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God, His Essence And Attributes
Jan 1, 1993

God is absolutely other than His creation. The Creator cannot by any means be the same kind of being as that which He created. Although this is self-evident to sense and reason, some people still ask why we cannot directly see God.

But direct vision is very limited and could never be an appropriate way of seeking the Unlimited. Let us explain:

There are innumerable bacteria in the human body, indeed innumerable bacteria in so small a space as a human tooth. These creatures are quite unaware of the tooth in which they live. To become aware of it, they would have to somehow situate themselves out of the tooth, and then, through the use of artificial means (telescopes and microscopes and the like) they might, conceivably, obtain some very approximate notion of the dimensions of the tooth, and then, perhaps, of the larger body to which the tooth is attached. Only through such an effort, which is scarcely imaginable, could the bacteria become aware of the human body which makes up the large ground or sustaining environment of their life. And this scarcely imaginable awareness is itself an immeasurable distance away from anything remotely resembling what we would call understanding.

Though on a very different scale, the sense-awareness of human beings is similarly limited. It may indeed be that, with the assistance of telescopes and other instruments, we can ‘see’ across distances of millions of light years. But all that we ‘see’ in this way is insignificant compared to the dimensions of the whole of which it is a minute fragment. In fact, allowing for the difference in scale, what human beings can ‘see’ is as insignificant as the bacteria’s awareness of the living tissue within which they exist and perish, when compared to the dimensions of the body of which that tissue is a minute fragment.

Further, if we consider the matter closely, we soon realize that our ‘seeing’ (or hearing or any other mode of perception) is conditional upon our understanding. We need to have some general ideas about what we ‘see’ in order to distinguish it and recognize it. If we did not have some idea, however vague at first, of what, for example, a tree is, we should be literally unable to make sense of that object before our eyes which we know as a tree. If our ‘seeing’ is as limited as it is, and if–even for the objects within creation, and within the reach of our ‘seeing’ or our ‘seeing’ instruments–we need some general understanding so that we can make sense of what we ‘see’, how improper a demand it is, how absurd a demand, to ask why we cannot directly ‘see’ or directly ‘know’ the Creator of the whole.

We are created beings, that is, finite, limited in our possibilities and our capacities. Only the Creator, God, is Infinite. By His Mercy, the Creation is available to us as the ground or environment within which we exist and perish, strive for understanding and virtue, and seek our salvation. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: compared with the Seat of Honour (kursi), the whole universe is as little as a ring thrown upon a desert. Similarly, compared with the Throne (arsh), the kursi is as little as a ring thrown upon the desert.’ From that comparison we gain some understanding of how far the Infinitude of the Creator exceeds our power of apprehending it. How can we even begin to conceive of the reality of the kursi and arsh from which the All-Mighty in His Infinite Majesty sends out His Will and Command and sustains His Creation, let alone begin to conceive of God Himself? 

Why can’t we see God?

The Qur’an teaches: ‘Vision comprehends Him not, but He comprehends all vision’ [6:103].

After the Prophet’s ascent to the heavens, peace be upon him, his Companions asked him:‘Have you seen God?’ It is reported on the authority of Abu Dharr that, on one occasion, he answered: ‘He is the Light, how do I see Him?’ and on another occasion, he answered:’I have seen a Light.’ These statements clarify the well-known saying, ‘The light is the limit or veil of God’. Between us and God is the light which He created. All that we see by that light, within that light–the light is the ground and environment and the limit of our seeing, and that light shields or veils us from God. In fact, we see but a part of that light of creation, we see but a part of what veils Him.

Let us consider the matter from another direction. Ibrahim Haqqi says: ‘In the whole universe of creation there is nothing that is either the like or the equal or the contrary of God. God is Exalted above all form, indeed immune to and free from form.’

It is only because existing things have a like or an equal or a contrary that we are able to distinguish them and perceive them. We know what is ‘long’ only against what is ‘short’ by comparison or contrast; similarly, we know ‘light’ only against what is ‘dark’. How then should we distinguish or perceive One who has neither like, nor equal, nor contrary? This is the meaning of the statement that God is Exalted above form.

The reader will certainly have understood that the question of those who ask to directly perceive God is but an image of the question of those who ask to directly ‘think’ or ‘know’ His Being. But, in truth, we can no more ‘think’ or ‘know’ His Being, than we can ‘see’ Him. Just as He is beyond all measures of form or quality or quantity, He is also beyond all our powers of conception or reasoning. As the Muslims learned in kalam (theology) put it: ‘Whatever conception of God we form in our minds, He is other than it.’ And the Sufis say: ‘God is beyond; and beyond all our conceptions; and we are surrounded by thousands of veils.’

Men of wisdom have said that God exists and He cannot be comprehended by human reason, nor perceived by human senses. The only means to knowledge of Him is through the Prophets, that is, the men whom God appointed as bearers of His Revelation. Where perception and reason have no access, we need to, indeed we must, accept the guidance of Revelation.

Imagine that we are in a closed room and hear a knocking at the door of that room. We may well form some vague impressions about who is knocking, but we can no more than guess at his attributes. We know for certain only that there is knocking at the door, and that we are free to go to the door and, on opening it, ask the person to make himself known to us so that we obtain thereby a more secure knowledge of his true attributes.

This poor analogy may help us to more usefully approach the question of how to seek God. The fact of Creation, the immensity of it combined with an essential unity of form, the sheer beauty and harmony of it, and its usefulness to us as well as its demands upon our labour and our understanding, all make us aware of the existence of the Creator. In just the same way as we deduce from the manufacture of a wonderful diversity of fabrics out of a single material that there is certainly an agent who spins and mixes and dyes and weaves and otherwise prepares the final product, so we deduce from the stunning evidence of the Creation that there is a Creator. While a manufacturer of fabrics can be got hold of and may be persuaded to make himself known to us, no such impertinent curiosity can be addressed to the Creator. Indeed, it would be most incorrect to do so–as well as being impossible–just as impossible as it would be for the fabric to address such curiosity to the fabric-maker. Thus, without assistance from the Creator himself, we can get no further than when, hearing the first knocking on the door, we began to indulge hopelessly vague surmises about who was knocking.

But the reality is that, by the Mercy of God, the Creation of mankind was accompanied by Revelation. Through God’s Revelation to the Prophets and their teaching of us, the door is held open for us. We are enabled to respond to the Creation around us as signs manifesting not only the fact of the Creator’s existence but also His Attributes. Through the Prophets we learn to contemplate His Attributes and to call them–the One, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate, the All-Knowing, the All-Powerful, and so on. A true understanding of these Attributes requires inward experience and contemplation, which are achieved only after sincere and total observance of the Divine decrees, objective study and long, profound meditation, according to the pattern of the Prophets. Only if a person has developed the inward faculties will he be able to grasp the meaning of the Divine works, that is, the Creation, and then rise to contemplation of the Divine Attributes manifested in it.

Even then, it is by no means possible for any person to comprehend the Divine Essence. That is why it is said–‘His Names are known, His Attributes are comprehended, and His Essence exists.’ In the words of Abu Bakr as Siddiq, may God be pleased with him: ‘To comprehend His Essence means to confess that His Essence can not be comprehended.’

What falls to us is to remain committed to our covenant with God, and to beseech Him in this way: “O You who alone are worshipped... It needs no saying that we are unable to attain to true knowledge of You. Yet we believe that You are indeed “nearer to us than our neck-veins”. We feel Your existence and nearness in the depths of our hearts through the universe which You have created and opened to us a like a book, and through the wonderful harmony of form between the least and the largest of what You have brought into being. We come to perceive that we are integrated into the whole realm of Your theophanies, and by that perception our souls are rested and consoled, and our hearts find serenity.’

But there are some who do not seek any such serenity or indeed any inward life at all. They are of a mechanical turn of mind and readily fall into a mechanical kind of sophistry which entraps and paralyses their reason, They ask: 

Given that god created every thing, who created God?

When I first heard this question, I straightway confessed again ‘and Muhammad is His Messenger’, for the Prophet, peace be upon him, predicted that this question would be raised. Indeed, he predicted a great many future events of importance-all have come true and will continue to do so as time unfolds. On one occasion he said: ‘A day will certainly come when some people will sit with their legs crossed and ask: ‘Given that God created everything, who created God?’

Of course, those who put such questions are atheists or inclined to atheism and seek to lead others astray also. The purpose of their question is to avoid the responsibility owed by a creature to the Creator, to avoid belief and worship. At best, the question is derived from the observation of (what are taken to be) ‘cause and effect’ relationships. Every circumstance can be thought of as an ‘effect’ and attributed to an antecedent circumstance or ‘cause’ which, in turn, is attributed to some circumstance antecedent to it, and so on. In the first place, it is obvious to anyone who reasons objectively that the notion of ‘cause’ is only a hypothesis, it has no objective existence: all that objectively exists is a particular, often (but not always) repeated sequence of circumstances. Secondly, if this hypothesis is applied to existence as a whole, we cannot find a creator of it because each creator must have a creator before that creator, in a never-ending chain. (In fact, the futile notion of a never-ending chain of creators was one of the arguments used by Muslim theologians to explain the necessity of believing in God).

It is self-evident that the Creator must be Self-Subsistent and One, without like or equal. If any created being can be said to ‘cause’ anything, that capacity to ‘cause’ was itself created within that being. Thus, no being in the universe can be said to be self-existent; rather, it owes its existence to the Creator who alone is Self-Existent as well as Self-Subsistent. It follows from the fact that the Creator alone truly creates that for each and every being He has determined all possible ‘causes’ and ‘effects’, all things whatsoever that come before or after it. Therefore we speak of God as the Sustainer, who holds and gives life to His Creation from first to last. All ‘causes’ have their beginning in Him, and all ‘effects’ find their ending in Him. In truth, created things are no more than so many ciphers or zeros which, no matter how many we put in a series, add up to nothing, unless a positive ‘one’ is placed before the series to give it value. In just this way the creation could have no real existence nor any value except by God.

What we call ‘causes’ have no direct or independent influence in existence, no direct or independent ‘effects’. It may be that we need to speak of ‘causes and effects’ in order to understand how, in a short space and over a little period of time, some part of the Creation is made (by the Mercy of God) intelligible to us and available to us for our use. But even this but confirms our dependence upon God and our answerability before Him. It is not God who needs ‘causes and effects’ to create; rather it is we who need ‘causes and effects’ to understand what He has created. He alone is the First and the Last, the Eternal, the Initiator and the Determiner–and all our busy little efforts after cause and effect are but veils between ourselves and His Majesty.

Let us and then affirm once more: He, God, is One, the Self-Subsistent and Enternally-Besought of-All, He neither begets nor was begotten, and nothing whatever is like unto Him.