(10-Minute Read)

In this discussion, I will start with two contrasting perspectives looking at the revelation and possession of the attributes of Allah and Yahweh. Time is limited, so I will gloss over some details that can be explained later for the sake of time. It should also be noted that I will use the names of God: “Allah or Yahweh” to distinguish the views from a Muslim and Christian perspective. I will first examine and unpack a basic summation of Allah’s attributes and then look at Yahweh as the Christian conception of God’s attributes. My claim is very straightforward; for the Christian theist, we can know God surely, but not infinitely. For the Muslim Theist, I would venture to say they can know about Allah, but not surely and neither infinitely. The conclusion is that the assumption on the similarity of Allah and Yahweh is defunct and impossible to reconcile.  ‘

The Attributes of Allah[1]

According to the Islamic teachings, Allah is present everywhere without having incarnated in anything but

“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. He is above all comprehension yet is acquainted with all things” (Al-An’am (6) 103).

Sayyed Mohammed Reza Hejazi explains in his book “The Most Beautiful Names of Allah in the Holy Quran”, that the Attributes of God in all theologies should ask the following.

What is a name and what is an attribute? What is the difference(s) between name and attribute? Names of God, or Holy Names, describe a form of addressing God present in liturgy or prayer of various world religions…. These qualities of the almighty are called as the Divine Attributes.” [2]

Does Allah possess these attributes?[3]

Allah vests these attributes on Himself and can be called to be known by them, yet the question about how he possesses these attributes seemed to have been contested throughout Islamic history.  Two problems should be noted; first, the Quran makes it clear that,

“There is absolutely nothing like Him.” (Al-Shūra (42) 11)

This means, by default, that the meaning and of the attributes of Allah is beyond a description of clemency. Second, if Allah possesses these attributes, it assumes that He has notable characteristics that can recognizably be conceptualized, which means that anthropomorphisms show a corporeal entity that can be considered with these attributions. Mateen A. Khan writes, in the “Al-Madania Magazine” that.

“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.”[4]

The problem persists in that if Allah possesses these attributes that make Him known, does He possess them, or does it mean that Allah can be known, yet ultimately, He is removed from these constitutes?

Is Allah distinctly known by the revealed attributes?

Being unable to deny the existence or the activity of Allah’s attributes eternally, Islam was faced with the problem of explaining how this could be.  For the attribute of love to exist in God eternally, there must be at least the lover and the one loved. Similarly for God to be omniscient demands at least the knower and the known in addition to knowledge itself.

Only four options were available to deal with this problem.

  1. The first was to hold that Allah is compound and not simple.
  2. The second was to view Allah as being in a relationship with another like Himself (i.e., polytheism).
  3. The third was to view Allah as being in relation with or independence of creation, making creation eternal as Allah.
  4. The fourth was to hold that Allah is in relationship with Himself, implying at least a duality in His one nature.

The first option was rejected at once because of Islam’s view on Allah’s simplicity. Duncan Black Macdonald wrote in his article, “God—A Unit or a Unity,” that.

“to say that God is knower must mean that He either knows something within Himself, implying duality, or that He knows something outside Himself, implying dependence (ibid., 13)”[5]

Islam also rejected the other options of (2) polytheism, (3) God’s dependence, and any (4) concept of plurality in God’s one nature.  But having done so, it was left with the bigger problem of being unable to relate God’s eternal attributes to His essence apart from creation.

“Since there is no likeness of Him [Allah] He or ‘His nature is not known by other than Him… This is the way in which one should understand the one who says ‘I know God’ and the one who says ‘I do not know God’… the saying of the one who said ‘I do not know him’ is more correct and true, for in reality, he does not know him…”[6]

Islam’s solution to the above dilemma is clever. Its commitment to monadic monotheism has forced it to settle with the understanding that the attributes of Allah stem from His will and not from His nature. This resulted in four principles:

  1. First, no explanation is given in the Qur’an as to why God issues His commandments and decrees other than that it is His wish. What is good is said to be determined by His fiat rather than by His character.
  2. Second, the freedom of Allah to choose which attribute to operate by will is evident in God’s option to forgive or not forgive, simply on the basis of His wish.

Sayyid Qutub specifies Allah’s absolute freedom for these actions so that He is bound by no law or promise. He states,

“Every time the Qur’an states a definite promise or constant law, it follows it with a statement implying that the Divine will is free of all limitations and restrictions, even those based on a promise from Allah or a law of His. For His will is absolute beyond any promise or law.”[7]

In the Qur’an Allah’s attributes is a subset of His power as an expression of His free will, whereas in Biblical theology all attributes are in balance with each other, without anyone attribute taking precedence. As Arne Rudvin comments,

 “Revelation in Islam deals with the will of Allah and not Allah himself.”[8]

 Again, the Muslim thinker, Al-Faruqi, stresses that God does not reveal Himself but only His will. According to Islam, Allah does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. He reveals only His will. In response to whether God’s will be an expression of His nature, Al-Faruqi wrote the following.

“The will of God is God in percipe—the nature of God in so far as I can know anything about Him. This is God’s will and that is all we have—and we have it in perfection in the Qur’an. But Islam does not equate the Qur’an with the nature or essence of God. It is the Word of God, the Commandment of God, the Will of God. But God does not reveal Himself to anyone. Christians talk about the revelation of God Himself—by God of God—but that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam. God is transcendent, and once you talk about self-revelation you have hierophancy and immanence, and then the transcendence of God is compromised. You may not have complete transcendence and self-revelation at the same time.”[9]

  1. Third, Allah’s freedom to choose which attribute to operate by will is seen in that disobedience to Him cannot hurt Him, but it results in severe punishment on the disobedient.
  2. Fourth, this concept of Allah’s freedom to operate any attribute by will leads to fatalism. 

What does it reveal about Allah?

  • Ontological: Vicarious actions

It is undeniable that Muslims confess the fact that Allah needs not to explain acts that might be regarded as vicarious. The above understanding of Allah’s character is the basis for the fatalistic or deterministic system of the Qur’an.[10] Allah has determined man’s fate.

“Every man’s fate we have fastened on his neck.”[11]

Allah is under no obligation to fulfill any duty or right that is said to be appropriate to Him. This is because, as stated earlier, His attributes are viewed as subject to His will and not to His nature. ‘Abduh says,

“None of His deeds proceed from Him of necessity as He essentially is. All the attributes of His acts, creation, provision, granting and forbidding, chastisement and beneficence, are affirmed of Him by the special option of power. The intelligent mind, in allowing that all God’s actions are by His knowledge and will, would emphatically never entertain the idea that any of His deeds were essentially necessary of His nature, as is the case for example in respect of the necessary qualities of things or of Divine attributes which have to be necessarily posited of Him.”[12]

Geisler and Saleeb affirms that.

“For Islamic theology, God has willed and has acted in many ways, but these actions in no way reflect the divine character behind them.”[13]

  • Theological: Unknown

If Allah is not declaratively known from His acts or His attributes, He is rendered meaningless and void of any attempt of relational and rational conceptions.[14]  Ultimately any perception of Allah leaves the adherent with a form of nominalism which is the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality. The result of Islam’s viewing of Allah’s attributes as stemming from His will is that He cannot be known or experienced personally by humans. Therefore, in this concept of monadic oneness, Allah cannot be personal. Boyd aptly points to this.

“The notion that God [Allah] is in his essence alone, that apart from and before creation God [Allah] exists in total solitude, is completely incompatible with the Christian understanding that God [Allah] is essentially love or even essentially personal. A God who existed throughout eternity in his own unrelated Oneness’ …  a God who eternally existed in ‘relationship’ only to the utter blackness of nothingness, would be a God who could not be eternally personal, could not be a God who was eternally social, and thus could not be a God who was eternally loving. This, rather, is a God whose essence is solitude.”[15]

  • Sociological: Wholly Apart

Muslims risk the abandonment of the will of an unknown Divine. Allah is transcendent in essence and also in presence. He is wholly other, but He is also wholly apart. The distance is so great that there is no hope of any person having a relationship with God. Also, people are not made in the image of God. For God to reach down to humans in an incarnational sense is unthinkable. Thus, in Islam Allah’s love for His creatures lacks fellowship, and the relationship is more like that between potentate and subject than that between father and son. Ida Glaser notes.

“Closeness between man and God is described in terms of knowledge rather than likeness, and the ultimate in relationship is willing submission rather than interaction.” “God’s love may cause him to have mercy on his creatures, even to the extent of communicating with them; but it is a love that condescends in beneficence rather than a love that shares in relationship. God may love us if he so chooses, but his relationship with the objects of his love is very different from that envisaged in the Christian faith.”[16]

In contrast, the Bible presents God as desiring to be known by His people but known accurately and experientially.

The Attributes of Yahweh

There is a general consensus amongst Christians when they study and unpack the attributes of Yahweh as it is revealed in the Christian Scriptures. The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity culminated in the very fact that God’s revealed attributes He possesses from His own self-constitutes.  Colin Gunton writes.

“To speak of the attributes apart from the Trinity – as often done – is a mistake… we are concerned, rather, first of all with who God is, not what we attribute to Him… It is not a matter of what we attribute, but of what He reveals Himself to be.”[17]

Does Yahweh possess these attributes?

Yahweh possesses these attributes and these attributes stem from His nature and He can be expressively called by them [attributes]. Not so for Muslims, Maire Byrne, in her book, “The names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: A Basis for Interfaith Dialogue” writes:

“This aspect of Islamic belief is vitally important to consider when studying the divine designations in the Qur’an as, because of this core belief there is none of the same literary aspects of comparison that is present in Judaism and Christianity. There is no need to compare God with anything or anyone for those who follow the Islamic faith. The very existence of God means that nothing can be associated with God. Tawhid is essentially that God cannot be described in human terms and by human language. God is beyond any scope of a human’s knowledge. Linked with this is the doctrine of mukha afa, which literally means ‘absolute difference’; God is, therefore ‘absolutely’ different from humankind. The language used, therefore, in the Qur’an in relation to God is allegorical in nature and uses symbolic vocabulary to attempt to describe God.”[18]   

Is Yahweh known by these attributes?

Yahweh’s attributes of action stem from His attributes of the essence. We can assuredly believe that the God of the Bible is good as His will conforms to His essential revealed known character. Christians hold that any effect must resemble its cause, and thereby the instrumental cause is that which the material cause was made off.

“All divine attributes are essential predicates and belong to the very nature of God. Some refer to qualities that designate God as a moral being whereas others do not relate to the moral nature of what God does.”[19]

What does it reveal about Yahweh?

  • Ontological: Assured of His attributes and actions

God loves because He is essentially love, but God judges because He is Holy. We can then confirm that Yahweh’s attributes can be known and understood which provides some context to our faith. Muslims however seem to be left with assured proximity because Allah merely expresses His will where Yahweh acts in accordance with His character.

  • Theological: Known.

In Christ, we find both apotheosis and proximity about the One God of Israel. John the Beloved writes,

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and[b] is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18).

The Disciple of Jesus, Matthew writes.

“No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” (Matt. 11:27).

  • Sociological: Communal

Because we can be assured of Yahweh’s essential attributes, we can have a sound basis for a personal relationship with Him. In fact, the very proxy for Yahweh’s own self-existence stems from His own revealed existence. Dr. Imad Shehadi writes.

“If God [Yahweh] did not exist eternally in an active relationship within Himself, human beings could have no knowledge of Him. This in turn would mean they [humanity] could not give God true worship or gratitude. In addition, if God [Yahweh] could not be known, he could not enter into relationship with human beings. In short, the lack of relationship within God would result in humanity’s lack of worship of Him and humanity’s lack of relationship with Him.”[20] 

A final word on God

Sayyed Mohammed Reza Hejazi writes in the introduction of his book “The Most Beautiful Names of Allah in the Holy Quran”,

“Allah the exalted is praised for what He possesses of the Most excellent names and the most lofty and perfect attributes. Unto Him belongs every perfect characteristic and from these characteristics, His are the most perfect and the most great. Thus, every attribute of His attributes deserves the most perfect praise and exaltation.”[21]

Thomas Aquinas says something worth contemplating:

“No created mind can attain the perfect sort of understanding of God’s essence that is intrinsically possible.” “The infinite cannot be contained in the finite. God exists infinitely and nothing finite can grasp him infinitely… “It is impossible for a created mind to understand God infinitely; it is impossible, therefore, to comprehend him.”[22]

My claim is very straightforward, for the Christian theist, we can know God surely, but not infinitely. For the Muslim Theist I would venture to say they can know about Allah not surely, and neither infinitely. The conclusion is that the assumption on the similarity of Allah and Yahweh is defunct and impossible to reconcile.

 

Sources:

[1] Vincent J. Cornell, Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol 5, pp.3561-3562

[2] The Most Beautiful names of Allah in the Holy Quran. Pg. 13.

[3] https://enterthesunnah.com/2020/07/11/on-the-attributes-of-allah/

[4] https://enterthesunnah.com/2020/07/11/on-the-attributes-of-allah/

[5] Duncan Black Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity? Moslem World 3 (1913): 16.

[6] Al-Ghazali, The Ninety-Nine Beautiful names of Allah, translated with notes by David B. Burrell and Nazir Daher (The Islamic text society, Cambridge, 1992), Pg.35-41.

[7]  Sayid Qutub, In the Shadow of the Qur’an (Jeddah: Dar-al-‘Elm, 1986), 6:30:3889.

[8] Arne Rudvin, “Islam—An Absolutely Different Ethos?” International Review of Mission 71 (1982): 59

[9] Isma’il Al-Faruqi, “On the Nature of Islamic DaSvah,” International Review of Missions 65 (1976): 405-6 (italics his).

[10] See Surahs 6:123, 125; 7:177, 185; 10:99; 11:120; 13:27, 30; 16:39, 95; 18:16; 32:17; 126:29-30; 131:28-29.

[11] Surah 17:13. The word “Tair” literally means “a bird,” hence an evil omen. See Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran (Brentwood, MD: Amana, 1989), 677 η. 2187.

[12] ‘Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 57 (italics added).

[13] Answering Islam. Geisler & Saleeb. Pg.141.

[14] https://www.reformedclassicalist.com/home/the-voluntarist-doctrine-of-allah?fbclid=IwAR1ZYizv36gtzvBYk_qQvF_LHdh4x9yU3L5ON4vsIUPCkZzn5LFn6FjwiwM

[15] Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity, Pg.191 (italics his).

[16] Ida Glaser, “The Concept of Relationship as a Key to the Comparative Understanding of Christianity and Islam, Pg. 58.

[17] Act and Being, Pg.

[18] The names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: A Basis for interfaith Dialogue. Pg.94.

[19] No One Like Him, John S. Feinberg. Pg.313.

[20] God with us, God without us. Pg. 149.

[21] The Most Beautiful names of Allah in the Holy Quran. Pg.11.

[22] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.12.7