Updated: Mar 3
by Mateen A. Khan, Piscataway NJ
A version of this article was first published in Al-Madania Magazine.
In the previous article of this series, we established that belief in Allah is to recognize everything must have a Creator. In other words, a Creator must necessarily exist to account for the existence of creation. In this article, we will briefly explore some of the attributes known about the Creator.
Firstly, the Creator refers to Himself by the name “Allah” through the messages He revealed to His prophets.
هُوَ اللَّـهُ الْخَالِقُ الْبَارِئُ الْمُصَوِّرُ ۖ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ
He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner; to Him belong the best names. (al-Hashr 24)
The name “Allah” is a proper noun originating in Arabic. According to the majority of scholars, the name is not derived from root letters, nor are any adjectives derived from it like other Arabic names. Similarly, Allah our Lord is neither derived from anyone or anything, nor was anyone derived from Him as Christians and others claim. The name “Allah” does not have a dual or plural form; it exists solely in the singular. Similar is the case with Allah, our Lord—He is One. Unlike most Arabic nouns, the name “Allah” exists solely in the definite form. It cannot be made indefinite (usually indicated by a tanwīn), which implies vagueness or the possibility of a like. This means the name cannot be given or used to describe anyone else. Similarly, Allah our Lord is distinct without the possibility of a similitude, and He cannot be the eponym of another.
When referring to Allah, we discuss two things about Him: His essence (dhāt) and His attributes (ṣifāt). The essence of Allah is unknowable by anyone other than Him. It is limitless and overwhelmingly awesome, whereas all of creation and their capabilities are limited, and in comparison, unimpressive. We cannot comprehend His essence, and any attempt is abject failure from the start. Allah states about Himself, “No vision can comprehend Him, and He comprehends all visions, and He is Absolutely Subtle, All-Aware.” (Qur’an 6:103) Similarly, a narration attributed to the Prophet ﷺ states, “Contemplate on the creation, and do not contemplate on the Creator. Indeed, you do not have the ability to do so.” (al-Jāmi` al-Ṣaghīr #6219) However, there are some traits of the Divine essence that are known by necessity. We will go through them one by one.
The Divine Essence
The traits of the divine essence are exclusive to Allah and necessary to Him. Meaning, no other being may have these qualities, and it is impossible for Him to be without them.
Existence (wujūd) – In the previous article, we understood that Allah’s existence is necessarily known from the existence of anything else. In other words, since creation exists, the Creator must exist. In this way, He is the necessary Existent (wājib al-wujūd). This holds for all periods, places, and possible universes. The opposite of this attribute would be non-existence, which is a logically impossible scenario as it would entail that nothing else exists.
Pre-eternality (qidam) – After understanding that all creation depends on Allah for its existence, then also understand Allah has always existed. Time is a creation of His. Thus, His existence was “before” time. He is neither confined nor affected by it. If it were to end, His necessary existence would continue unchanged. This preludes into the next attribute.
Ever-lasting (baqā’) – This is related to the above points. There can never be a situation whether before, during, or after the creation of time in which Allah does not exist.
He is unlike creation (mukhālafah li al-ḥawādith) – Everything other than Allah came into existence from non-existence due to dependency on Him. All things other than Allah have some deficiency. He (`azz wa jall) is free of any imperfections. Thus, He is unlike anything and also unlike whatever the imagination can conjure up about Him. In other words, whatever you imagine Him to be, He is not.
Self-Subsistence (qiyām bi nafsihī) – Allah depends on nothing else for His existence, be that a creator, place, time, or anything else. Meaning, He exists on His own (al-ṣamad).
One (waḥdāniyyah) – Three different meanings applying to Allah’s essence and attributes are necessary here. He is alone without a second, unique without a similar, and one without division.
The Divine Attributes
Like Allah’s essence, His attributes are eternal and perfect. Allah has described Himself with them, and they provide an important way of developing a relationship with our Creator. Being temporal and imperfect, our limited minds are incapable of grasping their full reality. However, they allow us to relate to Allah in a way that fosters love and connection when contemplated upon.
There are two ways to describe a thing: the traits it possesses (positive attributes) and the traits it does not possess (negative attributes). Created things may share similarly named attributes in a limited way, i.e., they may also be described by the same terms used to describe Allah, but the meaning entailed is deficient compared to what is attributed to Allah. For example, a person may be described as having mercy (raḥmah), but this is in stark contrast to the attribute of Allah. This concept is stated by Allah in the clearest verse about His nature, “There is absolutely nothing like Him.” (al-Shūra 11) Finally, the opposites of the positive attributes are impossible for Allah in contrast to other attributes like pleasure (al-riḍa) and its opposite, displeasure (al-ghaḍab). Let us examine the positive attributes next.
Life (ḥayāh) – He is alive, and its opposite, death, is impossible for Him. Allah states about Himself, “And rely upon the Ever-Living who does not die.” (Al-Furqān 58)
Power (qudrah) – He is omnipotent, possessing infinite and irresistible power. His awesome power is on display from the grandiosity of the universe to the intricacies of the cell. The opposite is weakness or inability, and this is impossible for Him. “Surely, Allah is powerful over everything.” (al-Nūr 45)
Knowledge (`ilm) – He knows everything – all that existed, exists, will exist, and will not exist. He knows it to the smallest and most minute detail. Creation is a testament to the limitless perfect knowledge with Him. The opposite is ignorance, an impossibility for Him in every way. “And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him. And He knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that He knows it. And no grain is there within the darknesses of the earth and no moist or dry [thing] but that it is [written] in a clear record.” (al-An`ām 59)
Will (irādah) – He has willed in pre-eternity that which was and which is to be (mā kāna wa mā yakūn). Whatever He desires is, and what He does not is not. There is no one to repulse His will, nor anyone to defer His command. His will is absolute, and He cannot be compelled to do anything. Allah says, “He does what He wills.” (Al-Burūj 16) The textual proof for the above four attributes is in the Qur’an and Hadith. The rational proof is that if any of these four attributes were negated from Him, no contingent thing would exist, because it is impossible for there to be something dependent without someone on which it depends. In other words, without omnipotence, there would be incapability. One who is incapable cannot bring a thing into being. Without will, there would be no specifying of a creation to bring into existence. Without knowledge, contingent things would not exist, because you must have knowledge of a thing to intend it. Without life, none of these attributes would exist. Stated another way: The existence of contingent things proves first that Allah must be alive. Then it proves He must have the knowledge of a thing, the will to specify it, and the capability/ power to bring it into existence.
Hearing (sam`) – He hears all sounds without reliance on any organs, sound waves, propagating particles, or the like for it.
Seeing (baṣr) – He sees all forms and colors without reliance on organs, light waves, or the like for it. “Surely, it is Allah who is Hearing, Seeing.” (Ghāfir 20)
Speech (kalām) – Similar to His hearing and seeing, His speech does not rely on any organs, sound waves, letters, or interpretation. It is through this attribute that He communicated. The Qur’an being a communication from Allah is His kalām as well. “Mūsā came at Our appointed time and his Lord spoke to him.” (Al-A`rāf 143)
Originating (takwīn) – To bring something into existence from non-existence. With His will, knowledge, and power, He brings everything into existence. “When He decides a matter, He simply says to it: “Be,” and it comes to be.” (Al-Baqarah 117)
The textual proof for these four attributes is in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The rational proof is that if Allah did not have these attributes, it would necessitate that He have the opposite attributes: muteness, deafness, and blindness. These are all imperfections and impossible for Allah because they entail that He needs another to remove them or assist Him. Being in need negates self-sufficiency, and negation of self-sufficiency is impossible for Allah.
First, contemplation of Allah’s attributes is a way of knowing Him. Every lover seeks to know something about his beloved. How much greater is the desire when the Beloved is perfect in every way? Second, contemplation on them has the effect of reforming an individual. A person seeks to embody whatever little he can of his Beloved’s perfections. Third, calling on Allah by them has the effect of bringing one close to Him. In Surah al-A`rāf, Allah describes the traits of the people of Jahannam saying, “They have hearts wherewith they do not understand, eyes wherewith they do not see, and ears wherewith they do not hear. They are like cattle. Rather, they are much more astray. They are the heedless.” Then, as a remedy to their illness, He advises the Believers:
وَلِلَّـهِ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ فَادْعُوهُ بِهَا
For Allah there are the most beautiful names. So, call Him by them. (al-A`rāf 180)
Allah has named Himself these beautiful names. Such is the beauty of Allah—no one can describe Him, but Him. The Prophet ﷺ said in a du`a, “I cannot enumerate your praises. You are as you have praised yourself.” (Muslim and others)
The Prophet ﷺ further clarified that Allah has ninety-nine names, and whoever knows them will enter Jannah. (al-Bukhārī and others). Unfortunately, we do not have the space here to list them out nor describe even one of them adequately. The dear reader is encouraged to read about them in such books as Imam al-Ghazālī’s Al-Maqṣad al-Asnā and elsewhere.