LESSON NINE: ATTRIBUTES OF ESSENCE

Introduction

God is the primal cause and the Bestower of existence. He contains the utmost perfection and is responsible for all the perfection that we witness in existence, without any deprivation from His essence. This can be compared for example to a teacher who teaches his students from knowledge he has without losing any of it.

However the ontological perfections of Almighty God are superior to the example compared. A more accurate description would be to say that creation is nothing but the manifestation and dissipation of the sacred essence of God. The Qur’an has mentioned:

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth”. (al-Nūr:35) As God’s perfection is eternal, then every concept that holds perfection without representing any deficiency or limitation can be true for God as well. Furthermore in the verses of the Holy Qur’an, the sacred narrations and the supplications of the Infallible Ones (ma’sumīn) (a), concepts like Light (nūr), Perfection (kamāl), Beauty (jamāl), Love (hubb), and Bliss (bahjah) etc are all related to Him.

The books of philosophy and theology have categorised the attributes of God into two groups (attributes of essence and attributes of action). We will provide a brief explanation of these two groups, followed by a discussion and proofs for establishing the most important one.

Attributes of essence and attributes of action

Attributes related to God the Supreme, are either concepts which are abstracted from the divine essence by focusing on a kind of ontological perfection, such as life, knowledge, and power or they are concepts abstracted from a kind of relationship that exists between God and His creatures, such as being the Creator, and Sustainer. The first group of concepts is called the attributes of essence and the second group is called the attributes of action.

The essential difference between these two groups of concepts is that the first group concerns the qualities of the sacred divine essence, whereas the second group relates the relationship and connection between God and His creatures. These attributes are additional concepts abstracted from the relationship between God and His creatures.

Such concepts abstracted from the creature’s dependence on the Creator are: the Creator, the Sustainer and the Originator.

The most important attributes of the essence of God are Life, Knowledge and Power.

However if hearing and seeing are taken as having the power (ability) to see and hear or to be being aware of hearing and seeing they will return to the attributes of essence.

If the meaning of these attributes are with an activity that is abstracted because of a relationship between the viewer of an object and a hearer of a sound then they will be regarded as the attributes of action.

Occasionally the attribute of Knowledge is used in the mentioned manner and is regarded as active knowledge (al-‘ilm al-fi’li).

Some of the theological scholars have regarded Speech and Will as attributes of essence, this will be discussed later.

Proofs for the attributes of essence

The simplest way of proving that God is Life, Power and Knowledge is to first realise that when these concepts are used for creatures, it is the ontological perfections, which are referred to. The ultimate and perfect form of these ontological perfections must then be within the cause that has bestowed existence. The Creator has to have full possession of all perfection that is in creation, since it is not possible that the provider or giver of life is void of it, or the bestower of knowledge and power is Himself ignorant and helpless.

The existence of these ontological perfections in creatures thus indicates their presence within the Supreme Creator without any limitation or deficiency. In other words God the Supreme, has the eternal attributes of life, power, and knowledge. We will now provide a brief explanation regarding these attributes.

a. Life (Hayāt)

This concept (living) is used for defining two groups of creatures: for vegetation, which is characterised by growth, and for man and animals, which are characterised by possession of will and consciousness.

The first meaning cannot be associated with God because it is limited and imperfect, as vegetation requires external factors for development and growth in order to reach perfection, and this pertains to the negative attributes of God as mentioned in our previous lesson. However the second meaning of life although it comprises of limitation and defects, could be applicable to God but with the consideration of it being infinite and unlimited.

Fundamentally, life is an essential characteristic of immaterial existence. Likewise knowledge and activity, which are also implied by life, are immaterial. Although life is related with living material creatures, in reality it is the spiritual attribute of a material creature and the material body in effect of it (the spirit), which is regarded as living (application of attribute of life to the material existence is accidental). In other words, just as progression is essential for the material existence, similarly life is essential for immaterial existence. By focusing on this subject another argument can be established, that as the sacred essence of God is immaterial and all of the immaterial existents have the essential attribute of life, therefore God has the attribute of essence of life.

b. Knowledge (‘ilm)

The concept of knowledge is the most apparent and self-evident of all concepts, but the referents of this concept within the creatures are limited and deficient, and with these peculiarities it is not possible to generalise it for God the Supreme. However, it has previously been indicated that the intellect, for this ontological perfection could suppose a referent, which does not have any limitation or deficiency (ontological perfection) and be the essence of knowledge itself. This is knowledge of the essence of God the Exalted.

God’s knowledge can be proven from different angles. One such way is the same employed method used for proving all the attributes of essence. Since knowledge exists within the creature, verily the ultimate and perfect form of it must exist within the Creator.

The second way to prove God’s knowledge is through the argument of ‘order’:

The orderly and perfect presentation or manifestation is clearly an indication of a precise and perfect knowledgeable manifestor. An intellectual book, eloquent poetry and outcome of all arts are the signs of wisdom, taste and qualification of the artist, it could never be supposed that such work could be produced by someone dull and ignorant. Therefore how could someone presume that this great universe with all its secrets and perplexities is an effect of an existent, which is un-knowledgeable (ignorant)?

The third way to establish God’s knowledge is through the premises of speculative philosophy, which are not self-evident, such as the principle ‘that every immaterial existence is self-contained with knowledge’, as has been proven in the related books (of philosophy and theology).

Focusing upon the knowledge of God, plays an important role in self-building (purification of the soul), and from this standpoint it has been mentioned in the Noble Qur’an:“He knows the treachery of the eyes, and what the breasts hide”. (Ghāfir:19)

c. Power (qudrah)

When an agent produces an action with an intention and free-will of its own, it is said that this individual has the ability and power of performing an act. Therefore power means a living voluntary agent being the origin (mabda’) of its action.

The level of power is dependent upon the level of perfection of an existent; therefore an existent with infinite perfection will have infinite power.

“Indeed Allah has power over all things”. (al-Baqarah:7) However one must be mindful of certain points:

  1. An action that comes under the surveillance of power must have the possibility of actualisation, thus a thing that is essentially impossible or necessarily absurd will never have any connection or relation to the power. The fact that God possesses power does not mean that He will create another God or that He will make the number two greater than the number three, while the value of two remains at two, or create a son before father while the son is supposedly after father.

  2. The fact that God possesses the power to perform everything, does not necessarily mean that He will perform everything, but whatever He intends He will execute, and God who is all Wise cannot perform an act which is unwise, even after having the power to performing an indecent act. In the following lessons we will explain more about God’s Wisdom.

  3. Power in this sense includes the quality of free-will. God the Supreme has infinite power, which implies He has perfect free-will, which is uninfluenced by anything.

Questions:

  1. Which types of concept are applicable to God the Supreme?

  2. Explain the attributes of essence, the attributes of action and the difference between them.

  3. What is the simplest way to prove the attributes of essence?

  4. Life has how many meanings and which one can be posited to God?

  5. Give a specific argument for establishing the attribute of Life for God.

  6. Establish the knowledge of God in three ways.

  7. Explain the concept of power, and how one can prove the infinite power of God?

  8. What are the things, which even God’s power would not achieve?

  9. Why does God not perform indecent actions?

  10. Explain the meaning of the free-will of God.