be Manifest before being Hidden. Everyone called one (alone) save Him by virtue of being small (in numbers); and everyone enjoying honor other than Him is humble. Every powerful person other than Him is weak. Every master (owner) other than Him is slave (owned).

Every knower other than Him is a seeker of knowledge. Every controller other than Him is sometimes imbued with control and sometimes with disability. Every listener other than Him is deaf to light voices, while loud voices make him deaf and distant voices also get away from him. Every on-looker other than Him is blind to hidden colors and delicate bodies. Every manifest thing other than Him is hidden, but every hidden thing other than Him is incapable of becoming manifest.

He did not create what He created to fortify His authority, nor for fear of the consequences of time, nor to seek help against the attack of an equal or a boastful partner or hateful opponent. On the other hand all of the creatures are reared by Him and are His humbled slaves. He is not conditioned in anything so that it be said that He exists there in, nor is He separated from anything so as to be said that He is away from it. The creation of what He initiated or administration of what He controls did not fatigue Him. No disability overtook Him against what He created. No misgiving ever occurred to Him in what He ordained and resolved. But His verdict is certain, His knowledge is definite, His governance is overwhelming. He is wished for in times of distress and He is feared even in bounty.13