Mere profession of faith in one god is not sufficient for one to be a believer. In fact, many people may claim to profess such a belief, and yet their conceptions of the One God are often strikingly different. The prophets, and in particular Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), were sent to eradicate idolatry, and describing Allah as resembling creatures is nothing but a manifestation of idolatry. Allah is transcendent, above the limitations of created things, beyond our sensory perception, and can be recognized only through His attributes. An important principle, which follows from Allah’s transcendence, is that we may only describe Him by those names and attributes by which He describes Himself, or by which His Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) has described Him.
It is important to stress that Allah’s non-resemblance to creatures does not make Him unreachable or incomprehensible.
“And when My servants ask you concerning Me, indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided.” [Qur’an, 2:186]
Indeed, we can sense or comprehend the effects of many of Allah’s attributes. An example is the attribute of mercy.
“So observe the effects of the mercy of Allah – how He gives life to the earth after its lifelessness.” [(30) Al-Rum, 50]
Mercy is one of the most prominent attributes of Allah. The Qur’an contains 114 surahs, and a statement called the Basmalah, which mentions two of Allah’s names which connote mercy, is written at the start of every surah (excluding the 9th):
“In the Name of Allah, the Source of Mercy, the Bestower of Mercy.”
The ahadith give us further insight into this attribute.
“Allah has one hundred mercies, of which He has sent down a single mercy amongst the jinn, humans, animals and venomous creatures, so by means of it do they show compassion and mercy to one another, and by means of it does a female animal show mercy to its offspring. Allah has deferred ninety-nine mercies to show mercy to His servants on the Day of Resurrection.” [Muslim, Bukhari]
The Prophet once saw a woman running around searching for her lost child. She eventually found it, grabbed it, held it close to her, and breast-fed it. The Prophet told his companions, “Surely, Allah is more merciful to His servants than this [woman] to her child.” [Bukhari, Muslim]
Allah’s mercy (a divine attribute of sublime beauty) is couple with His justice (an attribute of sublime majesty).
“Allah does not do injustice of the weight of an atom. And, if it is a good deed, He multiplies it, and gives from Himself a good reward.” [(4) Al-Nisa’, 40]
Even though Allah is not answerable to anyone, He has promised to be just and fair with everyone. The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) has said, that Allah (Mighty and Majestic be He) has said,
“O my servants! I have prohibited injustice upon myself, and [also] made it prohibited for you among yourselves, so be not unjust to one another.” [Muslim]
Thus, Allah does not punish an innocent person, nor hold anyone accountable for someone else’s sins. There is no burden of original sin in Islam. Every human being is born with a clean slate, and is rewarded (or liable to be punished) only on the basis of his/her own willful intents, words and deeds. Allah’s justice also includes not withholding a due reward from someone who does Good for the right reasons.
“And [it was written] that no laden soul shall carry the burden of another. And that for mankind there is naught save that for which he strives. And that his effort shall surely be seen. Then he shall be given the fullest recompense.” [Qur’an, 53:38-41]
How many names?
We have discussed two attributes so far, but Allah’s attributes are not limited. Allah has every attribute of perfection which is fitting for Him. An example of an inappropriate attribute is humility, for it implies an acknowledgment of limits and inferiority, which clearly does not apply to Allah. Some people are under the misconception that Allah has only 99 names, based on the following hadith:
Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said,
“Allah has ninety-nine names – a hundred less one – whoever guards (or memorizes) them shall enter heaven.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
Yet, this hadith does not restrict the names of Allah to only 99, for in fact there are more than 99 names in the Qur’an itself! Another hadith clarifies that there are other names besides these.
On the authority of Ibn Mas`ud : The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said,
“There is not a single individual who is afflicted with worry, or grief, and then says,
‘O Allah! I am Your bondsman, the son of Your bondsman, the son of Your bondswoman; my forelock is in Your Hand. Your command is in effect upon me, Your judgment is just concerning me. I ask You by every name which You have, by which You have named yourself, or which You have revealed in Your book, or which You have taught to any of your creation, or which You have kept with Yourself in the knowledge of the unseen, to make the Great Qur’an the spring of my heart, the light of my breast, the elimination of my grief and the disappearance of my worry,’
except that Allah will eliminate his grief and replace it with happiness in its stead.” [Ahmad]
Benefits of knowing Allah’s names
Anyone who learns the important names and attributes of Allah, and understands them, will have recognized his Lord. If he implements this knowledge, and observes his duties with regard to his creator, he has assuredly attained great success.
Another benefit of knowing Allah’s names is that they may be used to call upon Him. Allah has said, (translated),
“Allah’s are the Most Beautiful names, so invoke Him by them.” [Qur’an, 7:180]
Thus, when asking Allah for mercy and forgiveness, we call to Him using names such as Al-Ghafoor (the Oft-Forgiving), Al- Rahmaan (the Merciful to all creatures in this world), Al-Raheem (the Merciful to believers only in the Hereafter). We will not use, in such cases, names such as Al-Jabbaar (the Irresistable), Al-Qawiyy (the Powerful), Al-Qahhaar (the Overcomer); instead these names may be used when asking Allah to punish oppressors.
Some important attributes of Allah
- Attributes of Essence
- Attributes of Action
For learning purposes, and merely as a convention, we may categorize Allah’s attributes in various ways. Attributes of essence are those by which Allah is always described, and the opposite of which can never be His attributes.
On the authority of Ubayy ibn Ka`b : The pagans said to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace),
“O Muhammad! Describe your Lord to us.”
Then, Allah revealed, (translated)
“Say : He is Allah, the One. Allah, the eternally besought of all. He begets not, nor was He begotten, nor is there any comparable to Him.” [Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Tabari]
Allah is One and indivisible. He has no partner, son, daughter, wife, father or mother. None share in His attributes and power, nor in creating, sustaining and managing the universe. None else is worthy of worship.
This attribute is a major distinguishing factor between Islam and some other religions. Everything we know or that we can imagine is confined to the realm of sensory experience, whereas Allah is beyond the confines of space and time. He is nothing like any notion or idea anyone may have of Him in his mind. Allah says, (translated),
“Is, then, He Who creates, like he who does not create? Do you not reflect?” [Qur’an, 16:17]
“There is nothing like unto Him.” [Qur’an, 42:11]
“Do you know any comparable to Him?” [Qur’an, 19:65]
“Therefore, do not put forward examples for Allah.” [Qur’an, 16:74].
He is free of all limitations and shortcomings. Bayhaqi has reported that Talhah ibn `Ubayd asked the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) about the explanation of “Subhaanallaah” (Glory be to God), and he replied,
“It is to declare Allah [exalted] above all evil.”
Anyone who thinks of his god as an old man, or as someone sitting up in the sky, with a son sitting on his right, has not recognized his Lord in His majesty. Islam appeals to the human being to use his rationality to affirm the non-resemblance of the creator, and warns of the terrible consequences for those who refuse to do so.
“And they shall say, ‘If only we had listened, or understood, we would not have been amidst the inmates of the blazing fire!'” [Qur’an, 67:10]
“They say, while quarreling in [Hell], ‘By Allah! Indeed, we were in manifest error, when we equated you with the Lord of the Worlds.'” [Qur’an, 26:96-98]
Muslim scholars of different persuasions and schools are unanimous on their understanding of this attribute.
Imam Abu Ja`far al-Tahawi, the renowned Hanafi jurist and muhaddith, says, “Whoever describes Allah with the attributes of humans has disbelieved. Hence, whoever looks into this takes warning, refrains from the like of the disbelievers’ words, and knows that He, along with His attributes, does not resemble mankind. ”
Imam Ishaq ibn Rahawayh, a prominent hafiz of hadith, and a contemporary of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, has said, “Whoever describes Allah, likening His attributes to those of any of His creation, is a disbeliever in Allah, the Mighty.”
Hafiz ibn al-Jawzi, the famous Hanbali scholar, says, “What is obligatory upon us is to believe that the Self of Allah cannot be subdivided, nor can He be confined by space, nor described in terms of change and movement.”
Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq, a distinguished figure from the Prophetic Household, said, “Whoever claims that Allah is in something, or from something, or on something, has associated others with Allah; for if He was in something, He would be confined; if He was on something He would be borne; and if He was from something, He would be originated.”
Imam Abu’l-Qasim al-Qushayri, a prominent figure in moderate Sufism, says, “[Allah] is one in His essence. He does not resemble any of creation; He is not a body, nor a substance, nor a phenomenon. He cannot be pictured in the imagination – Glory be to Him! – nor can He be assessed in the mind. nor does He have a direction or location.” Statements portraying Allah as a human companion are unacceptable to a Muslim; for they contravene the very basis of our reason and belief. Mystics might conceivably be excused for ambiguous, potentially blasphemous utterances made involuntarily under spiritual ecstasy, but such statements cannot be defended in sobriety; they do not become sources of scripture nor proofs of any theological authority.
Some attributes and names of Allah are applied exclusively to Him; for example Allah and Al-Rahmaan. Creatures may not be given these names at all, and hence if a person is named `Abdur-Rahman,” for example, it is not allowed to shorten it to Rahman. Other divine names use words which can also be applied to creatures. For example, one of Allah’s names is “Al-Raheem”, meaning Merciful, and the Prophet is described as merciful using the same word (Raheem) in the Qur’an, [9:128]. However, it is essential to note that although, in cases such as this, the same word may be used to describe both Creator and creation, the implication of the word is quite different when applied to Allah, the Flawless, the Exalted, for He has told us quite clearly that “there is nothing like unto Him.” [Qur’an, 42:11]
Realizing the transcendence and non-resemblance of Allah is important for recognizing the Creator, which in turn is a prerequisite for loving Him. Someone who neglects to affirm this transcendence can easily fall into sharing that highest form of love, which should be only for Allah, with other beings, by directing it, in part or in full, to a star, planet, human being, angel or statue. To do that is to really deprive oneself of the joy of true knowledge and love of Allah.
“He is the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden, and he knows all things.” [Qur’an, 57:3]
Allah has no beginning and no end. Only He has always existed. `Imran ibn Husayn has narrated that some people from Yemen came to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) and asked him about the universe. The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) told them,
“Allah was, and there was not anything besides Him.” [Bukhari]
Allah has always possessed His perfect attributes of self, for otherwise he would have been dependent on something or someone else.
Doubtless, it is absurd to follow the temporal when one can abide by the Everlasting.
“Say : He is the One Able to raise up over you punishment from above you, or from beneath your feet, or to engulf you with sectarian strife, making some of you taste the might of others.” [Qur’an, 6:65]
“Does man think that We shall never gather his bones [and resurrect him] ? Nay, We are capable of restoring his [very] fingertips!” [Qur’an, 75:3-4]
“Allah has power over all things.” [Qur’an, 2:284]
‘All things’ includes everything that exists, as well as everything that could possibly exist. As for incoherent combinations of words, which represent rationally inconceivable ideas (such as ‘a square circle’, or ‘a surface-area being both solid-black and solid-white at the same time ,’), these are neither actual nor potential things, and the impossibility of their existence is not a limitation on Allah’s power.
Allah does not share His power with anyone. Satan is not in control of the evil.
“Allah! There is no god but He, the Living, . . .” [Qur’an, 2:255]
Allah is the Ever-Living Who never dies. He is not affected by fatigue, nor does He sleep.
“Verily, We created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in six days, and no weariness affected Us.” [Qur’an, 50:38]
“Allah does not sleep, nor does it befit Him to sleep.” [Muslim]
So, even in the darkness and solitude of the night, when people are asleep, Allah is still available for us to call upon for our needs, and this in fact is an opportune time for supplication and prayer.
“Allah is the One Independent [of all wants], and it is you who are in need.” [Qur’an, 47:38]
“Allah, the one needed by all.” [Qur’an, 112:2]
Allah needs neither us, nor our worship. Worship is based on loving devotion, coupled with hope and reverential fear. Whoever does not worship His creator will inevitably end up worshipping something or someone else (either consciously or without realizing it). People may worship their desires, or money, or prestige, or another person in their life, by giving absolute priority to these things. (This is not to say that a believer becomes a sheer idolator merely by succumbing to lower desires to sin, for he/she still acknowledges, at least as a matter of principle, the devotion due to God, and feels remorse for his transgression.) Worship of other than the Creator leads to misery in this very world, and hence we must worship Allah for our own good. This concept is beautifully conveyed in part of a long Hadith Qudsi narrated by way of Abu Dharr al-Ghifari:
“[Allah says:] Oh My servants! If the first of you and the last of you, the humans of you and the jinns of you, were as pious as the most pious man among you, that would not add anything to My kingdom. And, if the first of you and the last of you, the humans of you and the jinns of you, were as wicked as the most wicked man among you, that would not decrease anything from My kingdom. And, if the first of you and the last of you, the humans of you and the jinns of you, were to stand [gathered] on a single plateau, and ask of Me [their needs], and I were to grant each one that which he asked, that would decrease, from that which I have, no more than the sea is decreased by a needle dipped into it.” [Muslim]
We are perpetually dependent upon Allah for our very existence. There is no freedom from need of Allah for even the blinking of an eye, and whoever believes himself in no need of Allah for even the shortest instant has disbelieved.
7. Hearing and Sight
“And He is the Hearer, the Seer.” [Qur’an, 42:11]
Allah hears all things, and His hearing is not limited by the intensity, distance or frequency of sound. This is movingly expressed in the following hadith of the disputing woman. Bear in mind, while reading this report, that the room of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) was so small that during his night prayers which he performed there, he had to move the legs of his sleeping wife out of the way in order to perform prostration.
A`ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) said, “Praise be to Allah whose hearing encompasses all voices! Indeed, the disputing woman came to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) to speak to him, and I was in the corner of the house and could not hear what she was saying, but Allah, the Mighty, the Majestic, revealed, (translated) “Verily, Allah has heard the one who disputes with you concerning her husband.'” [Nasa’i, Ibn Majah.]
Similarly, Allah sees all things, irrespective of size or of the wavelength or intensity of light. Allah sees and hears without sensory organs. We should be careful of what we say and do, for Allah sees and hears everything.
“Allah knows all things.” [Qur’an, 49:16]
“[Allah] it is Who is the One to be Worshipped in the Heavens and the One to be Worshipped on the earth, and He is the All-Wise, the All-Knowing.” [Qur’an, 43:84]
If we look at the amazing perfection and remarkable precision in this immense universe, we notice the magnificent organization of the successions and series of events that occur in it. We see, for example, that our eyes are created in the wombs of our mothers, amidst deep darkness, although they need light in order to function. This indicates that the Creator of these eyes knows that these fetuses will emerge from the wombs into a world containing light. Also, we look at ourselves, and at our capability to learn in spite of being created weak, and recognize that knowledge is a worthy attribute, and that its absence – ignorance – is a defect. Taking this into consideration, we can realize that Allah, Who has created and perfected the universe, and created mankind in this manner, must Himself be All-Knowing and All-Aware, nothing being hidden from Him,. “And with Him are the keys to the unseen; none know them save He. And He knows what is in the land and sea. There is no leaf which falls except that He knows it, nor any seed in the darknesses of the earth, nor anything fresh or dry, except that it is in a clear record.” [Qur’an, 6:59] “Those who disbelieve say, “The hour will not come to us.” Say : Nay, by my Lord! Indeed, it shall surely come to you! [My Lord is] the Knower of the Unseen. There escapes not from His knowledge the weight of an atom in the heavens or the earth, nor anything smaller or bigger, except that it is in a clear record.” [Qur’an, 34:3]
The name of Allah “al-`Aleem” means : the possessor of complete knowledge of all things, whether actual, hypothetical or inconceivable. For example, although the disbelievers will never return to the world after death, Allah knows that “if they were returned [to the world] they would go back to that from which they were forbidden, and surely, they are liars.” [Qur’an, 6:28]
Allah’s knowledge differs from ours, in that our knowledge is little and limited, acquired after ignorance and prone to forgetfulness, whereas Allah’s knowledge is all-encompassing, eternal and complete, not acquired, not preceded by ignorance nor susceptible to forgetfulness. “He knows what is before them and what is behind them. And, they do not encompass any of His knowledge except that which He wills.” [Qur’an, 2:255]
“Allah spoke to Moses.” [Qur’an, 4:164]
Allah has the attribute of speech, but His speech does not resemble that of humans or any other creatures, and as with all His attributes, we cannot say that it is created. We need not go any further than saying that Allah speaks as befits Him, without inquiring, specifying or imagining what the nature of this speech is, or whether it can be directly heard by the ear.
Attributes of action involve various interactions with creation. It is conceivable for Allah to possess two opposite attributes of action, each of which applies to different individuals and/or at different times. Attributes of action are numerous, but for brevity, we can classify them into the following categories:
- Attributes related to creation and origination
- Attributes related to provision of sustenance to living creatures
- Attributes related to giving and conferring
- Attributes related to pity and mercy
- Attributes related to providing support and victory
- Attributes related to relationship of creatures with their Lord
- Attributes related to other effects perceived in creation
A preliminary version of this article was published in Al-Jumu`ah Magazine“